Ravenstein Seminar on Ecocriticism – Keynote lectures by Graham Huggan, Isabel Hoving and Kate Marshall (Jan 26 & 27)

All OSL members are cordially invited to attend the lectures given at the Ravenstein Seminar on “Ecocriticism: Literature & Environment” in Amsterdam on January 26 & 27 (University Theatre, Doelenstraat 16, room 3.01). The programme will include keynote lectures by

  • Graham Huggan (University of Leeds) – “Sperm Count: The Scoresbys and the North”
  • Isabel Hoving (Leiden University) –  “The Environmental Humanities and Caribbean Literature: New Ways to Theorize Race, Colonialism, Gender, and Desire”
  • Kate Marshall (University of Notre Dame) – “Interiority after Extinction: On the Limits of Ecocritical Narratology”

Please find the full programme and all abstracts below.

Conference programme

9:30-10:00 Registration and coffee
10:00-10:15 Introduction
10:15-11:15 Graham Huggan (Leeds): “Sperm Count: The Scoresbys and the North”
11:15-11:30 Coffee break
11:30-12:15 Eric Metz (Amsterdam): Poetry and the “Forests of Symbols”: Re-evaluating Romantic Nature through the Lens of Russian Symbolism
12:15-13:30 Lunch
13:30-14:30 Isabel Hoving (Leiden): “The Environmental Humanities and Caribbean Literature: New Ways to Theorize Race, Colonialism, Gender, and Desire”
15:30-15:45 Coffee break
14:45-15:30 Vera Alexander (Groningen): “Gardens as Relational Heterotopias”
15:30-15:45 Coffee break
15:45-16:30 Panel discussion
16:30-17:30 Drinks
18:00 Conference Dinner
FRIDAY JAN 27, 2017
10:00-11:00 Kate Marshall (Notre Dame, Indiana): “Interiority after Extinction: On the Limits of Ecocritical Narratology”
11:00-11:15 Coffee break
11:15-12:00 Ben de Bruyn (Maastricht): “The Smog of War: 9/11, Slow Violence and Climate Change in Recent Fiction”
12:00-12:15 Coffee break
12:15-13:00 Astrid Bracke (Nijmegen): “‘the dull old facts of altered climate’: Climate crisis and 21st-century narratives”
13:00-14:00 Lunch
14:00-14:45 Tom Idema (Utrecht): “Understanding Climate Change”
14:45-15:00 Coffee break
15:00-15:45 Kristine Steenbergh (Amsterdam): “Interrelating in the Anthropocene: Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods
15:45 -16:30 Wrapping up


Vera Alexander (University of Groningen) – Gardens as Relational Heterotopias

Gardens are places where individuals confront their ideas and ideals about the environment, their notions about what is and is not natural and, on a more abstract plane, their visions of growth and aesthetics of improvement.

In this presentation I will analyse garden writings and look at the ways in which they problematise anthropocentric notions about human beings as creatures in charge of the environment. I will tie my analysis to two intersecting processes: trying to relate to place and trying to come to terms with a non-human Other.

Astrid Bracke (HAN University of Applied Sciences) – ‘the dull old facts of altered climate’: Climate crisis and 21st-century narratives

To the foetal narrator of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (2016) climate crisis has already become shorthand, a familiar, dull story of altered climate, vanishing forests, animals and ice. In my talk I explore examples such as this as illustrations of climate crisis as a dominant twenty-first-century narrative. The phrase ‘climate crisis’ has become narrative shorthand for a wide range of issues and awareness of climate crisis pervades the social, political and cultural imagination.

Yet the climate crisis narrative also poses challenges to the contemporary imagination, even to the very act of narrating itself. These challenges go beyond the oft-repeated environmental humanities argument for ‘new narratives’ more suitable to the current environmental moment, nor can they be captured in terms of the ‘crisis of the imagination’ that some ecocritics believe climate crisis to be. Drawing on the burgeoning field of econarratology I discuss how postmillennial climate crisis narratives use and undermine stories and storytelling, and as such challenge the ecocritical project as a whole. Throughout the talk I use case studies from my forthcoming book, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel.

