on Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Discourse of Natural History

published March 2023

Juliana Chow spoke about her recent book with UC Davis PhD students Tori McCandless and Rachael DeWitt. Chow’s Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Discourse of Natural History tells of ecology’s divergent undercurrents–of the diminishment, disjuncture, and partiality which have been central to the discipline of ecology since its nineteenth-century beginning. Focusing on visuality and perspective, Chow’s study charts an ecological tradition that undermines the objectivity which we have come to associate with scientific knowledge. Chow reads literary, visual, and scientific texts, showing how the partial perspective of the observer makes visible key ecological relationships characterized by diminishment and divergence, rather than uniformity and connection.  Chow presents readers with a set of handy, novel terms for attuning our scholarly gaze toward the minor–calling for an “optics of diminishment,” the close reading of sketches and mirages, and announcing the tradition of “biogeographical materialism.” Such keywords help draw our attention to the uneven power relations dispersed throughout the human and more-than-human world. Chow’s work shows that, although hierarchical relations have been perpetuated by biogeography’s claims to objective knowledge, key and early works of biogeography point the way to a more partial ecological science. 

In the interview Chow spoke about the concepts animating her book, how different pieces of writing developed across different genres, and her own path since graduate school. She articulates the challenges of objectivity in scholarship, and how partiality can be a way of bringing the different sides of oneself together through the act of writing. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachael DeWitt (RD): Where did the project begin and what was the transformation process from dissertation to book?

Juliana Chow (JC): I kind of fell into studying 19th century American literature, and was initially drawn to Regionalism for its interest in place and in peoples, and because I could see a connection between 19th century Regionalist literature and what we later might call ethnic literatures in the 20th and 21st centuries. And so as someone who had originally come into my graduate school program thinking that I was going to do Asian American literature and maybe something with environmental literature, who accidentally fell into 19th century American literature, I kept that thread of my interest through Regionalism.

It was only in the process of writing the dissertation that I realized that I was really taken by how the Regionalist literature I was looking at was connected to natural history. Writing about, say Gertrude Stein, who I call a Regionalist, and thinking about her in relation to photographs of time studies of a horse, turned me towards thinking more deeply about 19th century engagements with natural history in a kind of  place-based way. It wasn't until after I had left graduate school and was teaching in St. Louis that the circumstances of our contemporary moment kept pushing me to think about not just natural history specifically, but concepts of species and race in the 19th century. That began to sharpen the focus of what I was looking at in the texts and the writers that I was interested in from the 1840s and 50s and 60s. It was only through what felt like happenstance that I got thinking about contemporary events through the lens of race and geography, which turned my focus of study towards biogeography in the 19th century–thinking about not just biogeographical concepts of dispersal, but also racial concepts of diaspora. Even though it feels like it all makes sense, it happened in a very meandering and unplanned way.

Tori McCandless (TM): As we think about Regionalism and how it's influenced your project, I’m curious about the link between Regionalism’s visuality and your focus on optics. Regionalism is often likened to the gaze from the train window–the touristic, even colonial, gaze–and you think about this alongside environmental optics, and other terms such as diminishment or disjunct specificity. How does your focus on optics and visuality intersect with 19th century poetic and scientific discourse?

JC: I think what you're getting at is the ways in which visual observation and optics are dominant in how our senses and our sensing of the world has been thought. I turn towards other senses to turn away from the ways in which optics have colonized how we engage with the world. So why go back to optics? That's a good question to ask, and part of it is personal because I’ve always been interested in visuality and that’s just what draws my attention. I like to use it in my teaching, too. I like to include images and ask my students to close read them, and I find that it's just a very open and inviting way to bring students in.

But I think the reason why I ended up working on optics for this particular study was that–in returning to thinking about biogeography or geography in the 19th century– visuality was the primary practice or method of natural history of the times. Natural history is often depicted through the visual. And a lot of the theoretical approaches that I was inspired by approached the critique of objectivity through different kinds of visual methods. Whether that's done a hard way through thinking about refraction as Karen Barad does or thinking about, say, physical objects as well. So I think that's why I ended up looking at visuality and why it remained a really strong undercurrent in the book. 

RD: How is your central concept of diminishment different from the “partial perspectives” articulated by feminist STS scholars?

