Notes from “Common Environments: Public-Facing Research and Premodern Cultures”

Sharon O’Dair, University of Alabama

On April 9, 2021, the Oecologies Research Cluster hosted a Zoom webinar on the topic of Common Environments:  Public-Facing Research and Premodern Cultures.  Moderating the event was Courtney Barajas (Whitworth) and presenters were Brenna Duperron (Dalhousie), Ruben Espinosa (Texas, El Paso), Sarah-Nelle Jackson (UBC), and Jeffrey Wilson (Harvard).  Approximately twenty-five colleagues from around the country joined the discussion.  

In a time of ecological, institutional, and professional precarities, the webinar asked how public scholarship—in theory and praxis—fits into these contexts. Panelists discussed their own public-facing research and theorized what such research is, and what it might be. Recognizing that public scholarship especially affects graduate students and early-career PhDs, the organizers solicited panelists at these stages of their careers.  Three of the four panelists are not on a tenure ladder.

Brenna Duperron proposed to counter the imperialist and colonialist leanings of medieval studies by reshaping methodology, how scholars learn to know and how they teach. In “Unsettling Classrooms: Shifting the Landscape of Analysis,” she asks us to slow down and to learn from the Mi’kmaq theory of etuaptmumk or Two-Eyed Seeing. Coined by Mi’kmaw Elder Dr. Albert Marshall, etuaptmumk integrates Western academic norms with Indigenous ways of knowing. Two-Eyed Seeing is about life: what you do, what responsibilities you have to live on Earth. It allows practitioners to look for another perspective, different perspectives, and better ways of doing. Duperron offers a reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that invokes not just a tale of an “Indigenous” Green Knight fighting an “English” Sir Gawain but a proto-colonialist fantasy of a “supremacist” civilizations right to conquer. Her method highlights, too, the potential for the Green Knight to reverse the colonization onto Camelot.

Ruben Espinosa shifted the discussion from literary works to the profession itself, the common environment we all share. In “Race, Racism, and our Common Environments,” Espinosa complained about the ways white Shakespeareans continue to dismiss the work of Shakespeareans engaging in critical race theory.  These white Shakespeareans suggest that such work is faddish, undisciplined.  Even, perhaps, uneducated. It is not real research, say these racist white gatekeepers in Shakespeare Studies; it’s politics and activism, aimed not just at the profession but the larger society as well.  The implication is that diversity and serious intellectual work are not compatible.  Such a judgment, always implicit, never spoken to the faces of scholars of color, constitutes a visceral attack, leading these scholars, usually young, and often part of the academic precariat, to wonder whether the academy really is a common environment, one in which they are welcome. Espinosa concluded by reminding his white colleagues that “inaction is complicity,” that each time they address a Shakespeare play, they must think about racism, about the ways the play does or has supported white supremacy. 

Sarah-Nelle Jackson represents the young, precarious would-be academic whose scholarship threatens to undermine her field’s norms, or her job prospects in academia. Jackson’s research goes beyond literary texts to explore video games as a medium for defamiliarizing the Western-colonial relationship to landscape and environment. Her talk, “Accidents of Accuracy: Neomedieval (O)ecologies of and against Empire,” analyses the medievalism in game design, arguing that “to play in neomedievalism is to engage in inaccuracies.”  Such popular neomedievalisms constitute a cultural stronghold, supported by capitalism and reinforcing a logic of colonialism, a logic of linear progress.  Jackson imagines video games—and a dissertation that will include one—that subvert neocolonial, conquest-as-progress narrative design by foregrounding environmental accuracy in games’ medievalisms, such as devastating earthquakes, crop failures, or disease.  In short, failure, not success: imperial failure, colonial failure, ecological failure. Jackson imagines games that embrace and refashion medieval Romances, such as Morte d’Arthur, with an aim to undermine the juggernaut of conquest. Such revisioning will, she thinks, make the games more interesting and just as challenging. More broadly, Jackson asks us to think about the ways interactive media can provoke disorienting, challenging, and entertaining environmental encounters.

In “Toward a Center for Public Shakespeare,” Jeffrey Wilson goes beyond Espinosa’s plea for a more open and welcoming profession of Shakespeareans to advocate for a Public Shakespeare that is “of, by, and for all people.  Its program is radically inclusive and fundamentally democratic early-modern scholarship engaged with the most important ideas and social issues of our time.” Wilson’s efforts to achieve this program range from a first-year course at Harvard University—Why Shakespeare?—to an oral history of Shakespeareans engaged in various forms of Public Shakespeare to an argument for Shakespeareans to learn about public engagement from theater professionals.  But his principal aim is the “emergence of a Public Shakespeare Network, a decentralized, grassroots movement supporting communities and scholars looking to think about, with, through, and against Shakespeare and other early-modern literature beyond the confines of academia.”  This is the goal, and the exigencies of the pandemic year have made clear that a required turn to all-digital production and exchange in academia heralds a new turn for such a network, even perhaps, the establishment of a digital Center for Public Shakespeare, one with “no budget, no by-laws, no board of directors”—only a vision and a passion for a Shakespeare that belongs to all. 

After Wilson’s jaunty talk, moderator Barajas opened the floor to the audience, who, like this writer, were energized by the proposals just delivered to enlarge scholars’ presence in the real and virtual worlds but also skeptical of its realization.  One questioner addressed Jackson to ask what it would take for her to realize the dissertation she had just proposed.  Her answer: “to change the meaning of the dissertation.”  Another questioner asked the panelists if their proposals would fundamentally alter or dismantle the status hierarchy of institutions in premodern studies.  As Jackson said of her dissertation, “I’ll report back when I finish.”  So must we all.

There’s nothing new about the end of the world: Dread and decolonization

Jastej Luddu and Fenn Stewart1

For the past year and a half, and all the way through the pandemic, the two of us have been talking (and writing emails) about dread. Were mostly interested in the usefulness, and uselessness, of different kinds of dread in response to the interconnected (and ongoing) catastrophes of colonialism and climate change. This piece reflects some of our ongoing conversation.

FS: In a discussion of Indigenous women’s love and rage, Rachel Flowers says that “for Indigenous peoples, unbearable suffering is often the motive for revolutionary action”; for settlers, the “anguish of facing the truth […] compels them into action [but], as Sartre (1965) reminds us, “most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith.””2 

Though Flowers doesn’t refer to “dread” here, her words remind me of a question that Jastej and I keep coming back to: how do we know which dread is useful, and which isn’t? For settlers, how do we know when we’re “flee[ing] […] in bad faith”? How do we know when our anguish is a sign that we’re “facing the truth” in a useful way? 

Jastej and I have a recurring argument (it dates back pre-COVID) about the dread-full movie First Reformed (2017). Jastej keeps trying to get me to watch it, and I keep refusing. I’m repelled by this film. As far as I can tell without actually watching it (ill-informed-spoiler warning), it’s about a reverend played by Ethan Hawke, who spectacularly self-implodes (with grim consequences for those around him) due to his overwhelming dread about climate change. 

JS: Fenn thinks I’m giving the film too much credit, but I was floored by First Reformed. The film offers a crushing depiction of dread: the sense that something has gone deeply wrong and will only get worse. Dread implies a future-oriented affective mode of living and being in the world. But what if what you dread is an ongoing set of circumstances, something that is already happening and is unlikely to stop anytime soon? David Theo Goldberg calls dread “a driver of our time,” arguing that a number of social and political issues, like climate change, racist and sexist violence, economic inequality, white supremacy – and, one might add, settler-colonialism – have contributed to a profound and prevailing sense of anguished paranoia.3 For Goldberg, “Dread is depthless, bottomless, lacking insight.”4

In First Reformed, Michael, a disillusioned young environmentalist, describes the devastation wrought by climate change to Reverend Toller, and asks, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” The coming years offer so little to look forward to that Michael has asked his pregnant wife to have an abortion. She has asked Toller to speak to Michael, who doesn’t attend church. In his conversation with Michael, Toller calls for hope: “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously. Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” But Toller’s face is tired and his voice weary. He is ill, and his 250-year-old church is nothing more than a tourist trap, kept afloat thanks to the support of Abundant Life Ministries, a wealthy megachurch. His conversation with Michael is a tipping point. The young man’s despair gnaws at Toller, driving him towards drastic, self-destructive action. It’s this “gnawing” that I find so compelling.

