Animal Ethics and “The Last Jedi”

Another year, another Star Wars. The latest installment, The Last Jedi, delivers on what has always been one of the strengths of the franchise: presenting the audience with a remarkable cast of otherworldly creatures. What makes The Last Jedi different from its predecessors, though, is that it thematizes the ethical status of its non-human(oid) beings in a way that the previous films did not. For example, one of the major action sequences takes place during Finn and Rose’s escape from the dungeon on Canto Bight. They release a stable full of fathiers, essentially the planet’s race horses (here is a handy Last Jedi bestiary). The newly liberated fathiers charge through the casino, causing several minutes of mayhem in a playground for wealthy galactic arms dealers. Finn and Rose leave the planet, and the fathiers escape to graze in their natural habitat, at least, presumably, until the powers-that-be on the planet restore the status quo. Is The Last Jedi giving us a politics of animal liberation? The short answer is no, at least not a very convincing one. When it comes to non-humanoids, The Last Jedi asks us to sympathize with creatures such as the fathiers not because other beings are worthy of consideration in their own right, but because they are presented as a mirror in which the Homo sapiens in the audience can see their own selves.

First, we should point out that there’s an irony here: science fiction imagines universes in which all manner of beings, some of whom closely resemble familiar terrestrial species, interact on the same social plane, and yet the social plane still clearly relies on a very terrestrial, anthropocentric human(oid)/animal dualism. This dualism, to be sure, is common enough in science fiction. In Star Trek, for instance, “sentience” is a kind of philosophical razor that determines whether any moral consideration can be extended to another being. If the crew of the Enterprise determines that a species is sentient, for instance, then the non-interference doctrine of the Prime Directive applies. Starting with The Next Generation there have been numerous episodes that hinge on the sudden realization that what they had taken to lack self-awareness or to be entirely lifeless is, in fact, sentient and even capable of offering rebuke for how the manner in which the crew had treated the being (think of the rather succinct description of humans as “ugly bags of mostly water” from the episode “Home Soil”). Star Trek, in other words, projects a very terrestrial and anthropocentric dichotomy of human/animal onto the entire universe. Star Trek: Discovery, to its credit, is at least moving in a more biophilic direction.

The humanoid/animal distinction is also more than a mere incidental reality of the Star Wars universe. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away some of the beings are engaged in a violent political struggle, while others are used for sport, or simply occupy the various environments of the film. Even the Ewoks were a “people.” The Last Jedi, on the other hand, extends to its “animals” greater moral consideration.

A porg on the bridge of the Millenium Falcon. Photo from LucasFIlm.

A porg on the bridge of the Millenium Falcon. Photo from LucasFIlm.

In one scene on Luke Skywalker’s planet of Ahch-To, for example, Chewbaca has slaughtered, cooked, and is preparing to chow down on a porg, one of the bird-like creatures that inhabit the island. He has second thoughts when he realizes the survivors are watching him in horror. He roars, and they scatter like a flock of pigeons. But one stays behind and continues to disrupt Chewbaca’s meal with a look both horrified and mournful. For Chewie, the porgs go from sustenance to a kind of companion as they occupy with him the bridge of the Millennium Falcon during the film’s climactic battle scene. The porgs seem to ask Chewie to go vegetarian, although I think that the ethical line was crossed in the killing and cooking. Chewie might as well have enjoyed his meal.

The first trilogy was especially rich in non-humanoid creatures, from the being that occupied the trash compactor on the Death Star to the enormous space worm that occupied the asteroid in The Empire Strikes Back. None of those creatures, though, were actors in the political drama of the narrative. There is one example from a previous entry in the Star Wars franchise of an animal attuned to humanoid social norms that I can recall. In the race scene in The Phantom Menace Jar-Jar Binks is standing behind one of the creatures used to haul the racers to the starting line when the animal loudly flatulates. The creature whips around to glare at Jar-Jar, who then reacts badly to the smell. This brief and rather lazy fart gag hinges on the animal’s awareness of how a humanoid will respond to its own bodily functions.

The creature anticipates Jar-Jar's reaction. From "The Phantom Menace."

The creature anticipates Jar-Jar’s reaction. From “The Phantom Menace.”

The Last Jedi is, at least, different. The fathiers and the porgs have a horse in the political race, so to speak. For that reason alone The Last Jedi presents us with a far less barren image of the universe than the anthropocentric triumphalism of, say, Arthur C. Clarke or Christopher Nolan’s right-wing space cowboy epic Interstellar.

But while the film asks us to care about its non-humanoid creatures and to sympathize with the animals in scenes like the fathier rampage or Chewbaca’s dinner of roast porg, it elicits audience sympathy within an anthropocentric framework. The porgs and the fathiers in particular are given extensive screen time responding to humanoid social cues. Their facial expressions are often more legibly humanoid than many of the humanoid characters.

A sad fathier.

A sad fathier.

The fathiers, for instance, have human-like faces and large, sad eyes. Perhaps this is the manner in which the Star Wars franchise has been the most clearly Disney-ified? With space animals depicted with the same easily-recognized human features as the woodland creatures in Bambi? “Reach out with your feelings,” Luke tells Rey. But when it comes to animals, the film puts no such demands on its audience.

Could Star Wars seriously allow us to see animals as something more than tools or set pieces without relying on Bambi-type visual tropes? I think so, and I think it could do so within the franchise’s own framework. The mythology of the Force, for instance, could be a vehicle for considering non-humanoid lives in non-humanoid terms. When Rey finally does “reach out with her feelings,” she achieves a more holistic perspective of the natural systems of Ahch-To. And whereas previous entries contented themselves with showing us the face of the character as she communed with the force, in The Last Jedi we see what Rey sees, the whole cycle of birth, life, death, and regeneration in the biosphere and lithosphere.

