‘Transitions’ Online Day Abstracts

Abstracts of ‘Online Day’ Papers 

These are the abstracts of papers presented during the online day on 29 August 2023. They are listed in alphabetical order by surname.

Veronika Arutyunyan (University of Hamburg) Transformations of Lyric Voice in Contemporary Ecopoetry
Panel 2, Tuesday 29 August, 11.15am – 12.30pm

In the work of Rebecca Dunham, Craig Santos Perez, and Allison Cobb poetic voice figures as temporally and spatially situated and determined by racial, gender, and class conditions. Echoing the tenets of material ecocriticism, they portray the unstable boundary between human and non-human subjects, but their speaker does not dissolve in a net of relations. Although their ecopoetics enacts a decentering of the human, it resists “flat” ontologies and perspectives of dehierarchized co-existence that material ecocriticism favors, highlighting instead material interdependencies between environmental conditions and people’s everyday lives in the Anthropocene. Their highly personal voice conveys the tensions embedded in the universalist implications of the Anthropocene, as the poetic persona acquires a variety of differing positions from which to perceive the Anthropocene. This is achieved through the emplacement of voice in cultural, historical, economic, and political context that foregrounds the poetic persona’s positionality to their environment and enables self-recognition that extends to the reader. This personal lyric speaker, aware of their own role in shaping the environment, does not erase but manifests the difference between the human and the non-human and adequately portrays humanity’s ambivalent position—both of having immense power and a complete lack of control. In Perez’ chants that instruct the reader to speak out loud against environmental injustice voice becomes a tool of defiance. In Dunham’s documentary lyrics the voice assumes different personas—these multiple perspectives render the inequalities inherent in the Anthropocene discourse. Cobb’s lyric address ties voice to a sensual experience of a gendered body, saturated with “streams of chemicals”. In this paper, I argue that personal voice in these poets’ work overcomes the pitfalls of Anthropocene discourse as it remains attuned to its complexities. This signals a transition in lyric poetry from a detached personal voice to a personal voice that is enmeshed in environmental relations.

Mars Briones (MESH, University of Cologne) Tracing Transitions: Turns in Disaster Discourses and Tropes of Catastrophe
Panel 1, Tuesday 29 August, 9.15am – 11.00am

Regarded as “crise revelatrice,” disasters expose key issues emanating from specific patterns of human-environment entanglements. As such, they occasion pivotal transitions that bear upon important questions on reconfiguring socio-ecological relations and reimagining place understandings and practices. Because such recalibrations depend so much on knowledge, what counts as such, and what it “reveals”—and conceals—there is a need to trace the discursive underpinnings of disaster knowledge and the perspectival shifts that have shaped it. This paper investigates such shifts in the context of Tacloban City in the Philippines following the 2013 super typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest and deadliest cyclones in recorded history. From disaster research in geography, environmental history, anthropology, and environmental humanities, it identifies significant discursive shifts: from natural hazards to vulnerability, from vulnerability to adaptation and resilience, from disaster response to disaster preparedness, and from western to decolonial frameworks. It then examines these transitions vis-à-vis the adoption and implementation of predominantly hazard-focused, techno-scientific projects in Tacloban that are presented as solutions to storm surges and other typhoon-related
hazards. Interrogating such approaches to disasters, the paper then turns towards local concepts and poems by writers who are also survivors of the Haiyan disaster. This recourse seeks to understand how culture and creative work ideate transitions and human-environment relations in a country where hazards permeate everyday life, and how reckoning with them can foster more holistic perspectives and approaches to disaster.

Domonique Davies (University of Reading) Breaths of Mountains and Man in Wallace Stevens’s ‘Chocorua to Its Neighbour’
Panel 2, Tuesday 29 August, 11.15am – 12.30pm

Harold Bloom notes in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (1976), that Wallace Stevens’s poem, ‘Chocorua To Its Neighbour’, has been neglected by critics. The poem, published in Transport to Summer in 1947, is spoken from the perspective of Mount Chocorua who describes the coming of an abstract being that critics have previously interpreted as the ultimate man, or hero. However, when read alongside the later work of French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the poem presents a metamorphosis of human and nonhuman selves ‘without reference to their form’, enmeshed in the ‘flesh of the world’. My paper seeks to elucidate a dialogue between Stevens’s poem and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, presenting an alternative interpretation of this underread poem. Predicating on the ambiguity of the identities of mountain and human, I suggest that the text turns to breath and speech to bridge the unarticulated porosity between terrestrial beings and the human, ultimately revealing the unseen connections between constituents of the world. My paper will focus on the theme of breath and air, which the poem presents as forces of creation and decreation. This emphasis on breath speaks to Louise Westling’s work on Merleau-Ponty’s ecophenomenology in The Logos of the Living World: Merleau-Ponty, Animals, and Language (2014), where Westling explains how Merleau-Ponty’s later works explores the ways that human language can bubble up ‘from silence and reach[ing] back into the Invisible to articulate meanings that are the lining and depth of the sensible world.’ Merleau-Ponty’s thinking therefore advocates for the potential of language to transform and translate experiences, beginning with the act of breathing. I hope to reveal with my readings of Stevens and Merleau-Ponty that these thinkers anticipated a language-in-transition regarding altering our consciousness and perspectives towards nonhuman agents.

