Sladja Blazan: March 2022 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for March 2022 is Sladja Blazan. 

Sladja Blazan is currently a lecturer at Bard College Berlin. Her areas of research include speculative fiction, critical posthumanism, critical refugee studies, and migration.

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

I feel like I have been working within ecocriticism without knowing it for a long time. Since early on in my academic work, I have felt the pressing need for a conceptual reorientation. It was mainly studies that came out of feminist circles with an ecological lens where I could find what I was looking for. I would say that the intersection of feminism and ecology was my first conceptual encounter with ecocriticism. Perhaps there was always a sense of the necessity to break down disciplinary boundaries in my work. As a young scholar I was interested in the gothic mode and Romanticism, but I could not find a study that adequately addressed one element I found consistently at the center of most of the texts that I read – the setting in the forest and particularly the notion of sentience in the forest. So I looked for papers written by biologists on what exactly constitutes a forest and started unearthing rich links between the texts. I suppose this would be considered ecocriticism today but then there was no compass for this line of thought. Luckily, this has significantly changed in the meantime. It seems to me that all humanities will soon be environmental humanities as there will be no choice to opt out of negotiating human inscription in natural environments.

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

So many come to mind. I admire the work of Octavia E. Butler. I think her intersectional approach that thinks race always in relation to class in relation to gender in relation to environment was and is path-breaking. Her science fiction is urgent particularly because she took the step towards utopian scenarios without excluding or simplifying the dystopian present that we live in. But I also keep encountering new encouraging and engaging voices. I was really taken by a very short novel called Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, a writer from Argentina who lives in Berlin now. The book was translated by Megan McDowell. What resonated with me was the way she follows the harmful effects of pesticide throughout the transmigration of the souls, therefore effectively demonstrating that the ramifications of active substances do not stop at death. The afterlife of pesticide is material and spiritual, and Schweblin found a way to express this conjecture. In terms of visual art, the work by the Kenyan-born U.S. American artist Wangechi Mutu keeps me coming back again and again to discover new environmental perspectives and concerns. It was in the traveling exhibition Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey that I discovered her images that seem to register an unrestricted humanity that not only departs from Western conceptions but creates a separate aesthetic archive. We need to generate new possibilities for rethinking ontology and her work does that.

What are you currently working on?

I recently finished a book on ghosts that I have worked on, off and on, for almost a decade. While mainly a historical perspective on ghosts, a large part turned out to be about animated forests. Exploring the combined intelligence of the living and the dead leads directly to conceptualizations of nature. In forests, ghosts become an expression of the uneven entanglements of the human and the nonhuman. This led to my interest in intersubjectivity not bound to human bodies and minds alone. Next, I will look into medieval images of human hybrids or simply other-embodied beings. This will be an article that should support my research for the book that I am in the early stages of preparing, a study of human-plant hybrids in contemporary horror. I research and teach Speculative Fiction, in general, because it forces us to move outside of our normal comprehension and therefore has the potential to expose affects by which we are conditioned. I do think that for us scholars in humanities it is necessary to question the structure of humanist disciplines and its cultures of exclusion. Most of us are situated in colonial affects and working in white patriarchal institutions. So, in a more applied manner, I am also working on an article about structural racism in German universities for which I am still collecting interviews. Currently in Germany most theoretical discussion relating to structural racism reference theories imported from the U.S. This leads to all kinds of damaging confusion that I am trying to understand by writing this article.

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 am reading Gichigami Hearts: Stories and Histories from Misaabekong by Linda LeGarde Grover. Misaabekong is the Ojibwe name for what is today called Duluth in the Minnesota area. It’s written in a very tender style and at times feels like listening to a friend. In these stories people are terraformed and landscapes are humanized. Reading this book takes me to the people in my family, people who have been running from one place to another never to arrive anywhere and I wonder how the land has been diluted from their bodies. I also just finished reading Allegories of the Anthropocene by Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey, a book that like Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None pays close attention to globalization discourses that, as the author puts it fittingly, miss the globe. She highlights how environmental narratives that work under the structural exclusion of postcolonial and Indigenous perspectives are perpetuating the already existing problem they claim to evade. The crisis that we are facing is certainly happening on a planetary scale. Finding ways to address this scale is an important challenge that this study is grappling with, asking us to be cautious with any universalizing moves. In terms of fiction, my favorite writers currently are Carmen Maria Machado and Ocean Vuong. I read everything that they publish. As different as these two writers are, they both celebrate the unknowability of the other in a world that is obsessed with the erasure of otherness.

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

I find scholars whose work is truly interdisciplinary encouraging and inspirational. I was impressed by the fact that Kathryn Yusoff invented the denomination for her professorship – “Professor of Inhuman Geography”! It is next to impossible to do such a thing in Germany. Yet, if we don’t change the frameworks within which we move institutionally, there will be no way out of our colonial inheritance. Yusoff’s work has been important for my understanding of the importance of pushing the politics of nonlife. I seek out scholars who believe that until we expose fully the ethics of exclusion that have engineered this moment in time when we think about our self-made extinction, it will be difficult to move towards environmental justice. The question that I ask myself continually is: how to unlearn humanity before we can talk about humanity. In this context, the work of Sylvia Wynter was path-breaking. Her focused historical interrogation of intellectual genealogies works like a compass for finding paths towards more meaningful engagements. I look out for scholars who offer both, hope and critique, revision and construction. The most important scholar, in this sense, and someone who I always will be indebted to is bell hooks. Her writing repeatedly gave me inspiration to continue learning and teaching.