Category Archives: Politics

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.

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.



The Dubious Politics of “Interstellar”

Techno-optimismInterstellar_film_poster is not a necessary ingredient to science fiction, but one can appreciate more of the genre by looking past the rosy view of human innovation. It’s a stance that holds together Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar, which may be no worse than Star Trek in envisioning space as an arena for cowboy-like adventurism. But its political content papers over the murkiness that the Star Trek franchise has had five decades to confront, however indirectly.

The film sprawls over two hours and forty-nine minutes, giving it plenty of time to hit lots of bad notes before finally arriving at its core thought: parent-child relations through the lens of the theory of relativity. The first third of the film is centered around a farmhouse somewhere in the corn belt. The earth has experienced some sort of ecocatastrophe, where dust storms terrorize the community and crop blight destroys one source of food after another. The character of the catastrophe is unclear, but it has forced Cooper, a former NASA engineer and pilot, to take up life as a farmer. Cooper harbors open contempt for the occupation, complaining at one point that whereas humans used to reach for the stars, the species is now oriented towards the earth. The film endorses Cooper’s contempt; his son, who embraces farming more willingly, becomes an antagonist of sorts later in the film, and the others in this agrarian society harbor what the film presents as a reflexive and irrational suspicion towards science and technology. It is as if the only possible ways of thinking about modernity were an all-or-nothing embrace or rejection of an absolute notion of progress (that assumption is also what allows people to toss around “Luddite” as a pejorative, which it most certainly is not).

It’s not hard to imagine a disaster scenario that might produce a very justifiable suspicion towards science. Withholding the backstory makes space for us to share the film’s scorn for characters such as the teacher who insists the moon landing was a fake, or the brother who will not leave his farm to take his asthmatic son to fresher air (even though there is no such a place on the planet). The lack of context also strengthens the film’s trafficking in right-wing imagery. An enormous dust cloud descending on a mostly white community of corn growers somewhere in the “heartland?” No symbolic associations there, surely!

What makes the film a right-wing play, though, is the basic plot of projecting a kind of white masculine Americana vision into outer space. The North American continent is an inhabitable wasteland, but the stars and stripes flutter on space stations and planets in other galaxies. Cooper’s frustration at the beginning is that historical circumstances prevent him from a kind of self-realization in a space cowboy career. The film ends with a happy restoration, where we glimpse an idealized vision of small town America recreated in the interior of a space station. Special narrative concern is given to Cooper’s status as a parent, and while the father/daughter plot has its moments, it is mostly there to give Cooper a reason for confronting the adversities the plot presents him with. Supposedly he is interested in saving his family and (and other families, too!), but this ethical motivation ultimately really bends back on himself. The children are extensions of Cooper’s self, the fact that his daughter has children, and has established herself as a savior of humanity in her own right, does not change this, not in the least because her scientific career his contingent on her father’s space adventures. And in one scene on the ice planet between Cooper and Mann, Mann gives voice to what really motivates Cooper: self-preservation for him is really about their surivival. But if that is so, isn’t that equivalent to saying that their survival is important because they are an image of him?

It’s the narrow ethical field that makes Interstellar particularly problematic. The characters’ ethics of care do not extend to anyone beyond the immediate tribe, and we have to listen to extensive dialogue positing this stance as “natural.” It certainly does not extend to the earth, as the characters’ sole objective is getting off the planet and leaving it to its wretched fate. We may have been born on earth, we are told, but that doesn’t mean we have to die here. And if that weren’t enough to complete the film’s death-denying fantasy, we have a selected quotation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” offered as a leitmotif. It’s a far cry from, say, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its retelling in Blade Runner, both of which are profound as explorations of broken people living on a broken world.

Interstellar, on the other hand, is a very safe film, delivering an ideology that comports with a view of the world from Silicon Valley while making sure that we get a good cry in at the end. The director Christopher Nolan is famous for giving us such ostensibly mind-bending films as Inception. But like Inception, the film relies on its curious but empty visuals to reach that effect. That’s why it falls short of Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey the film has no choice but to borrow from. Kubrick knows to pull the rug out from under our feet, as with the final minutes of 2001, or the last shot of The Shining. In Nolan’s films we see worlds folding into themselves hoping, perhaps, that we don’t notice that the film is reinforcing our conventional assumptions about narrative, cinema, and the world more generally.

