Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences

On the Move: Unraveling the Entanglements of Nonhuman Mobilities

Chair: Romana Bund (University of Vienna)
Co-Chair: Nicola Kopf (University of Vienna)

Frederike Middelhoff (Goethe-University Frankfurt)
Rachel Hill (Goldsmiths University of London)
Irina-Anca Bobei (University of Bucharest)
Anil Paralkar (Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies)

Moving Life à la mode: Entangled Im/Mobilities and the Romantic It-Narrative

Frederike Middelhoff

In the course of Europe’s industrialization and amidst the rise of modern consumerist and capitalist structures in the late 18th and early 19th century, the literary field saw the emergence of a new genre which staged nonhuman beings (i.e. animals, coins, clothes) as the narrators of their lives. The protagonists of these quasi-autobiographical stories pass various owners, go through different hands and circulate (down) the social scale – while their corporeal and monetary value constantly decreases. Yet this social and material mobility allows these uncommon commodities to gain a specific narrative power: as they are not only continually on the move from one household/person/pocket to another but also considered mute by human standards, they are able to witness the unheard, unseen, unspeakable – and prosopopoietically divulge these secret information. It-narratives use the eloquence of more-than-human moving actors for satirical ends, however, they also negotiate and reflect on the porous basis of concepts traditionally considered stable dichotomies: nature/culture, life/death, subject/object, activity/passivity, mobility/immobility. My paper looks at Helmine von Chézy’s Life and Opinions of a Paper Collar [Leben und Ansichten eines papiernen Kragens] (1829) and examines the entanglements of human and nonhuman im/mobility from a narratological and cultural studies perspective, arguing that Chézy’s collar is significant for inquiring into »Entangled Im/Mobilities« in two respects: First, the text illuminates that ›still‹ (and ›mute‹) objects not only instigate human e/motions and narrative action per se but also partake in constituting and (potentially) subverting spatial and gender orders; second, Chézy’s paper collar indicates that an Aristotelian demarcation between auto-motion (›agens‹/›activity‹) and hetero-motion (›patiens‹/›suffering‹) has become questionable if not obsolete not least in the context of romantic natural philosophical thinking. Chézy’s romantic commodity poetics explores the relationships and gaps between stasis and movement and participates in a vital discussion gauging the lives, vibrancies and stories of more-than-human realms.

Frederike Middelhoff studied German Literature, Linguistics and English Literature at JMU Würzburg (GER) and the University of Exeter (UK). She received her doctoral degree in Feb. 2019 with a study on history and cultural contexts of animal autobiography in German- speaking countries. The book has been published with Metzler Verlag in Jan. 2020. Since March 2020, she is W1-Professor of German Literature and Romantic Studies at the Goethe University of Frankfurt. Her research interests range from cultural animal studies, plant studies and ecocritical theory to multilingual literatures, mobility and migration studies, with a focus set on the interrelations between literature and knowledge. Her new project explores the theoretical, artistic and scientific contexts in which the Romantics discussed and depicted the various forms, experiences and consequences of migration. The study aims to reconstruct knowledges about migration in Romantic circles from the perspective of literary and cultural studies.

back to top

Wandering Infinitesimals: The Mobilities and Intimacies of Microbial Spaceflight

Rachel Hill

In 2019 the microbiome of the International Space Station was sequenced, unearthing clusters of microorganisms. Tests indicated that these bacterial and fungal interlopers were mostly freighted on the bodies of the astronautic crew, and as stowaways aboard the station’s frequent cargo deliveries. Such unintended mobilities demonstrate that microbes can not only survive the extremes of microgravity and solar radiation but actually also flourish. This microbial plenitude adds another layer of creatureliness to microgravity infrastructures, thereby exploding the myth that the space station is the apogee of complete environmental control. These undesigned inhabitations underscore that while humankind can (temporarily at least) escape the forms of gravity they are habituated to, they cannot evade their microbial symbioses. So too with the space station, which cannot elude its organic coatings of microscopic companions. Along with the expanding infrastructures which they adorn, infiltrate and inhabit, microbes thus do not respect the supposed planetary boundaries of the biosphere. In fact, these mobilities further fold apparent distinctions between Earth and the outer space environment into contiguous relations. So instead of representing an escape from the Earth’s grasp, Earthlings become active participants in extending the parameters of the planet. Microbial inhabitations of microgravity underscore one of the ways in which infrastructures not only hold, but are webbed within and held by, the haphazard and undesigned mobilities of microbial Earthlings.

