Learning to Die Read More in the Anthropocene the Time We Have

Mo Pareles, University of British Columbia

A lot of people I know and don’t know were irritated by an article by Jonathan Franzen, a famous non-expert, called “What If We Stopped Pretending?: The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.” You can read excellent rebuttals of here, here, and (most delightfully) here. Most of these focus on Franzen’s pessimism and on the fact that, like the other famous white male novelists (Jonathan Safran Foer, Paul Kingsnorth, et al) who have appointed themselves climate philosophers, he confuses his (well-written) angst with political, historical, and/or scientific expertise. These critiques are on point, but what annoyed me most as a scholar of medieval temporality was the word “apocalypse,” which is a secularized Biblical temporal concept (it has resonances in several sacred traditions, although its current valences are specifically Christian) that has been adopted almost uncritically and without historicization throughout the popular discussion on climate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this view of time, but it’s the product of a particular intellectual history and I’m not sure it serves discussions about climate change well.[1]

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Image: “Myths,” by Eiko Ojala, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

IPCC projections suggest that total human extinction is a fairly unlikely short-term possibility (although not impossible!) and that what we’re looking at instead is genocide and ecocide of unprecedented scale, which fossil fuel companies and their friends continue to perpetrate recklessly and knowingly for profit and convenience. But as a result, a number of salient historical comparisons have become possible and useful. As N. K. Jemisin notes of her own literary response to climate discourse, “An apocalypse is a relative thing.”[2] Genocides, ecocides, and crimes against humanity have all happened before, and in some cases they have also been prevented. Small groups of people have profited from acts of extreme greed and cruelty—and, more rarely, they have been prevented from doing so. Certain groups of humans including my own (and many others) have, in fact, survived multiple rounds of genocide, ecocide, and horror, and have developed sophisticated praxes of survival, resistance, and regeneration[3]—and, indeed, resistant temporalities.[4] Reading can teach us much more than how to die on an imposed timeline.

While it’s pleasurable to make fun of famous people who speak from ignorance with smug authority, it’s a guilty pleasure—because none of us read widely enough (and many of us lecture for a living). Almost all of us think we came up with things that we definitely did not come up with; we generally have no idea what is happening in adjacent disciplines or even adjacent classrooms. It would be good to get together and help one another fill in the blanks. Hence, a reading group.

In the Oecologies reading group, we discuss ecocritical and animal studies scholarship that engages directly with race, colonialism, temporality, and other crucial issues of framing. We focus particularly on work by scholars who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). This work also often has a queer and/or trans focus. In the first three reading group meetings, we had participants from a dozen universities in the US and Canada; more than half were graduate students. In October, we met for the first time on Discord, a chat and voice app, to discuss Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation,” an early version of a chapter from her recent book As We Have Always Done, which connects ecological survival to Indigenous (specifically Nishnaabeg) feminist resurgence and political sovereignty. This article, which envisions Kwezens, a Nishnaabeg child, directing her own moral and ecological education without colonial interference, tends to be very challenging for settler readers (which included everyone at that particular meeting) because it assumes an Indigenous readership and specific political praxis; it is not written for us. We talked about why non-Indigenous readers who cannot directly use Simpson’s concepts, and indeed do not want to appropriate Indigenous work, might benefit from reading her.

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Image: “Myths,” by Eiko Ojala, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

In our recent group on November date, we read the introduction to Radhika Govindrajan’s Animal Intimacies. This time, we met in a text-only Discord chat channel, and this way of talking suited us; we had the freedom to pursue several different lines of conversation at once and to circle in and out of one another’s conversation. In this meeting, we discussed negative and queer affect in multispecies village life and Govindrajan’s concept of otherwild, which reads animal life in the context of “intersecting projects of colonial, caste, and species difference and power.”[5]

Most recently, a mix of old and new colleagues joined us in discussing Tavia Nyong’o’s “Little Monsters: Race, Sovereignty, and Queer Inhumanism in Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which connects climate disaster on a local scale to questions of race, childhood, queerness, and sovereignty, as well as to histories of Indigenous displacement in the US and ecofascist rewilding projects in Nazi Europe. We used more than one Discord text channel, and a number of discussions erupted—we noticed dissonances in the use of sovereignty (in terms of bodies, lands, and governance) across African diaspora studies, critical Indigenous studies, and medieval and early modern studies, and attempted to connect these uses. We asked about the labor that girls and queer children, especially racialized girls like Beast of the Southern Wild’s Hushpuppy, do in the environmental imaginary—a particular concern of Nyong’o’s—and spoke of Autumn Peltier, Little Miss Flint, Greta Thunberg, and (looping back to the year’s first reading) Betasamosake Simpson’s Kwezens/Binoojiinh, who is a girl in one iteration and a nonbinary/gender-nonconforming child in another. We also shared our terror about the widespread appeal of green fascism, from the Nazi cattle experiments Nyong’o recounts to the green white supremacists of contemporary Europe and North America. The question of temporal frames—the futurity or non-futurity of childhood, the apocalypticism of extinction and colonialism—preoccupied us throughout.

