Saturday, December 06, 2014


Academics enjoy a constant stream of conferences about their specialities which can be so “cutting edge” and esoteric that I’m amazed and jealous at once.  The pattern is that there’s a sponsoring umbrella organization.  I’m on environmental and language lists, so I get notification, but I can’t afford the dues so I can’t participate, much less travel to faraway locations.  The idea is that someone has an idea for a panel, gives it a title and gathers up a few presenters with related ideas.  At the conference they read their papers, interact a bit, and then the audience discusses.  I can’t go to the conferences -- I’m not sure who’s picking up the tabs -- I presume the institutions do for which they teach and do research.  I did go to one in Banff which was close (relatively) but didn’t present.  These people are almost always young teachers, sometimes fresh from field adventures.  This is NOTHING like how professors used to function, which was to sequester themselves and only share ideas at cocktail hour.

I cope with this inability to “get there” in a strategy something like the way I treat current scholarly books, or more accurately the pop derivatives of them.  So many of them have only one idea, that it’s practical to just read the reviews or maybe watch a YouTube lecture.  The books about neurobrain research have been too complex and multisyllabic to do this.  In that case I end up watching the YouTube talks repeatedly in an effort to really grasp the books.

Some panels I would dearly love to hear.  I’ll repeat the announcements of three in case you can attend, but I think they are fascinating even in this form.


From ancient Greek myths to 21st century post-apocalyptic novels, cannibalism abounds, forcing us to reconsider easy binaries of self and other or civilized “us” and a savage “them.” As Maggie Kilgour argues in From Communion to Cannibalism, incorporation—the most basic example of which is eating—“depends upon and enforces an absolute division between inside and outside; but in the act itself that opposition disappears,  dissolving the structure it appears to produce”. What, then, when the food being eaten is human flesh?

This panel proposes to examine the various ways literature explores acts of cannibalism to break down notions of absolute difference and articulate the dual fears of anthropophagy: the fear of being cannibalized and the fear of becoming cannibal, the fear of becoming human meat and the fear of eating it. Often considered the demarcation of civilization and barbarism, cannibalism in fact explores the problem of our status as human beings who become hungry: the specter of our common animality. As Simon Estok points out, “Cannibalism is an unambiguously ecocritical issue.” One cannot be a cannibal without also being human, and meat cannot be but human flesh to mark the consumer of it “cannibal.”

Following the conference theme, then, this panel explores “the importance of experiences that lie beneath (and before and after) the shiny edifices of progress, rationality, and industry […]. to consider what lies beneath us” in terms of culture, definitions of humanity, and what makes us human via explorations of fictional anthropophagy and what those representations mean.


The Poetics of Grass, panel proposal for the ASLE Eleventh Biennial Conference, June 23-27, 2015, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID. The panel will focus on grass—which is so often underneath—to think about the following questions:
• For Whitman, grass emblematized American democracy and vitality in the wake of the Civil War. Recent environmentally-aware poetry suggests that the Whitmanian question “What is the grass?” bears re-asking in the twenty-first century. How is Whitman being reinvented in the 20th and 21st century, in an era of environmental crisis, multiple wars, and the emergence of ecopoetics?
• Grasses can grow from rhizomes, underground root systems that laterally connect. Can we draw connections between this kind of lateral multiplicity and formal experimentation in poetry? Might certain experimental or avant-garde poetic forms be considered “grassy”? (Implicit in these questions, but certainly not imperative to their answer, is Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical concept of the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus).
• Where does the presence or absence of grass signify “nature” or “city” in poetry, and where does it transcend these categories? How do post-pastoral, anti-pastoral, and urban pastoral poems turn to grass to think about space and how those spaces intersect with race and class?
• “O grass of graves,” wrote Whitman, echoing the Biblical passage, “All flesh is grass.” More recently, in his review of Tracy K. Smith’s book Life on Mars in The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson writes that “grass is the very signature of human presence.” How does grass construct the presence or absence of humanity in poems? How does grass function in contemporary elegy? How does it function in poetic constructions of gender and sexuality?
• Grass is one of the many names for cannabis. Does the literature of cannabis use (broadly interpreted) offer us a way to interrogate environmental impact of a growing marijuana industry? (See Josh Harkin’s “The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming” in Mother Jones for more on this issue.)


You don't know what it is? Me neither.

 “EcoMaterialisms: Organizing Life and Matter” will bring interdisciplinary graduate work to bear on the ongoing critical discussions grouped under the umbrella of “new materialisms.” While what exactly these new materialisms might be or look like remains a vitally open question, this conference is an attempt to map a number of conceptual coordinates that give this emergent field of inquiry some consistency. As Diana Coole and Samantha Frost write in the introduction to their edited collection on new materialism, “If we persist in our call for an observation of a new materialism, it is because we  are aware that unprecedented things are currently being done with and to matter, nature, life,  production, and reproduction. It is in this contemporary context that theorists are compelled to rediscover older materialist traditions while pushing them in novel, and sometimes experimental, directions or toward fresh applications.”

While reconfiguring materiality and our relations to environments has significantly opened the scope of our theoretical engagements, there remains in this same gesture the risk of ignoring other potential lines of thought and practice. “EcoMaterialisms” is intended to open a forum for thinking through these possibilities and their attendant problems. Submissions may address the following topics, but are by no means limited to:

Philosophical approaches to new materialism
New materialism: problems and limitations
Ecocriticism, ecopoetics, and other practices of reading
Biopolitics: governing life and matter
Postcolonial studies and the politics of location
Indigeneities and new materialist thought
Environmentalism and political praxis
New materialism and theories of race
Material feminisms and gender and sexuality studies
Animal and/or posthumanist studies
Materiality in the arts and a material aesthetics
Corporeality and modes of embodiment
Historical materialism and revivals of other materialist traditions
New materialism in visual, sonic, and digital media
New materialism and Speculative Realism

I had never heard of “new materialism” but on reflection I see that if a 3-D printer can make you something solid and useful, if the chip in your refrigerator can talk to the chip in your automobile and the chip in your furnace, if your Google Glass can interact with your wrist Fitbit, then the new materialism is at the very least on the Internet, webbed and talking.   And if our techological capacities are now capable of making materials that never existed before -- like nano particles that can travel in the blood (with chip, of course), or elements at very extreme temperatures never before achieved on this planet, or living growth patterns that develop in no-gravity space stations -- then indeed this materialism is new.

Data, man of the future

How do we develop the consciousness of how to manage the new materialism when so many people are unable to understand the limits and intrinsic nature of all the old materials ?  We are reduced to wondering.

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