Sacrifice Zones: Grief and Hope in Contemporary Literature


01 octobre 2021

02 octobre 2021


ERAS 57 + Salle du Conseil ISP

Organized by ECR, this two-day workshop fits into the ongoing work of the research unit “Humain, animal, planète”. It responds to ongoing debates on the Anthropocene in the environmental humanities by exploring the notion of the “sacrifice zone” via a comparative analysis of ambivalent spaces and emotions in contemporary fiction and literature. 

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As the growing body of research on climate change and the Anthropocene shows, we live in a world where human societies have spread to every corner of the planet, and are shaping and ravaging unique habitats and ecologies. Regardless of the precise starting point we assign to this condition, it is clear that we now inhabit a violent and unequal planet, which has been redesigned by what Rosalind Williams has called “human empire”. In this two-day workshop we plan to bring together junior and senior researchers to reflect on this uneven geography and its adverse effects by bringing together two developments in the environmental humanities that promise to enrich future research in literary studies: the attempt to reimagine multispecies spaces and to recalibrate human emotions.

First of all, many literary and cultural scholars have recently drawn attention to the question of space and the notion of the “zone”. According to David Herman, for instance, new research in narratology should attend more closely to anthropocentric modes of spatial partioning and to alternative, biocentric spatial regimes (Narratology Beyond the Human). While classic analyses of space and place remain relevant in this context, we should examine today’s “other zones” as well as its “other spaces” (Foucault). For several environmental scholars have recently drawn attention to the notion of the “sacrifice zone”, a term traditionally used for areas that are considered to be beyond repair because of human activities like strip mining. In doing so, these scholars encourage us to rethink this term beyond its literal meaning, and to consider more expansive, figurative applications. In his analysis of slow violence in a neocolonial globalized world, for example, Rob Nixon not only mentions sacrifice zones but also points to a broader development, in which places are transformed into “zones” of distinct types, the underlying logic being that “[t]he patriotic-cum-technocratic discourse of zones displaces place, creating conditions for the transformation of inhabitants into surplus people” (Slow Violence, p. 162). Similarly, David Farrier’s account of contemporary poetry underlines that, because the “logic of sacrifice zones” is inherent to a capitalist view of nature, “[t]he division of the world into inventory or surplus has led to an immense dispersal of sacrifice zones, on scales both large and small” (Anthropocene Poetics, p. 52). As such remarks indicate, this technocratic and pessimistic way of thinking about environmental damage can be extended to other types of settings. The preceding arguments resonate with Macarena Gómez-Barris’s decolonial analysis of the “extractive zone” in South America, for example, and the forms of resistance embedded in activist art. In fact, given the massive impact of human activities on the entire planet, it seems fair to ask what setting should not be considered a sacrifice zone of sorts? Heavily polluted sites continue to loom large in our ecological imagination, and rightly so, but we should not overlook the damage inflicted on everyday spaces, and their particular sacrificial logics. In what ways can a biological laboratory be considered a sacrifice zone? Or a farm, a zoo, a sea, a museum - or even a road?

As our attitudes to contemporary spaces and environments often involve violence, it might be productive to extend the notion of the sacrifice zone to other settings. In doing so, however, we should also interrogate the term’s implied dismissal of contaminated areas, and reflect on signs of hope as well as despair. For that reason, a renewed reflection on the question of space might productively intersect with ongoing attempts to describe and rethink environmental emotions. As scholars like Eben Kirksey, Teresa Shewry, and Ursula Heise have pointed out, the analysis of contemporary culture and its environments should not limit itself to predictable, past-oriented narratives of decline, but also consider future-directed affiliations between and beyond humans. Although the dominant emotional effect of literal sacrifice zones might well be “solastalgia”, as Glenn A. Albrecht has argued (Earth Emotions), we should continue to think about the various ways in which we can address these effects and their causes, especially in the domain of art and literature. How can we describe our ambiguous forms of inhabitation, in other words, which often combine violent devastation with hopeful projects of care and mitigation? Such descriptions require us to rethink environmental emotions alongside multispecies spaces. According to scholars like Heather Houser and Nicole Seymour, future artistic and research projects should move beyond predictable forms of ecological emotion and wonder about the ways in which unexpected feelings can become productive in this context, however counterintuitive they might appear at first. Maybe we should replace a sanctimonious stance with an irreverent one, think about disgust as well as awe, laugh as well as weep and protest. So in thinking about contemporary forms of eco-fiction, this workshop proposes that we consider zones as well as spaces, hope as well as grief. How do literary texts and settings respond to ongoing environmental destruction? How do they turn sacrifice into hope? Building on the papers presented at this workshop, the organizers will submit a proposal for a special issue on “sacrifice zones” to a well-respected scholarly journal like Textual Practice, Studies in the Novel or Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 

Scientific committee

  • Ben De Bruyn, chargé de cours, UCLouvain
  • Véronique Bragard, professeure, UCLouvain
  • Michel Delville, professeur, Université de Liège
  • Franca Bellarsi, professeure, Université Libre de Bruxelles

This workshop is generously supported by the research institute INCAL, the research unit ECR, and the Fund for Scientific Research FRS-FNRS

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