13/01/2022 – John Holmes, « Why Study Literature in an Age of Environmental Crisis, or, What Did You Do in the Great War, Daddy? »

John Holmes is Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Birmingham. He was the Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science from 2021 to 2015 and has been Secretary to the Commission on Literature and Science since 2015. His work focuses on the interface between science and the arts in the period from 1800 to the present. He published numerous books such as Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (2009), The Pre-Raphaelites and Science (2018). During his presentation, he demonstrated the necessity of literature to approach contemporary environmental issues. He also presented his research work and projects, stressing the relationship between literature and nature. 

Ecocriticism is defined as an interdisciplinary field of study that analyses the relationship that human beings have with the environment. Environmental critics explore the representations of nature and the natural world imagined through literary texts[1] but also how texts try to solve ecological concerns. Environmental politics emerged in the 1980s within the arts and yet, it did not involve an eco-critique because intellectual interests were about aesthetic choices. 

Nevertheless, John Holmes introduced his collaborative work with Bloomsbury’s publishing house, taking into account the ecocritical dimension.  The “Explorations in Science and Literature” project was carried out by an editorial board of professors from various disciplines (biology, English, medicine, science humanities) who produced a series of volumes bringing the insights of literary study to explore scientific subjects and underlines the intense urgency of the environmental crisis, the shared accountability and the need for intergenerational action. 

John Holmes also mentioned the work of university researchers and writers. John Ruskin (1819-1900) represented a pioneering figure to think ecocriticism. He was an English writer of the Victorian era, contesting the rapid industrialization and focusing on social and political issues. He was also an art critic involved in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History (built from 1855 to 1860) is marked by his influence on Gothic art and architecture: it expresses the natural world “itself in its forms and materials”[2]. In co-writing with Paul Smith, John Holmes writes: “the museum epitomizes Ruskin’s principles of truth to nature and the creative emancipation of the individual artisan”[3]. Holmes also spoke of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (1929-2018), an American author best known for science fiction works (the Earthsea fantasy series 1968-2001). Her literature envisages contemporary eco-social issues (for example “The New Atlantis” (1975) deals with climate change) and reveals its imaginative power: her work displays another reality to accentuate the situation of crisis. Simon Estok appears as another uplifting thinker: he is Professor at Sungkyunkwan University and his main interests include ecocriticism, early modern European culture and the relationship between theory and practice. He won an award for his book Ecocriticism and Shakespeare: Reading Ecophobia (2011), underlying how his literary study can help to think questions related to nature. 

Then, the scholar explained how books could be used to prevent the environmental crisis. Firstly, he argued that studying literature is an act of passive resistance against the capitalist system and dominant narratives that reject the responsibility of climate change. Learning about books can enrich our perspective on the subject and improve our awareness. What is more, Holmes is inspired by Sarah Dillon and Claire Craig’s Storylistening. Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning (2021) underlining the need to take stories seriously to improve public reasoning. The authors reveal how stories offer alternative perspectives and complement forms of evidence including those from science. Finally, books foster collaborations between many disciplines to enhance our collective understanding of science and the appreciation of the natural world. 

John Holmes presented two of his projects. He introduced “Symbiosis”, an “interdisciplinary network set up to research and develop the role of the arts and the humanities in natural history museums and collections”[4]. This project extends existing connections between academic researchers, museum curators, scientists and artists. Among the collaborating museums, the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. One outcome was entitled “Visions of Nature” created in 2016 and took place at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It aimed at showcasing the museum’s architecture and design and the role of art in science from the middle age to the present day. This year-long programme welcomed three poets and presented four art exhibitions influenced by the museum’s collections, ecological concerns and natural history. The second project is called “Fantasy Fiction and Forest Ecology: Mobilising the Imaginative Resources of Fantasy Fiction for Living with Forests”. It highlights the fundamental place of forests in fiction and how they become a subject to engage people with environmental issues. The project displays an interdisciplinary study of the function and representations of forests in fiction set in imagined worlds such as in Ursula K. Le Guin’s or J. R. R. Tolkien’s work. These representations are compared with actual forest sites to support preservation systems, to advance reafforestation and bolster strategies to combat climate change. 

[1] GLOTFELTY, Cheryll in the Introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader, University of Georgia Press, 1996. 

[2] HOLMES, John and SMITH, Paul. “Visions of Nature: Reviving Ruskin’s legacy at the Oxford University Museum”, Journal of Art Historiography, vol. 22, University of Birmingham, 2020, p.1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This definition comes from the following website: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/symbiosis/index.aspx .

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