Panel 14: A Role for Literature?



Panel 14: A Role for Literature?

“Fictions of Futurity”: Ecocritical Practice in Contemporary Fiction

Jessica Holmes, University of Washington

This presentation will examine narrative representations of nature and human nature in several contemporary texts. In doing so, the presenter will pose and answer a number of pertinent questions. What does it mean to represent the world as story? How can these texts serve to “imagine” and/or “create just climate futures”? And what role does literary form play in constructing practical critical approaches to global realities? Finally, how can/does fiction seek to preserve an endangered planet, and perhaps even reverse some of the damage already done? (more).

Simulating Futures: An Inquiry into the Efficacy of Cli-fi as the Literary Genre of the Anthropocene

Pooja Agarwal, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur

There is an urgent need to educate the lay citizen about the impending future that awaits us if we continue to indulge in erratic and excessive materialism and consumption. Climate-fiction offers a creative simulation of imagined futures, often dystopian, apocalyptic, and catastrophic in nature that can shake the reader out of complacency, and mobilize her/him into definite action and bring about a change at the very level of an individual. This presentation is an attempt to systematically analyze the efficacy of cli-fi as the imaginative literature of the twenty first century (more).

The Role of Environmental Literature in Mitigating Climate Change

Teja Dusanapudi

In order to change our as­of­now inevitable environmental outcome in 2050, this talk urges that we must create widespread changes to not only the laws that allow for exploitation but also to the increasingly information saturated public. The only feasible way, the presentation stresses to awake the general public to our environmental plight so that change can be made before 2050 is through literature (more).

Q & A

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9 replies
  1. Jessica Holmes, University of Washington says:

    Thank you all for watching! I welcome any questions, comments and/or further discussion in the comments below. I’m particularly interested in hearing other thoughts about the role of literature in creating more a just climate future. What can/should the relationship between the humanities and sciences look like in pursuing such a future?

    • Jerome Bump U. of Texas at Austin says:

      An excellent talk. Learned a lot from it. For example, in my discussion of evolutionary biology and ethics in a recent publication [Ethics and the Environment 19, 2 (2014): 57-89] I too mention Leopold but focus primarily on E O Wilson. Now in later versions I can beef up the Leopold section, citing you of course.

      One change I would make concerns your reference to the company being seen as “animal” because “it lacks compassion, mercy, a humane ethic.” Personally I would have to object to this as a gross oversimplification.. Our shared interdisciplinary research project on the man/animal divide has revealed that this sense of “animal” is obsolete. Macaque monkeys, for example, have been shown to be far more “humane,” merciful, and compassionate than humans.

      Of course I was especially interested in your vision of the role of literature as a way to reshape public perception of the suffering of animals as well as people. In terms of the environment in general in contemporary fiction I recommend my colleague Heather Houser’s Ecosickness in Contemporary US Fiction: Environment and Affect . Like you she is especially interested in “environmentally induced ailments” (2014, 1). She introduced me to Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker (2006) which I found particularly useful because of the role of the slaughterhouse in the web of sickness, a role even more striking, it seems to me, in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects.

      For impact on the public, however, as I suggest in my talk here, I have to admit that images, especially in documentaries, are probably more important than these or any other novels.

      • Jessica Holmes, University of Washington says:

        Thanks very much for your thoughts here and for the book recommendations! I look forward to investigating further. I very much enjoyed your talk and saw many parallels to my own work!

        As for the reference to the use of “animal”–I by no means aimed to suggest that “animal” equates to a being lacking in compassion, mercy, etc. This is simply how the character in the book used the term in one instance (and is one common usage of the term, i.e. calling a human an “animal” as an insult). If anything, I hope my talk serves to discourage the use of “animal” to denote such a negative connotation, as both Sinha’s novel and I would argue that the animal-human divide is much more complicated than a simple ethics-non ethics approach would suggest. Thanks for drawing attention to this confusion–Playing my talk back, I can see how my treatment of the quotation was quite misleading!

        • Márgara Averbach, Universidad de Buenos Aires says:

          Hi, Jessica and Jerome… the question with the relationship animals/humans is a big part of what I discuss in Linda Hogan’s Dwellings… and in the indigenous world views it is a relationship among relatives, blood relatives. As Zaffaroni says in his book,this kind of change would mean what we call in Spanish “giro copernicano”, a radical, immense change in the way we see things… I think it is a very important subject. Thank you for your thoughts about it.

    • Rick Thomas, UC Santa Barbara says:

      Thank you very much for your interesting presentation. I do believe that literature has a compelling way of changing our perceptions of the world. I think most readers will agree that a book or story has influenced their lives in some way. From breathing wonder into a child’s mind, to serving as a stepping stone for critical thinking in higher education, literary references are all around us. Many works of fiction aim to have a very real message, however so many of these stories are written with room for various interpretations. It is an interesting idea to ponder then how fiction can send a very clear message that will inspire people to work towards a just climate future.
      As mentioned in your talk, people tend to concentrate on suffering that is most prominent in their own lives. Literature truly does have a way of speaking to universal struggles, but how can we make climate change be perceived as a universal struggle? The effects of climate change have already been felt across the globe, yet not everyone perceives these changes to have any real effect on them.
      What really stood out about the literature you referenced in your talk was that although it was a work of fiction, its foundation was made up of very real occurrences and societal issues that existed both in history and prevail in the present. These novels that fuse both history and fiction seem to hold a particular weight, perhaps because when readers begin to associate parts of the story as being real or true, the rest of the story begins to seem like factual occurrences as well. Literature in this form is an exceptional tool for the sciences and humanities. It provides opportunities for these fields to join together and create powerful, intriguing fiction works that are both rooted in the actual issues of climate change, and seek to reshape the public’s understanding of their role in the world around them. I look forward to reading more of these works soon.

  2. Márgara Averbach, Universidad de Buenos Aires says:

    Hi all, my name is Márgara Averbach, from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I work with the role of literature as you do so I feel priviledged to have listened to you all. I work essentially with Native US (we do not say “American” for US because we, Argentinians or Peruvians or Brazilians are “American” too) literature and I wanted to tell you that in that literature one can find a path… towards what should be done and therefore an awareness of the role of literature in this… Thank you for your talks

  3. Márgara Averbach, Universidad de Buenos Aires says:

    Hi, Jessica… I think, after having listened carefully again that the book you talk about could be read with Dwellings by Linda Hogan, the book I worked on as… almost complementary: from a book which warns about no future to one that tells us that there could be one if… and depicts roads to preserve our “dwellings” on Earth. Thank you for your talk.

  4. Rick Thomas, UC Santa Barbara says:


    Nice work. I really admire your commitment to analyzing and working to understand the role of environmental literature in being a catalyst for positive change. I hope more students at the high school level will continue to be involved in the fight for climate justice and share their thoughts in these conferences as you have.


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