Bioregional Literature, Out of the Box: a dissection of ecocritical culture

p1260499Here’s a beautiful ecocritical conference. Wouldn’t it be great to go?



Critical Approaches to Bioregional Literature of the Great Lakes Basin (June 20-24 2017, Detroit)

It’s about rust. Rust is grand. Rust is romantic. Rust is what happens when the industrial revolution meets the air. Humans can breathe that corrosive air. Iron can’t. The air turns iron into rust, which can dissolve in water, and which trees and plankton and other plants can take up, to make more oxygen, which makes more rust. But that’s not the ecology under discussion here (nor does it have to be). Look:

Long associated with steel, car culture, and the music of Motown, Detroit is also a site of struggle for racial and environmental justice, against depopulation and “ruin porn,” and for the preservation of artistic heritage.

Got that? This conference will discuss a “struggle for racial and environmental justice,” in opposition to “depopulation and ‘ruin porn'” in the context of “the preservation of artistic heritage” which is “steel, car culture, and the music of Motown.” Who could argue with all that. Powerful and important things, although that “environmental justice” is a loaded term. Does it mean: “justice for water weeds?” Does it mean: “justice for humans requiring a healthy urban environment and clean water, too?” “Does it mean something else?” Impossible to tell. So don’t trust the term, because it’s probably the most important one, and the one that is going to be discussed here. Good to know. Let’s carry on. Here the organizers talk about the venue, Detroit:

“A nexus of encounters between indigenous nations and the French fur trade, it became a locus of the Great Migration, “white flight,” and gentrification.”

That’s it? Language is getting away with itself here and could do with being reined in. It’s making a narrative based on its own grammar. These “encounters” between “indigenous nations” and “the French fur trade” are one of the 3 or 4 cores of European/Indigenous encounter on a vast continent, which is entwined heavily with the loss of water habitat through the destruction of beavers, the vast indigenous slave trade, the collision between the Spanish, the French and the Americans in the Missouri, the Apache slave raids on the “Great Migration”, the War of 1812, Cajun chicken, the politics of the dispossession of Canadians in the Pacific Northwest and the creation of the cultures of Ontario and British Columbia, the rebellion of Louis Riel, the anti-catholic religious porn of the early 19th century, and on and on and on. A vast environmental story, and not just “became the locus of the Great Migration,” “white flight,” and “gentrification.” That’s rhetoric, not history, and out of it can only come a contemporary history, with no roots in the past. Is that worthy of the name of the eco-criticism? Is the past and its lingering threads in the present, which are an expression of it working itself out in time and society, not an ecology with the potential of being vastly different than the narrative that sentence sets up, which makes the history (and the French and indigenous peoples, i.e. everyone before “Americans”) subordination to developing energy and the history of American post 1835? Or an environment? All it is is a place where the “nexus” took place. Well, that’s up to eco-critics to bring those discussions to the table. The organizers have a different idea, which goes like this:

“Water-rich on the strait between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, Detroit and its neighbors struggle against corroded infrastructure and government corruption. For all those reasons, Detroit is an ideal place to confer about rust, resistance, and recovery.”

Well, you get it, right? Water rusts iron, and this water-rich environment, confronting steel, has rusted it. But has it rusted the French Canadians? Has it rusted Indigenous peoples? Isn’t that insulting? Wouldn’t it be better to say that American migration and colonialism either absorbed, expelled, repressed or killed these peoples on an axis of race? It has less to do with water, doesn’t it, than greed and possessiveness and racial politics? Isn’t it a bit über-romantic to say that that is rust? It kind of begs the question: is the conference worth attending? But to open up that rust idea a little: one of those neighbours the organizers mention is a Canadian city, south of Detroit, called Windsor. Its version of the rust belt was created by a border, and a series of exploitations and compromises across it, which manipulated peoples far different, even apple-growing peoples in the West or wheat growing peoples in the Palouse. These exploitations and compromises, are called trade deals. Not only have they transferred control of a sovereign auto industry to a kind of branch plant industry of Detroit, bound up with NAFTA, which is currently under heavy political fire in the USA, but have transferred control of distant industries and ways of life and ecologies, with the rust of Detroit. Detroit, in other words, isn’t Detroit. It’s a way of concentrating the natural economy of a country into economic capital. This environment is politically charged, but takes place in a country in which class and Marxism and all of its tools are forbidden subjects, replaced by more social ones, such as race, which stand in for it, although loosely. What’s more, this environment crosses a border, and is a vital part of the War of 1812, living on today, and that war, what was it? Why, the first American Civil War, fought between Americans who chose to live under a king, largely because the Americans who didn’t ran roughshod over them, and Irish who fought for the Americans fighting Irish who were fighting for the British, all for the liberation of Ireland. It was also a war against indigenous people, and against the principle of indigenous identity. That’s the war: a series of proxy battles, fought on this soil for something that has nothing to do with this soil. That’s an environment, for sure: a historical, political, military and social environment. It has nothing to do with the land, which is also an ecology, so the story it presents is of an invasion of the land and its use as a proxy. The organizers leave room for such a discussion. Here’s their call:

They invite participants to interpret the conference theme [Rust] as broadly as possible and to imagine their work in terms of content and form.

