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“Where on earth are we going?”

Date Released: Wed, 4 September 2013 14:59 +0200

The annual Literature and Ecology colloquium returned to Rhodes University over the weekend to mark its tenth edition under the theme, “Where on earth are we going?”

Founded in 2004 at Rhodes University, the colloquium is intended as a forum for (particularly) South and southern African scholars of literary studies to share ideas on how literature can articulate, and articulate with, the overwhelming crisis of our times – the ecological crisis. According to Dan Wylie, organiser and Associate Professor in the English Department at Rhodes University, there is little doubt anymore that human treatment and mistreatment of the environment will subsume all other politics of region, nation or ethnicity. “

The health of potable waters, arable soils, and breathable air affects all of us,” Prof Wylie said. He explained that it is increasingly clear that the present global course of (generally) capitalistic and industrial ‘development’, crises of population and resource-distribution, pollutive effects of desirable technologies, and mass extinctions of other species, is incompatible with such health.

“While the cultural capital of science has assumed dominance, human emotions, desires and fears, senses of belonging and aesthetic appreciation remain key to how we pragmatically operate in the world. This is the primary purview of literature, conceived in a broad sense as including not only fiction, poetry and drama, but non-fiction, scientific writing and popular media as well.” 

As such the colloquium aims to discuss ways in which literary artefacts have expressed, and might continue to express, humans’ evolving place within the planet’s “ecological envelope”.

According to Prof Wylie, while ecologically-orientated literary criticism is well-developed elsewhere, particularly in the United States, England, and Australia, it remains embryonic in the southern region of Africa.  “The colloquium has… contributed substantially to thematic studies of eco-critical areas of importance, and has a number of publications and journal special issues to its credit,” he said. He cited relations with animals and birds, and with places such as mountains and coastlines, as prominent themes. 

A focus on identity produced a book, Toxic Belonging? Ecology and identity in Southern Africa (Cambridge Scholars Press) and other themes have been the subject of special issues of Current Writing and AlterNation. 

Over the last decade the colloquium has been hosted successively by interested academics from the Universities of Zululand, Western Cape, Cape Town and Wits.  This has attracted participation from local scholars and, importantly for Prof Wylie, postgraduate students who might not otherwise have stretched themselves in an environmental or ecological direction.  The pedagogy of eco-literary studies is a persistent area of focus.

This year’s edition reflected on its first decade, and emphasised ways of thinking more comprehensively about ways of theorising and promoting ecologically-orientated criticism in the southern African and African contexts. “It seemed an opportune moment to look back, assess how far we’ve come and where we might go, to theorise more broadly the practices of ecologically-orientated literary study or eco-criticism in relation to our geo-political location in Southern Africa. 

What does it mean to be an ecocritic here, at this juncture in local and global history?  How do, and should our local practices articulate with those being performed elsewhere?  What is the place of ecocritical theory itself in relation to our specific realities?” he said.