19.08.01 Cohen and Duckert, Veer Ecology

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Todd Preston

The Medieval Review 19.08.01

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome and Lowell Duckett, eds. Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. pp. x, 518. ISBN: 978-5179-0077-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Todd Preston
Lycoming College
preston@lycoming.edu

In considering Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, it is perhaps fitting to first think of roots. In the foreword to the text, Cheryll Glotfelty acknowledges the theoretical forbear of the text as Nicholas Royle's Veering: A Theory of Literature, which proposes an intellectual approach that resists the straightforward and allows for the sometimes contradictory and unruly production of meaning within a given text. Royle provides the "Afterword" to the current volume, explaining how the essays therein participate in critical and literary veering as they "make unexpected moves, they swerve, slow down, zoom in or out, often to surprising (and at moments, uncanny) effect" (470). Glotfelty also identifies Veer Ecology as the third in a trilogy of texts by the editors, after Cohen's Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green and Cohen and Duckert's Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. Both of these previous texts engage the senses to de-center the human and encourage a reconsideration of the dynamic materiality of the environment.

This dynamism is at the heart of the editorial charge behind the text that combines Royle's conception of a veering criticism with the deep ecological focus of Cohen and Duckert. Each of the thirty contributors to the volume (including Cohen) was tasked with providing an essay focused on a verb that the author considered a "vital term to think with for ecological and environmental theory" (vii). The result is a wildly varied host of conceptual frames from the environmentally direct (e.g. Vegetate, Compost, Sediment, Rain) to the ecologically allusive (e.g. Attune, Try, Wait, Unmoor). However, the lack of a single, rigidly defined topical focus reaffirms, rather than undermines, one of the key conceits of the collection, which is an acknowledgement of the role of play in the natural world and our relationships to it.

Correspondingly, in keeping with the editors' playful invitation to their text, "Welcome to the Whirled" (3), the essays are not presented in any regimented, hierarchical order, but rather ricochet from one subject and interpretive frame to the next. For example, in their essay "Ape," Holly Dugan and Scott Maisano revisit non-human productions of Shakespeare's plays to interrogate the relationships between species (humans, apes, and sheep, in this case) and the cultural functions and currency of the dramas. This essay is followed by Rebecca Scott's "Love," in which the author explores the varieties of environmental love, from her native, yet reluctant, love of the degraded creek near her home, to the self-destructive love of coal country, to the queer ecosexuality found in the work of performance artists Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle. The two essays have little direct content in common, with Dugan and Maisano focusing on interspecies connections and Scott interrogating love of landscape. However, they circle the common concern with problematizing the status quo in the relationship between the human and non-human.

One characteristic most of the essays do share is a particular interest in language and participating in engaging wordplay, which comes as little surprise given that twenty-three of the contributors are English professors (the remaining six represent the disciplines of history, anthropology, sociology and, of course, environmental studies). Many of the essayists encourage a kind of linguistic veering, framing familiar terms in new, polysemous contexts. For example, Stephanie LeMenager reconsiders her titular sediment as a verb, rather than as the more commonplace noun. She finds that once sediment is lexically freed from the static and geologic, it can suggest new ecological associations ranging from the function of memory to the challenges of social justice. In a complementary approach, Anne Harris focuses on a word not immediately recognizable as an ecological term: tend. In her essay of the same name, she initially unpacks the lexical and semantic flexibility of the word. As she treats of the layers of association ingrained in the term, she finds that "Tend tends to veer" (393). Ultimately, she argues that tend is a crucial term for ecocriticism as it references an indeterminate middle ground between formerly established categories: human/animal, reality/representation, quixotic/heroic. Many of the essays turn to definition and etymology to encourage contemplating the sometimes surprising ecological echoes that language can offer.

Of specific interest to the medievalist are the four essays that substantively consider subjects rooted in the Middle Ages: Daniel Remein's "Decorate," Cord Whitaker's "Remember," Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's "Drown," and Lara Farina's "Curl." In "Decorate," Remein considers an ecopoetics that creates an ecotecture of the oikos (i.e. household or basic social unit: the Greek root for our eco- prefix) through the process of linguistic decoration. This process "maintain[s] the human as a decoratable question, to question how the activities of the humanities can veer towards that of the nonhuman oikos" (100). By way of example, Remein presents a close reading of the introductory lines to the Old English Exeter Book Riddles 31 and 32. The poem opens with a description of the world: "Is þes middangeard missenlicum / wisum gewlitegad wrættum gefrætwad" (Remein translates: "this middle earth is in a variety / of ways decorated/beautified, decorated with jewels/ornaments") (96). Delving into the lexical and semantic import of the word choices in these lines, as well as their grammar and style, Remein argues that "the complicity of the mixed and varied style with this vocabulary of decorating inherently harbors the idea that appearance itself, in a phenomenological sense, somehow already decorates" (99). The poem, in Remein's reading, participates in the decorative process of the cosmos, which exists both within and beyond the reach of human expression.

