Research Seminar MT23

Ecocriticism poster

We are delighted to announce our research seminar for the Michaelmas Term (NovemberDecember 2023), which will be on 'Ecocritical Approaches to Early Text Cultures'. The series is jointly organised with Leila Williamson (Ghent).

Throughout premodernity, we see that early text cultures were already thinking ecologically – about the human, the nonhuman, the natural, the technological – across a range of expressions, including myth, history, philosophy, and visual culture. Moreover, the environmental challenges facing today, and even their potential solutions, can trace their roots to early textual cultures and their global reception(s). After all, phenomena such as global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, mass species extinction, and so on involve not only geological and techno-scientific machinations, but, crucially, history, culture, economy, society, and philosophy. The recent environmental turn in the humanities attunes us to the necessity of interdisciplinarity when approaching these human- nonhuman entanglements, that are harder than ever to ignore. Ecocriticism as a literary approach also intersects with a range of other productive lenses, such as efforts to decolonise approaches to ancient textual ecologies, especially when it comes to critiquing notions of ‘human’, ‘nature’, and ‘culture’. Yet many premodern textual traditions are understudied from an ecocritical approach (a notable exception is Christopher Schliephake’s 2017 edited volume Ecocriticism, Ecology, and the Cultures of Antiquity). Ecocritical approaches to early text cultures can thus provide timely contributions to our understandings of various textual traditions, and also the vibrant more-than-human worlds and histories of our planet.

The sessions will be held online, on Mondays 5-6 pm (UK Time)

Please register here to receive Zoom links on the day of each session.

Ecocriticism programme


6th November
Leila Williamson (Ghent)
Sacrifice and Slaughterhouse: Red Ecology and the Iliad

This paper brings large-scale animal sacrifice in the Iliad into conversation with modern slaughterhouses, through the imaginary of red ecology (Menely & Ronda, 2013). Red ecology highlights the violence of the slaughterhouse and the market: violence inflicted upon the nonhuman is “cleaned up” and hidden from the human consumer. The slaughterhouse effects the sanitising ‘ellipsis between animal and meat’ (Vialles 1994, 5), required for the mass commodification of nonhuman life – a microcosm for today’s global market, similarly predicated on technologies of distantiation between consumer and production, rendering invisible the violence at the source of consumption and ecological crises today.
A surprising echo lies in the Iliad, witness to the Bronze Age emergence of large-scale warfare. The Iliad does not shy away from bloody battlefield violence. Yet violence against animals, including large-scale animal sacrifices, is obscured within the highly scripted nature of the rituals. The case study is Chryses’ sacrifice in Iliad 1. Such scenes sanction and sanitise violence against the nonhuman, strengthening power dynamics and structures that continue to perpetuate violence in sacrifice and war alike.
Reading Iliadic sacrifice with the slaughterhouse exposes the technologies at work in each which enable large-scale violence to be inflicted upon the nonhuman. Using the lens of red ecology to re-examine the world of the Iliad and the world of the slaughterhouse is one more step towards a more critical and care-full understanding of texts like the Iliad, and in turn of the long history of human and nonhuman interrelationships in the Anthropocene/ Capitolocene.

13th November [please note the change of time: 4-5 pm]
Matthew Westermayer (Cornell)
Arboreal Desire: Augustine, the Manichaeans, and a Tree’s Fruit