FS: In the year and a half in which I’ve been refusing to watch this movie, I’ve found myself recoiling from many similar expressions of dread.5 It seems contagious. I tell Jastej that I think First Reformed is just a vehicle for “settler apocalypticism” — this term, as used by Kyle Powys Whyte (and others), points to how popular forms of climate pessimism ignore Indigenous understandings of, and organizing against, climate change. When I first heard the term “settler apocalypticism” – in an interview Kyle Powys Whyte gave on the Cultures of Energy podcast – I felt an immense sense of relief. The nameless dread had a name! It was a specific, historical, contingent formation (not Truth). My relief wasn’t relief in the sense of things are not so bad or in the sense of everythings going to be fine. It was relief in the sense of people(s) are thinking and working through these times in different ways. I will attend to these realities

Apparently “apocalypse” originally meant “the unveiling of things as they are” and not (just) “the end of the world.” When the settler apocalypticist sees the end of the world, he thinks he’s seeing things as they are. But he’s not. He’s wrapped up in himself, wrapped up in what April Anson (also a theorist of setter apocalypticism) calls the “solitary and asphyxiating atmospherics of settler time-space.”6 

Another way of saying this is that settler apocalypticism “speciously universalizes a set of environmental anxieties that is in fact particular to white settler society.”7 It turns out there’s nothing new about the end of the world. Many Black and Indigenous theorists have used the concepts of disaster and apocalypse (and dread) to analyze colonialism.8 As Heather Davis and Zoe Todd say, to “expand and pluralize collective understandings of the disasters of the Anthropocene” means attending to Indigenous peoples’ understanding of ongoing “practices of dispossession and genocide,” and it means learning from work, like Christina Sharpe’s, that “tend[s] to the ongoing disaster of the Middle Passage.”9  

JS: You’re right, there’s something problematic about centering white, masculine dread about the end of the world. I find this critique particularly relevant for groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR), who conjure up images of an uninhabitable Earth in their attempts to move governments to action. As Athian Akec writes in The Guardian, XR, a largely white, middle-class movement that has been roundly critiqued for its problems with race and diversity, employs apocalyptic language that “fails to cut through for those of us already faced with a nightmarish present, surrounded by poverty and austerity.”10

FS: Yes. Mainstream environmentalism — the non-apocalyptic kind — is often no better. 

See Whyte: “it’s been alienating for me and a lot of other people that in […] environmental movements there’s such an obsession with protecting today’s world […] if today’s world is actually a dystopia for [Indigenous peoples] and our ancestors, why are we trying to protect this particular world?”11 Warren Cariou has made a related point about how the cultural norms of settler colonialism are “fundamentally linked” to the current politics of “energy transition,” as in the “green power” megaprojects that are “violently imposed” on Indigenous peoples and lands.12 

JS: Yes, I don’t deny that Western culture privileges the concerns – and the dread – of white people. And it is certainly true that a violent white paranoia has accelerated systemic inequality. Achille Mbembe, and Frantz Fanon before him, acknowledged dread in their analysis of racism, genocide, and colonialism. Mbembe writes that many in the West live “afraid of having been invaded and on the verge of disappearing.”13 Colonizers are beset with “annihilation anxiety.”14 Frantz Fanon describes the “state of anxiety” that grips colonialism, transforming the environment itself into an enemy that needs to be conquered and controlled.15

These feelings – fear, anxiety, dread – are often rightly characterized as unproductive, negative, or reactionary. But what if are our bad feelings are alerting us to something important? Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard defends resentment, challenging the reconciliatory stance and arguing for a more nuanced and critical reappraisal of feelings of political anger that stem from living in a settler-colonial state.16 Audra Simpson articulates a “politics of refusal”; grounded in Mohawk nationhood and governance, this refusal reflects, and contributes to, a rejection of liberal recognition politics.17 Without appropriating Indigenous political and affectual responses to settler-colonialism, perhaps settlers can learn to use their own bad feelings to enable insight, action, and solidarity. I do not believe all dread “lack[s] insight” or affirms the kind of uncritical whiteness Fenn is so worried about reproducing. Perhaps it is precisely by cultivating a more critical relationship with this network of uncomfortable emotions that we can begin to imagine a different way of living in the world. 

FS: This reminds me of Erica Violet Lee’s “Reconciling in the Apocalypse,” in which she envisions a decolonizing form of dread — maybe, she says, imagining “the end of your world” might bring home to settlers the importance of making “reparations to Indigenous people”: if “duty or kindness” won’t do the trick, she says, “consider at the very least that you will need a friend who knows how to skin a porcupine, build a house, and navigate by the stars when the end of your world comes.”18 Maybe a dread that leads to reparations could get us somewhere?

JS: Yes, I think there’s something to the idea of a dread that points to where, or how, we need to be. My own dread moment came just a few months before I saw First Reformed. As part of a course on Indigenous North Americans’ experiences in the United Kingdom, I visited London for two weeks. Being somewhat educated on the blood-soaked history of the British Empire, I traversed the museums, monuments, and public spaces with a heaviness that I sometimes found difficult to bear. There was something dread-inducing about the British Museum, machine-gun wielding guards at Whitehall, and the statue of the last viceroy of India. The carving of coloniality into the streets, the buildings, the institutions, makes Empire appear everlasting; it’s been here, it continues to be here, and it will keep being here, violently enduring into the future. I sensed something ongoing that was unlikely to stop, something that had touched my parents and grandparents and was now making contact with me. 

FS: This is very different from the kind of dread I think of as First Reformed-type dread. That kind of dread seems to stop thought (and work): it seems to find suicide, the end of the world, the extinction of humanity, more plausible (more compelling?) than the uncertain, unending (and, for white settlers, non-self-focused) thought/work of anti-colonialism. The kind of dread youre talking about here seems inextricable from thought, and work. I think your conviction that dread can be useful shares something with Flowers’ point about the very fine line (sometimes indistinguishable?) between facing the truth and fleeing from it. Maybe I shouldn’t be so confident that I can tell the difference.

JS: I don’t expect us to ever agree on this film! I won’t stop talking about it and you will likely never watch it. But in reflecting on feelings of dread in our conversations, I have been able to think and work with what it means to harbor a painful desire for transformative social and political change. I have come to a better understanding of a world that seems dedicated to violent inequality through interrogating my hopelessness and keeping faith in my dread about the future. This is not an argument for self-destructive pessimism, or the violent fantasies of martyrdom depicted in First Reformed. But the film’s desperate call for something to be done resonates with what I think is a real feeling of dread – of anxiousness and unease – experienced by people the world over. 

Not everyone needs dread to be moved to understanding or action. But dread, like the apocalypse, can reveal something.  Feelings of doom can produce genuine, creative responses to a hellish world. They do not have to foreclose the opportunity to learn from and build solidarity with others. And they have the potential to engender critical engagements with the material and affective conditions that structure our lives – even if these engagements are, for the moment, only communicable over email and on a blog. 


Notes:

[1] Fenn reads and writes on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ lands; she’s from a settler family (most recently, from England and Ireland). Jastej is presently living on sq̓əc̓iy̓aɁɬ təməxʷ, sc̓əwaθenaɁɬ təməxʷ, S’ólh Téméxw, Á,LEṈENEȻ ȽTE, Kwantlen, Stz’uminus, and Semiahmoo lands; his family immigrated from India. We’d like to thank Warren Cariou for generously sharing text from his 2019 UBC ILSA talk; thanks also to Afuwa, Evan Mauro, and Haeden Stewart for guidance on drafts.

[2] Rachel Flowers, “Refusal to Forgive: Indigenous Women’s Love and Rage,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 4.2 (2015), p. 38.

[3] David Theo Goldberg, “In the Grip of Dread,” Los Angeles Review of Books. September 2018, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/in-the-grip-of-dread/ 

[4] Ibid.

[5] A year ago, Mo Pareles wrote a very helpful post (on the Oecologies blog) on a similar subject: Mo Pareles, “Learning to Die Read More in the Anthropocene the Time We Have,” Oecologies, 2020, https://oecologies.com/2020/02/19/learning-to-sdie-s-read-more-in-the-santhropocene-s-the-time-we-have/.