Well, I would say, as a Canadian, living far to the West, within the country formed by those battles fought around Detroit (I don’t mean Canada; I mean the Pacific Northwest), rust, decay, the turning to oxygen, would, honourably, be the subversion of the aims of this conference, because it takes a broad series of vital historical and economic issues and squeezes them through a lens of approved and silently disapproved topics. That’s cultural, of course, but what’s the point? If the point is to get beyond contemporary categories, then this should be a marxist discussion, but that won’t fly. It just won’t. In its place, there are a vast number of disciplines of discourse, that sidestep these issues of class and capital, to get at them sideways. The result of this dance is to recreate the missing story in new terms, not to start with it and expand it. I can’t see that going anywhere, except where it already is: into spheres of comfort. But is this about comfort? I mean, if the theme is to be taken up “as broadly as possible” and if it is to discuss the full ecology of this place. Their solution is not so stark or dramatic. It is this:

We particularly encourage non-traditional modes of presentation, including hybrid, performative and collaborative works; panels that minimize formal presentation in favor of engaged emergent discussion; interdisciplinary approaches; environmentally inflected readings of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, film, theatre and other media; and proposals from outside the academic humanities, including submissions from artists, writers, teachers, practitioners, activists and colleagues in the social and natural sciences.

Note, they don’t encourage non-traditional modes of thought or identity, only of presentation. Is that useful? It’s worth asking. What they are saying is that the ecology of the place is going to be found through an ecology of approaches that is not limited to “formal presentation”, i.e., given the academic context of the conference, probably the reading of academic essays to a large (or small) listening crowd, without discussion. A kind of top down thing. Put ya to sleep. A good thing to move beyond. In its place, they want what I’d call a new art, a “hybrid” collection of “performative and collaborative works” and “engaged emergent discussion”: kind of like one of the masques Ben Jonson put on while Shakespeare was playing at being John Lennon. Hopefully, this called-for hybridity includes demolishing at least one abandoned house and building up at least one other one, and hopefully the conference will be held in an abandoned school, or panels will be held in vintage muscle cars from 1972, each with a driver, a host, and three passengers, switching every twenty blocks as they drive all night, or, perhaps, every conference participant will be taught to cut and weld iron, and will be given a ton of rusted metal, and asked to build an essay out of that. Because talk is talk and experience is experience. It just depends upon what your goal is. So what’s the goal? Unstated. Why? Don’t know. But I don’t trust that. As I see it, the subject of the conference is about obedience, and about bringing together disciplines of analysis into a cross-disciplinary experience, which is like saying: we know who we are and where we have come from; our task is to build a vision separate from those, but honouring them. That’s really great, but the question I am going to pose is this: do we know who we are and where we have come from? What if half of the discussion of racism in Detroit isn’t about race, but about capital? What if it were 20%? Or 70%? What if the abuse of the Northern border of the USA is the real issue here? What if the real issue is the individualism that makes America great in the first place? What if this is not a comedy? Setting aside these important questions for a moment, here we go:”Topics may include, but are certainly not limited to:” (please consider two things when scanning this long list: 1. the plethora of broken approaches, much like the tower of Babel, and 2. the vision of using “rust” as a metaphor for a new world that might otherwise be called dystopic, and 3. the issue of human identity as a series of topics of “resistance.” To what? Well, that’s another buzz word. Read on.

  • The literatures, arts, and cultures of the Rust Belt, the Great Lakes, and Appalachia. Bioregionalism, eco- cosmopolitanism, multinaturalism, (New) historicism, material ecocriticism, posthumanism, queer ecology, postcolonial ecocriticism, new media theory, decolonization theory, geography, and geocriticism as techniques for the analysis of rust-culture.
  • Transnational rust: Detroit and its relationship with Ontario; the borderlands of Canada and the United States; nationalist and cosmopolitan rusts; colonial, postcolonial, and decolonial rusts.
  • Elemental rust: Rust as an element of nature writing, natural history, agrarian and wilderness literature. The nature of iron and the arts of steel; water as an agent of rust; rust as vitality, materiality, and quintessence; corrosion as hyper-object; mines, foundries, and factories; nuclear rust; rust and oil, coal, and natural gas; Rust as programming language; rust as the essence of the Internet; the Internet of (Rusty) Things; steampunk aesthetics; rust as waste of civilization.