And what about the film itself? I liked the film better than I expected, or, admittedly, wanted to. The previous film, The Force Awakens, struck me as little more than a needless reshuffling of the deck. Such a reshuffling is a hallmark of J.J. Abrams’s reboots especially, and The Force Awakens left me thinking that Star Wars, like Star Trek, ought perhaps to have been left in the twentieth century. But while I found the plot of The Last Jedi to be disjointed in the last third of the movie, and I think the bro-type relationship between Finn and Poe is often exasperating, The Last Jedi is generally a more complicated and more thoughtful film. The questions of parentage and how to relate to the past that course throughout the movie make it in some ways an interesting reflection on the franchise reboot itself.

Unpacking My Storage Unit: A Literary Encounter with My Things

German realist literature has a well-earned reputation for its fascination with stuff – actual, material things. Anyone looking to say something smart about Adalbert Stifter, Gustav Freytag, Gottfried Keller, and even (or arguably especially) Theodor Fontane could make a lot of hay looking at furniture, garden ornaments, or the pictures on the wall. Adalbert Stifter is the best example. His descriptions of things buttress his stories‘ claims to represent both material reality itself and reality’s moral structure.

Trailer for Heiner Goebbels “Stifters Dinge”

The thing about things is that they point in two directions: insofar as they have accumulated over time they point backwards to the past. It is no accident that we encounter more than a handful of private museums in the texts from this period. But things also point towards an assumed future, because their preservation assumes a future where they will be necessary and relevant. Both past accumulation and an assumed future are at stake in Stifter’s novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer) where so much of the activity at Freiherr von Risach’s estate is devoted to the restoration and preservation of statuary.

Things as guarantor of a stable reality, signs of a good past, and the promise of a morally fulfilled future: this is a vision to which Wilhelm Raabe repeatedly gives lie. In Zum wilden Mann (At the Sign of the Wild Man) the pharmacist sits bankrupt in an empty house. Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s Mill) gives us the one good poem Raabe ever wrote, the apocalyptic vision of „Einst kommt die Stunde,“ in which „Der liebe, der alte vertraute Plunder / viel tausend Geschlechter Zeichen und Wunder“ (“the dear old familiar junk / Signs and marvels of many thousands of generations” ) is swept away in a massive cloud of dust. Then there is the climax of Akten des Vogelsangs, when Velten Andres sets fire to all of his mother’s things, her „museum of the heart” as a final act of secession from the society around him. It’s tempting to see Velten’s bonfire as one supreme act of badassery, but it’s not entirely clear how to evaluate it. The others in the community fly into a panic, and while the narrator Karl is fascinated, his wife flees the scene and implies that Karl’s fascination with his friend might also cost him their relationship. While Velten claims it’s an “external clearing-away to the interior,” the fire is followed by a regression to his old room reading greasy copies of books he loved in his younger days.

Raabe is an acquired taste, and I don’t mind admitting that I acquired my own taste partly on account of a fascination with characters like Velten – problematic as I understand that fascination to be. I was moved to think again, however, about all the things and the destruction of things in German realism recently when I returned to the town I spent my last few years as a graduate student in to empty out the storage unit containing all of the things I had acquired in my graduate years. Furniture, papers, household items, and books – boxes and boxes and boxes of books – had been sitting in a storage unit for nearly two years now.

Far from an act of badassery, parting with my own things was the result of a cost-benefit analysis: keeping the unit another year was not practical relative to the actual value of what I was storing. But it still meant parting with the signs and wonders of my years as a graduate student. Apart from the exhausting work of sorting everything were the emotions connected to revisiting the remnants of those years. Opening the unit was like opening a time capsule, with the items and documents seeming to narrate back to me my memories of those years. There were my move-out documents from the apartment I had prior to moving to Ithaca to begin my program in 2008, while from 2014 there was a copy of my first job contract after graduating. There was the small end-table, the first piece of furniture my wife-to-be and I bought after we moved to Ithaca, and off of which we ate our first dinner in our first apartment. I also parted with the desk on which I wrote everything from my first seminar papers to my dissertation, a real wood desk I had picked up for free and fantasized about refinishing one day. And I had to part, too, with the coffee table, bookshelf, and standing lamp I had purchased from a colleague who, a few years later, passed away far too young.

It was not all sentimentalism: the things did have to go, and in the end I was more happy than regretful at having to part from them. Nor did everything go: most of the 1,000 or so books I shipped to Germany. They tell their own story about those years. Some were there because I thought at some point that a self-respecting scholar had to have them in arm’s reach, some I honestly believed I’d make time for, some were freebies the hidden cost of which was in the having. Some were leftovers of abandoned dissertation ideas, others were there for no better reason than Ithaca has a great library book sale and I had to learn how to manage my own „Kaufrausch.“

Even as I teach my students to approach artworks from a critical distance for the purposes of their academic writing, we all write our own biographies in one way or another, and I wrote about ecopolitics and ecoaesthetics in German realism because that was one of the ways in which those stories got under my skin. The mixed feelings that come with parting from objects that are themselves dumb but for the meaning I ascribe to them brought to mind again the extent to which our own experiences and concerns belie the stance we assume as scholars and teachers of literature.

Highlights from Berlinale 2017

It had been a long time – too long, in fact – since I had been able to go to the Berlinale film festival. This was the year we finally corrected that. The joy of the Berlinale is what would seem to make the event frustrating: the hunt for tickets and the duds you see are as much a part of the fun as the surprise discoveries. The duds can themselves be the most memorable part: I still get a laugh when I recall one unfortunate case done in blindingly overexposed sepia.

While a bit of Mystery Science Theater quality has to be, the point of going is to take in films one would never otherwise have encountered. This year, for instance, we saw another film by Naoko Ogigami, whom we first discovered at the Berlinale in 2008, and whose other works we have followed, even though they can be hard to get in Europe and America.

The consensus in the German press this year was that Berlinale 2017 was rather ho-hum. Monday morning I listened to a discussion on Westdeutscher Rundfunk that essentially concluded that the festival’s organization needs some fresh blood. This conclusion seems mostly based on the competition category, and I’m of the school that would just as soon wait on those films. The other categories hold more promise for delivering some insight onto the world we live in.

