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“Grounding the Ecocritical: Materializing Wastelands and Living on in the Middle East.”

The Middle East today is synonymous with devastation, whether it has been wrought by war, authoritarianism, or climate change. We interpret names like Syria and Libya, Fallujah and Baghdad, as references to states of perpetual conflict and ruin that are physical, social, and political. While the region is more present than ever in the public imagination, it remains strangely absent: a zone of empty spaces, where ordinary life seems unimaginable and the layers of history obliterated.

Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this “Grounding the Ecocritical” Sawyer Seminar at Washington University in St. Louis launches a comparative, interdisciplinary investigation into ecological, technical, and literary-cultural accounts of wasteland spaces across the region traditionally defined as the Middle East.

Our seminar both questions and employs the term “wasteland.” We use “wastelands” to denote spaces characterized by multiple layers of material and environmental degradation, ruin, and decay, as well as the forms of life that inhabit them. Wastelands bring together human-initiated and non-human ecologies and actors; in them, the boundaries between human and “natural” forms of life blur. We query the fungibility or portability of the singular term (“the wasteland”) and the power relations that often accompany it; we recognize that wastelands are embedded in hierarchies of value based on productivity and its other, waste.

“...the role of decay in the socio-political bedrock of the Middle East can only be mapped out by appropriating a highly technical vocabulary…. In decay, the being survives by blurring into other beings, without losing all its ontological registers. In no way does decay wipe out or terminate; on the contrary it keeps alive….By degenerating all aspects of formation, decay ungrounds the very ground upon which power is conducted, distributed, and established.”

    -- Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, 182.

Lebanese activists from the ‘You Stink’ movement try to remove a barbed wire barricade during a protest in front the Government Palace, Beirut. NABIL MOUNZER / EPA

For a recent article on this Mellon Sawyer seminar in the Washington University in St. Louis The Source, click here