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Professor Natalie Suzelis stands with a raised fist next to the massive marble tombstone of Karl Marx

Natalie Suzelis visiting the final resting place of Karl Marx.

Interview by Matt Walker ’04.

Natalie Suzelis is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Antioch College. She holds a Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University, where she was a Schaffer and A. W. Mellon fellow. Her research synthesizes environmental and economic history with cultural theory in order to construct a cultural studies account of capitalist transition in early modern literature. She is interested in the intersection of capitalist development with environmental and ecological change, and with formations of race, class, and gender across social landscapes from the early modern period to the present. In addition to her research and teaching in medieval and early modern literature, she researches and teaches on subjects in gender and feminist studies, commercial popular culture, subculture, queer theory, media studies, utopian fiction, and climate change in the Anthropocene. She is a contributing editor of Uneven Earth and her research has been published in Mediations, Shakespeare Studies, Uneven Earth, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1800, and Law, Culture, and Humanities.

Matt Walker (MW): “Thank you for doing this interview, congratulations on joining the faculty here!”

Natalie Suzelis (NS): “It’s my pleasure, and thank you!”

MW: “What are your impressions of Antioch and why did you choose to accept the position here?”

NS: “I had a lot of expectations for Antioch given what I had researched about the school and its history. I knew that it was a school driven by social justice values as well as environmental justice. I first noticed, for example, the Coretta Scott King Center and the Antioch farm. I also noticed that the research and teaching interests of the faculty aligned with those two core values pretty well. I saw courses in Environmental Science, Sustainability, Environmental Justice, Dialogue Across Difference, etc. I haven’t really run into anyone yet who *doesn’t* seem to be driven by those values. I also expected the students to be driven by a certain kind of progressive value system, or even radical value system in both social justice and environmental sustainability, and I’ve also found that to be the case. So my impressions are that the things that initially brought me here are still alive and kicking.”

MW: “What have you learned from students and faculty?”

NS: “The thing that I’ve learned is that Community Governance is something that everybody here seems to be very familiar with, and I’ve learned this the most from students at the ComCil meetings. As I’ve watched students interact with each other, I’ve noticed a real sense of responsibility for the college. And it’s kind of a stunning process to see just how invested students are in creating and maintaining an atmosphere on their own. At the last Council meeting, for example, I was taking in the voting procedures and observed students being completely comfortable and at ease with all of the different processes, knowing exactly where to intervene when they wanted to have their voices heard. It seems like it becomes an almost intuitive thing after you’re here for just a short time. That’s something that I found in political organizations, but I never saw it so active on a college campus before, and I think it’s amazing.”

MW: “Do you have any political affiliations?”

NS: “Oh, yes, I’m a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). But I guess just more broadly, I’ve been interested in and involved in more local political groups and organizations fighting for different reforms on a city policy level with lots of coalitions of different groups.

MW: “In Pittsburgh?”

NS: “Yeah, so in Pittsburgh for example, I was part of the Pittsburgh Coalition of the International Women’s Strike. That was a coalition between DSA members, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and members of the International Socialist Organization, which is not really active anymore but, at the time, they were. I’m most affiliated with DSA but I would say, in terms of active politics, I prefer to work across organizations and organizational boundaries.”

MW: “Do you have any impressions you’d like to share about DSA: what it’s like, where it’s going?”

NS: “I didn’t notice any DSA members here in Yellow Springs so I guess one thing that I’m noticing is that it seems to have more support in bigger cities. I’ve met some members here of Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). DSA has experienced a lot of growing pains over the past couple of years. And I think it still has a lot to figure out. But it does seem to be an interesting driving political force, particularly among millennials.”

MW: “Do you think you might start a (DSA) chapter out here?”

NS: “I think I’d rather listen to students and what they’re interested in. Meeting students who are already part of PSL, students who are interested in taking down the flag and doing different political actions… I think it would be cool to be involved to the extent that whatever direction students wanted to take political activism or organization. I would just like to help facilitate that.”