We have two more meetings this year: on March 5, we will read the introduction to Juno Salazar Parreñas’s Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation, and in May we will read Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.

We are having a really good time—without agreeing on what kind of time we have. Please come read with us.


Notes

[1] Indeed, anthropogenic climate change and its attendant horrors are partially the products of linear fictions of history, as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing points out in her critique of “progress.” Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015, esp. 20-23.

[2] Hurley, Jessica, and N. K. Jemisin. “An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing: An Interview with N.K. Jemisin.” ASAP/Journal 3 (2018): 467-477, at 476. See Eklund, Hilary. “Unwatering Earth: The Control of Nature in Colonial Mexico.” Earth/Sea/Sky Conference: Earth. Oxford University, September 19, 2019; Yusoff, Kathryn, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Thanks to Hilary Eklund for sharing her unpublished piece and for the Yusoff reference.

[3] See Mary Annaïse Heglar’s essential essay, “Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat.” Medium. https://medium.com/s/story/sorry-yall-but-climate-change-ain-t-the-first-existential-threat-b3c999267aa0 (content warning for extremely graphic images of violence)

[4] See for instance Rosen, Alan. The Holocaust’s Jewish Calendars: Keeping Time Sacred, Making Time Holy. Indiana University Press, 2019. As Rosen notes (and as Eli Rubin highlights in this review), the shiny new 21st century is also a secularized Christian concept; the Jewish calendar places us in 5780, still slogging through the miserable century that began with 12 million murders (Rosen 4; Rubin). What would it feel like to place climate change in the same temporal frame as these recent obscenities? What connections—in terms of worldwide indifference and corporate collusion—would we have to acknowledge? And how different—how much less glamorous—would our RPC scenarios look if they referred to degrees of warming by 5860? I am grateful to Andrew Gow for the reference.

[5] Govindrajan 12.

Works Cited

Govindrajan, Radhika. Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas. University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Nyong’o, Tavia. “Little Monsters: Race, Sovereignty, and Queer Inhumanism in Beasts of the Southern Wild.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21 (2015): 249-272.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Rransformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3, no. 3 (2014): 1-25.

Topsell’s Hare

Martha Alexandra, University of California, Davis

When people ask me what I write about, the short answer I usually give is “witches, witchy stuff.” Many times this is a sufficiently juicy response to satisfy someone that my work is interesting—witchiness and the occult are, as I’ve learned, “in”—but if they want to know more, the conversation will quickly travel to the place/time that most excites my fevered poet’s brain. The historical period of the European witch craze coincides, in addition to the advent of capitalism and the rise of European colonialism, with the development of what we now call “science.” Each one of these troubled threads has profound implications for our current set of ecological (and other) conundrums; much of my poetry could be described as a nervous habit of pulling and prodding at these historical strings in an attempt to untangle the present.

For a variety of reasons—and whether or not we believe that the Burning Times, as this period is known to many of today’s witches, constituted an assault on (certain marginalized forms of) actual magic and its practitioners—we often associate the transition from the medieval to the modern with a process of “disenchantment.” I don’t think this is quite right. In place of a linear ascension out of the world of “superstition” and/or magic, I read lateral moves into what we might call “differently enchanted” worlds; the modern experience of “disenchantment,” then, can be understood as a kind of spell in itself. The fabulous conviction of the alchemical tome, for example, metamorphoses into the authoritative aura of the scientific text—historically a formidable kind of magic power (the current persistence of climate denialism notwithstanding). I am drawn to the ways that early modern texts capture something of the transition between such different kinds of voices; caught in time between this and that, chimerical creatures shimmer into being.

“Of the Hare,” from Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658), sig. T2r.

My classmates and I found ourselves in pursuit of such beasts in the small, concealed hunting grounds of Special Collections at Peter J. Shields Library. Having been shepherded through a series of gates (themselves bounded within the layered enclosures of University property and a graduate course on “Renaissance Oecologies”), we sat—very quietly and very still—until, compelled and given permission, we opened an ultimate, leather-bound door. My quarry, dear reader? The Hare. Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts & Serpents offers us a twinned core sample of the proto-scientist’s voice and his subjects in its chimerical treatment of zoology. Topsell’s entry on the Hare spans ten pages and ranges from physiological, psychological, and magical characteristics of the beast to mythical (or is it historical?) references, hunting tactics, pharmacological uses (more magic here) and beyond—all in a subdued, scholarly tone that conjures a spirit of expertise. (Curious readers are encouraged to make their own dive down the, as it were, Hare-hole, here.)

