Of Marronage and Maroonage: College of Charleston, Feb 2016


Co-hosted by CLAW

Last weekend, a group of academics who were diverse in some ways – literary critics, historians, and anthropologists, from various locations and career stages – but less so in others – mostly white and male – lived and thought together in relative isolation at the College of Charleston. Were we maroons, building shared discourses in solidarity? Or were we marooned, stuck for a time at the southeast edge of Carolina?

The correct answer seems neither, since we were graciously hosted and were all able to fly off home when we wanted to. But the unstable opposition between marronage, which refers to the forming of free communities by escaped slaves and indigenous peoples in the New World, and maroonage, the experience of being cast away, structured our formal and informal conversations. The open question remains how these concepts best relate to each other.

The conference was convened by Joe Kelly, an Irish studies scholar turned early Americanist, and Rich Bodek, a Weimar historian with insatiably wide interests who gave a fascinating paper about L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, a counter-history in which a 20c scientist transported to 9c Rome attempts to save the Empire with technology.

Live oak

Live oak

The historians among us and especially the distinguished anthropologists Richard and Sally Price focused on maroon communities in the New World. The Prices have spent their careers in large part working with the Saramaka people, descendants of escaped slaves who live in the interior of Suriname. Rich’s powerful keynote lecture discussed this work and described his Saramakan collaborators as theorists and historians. (At the bar later, the Prices told me a harrowing story of evacuating their sick five year old daughter from a Saramakan village; I found the story especially moving because that daughter, now an English professor at Harvard, was a friend of mine in grad school in the late 90s.)

The literary contributions to the event were, as you might expect, more speculative. Joe Kelly and I both wrote about Bermuda, in particular the 1609 wreck of the Virginia Company ship Sea-Venture, which led to a group of 150 English colonists being marooned for ten relatively comfortable months, during which time a mutiny provided tantalizing clues about emerging ideas of political independence. Another literary panel explored utopian fiction, including science fiction, focusing on the positive visionary element of maroonage – which doubled back from sci fi to Bermuda via The Tempest and Forbidden Planet.

Boats in for winter

Boats in for winter

We kept circling around questions of active control and passive victimhood in our narratives and discourses. In my literary way, I wanted to categorize these modes through genre: the maroon story tells an epic tale of making a new homeland with interesting echoes of the Aeneid (which I’ll teach this week in Queens). It’s strange to think about Virgil’s epic, one of the dominant models for European imperialism, as providing a template for the struggle to forge Afro-Indigenous communities, especially since the Dido episode is often read (for example in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra) as a refusal of African alliances. But heroic maroons fit the epic mold, whether they are modern Saramakans preserving their earliest histories or the “maritime maroons” of Isaac Curtis’s research, who escaped from slave plantations in the Antilles to found independent societies on other islands. Recovering this heroic past has powerful political resonance in the present, as Eddie Shore’s project on quilombos in twentieth-century Brazil and Barry Stiefel’s on maroon monuments both show.

The passive genre that explores the castaway experience of maroonage is romance, an omnipresent literary form that perhaps lacks its Virgil – unless, like me, you think the Odyssey is more romance than epic. Romance narratives of survival from Heliodorus’s Aethiopian History to The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe champion different virtues than epic. Romance heroes and (more often than in epic) heroines display skills of indirection, endurance, interpretive acumen, even magic. Sometimes these narratives anticipate imperialist horrors; Crusoe technologizes his island while enslaving Friday, Prospero transforms his into dreams while brutalizing Caliban and dominating Ariel and Miranda.

The provisional separation between epic maroons and romance castaways does not capture anything like the flexibility of the narratives we tell about isolated communities forming and re-forming themselves after dislocation. I’ve written a  book about romance indirection in the prose fiction of Elizabethan England, but more relevant to this past weekend’s conference, I think, is my more recent argument that shipwreck represents a literary-and-historical inflection point, a micro-narrative of crisis and disruption that opens up new possibilities. The maroon epic of settlement and community formation explodes out of slave-taking and revolt – which events aren’t (always) accompanied by actual shipwrecks, but which like shipwreck shatter old ways. Romances of castaways who endure and (sometimes) return home end up redeeming shipwreck, which becomes, in Northrop Frye’s resonant joke, nothing more than a “means of transportation” in this literary genre.

