Elemental Thinking: Troubling States of Matter

March 22, 2024 (Friday)March 23, 2024 (Saturday)

Penn Museum, 3260 South Street

Elemental Thinking: Troubling States of Matter

2024 Penn EnviroLab Graduate Conference

The approach to study environmental systems and change through the classical elements – fire, earth, water, and air – has been formative to the composition of environmental studies and its disciplinary configurations of expertise. Recent scholarship has called for the more-than-natural recognition of the elements through their relational qualities (Alaimo and Starosielski 2016, Myers, Papadopoulos, and Puig Bellacasa 2021), acknowledging that elements are constituted through phase shifts in which their states of matter are momentarily materialized through ongoing encounter, mixture, and transformation (Peters and Steinbergs 2019). After all, water is also vapor, oxygen composes a flame, fire falls to ash, and runoff trickles through porous bedrock. Accelerated by environmental injustice, chemical contamination, displacement, disease, disaster, and climate change, the reverberating stakes of our current socio-ecological crises further demand we rethink engagements with the elements as more than distinct states of matter. Drought, wildfire, particulate pollution, and acid deposition do not operate independent of anthropogenic activity and its colonial/racialized logics; they epitomize and compound each other.

Yet thinking through admixture is only the first step in attending to elemental ecologies that are already and always in relation. The modes and intensities of these processes come to (re)make and be (re)made by their metamorphing relations, not just their particular material forms. Thresholds of evaporation and combustion; speeds of decomposition and regrowth; the suspension, accumulation, and dispersal of particles and sediments are not just mediating mechanisms between states of matter, but ongoing and contingent processes through which situated materialities and meanings travel, are held, and also congeal.

Following Stengers’ provocation that “there is no identity of a practice independent of its environment” (2005:187), we revisit the theoretical and methodological work of troubling the elements as inseparable from the conditions of and our obligations to troubled ecologies. We ask: What are the political and ethical implications of thinking elementally? How might ethnographic conceptualization retool elemental thinking as a mode of inquiry grounded in the processes critical to the survival of human and more-than-human worlds? How do reconfigurations of the elemental help us think through the Anthropocene and the anthropos-not-seen (de la Cadena 2015)?

Keynote will be given by Austin Zeiderman (LSE Geography).

Confirmed Faculty Discussants: Kai Bosworth (VCU World Studies), Vinay Gidwani (UMN Geography), Kregg Hetherington (Concordia Sociology and Anthropology), Mary Pena (Smith Anthropology), Nida Rehman (CMU Architecture), Sarah Vaughn (UC Berkeley Anthropology).