Well, that’s an interesting one. Steampunk aesthetics. The aesthetics of a) a form of jewelry and decoration, which uses amulets and charms made out of deconstructed iron and steam technology, or b) an understanding that humans, today, or equally constructed out of loose accumulations of design elements from a past age of the world, that this is called creativity, and is taught, or c) that the emphasis on biological human equality and identity at the expense of the creative human artifacts, in various stages of completion, construction and deconstruction, as well as the same stages of the so-called “natural” environment, is racist in and of itself. A little revolutionary? Why? Is it because we’re not going there? Because we’re going to talk about biological humans and their interactions, and are only going to talk about environments within the boundaries of a set group of topics, revolving around a traditional view of biological humans? That’s the classicism I mentioned yesterday. That’s how it works.  The limitations it creates are worth questioning, but does this conference question them? It does this:

  •  Labor and rust: Corrosions of justice; the literature and other arts of labor; agricultures of resistance; class as a category of environmental analysis; working class nature writing; environmental infrastructures; precarity and the corrosion of higher education; petrocultures of labor; the work of environmentalism; the energy humanities; environmental catastrophes and the working class; blue collar conservation and restoration; environmentalism and the Old Left; folk, rock, soul, funk, and other forms of music as resistance.
  • Aeons of rust: Iron ages: archaic, classical, late antique, medieval, early modern, Renaissance, Victorian, Modernist, and postmodern rust; the aesthetics and poetics of weathering, rhetorics of collapse and recovery; periodization after the “Anthropocene;” narratives of extinction; legends of rust; rust as telos; rust as closure; cosmologies, cosmogonies, and eschatologies of rust.

Did you see that? Another series of classicisms? Everything coming back to rust? Everything being subordinated to a central idea: rust? You could put a different central idea in there, and apply to the Central Valley of California. You could say: “lettuce.” or “Broccoli.” And it would be just as true. It’s like putting on a shirt. What I want to know is what happens when you take the shirt off? What happens when you’re not subordinated to rust? When you’re so much rust you don’t see rust, but see something else. Isn’t that what’s wanted here, that something else? Isn’t the “rust” only present because the society of North America is so far from being centred in its ecology that one has to start at a great distance and get at things through non-speech, through art and performance and installation, because speech is controlled. Might that not be the topic here? No, because the conference, if set on those lines, would not take place. But there’s more:

  • The arts and sciences of resistance: Public health and environmental justice; methods derived from climatology, paleontology, geology; changes in the weather reporting; post/industrial ecologies; urban ecology; urban nature/parks/green spaces, urban planning; planned resilience; cities and climate change; ecotopias, urban renaissance, new urbanisms; green architecture.
  • Methods of resistance: Recovering conservation, ecofeminism, Deep Ecology, intersectionality, critical race theory, comparatism, formalism, anthropology, folkloristics, social ecology, deconstruction, eco-Marxism, Green anarchism, Writing Studies, rhetoric and composition, and other “rusty” methods for the environmental humanities.
  • Genres of resistance: Natural histories of resistance; the poetry of witness; testimony, autoethnography, virality as modes of activism; slam and avant-garde ecopoetry; folklore; the visual arts of resistance; post/industrial photography; survivance as a resistant mode; “cli-fi”; sentimental literature as resistance; Naturalism; the proletarian novel; prison literature; resistant memoir; investigative theater; viral video; the politics of video games; the museum as target or agent of resistance; video installations.
  • Recovering ecological citizenship: Rhetorics of citizenship; the public sphere in the age of climate change; globalization and the “global citizen”; social media as an activist tool; traditions of direct action; democratic environments; green populism; civic environmentalism; activist pedagogies.

What if this wasn’t about social good works? What if it was, as the East German dissident writer Stefan Schütz wrote, about finding creative energy (he didn’t mean creativity) wherever it was, even among the criminal classes, even in violence, because the alternative, dulling state control and invasion of interhuman and intrahuman space, led only to a spiral of stupidity and a vast gap between experience and the words for experience. Eventually that gap became unbridgeable, a representative of the Berlin Wall but within all citizens, and the wall fell because there was nothing left except the wall. Are we at that point? Are we at the point of walking out of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, 2000 of us, let’s say, each holding a candle, expecting to be machine-gunned down like Christ, or put into solitary confinement in the Blue Hell of Bautzen? No? We’re just talking? Well, talking’s good, but if we’re going to talk, why are the following topics bound together?