I end up thinking that the clear and important opposition between active marronage and passive maroonage, on which Rich Price insisted in his plenary lecture, conceals a meaningful second-level exchange between these modes. Heroic maroons from Saramaka to Jamaica to Brazil make use of romance tactics of rhetorical shaping, indirection, and concealment – as the extraordinary example of Rich’s local historian, interlocutor, and collaborator Tooy shows. (I devoured most of Travels with Tooy on my flight home – the instantaneous joys of the Kindle app!) Romance heroes and heroines from Shakespeare’s Miranda to Stephen Hopkins on Bermuda to the nameless woman who narrates Haushofer’s The Wall rely on romance tactics but also produce heroic substance – as Peter Sands’s reading of The Wall as ecofeminist parable shows. These modes are contrasting but never quite distinct; narrative culture, both historical and literary, operates through a constant shifting and competitive exchange between both modes. All maroons are recovering from being marooned; all castaways are struggling toward a new version of settlement, even if that settlement may be located in an (always changed, sometimes unrecognizable) Ithaca.

My own written contribution to the conference was “The Bermuda Assemblage,” an essay that sketched a theoretically post-human and explicitly non-human history of the English Bermuda settlement between the shipwreck of 1609 and the mid-1630s. At times I felt as if my essay ran tangentially away from some of the most interesting parts of the conference’s discussions, including the extraordinary reconstructions of maroon societies in the Lesser Antilles, Columbia, Suriname, Brazil, and elsewhere. To an extent, the four panels, plenary, and final roundtable kept literary and historical methodologies isolated; the opening panel explored speculative utopias, the second splashed onto Bermuda, and then after Friday lunch we turned from literature to historical marronage, and never really looked back.

Until the roundtable, it felt as if the borders between active marronage and passive maroonage were largely unbreached. In that final session, Sally Price and Robert Olwell suggested that the project of bringing the conference’s conversations “between two covers” (a metaphor for publication that, as Sally noted later, is dissolving in cyberspace) should involve reconsidering that division. I spoke my genre-piece then, as an admittedly lit crit-ish way to think about these two entwined narratives.

But what if instead of separating and distinguishing we choose accumulation and mixing?

For the past decade or so I’ve been fascinated with poet-theorist Edouard Glissant, in particular his notions of Relation and historical accumulation. He begins with the Middle Passage and with underwater glimpses of “womb abyss and infinite abyss” (8). He moves to accumulation: Relation

We no longer reveal totality within ourselves by lightning flashes. We approach it through the accumulation of sediments… (33)

In Shipwreck Modernity (2015), I connect Glissant’s poetic accumulation with Rachel Carson’s marine visions (9-10). I’m wondering now if the Franco-Caribbean writer’s models might bridge and mutually inform the ideas swirling in my head after this weekend’s trip to Charleston. Might maroons and the marooned meet on Glissant’s beach?

Thanks to Joe Kelly and Rich Bodek for organizing, and to all my fellow Marronage and Maroonage travelers! I look forward to continuing our conversations.




Plays in 2015

New Year’s Day is for summing up. How many plays did I blog-review in 2015? An even ten, though unevenly distributed: three in Feb, none in March, two each in April and May, none over the summer, one each in Oct, Nov, and December. Mostly in New York, but Songs of Lear and Measure were in New Haven.

  1. NYSX’s Titus Andronicus Feb 4
  2. The Winter’s Tale at the Pearl Theater Feb 23
  3. Songs of Lear by Song of the Goat Feb 27
  4. Cry, Trojans by the Wooster Group April 11
  5. Othello by Titan Theater April 27
  6. Two Gents by Fiasco at Tfana May 2
  7. Tis Pity by Red Bull May 6
  8. Midsummer at the Pearl Theater Oct 4
  9. Henry 4 at St Ann’s Nov 14
  10. Measure for Measure by Fiasco Dec 5



Swimming 2015

A pretty good year in the water: 225 miles is probably the most I’ve swum since I was training intensely with my high school team way back in 1985.

My goal for the year was 200 miles, which I hit on my 49th birthday of 11/3, and then finished fairly weakly in a deadline-filled December.

