I spent the last couple of days in Boulder, CO at the “Premodern Ecologies” conference organized by Scott Bruce of Boulder University’s Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (CMEMS), in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. It truly was a colloquium or “talk-together,” with generous interlocutors gathered from a variety of fields, including History, Art History, Economic History, English, Italian, French, and others. I would be unable to do justice to the whole, so—without wanting to spoil the plot of anyone’s unpublished work—I present just a few points… What do I take away with me, on the ideas level?
1) The need for the plural when we talk of ecology/ecologies, as the conference title made clear, as Steve Mentz underscored in his very satisfying plenary reading of Hamlet that I hope will soon be in print, and as Richard Hoffman underscored in his closing remarks. Similarly, Anne Harris—in a nice paper on the stones of Montneuf, which dovetailed with my piece on Normandy limestone—brought out how the idea of the Anthropocene shouldn’t be about a switch between a fantasy of a pristine Edenic state and our now fallen situation. Steve, Anne, myself, and others all worked with the Anthropocene, in different ways, as a way of asking questions, of seeking out (as Steve put it) that which has been “hiding in plain sight” all along, as a mode of analysis, as central to that which makes the humanities so urgent these days.
2) The need for, and complex nature of, interdisciplinary study. One (of a good number of) reminders of this was Paolo Squatriti’s rich plenary about “worrisome weeds” that spanned continents (when/how/where does a plant become a weed?)—to think ecologically is to think in multiple languages and across borders. What Crosby showed for Europe and the New World vis-à-vis the Columbian Exchange, Squatriti showed for Medieval Europe, the Islamic Caliphate, and Asia. Without giving too much away, I won’t think of spinach, rye, and much more in the same way again.
3) Related to the above: different disciplines approach things in different ways. A noticeable trend of the conference tended to be that—and obviously, I oversimplify here—the literary scholars generally spoke more about premodern ecological anxieties and hesitations (Mentz, myself, Guevara, Brooks, etc.), tended thus to be more postsustainable in approach and outlook; whereas scholars from history and other fields often put the emphasis on premodern formulations of conservation (e.g. in medieval and early modern forests--Richard Keyser, Sarah Morrison, Abigail Dowling, etc.) This isn’t about pessimistic literary folk vs. the optimists, not another version of Charles Isherwood’s comment that theatergoers in NY want to walk into a theater to see a living room and four people complaining about life. This is much more about different methods, about different methods that must indeed work alongside each other, interrogate each other, as they did these last few days—no one field can tackle ecology! There is always a remainder, a counter-proposition, something that pulls against coherent and conclusive readings of a text. This is another sense of the “entanglement” that came up at multiple points, esp. in Anne Harris’s talk on “Entangled Ecologies.”
4) The nonhuman—and this comes as no surprise—was at the heart of our group reflection: plants (Keyser, Morrison, Dowling, Guevara), stones (myself, Anne Harris), nonhuman animals (Nodin de Saillan on the evolving category of “vermin”; Roya Biggie’s talk on beetles via Dürer, Moffet, and Shakespeare). As Renée Trilling showed, it’s about connecting the human and the cosmos; as Danielle Joyner showed, it’s about connecting living spaces, a plant, a plan, a whole world; as Manon Williams showed, it’s about forests and desire and—in a Michel de Certeau—how we create spaces and places.
5) Harriet Archer’s paper on John Higgins’s Histories of King Forrex (1574 and 1587), brought out, inter alia, the overlap between mining and humanist practices of “digging for wisdom”—which reminded me of a gathering of forces that involved myself and Emily Apter around mining and data mining at NYU last year. In other words—and this perhaps relates back to the question of interdisciplinarity and different methods—we must be aware of our own “ecologies of reading”—Do we mine? Do we cultivate? Do we create waste? Are we aware of entanglements or do we write them out of the story? What do our extraction machines do? Are we responsible “diggers”? Etc.
6) Prompted by a discussion at the bus stop this morning, waiting for the AB Airport bus, with Tobias Hrynick, who gave a rich paper on mill dispute and waterpower in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, I realized that our conference evoked various elements, but more water and earth, than air and fire. In the light of Cohen’s Elemental Ecology, I wonder why—but don’t have an answer here. The conference clearly went more in the direction of the more solid/touchable elements. Does this teach us something?
