Notes from “Ecologies and Economics: Premodern Extractions”

Chelsea Keane, University of California- Riverside

On Nov 5, 2021, the Oecologies Research Cluster hosted the Zoom webinar, “Ecologies and Economics: Premodern Extractions.” With opening and closing remarks by Oecologies co-directors Derrick Higginbotham (University of Hawai’i at Mānoa) and Kenna Olsen (Mount Royal University), and moderation by Kirsten Schuhmacher (UC Davis), the event featured work from Victorianist Elizabeth Carolyn Miller (UC Davis) and early modernists Debapriya Sarkar (UConn) and Phillip Usher (NYU).

Miller began the panel by discussing “Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion.” The discussion drew from frameworks from her recent book of the same name, in which she uses realist novels from the industrial era to argue that extractivism between roughly 1830 and 1930 shaped literary form and genre “just as literary form and genre contributed to new ways of imagining an extractable Earth.” Miller’s century of study is well-suited for a discussion of extraction ecologies. As she explained, the 1830s saw the decisive shift to steam power, while the 1930s saw the advent of nuclear power; in the period between, Britain depended on extraction, with no viable alternatives, for its economic and military power. In that century, Britain became an extraction-based society that understood its use of environmental materials was unsustainable. Miller pointed out the uncanny similarity to our modern society, where past centuries of resource exhaustion finally threaten environmental collapse altogether. She left listeners with a haunting, lingering question about how we engage in lifestyles that “proceed while depleting the future.”

Debapriya Sarkar added to Miller’s conceptualization of literature as a critical archive for extractionism. To this formulation, Sarkar provided valuable critical care for figures whose labor is exploited by large-scale capitalistic extraction, which “elide[s] embodied, localized, extractive behaviors driving racialized practices in activities like mining.” In “Extraction, Ecology, and Early Modern Poetics,” Sarkar turned to the Cave of Mammon episode in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. There, Guyon enters a room where “an hundred raunges weren pight, and hundred fournaces all burning bright,” where “deformed creatures” and enslaved “feendes” labor to melt extracted gold. Sarkar followed the work of Ruben Espinosa, Kim Hall, and Geraldine Heng to argue that these words racially code, essentialize, and dehumanize their referents; the racial violence of the romance’s allegory is a slow violence often not read as violence at all. Sarkar urged her listeners to confront these “alchem[ies] of slavery and geology,” and her presentation highlighted the inextricability of racial/social justice and environmental justice as we look back at the 16th century and move forward into the 21st.

Like Sarkar, Phillip Usher asked us to locate the crux of ecological thinking not in large-scale disasters, but in, as Sarkar put it, “myriad quotidian disasters.” In his talk, “Exterranean: Extraction in the Humanist Anthropocene,” from his 2019 book of the same name, Usher’s carefully chosen titular concept gestures to the land/planet from which humans extract, the act of moving matter from this land, and the materiality of extracted matter itself. His title thus encapsulates another of his key points, which is the need to think from multiple perspectives at once, especially from those we usually overlook. Emissions, for example, result from extraction itself, not only from end-use of extracted materials. And early moderns, whose geological thought was not yet influenced by more modern awareness of resource formation, were nevertheless aware of resource exhaustion. If we begin to think ‘exterraneanly,’ Usher argues, we begin to connect extracted materials to the land they came from, and the planet of which this land is part. If we do this, we might more capaciously account for all human and non-human materials participating in the extractive cycle.

Moderator Kirsten Schuhmacher began the Q&A by picking up on the presenters’ attention toward multi-temporality, asking them to speak further on the relationship between temporality and extraction. Miller highlighted her useful framework of “heterotemporal historicism” as a way to unsettle restrictive theoretical fields and engage planetary, historical, and human time scales. Sarkar noted how early modern romance’s legacy of manipulating temporality might ask its audience to overlook certain ideologies and formations of the text. Usher invoked the Norman city of Caen to demonstrate the messy entanglements of geologic and human timelines. Tiffany Jo Werth asked presenters to speak to the orientation of humans to the geological underground, while Derrick Higginbotham inquired into the ways their studies intersect with Disability Studies and Queer Studies.

All the speakers highlighted the slow violence of extraction ecologies, both on the planet itself and on the humans most harmed by global capital and resulting ecological disasters. These slow violences require not only new temporal and methodological frameworks, but new practical methods as we move ethically and equitably through the 21st century. Kenna Olsen closed the event with the announcement of an upcoming Oecologies event in early February 2022 which, like this one, promises to lead us in just these directions.

Video Recording of Ecologies and Economics: Premodern Extractions

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