“From the emperor on the Bosphorus to the humble cultivator at Nessana, all looked uneasily towards the harvest” (Decker 2009). The harvest was naturally a vital component of civilitas. But it was also a dynamic source in the apprehension and articulation of pleasure and embodied experience. In this paper, I argue that the harvest was a complex epistemological event; through antiquity’s encounter with vegetal life, the experience of pleasure and enjoyment were formed, and made tangible. Moreover, the harvest also helped antiquity make cognitive connections between embodied practice and mental apprehension. The harvest lies behind all of this because people’s encounter with vegetal life has always been transformative. To demonstrate this, I look to the linguistic and discursive features of the harvest, ranging from the etymological musings of Varro, to the philosophical and theological discourses of Philo of Alexandria. These writers, among others, show how harvesting language is inherently tethered to a pragmatic—albeit transient—life amidst trees and plants. By exploring the semantic polyvalence of the Latin fructus, carpo, and the Greek καρπὸς, συγκομιδή, and ἄμητος, across literary genres, we see how trees and people are intimately intertwined. For example, carpo and καρπὸς refers to “fruits,” but also actions such as plucking or grasping; these words also translated body parts such as the wrist, of which played a vital role in the harvest. Indeed, the ways in which antiquity talked about fruit and the harvest reflects an embodied experience amidst vegetal life. Often these discourses prompted a speculation over enjoyment and pleasure. Here I propose Philo of Alexandria as a case-study, not only because he connects the plucking of fruit with enjoyment, but more so because he shows how the harvest could also act as a source of anxiety regarding enjoyment. The topos of fruit and pleasure raises more questions about the source of enjoyment, and this anxiety helps us position Jewish and Christian engagements with the harvest. When Philo and others attempt to bracket the kinds of pleasure derived from this material milieu, we are well positioned to trace how the harvest became theorized in late antiquity, as harvesting practice faced either severe criticism (Augustine) or mythological extrapolation (Manichaeism).

27th November
Patrícia Vieira (Coimbra)
Plant and Animal Inscription in Indigenous Amazonian Thought and Art

In this talk, I begin by discussing the understanding of plants and animals in Amazonian Indigenous communities as teachers and guides that allow humans better to perceive their connection to the multiple entities that inhabit the rainforest. In many Indigenous traditions, plants and animals engage in social relations and are closely connected to humans, some even being considered as the ancestors of human beings. I then link this view of plants and animals to their portrayal in contemporary Amazonian Indigenous art and examine how artists articulate experiences and relations their communities have established with Amazonian plants, animals and other forms of existence through a variety of visual narratives.
I concentrate my analysis on artworks that foster a dialogue between traditional Indigenous knowledge and contemporary artforms. I offer the example of the digital engravings by Brazilian artist Denilson Baniwa, where he creates figures by juxtaposing human and more-than-human features. Baniwa’s work questions pre-established notions of humans and more-than-humans as entirely separate entities, challenges a view of plants and animals as mere commodities, and suggests that rainforest societies are multispecies communities.

4th December
Reinhard Hennig (Agder)
Ecocriticism and Old Norse Literature and Culture

While the theoretical field of ecocriticism has grown immensely since its beginnings in the 1990s, the ecocritical study of premodern literatures and cultures has remained marginal until very recently. This trend seems to be turning now, with an increasing interest in how humans also in premodern societies perceived their relation towards the nonhuman environment and how they thought about forms of environmental and climatic risks and change. In this talk, I will discuss how ecocritical approaches have been applied to the study of Old Norse literature and culture so far, mainly – but not only – regarding mythological sources (such as the Eddas) and saga literature, especially the genre of the sagas of Icelanders. I will also draft challenges and potential risks when theories and concepts from contemporary environmental discourse (such as ecology, sustainability, or climate change) are applied to the interpretation of premodern texts such as those from Old Norse literature.

Suggested Bibliography

    • Chakrabarty, D. (2021). The Climate of History in a Planetary Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

    • Clark, T. (2019). The Value of Ecocriticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

    • Crutzen, P J. & Stoermer, E. (2000). ‘The “Anthropocene”. Global Change Newsletter, 41, 17-18. 

    • Iovino, S. & Oppermann, S. (eds.) (2014). Material Ecocriticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

    • Middelhoff, F., Schonbeck, S., Borgards, R., & Gersdorf, C. (eds.) (2019). Texts, Animals, Environments: Zoopoetics and Ecopoetics. Berlin: Rombach Verlag KG, Freiberg.

    • Rigby, K. (2004). ‘Earth, world, text: On the (im)possibility of ecopoesis. New Literary History, 35(3), 427-442. 

    • Schliephake, C. (ed.) (2017). Ecocriticism, Ecology, and the Cultures of Antiquity. London: Lexington Books. 

    • Zapf, H. (2016). Literature as Cultural Ecology: Sustainable Texts. London: Bloomsbury Press.