Rethinking Plant-Human Relationships in the Anthropocene: Meet our Alumna Heather Sullivan (PhD 1995)

Submitted by Michael Neininger on
Heather Sullivan

UW Germanics alumna Heather Sullivan is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Trinity University in Texas, USA. Sullivan began teaching at Trinity in 1995 after completing the Ph.D. in comparative literature with an emphasis on German at the University of Washington. Her dissertation advisor was the esteemed Diana Behler.

In April of 2018Sullivan offered a remarkable lecture "The Dark Green: Plants Run Amok in the Anthropocene” at the invitation of UW Germanics faculty member Jason Groves and the Simpson Center-funded cross-disciplinary research cluster.   

Sullivan's current book project is entitled “The Dark Green: Plants, Spores, and Humans in the Anthropocene”; from which she has already published or has forthcoming several essays. The book explores how the plant-human relationships undergirding human culture are changing in the Anthropocene, with a particular attention to plant activity and cultural responses to plants (including ignoring them despite their importance for our existence). Indeed, plants are responding to human actions, ranging from mass vegetal extinction through pollution, bark-beetle infestations, and/or climate change, to the wildly flourishing plants of industrial agriculture fueled by petroleum products, the strangely healthy radioactive plants near Chernobyl, and the invasive species like Kudzu conquering vast areas. Since plants are the basis of all our food systems and they impact our living environments and atmosphere, when we change them, we change ourselves and our culture. The book considers primarily German and Anglophone literature from the 18th-21rst century that attends to our green imaginary, looking at a range of classical texts documenting ecological change in the expanding Industrial Revolution as well as recent science fiction tales of plants run amok as vibrantly active agents whose mobile green thriving challenges human perception of scale and agency. Telling such stories requires overcoming the misperception of greenery as merely passive background. Indeed, the book’s chapters include chapters on vegetal agency (including texts with vicious plant attacks in both science fiction and scientific studies of “monster weeds”); ecofeminist theories of human and non-human kinships (following Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing-Lowenhaupt); spores, fungi, and monstrous human-fungal hybrids; the “dark pastoral”; and radioactive, dangerous, toxic, and gothic gardens (with several novels on gardens in the aftermath of Chernobyl). Most importantly, we need cultural understandings of the human impact on the natural world—plants and beyond—and we need the cultural imagination to help address the problems in addition to our scientific data. Several essays from the project are already published or forthcoming.

Sullivan is co-editor with Caroline Schaumann of German Ecocriticism in the Anthropocene (2017); and co-editor of The Early History of Embodied Cognition from 1740-1920 (2016); author of The Intercontexuality of Self and Nature in Ludwig Tieck’s Early Works (1997), and co-editor of special journal issues on ecocriticism in the New German Critique (2016); Colloquia Germanica (2014), and Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment (2012). She has published widely in North American and European journals on ecocriticism and the Anthropocene, Goethe, German Romanticism, petro-texts, and literature and science. Sullivan is also the 2016 recipient of Trinity University’s highest award, the Z.T. Scott Outstanding Teaching and Advising Fellowship, and the annual Goethe Society of North America essay award in 2016 for her ecocritical essay on Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther: "Nature and the ‘Dark Pastoral’ in Goethe’s Werther"; currently, she is the Vice President of the North American Goethe Society and also serves the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) both as Professional Liaison Coordinator and as the Chair of the Translation Grants Committee. She was on the executive board for the European Study of Literature, Culture and the Environment from 2014-2018.

Sullivan has given invited lectures on the Environmental Humanities both nationally and internationally, including several talks as an invited lecturer or at symposia or in Germany, the keynote address at the annual Canadian Association of University Teachers of German (CAUTG) conference held at the University of Regina in 2018; and in the US, she has spoken at the following twelve U.S. Universities or in featured panels over the past five years: the University of Minnesota, University of Washington, Smith College (as an “expert advisor in the environmental humanities in German), on the Presidential Panel of the North American Goethe Society Conference at Penn State, at Colgate University, the University of Tennessee, University of Illinois, Chicago, University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Wisconsin Madison, and at invited symposia at Emory University and the University of Virginia, as well as for a Webinar for the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture, and the Environment.

At Trinity, Sullivan was the Co-Director of the Mellon Initiative for Undergraduate Research in the Arts and Humanities for two years, 2016-17, during which time she worked with her fellow Co-Director, Chad Spigel, to secure a second Mellon Grant of $800,000 to continue and expand the research program in the humanities.