Month Total Distance
Jan 27.23 miles (=47,925 yards, =43,823 meters)
Feb 20.40 miles (=35,900 yards, =32,827 meters)
Mar 10.68 miles (=18,800 yards, =17,191 meters)
Apr 20.93 miles (=36,830 yards, =33,678 meters)
May 21.01 miles (=36,975 yards, =33,810 meters)
Jun 16.16 miles (=28,450 yards, =26,015 meters)
Jul 20.28 miles (=35,696 yards, =32,640 meters)
Aug 23.19 miles (=40,808 yards, =37,315 meters)
Sep 19.23 miles (=33,838 yards, =30,941 meters)
Oct 19.51 miles (=34,345 yards, =31,405 meters)
Nov 16.86 miles (=29,680 yards, =27,139 meters)
Dec 10.48 miles (=18,450 yards, =16,871 meters)
Total 225.96 miles (=397,697 yards, =363,655 meters)


Or, from the most to least water miles:

Jan: 27.23 miles in 25 swims (all pool) (1.09 m/s)

Aug: 23.19 miles in 25 swims (all open water) (0.93)

May 21.01 miles in 19 swims (1.11)

April: 20.93 miles in 19 swims (1.10)

Feb: 20.4 miles in 18 swims (1.13)

Jul: 20.28 miles in 21 swims (0.97)

Oct: 19.51 miles in 20 swims (0.98)

Sept: 19.23 miles in 20 swims (0.96)

Nov: 16.86 miles in 17 swims (0.99)

June: 16.16 miles in 13 swims (0.95)

March: 10.68 miles in 10 swims (1.07)

Dec: 10.48 miles in 11 swims (0.95)


218 total swims @ 1.04 miles / swim average — which means I swam around a mile for just about 60% of the days in 2015.


I wonder if I can hit 250 next year?




Shipwreck Modernity!

2015-12-10 07.55.13

Shipwreck on a desk

I’ve been thinking that if the first copies of Shipwreck Modernity arrived in Short Beach a day too late to travel with me to this Saturday’s “Gardenwrecks” event with Patrick Mahon at the Katzman Contemporary gallery in Toronto, the near-miss would match the shipwreck experience. It’s all about timing, whether you hit the rocks or the beach.

But it’s here today! So many years and voyages and thoughts and conversations pressed between two covers.

I wonder what people will think of it? It’s a strange fish, as academic books go.

The history of #ecologicalglobalization rewrites exploration as hazard, discovery as error, New Worlds as unfathomable seas. What if inside all our stories of supposed modernity shipwreck lurks, waiting?

Nonsuch Garden, by Patrick Mahon at the Katzman Contemporary

Nonsuch Garden, by Patrick Mahon at the Katzman Contemporary

The book supplements the blue humanities with three more specific terms about which I might blog more later:

Wet Globalization

Blue Ecology

Shipwreck Modernity

But like all books it’s a not altogether dead thing that carries out into the world ocean bits and pieces of me, assembled with syntax, coincidence, and the great good fortune of so many helping hands, ears, and voices along the way.

Thanks to everyone who’s listened and talked back during the shipwreck years. I’m looking forward to the next stage of the voyage!

Shipwreck with ship

Shipwreck with ship





Fiasco’s Measure for Measure

PosterSeeming! Seeming! (2.4)

It’s been standard practice recently in many smart recent Shakespeare productions to darken the plays. Some of my favorites in this mode include Propeller’s heartbreaking Winter’s Tale and Cheek by Jowl’s Macbeth and Tis Pity, but the list could go on. Fiasco Theater, by contrast, lightens dark things. I didn’t see their much-praised Cymbeline, but I loved their Two Gents last spring at Tfana. With small casts, fast action, clever doubling, and a canny sense for how to play the crowd, they’re one of the liveliest acts around.

Despite good reviews, I wasn’t sure what they would do with Measure for Measure, a deeply skeptical investigation of sin, corruption, and veniality in a shadowy Vienna that doubles as one Shakespeare’s  least inviting portraits of Elizabethan London. How could a theater of laughter portray the Duke of dark corners? Could they capture Angelo’s conversion from saint to tormented libertine?

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, / Not light them for themselves (1.1)

The answers, as I might have guessed, emerged from playfulness. In particular Andy Grotelueschen’s Duke was wonderfully addled, and he appeared himself to be just a little bit confused about why he was leaving Vienna and why returning. Angelo’s refusal to pardon Claudio clearly stunned the Duke-turned-Friar, and he had to scramble to re-order his domain. The Duke can be a cold or manipulative figure, but in this production he was wonderfully human and not very controlling. In reducing the Duke’s control, Fiasco’s production replicates the gambit of the play itself, which absents authority as a kind of test for its subjects. In this case, the Duke seemed testing himself as much as others. Escalus’s line, delivered to the disguised Duke himself, that the ruler’s major preoccupation was “especially to know himself” (3.2) never seemed less apt or more pointed.

