ASLE + AESS CFPs: Medieval and Early Modern Commons

Oecologies is pleased to propose two sponsored sessions at the 2023 ASLE/AESS conference in Portland, Oregon (July 9–13). We warmly welcome all submissions; we particularly encourage proposals by Black and Indigenous scholars of colour, international scholars, and scholars at all stages of their careers. Submission instructions can be found at the bottom of this post.

Please share widely!


Enclosing the Commons: Resistance and Rebellion in Late Medieval and Early Modern England

Between 1066 and the nineteenth century, the practice of enclosure transformed the economy and ecology of England, as lands traditionally held in common were, through a variety of processes both formal and informal, transformed into private property. Implicated in the development of capitalism and the Agricultural Revolution, the enclosure movement has had a profound influence on how land use is conceptualized and practiced in the modern world.

Spurred in part by the wool trade, the process of enclosure intensified between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, engendering significant resistance as it transformed the cultural and material landscape. The literature of this period was shaped by the practice of enclosure, from Thomas More’s famous account of human-devouring sheep in Utopia (1516) to Shakespeare’s depiction of Jack Cade’s rebellion in Henry VI, Part 2 (ca. 1591) to the relentlessly ironic pastoral poetry of Andrew Marvell, with its oblique commentary on the Levellers and Diggers. Enclosure’s contested status during this period is also recorded in a substantial body of political and agrarian writing including such works as Arthur Standish’s The Commons Complaint (1611), John Norden’s The Surveyor’s Dialogue (1618), and Gerrard Winstanley’s The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649). As the textual record makes clear, late medieval and early modern enclosure prompted tension, ambivalence, resistance, and rebellion even as it came, in subsequent centuries, to enjoy hegemonic status as a paradigm for modern land use.

For this ASLE/AESS panel, the Oecologies Research Cluster invites papers that explore the ecopolitical dimensions of resistance to the enclosure movement between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Panelists might consider:

  • how past forms of resistance to enclosure can inform present attempts to reclaim the commons;
  • the role of nonhuman actors (plants, animals, soil, rivers, rocks, microbes, etc.) in bolstering and resisting the enclosure movement (e.g., what was the botanical and lithic makeup of hedges?);
  • the roles of gender, sexuality, class, race, and religion in the enclosure movement;
  • the relationship between enclosure and biodiversity;
  • enclosure as metaphor as well as material practice;
  • alternative futures and ecopolitical paradigms (anarchy, agrarian communism, etc.) imagined by resistance movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers;
  • how enclosure was experienced from a nonhuman perspective;
  • the relationship between enclosure and literary form (pastoral romance, the seventeenth-century country house poem, the history play, the georgic, etc.);
  • how the English enclosure movement illuminates other analogous cultural and historical events.


An Uncommon Exclusion: Human/More-than-Human Alliance in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations

Past and present criticisms of enclosure risk affirming its setting of more-than-human life against human society and space. In scorning post-Conquest forest law, for example, one eleventh-century chronicler castigates William the Conqueror for having “loved the forest animals as if he were their father.” Through the unjustly queer filial bond of “deorfrith” (deer forest; game protection), the irate writer suggests, the king bestows on his quarries a privilege of exclusive death.

In upholding the animal and arboreal boundaries they criticize, the chronicler exemplifies a tendency for medieval, early modern, and modern critiques of enclosure to circumscribe common land and common relation by deferring—however resentfully—to monarchic, anthropocentric logics of territory. The idea of the commons itself, then and now, often projects backward in a golden-age, conservative move that forecloses possible futures to enshrine an ossified past.

For this ASLE/AESS panel, the Oecologies Research Cluster invites papers that look forward, claiming rather than rejecting uncommon, queer alliances against imperial governance. We invite presentations on imaginaries of illegal, anarchic, and other more-than-human alliance in the medieval and early modern periods. Analyzing textual and material artefacts for their promise of political commonality, panelists might consider:

  • TRESPASSERS: More-than-human cooperation in shaping and navigating space, including animal, lithic, and arboreal forms of outlawry or escape;
  • SPATIALITY: Environmental refusal or failure—via weather, disaster, or divine/supernatural agency—to uphold executive imaginaries of “territory”;
  • CONSPIRACY: Human–nonhuman alliance in creating extralegal or a-legal commons;
  • OTHER COMMONS: Medieval imaginaries that speak to postcolonial and anticolonial critiques of, and calls to imagine beyond, “the commons” as codified in (for example) the high Middle Ages;
  • HISTORICISM: Sources that avoid golden-age imperial nostalgia in favour of speculative, more-than-human futurity;
  • PRESENTISM: Sources as entries toward a queer, antiracist, anticolonial, (or) disabled canon of uncommon remembrance across and in disregard of conventional geopolitics or periodization;
  • And more.

Translation from the Rime of King William by Stefan Jurasinski, 2004.


To submit a proposal for one or either panel, please send abstracts of 250 words and a short bio by December 9, 2022 by email to both:

We regret that ASLE/AESS in-person panels will not have the option for virtual or hybrid contributions.

Eisteddfod (‘Sitting’): Queering Oceanic Voyages

By: Liam Lewis (University of Liverpool) and Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia)

In May 2022 we met at Bodega Bay Marine Lab in California to reflect on queer ocean voyages. Sitting in full view of the gorgeous ocean, we celebrated our time together as creative creatures who had taken a journey and an imaginative leap into the world of words.

