Elemental Ecocriticism is a playful, dense, and at times dizzying experiment that enacts what it conceptualizes: the fecundity of thinking with the classical elements of earth, air, water, and fire. This kind of elemental thinking rejects the fixity implied by the periodic table, implicates and decenters the human, and refuses reduced-to-commodity worlds. The collection itself was conceived in this liveliness. It comes out of a collaboration traversing geographies, conferences, a postmedieval special issue, and a symposium. The contributors to this volume were asked, via blind selection, to make acquaintance with various forces of matter that materialize when thinking with the elements. The ensuing volume theorizes elemental ecocriticism through ecomaterialism and speculative realism, placing the pre-Socratic philosophies of Empedocles in conversation with contemporaries like Jane Bennett and David MaCauley. Editors Jeffery Cohen and Lowell Duckert’s introduction articulates eleven principles of elemental thinking that cohere around enmeshment, exposure, and itinerancy. Cohen and Duckert’s poetic prose provokes a provisional partnership with the materiality of the four elements—their sentences swirl, snare, and fuse to suggest the substantive truth that “There is no ‘out-’ to which things are sourced, but always a wherein, with whom, wherefore” (p. 13). The elements do not solve but twist, imply, and coextend to form a vortex to which all belong, a shape mimicked by the collection’s organization and topical diversity. Chapters focalize through the classical elements yet collapse into and generate out of “matterphor,” Duckert’s term for thinking word and substance together. The collection regards the classical elements as a way to initiate matterphorical engagement, to recognize the simultaneity of being composed of composing and decomposing elements. The nine principal essays begin with fire. Anne Harris regards fire a paradox of strength and fragility that Steve Mentz explores in combination with air in the fictional form of phlogiston. Air inspires Valerie Allen’s turn to the sacred, sanctifying, and scientific, and Cohen’s consideration of medieval visions of the sea in the sky. Sharon O’Dair grounds her elemental appreciation in the fecundity of mud, for not just slinging but reveling in its spontaneous uncontainability. Chris Barrett explores the fifth element, ether, as it anesthetizes, elicits laughter, and recruits the body into survival’s comedic antics. Julian Yates wades through the waters of translation, using the engraving on John Keats’s gravestone and The Tempest to demonstrate “packaging matters” in both metaphor and material (p. 187). Karl Steel elaborates creeping, swarming, and hoarding as exemplary antitranscendent, elemental models. Lastly, Duckert’s matterphorical mode connects coal “mines” as a signal of possession and place and a material that connects the Carboniferous period, Milton’s lost prospects of paradise, and contemporary mountaintop removal mining. In three response essays, written from ecocritics whose work was vital to imagining this project, the nine chapters find recombination under the rubric of Empedocles’ forces of love and strife. Timothy Morton defines the elemental as the collapse of the me/other binary into a weird, looped, and self-contradictory nihilism where there is no outside, no escape, no nature. Cary Wolfe cites recent debates in object-oriented ontology to stress that a vibrant and elemental materiality gives rise to ways of being in the world that are irreducible to the material. Stacy Alaimo reads the elemental as that which cannot be apprehended by anthropocentric thinking, suggesting a queer art of elemental failure drenched in the unknowable, the vulnerable, and transcorporeal. Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino’s coda rests the swirling volume in a summative return to earth, air, water, and fire. This volume should stimulate graduate students, faculty, and seasoned researchers in the environmental humanities. The collection beckons those interested in inventive methodologies, collaborative and process-oriented inquiry, and those wishing to build histories of environmental thought into and beyond the medieval, early modern, and primarily Western texts considered in this volume. Elemental Ecocriticism effervesces with a vision of scholarship not as information transfer (a manifestation of anthropocentrism), but as wondering with what is without the anthropos. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 15, 2018
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