Radical Hope and Early Modern Ecologies: MLA #598 1/7 @ 3:30 pm

2016-11-02-17-56-43Here’s our line-up for MLA session #598, coming to Philly on Sat 1/7 at 3:30 pm in the Convention center. Please join us for Radical Hope!


Speakers:       Daniel Brayton, Middlebury College

Jennifer Munroe, UNC Charlotte

Lynne Bruckner, Chatham University

Steve Mentz, St. John’s University

Respondent:  Tiffany Jo Werth, Simon Fraser University

Organizer:      Steve Mentz, St. John’s University


Environmentalist thinking in our catastrophic present oscillates between tragic visions of apocalyptic futures and technology-inspired fantasies of redemption. Either we are all doomed, or electronic cars will save us just the way we are. This panel, featuring five major voices in early modern ecocritical scholarship, proposes that the plurality of premodern visions of the relationship between human beings and the nonhuman environment can provide alternative ways to imagine our changing ecological future. Treating early modern texts as examples of speculative ecological thinking makes new possibilities visible.

Today’s favorite new term, “Anthropocene,” over-emphasizes the supposed novelty of our latest Age of Man. Neither human-driven environmental change nor ecological catastrophes are entirely new, as Native American populations destroyed by European diseases in the early modern period grimly testify. Twenty-first century conceptions of the Anthropocene often fall into patterns that resemble Romantic or industrial visions of Nature. Supplementing these modern views with a more fully historicized sense of the plural relationships between humans and the nonhuman environment enables humanities scholarship to use alien understandings from our shared past to reconsider our fragile present. Seeking radical alternatives in early modern ecologies, we offer plurality and historical difference.

The roundtable of short papers opens with Daniel Brayton’s “Oceans of Excess,” which argues that European encounters with the World Ocean in the early modern period sparked a new sense of global scale and fascination with the alien sea. He suggests that the vastness of the global ocean created in early modern English literature a language for dynamic, catastrophic, and post-sustainable ecosystems. The marine environment exceeds the capacity of the firmament to contain it and calls into question the human ability to conceptualize nature. Man, as Vico claimed, may make himself the measure of the universe, but the ocean engulfs that yardstick. For literary figures such as Shakespeare and Andrew Marvell the ocean evokes literal and conceptual measurelessness. In Marvell’s “The Garden,” mind and ocean are equally unfathomable. Today’s marine environment continues to exceed our ability to conceptualize the totality of the biosphere. In that excess early modern poets can help us uncover hope, for resilience lies in the gap between what we know about and do to the ocean and what we cannot and do not.

Next Lynne Bruckner will turn from global observations to the local history of a narrative poem, Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece.” Bruckner suggests that the figures of Tarquin and Lucrece offer contrasting ecological visions. Her analysis focuses on wind as narrative co-actant and figure for a living nature; wind enmeshes itself with Lucrece but refuses to touch Tarquin. Shakespeare’s bivalent poem both isolates the masculine rape of nature and also makes available via Lucrece’s hybrid porousness an alternative to that separation. In the contrast between an impermeable assault on natural entanglement and an early modern anticipation of trans-coporeal enmeshment, the poem constructs an alternative to ecological despair that anticipates the “transcorporeal” mode articulated by influential contemporary eco-theorist Stacy Alaimo.

Following this analysis of narrative verse will be Jennifer Munroe’s archival intervention, “Premodern Kitchen Ecologies: ‘Sustainable Becoming.’” Munroe seeks a sustainable “common” future by revising histories of sustainability to account for the diverse practices of the past. Histories of sustainability have tended to seek the origins of our current environmental crises near the advent of industrialism. Such histories, located as far back as perhaps the seventeenth century in England, pinpoint moments when things changed, implying that the human relationship with nature was before that moment otherwise, as if articulating those differences might help remediate our current ecological crises Neither our past nor our future is “common” but rather peppered with racial, gender, and class inequity. Munroe proposes that we find hope not in an imagined ideal past but rather by moving from the global into the local, to focus on the “micro-practices of everyday life” Rosi Braidotti describes as necessary to “sustainable becoming” that articulates both the embeddedness of human-nonhuman relations and the way that those relations depended in the past, as they do now, on inequities. A focus on the “micro-practices” recipe books articulate not only helps us locate alternative histories of sustainability that revise dominant representations of human-nonhuman relationships, but they also provide alternative approaches to how we might interrogate what we mean by “sustainability” in the first place.

