CultureLab • Workshop

Ecology and Poetic Modes of Thought

Criar não é imaginação, é correr o grande risco de se ter a realidade.

— Clarice Lispector, A Paixão Segundo G.H.

Org. Bartholomew Ryan

Over two hundred years ago, Hölderlin asked the question: ‘What are poets for in a destitute time?’. Over eighty years later, Nietzsche proposed that the philosopher should be ‘a person who constantly experiences, sees, hears, suspects, hopes, and dreams extraordinary things’. Exactly midway through the twentieth century, Heidegger returned to Hölderlin’s question in his essay ‘What are Poets For?’, where he referred to that particular poet’s output as ‘thinking poetry’, and that we are now living in ‘the age of the world’s night’ and ‘abyss of the world’ which ‘must be experienced and endured’. The twenty-first century is really only beginning now, where the centrality of human existence is no longer possible as we are plunged into an age of environmental catastrophe and technological omnipotence.

In this one-day workshop, we return to Hölderlin’s question applied even more acutely to the contemporary ecological disaster, in an attempt to merge the natural with the technical once again. Could it be that we need to radically redefine the role and activity of the philosopher in these troubled times? Is there a certain kind of philosophical poet that can help bring us into a new poetic mode of thinking and into a new or renewed reality? There could be a variety of approaches and experiences in making and reading poetry: a ‘reaching into the abyss’, a guide into the ‘arts of noticing’, to enter a reality of the ‘thick present’, an act of resistance in an age of acceleration, reconnecting with non-human entities and matter, or simply ‘a shout in the street’. Addressing these questions and approaches, we will encounter poetic modes of thought in Plato, Lucretius, Hölderlin, Leopardi, Dickinson, Dostoevsky, Pessoa, Joyce, Eliot and Coetzee. Eight speakers have been invited to traverse these diverse philosophical poets in the art of living and dying in an age of ecological destruction, survival and flourishing. All are welcome!


09:15 Welcome and Introduction to the Workshop


António de Castro Caeiro – ‘Deep grief as a fundamental disposition in Hölderlin’

Giovanbattista Tusa – ‘Deviant Ecologies. Notes on poetry and cosmology in Lucretius’ De rerum natura

Moderator: Luís de Sousa

11:00–11:20 Coffee


Gianfranco Ferraro – ‘“Nature has no more love or care for the seed of man than for the ants”. Giacomo Leopardi’s philosophical and poetical conversions’

Antonio Cardiello – ‘Alberto Caeiro as the Ecologist of genuine sensations’

Moderator: Marta Faustino

12:50 – 14:30 Lunch

14:30 – 16:00

Vanessa Lemm – ‘Rooted in Other Worlds’

Lindsay Sekulowicz – ‘Immortal Flowers and the herbarium of Emily Dickinson’

Moderator: Pedro Dotto

16:00–16:20 Coffee

16:20 – 17:50

Bartholomew Ryan – ‘The landuage and waste lands of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot’

Ana Falcato – ‘Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and the Death of the Humanities’

Moderator: Louis Armand

17:50–18:00 Closing Remarks

Abstracts & Bios


– ‘Deep grief as a fundamental disposition in Hölderlin’

Hölderlin sees grief as a fundamental aspect of life, with varying degrees of sadness from situational to deeper levels. He views life as a constant, irreversible process of decline, which inherently manifests as sadness. Heidegger’s analysis of Hölderlin seeks to uncover Being’s essence as it is revealed through the lens of mood (Stimmung).


António de Castro Caeiro is a Professor of Ancient Philosophy, Greek, Latin, at NOVA FCSH since 1990. He has been a visiting scholar at various international universities and is a member of the Ancient Philosophy Research Group at IFILNOVA. He has translated works of Pindar and Aristotle, including Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and The Fragments of his lost books. He studied in Germany in the 90s with F.W. von Herrmann.


– ‘Deviant Ecologies. Notes on poetry and cosmology in Lucretius’ De rerum natura

This presentation focuses on the well-known Lucretian concept of clinamen, the deviation that affects all bodies and does not allow them to continue their trajectory unperturbed. This presentation reinterprets this traditional atomistic concept from an ecological perspective in its epistemological and political consequences. More generally, Lucretius’ work will be used to develop an ecological view of poetic practise that might enable a general reconsideration of poetic thought as a way of life.