We took in seven films and a series of shorts over the two weekends we spent in Berlin this month. A few of the highlights:

Honeygiver Among the Dogs: a Buddhist themed film from Bhutan following a detective tasked with investigating the apparent murder of an abbess. The prime suspect is a young woman assumed to be the embodiment of some sort of demon. The film borrows and reworks elements of the noir tradition, as the detective comes to realize that he has unwittingly become an actor in a contest between the spiritual community and those plotting to take the land from the monastery and exploit it for mineral resources. The film was beautifully shot, and I was glad not only that I saw it, but that I saw it on the big screen.

Centaur: We left Honeygiver Among the Dogs only to get back in line for this second screening. The protagonist in this film from Kyrgyzstan steals the occasional thoroughbred out of an affinity for horses. He identifies with an origin myth of his people as nomadic riders, and as such cannot stand to see the abuse of the animals in modernity. His affinity is his tragic downfall. This film, too, has some remarkable shots of the countryside, and while I have an intellectual and political commitment both to the representation of landscape and non-human animals, I confess to having found the main character’s motivation a little forced.

The second weekend we had the chance to take in a couple of films from the NATIVe category, which this year focused on the peoples living in the Arctic circle. Sumé – The Sound of a Revolution was a first-rate documentary on the band Sumé, which made waves in Greenland and Denmark for songs with anti-colonial themes at a time when Denmark exerted tighter control over Greenland. The cover of their first album shows a native Greenlander smiling over the corpse of a Norseman shot full of arrows. The history of the band opens up some of the complicated dimensions of the relationship between Denmark and Greenland. For instance, the band formed when its Greenlandic members were studying in Denmark, they were produced by a Danish label and they performed for Danish audiences before touring Greenland. The story of the band also invites reflections on art and politics, as the two members portraited had different feelings on just how political the enterprise should be.

The Tundra Book was our second film in the NATIVe category. The title and division into “chapters” stake an interesting claim to Kipling’s colonial work, and the kind of “soft” colonization by Russian society threatens the dissolution of the community of reindeer herders. The movement of the reindeer herds made this film particularly remarkable from a visual standpoint.

City of the Sun was an understated documentary depicting Tschiaturas, a former Soviet mining town in the Georgian Caucasus on economic margin. We follow the miners into their workplace where night and day are indistinguishable, and observe as one of the characters demolishes a concrete hulk with a sledgehammer in order to remove the frame for scrap metal. The film had a number of aerial shots of the town and its industrial remains couched in a heavily forested valley. I wonder, though, if this kind of photography isn’t quickly on the way to becoming cliché as filming from drones becomes easier and far more common.

Naoko Ogigami’s film Close Knit was a big reason why we returned to Berlin for a second week of the Berlinale. The film was about a girl on the cusp of pubescence who leaves her unstable household and lives for a time with her uncle, who is in a committed relationship with a transwoman. The fact that trans issues have been very much in the spotlight – and have been featured in series such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black – made me wonder if this film could be pulled off convincingly. But the film linked the story of its trans character to larger reflections on family and bodily changes in a way that didn’t seem as if something topical was simply being shoehorned.

And finally there was the dud. In fairness to the film the topic was one that was perfectly fair game for cinema, but that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. We ended up in the theater anyway because I was in line for tickets, studying the board for what was available, and slipped into a Kaufrausch. About five minutes into the film I remembered that I had made a mental note NOT to buy tickets for this movie. Its themes notwithstanding, the film was freighted with a heavy-handed symbolism I found exasperating. I won’t we name and shame, but I will say it would not have been a complete film festival experience if we had not seen one film of that kind!


Berlin Field Studies: Reflections on Teaching a Course On-Site

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

This summer I had the opportunity to teach one of the University of Maryland’s field studies courses, entitled “Berlin: Its History and its Art.” Teaching in Europe I have taken students on plenty of cultural excursions, but this was the first time in my career that I had had the opportunity to organize an entire course on location. The experience was a very positive one, not in the least because I was fortunate to work with students who brought an incredible amount of energy and intellectual curiosity to the class. At the same time, a course of this kind poses a number of challenges, both of a logistical and of a pedagogical kind. I lived in Berlin for two years, and so it is a place that I am very familiar with, the town’s well-deserved reputation for constant transformation notwithstanding. Teaching a course in and on the city, however, meant approaching the place from a fresh perspective, and I will reflect on all of that here.

Designing the Course

Course description and learning objectives were set, as “Berlin: Its History and its Art” were part of the program’s stable of field study courses, but the concept and the syllabus were up to me. The course had to be more than a glorified guided tour, and certainly not a pretext for soaking up the aura of the city, rather, it had to be as intellectually challenging as any classroom-based seminar. And because of the course title, we had a dual mandate: the class was both a course in history and art history. At the same time, I wanted to critically interrogate course title, that there was such a thing as “Berlin’s art,” given that some of the most spectacular art in Berlin is not from Berlin at all. The bust of Nefertiti, which we saw, is perhaps the most celebrated instance of a work of art that reflects a problematic history, but we are confronted with similar questions in regards to the Pergamonmuseum, the Ethnological Museum (now in the middle of relocating to the Humboldt-Forum), and much else in the State Museums.

To bring both sides together, I built the class around the theoretical question of how a city’s history and identity is expressed or, as is more often the case, constructed through its art, architecture, and public spaces, which I then broke down into daily themes: “The Architecture of Absolutism” for our Potsdam excursion, or “Colonial Legacies and the Berlin State Museums” for our visit to the Ethnological Museum and the Museum Island.

I prepared some readings on Berlin history for the students to cover ahead of time. The week before the meeting in Berlin was designated for reading. In order to give them the time to dive into a specific period in more depth, I asked each student to take responsibility for a certain period and report on the key developments and their significance for the history of the city.

In order to further ensure that I was not the only person with the content knowledge, I asked each student to prepare an on-site presentation for key structures and places. Public speaking is not everybody’s favorite thing, but the stakes were low and the students had a good esprit de corps, and I was quite hearted to see how supportive they were of each other.