MW: “That’s awesome. So the flag gets taken down, no flag, or which flag?

NS: “You’re asking me?”

MW: “Yeah. If the flag comes down, which I think is a great idea… this is kind of a silly question but what flag would go up, or no flag?”

NS: “It seems the students wrote on the base of the flagpole that they would like to see something like Black Lives Matter, Pride flag, some combination of all the things that students can be proud of, or organizations or activism they’ve been involved in. I think it’s a great idea to put a couple of different flags or different signifiers at the intersection of those different political stances. So, once again, I think the students have a good idea of what they might want.”

MW: I really appreciate how supportive you are of the students. Maybe a new flag could be created collaboratively or something? Next question: what are your impressions of Yellow Springs or anything that you’re enjoying about that village?”

NS: “Yeah, just as one of the first things I noticed when stepping foot on the campus was that the college seems to be driven by community, I’ve really seen to be reflected in the town. I recently went to a little neighborhood party just down the street and I didn’t know anybody there except for my neighbor. But pretty much everyone in close proximity with me introduced themselves asked me where I was coming from, and it was just very warm and friendly and generally that’s my impression of Yellow Springs.”

MW: “Are you registered to vote out here? Are you involved in this whole levy situation?”

NS: “I am not registered here yet. I just got my new driver’s license and I checked the box to re-register here. So I think I’m waiting for something to come in the mail.”

MW: “What are some of your teaching interests?”

NS: “My teaching interests are pretty broad because I like to be guided by students. I love teaching plays, poetry, prose, novels… There’s not really a genre of literature, or a time period really, that I feel bound by. My research interests were more focused on early modernity, Shakespeare, drama, poetry, and prose. But my teaching has always been much broader in terms of texts and different forms of media, and I like to incorporate lots of contemporary literature and philosophy. I’ve always found that being adaptive to what students are interested in has sort of forced me to learn as much as I can as a teacher. That’s just generally the attitude that I take to pedagogy. So I hope my teaching interests become even more broad as I meet more students. That’s just kind of how I’ve always operated.”

MW: “Cool. Thank you. What about your service interests?”

NS: “On campus here at Antioch, I have become involved in ComCil, College Council, and I’m also participating on the search committee for the Social Science Psychology professor. I’ve been trying to get pretty involved in the inner workings of the college. When I was at a previous institution, I also did a lot of colloquia and public-facing panels and lectures. I really love inviting speakers and organizing events and I’m excited to do things like that in the future. I hope to work with Michael Casselli on a Herndon speaker and/or performance series for the winter quarter.”

MW: “Any themes emerging with that potential Casselli collaboration?”

NS: “Yeah, we talked a little bit about it. I think one of the things we’re throwing around was about abolition futurism. Thinking about how to envision a world without so many of these systemic harms that we’re often talking about on campus; being able to think about eradicating or abolishing those systems behind everything from the prison industrial complex, to the environmental harms that we’re seeing inflicted daily. So providing new frames for how you might think differently and creatively in imagining alternative futures, and having different speakers, artists, performers, or literary figures who can help us do that. But I’d like to get some student feedback and see who students are interested in or what sub-themes might align with this general topic. But that’s basically the first brainstorming session we had.”

MW: “Cool, that’s exciting. What about research topics – what are your research interests?”

NS: “Recently I’ve been reading a lot about different climate policy agendas. I’m writing a book review right now with a colleague for a book called A People’s Green New Deal which is really about critiquing most of the green New Deal proposals that have been put forth. A lot of the proposals are based on this idea of pragmatism in an effort to reach the widest audience possible. So this book I’m reading is arguing that so many of those pragmatic stances are not only are they inadequate in actually addressing climate change, they’re not really winning either. And since we’re already in a political situation where we have to push really hard just to get basic reforms, we might as well push to demand what we really want. And what we think people deserve. I’ve been thinking about different agendas and policies for how to restructure the global energy system and how that needs to be fundamentally transformed in a very radical way if we’re actually going to meet the crisis where we need to. Those research interests are very near and dear to me, and not necessarily as close to my dissertation research as they are to my teaching. But I’ve met a lot of amazing colleagues who’ve really sparked that collaborative sort of research interest in me.”