Rachel Hill recently completed her MA in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she wrote her dissertation on the contemporary imaginaries of outer space within the commercial space sector. She is the co-director of the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC) and explores the radical potential of science fiction as a member of the feminist research collective Beyond Gender. She regularly speaks in various conferences and workshops on the intersection of astronomy, spaceflight, more-than-human worlds and ethics. She has written for publications such as Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The Quietus, Strange Horizons and The Women's Review of Books.

back to top

Reevaluating the Role of the Parasitical in the Context of Cultivars, Nativars and Weeds

Irina-Anca Bobei

In connection to the theme of im/mobilities, I would like to present an ongoing polemic which is taking place in the domain of Critical Plant Studies. My endeavor will be to map some of the debates concerned with the representations of cultivars and nativars in the social sphere. I take them as key concepts situated at the intersections between human and plant dynamics. Authors like Giovanni Aloi and Catriona Sandilands are questioning the concept of native botany and the decolonization pretext it supposes. Also, the two terms might seem too rigid, and the idealization they evoke may have dangerous political implications. Drawing from their research, along with the works of the artist Maria Thereza Alves, I wonder What does it mean to belong to a place? Trying to build a path through entangled visions regarding the botanical decolonization through the lenses of some artistic representations, another figure is going to appear in these heterogeneous environments. Introducing the politics and symbolism surrounding weeds, another pole will rise in the narratives of cultivars and nativars. The discourse surrounding the parasitic role of weeds seems to be too often understood in terms of territory, invasion, borders and marginality. This sinister anthropomorphism attached to the common understanding of weeds’ locations and dynamics, as Aloi calls it, could be understood by analyzing how it has also been used in ideological discourses when describing the current immigrant crisis. Following Anna Tsing’s view of the way collaborations work across difference and in the light of the parasitical model of inquiry brought by weeds, I want to explore the unstable conditions of the concepts enumerated above at the intersection of colonialism, trade and migration. What is often deemed as parasitical has to be revealed as having the power to create diversity through the repeated encounters with the Other.

Irina-Anca Bobei obtained her bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Bucharest. She is currently in her second year of studies at the Center of Excellence in Study of Image, a master’s degree research program in the domain of Cultural Studies, being the beneficiary of a scholarship. She is part of an art performance group part of an art performance group that creates participative workshops about topics related to ecological theories. Through i-Portunus, an EU mobility program, her group has been accepted in 2019 to show their works at the Kyivdanceresidency in Kyiv, Ukraine. The same project was presented at the National Centre of Dance, Bucharest.

back to top

Food and Mobility in the Culinary Contact Zone: Culinary and Cultural Exchanges Between Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Period

Anil Paralkar

Triggered by the preceding discovery of a sea route by Vasco da Gama, a new mobility between Europe and South Asia occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries. In this context, South Asian foodstuffs appeared as sought after trade goods on the European market, while the European settlements in Asia were responsible for securing their supply. This paper investigates such spaces by using James Farrer’s approach of the culinary contact zones, »spaces of food consumption and production […], or spaces of cultural friction and creativity […]« to understand their genesis through cultural, culinary and human mobility. The European settlements functioned as such zones, in which indigenous wives and local cooks adapted South Asian foods to European tastes. In the later 17th century, preservable foods were imported to Europe, where they were subsequently recreated with local ingredients and according to local taste preferences. Consequently, culinary contact zones formed in Europe. Various kinds of mobilities shaped these zones. In the South Asian zones, the new mobility of European travelers allowed for interhuman exchange between South Asians and Europeans. In the European zones, travel literature and imported foods offered a culinary impetus. This talk explores the formation of South Asian and European culinary contact zones, which, under the influence of various kinds of mobilities, facilitated cultural flows based on human-human and on human-object interactions. Thus, the presentation adds to our understanding of the influence of human- and of object-related mobilities on the transculturation of foodways.

Anil Paralkar is a PhD candidate in early modern history at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies. During his PhD studies, he conducted research stays at archives in Germany, England, the Netherlands, and India. Furthermore, he was a guest researcher at the German Historical Institute London, at Amsterdam University, at Yale University, and at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, and a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago. In his thesis, Anil investigates the European proto-ethnographic discourses about South Asian foodways in the 15th to 17th centuries and the cultural flows behind them. His research interests include postcolonial and transcultural theories as well as food history.

back to top