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Researching with Proximity

By Veera Kinnunen, Emily Höckert, and Outi Rantala, editors of Researching with Proximity

For the last decade, the notion of the “Anthropocene” has increasingly offered a universal frame for conceptualising the era of deepening, multiple crises and highlighting how humankind possesses the power to destroy but also sustain life on this planet. Yet, while the notion helps us to recognise how life as we know it is under great threat, it also provides a universalising meta-category which overlooks situated ways of understanding and attending to more-than-human relations in specific places, such as the “Arctic” (which is a contested and universalising notion in itself) where we live and work. 

In our scholarly work, we have taken the notion of the Anthropocene as a speculative provocation rather than a factual state. The Anthropocene reminds us that we can no longer afford to stay uncommitted, distant observers. We must take responsibility and try to find a way out of the harmful modes of being that have gotten us into this situation. Rather than pointing the finger at others, we need to begin by turning our critical gaze into ourselves, our knowledge systems and ways of doing science.

How, then, to rekindle the prevailing academic practices that prioritise humans over rest of nature, uninvolvement over commitment, and mastery over wonder? How to develop more ethical, more committed, ways of doing good research in the midst of multiple crises, without being paralyzed by the apocalyptic pressures of the Anthropocene?

These were the ethical concerns that were guiding our collective attempts to write a methodological book about researching with proximity together with Intra-living in the Anthropocene (ILA) research network.

For us, proximity offered an entry point for revising current rigid ways of conducting research and thinking about modes of earthly survival. We speculated and envisioned how staying proximate might enable us to replace the scientific tradition of researching about with more committed modes of researching with a multiplicity of beings, including animals, plants, atmospheres and the place itself. The mode of being-with was extended to the collaborative ways of organising our thinking and writing practices. We experimented with open ways of writing and thinking together through multiple forms of collaboration and conversation both online and in person, in a playful mode that Phillip Vannini coins correspondence in the preface of the book. Correspondence, in this sense, is ‘a process of responding to one another, of learning to know together by joining perspectives—not by way of monologues intersecting with one another, but by way of walking and learning from the land together.’ (p. viii). 

Among the many shared aspects of these correspondences are modes of attuning to relationships and our research companions with curiosity and wonder. The chapters of the book can be seen as eleven experiments that revisit, rethink and reimagine the supposedly mundane or known—that is, phenomena, concepts, relations, places and beings that we have in many cases learnt to take for granted. They share a task of cultivating the art of attentiveness towards proximate bodies, texts, technologies, family homes, landscapes, forests, trees, weeds, lichens, parks, movies and theatres. The chapters engage with the messiness of more-than-human relations through the notions of repetition, mundane, exceptional, atmosphere, fidelity, reverberation, rhythm, care, hospitality, fragility, sensitivity, touch, departure, narrative and intimacy, drawing focus to the intensities of our proximate relations.

We have truly enjoyed writing this book with scholars who share an interest in messing up and speculating rather than classifying, offering accurate representations, or trying to nail things down. Instead of providing clear answers or claiming to solve the ecological crisis, the writing process of this book offered us a chance to test different ways of attending to our proximate relations with a curiosity about what might happen or become. In this spirit, we did not want to conclude the book with a summary of outcomes or guidelines, but to suggest proximity as an ethico-political relation where the “right distance” becomes negotiated through situated and embodied engagements with multiple others. Hence, we decided to dedicate the last pages of the book for suggestions that can help us continue to engage with the mode of wonder in the Anthropocene. We thought that a quote from Karen Barad suited well here: ‘…so much can happen in a touch: where an infinity of other beings, other spaces, other times – are aroused’ (2007, p. 209).

Last November, it felt surreal to finally touch the physical book and to be able to share our work with others. We feel happy and proud for the possibility to publish the book as open access and have received lots of interest from colleagues planning to use the volume in both teaching and research. Writing this blog a few months later, the book has been accessed almost 7000 times. We wish to express special thanks to our new colleague Neal Cahoon who kindly helped us to create a video that we have been able to use as an invitation to the book. This “unboxing” video wishes to share a sensitive attunement with more-than-human beings through short introductions and slow readings by authors of the book.

We see that our book matters the most if and when it succeeds to awaken a desire to hear, listen and learn from the modes of storytelling that go beyond human communication.

The video can be found here: Researching with Proximity (youtube.com) 

Veera Kinnunen (PhD University of Lapland, Bachelor of Design, Kuopio Academy of Design) is a sociologist and a cultural historian working on a threshold of more-than-human sociology, environmental humanities, and feminist ethics. Her research interests cover material culture of everyday life, dwelling, and living well with unwanted stuff such as waste, weeds and microbes. 

Emily Höckert (PhD) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Lapland in Finland. Together with the ‘Intra-living in the Anthropocene’ research group her research explores the notion of ‘multispecies hospitality’ in Arctic tourism settings. She approaches the questions of hospitality and ethics of care at the crossroads of the postcolonial philosophy of hospitality and feminist new materialism.

Outi Rantala (PhD, Professor, Responsible Arctic Tourism, at University of Lapland, Finland and Adjunct professor, Environmental Humanities, at University of Turku, Finland) has focused in her research activities on creating critical, reflective and alternative narratives on northern tourism. Rantala has acted as the principal investigator and leader for several of the ILA-research group’s research projects (see ilarctic.com).