[6] April Anson, “Apocalypse and settler/colonial climate change,” 2020, https://april-anson.com/2020/01/18/apocalypse-settler-colonial-climate-change/.

[7] Bruno Seraphin, ““Rewilding,” “the Hoop,” and Settler Apocalypse,” The Trumpeter 32.3 (2016), 144. (Seraphin credits Zoe Todd and Whyte with this point.) 

[8] For instance, work by Cutcha Risling Baldy, Lawrence Gross, Frantz Fanon, Gerald Horne, Erica Violet Lee, Achille Mbembe, Christina Sharpe, and Whyte.

[9] Heather Davis and Zoe Todd, “On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16.4 (2017): 772, 761, 772. 

[10] Athian Akec, “When I look at Extinction Rebellion, all I see is white faces. That has to change,” The Guardian, October, 19th 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/19/extinction-rebellion-white-faces-diversity 

[11] Whyte, “Cultures of Energy,” http://culturesofenergy.com/166-kyle-powys-whyte/ podcast, at 1:02:38.

[12] Warren Cariou, “Breaking Colonial Circuits: Hydroelectricity in Indigenous Literature,” Presentation at ILSA, UBC (Vancouver, June 5, 2019). 

[13] Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 2.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 83.

[16] Glen Coulthard, “Seeing Red: Reconciliation and Resentment,” in Red Skin, White Masks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 105-131.

[17] Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[18] Erica Violet Lee, “Reconciling in the Apocalypse,” The Monitor, 2016, https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/reconciling-apocalypse.

Reading Notes from the Arctic: an Oecologies Reading Group

Laura Hutchingame, University of California, Los Angeles
Zachary Korol-Gold, University of California, Irvine

On 16 March 2021, scholars involved with the UCHRI Oecologies research group gathered to discuss two texts: “Arctic Ink” by Christopher Heuer (2019) and “Going Glacial” by Lowell Duckert (2017).

Following introductions in breakout rooms, the group began by comparing the two readings. Each reading takes a strikingly different approach to overlapping materials. Both Heuer and Duckert grapple with the difficulty of writing about representations of the Arctic, a space that defied the vision of early modern Western explorers. The group discussed the differences between the authors’ writerly modes, and how these modes related to both the physical conditions of the Arctic, and their objects of study. Duckert writes that “this chapter will be slow, but I hope it slowly, like a glacier, does some work” (107). One reading group member observed that Duckert’s own writing reads like an “accretion of ideas,” mimicking the very materiality of ice. Duckert’s text slowly complexifies, its long strings of sentences adjoining a variety of concepts and theories. We discussed how, in contrast, rather than attempt to look through the icy materiality of the Arctic, Heuer reflects upon it. The logical clarity of Heuer’s sustained reflection foils the impenetrable density of the object that anchors his chapter, a mass of Netherlandish engravings fused into a single block from centuries of freezing and thawing. Both texts, then, take divergent paths to write about that which defies description. In light of this, one participant provocatively asked, in relation to Heuer’s chapter, “what makes this art history?” Professors Massey and Wilson, who were leading this week of the reading group, noted that early modern desires to portray Arctic space force scholars to contend with the very limits of representation. And further, the freezing of the polar ice which brought disaster to many voyages and at once preserved and ruined artifacts, complicates traditional art historical periodicity.

Discussion of Heuer’s text thereby prompted fundamental questions for early modern art history, such as: Why and how is an environmental approach useful? What are we, as art historians, doing when we direct our inquiries in this way? A theme of the discussion pertained to early modern perspective and conventions of looking. Heuer shows a context in which the early modern tools associated with vision and orientation–such as horizon lines, compasses, and the viewer’s sense of a clear position in relation to the landscape–were denied and destabilized in the Arctic. Despite this instability, over time, this “ice desert” becomes a type of landscape which accommodates the crew in their ship house, and is altered by human actions such as shoveling (illustrated by Gerrit de Veer’s engravings). Heuer’s chapter offers an instance of interruption, stasis, and confusion–an important counterpoint to typical narratives of early modern seafaring which emphasize exploration, movement, and the visual construction of space through mapping. Finally, through an icy protagonist, Heuer thematizes the instability of the printed image as well as the lack of art historical vocabulary to describe such representational disjunctures.

Inventing the Past at the Virginia Dare Winery

Frances E. Dolan, University of California, Davis

Back when I was freer to explore California, I was driving with my partner through Sonoma County, heading south on US 101, when I spotted a sign for the Virginia Dare winery in Geyserville. Recognizing the name, I urged him to pull over so we could check it out. What we quickly discovered was a rebranding of one of Francis Ford Coppola’s wineries.

Why did I want to investigate and why am I sharing this with you now? As many will recall, Virginia Dare was the first child born to English Colonists in America (in 1587). But what I did not know at first, and what might be less familiar to other pre-modernists, is that Virginia Dare was also the name of a popular brand of wine, indeed the most popular wine made in the United States between 1835 (when the company was founded) and prohibition. Coppola bought the brand name in 2013 and began releasing Virginia Dare wines in 2014. The billboard that caught my eye repurposes the image and font of old Virginia Dare wine labels and advertising, and boasts of “American Wines since 1835.” But the winery’s website evokes stories about the sixteenth-century Virginia in ways I’d like to discuss. In mobilizing stories about the premodern past, while also reanimating the wine’s earlier branding, the winery’s website conjures a fantasy of Virginia as an icon for American identity conjured up in a period it never acknowledges: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when anti-immigrant and anti-black movements latched onto the birth and christening of a white baby girl as an origin story that served white supremacy.1

Coppola’s comments on why he wanted to call his winery Virginia Dare focus on the sixteenth century and his own memories from the twentieth century, rather than the period that connects the two. “The myth of Virginia Dare always intrigued me,” he confided to an interviewer, “and as a child I remember the wine because of the pretty blond girl on the label and the ‘Say it again, Virginia Dare’ jingle they used to advertise on the radio. . . . My goal is to revive the brand so that it isn’t lost to future generations.”2

But Virginia Dare is always, inevitably, lost. She was born on Roanoke Island in 1587. So, like everyone else in what was first christened the “Lost Colony” in the 1830s, Virginia disappeared from the historical record.3 She stands as a first, an origin. And not. We don’t know what happened to her. But we can know the history that linked Virginia Dare to wine. This is a history that the winery both depends on and suppresses.

The Paul Garrett wine company started producing Virginia Dare wine in the early twentieth century. At first the company relied on the scuppernong grape native to North Carolina and named the wine Virginia Dare, since she was born on the island where Scuppernong was supposed to have originated, Roanoke. But soon the demand exceeded the supply and the Garrett company began to rely on grapes imported from California, despite its emphasis on the local nature of its wine and the tie between Virginia Dare and the scuppernong.4 The Virginia Dare winery today engages in a similar slight of hand, pointing to a vine it has planted from a clipping of the “mother vine,” a supposedly 400-year-old scuppernong vine in Manteo, North Carolina that was most likely planted in the nineteenth century. This enables the winery to insert itself intowhat it calls “the rich heritage of American wine making”—despite the fact that it does not grow or use scuppernongs. Asserting that “this vine was cultivated in pre-colonial times by Native Americans, and by English colonists after them,” the winery’s website invents and appropriates aNative American winemaking tradition.5

The slight of hand goes farther than this. Known as “the big white” grape, the scuppernong was often praised in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in racialized terms, as historian Erika Hannickel shows. Writing in 1884, winemaker Warton J. Green, in a promotional brochure for his vineyard, claimed that the scuppernong was an especially valuable native grape, a “grape prodigy,” because its discovery was “coeval with Caucasian rule on the continent” and that scuppernong wines were more healthful because “pure’ and “without adulteration or artificial flavoring,” in contrast to foreign wines that were “impure and sophisticated abominations.”6 Whether he knows it or not, Green resurrects language used by Englishmen in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to justify growing grapes and making wine in England, rather than importing wine, which was often spoiled by the time it reached England and adulterated by various efforts to improve its taste . The earliest pitches for English winemaking were always about the close connections between wine and blood, the risks of imbibing foreign and contaminated drinks, as well as the costs of relying on imports. Wine has never been separable from race; indeed, it is part of the etymology of that term in English.7 The meaning of race specific to wine is an early word for “terroir,” what distinguishes one wine from others, and what binds soil, climate, plant, and human consumer. When Garrett branded his wine as local in its relation to North Carolina and Virginia Dare, he added a post-reconstruction layer to this association of wine, purity, and race. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that his early glass bottles were embossed with the confederate flag.8