7) The opening Willard Lecture by Miri Rubin (Queen Mary) on “The Environment of Medieval Cities: Diversity, Identity, Social Fabric,” walked us through many medieval cities, and gave perspectives on how medieval Britons lived with/tolerated those who came from elsewhere. The urban theme stayed with us throughout and kept the question of human difference, social justice, and models and counter-models for living-together in our minds throughout.
Much more happened that I don’t recount here. Many other fabulous papers will remain with me. And there will, I’m sure, be future extensions of conversations begun here. A pretty good emblem for the past couple of days might be what I saw in the Natural History museum during one of the breaks (the sun was too hot to stay outside in the Shakespeare theater!), namely a petrified tree trunk—it was Family Day at the museum and children were staring at the trunk, touching it (as a sign invited), marveling at how stony cold it was, how much it looked like a tree even though it “wasn’t”: touching physical reality, struggling to name it because “it” challenges us right back, enjoying that contact, sharing it with others, even as we remain anxious. There is a difference between “idealizing nature” and “wondering at the physical”—the former, as they once said of self-pleasuring, leads to blindness; the latter to full engagement.
Very excited about Premodern Ecologies, happening at University of Colorado, Boulder, this week. I'll be speaking about "On the Exterranean" and, more importantly, listening to fabulous keynotes and papers by the likes of Steve Mentz, Miri Rubin, Paolo Squatriti, and many others.
Premodern Ecologies: An Interdisciplinary Conference on
Human Interaction with the Natural World
in Medieval and Early Modern Europe
October 20-22, 2016
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 20
5:00-6:30pm Fourth Annual James Field Willard Lecture:
Location: British and Irish Studies Room, Norlin Library
Miri Rubin (History, St. Marys University of London)
“The Ecology of the Medieval Parish”
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21 (all events in UMC 247 unless otherwise noted)
8:30-9:00am Registration & Coffee
9:00-9:15am Conference Introductions
9:15-10:15am Plenary Lecture 1
Paolo Squatriti (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor)
“Worrisome Weeds: Exotic Plants and Biological Invasions
in the Early Medieval Mediterranean”
10:15-10:30am Short Break
10:30am-12:00pm Session 1: Conditions and Perceptions in the Early Middle Ages
Danielle Joyner (Southern Methodist University)
“A Savin Bush in the Cloisters: The Art of Nature in the Plan of St. Gall”
Tim Newfield (Princeton Environmental Institute)
“Complicating Climate-Dearth Linkages in the Carolingian World”
Renée Trilling (University of Illinois at Urbana-Campagne)
“Marking time: The Place of the Human in Anglo-Saxon Cosmology”
12:00-1:00pm Catered Lunch
1:00-2:30pm Session 2: Intentional Sustainability in Premodern Woodlands
Richard Keyser (University of Wisconsin at Madison)
“Medieval Conservation: Definitions and the Example of French Woodlands”
Abigail Dowling (Mercer University)
“Pour la grante richesse: Sustainable Natural Resource Management
at the Estate of Hesdin, 1302-1329”
Sara Morrison (Brescia University College at Western University)
“Traditional Woodland Management in Seventeenth-Century
2:30-2:45pm Short Break
2:45-4:15pm Session 3: Rocks and Roots in Early Modern Europe
Harriet Archer (Newcastle University)
“Retributive Earth: Exemplary History, Posthumanism, and John Higgins’
Histories of King Forrex (1574 and 1587)”
Phillip John Usher (New York University)
“On the Exterranean: Towards of Phenomenology of Extraction”
Perry Guevara (Emory University)
“Milton’s Root Brain: Minimal Cognition in the Garden”
4:15-5:00pm Break with coffee, tea, and cookies
5:00-6:00pm Plenary Lecture 2
Ann Harris (Depauw University)
“Entangled Ecologies: Stone and Will in Pre-Modern Brittany”
Location: 5th Floor Lounge and Terrace, UMC Building
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 22 (all events in UMC 247 unless otherwise noted)
8:30-9:00am Coffee & Pastries
9:00-10:00am Plenary Lecture 3
Steve Mentz (St. Johns University)
“Dissolving Hamlet: An Anthropocene Reading”
10:00-10:30am Short Break
10:30am-12:00pm Session 4: Calamity and Control in the High Middle Ages
Tobias Hrynick (Fordham University)
“Water as Labor, Water as Weapon: Mill Dispute and Water Power
in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem”
Manon Williams (University of Colorado at Boulder)
“Rights and Usage of Woodlands in Thirteenth-Century Normandy”
Elizabeth Swedo (Western Oregon University)
“Mundane Disasters: Icelandic Society and Environment
in the Late Middle Ages”
12:00-1:00pm Box Lunch
