The «Climate Refugee» / Jenna Coughlin

/ The Figure of the “Climate Refugee” in Inger Elisabeth Hansen’s Å resirkulere lengselen: avrenning foregår (2015).

This article addresses the Norwegian response to global climate change and increased human migration through an analysis of the figure of the “climate refugee” in Inger Elisabeth Hansen’s 2015 poetry collection, Å resirkulere lengselen, avrenning foregår. In addition to situating the work in the context of the so-called “refugee crisis,” the author also discusses the origins of the term “climate refugee” and the conceptual and ethical problems surrounding such a designation. The article examines notions of aesthetics and poetics in the text, arguing that Hansen draws attention to the ubiquity of risk in the history of cultural exchange between humans. Rather than a poetics that attempts to manage mobile bodies or eliminate risk, the author argues that Hansen advocates for a poetics of relation that takes its inspiration from dynamic forms in nature.

RÉSUMÉ : Cet article aborde la réponse norvégienne au changement climatique global et à l’augmentation de la migration humaine à travers une analyse de la figure du « réfugié climatique » dans la collection 2015 de poésie d’Inger Elisabeth Hansen, Å resirkulere lengselen, avrenning foregår. En plus de situer l’œuvre dans le contexte de la soi-disant « crise des réfugiés », lʼauteure discute également des origines du terme « réfugié climatique » et des problèmes conceptuels et éthiques entourant une telle désignation. L’article examine les notions d’esthétique et de poétique dans le texte, en faisant valoir que Hansen attire l’attention sur l’omniprésence du risque dans l’histoire des échanges culturels entre humains. Plutôt qu’une poétique qui tente de gérer les corps mobiles ou d’éliminer les risques, l’auteur soutient que Hansen plaide pour une poétique de la relation qui s’inspire des formes dynamiques de la nature.

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“Jeg begynner denne forelesninga med en menneskefot. En liten fot på en stor motorvei gjennom Europa” [I begin this lecture with a human foot. A little foot on a big highway through Europe] (Hansen 2015b).

This is how Inger Elisabeth Hansen began a lecture delivered at Litteraturhuset in Oslo on September 19, 2015. The lecture was delivered at the beginning of an autumn when the number of refugees arriving to Norway increased dramatically from around 500 per month to 8,000 in the months of October and November combined (“Flyktninger i Norge”). In the lecture, Hansen drew connections between the bones of the foot, their Latin names, and metaphors of travel to show how language often contains evidence of forgotten relationships between people and cultures.

That same autumn, Hansen published her first book of poetry in twelve years, Å resirkulere lengselen, avrenning foregår [To recirculate longing, run-off occurs]. Upon its release, a number of reviewers characterized the collection as “climate literature”—a literature that engages with climate change and its implications for human and nonhuman life as well as art (Beddari; Grøtta; NRK; Ruset; Wærp; Aarvik). However, like Hansen’s lecture, the collection also addresses conceptual and ethical problems related to human migration.

In November 2015, Hansen’s lecture would appear on the website for the Norwegian Writer’s Climate Campaign §112, a network of writers seeking to draw public attention to climate change and the government’s obligation to protect Norwegian nature. §112 refers to the so-called “environmental paragraph” of the newly-revised Norwegian constitution. (For a more detailed history of the organization see https://forfatternesklimaaksjon.no/in-english/)

What could an ecological perspective potentially contribute to our understanding of the figure of the migrant?

But why would a lecture about human migration appear on the website of an organization established to raise awareness about climate change? How might we understand the relationship between a global increase in human migration and climate change? And what could an ecological perspective potentially contribute to our understanding of the figure of the migrant?

The inclusion of Hansen’s lecture on the website of the Norwegian Writer’s Climate Campaign §112 indicates a growing international perception of a relationship between violent conflict and climate change-intensified drought. This perception is accompanied more generally by the sense that a new category of refugee is emerging, the climate refugee.

