Notes from “Ecologies and Economics: Premodern Extractions”

Chelsea Keane, University of California- Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiffany Jo Werth, University of California, Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PI: Tiffany Jo Werth, Department of English UC Davis 

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

University of California Humanities Research Institute Multicampus Faculty Working Group:

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

Zirwat Chowdhury, Art History, UC Los Angeles

Kevin Dawson, History, UC Merced

Benjamin Madley, History, UC Los Angeles

Andrés Reséndez, History, UC Davis

Charlene Villaseñor Black, Art History, UC Los Angeles

Mike Ziser, English, UC Davis

International cohort: 

Hilary Eklund, English, Loyola University, New Orleans

Liam Lewis, French Literature, University of Liverpool 

Vin Nardizzi, English, University of British Columbia 

Mo Pareles, English, University of British Columbia 

Debapriya Sarkar, English and Maritime Studies, University of Connecticut 

Tom White, English, Oxford University  

Notes from “Common Environments: Public-Facing Research and Premodern Cultures”

Sharon O’Dair, University of Alabama

On April 9, 2021, the Oecologies Research Cluster hosted a Zoom webinar on the topic of Common Environments:  Public-Facing Research and Premodern Cultures.  Moderating the event was Courtney Barajas (Whitworth) and presenters were Brenna Duperron (Dalhousie), Ruben Espinosa (Texas, El Paso), Sarah-Nelle Jackson (UBC), and Jeffrey Wilson (Harvard).  Approximately twenty-five colleagues from around the country joined the discussion.  

In a time of ecological, institutional, and professional precarities, the webinar asked how public scholarship—in theory and praxis—fits into these contexts. Panelists discussed their own public-facing research and theorized what such research is, and what it might be. Recognizing that public scholarship especially affects graduate students and early-career PhDs, the organizers solicited panelists at these stages of their careers.  Three of the four panelists are not on a tenure ladder.

Brenna Duperron proposed to counter the imperialist and colonialist leanings of medieval studies by reshaping methodology, how scholars learn to know and how they teach. In “Unsettling Classrooms: Shifting the Landscape of Analysis,” she asks us to slow down and to learn from the Mi’kmaq theory of etuaptmumk or Two-Eyed Seeing. Coined by Mi’kmaw Elder Dr. Albert Marshall, etuaptmumk integrates Western academic norms with Indigenous ways of knowing. Two-Eyed Seeing is about life: what you do, what responsibilities you have to live on Earth. It allows practitioners to look for another perspective, different perspectives, and better ways of doing. Duperron offers a reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that invokes not just a tale of an “Indigenous” Green Knight fighting an “English” Sir Gawain but a proto-colonialist fantasy of a “supremacist” civilizations right to conquer. Her method highlights, too, the potential for the Green Knight to reverse the colonization onto Camelot.

Ruben Espinosa shifted the discussion from literary works to the profession itself, the common environment we all share. In “Race, Racism, and our Common Environments,” Espinosa complained about the ways white Shakespeareans continue to dismiss the work of Shakespeareans engaging in critical race theory.  These white Shakespeareans suggest that such work is faddish, undisciplined.  Even, perhaps, uneducated. It is not real research, say these racist white gatekeepers in Shakespeare Studies; it’s politics and activism, aimed not just at the profession but the larger society as well.  The implication is that diversity and serious intellectual work are not compatible.  Such a judgment, always implicit, never spoken to the faces of scholars of color, constitutes a visceral attack, leading these scholars, usually young, and often part of the academic precariat, to wonder whether the academy really is a common environment, one in which they are welcome. Espinosa concluded by reminding his white colleagues that “inaction is complicity,” that each time they address a Shakespeare play, they must think about racism, about the ways the play does or has supported white supremacy. 

Sarah-Nelle Jackson represents the young, precarious would-be academic whose scholarship threatens to undermine her field’s norms, or her job prospects in academia. Jackson’s research goes beyond literary texts to explore video games as a medium for defamiliarizing the Western-colonial relationship to landscape and environment. Her talk, “Accidents of Accuracy: Neomedieval (O)ecologies of and against Empire,” analyses the medievalism in game design, arguing that “to play in neomedievalism is to engage in inaccuracies.”  Such popular neomedievalisms constitute a cultural stronghold, supported by capitalism and reinforcing a logic of colonialism, a logic of linear progress.  Jackson imagines video games—and a dissertation that will include one—that subvert neocolonial, conquest-as-progress narrative design by foregrounding environmental accuracy in games’ medievalisms, such as devastating earthquakes, crop failures, or disease.  In short, failure, not success: imperial failure, colonial failure, ecological failure. Jackson imagines games that embrace and refashion medieval Romances, such as Morte d’Arthur, with an aim to undermine the juggernaut of conquest. Such revisioning will, she thinks, make the games more interesting and just as challenging. More broadly, Jackson asks us to think about the ways interactive media can provoke disorienting, challenging, and entertaining environmental encounters.

