Keynote Speakers Abstracts

Gillian Burke – ‘F*CK OPTIMISM – Is positivity bias in nature storytelling doing more harm than good?’

Storytelling from the natural world is often steeped in the belief that simply revealing the wonder and beauty of nature is enough to make people love it, and when they love nature, they will care for it.  That has been the hope.  But after the best part of two decades making natural history films, Gillian asks is this true?  A cold hard look at the best-available science on climate and ecological crisis leaves little room for hope.  It also suggests mainstream storytelling hasn’t worked.   

From this bleak outlook (and possibly also falling fowl of positivity bias) Gillian slowly ascends the mountain of despair traversing between genres and movements, from Gospel music and Black Lives Matter to the smoking ban, to glean what gems she can of how other storytellers have kept hope alive, but for good.  

Elizabeth Parker – ‘There’s No Place Like Home: Dark Ecologies and Dark Economies’

‘[Solastalgia is] the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault […] [It] is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at “home”’. Glenn Albrecht (2005: p. 48)

The words ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’ share an etymological root: each stem from the Greek ôikos, meaning ‘house’ or ‘household’. ‘Ecology’, then, is ‘the study of the house’, while ‘economy’ is ‘the management of the house’. It is striking—given the dominant Western cultural divisions between ‘the house’/‘the wild’, ‘inside’/‘outside’, ‘culture’/‘Nature’, and ‘place’/‘space’—that this prefix which we so readily associate with the green and with something outside of ourselves denotes the home. The fact that this notion is striking, or even shocking, is demonstrative of the ‘dark times’ in which we live.

This paper examines the idea of eco-as-home and its murky ambivalence. Taking the words ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’ as its starting point, it explores the darkness that now saturates the ‘study’ and ‘management’ of our ‘home’—in the macro sense—and this home’s diminishing resources and status as a lasting habitat for humankind. Drawing on critical references such as solastalgia and various provocative terms in the Anthropocene lexicon,as well as the ecoGothic, this paper uses textual examples from horror and the Gothic to interrogate our speculative, longing, and fearful imaginings of actually being ‘at home’ in the wilderness. It explores and reveals some of the key themes, patterns, and paradoxes we encounter in these dark mobilisations, from our representations of backwoods(/wards) folk who dwell in the wild to our visions of isolated idylls heavy with sinister potential. It draws on a number of illustrative textual examples, but focuses especially on Lorcan Finnegan’s 2020 film Vivarium, which is a provocative case study in how the darkly ecological collides with the darkly economical in the image of the home. Through a close reading of this rich and layered text—which takes as its subject the human vivarium—we re-examine the maxim ‘there’s no place like home’.

 John Strachan – ‘Comic Suicide in Nineteenth-Century Print Culture’

The scatological English comic Viz features a recurring character by the name of Suicidal Syd, a youth who continually attempts self-destruction, only to be systematically thwarted in his suicidal ambitions. Eventually he resolves to live happily, only to be accidentally killed in some unforeseen manner at the end of each strip. This is comedy of a black humour, but its tone is by no means anything new.  There were a series of comic literary treatments of suicide in the first half of the nineteenth century and my paper examines the literary, philosophical and gender implications of this dark satirical subculture, which is evident in literary titans such as Dickens and Dostoevsky as well as in anonymous contributors to late Georgian and Victorian periodicals. 

Marie Mulvey-Roberts – ‘The Dark Economies of Sexual Surgeries Past and Present’

According to Foucault, the Victorian obsession with sexuality proliferated through discourse.  This paper will begin by exploring how it spawned a lucrative industry in anti-masturbatory self-help books and devices, which for males rested on the pseudo-science of a spermatic economy.  For both men and women, there was the widely held bogus belief that masturbation was a pathology which was potentially life-threatening. As critic Diane Mason has argued, the semiotics of the onanist are encoded in nineteenth-century literary texts.  With reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a dark and hidden history of sexual surgery, triggered by this furor, will be traced from the middle of the nineteenth century.  Dubbed “the dark science” by Jeffrey Masson, I argue that a pattern can be detected in how certain gynecological surgeries, intended to control or subdue the unruly female, were popularized at a time of increasing agitation for women’s rights. This continued up to the sexual revolution of the twentieth century, which was exploited by the unethical operations of Dr James Burt, the American so-called “love surgeon”, for the purposes of greater patriarchal control.  This 200-year dark hidden history of medical malpractice will be discussed with reference to Gothic literature and film.