Ecology, Economy, and Cultures of Resistance: Oikoi of the North American World, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, 29-30 June 2017.
Taking as its starting point the fact that ecology and economy are inextricably linked, this two-day symposium sought to explore the ways in which the resistant nature of the humanities, particularly North American scholarship, can address these intertwined concerns. Bringing together academics and practitioners, Dr Sarah Daw and Dr Benjamin Pickford planned a varied, stimulating program, with plenty of time for questions and discussion.
Professor Regenia Gagnier (University of Exeter) started by discussing ‘Transcultural Political Languages’ and what is meant by ‘world literature’, which has many evaluative and non-evaluative definitions. From there she explored the value of world literature as a frame through which social-environmental-economic issues can be explored. A prominent motif was the contrast between the ‘world’ of world literature and the ‘globe’ of globalization. The world is heterogeneous, a variety of unique ‘spaces’. Globalization is a homogenizing process that would ‘iron out’ these spaces. A key quote was that of Eric Hayot, who described the paradoxical transformations of globalization as bringing ’more communication, but less community; more difference, but less diversity; more speed, but less time’.[i]
The three presentations in first panel, Vistas of Climate Change, shared a common thread in exploring the interaction between indigenous ontologies and Post-Enlightenment ‘majority discourse’. George Elvin (Ball State University) described an ongoing project to develop ‘architecture for extreme environments’, drawing on the knowledge of the indigenous community in Death Valley. As the ethics of knowledge exchange between mainstream and indigenous cultures were discussed, it was clear that Elvin and his colleagues approach this with care and humility. He went on to consider the issue of ‘outsiders’ accessing and sharing Australian aboriginal songlines, which is all the more complex because there is not one ‘indigenous standpoint’. Inge Paneels (Northumbria University) went on to discuss Louis Helbig’s aerial photographs of the Alberta Tar Sands oil extractions, published in his book, Beautiful Destruction (2014). The notion of seeking and seeing beauty in large-scale environmental devastation challenges the reader. The complex and contradictory nature of the Tar Sands – particularly in relation to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation within whose territory it resides – was explored. In the last presentation, Francesco Carpanini (independent) discussed de Castro’s ‘multinaturalism‘ (2005), an interpretation of Amerindian thought that contrasts with modern multicultural cosmologies. He went on to consider multinaturalism as a challenge to the modern nature-culture dichotomy, which underpins the capitalist commodification of ‘nature’.
Diving immediately into conceptually demanding territory, the first panel of the second day explored the capacity of contemporary fiction to contend with the multiple and almost unimaginable temporal and spatial scales of contemporary capitalism and ecological crisis. A recurrent concern across papers was finding modes of reading able to address this challenge, a task that intensified in discussion as speakers and attendees grappled with questions of the literary critic’s role in debates surrounding ecological and economic precarity. Rick Crownshaw (Goldsmiths, University of London) emphasised the importance of attending to forms of mediation in cultural imaginaries of risk and catastrophe by comparing the ’anticipatory memory work’ performed in financial speculation and scenario planning with literary visions of ecological collapse. Christina Brennan (University of Manchester) and Michael Paye (University College Dublin) regrounded the discussion in the politics of specific regions (the American Southwest and Newfoundland respectively). Brennan turned to genre, arguing that the manipulation of crime and thriller as demonstrated by Paulo Bacigalupi in his 2015 novel The Water Knife calls attention to naturalised templates bearing upon the apprehension of environmental crisis and formalises questions of culpability in toxic capitalism. Paye by contrast resituated the precarious labour of Michael Crummey’s Sweetland (2014) using Jason W. Moore’s account of the capitalist world-ecology or Capitalocene: a highly influential body of work implicit in much of the discussion and in the premise of the symposium itself. Despite their differing approaches, each speaker articulated a need for critical responsibility when addressing cultural productions of precarity, and the terms of practising such responsibility would remain a pressing issue in discussion for the rest of the day.
The afternoon panel further examined interpretive tactics, including the act of reading itself. Paul Crosthwaite (University of Edinburgh) returned to close reading in order to challenge critical consensus on Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003) as a paradigm of the self-referentiality of finance capitalism, while invoking DeLillo’s own notion of writing as labour to consider more broadly the possibilities of reading within and outside of contemporary forms of value generation. Sam Cooper’s (University of Nottingham) more polemical approach located these debates in the reading and teaching practices of the neoliberal university, raising questions about strategies of political agency and agitation in and against the Anthropocene. The emerging emphasis on reflexivity in relation to interpretive practices was tested by Dominic Jaeckle’s (Goldsmiths, University of London) video essay, in which the issue of mediation gained a more material dimension. Splicing Emerson quotations and ideas of appropriation with contemporary environments and cultural phenomena, Jaeckle examined the relationship between the marketisation of identity and the recognition of inequality, using aesthetic techniques to engage with the dynamics of individual and system that had preoccupied the panel more widely.
Stephen Shapiro’s keynote address offered a provocative and stimulating finale to the symposium, drawing on concepts and vocabularies from the far less studied Volumes 2 and 3 of Marx’s Capital and building on them in order to revise existing eco-Marxist approaches. Extending the work he carried out as part of the Warwick Research Collective (WReC), Shapiro argued that cultural products ‘register’ rather than reflect or represent persistent socio-cultural infrastructures that are needed to preserve capitalism. Setting out the possible forms such registration might take, Shapiro provided simultaneously theoretical and practical intervention in some of the conference’s recurring themes and preoccupations – ranging from reading practices to patterns of precarity – and offered critical mechanisms to take the debate to new grounds.
The wide range of different approaches put forward by both speakers and attendees throughout the course of the day made this a lively and often testing symposium. While there remained plenty of scope for topics to be addressed in more detail – North American poetry, for example, or questions of race and gender within the kinds of precarity being discussed – the conference delivered an ambitious and thought-provoking intervention into debates that are increasingly pushing at the boundaries of North American studies.
[i] Hayot, E. (2012). World Literature and globalization. In: T. D’Haen, D. Damrosch and D. Kadir, ed., The Routledge Companion to World Literature. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.223-231.