Contemporary Literature and the Environmental Imagination
Ghent University, Belgium, 7-9 December 2020
Confirmed keynote speakers: Professor Gabriele Dürbeck (University of Vechta) and Professor Kate Rigby (Bath Spa University)
Confirmed writers: Gisèle Bienne and Francesca Melandri
Since the 1980s, environmental issues have occupied an increasingly central place in contemporary fiction. While the relationship between humans and nature has always played an important role in Western literature, from Theocritus to Thoreau, the ecological awareness of threats to the balance of the biosphere is a relatively recent phenomenon that has penetrated society and the literary imagination alike. The notion of the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch characterized by the impact of human activities, has become established as a category of the literary imagination, while nature has come to the fore as an autonomous narrative force, no longer readable exclusively as a reflection of the subject’s emotions. In this regard, Lawrence Buell (1995), one of the founders of ecocriticism, writes that an environmental text is one where “the nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.” This implies a non-anthropocentric logic, one that is no longer preoccupied solely with human interests. The ethical dimension involved in this approach demands renewed attention to the referentiality of literature, and indeed to literary commitment, also in contexts—such as that of France—marked by self-reflexive formalist experimentalism in the postwar period (Schoentjes 2015).
The aim of this conference is to investigate the impact of ecological awareness on the literary imagination and the new connections it establishes in our individual and collective representations of what is commonly referred to as “nature” or “the environment.” A transnational mapping of environmental literatures—or ecological fictions, a name one could perhaps give to the most “committed” texts—that can account for their characteristics and objectives still largely remains to be carried out. All types of literary fiction in English, French, German, and Italian can be explored within a global perspective that is also attentive to the circulation of literary works. In the spirit of ecopoetics, particular attention will be afforded the study of formal elements used to narrativize these issues, and more generally to the literary specificity of this cultural trend (Scaffai 2017).
The topics for paper proposals can include, but are by no means limited to, the following:
- The imagination of the oikos: One of the most commonly explored elements in ecocriticism, as indicated by the word’s etymology, is rootedness in a specific place because of the fundamental connection between the home, as primary living space, and nature, understood as a collective dwelling, in authors such as Mario Rigoni Stern, Marie-Hélène Lafon, and Robert Seethaler. How do writers represent and problematize the attachment between the imagination and places of origin? What place does the image of the home in relation to its surrounding environment occupy in contemporary ecological fiction?
- The representation of the non-human: Contemporary literature shows an ever-increasing interest in the representation of the non-human, that which exceeds the conceptual categories and perspectives of our species. Particular attention is paid to the animal realm, for example in the work of Isabel Sorente, Günter Grass, and J. M. Coetzee, but the vegetal and mineral realms are also represented, by authors such as Michael Stavarič and Pierre Gascar. The challenge involved is daunting, as authors use the logos to give a voice to that which does not have one. By what stylistic, narrative, and conceptual means can one transcend the human point of view, departing from the traditional mimetic paradigm?
- The literary form of ecology: We also welcome proposals that explore formal aspects mediating the ecological experience in fiction. How do writers use language that is traditionally figured as anthropocentric? How do allegory, metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche contribute to a reconfiguration of the overly rigid separation between man and nature in order to forge an imaginary of hybridity and interconnectivity?
- Nature travel writing: Contemporary ecological narratives often take up stories of travel and solitude in “untouched” places, which have formed the basis of the nature writing tradition from Henry David Thoreau to Edward Abbey. However, these contemporary narratives, while maintaining the search for a deeper connection with nature, often rethink the tradition by interrogating its masculinist and imperialist assumptions in order to explore other elements, such as the possibilities of a new connection and harmony with a more anthropic environment (Gianni Celati) and the specificities of feminine experiences and an ecofeminist perspective (Aby Andrews, Claudie Hunzinger).
- The narrativization of scientific knowledge: Ecology, in addition to being a key social and political concept, is a scientific discipline that examines the interactions between living beings and their environment. Hence, the way literary texts engage with scientific knowledge, a central concern in the work of writers such as Richard Powers, is an important issue, albeit one that is often neglected by critics. How is scientific information about ecological risk conveyed, validated, and problematized in fiction? How do literary texts incorporate scientific terminology stylistically and cognitively? Which scientific concepts and domains are afforded a privileged position, and why?
- Ecological disruption and the literature of toxicity: One of the central characteristics of literature’s new ecological sensibility is its tendency to showcase human-inflicted damage to the environment and thus to go beyond and contest representations of nature exclusively focused on idealization of its positive characteristics and its soothing effects. While post-apocalyptic literature has largely explored this motif through science fiction, it has gradually also been taken up by realist literature. New imaginings of chemical contamination, atmospheric and ocean pollution, the waste invasion, and the climate crisis have emerged internationally: one thinks of texts by Rick Bass, Guillaume Poix, Christa Wolf, and Roberto Saviano. What types of characters, narratives, and representations of community ties can be found in literatures revolving around figures of disharmony and loss?
- Environmental activism: The current preoccupation with ecological matters also corresponds to a significant return of a literary commitment of which we had become wary since the end of the Cold War. The urgency and global nature of the ecological crisis have led to works participating in a change of imaginary that has turned into a kind of political struggle with the goal of influencing the public debate (Jonathan Safran Foer, Camille Brunel, Wu Ming). Such struggles can also intersect with other types of social contestation (ecofeminism, postcolonial ecology). What strategies do authors deploy in order for their work to have political and social impact? What kind of literature results? How does literary activism relate to more direct forms of activism?
- Global fictions: In the context of globalization, the novels of writers such as Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Laurent Mauvignier, and Maylis de Kerangal explore the fictional possibilities of a cosmopolitan imagination, founded on increasingly strong connections, material or immaterial, that deeply structure our reality and our perception of others and other places. They are thus faced with the problematic dynamics between localism and cosmopolitanism, which have been critically examined by Ursula Heise (2008). In what ways does the global dimension of ecological issues participate in the construction of this new novelistic form?
Please submit a proposal of approximately 400 words for a 20-minute paper in one of the conference languages (English, French, German, and Italian), together with a biographical note, to email@example.com by 15 May 2020.
The keynote lectures will be delivered by Professor Gabriele Dürbeck (University of Vechta) and Professor Kate Rigby (Bath Spa University). The conference will also feature roundtables with Gisèle Bienne and Francesca Melandri, writers concerned with ecological themes, to foster a dialogue around these issues between criticism and contemporary creative work.
The fee for conference attendance will be 100 euros. For any questions, please contact us on the above email address.
Riccardo Barontini, Ghent University
Franca Bellarsi, Université Libre de Bruxelles
Benjamin Biebuyck, Ghent University
Stef Craps, Ghent University
Enrico Mattioda, University of Turin
Alain Romestaing, Paris V University
Denis Saint-Amand, University of Namur
Niccolò Scaffai, University of Siena / University of Lausanne
Pierre Schoentjes, Ghent University
Anne Simon, CNRS / EHESS Paris
Sabine Verhulst, Ghent University
Riccardo Barontini, Ghent University (director)
Sara Buekens, Ghent University
Irene Cecchini, Ghent University
Hannah Cornelus, Ghent University
Miruna Craciunescu, Ghent University / Laval University
Hanne Janssens, Ghent University
Ida Marie Olsen, Ghent University