MW: “I’m wondering if you think there are any policy proposals out there that might be more effective than the Green New Deal?”

NS: “Yes – I’ve been thinking about this because I was talking to Professor Mittias about maybe teaching an environmental ethics course at some point. And I was thinking about how that could be structured around the Cochabamba agreement which was a climate accord that was reached, I think, in 2010, I might have to look that up. But I think, basically, it was a document, it’s only about 10 pages I think, but it’s about the rights of human and non-human creatures on the planet to access life-sustaining things like water and food, while also protecting and nurturing the environment to be reciprocal in that relationship. I’d vote for that kind of agreement.”

MW: “Right on! That makes me think of this dichotomy between Deep Ecology and Social Ecology. My understanding of Deep Ecology is that we have to heal our relationship with the earth first. Before we can solve social problems, we must solve the problem of our relationship with the environment. Whereas, what I understand from Social Ecology, is that we have to solve our human-to-human problems before we can even address the greater ecological problems. I know it’s a bit of a false dichotomy but I’m wondering if you can speak on that a bit please?”

NS: “Yeah, I mean I think they’re fundamentally connected. So if the greatest enemy to the environment is the fossil fuel industry, the global energy system as it currently operates, then that’s both. It’s an issue of Social Ecology and Deep Ecology because we can point to all the social and political factors that have made it the primary enemy of both people and the environment. Here are human actors who are harming the human and nonhuman world ecologically, but also socially, economically, and politically. You also can’t really solve any deep ecological problems without using social tools and social forces to build power to change the political structure. The ecological problem is a social one and vice versa. And I think that’s actually the only way we can approach the social and political issues because they’re so long-standing and go back so far into centuries of human-nonhuman relations.”

“I just taught this essay from Kyle Whyte, for example, about Indigenous justice and climate justice, which shows a longer history of environmental degradation as the history of settler colonialism. So that’s a place where I would see Deep Ecology meeting Social Ecology: because the history of settler-colonialism is a history of ecological violence. And it’s a social-political but also an ecological problem. It’s also a cultural problem in that it relates to the ways in which  people have conceptualized their relationship with the environment for hundreds of years from a culture of settlerism. You’d be addressing both issues at once if you followed this idea of climate justice and the kind of social resilience that Kyle Whyte is talking about. Which is also, for Whyte, an ecological resilience.”

MW: “All of this leads me to the topic and questions of: Are we natural? Are we a part of Nature or separate from it? Is what’s happening with us natural? What is natural in terms of climate change, etc?”

NS: “Well, the lines are so blurred to me. I do think it is a false dichotomy because nature is very social. Animals are very social with each other and plants grow together and interact socially. Even in the most pristine, untouched view of the natural world, if that even really exists anymore… it’s a false dichotomy because we’re constantly interacting with the nonhuman world and the human world while the nonhuman world is also interacting socially with itself.”

“This is where I think the literary perspective can be helpful. The stories that we tell about the environment, and the stories we sometimes tell ourselves about pristine and untouched natural worlds, I think that those stories have their own purpose and can sometimes be nefarious in creating dichotomies. But other stories that you can tell about our social environments, built environments, and natural environments can actually bridge gaps between them. And I would be more on the side of the latter. Stories can help us conceptualize how we can establish more mutual and reciprocal relationships between human beings and non-human beings.”

MW: “Regarding the future, the Anthropocene, Capitalism, the internet – what’s going to happen?”