In his contribution, "Remember," Cord Whitaker takes Chaucer's Anelida and Arcite as his point of departure to consider how memory can frame the relationship between disparate conceptual and biological forces: in his case, love and cancer. Focusing on the Middle English word thirl, which describes the piercing nature of Anelida's painful remembrance of lost love in the poem, Whitaker correlates it to the fixative nature of memory that can pin one to a time or place, either in joy or misery, even as time moves forward. Likewise, he discusses cancer as both generative and destructive, progressive and static. Tumors both grow and destroy as they relentlessly "remember" their reproductive programming despite its ultimate result of self-destruction. In this way, he argues that "the dynamics of cancer mimic Anelida's lament" (117). Whitaker believes that Chaucer's "text offers a lesson that will benefit further cancer research" (117) by providing an example of how memory, be it literary or biological, speaks to the relationship between equilibrium and change.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen turns to the biblical flood to ask how people might face global catastrophe: who gets saved and, in the words of his essay's title, who and what is left to "Drown." In Cohen's view, given the prospect of a secular environmental apocalypse, "we quietly return to those biblical frames we thought we had surpassed" (248). In particular, Cohen examines how depictions of the biblical deluge in medieval illuminated manuscripts can help frame our current ecocatastrophic moment as an opportunity for sympathy. In one instance, he examines how the Queen Mary Psalter (British Library Royal MS 2 B.vii) of the fourteenth century illustrates Noah's failure to look down at the human, animal, and metaphysical victims of the flood, showing a myopic focus on survival and conquest rather than on empathy and a recognition of the true scope of ecological disaster. To Cohen, medieval illustrations of the flood also suggest how "suffering is unequally distributed" (259, 260). The privileged few survive; the great majority of the human and non-human world perishes. Ultimately, he presents these former representations of the flood as inspiration to reconsider our approach to looming ecological catastrophe. Rather than indulge in former models of exclusion and resignation, he uses these visions of a watery apocalypse as a motivation to encourage inclusion and hope in the face of rapidly approaching ecological catastrophe.

Lara Farina uses her essay "Curl" to explore "a botano-poetics of sensation" that "places us in the realm of the uncanny, the queer, and the numinous" (435). Using the image of the curling vine, she describes a critical practice that eschews the straight (e.g. the chronologically progressive, the heteronormative, the critically secular). Correspondingly, she weaves together the explorations of human-plant hybridity in texts as diverse as Ursula Le Guin's 1970 short story "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow," the medieval Welsh Mabinogi, and the "Lily Crucifixion" illumination in the fourteenth-century Llanbeblig Book of Hours. She presents Blodeuwedd, the flower-maiden of the Mabinogi, as emblematic of a vegetative point of view that desires "not a reproductive future but a present saturated with feeling" (444). Blodeuwedd represents the frustration of a straightforward narrative of royal succession. Similarly, Farina sees the manuscript illumination of the "Lily Crucifixion" as curling the norm, veering away from the chronological narrative of Christ's story. In the illumination, Christ appears crucified on a potted lily situated between Mary and the archangel Gabriel in the act of the Annunciation. For Farina, the image blends past and future, birth and death, human and vegetable. Taken together, these instances of hybridity open a new critical perspective that "can help us feel queer with plants in these apocalyptic times" (449).

As its title suggests, Veer Ecology does not plot a straight course through ecocritical approaches that lead to a singular, coherent critical praxis. This, however, appears to be exactly the point of Cohen's and Duckert's text. The essays within Veer Ecology head in unexpected directions, turn in upon themselves, and interrelate in unexpected ways. As the essays are relatively short and not bound by an explicit organizational framework, they invite sampling, ruminating, and considering and reconsidering their connections and relationships to one another. Moreover, the notes to the essays, in themselves, are a treasure-trove of signposts directing the reader to wide-ranging source materials from the agricultural to the zoological. While only a few of the essays focus specifically on medieval content, they all raise questions and propose a variety of ecocritical approaches that will benefit the study of the period and its artifacts, anthropogenic or otherwise.

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