Feeling Kinky about Environmentalism: A Conversation with Nicole Seymour
Nicole Seymour’s first book, Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (University of Illinois Press, 2013), earned a space for iconic works of queer literature, film, and performance in the environmental studies archive. In Strange Natures, Seymour showed how works like Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain offer unique insight into the ways in which homophobia, classism, and racism affect environmental issues. Seymour’s second book, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), takes an entirely new tack on an equally queer selection of texts, television, film, and performance.
In Bad Environmentalism, Seymour focuses on works of art and performance which convey “bad affects” such as ambivalence, low humor, irreverence, irony, or disgust as a part of or in response to environmental discourse. This bad affect, according to Seymour, has much to teach us about our own expectations for thought and writing about the environment. For example, why do we expect to feel reverence when encountering wilderness and wild creatures? Or alarm and self-righteousness in response to invasive species or climate change? In some cases, bad affect exposes the values implicit in mainstream environmentalism, in particular its connections to whiteness, masculinity, and class privilege. Seymour asks us to think about how environmental discourse changes when we invite disgust, kink, and emasculation into the mix.
On October 23, 2018, Nicole and I sat down to discuss Bad Environmentalism, the television series Wildboyz, judgmental librarians, and glitter.
Stream or download our conversation here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Amy Groshek: Let’s talk a little bit about the premise of your book, which is titled Bad Environmentalism. What exactly is “bad environmentalism”?
Nicole Seymour: It’s pretty simple: it’s just environmentalism in the wrong register, or the wrong mood, or the wrong affect. But it’s wrong specifically from the standpoint of mainstream environmentalism. It’s kind of like going to church but you get the giggles. Maybe you believe in what the preacher is saying, but you just can’t control yourself. You’re not acting right, you’re not performing religiosity right. So it’s just not “doing environmentalism” in the right mood or right mode. I’m thinking about activism and art that is moral, but not moralistic. It does have environmental investments, but it’s not finger-wagging, it’s not making you feel guilty, it’s not being all buttoned up and serious.
AG: You use this term “bad affect.” Could you situate that term within affect studies?
NS: In the book, I pull in a lot of affect theorists. I make this joke about how for every affect theorist, there’s a different definition of affect. Basically, I’m just saying sometimes it’s a visceral reaction. For example, I’m looking at texts where people start laughing, or vomiting, or something. There could be this very bodily reaction to something that’s kind of an improper reaction, or it’s just a tone. I talk about a documentary film called Peak, where the tone is off a little bit. It’s not really hitting the right beats. . . . Affect is both comportment and tone. Sometimes it’s a physical thing, like something you’re seeing represented. Other times it’s just a vibe you’re getting off of a poem or a novel.
AG: You argue in Bad Environmentalism that environmentalist discourse is affectively narrow, and you ultimately elaborate on this thesis to suggest that this narrowing elides particular kinds of queer affects, lower-class affects, and that it restricts the roles and agency of non-white individuals in environmental movements and discourse. The introduction suggests that you see allowing bad affect into environmental discourse to be crucial not just for those already in the discourse, but for bringing more diversity to activist communities. Can you talk a bit about what might be different and better about environmental discourse if we were to expand its range to include bad affects?
NS: One thing I should say is that what I’m not trying to do in the book is to promote bad environmentalism as the answer—that this is the solution to everything. I think it’s just one among many, many different options. But I do think it’s not a coincidence that most, if not all, of my texts are emerging from underrepresented communities: queer communities, Indigenous communities, working-class communities. These are groups that are not normally considered “proper” or “perfect” from various mainstream standpoints and specifically that have been shut out of mainstream environmentalism. These groups also probably wouldn’t want to be a part of mainstream environmentalism anyway because of how white and heteronormative it is. . . . It’s no coincidence that these underrepresented groups are seeing these alternative affective modes as being somewhat more effective, or that’s just what they’re choosing to use for whatever reason.
AG: The suggestion is, “hey look at all these other people that are already doing environmentalism”: radical fairies, ecosexuals, etc. This is already going on, right and they have incorporated bad affects in their modes of discourse and isn’t it fun!
AG: Wildboyz and Green Porno couldn’t be more different, and yet they function in very similar ways as critiques of masculinity, as critiques of nature show programming, and as critiques of conventional environmental affects. I wonder about the challenges of managing those two works that are so tonally different. What was it like to bring those two project together?