Focusing on poetry as an act of creation and festival, we shared poetry and prose together in the medieval Welsh tradition of ‘sitting’ or eisteddfod. In medieval Wales an eisteddfod was a festival in which bards and minstrels competed for patronage, and the tradition continues to this day. Inspired by this rich tradition, we turned to the ocean as support and inspiration for thinking about the roles of  poetry and poetic discourse in ancient and pre-modern conceptions of sea travel. Sometimes words communicate metaphor and at other times the physical reality of water. Sitting together to listen to each other, we explored queerness, travel, and oceanic spaces through the medium of the spoken word. Our time together was a queering of normative academic practice by putting process and creation before output and completion.

Eisteddfod participants were invited to reflect on a piece of shared reading in advance: Patricia Yaeger’s ‘Sea Trash, Dark Pools, and the Tragedy of the Commons’, PMLA, 125.3 (2010). We then invited them to choose or write a short poem or prose excerpt to bring to the workshop, at which we listened to each other’s work. These were  examples of premodern oceanic writing, modern responses to the key themes of the workshop, or even some personal creations! This time together enabled us to inhabit the shoreline as a space for reflection on queer lives and spaces, and to spotlight the role of the sea and water in the act of poetic creation. 

Some of the readings were recorded, and some are visual or written word responses. Let’s explore! 

The eisteddfod began with a reading of an infamous passage from the early modern poem Hero and Leander (ll. 160-87) by Christopher Marlowe. Vin Nardizzi was our reader. The inspiration for this passage – and indeed for our workshop – were some comments made during an online reading group by Vincent Steinfeld (University of Oregon MA at the time; now UBC PhD). Listen to Vin reading Marlowe here:

Vin Nardizzi’s reading of Marlowe
But when he knew it was not Ganymed,
For under water he was almost dead,
He heav'd him up, and, looking on his face,
Beat down the bold waves with his triple mace,
Which mounted up, intending to have kiss'd him,
And fell in drops like tears because they miss'd him.
Leander, being up, began to swim,
And, looking back, saw Neptune follow him:
Whereat aghast, the poor soul gan to cry,
"O, let me visit Hero ere I die!"
The god put Helle's bracelet on his arm,
And swore the sea should never do him harm.
He clapped his plump cheeks, with his tresses played,
And, smiling wantonly, his love bewrayed;
He watched his arms, and, as they open'd wide
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
And, as he turn'd, cast many a lustful glance,
And throw him gaudy toys to please his eye

Watching the waves in Bodega Bay as the poem was read aloud brought to life the vividness of the imagery in this poem, as Neptune grasps at Leander’s body in the water!
We were gifted a multilingual reading of Italo Calvino’s  “Blood, Sea” from t zero (Harcourt Inc., 1967) read by Elisa A. Daniele. The strong imagery made us reflect on the connection between water and bodies as the narrator is a drop of blood. She reads the poem in English and Italian here:

Elisa A. Daniele’s English Reading
Elisa A. Daniele’s Italian Reading

Here’s a quick peep:

This is a distinction I might bring up to give a clearer idea of before and now: before, we swam, and now we are swum. But on sober reflection I prefer not to go into this, because in reality even when the sea was outside I swam in it the same way I do now, without any intervention of my will, that is to say I was swum even then, no more nor less than now, there was a current that enfolded me and carried me this way and that, a gentle and soft fluid, in which Zylphia and I wallowed, turning on ourselves, hovering over abysses of ruby-colored transparence, hiding among turquoise-colored filaments that wriggled up from the depths; but these sensations of movement -- wait and I'll explain it to you -- were due only to what? They were due to a kind of general pulsation, no, I don't want to confuse things with the way they are now, because since we've been keeping the sea closed inside us it's natural that in moving it should make this piston effect, but in those days you certainly couldn't have talked about pistons, because you would have had to imagine a piston without walls, a combustion chamber of infinite volume as the sea appeared infinite to us, or rather the ocean, in which we were immersed, whereas now everything is pulsation and beating and rumble and crackling, inside the arteries and outside, the sea within the arteries that accelerates its course as soon as I feel Zylphia's hand seeking mine, or rather, as soon as I feel the acceleration in the course of Zylphia's arteries as she feels my hand seeking hers (the two flows which are still the same flow of a same sea and which are joined beyond the contact of the thirsty fingertips); and also outside, the opaque thirsty outside that seeks dully to imitate the beat and rumble and crackling of inside, and vibrates in the accelerator under Signor Cècere's foot, and all the line of cars stopped at the exit from the superhighway tries to repeat the pulsing of the ocean now buried inside us, of the red ocean that was once without shores, under the sun.

You can find more of Calvino’s work at the following link:

Hillary Eklund shared a more sombre, reflective poem by Brenda Marie Osbey, from “Qu’on Arrive Enfin”, All Souls: Essential Poems (LSUP, 2015). Osbey served as Poet laureate of Louisiana from 2005 to 2007, and teaches at Louisiana State University. Hillary reflected on the poem’s themes of enslavement and the flood, thinking back to her own experiences of swamps, flooded landscapes, and cityscapes. Hear Hillary reading parts 2, 3 and 4 here:

Hillary Eklund’s reading of Osbey

We can share a few lines here to give a taste of the words as they appear on the page:

funny, no?
how we always return to this–
the city, the life
that slavery built,
tales altogether invented
as told by historians, founding fathers, the church.
but we are sick and tired of lies, dirty tricks and fraud,
and can only wish hard-hard-hard
that the lakes, the bayous, swamps large and small
will have swallowed it all
erased it all.

