Breathing In: Air and Atmospheres by Helene Strauss | 8 April | 4pm (Johannesburg time)

Monday, 8 April, 2024 - 17:00

WiSER and the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) at the University of London UCL warmly invite you to the fourth seminar of our new online seminar series

Breathing In: Air and Atmospheres  

Helene Strauss will speak on

‘Dangerous, Ugly Air': reckoning with atmospheric and photosynthetic injustice in Dying for Gold

Click here for paper

In this talk, I consider the cultural mediation of “atmospheric violence” (Hsuan Hsu) in South Africa alongside histories of ecocide that have long characterized industrialisation’s relationship to the earth. Placed at the intersection of the so-called Environmental and Vegetal (In)Humanities – or breath and botany – my paper analyses the documentary film Dying for Gold (dir. Catherine Meyburgh and Richard Pakleppa) to ask how plant ecologies and human health might be relinked amidst extractive capitalism’s ongoing assault on atmospheres and airways. My paper draws attention to recent struggles over breathable air at the heart, for instance, of the #DeadlyAir case and the “Living Limpopo” Campaign, to locate my reading of the film along a historical continuum of regenerative phytochemical relationships that continue to be severed by extractive violence. Even though the activist aims of Dying for Goldlie primarily in the immediate demands for compensation and healthcare for ailing miners, the documentary nevertheless prompts consideration of the interdependence of decolonial racial justice and phytochemical health. It does so by foregrounding the extractive rupturing of the mutually regenerative relationship between vegetative photosynthesis and the respiratory commons, and, by extension, of the need for a relational reckoning with both the human and nonhuman effects of atmospheric and “chemical violence” (Michelle Murphy). I conclude by using these insights as a springboard for a broader dialogue on what I call photosynthetic justice.

If you would like to view the film discussed in the paper, it is available here

Helene Strauss is a professor in the Department of English at the University of the Free State, South Africa. Her current research interests include the literary and cultural mediation chemical, atmospheric, and photosynthetic injustice and repair; the relationship between gender and environmental plunder; and embodied pedagogy. Recent publications include the book Wayward Feeling: Audio-visual Culture and Aesthetic Activism in Post-Rainbow South Africa (University of Toronto Press, 2022);co-edited special issues of the journals Studies in Social Justice (in progress), Interventions, and Critical Arts; and a book titled Contemporary African Mediations of Affect and Access (Routledge, 2017), co-edited with Jessie Forsyth and Sarah Olutola. She is currently involved in acollaborative international project on the decolonial work of reckoning, repairing, and reworlding called for by the planetary climate crisis, and is working on a book provisionally titled Photosynthetic Justice: From Ecocide to Feminist Regeneration.

Monday, 8th April 2024
4pm (Johannesburg time)
Register here

The series is convened by Isabel Hofmeyr and Sarah Nuttall (WiSER) and Megan Vaughan (IAS).

Recent work on infrastructures, atmospheres and the biospheric shifts associated with conditions of the Anthropocene have relied on rendering newly vivid those aspects of the social which have long been treated as background. Sensory ecologies - affective or experienced space which compose environments, in Matthew Gandy’s terms, are synesthetic: like sounds, they reverberate within human and more-than-human subjects. Affective atmospheres are shared bodily situations, drawing also on renewed and shifting elemental understandings of air and refracted light. How can we come conceptually closer to the toxicities of both air pollution and rising authoritarianisms, to material and metaphoric atmospheres – and other less-than-visible carriers of damage? And to a better sense of the entanglements and relationalities that such modes of thought can produce? The growing non-transparency of air, in Sumana Roy’s terms, produces paranoid reading: suspicious, anticipatory theories of negative affect. This occurs in the context of the ‘disappearance of air’ in favour of mask filters, air purifiers and the AQI (Air Quality Index) for those who can afford it. Yet there may also be a reparative range to these questions: making air explicative might offer analytic opportunities for sustenance and responsiveness to what is to come.  

 The Series will run fortnightly on Mondays @ 4-5pm JHB time/3pm London time.  It will build on ongoing and emergent academic attention to air and atmospheres and draw out suggestions for future research and for ways of acting upon the contemporary air and atmospheric crisis,

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