Some of those bottles had the labels “Pocahontas” and “Minnehaha” as well as “Virginia Dare.”Here too, the new Virginia Dare winery follows the lead of its predecessor. It is currently closed because of the pandemic, but it sold Navajo jewelry in its store and its restaurant, Wero, served what it called Native American fare. The winery’s website, under the label “History and Mystery,” presents at some length a story it calls “a Native American myth” but that depends on one text it does not name, Sallie Southall Cotten’s lengthy poem, The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare: An Indian Legend, printed for the author in 1901, under the auspices of the Colonial Dames of America. Cotten wrote at a time when interest in Virginia Dare revived, leading to countless poems, novels, and pageants about her as well as a monument dedicated to her in 1923. Cotten, a white woman from the South, describes Roanoke Island as home to “a wealth of climbing vines and clustering grapes which point instinctively to grape culture” and also as “the first home of the English race in America,” tying those two together.9

Cotten’s poem is the source of the name for one of the Virginia Dare wines, “Two Arrowheads,” and of the “Legend of the White Doe,” presented on the winery’s website. The website’s legend, like Cotten’s text and many of the fantasies about Virginia Dare, imagine that she survived and grew to adulthood, living with Indians yet always remaining both apart from and above them. As the winery presents it, Virginia, transformed into a white doe by a jealous sorcerer, is simultaneously struck by a charmed arrowhead––which transforms her back into a woman––and by a silver arrowhead (which Cotten specifies was a gift from Queen Elizabeth I). As the winery’s version puts it:

As the two arrowheads pierced her heart, the white doe changed back into a fair maid, but it was too late. As she fell dying, she whispered her true name. Then she was gone.

And where she fell, the stories tell us, her blood soaked the soil. Lush grapes grew there, the white scuppernong variety cultivated by the locals. The fruit on the vines was forever stained with her blood. And that, the legend says, was how wine in the Americas became red.

Virginia Dare was her name. The White Doe. The first born of English descent in the new world. The woman whose myth became the legend of American wine. And so to this day, when we savor American wines, we toast her: Virginia Dare, an American original.10

Cotten’s subtitle is “an Indian legend” and her preface insists that “The legend of the White Doe is probably the oldest and possibly the least known of all the legends which relate to the history of the United States. It is a genuine American legend” (Cotten p. 6). She does not, however, explain her source. She then stands invisibly behind this website’s reference to “stories,” which turn out to be one story of very particular provenance. Her legend sutures together associations around whiteness, scuppernongs, indigenous people, and wine.

For me, this winery and its promotional materials are a perfect example of a purported interest in the past that depends on and propagates misinformation and uses one past to erase another. In the case of the Virginia Dare winery, a fiction about the past works to enshrine a smiling blond girl as the American original. The branding for the winery announces an interest in the past; it insists the late sixteenth century is connected to their current enterprise and necessary to understanding and valuing it. They dig the past, but they also bury it. The winery defines its brand through a sense of another place, roots in a fabricated history, and memorializing a vine whose grapes it does not use in its winemaking. It relies on history as a cover up. It also relies on literature as license. If you call something a story, tale, or legend, then you can say anything with impunity. “The Legend of the White Doe” as presented on the winery’s website, manages to rely on, repurpose, and erase: the history of wine in America; the long history of linking blood and wine and its complicity in racism; and the abbreviated history of Virginia Dare. Perhaps its worst erasure is of the story of Manteo, who gives his name to one of the wines. Called on the winery’sfact sheet “a legendary Indian,” Manteo was a Croatan chief who had been brought to England to meet Queen Elizabeth and was on his return baptized on Roanaoke, about a week before the infant Virginia Dare was.11 The bottle label depicts Manteo as both the background to and a kind of Virgin Mother to tiny Virginia;12 like her, he disappears from the historical record with the lost colony, only to be reanimated as part of these “legends.” The wine label thus misrecognizes and appropriates indigenous people’s history, and perpetuates a fantasy that white English colonists were the first, the true, the only real Americans.


Notes

[1] Robert D. Arner, “The Romance of Roanoke: Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony in American Literature,” Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 5-45; Andrew Lawler,
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/05/24/how-a-child-born-more-than-400-years-ago-became-a-symbol-of-white-nationalism/.

[2] Linda Murphy, “Francis Ford Coppola Reinvents Virginia Dare Wines,” Sonoma Magazine, July 2016, https://www.sonomamag.com/francis-ford-coppola-virginia-dare-wines/.

[3] Eliza Lansford Cushing coined the term in an 1837 article in The Ladies Companion entitled “Virginia Dare; or, The Lost Colony.” Her account seems to have inspired the fuller fictional elaborations of writers such as Cotten. See Andrew Lawler, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke (New York: Anchor, 2018), pp. 276- 77.

[4] Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 415-419; Alexia Jones Helsley, A History of North Carolina Wine From Scuppernong to Syrah (Charleston: History Press, 2010).

[5] https://www.ffcwtoo.com/en/history-and-mystery/scuppernong, accessed January 10, 2021. In recent months, the winery has changed its web address from Virginia Dare Winery to Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Too, but the content of the History & Mystery part of the website remains the same.

[6] Erica Hannickel, Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 143-44; Wharton J. Green, Tokay Vineyard (Boston, 1884), 24.

[7] Frances E. Dolan, Digging the Past: How and Why to Imagine Seventeenth-Century Agriculture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), p. 95.

[8] https://baybottles.com/2016/11/06/garret-co-inc-virginia-dare-new-york/, accessed January 10, 2021.

[9] Sallie Southall Cotten, “Forgotten Facts and Fancies of American History,” The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare: An Indian Legend (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1909), p. x.

[10] https://www.ffcwtoo.com/en/history-and-mystery/the-legend-of-the-white-doe, accessed January 10, 2021

[11] On Manteo, see Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (Yale University Press, 2016), esp. pp. 35-36, 58-59.

[12] You can see this wine label at https://www.thefamilycoppola.com/en/store/wine/manteo/WCDC15, accessed January 10, 2021.

Notes from “Earth, Sea, Sky: An Environmental Humanities Research Network Exchange”

Laura Hutchingame, University of California Los Angeles

On 12 December 2020, an international group of scholars shared their research over Zoom, as part of the Earth, Sea, SkyOecologies working group. The scholars were Todd Borlik (University of Huddersfield); Debapriya Sarkar (University of Connecticut); Liam Lewis (University of Liverpool); and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA).

Todd Borlik discussed Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, a map printed in Venice in 1539,and proposed an ecocritical argument that  reads the Carta Marina as a vision of human monstrosity and insatiable hunger, which is ecologically self-destructive. Borlik pointed out that the commensurate size of ships and sea-beasts gives the impression of a reciprocal monstrosity; from the marine creatures’ point of view, the human ships would appear monstrous invaders. Borlik compared the Carta Marina to a map by Hendrick Hondius from 1636 in which bunches of fish hang from the cartouche, indicating that the oceans have been emptied, and that humans are the most significant predator on the seas.

Borlik showed, too, that the Carta Marina was part of a conflict about fishing rights in Scandinavia and that the monstrous elements in the map served to deter unauthorized fishing in Scandinavian waters. Further, Scotland is obscured on the map, despite the fact that Scotland enjoyed a claim to Scandinavian fisheries since the fifteenth century. Denmark had refused to acknowledge the treaty with Scotland, and Borlik suggested that the marriage of King James VI and I to Anne of Denmark might have been connected in part to politics surrounding Scandinavian fishing.

