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.”

“Cymbeline and the Anthropocene” at the Montana State University Black Box Theatre

Randall Martin, emeritus, University of New Brunswick

Friends and fellow Oecologists, Cymbeline in the Anthropocene is pleased to announce the culmination of our eco-Shakespeare in performance project. It is an international network of seven site-specific productions of Shakespeare’s tragi-comic romance, Cymbeline. Each production seeks to adapt the play’s range of stories, emotions, and terrains to contemporary environmental conditions in the hope of opening audiences’ imaginations to new biocentric and planetary horizons.  

Between July 18-20, our research team and theatre-makers from four continents will gather in Bozeman, Montana at the Montana State University Black Box Theatre for a hybrid symposium showcasing the work of seven ecodramatugically reinvented productions of Cymbeline

Most of the symposium sessions will be free and open to the public, both in-person and via live-streaming on the Cymbeline in the Anthropocene YouTube channel:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjXyG97JhOt2ukDaMPgSdfw.

After the symposium, full-length video from the featured performances will remain freely available on our channel.

For the event poster and a full program, click here: 

https://www.cymbeline-anthropocene.com/calendar

Whether you join us in Bozeman or virtually, we hope you enjoy this celebration of thee+ years of ecological research and theatrical innovation! 

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: https://oecologies.com/earth-sea-sky/sea/

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: https://oecologies.com/2021/04/06/notes-from-on-the-sea-and-coastal-ecologies-early-modern-pasts-and-uncertain-futures-virtual-research-share/ 

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” (https://sites.uci.edu/seasense/). 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: https://drive.google.com/file/d/12FoB_Y-s_wcUBTV4NgVwLBvM9YZV7TmA/view 

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  http://www.1718.ucla.edu/events/sea-to-sky/ 

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. https://www.meetstreams.com/streams-2021/

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.

https://uchri.org/awards/on-the-sea-and-coastal-ecologies-early-modern-pasts-and-uncertain-futures/

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.

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

Jastej Luddu and Fenn Stewart1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

Reading Notes from the Arctic: an Oecologies Reading Group

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

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

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

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

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

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