Monday, August 12, 2013

Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies

by J J Cohen

(read Eileen's post and the sneak preview of Aranye's spectacular new book first!)

For those of you who do not follow my perturbated status updates on Facebook, I've just emerged from a fifty day Writing Lockdown that, honestly, took its toll. The good news, though, is that Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman is under contract and will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2015. The manuscript is nearly done. I've spent a summer of not being very social, didn't travel much, and wrote like crazy. But: tomorrow I leave for our annual trip to see my family in Maine. A highlight will be when we take our son to see the University of Maine at Orono as a potential applicant. My grandfather graduated their first law class in 1918 (when law was an undergraduate degree), and my dad did his BA in 1953. It would be interesting if Alex likes it...

I've been drafting my syllabus because Semester Is Coming, and I need to be ready the moment I return: I have a graduate seminar that meets Mondays. Below is the rough version of a work in progress. Let me know what you think. Putting it together felt like murdering children: so many books -- so many, many books -- that I just could not include.

English 6240
Literature of the British Archipelago:
Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies

This seminar gathers polyglot literary works from Britain's early postcolonial past to examine what happens when disparate people, biota, and elements (forces as well as fundamental materialities) meet, struggle, blend and bind. Through strife (the brutality of conquest, internal colonialism) and love (including its queer, ontology-crossing modes) we will map what happens within contact zones of people, animals, plants, landscapes, and climatic and topographical nonhumans. Our texts offer glimpses, at times horrifyingly blunt, at times oblique, of what unfolds at violent encounters and slow aftermaths. The roiled environments, trauma, veering, and unexpected futures these zones engender are evident in a medieval literature that resonates profoundly with contemporary ecotheoretical concerns. Some of our key terms: nature, natality, oikos/home, scale, hybridity, environ, elementality, actant, contact, monster, blood, catastrophe, vortex, love, strife.

This course is open to anyone who wishes to take it, including those whose focus is in later periods. Primary texts not in Middle English will be read in translation. The pedagogy is multimodal, experimental, adaptive, and collective.

Learning Objectives
By the end of this course you will:
  1. be able to translate Middle English into a contemporary idiom
  2. identify key critical concepts in ecotheory and use them to understand medieval and early modern texts differently, & vice versa
  3. be able to apply techniques of critical reading within a contextualizing historical frame, and map why such frames inevitably do not suffice
  4. be able to articulate why the advent of the Anthropocene gives so little hope for the human future
  5. be spurred by the past to think, at least tentatively, beyond dreams of sustainability and to move, cautiously, beyond ecological despair
  6. compose a carefully researched and substantial work of original scholarship

Attendance and participation; two presentations; sporadic short writing assignments that will count towards your participation; a sustained ecological meditation conducted over the length of the seminar (“Tiny Ecology”; see below); final essay that could form the basis of a scholarly article. You are also required to attend the GW MEMSI conference “Contact Ecologies” (November 15; see below), and to compose a 6 page analytical account of the keynote and panels. These assessments will count towards the total of your grade in these proportions:
            Participation                              20
            Conference write-up                10
            Tiny Ecology                             20
            Seminar paper                          50
Tiny Ecology:  You will choose a place for intense ecological attentiveness. During the course of the seminar you ill make frequent visits to note its changes from late August into December. There are no special requirements for the place you choose: it may be a built environment, a natural space, a humanly curated expanse (park, garden), an abandoned corner or lot, a recurrent puddle or a fountain. Best is an area close to home that you have lived with or near for some time without paying much regard to what unfolds within its little biome. The area can be as small as a concrete planter by a Metro station or as large as a tree and its environs. Attention should be paid to human influence and neglect, nonhuman forces (weather, sunlight, microclimates, pollution, decay, gentrification), and the surfacings of particular histories (especially but limited to the species of animals and plants evident; you may have to learn the difference between kudzu and dandelion, a starling and a wren). These notes will be typed up and used as the basis of your presentation on Tiny Ecology Day – and these presentations will form the course review.

Contact Ecologies: On Friday November 15 GW MEMSI hosts a daylong symposium on “Contact Ecologies” featuring Steve Mentz, Anne Harris, Bruce Holsinger and Kellie Robertson. The keynote will be given by Timothy Morton. You will notice their names throughout this syllabus. All students enrolled in this seminar are required to attend, participate and write an analytical report on the experience.

Policy on lateness and extensions: Plan carefully. Except for a documented medical reason, late work is not accepted. You may not take an incomplete for this course.