 

The Climate Refugee: Definitions and Challenges

In March 2015, a group of researchers led by Colin P. Kelley claimed to have established a link between drought intensified by climate change and political unrest in Syria (Kelley, Mohtadi, Cane, Seager, and Kushnir). Although there has been disagreement over the scientific rigour of such claims (Fountain), the idea that climate change played a role in the intensity and scale of the Syrian civil war has since entered the popular imagination. In May 2014, a piece of comics journalism titled “Syria’s Climate Conflict” was published on the website for Years of Living Dangerously, a climate change documentary series airing on Showtime (Quinn). The piece attempted to explain how five years of drought had internally displaced many of Syria’s farmers, intensifying pre-existing grievances against Assad’s regime and fomenting protest. Also in May 2014, an editorial published in the New York Times, which called on European nations to assist Greece and Italy in handling the arrival of migrants by sea, cited a UN report naming “desertification” as a contributing factor to the “migrant crisis” in Europe (The Editorial Board).

This was the narrative taken up by the Norwegian Writer’s Climate Campaign §112. On November 1, 2015, the campaign’s website published a link to “Syria’s Climate Conflict,” following a poem by Frode Grytten entitled “Tusener segler igjen” [Thousands sail again]. Grytten had delivered this poem the previous day on Dugnad for flyktningene [Charity drive for refugees], a televised fundraiser aired by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). The publication of Grytten’s poem along with the comic indicated that the editor of the website had (unofficially) adopted the narrative that climate change contributed in some way to this migration. That same week, Hansen’s lecture would also appear on the website. Continued publication of poems dealing with migration and displacement on the website serve as further indication that, as artists and writers in Scandinavia consider climate change, one of the concerns weighing on them is the increase in human displacement it may cause and the ethical challenges this increase poses, particularly to the comparatively stable countries to which migrants are likely to flee.

The situation of people in flight is always precarious, but the status of so-called “climate refugees” is also legally ambiguous. According to the U.N. High Council on Refugees, “displacement linked to climate change is not a future hypothetical—it’s a current reality” (“FAQ on Climate Change”). An annual average of 21.5 million people has been “forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden onset hazards—such as floods, storms, wildfires, extreme temperature—each year since 2008” (“FAQ on Climate Change”). Yet the 1951 Geneva convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees define “refugee” narrowly as a person who undertakes a border-crossing due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Wihbey). Moreover, experts argue that internal displacement caused by much slower processes such as loss of economic livelihood will represent a far greater problem than international displacement. Because it does not involve a border crossing, however, internal displacement is at risk of being crowded out in the attentions of both the public and policymakers by the dramatic images of events such as the recent European “migrant crisis.”

However, drawing a connection between violent conflict and climate raises ethical problems. As has been the case with the war in Syria, the suggestion that “natural” forces played a role in the conflict could seemingly absolve an authoritarian regime of human rights violations. Rather than an intentional act of war, it seemingly reduces the conflict to a random act of nature. This is further complicated by the fact that climate change is not purely “natural” but anthropogenic. As important contributors to the field of environmental justice have recently argued, colonial and global capitalist structures often “export” the worst effects of industrialization and climate change onto formerly colonized regions. Naomi Klein, for example, argues that climate change has been perpetuated by practices informed by colonial ideology. When governments seek to distribute the negative environmental externalities of industrialization, formerly colonized regions are deemed “sacrifice zones,” in which the environmental consequences of the consumption habits of former colonial powers are exported onto people whose lives and livelihoods are deemed less valuable than others’. Similarly, Rob Nixon argues that the worst environmental consequences of industrialization are borne by the poor and people of colour, constituting a form of “slow violence” against these communities. Thus, while the previous legal definition of refugees assumed that persecution is perpetrated by human beings, while nature acts with no will of its own and with a power beyond human control, climate change (and the millions it has the potential to displace) troubles these distinctions. Nature, rather than acting in a manner beyond the human moral framework, begins to act as a result of human choices. Those choices are made not by “the human” as a universal category but in the context of structures of power, in which some humans have a disproportionally negative impact on the planet and others disproportionally bear that impact.

People forced to migrate due to climate change are thus in a precarious position, not only physically but also in terms of their legal status because the concept of “refugee” assumes a distinction between violent conflict caused by humans and natural disasters as “acts of god” that is no longer tenable in the era of anthropogenic climate change.

