Aesthetic Experience, Ecological Emotions, and Fiction

Thursday, June 3

11:00–12:00 (Helsinki, EEST, UTC +3) Session 1, Panel 1

Congress Room 1

Aino-Kaisa Koistinen, Sanna Karkulehto, Panu Pihkala, and Kaisa Kortekallio

Chair: Kaisa Kortekallio

In interdisciplinary environmental studies drawing on phenomenology and ecological psychology, affective engagement has been considered a mode of relating to one’s environment – whether that environment is immediately present or mediated through e. g. media, art, or scientific models and findings. New Materialist thinkers such as Stacy Alaimo and Astrida Neimanis have even suggested that conscious affective orientation towards nonhuman material agencies can help to develop “posthumanist sensibilities.” Works of art can become “mediating prostheses” that modify and amplify the affective experience.

In this line of thought, affect is a vital aspect of embodied and environmental cognition. This begs the question: how can affect be integrated into the collective production of environmental knowledge and behavior, in both theoretical and practical ways? How can academics and teachers cultivate emotional skills and affective sensitivities relevant to “living on a damaged planet”?

Bringing together perspectives from literary studies, feminist theory and ecological psychology, this panel explores the aesthetic experiences and ecological emotions of contemporary culture. Pihkala outlines the interconnections between aesthetics and ecological emotions, feelings, and affect. Karkulehto and Koistinen discuss contemporary Finnish poetry as a space of “planetary feeling”, while Kortekallio presents the aesthetic experiences of Weird fiction as cultural adaptation to environmental uncertainty. The panel provides a space for discussing how art, poetry and fiction can cultivate ethical coexistence in times of ecological turmoil.

Panu Pihkala (University of Helsinki, Finland):

Environmental Aesthetics and Ecological Emotions

The ecological crisis has profound psychological and psychosocial dimensions. In this presentation, interdisciplinary eco-anxiety scholar Panu Pihkala will discuss the relationship between aesthetics and ecological emotions. Eco-anxiety is defined in Pihkala’s work as both a general concept for many different difficult emotions in relation to ecological issues and as a more specific term for various manifestations of anxiety. The interconnections between aesthetics and ecological emotions are multiple. Some ecological disasters, such as extreme weather events, evoke both dread and awe. People may have widely different and often ambivalent feelings in relation to ecological imagery and texts: fascination and guilt may become intertwined, together with several other emotions. Pihkala argues that there is a need for nuances in understanding both the wide scope and often mixed character of ecological emotions, feelings, and affect. Various art forms, including prose and visual arts, may have profound potential to help people experience and explore many different emotions, but care is needed to ensure that the affective scope is not too one-dimensional.

Aino-Kaisa Koistinen & Sanna Karkulehto (University of Jyväskylä, Finland):

Ethics, Aesthetics and Imagination – Exploring “Planetary Feeling” in Feminist Theory and Contemporary Finnish Poetry

Recently, the so-called Anthropocene has caused numerous global crises that have raised the question of whether the human species is capable of ethical coexistence with other beings or not. These questions have also led to calls for new kinds of pedagogies and practices of knowledge-production that would guide the human species towards a more sustainable future that takes into account not only human wellbeing but also that of the biosphere. At the University of Jyväskylä’s School for Resource Wisdom, for example, the concept of planetary wellbeing has been coined to emphasize the importance of moving beyond human-centered ideas of wellbeing to action that provides care for the entire planet. Some scholars and educators have also turned to the arts for new kinds of imaginations that might provide guidelines for the better understanding of phenomena that are difficult to comprehend, such as climate change.

In this presentation, we claim that not only art but feminist theory, together with art can provide fruitful (re)imaginations of human relations to varied others in the time of the Anthropocene. Feminist theory, indeed, has a long tradition of dealing with questions of difference and hierarchies, of discussing positionality in knowledge-production, and of attempting to imagine better futures for humans and nonhumans alike. As for art, we turn to contemporary poetry and claim that poetry may offer the readers a form of aesthetic estrangement that resists the pull of utopian or dystopian futuristic scenarios that often evoke either false hope or dire pessimism and divert attention from the ethical questions of the present. Instead, it may offer space for coming to terms with uncertainty in the face of the Anthropocene. Instead of succumbing to utopian or dystopian impulses, the aim of the presentation is to engage in discussion with feminist theory and contemporary poetry and, by doing so, imagine a basis of ethics dominated by a sense of uncertainty, planetary wellbeing or care, and – following the poet Eeva Kilpi – planetary feeling.

Kaisa Kortekallio (University of Helsinki, Finland):

Weird Aesthetic Experiences in Recent Speculative Fiction

Aesthetic values and experiences emerge from collective and cultural practices of meaning-making. Arts and fiction thus play an important role in the cultural adaptation to new ecological circumstances brought on by environmental crises. Fiction both describes and reiterates conventional aesthetic experiences and imagines unusual and emergent ones.

In this presentation, literary scholar Kaisa Kortekallio discusses how novel aesthetic experiences are imagined in recent speculative fiction that thematizes environmental devastation. Special emphasis is given to weird experiences. Weird is a contemporary mode of literary and artistic expression that draws on the registers of horror and science fiction, foregrounding affects of awe and dread, and evoking feelings of estrangement.

Weird experiences are often figured as being impressed, haunted, permeated, or otherwise affected by the nonhuman environment. Such weirdness may take one to the limits of one’s perception or worldview. In Jeff VanderMeer’s or Antti Salminen’s fiction, for example, the unraveling of conventional forms of perception, knowledge, and affect are inherently tied to ecological instability. Living in times of ecological devastation entails making room for strange, unknown, and even monstrous environmental phenomena. From the unraveling, however, tentative aesthetic and experiential forms arise: weird protagonists may feel ecologically informed awe when witnessing monstrous organisms, or develop nuanced appreciation for fungal scents. Such experiences may require new vocabulary.

Importantly to environmental aesthetics, Weird fiction figures embodied experience as ecological, but not transparently “natural.” As it invites readers to experience fictional environments and bodies (human and nonhuman) as unknown and unpredictable, Weird fiction is an affective exercise in living with environmental turmoil. Engaging with it can be one answer to Donna Haraway’s call for “staying with the trouble” of the present.