By Heather Houser
When we call a text “environmental,” does that hinge on its use of description? You won’t find this question or its answer in my new book, Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data. As with many scholarly and creative projects, this one didn’t follow a linear path from incipient questions to final discoveries. Instead, my journey meandered and indulged in detours at turns fascinating and frustrating, delightful and distressing. Early on in the project, my interest in description intersected with a casual and critical fascination with data visualization that a neuroscientist friend inspired. People were producing quite amazing stuff (e.g., Aaron Koblin’s work and this infographic for WWF, which I wrote about here; and Chris Jordan’s data art, which I studied here). What’s more, data viz was gaining traction as social media offered ways to share images with countless viewers and major news outlets like The New York Times created visualization departments.
Visualization has long been essential to scientific research and communication, and this is doubly true for current environmental crises like climate change and extinction. Graphs, charts, maps, timelines, animations, you name it and it’s been used by scientists, journalists, nonprofits, consultants, and avid designers to make the data of crisis comprehensible and meaningful to audiences. But what are these images communicating beyond an interpretation of the data? What claims to transparency, immediacy, and truth are they making? How do they activate emotion and call upon cultural tropes and conventions that may swerve their meaning away from some “pure”—if sophisticated—translation of the data?
With these questions, it became clear that I didn’t have a project about description as the locus of environmental writing (though I was able to scratch the description itch in this recent essay). I had a project that had something to do with: 1. how crucial data is to contemporary environmental art of all forms; 2. the relationship between aesthetic mediation and knowledge production; and 3. the dismantling and repurposing of positivist thought and representation, that is, those traditions that make claims to transparency, universality, and “scientific realism” defined by Barbara Herrnstein Smith as “an objective match between, on the one hand, statements, beliefs, descriptions or models and, on the other hand, a fixed reality.”
Infowhelm investigates all these areas by studying what happens to scientific information when it enters eco-art and -literature today and by showing that the arts have their own claims to environmental knowledge production. I read across media, dozens of cultural works from the 2000s that span poetry, novels, and memoir; painting, photography, and bioart; and a healthy dose of data visualization by artists and scientific organizations. All the works I study are wrestling with and managing infowhelm. In my usage (and I’m not the first to use it), infowhelm refers both to the abundance and availability of information today and to crucial complications surrounding information about climate change, extinction, and other devastating events like the Covid-19 pandemic: the data are uncertain and evolving, they are contested by those in power, and the stakes of acting are enormous. This information situation is complex and urgent. We need data to tackle environmental crises, but we also know the data don’t tell the whole story and can perpetuate racial injustice, colonialist exploitation, and cultural indifference. In confronting the necessity yet potential injustices of data, environmental culture turns it into an aesthetic resource in its own right. That is, scientific information becomes the raw material for artistic expression and exploration.
Take, for instance, Maya Lin’s striking digital memorial, What Is Missing?. In turning to the digital to make a “global memorial to the planet,” her final one in a career that began with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin steps away from her customary materials of earth, stone, and water. The data of extinction instead become the ingredients for a memorial that visualizes absence: what has been lost and what is going missing due to climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, overdevelopment, and water insecurity. The interactive, crowd-sourced visualization is stunning and seemingly infinite, with numerous nodes and pages to explore that continually grow through user contributions. These attributes are essential to my reading of What Is Missing? as a mediation of both the emotions of loss and the sciences of extinction. In this reading, I develop a thread that runs through Infowhelm: how artists produce environmental knowledge through what I call “entangled epistemologies.” In making information an aesthetic resource, artists like Lin interrogate positivist epistemologies that have dominated environmental understanding and policy in the Eurowest, and then entangle positivism with ways of knowing rooted in the body and emotion and in states of ambiguity, speculation, self-reflexivity, and even unknowing.
Often enough, scholars write about and teach works we love, admire, and/or hate, or that have a hold on us because we can’t quite figure them out or they frustrate us. I’ve written about texts for all these reasons and more. With Infowhelm I also took inspiration from my archive because they perform science studies and are templates for environmental ways of knowing. The art of infowhelm had things to say about epistemology and aesthetics that complemented inspirational thinkers within feminist and indigenous epistemology: Lorraine Code, Patricia Hill Collins, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Donna Haraway, Helen Longino, Chie Sakakibara, Londa Schiebinger, Kyle Powys Whyte, and so many more.
When I first read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, which appears in a chapter of Infowhelm on the “coming-of-mind” climate novel, I wasn’t a fan. When I reread it in the early days of researching my new book, I rediscovered it as a novel that belongs on the shelf alongside Candis Callison’s How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (currently open access) and Kari Norgaard’s Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Kingsolver was producing not science fiction but a fiction of science within the genre of domestic realism. Through scenes of field research and conversation between protagonist Dellarobia—a poor, white mother who’s never left Tennessee—and Ovid—a visiting Black lepidopterist who travels the world for his research—the novel shows how knowledge production works within traditional climate science but also probes the meaning of climate change for specific communities. In these ways, Flight Behavior traverses science communication, cli-fi speculation, and social analysis.
When I wrote the first chapters of Infowhelm, which included this analysis of Kingsolver’s novel, I had no idea I’d be dwelling so much with the histories of the Eurowestern Enlightenment. Part 2 of the book, which focuses on the “new natural history,” immersed me in these archives and scholarship, which then ran through the whole book. I found that, for many artists, managing infowhelm requires grappling with the legacy of the Enlightenment within environmental thought, policy, and representation. These legacies include colonialism, racism, and extractivist relations to lands, waters, and indigenous peoples. In part 3 of the book, I analyze aerial environmentalisms appearing in visual art-activism from SkyTruth, Laura Kurgan, and Fazal Sheikh and Eyal Weizman and in novels by Kim Stanley Robinson, Indra Sinha, Jeff VanderMeer, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Colson Whitehead. Views of earth from above are still ubiquitous in environmental imagery and campaigns, even as this imagery has faced critique from the likes of Haraway, Ursula Heise, Sheila Jasanoff, and others. Aerial and satellite perspectives are also familiar tools of novelistic description. Rather than deploy these vantages uncritically, these artists and activists repurpose them to call out their association with Enlightenment values of totality, objectivity, and universality while reorienting them toward multiplicity, uncertainty, and ontological messiness.
Through Infowhelm I hope scholars and students in contemporary literature, environmental studies, and science studies will see information as a cultural tool that helps us grapple with the constructedness of all knowledge. I hope that the book extends the dialogue between art and science by showing what it means to entangle epistemologies and honor scientific knowledge without bowing down to technocratic or extractivist responses to planetary crises. This isn’t merely an academic exercise. I wrote the book with a conviction that radical environmental change requires an epistemological overhaul, a conviction I find in the artists I study as well. In ways I hadn’t anticipated at its start, Infowhelm is a companion to my first book, Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect. If that book identifies the emotions that are bound up with damage to environments and bodies in recent fiction and calls for attunement to the surprising affects of environmentalism, this one identifies how emotion and identity are bound up with epistemology in recent environmental culture. As I write at the conclusion to Infowhelm, my hope is that the book and conversations surrounding it help bring about a future Haraway articulates, “another relationship to nature besides reification, possession, appropriation, and nostalgia,” and that these new relationships “mingle fact with uncertainty, ambition with humility, exploration with limitation, exuberance with restraint, history with futurity, pragmatism with speculation.”
Heather Houser is Associate Professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. She’s the author of Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data (2020) and Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (2014) as well as numerous essays. She’s the 2019-2020 faculty chair of the Planet Texas 2050 “grand challenge” at UT Austin focused on climate resilience and is an associate editor at Contemporary Literature.