An interview with Dr. Thom van Dooren
Our guest this week is Dr. Thom van Dooren, an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s Department of Gender and Cultural Studies. Thom’s research is situated in the broad interdisciplinary field of the environmental humanities. His current work focuses on some of the many philosophical, ethical, cultural, and political issues that arise in the context of species extinctions and human entanglements with threatened species and places. These themes are explored in depth in three recent books: Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (2014), Making Worlds with Crows: A Multispecies Ethics (2018), and the co-edited collection Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations (2017), all published by Columbia University Press. Thom is co-editor of the international open-access journal Environmental Humanities (Duke University Press).
Hello Thom, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. A lot of your research focuses on species living at or beyond the brink of extinction, and on the implications of extinction for human and otherthanhuman life. What part does hope play in your work on extinction and on the possibility of more livable, more-than-human futures?
I am intensely interested in hope. Without romanticizing it—because hope is never innocent or risk-free—I think it is nonetheless key to understanding and responding to this time of incredible biocultural loss. Hope is a vital energy that animates change. Too often, we think about hope as little more than wishful thinking. In various places in my work I’ve tried to explore hope as a situated, practical, ethical, labor—a work of taking care of the future—that humans and various nonhumans are involved in in different ways. There seems to me to be a growing tendency in some of the climate and extinction movements to espouse the abandonment of hope as a realistic response to the dire state of things. From this perspective there is a focus on settling into saying goodbye to the world, to finding peace with loss. I think these are important things to be talking about (alongside an acknowledgement that for many people around the world things have been on a downward trajectory for quite some time). But I don’t think recognizing, respecting, and living with loss are things that ought to be done in opposition to hope—or at least they ought not to. Rather, they are themselves grounded in other kinds of hopes, even if it is only the hope that within the awful confines of the contemporary moment, we might cultivate the best modes of relationship and accountability with others that are still available to us.
In my most recent work on hope, situated in a captive rearing facility for endangered snails in Hawai'i, I’m thinking about what it means to maintain hope in the face of ongoing and inevitable loss. Here, too, I think hope really matters—but in this case it is taking the form of a mournful hope that works to honor and acknowledge all of those things that have been and will be lost. As in so much of my work, this is not a bold utopic hope, a vision for a future in which the world has been set to rights. Rather it is a practice, a work, of getting on in a damaged world, while holding onto the possibility that something better—even if not better than now, at least better than what might otherwise be—can still be crafted with dedicated care and attention. So, I keep coming back to hope, trying to find new ways in which the work of imagining and striving towards particular futures might be understood and taken up.
You recently created The Living Archive: Extinction Stories from Oceania, a multimedia space that provides a platform for community stories about what extinction means and its significance in people’s lives and places. Could you tell us a little bit about the motivation behind this project and why stories matter in thinking about extinction?
This project is built on the core understanding that extinction takes multiple forms in diverse lives and landscapes, and that addressing this multiplicity is key to really appreciating why extinction matters and responding to it well. I have spent much of the past ten years talking to all sorts of people about extinction, including conservationists, artists, hunters, Indigenous peoples, and more. In most cases I have drawn on their understandings and stories in my own writing, in my efforts to explore the diverse significances of extinction. Through this multimedia website project, I am hoping to create a space for people to tell their own stories in their own ways and ultimately to develop other resources to help them do so. At this stage it is a very modest collection of five stories, but it is slowly growing. I’d encourage your readers to take a look and think about submitting a story of their own (all the necessary details are on the website).
Your research cross-pollinates theoretical insights derived from an array of different disciplines – from conservation biology to philosophy, through anthropology and indigenous science. And you refer to yourself as both a field philosopher and a storyteller. In your view, how does interdisciplinarity help us understand and inhabit the world differently as humans, and in relation to other-than-humans?
I begin from the understanding that it just isn’t possible to tell good stories about a complex, more-than-human world without engaging with diverse ways of knowing and appreciating. This is about interdisciplinarity, but it is also about dedisciplining our disciplines and decolonizing knowledge. In much of my own work I’ve tried to stage a conversation between the humanities (especially philosophy) and the biological sciences, but to do so in a way that engages with specific endangered species and the people whose lives are caught up with them. This means that my work is generally grounded in ethnographic research. I see this work as part of a slowly emerging space of “field philosophy”, which is a particularly vital possibility for people like me who were trained as philosophers but never felt quite at home in that discipline. This approach asks us to really take others’ ideas seriously—to learn from and engage with them, human and not, as beings whose ways of knowing are worthy of our attention, on their own terms. For more on this topic, see the recent special issue of Parallax on “Field Philosophy and Other Experiments,” edited by Brett Buchanan, Matthew Chrulew, and Michelle Bastian.
My goal in all this work is not to simply draw on the insights of various disciplines and place them alongside one another, so that the humanities and social sciences tell us about the “human dimensions” and the natural sciences cover the rest. Rather, I’m interested in bringing them into the kind of creative dialogue that transforms them, revealing the assumptions that underly particular modes of knowing and valuing (often associated with particular disciplines). Debbie Bird Rose called this kind of transformative dialogue “firestick wisdom”—rubbing big ideas together to see what sparks fly. In The Wake of Crows, I focus on terms like hospitality, community, and inheritance that have long histories in both philosophy and biology to see what might be gained by bringing these literatures into dialogued in the context of particular human/crow lives and deaths.
Finally, Thom, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
This is a really exciting interdisciplinary space. It’s been great to see so many PhD students and junior scholars really shaping this area as it has emerged, or at least concretized, over the last ten years or so. One of the key things that I think is important to keep in mind here is the need for junior scholars working in these interdisciplinary spaces—something that also goes for the environmental humanities and animal studies—to also maintain a more conventional disciplinary identity (at least if they want to work in the academy). This is something that I completely failed to do, but in general I think it is really important to keep an eye on. I don’t have a lot of other general advice. The field is so diverse and shifting. Eben Kirksey, Ursula Muenster, and I tried to chart some of that diversity in our 2016 paper on multispecies studies. Then and now, I am overwhelmed by the methodological and theoretical richness. For people thinking about starting a research career in the area I can only suggest that you familiarize yourself with what is happening and then seek out the people who are doing the kind of more-than-human work that excites you.
"Hope is a vital energy that animates change."
"Extinction takes multiple forms in diverse lives and landscapes, and addressing this multiplicity is key to really appreciating why extinction matters and responding to it well."