For those who approach literary study from ecological perspectives, including but not limited to specializing in works and authors that advocate environmental concerns, works insofar as they reflect ecological problems or their solutions, green rhetoric, biosemiotics, green poetics, philosophical biology, deep ecology, interdisciplinary approaches touching upon ecology, anthropology, medicine, material culture, chaos and complexity, or ignorance and uncertainty (these last few answer to the nature of ecology as an intellectual construct with an immensely complex object of study).
Prismatic Ecology (#mla14) Abstracts
809. Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green
MLA Chicago 2014
A special session for the book Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (U Minn Press, 2015)
Presiding: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington Univ.
Speakers: Stacy Alaimo, Univ. of Texas, Arlington; Lowell Duckert, West Virginia Univ., Morgantown; Tobias Menely, Miami University; Margaret Ronda, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick; William H. Stockton, Clemson Univ.; Allan Stoekl, Penn State Univ., University Park; Julian D. Yates, Univ. of Delaware, Newark
For abstracts, visit mla.hcommons.org/members/jjcohen/.
Green dominates thinking about ecology like no other color. What about catastrophe, disruption, excess? We explore a world of multihued contaminations and ecological possibilities. Short presentations focus on a single color (red, maroon, beige, brown, chartreuse, orange, deep blue) to catalyze lively discussion.
1. Jeffrey J. Cohen, Ecology’s Rainbow
Ursula K. Heise has demonstrated that, contrary to a belief long cherished in environmental studies, an attachment to the local does not necessarily foster the globalized ethic of care demanded in a transnational age (Sense of Place and Sense of Planet). Her notion of eco-cosmopolitanism is useful for broadening critical perspectives, substituting a view from a planet at risk for the boundedness of small citizenships. But a sense of planet will not in the end be capacious enough. Moving beyond the near-to-hand and pastoral (that is, green) spaces that are focus of much environmental criticism requires emphasizing the cosmos in eco-cosmopolitanism – yet not in the classic sense of a tidy and beautiful whole (Greek kosmosmeans “order, ornament”). Bruno Latour has coined the term kakosmos to describe the messy and irregular pluriverse humans inhabit along with lively and agency-filled objects, materials, and forces (Politics of Nature, “Compositionist Manifesto”). Using colors in their materiality as an entry into this muddled and intricate complexity, this introduction to the volume traces the inhuman actants with which the eco-cosmopolitan is always in alliance: rogue planets, x-rays, hyperobjects, electronic realms, distant arms of the galaxy and event horizons, shit and muck, urban sprawls, lost continents, plate tectonics, as well as forests, oceans, glaciers. Touchstones include Steve Mentz on blue cultural studies; Tim Morton on ecological thought; Jane Bennett on vibrant materialism; and Graham Harman on object oriented ontology, among others.
2. Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda, Red
Whether biosemiotically or symbolically, red marks states of emergency and sites of emergence. It is the most dialectical color, the hue of birth and death, eros and thanatos, strength and abjection. It says come hither (kiss me, eat me) and noli me tangere (STOP). The blush; swollen lips; plumage; leaves in autumn (“hectic red, /Pestilence-stricken multitudes”); red tide; the blood-red moon of Apocalypse; petals unfurled; the ripe or poisonous berry; the brushfire; volcanic lava: red signifies in extremis, in excess, demarcating boundary and its breaching. An ecology of red, then, is a site for dialectical thinking, pointing to the generative and destructive impulses of “nature red in tooth and claw” without attempting to resolve them into reassuring synthesis. In place of verdant green, red returns us to the deep links—figural and etymological—between blood, earth, human, and animal. Modernity may be defined by the imperative to mystify its constitutive violence, to hide its bloodiness, but red, repressed, returns as toxic sludge, pink slime, and animal blood from slaughterhouses entering waterways. Drawing on theories of abjection and biopolitical corporeality (Kristeva, Derrida, Agamben), this essay ponders the limits of liberal eco-optimism. We emphasize rupture, tragic necessity, violence, and the prophetic red of apocalyptic skies. Attuned to the revolutionary symbolism of red, we ask whether forms of radical ecological activism that exceed institutional solutions might prove necessary to grapple with the crises of the Anthropocene.
Tobias Menely is an assistant professor of English at Miami University. He is currently finishing a book, “The Community of Creatures: Sensibility and the Voice of the Animal,” and he has begun working on a new project on the climatological unconscious. Margaret Ronda is an ACLS postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University, and she will join the English Department at Rutgers in September 2012. She is the author of a book of poetry,Personification, and she is working on a study of poetry and obsolescence in the twentieth century,Remainders: Poetry at Nature’s End.
