Co-taught by a biologist and a literary scholar, this seminar explores the role of the study of literature and ecology in the face of ongoing ecological disasters and narratives of impending planetary doom. How can poetry teach us to perceive change so slow it defies the scale of human perception? What can it teach us about the perspective of other creatures? What roles do desire and pleasure play in the scientific understanding of non-human phenomena, especially as these interact with human societies? Given the popularity of end-of-world doomsday scenarios in contemporary environmentalist discourse, what alternatives exist to these often paralyzing, fear-inducing narratives? How can literary and scientific inquiry together offer more complex responses and resources for living together in times of catastrophe? We seek students from a range of backgrounds—pre-biology majors and students intending to major in English or Comparative Literature. We want to foster dialogue between those pursuing science degrees and those inclining toward the humanities, and we see the seminar as an opportunity to facilitate this discussion.
Anne-Lise François works in the modern period, comparative romanticisms; lyric poetry; the psychological novel and novel of manners; gender and critical theory; literature and philosophy; and ecocriticism. Her book–Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience (Stanford University Press, 2008)–was awarded the 2010 René Wellek Prize by the American Comparative Literature Association. A study of the ethos of affirmative reticence and recessive action found in the fiction of Mme de Lafayette and Jane Austen, and the poetry of William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy, Open Secrets argues that these works offer a critique of Enlightenment models of heroic action, productive activity and energetic accumulation, by declining demands to make time productive and remaining content with non-actualized powers. Questions of how to value unused powers and recognize inconsequential action also inform her essay on Wordsworthian natural piety and genetically engineered foods (Diacritics, Summer 2003 [published 2005]), as well as an earlier article on the gentle force of habit in Hume and Wordsworth (The Yale Journal of Criticism, April 1994). Her current book project “Provident Improvisers: Parables of Subsistence from Wordsworth to Benjamin” focuses on figures of pastoral worldliness, provisionality, and commonness (with “common” understood in the double sense of the political antithesis to enclosure and of the ordinary, vernacular, or profane).
Ignacio Chapela, Associate Professor of Microbial Ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, is a scientist by conviction and aspiring biologist by craft. Born as first-generation Mexico Cityan from the mix, common to that country, of indigenous, indigenized and immigrant stocks. Not a science-fiction buff, Ignacio belongs to the group of practicing scientists who find more wonderment in what exists than in what someone can write onto a page. This can create some trouble, since it tends to make people like him acutely sensitive to the loss of diverse biologies, ideologies, imaginations. They are also prone to stare at things beyond polite limits, and to have an affinity for complexity and non-linear storylines, the stuff of real ecology.