Paul Coffey as Angelo and Emily Young as Isabealla (Photo Joan Marcus)

Paul Coffey as Angelo and Emily Young as Isabella (Photo Joan Marcus)

Thoughts are no subjects. (5.1)

Into the vacuum created by the confused Duke strode the ethical athlete Angelo, wonderfully cross-cast with malaprop-dispensing Constable Elbow and played with gleaming life by Paul Coffey. Angelo’s desire to display his virtue and to be seen displaying it dominated his first interview with Emily’s Young’s persuasive Isabella. Perhaps because Fiasco’s house style includes careful attention to the audience, or because the very vocal audience members seated behind me oohed and ahhed over his changes of heart, Angelo’s sudden conversion to lust seemed rash and sudden, all the more so because the production never had the heart to condemn sexuality. Noah Brody’s Pompey and Emily Young’s second part as Mistress Overdone were more charismatic than seedy, and the wordplay about venereal disease never had much bite. Angelo’s awakening into sexual desire disrupted because it seemed so pleasurable; the one thing the virtuous acting-Duke could not endure, it seemed, was to smile.

Fitter time for that. (5.1)

My favorite character in the play is Lucio the light-bringer, a down-in-the-mouth Satan who bridged brothel and court, Claudio and Isabella, and in the end — much to his own surprise and dismay — uncowled the Duke. Ben Steinfeld, cross-cast as the gull Froth, played Lucio with verve and energy; when he enjoined Isabella to “assay the power you have” to persuade Angelo (1.4), he spoke for an ethic of play, in which more emotion, more intensity, more feeling is always better. I wasn’t sure if Steinfeld always hit Lucio’s heights — sometimes he seemed merely clownish rather than seductive — but he rose to his comic role undermining the disguised Duke in the final scene. His final lamentation that “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (5.1) inverted his obnoxious Duke-teasing and brought the play’s comic conclusions home.

Death is a great disguiser. (4.2)

Does Fiasco’s lightness of tone diminish a dark play like Measure by turning its meditations on “mercy and mortality” (1.1) into something less consequential? I’m not sure. Fiasco’s tone went a long way toward redeeming the Duke, who normally I find either sinister or dull, depending on how essential he makes his machinations to the show. But a smiling Angelo is harder to make sense of. What if the shock of lust that he feels for Isabella’s purity is essentially the shock of pleasure? Might pleasure be as unsettling as power? Despite his own words, this Angelo never seemed frightening or brutal, even when he threatened Isabella. Angelo, along with Malvolio in Twelfth Night, probably represents Shakespeare’s portrait of the culture of conspicuous moral rectitude that would become 17c Puritanism — but perhaps Fiasco’s happier convert represents a way to play this character without the full weight of future history on his back?Full cast

Go to your bosom. (2.2)

Isabella’s a hard character for modern productions. Modern sexual mores make Pompey’s or Lucio’s bawdy joking seem clear-eyed, and the Duke’s last-minute proposal serves to give the do-gooder a self-interested motive. But can our pluralist and tolerant vision of the social world, with room enough for Mistress Overdone, Elbow’s hungry wife, and the varied sexual behaviors of Claudio, Lucio, and Pompey, venerate a young woman who wants nothing more than “more strict restraint” (1.4)? Emily Young’s Isabella warmed to the spotlight, exercising her power over Angelo before she knew what motivated it, rebuffing her brother in prison, negotiating with the disguised Duke. Could this newly forceful figure return to the sisters of St Claire?

The closing image of this play is a famous stage-crux: Isabella is given no lines in response to the Duke’s surprising proposal. I’ve seen an experimental production of this play at SUNY Purchase, in which every character was played by two actors. Isabella’s doppelganger was silent throughout, with duct-tape over her mouth as she pantomimed the erotic imagination she never speaks. At the Duke’s proposal, she ripped the tape off her mouth and screamed to the rafters.

But, like Fiasco’s Isabella, she never took the Duke’s hand. What can we say about this proposed marriage? I’m still not sure.