1:00-2:30pm Session 5: Hagiographic and Literary Landscapes
Britton Brooks (University of Hawai’i at Manoa)
“Eco-Criticism and the Natural World: Native Soundscapes in Felix’s
Vita Sancti Guthlaci”
Andrew M. Richmond (The Ohio State University)
“Evaluating the Spaces of Romance: The Savage Nature of Civilized Land
in Sir Degrevant”
Shannon Garner-Balandrin (Northeastern University)
“Into a Cloven Pine: The Ecological Uncanny in Early Modern Romance”
2:30-2:45pm Short Break
2:45-4:15pm Session 6: Birds and Bugs in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
Cristina Martelli (University of Maine at Orono)
“Sustainable Practices, Territorial Control and the Capture of Game Animals
and Birds: Examples from North and Central Italy between 1300 and 1550”
Nodin de Saillan (University of Colorado at Boulder)
“Worms, Rats, and Ravens: Charting the Cultural Construction of Vermin
from Edward II to James I”
Roya Biggie (CUNY Graduate Center)
“The Pedagogical Potential of Beetles in Thomas Moffet’s
The Theater of Insects and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline”
4:15-5:00pm Break with coffee, tea, and cookies
5:00-6:00pm Reflections by Richard C. Hoffmann (York University)
followed by a general discussion open to all conference participants
6:30-10:00pm Conference Banquet
Location: Café Aion, 1235 Pennsylvania Ave. Boulder
Summer 2016: The World's a Mess; Let's Teach Complexity Awareness- And "On the Exterranean" is done.
It’s been a terrible summer. That’s an understatement.
On June 23, 2016, 51.89% of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union in the shameful shambles known as Brexit, which lead to the pound falling to its lowest value in thirty years, the resignations of the British Prime Minister David Cameron and of the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, a new Prime Minister, Theresa May who elected Boris Johnson to the post of Foreign Secretary—so that he could keep on insulting the world on behalf of the UK… It’s a catastrophe for the UK, its economy, its politics, and ethics. It’s also a personal catastrophe for so many folks who grew up, like me, never having not been European—our passports used to open up nearly thirty countries; we grew up learning European languages, making European friends and lovers; building our personal and professional lives around being European. That all ended. The future for the UK is not bright.
In July, the police shot dead Alton Sterling in Louisiana; the police shot dead Philando Castile as he reached for his driver’s license, as he had been asked—his girlfriend live-streamed the whole thing; the police shot a black Florida man, Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist caring for his autistic patient, who, was lying down on the floor with his arms up; a terrorist driving a truck killed more than eighty people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice; a terrorist in Germany armed with an axe and a knife injured four people on a train, followed by the shooting at a Shopping Mall in Bavaria—nine killed and twenty-one people dead, by a machete-killing in Reutlingen (one dead) and an explosion at a German music festival, which killed one man and injured twelve; much blood was shed during and after a coup d’état in Turkey; a priest was killed during an ISIS-sponsored hostage-taking situation in Rouen; and on and on and on. Meanwhile, the US presidential elections go from bad to worse. Little need be said of Trump—Brexit proves he could get elected, that the worst could happen. There are various camps of people who will likely vote for HRC, from the lovers to the haters, but the DNC’s crooked and dishonest support for her, as shown in the Wikileaks’ release of DNC emails, sully this second convention.
All summer, it’s been a slow erasure of that easy response: “Well, yes, this place is a mess, at least there’s….”—but no, all the places I call home are a total mess. Which has made it particularly trying to keep thinking about global warming, about the Anthropocene, to keep writing about that—yet we must. If the summer’s left me one thought beyond despair, it’s the thought that education is the only way forward for the world. Whether you study Physics of 8th-century German poetry, whether you’re into the history of optics or cancer research, whatever you study, you’re going to be less likely to accept other people’s opinions, to ignore when facts don’t fit together, and more likely to think for yourself, to learn how to disagree with people in a way that doesn’t demand a gun or a machete. Education’s main goal—and main takeaway—is the realization that there are no simple answers, that things are complex, and that if someone is offering you a simple solution, it’s probably the wrong one.
