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

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Prismatic Ecology (#mla14) Abstracts
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  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 a PhD candidate at George Washington University, finishing his dissertation 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
“Richard of York,” we know from the early twentieth-century mnemonic device, “gave battle in vain.” Yet at the time of the Battle of Wakefield (1460), the word “orange” had only just come to designate the color phenomenon that occurs, in the visible spectrum, at a wavelength of about 585-620 nanometers. The mnemonic “ROYGBIV” enacts the promise and the problems of the impressions left by complex ecological systems on human-centered writing machines. The perception named “color” occurs at the interface that is the human sensorium—an unreliable material-semiotic contact zone in which the ties between variously forms of matter, sign systems, and syntaxes, ‘make up’ the set of effects humans name “world.” We have trouble keeping our colors straight, a difficulty that the proliferation of codes aims to reform. But as the multi-temporal mnemonic “ROYGBIV” demonstrates, it is not possible to linearize or describe color through a straightforward chronology or geography. Colors, like any other complicated phenomenon, reveal themselves to be a multiplicity, a “sheaf of temporalities” (Michel Serres) or “knot in motion” (Alfred North Whitehead) that connects different times and places in a structure of apparent simultaneity. “Orange” offers us a prismatic archive, a word that comes into being as a multi-lingual approximation or translation of multiple differences. Accordingly, an “orange ecology” leads me to posit what amounts to a prismatic grammatology, an account of the shifting color effects hosted by different substrates in the built world. Taking the form of a florilegium or book of flowers, this essay inventories key gatherings in the story of orange. It imagines a world before “orange,” tracing the extension of the word for the fruit to include the color and traces the after lives of the word and its poetic castings in nursery rhymes and in two novels (1984 and The Tropic of Orange) which imagine worlds without the fruit. In doing so, the essay seeks to think through the process by which the paradigms of description offered by ecology “learn” by their translation to different fields of study and other orders of phenomena such as those deriving from human language arts as they are backed by a variety of media platforms.
Julian Yates is Associate Professor of English and Material Culture Studies at University of Delaware. His first book, Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) examined the social and textual lives of relics, portrait miniatures, the printed page, secret hiding places in Renaissance England and was a finalist for the MLA Best First Book Prize in 2003. His recent work focuses on questions of ecology, genre, and reading in Renaissance English Literature and beyond.
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).
6. Will Stockton, Beige
A beige ecology is an apocalyptic ecology that shades into yellow, brown, and pink ecologies. Its subject is queerness and waste, or the apocalyptic – world-changing, world-destroying, and, subsequently world-building – eroticizing of the world’s detritus. This essay develops the concept of a beige ecology through a reading of Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man (1994/2002), a novel about a gay, African-American, philosophy graduate student named John Marr, who lives in New York City throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. While investigating the 1970s murder of another philosopher in a hustler bar, Marr pornographically recounts numerous sexual encounters with the city’s homeless, and details the effect of the AIDS outbreak on places for public sex. The apocalyptically “mad” men of the novel’s title are those whose eroticization of waste (piss, shit, the black body and the homeless body) transgresses the boundaries of a heteronormative ecology that seeks to foreclose sexual contact between men, irrespective of collective ignorance about which acts actually spread the virus. A series of revelations among these men produce, in the novel, particular critical effects, including a quasi-utopian critique of economies of sexual scarcity, the development of an approach to sexual risk that does not partake of the illogic of phobias, and a re-conceptualization of the institution of the home and its ecology (from the Greek oikos: home, house, dwelling place, habitation) against heteronormative models of domesticity. Collectively, these revelations pull apocalypticism from the ethical waste bin, using it to trope the world-altering consequences of what Michel Foucault calls the bios philosophicus: “the animality of being human, renewed as a challenge, practiced as an exercise--and thrown in the face of others as a scandal.”
