Discursive Struggles Over The Environment  by Nico Carpentier

The way we give meaning to the environment often seems obvious, straightforward and unproblematic. Nature, for instance, seems to be apparent to us, offering itself freely to our unbiased observations, with a purity which produces considerable pleasure for us, humans. Through this empiricist enjoyment, we conveniently forget that humans collectively produce these meanings, and that these meanings are not pre-given by our environment. While we are aesthetically enthralled by—for example—a landscape, we lose sight of the socially constructed nature of the criteria that produce these aesthetic experiences in the first place. This also implies that our environment is not completely outside us, humans. On the contrary, we permanently, but often unconsciously, invoke human-produced discourses to make sense of the environments, without which these environments cannot have meaning for us. This entanglement of discourses and materialities connects us to the world outside us, but also allows us to exercise control over that very same world.

These meanings are still always particular. Or, in other words, there are always other meanings possible. In still different words: Representation is never perfect, because meanings always escape us, like sand that slips through our fingers. We see how the way we give meaning to phenomena, to processes, to objects, and to ourselves, changes over time, with ideas—or what Foucault called épistémès—being structurally different in different centuries. Also space generates difference, with different societies, in different parts of the world, having structurally different ideas about that world. But this argument of time-space specificity is still too easy, as it might lead us to believe that in a particular time and place, there is still stability and homogeneity. Instead, there is radical difference, also within one time and place, through the multitude of the social, with its many genders, classes, ethnicities, ages, and other social positions, with its many histories, politics, institutional affiliations, professions, and other structures, and with its many psychologies and bodily differences. That radical difference renders homogeneity impossible, however much we desire for sameness, and however intensely we fantasize about it.

These radical differences within the social are translated into the discursive realm, as there are structural differences in how we see, experience, understand and communicate about the world. Our diversity feeds into the construction of a diversity of discourses that give meaning to the same phenomena, processes, objects or subjects. This is where meaning becomes political, as these different interpretative frameworks engage in competition with each other, in an attempt to have their perspectives and truth claims accepted, and to have other (completing) discourses delegitimated, discredited and sometimes even destroyed. In the latter case, when discourses manage to achieve strong dominance (or hegemony), they manage to push other ways of thinking into oblivion, and to become taken-for-granted and normalized, and thus invisible. But even then, counter-hegemonic discourses, slumbering in the shadows of society might eventually gain strength again and they might even, at some point in time, dethrone these once-dominant discourses. This produces hope, with the aspiration that destructive ways of thinking might, one day, be abandoned and replaced by more benevolent discourses; but there is also the grim warning that the humanity and civility that we now possess, might be lost one day.

The number of discourses (or ideologies) that give meaning to the environment, to nature, to human-nature relations is surprisingly high, especially when we also take into consideration the counter-hegemonic discourses, that engage in discursive struggles with our more dominant ways of thinking. All these many different discourses have a certain degree of autonomy and a specificity, but at the same time, they are articulated with other, similar discourses. With these discourses, they form discursive assemblages. The components of these discursive assemblages strengthen and support each other, with one filling the gaps that another discourse leaves open, with one adding another layer of meanings to the ones of those affiliated discourses, and with one acting as connectors to yet other parts of our discursive realities. One of the outcomes of the MEC@ICSJ research project behind the ”Discursive struggles over the environment” exhibition was a map of the multitude of environment-related discourses, identifying two main discursive assemblages, one hegemonic one, built around the discourse of anthropocentrism, and one counter-hegemonic one, with ecocentrism at its heart.

What we call the ideological map of the environment gives an impressive—albeit necessarily incomplete—overview of the many discourses that structure our ways of thinking about the environment, nature and ourselves. The ideological map of the environment also structures the entire exhibition, with its artistic interventions inspired by the academic reflections behind the map’s construction, without this academic knowledge ever imposing itself. These dialogues were deeply respectful towards the autonomy of both the fields of academia and arts, searching for points of contact which had the potential to enrich both fields, avoiding hierarchies and imperialist tendencies, and instead cherishing equalities and synergies.

In order to further strengthen the dialogical nature of this project, and to ensure the presence of a multiplicity of voices, also from outside academia and the arts, a series of participatory arts projects were organised in the year running up to the exhibition, producing a series of art works, that consisted of collaborations between artists and non-artists. Our participatory approach, grounded in a critical power analysis, ensured the activation of creative processes that empowered all those involved, without privileging artists over non-artists (or vice versa), and with careful attempts to also bring in non-human voices. This diversity of authors, with all the complexities it generated, symbolizes the multiplicity of voices that engage in the discursive struggles over the environment, the many different discursive positions that human animals can take, the need to bring in the voices of non-human actors, and the need for a post-humanist ethics of care, allowing the human and the non-human to take respected and comfortable positions within their world.