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Conquest Ecology: Invasive Species, Victorian Empire, and the Cultures of Extinction

Date and Time: 
Thursday, November 8, 2018. 05:30 PM - 07:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center Boardroom
Workshop: 
Environmental Humanities Project
Meeting Description: 

The modern idea of species emerged from the crucible of extinction. The theory of evolution via natural selection, as articulated by Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, was enabled by a newly global view of natural history and species distribution that was already reshuffling the biosphere with catastrophic effect. The Victorians were acutely aware of their role as agents of extinction, and often drew upon imperial metaphors to describe the invasion of ecosystems by introduced species. They also drew upon those same examples to naturalize their own conquest of the globe on the one hand, and imagined their own eventual extinction within the climatic cycles of imperial natural history on the other. This talk will explore the relevance of Victorian extinction discourse for our own encounter with the “species question” in the Anthropocene, including debates over the designation of the human species as planetary agent, and the controversy within the conservation community surround “re-wilding” and “de-extinction” schemes, species gone “feral,” and “novel ecosystems,” defined by the ecological effects of human action.

Jesse Oak Taylor is associate professor of English at the University of Washington. His research focuses on industrialization and empire in the nineteenth century and their relevance for understanding the ongoing processes (and social and ecological consequences) of industrialization and development around the globe. His recent book, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf (University of Virginia Press, 2016) traces the conceptual emergence of climate change the soot-laden London fog (i.e., "smog") of London in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The project runs from the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851 to the "Great Smog Disaster" of 1952. It argues that aesthetics, especially the novel, re-frame our perception in order to come to terms with an environment in which everything, including the weather, bears the imprint of human action. His current research explores the concept of the Anthropocene, especially in terms of the way it opens new methodologial intersections between the humanities and the sciences. He is co-editor (with Tobias Menely, UC-Davis) of Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (Penn State University Press, 2017), and co-organizer (with Jason Groves, UW Germanics) of a Simpson Center Interdisciplinary Research Cluster on the Anthropocene.

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