Deep Time and the Work of Art

800px-Elephant_Butte_exit_rapelThere’s a moment in Adalbert Stifter’s novel Indian Summer (Der Nachsommer, 1857) when the protagonist Heinrich Drendorf wanders through a valley and comes to a lake. Pausing at the lake, he spends several pages contemplating the geological forces that created the environment he is currently moving through (the length is typical for a novel that Hebbel famously mocked for the fact that everything is meticulously observed). Drendorf’s line of thought brings him to how his own things are themselves a product of deep time.

Then I thought of my marble – how remarkable marble is! Where did the animals go whose traces we think we see in these formations? When did the giant snails disappear whose memory has been handed down to us here? A memory such as this goes back into the mists of time, is measured by no one, is perhaps unseen by anyone, yet lasts longer than the fame of any  mortal. (191).

These reflections on the work of art eventually turn to reflections on narrative.

If any history [Geschichte] is worth pondering, worth investigating, it is the history of the Earth, the most promising, the most stimulating history there is, a history where man is only an interpolation, who knows how small a one, and can be superseded by other histories of perhaps higher beings. The Earth itself preserves the sources of this history in its innermost parts just as in a room for records, sources inscribed in perhaps millions of documents; it is only a matter of our learning to read and not falsify them by eagerness or obstinacy. Who will one day have this history clearly before his eyes? Will ever such a  time come, or will only He know it completely Who has known it for all Eternity?

What we have here is something like the concept of the Book of Nature, in which all of history is inscribed onto the planet, and can be read like an archive by one who has the right perspective. Reading that archive means achieving a sense of what is really “great” and what is really “small,” which is different from what presents itself to us as “great” and “small” (a distinction that determines Stifter’s realist agenda, as he explains in the preface to the novella cycle Multi-Colored Stones (Bunte Steine)). Stifter seems to suggest that reaching this state is a matter of evolution – biological or otherwise – although it’s tempting to imagine that the vagueness of “higher beings” holds open the possibility of the Earth having an extraterrestrial readership. For the moment, only God is the observer for whom the planet is in any way legible.

It would seem that Drendorf is arriving at a very ecocentric way of looking at the work of art. Geschichte means both “history” and “stories,” as narratives they culminate in a story of the Earth covering both deep past and deep future. In the case of the sculpture, the form given to the marble in the workshop would appear to be of diminished significance relative to the history of its material. Whatever it depicts, the marble is the product of eons of geological processes and was imprinted by species that came and went long before the one that turned the block of stone into an artwork.

The critic Georg Lukács memorably dubbed Stifter the “classical author of German reactionary politics” for his detailed descriptions and the anti-revolutionary agenda that spawned them. But his descriptiveness can and has been read as demonstrating a singular concern for the environment of the sort that one finds in American nature writing. Does this make Stifter an “ecocentric” author? By now it should be clear that I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why in my next post.

 

Stifter, Adalbert. Indian Summer. Trans. Wendell Frye. Bern: Peter Lang, 1999. Print.

Photo Credit: Elephant Butte, Arches National Park. Courtesy of Michael Grindstaff. Creative Commons license.

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.

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer_posterIf you happen to be of an eco-Marxist frame of mind, it’s tempting to regard global warming as the moment when capitalism will finally hit its limits. Endless growth cannot be sustainable, and so it is not difficult to imagine the planet itself as the ultimate barrier to capitalist development. While it is not outside the realm of possibility, it is a grim fantasy for the incredible human suffering that will likely have to happen first, and moreover it is one that severely underestimates the dynamism of capital. What’s more, it is not impossible to imagine a “sustainable” mode of production that also allows for continual growth.

This is the world of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s entry into the eco-apocalypse genre. The film is set in 2031, after a 2014 geo-engineering project to reverse the effects of global warming left the Earth in perpetual winter. What remains of the human race live in a self-contained environment aboard a train that continually circles the planet. In the front of the train the people live a life of comfort, the rear is a site of immiseration. Poor conditions and political repression of the dwellers of the rear spark a revolution that aims to reach the front of the train.

The train is an interesting space, as all divisions and functions of society are projects linearly, so that in each car the revolution moves into, we glimpse some new aspect of what sustains the hermetic environment on board: food production, water supply, and in the front education, relaxation in “Nature,” and recreation. The train distills spatially what readers of Foucault will recognize as a kind of biopolitics. Remaining in one’s place is the reigning ideology of the train, as Mason, played by Tilda Swinton, makes clear in a lecture that is laughable for the fact that she is filling the time while the rear dwellers watch brutal punishment meted out to one of their own. As we learn at the end, the biopolitical program extends beyond the organization of the train.

I get pleasure out of seeing the return of decadence topoi as anxieties over economic inequality seep into the motion picture industry (the outlandish fashions of the Capitol in The Hunger Games films comes to mind), and it makes a productive appearance in Snowpiercer as the revolutionaries push their way through a dance club car where the revelers are tripped out on Kronol, an industrial by-product that is also a drug.

We are treated to plenty of views of the world outside, as snowy mountains give way to the icy ruins of civilization. As we move through the train, we see the front dwellers sit by the windows and watch the scenes of devastation with the detachment in which train passengers have always experienced the sliding landscape through a train window (a history documented by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century).