In “Toward a Center for Public Shakespeare,” Jeffrey Wilson goes beyond Espinosa’s plea for a more open and welcoming profession of Shakespeareans to advocate for a Public Shakespeare that is “of, by, and for all people.  Its program is radically inclusive and fundamentally democratic early-modern scholarship engaged with the most important ideas and social issues of our time.” Wilson’s efforts to achieve this program range from a first-year course at Harvard University—Why Shakespeare?—to an oral history of Shakespeareans engaged in various forms of Public Shakespeare to an argument for Shakespeareans to learn about public engagement from theater professionals.  But his principal aim is the “emergence of a Public Shakespeare Network, a decentralized, grassroots movement supporting communities and scholars looking to think about, with, through, and against Shakespeare and other early-modern literature beyond the confines of academia.”  This is the goal, and the exigencies of the pandemic year have made clear that a required turn to all-digital production and exchange in academia heralds a new turn for such a network, even perhaps, the establishment of a digital Center for Public Shakespeare, one with “no budget, no by-laws, no board of directors”—only a vision and a passion for a Shakespeare that belongs to all. 

After Wilson’s jaunty talk, moderator Barajas opened the floor to the audience, who, like this writer, were energized by the proposals just delivered to enlarge scholars’ presence in the real and virtual worlds but also skeptical of its realization.  One questioner addressed Jackson to ask what it would take for her to realize the dissertation she had just proposed.  Her answer: “to change the meaning of the dissertation.”  Another questioner asked the panelists if their proposals would fundamentally alter or dismantle the status hierarchy of institutions in premodern studies.  As Jackson said of her dissertation, “I’ll report back when I finish.”  So must we all.

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. 


[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, 

[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,

[6] April Anson, “Apocalypse and settler/colonial climate change,” 2020,

[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. 

[11] Whyte, “Cultures of Energy,” 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,

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: For all updates on future “Sea” events, please consult the dedicated landing page:

Finally, to help build our working bibliography on premodern coastal ecologies, please send relevant references to Laura Hutchingame:

Inventing the Past at the Virginia Dare Winery

Frances E. Dolan, University of California, Davis

Back when I was freer to explore California, I was driving with my partner through Sonoma County, heading south on US 101, when I spotted a sign for the Virginia Dare winery in Geyserville. Recognizing the name, I urged him to pull over so we could check it out. What we quickly discovered was a rebranding of one of Francis Ford Coppola’s wineries.

Why did I want to investigate and why am I sharing this with you now? As many will recall, Virginia Dare was the first child born to English Colonists in America (in 1587). But what I did not know at first, and what might be less familiar to other pre-modernists, is that Virginia Dare was also the name of a popular brand of wine, indeed the most popular wine made in the United States between 1835 (when the company was founded) and prohibition. Coppola bought the brand name in 2013 and began releasing Virginia Dare wines in 2014. The billboard that caught my eye repurposes the image and font of old Virginia Dare wine labels and advertising, and boasts of “American Wines since 1835.” But the winery’s website evokes stories about the sixteenth-century Virginia in ways I’d like to discuss. In mobilizing stories about the premodern past, while also reanimating the wine’s earlier branding, the winery’s website conjures a fantasy of Virginia as an icon for American identity conjured up in a period it never acknowledges: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when anti-immigrant and anti-black movements latched onto the birth and christening of a white baby girl as an origin story that served white supremacy.1

Coppola’s comments on why he wanted to call his winery Virginia Dare focus on the sixteenth century and his own memories from the twentieth century, rather than the period that connects the two. “The myth of Virginia Dare always intrigued me,” he confided to an interviewer, “and as a child I remember the wine because of the pretty blond girl on the label and the ‘Say it again, Virginia Dare’ jingle they used to advertise on the radio. . . . My goal is to revive the brand so that it isn’t lost to future generations.”2

But Virginia Dare is always, inevitably, lost. She was born on Roanoke Island in 1587. So, like everyone else in what was first christened the “Lost Colony” in the 1830s, Virginia disappeared from the historical record.3 She stands as a first, an origin. And not. We don’t know what happened to her. But we can know the history that linked Virginia Dare to wine. This is a history that the winery both depends on and suppresses.