JC: To go back to Harway’s revision of objectivity–she gives a sort of basic reminder that our perceptions are embodied and situated and limited and partial. So I think one of the ways in which critics (whether they're literary critics or other kinds of theorists) have worked off of Haraway’s critique of objectivity has been to contribute other histories–to provide those histories of other peoples. I think, on the one hand, that was part of this project. But on the other hand, I think the difference that I was trying to articulate from other science studies scholars like Bruno Latour and Karen Barad, who are also in that vein of trying to describe human and non-human entanglements, and I guess I doubted the ability of the critic to give that kind of synoptic view. And there’s a lot of New Materialist theorization of different kinds of somatic relationships between human and non-human that kind of just forgets that even if we can acknowledge or describe these relationships, they are not as equal as one would like to imagine them being–merely recognizing that there are non-humans doesn’t necessarily give them more agency. 

Part of what I was trying to articulate in this version of partial ecology was that difference–that as a critic I couldn’t necessarily say that I could describe everything, and also that the various nonhumans within this story were not suddenly accorded agency once they were described, or even when they were able to write the story for themselves. That was the kind of intervention that I was imagining in my book–unfortunately it’s titled the Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Discourse of Natural History, which is a title that was given to it by the publishers. I had hoped to name it Diminishment or something like–I was hoping to give it a more appropriate title that gave an indication of that difference and that sense of natural history that could better express the differences in thinking about natural history and its unevenness for the writers that I look at.

RD: I found diminishment a very helpful concept because it specifically names an unevenness within ecology and natural history which agency doesn’t fully capture.

JC: I think one of the things that partiality led me to do was to pay more attention to relationships that aren't strong. To fragile relations and ones that, rather than insisting on a kind of consequential or cause-and-effect relationship, are weaker correlations. To how those can still be crucial ecological relations. This all sounds very abstract, but I can give a more concrete example. It was the anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, way back when I was in graduate school, and there was a lot of writing about the passenger pigeon’s great decline during the 19th century and I happened upon a snippet of writing in which someone was quoting from a Potawatomi writer named Simon Pokagon who wrote an essay about the passenger pigeon. Pokagon is a really fascinating person and one of the things that made him controversial for the Potawatomi people was that he was for a modernization of the Native American and for boarding schools. And so, thinking about the legacy of genocide and death from those institutions, people were sort of like, how should we approach Pokagon now? And one way is through the language of the vanishing Indian which he included in his writing, which I connect to ecological relations in a strong form. In that sense, the vanishing passenger pigeon is a metaphor for the vanishing Indian and he is spelling the end of his people. But you can read it in a different light if you think of those relationships as partial relationships and as ecological relationships in connection to one another. Then he appears interested in the passenger pigeon not as a metaphor of his people but as a neighbor, as a common inhabitant in the very places he knows. His connection to the pigeon is as a common inhabitant and as a neighbor and as someone who's trying to understand their language (and he has lots of these very interesting ways of writing about the passenger pigeon and trying to understand their language). So, on the one hand, his descriptions of the vanishing pigeon and the vanishing Indian articulate a strong metaphorical and ecological relationship. But, on the other hand, it is a partial relationship that is open to transformation in the same way that translation requires a kind of transformation in order to become intelligible for two speakers. So that's hopefully a more concrete example of what partial ecology might be, rather than a strong, immersive, direct cause-and-effect format.

TM: I really appreciate how you think about the relays between literary aesthetics and discourses of natural history. I'm especially interested in how you map the links between Emily Dickinson's “poetic, empirical observations” and Asa Gray and Darwin's theories of species variability and differentiation, to define your term “disjunct specificity.” There’s that great example of how a robin in Dickinson’s poem turns into another species of robin as it moves from England to New England, and into and out of the text of the poem. You liken this to how Gray and Darwin were conceptualizing how species are just stable variations in motion. 

How did you come to think about the connections between literary aesthetics and definitions of species or, more generally, how poetic models of observation parallel or map on to scientific methods of observation?

JC: Well, this is another example of the ways in which a project that you work on changes over the course of time. I actually published an early version of that chapter as an article that was more about Regionalism. And then when I was revising and continuing to work on it for the book, I ended up learning more about Asa Gray rather than merely how he was thinking about Darwin. If one were to look at that article and then read this chapter, you would think, wow, she’s reading the same text but making an argument about something very different.