Academic dishonesty: Academic dishonesty of any kind is a serious offense and will be prosecuted fully. At a minimum you should expect to fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” Academic Dishonesty can be as simple as consulting a website to spark your ideas, incorporating some of those themes or facts into your argument and not citing the source. You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at

Disability statement: If you require accommodations based on disability, I am very happy to work with you. Disability Support Services (Academic Center Floor One, 994‑8250, is available to assist you as well.

The following books are available at the GW Bookstore.
  • Age of Bede
  • Grettir’s Saga
  • Beowulf
  • Marie de France, Lais
  • Wace, Roman de Brut
  • Gerald of Wales, Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales
  • Gerald of Wales, History & Topography of Ireland
  • Poems of the Pearl Manuscript
  • Mick Smith, Against Ecological Sovereignty

Schedule of Readings
A syllabus always seems incised in granite. This one is not. I’ve mapped out a possible path our seminar might follow, but nothing here is definitive: we can alter the schedule of readings to adapt to our emergent themes and communal obsessions. Unless otherwise noted, readings not from the list of texts above are available via Blackboard under “Electronic Reserves.”

August 26  Green Inscription
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (excerpt on the settlement of Britain)
  • Chaucer, “The Former Age”
  • Karl Steel, “A Fourteenth-Century Ecology: ‘The Former Age’ with Dindimus”
  • From Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature: “Green Reading”
  • Suggested: Vin Nardizzi, “Medieval Ecocriticism” (review essay, postmedieval 4.1 2013)

September 2  LABOR DAY

September 9  The Force of the Elements
  • “The Voyage of Saint Brendan” (from Age of Bede)
  • “The Wanderer” (read all four translations and try the Old English:
  •  “The Seafarer”
  • from David Macauley, Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire and Water as Environmental Ideas: “Philosophy’s Forgotten Four” “Stone” “Ice and Snow” “Cloud” “Domestication of the Elements” and “Revaluing Earth, Air, Fire and Water”

September 16  Inhabitance and Displacement
  • Beowulf I (to death of Grendel’s mother)
  • Guthlac A and B, trans. Charles Kennedy
  • Alfred Siewers, “Landscapes of Conversion” (from The Postmodern Beowulf)
  • Alfred Siewers, “Earth” (from postmedieval 4.1)
  • Valerie Allen, “Road” (from postmedieval 4.1)

September 23  Grim Future
  • Beowulf II (dragon and Beowulf’s death)
  • From Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism: “Apocalypse” “Dwelling” “Futures”
  • From the PMLA “Sustainability” cluster (127.3, 2102): Stacy Alaimo, “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures;” Dan Brayton, “Writ in Water: Far Tortuga and the Crisis of the Marine Environment;” Steve Mentz, “After Sustainability”

September 30  Horizon
  • Grettir’s saga
  • From Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe: “The Norse and the Crusaders,” “Weeds,” “Explanations,” “Conclusions”

October 7 Animality
  • Marie de France, Lais
  • From Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: “Cohabitation,” “Wolf, Man, and Wolf-Man” and “Conclusion”
  • Bruce Holsinger, "Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal” PMLA 124 (2009)
  • Suggested: Lowell Duckert, “Exit, Pursued By a Bear (More to Follow)”

October 14  Beyond Green
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • From Gillian Rudd, Greenery: “Wilds, Wastes and Wilderness”
  • Steve Mentz, “Making the Green One Red: Dynamic Ecologies in Macbeth, Edward Barlow’s Journal, and Robinson Crusoe”
  • Carolyn Dinshaw, “Ecology” (from A Handbook of Middle English Studies)

October 21  Enmeshment
  • Wace, Roman de Brut (to “Night of the Long Knives,” line 7280)
  • Timothy Morton, “Queer Ecology” (PMLA)
  • Timothy Morton, “The Mesh” (from Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century)
  • Timothy Morton, from The Ecological Thought
  • Anne Harris and Karen Overbey, “Lush Ethics”

October 28 Material’s Agency
  • Wace, Roman de Brut (to end)
  • Kellie Robertson, “Exemplary Rocks” (from Animal, Vegetable, Mineral; download here:
  • From Julian Yates, Error, Misuse, Failure: “Wrinkles in Time and Space” and “Martyrs and Ghosts in 1606”
  • Julian Yates, “Cloud / Land” (from postmedieval 4.1)
  • Julian Yates, “Towards a Theory of Agentive Drift; Or, A Particular Fondness for Oranges circa 1597”

