Environmentalisms II: How to Have a Politics?

Today we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation: at the very moment that the idea of “environment” is being placed at the center of our political and cultural debates, the content of the concept is becoming less and less clear. Does it refer to nature? Or its very opposite (the “built”)? Or to the factual (scientific, technical, bureaucratic) division between nature and something else? Is environment merely the residual notion of a so-called “natural world” that has now been tamed or constructed by technological systems? 

This paradox is particularly evident within the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism, which despite being increasingly saddled with the complex task of imagining more "environmentally-sensitive" responses to our intensifying "environmental problems," are nonetheless unable to formulate any clear or coherent answers to the simple question that ought to precede any such strategies: what exactly is an environment? …and so the term becomes a kind of chimera within the design fields, haunting any emerging consensus with the specter of emptiness—an emptiness that presents a subtle but tectonic problem for the formation of any contemporary environmental politics.

The course aims to situate the idea of environment within a field of intelligibility comprised of specific kinds of environmental reasoning; ways of thinking that presume or posit a comprehension of the term, and that analyze or intervene in the world on that presumption. We will examine a series of themes—milieu, ecology, life, totality, control, regulation, interactivity, management, among others—that will provide a structure for the course. 

In each case, our focus will be on certain methods of representational discontinuation; that is, on the way in which particular instances of environmental reasoning utilize techniques of representation as a means of dividing up, and ultimately intervening in, the world of lived experience. In doing so, the course recasts the concept of environment as a difficult amalgam of under-theorized managerial strategies, technical-instrumental processes, and reflexive scientific and political practices.

Each subsection of the course will move in a loosely-chronological manner, at times reaching back to the late nineteenth century, but generally focusing on Inter- and Postwar developments in environmental-representational techniques, including sensing, imaging, simulating and scanning.