Ravenstein Winter School: ‘Sustainability and Literature’

Ravenstein Winter School: 'Sustainability and Literature’

Amsterdam, 17-19 January 2024

Organizers: Prof. Dr Michael Boyden (Radboud University), Dr Doro Wiese (Radboud University) and Dr Jeff Diamanti (University of Amsterdam)

Open to: PhDs and RMA students; OSL members have first access

Credits: 6 ECs. NB: Credits can only be awarded to humanities ReMA and PhD students from Dutch universities.

Registration will open 16 October 2023 via this link.

THE WINTER SCHOOL IS FULLY BOOKED, please send an e-mail with your with your name, affiliation, status (ReMA, PhD, other) and research school membership to osl@rug.nl. We will put you on our waiting list.

“Sustainability” is one of the central concepts of our age. While the term is so ubiquitous in virtually all areas of life – a Google search yields close to three and a half billion hits for the term, more than “freedom” or “democracy” – its rise in dominance is a fairly recent phenomenon. The pervasiveness of sustainability discourse suggests that we are now living through a major socio-economic transformation, comparable to the agricultural and industrial revolutions. But the concept’s popularity also raises many questions and concerns about the who and the what of sustainability. For instance, critics have argued that sustainability rhetoric serves to greenwash polluting industries, that it does not fundamentally call into question the neoliberal economy, or that it is rooted in imperialist, racist, and/or anthropocentric ideologies. Literary and cultural studies scholars have a crucial role to play in weighing these conflicting valences of sustainability. Not only do we possess the analytical tools to study the hegemonic narrative of sustainability, as expressed both in literary texts and in social discourses generally, we can also contribute to the articulation of robust visions of sustainable futures that resist co-option by neoliberalism and other ideologies. What is the plot of sustainability as it is currently written, and what are the terms of its emplotted futures? What currents of struggle and critique get absorbed or obscured by its ever-expanding reach? Turning to sustainability issues, finally, might impel us to reflect on the sustainability of our own critical practices and to consider the place of the humanities in the university. The 2024 Ravenstein Winter School puts these issues front and center by approaching the nexus between sustainability and literature from distinct but strongly connected perspectives: econarratology, critical logistics, and Indigenous literatures. In bringing together these perspectives, we encourage a cross-disciplinary conversation that includes considerations of narrative form, infrastructures and technologies, colonialism and decolonization as well as modes of collective continuance and continuous care in the Anthropocene.

Confirmed speakers: 

  • Joni Adamson, professor of English and Environmental Humanities, Arizona State University
  • Alexandra Campbell, Lecturer in English literature, University of Glasgow
  • Erin James, professor of English, University of Idaho


Keynotes: Abstracts


Cosmovisionary Climate Science: Indigenous Literatures as Lively Ethographies  

Prof. Joni Adamson (President’s Professor of Environmental Humanities and English, Global Futures Laboratory, Arizona State University)

In January 2018, headlines in The New York Times referenced a bitter cold gripping the east coast of North America and two months later, subfreezing temperatures stretched across Europe from Poland to Spain.  Not a few journalists drew connections to Roland Emmerich’s 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, which imagines an extreme freezing event caused by human disruption of North Atlantic Ocean circulation.  Studies suggest, noted journalists, that the Artic is the fastest warming region on the planet, because the jet stream, or polar vortex, is “weakening more frequently and staying weaker for longer periods of time” causing cold air to escape the Arctic and find its way down to the North America, Britain, and Europe.  Articles comparing this real-world extreme weather to The Day After Tomorrow referred to the film as climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” and indeed, over the last decade and a half, there has been increasing interest among environmental humanists—and in the media—about the potential of climate fiction and films to educate the public about the causes of human-caused environmental change and motivate effective response.

The most well-recognized examples of climate fiction usually concern first world communities facing dystopian futures after humans have catalyzed some kind of apocalyptic collapse.  In this presentation, I will point to limitations in the ways climate fiction and films are defined and discussed as imaginative works deeply “indebted to climate science” (Milner and Burgmann 2017).  I’ll explore how our understanding of the genre might be enriched by bringing indigenous ontologies, epistemologies, cosmovisionary tales, and philosophies of intergenerational justice into the conversation.  I will bring Chickasaw novelist Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms (1995) which fictionalizes the development of the James Bay megacomplex of dams in Canada into my analysis of the polar vortex and Northern hemispheric freezing events.  Hogan examines the 1970s construction of James Bay and the resistance of the Cree and Inuit peoples to its construction.  Thirty years later, the novel appears prescient as James Bay is associated with a shift in the seasons so dramatic that sea ice patterns have changed and the Inuit and animals upon which they depend for subsistence are on the brink of collapse.