I finished my book on extraction, “On the Exterranean”—it’s now with a publisher. Watch this space.
Big fan of Evariste Richer’s work “Fulgurite” (2008), seen at the Musée des arts et métiers in Paris this weekend. When lighting—very hot lightening—strikes silica or other common (semi-)conductive minerals or substrates, it creates a fulgurite (<Lat. fulgur = lightening), strangely shaped rock-like objects. But here, the fulgurite is crossed through by a beautifully industrial blue neon tube. The museum notice sees in all this an emblem of Latour’s nature/culture problem…
They’re gone. There are no more of those rodents known as Bramble Cay melomys (or alternatively as mosaic-tailed rats). They are extinct. The Guardian notes that this event is “the first recorded extinction of a mammal anywhere in the world thought to be primarily due to human-caused climate change.” Last seen in 2009, and after extensive searches, these Bramble Cay melomys have been judged gone, once and forever. A moment to remember that to still talk of the “environment” is to perpetuate the problem, as Michel Serres argued long ago, for the word “assumes that we humans are at the center of a system of nature” and thus that we look out and see “the” environment suffering. Ecology, Ecology, Ecology is the way to go.
Remember this? "Now it’s really time to get serious about climate change"
The Guardian reports today on the Carbfix project: "The new research pumped CO2 into the volcanic rock under Iceland and sped up a natural process where the basalts react with the gas to form carbonate minerals, which make up limestone. The researchers were amazed by how fast all the gas turned into a solid – just two years, compared to the hundreds or thousands of years that had been predicted."
The Guardian reports--in a thoroughly anthropocentric mode--how spiders, too, become climate refugees as tens of thousands of spiders engage in a "mass ballooning event" in an attempt to fine a region's remaining dry spots.
The Guardian reports on how "The Louvre's closure proves art cannot survive climate change."
We are, indeed, at a moment of generic toppling. By which I mean: as I spoke about at the recent "Epic Geographies" conference: if weather belongs to novels, then climate belongs to epic. So as climate appears in our weather, "we" are shifting surely from novel to epic. This is what it means when the Guardian headlines today that "Meteorologists are seeing global warming's effect on the weather"; this is what it means when Parisians stare on at the Seine, reaching its highest level since 1910 (see here). We leave the novelistic to head into epic, i.e. each gesture, each moment, is as if held onto by Poseidon's trident or Hera's anger or Zeus's lack of libido-control. And there is no way to calm it all with a "banquet des dieux."
George Eustice grew up at, and worked for (for 9 years), a fruit farm--this fruit farm, in fact. It's a farm where you can "pick you own," something I did a lot as a kid growing up in England. The Trevaskis fruit farm says that "Even if the rain sets in, welly boots and puddles are great" (see their website). In 2000, he promoted the "No" vote regarding whether or not the UK should adopte the euro as its official currency. And now, and now, he is the farming minister in the Conservative party. And he can't wait for the UK to leave Europe--so that the UK can get rid of those pesky European environmental laws: "If we had more flexibility, we could focus our scientists’ energies on coming up with new, interesting ways to protect the environment, rather than just producing voluminous documents from Brussels" (source: Guardian). As the Guardian reports, Eustice wants to bring US-style environmental politics to the UK: "On pesticides, Eustice said the EU’s precautionary principle needed to be reformed in favour of a US-style risk-based approach, allowing faster authorisation." In other words: a Brexit would likely spell many things--but it would surely mark the end of a communal approach to ecology. A fruit farm-- it sounds nice, right? "Pick your own"--who doesn't love that? I remember as a kid, picking strawberries, walking on hay, and wondering why I got these sores on my arms. Fabulous. Yes. More of that please.
Project THE HUMANIST anthropocene
is a thought archive and workspace of Phillip John Usher (NYU) at the crossroads of early modern humanism and the problems and insights of the Anthropocene. Main Research Page.
ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment)
Environmental Humanities (journal)
Resilience (A Journal of the Environmental Humanities)
All text and images quoted from other sources used according to fair use. If I have used one of your images and you would like me to remove it, please email me.