Abstracts from Recent Issues
Spring 2016, Volume 49, Number 1
Mapping Contingency: A Bioregional Approach to Kate Chopin’s Gulf Coast Stories
Jessica Bridget George
This essay offers a bioregional reading of Kate Chopin’s “At the ’Cadian Ball” (1892), “At Chênière Caminada,” (1894), The Awakening (1899), and “The Storm” (1969). These are works that specifically engage with Louisiana’s unique hydrological features. I argue that Chopin’s bioregionalism is a cartographic instrument, charting places otherwise obscured by linear spatiotemporal constructions (including sites made and unmade while characters are at sea or in the time during or after a cyclone). Within these provisional places, Chopin contemplates the contingency of class and racial identity in Louisiana at the end of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, I demonstrate Chopin’s bioregionalism is a reason for reading her fiction ecologically, in a way that attends to the overlapping environments, characters, relations, and worlds in her short stories and longer fiction.
Kate Chopin, bioregionalism, ecocriticism, literary geography, nineteenth-century, whiteness, regionalism, local color
"'That sonofabitch could cut your throat': Bigger and the Black Rat in Richard Wright's Native Son"
In his controversial urban novel Native Son (1940), Richard Wright inverts animal stereotypes often used by whites to characterize African Americans. While critics typically focus on Wright’s use of the ape in the novel, I examine the role of the rat. Not only does the rat act as a creaturely trope for the impoverished conditions of Bigger and his family, it exposes the arbitrary boundaries white landlords and city leaders used to contain African Americans living in the Black Belt tenements of the South Side, Chicago. In transgressing these boundaries, the rat becomes an environmental fugitive, modelling for Bigger a form of resistance to the racist social and economic practices that trap blacks in constricting environmental spaces. By connecting Bigger and the rat, Wright also highlights links between racism and forms of anthropocentrism in ways that critique typical understandings of what constitutes human and animal “pests.” Drawing upon Timothy Morton’s “the strange stranger” and Jill Bennett’s “critical empathy,” I argue that Bigger and the rat create an aesthetic encounter with otherness, offering readers an empathic experience that recognizes and accepts difference.
Postcolonial Ecocriticism, Classic Children's Literature, and the Imperial-Environmental Imagination in The Chronicles of Narnia
This essay begins by calling for postcolonial ecocritical attention to canonical and classic children’s books, many of which were produced between the Victorian period and the mid-twentieth century, a period characterized by the peak of British imperialism, incredible global environmental change, and the development of imperial conservation practices and environmental ideas that remain with us today. It argues that reading such texts through a postcolonial ecocritical lens will help us decolonize “green” children’s literature and provide key insights for scholars working on issues of empire, nature, and the environment. Then, to develop a model for this kind of criticism and demonstrate its value, the essay explicates the imperial politics of C.S. Lewis’ representation of nonhuman nature and environmental stewardship in The Chronicles of Narnia. While the series does express a deep reverence for nature and condemns its exploitation, the essay complicates readings that have claimed it as a tool to teach children to appreciate and protect nature by showing how its environmental vision is rooted in imperial ideology.
Postcolonial Ecocriticism;Children's Literature; Children's Enviornmental Literature; The Chronicles of Narnia; C.S. Lewis
The Monster of Representation: Climate Change and Magical Realism in Beasts of the Southern Wild
This article argues that formal and thematic elements of magical realism can bridge reality and fantasy in particularly productive ways when dealing with the imaginative challenges of representing climate change and environmental injustice. My analysis of film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, situates magical realism in the emerging environmental discourse about climate change and focuses on the techniques used to make slow violence visible, including the monstrous symbols in the form of beasts that embody climate change and reflect the social anxieties associated with an uncertain planetary future. Magical realism engages with the temporal and spatial scales necessary for depicting the state of risk and crisis associated with anthropogenic climate change, and it produces narratives that include marginalized voices, which are indicators of contemporary environmental ethics in the U.S. that mobilize discourses of race, gender, and class. Finally, the article explores how the film represents the material consequences and cultural anxieties surrounding climate displacement and concludes that stories about climate change refuse narrative closure. The realities of climate change necessitate a shift in the ways we understand humans’ relationship to the material world and the narratives we use to represent it.