Two Posts on Arcade

Arcade logoI’ve written two posts for Stanford’s Arcade this fall, both early gestures toward a new project.

On Oct 29, I posted a short essay on error in ecological terms, “Error: Stabs at an Ecological Dynamic.”

On Dec 1, I posted a revised version of my take on the early modern ecological globalization, “Enter Anthropocene, c. 1610.” I’d published a slightly different version of that one in the Glasgow Review of Books in September.

The Error piece will be part of an Environmental Humanities roundtable at MLA this coming January in Austin, and the Anthropocene piece will be my contribution to an ACLA seminar in March in Boston. After that, who knows? They may come together.



Henry 4 at St Ann’s

Press image

Two years ago I saw Phyllida Lloyd’s great all-female production of Julius Caesar at the old St. Ann’s in DUMBO. Set in a women’s prison with Caesar sitting in first row of the audience when she was assassinated, the show was brilliant, visceral, and exhilarating. Last night I saw the same director and (mostly) same cast take on both parts of Henry 4 at the gorgeous new St. Ann’s near the carousel under Brooklyn Bridge. I had thought that it would be hard to top the last one but — wow! I drove home through November darkness in a whirl of emotion.

Clare Dunne's Hall on top of Jade Anouka's Hotspure (NYT)

Clare Dunne’s Hall on top of Jade Anouka’s Hotspure (NYT)

The blazing core of this production was Jade Anouka’s boxing Hotspur, who danced around the stage and dominated every scene she was in. I’ve never seen a better performance of this part, never seen a Hotspur so thoroughly convince me that the kingdom belonged to her. Like Ben Brantley in the Times, I enjoyed Harriet Walter’s melancholy King Henry, but for me it became Hotspur’s play. Continually in training, she punched a big bag, ran through sit-ups, dips, and push-ups with her fellow rebel commanders, and, whether mocking a courtier-knight or the sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales, flamed out the fiery knight’s language.

Hotspur’s best scene, however, may have been the most domestic. Ready to join the rebel forces, the commander wrapped his hands in blood-red tape, called for his horse, and lashed out at his wife, played with powerful authority by Sharon Rooney. The visual contrast between the small, fit, dark-skinned Anouka in her athletic gear with her hair dyed red and the large, pale-skinned Rooney in a bathrobe with jet black hair and an Irish accent made the marriage seem mis-matched. But when Lady Percy mirrored her husband’s anger back to him — “Do you not love me? … / Well, do not, then, for since you love me not / I will not love myself” (2.3) — the warrior froze and almost broke. He must go to war, he can’t go to war. In that moment of stillness I almost fell out of my seat.

Sophie Stanton as Falstaff (NYT)

Sophie Stanton as Falstaff (NYT)

He couldn’t stay frozen forever, but the force of that moment recast the non-sequitur-ish following lines about his horse:

Come, wilt thou see me ride?

And when I am a horseback I will swear

I love thee infinitely.

The horse, that symbol of chivalric prowess and physical strength, gave Hotspur a vehicle through which to bear the emotions that were running him down. Infinite love can only ride, not walk, as he felt it. Rooney’s Lady Percy would also appear later in the first scene of Henry IV, Part 2 (this production runs through both parts in an intermissionless 2:15, though at the cost of cutting most of Part 2) to lament her husband’s body alongside her father. As she mourned Hotspur, it was hard not to feel that some of the fire had gone out of the play.

"The king hath many [boxing] in his coats."

“The king hath many [boxing] in his coats.”

The other unexpectedly great performance was Jenny Jules as Worcester, Hotspur’s uncle and the shrewdest of the rebel generals. Jules had stolen the show as Cassius back in 2013, but even so I wasn’t prepared for how central she made this character to the play. Worcester’s bitter speech to King Henry the night before the battle — “For you my staff of office did I break / In Richard’s time, and posted day and night / To meet you on the way and kiss your hand” (5.1) — became the smartest and most painful political declaration in the play. It’s amazing what brilliant actors can do to re-orient a play I’ve taught and seen so many times!

