Texas Tech University

Open Ground

Matt Hooley

This is only an opening. The start of our response to questions (what/why are the environmental humanities?) implied by commonplace assumptions about environmental studies. That studying the environment should be a scientific endeavor, for instance. Or that the humanities aren't "practical" in a political moment defined by climate change, economic crisis, resource scarcity, perpetual violence. Open Ground is a space of exchange around the potentialities and imposing challenges of our political and ecological present. A space dedicated to rethinking the conditions through which phenomena like environmental violence are made possible, and in which metrics like "practicality" are actually about securing the political status-quo.

But the newness of our thinking, here, has nothing to do with constraints of period or discipline. And we're not here for colonial fantasies of discovery. Rather than covering new ground, we're concerned with the multiple and moving (underconsidered, uncountable, unpredictable) grounds of social + ecological interaction that are open and opening already.

                   "Well, you can say a lot of things, but the issue is land"
                   --Oren Lyons

In Barry Lopez's 2007 interview with Oren Lyons (Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation and Chief of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs), Lyons points out the artificiality of the notion that land is ownable, boundable:

"The ideas of land tenure and ownership were brought here. We didn't think that you could buy and sell land. In fact, the ideas buying and selling were concepts we didn't have. We laughed when they told us they wanted to buy land. And we said, Well, how can you buy land? You might just as well buy air, or buy water. But we don't laugh anymore, because that is precisely what has happened. Today, when you fly across the country and you look down and you see all those squares and circles, that's land bought and sold. Boundaries made." [1]

The spectacular coloniality of our thinking about (our living on and across) land is obvious from above. What do we see when we look down at land? The shapes and shading of the metrics of possession overwhelm our ability to sense that thing itself (the earth, the ground) to which we're yet inexorably attached. Lyons' view from the air dramatizes the paradox of our interest in land (one that's intensified by our desire to think it within epistemic and disciplinary paradigms defined by colonial and capitalist formations of subjectivity, temporality, value etc.).

We can say, given this, that one thing we mean when we say "environmental humanities," is that in attempting to think about spaces and conditions that are supposedly prior to (or other-than or more-than) the human, we are confronted by the ways such attempts themselves are bound and confounded by histories and networks of human-driven political relation. It's for this reason that one of the priorities of the environmental humanities as we see it is to amplify epistemic orientations that have been marginalized within discourses about the environment that prioritize a narrow version of the scientific, the governmental, the democratic, the universally good.

Seneca scholar, Mishuana Goeman writes: "Colonization resulted in a sorting of space based on ideological premises of hierarchies and binaries, and indigenous women did not fare well in these systems of inequity. Settler colonialism continues to depend on imposing a 'planetary consciousness' and naturalizing geographic concepts and sets of social relationships. Yet geography and the language we use to order space are formed in a 'contact zone' in which various cultures interact." [2]

Our attention to the environment is a point of access to the political entanglements out of which notions like equality, sustainability, and wellbeing are constructed and enacted. Formations that (in the way they are naturalized and implemented) are often implicated in the continued extraction and exhaustion of bodies + resources that we identify as the conditions of environmental crisis. Goeman's analysis of the coloniality of space also exposes the ways our ability to think about land within and as a production of political relations between humans, and between humans and nonhumans, depends on the borderlines of our disciplinary attention.

The environmental humanities are necessarily/obviously interdisciplinary--both within "the humanities" and between humanities disciplines and (for instance) the law or the sciences. But insofar as "interdisciplinary" is usually only conceived in the narrowest possible terms (as an inter-departmental or intra-institutional endeavor), our interest in the open ground of environmental humanities inquiry is a longing for more. For the non-institutional, open-disciplinarity of an environmental humanities yet to be realized.

                    "How do you keep the open open?"
                    --Lauren Berlant

Like it or not we're grounded. The trajectories of our living are conventionally manifest through the ways we're attached to a place, a school, a family, a polity, an idea of beauty. As Lyons points out, these attachments are often both the justification (the grounds) for our interest in ideas like "the environment" or "land," and the structures that interfere with our ability think their scale or promise as emancipatory.

Insofar as many of the contributors to this site are attached to a school, to the Literature, Social Justice, & the Environment program at Texas Tech University for example, one thing that Open Ground means is articulating the limitations of each of those epistemic structures and their disciplinary antecedents. At the same time, celebrating the fact that our thought necessarily participates in aesthetic or social or material relations that surpass the "squares and circles" of the academy. As Fred Moten has written, "[s]tudying is not limited to the university. It's not held or contained within the university. Study has a relation to the university, but only insofar as the university is not necessarily excluded from the undercommons that it tries so hard to exclude." [3]

We're here for the open. Open borders, open access, open admission. Open form, open dialogue, open endings. This is a site where students and faculty and anyone else can collaborate toward the open ground of environmental and humanistic study. Welcome.


[1] Barry Lopez, "The Leadership Imperative: An Interview with Oren Lyons," The Future of Nature: Writing on a Human Ecology from Orion Magazine. Ed. Barry Lopez. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2007) 208.

[2] Mishuana Goeman, Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013) 2-3.

[3] Fred Moten, "The General Antagonism: An Interview with Stevphen Shukaitis," in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013) 113.