Debapriya Sarkar examined Lady Mary Wroth’s prose romance novel, Urania, published in 1621, to investigate how islands and shores function as a threshold, a liminal space, in the early modern imaginary. Islands and shores are prominent in early modern English literature and their presence in literature reflects the imperial ambitions of England. But the island is also the site of important oppositional forces. Sarkar focused on a particular moment that reveals a notable transfer of power.  In Wroth’s romance, the protagonist is an aristocratic woman who finds herself on an island, accompanied by her brother, Amphilanthus, who must throw her in the ocean in order to save her. Sarkar noted that as Urania enters the water, her emotional turmoil becomes transferred to the ocean. This, Sarkar argued, embodies  a maritime ecology connected to female subjectivity, which represents the dynamism of human emotion. 

Liam Lewis argued that representations of noise and sound are culturally managed, and that if we can become aware of how we manage these sounds, we can have positive effects on the wildlife in the ocean. Describing the history of the hydrophone in the twentieth century, which allowed underwater recording or listening, Lewis asked: how can we conceptualize sound before and after the hydrophone? In answer, Lewis focused on an illustration from the Irish Voyage of Saint Brendan, a manuscript produced in 1047-1048, and Jacques Cousteau’s 1956 film Le Monde du Silence, as representative cases. In the Voyage of Saint Brendan, Brendan and his brothers sail in search of paradise, and at a crucial point in the journey, Brendan sings loudly to the point of waking the ocean creatures, who join him in singing. Le Monde du Silence, one of the first films to use ocean cinematography to depict the ocean as an underwater paradise, is not silent at all. But most of the sounds that accompany the cinematography are not produced from the hydrophone, but rather overlaid sound effects to mimic the sound of sunken ships, scuba tank bubbles, minor keys for eerie moments, or trumpets for triumphant moments of exploration. In other words,  the techniques used to depict underwater life actually obscure the real sounds of that life.

The last speaker, Bronwen Wilson, considered the compass, or wind rose, to introduce the spaces of elemental forces in between the abstract cartographic grid and the embodied viewer of Willem Jansz. Blaeu’s Nova Totius Americae. She discussed how compasses operated visually. For instance, users become repositioned in relation to depicted terrains.  Compasses can also be pictorial signs, such as in maps made after Piri Reis’s Book of Navigation. Wilson focused on two prospects, by Guillaume-Joseph Grelot and by Melchior Lorck, both with the artists seen at work. She showed how the abstract line associated with the compass can be multivalent. Grelot’s drawing reveals an artist imagining himself as a human compass—the artist’s quill is similar to the compass needle. Similarly, Lorck’s Prospect of Constantinople emphasizes horizontal movement, and while the flatness of the compass rose typically suggests views seen from above, Lorck prompts the viewer to lay the paper flat and to think about the vertical axis in order to reconcile these two poles of the image. 

This research share was generative for those who were able to attend and we hope to see you again for an upcoming research share on 19 January 2021 by faculty members involved with the UCHRI working group: “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures.”

Reading Notes from the Sea: an Oecologies Reading Group

Tiffany Jo Werth, University of California Davis, English

On October 2, 2020, the Oecologies Reading Group gathered virtually via Zoom to discuss readings related to this year’s theme of “On the Sea and Coastal Ecologies.” It was also the inaugural “Sea” event for the Oe-adjacent Earth, Sea, Sky network, who are joined this year by faculty from a University of California Humanities Research Institute multicampus faculty working group. We’re thrilled to welcome these scholars and look forward to a series of virtual conversations across the year. 

Over twenty-five Oe scholars and affiliates from around the globe engaged with readings selected by the reading group facilitators, Vin Nardizzi (UBC, English), Debapriya Sarkar (University of Connecticut, Maritime Studies), and Tom White (Oxford, English). The readings were 1) Helen M. Rozwadowski, “A Long Sea Story” from her Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (2018), and 2)  Renisa Mawani, “The Free Sea” from her Across Oceans of Law (2018), and, as an optional third selection, 3) Surabhi Ranganathan’s ArcGIS collection of mini-essays, “The Law of the Sea” (2020). Joining us was one of the authors, historian of science Helen Rozwadowski, who engaged us productively in questions about her research on the sea.

Following brief introductions to the three essays, we divided into three breakout rooms to facilitate small group conversation. Each room developed its own oceanic ecological thread but with notable cross-currents. Vin’s group generated a set of words—cephalopod, flood, foam, plankton, fog, technology, bottom—that opened up conversations about relationships between depth and surface and the jurisdictional lines that delimit them. The etymology of “fathom-line” and its utility led to discussion of what it might mean to think about “ocean as method.” Similarly, in Debapriya’s breakout room, participants explored how we might define and know the sea. Questions of scale, especially as pertaining to a vertical or horizontal axis, prompted thinking about the relationship of limits to a “free,” “incomprehensible,” and “timeless” history of the ocean sea. The fluidity and mutability of the ocean also emerged as a theme in Tom’s group, where members drew on Rozwadowski’s long pre-human history of the ocean to frame changing and comparatively recent political fortunes and overlapping sovereignties in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Technologies developed for containing, mapping, and navigating the ocean, including the crucial chronometer, amplified our understanding of the relationship of colonial centers to the peripheries and margins, even on the “vast” and “free” sea.  This relationship was revealed, too, in the long legal influence of Grotius, and related Dutch and other colonial land reclamation schemes, an influence on infrastructure and oceanic shipping routes that in the early twentieth-century resulted in a spectacular challenge to Canada’s practice of excluding immigrants from India. When the Japanese vessel Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, Canada carrying several hundred Indians, most of the migrants were denied entry into the country and repatriated to Kolkata.

The reading group also began to compile a working bibliography of scholarship that came up in conversation. If you have thoughts or suggestions, I welcome you to send them to Laura Hutchingame (lhutchingame@g.ucla.edu ), one of our wonderful graduate research assistants, who is creating an Endnote database for the working group this year. 

Our next reading group will convene in February 2021 and will shift our disciplinary focus to art history. It will be led by Lyle Massey (UC Irvine, Art History) and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA, Art History).  If you’re interested to join us, please keep an eye out for further details on the Oecologies Facebook and Twitter feeds. 

Why Is It so Hard to Write When the World Is Ending? (A Blog Post about Paralysis)

David K. Coley, Simon Fraser University

Back in early March, while the world was watching a “regional viral threat” grow into a global pandemic, a few people started nudging me to “write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague.” These nudges made some sense. My book Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England had been out for about a year, journal reviews had started cropping up, and suddenly the past I’d researched and theorized seemed a little less distant. It was also fast becoming clear that other medievalists were already writing various quick somethings about COVID-19 and the plague, rolling out think pieces and blog posts and Tweet-threads at an intimidating pace. Friends and colleagues who had been listening to me hold forth about the “Black Death” (a problematic moniker to be certain) for the better part of a decade reasoned that I, too, might have something to contribute. My Associate Dean encouraged me to pitch a piece to The Conversation (which promises “academic rigour” to go with its “journalistic flair”); my department’s communications guru asked me to make a video from quarantine discussing my book (I obliged on that one, albeit awkwardly); even my parents weighed in, hoping perhaps that their medievalist son might finally write something they’d want to read.

In general, I think I am a good colleague and son, and I am responsive to suggestions. I’m also not stupid. I know that you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot; I know that you should sell when you can, for you are not for all markets; and I know that when your chances fall in your lap like that, you’ve got to recognize them for what they really are. So I sat down and tried to write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague.

I won’t say I’ve gotten nowhere, but I’ve not gotten very far. Here, in chronological order, are some opening sentences that I have produced since March:

It is a strange sensation, as someone who studies and writes about the distant past, to find my work suddenly regarded as relevant.

Let’s start with this simple fact: COVID-19 is not the Black Death.

What comes after a global pandemic? What does the future look like when the present seems so bleak? Looking to the medieval past might be one way to consider such pressing questions. (NB: I’m so ashamed of these three sentences. Please let them never see the light of day.)

We are now three months into a global pandemic.

All of a sudden, everyone’s an expert. (NB: This one still has potential.)

None of these is “Call me Ishmael,” but that’s hardly a searing indictment. “Call me Ishmael” is already taken, and besides, with the exception of that garbage about looking to the medieval past they all seem like reasonable beginnings to a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, something my parents might want to read, something that might even engender a surprisingly hostile response or two from a fellow academic. But nothing has come of these somethings.

I have some thoughts about why.