You can find more of this in the full collection:

Ashley Sarpong brought an innovative visual poem based on the shared reading we looked at before the eisteddfod. It’s an original poem called “Thus Spake the Sea Trash”, which we can share with you below.

“The sea functions in literature and culture as a trope instead of a biotic world or swarm of agencies. But even shadowy or unnatural tropes have real-world consequences. Figures of the boundless sea or the oceanic sublime encourage humans to treat it is an inexhaustible storehouse of goods. Oceanic ecocriticism invites us to examine the way ordinary figures of speech persist or echo forward in time; they continue to resound, regardless of their truth-value, working over and through us like a nightmare ideology.”

“How do we define ‘more than human’? Ocean plastic (a quasi-object once filled with human agency that exceeds this agency in its afterlife) fits this category. So does the waste oil swirling through the Gulf of Mexico. If ‘bright ships’ and exploding oil rigs are always leaving ‘this or that in fee’ we have to recognize literary artificats’ complicity in such acts of sabotage and embrace ecocriticism$ as a tactic for recognizing that sea trash also flows from novels and poetry.” 

“How does literature speak to a watery realm where exploitation and overconsumption are so deeply threaded?” 

“How do I interest you, reader, in the many ways in which literature lights up the financial fate of oceans? My first strategy is zoophilic; I’ve thrown around fish facts to amplify a shared sense of ocean in crisis. Second, I’ve deployed a new vocabulary, asking techno-ocean and ecocriticism to call forth a world where the BP oil spill is minor and transient: even its plumes of invisible oil offer a minimal example of the harm that comes when we accelerate the transformation of oceans into capital. Third, I’ve suggested that an analysis of inputs or externalized costs create subterranean entrances into the retail ocean”

“Ecocriticsm devolves into echocriticism, a practice of anachronistic reading inviting stories, novels, and other imaginative works about the sea to provide echo chambers, sites of wild or sober echolia, for the most pressing questions about the ocean’s and oceanic creatures’ survival.” 

“But living on the edge of hypertechnologized oceans, we need to throw our mythologies wide open. What is the loss of faith compared with the loss of the living ocean? How do we feel (or even breathe) when the ocean becomes ocean?”

“Ecocriticism$ explores the economic and symbolic logic that pushed us into this tragedy; it registers our imaginative techniques for handling the ocean’s supposed permanence, vastness, and incomprehensibility.” 

“We can approach the cyborg ocean and the tragedy of ocean wasting by thinking about the imaginary of corporate profiteering, in which oceans are places for stealing resources, dumping trash, and making money through shipping, oil drilling, and so on. Examining literary constellations of sea trash, vanished fish, and the techne of capitalist extraction offers a perverse set of terms for an ecocriticism$.”

“Wallerstein describes the environmental preconditions that allow capitalism to flourish. If the linchpin of this system is the relation between production and consumption (that is, the relation among those who own, those who produce, and those who consume), then oceanic resources, sea trash, and infrastructures like ports, ships, and oil rights have become preconditions for a more entrenched capitalist system. The sea is just another site where human relations take shape and connect through low-cost hardware and the freedom of an unregulated environment.”

Debapriya Sarkar read the evocative 17th-century poem “Similizing Birds to a Ship” by Margaret Cavendish, which made us look up to the birds swooping around Bodega Bay as we listened. We thought of long journeys travelled, and the subtle connection between water and air.

Birds from the cedars tall do take a flight
On stretchèd wings, to bear their bodies light.
As ships do sail over the ocean wide,
So birds do sail, and through the air do glide.
Their bodies are the keel; feet, cable rope;
The head, the steersman which doth guide the poop.
Their wings, as sails, with wind are stretched out wide,
But hard it is to fly against the tide.
For when the clouds do flow against their breast,
They weary grow, and on a bough do rest. 

At this point we listened to a prose-poem read by Sharon O’Dair. The poem was called “At the Bottom of New Lake” by Sonya Larson (Amazon Original Reads, 2018). Sharon introduces the poem, and her reasons for reading it at Bodega Bay, below:

“In 2018, Amazon published seven short stories called Warmer: “a collection of seven visions of a conceivable tomorrow by today’s most thought-provoking authors. Alarming, inventive, intimate, and frightening, each story can be read, or listened to, in a single breathtaking sitting.” One—“At the Bottom of New Lake”—captured me because author Sonya Larson spins differently the familiar question, “What are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?” For this blog post, I’m presenting what I audaciously call a prose poem, one constructed from the story, from lines mostly by the main character, a poor immigrant girl named Chuntao Foon, who is quizzed by an overbearing white teacher about her carbon footprint and attitude toward a long-ago climate catastrophe.”

Before the Flood, people like us couldn’t walk right up to the ocean
never owned any beachside property.
It wiped out the mansions, and the rich people fled.
Underwater treasures leftover from the Flood
they were there for the taking. Rich people stuff
We got a house right on the water.
That was my New Lake, my water inlet,
my little path from the house that went directly to the water.
Like a private path to heaven.
Chuntao doesn’t burn fuels.
She rides a bike. She walks.
We are vegetarians—most of us from Guangdong are.
One lamp lights the whole kitchen, living room, and dining room,
Because in my house they’re all the same room.
I do believe in carbon footprints. I just think that yours is way bigger than mine.
The kids were smiling. Never before had I felt proud to be poor.

