Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Prismatic Ecologies: Ecotheory Beyond Green

by J J Cohen

I'd like to share some good news with readers of In the Middle.

Although I haven't blogged about it for fear of jinxing the endeavor, I've been at work since last May on a new edited collection for the University of Minnesota Press. My Stories of Stone project has an ecological underpinning to it, and while reading through contemporary environmental criticism and ecotheory I realized that I wanted to bring some writers together for a larger conversation about the topic -- sort of what I did with Monster Theory: Reading Culture. From an inchoate idea the book quickly became an object with its own life, including a burgeoning table of contents. The contract arrived today from Minnesota. This will be my fourth book with UMP, but my first since 2003 (yes, Medieval Identity Machines is that old). It's good to be back -- especially because Richard Morrison, whom I've worked with before, has been so supportive of this collection.

Below is the proposal. I'm eager for any feedback you'd like to give: the project will change, no doubt, as it matures.

Prismatic Ecologies:
Ecotheory Beyond Green

Edited by Jeffrey J. Cohen
George Washington University

Green has long been the favored color of environmental criticism and theory. A green reading is an easy synonym for an ecology-minded analysis of literature and culture. Despite a pastoral bent, an emphasis on innate plenitude, and a quiet faith in a nature that if left to its sublime solitude would persevere in harmony, green modes of interpretation remain powerfully attractive. The color typically signifies a return, however belatedly, to the verdancy that an unspoiled world is supposed to possess. Myths of a Golden Age have been replaced by dreams of a primordial verdure, a Green Eden. As Timothy Morton has pointed out, this shade of “bright green” tends to be “affirmative, extraverted and masculine” as well as “sunny, straightforward, ableist, holistic, hearty, and ‘healthy’’’ (The Ecological Thought 16). Stephen J. Pyne has detailed how landscapes that Europeans perceive as untouched have often been profoundly reconfigured by fire regimes, such as those pre-contact Aboriginal peoples developed to manage their diverse environments (Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia). Lawrence Buell has written compellingly of how ecofeminism and environmental justice -- among many other movements within ecocriticism -- can move us beyond some of the limits of green ethics and aesthetics (The Future of Environmental Criticism 97-127). Ursula K. Heise has emphasized that the local obsessions of much green criticism do not necessarily yield the capacious frames of analysis necessary to understand how global ecologies work, especially in a world at risk.

It’s not easy being viridescent. A green criticism emphasizes sustainability, balance, the innate, the modern, and the natural. What of the catastrophic, the disruptive, the eruptive, inhumanly longues durées, the mixed spaces where the separation of nature and culture are difficult to maintain? Underneath every field is a cosmos of primordial stone, worms, recent debris, reservoirs of natural and manufactured chemicals, poisonous and fertile muck. In a green Arcadia what do we make of the airplane, graves, gamma rays, bacteria, invasive bamboo accidentally planted as an ornament, the crater become a lake, hyperobjects, the invisibly advancing or receding glacier, relentless lunar pull, electronic realms, prehistoric flora lingering as plastic refuse, parasites, inorganic compounds, a species about to undergo a sudden change? This collection of essays traces the impress and interspaces created by ecologies that cannot be reduced to the bucolic expanses of green readings, with their utopian emphasis upon balance, order, and the implicit benevolence of an unexamined force labeled Nature. What of the ocean's turbulence, the fecundity of excrement, the solitude of the wandering iceberg, the mineral excrescence of a city, the life of objects that may or may not demonstrate an interest in connecting to human spaces? Nature is not a creature of solitude and solace, but a concept for repeated interrogation, a term without transparent explanatory force. Through the suggestive entryway of colors, the contributors examine the coming into existence of nonanthropocentric ecologies, where the oikos in ecology is not so much a bounded home as an ever unfinished world. Prismatic Ecologies: Ecotheory Beyond Green gathers scholars from multiple time periods and several disciplines who have a nontraditional bent to their work to think collaboratively of what a more-than-green ecology might offer. The volume emphasizes critical approaches that have not yet been much used to envitalize ecotheory (especially queer theory and speculative realism/object oriented ontology), but approaches are diverse, having in common an emphasis upon materiality, the inhuman, and the innovative possibilities that an emphasis upon this invented spectrum enables.