To begin, I have increasingly come to recognize that despite its title, its pestilential subject matter, and the rat on its cover, my book about the plague really isn’t about the plague. There has, as it happens, been an exciting new wave of scholarship on the plague in recent years, the most important of which (in case anyone’s asking my opinion) is the work of Monica Green, which enriches our understanding of pandemic in profound ways. Death and the Pearl Maiden is actually less interested in the plague than in responses to the plague, in the question of how literature might speak a traumatic event that was simultaneously too terrible to invoke and too all-encompassing to ignore. 

The puzzle that scholars like Monica Green—let’s call them real plague scholars—are piecing together has to do with the lingering mysteries of the pandemic itself, the specific phylogenetic tree from which it emerged, the relationships among the medieval wave and other outbreaks, the precise circumstances that rendered it so virulent. The problem that Death and the Pearl Maiden seeks to address is instead the problem of silence. The book implicitly wonders about all those medieval chronicles that insert a casual note about the death of half of Europe between a lengthy account of the election of a new abbot and some extended whinging about the ornaments that have gone missing from the monastic chapel (I’m looking at you, Meaux Abbey Chronicle). It more explicitly wonders about a brilliant and socially engaged corpus of literature that relegates the signal cultural trauma of its age to a short parable about three drunks searching for death and some one liners in a story about horny chickens (I’m looking at you, Geoffrey Chaucer). The book also addresses our own contemporary expectations about what responses to a plague should look like. To that last point, we seem, especially following the blistering introduction to Boccaccio’s Decameron, to expect a medieval literary response that matched, in both tone and gravity, the grim event itself. Surely we would exhibit such dignity, such narrative grace, when confronted with our own pandemic. Wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we? Of course we would.

Second (and here I suspect I speak for others who are strapped into the roller coaster of this awful year), the parameters of this thing keep hurtling outwards at a ferocious clip. One of the lessons of the Black Death, of course, is that the changes it engendered shuddered across almost all of the social, economic, religious, and cultural systems of the medieval world, that the impact of the disease didn’t stop with its obscene body count. But to witness similar causal impacts develop in the terrifying time lapse of the present, to live and participate in an ongoing pandemic reality, is very different from studying it. In just the past few months, we have plunged from the terror of a new disease and a wild frenzy of hand washing into a series of worldwide protests against racialized violence and police brutality, into a reckoning with how systemic racism and structural inequalities drive the spread of the virus, into an unflinching recognition of how a pernicious economic system will sacrifice its own adherents on the impossible altar of continuous growth. Remember how we all scrambled to get a few disposable masks back in March? By May, those same masks had already become a shibboleth in the most ludicrous debate over personal freedom since the invention of the seat-belt. And over all of it, at least in North America, we have watched as a callow and narcissistic American president whipsawed the United States government from ignorance to xenophobia to paralysis to fear-mongering to magical thinking to chest-thumping ignorance; watched as that government encouraged our colleagues and students back into universities equipped with little more than branded face masks and hand sanitizer; watched as they sent our children into packed school hallways and punished them for speaking out about it; watched as they reminded us again and again just how expendable we all are, how expendable we have always been; watched as they leveraged the greatest public health crisis in a century into a voter suppression scheme that mimicked, in both scope and brazenness, similar strategies from the Jim Crow era. It has been a lot to take in.

It’s clear that the strike-slips at all these social and cultural fault lines—urgent and long building as they may be—are a logical result of the pressures of this pandemic. That, too, is a lesson that those of us who study the medieval plague ought to have learned. Despite what you might have read, the Black Death did not singlehandedly allow entree to “the fresh air of common sense” or lead survivors toward the “intellectual overthrow of the scholastic-medicine establishment in the Middle Ages.” (Seriously? You’re better than that, New Yorker.) It did, however, catalyze significant social changes in the medieval and early modern world, both for good and for ill. In some respects, then, we might recognize the rapid post-pandemic ascendency of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had already been building steadily for several years before the murders George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as a contemporary analogue to such catalytic shifts. More loosely (and this is, I know, a deeply flawed parallel), we might also see the ongoing protests in cities like Portland and Seattle—movements marked by righteous and justified anger and tinged with both productive and repressive violence—as latter-day avatars of the Rising of 1381, an explosive expression of long-standing social grievances sparked by one ill-conceived poll tax too many in an unsettled post-plague environment. (Does this make the reactionary responses of our capitalist ruling classes analogues of the 1351 Statute of Labourers? Way to be on the wrong side of history, guys!) 

In our hyperlinked, TL/DR, speed-of-thought world, such shocks come quickly, and their aftershocks follow fast behind. And—speaking for myself now—I am a slow writer. Sometimes I’m barely a writer at all. I pick through evidence and let it sit around in unruly piles, let it hang out with some primary texts, let it chat with a few draft paragraphs and some illegible notes. Every time I think I’m closing in on my quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, that something turns out to be already gone, rattled by the next earthquake, swallowed by the next conflagration, drowned in the next flood. In my not infrequent moments of self doubt, I fear that this pace makes me something of a brachiosaur. Some day I will be crushed under layers of sediment, my bones squeezed into oil and burned for a few seconds of heat. I am no blogger.

Brachiosaur or not, I am finding that the biggest impediment to writing during a pandemic is, at the end of the day, the pandemic itself, its smothering presence, its terrible threat to family and friends and self, the anxious sense of contingency that marches before it, the reality of the thing, the possibility of illness, of death. My older daughter is leaving for her first year at University (which will be offering a safe-ish mixture of online and in-person classes), and I am alternately thrilled and terrified for her. My father and my mother are old, and my stepparents are older. My closest friends have a medically fragile child and live in a highly affected area. The border between my new country and my old country—between my family and my family—has been closed for months, and it shows no immediate sign of re-opening. A quick something about COVID-19 and the plague? A blog post? Strike while the iron is hot? Seriously?

Why strike while the iron is hot? Why strike at all when this is what’s heating the iron? What kind of vulture are you to strike at this hot iron? What kind of monster are you to pick up your hammer and tongs? When your friends are suffering? When your colleagues are dying? How dare you step to the forge at a time like this? You’re better than that, David.

One of the central points around which I organized Death and the Pearl Maiden was the recognition, developed in contemporary trauma theory, that severe trauma “exceeds the resources of representational practice—and the ability of the memory to make sense of it.”1 In the case of the literature I looked at in my book, I considered the plague through precisely that challenge to representation, which is to say through its necessary absence. The plague emerged in the poems of the Pearl Manuscript, I speculated, not directly but rather where it appeared to be suppressed, in those places where it was conspicuously elided: in Pearl’s evasive punning and wordplay; in Cleanness’s displacement of violence onto biblical allusion; in Patience’s pregnant narrative embellishments; in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s subversion of Romance clichés. Such narrative gestures might not directly invoke the plague itself, I argued, but they could nonetheless reveal the pressure that it exerted on writers working in its shadow. Taken together, they allow us to glimpse the Black Death within the negative literary space that trauma creates, to see, for a moment, the outline of the plague in the quiet eddy of its slipstream.

In the hands of a writer like the nameless maker of Pearl, such pressure on representational praxis crystallized a series of compelling, harrowing, beautiful, and (in at least two cases) transcendent works, each sengeley in synglure within English literature. In the hands of an academic urged by friends and colleagues to write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, such pressure has altogether less impressive results. Even in this blog post (which I fully intend to finish, Derrick and Vin; look, I’m almost there) I recognize in diminished form the jittery hallmarks of plague writing that I identified in the work of the Pearl poet: the recourse to narrative cliché and stock allusion; the sublimation of the terrible realities of pandemic disease into a narrative of personal anxiety and frustration; the pathological avoidance of writing itself; the embarrassment of admitting to struggling when the struggles of others are so much greater, so much more important, so much more painful. Such writerly paralyses are not, I think, just signs of mental exhaustion or fatigue. They are, rather, responses to the pandemic, indicia of this new horror that seems now to close in on us from all sides.

One more narrative cliché to dull the edge; one more stuttering matryoshka-doll allusion to prop up the effort; apologies to one or two more poets who wrote in the shadow of terrible events. I thought I was fatigued, but I was not fatigued. In short, I was—I am—afraid.

