Cute Modernity, or, Ecology Today
I’m embarrassed by the title of my talk. Perhaps some of you are too. “Cute” is not scholarly; it lacks dignity. The subtitle might help add some gravitas, but also a little mystery. What does ecology have in common with the cute? Well, today I’m trying to make sense of those two terms together. My thinking on both of those topics is quite new to me—it’s really only since I came to Macalester two years ago that I started thinking about them alongside one another.
What makes me think of “cute” and “ecology” together is that both of those notions require us to think about how we are related to objects in our environment. Some objects that we encounter are cute; other objects are “native prairie grasses,” for example, or “endangered.” Both the cute and the ecological—whatever else they may be—are ways of talking about the claims objects make, or ought to make, on us.
Both of these notions also seem to be modern inventions; by that I mean that they seem to originate during the historical period that many people call “the Enlightenment.” The editors of a recent volume explain the term simply: “Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation.” 1 The room is full of humanists, so I hardly need to point out that Enlightenment’s distinctive kinds of mediation have not been altogether successful in producing good relations between us and other objects. Some Enlightenment mediations, like those that subtend and support differential categories like “culture” and “nation” and “race” and “gender,” have been pretty disastrous indeed.
It seems to me that some people in the early eighteenth century were well aware of the problems inherent in Enlightenment mediations and the categories they brought into being. And I think some of those early-eighteenth century people tried to think of better ways for modern people to relate to the objects around them—less destructive forms of encounter. The cute and the ecological, I’m going to suggest, are two such forms of encounter—forms that originated to solve some deep eighteenth-century problems, and which remain to us in our much later modernity. In brief, I’ll suggest that the cute and the ecological name particular kinds of contact with objects.
1. Clifford Siskin and William Warner, “This Is Enlightenment: An Invitation in the Form of an Argument,” This Is Enlightenment, ed. Clifford Siskin and William Warner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 22.
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