Ben de Bruyn (Maastricht University) – The Smog of War: 9/11, Slow Violence aClimate Change in Recent Fictionnd Climate Change in Recent Fiction

In its ongoing attempt to commemorate the traumas related to key historical events, recent Anglophone literature has been particularly interested in narrating two ongoing wars of global scale: various interconnected conflicts in the Middle East and the less visible war humans have been waging on the environment. Such military and ecological conflicts might appear to be very different but the work of recent thinkers and writers suggests that they are closely interconnected. In his study of air power and modernist culture, Paul Saint-Amour has identified a condition of ‘pre-traumatic stress syndrome’ that resonates with current fears over our destabilized climate, and Rob Nixon’s insightful analysis of ‘slow violence’ indicates that notions like war are relevant in an environmental context too. Most strikingly, Roy Scranton’s account of the Anthropocene implies that the most characteristic human figure in a time of destructive climate change may well be the soldier. And both Scranton and Saint-Amour explicitly tie these interlinked wars to anxieties over the disappearance of cultural archives and human memory. Developing these insights, and moving the debate on climate change literature beyond a narrowly conceived ‘clifi’, this paper begins by summarizing Robert Marzec’s work on ‘environmentality’ before examining ecology and memory in two recent war novels, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life (2014) and Mark de Silva’s Square Wave (2015). In a final step, I will broaden the focus by turning to the environments of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015) and Nothing Ever Dies (2016).

Isabel Hoving (Leiden University) – The Environmental Humanities and Caribbean Literature: New Ways to Theorize Race, Colonialism, Gender, and Desire

My presentation will not take its point of departure in theory (in this case: ecocriticism), but in art. I will begin with an open question: Why do we find so many references to nature and the environment in the Caribbean creative fiction that tries to come to terms with the contemporary age of globalization? Even when these novels do not seem to be concerned with environmental issues at all, they abound with fragrant, creepy or dark references to flowers, insects, trees, gardens, and mud. Indeed, ecocritics will read these references as a critical reflection on the destructive environmental effects of colonialism and globalization. While such a reading is undoubtedly enlightening, it does not give us the whole story. Many Caribbean texts suggest that one cannot analyze environmental destruction without also analyzing the workings of racism, sexism and homophobia–and the other way around. I hope to show that the environmental humanities need to include postcolonial theory, gender studies and queer studies to make sense of the full complexity of Caribbean writing about the environment. Through a discussion of several literary examples, I propose to read these references within an intersectional frame that brings together ecocriticism with Caribbean and postcolonial studies, the study of globalization, trauma theory, the study of gender and sexuality, posthumanism and new materialism.

Graham Huggan (University of Leeds) – Sperm Count: The Scoresbys and the North

Scoresby is a familiar name for all those interested in the confluence of British maritime history and Northern exploration. Two Scoresbys, to be precise: William Senior, a towering figure in the history of late eighteenth-century commercial whaling; and William Junior, a post-Enlightenment ‘improver’ whose religious beliefs would neither compromise his dogged scientific rationalism nor his considerable entrepreneurial flair. Two Norths as well: for Whitby, the Scoresbys’ home town in Yorkshire, was not only one of the most important eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British whaling ports, but would also provide the base for both men’s enterprising forays into the Arctic, which –in Scoresby Junior’s case in particular– sought to reconcile industrial (mercantile) ambitions with scientific (natural-historical) claims. This talk uses the two Scoresbys to explore some of the hyper-masculinist myths that continue to surround narratives of whale hunting and Arctic exploration, embedding both of these within the long history of capitalist modernity as well as contemporaneous networks of British imperial history and European mercantile trade.

Tom Idema (Utrecht University) – Understanding Climate Change

Climate change has been a major factor in the advent of an environmental/nonhuman turn in the humanities. This new orientation has raised the question of how scholarly work in the humanities relates to new knowledge about nonhuman phenomena in the sciences. How do scientific advancements in geoscience, ecology, genomics, and other fields affect our understanding of climate change? With the 2015 publication of Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change and Timothy Clark’s Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept, ecocriticism has begun to take on the challenges of climate change in earnest –not just the challenges to society, but also to ecocriticism itself. In this presentation I want to critically assess if and how recent work in the environmental humanities addresses the role of the sciences in the onto-epistemological construction of the Anthropocene, in dialogue with cultural and humanistic modes of understanding. I will argue that although some studies offer ways to think together with the sciences, these options remain rather underdeveloped. To illustrate my point, I will offer some insight into recent climate change research, which helps not only to further substantiate ecocritical claims by about the Anthropocene (naturecultures, hyperobjects, entangled scales, critical thresholds), but also to mobilize those claims for usage beyond the humanities.