Berlin as a Classroom

In addition to the historical readings, I found a few useful online resources that provided for the students a basic crash course in art history and criticism. A shoutout here especially to the incredibly useful We began our first class practicing art criticism with a few artistic depictions of Berlin from Eduard Gaertner’s more realist painting of Unter den Linden to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes. Including the Kirchner was also an opportunity to rehearse the development of the historical avant garde. Doing so was a chance for me to clear the air: the Hamburger Bahnhof was on the agenda, and I know that expressionist, abstract, or non-representative art can divide a room, and I wanted the students to approach the works with at least an understanding of their art historical contexts.

The biggest challenge were the variables involved in being in any city, especially one like Berlin. Some of my information was out of date; I realized too late, for instance, that you couldn’t just show up and be let in to the top of the Reichstag like you could in the past. Unfortunately for a course called “Berlin: Its History and its Art,” the museums are also undergoing a major phase of moving and renovation (as they have since the 1990s). The Neue Nationalgalerie is closed until 2019, and all I knew of what was on display was that a few things were in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Regrettably, I had no opportunity to preview the collections beforehand, so when we got to the Hamburger Bahnhof, I had the students look around a couple of galleries so that I could run through and see what was on display, then reconvene. The specific works I had wanted them to see were not out, instead they had an exhibition on the Degenerate Art exhibition. So I made up a lesson on the Degenerate Art exhibition on the spot.

The Upshot

I left Berlin satisfied with how things had gone down. Reading the papers two weeks later, I was pleased to see that the students were actively incorporating the methods for analyzing art and architecture that we had practiced in our morning seminars and on-site over the course of the week, and generating numerous original insights. I was delighted to read extraordinarily creative essays that expanded on the course’s original concept to think about various pieces of street art that the students had spotted, thorny issues of memory and memorials (an issue near and dear to the hearts of my military-affiliated students), as well as squatter culture, a topic students were surely moved to consider given that our hotel was located up the street from one of Berlin’s remaining squatter settlements.

The reactions of the students to various places and works that we encountered meant led to plenty of surprises and teaching moments for me. This is, of course, always the case when one teaches material for the first time, but being on-site introduced a wider range of variables into the mix. Many of them only grew to love the city over the course of the week, as some were genuinely surprised by the German capital’s grittiness. Having already been thoroughly sold on Berlin before I ever arrived there, if anything I went through a reverse process of learning to see the city and its culture with a more critical eye than I did at the beginning of my first exchange year. I was especially charmed by the way the students reacted to the art museums. Their excitement over seeing an original Picasso took me back to when I was eighteen years old and stood rapturously before the canonical works of art in the National Gallery in London or the Louvre.

A few final points on what worked, and what I intend to incorporate next time.

  • Use of maps. In spite of my students’ joke that they were my ducklings, it was important to me to be sure that I spent ample time orienting them on where they had been and what they had done. I frequently stopped before city maps in the mass transit system to point to where we had been and where we were going. The first seminar also included a detailed study of the city map and a discussion of how to use the mass transit system.
  • Cultural scaffolding. There were a few moments of cross-cultural misunderstanding that I will be sure to prep the students on next time. How to tip in Germany was something students were unsure about, for instance. Some students are also unaware of the taboo (and more generally the laws regarding) photographing interesting people on the street. One student had a mildly embarrassing encounter over photography, which they resolved peacefully and with grace, much to their credit.
  • Social media. My students took the initiative to correspond over Facebook. While my social media presence is curated with students in mind, I still believe in maintaining digital boundaries, especially online. In this case students organized themselves. Some expressed the wish that I had taken this on in order to facilitate travel arrangements, a thought that admittedly had not occurred to me. Whether I would want to bend my practice and facilitate organization over Facebook is a matter I will have to consider. Brent Foster’s essay on Chronicle Vitae this week gets at the possibilities and pitfalls of venturing into that territory with my field study groups.

Photos used with permission.


Leading my students down the Straße des 17. Juni.

Who’s Afraid of the Anthropocene?

Last week I presented a paper at the German Studies Association conference called “Generalweltanbrennung: Poetics and Politics of the Anthropocene in Theodor Fontane’s Der Stechlin.” The paper was the chance to revisit my work on the novel, which I had let lie fallow since finishing my PhD. The paper was part of a panel series on Anthropocene violence, the Anthropocene being a topic I’ve had the opportunity to think on and to write about over the past year. Ultimately I was very grateful to be able to participate in the discussion, because writing about the Anthropocene has meant considering some of the criticisms of the term and proposed alternatives currently circulating. I recently purchased and read the volume Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, and the essays contained there had me seriously examining my own use of the term.

The Anthropocene is the as yet informal term for our current moment in geological history, where humans are transforming the environment at such a scale that the traces of our activity will be legible in the layer of rock formed by the sediment currently settling everywhere on the earth’s crust. Even though humanities scholars won’t get the final say on whether the term is actually recognized as a distinct period in the earth’s history, it serves as a convenient shorthand for talking about the human production of nature, either through deliberate interventions or unintended consequences such as global warming.

The term has several problems with it, such that even people friendly to it have to admit to its imperfections. The term implicates all homo sapiens, even though the realities of uneven development mean that responsibility for and the consequences of environmental degradation are not shared equally. The term also runs the risk of becoming grist for the mill (or Wasser auf die Mühle, since this is Fontane) for geoengineers who think that we can engineer our way out of environmental stress with those tools that got us here in the first place. Essentially the term becomes a kind of Trojan Horse for the environmentalist movement.

A variation of the Trojan Horse argument has been with me since I first put pen to a dead tree on ecology and literature. My central concept of “social nature” was one that I had picked up from critical geography, ecomarxist discourses, and earlier critiques of Wilderness-with-a-capital-W and Nature-with-a-capital-N. “Social nature” posits some sort of constructivism, and constructivism that was assailed in the 1990s and 2000s as so much post-modern denial of material reality. Glen Love’s 2003 book Pracitcal Ecocriticism encapsulates the pro-science, anti-constructivist argument quite nicely. For environmentally minded thinkers in and out of the academy in those years, the Sokel hoax was a particularly vivid memory, and the conflict seems to be between a humanities scholarship that under the influence of French theory has become unmoored from the world and scientific disciplines which are somehow better poised to appreciate the world around us. The “Two Cultures” argument gets dusted off here, and C.P. Snow is cited accordingly. I’m not a fan of Snow’s text. The problem with his argument is that it sets up a false dichotomy, science vs. those awful “literary intellectuals,” and in the end science wins.

