Panel 8: Ecocriticism II



Panel 8: Ecocriticism II

Literary Studies and the Geography of Climate Change: Towards a Transpacific Network of Disaster

Danielle Crawford, University of California, Santa Cruz

The adverse effects of climate change are expected to impact the globe unevenly, often with poorer nations who have contributed negligibly to the problem bearing the worst of it. In order to address this injustice, this talk looks towards disaster literature from Asia and the Pacific to both highlight the vulnerability of the area and the transpacific reach of the disasters. (more).

An Environmental Utopia: Black Mirror and the “Trouble with Wilderness”

Ben Van Overmeire, University of California, San Diego

This presentation will explore ecocriticsm through the form of the BBC’s science fiction series Black Mirror, specifically through the concept of an environmental utopia. Focusing on the ‘no-place’ aspect of utopia, the presenter draws a connection between the series and William Cronon’s critique of “wilderness” suggesting how the only way to achieve an environmental utopia may be to remove humans from it (more).

Seeing Whole: Ed Roberson’s Radical Ecology of Vision

Jessica Eileen Jones, Duke University

In efforts to re-envision perspectives of ecocriticism, this talk delves into the understudied nature poetry of Ed Roberson. Roberson’s non-Western ideas of vision, it argues, results in a new way of seeing the world that is fundamentally ecological. In doing so, the author argues that Roberson gives ecocritics the chance to move beyond a mode of critique and theorize instead an alternative ethics of envisioning the natural world (more).

Q & A

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18 replies
  1. Jessica Jones, Duke University says:

    Hi everyone,

    Thanks so much for listening! I have included here a link to the poems I mention in my talk, in case anyone wants to see/read them as they listen, or afterwards.


    I invite any questions or comments you have, and very much look forward to dialoguing.


      • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

        HI Jessica,

        Did you figure out what happened to the link? I ask because we would very much like for folks to be able to place links in their comments. If there is anything that I can reconfigure to make this happen, I would be happy to try.



          • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

            Yes, that was likely it, as our text editor probably thought that it was an HTML string.

            Would it be helpful to be able to embed documents directly on the panel page instead of using a Google doc? If so, we could think about adding this sort of functionality to future conferences.

            • Jessica Jones, Duke University says:

              yes, that would be helpful i think in cases like mine, or probably for people who do the video instead of the powerpoint and not both. J

    • Ben Van Overmeire, University of California, San Diego says:

      Dear Jessica,

      I really enjoyed your paper (and also the poetry), and I think our two talks have a lot in common, concerned as they are with ways of viewing the natural environment. I wondered whether you’re familiar with David Abram’s work on language, embodiment, and a de-centered being-in-the-world: I think his work, particularly Becoming Animal really speaks to what you’re saying here. Abram, too, in his way, attempts to make language itself embody the dynamic relationship between human and natural environment while still attempting to account for the philosophical roots of our current destruction of the non-human other.

  2. Ben Van Overmeire, University of California, San Diego says:

    Hi everyone, thanks for listening (and looking!). I want to point out two things about my talk:

    1) As this is very much a work in progress, I would welcome any comments, particularly on my understanding of the term “wilderness” and how to deepen it.
    2) The episode I talk about, “Fifteen Million Merits” is viewable on the online streaming service Netflix. It is the second episode of the first season. The scenes I focus on in this talk are the first and last thirty seconds of the episode.


    • Danielle Crawford, University of California, Santa Cruz says:

      Hi Ben,

      I really enjoyed listening to your paper and I think you brought up some great points about “wilderness.” You clearly highlight how this concept posits a false binary between humans and the natural world—a binary that is ultimately problematic. Going back to Cronon’s work on “wilderness” (and especially his discussion of the frontier), I wonder if you could elaborate more on the social politics behind this term. In other words, if “wilderness” is based on depopulated spaces devoid of humans, how does this concept make violent histories connected to these spaces invisible? What had to happen so that these spaces could be “empty,” or separated from humans, in the first place? You definitely don’t have to answer all of these questions, but I thought it might be helpful to think through this term together.


