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Durham University

Centre for Culture and Ecology

Ecocide and Biophilia

Life writing for the Anthropocene

Ecocide and Biophilia

The horizon of ecocide calls for biophilic readings. The search for a language and sensibility that could adequately register the risks and harms of the Anthropocene returns us, now differently angled, to the question of life itself. The conditions of life’s possibility command a new quality of attention at the moment of their erosion.

This is not life as we have known it in the traditions of auto/biography. Not life as narrative, quest, unfolding, formation. Not life lived in the dialectic of self and other, nor in the co-constitution of individual and collective identities. Not life (re-)told through the play of memory, with its dynamics of retrospection, reconstruction and forgetting. Not even – although this edges closer to the place where a biophilic reading might begin – life caught between (imagined) teleology and (lived) contingency. But rather life felt, in those moments at which life’s mute impersonal demands break through into, or break down, the narrative logic of the auto/biographical text.

Life refers here not only to the body – for the body, too, is co-optable for any number of identity claims and narrative projects. The life that both occasions and counters the biocide of the Anthropocene eludes the familiar categories of much life-writing scholarship, which has tended to centre on questions of subjectivity, memory, identity, and narrative, and to do so within the implicit frame of a rarely problematised anthropocentrism. Biophilic reading will insist on an intensified engagement with bodily reality, sensation, vital processes, metabolisms, reproductive labour: a shift in emphasis from writing to life.

The life that preoccupies biophilic reading moves impersonally, plurally, through Kathrin Röggla’s sleepless neoliberal landscape (Wir schlafen nicht, 2004), Annie Ernaux’s proliferating object-images (Les années, 2008), Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s reticulated chronicle (Min kamp, 2009-11), Arno Geiger’s vanishing paternal subject (Der alte König in seinem Exil, 2011) (the examples signal possible directions rather than a definitive corpus). In texts such as these, life appears perplexed by its own lifeworld; if it is a ‘resource’, then one at the edge of depletion. Its self-reflexivity is productive not only of stories; it also marks an entry-point into an urgent conversation about aliveness itself, about experiences, possibilities, and limits of the vital in an era of ecological crisis.

Biophilia, here, departs from the contrasting starting positions of E.O. Wilson and Erich Fromm, thinking forward through various challenges posed by, inter alia, vital materialism, ecofeminisms old and new, queer ecology, Anthropocene posthumanism. Crucial to the project is a redefinition of biophilia that goes beyond older models of ‘loving Nature’ or ‘caring for the environment’ to become a critical orientation towards the enmeshment of life not only with the non-living, but with the necrophilic and biocidal.

A scoping workshop in 2019 (in preparation) will clarify the research agenda for this strand and the shared understandings of its key terms: biophilia, ecocide, life writing, the Anthropocene. The initial conversation aims to disentangle bios from graphein in contemporary life writing, with a view to elaborating what is newly at stake in reading such texts in an ecologically destabilising context. Paying attention to that which enlivens in these reflective accounts of living, the research strand seeks to clarify and activate the potential of biophilia for contemporary ecocritical consciousness.

For further information contact: Dr Caitríona Ní Dhúill, cnidhuill@gmail.com