Though slightly overshadowed by the charisma of these rebels, the central figures of Hal and Falstaff did not disappoint. Clare Dunne, who had played a brilliant Portia in Julius Caesar, flavored Hal with teenage bitterness; sitting silent during his royal father’s first counsel scene (1.3) with Beats headphones covering his ears, this prince showed exactly what he thought of Daddy’s day job. In wrestling with Hotspur, Hal punctuated her completion of the dying knights final lines — Hotspur said, “No, Percy, thou art dust / And food for — ” and Hal jumped in to finish, “For worms, brave Percy” (5.4) — with a brutal and sadistic twist of the knife in her opponent’s belly. I don’t know if this cast will play Henry V, but this king would make a frightening opponent. On this of all nights — the night of the horrific attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 — it was hard to watch him win.

Inside the new St. Ann's

Inside the new St. Ann’s

Sophie Stanton’s Falstaff clowned brilliantly, especially when she inverted a red footstool on her head to play the King. Clearly performing for friends, she didn’t seem to care very much when the lies of buckram men or missing trinket rings were exposed. In such bravura moments as the catechism on honor (5.1), which by luck of the seating draw (the audience surrounded the stage on all four sides, and sometimes the actors mounted the risers for speeches) was performed about one foot in front of me, she seemed conscious of having the best lines in the play.

But Falstaff also brought feminist depth that cracked the frame of this hyper-masculine play. Along with Lady Percy and Zainab Hasan’s Hostess, who broke character and stormed offstage when the banter of 3.3 devolved into a series of non-Shakespearean misogynistic jokes, Falstaff reminded the audience that these were women’s bodies playing macho parts. “Stick with the Shakespeare,” said Harriet Walter, out of character, after bringing the Hostess back on stage to restart 3.3. As if the Shakespeare were less brutal!

[Spoiler alert: you might not want to read the next bit about the ending if you’re going to see the play.]

The final coup de theatre featured the new King Henry V atop a ladder, denouncing his fat friend in the last scene of Henry IV, Part 2: “I know thee not, old man.” Sophie Stanton took off the red wool cap that had marked Falstaff as the lead clown, and listened to her denouncement with long hair flowing onto her shoulders. The emotional cruelty of the new king became too much, and she broke character and tried to climb up the ladder to him, shouting out the play’s final and non-Shakespearean line of dialogue:

You’re not going to fucking leave me! Don’t fucking leave me!

Sirens blared. The house lights came up. Blue-uniformed police guards occupied the stage, twisted Falstaff’s arm into a painful behind-the-back hold, and marched her off stage. The other prisoner-actors were ordered to line up with hands on their heads. They were marched offstage, and the house went black.

The standing ovation couldn’t quite fill the void.

View from DUMBO

View from DUMBO

Go see this show before Dec 6 if you’re in NYC! I’m fiddling with my schedule to see if I can get back.





Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit 2015

main_banner_gimp_format_yess6An interloping literature professor among entrepreneurs, CEOs, scientists, and environmental regulators, I spent most of yesterday at the Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit, jointly hosted by the School of Management and the School of Forestry and Ecological Sciences. I came away amazed by the energy, imagination, and expertise on display, and perhaps a little less pessimistic about some eco-challenges. (Though I did skip the panel about the upcoming summit in Paris and its political challenges.) I also came away thinking that all the stories went in the same direction. The future-that-is-sustainability transforms the present by making it faster and smarter, with less waste and smoother politics. It’s hard not to love this future. It’s also hard to believe we’ll really get all the way there.

My eco-totems are Lear in the storm, Marina born at sea, and Odysseus in the surf, and it’s hard to interweave those painful visions with triumphant technofutures and elaborate regulatory schemes. Sitting in the audience as “rock star” venture capitalist Nancy Pfund spooled out new business models for energy storage and microgrids, big data and “ag-tech,” a privatized Space Age and secondary markets that transform goods into services, I thought about how transformative her vision has been in recent years — she’s helped give us Tesla and Pandora and SolarCity. I also wondered how dependent this vision is on optimism and faith in human ingenuity.

“I believe that working together,” she summarized, “we’ve got this.”

No everyone was quite so sanguine, especially not people working more closely with political realities, but my overwhelming impression from YESS was of possibilities. Dan Etsy, from Yale’s Center of Environmental Law and Policy, described how a 21c environmentalism will be built on public-private risk-sharing rather than centralized regulation. The Yale Sustainability Office’s vision of “engaged research” wants to put academic expertise to work with local and global communities. Nancy Pfund’s utopian and optimistic plenary talk about a “no-sacrifice” ticket to the future was, I suppose, the sort of sales pitch you might make to investors — but the sense that things were possible was overwhelming from the academics and regulators as well as the venture capitalists.