Liam Lewis finished the eisteddfod by reading an extract from the 12th century lai called ‘Guigemar’ by Marie de France. In the poem the main character, Guigemar, hunts a stag and is wounded in the thigh by his own arrow. He boards a mysterious ship, which sets sail to an equally mysterious island where he meets a beautiful lady in a tower. Here is the passage when the ship sets sail of its own accord. He read in the Old French and you can listen to the recording here:

Liam Lewis’s reading of “Guigemar”
El hafne out une sule nef,
dunt Guigemar choisi le tref.
Mult esteit bien aparilliee ;
defors e dedenz fu peiee,
nuls huem n’i pout trover jointure.
N’i out cheville ne closture
ki ne fust tute d’ebenus ;
suz ciel n’a or ki vaille plus.
La veile fu tute de seie :
mult est bele, ki la despleie.
Li chevaliers fu mult pensis ;
en la cuntree n’el païs
n’out unkes mes oï parler
que nes i peüst ariver.
Il vait avant, si descent jus ;
a grant anguisse munta sus.
Dedenz quida humes truver,
ki la nef deüssent guarder :
n’i aveit nul, ne nul ne vit.
En mi la nef trova un lit,
dunt li pecol e li limun
furent a l’oevre Salemun
taillié a or, tut a trifoire,
de ciprés e de blanc ivoire.
D’un drap de seie a or teissu
ert la coilte ki desus fu.
Les altres dras ne sai preisier ;
mes tant vos di de l’oreillier :
ki sus eüst sun chief tenu,
ja mais le peil n’avreit chanu.
Li coverturs de sabelin
volz fu de purpre Alexandrin.
Dui chandelabre de fin or
(li pire valeit un tresor)
el chief de la nef furent mis ;
desus out dous cirges espris.
De ceo s’esteit il merveilliez.
Il s’est sur le lit apuiez ;
repose sei, sa plaie duelt.
Puis est levez, aler s’en vuelt.
Il ne pout mie returner ;
la nes est ja en halte mer,
od lui s’en va delivrement.
Bon oré ot e suef vent,
n’i a niënt de sun repaire ;
mult est dolenz, ne set que faire.
At port was a single boat; Guigemar could make out a sail. It was a boat ready to take to sea, sealed within and without so that it was impossible to see the slightest joining. There was neither peg nor clamp that was not made from ebony–no material is more precious! The sail, all of silk, unfolded magnificently. The knight, taken aback, had never heard that a boat could take to land in the region. He moved towards it and alighted his horse to board the boat. He thought he might find whoever kept it, but there was no-one. In the middle of the boat was a bed with a frame and sides on which were engraved, in gold, the works of Solomon, mounted with cypress and white ivory. A silk fabric with gold brocade covered the bed. As for the drapes, I could not say, but for the pillows, I can tell you that it sufficed to place your head on it to be relieved of all your cares and woes. The sable fur covers were lined with Alexandrian purple dye. At the prow of the vessel two refined golden candelabras, the least precious of which was itself a treasure, held two lit candles. In wonder, Guigemar leans on the bed to rest himself as he is in pain. He gets up, wishing to leave, but it is impossible. Already the boat is on the high seas and glides to the open ocean with him inside. The weather is fine and the wind blows. Return is impossible. He is saddened, helpless.

Oecologies CFP: “Ecogrief and Medieval Environmental Texts: Creating and Sustaining Pedagogical Networks” (Leeds IMC 2023)

Call for Papers for Roundtable Proposals
Sponsored by the Oecologies Research Group
International Medieval Congress (IMC 2023)
03-06 July 2023
University of Leeds

The Oecologies Research Cluster invites proposals that will contribute to roundtable discussions that consider the networks and entanglements existing, possible, and necessary for the teaching of ecogrief and medieval environmental texts. These roundtables will actively bring together a wide range of pedagogues who have experience in the teaching and engagement of medieval ecocriticisms, medieval environments, and medieval ecological theoretical approaches, and who have incorporated ecogrief as an aspect of their learning environments. Contributors to the roundtable will together focus on how the ecological understandings and experiences of premodern cultures, especially articulations of grief, mourning, despair, and anxiety, can responsibly taught in the university classroom.

As the post-medieval climate crisis intensifies, scholars, students, and the public alike, seek different modes of environmental approaches, philosophies, and proclivities. As such, the entanglements and connections between the medieval and post-medieval literary and historical textual cultures should be considered, reimagined, and cultivated. As we continue to explore, consider, and experience widespread ecological disasters, crises, and broad environmental change, creating networks for the sharing of pedagogical and ecocritical approaches for the medieval environmental classroom is critical for finding sustainable methods for the teaching, learning, and research of medieval environmental humanities.

Submissions from a variety of disciplines, including but not limited to literatures, textual studies, cultural and social histories, and visual cultures, are encouraged.

We welcome global, regional, and local approaches to the Middle Ages, and we encourage proposals by BIPOC scholars, international scholars, and scholars at all stages of their careers.

Submissions of 200-words (max) should propose 10-minute articulations of specific experiences teaching the medieval environment and aspects of ecogrief. Proposals should include an abstract and accompanying CV (one page) including name, email, postal address, telephone number, current affiliation, and position (title). Proposals must also indicate any accessibility/equipment requirements, and if virtual participation is required.

