Oecologies at ASLE 2019

Oecologies is pleased to launch its new Calls for Papers section on our Scholarly Resources page.  This section includes a focused list of calls for papers that may be of interest to our membership. If you have inquiries about the CFPs listed there or are interested in promoting an Oe-relevant conference session, please email Oecologies.

Annette Hulbert, Kirsten Schuhmacher, & Breanne Weber

The 2019 Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) conference was hosted last week (June 26-30) on one of the home campuses of Oecologies: the University of California, Davis. As #11 in the list of the Princeton Review’s “Top 50 Green Colleges,” UC Davis was the perfect location to host the over 1200 ecologically-minded conference attendees, who were able to enjoy the outdoors and experience the best that Davis has to offer, including mild sunny weather, a variety of food trucks, a bat walk, and two hikes in Stebbins Canyon. The campus—with its public commitment to sustainability—is a prime location to consider the epistemological and ontological implications of environmental relations and their representations in literature and media. As participants wandered through the arboretum, across the river, and among beds of jasmine to attend each panel, plenary, and field trip, we found ourselves noting how particularly situated within the environment we are, and considering the role that the academy can and should play in reckoning with that.

The three Oecologies-sponsored panels took place on the final day of ASLE, which gave us several days to attend a variety of panels and gain a sense of the scholarly atmosphere. Premodern narratives about the natural world were never far from our minds, however, in part because many panels explored the environmental and epistemological boundaries posed in (or by) the past. The CFP for the Oecologies panel on “Premodern Horizons” indicated an interest in “whether and how premodern pasts open new ecological horizons for the future,” a concern that surfaced, even if briefly, in the Q&A after a panel on “Nineteenth-Century Posthumanisms” as panelists discussed decentering the human in nineteenth-century poetry and whether the radical shift in subjectivity this entails can be traced back to a premodern moment. 

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Oecologies I: Premodern Horizons (L to R: Kirsten Schuhmacher, Chelsea S. Henson, Annette Hulbert, Allan Mitchell, Tiffany Jo Werth, John Slater. Photo Credit: Breanne Weber)

Over the next several days of the conference, this tension between premodern past and present often materialized when the conversation turned to rhetoric: the rhetoric we are currently using to discuss environmental issues, where it has been inherited from, and whether it is successful in allowing us to have cross-disciplinary interactions. Certainly, this was a topic central to “Premodern Horizons,” as panelists reflected on atmospheric phenomena and the new forms of perception that emerge when human vision encounters its limit. During the panel’s Q&A, an audience member notably asked the group to consider which particular genres and rhetorical modes are produced in response to climate crisis. A week after the conference has concluded, we are still thinking about how premodern concerns permeated many of the ASLE discussions, particularly those that grappled with how to navigate environmental and epistemological boundaries.

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Oecologies II: Terraqueous Transformations: Land, Water, and Power in Early/Modern Contexts (L to R: Liza McIntosh, Debapriya Sarkar, Tom White. Photo Credit: Tiffany Jo Werth)

So where does this leave us as premodern scholars working within the environmental humanities? Looking out at the attendees of the Oecologies panels, most, if not all, were scholars of premodern literature. Though unsurprising, it is disheartening to know that our panels were too “far afield” to pull in the post-industrial crowd. Simply put, how are we, as rule-breaking medievalists and early modernists, supposed to share pre-industrial environmental thought with scholars working in later historical periods?

The inception of ecocriticism, the very foundation of ASLE, was always meant to shine a light on the environment and harmful environmental thought. The founders of ASLE believed that the humanities were the key to making real environmental change because it could look back and find the stories that bind everything together. So, one of the obvious challenges of applying ecocritical thought to premodern literature is that the connections to the present environmental crisis are not always obvious. How can a medieval drawing of the world shape how we talk about and find solutions to the 21st century environmental crisis? What could Edmund Spenser possibly say about the environment that would have real and lasting effects on our present-day environmental catastrophe? We ask these questions of ourselves as well as others working in our field. It is not enough to simply point out premodern conceptions of the environment; the history is only part of the story.

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Oecologies III: Eco-Feminist Imaginaries in Premodern Worlds: Women Writing Science in the Seventeenth Century  (L to R: Vin Nardizzi, Breanne Weber, Courtney Pollard, Frances Dolan. Photo Credit: Tiffany Jo Werth)

As we walk, bike, and drive through the Davis campus, we are actively reminded that we live and study in an area of California that provides food as far north as Canada and as far east as China. The almond we eat while working in a library in Scotland was most likely grown ten miles from our campus. Working in this area of California can be illuminating to our work in the premodern. As we read agricultural manuals from the sixteenth century and puzzle over their pictures, we are reminded that industrialization began much earlier than the late nineteenth century. As we explain environmental catastrophe through the narratives of pre-industrial thinkers, we are further reminded that nothing really has changed, and it is foolish to believe that it has. Shakespeare lived in a time very much like our own where deforestation was widespread and pollution choked the Thames. When we look at the premodern narratives that continue to influence, although indirectly, people today, we are attempting to better understand how the past can give insight to our present. We are reminded as we read poems on atoms that premodern societies understood the organic nature of our bodies and that we will necessarily return to dust. Their anxieties are our anxieties, and when we work to understand their conceptions of the ecological world, we are working to better understand the foundation of environmental crisis. The saying still goes that there is no need to make every mistake ourselves—someone has probably already made them. We keep this in mind as we read, and we hopefully can use what we’ve read to better illuminate our own ecological reality.

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