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Digital Workshop Series "Digital Dialogues 數字對話" #6

Feb 16, 2022 | 10:00 AM s.t.

As part of the Digital Workshop Series "Digital Dialogues 數字對話", researchers will discuss various aspects and questions of the joint project.

Ecological Worldmaking – Literary and Cinematic Explorations of Environmental Crises

February 16, 2022, 10 AM CET

Please note that we start at 10 am s.t.

This Digital Dialogue brings together two speakers – one from Hong Kong, one from Würzburg – who study ecological crises through the lenses of (Chinese) film and (American) literature. The exchange will highlight how these perspectives intersect and how ecological concerns are an important site of worldmaking.

In China, as well as other parts of the world, works that connect urbanization, ruins and art reflect a growing trend and tell an inconvenient truth. The past decade was witness to China’s exhibition of its power. The same decade, however, saw a massive loss of life in natural disasters, and a perpetual demolition and construction that led to the displacement of Chinese people in the name of progress. A sense of the uncanny has become part of the daily life of China. Winnie L. M. Yee explores in her research the relationship of waterscape, everyday life and creativity in post-socialist Chinese filmic texts. Her recent paper examines the ways in which independent films have become effective means of drawing attention to the depletion of natural life due to developmentalism, marketization and globalization. Yee looks at three subjects that are of great consequence to contemporary China – the currents of urbanization, the undercurrents of displacement, and the recurrent dream of anthropocentrism – and traces the ways these subjects are discussed, appropriated, challenged, and reflected upon. Rather than dealing directly with environmental issues, filmmakers forge a new relationship with nature and the countryside, which shapes their identity and allows them to come to terms with the realities of post-socialist China.

In Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006), Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze (2007), and Dong Jun’s Flood (2008), human actions are embodied in their waterscapes. The selected works articulate a kind of ethical ecology that infuses the material world with the moral consequences of historical events. Focusing on the waterscapes – the actual places and represented landscapes in the documentary and film – this paper examines the impact of water on the construction of Chinese identity. Nature is a space through which individuals project their feelings regarding the land and their cultural lineage, and their frustration with the dominant ideology, which often insists on the necessity of urban development. In the case of rivers, mega-dams and uncanny landscapes, the subtle, invisible changes associated with globalism, post-socialism and urbanization are brought to visibility. These spaces serve as sites of empowerment, where filmmakers can use artistic experiments to challenge the existing order and unleash the energy of creation.

In this dialogue, Catrin Gersdorf will take Annie Proulx’ novel Barkskins (2016) as starting point. Covering 320 years of human interactions with the arboreal world in North America (and elsewhere on this planet), Proulx’ narrative reimagines modern history as one that is marked by, but rarely recognized for its ecological cynicism. As such, Barkskins represents a form of literary ecocriticism that is historically and culturally diagnostic rather than celebratory, elegiac, or apocalyptic, modes that are much more common in narrative representations of the environmental crisis. What emerges from the pages of Proulx’ novel is the history of modernity and its hazardous relation with the very conditions of its existence – “earthly nature” (H. Arendt). By exposing modernity as an ecologically cynical project, Proulx inadvertently asks a question that is central to confronting the current environmental crisis: Is modern culture capable of overcoming the quintessential cynicism underlying its relationship to the more-than-human world?

The speakers:

Winnie L. M. Yee 余麗文 is senior lecturer in comparative literature and program coordinator of the MA Program in Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Hong Kong. In 2019–20 she is a fellow in Rachel Carson Center for the Environment and Society at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Her research interests are ecocriticism, Hong Kong culture, contemporary Chinese literature and film, and independent cinema. She is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between ecopoetics and Chinese literature and independent film scene. Her works have appeared in Cultural Studies, PRISM, Journal of Asian Cinema, Communication and the Public, Environment Space Place, Jump Cut, among other places.

Catrin Gersdorf is Professor and Chair of American Studies as well as the head of the Environmental Humanities class at the Graduate School of the Humanities at the University of Würzburg. The author of The Poetics and Politics of the Desert: Landscape and the Construction of America (Rodopi 2009), she is also co-editor of Nature in Literary and Cultural Studies: Transatlantic Conversations in Ecocriticism (Rodopi 2005), America after Nature: Democracy, Culture, Environment (Winter Verlag 2016), and Urban Ecologies (2016), a special issue of the online journal Ecozon@. Other publications include articles and review essays located at the intersection of American Studies, eco/environmental studies, and the theory of emotions. She wrote on authors, artists, and critics as diverse as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Nathanael West, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ray Bradbury, Ruth Ozecki, Toni Morrison, Ana Mendieta, and Walter Benjamin. Gersdorf is a founding member of the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and Environment (EASLCE) in which she also served on the executive and advisory boards.


The participation at this event is open to everyone, who registers prior to the event: Registration