From ACRoB Vol. 1 No. 1, pp 11-15.
Dr Nicole Seymour is an Associate Professor in the department of English, Comparative Literature and Linguistics at California State University, Fullerton. Her first book, Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (University of Illinois Press), won the 2015 scholarly book award from the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE).
The subject of this interview is Seymour’s latest book, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (University of Minnesota Press), which was published in 2018. This book offers an examination of environmentalist texts (understood in the broadest sense) that reject the seriousness of traditional environmental discourse, and instead approach their subject in unexpected ways, through humour, disgust, perversity, ignorance, and an array of other affective modes not usually associated with representations of/engagements with the natural world. Seymour’s readings expand the idea of what an environmentalist text is, and of what and who it is for. Here, Seymour discusses a handful of key ideas from the book and some of the many texts that brought those ideas to life.
Your work is often positioned at the intersection of Queer Studies and the Environmental Humanities. How did you come to start thinking about “bad environmentalism” and what connections does it have to your previous book, Strange Natures?
As a graduate student I was trained in queer theory, reading people like Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz. There was such a strong focus on play and pleasure in their work, from the microlevel of saucy wordplay to the macrolevel of asserting nonnormative desires. The subfield of queer ecology was emerging at that time, putting queer theory and ecocriticism into conversation in really exciting ways. But I started to notice that, as that subfield grew over the next couple years—during which time I published my own contribution, Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (University of Illinois Press, 2013)— queer ecologists weren’t taking up those elements of play and pleasure. And I wanted to assert their importance. Bad Environmentalism kind of grew from there; I started noticing other examples of artists and activists—not necessarily queer-identified but definitely nonmainstream in some way—who were making play, pleasure, humor, etc. central to their work.
I also have to admit that there’s an element of “me-research” in the book, as with most research. I’ve always been politically active and I’m also a compulsive wisecracker—probably as a defense mechanism, though I’ll let my therapist weigh in on that. So obviously I was attracted to these political-yet-playful texts. So, really, the book is about me! That deer-person on the cover is totally me.
The main premise of your book is this idea of “bad environmentalism”. How do you define that idea?
In the book I define it as “environmental thought that employs dissident, often-denigrated affects and sensibilities to reflect critically on both our current moment and mainstream environmental art, activism, and discourse.” In simpler terms, I think of it as doing environmentalism with the “wrong” attitude—without reverence or seriousness—and while also having a sense of humor about oneself.
You refer often to “bad affect” as the primary mode or register of bad environmentalist texts. Can you explain what you mean by “bad affect” and discuss how this idea guided your selection of texts?
The affects I focus on include (I have to quote myself again from the book because it’s such a long list I can’t remember!) “irony, irreverence, absurdity, ambivalence, camp, frivolity, indecorum, awkwardness, sardonicism, perversity, playfulness, and glee.” And I’m thinking of these affects as “bad” not in a judgmental sense, but in a very particular contextual sense. That is, they’re “bad” specifically vis-à-vis the mainstream environmentalist assumption that caring about nature necessarily means being reverent and awestruck and hushed and so forth.
One thing that struck me while reading Bad Environmentalism was that the texts you focus on are not just operating outside mainstream environmentalism but also often emerge from beyond the periphery of social and cultural centres. If it is fair to say that bad environmentalism is the environmentalism of the margins, do you think this is an indictment of the narrowness of mainstream? And how is that articulated in the texts you analyse?
Yes, I think that’s fair. A lot of these texts constitute what I refer as “low environmental culture”. And I definitely see them as indictments of the mainstream, as you say, whether consciously or not. So, some of the texts I’m looking at are more clearly dedicated to critique than others. For example, the stars of MTV’s Wildboyz (2003-2006, U.S.) might not be deeply concerned with the problematic history of nature/wildlife programming; they might just think it’s funny to run around naked alongside animals. But their show still manages to reflect on the typical solemnity of nature/wildlife programming and its tendency to absent the human in favor of supposedly pristine wilderness. On the other hand, groups like the performance art duo Lesbian National Parks and Services (1997-, Canada) have very explicitly said that they want to queer the discourse around nature and to combat the heteronormativity and homophobia of public green spaces.
I think it’s possible that you could have some “bad environmentalism” that doesn’t come from a perspective that’s in some way marginalized or nonmainstream, whether queer or Indigenous or working-class or African-American, etc. But I see those perspectives as central to the desire to do things differently from the environmental mainstream—which, historically, has been very white and middle-to-upper-class. And I argue that it’s not a coincidence that mainstream environmentalism has been both demographically narrow and affectively narrow; I discuss the idea of “racialized environmental affect”: the belief, for example, that African-Americans don’t feel as intensely or seriously about the environment as White people do.
As you point out early on in the book, one of the things a lot of people struggle with when it comes to mainstream environmentalism is the feeling of guilt or shame that often accompanies it. Something bad environmentalism has going for it, then, is a startling lack of shame. How is shamelessness mobilised in some of the texts you examine and how does it operate across environmental and other contexts?