Carolyn Lau (Chinese University of Hong Kong) Relational Ethics in End Times: A Posthuman Reading of Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing
Panel 1, Tuesday 29 August, 9.15am – 11.00am

A marsh monster co-created by comic writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson in 1971, the origins of the titular creature of Saga of the Swamp Thing was rewritten when Alan Moore took over the series in 1984. The man-nature hybrid is no longer the human scientist Alec Holland turned into a plant, but a plant that thinks it was a man. Moore’s extensive use of gothic horror aesthetics visualises a preoccupation with contamination and toxicity, resonating with the pervasive apocalypticism in postwar environmental crisis and Cold War nuclear anxiety. Moore’s revisionist approach to the creature’s metamorphosis marks a transition from an Enlightenment Humanist to a posthuman understanding of subjectivity that is embodied and relational. Drawing from Moore’s anarchism and utopian thinking in counterculture environmentalism, this paper argues for an affirmative reading of Swamp Thing in terms of the concept and practices of relationality.

The categorical impurity of the Swamp Thing calls into question what constitutes a normative body qualifying for subjectivity in the anthropocentric Humanist tradition. Mel Chen’s queer of colour engagement with indigenous cosmological systems contests the settler colonialism logic of using the vocabulary of animacy to classify different and therefore “lesser” human beings. In particular, Moore’s Swamp Thing imagines a nonhuman subjectivity, as proposed by N. Katherine Hayles’s concept of “planetary cognitive ecology”. The Swamp Thing’s multispecies synthesis opens up ethical possibilities of “intra-action” in Karen Barad’s new materialism, which traverses nature and culture, and matter and mind to destabilise the reliance on dichotomy to establish subjectivity. The Swamp Thing’s desire to bond with humans, as well as the non-human environment suggests a relational understanding of existence that is not self-contained, but always dependent on our ability to respond to the Other.

Pippa Marland (University of Bristol) From land stealers to land healers: transitions in contemporary farming and agrarian literature
Panel 3,  Tuesday 29 August, 1.15pm – 3.00pm

This paper explores the current shift in farming practices away from intensification towards more ‘extensified’, nature-friendly methods. It also investigates the transition in literary terms, as works dealing with forms of agro-ecology take their place once again (after a decades-long hiatus) in a tradition of British nature writing and reanimate a georgic mode of cultural production that has frequently been neglected in favour of pastoral representations. The paper takes as its case studies three farming memoirs, all published in 2022 and all written by authors who are actively involved in agriculture: Lee Schofield’s Wild Fell: Fighting for Nature on a Lake District Hill Farm, Jake Fiennes’ Land Healer: How Farming Can Save Britain’s Countryside, and Sarah Langford’s Rooted: How Regenerative Farming Can Save the World.

The discussion will situate these books in the context of urgent debates surrounding agriculture and the environment, including the questions raised by George Monbiot’s Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet (also published in 2022) in which the author states that ‘We can now contemplate the end of most farming, the most destructive force ever to have been unleashed by humans’.

As the titles of these works indicate, the perceived stakes are high: they involve fighting for ‘nature’, ‘Britain’s countryside’, ‘the world’ and ‘the planet’. As such, these agrarian narratives and Monbiot’s very different kind of outlook represent conflicting claims to a twenty-first century paradigm shift in the way food is produced and consumed. The paper will explore the articulation of agrarian transitions in terms of the material changes they describe while also bringing a critical eye to the narratives themselves, close-reading their literary discourse from an ecocritical perspective.