Because of its topic, this book will appeal immediately to those working in environmental studies and ecotheory. Many of its contributors are already well known in the field (Stacy Alaimo won this year’s ASLE Book Award in ecocriticism; Jen Hill is an expert on Arctic narratives; Tim Morton’s work on “ecology without nature” is widely influential; and Lawrence Buell, a founding scholar, has agreed to compose the volume’s afterword). The volume is intended to create a cross-disciplinary as well as cross-temporal dialogue. Its essays should attract theorists interested in French postmodernism (Bernd Herzogenrath is a well known Deleuze scholar, and Allan Stoekl is an expert on Bataille), queer theory (Robert McRuer, Will Stockton, Vin Nardizzi), speculative realism and object and oriented ontology (Graham Harman, Tim Morton, Levi Bryant, Eileen Joy and Ben Woodard are highly regarded practitioners), early modern studies (Steve Mentz, Vin Nardizzi, Will Stockton, Lowell Duckert, Julian Yates), medieval studies (Jeffrey Cohen, Eileen Joy), anthropology (Kathleen Stewart) and architecture (Ed Keller). With its capacious table of contents and unified focus, the volume should be widely read. Our hope is to bring ecotheory into some important critical conversations that have not so far made much use of it, and to bring to ecocritics some theoretical tools useful for forming new alliances.


  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 kosmos means “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.

  1. 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.

  1. Robert McRuer, Pink

This essay examines the queer ways that pink circulates through neoliberal tourist economies, materializing both objects (the pink euro, dollar, and pound) and locations (San Francisco, the Canary Islands, Tel Aviv).  Pink “sticks” to gay male travelers, the objects they touch, and the locations they inhabit, but it is a stickiness that—contrary to Sara Ahmed’s understanding of “sticky” stereotypes that restrict the mobility of certain populations—puts bodies into motion. Pink economies generate pink waves upon which certain cosmopolitan queer subjects sail. Yet queer analyses of both neoliberal capitalism and what Judith Halberstam terms “metronormativity” might be deployed to think pink otherwise, in ways that might counterpose such pink economies to a critically pink ecology. This essay examines two efforts to refract a metropolitan pink and to move towards a minor, more sustainable pink: queer Palestinian deployments of the concept of “pinkwashing” to critique the ways that Israel’s gay rights record is discursively used to obscure its operations in the occupied territories and queer disabled reflections on rural environments, exemplified by Eli Clare’s meditation on salmon, old growth forests, and rural Oregon in Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation.
Robert McRuer is Professor of English at The George Washington University.  He is the author of Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (NYU, 2006), The Queer Renaissance: Contemporary American Literature and the Reinvention of Lesbian and Gay Identities (NYU, 1997), and co-editor of Sex and Disability (Duke, 2012).

  1. 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 is editing a forthcoming special issue of the journal postmedieval on “Ecomaterialism.”

  1. Julian Yates, O / r / a / n / g / e

“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. 

  1. Graham Harman, Gold

Gold is the name of a color, but this color refers to the hue of a well-known metal. As the pillar of the “gold standard,” this substance underlies human economic life as it has done for millennia. The deepest that humans have dug towards the center of the earth, more than two miles, has been in pursuit of gold. The westward drive of Americans towards the Pacific Ocean was spurred by this very metal, just as the earlier legends of El Dorado (the city of gold) drove the imperial ambitions of the Spanish in the Western hemisphere. But along with the role of gold in human economic and fantasy life, there are the scientific aspects of the problem. Gold is formed not on earth, but only in the heart of supernovae. Furthermore, gold has its famous color rather than the more likely silvery-white hue solely because of effects that can be explained only by the principle of relativity. In this way, gold weaves together a sprawling ecology ranging from human economics and politics to physics and cosmology.

Graham Harman is Associate Provost for Research Administration and Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of the following books: Tool-Being (2002), Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), Heidegger Explained (2007), Prince of Networks (2009), Towards Speculative Realism (2010), Circus Philosophicus (2010), L’Objet quadruple (2010), Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making (2011), and [with Bruno Latour & Peter Erdélyi] The Prince and the Wolf (2011).