Keywords: climate change, magical realism, monster, slow violence, temporal and spatial scales, climate displacement, narrative accounts, environmental justice, symbolic icons
"Imaginations of the Strangest Kind": The Vital Materialism of Virginia Woolf
Leanna J. Lostoski
This article argues that Virginia Woolf brings the nonhuman world to the forefront of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse in order to challenge the primacy of human agency in her decentering of the human and her recognition of the vitality of all matter. Focusing on the character of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway and the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse, this article demonstrates how Woolf’s rendering of the relationships between the human and the nonhuman worlds embodies Jane Bennett’s theory of “vital materialism.” Moving beyond traditional ecocritical approaches to literature, Bennett’s vital materialism considers the agencies of inorganic, nonhuman materialities and objects—as well as organic, natural materialities and human beings—and their roles in shaping the world. Reading Woolf’s works through the lens of vital materialism brings a deeper understanding to Woolf’s vision of the world in which all life and matter are connected and intermeshed.
Keywords: Woolf, Virginia; Mrs. Dalloway; Warren Smith, Septimus; To the Lighthouse; “Time Passes”; ecocriticism; new materialism; vital materialism; Bennett, Jane; materiality
Ecocritical and Moral Responsibility: The Question of Agency in Karen Barad's Performativity Theory
Karen Barad’s quantum revision of Judith Butler’s performativity theory casts matter and discourse as co-constituting intra-active phenomena. While Butler’s theory challenges cultural determinism, allowing subjects to freely stylize acts of gender performance, Barad’s theory challenges scientific determinism, allowing people to morally intervene in the reconfiguration of phenomenal boundaries. By presenting causality and human freedom as oppositional, both theorists grant the human will a level of autonomy, or self-origination. The problem is that their performativity theories are themselves deterministic and, for this reason, foreclose the possibility of an autonomous, self-originating will. In order to resolve this ostensible contradiction, the author argues that both theorists should adopt a compatibilist freedom that positions volition as the natural outworking of deterministic forces. Doing so paradoxically makes sense of moral culpability while denying free will, or the capacity to autonomously intervene in the reconfiguration of phenomenal boundaries. A compatibilist revision of agential realism may therefore, the author concludes, prove significant to the ethics of material ecocriticism.
Keywords: Agential realism, performativity theory, material ecocriticism, Karen Barad, Judith Butler, compatibilism, incompatibilism, free will, determinism
"Bodily Significance in an Agricultural World: The Multiple Meanings of Materiality in Lorine Niedecker's New Goose Poems"
This paper argues that Lorine Niedecker’s New Goose poems evoke the material particularity of individual human, crop, and livestock bodies in the agricultural world they inhabit. This materiality is both irreducible to itself and gestures to networks of structural economic forces, histories of US settler colonialism, and the forms of other bodies. Critics have articulated Niedecker’s complication of an Objectivist focus on materiality with regard to her own psychic and bodily experience. This paper argues that Niedecker similarly complicates the materiality of the bodies that make up her poems to construct a bodily intersubjectivity between humans and nonhumans. The networks that these bodies illuminate reveal human and nonhuman entanglements in transforming the landscape and in human sociality, even while these individual bodies always resolve again into their own particular forms. In doing so, Niedecker constructs an expansive intersubjectivity between humans and nonhumans as a demand for attention to the irreducible particularity of individual bodies alongside the networks within which they are located.
What We Call the Scuttle
Inspired from a line in a 16th century poem written by one R.R. and dedicated to the English explorer Sir Thomas Coryate, the essay lifts the phrase “the scuttle hole ascending” and conceptualizes it through various ecocritical and psychoanalytic lenses. Moving associatively and inductively, the essay becomes a portrait of the scuttle hole (portholes in the sides of ships) as abject, trans, and queer. By transposing Freud’s “castration anxiety” to “catastrophe anxiety” I argue that only by embracing failure and vulnerability (i.e. ascending the scuttle) will humans be able to live more ecologically. A scuttle hole (and its verb correlative scuttling—the purposeful sinking of a ship) can be abject and erotic lessons in embracing catastrophe and failure. Lessons gleaned from scuttle holes critique mainstream discourses surrounding sustainability and “staying afloat”—a critique begun by Steve Mentz and Stacy Alaimo that I take up here.
Keywords: Scuttle hole, porthole, scuttling, sinking, Sir Thomas Coryate, queer, ecology, sustainability, post sustainability, ecocriticism, futurity, blue humanities, blue ecology, catastrophe.