 

Å resirkulere lengselen: Precariousness in Western Thought

Although Inger Elisabeth Hansen’s 2015 collection was largely received as “climate literature,” in it, Hansen explores intersections between climate change, trade, violence, and power. She also considers how language impacts bodies and materials as well as our ability to think and talk about what is happening in the world—especially as climate change undermines ideas central to Western thought, such as the stability of nature. This is understandable given that Hansen has long been interested in unseen or unspoken figures. The political in her poetry is often present in the form of language critique. The problem of climate change, however, seems to add a new dimension of precariousness both for those in flight and those who respond to that flight in language.

Hansen represents this instability by drawing attention to the role of disruption in ancient culture and civilization; many of these cultural references have their origin in the Near East yet migrated west to become part of European tradition. Hansen represents this using figures such as maps, trade routes, constellations, the alphabet, and even genetic material that are on the verge of disintegrating or in the midst of reconfiguring themselves. Thus she both downplays the exceptionality of our moment while also urging caution: At a moment when so many bodies are also made vulnerable by displacement, the collection asks us to question how we receive, react to, and represent this bodily process of cultural transmission. It acknowledges the element of exploitation that is often present in the language that we use in such receptions, reactions, and representations, and asks us to imagine if these are possible without it.

Interestingly, climate change brings precarity and precariousness together in obvious ways

The terms “precarity” and “precariousness” are deployed frequently in literature on globalization from both a socioeconomic and ethical standpoint. While “precarity” describes vulnerability as a result of the unequal distribution of protection, resources, and material goods, “precariousness” describes vulnerability as a general condition of life (Iversen 159). Interestingly, climate change brings precarity and precariousness together in obvious ways: As arguments such as Klein’s and Nixon’s highlight, both the responsibility for and consequences of climate change are unequally distributed, while, at the same time, the threat of climate change represents a universal threat to the general conditions of life.

But, where literature is concerned, Simon During points out that precariousness plays a crucial role in the Western conception of creation and creativity. During calls on literary scholars to “pay more attention to a cultural history of precarity” (54), arguing that “precariousness is not merely a social condition connected to capitalism. Rather it is built into the archaeology of Western thought and practice wherever the human condition is thought of as bound either to deprivation, danger, insecurity or uncertainty” (55). During argues that the precariousness of the human is central to Western tradition in the form of the expulsion from Eden, as well as the Homeric tradition of the risk-taking hero who experiences life as full of danger and moreover becomes heroic through his choice to live dangerously. He further explains, “the assumption that precarity is fundamental to human existence has often been transmuted into a will to precariousness as an authentic condition for being human” (55). Engaging with tradition by pointing out where it performs effacements, distortions, or has become out of date is, for Hansen, one of the main ways in which literature engages with politics. She writes, “Den politiske litteraturen er en dialog med tradisjonen, en kritikk av overleveringene, en kronisk blasfemi, en kritikk av tradisjonen om mennesket, en smittebærer, en ‘oppdatering i anledning tausheten’ om mennesket, om dem som stadig blir skjøvet ut av virkeligheten” [Political literature is a dialogue with tradition, a critique of what has been passed down, a chronic blasphemy, a critique of traditions about humanity, a contagion, an ‘updating in the case of silence’ about humanity, about that which is constantly pushed out of reality] (2003a, 99).

Hansen’s engagement with ancient literatures, whether classical, Judeo-Christian, or Near Eastern reflects a similar recognition that there is a long tradition of regarding risk as fundamental to the creative process. In Hansen’s collection, this seems to have a dual potential: First, to potentially valorize destruction at the expense of an other who is more vulnerable than the subject and, second, to allow us to see the potential in migration and human vulnerability for new connections and aesthetic forms to emerge. Yet aesthetic responses that seek refuge “beyond” the material, rather than providing a way out of a precarious situation, provide only temporary consolation. This consolation proves far more soothing to the subject, while the other being addressed remains in just as risky a state as before.

 

Travelling Gods and Starling Flocks: New Conceptual Forms

At least three poems in the collection link the migration of culture with the movement of bodies necessary for that migration to occur. Hansen uses these to suggest how new understandings and aesthetics might be configured in the context of global human and environmental change. The poems historicize migration by drawing attention to cultural interactions between the ancient Near East and the classical and European worlds, but they also link cultural transmission explicitly to bodies in motion, in a way de-abstracting these relationships. In some of the poems, this migration is also linked to environmental change. Like many other poems in the collection, these poems mix discourses in order to make visible interrelationships among state violence, economy, language, desires, and the body. This can have a disorienting effect. As one of Hansen’s reviewers has noted, following all the historical, geographical, and literary allusions in the collection requires the average reader to turn to Wikipedia with some frequency (Grøtta). One could regard this as a weakness, but the challenge it poses to the reader could also be regarded as an aesthetic that represents the conceptual difficulties presented by climate change.