The Paul Garrett wine company started producing Virginia Dare wine in the early twentieth century. At first the company relied on the scuppernong grape native to North Carolina and named the wine Virginia Dare, since she was born on the island where Scuppernong was supposed to have originated, Roanoke. But soon the demand exceeded the supply and the Garrett company began to rely on grapes imported from California, despite its emphasis on the local nature of its wine and the tie between Virginia Dare and the scuppernong.4 The Virginia Dare winery today engages in a similar slight of hand, pointing to a vine it has planted from a clipping of the “mother vine,” a supposedly 400-year-old scuppernong vine in Manteo, North Carolina that was most likely planted in the nineteenth century. This enables the winery to insert itself intowhat it calls “the rich heritage of American wine making”—despite the fact that it does not grow or use scuppernongs. Asserting that “this vine was cultivated in pre-colonial times by Native Americans, and by English colonists after them,” the winery’s website invents and appropriates aNative American winemaking tradition.5

The slight of hand goes farther than this. Known as “the big white” grape, the scuppernong was often praised in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in racialized terms, as historian Erika Hannickel shows. Writing in 1884, winemaker Warton J. Green, in a promotional brochure for his vineyard, claimed that the scuppernong was an especially valuable native grape, a “grape prodigy,” because its discovery was “coeval with Caucasian rule on the continent” and that scuppernong wines were more healthful because “pure’ and “without adulteration or artificial flavoring,” in contrast to foreign wines that were “impure and sophisticated abominations.”6 Whether he knows it or not, Green resurrects language used by Englishmen in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to justify growing grapes and making wine in England, rather than importing wine, which was often spoiled by the time it reached England and adulterated by various efforts to improve its taste . The earliest pitches for English winemaking were always about the close connections between wine and blood, the risks of imbibing foreign and contaminated drinks, as well as the costs of relying on imports. Wine has never been separable from race; indeed, it is part of the etymology of that term in English.7 The meaning of race specific to wine is an early word for “terroir,” what distinguishes one wine from others, and what binds soil, climate, plant, and human consumer. When Garrett branded his wine as local in its relation to North Carolina and Virginia Dare, he added a post-reconstruction layer to this association of wine, purity, and race. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that his early glass bottles were embossed with the confederate flag.8

Some of those bottles had the labels “Pocahontas” and “Minnehaha” as well as “Virginia Dare.”Here too, the new Virginia Dare winery follows the lead of its predecessor. It is currently closed because of the pandemic, but it sold Navajo jewelry in its store and its restaurant, Wero, served what it called Native American fare. The winery’s website, under the label “History and Mystery,” presents at some length a story it calls “a Native American myth” but that depends on one text it does not name, Sallie Southall Cotten’s lengthy poem, The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare: An Indian Legend, printed for the author in 1901, under the auspices of the Colonial Dames of America. Cotten wrote at a time when interest in Virginia Dare revived, leading to countless poems, novels, and pageants about her as well as a monument dedicated to her in 1923. Cotten, a white woman from the South, describes Roanoke Island as home to “a wealth of climbing vines and clustering grapes which point instinctively to grape culture” and also as “the first home of the English race in America,” tying those two together.9

Cotten’s poem is the source of the name for one of the Virginia Dare wines, “Two Arrowheads,” and of the “Legend of the White Doe,” presented on the winery’s website. The website’s legend, like Cotten’s text and many of the fantasies about Virginia Dare, imagine that she survived and grew to adulthood, living with Indians yet always remaining both apart from and above them. As the winery presents it, Virginia, transformed into a white doe by a jealous sorcerer, is simultaneously struck by a charmed arrowhead––which transforms her back into a woman––and by a silver arrowhead (which Cotten specifies was a gift from Queen Elizabeth I). As the winery’s version puts it:

As the two arrowheads pierced her heart, the white doe changed back into a fair maid, but it was too late. As she fell dying, she whispered her true name. Then she was gone.

And where she fell, the stories tell us, her blood soaked the soil. Lush grapes grew there, the white scuppernong variety cultivated by the locals. The fruit on the vines was forever stained with her blood. And that, the legend says, was how wine in the Americas became red.