In the Anthropocene this climate, too, has changed. The relevant scientific bodies are seriously considering formalizing the term while criticism is emerging that does not appeal to science or the wholeness and integrity of Nature as a given. My own reconsideration of the term Anthropocene has, of course, everything to do with my own political and intellectual commitments. The critiques mounted against the Anthropocene argument in Anthropocene or Capitalocene speak in an idiom that I am already more receptive to. Eileen Crist’s essay “On the Poverty of our Nomenclature” even advances arguments against the Anthropocene that would be familiar from Glen Love’s book.

From my work on the paper and the conversations we had at the German Studies Association, I felt more comfortable with some of the problematic aspects of the term “Anthropocene.” It remains a convenient shorthand, a useful, if problematic placeholder. Charges against the Anthropocene, such as the charge that it plays into Promethean ideologies that justify potentially disastrous schemes of geoengineering, assume that there is only one possible way of thinking about the Anthropocene. But I don’t believe that acknowledging the extent to which human activity has altered the planet has to play into narratives that agitate against ecojustice. The question now is whether or not we can organize a society as to promote the well-being of other humans and the more-than-human world. Whether the Anthropocene is politically palatable or not depends on how a good life can be imagined or re-imagined in light of our the ecosocial reality among which we, all living things, must now live.



Nis-Momme Stockmann: Der Fuchs

Nis-Momme Stockmann’s debut novel Der Fuchs is an entry in a 41NqF-ey1iLvenerable tradition of encountering the ocean as a liminal and often uncanny space. Moby-Dick opens with a wonderful description of the mysterious pall that the presence of the sea casts on Manhattan, drawing the people constantly towards the ocean. Closer to the world of the novel, there is Theodor Storm’s Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter), where the project of dike building becomes an encounter with the barely sublimated supernatural qualities of the ocean.

Stockmann’s novel is set on the fictional island of Thule, a reference to the island in classical cartography at the very edge of the known world. Thule is located somewhere in the North Sea, a setting not far from that of Storm’s novella, with which there are many obvious affinities. At the beginning of the novel, the village milieu of the petit bourgeois has been swept away by a flood that has drowned the village, and Finn Schliemann is stranded on a rooftop. Surrounded by the flood memories and images of the past (and future) drift across his consciousness. Thule, it turns out, is like a cosmic naval where the world of humans and gods intersect.

The novel contains some interesting moments: it traffics heavily in the grotesque, with a series of unexplained murders and a severed arm that washes up on the beach; it extends from Schliemann’s immediate past into an imagined (?) post-Earth science-fiction future, and it unbinds and ultimately rebinds its various narrative strands in a way that deserves further consideration. On balance, though, I found the novel underwhelming. Its reflections on, well, God and the world, seem bloated (the novel clocks in at 715 pages). To compare it to the examples I opened with, I was missing the philosophical depth of Melville’s novel, or the understatedness of Storm’s novella. Nor are some of the intriguing aspects of the narrative particularly compelling or original. Having different levels of narration on the same page is something that Terezia Mora did in her 2013 novel Das Ungeheur, reviving the gods in a world of disenchantment is something I encountered in the novel I am now reading, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Nor did it do much for my reading experience when around page 350 I turned to the acknowledgements and found that Stockmann thanked himself. Reading this novel was part of my effort to keep well abreast of the contemporary German literary scene, especially since I deal mostly with historical genres and authors. I picked up this novel because the fantastic element and the apocalyptic nature seemed promising, both to my taste but also to my interest in ecocriticism. In the end I mostly regretted not having gone instead with Julie Zeh’s new novel Unterleuten, the other alternative in the bookstore.

Book Covers and Genre Construction: Wolfgang Herrndorf in Translation

Genre and genre formation was on the table one day in one of the German literature seminars I attended as an undergraduate. We were discussing the novella, a form that has a special prominence in German compared to other national literary histories, even if it is notoriously difficult to define. In the course of the discussion I asked the professor what was then a burning question: why was Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis a story (Erzählung) and not a novella? The professor thought about it and answered that if Kafka had called it a novella, then it would be a novella. But he called it a story, so therefore it’s a story.

Questions of genre and paratext were on my mind again when I recently read Wolfgang Herrndorf’s novel Tschick. The novel is told by the first person narrator Maik, a fourteen-year-old left child of privilege left home alone when his mother checks into rehab and his father seizes the chance to travel with his mistress. Maik is concerned about his social standing in his school, especially when the most popular girl and the object of his adolescent crush does not extend to him an invitation to her birthday party. The “asocial” Andrej Tschichatschow, called Tschick, comes by his house instead in a hotwired Lada, the pair briefly crash the party, and then proceed on a strange journey down the Autobahn and into the German countryside.

Herrndorf was an illustrator at the satirical magazine Titanic and had published fiction before to little notice. Tschick, however, was a bestseller and received wide acclaim. The novel was recommended to me by a professor in my graduate department who had included it on her syllabus, and I finally got around to reading it this year. I was taken by the novel’s humor, Maik’s ironic take on bureaucratic language, the strangeness of the world the characters encountered along the way, and – here I was surprised – how much I appreciated the adolescent perspective. Unlike, say, Harry Potter, where I felt that there was too heavy a veil of teenage solipsism, Maik’s naivete struck me as an interesting lens that opened up a more critical view of the adult world. And in that sense I found Tschick to have affinities with the picaresque, or with Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus.

The adolescent perspective is where the genre question enters back in, as it would seem to be the criterion by which Tschick counts as a “young adult” novel. And the differences between the German edition and the English translation illlustrate how the packaging shapes our expectations and transforms our experience of the text.

