Killian Quigley: February 2021 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for February 2021 is Killian Quigley. 

Killian Quigley is a newly appointed research fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, in Melbourne. He is also an honorary postdoctoral fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute, University of Sydney, and an associate of Oceanic Humanities for the Global South. He lives on Wurundjeri land.

How did you become interested in studying ecocriticism and/or the environmental humanities?

My interests in these fields were encouraged, first of all, by great teaching: Sam Baker’s, when he was a visiting fellow at the Society for Humanities at Cornell and I was an undergraduate. During my final year there, I took a course of Sam’s called—if I’m not misremembering—“The Literature of Maritime Empire.” While studying George Anson’s Voyage Round the World (1748), I became fascinated by that text’s figuration of other-than-human animals. Sam affirmed that my fascination was not only valid but viable as a subject for my term paper. Later, he encouraged me to apply to graduate school. My undergraduate years had been pretty chaotic, and I mostly struggled to be an effective student. I believe that, without Sam’s timely encouragement, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to honor my intellectual feeling, let alone allow it to guide me toward a PhD.

At Vanderbilt, I was the beneficiary of still other fabulous teachers and mentors, including Dahlia Porter, Humberto Garcia, Jay Clayton, Bridget Orr, and especially Jonathan Lamb. (Jonathan’s work on histories of maritime experience is rightly celebrated, but I’d like to take this opportunity to say I think he’s underrated as a scholar of the environmental humanities.) Fabulous students, too: I had the chance to design and lead seminar-style literature and writing courses on topics like “Seeing Green: Imagining the Natural,” “Reading Tennessee,” and “Oceans.” My dissertation, which attempted to theorize exchanges among natural history and the aesthetics of spectacle in eighteenth-century Britain and France, was pervasively influenced by the ideas, debates, hopes, and fears I encountered, and took part in, in the classroom.

My relationship with the environmental humanities deepened dramatically in the course, and in the wake, of a research trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Toward the end of my time at Vanderbilt, I had the incredible good fortune to be invited to join Margaret Cohen, Iain McCalman, and Jonathan Lamb at Heron and One Tree Islands, toward the southern end of the Reef, to commence the Underwater Worlds project. The oceanic provocations, collaborations, and concerns that emerged from that trip—over conversations with scientists at the Heron and One Tree research stations, in company with green turtles and reef sharks beneath the surface of the Reef’s lagoons, breaking bread with lifelong activists at Mission Beach, and elsewhere—lent new weight and urgency to the questions I’d begun asking with my PhD. A little later, I returned to Australia to start a postdoc at the Sydney Environment Institute (University of Sydney). During my time at SEI, I was constantly challenged to articulate the nature and the value of my marine work in interdisciplinary settings—and constantly animated by my colleagues’ determination to seek and forge understandings, relationships, and ethical ways of being beyond disciplinary silos.

The wider personal background to the story I’ve just told is of course crucial, but I’m not sure I’m capable of sketching it. So I’ll just offer one additional piece of context, which I suspect—but am not certain—may be relevant. My family, whom I adore, has always had what you might call a confused (and confusing) relationship to place. When I was in my late teens, we repatriated from Nebraska to Ireland. Uncomfortable with being an unmistakable stranger in the small coastal Cork town that stood, I supposed, for my “native country,” I declined for years to engage meaningfully with our (re)new(ed) surroundings. When I eventually committed myself to figuring out how to relate to Ireland, I learned that the Celtic Sea and its denizens could, and would, help me. An elder cousin began inviting me to join her for ocean swims, and I learned to scuba dive. Getting to know my sort-of-homeplace from underwater proved apt, somehow—a strange and estranging, but also lively and enlivening, element for owning and cultivating my love for that watery place, and for acknowledging the ways it has sustained me and incalculable others. As a scholar, I “work on” oceans. It will always be true, however, that they’ve worked on and in me in ways I can only ever aspire to recompense.

Who is your favorite environmental artist, writer, or filmmaker? Or what is your favorite environmental text? Why?

I don’t know whether I have a favorite, or some favorites, but I can definitely describe some recent and recurring admirations. I love Rachel Carson’s “Undersea” (1937) for simultaneously affirming the distinctive, and in some respects ungraspable, character of submarine “sense” and enacting the imperfect but essential power of literary language to describe, and maybe even cultivate, that sense. I’m a big fan of Wirlomin-Noongar woman Claire G. Coleman’s “Boodjar ngan djoorla: Country, my bones” (2019), a beautiful, upsetting, formally ambitious text that disrupts some tenacious conventions in narratives of climate change (and especially sea-level rise). I’ve been fascinated by Kitagawa Utamaro’s Gifts from the Ebb Tide (1789) ever since I first caught a glimpse of it: there are few things more actually and metaphorically pleasurable, for me, than wandering and browsing the intertidal. By way of admission as well as acknowledgement, I’ll report that I finally read Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986) only last year. I will remember its slow, loving regard for musk oxen hair and polar bear architecture, not to mention its adamant respect for the aesthetics of northern land-, sea- and skyscapes.