Kim Stanley Robinson: 2312

2312 Cover Kim Stanley RobinsonI gave up on literary science fiction when I was in eighth grade. That year I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two and Childhood’s End, and found that both left me cold. I was underwhelmed by what struck me as a blithe Prometheanism on Clarke’s part. At the end of 2010, for instance, Jupiter becomes our system’s second sun. The narrator tell us this was welcomed by “farmers, mayors, police, seamen, and all those engaged in outdoor activities” while it was hated by “lovers, criminals, naturalists, and astronomers” (1984 : 326f). The ecological catastrophe that unfolds is briefly glossed over until the narrator arrives at a paean to mankind’s Faustian drive.

As problematic as Clarke’s triumphalism may be, it is indicative of one of the deeply political nature of the science fiction genre. This is hardly an epiphany – even as I was sick of Clarke, I remain a fan of the never politically dubious Star Trek.  I picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 novel 2312 because I was curious to see how the novel deals with the ethics of terraforming other planets in the solar system, life in artificially produced space environments, and Earth after the consequences of our species’ mistreatment of the planet have been visited upon us.

The plot of the novel follows Swan Er Hong as she begins pursuing an investigation left open by her recently deceased grandmother, which turns out to be into a “terrorist” scheme involving artificial intelligence. The situates the readership as occupying a time in a much more distant future, looking back on a crucial historical moment in the solar system. The chapters are punctuated by bits of material that do most of the labor of world building – instructions for terraforming celestial bodies, summaries of future historical debates on periodizing the era of the novel’s story, a series of lists that might be poetry. We see Earth dealing with the consequences of global warming: politically fractured, impoverished, materially dependent on the off worlds. New York City has been flooded, so the residents have fled to up into the skyscrapers and Manhattan has come to resemble Venice.

The core question that runs through the novel regards repetition: is the universe one of eternal return? To what extent is the repetition of days subverted by even small deviations? And so Earth biomes are reproduced in celestial bodies, even as those biomes have long since been destroyed on Earth. To escape the repetition, the people in space have their bodies modified: Swan has a cluster of avian brain cells that allow her to sing bird songs, other characters have had reproductive organs of both sexes involved so that copulation is an act of reciprocal penetration. Some people on impoverished Earth, unable to have their own bodies modified, see the class difference manifesting itself in speciation, and have suggested classifying their non-terrestrial counterparts as  Homo sapiens celestis.

Repetition and iterability are ultimately the core issues at stake in 2312, driving the novel’s political reflections. The production of artificial intelligence in the shape of humans raises a familiar question from other science fiction, that is, the question of extending moral consideration to a constructed thing that may or may not be sentient. But it extends to the environmental politics at work in the novel as well. In a key reversal, earth animals that had previously survived only in biomes reproduced in outer space are airlifted into their former habitats on Earth as a “rewilding.” Swan, and perhaps the novel itself, celebrates this as a kind of ecological redemption, brought about by the protagonist’s own sense of Prometheanism. But unlike Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, we also learn that the people of Earth do not universally share in the enthusiasm, and the narrator gives us a strong hint that the reproduction of the Earth’s past condition on the present planet is not without friction, much of which stems from the class tensions between the on- and the off-worlders.

The Politics of Celebrating the City

In his autobiography Von Zwanzig bis Dreißig (From Twenty to Thirty) Theodor Fontane explains his inability to make friends with the author Theodor Storm by chalking the difference between them up to a clash between his own cosmopolitanism vs. Storm’s fealty to his North Friesland home:

He was for the Husum Dike, I was for the London Bridge; his ideal was the Schleswig Heath with its red erica bushes, my ideal was the Heath of Culloden with the graves of the Camerons and Mackintosh. (HFA III/4 : 372, translation mine)

Spitzweg "Newspaper Reader in the Garden"

Carl Spitzweg “Newspaper Reader in the Garden”

