Barbara Eckstein

Authored on:

Nov 05, 2012

Barbara Eckstein is a Fall 2012 Obermann Fellow-in-Residence and a University of Iowa professor of English. She is also on the faculty of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) 
and is affiliated with International Programs. She’s previously served as Associate Provost for Academic Administration. Currently, she is in the early phases of an extensive study of the Upper Mississippi River Basin, which spans an ancient site at Cahokia in present-day western Illinois (pictured to the right in an 1887 print) to the murder site of Elijah Lovejoy at Alton (IL) and the inchoate Black town at neighboring Brooklyn (IL) to the prairie bogs confronting surveyors of the Iowa TerritoryWith a team from the Digital Studio for the Public Humanities (DSPH) and the Geological Survey, she is also building a digital, participatory People’s Weather Map (PWM). 

Q: Your work spans such an interesting array of disciplines. You’re in the English Department, and yet it seems like you could find a home in Urban & Regional Planning, American Studies, Geography, and even Engineering.  In addition to your book Sustaining New Orleans: Literature, Local Memory, and the Fate of a City, which came out the same year as Hurricane Katrina, you’ve recently published an article on nature deficit disorder and Mark Twain and another subtitled “Why Geographers Should Care about Narrative Form.” How do you describe your work?

A: Sustainability has been the model and motivation of my work for years now. Of course the word is overused in corporate advertising but so are lots of good words. The goal of balancing economic viability, environmental health, and social justice that defines sustainability pushes against the tragic assumption that our choices are between jobs and owls or, these days, between jobs dependent upon the tops blown off of mountains and families with no income but intact mountain tops. My goal is to demonstrate that the arts and cultural analysis have important roles to play in struggles to achieve sustainable practices in particular locations. Literary analysis is useful in problem-solving. I like being useful. Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote in a recent PMLA forum on sustainability spoke of the sustainable humanities and their role in enabling our imagination of a world otherwise. “Sustainable humanities”; I like that. There is still a lot of work to be done to demonstrate to scientists and engineers, economists and policy analysts, and to the public how the arts and cultural analysis contribute to the struggle for sustainability.

Q:  What drew you to this scholarly crossroads?

A:  When, in the nineties, I wanted to place literary representation of the city of New Orleans in a dynamic process with issues of social justice, economic viability, and environmental health, and learned about the evolution of the term “sustainability,” I realized it was the right scholarly home for me. An urban planner taught me about the evolution of sustainability, so I first addressed that discipline when promoting the role literature and literary analysis should be playing. I have since addressed geographers on these same issues, especially working through Henri Lefebvre’s very useful way of constructing the dynamic process of producing space.  Now, with the Upper Mississippi River Basin project, I find myself crucially informed by the exciting archaeological work done in the region, especially what recovers information about the Mississipian peoples.

I have to say that I came into the literary profession with training in deconstruction and a belief that in the best hands—say, Derrida and his English translators—it offers a crucial strategy for unraveling the uncertainties and paradoxes of political maneuvering at all scales and in all places. In turning to the materiality of sustainability, I did not reject the value of the very close analysis that Derridean thought invites. Materiality and deconstruction, use and close analysis are not mutually exclusive.  Deconstruction invites close analysis, yes, but it also reminds me how much remains uncertain, how much is untraceable.  Humility never hurts.

Q:  You’ve moved your scholarly focus from New Orleans to the Upper Mississippi River Basin. What interests you about this place and space? 

A:  I like to work where I am, trying to know, take responsibility for, what’s all around me and under my feet.  Some ecocritical scholars are critical of place-based work; they argue that it fails to take on the planetary perspective. I don’t agree. The story of a small garden, like the story of an hour, can resonate powerfully across space and time, linking disparate locations materially and morally. There are, what Doreen Massey calls, power geometries at work in the production of any place all the time, economic, ecological, social, and cultural factors that are vying to change its shape every day. 

In fact, my current work is not about a small garden but rather a region that I fear is becoming, through industrial agriculture, the wasteland that the inner cities have been in the industrial revolution. I try to tell stories from history that imagined the region otherwise—the unexpected journal of a surveyor; the perspective of a run away slave; a twentieth-century journey by canoe from Lake Itasca to New Orleans. And I use literary representation to stimulate greater understanding of how human activity produces a place and to imagine alternative decisions to those most frequently made in the interest of profit.

Q:  How has your focus changed since your book on New Orleans?

A:  This project and my earlier work on New Orleans both use the principles of sustainability to study specific places across time, a socioecological analysis. Also, it’s just useful when working on a region to know something about what goes on downstream—socially, culturally, and ecologically. 

Since I wrote Sustaining New Orleans, many exciting things have happened in ecocriticism. I’m especially keen on work that takes seriously the alternate perspectives of species other than humans. There is ample opportunity to follow those perspectives in the material I’m examining about the Upper Mississippi River Basin. Mosquitoes, for example, play a role in the production of the region. Their role is not so powerful as it has been where they are vectors of disease in epidemic proportions—the Caribbean, the U.S. South, equatorial Africa. Attending to them, just the same, helps keep me mindful of the more-than-human world.