CFP: Metamorphosis and the Environmental Imagination, from Ovid to Shakespeare
UCLA, October 11th-12th 2019
Francesca Martelli, Assistant Professor of Classics, UCLA
Giulia Sissa, Professor of Classics and Political Science, UCLA
DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS: October 15, 2018
Narratives of metamorphosis, from human into other living forms, have long provided an important site for thinking through the complexities of our relationship with the world around us. From Ovid to David Cronenberg, thinkers and artists have used the trope of physical transformation to figure the ways in which human and non-human agencies have evolved from and adapted to one another in a relationship characterised by fluctuating perceptions of friction and symbiosis, distance and proximity. This conference seeks to locate the theme of metamorphosis in the early history of the western environmental imagination, from Classical antiquity to the Early Modern period; and to explore the ways in which the various cultural and historical manifestations of metamorphosis from this earlier period resonate with the environmental approaches and concerns of our present day.
Metamorphosis may be an idea with a long history, yet it continues to answer to the eco-critical imperatives of our own era. Its exposure of the porousness of human and non-human categories calls into question many other dualisms that current environmental discourses seek to deconstruct: between mind and matter, self and other, subject and object, culture and nature, all these the legacy of an epistemic shift introduced in the Early Modern period that laid the groundwork for the widely prevailing view of human exceptionalism that subsequently took hold.Eco-criticism has, since the nineteenth century, sought to reposition man as the object of environmental factors and forces, and to invest the non-human world with an agency and dynamism that was hitherto held to be the exclusive domain of humankind, even as, more recently, ideas of the Anthropocene have brought this process of redistribution full circle. Nowadays, we are invited to think more of an entangled mesh of human and non-human forces, a hybridizing compound of natureculture, and a fusion of material and discursive practices as biosemiotics and related ideas concerning the creative biosphere transform the world's contents into so much storied matter. Increasingly, eco-critics have turned back to the pre-modern era to search for intellectual analogues for the kinds of ontological continuum and/or hybridization between human and non-human that we are currently seeking the conceptual terminology to describe. Narratives of metamorphosis, a popular theme in Classical, Medieval and Renaissance storyworlds, provide a ready resource for this quest: on the one hand, the transformation of human into non-human bodies stages metamorphosis as a subordination to 'lower' forms of life. At the same time, it also offers a parable (admittedly, a highly anthropocentric one) for explaining the kinds of mind and agency that we now find attributed to non-human matter. Indeed, the emphasis that accounts of metamorphosis characteristically place on the physical aspects of transformation displaces the hegemony of the cognitive faculties as any kind of privileged index of human identity, and speaks rather to a mode of trans-corporeality that sees the human as just one bodily interface among many others.
While Ovid is by no means the first author in the western canon to draw on the theme of metamorphosis in order to reflect on man's relationship with the environment, his epic poem is a cultural landmark that enshrines this theme as a crux for later environmental discourse.
Yet its significance as such has garnered more attention from cultural receptions of the poem, above all in the English Renaissance, than from modern scholarship on it (an imbalance that might in turn be attributed to the relative explosion of eco-critical studies of Renaissance culture since the 1990s as compared to a more incipient trend in Classical scholarship). Authors from Chaucer to Shakespeare, whose connection with antiquity is often owed overwhelmingly to a familiarity with Ovid's texts, frequently draw on images of metamorphosis to figure their own environmental questions and concerns, and have attracted a range of modern eco-critical approaches in recent times: from eco-feminist readings of Chaucer's bird narratives to the panoply of environmental concerns located in Shakespeare's probing of the limits of the human.Drawing inspiration from the poem's reception history, the organizers of this conference seek to reposition the Metamorphosesas a foundational text for the history of environmental thought, by investigating how its central theme of metamorphosis resonates with the environmental questions and discourses of the pre-modern era, and by considering how these echo and/or diffract our own. Using Ovid and Shakespeare as bookends for this important chapter in the history of environmental thought, we will invite scholars of Classical, Medieval and Renaissance culture to approach metamorphosis as a prism through which to explore both the continuities and the breaks in a tradition of environmental thinking that connects us, however discontinuously, with the distant past.
Please send a proposal of approximately 500 words to firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Bate, Professor of English, University of Oxford
Lara Bovilsky, Associate Professor of English, University of Oregon
Emily Gowers, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge
Lesley Kordecki, Professor of English, DePaul University
Mark Payne, Professor of Classics, University of Chicago
Alex Purves, Professor of Classics, UCLA
Robert Watson, Distinguished Professor of Humanities, UCLA
Bronwen Wilson, Professor of Art History, UCLA