  1. Vin Nardizzi, Greener

Human beings evolved to want the landscape where they put down roots to be green. According to Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia (1984), humans most desire living environments that resemble the African savannah. Since we cannot always have the green that we want, we content ourselves with mowed lawns and excursions to civic and national parks. Such “lawn mentality” lends itself to – and deserves – trenchant critique for its presumed timelessness and for its quintessential white-bre(a)d, heteronormative, and middle class underpinnings. This essay likewise takes a dim view of the mid-century lawn – that pocket of well-picketed grass – but its eco-critique follows a different path: it is a survey of green’s darker and more perverse figurations in Anglo-American science fiction. Likely suspects in this critical review of “greener” texts whose plots could be summed up as “Attack of the Post-War Plants!” include Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think (1947), an apocalyptic tale in which the chemically treated lawn of an LA housewife grows unstoppably until it extinguishes all other forms of life on Earth; John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951); Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors (1960); and the “Man-Eater of Surrey Green” (1965), an episode of the British television series The Avengers that borrows heavily from Triffids. In a different key, this sampling of texts anticipates the more eco-canonical visions of chemical bombing and avian holocaust in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Like that benchmark in ecofeminism, these texts suggest that fertilizers that were used to make plant life (from the lawn to the conservatory to the florist’s shop) grow green more quickly and, in Wilson’s idiom, more reminiscent of humanity’s primordial environment were also imagined to be human-killers during the nuclear age. Greener grass may look better, but it’s not always safer. And yet we keep spraying growth stimulants. Perhaps we desire the deadly aesthetic of “greener.”

Vin Nardizzi is Assistant Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, where he teaches Renaissance drama, ecocriticism, and queer and disability studies. With Stephen Guy-Bray and Will Stockton, he has edited Queer Renaissance Historiography: Backward Gaze (2009); and with Jean E. Feerick, he has co-edited The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature (forthcoming in 2012). He has finished a book manuscript, Evergreen Fantasies: Shakespeare’s Theatre in the Age of Wood.

  1. 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 is
Bataille's Peak: Energy, Religion, and Post-Sustainability (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

  1. 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).

  1. Steve Mentz, Brown

Smelly, rancid, and impure, it is no one’s favorite color. We need brown but don’t like looking at it. It’s a color you can’t cover up, that won’t go away.  At the end of a long afternoon finger-painting with the kids, it’s what’s left, sprawled across the page. This color helps clarify ugly strains of ecological thinking.  Brown crosses between organic and inorganic matter in both directions; it’s the color of the fertile soil plants consume and the fecal waste animals reject. Thinking brown helps identify hybrid spaces that straddle living and nonliving matter, aesthetic values and biological drives. Plunging into this color challenges many old ecological and theoretical models: ancient anthropocentric humanist fantasies, newer green pastoral recuperations, and even today’s expanded universes of mutually entangled and withdrawing objects in object oriented philosophic and literary ontologies. Brown marks intimate and uncomfortable contact between human bodies and nonhuman matter. Drawing brown out entails trying to make sense of stinking goo. This essay follows three different brown threads: first, sand, which marks and unmarks boundaries; second, all-dissolving swamp; and last, the shit that living bodies excrete into the world around them. These three substances reveal themselves through three canonical literary texts: Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti 75 (“One day I wrote her name upon the strand”), the Slough of Despond in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and a excretory vision in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. These three browns and three texts together facilitate rethinking the blurred boundaries between human bodies and the nonhuman world. For literary ecostudies to reconceptualize the relationship between human experience and nonhuman matter, plunging into a brown study seems essential, though perhaps not inescapable.

Steve Mentz is Associate Professor of English at St John's University in New York City. His ecological criticism to date has mostly focused on the blue oceans, including the book At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean (2009), the gallery exhibition "Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550 - 1750" (Folger Library, summer 2010), and several articles.  He has also written on Shakespeare, narrative romance, print culture, and the early modern city, including the book Romance for Sale in Early Modern England (2006) and the co-edited collection, Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (2004).

  1. Eileen Joy, Blue

Is madness the marker -- or even, ingenitor -- of various social collaborations between people as well as between humans and their environments? Is madness something to be located on the so-called ‘interior’ of sentience and biological physiology, or is it in the world somehow, with the ‘becoming-haptic’ of the human mind only one of its many effects? Is madness, in other words, ecological? Following Timothy Morton’s argument that too much of current ‘ecological’ thinking hinges upon the spectrum of ‘bright,’ optimistic, ‘sunny’ greens that are ‘holistic, hearty, and healthy,’ often leaving aside ‘negativity, introversion, femininity, writing, mediation, ambiguity, darkness, irony, fragmentation, and sickness’ (The Ecological Thought), this essay will focus on sadness and melancholy as forms and signs of deep ecological connections, as well as ethically valuable modes of  ‘plugging in’ to worlds as always already post-catastrophe. Through readings of the Old English poems Seafarer and Wanderer, this essay traces the co-implicated and affective relations between the human figures and the non-human ‘strange strangers’ of post-apocalyptic (post-war, but also post-human) medieval landscapes in order to formulate a ‘blue’ ecological aesthetic that might take better account of our world as both empty and intimate.