Călina-Maria Moldovan (Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania) Liquid Ontologies and Planetary Assemblages. Representations of Water in Contemporary Norwegian Literature
Panel 1, Tuesday 29 August, 9.15am -11.00am

In an essay from 2017, Astrida Neimanis states that fluids tend to “breach borders and invite the confluence and collaboration of things; they challenge an ordering of the world according to a logic of separation and self-sufficiency”. Water forms a global, planetary assemblage of forces and synergies, a rhizome-like structure, with no beginning, no centre, and no end: “Waters literally flow between and within bodies, across space and through time, in a planetary circulation system that challenges pretensions to discrete individuality” (Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis, “Thinking with Water”, 2013). Human agency is set aside and no longer needed in such a system of transition and transmission, where the flow of everything precedes human intention. An ocean is an ocean, but an ocean is also a conglomerate of various independent and autonomous non-human entities or actants that communicate and operate in mutual reliance, creating a mesh-like structure which finds itself in a constant becoming. The purpose of my presentation is to investigate how this planetary water assemblage is depicted in contemporary Norwegian fiction, in novels by Maja Lunde, Morten Strøksnes, and Roy Jacobsen. I argue that these narratives disturb long-established, but slowly outdated conceptions of matter and non-humanity, and create new sensibilities and new modes of understanding the mesh of interconnected human and nonhuman realities.

Holly Nelson (University of Michigan) Absolving Matelda: Engaging with Ecofeminism in Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio
Panel 3, Tuesday 29 August, 1.15-3.00pm

All at once fulfilling the roles of Mother Nature and Jesus Christ, Matelda of Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio is an elusive figure that merits greater attention in critical discussion. The dichotomy of Matelda, who both exercises spiritual power yet remains a victim of patriarchy through her intimate connection to nature, features prominently in French artist Albert Maignan’s late nineteenth-century painting of her. Enshrouded in light while Dante and Virgil gaze at her from across the Lethe, Matilda emerges as goddess-like, a divine authority in Purgatory. All the same, however, gathering flowers and blending in with the floral tree in the backdrop—Matela becomes the natural world that surrounds her—Matelda reinscribes the contemporary ecofeminist critique of women being associated with nature, and men with culture. The duality of Maignan’s representation therefore begs the question of Dante’s text; to what extent does Matelda exercise agency in Purgatorio? Bridging scholarship in ecocriticism and feminist studies, this study examines Matelda through an “ecofeminist” lens (d’Eaubonne). While ecofeminist criticism maintains that the nature and culture binary limits women’s power, I suggest an alternate framing of the argument. Matelda uses nature as her source of power in preparing the Pilgrim for Paradise, through her didactic exposition of the Earthly Paradise to the Pilgrim; leading him through the garden; and spiritually cleansing him. As a “guardian” of the natural landscape, then, not unlike the guards the Pilgrim encounters throughout Inferno, Matelda occupies a position traditionally reserved for male characters in Dante’s world, enabling her to overcome not only the implicit sexism in her association with nature, but also the explicit misogyny in Dante’s Commedia as a whole (Durling and Martinez, 542).

Seda Bahar Pancaroglu (Çankaya University) Embracing the Inevitable: Arboreal Perspectives on Death and Transformation in Contemporary Fiction
Panel 2, Tuesday 29 August, 11.15am – 12.30pm

This paper explores the themes of death, resilience, and ecological understanding in two contemporary eco-literary works: The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak and The Diary of a Tree (Le Journal Intime d’un Arbre) by Didier van Cauwelaert. Despite their cultural and geographical differences, the two novels share a common thematic thread in their exploration of death, resilience, and the profound connections between humans and the natural world. Both novels offer arboreal narrators that challenge traditional perspectives on mortality and invite readers to reconsider their relationship with the cycle of life and the transformative power of nature. Drawing upon the concept of transition, this study examines how these novels offer unique perspectives on the cycle of nature and its interconnectedness with human existence. Through an analysis of the arboreal perspectives presented in the narratives, the paper delves into the characters’ encounters with death, their journeys of resilience, and the transformative processes they undergo. The analysis reveals the novels’ nuanced explorations of the conception of death and its meaning within ecological frameworks. Moreover, the paper examines how these narratives challenge conventional notions of mortality and offer alternative conceptions of the afterlife, rooted in the cycles of nature. Through a comparative analysis of The Island of Missing Trees and The Diary of a Tree, this paper aims to contribute to the broader field of eco-literature and deepen our understanding of how narratives of death and transformation foster ecological awareness. By illuminating the themes of death, resilience, and the cycle of nature, this study offers insights into how literature can inspire new ways of perceiving and engaging with the natural world amidst ongoing environmental transitions.

