Nicole Seymour is an assistant professor of English at University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her book Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination investigates the ways in which contemporary queer fictions offer insight on environmental issues. The author answered our questions about the book.
Q: Is there a disconnect between queer theory and ecocriticism?
Seymour: Historically, yes. Queer theorists and ecocritics have not been in conversation much, and have often held opposing goals. For instance, queer theorists have been critical of the concept of the “natural,” whereas ecocritics have felt protective of it. This disconnect has been very problematic, I think. For one thing, it has allowed the conservative Right in the U.S. to co-opt the discourse of the natural when it comes to heterosexuality—while, at the same time, the Right has a pretty questionable record in terms of protecting the natural environment and natural resources. Queer theorists and ecocritics should be riled up, and riled up together, about such hypocrisies—but that hasn’t really happened.
So, my book has a few different aims in terms of this disconnect. First, I outline it, explaining how and why it has persisted for so long. Second, I attempt to bridge it, bringing queer theoretical and ecocritical methodologies together to reveal the ecological investments of contemporary queer fictions. And I really have to tip my hat here to scholars such as Catriona Sandilands and Greta Gaard—who were the first to start thinking of queer issues from an ecocritical standpoint, and who absolutely inspired me to take on this work!
Q: Is there a political paradox when it comes to environmental advocacy and the protection of the “natural” world and the “progressive” nature of movements such as feminism and gay rights?
Seymour: Well, feminist and GLBTQI activists in the U.S. have long interrogated what counts “natural,” and how those standards function oppressively. For example, second-wave feminists rejected the idea that women are “naturally” suited to be mothers and homemakers. While such interrogations have been effective politically, they haven’t necessarily jived with environmentalism’s historical interest in protecting the “natural.” Again, this is where a queer and ecological—and feminist, anti-racist, anti-classist – perspective is crucial.
Q: You use the term “futurity” when discussing the traits of environmentalism. Yet you say that queer theory has problems grappling with futurity. How so?
Seymour: Queer theory has taken a much-discussed negative turn in the past decade. Lauren Berlant, Lee Edelman, and others have vigorously critiqued forward-oriented paradigms such as optimism and futurity. Other queer theorists, as I discuss in the book, have embraced the “live-in-the-now,” frivolous image of gay life rather than try to distance themselves from it.
Such disregard for futurity is useful in some senses. For example, it challenges the heteronormative demand that everyone grow up and become a “productive,” often meaning reproductive, member of society. But it has prevented queer theorists from recognizing sustainability—the version of futurity on which ecocriticism and environmentalism are premised—as an important framework. The queer-theoretical disregard of futurity has also, as I argue in the book, created some troubling bedfellows. So, you have both queer theorists and, say, Big Coal proclaiming—to use Edelman’s terms—“fuck the future.”
Q: How is heterosexism implicit in the images and language of environmentalism?
Seymour: Mainstream environmentalism has tended to draw on sentimental, family-values-type language and images—“Save the Planet for our Children!” and all that. Also, as Noël Sturgeon has pointed out, children’s environmental programming tends to naturalize the heterosexual, consumerist family. Such phenomena corroborate queer theorists’ perception of futurity as heteronormative. But the child, the family, and heterosexuality are not the only frameworks through which we can think the future. In Strange Natures I show how human care for the non-human can constitute a queer kind of futurity.
Q: You analyze the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, which depicts the struggles of two ranch hands (portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) who have a love affair. Beyond the setting of the great outdoors, does that film have an environmental agenda as well?
Seymour: Yes, I think it offers a critique of the privatization of natural spaces—and how access to natural spaces becomes limited to a privileged few. My chapter on the film traces the status of Brokeback Mountain itself as a space that has become increasingly commercialized and exclusive; I argue that the lovers are shut out from it not (just) because of their queerness, but because of their ecological-economic beliefs: they’re lower-class people who see land as having intrinsic rather than just commercial value. My argument runs contrary to most critics—who tend to treat the natural spaces of Brokeback Mountain just as backdrop, and to ignore the main characters’ class struggles. I also had a lot of fun reading Brokeback Mountain against the 1960s film Surf Party in this chapter, and I hope people have fun reading about that connection, too!
Q: You pick a few films to analyze in the book, including Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Todd Haynes’s Safe (1996). Is there a particular reason that American film in this era illustrates the melding of queer and ecological perspectives?
Seymour: I see this melding as taking place in contemporary literature as well as in film. But yes, I do think there’s something specific to be said about this period; I claim that these queer-ecological works are particularly notable for appearing at a time at which the concepts of “the natural” and “nature” have already come under much scrutiny from academic scholars and even from the broader public. So, I claim that the texts in my archive model how to balance skepticism of the “natural” with genuine concern for the more-than-human natural world. I’d like to think of this model as applicable to so-called real life, far beyond academic discussions.