Notes from the Clouds: an Oecologies Reading Group

Mikhaila Redovian, University of California, Davis

On Friday, March 11, the Oecologies research cluster convened a virtual reading group to discuss work on Clouds, bridging the Sea and Sky focal points of our current research project. Led by Dr. Vin Nardizzi, the discussion addressed three works, Alison Calhoun’s “What cloud machines tell us about early modern emotions” (Romance Quarterly, 2021), Lorraine Daston’s “Cloud Physiognomy” (Representations, 2016), and an excerpt from chapter 5 on “Clouds” in John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Nardizzi opened the discussion by returning to topics from the November 19th meeting, particularly Melody Jue’s term “volumetrics,” and by targeting the idea of “surface reading” from Daston’s chapter. Each of these three pieces led to a questioning of surfaces that don’t conform to human control, which acted as a common reference throughout the conversation.

Initially, the conversation delved into Calhoun’s piece and the theatrical spectacle of clouds produced by seventeenth-century cloud machines. As Calhoun notes, these machines contributed greatly to the affective reception of the drama of their day. Part of the cloud machines’ affective success involves the spontaneity with which they produced their effects. But the machines themselves occluded the labor-intensive process of creating the desired effect.  The fraught relationship between playwrights, cloud machine creators, and audiences provides a useful metaphor for considering how clouds alternately obscure and reveal complex processes, not just on stage but in everyday life: as Daston argues, people put hyperspecific names to objects that cannot be contained linguistically.

The ambiguities of clouds continued to animate the conversation. Do clouds obscure or condense knowledge? Do they block or do they protect humans from the face of God? When we look to the clouds, do we interpret shapes as they are observed, or do we project our thoughts onto them? Is there danger or clarity in naming or identifying clouds? The conversation shifted to The Tempest and Hamlet, whichprovide rich ground to contemplate these questions. Are we similar to Prospero, attempting to contain and control Ariel? How does identifying a cloud as a ghost change the implications of that object?  Does the power dynamic inherent in Hamlet and Polonius’ relationship restrict Polonius’ response?

The conversation concluded with discussion of the limitations of language in describing or accounting for clouds. Daston closely aligns her argument with that of the art historian Hubert Damisch, both of whom question if Linnean classifications animate or deflate clouds. These inquiries invite us to consider what acts we engage in when we attempt to name or categorize the inexpressible. Modern media such as Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental, non-narrative and wordless film Koyaanisqatsi similarly asks what other mediums might be suitable for representing the ineffable.

While textual questions animated much of the discussion, theorizing clouds offers a vital connection between Sea readings and Sky readings.  “Clouds” offered an opportunity to continue conversations from November’s meeting while also moving toward the heavens.

Notes from “Ecologies and Economics: Premodern Extractions”

Chelsea Keane, University of California- Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures” Virtual Research Share

Kirsten Schuhmacher; University of California, Davis

On January 19th, 2021, the University of California Humanities Research Institute working group, “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures,” participated in a generative virtual research share. Led by Principal Investigator, Tiffany Jo Werth (UC Davis), the following members of the multicampus faculty working group gave presentations about their current research on early depictions of coastal ecologies: Andrés Reséndez (UC Davis), Lyle Massey (UC Irvine, Co-PI), Yve Chavez (UC Santa Cruz), Benjamin Madley (UCLA), Zirwat Chowdhury (UCLA), and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA, Co-PI).  To expand the premodern archive, presenters illustrated the need to work multimodally by focusing on literary texts, illustrations, and material artifacts.

A consistent thread in the research share was the attention to the Pacific Coast as an under-studied place of exchange. Many of the speakers thought through the movement between the “old” and “new” worlds from their current place within California. In this way, the speakers thought locally while also working in opposition to the better studied and understood early exchange networks on the Atlantic Coast. It was particularly enlightening when speakers brought together current issues on the Pacific Coast with past moments spanning more than two-hundred years. Benjamin Madley introduced a particularly pertinent example of this multi-temporality. His presentation looked at four different epidemics as the “invisible allies” of Europeans who colonized the western US between 1828 – 1844. His presentation drove home the critical importance of studying Pacific migrations of people and pathogens. 

The research share was unique not only given its focus on the Pacific Coast but also because of many presenters’ attention to non-European perspectives of the Pacific. For instance, Andrés Reséndez, as part of his Magellan Project, discussed ecological exchanges of goods such as the sweet potato, peanut, and corn, between China and the Americas, which ultimately helped the Chinese to expand their agriculture and use of silver. In addition, Zirwat Chowdhury examined one late 18th century English depiction of South Asian systems of writing and considered the implications of phonetics and their migration across the seas. 

As the research exchange came to a close, Tiffany Jo Werth reflected on some of the big concepts that spanned the presentations. I will draw attention to a couple here as particularly useful frameworks for thinking about and through the ocean and its coastal ecologies. For example, participants talked through Lyle Massey’s concept of “sea sense,” which she illuminated as a figurative as well as material concept of ocean as body. This discussion explored the porousness of coastal membranes and how their representation on maps illustrates the interpenetration of bodies of water and anatomy. Furthermore, participants created figurative maps that connected coastal materials, both manufactured and not, with humans and oceans alike. In one particular instance, Bronwen Wilson brought attention to an actual map and the use of the ship and compass on that map as a way to concretize the abstract through ornamentation. Additionally, many participants engaged with this porousness as a way to understand the exchange of goods, raw materials, and diseases as being part of the long history of the Pacific Coast. A material example of this occurred in Yve Chavez’s presentation of an 18th century Chumash basket in the British Museum. Her presentation posed questions about why such a basket was made and whether it was actually intended to be a “gift” for European explorers.

Another fascinating framework was born from a discussion on seasonal gyres and currents. By orienting themselves to these seasonal oceanic changes, the participants considered the ways that the ocean can and does exert its agency over the people that try to navigate it. Additionally, it allowed participants the chance to further illustrate the ways that the Pacific Coast is distinct given the unique particularities of the currents created by gyres and their impact on sailing routes as well as the season of travel. 

As an inaugural gathering of the multicampus faculty working group, the presentations provocatively introduced some of the issues that will receive attention in fall of 2021. There will be a symposium held at the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute at the Marine Lab in Bodega Bay, CA. This virtual research share is part of a series of events sponsored by the UCHRI in conjunction with the Earth, Sea, Sky research network. If you would like to learn more about the UCHRI working group, please visit: https://uchri.org/awards/on-the-sea-and-coastal-ecologies-early-modern-pasts-and-uncertain-futures/. For all updates on future “Sea” events, please consult the dedicated landing page: https://oecologies.com/earth-sea-sky/sea/

Finally, to help build our working bibliography on premodern coastal ecologies, please send relevant references to Laura Hutchingame: lhutchingame@ucla.edu

%d bloggers like this: