Getting started…

So rather than put this off for another year or so, I’m taking one of my student’s advice and starting a blog (probably not the best reason to start a blog, actually). I’m hoping that writing regularly will become a habit as I move into book writing mode.

Starting this first blog feels a little like trying to get that first waffle just right – you don’t want it too thin, you don’t want it to overflow the waffle iron, you don’t want to open the iron too soon. No doubt, I should have spent some time reading about how to create great blog posts. But I’m not actually expecting anyone to read this blog, so I will not follow all the good advice about how to attract the most readers, how to be entertaining, in other words, how to serve up great waffles. Instead, I will outline the function of this blog for my own academic and research needs. Initially, this will be a process of putting ideas on paper, making my own research goals and interests clearer to myself. Eventually, I may use the blog for book reviews, exploring new course ideas, etc.

Some of the subjects that I will explore and that I have been mulling over for a few years now are:

1) The relationship between culture, literature and environment – This is a broad subject that I will narrow down by focusing on the comparative work I’ve been doing, examining French ecological thought in light of North American environmental philosophy. This comparative framework has been a way for me to begin articulating a French écocritique, that is a literary approach to analyzing representations of nature and environment in French contemporary literature. Insisting on cultural differences is easy to do on the surface, while identifying these differences often leads one down the path of stereotypes and caricatures. Ah, yes, French culture: cheese, baguettes, wine, cinema, etc. Fortunately, the literary text complicates any simplified understanding of culture as a homogeneous collection of characteristics or habits or customs. So why even use the adjective “French” if it does not map back onto something tangible and concrete? One response might be that contemporary French literary texts are inscribed – however vaguely or incompletely – in a literary tradition that has its own history (naturalism, realism, surrealism, Nouveau-Roman, etc.), its own set of key characters (Saint-Beuve, Proust, Valéry, Tadié, Brunel, etc.). While this literary history obviously did not develop in isolation, there is a reason French literature is called French literature. Written in French, these texts contain a way of structuring or seeing the world that has something to do with being French. Despite its circularity, this argument outlines a notion of culture that is bound up in language but that remains quite nebulous. This formless entity begins to take form through the work of comparative studies (see Kerry Whiteside’s Divided Natures, or Catherine Ford’s work, or my overview of the state of environmental literary theory in France, etc.) and through the analysis of individual literary texts.

2) The relationship between human animals and non-human animals – Again, I approach this broad subject from a specific perspective by examining the ways in which French contemporary thinkers are currently writing about the ‘animal question.’ The Anglophone world has picked up on work done by more well-known French philosophers such as Jacques Derrida (“L’animal que donc je suis (à suivre)”) and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (“Devenir animal”) while less attention has been paid to the equally original yet less often translated work of philosophers such as Florence Burgat, Vinciane Despret, Elizabeth de Fontenay, and Dominique Lestel to name a few. What seems particularly interesting about this work is the emphasis on developing a framework for thinking about animals that does not use the discourse of animal rights (Singer) or animal ethics (Regan). Moreover, there seems to be careful attention paid to the need for thinking about animals in a larger continuum that includes the living world more generally and/or the world of newly created artificial beings (biotechnology, cloned animals, etc.). In order to make this work more accessible, I am currently co-editing with Dr. Louisa Mckenzie a volume of translated articles from thinkers in France and North-America, tentatively titled French Thinking about Animals.

3) The state of interdisciplinary studies and academia today – Having done a double major in French literature and mathematics, I am well aware of the institutional and intellectual difficulties in bridging the ‘two cultures’ (C.P. Snow). At the same time, I am convinced that finding ways to cultivate ‘le tiers instruit’ (Serres), or students versed in both the sciences and the arts, is crucial to the university mandate of producing critical thinkers who are capable of speaking more than one disciplinary language and who are mindful of the ways in which research and results are embedded in specific methodologies. Some of the best students with whom I have had the pleasure of sharing ideas have been in Arts & Science programs. Yet one can certainly raise the question: am I truly interdisciplinary? While I enjoy reading books that popularize  complex scientific theories and have taught a course in literature and science in the French novel, I do not do research, nor do I publish in the area of mathematics. Moreover, my work on environment and literature does not mean that I do any empirical work on the state of ecosystems or disappearing species. If I am aware of disciplinary differences, does this make me interdisciplinary? I’m sure some would reply ‘no’ but I have come to recognize the value of such awareness in classes where students from different programs (management, law, biology, political science, philosophy, etc.) to discuss environmental issues. Knowledge of disciplinary differences goes a long way when trying to converse in other ‘languages’ about such a complex subject.

I’m sure other subjects will come up but for now these will be the three main branches of the blog.