Abstracts: Session II

Daniel Williams, “One Vast Library: Ecology and the Nonhuman Witness”

What does religious infrastructure have to do with ecology in the nineteenth century? If in the often-devout literature of the Victorians we can easily find inspiration for an ethics of stewardship, an aesthetics of sacramental nature, or an apocalyptic sense of planetary fragility, this paper sketches a more abstract way of understanding the link between the spiritual and the ecological. I’ll suggest that approaching nineteenth-century ecology with the spiritual in mind grants us (1) greater latitude in attending to what is imperceptible, hard to see or hear in literary and historical artifacts; and (2) greater freedom in animating or ventriloquizing the nonhuman world under threat in the Anthropocene. First, I’ll bring out aspects of a sensory modality known as indirect perception in the work of John Ruskin and Thomas Hardy. Whether describing natural processes or architectural forms, indirect perception allows us to move freely among scales, revealing the imperceptible and bridging human and nonhuman spheres. Second, I’ll suggest that indirect perception entails thinking about the natural world as offering a kind of testimony. Using the work of Charles Babbage, I’ll try to defend the concept of the “nonhuman witness” as one that has respectable literary origins and theoretical afterlives.

Gauri Viswanathan, “Animal Life and Alternative Religions in Nineteenth-Century Genealogies of Feminism”

My talk addresses the following questions, among others: Why were so many of the major ecological movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries initiated by women who had converted to alternative religions, such as Theosophy, Theism, or Anthroposophy? What does the presence of large numbers of women in these movements suggest about the bases of modern feminism?  Finally, how did these alternative religions furnish a conduit to the ecological causes (including animal antivivisection) that came eventually to define the feminist agenda not only in Britain but in its colonies as well? The success of the animal life movement in drawing large numbers of women indicates how effectively feminist and ecological consciousness worked towards enabling women to emerge in the public sphere and in areas not normally associated with traditional female roles.