Five Questions: Kate Rigby on Reclaiming Romanticism

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Kate Rigby is Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University, where she is the the founding Director of the Research Centre for Environmental Humanities. Her work as a scholar and organiser has played a pioneering role in developing the international, interdisciplinary field of Environmental Humanities. Her own work focuses particularly on the Romantic period and its ongoing legacies, and she has published extensively on German and British philosophies of nature; the poetics of place; ecophilosophy and ecotheology; ecological feminist, new materialist and postcolonial thought; and multispecies studies and disaster studies. Her most recent monograph, Reclaiming Romanticism: Towards an Ecopoetics of Decolonisation, which we discuss below, was published by Bloomsbury in May 2020.

1) How did you first become interested in the ecological potential of Romantic writing?

I think I would have to say that the seeds for this interest were sown a very long time ago: probably when I was 15, an Aussie kid living south of Oxford (where my father was on sabbatical), and somebody lent me a bike right around the time my mother gave me a little hardback copy of The Selected Poems of William Wordsworth in the World’s Classics Series. Reading Wordsworth and riding around the Cotswolds got interlocked, and I found myself becoming enraptured by both. I recalled this many years later when I heard Geoffrey Hartman say that he fell in love simultaneously and inextricably with Wordsworth’s verse and the English countryside after his family found refuge in Britain from Nazi Germany. My teenage sojourn in Oxfordshire was under far happier circumstances, but I was beginning to share the growing environmental concerns of the 1970s, so my appreciation of what still looked like England’s ‘green and pleasant’ land, along with Wordsworth’s Lake District, was already tinged with an awareness of precarity.

My first academic encounter with Romanticism was in German Studies at the University of Melbourne, where I wrote an MA thesis on Heinrich von Kleist. By the time I embarked on my doctorate in German and Comparative Literature at Monash University in the late 1980s, I was passionately involved with ecological thought and activism, and found in Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s critique of the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ (one that is itself profoundly indebted to Romanticism) – reworked though a feminist and postcolonial lens –  an apt theoretical framework for my ecofeminist reading of tragedy and enlightenment in German drama of the Goethezeit. What I still did not know at the time I published my dissertation Transgressions of the Feminine: Tragedy, Enlightenment and the Figure of Woman in Classical German Drama in 1996 was that others too were avidly at work bringing an ecological perspective to bear in literary studies, and that this initiative had even been given a name: ecocriticism! I had already begun work on my next Romanticism project when I enthusiastically attended my first ecocritical conference in 1998 (at Bath Spa, as it happens, where I am now Professor of Environmental Humanities). Needless to say, my next monograph, Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (2004) which branches out to British as well as German Romanticism, was written in close conversation with other ecocritical Romanticists, and appeared in the University Press of Virginia’s Under the Sign of Nature series (of which I am now a co-editor).

2) How did you come to develop the decolonial lens through which your book re-evaluates Romanticism?

Like all too many white Australians of my age, I really only began to confront the carnage of colonisation on the continent that I call home as an adult. Growing up in the nation’s capital, I didn’t even know that the city’s name had been stolen, along with their land, from the First Nations for whom this area had long been a meeting place (Ngambri was transliterated into ‘Camberry’ and appropriated as the name for one of the earliest pastoral stations on what the invaders dubbed the Limestone Plains). My awakening was facilitated by my studies, in that Melbourne University was a hotbed of theory in the 1980s, including postcolonial variants: Dipesh Chakrabarty was an older contemporary of mine there, and one of our most memorable visiting lecturers was Gayatri Spivak, who delivered an early version of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ to an intrigued audience.

In Transgressions of the Feminine, as well as in my subsequent co-authored book on German feminist theory, Out of the Shadows (1996), I engaged most closely with work that brings postcolonial theory into conversation with critical ecofeminism (notably that of Val Plumwood, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva). However, it was only towards the end of writing Topographies of the Sacred that I realised that there was an unsettling undercurrent to my interest is questions of place and displacement in European Romanticism: namely the colonial dispossession, coupled with ecological degradation, of which I was myself a beneficiary in Australia. I therefore embarked on researching a decolonial deep history of the Canberra region, nourished and encouraged by my conversations with the historians, philosophers, geographers and ethnographers of the Australian Working Group for the Ecological Humanities (formed the late 1990s, as recounted in my article ‘Weaving the Environmental Humanities: Australian strands, configurations, and provocations’ in Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 23.1). This research ended up morphing into a consideration of how unprepared settler Australians were for the catastrophic environmental and climatic changes, to which their economy and lifestyle was a major contributor, and which were beginning to show up in the increasing frequency and intensity of those extreme weather events that they were still misleadingly calling ‘natural disasters’. The resultant monograph, Dancing with Disaster: Environmental Histories, Narratives and Ethics for Perilous Times (2015) weds my longstanding ecocritical interests in Romanticism with my more recent engagement with Australian history, literature and ‘ethics for decolonisation’ (Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country, 2004). Beginning with a short story by Kleist that responds in his characteristically quizzical way to the debates that erupted in the wake of the Lisbon Earthquake, this book concludes with Waanyi author Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria and its subversion of the modern Western category of ‘natural disaster’ through a poetics of decolonisation. Reclaiming Romanticism brings this perspective to bear on Romantic and post-Romantics ecopoetics, but with a wider historical reach, extending to North America as well as Australia, on the track of varied European Romantic legacies and their transformations.