In general, I’m talking about a lack of shame or anxiety over being politically perfect or pure. But that’s often accompanied by a lack of sexual shame, bodily shame, and/or shame over pleasure and indulgence. An example I love to talk about now, which didn’t make it into the book, is the image of Ivanka Trump’s Democratic neighbor Dianne Bruce that went viral in April 2017. Photojournalist Mary F. Calvert captured her gleefully witnessing a “queer dance party for climate justice” organized in front of Ivanka’s house by Queer Resistance, 350.org, TransWomen of Color Collective, and WERK for Peace; in the photo, Bruce is wearing a fur coat and clutching a glass of white wine as she grins broadly. What I love about this image is the incongruity or seeming incongruity of this figure’s excess, opulence, ostentatiousness, and flagrancy vis-à-vis classic visions of environmental activism. She echoes the ways in which, as I argue in the book, LGBTQ+ and other cultural producers have taken unapologetic, vulgar excess—as opposed to guilty austerity—as the grounds on which to stake their environmental politics.
I think we’re starting to see a larger turn against so-called “purity politics” across many movements and contexts, from something like Meatless Mondays—which maintains that occasional vegetarianism is better than no vegetarianism at all—to adrienne maree brown’s recent edited collection Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (2019).
Perhaps tied to these ideas of shame and shamelessness, and certainly to the “rejection of purity politics” you place at the heart of bad environmentalism is your conception of bad environmentalist texts as being often self-critical or self-reflexive. How does self-reflexivity operate within these texts, and how is that distinct from the approach taken by mainstream environmentalism?
These artists and activists are constantly making fun of themselves, constantly undercutting any possibility that they might come off as imperious, finger-wagging authorities—because that’s precisely the dynamic they’re opposing in mainstream environmentalism. Some instances of this self-reflexivity are more subtle than others, but one that really cracks me up is a moment in Simon Amstell’s “vegan sci-fi mockumentary” Carnage: Swallowing the Past (2017, UK), when someone quips in fictionalized news footage, “Who wants to sit and watch to watch an entire film about veganism?” Amstell, as a vegan (and Jewish, and British, and gay, comedian/filmmaker) is obviously making fun of himself there. Of course, if you’re watching that moment, you’re sitting and watching an entire film about veganism—so you’re the butt of the joke as well.
Another function of this self-reflexivity, as I explain in the book, is to make a preemptive strike against the accusations of hypocrisy constantly levied at environmentalists. Just a couple days ago I visited the celebrity gossip Web site Dlisted, hoping to take a break from writing a talk on this very subject, and I immediately saw the headline, “Prince Charles Flew in a Private Jet to Give a Speech about Climate Change in Switzerland.” I mean, it’s not a great look! But imagine if he came out ahead of those headlines and labeled his tour “The Hypocrite’s Fight against Climate Change” or something; just really owned it. The coverage wouldn’t have that same “gotcha” sting.
You cover an eclectic range of texts in this book, from literary texts to popular and cult tv, stand-up comedy, and performance art. Was there a particular text that you found the most engaging or surprising to work with?
Wildboyz and its precursor Jackass were the most surprising. I had long ignored them and assumed they were awful—straight guys being homophobic, racist, misogynist, whatever. These texts are definitely not politically correct, to be clear. But when I started watching them I realized, again, that the Wildboyz and the Jackasses are the butts of the joke, not anyone else. There’s a clear ethos against so-called “punching down” and more of a … “punching yourself” situation, I guess! And I also started thinking, “Why are Rip Torn and John Waters, these major queer icons, making cameos in Jackass movies if the latter are supposedly so homophobic?” And then I realized what these figures had in common: they’re all really gross and shameless! So, maybe grossness and shamelessness are the grounds on which to build some coalitional politics.
You note that some of the texts (and authors) you cover are what we may term “problematic” or “offensive”. Staying within the context of environmentalism, is there an argument available for the effectiveness of the offensive, and how do you navigate that territory?
Well, there’s the important question of who is potentially being offended, and to what end?
Obviously some forms of offensiveness are violent or bigoted or otherwise maintain the status quo. Other forms of offense seek to combat violence and bigotry and the status quo. I’m obviously interested in the latter scenario. To riff on grossness again for a moment: in the book I talk about Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno video series (2008-9, U.S.), her contribution to critiquing the conventions of nature/wildlife programming. In one of the videos she’s dressed as a snail and, while explaining snail anatomy, basically poops on her own face. That’s pretty offensive to anyone who wants to maintain the sanitized, family-friendly fantasies about adorable nonhuman creatures that nature/wildlife programming has offered for so long.
My final question is what are you working on next? Has your next project grown out of Bad Environmentalism or are you moving in a new direction?
I’m working on a couple projects. The first is actually a pair of articles on two Indigenous artists, Tommy Pico (Kumeyaay) and Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke, AKA Crow), whom I see as similarly employing humor, irony, and perversity to address environmental issues—particularly, the romanticized trope of the “Ecological Indian” and Indigenous food sovereignty.
The second project is a short book about glitter. That definitely grew out of Bad Environmentalism insofar as I started noticing all these news stories a couple years ago with clickbait-y, shocking headlines like, “Glitter is Made of Microplastics and is Therefore an Environmental Scourge!” Not only do those headlines mobilize guilt and shame—you thought you were just making some crafts, but it turns out you were single-handedly destroying the oceans!—they also speak implicitly to that queer-environmental nexus I’m dedicated to probing. Specifically, glitter has played a lot of important aesthetic and political roles in LGBTQ+ communities. And, more recently, the manufacturers of biodegradable glitter alternatives have been marketing to those communities. So, I’m having fun exploring those histories.
Now, I keep saying I’m writing this book, but actually I’ve mostly been applying for fellowships and sabbaticals so that I can write it! So, stay tuned!
Interview conducted January 2020.