      • Ben Van Overmeire, University of California, San Diego says:

        Dear Daniella,

        That’s a great question, thank you! I think Cronon’s discussion of the social politics of wilderness can be read into the Black Mirror episode I discuss. Bing’s eventual fame and his masculinity grant him a proximity to nature that he would otherwise be excluded from. At the same time, Abi’s fate (ending up as a porn star) can be productively read against the background of masculine, Deep Ecology discourse on the proud man in confrontation with wild nature. Women, the episode seems to suggest, are excluded from such an encounter with the wild as is granted to Bing (and, we may assume, most men who escape bicycle labor).

        Of course, Bing is marked in another way than Abi is: he is black, something explicitly made clear when he is rushed into the talent show Hot Shot because they want “someone ethnic” for a change. Despite this coding, in this dystopia gender and body weight (the yellow-suited “lemons” are unfit for bicycle labor and thus lower in the class system) seem to be more determinative factors of one’s position. Any ideas on this?

        Finally, the show doesn’t really suggest how the wild space outside has become empty, but I see your point in using Cronon to think through this question. Considering the episode as a whole, which features violence in every imaginable form, one supposes the process of emptying the space of human inhabitants must not have been a peaceful one. But I can’t for now see a clear connection, and would appreciate any help with this.

        • Danielle Crawford, University of California, Santa Cruz says:

          Hi Ben,

          I definitely see what you mean. And the series you’re analyzing sounds fascinating! But it does seem difficult to fully apply this understanding of the “wilderness” to it. Although, as you state, the series is permeated with violence, so perhaps that’s the clearest connection. Anyways, I really appreciate your effort to think through this concept together!


  3. Danielle Crawford, University of California, Santa Cruz says:

    Hi all,

    Many thanks for listening! I would greatly appreciate any feedback or comments anyone might have. In particular, I am interested in thinking more about both the possibilities and drawbacks of utilizing a transpacific network of disaster. While such networks can help us draw connections between different sites, they also run the risk of universalizing climate change’s impact. How might the humanities negotiate this tension? How can we address the planetary scale of climate change without also homogenizing differing vulnerabilities?


  4. Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

    Greetings ecocriticism panel #2!

    I just watched Sam Solnick’s eco-poetics talk on Panel 6, which moves, as I noted to him, to an inspiring affirmation (starting around minute 15) of the importance of the poetry in the CC discussion.

    Any thoughts on this?


    By the way, I am really excited to view your panel and promise to get to it soon!

  5. Jessica Jones, Duke University says:

    Hi Ben and Danielle,
    I enjoyed both of your talks. Danielle, in response to your question, I think you actually do a really good job of showing how this kind of network mode of analysis doesn’t universalize but points to both connection and disparity. It was one of my favorite parts about your talk actually. I also really liked the way you characterize the climate itself — and its different phenomenon — as transnational — Iike the most profound things, to me it seems like an obvious point but it’s obviously not, as the national frameworks persist. I think you are right that literature and cultural production provides a nice opportunity to transnationalize perspectives on climate change. One because reading experiences from different parts of the world maybe allows for consciousness-raising and empathy — (as an aside, I started thinking about Lynn Hunt who writes about ’empathy’ and the novel, or how historically empathy emerges as thing along with the rise of the novel, which facilitated this mode of relation). But also because you it’s like — as you say — how all these novels and poems are serving as registers around the world of what is happening to the planet. It was striking how the planet or disaster as you were saying figures in the novels as part of the everyday world — I was starting to wonder if its possible to historicize this appearance — I was thinking of something like the Bible even and that surely people have been talking about disasters for a long time in literature, but is there something maybe different about the ones now? One other question I had was about literary form and its relation to the transnational network you are tracing here –like if the novel has kind of a historical form, with a set of conventions that usually go with it — and those are built around humans, and the nation — then how do these kinds of transnational forms and the register of the natural world maybe disrupt that or articulate something else? One place to start that struck me the novel and the poetry seemed to be working in different forms, the poetry less narrative, and also not exactly lyrical maybe either…?