The indigenous knowledge represented in Hogan’s novel offers a more scientifically plausible explanation for a weakening polar vortex than found in The Day After Tomorrow, yet Solar Storms is most often categorized as “historical fiction.”  To my knowledge, it has never been discussed as climate fiction.  I will explore what we gain when understandings of “climate science” are extended to include indigenous scientific literacies rooted in the cosmovisionary archives of diverse Native North American peoples and other ancient peoples around the world.  I will examine how the genre of climate fiction is enriched when it includes literatures illustrating what Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooran have called “lively ethography,” defined as a “mode of knowing, engaging, and storytelling” that recognizes the ethos and meaningful lives of other than humans. The presentation will conclude with some thoughts about why humanities-led climate science goes beyond data sets to include literary works that sing of “encounters with the animated world” (Rose and Van Dooran).


Logistical Counter-Rhythms: Resistance, Revolt and Reproduction on the (dis)Assembly Line 

Dr Alexandra Campbell, University of Glasgow

Against the synthesized roar of crowds, blaring alarms, and the frantic beats of the 909 drum machine, the sonorous voice of Martin Luther King rings out: ‘Now is the time’. Sampled from the infamous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech of 1963, the 1991 track ‘Riot’ by techno collective Underground Resistance (UR) tunes into a revolutionary history of Black struggle that is set against the postindustrial ruination and infrastructural abandonment of Detroit. The militant stylings of UR deploys techno as “an operating system that overrides the present” (Eshun 1998), a form of sonic weaponry launched against racialised modes of production that center logics of replication, optimization, and efficiency. In this lecture I read the sonic experiments of the Detroit techno scene as an archive of counter-logistical form. More than a technological system of distribution and supply, logistics names a regime of metrical ordering that maintains the accumulation of value through an algorithmic choreography that renders environmental and social assemblages into standardized forms conducive to the smooth circulation of capital. Following Deborah Cowen’s suggestion that logistics is “not only about circulating stuff, but about sustaining life” (2014), I ask what forms of life does logistics structure and sustain? Where the logistical image of streamlined organization chimes easily with narratives of environmental sustainability that center ideals of reduction, resilience, and efficiency, I turn to those sites and forms that rub against the grain of logistical circulation. If logistics constitutes “the calculative politicization of rhythms and tempos of exchange” (Chua 2022) as they organize a planetary architecture of sustainment and supply, what are the counter-forms that resist or disrupt this spatio-temporal regime? Taking the assembly line as its object of inquiry I tune into a poetics of disassembly that takes us from the factory rebellions of autoworkers in the 1960s and 1970s into the militant sounds of techno in the 1980s and 1990s. By giving form to social compositions that block, hack and glitch the circulatory rhythms of logistical reproduction, I consider how the machinic interventions of Black sound artists assemble an acoustic ecology that attunes and sustains alternative arrangements of life.


Narrative, World, Anthropocene

Prof. Erin James, University of Idaho

This past July, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) pointed to a small, little-known lake in Ontario, Canada, as ground zero for a new geological epoch. Because of the unique shape and size of Crawford Lake, the sediment at its bottom has remained undisturbed as it has accumulated over the past centuries. A sampled core of that sediment thus provided AWG scientists with a clear “golden spike” of the Anthropocene; plutonium isotopes from early-1950s Hydrogen bomb testing, they argue, signify a sharp shift from the Holocene to a new epoch in which humans are directly—and visibly—leaving their mark on the planet.

As a scholar of narrative, I am fascinated by this declaration that the Anthropocene, by definition, is a concept that hinges upon humans writing the world. The scientists of the AWG root their understanding of our current epoch in a specific physical marker, a semiotic sign that records the ability of humans to reshape the material world in which we live. The AWG’s definition of the Anthropocene depends upon the recognition that (some) humans in this epoch literally write the world in our own image and inhabit that changed reality. I understand narratives, too, as records of humans writing and inhabiting worlds for some purpose. My work is driven by the work that narratives demand of us—the cognitive, imaginative, and emotional work that goes into interpreting the stories we read, watch, listen to, and tell. Cognitive scientists and narrative scholars that study this work argue that, to interpret a narrative, we must mentally model and imaginatively transport ourselves to the world of the story; we must shift from the here and now of our actual world to the alternate world of a story to understand a narrative. This research argues that worldbuilding and inhabitation is essential to narrative comprehension.

I explore the connections between the world-building power narrative and the built world of the Anthropocene in this talk, proposing a new approach to both that foregrounds the following questions: what type of worlds do specific narratives encourage readers to model? What attitudes, values, and behaviors do these worlds rely upon and assume? What relationship between humans and their environment do these stories assume? What role do the values, attitudes, and behaviors of these storyworlds play in driving the anthropogenic climate change that defines the Anthropocene in the real-world? And, crucially, how do the worlds of these narratives foreclose, suppress, or deny other, alternate worlds that rely upon other, alternate attitudes, values, and behaviors?