Now and then, humanity shocks itself into brief moments of introspection. We think a bit about the species and the world we have collectively created. For the cultural critic Walter Benjamin, these are moments of danger in which memory flashes up to elucidate — briefly, fleetingly — the violence inherent in everything we tend to touch. Two world wars in less than three decades provoked such a moment. Across various social, political, cultural, and religious boundaries various humans pondered the concept of the human and the geopolitical world in which our structural violence had erupted into global warfare, touching all aspects of the environment, right down to, yes, plants. In this talk, Wald considers the vegetal violence documented in the work of the decolonization theorist Aimé Césaire as well as the homicidal vegetation, seeds gone berserk, in the emergent genre of science fiction horror, both of which register the importance of a new account of the past — an eco-history that includes the relationships of all living organisms — to the project of decolonization. Long ago, Hannah Arendt suggested that “the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction” merits critical attention “as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires.” This talk takes up that claim. Wald will show how, at least as much as the scientific discoveries and technological innovations of the period, science fiction made and continues to make sense of the geopolitical transformations of our time.
Priscilla Wald teaches and works on U.S. literature and culture, particularly literature of the late-18th to mid-20th centuries, contemporary narratives of science and medicine, science fiction literature and film, law and literature, and environmental studies. Her current work focuses on the intersections among the law, literature, science and medicine. Her last book-length study, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, considers the intersection of medicine and myth in the idea of contagion and the evolution of the contemporary stories we tell about the global health problem of "emerging infections.” Wald is also the author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form and co-editor, with Michael Elliott, of volume 6 of the Oxford History of the Novel in English, The American Novel, 1870-1940.