Seminar: Clashing Temporalities

August 21st, 2019

This seminar brings concepts of time, layers, and sediment into close contact with the human sciences, the arts, and Pierre Part, a community who live according to the movements of the River.

Among the myriad temporalities that weave in and out of each other along the Mississippi River, how can we understand time and register it? In attending to time, layers, and sediment, this seminar brings geology and conceptualizations of different timescales into close contact with the human sciences, the arts, and Pierre Part, a community who live according to the movements of the River.

This seminar focuses on the concepts of layers and time. Sedimentary layers, layers of human experience, and the layers of industrialization in Louisiana’s Mississippi “chemical corridor.” It will also explore many timescales at play in the river’s sphere, from the long and astronomic to those of the river’s evolution, to human history, and the lifespans of organisms. Cycles of human cultural or industrial processes often fail to synchronize with the layers and rhythmic cycles of many other biological, geological, and ecological processes, including the temporality of the flow of the river itself. Mis-matching rhythms of human practices also cause political tension and conflict over ways of life. The concept of the Anthropocene provides a space to think about these clashes of temporalities more explicitly. Through these tensions, we can begin to unpack how human and nonhuman temporalities affect each other and disentangle the cascading effects of unsynchronized cycles or accelerating processes. It will also investigate the different sedimentary layers along the river’s path. Rachel Carson described the sediment record as “a sort of epic poem of the Earth”—in arguably the first century of the Anthropocene, this layered waterborne matter also offers direct evidence of human impacts. Thus, the core objective of this seminar is to understand the Mississippi as a central actor in this anthro-geoscientific saga. The post-war period has been marked by “novel sediments,” one of the most pervasive of which is plastic, the distribution and layering of which provides a potential marker of anthropogenic influence. Along the Mississippi plenty of plastic is produced by the region’s petrochemical giants. But sediment is not just degraded and lost; the Wax Lake Outlet to the south of Pierre Part is growing as sediment accumulates and forms a new delta. Better understood, the management of sediment can provide a means to work against land loss and sea level rise along the Gulf coast.

Multiple sensory pathways—visual, auditory, tactile—will navigate these different timescales and layers. The seminar will begin with a journey to the township of Pierre Part in Assumption Parish. Pierre Part residents live near the path of one of the river’s main release valves, the Morganza Spillway. When opened, it threatens the town with waterborne sediment. Guided by local experts Bruce Barnes and Amy Lesen, the seminar will meet citizens from Pierre Part and discuss the effects of River Basin movements on people’s lives in the area. We will weave music and song into our experience throughout the day. Returning to NOLA along Highway 18 (the Old River Road) at the end of Day 1 will entail dialogue on concepts of time and recognize the visual evidence of industrial layers and human history, such as plantations and chemical plants. Amy and Bruce will narrate a history of environmental and cultural change as we re-approach the city. Traveling on Day 2 to Baton Rouge, participants will visit the Louisiana State University’s Lower Mississippi River model, which will demonstrate the dynamic river system and sedimentation processes there. Participants will also have the opportunity to engage with a core sample taken from the False River Point bar, a bow shaped water body formed by upriver deposition, and to visit the False River site.