First the cover of the current German paperback edition. Speaking as a non-native German speaking reader, when I first 41TVuUP2SKL._SX301_BO1,204,203,200_saw the novel, before I knew anything about it, I assumed from the title that “Tschick” may somehow be an idiosyncratic form of “chic,” (“chique” or “stylish”), and so I assumed both from the title and from the font in which it was written that the novel followed a character into fashion in some way, perhaps a character at home in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. While this was not precisely the case, the title still plays on the curiosity gap: what is “Tschick?” The colors and lines reflect the perspective of the landscape from a fast moving vehicle, communicating the centrality of car travel as a narrative conceit, so I know I’m being set up for a road story. The novel was published by Rowohlt, a publishing house that had long brought plenty of other texts I was into onto the literary market. Besides, the novel was on a college syllabus, itself a critical tool in canon building, and on a more personal level, was recommended by a professor who had suggested other things to read from which I had derived both considerable pleasure and ideas for my scholarly and teaching work. When I bought my copy in the bookstore, I found it in the section “Belletristik,” that is, “high literature,” the section of the bookstore where one goes to find the “high” literature. In other words, before one has read the first page, everything about this book announces itself as emminently safe for a Bildungsbürger readership.

Then there is the complete edition of Herrndorf’s works, released last year by Rowohlt. This editio51DMZTdHv5L._SX356_BO1,204,203,200_n doesn’t speak to me as a bourgeois reader, but rather as someone with a PhD in literary studies. As a hardback, collected edition with only the box for a cover, this edition communicates that Herrndorf belongs to the canon. As such, this edition invites us critics (a tribe that Herrndorf took a famously dim view of) to write conference presentations and scholarly articles about. This edition says “cite me.” In its finality this edition also has something of the grave about it: a Gesamtausgabe seals an author’s oeuvre, it is only possible because Herrndorf took his own life in 2013 while suffering from terminal brain cancer.


At the same time, reception had already done its classifying work. Tschick received the German Prize for YA literature (as well as the Clemens Brentano Prize and the Hans Fallada Prize). Herrndorf himself says in this interview with the FAZ that the novel came from re-reading the books he read when he was twelve. Interestingly, though, he also jokes that the first time a review of Tschick appeared that did NOT mention the obvious comparison, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, he owed his friends a round of beers. And while he does not contest that Tschick is YA literature, he does hint at the problem with the categorization, that it is just a thematic label. “Man wird ja nicht wirklich mit der Schreibkunst Salingers verglichen. Sondern mit dem Thema seines vermeintlichen Hauptwerks” (“one is not really compared with Salinger’s writing style. Rather with the topic of his supposed magnus opum”).

Had I encountered the English translation first, the cover of which is pictured right, I admit that I might well not have read it. The title Why We Took t5169Fr-PB1L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_he Car, a title I find quite unfortunate, tries to play on the curiosity gap as well, but I feel doesn’t quite manage it in the way that the original title does. The novel is not an answer to a question of why they took the car, and I don’t know that I should especially care that anybody took the car. The attitude of the sneakers out the window play up that this is a novel about teenagers and speaks to an implicit assumption that a novel about teenagers might also be for teenagers. My impression from the car and from the angle at which the legs are sticking out and the style of the clothes plays into the gender divide that is pronounced in the reception of YA literature: this cover tells me it is a “boy’s” novel. That’s interesting, precisely because there is a lot to say about this text in terms of how it imagines adolescent masculinity. The English translation was also released by Andersen Press, which, unlike Rowohlt, specializes in children and youth literature.
Another favorite example of the relation between the cover and the content of a book are the British editions of the Harry Potter novels.

The cover of the first novel is obviously marketed at a younger readership: Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverThe young protagonist is pictured in the bottom right, the fantastic train contrasts with the more prosaic equivalent in the far right, we see the fantastical 9 3/4 platform, and the steam from the locomotive glimmers with star. But when the stories became popular with an adult readership as well, Bloomsbury released an adult edition. The cover of the adult edition contains the familiar visual vocabulary of fantasy literature aimed at adults.

412W7VNY0FL._SX295_BO1,204,203,200_The colors are darker, we are presented with a single object rather than a busy collection of magical things, and the variations in font size play up the drama of the story in a way that sells the book as something assuredly not juvenile. It aims at an adult reader of fantasy by drawing instead on the familiar visual vocabulary of the fantasy genre.


…And of course…



The curious thing about the “adult edition” of Harry Potter is that while this is an edition with a cover that an adult could hold upright while reading in public without worry that one will be judged as a reader of “children’s” literature, its use of tropes of fantasy covers means that the publisher has simply moved the text from one ghettoized genre to another. Instead of being a reader of children’s literature, one is a reader of nerdy literature.

So, is Tschick YA literature? I don’t see how I could argue that it is not without also arguing that YA is a lesser genre, given that the stakes of such an argument could only be to “rescue” it from that category. So instead I’ll channel my undergraduate German professor and simply say that it is YA literature because it received a prize for YA literature, and because readers in German and English have branded it as such.

On a side note, the Frankfurter Allgemeine recently published an interesting article on the gun with which Wolfgang Herrndorf killed himself. Herrndorf committed suicide in 2013 while suffering from terminal brain cancer. The question the article raises is why a literary archive would contain an object the “literariness”

Nuclear Patoralism: Alina Bronskys “Baba Dunja’s Last Love”

One of the earliest television news pieces I can recall watching is Steve Kroft’s visit to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant for a 60 Minutes segment in 1989. A few clips are available here. The piece was possibly the first entry in a larger corpus of media documenting the ruination of the region’s former human settlements. I remember being struck by the strange beauty of the images in the broadcast: the depopulated stretches of landscapes leading up to the site, the empty streets of the city, and strange forms in the building itself, particularly the so-called “Elephant’s Foot.”

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the explosion. The expansion of the internet in the de9783462048025cades since has meant that one need not wait on Steve Kroft to do another Chernobyl follow-up in order to see how far Pripyat has succumbed to the forces of nature. Late 20th and early 21st media have allegedly already reduced the melancholy intellectual pastime of contemplating ruins to “ruin porn,” and ruins in the exclusion zone might well constitute their own sub-genre. The catastrophe would seem to have marked the area’s exit from history – the 60 Minutes piece is now behind a paywall, but I recall Steve Kroft observing that the area had survived crusaders, Ottomans, and Nazis, but not the radiation from reactor number four.

