For centuries it was believed that all matter was composed of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire in promiscuous combination, bound by love and pulled apart by strife. Elemental theory offered a mode of understanding materiality that did not center the cosmos around the human. Outgrown as a science, the elements are now what we build our houses against. Their renunciation has fostered only estrangement from the material world.
The essays collected in Elemental Ecocriticism show how elemental materiality precipitates new engagements with the ecological. Here the classical elements reveal the vitality of supposedly inert substances (mud, water, earth, air), chemical processes (fire), and natural phenomena, as well as the promise in the abandoned and the unreal (ether, phlogiston, spontaneous generation).
Decentering the human, this volume provides important correctives to the idea of the material world as mere resource. Three response essays meditate on the connections of this collaborative project to the framing of modern-day ecological concerns. A renewed intimacy with the elemental holds the potential of a more dynamic environmental ethics and the possibility of a reinvigorated materialism.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is professor of English and director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Monster Theory: Reading Culture; Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green; and Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (all from Minnesota).
Lowell Duckert is assistant professor of English at West Virginia University, specializing in early modern literature, ecotheory, and environmental criticism. With Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, he edited “Ecomaterialism” a special issue of postmedieval (2013).
Contributors: Stacy Alaimo, U of Texas at Arlington; Valerie Allen, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY; Chris Barrett, Louisiana State U; Anne Harris, DePauw U; Serenella Iovino, U of Turin; Steve Mentz, St. John’s U; Timothy Morton, Rice U; Sharon O’Dair, U of Alabama; Serpil Oppermann, Hacettepe U; Karl Steel, Brooklyn College, CUNY; Cary Wolfe, Rice U; Julian Yates, U of Delaware.
"The mixture here is rich, exhilarat- ing, and while the processes of creating this collection were evidently equally so for the contributors, and while the result is illuminating and at times almost heady for the reader, it behoves us to bear in mind the toxic within such intoxication and seek a little grit amongst the mud."—Green Letters