N.b. Coronavirus restrictions permitting, IMC 2023 is currently planned as an in-person gathering in Leeds, with virtual involvement possible for those who are unable to attend in person.

Please submit documents in PDF or Word doc by 26 September 2022 by email to both:

  • – Kenna L. Olsen, Mount Royal University, Oecologies Co-director
  • – Sarah-Nelle Jackson, University of British Columbia, Oecologies Advisory Council Member

“On the Sea and Coastal Ecologies:Early Modern Pasts and Uncertain Futures”: A SEA symposium at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory May 19-20, 2022

“Sea,” the second part of multi-year collaboration “Earth, Sea, Sky,” took place at the UC Davis Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory in May.  The project’s principal investigators are Dr. Tiffany Jo Werth (University of California, Davis), Dr. Bronwen Wilson (University of California, Los Angeles), Dr. Lyle Massey (University of California, Irvine) and international collaborators, Dr. Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Tom White (University of Oxford).

By: Lyle Massey (University of California, Irvine) and Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia)

Two years of scholarly events that focused on early modern conceptions of the Sea (which also comprised the second part of a multi-year, international collaboration on the theme of “Earth, Sea, Sky”) culminated in a conference held on May 19th and 20th, 2022, at the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute at Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay, California. Organized by a UCHRI working group whose principal investigators are Tiffany Jo Werth (UC Davis), Bronwen Wilson (UCLA), and Lyle Massey (UC Irvine),  “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures” combined paper presentations and workshops exploring and addressing themes such as:

  • Queering oceanic voyages 
  • Sounding ocean depths and charting sea surfaces
  • Untangling coastal ecologies
  • Exploring horizons and poles
  • Representing “blue” geographies (islands, currents, flows, littorals, dikes)
  • Tracing flows of racial capital
  • Navigating the interfaces of early modern Environmental Humanities and current research in the marine sciences.

The Marine Laboratory is situated near the disputed landing of Sir Francis Drake in 1579, and thus was an appropriate setting for a conference intended to challenge early modern coastal narratives and reinvigorate scholarship on sea/land interfaces in colonial history. Originally home to the Helapattai, Hime-takala, Ho-takala, Suwutenne, Tiwut-huya, and Tokau, and the Geluatamal tribes (Coastal Miwok and Southern Pomo), the Marine Lab is now a scientific institution dedicated to studying ocean and coastal ecologies.

The conference began with a tour of the facilities that included a visit to the salt water tanks holding marine life, and was followed by a lecture on the history of the Bay, and on the second day, a guided walk around the reserve on the bluffs overlooking the ocean, during which whales, swimming parallel to the shore, were seen spouting.

Direct confrontation with the shore environment set the stage for the conference’s multiple, engaged questions about embodied interactions with the sea’s materiality. The first session of the first day brought together three papers, Liam Lewis (French, Liverpool) “Medieval Deluge and Drownings: Ovid and the Bestiary,” Sara Sisun (Art History, UC Irvine) “Consider the Lobster: Ecocriticism and the Early Modern Crustacean” and Todd Borlik (English, Huddersfield) “Pericles, the Fisheries, and the Ecomaterial History of Purple.” All three explored different ways in which the sea is imagined as a fecund medium from which religious, sexual and commercial identities are extracted, while also being represented as tamed and controlled even as it signals chaos.  The afternoon session was comprised of papers presented by Alison Maas (English, UC Davis) “Coast as Crisis: Narratives, Ecologies, and Politics of the California Coast,” Rachel Kase (Art History, Boston University) “Rising Tides, Coastal Concerns: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Images of the Shoreline,” and Andrés Reséndez (History, UC Davis) “Opening the Pacific.” In this session, papers explored the way coasts mark instability, from a beached whale signifying the insecure relationship early modern Netherlanders had with their own coast, to the shifting political and intellectual grounds that underscore thinking about coasts in both present and historical terms, to changes in navigation and its effects on colonial enterprises when the patterns of gyres became understood. As the ensuing discussion made clear, the early modern period is often seen as a pre-industrial era retroactively viewed as a harmonious utopia. But the papers in this session belied this, exploring anxiety about events, crises, and the intertwined process of grappling with and looking away from environmental instability.

Dividing the two sessions were two workshops, one, on poetry, and guided by Liam Lewis (French, Liverpool) and Vin Nardizzi (English, UBC), on the theme of Eisteddfod (‘Sitting’): Queering Oceanic Voyages; and the other organized by Todd Borlik (English, Huddersfield) and Tiffany Jo Werth (English, UC Davis) on the theme of Coastal Ecologies and Underwater Worlds.

On the conference’s second day, the morning session’s presentations were by Mike Ziser (English, UC Davis) “Dead Seas: Reclamation and Exhumation in the Fenlands,” Sarah Mallory (Art History, Harvard) “Tender Lands: Depictions of Peat Digging in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscape,” and Hillary Eklund (English, Loyola University) “Rereading the Greedy Gulf.” In this session, presenters examined questions of environmental exploitation and extraction, from the reclamation of the Fens on the coast of England, to the effects of peat extraction and the drying of Dutch wetlands on visual conceptions of land and landscape, to literary conceptions of the Gulf as a greedy, swallowing entity.

The group watches a presentation about the history of the Marine Lab.