Probably the most compelling panel I saw was “Sea Change: Unifying Narratives for Action,” organized by Paul Lussier of Me2You Media, who’s teaching courses on environmentalist story-making at FES and Yale College. He started by suggesting that environmentalism has trusted too much in the ontological power of scientific knowledge and instead needs to tell better and more compelling stories. His panelists included activists, writers, and the founder of the in-progress Climate Musuem, which aims to put climate at the center of public life. It was a great panel, building from the shared assumption that “words matter” and full of specific detailed depictions of how to create coalitions and action. Michelle Wyman’s story of convincing the conservative mayor of Arlington TX to work on environmental issues by approaching the question through the lens of public health and the mayor’s desire to promote his legacy was a deft mixing of human tactics and political maneuvers.  I was struck also by how many speakers used the model of private success — Chipotle and Sweet Greens were the corporate examples — to suggest that business leaders need to be shown that sustainability isn’t just virtuous but profitable.

Amid the happy talk and inspiration, I was thinking that many of our most emotionally powerful stories about humans and nature are stories of loss or disruption: the expulsion from Eden, Achilles fighting the river, the passing of a Golden Age, the Flood, global warming, the Anthropocene. There are counter-stories of abundance and Promised Lands, but they are often historically and ecologically suspect.

Sometimes I think one reason conservative voices are so powerful in our era of rapid and disorienting economic, cultural, and geophysical change is that they rely on shared stories of loss, and it is around such painful stories that human communities form. Enviro-utopians offer stories about a possible future. Sometimes I think that risk-averse humans feel sustained losses, even losses of paradises we never really had, more intensely that we anticipate future harmonies we have never known.

I don’t want the perspective of an interloping humanist to seem a downer, but I wonder about how to harness the emotional power of tragedy in eco-narrative. I think about tragedy because it’s part of my literary field of study, and because everything ecological I’ve written comes on some level out of thinking about King Lear, but also because anthropogenic climate change is tragic, even in the utterly implausible event that we emit no more greenhouse gases beyond what are in the atmosphere in 2015. There’s no way back to climactic innocence.

Adopting a long historical perspective on human impacts on climate itself has problems; if we’ve been changing the climate since the start of large-scale agricultural burning ten thousand years ago, how can we undo it in the twenty-first century? A humanist perspective on the stories humans tell about ecological catastrophes, floods and fires, earthquakes and storms, might well suggest that dreams of escape will remain ungraspable. I would not want to give comfort to powerful forces always arrayed in favor of the status quo.

My hope is for narratives of ecological embeddedness that are neither fatalistic nor techno-utopian. Swimmer poetics recognizes that any stability is provisional and limited, and the ocean swimmer — a tiny body in a vast sea — represents something much less triumphalist than sustainable economic growth.

I’ve been dissatisfied with the term sustainability for some time, which strikes me as too static to represent the primary model of ecological health in our age of catastrophe. In a post-equilibrium model, I prefer swimmers to sailors, oceans to land, and resilience to sustainability.

I do wonder, though, about how the literary humanist’s ironic and at least partly tragic perspective — the wisdom of King Lear and Emily Dickinson — might engage with the utopianism I saw at YESS. I wouldn’t want anyone to stop making new companies or building models of water resources in California or producing Global Environmental Performance Indexes. But what might happen if amid the rush to craft new stories, more attention were given to way stories about humans and nonhuman nature always engage with disruption, loss, and limitations?

Or does my desire to return to that perspective just remind us why the literary humanities aren’t always invited to the entrepreneurial parties?

So much of what I heard yesterday spoke in the voice of Dickinson’s embarking soul —

Exaltation is the going

Of an inland soul to sea…

I wonder also about the distance she imagines between what we love and what we can endure:

Bred as we, among the mountains,

Can the sailor understand,

The divine intoxication

Of the first league out from land?

I take the poet’s insight to be that we can’t understand oceanic intoxication, and that we embark in ignorance as well as exaltation. That ironic perspective is not what I want from regulators, investment advisors, or activists, I suppose, and probably it’s not dominant in successful entrepreneurs. But it strikes me as at the heart of how humans have and will continue to engage emotionally and physically with the more-than-human world that surrounds us.

I’ve been incredibly impressed with the FES whenever I’ve been there, and being at the SOM yesterday was equally impressive. Such a pleasure to think alongside so many smart people!


