Art history, environmental science, sexuality, poetry, spirituality: These are only some of the fascinating research interests that have coalesced in the latest scholarly study by McFarlin Professor of English Dennis Denisoff.
In Decadent Ecology in British Literature and Art, 1860-1910, published recently by Cambridge University Press, Denisoff focuses on the influence of decadence and paganism on modern understandings of nature and the environment, queer and feminist politics, national identities and contested social hierarchies. Decadent Ecology draws insights from a long list of notable figures in diverse studies of both art and literature, such as the painter Simeon Solomon, literary critic Walter Pater, novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and essayist Vernon Lee.
Decadence and queer ecology
Denisoff’s most impactful findings relate to the nineteenth-century development of terminology and conceptual models around new sciences, such as ecology, in relation to current research in eco-studies. Archival and theoretical investigations led him to discover that ecology was pervasively influenced by discourses of neo-paganism and decadence, both of which started to develop as spiritual, literary and artistic movements at around the same time as the study of ecology appeared. “Extraction ecology and environmentalism in nineteenth-century Britain used the same rhetoric of decay, excess and productivity that the decadents used to challenge monetary and productionist measures of human and ecological worth,” Denisoff observed.
New possibilities in queer ecology studies, meanwhile, gave Denisoff a valuable theoretical framework and language that, he said, “encourage sensitivity to differences that we, as a society, often tend to ignore. Queer eco-studies carries the hope of developing an approach to the world that is more self-aware, open-minded and inviting of difference not only among humans but across species.”
While queer ecology studies is a rather recent field, Denisoff notes that he has benefited greatly from membership in its vibrant, international community of scholars, writers and artists: “We are all building off of each other’s ideas and findings, helping the field take shape in this time of critical environmental change.”
While exploring fresh theories and materials can be disorienting at first, Denisoff credits the students he taught at The University of Tulsa in his Environment and Literature course for helping sustain and nurture his curiosity and interests. “Students ask the most fundamental and so, often, most difficult questions,” he commented. “Their willingness to enter into a new set of inquiries, to read current theoretical works in the field and to learn to cull useful insights and then work to prove the extrapolations, did more to change my own research questions than anything else.”
A royal fellowship
Now that the ink has dried on Decadent Ecology, Denisoff foresees his next research project picking up on research by Charles Darwin and others on the ways in which plants communicate and interact with their environments. With these interests in mind, Denisoff is preparing for an upcoming position as a Distinguished Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London. Postponed for two years due to COVID-19, Denisoff will begin his long-awaited fellowship in April.
In addition to giving talks and lectures at various universities, Denisoff plans to conduct research at the University of London, the Natural History Museum, the South London Botanical Institute and the Victoria and Albert Museum on a new book on plant sentience in literature and film. “In light of recent works engaging apocalyptic climate change, I’m especially interested in nineteenth-century literary renderings of the growing awareness that, far from humans being stewards of nature and managing the environment, the biosphere is itself acting in what it senses to be its own best interests, with no discernible concern for what humans in particular think,” said Denisoff. “While writers have often rendered this situation as a type of existential horror, there are many works suggesting more respectful, even venerative models in which humans learn to respect and work with other species and forces, all acknowledging their mutual reliance and the limits of their knowledge.”
Does the prospect of studying literature in conjunction with various other disciplines such as art and science excite you? The Department of English and Creative Writing has all you need to dig in!