Virginia Dare was her name. The White Doe. The first born of English descent in the new world. The woman whose myth became the legend of American wine. And so to this day, when we savor American wines, we toast her: Virginia Dare, an American original.10

Cotten’s subtitle is “an Indian legend” and her preface insists that “The legend of the White Doe is probably the oldest and possibly the least known of all the legends which relate to the history of the United States. It is a genuine American legend” (Cotten p. 6). She does not, however, explain her source. She then stands invisibly behind this website’s reference to “stories,” which turn out to be one story of very particular provenance. Her legend sutures together associations around whiteness, scuppernongs, indigenous people, and wine.

For me, this winery and its promotional materials are a perfect example of a purported interest in the past that depends on and propagates misinformation and uses one past to erase another. In the case of the Virginia Dare winery, a fiction about the past works to enshrine a smiling blond girl as the American original. The branding for the winery announces an interest in the past; it insists the late sixteenth century is connected to their current enterprise and necessary to understanding and valuing it. They dig the past, but they also bury it. The winery defines its brand through a sense of another place, roots in a fabricated history, and memorializing a vine whose grapes it does not use in its winemaking. It relies on history as a cover up. It also relies on literature as license. If you call something a story, tale, or legend, then you can say anything with impunity. “The Legend of the White Doe” as presented on the winery’s website, manages to rely on, repurpose, and erase: the history of wine in America; the long history of linking blood and wine and its complicity in racism; and the abbreviated history of Virginia Dare. Perhaps its worst erasure is of the story of Manteo, who gives his name to one of the wines. Called on the winery’sfact sheet “a legendary Indian,” Manteo was a Croatan chief who had been brought to England to meet Queen Elizabeth and was on his return baptized on Roanaoke, about a week before the infant Virginia Dare was.11 The bottle label depicts Manteo as both the background to and a kind of Virgin Mother to tiny Virginia;12 like her, he disappears from the historical record with the lost colony, only to be reanimated as part of these “legends.” The wine label thus misrecognizes and appropriates indigenous people’s history, and perpetuates a fantasy that white English colonists were the first, the true, the only real Americans.


[1] Robert D. Arner, “The Romance of Roanoke: Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony in American Literature,” Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 5-45; Andrew Lawler,

[2] Linda Murphy, “Francis Ford Coppola Reinvents Virginia Dare Wines,” Sonoma Magazine, July 2016,

[3] Eliza Lansford Cushing coined the term in an 1837 article in The Ladies Companion entitled “Virginia Dare; or, The Lost Colony.” Her account seems to have inspired the fuller fictional elaborations of writers such as Cotten. See Andrew Lawler, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke (New York: Anchor, 2018), pp. 276- 77.

[4] Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 415-419; Alexia Jones Helsley, A History of North Carolina Wine From Scuppernong to Syrah (Charleston: History Press, 2010).

[5], accessed January 10, 2021. In recent months, the winery has changed its web address from Virginia Dare Winery to Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Too, but the content of the History & Mystery part of the website remains the same.

[6] Erica Hannickel, Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 143-44; Wharton J. Green, Tokay Vineyard (Boston, 1884), 24.

[7] Frances E. Dolan, Digging the Past: How and Why to Imagine Seventeenth-Century Agriculture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), p. 95.

[8], accessed January 10, 2021.

[9] Sallie Southall Cotten, “Forgotten Facts and Fancies of American History,” The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare: An Indian Legend (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1909), p. x.

[10], accessed January 10, 2021

[11] On Manteo, see Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (Yale University Press, 2016), esp. pp. 35-36, 58-59.

[12] You can see this wine label at, accessed January 10, 2021.

SF Bay Area Enriches Early Modern Book History: Breanne Weber

This week in Contingent, Oecologies graduate representative Breanne Weber (PhD candidate, UC Davis) reflects on the scholarly benefits of local, embodied practice as she explores book arts in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

Breanne’s experience inking and type-setting at the San Francisco Centre for the Book, together with visits to the American Bookbinders Museum and M&H Type Foundry, has added new dimension and perspective to her doctoral research on early-modern print and manuscript cultures in England.

“In the tactile process of making a book, we engage firsthand in the networks of people, plants, environments, and objects that must come together in order to produce it,” she writes. 

This palpable practice, in turn, helps illuminate “the moments where bookmaking appears in early English literature.”

Read on at Contingent: “Book History in the Bay Area” by Breanne Weber.