Along with this pseudo/proto-scientific specter, Topsell’s Hare briefly summons into view an additional premodern phenomenon that feels especially relevant to ecocritical and dis/ enchantment inquiries alike. I have alluded already to Enclosure, which readers will associate with another semi-fantastical animal—the carnivorous sheep that haunt the h/edges of the outermost narrative layer of More’s Utopia. The dispropriation of the commons obstructed peasants’ access not only to economic resources but also to certain alternative/non-sanctioned sources of the numinous; as access to land shrank, so too did the parameters of the relational field. Places where human folk might experience the greatest diversity of more-than-human encounters—and a witch might seek out many magical ingredients—over time became differently enchanted to appear as sources of exchange value and capital.

From there to here: we live again in Burning Times. Now is the moment to turn inside out inherited epistemological enclosures—to turn loose the wild worlds of our cultivation. Harvesting textual resources from an uncanny ancestor of the scientific reference and taking the shape of a “Park or inclosed Warren,” my poem works to draw back the curtain on the illusion of materialist, capitalist “reality” besetting today’s world and reveal a history of different enchantments and a world more malleable than meets the eye. In addition to window, this calligram is also spell: its image of apparent order is seeded with a feral impulse toward casting new and divergent enchantments—which it hopes, dear reader, will blossom in thee.

The Galatea Project: A Year in Review

Oecologies is proud to announce the launching of its new blog series. This series is dedicated to reviewing recent events and projects, as well as promoting and celebrating the work of our members and collaborators. Please stay tuned for future posts!  

Karol Pasciano, University of British Columbia

The sun doth beat upon the plain fields; wherefore let us sit down, Galatea, under this fair oak, by whose broad leaves being defended from the warm beams we may enjoy the fresh air, which softly breathes from the Humber floods” (Lyly I.i.1-5).[1]

Thus opens Galatea, a comedy written by John Lyly and performed by the Children of St. Paul’s before Queen Elizabeth I “at Green-wiche, on Newyeeres day at Night” in 1588. Revolving around the threat of an imminent environmental crisis, the drama negotiates the ecological boundaries that bridge Lincolnshire’s green woodlands and the Humber estuary. In its opening act, the play details a narrative of supernatural deluge. Enraged by the destruction of his temple by Danes, the god Neptune is said to have once “caused the seas to break their bounds […] and to swell far above their reach,” prompting one to “see ships sail where sheep fed, anchors cast where ploughs go, fishermen throw their nets where husbandman sow their corn, and fishes throw their scales where fowls do breed their quills” (I.i.30-1; 33-6). In exchange for the receding of the tides, the deity demands that, every five years, the most beautiful virgin in the village be bound to the “fair oak” tree and offered as a peace token to the sea monster, Agar. It is in order to escape such a dreadful fate that two maidens, Galatea and Phillida, are disguised as boys and ordered to hide in the forest by their respective fathers. The pair’s eventual meeting gives rise to an amusing comedy of errors and a queer romance that ultimately culminates in a (potential) trans* metamorphosis.

Galatea’s first quarto, 1592

A treat for early modern scholars working with ecocriticism, conversions, and queer ecologies, the play has precipitated a wave – but thankfully no destructive floods! – in recent scholarship about its blue and green environs, thematic intersections with climate change, and human/nonhuman alliances. It was precisely from the desire to explore such aspects in Lyly’s work that Dr. Patricia Badir (UBC), a founding collaborator of Oecologies, initiated the Galatea Project alongside Dr. Paul Budra (SFU) and Katrina Dunn (University of Manitoba). Badir notes that the project’s initial investigation was dedicated to examining the intertextual parallels and ecological conversions involved in Lyly’s uptake of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, particularly of the stories of “Iphis and Ianthe” and “Acis and Galatea” (both of which served as direct source materials for Galatea). The investigation’s main objectives included probing the different significations behind Lyly’s transformation of Ovidian landscapes into Lincolnshire’s countryside,[2] as well as discerning how the play’s eros is profoundly linked to its oikos – that is, Lincolnshire’s environmental precarity and vulnerability. For Badir, thinking about European premodern environments from “here” and “now” likewise involved recognizing resonances between Lyly’s setting and Vancouver’s own waterscapes. Linking Lincolnshire’s tides to the Pacific Northwest’s coastal flows, the project has been continually engaged in “rais[ing] questions relevant to Vancouverites (likewise living at the edge of a forest along the banks of an estuary) while also opening itself to critical paradigms that help us understand the ways in which particular kinds of environments and behaviors become ‘naturalized’ over time.”[3]