This was followed by a moderated discussion on Environmental Humanities and Contemporary Marine Science with discussants Rick Grosberg (Bodega Bay Marine Lab, UC Davis), John Largier (Director, Bodega Bay Marine Lab, UC Davis), M.A. Miller (UC Davis, Bilinski Fellow 2020), and Andrés Resendéz (History, UC Davis). Although the moderator, Steve Mentz (English, St. John’s University), was unable to attend in person due to flight complications, his questions prompted a lively conversation. The opening question, “How does the sea/shoreline shape your work,” prompted a rich reminiscence of encounters with and aversions to the oceanic. The next question explored “Disciplinary differences,” prompting presenters to consider how they understand the way that respective disciplines shaped how they did research and how they approached the sea. The discussion turned next to what might be learned from inter-disciplinary dialogue. The third question asked more directly about “studying the ocean,” and how the sea / shoreline featured in research, teaching, and writing. Finally, the roundtable concluded on a personal note, asking the discussants to reflect on what non-research related interactions with the sea were most meaningful.

The conference’s final session included presenters Elisa Antonietta Daniele (Art History, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow, UCLA) “Baroque Shores. Seawater’s Mimesis in Early 17th-Century Turin and the Transalpine Savoy Duchy,” Kirsten Schuhmacher (English, UC Davis) “Of things yet to come: Prolepsis in Nova Albion,” and Bronwen Wilson (Art History, UCLA) “Marco Boschini’s Island Navigations: Il Regno tutto di Candia (1651).” All three presentations explored instances  in which borders and limits have been imposed on land and ocean in an effort to contain their meaning while failing to solidify such constraints, from ephemeral enclosures meant to stand for the sea in theatrical performances, to Sir Francis Drake’s rhetorical reframing of North America as Nova Albion (a mirror image of England, connected by the oceans), to a Mediterranean island that is spatially inverted and imagined as a horizon projected through the sea rather than merely seen as a landmass in the water.

The conference ended with a discussion led by Vin Nardizzi and Lyle Massey.

Vin Nardizzi and Lyle Massey give closing remarks

In summation, the two days of rich scholarship and sustained engagement showed the inherent instability of so many narratives used to define oceans, seas and coasts. The coast in particular, which seems like a stable, material marker between land and sea, is more permeable than immediately apparent, dissolving into wetlands that are neither fully land nor sea, a constantly shifting and changing demarcation between elements, and a highly charged locus of exchange and transference.

Notes from the Coast: an Oecologies Reading Group

Ashley Sarpong, Yale University

On Earth Day, Friday, April 22, 2022, the Oecologies research cluster convened a final virtual reading group for the 2021-2022 year, led by Dr. Tiffany Werth, to discuss accounts of Sir Francis Drake’s 1579 landing in the San Francisco Bay area using an ecocritical lens. The discussion centered on three excerpts from the sixteenth-century narrative of Drake’s landing in the “fair and good bay” near San Francisco, and selections from two works of scholarship: Melissa Darby’s Thunder Go North: The Hunt for Sir Francis Drake’s Fair and Good Bay (University of Utah Press, 2019) and Matthew Morse Booker’s Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between the Tides (University of California Press, 2013). Werth began the discussion with a return to Melody Jue’s “volumetrics,” which postulates thinking more firmly in terms of aquatic environs; it’s a term that has been a touchstone throughout our discussions of the “Sea” this year. In particular, Werth asked the group to consider: “What are methodologies through which we can theorize the coast aquatically and as a meeting place between sea and land?” Or, “how can we think about the coast as a place of exchange between earth and sea?”  

To begin, the group turned to Booker’s piece, a lyrical meditation on the bioregion of the San Francisco Bay, where indigenous Ohlone populations lived at “the bay’s edge” (23) and where millions of others live today.  Booker emphasizes the variability over time of both coasts and sea levels, which place the coast in a dynamic relationship with the sea and with human practices of urbanization and land reclamation. Moreover, the group considered how the coast can be understood in terms of infrastructures. As Booker explains, “the ports, the industrial districts and downtown skyscrapers, and the rail network and highways…maintains a powerful regional economy… [yet] [m]ost people rarely notice this infrastructure and fewer recognize that natural places are part of the productivity that society depends upon” (4). As such, the group considered how the coast functioned as a meeting place between the sea and the earth as well as a dialectic between the human and non-human world.

After this analysis of Booker’s piece, the group turned to the primary texts: descriptions Sir Francis Drake’s landing near the San Francisco Bay in “The famous voyage of Sir Francis Drake…about the whole globe of the earth, begun in the year of our Lord, 1577” as it appears in Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations (ed. Jack Beecher) and in the anthologies The Literature of Renaissance England ( eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode) and The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed. (eds. George M. Logan, Stephen Greenblatt and Barbara K. Lewaslski). These different anthologies describe Drake’s arrival in a “fair and good bay, with good wind to enter the same.” The group analyzed how notions of value and skin color undergird this first encounter with the landscape. Additionally, the group examined Drake’s decision to name “this country Nova Albion, and that for two causes: the one in respect the white banks and cliffs which lie towards the sea; and the other, because it might have some affinity with our country in name, which sometimes was so called.” Drake’s decision to name the San Francisco Bay area a “new” England functions as an ecological analogy that links the “white cliffs” on the Pacific coast and England’s coast on the Strait of Dover.