  • Recovering lost lands: Narratives of drowned cities and lost homelands (Atlantis, Tuvalu, Aztlan, Doggerland, Oz); the literature of hurricanes and floods; Katrina, Sandy, and the media; water rights; state seizures of local resources and governance; the environment of ethnic neighborhoods; refuges and refugia; sanctuaries; ecological sovereignty; ecological reparations; eco-cultural nationalisms: First Nations activism, gay and lesbian lands/queer territories, postcolonial recoveries; cosmopolitan alliances.

I mean, are ethnic neighbourhoods fantasies? Are indigenous homelands the same as Atlantis? Are we really going to go there with Himmler? Or are we going to go to the real estate fantasy of Oz, out there in San Diego? Why are queer territories put here with Atlantis? Are these useful boundaries between fantasy and experience? Well, there’s a principle at play here: water rights are built upon ownership; state seizures of local resources are built upon ownership, as a counter to slavery, with slavery defined as the separation of a man and his labour, on the proviso that a man or woman on land they don’t plant a fencepost in but have lived from for 10,000 years, or 20,000 years, have less rights than a man who plants a fencepost and an apple seed; gay and lesbian lands are not about ownership, except in a secondary sense that in today’s North American society, in this time of ascendant global capitalism, human identities are capitalized and owned. So, that begs a question: if one is going to have cosmopolitan advances, are they within the structure of capitalization of identity, or outside of it? Because this list places it inside of it, yet resistance (above) includes sentimental literature and industrial photography — highly capitalized arts. Surely, that’s hardly resistance. There’s more, and it’s tantalizing:

  • Recovering past and future: Ends of environmental history; paradises born in hell; the place of the Roman and other empires in declensionist narratives; linguistic recoveries; neo-medievalisms; fantasy fiction as imagined past; science fiction as extrapolation; queer futurities; archaeology and anthropology in the environmental humanities; the corrosion and recovery of literary history.

What a fantastic list! But let’s be careful. Is science fiction really extrapolation? Or is it the failure of society to adopt the visions and modes of science fiction as reality, which causes a plethora of conspiracy theories about Roswell, alien moon bases, alien creation of humans as biological robots, and the weird, sad business of armed occupations, mall massacres, and the violence that has invaded the US Second Constitutional Amendment.  Wouldn’t it be better not to privilege “rational” thought and “normal” identity over science “fiction”? Why aren’t we talking about the elephant in the room, that fiction is a means, in today’s North American society, of talking about the forbidden, without putting terms to it, while the terms, grappling to grasp the unnameable, which has been given to emotion, splinters into the vast list of disciplines this conference (and it is by no means unique) so bravely (and necessarily) seeks to unite into … well, more of the unnameable. That’s the society. That’s its culture. That’s the way in which its resistance can become aestheticized. That’s the way in which ecocriticism, in its bondage to the academy, limits its ability to transform. All of it is the story of the book taking over human experience, until human experience imitates the book and can go no further. You doubt it? Here’s a passage from Revelation 22:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal,flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

Two thoughts: 1. The form holds, both in the way this passage describes this conference, but in the way in which the passage ends the Bible with an image, and after that image no words can follow, and in fact are forbidden in the epilogue. 2. Why is this Christian ground to this entire discussion not part of the discussion? Because of this, from the epilogue to Revelation?

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.

Surely, this is what we’re talking about. Apocalypse, and boundaries to life. Surely, we’re talking about crossing them. Yet for some reason this central material is not part of the discussion, and must be approached from silence and with silence, after the manner of an orthodox Ikon, which creates an images not of a saint or Christ, because that is forbidden, but of an image of an image. But come on, in today’s context of brutal suppression in Syria and brutal de-humanization (as defined in the West) by Islamic State thugs and murderers (many from the West), the fact that the Koran is equally non-pictorial is, well, the topic at hand. Yesterday, I said that ecocriticism needed to leave the academy. This is why: too much is forbidden; there is too much silence, which is charged with carrying too much weight; too often, the arts are left to carry experience, but in ecocriticism those arts are yoked to the abstract thought, the tendency to approach things by manipulating bodies rather than inhabiting them; the result is what a playwright might call “spinning your wheels.” Adam and Eve didn’t walk out into a wilderness of weeds and pain. They walked out because they had to. We have to.

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