NS: It was fun! It was really fun in general to write this book. But they’re more alike than I expected. I knew that I had to talk about them together because they’re about nature programming or taking aim at nature programming. I ended up finding these points of connection that I wasn’t expecting. I tell students that I’m a feminist scholar and I’m an anti-racist scholar, and I just always assumed that Jackass was horribly offensive and that Wildboyz would be horribly offensive. I never watched it. . . . When I decided I had to write about these shows, I sat down and watched all the seasons of Jackass all the seasons of Wildboyz, and was laughing hysterically, crying, unable to control myself. And I was surprised how much I loved it first of all, and second of all how the dynamics were different than I was expecting. . . . It’s people that are making fun of themselves; they’re fumbling around, they’re falling down, they’re getting hurt. I decided to just kind of move beyond its offensiveness because I thought that was so obvious: of course it’s offensive, it’s made to be offensive.
In Wildboyz there’s a scene where Chris Pontius is putting on a nurse’s uniform to go volunteer in a monkey hospital in Thailand. It’s about gender: what’s this white, straight guy doing here? What’s the impulse? What is he reacting to? What’s being made fun of? . . . I think that the juxtaposition [of Wildboyz and Green Porno] shows us that we need a more diverse vision of what environmentalism looks like. It can be serious, but it can also be non-serious. It can be reverent, but it can also be irreverent. I think the conclusion I come to in that chapter is that there’s a spectrum.
AG: I believe that you are one of very few intellectuals working right now in queer theory that really gets the experience and material conditions of rural queerness. It is particularly apparent in your discussion of The Eggplant Faerie Players and Goodbye Gauley Mountain. It’s just such a common part of contemporary queer life, that those of us who come from rural, working-class origins are asked to abandon rural allegiances and sensibilities as a part of coming out. Could you say more about how that understanding shapes or influences your research and maybe about possibilities we might discover in an environmental discourse that engages rural queerness in situ without shame or erasure?
NS: I think it’s really a matter of being empathetic and listening to writers like Eli Clare and Janisse Ray: recognizing what they’re saying about shame being this this cudgel that’s wielded against both queers and rural folks, and then of course especially those that are both queer and rural, or non-coastal folks, or whatever you want to call it. . . . I think if you do pay attention to working-class writers, and queer working-class writers, and queer rural writers, you do see them grappling with this shame. If you’ve read a single page of Eli Clare, you already know this story. I want to take a little step further and say: okay, if shame is this big problem for both queers and rural folks and those who are both, who’s performing shamelessness? People are critiquing shame, but who’s enacting or embodying shamelessness?
It’s a kind of carelessness, in the positive sense of saying, “Screw your shame! And screw your guilt! And I’ma do me!” That’s where The Eggplant Faerie Players come in as well as Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens. These are performers and activists who are rejecting shame around sexuality as well as shame around environmental behaviors. I think that’s important because shame is not a particularly useful emotion. If someone you know is making you feel bad about how much you fly or how much you drive, is that going to actually change your behavior, or is it just going to make you feel bad every time you do it? Or further, is it just going to make you shove out that shame because you don’t want to feel it?
I’m just seeing shame as not a particularly useful emotion for anyone. I’m starting to think more about how shame becomes misplaced. An example of that is that recent study that came out that showed that 100 companies are responsible for over seventy percent of carbon emissions. So if it’s not the individual person per se—of course we’re all culpable and we’re all entrenched in the system, we’re all part of it—but to be wagging fingers at individual people for flying to a conference once in a while, that’s taking our attention away from the real sources of environmental crisis.
Featured image: This lounging raccoon invites laughter rather than alarm or outrage—affects more common to environmental discourse. Photo by Korf-Adri, June 2017.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Nicole Seymour is Associate Professor of English and affiliated faculty in Environmental Studies and Queer Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her second monograph, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, is available from the University of Minnesota Press. Nicole’s most recent contribution to Edge Effects is “Citation in the #MeToo Era.” Website. Twitter. Contact.
Amy Groshek is a Ph.D. student in Literary Studies in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Amy’s research concerns topics in science and technology studies, queer theory, and posthumanism. Amy also works as a web developer and online learning consultant. In her free time, she likes to teach and lead Argentine tango. Website. Twitter. Contact.