Giovanbattista Tusa is a philosopher and video artist based in Lisbon at IFILNOVA, Universidade Nova de Lisboa. He has lectured at many institutions in Europe and the United States. As a documentary filmmaker and video artist, his works have been shown in Cuba, the London Documentary Film Festival, the Venice Biennale della Danza, Coimbra and Paris. His latest publications include The End, co-authored with Alain Badiou (Polity Press, Cambridge 2019), as well as the co-edited books Fernando Pessoa and Philosophy. Countless Lives Inhabit Us (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), PPPP. Pier Paolo Pasolini Philosopher (Mimesis International, 2022), and Dispositif. A Cartography (MIT Press, 2023). He is also co-editor, with Michael Marder, of Contemporanea. A Glossary for the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2024).


– ‘“Nature has no more love or care for the seed of man than for the ants”. Giacomo Leopardi’s philosophical and poetical conversions’

For Giacomo Leopardi, given the indifferent manner in which the lava of Vesuvius indiscriminately entombs all living beings in Pompeii, Nature is fundamentally perceived as a ‘stepmother’: an entity that both generates life and perpetuates the suffering inherent in existence. In opposition to metaphysical doctrines and the hubristic aspirations of modernity, which aim to elevate humanity to the pinnacle of creation or as possessing the intellect necessary to assert dominion over nature, Leopardi articulates a philosophical perspective that is inherently untimely for his era. Identifying himself as an inheritor of Enlightenment ideals, he posits that human rationality necessitates a confrontation with the profound futility of existence. Leopardi crafts a tragic philosophy of nature, from drawing deeply from classical philosophies and employing a variety of stylistic modalities, such as the Zibaldone (his enormous compendium of philosophical reflections,) and the Operette morali (his collection of moral essays and dialogues,) which includes the ‘Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander’, alongside his monumental poetic compositions (especially ‘Broom, or the Flower of the Desert’). Leopardi’s philosophy attempts to prompt a shift in human consciousness towards a perspective that, although devoid of optimism, alludes to the singular ethical and political recourse available: the recognition of shared humanity amidst its common misfortune.


Gianfranco Ferraro is born in Messina, Sicily. His current research focuses on global spiritualities and forms of conversion, approached through several points of observation (philosophical, literary, theological, political), particularly through the studies of Michel Foucault and Pierre Hadot. He has written several essays on, amongst others, Foucault, Nietzsche, and the history of utopian thought. He currently coordinates the research group on ‘Utopias and Alternative Futures’ at the Centre for Global Studies at the Universidade Aberta in Lisbon, where he is also currently writing a PhD on the ancient roots and modern influence of Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.


– ‘Alberto Caeiro as the Ecologist of genuine sensations’

Inspired by Walt Whitman, Pessoa invented Alberto Caeiro, the designated ‘master’ of Pessoa’s heteronymic mythology, a bucolic poet ‘almost ignorant of literature’, with an ascetic and absolutely serene disposition, who appears as suddenly as if he were a force of nature. As the ‘Argonaut of Sensations’, Caeiro calls for a return to a sensibility of a pagan euphoric state that could provide a cure to the individual and collective disease from living in a modern technological civilisation. Caeiro’s doctrine without any metaphysics, connected to the primordial sensations resulting from direct and communal contact with things, i.e. with a Nature considered not as an object but as an entity, explains why the current philosophical debate on the relationship between the living subject, environment and on the meaning of ecology, cannot dispense with Caeiro’s proclaimed ‘science of seeing’.


Antonio Cardiello is a scholar, literary translator, and editor. He is the book review editor of the peer-reviewed journal Pessoa Plural, and is also a postdoctoral research fellow in Philosophy at the IFILNOVA, New University of Lisbon, where he is also a member of CultureLab. His areas of expertise cover comparative approaches to Eastern and Western philosophical traditions, including Fernando Pessoa’s philosophical texts with a focus on Neopaganism. He has joint responsibility for the digitization of Fernando Pessoa’s Private Library (online since 2010).


– ‘Rooted in Other Worlds’

What can we learn from plants and the way they are rooted in earth and planetary life about the nature of the human being and its place in the world? This contribution seeks to connect two recent developments in the humanities and social sciences, a “plant turn” and a “planetary turn”, and bring both to bear on the question of how we should inhabit this planet now that our own actions are making it uninhabitable for so many members of the community of life. It asks what plant life can teach us about how to bridge worlds and reconnect humans to earth and planetary life with a particular focus on literary and poetic images of rootedness in other worlds in Plato and Dostoevsky.


Vanessa Lemm is Deputy Vice-Chancellor & Provost at the University of Greenwich, London, UK and an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She has published widely on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, contemporary political thought, biopolitics, animal and plant studies. She is the Editor of Nietzsche-Studien and associated book series at De Gruyter. She is the author of Nietzsche’s Animal Philosophy: Culture, Politics and the Animality of the Human Being (Fordham University Press, 2009), Nietzsche y el pensamiento político contemporáneo (Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2013) and Homo Natura: Nietzsche, Philosophical Anthropology and Biopolitics (EUP, 2020). She recently published with Miguel Vatter the edited volume The Viral Politics of Covid-19: Nature, Home and Planetary Health (Palgrave 2022) and Nietzsche’s Natures (De Gruyter 2024) with Antonia Ulrich.


