ASLE 2011 - Day One

In this report:
  1. Thank the host!
  2. Attend outside your area!
  3. Doubt the theory!
And maybe use fewer exclamation marks, but that's up to you.

First off, you need to understand just how difficult it is to host a conference this size: eight hundred people for five days, with up to twenty-one sessions happening at the same time? Madness. ASLE has always worked with a local host, rather than a local committee, and we all decided after the 2009 event that it was time to put a stop to this terribly unsustainable practice. It worked out at Victoria, and there were local individuals who were prepared to help more than they did (and helped in every way I asked them to), but in some ways I'm still recovering. It took months before I could bear to look at the accounts (sorry again, Amy), and I've continued to be affected by the experience. I took everyone's thanks genuinely, so no one could have done more to make me feel better afterward -- hosting ASLE is just that deeply affecting an experience.

Christophe Irmscher has done the vast majority of the local work for this conference himself. To the degree that this conference is a success (and it IS a success! People are very happy here), it's a credit to him that comes with a personal cost that I hope fades quickly. When you next see Chris, thank him earnestly: maybe even give him a hug, if you're comfortable with that, but don't tell him the suggestion came from me. (And 2013 host, whoever you are, you absolutely must must must have a strong committee supporting you! No more bits and pieces of help from whoever might want to help out where they might happen to be needed. Email me, call me, write me a letter, but I'd like to talk.)

And you should thank Ursula, too, because Chris' job has been to do all he can to make her vision come to life. It's Ursula's program and Ursula's conference, in collaboration with Chris. They're greatly to be commended, congratulated, and appreciated!

Second, I always encourage people to surprise themselves a bit at ASLE. I get along well with my department colleagues at home, but there's not much overlap between our research in different literary periods, national literatures, genres, and so on. Here, I have a lot in common with the environmental medievalists, the ecological performance artists, the eco-Victorianists, really everyone, and it's such a treat to realize materially our common pursuits, just by taking the time to listen to some of them go on at some length about their areas of research.

I mean it: at ASLE or affiliate conferences, like ALECC's, you should make a point of attending one panel that has absolutely no connection to your own research apart from the "eco" bit. What a treat to recognize that we're part of a unique discipline after all, not just part of the real discipline of literary studies.

Third: the dicey bit. I mentioned on Twitter today that I'd heard Timothy Morton mentioned several times in different sessions, not discussed but mentioned, and the mentions have been nagging at me.

Here's the thing.

Two years ago, I took the long view that if someone was using theory to read environmentally, or to read environmental texts, or to read the environment itself, or whatever, then I'd support that person's efforts. Maybe I didn't appreciate what that person was doing, but that's okay. The discipline needed theory, needed theorization, and I was glad that Morton was doing that.

Six months ago, I expressed some misgivings about Morton's work in a tepid but informal review of his Ecology Without Nature. In the end, I said that I was "underwhelmed by the outcome of Morton's considerable expenditure of effort in pursuit of a new theoretical model," and that the book "feels kind of obvious, where it doesn't feel unhelpfully fuzzy." Ecology Without Nature was, in short, a call for people to do what Morton seems not to know that people are already doing.

If I was going to defend and/or support Morton's future work, I needed it to be clearer as well as more cognizant of others' contributions to the field.

And I haven't seen that. His work hasn't been clearer, and it hasn't taken adequate notice of others' work in the field. At bottom, I'm not convinced that his research has been careful enough, and I know that this is a terrible thing to say about a fellow academic. However, his piece in PMLA on queer ecology was name-checked today by Una Chaudhuri in an otherwise excellent plenary session, and Morton's PMLA piece just doesn't deserve that kind of attention. There are a half-dozen or more people at this conference who've spent much more time on queer ecology, doing much more thorough work on the subject, and I'm not happy that it's Morton's comparatively unresearched article that gets selected to represent some version of where the field's going.

I love and admire Morton's energy. I follow his Twitter feed, I read (many of) his blog posts, I watch (some of) his filmed lectures that he posts on his blog. I'm delighted that there's someone with as much intellectual curiosity working in the same field I am.

But he's doing his thinking in public, and he's not being treated that way. I'm all for experimentation, for trying on hats and what have you, but his readers need to understand that that's what he's doing. If the mentions of him at this conference are any indication, his writing isn't being treated as provisional, and that's how I'm finding myself forced to take it now. For example, the queer ecology piece seems to be already in his rear-view mirror, traded in for hyper-objects: good on him for being open to changing his mind, but again, his readers need to understand that his writing is provisional and provocative, not resolved or thorough. He has had what I think is a disproportionate presence at this conference, for someone who isn't here, and I'm surprised to find how vehemently I feel that his presence here isn't fully deserved.

Hit me in the comments, y'all, especially about the Morton references that have been bugging me (and that maybe you've been loving!).

Tomorrow morning I'll post a separate note about all the fun I'm having, which includes the very first fireflies I've seen in my sheltered Pacific Northwest existence; a skunk outside the residence (bunnies? here's what I think of your stinkin' bunnies); and sundry pleasantnesses. For now, though, it's belatedly time for bed.


Anonymous said…
Well, I'm not at the conference but do come across m-a-n-y usually glancing references to TM, and have done so myself. You're quite right, his work is a cerebral gallimaufry of associative speculation, which is both good and bad, imho. Certainly not at all systematic--I found reading Ew/oN in a linear way impossible--a jumble of concepts with the occasional compellingly poetic and visceral line leaping off the page here or there.

But could you recommend a rigorous and systematic work on queer ecology? I'd be very interested and grateful to know.

richard said…
Jasmine, you might want to check out Cate Sandilands' and Bruce Erickson's co-edited collection Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire: pretty great, though I haven't spent much time with it.

Cate has a very accessible 2005 essay online (accessible because it was really an oral address) entitled "Unnatural Desires?: Note Toward a Queer Ecology," and I've had good responses from students about that, though at six years old, it's showing its age a little bit. She's one of the most rigorous thinkers I know of (and in fact know), so I'm very comfortable suggesting you start with her.
richard said…
And also, here's an informal comment about Stacey Alaimo's essay in the collection by Sandilands and Erickson: I should have mentioned Stacey Alaimo as someone worth spending all kinds of time reading, because she really is worth it!
jo(e) said…
I took your advice and gave Chris a hug every time I saw him. Unfortunately, since he was frantically busy, I never had a chance to introduce myself, so it's entirely possible that he thought I was some kind of crazy stalker.

I guess that's the price of hosting a conference ....
Anonymous said…
Thank you so much, Richard, for these recommendations! Sorry for the late reply--I've been away and have just returned to the Internet. I'll be sure to read these.


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