NS: “I don’t want to be a climate-doomer but I do think it’s stunning that we have come so far in the acceleration of our timeline without mass movement and action stopping things from continuing in such a dark direction. But I hope, I think and I hope, that it’s becoming more clear that there are human actors who have an extreme amount of economic and political power who are doing the most damage. It’s traceable. And there’s been a lot of work done to obscure the actual power relations in terms of who’s making the decisions that do the most harm, who’s sort of at the top of these chains or hierarchies that do the most damage to the environment. I hope that it’s becoming clear to people. I think it’s probably more clear to the kind of students on campus here. It also seems like the most recent generation has dealt with a lot of pretty obvious information about climate change and a lot of climate disasters that are pretty hard to ignore. I think it’s tragic and a bit disheartening that we’ve managed to come this far without a giant push in the other direction. But I’m still so hopeful that that can happen. And I think that new ideas are being circulated about just how international and global an issue this is… so we have to act and think with global solidarity. And my hope is that this younger generation thinks that and feels that we’re all in this together on one planet, even though there are definite actors and enemies of the people and the environment. I’m hoping that we’re moving in the direction where people feel more international planetary global solidarity against those actors.”

MW: “I’m curious to hear you speak about if there is a more nuanced view towards humans and our detrimental effects on nature; something beyond Thomas Robert Malthus?”

NS: “There are two kinds of approaches you can take, even on the left. It isn’t just a right-wing reactionary thing that we need fewer humans on the planet, which would help us combat climate change. There’s this reactionary tendency to blame all human beings and say we need less of them as opposed to examining the power structure. There are even tendencies that are more austere in the way that we think of the quality of life for people. And I think that that’s a political stance. That’s a decision that’s could play out in really harmful ways. If you don’t try to think about fighting for quality of life and abundance that people deserve equally, in an evenly distributed way, which is possible if we’re not living under these capitalistic elements of exploitation of human beings and the planet, that’s an entirely different stance. People like Bill Gates and these rich, capitalist, very harmful actors act as if we can come up with the solutions that will be imposed from above, from the top of the economic and political hierarchy, that will decide who gets to live, how many people, and how. That’s the most harmful direction we could probably go in because people with power are going to act in their class interest. I don’t want to live in that world and I think that’s a real danger in climate discourse.”

MW: “Bringing the conversation back towards literature and storytelling – what are some of the possible stories we can tell in regards to climate change and the fall of capitalism that don’t rely on the ‘crisis spurs the change’ idea?”

NS: “The power and meaning behind storytelling is that you can imagine possible futures and action points that might help you get there. I think there might be an expectation that capitalism itself – because it’s so unsustainable, exploitative, and harmful – might end on its own end because it will continue until it destroys everything unless it sort of crumbles from within. I think there are expectations that maybe the global market system itself is so up and down and volatile that maybe it might just crumble. So I guess the story that I would try to create and get behind is us being able to scale back this really harmful system and dismantle it in the interest of the people it’s been exploiting the most. But to do so effectively, we would also have to focus on rebuilding the alternative. Disaster Capitalism is pretty resilient; I’d like to think that it might fall or crumble on its own, but that’s somewhat unlikely. Against the idea of waiting for a Deus Ex Maxina, something I think people do well here at Antioch is try to envision new and different community structures, social organizations, and different kinds of stories about themselves and their relationships to other people. And also imagine different, possible futures. I think that’s probably the best way, the best place to put our energies is trying to build those alternative structures and futures.”

MW: “What about non-state actors? The government, the state, always seems to corrupt even the best ideas. So it seems like that’s something that you’re speaking to with community-oriented solutions?”

NS: “Yeah, I’m thinking about David Graeber right now who passed away not so long ago, and is probably most famous for the “We are the 99%” phrase from Occupy. Before he passed away he was writing this alternative story about human history and social organization called The Dawn of Everything, and it gets at the fact that we tell all these stories about, like, hunter-gatherer societies and primitive societies and different sorts of social, cultural organizations and how that all just funneled into this linear timeline of progress until we get to the modern state and capitalism. This book is against that story and attempts to show how there are so many examples of really complex social organizations throughout human history that look more like a decentralized, municipal, or localized kind of structure. So, yeah, I think the power of being able to point to different ways that humans have been organized against these more dominant models like that can help us see all of the possibilities and different ways that we can relate to each other, different ways we can build lots of alternative kinds of communities that are accountable to one another and more reciprocal, mutual, etc. And I think that it’s something that human beings are actually pretty good at doing when given the space to do so.”