Most recently, the project has been awarded a grant by UBC’s Community-University Engagement Support (CUES) Fund and has partnered with professional theatre company Bard on the Beach to bring Galatea to life on stage. In November 2018, academics, theatre professionals, and graduate students participated in a week-long workshop dedicated to analyzing the play’s multiple ecological and metamorphic transformations, as well as its polychronic and multitemporal depictions of N/nature. Bard on the Beach director Dean Paul Gibson observes how the play is “most full of possibilities,” especially with regards to how one might imagine and interpret Lincolnshire’s environs. When asked about how he would envision a full local production of Lyly’s work, Gibson states that “our natural setting would certainly lend to the story-telling of this play. Many [people] have a deep and mysterious connection with this land. Of course, the indigenous peoples of this land could teach us much about working with the elements and [their] powers.”[4] The workshop concluded with a public staged reading performance, directed by Gibson, on the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on November 10. Tickets were offered to the UBC, SFU, and Bard on the Beach communities on an RSVP basis, and, to everyone’s delight, the event was sold out within hours of its announcement online. The performance was very well received by the audience, and the Q&A period which followed it demonstrated how the local community was just as interested in the play’s enticing themes as its project members. 

The success of the November performance inspired the project to coordinate another set of reading performances with Bard on the Beach actors at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which took place at UBC over the first week of June 2019. These subsequent performances were directed by Katrina Dunn and staged in the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Amphitheatre, an open-air area carved on a hill and encompassed by a verdant grassplot, stone banks, and a murky, vegetation-filled, artificial pond, whose natural vibrancy reverberated the play’s central localizing line, “You are now in Lincolnshire” (I.iv.14). Along with the green stage, the impromptu – and quite apropos – addition of bird chirps and bullfrog croaks to the performance soundscape reinforced the environment’s role in the narrative; like the characters declaiming Lyly’s poetic verses, it too had a “voice” in the story. Dunn comments that the new space has also made it possible to further explore different types of blocking arrangements in order to enhance the physicality of the actors’ gestures and movements. She likewise emphasizes her directing focus on “making the imaginary world of the play visible” for both actors and audience. For Dunn, “crafting this invisible world” effectively is imperative to the action of the play, which is set in motion precisely by environmental forces.[5]

 

In addition to the staged performances, the project also marked its presence at Congress with a roundtable panel, hosted by the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies/Société canadienne d’études de la Renaissance and the Canadian Association for Theatre Research/L’Association canadienne de la recherche théâtrale. Featuring presentations by Badir, Budra, Dunn, and UBC students Jade Standing (PhD English), Lea Anderson (BA English Honours), and Jamie Harper (BA English Honours), the panel engaged a variety of captivating topics, such as Lyly’s euphuistic style, Lincolnshire’s “coastal squeeze” processes, Galatea and Phillida’s queer and trans* dynamics, pedagogical approaches to the play, and the challenges in staging its natural and supernatural elements.   

Oecologies Roundtable at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2019.

As for future plans and events, Budra has announced that the next play to be taken up by the project is Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Similar to Galatea, this contemporary play also presents alluring green spaces and a tree as a central prop – elements that shall certainly promote further ecocritical discussions for the project. Kyd’s play will be investigated in a similar workshop setting with Bard on the Beach practitioners, which is expected to take place in the Fall of 2019. 

Galatea: A Staged Reading

Directors: Dean Paul Gibson (BMO Theatre) / Katrina Dunn (Congress)

Dramaturge: Katrina Dunn

Stage Manager: Stephen Courtenay (BMO Theatre) / Lois Dawson (Congress)

Academic Advisors: Patricia Badir and Paul Budra

Special Thanks: Ryan Brown, UBC Community Engagement, Claire Sakaki, Rhea Shroff, Ava Forsyth, Heather Kennedy, Tiffany Werth, and Vin Nardizzi.

Notes

[1]. All citations of the play text are from Leah Scragg’s edition (Manchester University Press, 2012). 

[2]. For more on this, see Badir’s chapter, “Coastal Squeeze: Environmental Metamorphosis and Lyly’s Lincolnshire,” in Ovidian Transversions: ‘Iphis and Ianthe’, 1300-1650, eds. Valerie Traub, Patricia Badir, and Peggy McCracken (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). 

[3]. For more on this, see the Galatea Project’s main webpage (https://patriciabadir.com/the-galatea-project/).

[4]. Personal correspondence, December 2018.

[5]. “The Galatea Project: An Oecologies Roundtable,” June 3 2019, Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2019 (Sponsored by the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies/Société canadienne d’études de la Renaissance and Canadian Association for Theatre Research/L’Association canadienne de la recherche théâtrale).