    Ben, I totally agree our talks have a lot in common — I think they do both definitely critique the divide between nature and culture that underwrites an understanding of wilderness. I liked the series you shared with us — the re-cycling bike definitely stuck with me, and I like the thing about the liberalization of the critique of wilderness — it draws the logic out to an absurd extreme, no?. I feel like Roberson’s vision, though, is qualitatively different. To me he shares the critique, but he’s seeing the natural from a different place in which there isn’t this divide because he’s not in the same relation to the world. To me it’s not somehow that he’s found some kind of “outside,” because to me that too would still be a construct of the same dominant episteme — but he is in a structurally different relation to it all. I think then Utopia is not a no place in the modern Western Moorian line that Jameson is taking up, but it is the world seen and made otherwise from this other place.
    For the wilderness stuff, I wonder if you’ve read Susan Howe’s work? She shares the critique of the wilderness for sure — she writes, for example, “Because it isn’t a wilderness to Native Americans” — but I think she’s also trying to write “from” the place of it. Or that is, the wilderness outside is produced socially as other than human — she’s inhabiting some kind of perspective that appropriates this difference as an opportunity to imagine something else. There’s a maybe similar I think move that Jack Halberstam makes with ‘the wild’ in her introduction to Fred Moten and Stephano Harney’s Undercommons book.….I wonder if those might be helpful to you in thinking through the term as well.

    • Danielle Crawford, University of California, Santa Cruz says:

      Hi Jessica,

      Thanks for your wonderful response. Your questions and comments are incredibly useful. First off, I’m glad to hear that the network I trace does not come across as universalizing, as this was one of my larger concerns in writing this paper. To your next point, I think historicizing disasters, and particularly their appearance in literature, is definitely necessary—and it’s something I would like to explore more in my work. But, within the context of climate change studies, this type of historicizing can get tricky. As you mentioned, disasters span throughout the history of literature, such as the disasters/storms in the Bible. So the tricky part here is situating this historicizing within climate change. In other words, if we are just focusing on literary depictions of disasters that actually happened—at what point in time can these disasters be attributed to climate change? Or are they simply just part of seasonal weather patterns? I think this is a problem of causality that we are facing in contemporary discussions about climate change. Scientific reports are certain that climate change will create greater frequency and intensity of “extreme events”—but they do not actually link any one disaster to climate change because of this uncertainty. So there’s this uncertainty about causality that I think also comes up in historicizing disasters in literature, at least if you try to connect this historicizing to climate change. But at the end of the day, I think it’s important to try and create more links in order to raise awareness/consciousness, and the record-breaking storms we have seen in just the past few years (like Hurricane Patricia and Typhoon Yolanda) really point to the urgency of this. So I think the humanities is in an interesting place to negotiate this tension of causality, and perhaps historicizing is a way to do that.

      Your question about genres and literary forms also really resonated with me. I think certain genres open themselves up to a transnational register more than others, but it also just depends on the work itself. So a novel rooted in the framework of the nation might not allow for this, but something like Linmark’s novel (which is based in different sites and movements), really does open itself up for a transpacific framework. But all of this does make me wonder how different literary forms (poetry, novels, memoirs, plays, and even films) can perhaps help us to articulate different points in environmental humanities work.

