Doctoral Summer School in the Environmental Humanities

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Wednesday, 31st August 2022

by Serena Pei

The first edition of the UCL-CIVIS summer school Environmental Humanities: Climate, World Literature, and Behavioural Change took place in Rome on 13-17 June 2022. The project originated from a partnership between Sapienza University of Rome, Stockholm University and Université Libre de Bruxelles, in collaboration with University College London. This year’s edition was jointly curated by Professor Stefan Helgesson (Stockholm), Professor Franca Bellarsi (Brussels), Professor Iolanda Plescia (Rome) and Professor Florian Mussgnug (UCL).

My Comparative Literature PhD research project is on Daoism, Romanticism and Environmental Humanities so when I first heard about this summer school from our departmental Graduate Tutor, I was excited and determined to join it.

Before we met in Rome, we took some preparatory online activities on 19 and 20 May 2022, which was very helpful. Each activity allowed us to become more and more familiar with each other’s research areas, which enabled opportunities for insightful discussions later on. More importantly, throughout the summer school, the lead professor on each day gave an introductory talk so students could grasp the general idea of what we were going to explore on that day. I remember Professor Florian Mussgnug remarkably put forward the following notion on Ecology as culture and culture as ecology: “[the] realization that culture is relational and therefore mutable as it is determined by the dynamic interaction of humans with each other and the environment; and an understanding that ecology is increasingly anthropogenic as it is determined by the ideas, customs and behaviours of humans and how they interact with the environment”. This opened up a new appreciation of the relationship between ecology and culture for us students.

I arrived in Rome one day before classes started and was immediately attracted and touched by the city’s unique atmosphere. For me, Rome is an ideal place to learn about nature and ecology. The interaction between the city’s history of thousands of years and its modernization can be vividly illustrated by the various entanglements between human and the ‘more-than-human’ world from the ecological perspective.

13 June, Monday

After students’ presentations, we explored the topic of Environmental Humanities and Politics – Perspectives from Literary Studies and Philosophy with Professor Mussgnug, which was followed by Professor Rebecca Ruth Falkoff’s talk on Autarkic Skies: Nitrogen Capture and Atmospheric Imperialism in Fascist Italy. Following this, Professor Simone Pollo from Sapienza University gave a wonderful talk on the subject of Darwinian Civilization: Science, Philosophy and Democratic Progress, from which we gained an interdisciplinary insight of science and the humanities through the lens of modern ecological issues.

14 June, Tuesday

We looked deeply into the genre of ‘eco-poetics and eco-poetry’ with Professor Bellarsi through three main themes: From Dark Ecology to Environmental Elegy and Prophecy, Deep Environmental Circulations, and From Dark Ecology to Ecospirit and/or Ecocomposing. Professor Bellarsi’s insightful lecture on eco-poetry indeed enlightened me hugely on the notion of ‘eco-poetics’ and the sense of ‘entanglement’ within the idea of modern ecology. The most fascinating moment in my mind from her talk is her philosophical illustration linking neuroscience and Zen Buddhism: “Thinking through the body and breathing through the mind” — this concept really struck me!

15 June, Wednesday

Our discussion focused on Looking at language and working with texts ‘ecologically’ with Professor Plescia, and our first session was on Early Modernity and Environmental Concerns: ‘Green’ Shakespeare. After a short coffee break, Professor Daniela Francesca Virdis from the University of Cagliari gave an inspiring lecture on Ecological stylistics: Theoretical approaches to discourses of nature, the environment and sustainability. We investigated several very interesting linguistic aspects in detail, which was my first experience of linking linguistics and environmental humanities.

In the afternoon, we were involved in a group workshop Attempting Eco-Translation: Virginia Woolf’s Flush in conversation with Professor Mussgnug. This was for me one of the most unforgettable moments from the summer school: we were sorted into different groups according to our own native languages, translating the same paragraph from the novel into different languages, such as French, German, Italian, Swedish, Greek and Chinese. I was very moved by this vivid scenario, a lively sense of global network and friendship.

16 June, Thursday

We were engaged in a deep discussion on Thinking the planetary age from the global South with Professor Helgesson, especially on the notion of ‘the wet’ and ‘the dry’ in the global South, as well as the Temporalities of the Anthropocene. This was followed by a seminar discussion with Professor Helgesson and Professor Mussgnug about different ecological themes in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age.

17 June, Friday

After student presentations and feedback, we attended a very exciting talk on The Vanishing Partisan Woman: an Anthropcenic Exploration with Professor Shaul Bassi from Ca’ Foscari University. This lecture covered a wide range of research fields from Greek mythology to modern ecological theories, such as Donna Haraway’s tentacular thinking – a fascinating interdisciplinary exploration, as well as intercultural investigation.

I was truly inspired by this summer school experience and it has broadened my horizons, changing my previously limited, dualistic view of the relationship between the human and ‘more-than-human’ world and will certainly influence my future research.

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