Eileen A. Joy teaches Old and Middle English literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and has published a variety of articles, special journal issues, and books on the intersections between medieval texts and contemporary culture. She is the Co-Founder and Lead Ingenitor of the BABEL Working Group, the Co-Editor (with Myra Seaman) of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, and the Co-Director (with Nicola Masciandaro) of punctum books: spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion.

  1. Stacy Alaimo, Violet-Black

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 21st century 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.

  1. Levi Bryant, Black

Traditional ecology tends to argue for three interrelated theses. First, that relations are internal to their objects, such that they are both constituted by their relations and have no existence independent of their relations. Thus Arne Naess argues that a mouse would no longer be a mouse in a vacuum because it has detached itself from the relations that constitute it. Second, ecology tends to treat the ecological as a distinct realm, Nature, independent of culture and society.  Finally, ecology tends to privilege homeostatic, self-regulating systems, equating them with the “natural”, treating systems that are characterized by positive feedback as unnatural. Traditional ecology thus presents a spiritualized picture of nature that is harmoniously self-regulating so long as humans do not interfere in it. Black ecology is the study of relations between entities per se. Here ecology does not refer to the study and investigation of a special domain of being, the “natural”, but rather, wherever there are relations there is an ecology.  Thus, plastics, nanotechnologies, cells phones, media, images, the printing press, and families are no less objects for ecological analysis than the presence or absence of vultures in India or the role that bees play in pollinating plants. Where traditional ecology treats relations as being internal to and constitutive of objects, black ecology argues that relations are external to objects. Objects indeed pass in and out of relations with other objects. Ecology investigates what takes place when entities disappear from networks of relations or when new entities are introduced into networks of relations.

It is here that we encounter the “blackness” of black ecology. The idea of a color that arises from an object not reflecting light in the visible spectrum suggests entities that are withdrawn, that are never entirely present or actual.  As objects pass in and out of relations with other objects, new properties and qualities appear such as vultures in India dying from the painkiller diclofenac given to cows or the impact of fracking for natural gas on streams and fish. Black ecology investigates the transformations withdrawn objects undergo as they enter into new relations. It argues for a new form of Enlightenment where we become aware of our network relations with other entities, that we are not outside of these networks, and that there is no intrinsic teleology governing these networks that insures stability. Where traditional ecologies tend to present “nature” as teleologically providential, black ecology argues that there is no inherent teleology to nature, that nature that succumbs to positive feedback loops is no less natural than homeostatic nature, that the atmosphere of Venus is always a possibility, and that therefore we must embrace our status as ethical subjects and develop values and practices that would aim for the sort of contingent world we would like to exist.

Levi R. Bryant is a Professor of Philosophy at Collin College and a former Lacanian psychoanalyst.  He is the author of Difference and Givenness:  Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence (Northwestern University Press, 2008), The Democracy of Objects (Open Humanities Press, 2011), and co-editor, with Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman, of The Speculative Turn:  Continental Materialism/Realism. He is the author of numerous articles on Deleuze, Badiou, Lacan, and Žižek, and a leading theorist in the object-oriented ontology movement.

  1. Jeffrey Cohen, Grey
The hue of color at twilight, grey could signify a loss of vitality, the shade of death and loss. Yet this essay seeks the vitality in grey: grey as life in other forms, grey as an ecology of monsters. By tracing how a cultural fascination with zombies intersects with a contemporary love of apocalypse (the staging of the  ending of the world that is always underwritten by an environmental narrative), I argue that the "undeadness" of grey reveals the intimacy of an object oriented ecology to the human. Zombies are figures for our racial others, for the disabled, the elderly, for all those bodies we otherwise refuse to behold. Yet beyond this allegorical or symptomatic function, the zombie offers a life in death that demonstrates how even our bodies are not our own, how even the life they possess does not amount to a subjectivity that perishes when the flesh is moribund. The zombie is an ecology of life in another form.

Jeffrey Cohen is Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at the George Washington University.