Kate Marshall (University of Notre Dame) – Interiority after Extinction: On the Limits of Ecocritical Narratology

Narratives of extinction – cultural as well as fictional – have become commonplace topics for ecocritical approaches to literary study, subject to ever-more nuanced formalizations. One challenge for contemporary fictional extinction narratives is the project of rendering narrative subjects after the extinction event. This can be the case for landscapes and species, and presents peculiar problems when the extinction event includes the human. In this talk, I explore how a range of novels approach rendering post-extinction narrative subjects, asking who and what these foci are, and how the narrative techniques employed to render them provide access to larger questions about the role of extinction narrative in literary culture more broadly. By shifting focus from the extinction plot to the extinction subject within narrative, I locate a tension between apocalyptic temporalities and competing forms of prolepsis bearing on narrative subjects either transforming or imagining themselves transformed into post-extinction entities. Examples include Michel Houellebecq’s posthuman narrators of The Elementary Particles, the sentient landscapes of Jeff Vander Meer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, and the hybrid animals and humanoids of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam novels. Each of these texts incorporates elements of traditional extinction narrative and the tropes of climate fiction, but also challenges them on granular levels of interiority, focalization, and experiments in perspective.

Eric Metz (University of Amsterdam) – Poetry and the “Forests of Symbols”: Re-evaluating Romantic Nature through the Lens of Russian Symbolism

In many ways, the Symbolist tradition in world literature can be seen as a rejection, but also a continuation and intensification of Romanticism. This also seems to hold true for the symbolist treatment of “nature” in literature: arguably, the Symbolists introduced the cult of the artificial and “anti-natural”, while while at the same time they were also explicitly building upon presumed ecocentric tendencies in Romanticism. In my contribution, I will focus on the Russian poet and essayist Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942), who was one of the main propagators of Symbolism in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. Several of his essays show an interesting dichotomic view of Romanticism from the perspective of the (then) newest literary current: great Romantic poets, such as Byron and Pushkin, are criticised for the anthropocentrism of their nature poetry, whereas other Romantics, like P.B. Shelley, Fet, and Tyutchev are presented as models for literary innovation because of their perceived ecocentrism – the term Balmont uses here, in fact, is “poetic pantheism”. There are three questions that I would like to address. First, to which extent can Balmont’s argument be read as an implicit critique of Baudelaire’s seminal poem “Correspondences”, in which nature is depicted as a temple where man passes through “forests of symbols”? Second, how can Balmont’s musings on nature’s fundamental autonomy be connected – on a typological and/or on a genetic level – with Friedrich Schiller’s poetics of authenticity, and with Vladimir Solovyov’s reflections on wilderness and its relation to poetry? Third, should Balmont himself be re-evaluated as an ecocritic avant la lettre whose views on nature and literature could still be useful for contemporary literary historiography?

Kristine Steenbergh (VU Amsterdam) – Interrelating in the Anthropocene: Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Stone Gods’

Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007) is a novel of the Anthropocene, telling stories of colonisation, objectification and domination of new worlds. The interlocking narratives in the novel, together with intertextual references to colonial texts, shape a pattern of a repeating world – or, to quote the novel, the sense that “everything is imprinted forever with what it once was.” The Stone Gods has both been read as exemplary of a geotraumatic and melancholy Anthropocene and as a novel of ‘queer exuberance’ that affirms values opposing the structures of contemporary biopower. In this paper, I will reassess this critical disagreement through a reading of the novel from an ecocritical perspective, focusing on its intertextuality with the seventeenth-century poetry of John Donne. Reading the novel alongside Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (2016) and Ann Laura Stoler’s Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (2016), I will argue that the intertextual repetition of Donne’s colonialist love poems shapes new posthuman modes of interrelating. To use Stoler’s words, the poems function in the novel as “histories that fold back on themselves and, in that refolding, reveal new surfaces and new planes. Recursion opens to novel contingent possibilities […]” (26). The novel invites us to think about the role of literature –contemporary as well as historical– in shaping new modes of staying with the trouble in the Anthropocene.