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This is the first work of criticism to read Abdelwahab Meddeb as a poet. Selfconsciously indeterminate from philosophical and poetic perspectives, Meddeb's poetry is indebted to European, especially French, high poetic modernism; to the French literary turn to the United States; and to the author's desire to be read in the lineage of the major Sufi poets of classical Arabic literature. Turning his back on the hegemony of postcolonial literary prose with the 1987 chapbook Tombeau d'Ibn Arabi, Meddeb generates a new francophone lyric infused with the Sufi traditions of al-Andalus, North Africa, and the Near and Middle Easts. His new lyric rewrites itself as a Sufi consciousness in search of what lies beyond its knowledge of its current state, and his tonguing of the new francophone lyric leads us to a long overdue analytical paradigm.
In 1923 the Russian formalist theorist Viktor Shklovsky returned to the USSR after a year of exile. Tike his entire cohort of “fellow travelers,” he accommodated himself to the new Soviet regime. He did so in the language of travel and other kinds of movement. In the 1920s and 1930s, nomadism—a prominent motif in works by Shklovsky from A Sentimental Journey through Marco Polo—emerges as his central figure for accommodation to official culture. This association occurs through the submerged double meaning of his signature term ostranenie—at once defamiliarization and reterritorialization. This duality of ostranenie has implications for our broader understanding of the way mobility is active in cultural production and intertwined with structures of power. In the Soviet case, ostranenie underscores that nomadic movement is essential to the operation of cultural agents, whose relative freedom becomes a mechanism of state authority and control.
Literary critics' engagement with copyright law has often emphasized ontological questions about the relation between idealized texts and their material embodiments. This essay turns toward a different set of questions—about the role of texts in the communication of knowledge. Developing an alternative intellectual genealogy of copyright law grounded in the eighteenth-century contest between innatism and empiricism, I argue that jurists like William Blackstone and poets like Edward Young drew on Locke's theories of ideas to articulate a new understanding of writing as uncommunicative expression. Innatists understood texts as tools that could enable transparent communication through a shared stock of innate ideas, but by denying the existence of innate ideas empiricists called the possibility of communication into question. And in their arguments for perpetual copyright protection, eighteenth-century jurists and pamphleteers pushed empiricism to its extreme, linking literary and economic value to the least communicative aspects of a text.
The field of neurodiversity offers new ways to think about the history of the book and the history of reading. Because autistic individuals—especially those marked by “classical” symptoms—often report a strong reliance on physical objects and a pronounced tendency toward sensory engagement, their interests coincide with those of book historians and reception critics who investigate the embodied reading experience and the material aspects of the book. Indeed, the textual practices of autistic individuals can resemble those of bibliophiles, who often enjoy touching and smelling books. But autistic textual engagement occasionally takes singular forms, thereby pushing historians of the book into surprising new territory. For example, many classical autists attest to an intense intimacy and intercorporeity with the material book. In so doing they create opportunities for reflecting on the interdependence of the human and nonhuman worlds.
The popularization of the digital humanities and the return to formalism are overdetermined by the perceived crises in the humanities. On the one hand, the new formalism harks back to a professionalizing strategy begun by the New Critics with John Crowe Ransom's “Criticism, Inc.,” drawing strength from close reading's original polemic against industrialism. On the other hand, the digital humanities reimagine professional labor in ways that seemingly approximate postindustrial norms. These contradictory but inextricably related visions of professional futures restage a conflict between literature and data, reading and making, that has been misrecognized as a conflict between literature and history. Approaching these tensions by way of historicist critique can illuminate the extent to which the debate between literature and data will define critical practice in the twenty-first century.
We assembled this cluster of essays to bring to the diverse audience of pmla some of the insights, methodologies, and models for rethinking narrative, public engagement, and environmentality that the ecological digital humanities (EcoDH) offer. We are founding members of the new MLA forum TC Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities, a collective whose existence and vigor derive from the community that social media (at their best) foster. With its syllabus exchange and participant-directed conversations, the forum's MLA Commons site owes much to the digital humanities principles of outreach, access, and inclusion. Although this electronic space is a work in progress, MLA members are using it to share pedagogical materials and research and to conduct lively discussions that push beyond the comfort zones of time period and disciplinary training. Teaching and scholarship have also been greatly enhanced by interdisciplinary networks that bridge unnecessary divides between the academy, activists, and a capaciously imagined public. Yet from the start we knew that we could not hope to be comprehensive in what we offer here. Vast and flourishing, the ecological digital humanities originate in work that spans decades. In their instantiations and concerns, they are also radically new, and the summoning of these essays marks an early attempt to establish a “futural archive,” to use a term of one of our contributors. We present in what follows snapshots of the approach's energy and emphases, a glimpse of achievements as well as intimations of possible futures. We bring together work by academics early in their careers with projects by foundational practitioners, scholars who have caused the ecological digital humanities to thrive.
Academic institutionalization of the environmental humanities began in the early 1990s, and since 2000 the field has grown rapidly because of infrastructural support and because of funding for curricular innovation and programming. The environmental humanities include historical, philosophical, aesthetic, religious, literary, filmic, and media studies; they are informed by the most recent research in the sciences of nature and the anthropogenic factors that contribute to increasingly extreme weather events—drought, fire, hurricanes, melting glaciers, and warming and rising oceans (see Adamson, “Humanities” 135; Nye et al. 22-28).
The ecological digital humanities evoke a method of thinking that is responsive to what jane bennett terms “the ecology of things.” Neither strictly an ecocriticism nor a pursuit solely of environmental(ist) concerns, the ecological digital humanities explore the material and philosophical interconnectedness of actants in assemblages. They attempt, digitally, to think what Timothy Morton calls “the ecological thought.”