  15. Bernd Herzogenrath, White

Ice is a crystalline inorganic solid, less dense than water, prone to powerful expansion. Ice is a shape shifter; it can take the form of snowflakes, icicles, hail, pack ice, and glaciers. More than 10 percent of the world’s land mass is permanently covered with ice, glaciated. Seven hundred million years ago, the whole surface of the world was covered with ice, which turned the globe into a giant snowball, as geologist Paul Hoffmann has it. I concentrate on the icy landscape and glaciers of Alaska, and unfold a complex ecosystem here, combining ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ ecologies. Nature percolates into culture, and vice versa, resonating in each other. Ice as a habitat, ice as a ‘vital force,’ but ice also triggering linguistic theories of climate-dependent languages, and, finally, the Alaskan landscape – natural and cultural – stimulating the site-specific ‘sonic geography’ of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams. Snow muffles every sound, the sound of glaciers, of ice cracking, of the land’s inhabitants form a complex sonic landscape into which the work of Adams taps, but which he also then re-inserts into and as a ‘real part’ of the Alaskan landscape.

Bernd Herzogenrath is Professor of American Literature and Culture at Goethe University of Frankfurt/Main, Germany. His fields of interest are 19th and 20th Century American Literature and Culture, Critical Theory, and Film|Media Studies. At the moment, Bernd is planning a project cinapses: thinking|film, that brings together scholars from film studies, philosophy, and the neurosciences (members include Antonio Damasio).

16. Ben Woodard, Ultraviolet

Ultraviolet light marks the unseen and the harmful, a radiation which degrades organic life yet is likely responsible for an evolutionary variation which allowed for genetic repair. Ecological criticism has consistently and uncritically relied on the visible to order to invoke pathos and critique thereby utilizing a concept of nature both naïvely positive and representationally shallow. To combat these conjoined tendencies, this essay will engage the non-aesthetic of ultraviolet as representative of nature as partially visible while equally corrosive and constructive. To this end I explore the relation between Johann Ritter (the discoverer of ultraviolet) and FWJ von Schelling by way of their shared commitment to Naturephilosophie and of a nature based on potencies and powers as well as the relevant anti-aesthetic present in numerous tales of the weird fiction author HP Lovecraft. This conception of nature is far more useful for theorizing nature and for ecological practice.

Ben Woodard is a PhD candidate at the Theory Centre at the University of Western Ontario. His forthcoming texts are: Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Zer0 Books) and On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy (Punctum Books). He blogs at Speculative Heresy and Naught Thought.

17. Tim Morton, X-ray

… like God taking a photograph … (Empire of the Sun)

X-rays mark the instigation of the Anthropocene, the geological period in which humans play the decisive role, notably in the Sixth Mass Extinction Event and global warming. The Anthropocene began in 1945 when the Trinity, Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs deposited a layer of radioactive materials throughout Earth's crust. X-rays are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but humans can't see them. Indeed, as far as X-Rays go, the boot is very much on the other foot. They see you. They see you so intensely that in sufficient quantities they kill you. X-Rays (also known as Gamma Rays) give the lie to the artificial division between perceiving and causing that has plagued philosophy and ideology since at least the Kantian turn. In an age of ecological awareness, the idea that the perceptual dimension is a neutral field is ended, in part by lethal entities that make up that very dimension itself. The time of nuclear materials and global warming is a time of lethal light.

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair of English at Rice University. He is the author of Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minnesota UP, forthcoming), Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (forthcoming from Open Humanities Press), The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010), Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007), seven other books and eighty essays on philosophy, ecology, literature, food and music. He blogs regularly at

Afterword, Lawrence Buell  

A founding figure in ecocriticism and an important voice in its practice since the mid-1980s, Lawrence Buell has agreed to compose an afterword which will meditate upon the book’s project, react to the collected essays, and suggest future avenues of research. Buell recently retired after many years as a professor of English at Harvard University. He is the author of The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995); Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the United States and Beyond (2001) and The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (2005).


Karl Steel said...

is "hairy" a color? Because I think you should have someone do that.

Eileen Joy said...

This is an amazing collection; I feel lucky to be a part of it. It's wonderful to finally read all of the chapter abstracts.

Jeb said...

is "hairy" a color?

That needs its own volume I think as it has a hue like Finns dog or P'an Hu. I am on early 17th century orange at the moment. Just finished blood red, still have issues with black and blue between the 6th and 12th cen. and not done enough on green.

It's a very neat way to organise I would never have thought of.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

This just in:

Fridrikr inn gamli Tomasson said...

To continue Karl's question:

Maybe not "hairy" so much as "fur" - being a herald, I'm interested in how the "noble furs" such as ermine and vair are treated in medieval literature. What manings and significance do they take on by themselves? How does their appearance affect the characters and the original readers.

Clara Bosak-Schroeder said...

Add someone who works on ancient stuff.