November 4 Sovereignty and Contact Zones
  • Gerald of Wales, History & Topography of Ireland
  • Mick Smith, Against Ecological Sovereignty

November 11 Indigeneity and Trans-Corporeality
  • Gerald of Wales, Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales
  • From Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: “Bodily Natures” “Material Memoirs”
  • From Rebecca R. Scott, Removing Mountains: “The Logic of Extraction” “Hillbillies and Coal Miners: Representations of a National Sacrifice Zone”


November 18 Beyond
  • “Patience” “Pearl” and “St. Erkenwald”
  • Kathleen Palti, “The Bound Earth in Patience and Other Middle English Poetry”
  • Karl Steel, ““Abyss: Everything is Food” (from postmedieval 4.1)
  • Karl Steel, “Will Wonders Never Cease: St. Erkenwald with Claustrophilia”

November 25  Tiny Ecology Day (inventive presentations and course summary)

December 2 Final Projects and Communal Feast


Tobias said...

Love the tiny ecology project. I think I'll try something similar in my undergrad survey on Romanticism and/in the Anthropocene.

Anonymous said...

"be able to articulate why the advent of the Anthropocene gives so little hope for the human future"

This seems an oddly phrased learning objective, and one that reads more like a belief position than a learning objective. If a student doesn't come to buy into the argument that the Anthropocene gives little hope for the human future", will they be graded down accordingly?

Mayhaps "understand the relationship between the advent of the Anthropocene and human futures" would be a bit less prescriptive.

Tobias said...

I’ve been developing the syllabus for a graduate seminar as well—“Species and Planet in the Long Eighteenth Century”—and I’ve found particularly useful work at the intersection of Marxism and environmental history, such as Jason Moore’s essay, collected on his website: I’m planning to teach “Nature and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism” alongside _Robinson Crusoe_. Moore begins his argument with the thesis that the feudal “lord-peasant relation was fundamentally antagonistic to long-run ecological sustainability” (107), leading to a series of crises (intensified by the waning of the Medieval Warm Period), the solution of which was geographic expansion, which in turn provided the conditions for capital accumulation and the transition to capitalist modes of production. He quotes Wallerstein: “The only solution … that would extract western Europe from decimation and stagnation would be one that would expand the economic pie to be shared, a solution which required, given the technology of the time, an expansion of the land area and population base to exploit” (116).

I’m also teaching from an excellent book by three French scholars, _In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilization through the Ages_, which includes a chapter on the medieval energy regime, focusing largely on water mills and transportation. From my perspective, this sort of extended Marxism, which considers the ecological conditions and energy regimes that shape capitalist development, while continuing to recognize the fundamental explanatory power of historical materialism, is crucially important to theorizing the Anthropocene.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Anonymous: objectives 4 & 5 are to be read together. They are somewhat tongue in cheek. They are not grading rubrics.

Tobias: thanks so much for your thoughts - and for your frequent pushing me to think more materially [in the Marxist sense] about production and consumption; it has been very, very helpful to me. I've been ruminating over what you've offered as I hike and swim in Maine, thinking a lot about the human impress upon these ecologically "pure" spaces that are actually just zones for the consumer-vacationer.

There is so much to say about the so-called transition out of feudalism, including the trenchant critiques of that supposedly hegemonic mode as partly a retroactive fantasy, as partly a too totalized view of what was on the ground multiple, shifting, and geographically specific governmental assemblages, few of which were stable for all that long. Feudalism is sometimes more useful for the work it does in buttressing rupture narratives than in actually explaining, say, 14th C England's modes of production and consumption (which were mercantile), or 9th century Britain, even under Alfred (pillage economies far and wide).

Almost everywhere I look within medieval materials I see the same tendency: towards excess consumption to the point at which an ecology goes out of balance and must readjust. Iceland loses its entire tree canopy in a century (Vin Nardizzi has traced a similar process for England). England loses its animals for hunting, leading to game reserves and reformulations of king's dominion and property, etc. Humans tend towards the Gaussian function but also tend to pull back before utter collapse. That seems to me the most important lesson for the Anthropocene: when will it be too late to pull back and reorganize?

So on the one hand: YES we absolutely need to understand the mechanics and historical specificities of shifting energy regimes. YES historical materialism is vital to such an enterprise. But in addition, there are seem to me some ethical questions not well addressed through historicism of whatever kind -- primarily, how to make people desire differently? That task (one in which history is suggestive but hold no secure answers) is one that preoccupies me in my ecological work.