In 2009 william pannapacker pronounced the digital humanities to be “the first ‘next big thing’ in a longtime” promising to reconfigure and reinvigorate the humanities. The same could now plausibly be said about the environmental humanities with the recent rise of dedicated academic centers (at, e.g., KTH Royal Institute of Technology, in Sweden; Princeton University; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and the University of Utah), grant-funded projects (like the Sawyer Seminar on the Environmental Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the consortium Humanities for the Environment), and faculty positions. If the digital and environmental humanities have been ascendant amid what Christopher Newfield describes as the “unmaking” of public higher education and what Richard Grusin terms the “crisis humanities,” such an assessment invites the question of whether the ecological digital humanities (EcoDH) might serve to combine the most saleable facets of the digital humanities and the environmental humanities for university stakeholders who promote applied humanities work outside academia or, alternatively, a hybrid method for researching, teaching, and designing cultural responses to structures of ecological and social precarity (Grusin 80).
The global linguasphere is in a state of ecological and humanitarian crisis. In a powerful meditation in pmla, simon gikandi notes that the loss of any language (and of a culture sustained by it) is worthy of mourning and that language death around the globe is a matter of urgent collective concern. Relating great emotion when the “UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger confronted me with the bleak reality of language endangerment measured in maps, graphs, and data sets,” he ponders the ethical and political stakes of widespread language loss (9). He ends by quoting (and translating) a poem by the anthropologist Miguel León-Portilla “captur[ing] what happens when a language dies” (13), and he builds to a stark closing dictum: “Letting a language die is an injustice, a denial of will to those who speak it” (14). In this forceful essay, metaphorical discourse of language death gives way to a poignant elegy that registers a strong affective and political investment in the sustainment of languages.
This essay discusses strategic efforts to develop new digital research tools and approaches as key elements of an inter-disciplinary research initiative in progress, Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas (IEM), which aims to study aspects of Icelandic literature, history, archaeology, environment, and geography in order to better understand societal responses to environmental change over the longue durée. The essay showcases a particular digital humanities project, Icelandic Saga Map (ISM), which not only provides an extremely useful tool for helping achieve many of the identified aims and methodological needs of an integrated environmental humanities initiative such as IEM but also is a valuable example of how innovative digital humanities tools can foster new research trajectories and open up new horizons for interdisciplinary engagement and synthesis of knowledge and diverse data.
Indigenous communities are marrying ecological humanities and digital humanities in ways that productively expand the definition of both terms. On the ecological side, indigenous activism argues for the sustainability and interdependence of the natural and the human. In this, it challenges many of the same things that ecocriticism challenges—the supremacy or distinctiveness of the human, anthropocentric notions of time—though such activism predates ecocriticism quite a bit. Many traditional indigenous narratives assert close affinity, even identity, between a people and their river, for instance, or a people and their animals, or people and trees; they were figuring nonhuman agency long before Bruno Latour. On the DH side, indigenous people are engaging electronic media outside major DH structures and funding. These insurgent engagements challenge the very definition of DH as a field (with its predilection for large-scale archives, metadata, and open access) while also raising questions about the sustainability of the digital itself. Despite the implicit teleologies still assumed by many people—from oral to written to digital—indigenous ecological digital humanities (EcoDH) never present themselves as the end point or answer. Rather, they are part of a vast and diverse communicative ecosystem that includes petroglyphs, living oral traditions, newsletters, wampum, sci-fi novels, baskets, and language apps.
Large-scale industrial processes and networks of extraction, slow violences wrought across toxic landscapes, and rapidly shifting atmospheric, oceanic, and hydrologic cycles are altering the conditions of human and nonhuman existence in ways that challenge the limits of existing media technologies. The last of these transformations—the fluctuating distributions of water—is the focus of this essay. Hydrologists are struggling to model and predict the intensities of drought, the changing supply of watersheds, the dispersions of chemicals through streams and rivers, and the failures of aging infrastructure. Water transports contaminants too small to identify by sight, requiring technologies that can register tiny particles on a massive scale. Water complicates boundary-making projects—it moves easily across local and regional zones, human and nonhuman bodies, and atmospheric, terrestrial, and marine ecologies. Global weather patterns and distribution infrastructures shape its circulation, yet its material effects depend greatly on local conditions.
It is often forgotten that the humanities—which are made up of history, philosophy, literary studies, philology, rhetoric, art history, musicology, and linguistics—are characterized not so much by their objects of study, which can change over time, as by their focus on reading, the reading of verbal texts, primarily, but also reading in the sense of decoding and recoding images, sounds, and movements. The disciplines that compose the humanities teach different kinds of reading practices. The products of these disciplines for the most part belong to the class of prose and poetic discourses. This is why they may often look similar or even the same, especially when they are cast in the same mode: narrative, argumentative, descriptive, or expressive as the case may be.
Over lunch with two philosophy professors, i asked their views of what i understood to be a central ambiguity in kant's Critique of Judgment. The question proved controversial for reasons I had not anticipated. One of my interlocutors grew agitated.
On my first day as an undergraduate at the university of konstanz, i attended a lecture i had been particularly looking forward to: an introduction to philosophy. The professor, Jürgen Mittelstraß, began by declaring that he hoped very few of us would become professional philosophers—ideally, none. Philosophy was a kind of training that should be carried into other endeavors, not pursued as an end in itself. I got really mad. After the lecture I marched into his office and declared that I was going to be the exception. He smiled and kindly took me under his wing for the rest of my studies. But somehow, after majoring in analytic philosophy in college, I began to gravitate toward literature and theater, probably because I had been doing a lot of extracurricular theater along the way. When, twenty years later, I wrote to tell him what had become of me, he revealed that he had once contemplated a career in theater himself.