3) Most of your chapters pair canonical Romantic authors with more contemporary poets, often writers with backgrounds informed by capitalist appropriation of land, lives and resources (so William Wordsworth is paired with Tim Lilburn; Percy Shelley with Kevin Hart; John Clare with Audre Lorde and Natasha Trethewey; and William Blake with Judith Wright and Jordie Albiston).  How did you decide to construct chapters around such pairings, and how did you select the particular combinations?

I have always been interested in considering Romanticism not only as a historical period, but also as a continuing strand in Western culture. In Topographies of the Sacred, I highlight Romanticism’s ambivalent historical legacies. In my new book, though, I felt called to push back against what I consider to be reductive critiques of Romanticism, which often fail to adequately acknowledge how European Romanticism (itself an heterogeneous phenomenon) differs from North American and other settler colonial Romanticisms, such as Australian. What I am doing here, then, is seeking to ‘reclaim’ a number of ecopoetic arts of resistance to the ‘logic of colonisation’ (as framed by Val Plumwood) in specific works of English Romantic verse, and to show how variants of these Romantic ecopoetics might be traced in modern and contemporary poetry from North America and Australia.

I should stress that the connections I establish are not based on any arguments concerning ‘influence’ or ‘reception’ but arise from within my own hermeneutic horizon. They are intended to demonstrate how the ‘contemplative’, ‘affective’, ‘creaturely’ and ‘prophetic’ poetics inaugurated within European Romanticism continue to resonate in ecopolitically salient ways in North American and Australian literature. At the same time, as I argue in the final chapter, there are ways in which Romantic ecopoetics itself demands to be decolonised. Here, my attention turns to what John Kinsella terms the ‘pastoral imposition’ (both on the land and in the mind) in Australian history and literature, and I conclude with a contemporary pairing of Anne Elvey and Jeanine Leane in order to consider what a decolonial ecopoetics might look like from either side of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous divide, and what prospects there might be for a meeting (if not, necessarily, a merger).

4) Why do you think Romanticism can provide particularly powerful affordances for grappling with our present, over and above other constellations of thoughts, artists and artworks?

As indicated above, Romanticism is a mixed bag: not all of it is helpful by any means, and other constellations of thought, artists and artworks might also provide affordances for grappling with current challenges. However, the European Romantics were the first to bear witness to that process of fossil-fuelled industrialisation that has since delivered the world into the problematically named ‘Anthropocene’, and many did so with extraordinary insight into its underpinnings and implications, along with creative proposals for how the instrumental and anthroparchal rationality of expansionist industrial-capitalist modernity might be countered. In particular, I want to revalue the ethos of multispecies conviviality and sympoiesis (a term coined by Friedrich Schlegel) that I discern in European Romanticism, over and against the wilderness ethic, premised on nature-culture dualism and complicit with the suppression of Indigenous modes of dwelling, which later came to the fore in North America.  As I argue, however, if this promise is to be made good, it needs to be translated into ecopolitical praxis. For that reason, each chapter also incorporates examples of contemporary ecopoetics ‘beyond the page.’

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Next year, I want to pick up on one of the threads in Reclaiming Romanticism for a book edited by Clare Colebrook on ‘Romanticism at the End of the World’. The chapter will explore further the lineaments of what I call (with a nod to Anna Seward’s ‘Colebrook Dale’) the ‘Ploutocene’, in relation to loss of the commons, as seen by John Clare in Helpston, and Jeanine Leane on the lands of her Wiradjuri forbears in New South Wales. My main project at present, though, departs from Romanticism to engage more closely with those Christian texts and traditions that also appear periodically in Reclaiming Romanticism. Specifically, I am researching and revisioning a neglected genre of Christian literature, the ‘Hexameron’, that is, meditations on the biblical six days of creation, a genre inaugurated by the exuberantly critter-loving, Earth-honouring Basil of Caesarea in the 4th century. I am planning to write my own (post-Darwinian, post-dogmatic) hexameron in the horizon of anthropogenic mass extinction and ecological unravelling: an Hexameron for the Ploutocene, pitched towards the (re)constitution of practices of multispecies care, conviviality and co-creativity, offering pathways through (and potentially beyond) the current ecocidal era of de-creation.