Will Stockton is Associate Professor of English at Clemson University. He is the author of Playing Dirty: Sexuality and Waste in Early Modern Comedy (Minnesota, 2011) and the co-editor of Queer Renaissance Historiography: Backward Gaze (Ashgate, 2009) and Sex Before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England (Minnesota, 2013).
7.  Stacy Alaimo, Deep Blue
A violet-black ecology hovers in the bathypelagic, abyssopelagic, and hadal zones, the three regions of the deep seas, 1000 meters down and much deeper, where sunlight cannot descend. The violet-black depths--cold, dark regions under the crushing weight of the water column--were long thought to be “azoic,” or devoid of life.  Even as deep sea creatures have been brought to the surface, it remains convenient to assume that the bathyl, abyssl, and hadal zones are empty, void, null--an abyss of concern.   When historic expeditions have dredged up creatures from the depths, the profusion of animals has been met with astonishment. Rather than scrutinize deep sea creatures as they writhe and squirm in suffocating air and glaring light, a violet-black ecology, would descend, in highly mediated ways, to zones of darkness to witness diverse animals in their own watery worlds, but it would also grapple with the watery “environment” itself.  As the contemplation of the deep seas is always already a politically charged, scientifically-mediated process—partly because of the staggering costs of even the most basic investigations conducted at these depths---it exemplifies Bruno Latour’s call to “compose the common world from disjointed pieces.”(Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 485). As a new materialist endeavor, a violet-black ecology would attempt to understand the water of the abyssal zone as being rather than nothing, as substance rather than background, as a significant part of the composition.
             At the turn of the 21st century scientists and environmentalists warn of the devastating ecological effects of ocean acidification, massive overfishing, bottom trawling, deep sea mining, shark finning, and decades of dumping toxic and radioactive waste into the oceans. Marine science, which is still in its infancy, struggles to keep up with the devastating effects of capitalist waste and plunder as countless species may be rendered extinct before they are even discovered. William Beebe’s worry, however, that biology would become “colorless” and “aridly scientific,” would be assuaged by the early 21stcentury representations of sea creatures in which science, aesthetics, and politics swirl together. The massive, international, decade-long Census of Marine Life, for example, produced not only a treasure trove of scientific disclosures but a vibrant profusion of still and moving images for wide audiences. While the Census of Marine Life’s gallery of photos on their web site and Claire Nouvian’s stunning photographic collection The Deep: Extraordinary Creatures from the Abyss attempt to gain support for deep sea conservation by featuring newly discovered life forms, it may be worthwhile to scrutinize what is intentionally out of focus in their photographic compositions—the violet-black background of the photos.  What possibilities does this eerie and entrancing hue pose for new materialist and posthumanist ecologies of the depths? And how do the prismatic bioluminescent displays of creatures in the abyss provoke recognitions of the multitude of aquatic modes of being, communicating, and knowing?  Violet-black ecologies of the abyssal zones entice us to descend, rather than transcend, to unmoor ourselves from terrestrial and humanist presumptions, as  sunlight, air, and horizons disappear, replaced by dark liquid expanses and the flashing spectrum of light produced by abyssal creatures.The violet-black seas themselves, which entranced William Beebe, and the addictive bioluminescent creatures, underscore the significant differences between the life worlds of human beings and abyssal beings, as well as the potential for prismatic ecologies to lure us into less anthropocentric, less terrestrial modes of knowledge, politics, and ethics.
Stacy Alaimo is Professor of English and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. She has published widely in environmental humanities, science studies, and feminist theory, on such subjects as environmental literature and film, environmental art and architecture, performance art, environmental pedagogy, gender and climate change, and the science and culture of "queer" animals. She currently serves on the MLA Division of Literature and Science and is the new editor of the “Critical Ecologies” stream of the Electronic Book Review.  Her publications include Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space (Cornell 2000);  Material Feminisms (edited with Susan J. Hekman); and Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Indiana 2010).  She is  working on a book tentatively titled Sea Creatures and the Limits of Animal Studies: Science, Aesthetics, Ethics.
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