Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


Photosynthetic Justice

08 April 2024, 2:00 pm–3:00 pm

Breathing In seminar series

Breathing In: Air and Atmospheres Seminar with Professor Helene Strauss, University of the Free State, South Africa. This seminar series is run jointly by the IAS and WiSER at Wits, and takes place fortnightly on Zoom.

This event is free.

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Professor Megan Vaughan – Institute of Advanced Studies

In this talk, I consider the cultural mediation of “atmospheric violence” (Hsuan Hsu) in South Africa alongside histories of ecocide that have long characterized industrialisation’s relationship to the earth. Placed at the intersection of the so-called Environmental and Vegetal (In)Humanities – or breath and botany – my paper analyses the documentary film Dying for Gold (dir. Catherine Meyburgh and Richard Pakleppa) to ask how plant ecologies and human health might be relinked amidst extractive capitalism’s ongoing assault on atmospheres and airways. My paper draws attention to recent struggles over breathable air at the heart, for instance, of the #DeadlyAir case and the “Living Limpopo” Campaign, to locate my reading of the film along a historical continuum of regenerative phytochemical relationships that continue to be severed by extractive violence. Even though the activist aims of Dying for Gold lie primarily in the immediate demands for compensation and healthcare for ailing miners, the documentary nevertheless prompts consideration of the interdependence of decolonial racial justice and phytochemical health. It does so by foregrounding the extractive rupturing of the mutually regenerative relationship between vegetative photosynthesis and the respiratory commons, and, by extension, of the need for a relational reckoning with both the human and nonhuman effects of atmospheric and “chemical violence” (Michelle Murphy). I conclude by using these insights as a springboard for a broader dialogue on what I call photosynthetic justice.

Breathing In: Air and Atmospheres Seminar

This seminar series, run jointly by the IAS and WiSER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand) takes place fortnightly on Zoom.  It builds on ongoing and emergent academic attention to air and atmospheres and draws out suggestions for future research and for ways of acting upon the contemporary air and atmospheric crisis, with a leading focus on global South contexts.

Recent work on infrastructures, atmospheres and the biospheric shifts associated with conditions of the Anthropocene have relied on rendering newly vivid those aspects of the social which have long been treated as background. Sensory ecologies - affective or experienced space which compose environments, in Matthew Gandy’s terms, are synesthetic: like sounds, they reverberate within human and more-than-human subjects. Affective atmospheres are shared bodily situations, drawing also on renewed and shifting elemental understandings of air and refracted light. How can we come conceptually closer to the toxicities of both air pollution and rising authoritarianisms, to material and metaphoric atmospheres – and other less-than-visible carriers of damage? And to a better sense of the entanglements and relationalities that such modes of thought can produce? The growing non-transparency of air, in Sumana Roy’s terms, produces paranoid reading: suspicious, anticipatory theories of negative affect. This occurs in the context of the ‘disappearance of air’ in favour of mask filters, air purifiers and the AQI (Air Quality Index) for those who can afford it. Yet there may also be a reparative range to these questions: making air explicative might offer analytic opportunities for sustenance and responsiveness to what is to come.

About the Speaker

Professor Helene Strauss

Professor of English at University of the Free State

More about Professor Helene Strauss

Other events in this series