Oecologies CFP: “Climates of Consciousness” (IMC Leeds 2021)

Call for Papers for Session Proposals
at the International Medieval Congress (IMC 2021)
Sponsored by the Oecologies Research Cluster
05–08 July 2021
University of Leeds

These sessions seek to explore how space and form — ecologies of consciousness — inform, challenge, and perpetuate reading, writing, consideration, and understanding in the medieval and early modern eras. Focusing on the “climates” of perceptions, philosophies, and cosmologies of the premodern world, they query and explore how immediate and perceived environments created and generated texts and concepts from the medieval and early modern eras that are reliant on aspects of form, both imagined and real. How do the ecological proclivities of premodern cultures and understandings inform our exploration of the past, present, and future?

Suggested topics, on any geographic area, may include, but are not limited to:

  • landscape and place studies
  • textual forms
  • environmental humanities
  • systems of thought
  • world building, “built” worlds, and their environment
  • relationships between “climates” of thought, literatures, and philosophies
  • ecological intersections in cultural outputs or paradigms

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.

Please submit a 250-word proposal for a 15- to 20-minute paper. Proposals should include an abstract and accompanying one-page CV including email, current affiliation, and position. Please submit proposals as PDF or Word files by 25 September 2020 by email to both:

  • david_coley@sfu.ca — David Coley, Simon Fraser University, Co-Director, Oecologies Research Cluster, and
  • kolsen@mtroyal.ca — Kenna Olsen, Mount Royal University, Advisory Council Member, Oecologies Research Cluster

For more on the Oecologies Research Cluster, please see oecologies.com.

The Year in Review, 2019-2020

Dear friends of Oecologies:

As my last task as Outgoing Director, I want to report on the group’s happenings and to get you excited about what we’re planning for the upcoming academic year. The year-in-review is, in my experience, never an easy genre in which to write. And it is one I rarely enjoy reading. How do I strike the right tone? How do I fondly recall past gatherings and individual successes without humble-bragging? How do we attract new friends of Oecologies? Perhaps more to the point for this year, what is there to say in an annual roundup of 2019-20 that is not trite, over-sentimental, and akin to a sound-byte?

Running such risks, this is what I will say: Oecologies has transformed itself over the course of the last year. The changes hearten me greatly; they have not always been easy to make happen; and they are a work-in-progress, so please join us as we steer Oecologies in the next decade. In the meantime, let me show you what’s new with us.

In solidarity with BLM and BIPOC academics whose scholarship, historically, isn’t cited or acknowledged, we reimagined our bimonthly reading group. Under the care and guidance of Mo Pareles, we now read this work, with the hope that we will engage it in our ecocritical projects in medieval and early modern studies. Our first reading group for the year will take place, virtually, on 2 October 2020 at 10:00 AM PST. It contributes to the “Earth, Sea, Sky” project that flies under the Oecologies banner. Our readings will concern the sea and early modern maritime cultures; they will include writings by Renisa Mawani (Sociology, UBC), Helen M. Rozwadowski (History, University of Connecticut), and Surabhi Ranganathan (International Law, King’s College). If you interested in this event, please email me for further details. We expect such reading-group programming to continue through 2021, so stay tuned for a full schedule.

In response to the global pandemic, Oecologies will host a virtual event, “In the Wake,” which will be held on Zoom on 23 October 2020 from 1:00-2:30 PM PST. This moderated conversation is the brainchild of my Oecologies colleagues, David Coley (Simon Fraser University), the prize-winning author of a recent book on plague in medieval literature, and Derrick Higginbotham (University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa). It will feature Urvashi Chakravarty (English, Toronto), Gabriel Rocha (History, Brown), Rebecca Totaro (English, Florida Gulf Coast University), and Elaine Treharne (English, Stanford). Here is the event’s formal description:

Speakers will take as their stepping-off point our contemporary social and cultural moment, one in which the sudden cataclysm of a global pandemic seems to be catalyzing a series of social, cultural, political, and economic changes that would have been difficult to imagine a year ago. This paradigm—of response, recovery, and perhaps re-creation in the wake of pandemic—resonates with similar moments of social change in the medieval and early modern world, where change, progressive and/or reactionary, has followed plague, war, natural disaster, and human-made political catastrophe. The virtual symposium will consider what our study of such moments in the past might reveal about our present and, conversely, what our current moment of turmoil might suggest about similar crises in the past? 

