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“Earth 2.0: Noah and His Family in the Wastelands”

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, George Washington University
2.8.18
4pm, Hurst Lounge
Co-Sponsored by the English Department

The Book of Genesis has provided western cultures with an enduring myth for scripting the contours of life during climate change. Noah builds a box-like vessel to sail the rising waters with a cargo of humans and animals, bequeathing to a ruined Earth a chance to start again, to be populated anew. In the wake of this narrative we still build arks against the weather, filling them with seeds and endangered animals and all kinds of stories we want to preserve against catastrophe -- expecting that once the wastelands arrive, we will fill them with our conserved content. Yet every act of preservation comes at cost, not only to the saved but to what has been abandoned to the storm. This talk examines a counter-history within the Noah myth, in which the drama of the ark unfolds at its exterior, with those abandoned to watery devastation. It also looks forward to the repopulating of the world, and the difficult histories that beset what seems like a chance to begin anew. Living in devastated lands (past, present and future), these stories show, is complicated: demanding expansion of the refuges we build, hospitality towards the unknown and the challenging, the opening up of our definition of what it means to be human, and a more capacious vision for surviving together.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. His research examines strange and beautiful things that challenge the imagination, phenomena that seem alien and intimate at once. He is especially interested in what monsters, foreigners, queers, inhuman forces, objects and matter that won't stay put reveal about the cultures that dream, fear and desire them. 

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Cohen recently co-wrote a book called Earth with planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, published in the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series. His book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman won the 2017 René Wellek Prize for the best book in comparative literature. The project was generously funded by fellowships from the ACLS and the Guggenheim Foundation, and investigates the active and abiding companionship of our most seemingly inert substance. With Lowell Duckert, Cohen edited a special issue of the journal postmedieval on ecomaterialism and collaborated on an edited collection on this same topic, Elemental Ecocriticism (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), which brings together ecotheorists with medieval, early modern and contemporary disciplines to rethink the possibilities offered by supposedly outmoded knowledge and stories. The book extends the collaborative investigation of more-than-green ecologies and active materialities instigated by Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green that will be continued in a third volume at the same press, Veer Ecology, a volume with thirty-one contributors ranging across disciplines and periods (forthcoming in early 2018). Currently in collaboration with Julian Yates, Cohen is at work on a project called "Noah's Arkive: Groundless Reading from the Beginning Until the End of Time."