Oceanic New York: the Party!

Chalk art by Chris Piuma

Chalk art by Chris Piuma

[being a chronological account of the hours surrounding this festive event, held on Th 5 Nov., 2015, in the Melville Gallery at South Street Seaport, New York]

[For more pictures, go to Underwater New York’s album.]

8 am: A week of golden sunshine gives way to damp, drizzly November. #ishmaelweather

4 pm: Walking over to the Seaport, I note the Peking and the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse. Good company.

The view under the FDR

The view under the FDR

6 pm: After buying ice and seltzer, I meet Nicole Haroutunian and Nicki Pombier-Berger, two of the three founders of Underwater New York, who brought Black Seal rum and ginger beer. Clearly they’ve thrown parties like this before.

6:30 pm: Chris Piuma arrives with books and chalk art.

7 pm: The party starts, in the shadow of the Duke of Wellington. The figurehead was made for the ship of the line HMS Waterloo, built in 1833 to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat and burned by angry cadets after it was refitted as a training vessel in 1918. It’s not clear how the figurehead arrived in New York City.

Both sides of the party card

Both sides of the party card

The Duke

The Duke

7:15 pm: I spend the first part of the party handing out square cards and squeezing hands.

7:30 pm: I meet Eric Hellman, whose open-source project promoted Oceanic New York as the ebook of the day yesterday.

7:50 pm: The show starts with Nicki and Nicole from UNY. They introduce me with a generous reading of “Asymmetrical Kicking,” the poem from which I cribbed a line for the party cards. “Air feels empty after so much water.”

8 pm: I thank people and institutions, and then try to explain why after fitting Ocean and City inside a Book I wanted to go one step smaller with the little square cards.

8:05 pm: Elizabeth Albert tells a wonderful tall tale about Herman Melville in Staten Island, fictionalizing omnibus schedules and dreaming of white whales.

8:15 pm: Chris Piuma speaks about Punctum Books and its utopian projects.

2015-11-05 17.53.188:25 pm: Matt Zazzarino, after head-faking the crowd by claiming not to like reading his work in public, has us rolling in the aisles with “Super Ocean 64.”

8:35 pm: Dean Kritikos lays down New York seas as he navigates the asphalt with his buddy Jean-Paul Sartre in “New York, Oceanic City.”

8:45 pm: I give the masthead philosopher the last words in describing our Oceanic evening:

And thus, surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments: yea, serenely reveled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being do I myself still for ever centrally disport me in mute calm, and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe in eternal mildness of joy. (87: 303).

10 pm: Many of us shift the scene to Fresh Salt on Beekman Street. timthumb

12 am: Amazingly, the bar and kitchen are still open. Most of the grad students are still going strong. My old college buddy Sherif Wahba, in from Dubai, shows up and starts ordering scotch.

1:30 am: The bar’s still open, but I’m not there anymore.

Thanks to all who came, and all who followed from afar! Please read and circulate Oceanic New York, and while you’re at it support Punctum Books and open-access publishing!

Rum soaked coasters

Rum soaked coasters



Oceanic New York: the Party!

ONY full cover 20150812bCome to a book party on Nov 5! I’m so pleased that with the help of Underwater New York we managed to book the Melville Gallery at the South Street Seaport Museum. A perfect place to wash the damp, drizzly Novembers from our souls…

We’ll be celebrating Oceanic New York, which began as a symposium at St. John’s in the fall of 2013 and has recently appeared as an open-source book. (Follow the link for a free ebook download or order a reasonably priced paperback copy — and support Punctum Books and open-access publishing if you can!)

The book features the brilliant writings and artwork of eighteen of my favorite oceanic people. The contributors walk the shores of many waters, from the Pacific Ocean to the Irish Sea, and speak of many cities. Not all eighteen can make it to our insular city of the Manhattoes, but we’ll be together in spirit.

The party will be held in the Melville Gallery at the South Street Seaport Museum, 213 Water Street, Manhattan, from 7 – 9 pm. The event is supported by St. John’s English department and by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Our co-hosts are Underwater New York, a wonderfully salty online literary magazine.

Please come to celebrate with us!

Here is a link to the ONY Party Flyer for the event, which you should also see around St. John’s in the coming weeks.

Feel free to contact me with any questions or just to let me know that you’re coming!