Details about this event will be advertised on social media soon by Sarah-Nelle Jackson (UBC PhD), our new influencer.

In mentioning my colleagues David Coley and Derrick Higginbotham, I allude to a change in governance that Oecologies has just formalized. David and Derrick are now the group’s co-directors: David will serve for one more year, and Derrick for two. As of this writing, in other words, I am no longer co-supervising the operations of the group I co-founded in 2012 with Tiffany Jo Werth and colleagues at UBC and SFU. Cue the sentiments. 

First, excitement. I can think of no two better folk to be running Oecologies than David and Derrick. Smart, progressive and forward-thinking, responsible: all come to mind when I think of words to describe them. And they won’t be fine-tuning a new vision for Oecologies alone. Joining them as members of the Oecologies Advisory Council are Allan Mitchell (University of Victoria), Courtney Barajas (Whitworth), Sharon O’Dair (Alabama), Noah Guynn (UC Davis), Leila Kate Norako (University of Washington), and Kenna Olsen (Mt. Royal University), as well as graduate representatives Breanne Weber (UC Davis PhD), Scott Russell (SFU PhD) and Kirsten Schuhmacher (UC Davis PhD). I am eager for the programming, including blog posts, reading groups, and further virtual events, that this team will put together as the pandemic continues to modify how scholars share their research and socialize. To get a sense of what could happen, check out the range of events recorded in “2019-2020 Season” on our website.

Second, elegy. Rotating off the Oecologies council with me are dear friends and long-time collaborators Frances E. Dolan (UC Davis), Louisa Mackenzie (UW), and Mo Pareles (UBC), as well as graduate representatives and students extraordinaire Alexander Cosh (UBC PhD) and Karol Pasciano (UBC MA 2020!). I have immense gratitude for their heroic efforts in solidifying a foundation upon which Oecologies will continue to thrive and for having had to the opportunity to play, seriously and joyously, with them (and all the other Oecologists, especially Tiffany Jo Werth, Patricia Badir, and Robert Rouse) during the last several years. 

This year, more difficult than writing a year-in-review is perhaps figuring out how to sign-off on any communication. What to say? Stay well, be kind to yourselves, your colleagues, and your students, and I hope to “see” you soon.

Vin Nardizzi
University of British Columbia

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

David K. Coley, Simon Fraser University

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are now three months into a global pandemic.

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

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

I have some thoughts about why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________

Notes

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

David Coley Wins 2020 Labarge Prize

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

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

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

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

On the Sea: Reading Notes

Vin Nardizzi, University of British Columbia

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

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

Statement from Oecologies Board of Directors

As a scholarly organization that considers environmental and ecological issues within the premodern and early modern world, Oecologies is also fundamentally concerned with histories of imperialism and colonial exploitation, as well as with the coeval problems of white supremacy and racial inequality. The ongoing crisis of police violence and the murder of people of color, exemplified most recently by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, is only the latest reminder of the racism and inequity that suffuses all aspects of American and Canadian life, including within the academy itself. Oecologies offers our strong support to those who are working to address the structural and institutional inequalities both within and outside the academy, to those protesting white supremacy and other systems of oppression, and to those standing for positive structural change within their communities.

As we have in the past, Oecologies commits to promoting the work of BIPOC scholars within medieval studies, early modern studies, and the environmental humanities. We will continue to work at making our own organization, as well as the scholarly fields and public communities with which it intersects, safer, more welcoming, and more equitable.

Directors of Oecologies

– David K. Coley, Simon Fraser University

– Vin Nardizzi, University of British Columbia

– Sharon O’Dair, University of Alabama, Emerita

Mourning Becomes California, or New Reflections on Slow Shakespeare

Sharon O’Dair, University of Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mo Pareles, University of British Columbia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

[5] Govindrajan 12.

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

Topsell’s Hare

Martha Alexandra, University of California, Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oecologies Reading Group Session II

We are proud to announce the second meeting of the Oecologies reading group, to be held on November 21st at 2:30 pm PST. Our reading for this meeting will be the introduction to Radhika Govindrajan’s Animal Intimacies.

We welcome any and all scholars to this meeting, and we particularly welcome the participation of graduate students from any institution. 

Please RSVP to mo.pareles -[at]- ubc.ca or scott_russell -[at]- sfu.ca for the reading and technical directions. If you require audiovisual access accommodations, please let us know when you RSVP.

We look forward to seeing you all in November!