The two poems, “Munnvaskingsrituale for guder” [Oral cleansing ritual for gods] and “Fluktrute for guder” [Escape route for gods], use a ritualistic confrontation between mythical beings to suggest connections between environments and human culture (2015b, 15, 16). In the first poem, a collection of deities referred to only as gudene [the gods], perform a ritual meeting in a river, described as “den flytende grensa mellom rikene” [the moving border between kingdoms]. Hansen’s “kingdoms” here call to mind the various overlapping pantheons of ancient Near Eastern cultures, as well as the pantheons of the Greeks and Romans, and even Gallic, Celtic, Norse, or other deities. Rather than the inventions of humans, these are real, embodied figures with mouths that must be ritually cleansed before they interact with one another. This ritual cleansing that precedes communication is a departure from the hurled stones (in the form of bureaucratic language) that stood in for discourse in the previous poem.

These embodied figures can also be read as representatives of entire cultures or “kingdoms.” A shared sense of culture as embodied creates a meeting point for these “kingdoms” within the natural setting of a flowing river. First, though, they must remind themselves of their shared physicality by cleansing their mouths with “the same water”:

 

«de vasket munnen i elva før de åpnet den og slapp ordene ut, de presenterte seg for hverandre med samme vann i munnen» (2015b, 17)

[they washed their mouths in the river before they opened them and let the words out, they introduced themselves to one another with the same water in their mouths.]

 

Hansen connects this ritualized meeting to commerce through a mix of discourses, describing the gods as “kortreiste guder og langveisfarende” [local gods and long-distance travellers]. Kortreist is the term used for “local” in the phrase kortreist mat, or “local food,” a favoured environmentalist cause that is gently ironized here. The society with the luxury to consider whether their food is “local” or flown in from afar meets a society of weary travellers in the form of these gods. The important element in the poem, however, is the ritual cleansing: The gods are described as knowing that “alle guder blir skitne i kjeften … derfor vasket de skitten i kjeften ut, de skylte det ut, hele krenkelsesarsenalet” [all gods’ mouths get dirty … therefore, they washed out the dirt in their mouths, they rinsed it out, their entire offensive arsenal]. Again, as in the previous poem, language is depicted as a potential instrument of violence. However, the prophetic voice of the poem (Ecclesiastes is an important intertext for the collection as a whole) seems to declare that these “kingdoms” used to know how to come together peacefully. They are not any more peaceful by nature but rather know that cleansing ill-intent from one’s language is a necessary prerequisite for a meeting between cultures. Like the valorization of risk, During argues that the belief that “society was once more stable and coherent than it is” is a foundational “myth” in Western discourse (55). But Hansen side-steps this myth in her account of the meeting of the gods, who recognize their shared precariousness as well as shared capacity to do violence and seek to mitigate it through ritual.

Again, as in the previous poem, language is depicted as a potential instrument of violence.

References to myth in the collection as a whole suggest that this meeting can be read as a kind of history of cultural interactions. But, just as the threat of violence hangs over the meeting of the gods, cultural exchange is predicated upon vulnerable bodies. In the next poem of the collection, “Fluktrute for guder” [Escape route for gods], the gods are met with a problem: The river has dried up (2015b, 16). Displaced from their environment, the gods can no longer conduct their social ritual: “Bli vann, sa de, men det ble ikke vann” [Let there be water, they said, but there was not water] (16). Unable to exert power over nature as they should, the gods transform themselves into a drop of water, the water drop lands on a beetle, and the beetle begins to convey them across the expanse of the desert. In the time of climate change, “god,” like “nature,” is an unstable, unpredictable actor, which changes its conceptual role in human life. Both as physical bodies and as the embodiment of particular cultures, the gods are now at risk:

 

«mens gudene hver for seg havner i feil sirkler, mens gudene hver
for seg blir omsatt på svartebørsen, mens gudene hver for seg blir sprengt
og røvet og tatt som gisler, blir gudene samlet trillet gjennom ørkenen.»

