“Ecology, System, Empire”
Organizers: Nathan Hensley (Georgetown) and Philip Steer (Massey)
The cataclysmic fact of global warming has brought to the fore notions of interconnection, supraindividual agency, and transhuman timescales, challenging scholarship to ask how systems, ecological networks, and even entire worlds might be conceived within a single frame. In Victorian Studies this presents itself as a problem of critical scale—what are the temporal and geographic boundaries of “the Victorian”?—and aesthetic form: how to represent an ecosystem, where no single phenomenon can be abstracted from a system of mutual dependence? The weblike networks of George Eliot’s realism are just one of the Victorian era’s many models for conceiving mutual imbrication at global scale: political economy, print culture, natural science, and early geology are others. But as trope and material fact, the Empire was arguably the most powerful site of ecological interconnection in the nineteenth century, as well as the engine of unprecedented environmental devastation.
These two linked panels aim to coordinate the notions of “empire” and “ecology” to explore how Victorian writers employed literary form to engage with the conceptual novelty of massively networked systems. Drawing on the tradition of postcolonial thinking about “worldedness” (Said) and on more recent work in environmental humanities on “slow violence” (Nixon), we conceive the key intervention of these panels to be the linking of often depoliticized models of ecology and environment to the Empire’s worldmaking project. We anticipate these papers to be united by a shared sense that Victorian literary forms were central to apprehending and theorizing the conflicted intersection of colonizer, native, and environment.
The first panel will use the category of “Form” to triangulate these dilemmas of environmental and political ecology with distinct zones of imperial activity; it explores (1) the capacity of Victorian forms to conceptualize colonial ecosystems, and (2) the formal strains produced at those peripheral locations. The second panel, on “Scale,” will (1) foreground processes of maximalization or zooming-out required to see interconnected systems in their full sphere of operation, while also (2) asking how smaller samples—synecdoche, example, lyric poem—might stand somehow to evoke the systems in which they participate. Collectively, these panels aim to chart the history of narrative ecologies in the Victorian imperial century; in doing so, they make a broader claim for the capacity of form to operate as a mechanism of thought, in this case indexing the fact of human-made catastrophe on global scale, imperial violence both fast and slow.
Decisions will be made within one week of this deadline, allowing time for papers not accepted for the panels to be resubmitted as individual papers by the conference deadline of December 1.