Notes from “Earth, Sea, Sky: An Environmental Humanities Research Network Exchange”

Laura Hutchingame, University of California Los Angeles

On 12 December 2020, an international group of scholars shared their research over Zoom, as part of the Earth, Sea, SkyOecologies working group. The scholars were Todd Borlik (University of Huddersfield); Debapriya Sarkar (University of Connecticut); Liam Lewis (University of Liverpool); and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA).

Todd Borlik discussed Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, a map printed in Venice in 1539,and proposed an ecocritical argument that  reads the Carta Marina as a vision of human monstrosity and insatiable hunger, which is ecologically self-destructive. Borlik pointed out that the commensurate size of ships and sea-beasts gives the impression of a reciprocal monstrosity; from the marine creatures’ point of view, the human ships would appear monstrous invaders. Borlik compared the Carta Marina to a map by Hendrick Hondius from 1636 in which bunches of fish hang from the cartouche, indicating that the oceans have been emptied, and that humans are the most significant predator on the seas.

Borlik showed, too, that the Carta Marina was part of a conflict about fishing rights in Scandinavia and that the monstrous elements in the map served to deter unauthorized fishing in Scandinavian waters. Further, Scotland is obscured on the map, despite the fact that Scotland enjoyed a claim to Scandinavian fisheries since the fifteenth century. Denmark had refused to acknowledge the treaty with Scotland, and Borlik suggested that the marriage of King James VI and I to Anne of Denmark might have been connected in part to politics surrounding Scandinavian fishing.

Debapriya Sarkar examined Lady Mary Wroth’s prose romance novel, Urania, published in 1621, to investigate how islands and shores function as a threshold, a liminal space, in the early modern imaginary. Islands and shores are prominent in early modern English literature and their presence in literature reflects the imperial ambitions of England. But the island is also the site of important oppositional forces. Sarkar focused on a particular moment that reveals a notable transfer of power.  In Wroth’s romance, the protagonist is an aristocratic woman who finds herself on an island, accompanied by her brother, Amphilanthus, who must throw her in the ocean in order to save her. Sarkar noted that as Urania enters the water, her emotional turmoil becomes transferred to the ocean. This, Sarkar argued, embodies  a maritime ecology connected to female subjectivity, which represents the dynamism of human emotion. 

Liam Lewis argued that representations of noise and sound are culturally managed, and that if we can become aware of how we manage these sounds, we can have positive effects on the wildlife in the ocean. Describing the history of the hydrophone in the twentieth century, which allowed underwater recording or listening, Lewis asked: how can we conceptualize sound before and after the hydrophone? In answer, Lewis focused on an illustration from the Irish Voyage of Saint Brendan, a manuscript produced in 1047-1048, and Jacques Cousteau’s 1956 film Le Monde du Silence, as representative cases. In the Voyage of Saint Brendan, Brendan and his brothers sail in search of paradise, and at a crucial point in the journey, Brendan sings loudly to the point of waking the ocean creatures, who join him in singing. Le Monde du Silence, one of the first films to use ocean cinematography to depict the ocean as an underwater paradise, is not silent at all. But most of the sounds that accompany the cinematography are not produced from the hydrophone, but rather overlaid sound effects to mimic the sound of sunken ships, scuba tank bubbles, minor keys for eerie moments, or trumpets for triumphant moments of exploration. In other words,  the techniques used to depict underwater life actually obscure the real sounds of that life.

The last speaker, Bronwen Wilson, considered the compass, or wind rose, to introduce the spaces of elemental forces in between the abstract cartographic grid and the embodied viewer of Willem Jansz. Blaeu’s Nova Totius Americae. She discussed how compasses operated visually. For instance, users become repositioned in relation to depicted terrains.  Compasses can also be pictorial signs, such as in maps made after Piri Reis’s Book of Navigation. Wilson focused on two prospects, by Guillaume-Joseph Grelot and by Melchior Lorck, both with the artists seen at work. She showed how the abstract line associated with the compass can be multivalent. Grelot’s drawing reveals an artist imagining himself as a human compass—the artist’s quill is similar to the compass needle. Similarly, Lorck’s Prospect of Constantinople emphasizes horizontal movement, and while the flatness of the compass rose typically suggests views seen from above, Lorck prompts the viewer to lay the paper flat and to think about the vertical axis in order to reconcile these two poles of the image. 

This research share was generative for those who were able to attend and we hope to see you again for an upcoming research share on 19 January 2021 by faculty members involved with the UCHRI working group: “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures.”