___________________________________________

Notes

[1] D. Vance Smith, “Plague, Panic Space, and the Tragic Medieval Household,” South Atlantic Quarterly 98 (1999): 367-414, at 383-84. This idea precedes Smith’s work of course, but I love the way he encapsulates it in this phrase.

David Coley Wins 2020 Labarge Prize

We at Oe are thrilled to announce that our very own David Coley has won the 2020 Labarge Prize for his (very timely) book, Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England!

David’s book explores the understated but decisive influence of the Black Death on fourteenth-century literature, and especially the works of the Pearl Poet.

Awarded by the Canadian Society of Medievalists, the Labarge Prize recognizes the best book of the previous year by a Canadian medievalist.

You can read the announcement by CSM here. Congratulations, David! 

On the Sea: Reading Notes

Vin Nardizzi, University of British Columbia

On 8 May 2020, Oecologies kicked off its year-long programming on “Sea.” Selected by Mo Pareles (UBC, English), our shared reading was Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s article “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” which appeared in GLQ in 2008. Over 20 international Oe scholars and affiliates from across the Humanities disciplines gathered virtually. We discussed how Tinsley’s article turns an absence in the archives – records of queer experience among enslaved persons – into an opportunity to query what an archive is and, in the process, to reimagine the form of the scholarly article. Our Zoom chat ranged from topics as diverse as queer philology (a central methodological component of Tinsley’s analysis), speculation as critical method, scholarly genealogies (for instance, the implicit whiteness of some foundational queer theory), and the practicalities of pedagogy, including syllabus writing. 

The reading group will reconvene in October 2020 to discuss texts in the blue humanities by Helen M. Rozwadowski, Renisa Mawani, and Surabhi Ranganathan. These readings promise to shift our focus from the Atlantic waters to those of the Indian and Pacific Oceans by spotlighting legal disputes during the early modern period about the “free sea.” If you’re interested to chat about these exciting texts with us, then keep an eye out for further details on Oecologies’s social media feeds.

Mourning Becomes California, or New Reflections on Slow Shakespeare

Sharon O’Dair, University of Alabama

Some years ago, I published an essay in a forum on Shakespeare and Ecology, arguing that historical work in the early modern period could assist the science of ecology, a science that studies populations of organisms.1  The reason our historical work might assist the ecologists is that one significant problem for them is “the shifting baseline syndrome,” a problem that was forcefully noted in a 1996 academic journal by the prominent fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, Daniel Pauly, and subsequently by him in fora aimed at laypeople (e.g., a 2012 Ted Talk and a 2010 talk to the Slyvia Earle Alliance).  In 1996, Pauly wrote that

each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.2

(We have our own problem with a shifting baseline, the weirdly a-historical nature of our historicist criticism, for example.  About fifteen years ago, an ambitious graduate student at a prominent university explained to me—I’m paraphrasing—“we were told not to bother reading criticism published before 1980.”3  When I was a new assistant professor, a senior colleague told me that if my work wasn’t cited within five years, it never would be. That, thankfully, turned out to be incorrect.)

For a number of reasons easily hypothesized by all, few commentators, whether scholars or journalists, address the scientific question of populations, specifically human populations, another shifting baseline we perhaps ought to heed.  It’s refreshing, therefore, to read, as I did recently in Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “What Were Dinosaurs For?,” that “[w]e’re now in the midst of another mass extinction, driven by the global proliferation of humans (7.7 billion and counting) and our frenzied economic activity.”4 An asteroid killed off the dinosaurs and the vibrant ecosystems in which they lived.  We are doing it to ourselves and the vibrant ecosystems that have sustained us. It my desire in this post to flesh out Klinkenborg’s sentence by reflecting on my return to the state of my birth, California, after living elsewhere for almost three decades.  Mourning becomes California: I first wrote the following in the fall of 2019, as fires raged in northern California. Today, COVID-19 rages across my state and the world, another ecological disaster, the result of (too many) people exploiting animals through habitat removal and urbanization, as well as through the hunting and consumption of exotic animals.  

In the autumn of 1987, when the population of California was about 28 million, I left Berkeley, CA for the deep south of the United States, for Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I took up an assistant professorship in the Department of English at the university there.  Born and bred in California, loving my state, the air, the light, oceans, mountains, really the breath and breadth of the place—all made leaving difficult.  But I wanted the job, a research job, even if I had to move 2000 miles to a part of the country that humanist academics disdained and still do, though with somewhat less vehemence.  Even if I had to move to the hot, humid sub-tropics, whose fecundity shocked.  Whose trees strangled. Whose topography lulled.  Whose tornadoes and hurricanes killed.  Whose mosquitoes might, carrying viruses in their bites, moving northward—West Nile, Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya.

Leaving was difficult, and I was certain I would never return to live in the beautiful, alluring state of my birth, childhood, and young adulthood.  The cost-of-living would always be out of reach, I thought, the houses in beckoning metro areas too, too expensive for a humanist to keep up, working as I was in a poor state’s flagship institution.

Twenty-nine years later, in late summer 2016, when the population of the state was 39 million, I returned to Berkeley, looking for a home to buy. I’d run the numbers over and over; I’d consulted with the wealth managers; I could do it!  And you know what they say about returning to one’s roots, to home, to the embrace of place, so familiar and kind, known. The sun emerging from the coastal fog, energizing my body as it did long ago. The water, the bridges, Mount Tamalpais in the distance. This time, with money to spend on dinners in the new gleaming restaurants of San Francisco or in the foodie temple in Berkeley, Chez Panisse.

But the air, the light, the breath of the place wasn’t quite the same.  Berkeley was dry to the eye and the touch: lawns brown; trees gasping, dull, dying. Dirt and trash lined the streets, urine and feces sometimes, too. Unhoused people staggered about, pushing grocery carts or baby strollers (without babies). Or they hunched on their haunches at intersections, begging, dying.  RVs lined streets; tents formed little cities; fires broke out and fights, too. The income inequality (worse than Alabama’s); the failing public schools (when I was a child, among the best in the country, but now not much better than Alabama’s); and the decaying infrastructure (Alabama’s might be better; Berkeley’s streets remind me of New Orleans’s). The light can’t redeem these sights. 

In late autumn 2019, with the population up another million, a fire burned uncontrollably 80 miles north of my home, smoke seeping visibly toward Mount Tamalpais and the Golden Gate, obscuring, gasping.  Last year a fire engulfed a small mountain town called Paradise; the year before that, an entire neighborhood or two in the city of Santa Rosa. And before that…others. This time, upwards of two million people lost electricity, hundreds of thousands for the second time in a month, as the electric utility pursued what it calls a Public Safety Power Shutoff.  And the utility informs us that this will be the norm for at least a decade to come.

It’s silly to think a particular year can be a turning point, but I am not the only one to arrive in the East Bay in 2016, shocked at what the place has become. In the December 2019 issue of Harper’s, Wes Enzinna describes his return to Oakland in 2016 after an absence of eight years, not quite as long as my absence but long enough.  “Gimme Shelter: The cost of living in the Bay Area” describes his struggle to find housing with a disposable income of about $1500 per month: 

After nearly a month of looking for a place to live, I got a text from [my friend] Jenny: “Would you consider a shack?”. . . . It was smaller than a closet . . . and illegal to inhabit, but if I was willing to seal it against the elements and finish construction, I could rent it for $240 per month. I said yes without visiting.5

Enzinna’s shack and the homeless camps around it are about 3 miles from my condo in Berkeley.  The cover of that issue of Harper’s features “illuminated tents erected by artist-activist Suzi Garner and members of the #WhereDoWeGoBerk movement at a homeless encampment alongside Interstate 80 near Berkeley, California.”6 “Where Do We Go?” the tents ask as you exit the interstate to go up the hill to the University of California, three miles away.  And as you exit to go to my residence, less than one mile away.  My wife and I ask the same question, “Where Do We Go?”  

In nine years, the population of California is expected to nudge 44 million.  That’s one year before 2030, the year of the climate’s point of no return according to some.  In 2050, the population is expected to be 60 million.  And all this after the population of California almost tripled in the latter half of the twentieth century. When I was born, in 1955, the state’s population was around 10 million.