Storm had been some ten years in his grave by the time Fontane published this comparison. While it is unflattering and in no small measure self-serving, Fontane’s characterization of Storm as an author bound to his small corner of the planet is reflective of the judgment that German realism is a provincial realism. Perhaps the best example of this judgment is to be found in Erich Auerbach landmark study Mimesis of 1946. For Auerbach, German literature of the late nineteenth century, in this view, falls short of the French model in representing an emerging European cosmopolitan modernity. Despite the fact that Fontane claimed for himself a certain cosmopolitanism, he does not entirely escape Auerbach’s charge of provincialism, because his novels, while in some measure provincial, are a “transition to a freer, less secluded, more cosmopolitan realism” (Auerbach 516-519, quote 517).[1].

I don’t cite this in order to “disprove” Auerbach. First because the book was written in exile and Auerbach’s judgment is made against the backdrop of the catastrophe of National Socialism and thus deserves its historical due, second because we now have decades of scholarship to show that the literature of the area was sensitive to European and global realities.

The charge of “provincialism” is certainly an understandable one, especially if one thinks about literary history from a socio-historical perspective, and more especially if one considers the political climate in Germany after 1848. Auerbach bases this judgment on the political fragmentation after the revolution, an account that is pretty basic to most histories of German literature in the nineteenth century. But the allegation of “provincialism” has a curious flip-side, and carries with it some more dubious implications.

The first curious thing about the charge of “provincialism” is that it is grounded in aspects of the novel that one might just as easily celebrate in the context of a different national literature. Storm’s attachment to the Husum Dike might make him a “provincial,” but plenty of American ecocriticism might just as easily see in him a sensitivity to “place.” The reason is that having a “sense of place” implies a connection to one’s immediate environment, which supposedly leads one to ecological right thinking. Of course”place” can also take one down some politically problematic roads, and not just because its connotations resonate with certain aspects of National Socialist ideology. [2].

The second reason is that the charge of provincialism carries with it a normative concept of literature. It privileges a “modernity” as the end point of literature, a privileging that necessarily comes at the expense of prior modes of expression. Ironically, it is not unlike the normative view of realism that sees the 19th century realist novel as the ultimate flowering of the novel form. What’s odd about the charge that German realism is “provincial” is that it is in realism where the provinces come into view, as Lilian Furst argues in her study of European realism All is True (99). If this is the case, then the argument might go that Dickens’ London or Flaubert’s Paris makes room for the representation of the provinces, somehow, but it’s a strange argument to make (and radically reduces the canon of realism).

Finally, the charge also posits a normative view of the reality that realism denotes (to speak with Roland Barthes). The assumption is that reality in “modernity” exists in the city. It’s ironic that if someone from Upstate New York had never ventured east of the Catskills or below the Pennsylvania state line he would be hopelessly provincial, but New York City’s microgeographies are something of a cultural joke, and part of the city’s charm (e.g. Kramer’s “long-distance” relationship with a woman living downtown in an episode of Seinfeld, or Saul Steinberg’s take on Manhattan parochialism in his famous New Yorker cover). This itself is a kind of provincialism particular to the supposedly “cosmopolitan,” one that makes it harder to recognize how a place like upstate New York has historically been shaped by the vicissitudes of uneven development (which, as I have written, is why I include texts about “rural” spaces in a course called Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture). But where this metropolitan provincialism really loses its charm is when it translates into matters of policy. So the New York Times can editorialize in favor of fracking upstate, because we just don’t have the economic opportunities available in such wealthy urban centers as New York City. Just do it with caution, and for God’s sake, not in the city’s watershed!

It’s time to put the provincialism charge to rest, because it has been thoroughly debunked, and because making it puts us in a bad corner politically. But when it comes to the study of literary texts, the biggest reason may be simply that sheer reading pleasure starts at the same place as any critique in a robust sense: from a sensitivity to the qualities and characteristics of a literary work in all its particularity.