Notes from “In the Wake”

Sarah-Nelle Jackson, University of British Columbia

On October 23rd, 2020, over two dozen attendees gathered virtually for the Oecologies Research Cluster’s inaugural panel of 2020–21, “In the Wake: Response and Recovery in the Premodern World.” Drawing connections between our present crisis and past catastrophes, panelists Urvashi Chakravarty (University of Toronto), Gabriel de Avilez Rocha (Brown University), Rebecca Totaro (Florida Atlantic University), and Elaine Treharne (Stanford University) explored medieval and early modern histories of solidarity and resistance amid natural, political, and pandemic upheavals.

In his opening remarks, moderator and Oecologies co-director David Coley (Simon Fraser University) encouraged us to frame “In the Wake” not as an expression of anxiety and despair over our current, pandemic moment — at least, not entirely. Instead, Coley explained, the panel would look to the past for futures that might arise from our own response and recovery in the present: an optimistic spirit of medieval prudentia that recognizes our own moment as one forged in and out of responses and recoveries past.

“In the Wake” took its name from Christina Sharpe’s homonymous monograph, which develops the varied, temporally fraught significances of the word wake. Speaking first, Urvashi Chakravarty built upon Sharpe’s attention to Black life “in the wake” by considering racial discourses of futurity and apocalypse in William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Tracing languages of degeneracy, stains, and stamping in Lear, Urvashi showed how the play’s “apocalyptical possibility” emerges as inherently racialized. As a result, she concluded, we face the difficult and urgent task of imagining worlds beyond and besides reproductive white futurity. (This conclusion pointed to the photo with which Chakravarty began: an early 2020 Associated Press image of four young, white climate activists. AP had cropped from the picture a fifth activist, Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, erasing black activism and framing climate activism as a white project.)

From the prospect of refusing white futurity, Gabriel de Avilez Rocha turned our attention to an historical refusal of colonial futurity on the West African island of São Tomé. In 1537, a prodigious fire swept the main colonial town of the Portuguese-occupied island, destroying swathes of colonial goods and quarters and hamstringing the island’s trade in sugar and the enslaved (or enslaved peoples). Although the arson constituted a remarkable event in its own right, Rocha argued that we consider longer arcs of resistance and insurgency that predate and contextualize singular disasters. Outlining a long collaboration on the island between fugitive Africans and the dense forests beyond the colonial town, he showed that the fire was a culmination, but hardly the debut, of socio-natural insurgency on São Tomé against Portuguese colonialism.

From counter-hegemonic praxis, we moved with Rebecca Totaro to the widespread governmental and communal collaboration that bound Elizabethan England in the face of pandemic. When the bubonic plague arrived in England, documentary evidence suggests, the queen and her privy council issued national quarantine orders that isolated subjects in body but united them in spirit. Totaro took us through examples of guides for at-home Anglican worship, poetic meditations on friendship and community, and lists of trusted women within several communities who helped identify those who had died of plague. These materials offer instructive contrast to the conspiracies and xenophobia of the current response to the COVID-19 pandemic: a governance and neighbourliness rooted in mutual care can guide us through our present catastrophe and future ones.

Elaine Treharne turned from textual evidence to textual absence in catastrophe’s wake. What do literary and textual historians do, she asked, when a silence, a dearth of data, follows in the wake of catastrophe — and how does this differ from what we ought to do? Reading elision in surviving sources after the Norman Conquest of 1066, Elaine queried the difference between silent and silenced voices, quoting Patrick Wolfe to remind us that then, as now, “Settler colonialism is inherently eliminatory.” The absence of evidence does not necessarily signal compliance or ease, Treharne argued, pointing to the silence or silencing of the colonized English under Norman rule; of dissenters in Syria, Egypt, and Uyghur province in Xianjing; and in the systematic omission of Native Americans from COVID-19 public health data. Scholars, she concluded, must be mindful of our roles in creating and interpreting data. 

After an audience Q&A, Coley concluded the event by putting a question to the panel: “How do we bring these ideas into the now, the present moment of crisis, rebuilding, suppression, hope?” Together, the speakers emphasized the importance of defining ourselves against hegemonic categories, both academically (through interdisciplinary work, for example) and socio-politically (by not narrating the current pandemic into nationalized silos). 

The panelists offered exciting, important steps toward this kind of critically-engaged work. In the wake of their global, interdisciplinary papers, presented to a global, interdisciplinary audience, we at Oecologies dare to return to optimism: all those present on October 23 began the important, challenging work of response, recovery, and revitalization. Part of that success, I think, involves recognizing how very far we have yet to go.

%d bloggers like this: