Saturday 22nd February 2020, the University of Warwick
Twitter Handle: @FlowsAndFloods
Twitter Hashtag: #FlowsAndFloods #FlowsAndFloodsConference
Taking place in the midst of what seems to be relentless February rain, the ‘Flows and Floods: Changing Environments and Cultures’ conference, hosted by the University of Warwick, appeared as a very timely event. Between Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, the UK has experienced three weeks of extreme rainfall, with flooding from swollen rivers resulting in road blockages, damaged properties, and even deaths. The conference aimed to examine the relationship between cultural production and environmental change, using the concepts of flows and floods (both literal and metaphorical) to frame these discussions. The conference was a one-day event which brought together a wide array of both local and international PhD students and researchers.
The day began with the first panel session, with three parallel panels. I chose to attend ‘Culture and Crisis’, which began with a presentation from Daniel Barrow on the novel Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and the concept of narrative agency. Barrow explored the representation of water in the novel, and how the imagery of water and milk feeds into the novel’s sense of repetitive narrative time in order to critique humanity’s connection or disconnection to a global ecology. The second speaker was Diana Valencia Duarte, who spoke on Food Sovereignty in Colombia. Duarte explored the top-down flow of agri-food policy decision in Colombia and the impact this had on rural inhabitants, the landscape, and national food security. Chiara Xausa gave the final talk of this panel and considered the literary legacy of hurricane Katrina in two novels: Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Babst’s The Floating World. Both novels consider what Xausa called ‘a legacy of not evacuating’ and address the absence of climate justice as a theme in climate fiction. Xausa argued that the most absent voices are also often the most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. These novels explore apocalypse as a condition to inhabit, highlighting how the disasters and their aftermath have diverse effects on different communities.
After coffee, we came back together for the keynote talk delivered by Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer. Their keynote, titled ‘Of Flood and Ice’ set out to draw links between Texas and Iceland through the conference theme of ‘Flows and Floods’. Howe and Boyer took turns speaking, with Boyer beginning the keynote on the topic of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding of Houston, Texas – a city, Boyer argued, that exemplifies the spaces that petroculture creates, now devasted by the consequences of that same petroculture. In contrast, Howe bought us around the globe to Iceland and the disappearance of the Icelandic glaciers. Through a concept Howe called ‘hydrological globalisation’, glacier melt, sea level rise and flooding become part of an interconnected global network of water. The talk explored the social and cultural implications of the glacier melt witnessed in Iceland and the flooding experienced in Texas, highlighting the contingency of borders, and finished with a short analysis of the poem ‘Rise’ by Kathy Jetnil-Kihiner and Aka Niviana. It was a fascinating talk that introduced new ways of thinking about global relationships during a time of climate upheaval, and it was followed by plenty of questions!
The keynote was followed by lunch which was a great time to meet new people and catch up with old acquaintances. The second panel session followed lunch, and I chose the ‘Petrocultures’ panel, which had Alex Campbell as its first speaker. Campbell talked on the cultural imaginaries of the offshore world as presented in the poetry of Spahr, Ojeda-Sague and Solie. Drawing on her research in the blue humanities, Campbell explored how the infrastructures of crude oil economics and its conditions of extraction and exchange are set against alternative hydro-logics in order to gesture towards new possibilities. The second speaker was Josephine Taylor, who began by posing the question to the audience of whether a non-anthropocentric relation to energy is possible and could an ethics of vulnerability disrupt an imperialist system of energy production? In order to answer these questions, Taylor introduced two books, Naomi Okafor’s Lagoon and Faber’s Under the Skin, to consider how the representation of the peripheral spaces of the abattoir and the oil rig bring to light the deliberate amnesia which underpins capitalism. Up last, Caroline Rae talked to us on Lucy Wood’s The Sing of the Shore and its representation of the enduring and returning nature of material waste. Drawing on theories of hauntology and the uncanny, Rae put forward the argument that plastic takes on a ghost-like function in these short stories, haunting the human protagonists through their recurrence and revealing a co-existence of the past in the present. This panel was brilliantly structured with clear links between the three papers that allowed each to reflect back/forward on the others. In particular, all three speakers look at how literature and poetry bring the peripheral and invisible to the fore, disrupting humanity’s blindness to the cultures and industries that underpin modern life.
We had another short coffee break, after which I attended the panel titled ‘Poetry and Poetics’ for the third session of the conference. Sam Kemp began by introducing the Radical Walking Movement and the concept of mythogeography as a framework for exploring storied landscapes. While Kemp looked at how movement is integral to how these poets questioned narrative layers, our second speaker, Sam Weselowski, considered the notion of ‘flow’ in the poetry of Jeff Derksen. Weselowski argued that Derksen’s work confronts the challenge of representation created by the ‘overflows’ and oscillating scales of the Anthropocene. Harriet Archer gave the final paper on this panel, brining an ecocritical perspective to Shakespeare’s Lucrece through an analysis of its rhetoric of flows and floods. Archer highlighted how the poem’s use of nonhuman imagery and its representations of nonhuman agency are used to explore themes of tyranny and mis-governance.
The final panel session of the day was split into two topics: ‘Migration’ and ‘Art and Multimedia’ and I was the very last speaker presenting as part of the Migration panel. The first speaker was Dominic Davies, whose talk was my favourite of the day. It looked at the use of graphic novels and comics as a form of ‘counter-forensics’ that takes a resistant stance against state forms of surveillance and documentation. Davies particularly focused on the theme of migrant sea-crossings and efforts made by the activist organisation Forensic Architecture. These texts become a form of witnessing for those who struggle to communicate their stories through official channels. The second speaker was Trevor Westmoreland, whose presentation I attended and commented on in my conference report for the USS 2019 conference. He followed Davies with his talk on Hamid’s Exit West and its representation of abstractions of space and time. He argued that the narrative highlights the importance of place to our sense of identity and subjectivity, leading to the conclusion that the annihilation of a sense of place holds dystopian potential. Last, but hopefully not least, my paper looked at the representation of the Monarch butterflies in the novel Flight Behavior and used the concept of flows and floods to explain how the novel ties together the local and global in its representation of climate change. Although we presented on rather diverse subjects, we found that all three papers were drawn together through their considerations of migration and movement as a response to or consequence of climate change.
‘Flows and Floods’ was a fantastic event that brought together a truly diverse range of research areas and subjects, which made for an enjoyable and stimulating conference. The conference was organised by Nora Castle, Amul Gyawali, and Harry Pitt Scott, three Warwick PhD students who did a fantastic job of putting together this event.