(2015b, 18–19)

[while the gods one by one end up in the wrong circles, while the gods one by one are traded on the black market, while the gods one by one are blown up and robbed and taken hostage, the collection of gods is being wheeled across the desert]

 

This is cultural transmission gone wrong: The circulation of objects of cultural value (the “gods” conceived as totems or idols) meets obstacle after obstacle, and irreplaceable things are being lost. This could allude to the recent destruction of invaluable cultural material due to violent conflict and iconoclastic terrorism in the “cradle of civilization.” Yet, if we consider the history of the transmission of objects from the Near East to the rest of the world, isn’t the black market, seizure, or “kidnapping” also perhaps the norm? The vulnerable gods draw attention to the vulnerability of cultural objects, their implication in violent exchanges. By using the figure of “gods” to suggest physical objects, representations of culture, and individual bodies, Hansen suggests that to take care of physical bodies, to concern ourselves with the plight of vulnerable individuals, is also a way of preserving and keeping intact a shared sense of human culture. The disintegration and loss of gods “one by one” represents a loss of shared history, but also seems predicated upon the denial of the role of history in contemporary events. The gods in the poem seem to be completely forgotten. They are gods of the past. This reflects the sense in which a Eurocentric conception of history has lost its sense of relationality—the idea that its interconnection with the Near East is nothing new, but rather newly denied. Thus “slow violence” is carried out in two forms: the dried-up river alludes to the slow violence that results from climate change’s disproportionate impact on these regions, while the denial of the region as a source of culture enacts violence on history and memory.

Hansen more explicitly relates the “collection of gods” to the migrant’s plight in “Ditt personlige kart: GPS of the mind for travelers” [Your personal map: GPS of the mind for travellers] (2015b, 31–33). Immediately the title suggests how changing technology requires new conceptual categories, as “map” is transformed into the “GPS of the mind.” “Dette er ditt personlige kart” [This is your personal map], the poem begins, thereby introducing the map as a conceptual tool rather than as a neutral technology. Just as the end-user declaration can be the product of a reified longing for prosperity or security, the map becomes the result of choices regarding what to see: “Du kan velge om du vil plotte dem inn, du kan velge om du vil plotte dem ut, de illegale, de illegales marked, de illegale varene deres” [You can choose whether to plot them in, you can choose whether to plot them out, the illegals, the illegals’ market, their illegal wares]. As is frequently the case in Hansenʼs work, the repetition of phrases with slight differences each time expresses relationships and the impact of linguistic choices on thought; the relationship between so-called “illegals” and the economic demand for them and their labour is invoked through a kind of ritualized speech act. Just as the gods commanded “Let there be water,” the choices made by the mapmaker command: Become a person, or Become an object. The idea of “sacrifice zones” is concretized through the figure of the map, as the poem articulates the role of language in creating them.

However, the poem goes on to emphasize how the body of the migrant cannot be separated from the products s/he brings or the processes that bring them. The mapmaker only gains the illusion of control by plotting them in or plotting them out. The mapmaker’s ability to tinker with migrants—turning on the sounds or turning them off, introducing or disappearing people and their wares—calls to mind Judith Butler’s argument in Frames of War that representation fails to provide the groundwork for nonviolence. Hansen also suggests this through her depiction of mapmaking (a form of representation) as objective and distanced, but therefore also callous and even aggressive. This comes across in particular in the section where the mapmaker introduces a bang (as from a bomb) and watches the migrants run: “De kan løpe når det smeller, … du kan ta tiden på dem, du kan prøve ut verdensrekorden på ditt personlige kart, du kan løpe dem ut av kartet” [They can run when there is a bang, … you can tell time by them, you can try out the world’s record on your personal map, you can run them off the map].

The poem goes on to emphasize how the body of the migrant cannot be separated from the products s/he brings or the processes that bring them.