Saba Pirzadeh (Lahore University of Management Sciences) Glacial Decline and Indigenous Livelihood in Uzma Khan’s Thinner Than Skin
Panel 1, Tuesday 29 August, 9.15am – 11.00am

Humanity owes its very existence to glaciers since they have been here during two million years of human history and have created landscapes, determined soil composition, and controlled the atmospheric and oceanic circulations that drive global weather systems. The topographical and climactic importance of glaciers is amplified in South Asia by the Himalayan glacierized watersheds which feed ten of the largest rivers in Asia and support about 193 million people’s livelihoods. These cryogenic ecologies however are rapidly diminishing in volume and scale due to global warming as represented in Pakistani author Uzma Khan’s novel Thinner than Skin (2012). Set against the background of Pakistan’s Kaghan valley, the novel pays homage to Northern Pakistan, to glaciers, to the old Silk Road, and to the nomadic existence in the region.
Using an ecocritical lens to analyze Thinner than Skin, this paper maps the narrative documentation of climate change induced glacial melt. The looming threat of glacial disappearance galvanizes people into visiting these areas, thereby leading to tourist encroachment on glacial areas and displacement of shepherding families living near the glaciers. The paper establishes how indigenous people and glacial spaces are colonized by tourist imaginaries, thereby intensifying socio-ecological vulnerabilities. Offering a narrative counterpoint, this paper explicates indigenous practices as effective means of protecting glaciers and maintaining communal presence. Furthermore, the paper argues that indigenous people partake in kinship based on a reciprocity with ecosystems whereby they are respected as living worlds and not as a collection of exploitable resources, but as a set of relationships and responsibilities (Whyte 269). In doing so, this ecocritical explication of Khan’s novel establishes kinship as a form of indigenous environmental justice to mitigate glacial decline and restore human-nature balance.

David Robinson (University of Johannesburg) Man’s best friend in Craig Higginson’s The Dream House
Panel 3, Tuesday 29 August, 1.15pm – 3.00pm

The Dream House is an award-winning South African novel set largely on a small-holding/farm in KwaZulu-Natal. The farm setting frames the experiences of several human characters, but also refers to many animals – birds, ponies, and several dogs. The actions of one of the humans and one of the dogs are central to a tragedy that occurred in the past, and which is foregrounded in the development of the plot.

This paper will address the relationships between human and animal characters, in Higginson’s farm novel, and the attempt to control nature that is apparent in the actions of the various humans. The paper will argue that animals are seen by various humans as having a range of purposes, including as pets and guard dogs, and the human engagement with the animals does not grant animals agency.

The transition(s) in this novel include the shift of power from owners of the farm to a new owner, who was resident on the farm as a child. He is a person of colour and he has achieved a measure of financial success, which grants him the power to purchase the farm on which he was once merely the child of a servant. Another transition is that, with the passage of time, the truth emerges about the death of a servant many years ago.

The theorists whose work will inform the presentation include the following critics:
Greg Garrard (2012) Ecocriticism 2nd Edition, Dan Wylie and Joan-Mari Barendse (eds) (2018) Dogs in Southern African Literatures, Wendy Woodward (2008) The Animal Gaze: Animal Subjectivities in southern African narratives, J. M. Coetzee (1988) White Writing. On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, John Bradshaw (2017) The Animals Among Us.

Simon Ryle (University of Split) Old Rendering Plant: Marx’s gelatine & Levinasian flesh
Panel 3, Tuesday 29 August, 1.15pm – 3.00pm

The need to transition away from meat is urgent. Meat production and consumption is a central driver of catastrophic biopolitical crises, such as global warming, land degradation, and mass species extinction, not to mention accelerating rates of diabetes and obesity in human populations – which is why the UN Sustainable Development Project urges governments to promote reduced meat consumption. Yet arguably a solely ecological viewpoint misses key ethical questions of industrial meat.

Working with a broadly Levinasian framework concerning the vulnerability, nakedness, woundedness and suffering of the flesh, particularly described in Levinas’s Otherwise than Being (1974, English translation 1998), this paper investigates the role of poetics and philosophy in culturally transitioning away from meat.

The paper centralizes Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel Old Rendering Plant (1991, English translation 2017), which is set in the environs surrounding an industrial animal processing facility in post-WWII East Germany: in particular focussing on the narrator’s hysterical fascination with the “white effluent” and “sticky tallow grease” that clings to the land around the rendering plant, and all the built surfaces of the narrator’s village. Linking the ethical impulsion prior to subjectivation of Levinas’s ethics with the emancipatory potential of desubjectivation described by Foucault, the paper explores the desubjectivation of Hilbig’s sticky poetics. Deploying Karl Marx’s concept of gallerte (gelatine), which Marx uses as a metaphor for the abstracted human labour of capitalism, Alex Blanchette’s concept of “full vertical integration” to describe the complex material entanglements of US industrial hog commodities with contemporary society (2021), the stickiness of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of nausea (1938), and Thomas Bernhard’s notion, expressed in his novel Frost (1963, English translation 2006) that “the abattoir is the only essentially philosophical venue,” this paper argues that Hilbig’s novel constructs an ethics of desubjectivation from the sticky entanglements of contemporary society and industrial livestock flesh.