But one of the paradoxes of the exclusion zone is that even while it appears as a fading after-image of mid 1980s Soviet life, it occupies an outsized place as an object of cultural fascination. This is one of the surprising contradictions at play in Alina Bronsky’s latest novel Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe. Baba Dunja, the text’s first-person narrator, belongs to the community of people who evacuated the area around the Chernobyl plant after the explosion, only to return to their former homeland. With mortality looming anyway, Baba Dunja figures it would be better to accept the radiation that is everywhere in her homeland than to die in a shared apartment in an anonymous high rise in an alien city.

The community seems to be living out a kind of pastoral idyll. The text’s treatment of the pastoral motif is signaled by the image of a rooster, which marks the chapter breaks after the opening scene involving the death of the neighbor’s annoying rooster. The returnees maintain gardens and have developed networks of mutual support. To access the world beyond, Baba Dunja walks out of the exclusion zone to a lonely bus stop and rides into town to check her postbox. But radiation is an interesting phenomenon. In the moment of exposure it is not something that is immediately sensible; we cannot see or taste it in the moment of exposure, and we only know it through the effects it sooner or later will have on our bodies. It has an invisible presence, but that invisible presence structures life in the exclusion zone. For instance, whenever Baba Dunja’s hears of the birth of a new child, her question is whether the child is healthy. Behind the grandmotherly tone is an obvious fear of the effects of the ecological reality on the body. Because the exclusion zone is relatively depopulated, it is tempting to see it through the lens of a kind of environmental fantasy, a place where nature is “coming back” in spite of ecological catastrophe. But beneath the seemingly idyllic life in the zone lurk the signs of environmental dysfunction. Baba Dunja was visited by a biologist studying spiders, we learn. It seems that the spider population in the zone has exploded because there are now too few birds to keep them in check.

The biologist, it turns out, is also a sign that the exclusion zone is not as removed from world affairs as one might assume. Baba Dunja, for instance, has been featured in news coverage of the returnees living in the exclusion zone. The novel’s major conflict develops when a man brings his daughter into the community after his wife leaves him. Baba Dunja confronts him over the endangerment of the child, the confrontation escalates, the man attempts to strangle her, and Baba Dunja is rescued by a neighbor who slays the man. The murder is taken up by the authorities, and Baba Dunja goes to trial.

The novel is a compelling read because of the kinds of contradictions that structure life in the zone, as the story portrays it, such as the fact of making a life in and on a poisonous landscape, or the condition of being both removed and the center of media attention. As I read it I thought about the ambiguity of the language we use to talk about radiation in general. “Strahlen,” from which we get the language of “Strahlung” (radiation) and “verstrahlt” (irradiated) has both positive and negative connotations. While the English “radiation” is connected to “radiance,” there seems to me to be more distance between the two forms in English than there is in German. The ambiguity to the term “strahlen” is nicely captured in Horkheimer and Adorno’s famous line from Dialektik der Aufklarung that “die vollends aufgeklarte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils.” The “verstrahlte” landscape in Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe literalizes the radiant disaster of progress.

Author Construction and Literary Misfires: Theodor Fontane’s “Ellernklipp”

Over the past year the publisher DTV has been issuing new paperback editions of Theodor Fontane’s novels and stories. Not every canonical author brought forth one masterpiece after another (e.g. Goethe’s Herrmann und Dorothea), but these works are oellernklipp-9783423144193ften relegated to the pages of expensive historical-critical editions and seldom, if ever, appear in bookstores with attractive re-designed covers. DTV’s reissue of Ellernklipp (itself based on the still indispensable Hanser critical edition) is one such “lesser” work that has recently hit bookstore shelves. Ellernklipp was one of the last of the narrative works that I had to cross off my list, and so I recently got myself a copy and read it over the “free” time of break.

Ellernklipp (1881) is supposed to be one of Fontane’s “failed” works. The synopsis of the current edition tries to sell the text as a criminal story, underscoring the themes of love, jealousy, and the novel’s dramatic setting, even as the afterword points to these as artistic demerits from the realm of trivial literature. Set in Germany’s Harz mountains, the story is about the forester Baltzer Bocholt. Bocholt is a widower who lives with his son. At the beginning of the novel he adopts the recently orphaned girl Hilde; as she grows both Baltzer and his son Martin develop romantic feelings for her. Father and son come to blows on the rock face Ellernklipp, Bocholt knocks Martin off the cliff to his death, and with his son out of the way Bocholt marries Hilde. Three years after the murder she has borne him a sickly child. In his guilt, Bocholt imagines that everybody suspects him of the disappearance of his son. At the novel’s climax, he returns to Ellernklipp with a shooting party. The setting reminds him of the night of the murder, he thinks he hears his son’s ghost, and he commits suicide on Ellernklipp.

Knowing that this novel is often regarded as a weaker Fontane novel, I read it trying to pin down what makes this novel a misfire relative to his more celebrated works, especially his debut novel Vor dem Sturm of three years prior (1878). My hypothesis is that the “weaker” stories suffer from the manner in which Fontane has been constructed as an author. In general it seems to me that the texts that seem to have the need to justify their existence in print – Ellernklipp, Grete Minde, Unterm Birnbaum – are also the stories where Fontane is less the social realist, the author of the “tyrannical social something” that we hear about in Effi Briest. Not coincidentally, I would suspect, those texts, as well as Quitt, are also the texts where Fontane devotes more direct attention to the representation of nature, and Fontane’s nature representation  has been poorly received during much of the history of Fontane criticism. In a canonical study of Fontane, for instance, Peter Demetz argues that Fontane is interested in social norms, not organic nature, and where he focuses on organic nature, he does so against his own talent (1964 : 121). A frequent complaint in first wave ecocriticism is goes that professional literary criticism reduces the presence of nature to so much semiosis, or dismisses the artistic value of nature in literature altogether. It could be that this line of Fontane criticism is where this complaint sticks.

