Thanks to the Rachel Carson Center, I was able to attend the ASLE-UKI (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, UK and Ireland chapter) conference last month at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England. As a regular attendee of the main ASLE conference—which brings hordes of fleece-and-sandal-wearing professors to US and Canadian locations every other year—it was a special treat to explore literature and environment issues in a more intimate context. I was particularly excited to encounter innovative ideas and approaches such as Tonia Raquejo’s concept of “sound-landscapes” and Isabelle Hoving’s ecocritical readings of Japanese animation. Poetry and poetics were particularly well-represented at the conference, as was the crucial new concept of the “Anthropocene,” and an interest in water—perhaps a sign that the so-called “blue cultural studies” (Steven Mentz) is well underway.
But the buzzword of the conference was, clearly, “materialism”: inspired by the recent work of scholars such as Stacy Alaimo (Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self and Material Feminisms, edited with Susan Hekman) and Jane Bennett (Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things), one-fourth of all the panels explicitly took up the term, and several others engaged with it in some form. The materialist turn “foreground[s] non-human agency,” as presenter Kate Rigby noted, and encourages us to recognize the “dynamism and permeability of human and nonhuman bodies and matter,” as Serpil Opperman, quoted by presenter Esther Rey, has asserted. Other presenters described materialist ecofeminism in particular as a reaction to poststructuralist feminist theory and its tendency to leave the body behind, in favor of “texts” and “discourses.” (Think, for example, of Judith Butler writing 1998’s Bodies That Matter after being bombarded with the question, “But what about the body, Judy?” after her 1990 landmark work of theory, Gender Trouble.) These same inclinations drove Catriona Sandilands’ fantastic keynote address, titled “Botanical Sensations: Plants, Publics, and New Materialisms”—which asked us to at once recognize that “plants share registers of sensation with human beings,” and remain cognizant of their “profoundly different articulations of life.”
This focus on materialism proved both exciting—with papers on topics ranging from the permeable bodies of Pompeii, to medical poetry, to the role of horses in shaping Australian park management—and perturbing. For one thing, it became clear that many materialist-oriented scholars are still grappling with essentialism. During one panel’s Q&A, I asked a presenter why we should speak of material feminisms and not merely materialisms, if bodies are dynamic and permeable regardless of gender; she responded by declaring that men’s and women’s bodies are simply different, and affected differently by the environment. Such views threaten to retread the same ground that cultural feminism and early ecofeminists worked several decades ago, making the term “New Materialism(s)” look somewhat dubious—not to mention positing a monolithic category of women, undifferentiated in terms of race, class, gender identity, or sexuality. Indeed, several other materialist-informed papers at the conference made the same move, speaking, for instance, of supposedly universal female experiences such as childbirth and partnering with men.
It seems, then, that the challenge lies in recognizing the material facts of environmental encounters—say, that environmental toxins ingested by pregnant women may impair fetal development, or that women of color bear the brunt of certain climate-change related disasters—while avoiding simplistic, binaristic, or heterosexist conceptions of gender. On that note, we might ask: How do queer bodies fit into the New Materialism(s) and/or material ecofeminism? How can materialist-oriented scholars like the one mentioned above square their insights with those of queer ecology—a field that Sandilands herself initiated, and that asks us to consider how regimes of sexuality, and not just gender, shape experiences of environment? And what about transgender, non-gendered, asexual, or asexually-reproductive bodies, including non-human ones? Put in perhaps a more fun way, What does a materialist ecofeminism concerned with artificial insemination, jellyfish, or amoeba look like?
The materialist turn also raises pressing questions about the direction of ecocriticism as a scholarly field. Historically, ecocriticism has been hostile to critical theory, especially the insights of poststructuralism – leading many to view it as intellectually unsophisticated or lacking in methodological rigor. However, recent work (including my own) has sought to reconcile ecocriticism and theory. Thus, we must ask what the materialist turn means for the field in the larger picture. If this turn is, for many, a reaction against poststructuralist and postmodern theory, are we returning to an age of ecocritical theory-phobia just as we have begun to emerge from it? If not, where are we, exactly? How have ecocritics balanced materialist and theoretical impulses, and how might they do so going forward?
Perhaps in future ASLE conferences we’ll see conversations around these questions—and some new questions.
Nicole Seymour is a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center and the author of Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (University of Illinois Press, 2013).