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Elemental Ecocriticism

Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire

2015

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, Editors

Elemental Ecocriticism

Brings to ecotheory and the environmental humanities the challenges and possibilities offered by thinking in elemental terms

Decentering the human, the essays collected in Elemental Ecocriticism provide important correctives to the idea of the material world as mere resource. A renewed intimacy with the elemental holds the potential for a more dynamic environmental ethics and the possibility of a reinvigorated materialism.

For centuries it was believed that all matter was composed of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire in promiscuous combination, bound by love and pulled apart by strife. Elemental theory offered a mode of understanding materiality that did not center the cosmos around the human. Outgrown as a science, the elements are now what we build our houses against. Their renunciation has fostered only estrangement from the material world.

The essays collected in Elemental Ecocriticism show how elemental materiality precipitates new engagements with the ecological. Here the classical elements reveal the vitality of supposedly inert substances (mud, water, earth, air), chemical processes (fire), and natural phenomena, as well as the promise in the abandoned and the unreal (ether, phlogiston, spontaneous generation).

Decentering the human, this volume provides important correctives to the idea of the material world as mere resource. Three response essays meditate on the connections of this collaborative project to the framing of modern-day ecological concerns. A renewed intimacy with the elemental holds the potential for a more dynamic environmental ethics and the possibility of a reinvigorated materialism.

Contributors: Stacy Alaimo, U of Texas at Arlington; Valerie Allen, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY; Chris Barrett, Louisiana State U; Anne Harris, DePauw U; Serenella Iovino, U of Turin; Steve Mentz, St. John’s U; Timothy Morton, Rice U; Sharon O’Dair, U of Alabama; Serpil Oppermann, Hacettepe U; Karl Steel, Brooklyn College, CUNY; Cary Wolfe, Rice U; Julian Yates, U of Delaware.

Elemental Ecocriticism

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is professor of English and director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Monster Theory: Reading Culture; Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green; and Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, all from Minnesota.

Lowell Duckert is assistant professor of English at West Virginia University, specializing in early modern literature, ecotheory, and environmental criticism. With Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, he edited “Ecomaterialism,” a special issue of postmedieval (2013).

Elemental Ecocriticism

Contents

Introduction: Eleven Principles of the Elements
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert
1. Pyromena: Fire’s Doing
Anne Harris
2. Phlogiston
Steve Mentz
3. Airy Something
Valerie Allen
4. The Sea Above
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
5. Muddy Thinking
Sharon O'Dair
6. The Quintessence of Wit
Chris Barrett
7. Wet?
Julian Yates
8. Creeping Things: Spontaneous Generation and Material Creativity
Karl Steel
9. Earth’s Prospects
Lowell Duckert
Love and Strife: Response Essays
Elementality
Timothy Morton
Elemental Relations at the Edge
Cary Wolfe
Elemental Love in the Anthropocene
Stacy Alaimo
Coda: Wandering Elements and Natures to Come
Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino
Acknowledgments
Contributors
Index