The last contributor to the roundtable will be Steve Mentz’s “Two Tempests,” which explores literary representations of tempestuous storms in two canonical works, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Considering the relationship between tempest and time – both terms derived from the Latin tempus – he uncovers in Spenser’s catastrophic image of a “tempest of…wrathfulneese” ( an attempt to amalgamate human and divine destructives powers. The theatrical spectacle of Shakespeare’s play, by contrast, in which the storm is as much stage trope as natural force, imagines a human wizard presiding on the upper stage over salvageable devastation. These two tempests reflect alternate ways of responding to the challenges of chaotic environments and ameliorative responses.

Finally, Tiffany Jo Werth will respond to the panel papers, drawing on her study of premodern ecomaterialism and considering its resonance for a twenty-first century context.

The roundtable aims to provide a forum to explore multiple forms of early modern radical hope. The alternatives it offers are not utopian solutions or ways to “save the world,” but instead ways of engaging intimately with disorder. This group’s premodern examples demonstrate ways to pluralize our eco-thinking while recognizing the deep embeddedness of human bodies in nonhuman nature. The session emphasizes meaningful parallels between early modern materials and elements of twenty-first century critical thought, especially ecomaterialism, object-oriented thinking, and actor-network models. By framing our appeals to ecological difference through historical alterity we hope to provide an alternative to the relentlessly grim language of ecological catastrophe in the present.



Dan Brayton is an associate professor at Middlebury College, where he is a member of the Department of English and American Literatures and the Program in Environmental Studies. He earned his doctorate from Cornell University in 2001. His book, Shakespeare’s Ocean: An Ecocritical Exploration, published in 2012 by the University of Virginia Press, won the 2012 Northeast Modern Language Association Book Prize. He has published an edited volume, Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate 2011; with Lynne Bruckner) and numerous articles on early modern English literature, maritime literature, and ecocriticism. He also teaches aboard sailing vessels in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Caribbean and has held visiting appointments with Sea Education Association, the Williams-Mystic Program in American Maritime Studies, and Semester-at-Sea.


Lynne Bruckner is Professor of English at Chatham University. She is co-editor of Ecocritical Shakespeare with Dan Brayton (Ashgate 2011) and Ecological Approaches to Early Modern English Texts: A Field Guide to Reading and Teaching with Jennifer Munroe and Edward Geisweit (Ashgate 2015). Bruckner has contributed ecocritical chapters to Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, eds. Munroe and Laroche (Palgrave 2011) and Shakespeare and the Urgency of Now, eds. DiPietro and Grady (Palgrave 2013). Bruckner’s publications also include articles and book chapters on Chaucer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Jonson, Atwood, and Finding Nemo. Bruckner has developed and taught multiple environmental and ecocritical courses, including Literary Approaches to the Environment, Ecofeminist Literature, Shakespeare: ecocriticism, Children’s Environmental Fiction and Film, and Organic Gardening. She earned her doctorate in English from Rutgers University in 1997.


Jennifer Munroe is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is author of Gender and the Garden in Early Modern English Literature (Ashgate, 2008) and co-author with Rebecca Laroche of Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory (forthcoming. Arden, 2016). She has co-edited Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity (Palgrave, 2011) and Ecological Approaches to Early Modern Texts: A Field Guide to Reading and Teaching (Ashgate, 2015). In addition, she has published articles in Shakespeare Studies, Tulsa Studies for Women’s Literature, Prose Studies, Early Modern Studies Journal, Renaissance Studies, and Pedagogy. Munroe is also a founding member and blogger for EMROC (Early Modern Recipes Online Collective), which is creating a public-access database of transcribed early modern manuscript receipt books.


Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City. His ecocritical publications include Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550 – 1719 (Minnesota 2015); At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (Continuum 2009); the edited collection Oceanic New York (Punctum 2015); and numerous articles and chapters. He has also published on Shakespeare, early modern fiction, and book history, including Romance for Sale in Early Modern England (2006) and the co-edited collections The Age of Thomas Nashe (2014) and Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (2004).


Tiffany Jo Werth is Associate Professor of English at Simon Fraser University. Her work on the vexed relationship of romance to the long English Reformation has appeared in article form in The Shakespearean International Yearbook (2008) and English Literary Renaissance (2010) and as The Fabulous Dark Cloister: Romance in England after the Reformation (Johns Hopkins University Press 2011). Recently, she guest edited a special issue on “Shakespeare and the Human” for The Shakespearean International Yearbook (2015). Her current book project, entitled The English Lithic Imagination from More to Milton, argues that the mineral offers an unsettling touchstone for re-thinking Renaissance humanism. Article-length versions have previewed in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature (2012), Literature Compass Online (2013), Upstart a Journal of English Renaissance Studies (2014), and a special issue of Spenser Studies on “Spenser and the Human” (2015).


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