Next the group turned to Melissa Darby’s text Thunder Go North. Of particular interest to the group were the ways in which the narrative(s) of Drake’s landing operated in an information blackout. Darby argues that “Drake’s land claim included a vast amount of territory he did not see, and therefore could not have legitimately claimed by the tenets of the time. Darby interrogates Drake’s claims by assessing the incomplete and concealed records of the voyage: “the latitudes he reached on the west coast of America were not the ones reported in the official record of the claim” (5). Strikingly, Darby compares the spiritual practices of indigenous peoples on the coasts of Oregon and southern Washington to the ethnographic descriptions of the indigenous peoples in the narrative of Drake’s landing, and she concludes that Drake likely landed in northern Oregon/southern Washington, not the San Francisco Bay. Placing the anthologized narratives in conversation with Darby’s attempts to correct the narrative, the group discussed the how Drake’s landing in “a fair and good bay” (of San Francisco or elsewhere) entangles the ecological, colonial, and ethnographic. This web, the group observed, featured prominently in the highly detailed description of Drake’s “set[ting] up a monument…of her Majesty’s right and title” to the land. This performance of land possession sparked a closing line of discussion: in the midst of a global reckoning with the legacies of colonial dispossession and the call to rename monuments to racist and colonial violences, should Drake’s landing still bear its name? Considering that Drake may not actually have landed in the place that bears his name (Drake’s Bay), what does it mean to rename something that never was?

By the end of the day’s discussion, it became clear that thinking about coasts meant thinking dialectically: the coast as a dialectic between ocean and land; the coast as a dialectic between the human and nonhuman; the coast as a dialectic between colonial exercises and indigenous life-ways. In this vital context of where sea meets land, this final conversation rounded out our discussions in November and March about premodern ecologies of “the Sea.”

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 the Sea: An Oecologies Reading Group

Tiffany Jo Werth, University of California, Davis

On Saturday, November 13th, 2021, Dr. Tom White led a discussion amongst fifteen scholars from the U.S, the U.K., and Canada that engaged with two recent blue humanities publications: a chapter on “Interface” from Melody Jue’s Wild Blue Media: Thinking Through Seawater (Duke University Press, 2020) and an essay, “Noise on the Ocean Before ‘Pollution’: The Voyage of Saint Brendan,” by Liam Lewis (forthcoming in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment). (Lewis is a core member of “Earth, Sea, Sky.”) Tom White opened the discussion by prompting members to think beyond the technologically mediated space of the sea: what happens when we move beyond accounts of instrumental mapping or measurement to consider Jue’s conceptual term “volumetric”?  What new perspectives might we gain if we approach oceanic materials through a “volumetric” that asks questions of duration, pressure, and saturation rather than reads for more usual terms like “surface” and “depth”? What are the volumetrics of ocean and sea noise?

The conversation currents flowed from the recent documentary on Jacques Cousteau that opens Lewis’s essay to medieval texts such as Havelock and biblical stories (Jonah and the Whale), to Marlowe’s early modern poem Hero and Leander. We talked about the difference between sound as human effect (voice, speech, rhythm) and noise as nonhuman phenomenon that might generate a disruption of human logos. At what point does rhyme becomes a hubbub? How might lyric be simultaneously transformative and also a drunken sea shanty such as we hear in The Tempest? Is rhyme surface or is it a deep embrace? Song, one participant noted, was also a practical tool of sea labor. The repetition of sound might measure the passage of time (and servitude) as well as provide formal literary structure.

Another current followed how we might rethink notions of “pressure.” How might this consideration extend to a scholar’s own sense of pressure to publish, to be productive and to meet university metrics? The physical process of decompression within diving lessons was posed as a useful model for rethinking how to release “pressure.” Intensities of color and saturation were additional art-historical concepts posed as offering “volumetric” ways of thinking through the sea that move us away from textual of language-based forms of analysis.  Finally, recent debates about “surface” reading were tossed around, and a lively conversation ensued about how the term “volumetrics” might shift the debate.

The reading group was a great chance to restart conversations for the 2021/2022 academic year.  Stay tuned for the winter (February 18) and spring (April 22) reading groups that will begin to transition our collective conversation to axis points where sea meets sky. 

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.

Year End Report 2020/2021 for “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures”

Tiffany Jo Werth, University of California, Davis

“Earth, Sea, Sky” (ESS) is an international research network collaborating with, and under the umbrella of, Oecologies. It fosters new international dialogue in studies of medieval and early modern literature and visual culture. Its central aim is to examine the varied and contested premodern approaches to the natural world, as well as how this premodern archive resonates with contemporary concerns around environmental degradation and global warming. This research network spans three years, 2019-2022, with each year being devoted to one domain. In the past year, the Earth, Sea, Sky project focused on the medieval and early modern understandings of the sea. For a list of the research network members and their affiliations, including those whose work I describe below, please see the end of this post. 

As one of the leaders for the “Sea” node of the ESS network, it is my pleasure to reflect on our various research exchanges and to point you to the horizon for upcoming events.  While many of us missed the opportunity to gather face to face in 2020/2021, the “Sea” research network nonetheless created a vibrant, virtual space for ongoing conversations across oceans and continents. During the academic year, “Sea” participants held three virtual reading groups, two research exchanges for members, a jointly run graduate course, and two adjacent symposia co-sponsored by the University of California Irvine Early Cultures research group and the Clark Library. An overview of our activities can be viewed here:

We began in May of 2020 with a reading group that met via zoom to discuss Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s essay “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage”

 (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14. 2-3 (2008): 191-215), selected by Mo Pareles.  The virtual discussion explored how the absence in the archives of records pertaining to queer experiences among enslaved persons creates the opportunity to reimagine what composes a scholarly archive and to speculate on what a queer philology might look like. 

