Hurricane Harvey surfaced a welter of problems and questions that Houston has been avoiding for decades. A city built hydrologically on a swamp (but also, geologically, on aquifers and, geographically, on the Gulf), politically on inequality (but also, culturally, on a rich diversity of traditions), and industrially-economically on a hydrocarbon industry whose externalities are literally drowning us, we have the unsettling and exciting vantage of being and seeing where the coastal world is headed. With the generous support of the Andrhew W. Mellon Foundation, the Public Humanities/Post-Harvey Initiative will explore, through joint Rice and University of Houston faculty research projects and a graduate student think tank, creative answers to the difficult questions that Harvey foregrounded.
It is said that waste flows downhill; in Houston, the notion that we can pump our waste “away” is uncomfortably revealed to be a fiction, because Houston is downhill. It is hard, after Harvey, to read Timothy Morton’s ontology of toilets as analogy or metaphor: “For some time we may have thought that the U-bend in the toilet was a convenient curvature of ontological space that took whatever we flush down it into a totally different dimension called Away, leaving things clean over here. Now we know better…. There is no Away on this surface, no here and no there.” Of course, some places are more downhill than others, even at the bottom of the Colorado and Mississippi, even at this end of the earth; and the fiction of an elsewhere, like any story good enough to keep telling, has very real effects. When our response to catastrophic flooding in a drained, channelized, subsiding, and pump-filled swamp is to build bigger walls, bigger pumps, and bigger foundations for houses, this is most optimistically read as a cry for help, as a collective begging of the question, what on earth are we doing? What stories can the humanities help remember, learn, invent, and tell; what aesthetics of coexistence can they help articulate and elaborate; what forms of life can they philosophize as a means of helping to weather these storms, and in the longer term even of helping us to lessen?