The administrative tool of the map, which has strong associations with colonialism, is perhaps not an unexpected trope to use to portray a callous attitude toward migrant bodies. The poem takes a more surprising turn when it also critiques nature as a conceptual category, one less messy and therefore more desirable than the realm of human culture. After the migrants have been driven from the map, the commanding voice of the poem suggests, “du kan erstatte dem med stær, med lovlig migrerende fugler” [you can replace them with starlings, with legally migrating birds]. The obvious contrast here is between the “illegal” migration of people and goods that is marked as undesirable and the “legal” migrations of nonhuman nature. Starlings are indeed native to Africa, Asia, and Europe and migrate between these regions. However, if their global distribution is taken into account, the allusion to starling migration does not serve well as an example of natural, and therefore desirable, migration. In fact, starling migration famously troubles the distinction between the categories “natural” and “cultural.”

As Dillard explains in her important contribution to American nature writing, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974):

Starlings came to this country on a passenger liner from Europe. One hundred of them were deliberately released in Central Park, and from those hundred descended all of our countless millions of starlings today. According to Edwin Way Teale, “Their coming was the result of one man’s fancy. That man was Eugene Schieffelin, a wealthy New York drug manufacturer. His curious hobby was the introduction into America of all the birds mentioned in William Shakespeare.” The birds adapted to their new country splendidly. (Dillard 37)

The starlings’ arrival dramatically transformed the environment of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Tinker Creek is located. Starling movements and roosting have become a prominent feature of the region. As Dillard points out, rather than “natural,” this transformation “was the result of one man’s fancy”: in particular, an enthusiasm for Shakespeare that did not limit itself to the transmission of texts but extended to the transmission of bird species from Europe to North America. A certain conception of stability in nature might support a belief that adaptation is a limited process; surely, birds would not be able to adapt so quickly but would die out, as nature “intended.” On the contrary, the birds still thrive, presenting new challenges to the region’s inhabitants. The reference to starlings in “Ditt personlige kart” [Your personal map], then, introduces the idea of nature as a stable and preferable category only to subvert this expectation by choosing as its example a bird that is a notorious “invasive species.” The example demonstrates that even migration in nature can result from a confluence of economic factors (the drug manufacturer’s wealth), cultural attitudes (Eurocentrism), and environmental conditions (starlings’ adaptive capabilities).

Dillard also points out that the human response to nonhuman migrants can be just as hostile as their response to human ones. One Virginia town in the 1970s attempted to rid itself of the “nuisance” of roosting starlings through a series of extreme measures. Although one would expect nature lovers to come to the birds’ defense, she points out, “the local bird societies screamed for blood—the starlings’ blood. Starlings, after all, compete with native birds for food and nesting sites” (Dillard 38–39). The idea that we can escape the gesture of self-preservation at the expense of others by reverting to the category of “nature” is also disproven by the example of the starling. At the same time, the unnaturalness of the town’s identification with native birds rather than starlings demonstrates the arbitrary nature of such identifications and with it the possibility to form other kinds of relationships. “Ditt personlige kart” [Your personal map] draws a parallel between “illegals” and “invasive species” that directs attention to the language we use, while also denying that the category “nature” is either culture- or problem-free. Thus, nature becomes unavailable as a category that can be appealed to in order to deny migrants’ existence or rights.

While “nature” as a category is denied in the poem, natural processes do provide inspiration for alternatives to such fixed conceptual categories. Hansen turns in the end of the poem to the movement of starlings:

 

«du kan sjokkere deg med stær, oppstandelsen når de stiger fjær mot fjær over Tiberen, skingeret når de kutter himmelen, snitter den med vingespissene, skjærer den i biter … kan du holde styr på dette, kan du holde styr på den kollektive oppstandelsen av stær, på gittercellen i himmelen, på det som farer gjennom flokken, manøvrerer den elektrisk, lukker den i kretsløpet i himmelskallen» (2015b, 41–42)

[you can shock yourself with starlings, the commotion when they rise feather against feather over the Tiber, the screech when they cut the sky, snip it with their wingtips, cut it to bits … can you keep track of this, can you keep track of the collective commotion of starlings, of the latticework in the sky, of that which travels through the flock, manoeuvres it electrically, shuts it into circulation in the skull of the sky

 