1.Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.Trans. William Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

2. For a useful critique of place, see Ursula Heise.Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. A useful recent study on place in German realism is John B. Lyon. Out of Place: German Realism, Displacement, and Modernity.New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Mike Davis: “Late Victorian Holocausts”

619K4ZX2Z2L._SL1062_Having grown up in Southern California, Mike Davis’ histories of the area City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and especially the co-written Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See are near and dear to my heart. But it was my dissertation work that motivated me to buy his 2001 book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the The Third World. Theodor Fontane and especially Wilhelm Raabe both incorporate global themes into their fiction, even if these themes operate mostly through silence and suggestion, and so I was starting to feel hungry (so to speak) for an environmental history that takes a correspondingly global perspective. Besides, 2014 might still see a strong El Niño event.

Davis tells the story of how nineteenth century global capitalist development, through the vehicle of European imperialist politics produced scarcity in the so-called “third world,” leaving colonized peoples especially vulnerable to the climate disruptions associated with particularly strong ENSO events, of which there were several in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Davis focuses on the cases of India, China, Northeastern Brazil, and the Horn of Africa, sites of devastating famines that largely depopulated whole regions, and yet have vanished from the collective memories of former colonizers. The first part of the book is thus concerned with recovering these histories, and they are nightmarish: there are plenty of accounts of cannibalism, mothers selling off their children, and wild animals dragging off people too weak to fight back. The second part looks at imperialist politics and political destabilization brought about by famine in places like China and Brazil. Lest the history come off as mere correlation, the third part explains ENSO, the history of research into the phenomenon, and its effects on global climate. The fourth part recounts how specific policies and practices of global capitalism disrupted local communities and their systems for coping with natural disasters. In other words, scarcity is not just about nature, nor even the callousness that comes from “free market” ideologies, but the result of specific, conscious policy decisions aimed at enriching the powerful on the backs of the masses. This last point is important, because although the demonization of the suffering of famine victims by laissez-faire Social Darwinists will sound familiar in our contemporary historical moment, disasters are not just about ideological Hirngespinste any more than they are just about annual rainfall.

Late Victorian Holocausts makes for compelling history precisely because of the way it weaves together environmental and political history. It puts to rest popular assumptions that the deprivation “first-worlders” popularly associate with the global south comes from anything other than the gross mismanagement of the world reaching back through the history of globalization. That this is a critical history should come as no surprise, but even where his writing appears under a partisan banner, as is the case with Under the Perfect Sun, his histories are always well-argued. The empirical research and theoretical grounding are what make room for the moral force of the argument. In his explanation of the use of the word “holocaust” in his title, Davis writes, “it is the burden of this book to show that imperial policies towards starving ‘subjects’ were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet. The contemporary photographs used in this book are thus intended as accusations not illustrations.”

Erderwärmung und Gerechtigkeit

Die WDR-Sendung “Das philosophische Radio” hat letzte Woche eine Sendung mit dem Philosophen Lukas Meyer ausgestrahlt unter dem Titel “Ist der Klimawandel ein Gerechtigkeitsproblem?” Kurze Antwort: ja. Die Sendung ist eine Stunde lang, aber das Anhören lohnt sich. Im Folgenden einige Gedanken zum Gespräch, aber zuerst kann ich “Das philosophische Radio” nicht hoch genug empfehlen. Einerseits bietet es jede Woche eine Gelegenheit, vom eigenen philosophischen Tellerrand hinauszublicken. Andererseits ist es immer interessant (und erfreulich) zu hören, wie Akademiker auf die Fragen von Laien eingehen. Und Jürgen Wiebekes Moderation ist immer pointiert und gut informiert.

Das Gespräch letzte Woche hat das Thema “Klimawandel und Gerechtigkeit” innerhalb einer zukunftsorientierten Ethik verstanden, und so legitim das sein mag, war es auch ein Dokument des begrenzten Rahmens, in dem Diskussion über Erderwärmung stattfinden. Die Anfangsmoderation hat einen zum Thema passenden Ton angeschlagen: “Es ist ungefähr so, als ob es fünf vor zwölf ist und wir werfen die Uhr weg.” Die Diskussion über “Gerechtigkeit” kreiste um Themen wie Verzicht, Gleichverteilung, und Konsum, aber der Fluchtpunkt des Gesprächs war die Zukunft und unsere Pflichten gegen zukünftige Menschen. Ein würdiges Thema, das man in anderen Sendungen aufgegriffen hat. Aber beim Anhören hätte ich gern mehr über die Erderwärmung als real existierendes Phänomen unserer Gegenwart gehört.