I could go on, and on, and on. But instead of rambling further, may I offer just one more, other-than-human creation? About a year ago, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco presented Lost at Sea: Art Recovered from Shipwrecks. The star of the exhibition, from my perspective, is an amalgamation of anthropic and oceanic matter called a concretion. (There’s a photo of it at the top of this review of the show.) “Concretion” comes from the Latin word concrēscĕre, meaning “to grow together.” The poetics and aesthetics of this and other submerged growings-together are occupying large and growing parts of my mind, imagination, and heart these days. I want to think with others about what sort of language, and what kind of hermeneutics, is adequate to this kind of becoming. Plus, I’d like to read or cowrite a collection of found poems derived from museological, archaeological, and other attempts at summarizing concrescent constituents. There is music to “stoneware, stone, antler, shell, corroding iron, and remains of sea creatures.” I want to learn that music, and maybe even contribute to its improvement.

What are you currently working on?

I’ll mention three things. My book manuscript is provisionally titled The Vast Unseen Mansions of the Deep: Submerged Poetics, 1600-1820. It arranges a group of English poets and poems, some canonical (John Milton, John Keats) and some little-known (Thomas Heyrick, William Diaper), for whom submergence was an unusually generative trope. I argue that, for the period’s poets as for its natural philosophers, the undersea was a potent and problematic space for experimentation. I draw from the important works of numerous historians, such as Kevin Dawson, Molly Warsh, James Delbourgo, and Philippa Hellawell, to theorize some relationships between submerged poetics and the realities of submerged labor. The latter was more extensive and intensive in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than many of us tend to recall and was frequently unfree. Ultimately, I hope the book shows how central was the submarine for a kind of oceanic modernity long before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ many and vaunted advances in technologies of marine access. If this sounds interesting, you might enjoy checking out a related article of mine, “The Pastoral Submarine,” as well as The Aesthetics of the Undersea, which I had the good fortune to co-edit with Margaret Cohen and which features a host of brilliant colleagues.

As I intimated earlier, I’ve also been thinking a lot about seascapes and sea-level rise. I think a great deal of good work remains to be done on the history and character of sea views, in relation to the aesthetics of landscape but beyond it, too. Toward this end, I’ve written an essay on the ocean’s weird and pivotal role within the eighteenth-century picturesque for Bloomsbury’s forthcoming A Cultural History of the Sea. I’m also trying to understand how seascape’s complex, and in certain respects essentially fraught, status in the history of Western aesthetics relates to geographic theories of marine space and place. This has had me reading scholars like Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Kimberley Peters, Astrid Bracke, Philip Steinberg, and Jon Anderson, among many others. I suspect that these concerns have been, are, and will be directly relevant for the ways we describe, mourn, and foretell the coastal inundations that are forcing, in DeLoughrey’s words, “a radical remapping of our terraqueous Earth.” I’ve written an article on these matters, called “Drowned Places,” due to appear more or less imminently. And I’ve been lucky, this past year, to think rising seas alongside brilliant and interdisciplinary groups of students at the University of Sydney.

Finally, and as my concrescent preoccupations may have indicated, I’m at the heady, early stages of a project on encrustations, shipwrecks, and other submerged stuff. These temporally unruly, multispecies, animate-inanimate marine matters generate meanings in ways that pose profound challenges for my interpretive faculties. As we work together to cultivate better ways of knowing and getting along with ocean depths, our ways of seeing, describing, and narrating concretions and other becomings acquire (re)new(ed) urgency. I’ve been grateful for numerous opportunities to pursue these lines of inquiry, recently: to Kaori Nagai, for the challenge to write about shipwrecks and sponges for a volume on the more-than-human maritime; to Sharad Chari, Charne Lavery, and Isabel Hofmeyr, for the invitation to Post-Imperial Oceanics, a truly inspiring virtual conference and ongoing collaboration; and to my former colleagues at SEI, who gave me the chance to configure some of these thoughts for my farewell lecture, and its corresponding text, late last year.

What is something you are reading right now (environmental humanities-related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally? Comment briefly on why or how it inspires you.

I love reading with others, and the various book clubs that comprise my “non-professional” literary life are deeply important to me. One of those is made up of my partner and me, and we just read Greta Thunberg’s No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019) together. I find this little book striking in numerous ways. One pertains to repetition, to the ways Thunberg invokes certain things—the thawing Arctic permafrost, a dwindling carbon budget, the requirement that responses to climate change be just and equitable—over and over again, sometimes verbatim, as though they were the refrains of a song or poem. Another has to do with her relationship to language, with the faith she expresses in the power of speaking truthfully and the corruption she diagnoses in vacuous talk—in “clever accounting and creative PR.” I want to read this book again, with students and other colleagues, and think about the complicated and (I think) vital relationship between its thoroughgoing scientism and its equally crucial poetics. What and who makes words empty, and what actions do empty words perform? What can we who live and work with literature do to acknowledge fuller words, and to help create them? (Next up for the book club: Bryan Washington’s Lot (2019).)

Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you? Why?

There are too many to enumerate, but I am grateful for the chance to shout out a few. I’m inspired by Margaret Cohen’s unflagging rigor, her unwavering commitment to analytic and historical precision; by Jonathan Lamb’s inexhaustible curiosity, his enthusiasm for what he does not yet know; by Astrida Neimanis’s interweaving of research, pedagogy, and colleagueship in ways wondrous and deeply ethical; by Iain McCalman’s devotion to activism beyond the walls of academe, and his insistence that interdisciplinarity amount to more than what Thunberg might call creative PR; and so on, and so forth, forever.