In contrast to the technology of the map, which facilitates control, the movement of starlings resists it. In resisting control, however, it also provides an awakening (“du kan sjokkere deg” [you can shock yourself]) of the mind and senses. The image of the flock of starlings, whose migration is neither “natural” nor “cultural,” brings into question the idea that any migration can be controlled. Instead of suggesting control as the ideal response—that which can eliminate the “problem” of migration—the poem suggests that migration offers an analogy for a different way of thinking. The astonishing ability of many individuals to move in a group that is both bounded and fluid has the potential to “cut the sky” but also fill it with “circulation.” This suggests the creative potential that migration provides, both in creating new contacts between individuals but also in providing alternative conceptual frameworks that liberate rather than oppress. This is expressed in the poem’s final line: “den knuste kuppelen åpner ikke, den knuste skallen åpner” [the broken cupola does not open, the broken skull opens]. The “skull” here is both the “skull of the sky,” which often in the collection refers to the divine (as in “Bruk og misbruk av klippeblåvingen” [Use and misuse of the chequered blue]), as well as the “skull” of the “mind” referred to in “GPS of the mind”—the mind which has, throughout the poem, been called on to make its own map. Yet now maps have been dispensed with, and the flock provides potential for different models, in particular, a focus on a relationality that allows things to move in concert (that which travels throughthe flock, manoeuvres it electrically), rather than forms of control that perform convenient erasures.

 

Conclusion

Climate change poses extreme conceptual challenges, and, though it has been less discussed, the mass migrations of our time also pose challenges to our ability to account for their scale, causes, and effects, as well as to keep sight of individual experiences in the midst of abstract processes. Moreover, climate change and migration are interlinked, but elucidating this link requires caution, lest we rely on it to absolve humans of perpetrating violence, either directly through acts of war or indirectly through the “slow violence” of pollution and/or climate change.

Hansen’s collection represents one attempt to grapple with some of these conceptual challenges. It demonstrates that seeing the relationship between increased displacement and migration and climate change allows us to see human precariousness as both a shared condition (due the global “background condition” that is climate change) and one that has human causes. That climate change is anthropogenic forces us to consider the greater responsibility that some people have in heating the planet, as well as the way in which some populations are more greatly impacted by this warming than others. Hansen’s interweaving of myth and the history of cultural and economic exchange with the language of its contemporary administration (end-user declarations, energy policy, food policy, maps, and markets) activates both shared and unequally distributed forms of precariousness. The relationship between migration and climate change also calls into question human conceptual frameworks and with them aesthetic traditions. Hansen’s collection uses the interface between environmental change and migration to call out the potentially exploitative gesture of projecting one’s longing for stability or transcendence onto the “natural” (nonhuman) migrant, such as the starling, as well as to demonstrate that the stable category of nature no longer provides a refuge from social problems. In a world increasingly dominated by human activity, even nonhuman migration is the product of cultural as well as natural conditions.

Just as the flock does in a sense have a border, albeit a shifting one, language can remain just sufficiently within the conventional to be understood, while also venturing out into new territory.

Hansen’s collection offers presents several aesthetic approaches that could be more in tune with these conceptual changes. One is a kind of ecopoetics—the potential to derive forms from nature. These are not forms that lend stability or security but those that reconfigure conceptual categories by drawing attention to relationality over boundaries or borders. This is the kind of form offered by the starling flock: it constantly shifts and changes before our eyes (or minds). Language has a similar capacity to shift and change as it is deployed differently and in different contexts, but within limits. Just as the flock does in a sense have a border, albeit a shifting one, language can remain just sufficiently within the conventional to be understood, while also venturing out into new territory.

The title Å resirkulere lengselen [To recirculate longing] then, reflects both the potential and the uneasiness of responding to climate change and human and nonhuman migration aesthetically. To recirculate or recycle longing can be a process by which the same material is renewed through presentation in new forms. Longing, however, can take destructive forms. Hansen’s work suggests how longing might be directed away from destruction of the other toward destruction of settled concepts (such as nature/culture, us/them) that no longer serve us well. This has the potential to open the mind to an aesthetics of relationality rather than representation. Yet, these are so far only suggestions. As the title concludes, “avrenning foregår” [run-off occurs]: recycling or recirculation are never perfect processes. Some elements are always lost in recirculation.

 

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REFERENCES

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//

Jenna Coughlin is a researcher, writer and educator in Scandinavian Studies and Environmental Humanities. She is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf college in Northfield, Minnesota.

This article is an excerpt made for NWCC´s webpage and can be read in its entirety at Scandinavian-Canadian studies/ Études Scandinaves au Canada.

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