On the other hand, reading the novel I had to admit to myself that the way nature enters into this novel strikes me as a valid grounds for the negative assessment of the texts. In his 1872 essay on historical novelist Willibald Alexis, Fontane famously argued that landscape description only has value in a text when it enhances the mood of the story (HFA III/1 : 456), and Ellernklipp struck me as a rather blunt application of that principle. The mountain and cliff setting seems like a shortcut to inflating the drama of the story, and the physical world gets mined for some painfully obvious symbolism. The murder occurs, for instance, under a blood moon. The lack of subtlety in the nature motif here also weighs down on other “weaker” Fontane texts, such as Quitt and arguably Unterm Birnbaum (although I would not readily admit it). The haunting of Ellernklipp after Martin’s murder is a bit more interesting. The ghost story adds an element of the uncanny, and it is interesting to consider how trauma attaches itself to a place. But then, there is nothing unfamiliar in any of this, either. Politically the novel seems closer to the conservative Fontane then, say, the socially critical Fontane. The novel is strongly inflected by a Prussian Protestantism to the extent that the logic of retribution is sealed with the title of the final chapter, “Ewig und unwandelbar ist das Gesetz” (“Eternal and Immutable is the Law”)

And no discussion of the novel could, or should, evade the incest motif. Both father and son are both interested in the adopted child, leaving Hilde sexually exposed in a family that she joined not of her own volition. Last month Rebecca Solnit published an essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” in which she discusses what it means to identify with characters in literature. On the one hand when I teach literature, especially to beginning students, we work on separating our reactions to the characters from our assessment of the text. This distancing act is necessary for literary criticism, but there’s also a certain absurdity to it. It means mounting a rear-guard against ones own biases, even though it may be those biases that move us to write about a text in the first place. But when does such a distanced stance flatten out the more disturbing elements of the story? As I read Hilde’s story I was strongly reminded of Ottilie from Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften. The title itself comes from a notion in chemistry, “elective affinities,” and asks us to read the text not as a story with people in a fictional reality, but as a kind of literary Gedankenexperiment in which a principle of chemistry is applied to human figures. It is that, but, as Solnit would point out, it’s also a novel in which a man dumps his wife for his niece. Lolita, Wahlverwandtschaften, and Ellernklipp are all fictional works about pretend people, as I remind my students, but it is the fact that they are more than “just” stories that make them worth studying.

Teaching Storm’s “The Rider on the White Horse”

41siL+8ITpL In my German culture survey course I recently had the opportunity to teach a unit on Theodor Storm’s novella The Rider on the White Horse. My motivation for including this unit was to give the students the opportunity to explore the relation between the text as an artistic artifact and its historical context. This is important work for students in general, but especially for the students who are drawn into this particular survey course. The students at my current institution are all affiliated in one way or another with the American military community here in Germany. They are motivated by a desire to become better acquainted with their host country, and many arrive with intellectual commitments leaning more towards the political history component of the course. Since the course is more cultural history, what is at stake in looking at cultural documents (literature, films, works of art, all of which we cover) is to work through with the students the historical and political stakes of aesthetic objects.

Theodor Storm’s The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter in German) is a very handy text for discussing the relation between the seemingly abstract (say, realism as epistemology) and the text’s “concrete” material historical context. The story is a frame narrative about the construction of a dike in Friesland, the main character, Hauke Haien, is an autodidact in geometry who overcomes the barriers imposed by a quasi-feudalistic order to realize the Promethean project of wresting arable land out of the sea. The novella is also a ghost story, as the project claims Haien’s life and he haunts the dike as a kind of revenant.

I paired the novella with excerpts from David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature, an environmental history of hydrological engineering in Germany. Blackbourn’s thesis is that projects like dam building, river straightening, etc. were a crucial condition for the process of state formation in Germany from the eighteenth century to the present. Putting the novel within the context of environmental history not only speaks to student interest, but opens up possibilities for making the theoretical issues that undergird the story clear to students encountering those concepts for the first time. The relegation of the fantastic to nature and the sea, which Hauke seeks to overcome through his engineering prowess, for instance, opens up the possibility for a Frankfurt school reading of the domination of nature. The building of the dike is also connected to social transformations: whereas before Hauke the position of Dikemaster seemed to be concerned primarily with the preservation of the available land, Hauke Haien’s dike turns out to be a good investment, producing surplus value to those members of the community who invest capital in his undertaking. The week prior to reading Storm, we had didacticized The Communist Manifesto in class. While the unit on Marx was connected to the political constellations of the pre-March period, it provided a useful framework for understanding how environmental transformation was connected to the shifting class dynamics of the novella.

The politics of the project within the novella are also useful fodder for discussion. In the story, opposition to the dike comes from community members who are reluctant to have to pay additional taxes in order to support the dike. Obviously the question of taxation in order to pay for infrastructure is a familiar problem to students; I like to refer it back to Blackbourn’s basic thesis of the connection between environmental transformation and the state.

The Rider on the White Horse is also valuable from a medial standpoint. The conceit of the frame narrative is that the story is contained within the pages of a nineteenth century family journal. The medial context is also a key element to the novella’s claim to reality, as the family journal culture of the late nineteenth century had its own strategies for creating a kind of reality effect, strategies based on the innovations of print technology that made a mass media possible in the first place. Of course these were also the journals in which texts like Storm’s first appeared. The Rider on the White Horse was printed in the journal Deutsche Rundschau in 1888. The fact that such journals have been digitized means that students can easily get a better picture of the context in which the novella’s first readers would have originally encountered the story. I could have brought in Deutsche Rundschau, but instead I showed the students an edition of the journal Über Land und Meer, which is more visually interesting and makes for a better case study in medial realism.

A final word on translation: the text has been translated variously as The Rider on the White Horse and The Dikemaster. I use James Wright’s translation, which has been reprinted in the New York Review of Books classics series. Unfortunately there’s no way to render the low German dialect that Storm transcribes in the novella into English. The language politics comes through in other ways, but less so, and for the purposes of my course that’s too bad, as that would be another avenue of exploration in connecting the work of art to the more generalized interests that bring the students into the class. But this version beautifully captures both the interesting pacing of the novella and Storm’s marvelous descriptions of the sea, which has a presence in the story familiar to any fan of Moby-Dick.