Steven Swarbrick: April 2022 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for April 2022 is Steven Swarbrick. 

Steven Swarbrick is an assistant professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, specializing in early modern literature, literary and cultural theory, and the environmental humanities. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Environmental Unconscious: Ecological Poetics from Spenser to Milton (University of Minnesota Press, 2023).

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

When I began graduate school in 2009, animal studies and posthumanism were hot new topics. Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am had recently come out, as did Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Related texts like Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway and Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam” were making the rounds. Add affect theory and new materialism to the mix. It was a heady time. As a graduate student, I recall feeling excited and disoriented by what would eventually be called the nonhuman turn. So, I suppose my entry into the environmental humanities began amid these developments. It was a fun time to be interested in theory.

However, what hooked me and eventually led to my current interest in ecocriticism was getting to study with Elizabeth A. Wilson, a Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Emory University. Read Wilson’s books, Psychosomatic and Gut Feminism, if you haven’t already! They are incredible, ranging across psychoanalysis, deconstruction, feminism, and science studies. I don’t know if Elizabeth would identify as an environmental humanist. However, her work is about the entanglements of psyche and soma and extends theories of mind beyond the psychoanalyst’s couch to the natural world. While taking Elizabeth’s courses and reading her books, I got to thinking that psychoanalysis and ecocriticism might have a lot to say to each other if they got together. Bringing them together is not easy. Psychoanalysis, especially Lacanian psychoanalysis, typically condescends to anything that smacks of biology or the “natural.” Likewise, ecocriticism tends to avoid questions of desire, drive, fantasy, and the unconscious. Death drive doesn’t even make it in the front door of eco-theory. I have always been fascinated by this missed connection: two fields of inquiry that explain so much but have little to say about each other. That missed connection still sustains my interest in the environmental humanities.

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

I have many favorites, so this is a tricky question to answer. I am currently writing for the second time on film director Kelly Reichardt, who is in many ways an obvious choice. Her films are deeply connected to the Pacific Northwest, not far from where I grew up. Several of her films have an explicit ecological focus, including Night Moves (2013), about a group of environmental activists who plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Moreover, as Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour point out in their excellent book, Reichardt’s “slow cinema” aesthetic seems purposely aimed at capturing the “slow violence” (Rob Nixon) of ecological degradation. So, there is a lot to love about Reichardt’s films. Oh, and they are gorgeous, meditative gems, too. But Reichardt isn’t just talking about environmental issues. What I find fascinating about her films is that they change how we see and think. For example, her latest film, First Cow (2019), begins with an unnamed character who discovers the skeletal remains of two unknown figures. We are no sooner peering into this unmarked grave than we have transported to the early 19th century Oregon territory, where the history of this locale unfolds in relation to colonial land theft, global capitalism, and … a cow. It is an intimate and heartbreaking object study, but it begins from a place of ecological uncertainty. All narrative does this, of course, but usually with the goal of sewing up loose ends. Reichardt’s film plunges us into the earth only to ask more questions.

What are you currently working on?

I just finished my first book, The Environmental Unconscious: Ecological Poetics from Spenser to Milton, which brings psychoanalytic theory to bear on ecological problems and asks why, despite our current fluency in new materialism, we are still unable to address environmental catastrophe. Locating an ecological unconscious in the ancient poetry of Lucretius, I trace the environmental unconscious to early modern poets writing at the dawn of the Anthropocene. By teaching readers to enjoy the loss that Lucretius calls “void,” these poets challenge the theoretical claims of the new materialism, teach readers to divest from capitalism’s promise of endless growth, and anticipate Freudian and post-Freudian (Badiou, Edelman, Zupančič) theories of the death drive. It is my first attempt to think through the fraught relationship between ecocriticism and psychoanalysis, and I am thrilled to see it in the world finally. It is coming out with the University of Minnesota Press in 2023; please watch for it!

I am currently working on a new project, provisionally titled Destituent Ecology: Libidinal Politics for the Environmental Left, which leverages the Lacanian formula on sexuality, “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship,” to open new conceptual space in environmental politics and theory. My claim, building on the work of ecological theorist Frédéric Neyrat, is that ecotheory makes it difficult, if not impossible, to think outside the network of objects and relations. Destituent Ecology theorizes the nonrelation through close engagement with thinkers like Deleuze and Lacan and films by Reichardt, Lars von Trier, Julia Ducournau, and others.

Lastly, I am co-authoring a book with Jean-Thomas Tremblay entitled Negative Life: The Cinema of Extinction. This book identifies in some recent independent cinema a challenge to ecocriticism’s project to excavate a pedagogy of harmonious and sustainable cohabitation from representations of nature. Our film archive—Julian Pölsler’s Die Wand, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed—confronts spectators instead with negative life: a materialization of life’s contradictions amid climate catastrophe. A selection of this work is now out in Discourse.

I would be happy to talk more about this work with anyone interested. Please send me an email or find me on Twitter.

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 currently reading Eugenie Brinkema’s new book, Life-Destroying Diagrams. If you are looking for a book that challenges most scholarly assumptions about form, this book is for you. It is theoretically sharp and inventive. Like Brinkema’s first book, The Forms of the Affects, it urges readers to ask fundamental questions about form and the readings that “radical formalism” (Brinkema’s term) can produce. On the surface, Brinkema’s book has little to do with the environmental humanities. After all, it is about life-destroying formalism, and it delivers on that destructive promise. However, as an ecocritic, I find Brinkema’s work enlivening because it pushes criticism in unfamiliar directions and so, despite its destructive veneer, gives new life to theory. Oh, and there are some fascinating sections on landscape, horror, and the nonhuman in Life-Destroying Diagrams, so, ecocritics, have fun!

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

I am really excited about Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s forthcoming book, Breathing Aesthetics. I have had the honor of reading several portions of it. What inspires me the most is how Tremblay realigns the fields of ecocriticism, gender and sexuality studies, the medical humanities, and film and media through the ordinary but highly complex exchanges of breath. For Tremblay, breath is both vitalizing and morbid—therein lies the interest. It is a wonderful book and beautifully written. Timely, too. I cannot recommend it enough.