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Uncommon Sense

By Joseph M. Adelman · October 06, 2015

Environment and Agency in Early America

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Our series on the roundtables from this summer’s annual conference continues with a post from John Easterbrook. He recently received his PhD from the Department of English at New York University, where he completed his dissertation, “The Political Ecology of Early Anglo-American Writing, 1609-1847.”

Our roundtable on “Environment and Agency in Early America” originated with a question posed to me by Timothy Sweet at the 2014 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. I had travelled to Williamsburg to present material from a dissertation chapter on the relationship between soil exhaustion, Caribbean natural histories, and mercantilism. In his comments on the work-in-progress, Sweet asked what would happen if we framed the expansion of mercantilism and soil exhaustion in the West Indies not as the product of a distinctly human history, but rather in terms of sugar’s capacity to alter body chemistry when consumed and thus shape human behavior and cultural practice.

I subsequently reached out to Jennifer L. Anderson (Stony Brook University), Gordon Sayre (University of Oregon), Timothy Sweet (West Virginia University), and Krista Turner (UNC-Chapel Hill) to see if they would be willing to address some of the questions posed by recent developments in environmental history, actor-network theories, and new materialisms that have called into question established distinctions between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, and the material and the discursive. What happens when agency is recast not solely as the product of human intentionality, but rather as a process of material interactions? How did nonhuman materialities – animals, objects, diseases, climate, natural resources – participate in and shape cultural practices? How do scholars in various disciplines account for agency in its different forms?

In what was a wide-ranging roundtable discussion, two productive areas of interest emerged—anachronism and translation. For scholars working in this earlier period, contemporary work in science studies and materialist philosophy offers both promise and pitfalls. Anderson suggested how Jane Bennett’s concept of “vibrant matter” offers a valuable opportunity to reframe historical accounts of the Hessian fly invasion in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Emphasizing the entangled interactions of farmers and flies, the nonhuman would serve not solely as background or context. Rather, the Hessian fly invasion might be seen as the product of multiple actors working alongside each other—a political ecology in the sense that nature and culture co-produce each other. The roundtable focused on the possibilities of early America as a site in which to rediscover the agentic potential of the nonhuman, as participants engaged with Native American cosmologies and supernaturalist ontologies that would seemingly align with current efforts to redistribute agency to nonhuman actors.

While, as Sayre pointed out, Native American cosmologies may provide an alternative to a mechanistic view of the world ushered in by Enlightenment thought, the roundtable as whole remained mindful of the potential pitfalls of making such comparisons. Turner, in one representative moment, questioned whether our efforts to redistribute agency would reconstitute authority “in ways that would be unfamiliar if not outright rejected by early American authors.” Indeed, one of the productive tensions in early American environmental criticism remains the translation of contemporary critical practices to this earlier period in ways that do not distort the phenomena in question. As Sweet asked, how do we read an Anishinaabe account of animals’ decision to stop speaking a language humans could understand because they were oppressed by humankind? As allegory expressing human alienation from the nonhuman world? As a story encoding truth about human evolution that the traditional Anishinaabe worldview itself could not recognize? Perhaps both?

To return to the case of the Hessian fly, Anderson and Sayre initiated a productive conversation that brought into focus the question of agency and extended the roundtable’s interest in translating theories and practices from other disciplines to environmental criticism in early America. What exactly do we talk about when we talk about sugar cane or Hessian flies—an individual plant, a single fly, or the species as a whole? Anderson and Sayre raised the issue in their discussion of colonizing species, such as those emphasized in Alfred Crosby’s influential Ecological Imperialism. If, as Sayre suggested, posthumanist conceptualizations of agency rely upon a Darwinist notion of species competition not available to the actors of early America, where should we train our critical focus and what critical tools should we bring to the task? Are we, as Turner asked, carrying old tools in a new toolbox?

These are not easy questions to answer in part because we are still figuring out the questions we should be asking, and because much critical work on agency encourages us to focus on the messiness of material interactions, as reflected in the terminology invoked throughout the roundtable discussion: assemblages (Bennett), entanglements (Barad), political ecologies (Latour), ecocultural histories (Ziser). A similar disciplinary entanglement is needed in the study of the environment and agency in early America, as one of the major questions left on the table at the end of our session was how to develop a dynamic relationship with these concepts and practices – many of which originate from outside English or History departments – while articulating the ways in which, as Ursula K. Heise notes, “environmental perspectives are articulated differently within the framework of particular disciplines.”

In the previous paragraph I include a brief and incomplete list of names and terminology used throughout the session. I do so because our discussion – and the issue of terminology in particular – resonated in the Colloquy with Michael Ziser on Environmental Practice and Early American Literature, a book that takes the field of early American studies in a dramatic and important new direction. The audience at the colloquy reflected on the continuities between our roundtable and the colloquy; and indeed the roundtable on Early American Animal Studies and the panel on Early American Materialities made for a wonderful subset of discussions devoted to similar concerns—an indicator of the growing importance of these topics within early American studies. At least one member of the audience at the colloquy noted the emphasis on theory in our roundtable, finding the use of “jargon” alienating and perhaps even detrimental if environmental criticism’s larger project is to engage with the people and world outside of the academy as the planet faces very real crises.

I would venture that most scholars working in the environmental humanities would admit to an activist element in their scholarship. With any new direction in the field, there will be terms and concepts that rise to the top, others that fall by the wayside. The relative newness and flexibility of this vocabulary seems to me an asset rather than a liability. As scholars, we have different vocabularies for different audiences. Thomas Hallock put it succinctly at the colloquy when he asked: if we can’t use a specialized vocabulary at a conference of specialists, then where can we? If the feedback loops associated with global warming have taught us anything, it’s that our engagement with the environment requires more complexity, more nuance, and a new vocabulary that calls attention to the critical assumptions hidden in the term Nature (capital “N”).

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