Meine Frage ist, ob eine Zukunftsethik uns wirklich einen festen Boden für ein ethisches Programm im Zeitalter des Anthropozäns bietet? Einerseits können und wollen wir die Frage der Zukunft nicht loswerden, denn die Umsetzung eines Programms für eine bessere Wirklichkeit geht von der Antwort auf die Frage aus, wie wir in der Gegenwart handeln wollen, um eine mögliche Zukunft zu gestalten. Meine Skepsis kommt aber von zwei Punkten. Das erste ist, “Zukunft” ist ein sehr missbrauchter Begriff. In Wahljahren in den USA wenigstens wird die Zukunft oft als eine geschlossene kommende Wirklichkeit behandelt. Das heißt, die Zukunft ist etwas festes wie ein Gebäude, wir sind auf dem Weg dorthin, aber die Politik der Opposition gefährdet sie gewiss. Aber die Erderwärmung macht die Zukunft radikal offen: wie schlimm wird sie sein? Wer wird am stärksten betroffen? Was und wieviel von unserer jetzigen Gesellschaftsstruktur wird sich überhaupt bewahren können?

Der zweite Punkt ist, dass der Klimawandel als Folge einer anthropogenen Erderwärmung gar kein Zukunftsproblem ist, sondern die Katastrophe ist da. Die Sahara dringt vor. Wildbrände haben vor kurzem wieder Vororte von San Diego bedroht. Gletscherschwund in der Westantarktis.

Es ist also nicht fünf vor zwölf, sondern eins nach. Unsere Diskussion über Ökogerechtigkeit kann und soll mit der Gegenwart ansetzen.

Ökogerechtigkeit war das, was mir in dem Gespräch gefehlt hat. In der Diskussion hat man sehr viel über Bahn vs Auto fahren, ob man weit weg in den Urlaub fliegen soll, und Ähnliches aus einem linksliberalen Blickfeld. Aber auch wenn man sich auf den Klimawandel beschränkt und andere verwandte Fragen wie Recht auf die Stadt usw. beiseite lässt, stecken größere Fragen als Bahn oder Auto hinter dem Klimawandel. Meyer nähert sich diese größeren Themen an, als er bei der Diskussion über Urlaub auf Mallorca erwähnt, dass wir unsere Gesellschaft vielleicht so organisieren könnte, dass wir nicht einmal sowas wie “Urlaub” nötig hätten.

On the Poetic Status of Conservatism

There’s a point in Theodor Adorno’s essay “In Memory of Eichendorff” when he arrives at the issue of Eichendorff’s own conservatism. The essay, let us first recall, was originally a radio speech broadcast in 1957 to mark the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death (official German culture loves these sorts of anniversaries). What is at stake for Adorno is actually the appropriation of the German cultural past as part of the restoration of the Adenauer years. “But if anywhere, it is in poetry that the status of conservatism has changed in the extreme” (57). Unlike post-war conservatism’s investment in a bad status quo and a thoroughly discredited notion of tradition, historical conservatism of Eichendorff’s kind comes from a value of something abiding against “emerging barbarism” (57).

I cite this because the authors I work with also cling to a politics that seem to invite much less sympathetic readings. Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács memorably described Adalbert Stifter as the “classical author of the German political reaction,” argued that for all of his insight, Wilhelm Raabe was too bound by his social and political limitations to understand his time, and Theodor Fontane’s aestheticization of the nobility was a symptom of political “halfwayness.” (Granted, these judgments are all from Lukács’ most Stalinist period, in which, in spite of Adorno’s polemic, he still produced fantastic and provocative essays.)

The image of Fontane improved after Lukács’ essay with the publication of the letters to Georg Friedlaender, where Fontane has much sharper criticism of the nobility. And Raabe? A first encounter with Raabe through Die Akten des Vogelsangs (recently translated as The Birdsong Papers) might not give the impression of someone who had a portrait of Bismarck in his study, one that hangs there still today.