      This all leads me to your paper, which I found to be very fascinating. I really liked your analysis of Roberson’s poetry, and how you started your paper off with this compelling (but also haunting) image of the poet bringing a melting ice sculpture to the table of our environmental crisis. I felt like your talk gave me a good understanding of how Roberson is articulating a de-centered perspective of the natural word that breaks open the dichotomy of the observer/observed. So humans are not just the ones observing nature, but nature is observing us back in a dynamic relationship that is at once more humane and radical; that was the point that really stuck with me. I was especially interested in the interdisciplinary foundation behind Roberson’s poetics. You state that he was a student of chemistry, who was collecting data on Alaska as well as himself, and that his first poem reads as a kind of “lab report.” I wonder how this might facilitate an interdisciplinary conversation between the sciences (and particularly environmental sciences) and the humanities. While his poetics are challenging traditional dichotomies (observer/observed, nature/human), how might Roberson’s vision of radical immersion be useful across disciplines, and how might it inform specific practices within those disciplines? The last question I have about your paper is about race relations in Roberson’s poetics. I was interested in your point that his de-centering vision is connected to a socially produced positionality as a poet of color. How might Roberson’s de-centering of the human be linked to a de-centering of whiteness? This might be a stretch, but it seems that your analysis is critiquing this centering and universalizing of the human in the natural world, so I wonder if we could parallel this to a critique of the universalized hetero white male subject, since I think this is ultimately the positionality of the transcendental subject that you mention.


    • Ben Van Overmeire, University of California, San Diego says:

      Dear Jessica,

      Thank you for these pointers. I am unfamiliar with Susan Howe’s work… any pieces you particularly recommend? I did check out Jack Halberstam’s elaboration of the wild in the context of queer politics, and found that fascinating: I think the deconstruction the term wilderness as something we’re always already “in” is very promising.

      Thank you, and all the best,


  6. Jessica Jones, Duke University says:

    Dear Danielle, I’m so glad my comments were helpful! Your response about historicizing within a framework of climate change makes sense to me. It made me think a bit of the anthropocene, or the way it measures human impact on the earth. I wonder if climate change would be somehow tied to that human reference point or if it would also stray from it. Probably, it would have to be tied, although I am just thinking outloud…
    Your comments and questions are also very helpful! Thank you!
    It caught my attention too, Roberson’s background as a scientist, but I didn’t quite know why. Your comments make me see that better — I agree there is a lot of room for interdisciplinary in approaching these problems. Reading your comment and thinking about Roberson made me start thinking about something like the radical root of interdsciplinarity — like not just interdsiciplinary to bring together disciplines that then each talk about how they are seeing the problem, from different lenses but still within the same epistemic frame, but rather to rethink the foundations of those disciplines — like each discpline trying to rethink itself in relation to the problem, and *then* reporting back, from this other position, on what it sees. I think what Roberson’s background as a scientist shows is that to change your relation to the world is something that would apply to scientists, to poets, or just to people in the world. Maybe something like a changed relation to the world, or a different mode of being human in relation to it that could be at the core of interdisciplinary conversations around climate change — Something else I thought about in relation to this is that disciplines in themselves, or this idea that knowledge can be compartmentalized and specialized, are historically part of the same modern Western episteme / way of being human that I think Roberson’s poetics are allowing us to critique. But, since we have disciplines, and our knowledge is organized according to them, interdisciplinarity in its best or most radical sense — could be a way to think otherwise.

    Yes, I think for sure Roberson’s decentering of the human is totally linked to a decentering of whiteness as a position from which to write the world – Roberson says at one point that “I’m not creating a new language. I’m just trying to un-White-Out the one we’ve got.” Which is like a play I guess — a critique of the absences that the position of whiteness has produced in our language, in our ways of writing the world. He also talks about his struggle to write a “black nature poem.” I think that neither blackness nor whiteness are essences in his poetry or his understanding of things — they are historically produced positions that as people in the world we can affirm or negate — Roberson I think affirms his position as a black poet — gives the structural margin of “blackness in this country” — a positive value — because he sees what the center has done, what it produces, how violent it is in its ways of controlling the world. And I think he affirms this place outside of the center, this different kind of human agency, as a very valuable place from which to write and see the world.

    And finally, yes, I think that the transcendental subject position is, as you say, the universalized hetero white male subject — this not because the transcendental subject position has to be those things — but because of the geo-politics of knowledge, the way Western Europe and its ideals (the transcendental subject position among them) emerged and produced its own universalized “centerality” through capitalism and colonization, and then who ends up having power within that order of things.

  7. Jessica Jones, Duke University says:

    Hi Ben, By Susan Howe that relates to wilderness: The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history. Nice to share a panel with both of you! J

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