Branching Out into Environmental Studies!

Nature has always lurked in the background of my research thus far, though I don’t really consider myself an eco-critic. My PhD dissertation (2009 seems so far away now) dealt with Darwinian theory and colonial and postcolonial representations of the Malay/Indonesian Archipelago. I have a soft spot for naturalists: they pop up in the article I wrote on science in Conrad’s Lord Jim and The Secret Agentin an article on the nineteenth-century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, and I once ended up reading a wide range of 19th century colonial naturalist-explorer accounts of the Indo-Malayan region for a project I’ve shelved for the moment. The association of nature and animals with the primitive and inhuman formed the focus of a recent article on Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet, and for an article forthcoming in Comparative Literature, I looked at how the supernaturally charged untamed wilderness provides freedom from the coloniser’s world in Ayu’s Saman and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Of course, professional interests are often a good indicator of underlying passions. If I hadn’t gone into literature, I probably would’ve gone into entomology. Here are some photos of one of the Polyphemus moths that my former workplace (during my grad school days) let me raise at home from cocoons in 2007.  


Don’t ask what we did with them afterwards….

In short, nature’s always been at the back of my mind.

However, some interesting things have transpired in the past few weeks. I appear to have stumbled unwittingly into the field of environmental history. And so far, no angry mobs with pitchforks have materialized to shoo me out.

I don’t consider myself a historian: my literary criticism definitely takes a historical contextual approach more often than not, and I’ve done readings of non-literary historical documents from a literary perspective. However, it’s also been my experience that many real historians get quite grumpy about literary critics who do this (the same way many anthropologists seem to get grumpy about cultural studies’ lack of methodology and fieldwork). In many ways, I feel like literary critics and cultural studies scholars are the eager but hopeless kids in middle school who’d be happy to play with everyone and anyone (Scientists, want to do something interdisciplinary? Political scientists, want to come to my birthday party? Economists, I just got the latest Super Mario Bros. video game cartridge….please come over? There’ll be rice-krispy treats! I also have a trampoline!), and everyone and anyone totally aren’t interested in playing with us. So I like the idea of studying science and literature, and nature and literature, and history and literature. But I’ve been doing so with the expectation that the only other people who will think this is cool are other literary scholars.

However, an non-literature article I’ve written on environmentalism in three colonial British accounts of the Malay Archipelago has been accepted with minor revisions at the Journal of the History of Ideas. I’ve done the revisions and sent the final version in, so (fingers crossed) it should only be a matter of time. I really like the journal–its dedicated to scholarship on intellectual history and the development of ideas over time, and I have found many a useful article there.

That’s only part of the strange turn. I’m in the process of co-authoring a paper with my brother-in-law (Jesse Hastings) on an environmental policy and history article that compares two of the colonial accounts with the modern-day concepts of sustainable development and the green economy. And a paper based on the article has been accepted at a sustainability conference in Hiroshima in January. I’ll post pictures if we go! (We’re most likely going.)

If it’s one thing I do appreciate about my experiences in academia these past few years, it’s the freedom I’ve felt to follow where my interests take me and see where I end up. It certainly makes sense, and there’s certainly a merit to sticking to one area of knowledge, setting down roots, and doing it really, really well. But I don’t think my recent wanderings are due to attention deficiency disorder. I think they’re the outgrowth of me trying to find ways of marrying and exploring the disparate areas of knowledge I am really interested in. It’s why I do both English and Indonesian literature; it’s why nature and science keep popping up in my work. It’s me trying to have it all, I guess. I don’t want to take my fingers out of any pies…they’re all so delicious looking.

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