But I can give a description of the development of my thinking on Dickinson, Gray and Darwin. At first I was trying to contextualize Dickinson's thinking on species in her poetry. Then, I put that in the context of her historical moment and linked that to specific texts that she had available to her, which were Asa Gray's Atlantic Monthly reviews of Darwin's work. But in reading more about Asa Gray and the particularities of his engagement with Darwin's thinking, it actually came through his own studies of disjunct species in which he was looking at data of plant species in North America and then comparing that to specimens he received from Japan and realizing, you know, these species are very similar! Like in some cases they might even be the same ones. How is it possible that they're in Japan and in North America? In trying to answer that question, he got closer to Darwin who he was already in correspondence with. The answer that he started to develop was that disjunct species are species which started somewhere and then they diverged and dispersed and ended up in different places where they branched out from each other. Whereas if you have a concept of species as being bound to their geographical locations and not diverging and not changing or transforming in any way, then you have Louis Agassiz’s theory of special creation. So that sort of understanding of species and, and being able to have that kind of latitude with species that allowed Dickinson to think about the robin as diverging into both a New England robin and a British robin, precisely because species as a metaphor holds a kind of disjuncture within itself–of comparing and holding differences. 

It's almost like the friction and disjuncture itself becomes a metaphor–both the sense of the metaphor as being grounded in something, but also of having an abstract sense as well. So there were multiple disjunctures that I became interested in within the structure of Dickinson’s metaphor. I was particularly interested in showcasing the metaphorical structure of the disjunct species because it became so crucial to scientific thinking. I think there's been a lot written about analogy and how useful it was for scientific thinking, but there hasn't been as much I think about metaphor.

RD: One thing you stress is how natural history, ecology, and biogeography emerged through really localized sets of knowledge. But they also tend toward a synoptic gaze. So is partiality inherent to all natural history? Or is partiality something that only certain thinkers remain sensitive to?

JC: The latter. I think it is something that depends on the vantage of the biogeographer, you might say. Depending on the biogeographer, there could be a synoptic holist version in which one is taking and aggregating data from all around the world and trying to give a systems view of something. Or a biogeographer could be more interested in tracking the particular pathway of something moving across the world. What I found interesting was that, at the very moment in which the 19th century when biogeography expanded into this unifying discipline, it was also embedded within this other vantage point and methodology. I wouldn't say that it's something that is just in bio geography so much as dependent on the, you know, the orientation or the advantage that, that one takes within that field say

TM: Do you see diminishment, partial ecologies, and disjunct specificity play a role in how you relate to the ecological world? Have you found these terms to be transferable to the ways in which we relate to the more-than-human?

JC: Yes, for sure. There are many ways I could explain how I came to this project, but one is my personal investment in it. Part of the difficulty in my own journey with this book has been that I didn't know how to bring together who I was with the materials that I was looking at. I was actually reading something recently and maybe I'll just read that here. It’s Leila Nadir’s piece in ASAP on ruderal ecologies when she describes her half Afghani identity and her position in the environmental humanities:

These two sides of my life rarely touch. Perhaps I’ve been purposefully, unconsciously protecting them from each other—not an uncommon experience, I believe, for those of us whose personal lives and professional survival speak different languages, or for those of us whose most intimate, familial, ethnic experiences are not reflected in the disciplining whiteness of our national culture. I kept my two worlds and my two practices separate. I didn’t have a clear narrative to articulate their connection, to synthesize my two souls. 

That moment really spoke to me as someone who spent graduate school and the first part of my academic career feeling like I was in two worlds, academia and working on this book, on one hand, and then also me, however I want to describe it–Chinese American girl who grew up in the Bay Area of California and finds herself in academia… So I think what the book eventually became was a way of getting these two sides to speak a little bit. I wouldn't say that they made it, necessarily, but it was an attempt to do that. And, I think partial ecology expresses my own sense of who I am and my own perspective or vantage–trying to trace what kind of ecology might be glimpsed from the vantage point that I have. I think that is why I am so invested in partiality and I'm trying to think about that in terms of ecological relations and literary practice–close reading and why that even matters. It just matters partially.

Juliana Chow is a lecturer at the Honors College of the University of Utah where she teaches environmental humanities and helps direct the Ecology and Legacy minor. Her teaching situates "ecology" in place-specific historical and cultural contexts mainly based on her research in North American environments through feminist and decolonial science studies and literary ecocriticism, but she also charts a more diasporic relation to the environment that is neither settled nor indigenous. In her creative writing, she thinks about how natural history interweaves with personal relations in friendship, mothering, caretaking, and love in figures/species like the California poppy and the Ponderosa pine. She aims to help students develop their own practices to read and observe attentively, to find their own ways through a “text,” and to contextualize their thinking as part of ongoing discourses and histories. Her book Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Discourse of Natural History (Cambridge University Press, 2021) investigates how biogeographic theories of diaspora shaped thinking about race, species, and environmental survival in the nineteenth-century.