PaperHive Conversations: Molly Wallace

Risk Criticism by Molly WallaceRisk Criticism by Molly Wallace
Source: University of Michigan Press

Molly Wallace is an Associate Professor at Queen’s University, Canada. In the past, she has been published in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Contemporary Literature, Cultural Critique, and symplokē. Her most recent work, Risk Criticism, analyzes how different types of media, such as novels, websites, and news reports, address the issue of global environmental risk.

Did you encounter any surprising difficulties while working on the book?
How did you resolve them?

Well, as with writing anything, the main difficulty was procrastination! Slow steady work is the only way anything gets produced, in my experience. There are moments of exhilaration at the beginning and end, but writing can be lonely and tedious at various points in the middle. The other challenge that I encountered with this book in particular is that I was writing about very current events, especially in the final chapter, which treats, among other things, the meltdown at Fukushima. Events are still unfolding there (and will be for some time), which makes that part of the chapter fairly instantly dated—the drama of the “ice wall” enclosure was and is ongoing, for example. I simply offer it as a snapshot of a particular moment in time; the unpredictability (and unmanageability) of the future is part of the argument of the book, so that helps as well.

Is there any other academic literature you would definitely recommend
to junior researchers joining the field of environmental studies?

Anyone serious about environmental issues needs to read Rob Nixon’s book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. There is simply no more elegant a concept than “slow violence” for thinking through the operation of so many risks today. I would also encourage junior researchers not to get caught up in the progress (or is it regress?) narrative that environmentalists themselves sometimes perpetuate, which tells us that we live in absolutely unprecedented times, and thus only the newest, cutting edge research has anything to teach us. There is so much important and articulate new work on the Anthropocene and climate change that it is difficult to keep up; junior scholars now have an enviable embarrassment of riches when it comes to scholarship in the field (which is also a bit daunting!).

But good scholarship has to have a sense of history, and, frankly, we need to respect our elders. So I would say, in addition to recent work (Timothy Morton on dark ecology; Stephanie LeMenager on living oil; Sandra Steingraber on toxics; Robin Wall Kimmerer on articulating indigenous and scientific knowledges), read Darwin, Thoreau, and Gandhi; read Ramachandra Guha, Rachel Carson, and E. F. Schumacher; read the first wave ecocritics and Wendell Berry. Mainly, though, just read.

What papers/projects do you have coming through in the next year?

I am presently working on what I view as a necessary counterpart to Risk Criticism, a project that, presuming the context that Risk Criticism describes (of environmental collapse), looks toward imagining and enacting alternatives. A colleague and I are editing a collection of essays by activists, artists, and scholars from diverse disciplines that treats an array of such alternatives, from permaculture to public art, from freegan living to Transition Towns.

I am also working toward a monograph on similar topics. This turn is motivated in part by my sense that those of us in the environmental humanities are better at articulating problems than we are at thinking through solutions—if we really can’t imagine anything other than what we have, then we are likely to contribute to the general sense of despair. While there is a narrative of environmental optimism out there, it tends to be driven by either corporate greenwashing or techno-boosterism (or, often, both), and I think we can do better—in any case, there are people out there doing better, living alternatives that we could be paying more attention to. Whether any of this new work will be out in the next year is an open question, but these are the concerns that are motivating my recent thinking and directing my research, reading, and writing.

Who has influenced you the most?
Current/past researchers or people outside the academic field?

So very many people have influenced my thinking; it would be impossible to name them all. Reading Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women and Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern changed my life: the world looked substantially different when I looked up after reading them. Risk Criticism is absolutely indebted to Ulrich Beck, from whom I take the concept of “risk society” with all of its trappings. My work is also very much influenced by some of the greats in the field of ecocriticism today, critics like Rob Nixon, Cate Sandilands, Laurence Buell, Frederick Buell, Stacy Alaimo, and Ursula Heise, among many, many others. Risk Criticism is, though, in many ways a deeply personal book, a product of my own experience of growing up in the late Cold War, with its simultaneous threats of nuclear annihilation and ecocide.

PaperHive would like to know if the reader had only 5 minutes, what specific pages
or sections they should definitely read to gain insight into your research? 

The argument of Risk Criticism really develops over the course of the book, so I certainly hope that readers will find the time to read it cover to cover! I don’t think there is a definitive answer to this question. Of course we all read books in this way, skipping to sections that pique our interest, but I suspect that this kind of reading is fairly individualized. The short answer is, as with any book, read the introduction.

Do the different types of material you worked with (e.g. novels, visual art, news reports)
represent environmental risks in a different way?

Absolutely. I talk in the final chapter, for instance, about some differences in documentary film and theater. At the same time, part of what interests me about representing risk is the difficulty with which all media must grapple, which is representing what is not really representable, not fully known or acknowledged, not visible. How can we, laypeople, understand the risk posed by radiation? How can we navigate controversies surrounding genetically modified foods? How can we trace the causal links of cancer clusters, or our own contributions to the Pacific garbage patch(es)?

I am interested in the ways in which texts navigate the absence of knowledge so basic to risk society. I approach these questions as a literary critic, and that disciplinary training affects my reading of the diverse material that the book treats. I am interested in the ways in which strategies like irony, synecdoche, metonymy, metaphor, and analogy undergird representations of risk, whether these appear in a novel, a website, a news item, a film, or a poem.

The book is in part about the material reality of life in the risk society and the texts that attempt to represent it, but it is also very much about the critical practices that might be appropriate to it—hence the title “risk criticism.” The book uses literary critical terms and rhetorical analysis in part because that is my training, but I also make an argument about the value of these seemingly narrower practices and their key terms to understanding larger concerns in the fields of environmental humanities and environmental studies. This is hardly a novel argument, of course. Derrida said something similar about literary criticism’s expertise vis-à-vis the nuclear issue in the 1980s. I see real resonance between that time and ours, and “risk criticism” is an attempt to build on and supplement that earlier work.

About the Author

Lisa Matthias
Studies North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research interests are Media Studies, Political Communication, and US Foreign Policy.