MW: “You’ve mentioned different views of time. I’m curious to hear you talk about how a different view of time would look and how that would influence us? Also, I’m curious about your work, your dissertation studying the past and what from the part of history that you’ve dealt with informs our present moment? Is there anything to learn from those feudal Shakespearian histories that you’ve really dug deeply into? I’d love to hear you talk about either of those things: the time model or the history reflection.”

NS: “Probably the most dominant one is in the early modern period, where my research is set. I think that kind of nomenclature – “early modern” is interesting. It invokes the idea that there was a break with pre-modern times and this is where modernity started. And so, in terms of temporality and storytelling, I think that there’s been a dominant narrative in Western culture that the birth of capitalism and the birth of modernity is this linear timeline of progress that begins there. And what I appreciate about a lot of early modern literature is that goes against the grain and tells stories about time that think through temporality in different ways. It’s not just a march of progress moving forward. I think that narrative has been pretty harmful. Especially in terms of colonialism and imperialism bringing so-called civilizing ideas of progress to the rest of the world and acting like they originated in Europe. I think that’s very harmful. There’s a lot of really great authors, philosophers, scholars – like Leslie Marmon Silko, Kyle Whyte, Maria Lugones, Nick Estes, etc., who think about time in a much different way. Going back to the early modern period allows you to see how that myth and those narratives were constructed in the first place. I think it allows you to be pretty critical of them and watch as they just explode in Western literature. It also allows you to be able to trace it in a very critical way that helps you see that there are other ways of thinking about progress.”

MW: “That’s super thought-provoking. Thank you. Okay, two more questions. Is that ok? We’ve got to touch on Walter Benjamin. What do we need to know?”

NS: “Haha. Well I wrote my dissertation on Shakespeare and the stories he tells in his plays about the transition from feudalism to capitalism because I was inspired by Benjamin’s dissertation, which traced that through German baroque drama. So the concept of Trauerspiel, which comes from these tragic plays, is also a concept of history against dominant forms of temporality. Benjamin is really important to me as a literary person but also as a philosopher. The reason why he’s important in thinking about history and temporality and politics, leftism, revolution, etc. is that he has a really, really compelling view of time that goes against this whole ‘history is progress’ narrative” in, for example, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

MW: “Excellent! Thank you. I’m also curious what your writing process is like?”

NS: “It’s funny that you asked me this because I keep getting back these brainstorming templates that I gave my students which are both structured and free-form. They’re an attempt to ask structured questions but also to be open about how wacky the writing process can be. So the short and honest answer is that my writing process can be pretty messy because I try to be creative and allow room for flow. If you get into something and you’re inspired, you don’t want to stop because things are just coming to you… Since that doesn’t happen as often as anyone would like I often try to be structured as well. So these templates have basic things like the ‘why does this matter’, probing questions about the stakes and kind of intro conclusion sections, and then kind of filling in different examples and important quotes in an outline form. Like lots of people, if I’m inspired, I can just sit down and write, but I think we all need quite a bit of help in the structuring of the brainstorming process. So, I use a lot of outlines and different kinds of templates to organize my thoughts.”

MW: “Thank you for answering that. Any other thoughts? Anything else you want to add?”

NS: “I’m just really happy to be here. I’ve been learning a lot from the students every single day. It’s made me think about all the ways that I’m trying to grow and expand all of those teaching and research interests and it’s felt like a very inspiring place to do that.”

Doctor Natalie Suzelis harvesting tomatoes from her garden. She's smiling and wearing a yellow dress. She's holding a wicker basket which is full of tomatoes.

Dr. Natalie Suzelis harvesting tomatoes in her garden.