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Modern/Contemp. Studies: Matter and muck: bio-art, ecocriticism, and the material turn


Admission requirements

Bachelor-degree in Humanities.


“A tower falls, and in the rubble numerous postcatastrophic revelations take shape” (James Berger)
Artists and writers seem increasingly fascinated by the shapeless, abject, matter, muck — and zombies. Theorists follow in their wake. What are the historical and political reasons for this 21st urge to engage with disintegration and abjection? Can we already discern a counter-linguistic or material turn in the humanities? According to those who hold that this is so, we should seek the reasons for this turn in the growing irrelevance of many significant social and cultural conceptual categories, in the wake of the multiple crises of the early 21st century. This necessitates a radical rethinking of a range of foundational concepts, such as, for example, language, the the real, the human, and the environment. Art and literature play an important role in that re-imagination.
This course explores artistic practices (bio-art, landscape painting, literature, graphic art, film, etc.) that seek to represent, express or address bodies and the natural environment outside the frame of anthropocentrism. Is it at all possible to imagine the human body or the environment without taking recourse to Romanticist or rationalist ideals? What motivates these alternative imaginations? The course will discuss the theories of (bio-)art and literature (ecocriticism) that ponder this aesthetic fascination with matter, while focusing specifically on contemporary theories that develop posthumanist and/or new materialist readings of environmental art practices that evoke nature as the zero point of life, the ungraspable site of the “real.” We will look at inspiring, scandalous and disturbing artistic and theoretical efforts to relate nature to sex, death, the “real,” and matter. We will test the productivity of exhilirating new (or not so new) approaches such as phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Deleuzian new materialism, posthumanism, and queer theory.
The course will work through these issues by inviting students to participate in the creation of a virtual exhibition (with the title of the course), and produce a catalogue that meets academic standards. After a series of lectures that will build a solid theoretical foundation and introduce a range of relevant art works (bio-art, literature, graphic novels, paintings, environmental art, etc.), students will work in small groups, that meet during weekly tutorials under the supervision of one of the teachers, towards their contribution to the catalogue. The course will end with a student conference, in which the students will present their work to each other, and an interested audience.

Course objectives

Students know the most important theories in the field; students have a sharp insight into the important debates in the field, and can take an independent position within those debates; students show that they are able to produce well-structured analyses, and well-argued interpretations of a series of art works that relate to the environment and to nature.


See the website of Arts and Culture and/or Literary Studies

Mode of instruction

Lectures, tutorials, guided team work.

Assessment method

Contribution to a shared catalogue for the virtual exhibition (60%). One presentation, one mid-term exam (each 20%).


Yes, see Blackboard.

Reading list

Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin. Postcolonial ecocriticism;
Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism. Separate texts by Georges Bataille, Lawrence Buell, Greta Gaard, Elizabeth Grosz, Félix Guattari, Ursual Heisse, Bruno Latour, Timo Maran, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Dana Phillips, Londa Schiebinger, Krysztof Ziarek, and others.


Students have to register for this course in uSis, the registration system of the university: General information about registration in uSis you can find here in Dutch and in English.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Contact information

Dr. I. Hoving