What happened?  One may point fingers at Republicans or Democrats or capitalists or migrant workers or Proposition 13, but the numbers, the numbers of people tell the story.  (And if you don’t believe me, ask Donna Haraway.7) Servicing the needs and desires of Californians and Americans are three of the busiest container ship ports in the country, in Los Angeles, in Long Beach, and in Oakland.  In southern California, the two ports spew huge amounts of nitrous oxide into the region and efforts at control struggle to keep up, because, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “At stake . . . are billions of dollars in potential costs at the nation’s busiest seaport, which handles roughly 40% of U.S. imports and remains overwhelmingly powered by diesel-spewing trucks, ships, locomotives and cargo-handling equipment. The volume of shipments moving through the two ports has more than tripled since the mid-1990s, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.”8 

Cars, computers, phones, diapers, rubber ducks, plastic straws, yurts for glamping, umbrellas for pina coladas, vinyl for trendy albums, the cast-off task chairs the homeless gobble from the streets. Everything, almost. But those needs and desires aren’t just ours; we consume so that perhaps hundreds of millions of Chinese may do so, too, may desire and need and spend just as we do.  Or desire and need and spend somewhat differently, for rhino horn, civet cat, or bats, because, as Chinese food researcher Zhenzhong Si observed in an interview on National Public Radio in late January:

Eating wild animal is considered a symbol of wealth because they are more rare and expensive. And wild animals is also considered more natural and, thus, nutritious, compared to farmed meat. It’s a belief in traditional Chinese medicine that it can boost the immune system, you know?  

Si acknowledges that in China, “It’s really difficult to change the mindset of, you know, eating wild animals is better than eating farmed animals,”9 but changing mindsets about wet markets may be less of a challenge than changing ecocritics’ mindsets about the elephant in the room, the human population, the third rail of environmental action, which ecology as a science demands to be studied, its costs and benefits. Instead the city of Berkeley bans plastic straws and Alice Waters takes meat off the prix fixe menu at Chez Panisse one day a week.  Baby steps, one might say, they are so important!  But 250 actual babies are born every minute of every day.  And they will grow up to consume and consume and consume some more. Many of us dream that populations can continue to grow without economic growth driven by fossil fuels.  The first few months of 2020 should cast doubt on that proposition: air pollution and carbon emissions are dropping precipitously world-wide—in China, in India, in Europe, in the United States, as numerous news sites report. The skies around Berkeley are beautiful, clearer than in decades, perhaps.  But in Berkeley, as around the world, few people are working: unemployment is rising as precipitously as pollution and emissions are dropping.  As the shutdown continues more and more small businesses—restaurants, bars, small retail shops—will fail; more and people will become homeless, more and more children will fall behind in their studies; more and more people will die from ancillary medical causes, the heart valve or brain tumor that isn’t fixed.  My point is not that the shutdown is unnecessary; it is.  My point is that the COVID-19 shows that the sorts of economic change a lot of us wish for—degrowth or no growth—comes with a price.  And as the Gilets Jaunes demonstrated last year in France, the mass of people struggle to pay it. 

We know that our highly mobile and globalized economic system will produce more pandemics;  there’s “a huge reservoir of virus strains in other mammals (1,200 bat species alone, one of which may have given us SARS-CoV-2).”10 Si observes that changing the mindsets of his fellow citizens is difficult.  But we do have opportunity now to change the ways we live. In fact, we (dare I call us the winners in our globalized world?) can lead. The global economy has come to a screeching halt; travel has, too. It is difficult for most of my readers to imagine what material life was like in the early 1970s—my baseline, shall we say, even more than the 1980s.  Life without plastic—cf. The Graduate—or consumer credit or interstates (to speak of) or the Shakespeare Association of America or neoliberal capitalism or MDs who bartered, sometimes, with craftspeople so that they could pay their bills.  Difficult to imagine, in California today, what life was like with half the population, a time when Population Connection (what does that mean?) was Zero Population Growth (we know what that means).  But my baseline, that of 40 or 50 years ago, may have new relevance: life was slower, more local, and education was too.  Higher education was regional, barely national, and certainly not international.  Professors weren’t professionalized, making professional salaries; “publish or perish” wasn’t a phrase; and CVs weren’t twenty pages long.  Two campuses of the University of California—Irvine, and Santa Cruz—opened only in 1965. After the pandemic, it is already clear, globalization will loosen, though not break.  Will performing arts or sport return in their current globalized forms?  Will businesses, including universities, return to long-distance travel for meetings or for research? Will ecologically-minded people question travel in any form? Think how quiet the world is now, and how much time we have for reflection. With reflection and changes in our lifestyles, perhaps a new baseline will emerge for the young some years down the road, one very much different from the one they inhabited just a few months ago. Perhaps a new baseline will emerge, in which people, including scholars, are rooted in the local and engage more slowly and cautiously and generously—less competitively, consuming less—with their environment, including animals and their fellow humans.  The new baseline won’t be a significantly lower global population, but it might include an understanding that nature has given us yet another warning to slow down, before a worse, more deadly virus emerges, or the icecaps melt. Slow Shakespeare.11


Notes

[1] O’Dair, Sharon. “‘To fright the animals and to kill them up’: Shakespeare and Ecology.” Forum: Shakespeare and Ecology.  Shakespeare Studies 39.  Ed. Susan Zimmerman and Garrett Sullivan. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011, 74-83.  

[2] Pauley, Daniel. “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 10 (1995): 430. 

[3] For a call for to historicize post-1980s criticism, see Albanese, Denise. “Identification, Alienation and ‘Hating the Renaissance’.”  Ed. Sharon O’Dair and Timothy Francisco.  Shakespeare and the 99% Literary Studies, the Profession, and the Production of Inequity.  New York: Palgrave, 2019, 19-36.

[4] Klinkenborg, Verlyn.  What Were Dinosaurs For?” The New York Review of Books (December 19, 2019): https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/12/19/what-were-dinosaurs-for/

[5] Enzinna, Wes. “Gimme Shelter: The cost of living in the Bay Area.” Harper’s Magazine (December 2019): 27.

[6] Harper’s Magazine (December 2019): 1.

[7] See Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, 99-103.  See, too, her follow-up, “Making Kin in the Chthulucene: Reproducing Multispecies Justice.” Making Kin Not Population. Ed. Adele E. Clarke and Donna Haraway.  Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2018, 67-99.

[8] Barboza, Tony.  “Port ships are becoming L.A.’s biggest polluters. Will California force a cleanup?” Los Angeles Times (January 3, 2020): https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-01-03/port-ships-are-becoming-la-worst-polluters-regulators-plug-in

[9] “Why ‘Wet Markets’ Persisted In China Despite Disease And Hygiene Concerns.” National Public Radio (January 22, 2020): https://www.npr.org/2020/01/22/798644707/why-wet-markets-persisted-in-china-despite-disease-and-hygiene-concerns

[10] Boudry, Maarten.  “A strange paradox: the better we manage to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the less we will learn from it.” The Conversation (April 2, 2020): https://theconversation.com/a-strange-paradox-the-better-we-manage-to-contain-the-coronavirus-pandemic-the-less-we-will-learn-from-it-135268

See also the just-released study by UC Davis’ One Health Institute.  Johnson, Christine K., et.al. “Global shifts in mammalian population trends reveal key predictors of virus spillover risk.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B (8 April 2020): https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.2736  For a news release about the study, see Kerlin, Kat, “The Link Between Virus Spillover, Wildlife Extinction and the Environment” (April 7, 2020): https://www.ucdavis.edu/coronavirus/news/link-between-virus-spillover-wildlife-extinction-and-environment

[11] I was an early promoter of slowing down the profession.  See these three essays, for example, from 2008: “Slow Shakespeare; An Eco-Critique of ‘Method’ in Early Modern Literary Studies.” Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare. Ed. Ivo Kamps, Karen Raber, and Thomas Hallock. Palgrave, 2008. 1-30; “The State of the Green: A Review Essay on Shakespearean Ecocriticism.” Shakespeare 4.4 (December 2008): 474-492; and “Virtually There:  Shakespeare and Tourism in the 21st Century.”  Upstart Crow 27 (2008): 5-23.  I have continued to urge this, as I do in this piece.