This past Saturday, I presented a paper at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Biennial Conference, held at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was part of a panel titled “Re-imagining Human Interactions With(in) Material Worlds,” along with my fellow environmental humanities scholars Adam Syvertsen (Northwestern University), Gabby Benavente (University of Pittsburgh), and Lauren Darnell (University of Michigan).
When we proposed our panel for acceptance, we described our goals as follows:
Material objects are often conceived of as solid, quantifiable. In discourses of the material, the definite article “the” doubly suggests this stability, or unity, though it is not often realized in practice or performance—especially as these discourses begin to consider matter that is vibrant, mutative, and hybrid. Beyond discourse, rust itself belies this stability; it flakes and transforms, and undertakes particulate sojourns across many boundaries.
This evasive, transgressive quality signals the possibility for re-articulations, counternarratives, and alternative, nascent realities. While rust traditionally operates as a sign of active neglect, for instance, populating abandoned industrial sites, it also proves agential in its capacity to permeate human form, as demonstrated this past year in Flint, Michigan. Perhaps most commonly, or usefully, thought of as the material result of matter left to its own devices, rust muddles our conception of agency not only by its proliferations but also by its permutations, its multiplicitous activity exercised beyond our permission and, at times, our notice.
Our roundtable seeks to embrace this particulate, peripatetic, and mutative agency by engaging environmental literatures across traditional borders of temporal-spatial location, nation, genre, and form. Decoupled from these groupings, we seek to home in on the historical particularities of our disparate fields and frameworks while also illuminating emergent, cross-boundary connections between these particularities. Together, our papers imagine (dis)embodied materialities and nothingnesses on one hand and environmental justice, queer liberation, and new racial paradigms on the other, undertaking explicitly political questions by grappling with the paradoxes of modernity, and figuring the place of form and the literary in that which is political, environmental, and literal rust.
By taking a wide view of environmental literature and critique, we hope to invite genuinely interdisciplinary conversation around those elements of environmental narratives that cannot be concretized, but only aggregated, and held in dynamic, fluctuating relation with one another. We consider an environmental justice praxis that accounts for queer experiences in Octavia Butler’s Parable of Talents the ways in which Walt Whitman articulates an inherent “nothingness,” an irreducible gap between thing and phenomenon that highlights the limits of human perception, and interaction with, the other-than-human-world; World War II Japanese American internment literatures and their engagement with ethnic and economic tensions in the United States automotive industry, continuing through the rise of Toyota, Honda, and Nissan, and the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin; and the destructive effects of a coextensive relationship between civilization and animality in Guamán Poma’s Nueva crónica, informed by Andean frameworks of kinship and a non-mercantilist relationship between humans and the environment.
In so doing, we perform unlikely bridges, imagine environmental coalitions, and test the productive capacities of the material, its rust, and the worldly stakes that our crossings emphatically insist upon.
If you weren’t able to attend the conference, but would like to read a copy of my presentation script, which concerns the symbolic imaginary of the American automobile in Japanese American literature and the during legacy of the killing of Vincent Chin, it is available here: Tokyo Drift: Motor City and Japanese American (In)visibility from WWII to Today.