AFEA Conference 2010 – « From Nature to Environment »
– Panel proposals: 8 July 2009 (proposals to be sent to Yves Figueiredo, Michel Granger and Thomas Pughe ;
– The definitive list of accepted panel topics will be published on the AFEA website by 20 July 2009)
– Paper proposals : 25 October 2009 (proposals to be sent to panel conveners).
The principal objective of this conference will be to explore the transition form the concept of nature –- historically constructed and fraught with ideological connotations –- to that of environment in studies concerning the relations between the non-human and the human. In the field of contemporary American Studies, in particular, the latter concept has frequently replaced the former. What precisely are the implications of this transition, especially (though not exclusively) with regard to politics and ecology?
It was in the course of the 19th century that the citizens of the United States became increasingly aware of their exceptional natural heritage, and this in turn helped to forge their sense of national identity and of superiority over Europe. The perception of nature, inspired by romanticism and pastoralism, evolved into an important element of American nationalism, which transformed it into a kind of religion. Not until the final decades of the century when the destructive exploitation of natural resources had become evident and the disappearance of the frontier had symbolized territorial conquest, did Americans feel that it was urgent to preserve a limited number of the vanishing natural sites as national parks so that future generations might get an impression of how the land would “originally” have appeared to the first settlers. In the 20th century, the preservation movement was reinforced by scientific reasoning which contributed to the protection of less spectacular but ecologically valuable sites. The creation of such reserves had an important effect on the general perception of nature, which could no longer be conceived as a homogeneous whole but instead has become subdivided into different zones serving a variety of purposes such as agriculture, mining, leisure activities, memory.
The notion of environment by which nature has frequently been replaced suggests that which surrounds – our immediate surroundings, the world around us, or, in other words, the natural conditions of all organic life. Above all, this notion implies the human as a focal point, and – much more insistently than nature – the immediate, concrete, vital, sensory conditions of living in a given place. Thinking in terms of an environment means taking into account our way of living the land, of representing, managing and protecting these indispensable non-human surroundings. It means trying to understand the ties that bind us to a place we have come to think of as ours but also to measure the impact of forces beyond the sphere of the local, such as the quality of the air, of the water and of the climate. And it finally means analysing the indissoluble interpenetration of the human and the non-human in political, economic, scientific or aesthetic discourse.
Yet the concept of the environment may also lead to confirming us in the idea of the primacy of the human over the non-human: is the anthropocentrism that is frequently implied by its use the only, let alone the most fertile way of reflecting on human/non-human relations? Is it possible to dispense entirely with the concept of nature in debates about environmental protection on the local, national and international level?
The conference topic thus raises multiple and diverse issues, among which:
– The inclusion of green areas and of vegetation in urban spaces (residential suburbs, gardens, parks, the walls and roofs of contemporary architecture);
– The renewal of interest in the “commons”, i.e. in publicly owned tracts of land that allow citizens to become connected to collectively managed natural spaces;
– The conversion of abandoned farmland in the West into eco-tourism sites (“rewilding”);
– The evolution in the field of nature preservation, from an act dedicated to memorialising the “original” wilderness to an act of ecological necessity;
– The role (and, perhaps, the rights) of animals as affected by the transition from nature to environment;
– The impact of environmental thinking on the frontiers separating the different zones into which natural space is subdivided;
– The definition of an environment in a globalized world;
– The specificity of the American tradition in the context of globalized environmental politics. Does it still makes sense to develop a national environmental politics? To what extent is the credibility of American environmentalism challenged by the critical international reaction to the record of the US in this domain?
In the field of American literary culture, numerous writers in the wake of Walden, a text that devotes so many pages to the specific conditions of living in a particular natural space, have evoked their sense of being rooted in a given region whose fragile natural equilibrium haunts their imagination. It should be added that, almost by definition, writing conscious of the environment is not restricted solely to genres devoted to nature.
– “Nature writing”/”environmental imagination”: are these terms interchangeable or does the choice of terms imply differing approaches?
– “Environmental texts”: are the criteria proposed by Lawrence Buell to help identify such texts really useful and to the point? Do contemporary writers explicitly acknowledge the influence of concepts such as these?
How do writers working in a world where almost all natural spaces have been humanized and cultivated react to the celebration of “wild nature”?
– What is the impact of scientific environmentalism on literary creation?
– What is the influence of place and of local rootedness on the literary imagination?
Discussion between participants of the French Association of American Studies conference at Besançon (May 2009) has shown the need to emphasize that the topic proposed for the 2010 conference at Grenoble covers a wide spectrum of subjects that are of interest to scholars in the field of American Studies. “From Nature to Environment” is not, as some may have feared, a topic exclusively focused on the role of wild or rural nature in the culture of the United States but, on the contrary, invites scholars to reflect on original themes such as the presence of the non-human in urban spaces (cities or suburbs) in a world where the local is increasingly dependent on the global and where the stakes of planning and preservation seem vital. Situated at the crossroads between politics and aesthetics, “From Nature to Environment” concerns the multiple and differing ways in which Americans conceive of the experience of inhabiting the United States.