In October of 2020, the reading group reconvened to discuss three essays chosen by Vin Nardizzi, Debapriya Sarkar, and Tom White to demonstrate diverse scholarly approaches to the sea: Helen M. Rozwadowski, “A Long Sea Story” from her Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (2018), and Renisa Mawani, “The Free Sea” from her Across Oceans of Law (2018), and, Surabhi Ranganathan’s ArcGIS collection of mini-essays, “The Law of the Sea” (2020). Although divided into three zoom break out rooms, each room contributed its own oceanic ecological thread with conversations exploring relationships between depth and surface, especially the etymology of “fathom-line” as a means of thinking about “ocean as method.” 

In December, international members of the ESS network met via zoom to do a brief research exchange: Todd Borlik, Debapriya Sarkar, Liam Lewis, and Bronwen Wilson each presented work-in-progress. Borlik connected a map from Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina (1539) to the ongoing conflict over fishing rights in Scandinavia. Sarkar explored Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania (1621) to investigate how the representation of islands and shores reflect the imperial ambitions of England. Lewis explored medieval representations of noise and sound to show how they are culturally managed and can, if understood, have positive effect on the wildlife of the ocean. Wilson discussed how the compass, or wind rose, might mediate between the abstract lines of a cartographic grid and the elemental force of the sea and embodied viewers. 

In January, the University of California multi-campus faculty working group came together for a formal zoom research share event. Presentations from Andrés Reséndez, Lyle Massey, Yve Chavez, Benjamin Madley, Zirwat Chowdhury, and Bronwen Wilson focused on their current research into early depictions of coastal ecologies. A common thread in the exchange was the lack of scholarly focus on the Pacific Coast as a vibrant place of early modern exchange. A full report of that gathering can be found here: 

In winter term, Lyle Massey and Bronwen Wilson conducted graduate seminars on the Sea at University of California, Irvine and University of California, Los Angeles. The classes came together for four meetings to engage with invited speakers, one of whom was Kevin Dawson from University of California Merced. They also co-led a reading group on the topic of “Notes from the Artic,” which included discussions of two texts: “Arctic Ink” by Christopher Heuer (2019) and “Going Glacial” by Lowell Duckert (2017). In the discussion that followed, the group noted how early modern Western explorers grappled with writing about the Arctic, finding its elemental conditions to defy human modes of representation. 

In April, the “Sea” working group partnered with the Center for Early Cultures to present “Sea Sense” ( The conference spotlighted both narrative and representational aspects of the distinction in the early modern period between land and sea. Presenters explored the possibilities that oceans offer for “thinking with ecocriticism in a deep historical context.” The three day event included a roundtable discussion of Kevin Dawson’s book Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora, a keynote by Steve Mentz on “Swimming out of Africa, 50,000 BCE to ‘The Tempest,’” a special presentation of the coauthored volume Conchophilia: Shells, Art, and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe, anda joint lecture by Jeffrey Cohen and Julian Yates on “How to Think Like an Ark.” A graduate student conference closed the symposia with papers on “The Sea: Mobility, Ingenuity, and Ecology in the Early Modern World.” A link to the video of the Sea Sense conference is available here: 

Finally, in May, an associated symposium, From Sea to Sky: Early Modern Horizons, co-organized by Vin Nardizzi and Bronwen Wilson was hosted by the Clark Library at University of California, Los Angeles. It featured talks by faculty members Robert Watson, Ayasha Guerin, Joseph Monteyne, and Bronwen Wilson, as well as a graduate student panel with Nicolyna Enriquez, Abigail Berry, and Cynthia Fang. For abstracts of the talks, see 

Two additional events, a reading group to be led by Andrés Reséndez (UC Davis) and myself on the history and scholarship around the contested landing and location of Sir Francis Drake’s “fair and good bay” and a concluding symposium in conversation with the faculty from the UC Davis Coastal Science Institute at the Bodega Bay Marine Lab, have been postponed to 2022 due to ongoing regulations regarding COVID-19. Stay tuned for updates about these events in the coming year. 

Meanwhile, in August, we look forward to some of our members participating in a digital Environmental Humanities conference on the topic of “Transtemporal Seascapes” hosted by the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm, Sweden.

All of these digital events have been supported by various partner institutions, and their assistance with organizing and their commitment to our project have been critical to the success of these meetings. We look forward to developing further these connections and research along the Pacific Coast with our national and international partners in research.

PI: Tiffany Jo Werth, Department of English UC Davis 

Co-PI’s: Lyle Massey, Department of Art History, UC Irvine and Bronwen Wilson, Department of Art History UCLA. 

University of California Humanities Research Institute Multicampus Faculty Working Group:

Yve Chavez, History of Art and Visual Culture, UC Santa Cruz

Zirwat Chowdhury, Art History, UC Los Angeles

Kevin Dawson, History, UC Merced

Benjamin Madley, History, UC Los Angeles

Andrés Reséndez, History, UC Davis

Charlene Villaseñor Black, Art History, UC Los Angeles

Mike Ziser, English, UC Davis

International cohort: 

Hilary Eklund, English, Loyola University, New Orleans

Liam Lewis, French Literature, University of Liverpool 

Vin Nardizzi, English, University of British Columbia 

Mo Pareles, English, University of British Columbia 

Debapriya Sarkar, English and Maritime Studies, University of Connecticut 

Tom White, English, Oxford University  

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.

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