3. Lowell Duckert, Maroon
Caught between hues of red and brown, maroon is a restless color: it marks an act of isolation or separation (marooning), a chestnut (marron), an explosion (firework), and even a runaway slave (cimarrón). This essay explores maroon’s multiple meanings through an appropriately undulating medium: the arctic phenomenon known as the aurora borealis. When the aurora’s excited oxygen particles stabilize in the atmosphere, they emit a maroon light that is barely perceptible to the human eye. As an energetic entanglement of wind, gas, and sky, maroon signals things in action and in collaboration, materializing the alliances traced by actor-network theorists such as Bruno Latour and Michel Serres. At the same time, maroon’s double etymology emphasizes the complexities of race within the colonial encounter, especially in peopled arctic landscapes that are far from the “barren expanses” of Eurocentric perspectives. Yet these two aspects of maroon (celestial mixtures, eco-cultural rights) need not be an either/or proposition. An aurora’s maroon glow illuminates an ethics of material entanglement and a space for environmental justice. I focus upon Samuel Hearne’s three voyages with the Chipewyan and Dene tribes around Hudson Bay from 1769-72, specifically his descriptions of the Northern Lights but also his troubled participation in the Bloody Falls Massacre of twenty Inuit men, women, and children. Hearne’s Journey (1795) is ecology in maroon: it offers an affirmative way of becoming entangled with the world, but it also realizes the violence that isolating indigenous bodies from ecological perspectives involves, violence that is often met with a desire for self-isolation and self-preservation. Maroon might be a difficult color to discern in the ecocritical aurora, but paying closer attention to the flickering of the color may, in Jane Bennett’s words, “inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations.” Maroon inspires us to think of human and environmental rights not in isolation but rather as a shared initiative never at rest.
Lowell Duckert is an assistant professor at the University of West Virginia, working on early modern aquascapes, actor-network theory, and ecocriticism. Along with Jeffrey J. Cohen, he edited a special issue of the journal postmedieval on “Ecomaterialism.”
4. Julian Yates, Orange
5. Allan Stoekl, Chartreuse
Chartreuse is a meeting point of a sustainability of the esthetic and a sustainability of the sublime. Sustainable esthetics entails a steady state of nature, a promise of human happiness mediated through the recognition of human freedom. Nature is an object of contemplation, of esthetic satisfaction, and an infinite source of materials. This is the sustainability of the closed economy; it can be arrived at through a formalist project, a technocratic effort in which inputs and outputs are precisely balanced, or through a free-form project in which materials are reappropriated, recycled, repurposed, and in which the ultimate tactics are improvisatory. An ethically based society will be doubled by a nature returned to some state of completion, an economic and energetic closed loop. Deep ecology is one possibility, with nature on one side and a chastened humanity on the other. Another is urban-local culture modified through “retrofit,” scavenging, and open-ended improvisation, with, nevertheless, a careful calibration of money and energy inputs leading to an ethically advantageous society. Sublime sustainability is grounded in the impossibility of calculating external costs. Before the task of calculating the “real” cost of say, nuclear power, the mind reels. For Kant, the sublime entailed the awe we feel before mountains, waterfalls and volcanoes. Today our mathematical sublime is the sensation of delirium before the numbers that can’t enable us to calculate energetic inputs and economic outputs. This sublime cannot be exemplified by human reason (as it was for Kant)–it is precisely human reason’s failure that leads to the recognition of the sublime of externalities in the first place. External costs are formless, in excess; they are finally not reckoned but “experienced” in the Bataillean sense as a kind of non-savoir, a sacred nodal point where any hope of stability of calculability (God) has died. Sustainability as calculation here enters a delirium from which it emerges as a practice, a corporeality, rather than a calculation. Sustainability now is post-sustainability, the intimacy of a sacred that affirms the energetic excess of eroticism or laughter–the only possible reactions to the sublime of externalities–rather than that of non-sustainable expenditures (fossil fuel culture). Sustainability in spite of itself. Here the happiness of mutually recognized freedom is supplemented by the ritual agony of joy before death.
Impossibly mediating between these two sustainabilities is Chartreuse, a golden-green drink made in the very beautiful Chartreuse region. It is the drink of monks, carefully crafted for over 900 years in the mountains south of Chambery, the “desert of the mountains.” Just like the Syrian desert. The Carthusian order is a contradiction: a monastic order of hermits. Chartreuse is powerful stuff, 69% at its most wicked, and if you can get it down it packs a real punch. It is the liquor of sublime sustainability, an object, in its recalcitrance, that puts in question human will and human ends. One cannot imagine the monks drinking it together–but they must, or at least they must have. It is, however, the product of an order that we might call the most sustainable of all (in the esthetic sense), living alone in the pristine mountains, protected by nature, and protecting it, in its “desert” status, from human encroachment. Deep ecology avant la lettre, we might say, meeting the profoundly sense-less.
Allan Stoekl is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Penn State University, University Park, PA. He has translated a number of works (by authors such as Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and Paul Fournel), and has been especially concerned with questions of economics and political-literary commitment in twentieth century French intellectual history. Recently his work has taken an ecological turn: his most recent book isBataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Post-Sustainability (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).