Ahead of Schlock’s ‘Monster March’ we speak to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University. Known for dynamic and interdisciplinary studies on both the themes of monstrosity and ecology, Cohen describes how his interest in the ecological world started from an early age, developing ‘a critical vocabulary’ for monsters, and how all writing is a form of activism.
When did your interest in issues of ecology first come about? What motivates your writing?
Ecology has interested me deeply since childhood, when I eagerly participated in letter writing campaigns against polluters, forced my family to start a vegetable garden so we could leave a lighter environmental imprint, and became obsessed with the possibility of eco-apocalypse. Having children fostered a return to those interests, mainly because I’m troubled by how fucked up the world they will inherit has become, many of its problems caused by those in my own generation.
I don’t think ecological interests became foregrounded in my work until I co-edited a special issue of the journal postmedieval on Ecomaterialism (2013) and then published the edited collection Prismatic Ecology (2014), but a concern with the interface of human body with environment has always been there. My second book, Medieval Identity Machines, opens by mapping the human body astrologically across the universe. I’ve written a good deal about race as an environmentalized fantasy. It’s hard to pick a start date for concerns that seem to me always present or at least latent.
What motivates my writing? I can’t not write. It’s a basic form of sustenance, my own worldly interface. I am fortunate to have a job that gives me some time to write and rewards me for publishing … but even if I did not have such a job, I would write. Writing is thinking through art, and who can live without thinking?
How does using metaphorical images of the monstrous, grotesque, inhuman inform your work?
Monster Theory: Reading Culture (an edited collection that appeared in 1996) was my first book, and came directly out of my dissertation project. I’d noticed that literature and the arts have transhistorically and transnationally been enthralled by monsters, but no one had yet developed a critical vocabulary for the cultural work these monsters undertake. I collaborated with some scholars I knew for that volume, and the introduction I composed took on a life of its own. It’s the most popular thing I’ve ever written. 15 years later it seems to me it was written by someone else – that’s not my style any more – but I am happy it has its monstrous, independent life. The theme of monstrosity is still very much with me: my contribution to Prismatic Ecology was on about the color grey and zombies.
Do you see a “dominant narrative” emerging, regarding the way we understand ecological issues in Western academia?
Not really. Among the strengths of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities are dedication to issues of social justice, challenging dominant modes of allocating resources, and exposing violence to humans and nonhumans alike. But that’s a very wide tent.
How does your personal journey combine with your academic work? Do you get motivated by travels? News reports?
Everything I write has a deep personal investment, even the book on stone I just finished. I think readers are going to be a little surprised – and, I predict, annoyed – that the book is so personal. It’s about deep time, geological force, the Anthropocene, fossils, medieval lapidaries, materialism, and Stonehenge. But it’s also about wandering the world, mostly with my family, and it’s about being Jewish, and a parent, and grieving for loss, and catastrophe. It’s a melancholy book, trying to stay hopeful but limned with despair.
Is there more need for activism that motivates literary and theoretical explorations of our human relationship with the natural world? Or should there be a clear distance between the two approaches?
All writing is a message to the world and thereby a form of activism. Don’t get me wrong: not all activism is equal, or even necessarily effective. But good writing should change minds. Even scholarly writing should be brave. There will always be a place for specialized scholarship for small audiences; I don’t want to undervalue that. But my own concerns – with devaluation of the humanities, the dwindling of the discipline in which I teach, the devastation through resourcism of the earth – well, those concerns are pretty big. I am fortunate enough to write works that are read outside of home discipline, and that good fortune prevents me from thinking about small topics for the time being. Next up is a book called Earth that I am co-writing with a planetary scientist, Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Her own work is on the Permian extinction and as well as the formation of planets from planetissimals. We’re both obsessed with questions of scale – and how to communicate ecocatastrophe to a wide audience in a way that triggers action.
Who are other theorists, scholars, and authors you think we should watch out for?
That’s a tough question. My favorite theorist/writers of the moment are ecomaterialists who never lose sight of gender and environmental justice: Stacy Alaimo, Stephanie LeMenager, Rob Nixon, Sharon O’Dair. I learn a great deal from the work of Steve Mentz, Anne Harris, Tobias Meneley, Margaret Rhonda … I could go on and on, the field is so vibrant. But I’ll put in a special plug for my frequent collaborator Lowell Duckert. He’s young in the field, and his work offers a bright future.
What can we expect from you in the future?
My book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman is out from University of Minnesota Press this spring (May, I think). Then from the same press comes the collection Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Fire and Water (fall 2015). Then another BIG collection called Veer Ecology, and also the book on Earth I mentioned… and I think after that I am going to live in solitude for a while and recover!
To find out more about Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s work, log on to his official website and In the Middle. You can also follow him on Twitter.