One position might be to separate the author from the politics, a move that I endorse as part of any critical practice. But that doesn’t obviate the conservative politics or conservative aesthetics in the works themselves. Like Schiller, Stifter sees art and aesthetics as means by which humanity moves from a condition of “is” to “ought.” But unlike Schiller, that is not a move that everyone can make. So in his novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer), which is a story about an aesthetic upbringing, only a select few enter the Rose House. In Stifter’s essays and in his stories there is little of the enlightenment universalism of, say, Goethe’s Iphigenie in Taurus (another favorite text of the post-war West German restoration). And while the “fiction of the alternative community” that Jeffrey Sammons sees at work in Raabe has a certain sexiness, then as now it remains a politically ambivalent fiction at best.

Adorno’s reading of Eichendorff’s conservatism could be applied to many of the conservative authors of the 19th century. One of the most striking aspects of Stechlin, for instance, is the extent to which the conservative and even reactionary characters seem to have insights into contemporary reality than the more liberal, “world-open” characters who subscribe to a benign cosmopolitanism. But there’s more to be gained from such a reading than that. Where Lukács tends to look for the social and political value of Raabe and Fontane in spite of their politics, Adorno is sensible to the more useful dialectic at work in the historical conservatism of one like Eichendorff. We see it also in the environmental thematic in Raabe. His novels don’t critique environmental depredation from a position that values nature as something best respected as sovereign and inviolable, but from a skepticism of and perhaps even resistance to destructive bourgeois ideologies of progress. And that is what we mean when we talk about the text’s conservatism. Jeffrey Sammons makes this point when he notes that ecology is one the “conservative values [that] have been revived in the most progressive minds” (272). And that leads us to how these texts might help us to think outside of the restrictive categories that contemporary American political discourse operates in: reading – and teaching – these texts allow us to explore alternative political constellations that existed in historical reality, to empathize with and even value the potential for alternatives in a politics that seems to antithetical to the very term, and to open ourselves up to the realities revealed by political frameworks outside of our own political commitments.

The New Northwest Passage and the West Virginia Chemical Spill

Last week the NPR program Fresh Air broadcast a pair of interviews that are to be recommended.

On Tuesday Dave Davies interviewed journalist McKenzie Funk about the commercial opportunities related to global warming. The opening of the Northwest Passage with the shrinking of Arctic ice, for instance, is but one of many commercial opportunities that global warming provides, and there is a scramble amongst nations and business interests to exploit new shipping lanes and extract fossil fuels and mineral resources suddenly made accessible. There is plenty to be learned here about capitalism, coercion, and environmental degradation.

On Wednesday Dave Davies interviewed journalist Ken Ward about the chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia. The story is one of a profound failure of regulatory oversight, but also the failure of a discursive regime that disempowers the citizenry by distorting basic reality. The interview ends on a hopeful note, though, as Ken Ward suggests that a cultural shift may be afoot that we outsiders may be largely unaware of.

Buy Nothing Day Blessings

Reverend Billy appeared on Democracy Now! Tuesday. Reverend Billy is facing jail time for a protest action staged in September against JP Morgan Chase for the bank’s support of the fossil fuel industry. It’s worth watching, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Reverend Billy’s courageous work.

Reverend Billy appeared in a documentary a few years ago produced by Morgan Spurlock called What Would Jesus Buy. In the last scene Rev. Billy strolls through Disneyland shouting a kind of desperate protest as the “park’s” day trippers look on, some enjoying the spectacle, others devoutly ignoring what’s taking place. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit with the exact opposite political program. The scene itself is remarkable, by the point in the film Rev. Billy has traveled across the country visiting malls and big box stores, and after all the amusing stunts and tricks, pleads with the crowd to break through the ideological fantasy. The Disney security promptly descends on him, insisting that he “needs” to stop. At the end of the scene, he is sitting in handcuffs for having disrupted Disney’s carefully structured illusion.

The trailer for What Would Jesus Buy? can be viewed here.

The full film is also now available for viewing pleasure on YouTube.