– ‘Immortal Flowers and the herbarium of Emily Dickinson’

Emily Dickinson began to study botany at the age of nine, and over the following years made a personal herbarium numbering over four hundred pages of plants and flowers. These ‘beautiful children of spring’ as she called them, now reside at the Harvard Library, so delicate that no-one is permitted to examine the pages. It feels fitting. At first glance, the herbarium, whether bound in a volume or preserved in cabinets, appears fragile, still, an elegy of time passed. And yet, for the botanist, artist or poet who works with them, the life inside becomes an infinite reservoir. The innumerable dried leaves, careful envelopes of seeds, and flowers speak of passionate patience and emanate the same sensuality and mortality that can be found in Dickinson’s poetry. This talk will engage with the materiality of the herbarium, and look for convergences with the material practice of the poet. By approaching Dickinson’s work through a visual exploration, the suggestion is that in reading her work we remember to look at it too, meaning the physicality of pen on paper becomes as significant as the words in our mouths, and her dried flowers are awoken again.


Lindsay Sekulowicz is an artist and PhD candidate at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and University of Brighton, UK. Her study uses drawing and ceramic practices to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities of the Northwest Amazon. She also teaches observational drawing and contextual studies at The Royal Drawing School, London.


– ‘The landuage and waste lands of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot’

In 1922, the novel Ulysses by James Joyce and the poem The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot were published. Over one hundred years later, we can learn to read them again in an age of technological omnipotence and amnesia. They have been called artworks of disordered minds and of nihilism. But the poet speaks when the world goes mad. Here are works of a disordered world; and works that demand a misordering and reordering of worlds. This presentation attempts to present anew these two modern epic works of the chaosmos, revealing two distinctively divisive contemporary ecological heartbeats in them and the different pathways it can lead us, and has led its creators afterwards. Via these two acts of literature, the presentation attempts to rethink what constructing is and can be, and show the philosophical poet as engineer, in a landscape of a multiplicity of voices, strangeness and rupture, epics of the human body, and metamorphosizing language in making the entangled reality of human and non-human entities and materials viscerally present.


Bartholomew Ryan is a philosopher, musician and researcher based at ifilnova, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, and holds a PhD from Aarhus University.  He is the coordinator of the research group ‘Forms of Life and Practices of Philosophy’ at IFILNOVA. Amongst his various publications, he is the author of Critical Lives: Fernando Pessoa (Reaktion Books, 2024) and Kierkegaard’s Indirect Politics: Interludes with Lukács, Schmitt, Benjamin and Adorno (Brill, 2014); and he leads the dream-folk music project The Loafing Heroes, releasing six albums.


– ‘Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and the Death of the Humanities’

Elizabeth Costello the novel (Coetzee, 2003) and Elizabeth Costello the Australian novelist (the eponymous protagonist of the book) converge in Coetzee’s professional and personal transition from Africa to Australia. The book’s background is at least as difficult to trace as the corresponding years in John Coetzee’s academic and artistic career, but one of its key concerns – one that often escapes the discerning eyes of scholars and commentators – is a harsh and highly disturbing critique of the state of higher education and the Humanities in the twenty-first Century. In this talk, I analyze Coetzee’s subtle pronouncement of the “death of the humanities” in ‘The Humanities in Africa’ (and throughout the lectures that make up Elizabeth Costello), and relate it to some aired pronouncements on the deliberate termination of the humanist tradition by Western governments, traceable to some work he produced in the beginning of the 1990s.


Ana Falcato holds a PhD in Philosophy from NOVA/FCSH. Between 2013 and 2015, she was a Humboldt Research Fellow at the Johannes-Gutenberg University and the University of Oxford. Her academic work appeared in Studies in the Novel, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Kant-Studien, Wittgenstein-Studien, Daimon: Revista  Internacional de Filosofía, Text and Talk, Filosofia Unisinos, Deutsche Zeitschrift für  Philosophie, Cosmos and History and Research in Phenomenology. Ana is currently working on a book on John Coetzee’s fiction, provisionally titled J.M. Coetzee and the Trouble with Reading Fiction: World Literature Approaches.

Event supported by the Foundation for Science and Technology (Fundação para a Ciência e para a Tecnologia) of the Portuguese Ministry of Education and Science under the projects UIDB/00183/2020 and UIDP/00183/2020.