How one feels about the film will probably depend on how one reacts to its farcical element. Mason’s party line speeches are comically banal. We witness indoctrination at work in the school car in a way that is laughably over the top. I found the violence too to be quite farcical – and there is a lot that could be said about the mutilation of bodies in the movie. The film is even complete with an indestructible Übermensch of the variety that you get in the early James Bond films.

So the train is a distilled image of late capitalist society, complete with the violent policing necessary to maintain the system. But this is where “sustainability” comes in. The term is a pillar of the ideology that structures life on board, it is invoked to justify the sentence of mutilation at the beginning, and it is invoked in a bizarre scene where the revolutionaries sit down to dine on sushi. But it is also a code word for the eternal recurrence that really underwrites the experience of the train, the maintenance of which turns out to be the end of the biopolitical program (without giving too much away, this is the crux of the major revelation in the film). It is not an accident that the train eternally follows a circular route.

While I personally roll my eyes at “spoiler alerts” (because I believe everything should be “spoiled”!), I’ll limit my comments on the ending to this: the film spares the protagonist the full weight of the final ethical dilemma, which from a storytelling standpoint could not have been resolved in an especially satisfying way, I suspect. What we get instead is a perspectivization on eco-apocalypse. In spite of what we thought we saw through the windows, Nature’s history has not ended, and in the last shot it looks back at humanity with a somewhat puzzled indifference.

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.

Teaching Metropolis in the Country

A lingering question I have is about effectively integrating places into the teaching of literary criticism. I refer not only to real existing places that are represented in literature either directly or in more or less veiled forms, but also to the places where we encounter literature. It’s a big question in ecocriticism, and one that I intend to take up in my own work later on down the road. For now, rather than delving into the theoretical issues of this question, I want to share some thoughts on a writing course I taught at Cornell in 2011 and 2012 called “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture.” Because this course was meant to fulfill a first year writing requirement, all content was selected first and foremost in the service of the objective of guiding students from high school to college level writing. I designed the course to include a range of texts ranging historically from Tieck’s Life’s Luxuries and Stifter’s Tourmaline to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The idea was to give the students ample opportunity to explore different problems in their writing by setting a wide variety of texts in dialogue with one another.

One thing that was important to me in creating the syllabus was that  “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” not become reified terms, that is, that we don’t talk about them as if they were things “over there” that we needed to drive five hours to New York City to experience. And here’s where place comes in. We were a group of American and international students who grew up in all types of human settlements doing this class at a campus in a small town surrounded by farmland. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for visitors to our neck of the woods to have difficulty seeing only farmland. For instance Jon Stewart, whose comedy sometimes suffers from a certain metropolitan provincialism, came to Cornell and quipped that “Ithaca is in the middle of nowhere . . . On the way up I didn’t pass anything I couldn’t milk.” But if he had looked past the cows, he would have seen a part of the world that is living with the very real and difficult legacies of its commercial and industrial past, as opposed to  New York City’s overgrown ahistorical backyard.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Without making the course about Ithaca itself, I selected readings that complicated the city/country dichotomy. With Tourmaline we looked at Vienna and the liminal space of its suburbs. We looked at maps to explore the city/country dichotomy as a social condition that shaped some of the aesthetic problems we were writing about. The first chapter of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz was an easy way to introduce the critique of mass culture, but he also begins the book by talking about a socialist settlement in the desert as representing a kind of alternative future for the city itself. And W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn together with Wilhelm Raabe’s Stopfkuchen (Stuffcake or Tubby Schaumann in English translation) allowed for conversations and assignments on the surprising connections between supposedly remote places and global networks of power and injustice that we might otherwise think of as a relation of metropolitan core to colonized margin.

Chapter six of Rings of Saturn was especially useful for getting around the danger of reifying “Metropolis,” “Modernity,” and “Mass Culture.” The chapter begins with a small iron bridge over the river Blyth, a river that used to be a major shipping lane but has been silted up. The narrator sees only rotting barges, and “nothing but grey water, mudflats, and emptiness” (138). It turns out that the bridge was for a narrow gauge railway (the railway being, of course, the symbol of industrial modernity par excellence). The bridge leads the narrator to a history of China from the Opium Wars to the death of the Dowager Empress, a calamitous history in which Europe was deeply implicated. The bridge doesn’t just “bridge” England’s eastern coast with China, but as an object from this history infects the surrounding landscape. The narrator moves on to Dunwich, once an important port city claimed by the ocean where “you can sense the immense power of emptiness” (159, “den gewaltigen Sog der Leere” in the German), and goes then to the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. The novel weaves together seemingly infinite constellations of history and culture, at times I suspect even making fun of itself for doing so. This poses a challenge for teaching, because with such a text it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. But it’s a rewarding text to include in a course that thinks about both historical and aesthetic problems that spring from the urban experience, because it hangs on to more global contexts while also pushing assumptions that readers bring to a text. In class we spend time talking about the extensive work the novel does in teaching us how to read it (the first chapter is a kind of field guide to the rest of the novel), and then mid-way through I ask the students to turn to the back cover of the English edition, look at the label “fiction,” and tell me what they think.

 

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.

Thoughts on Re-Reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

Even before the news of Gabriel García Márquez’ passing on April 17th arrived, I had been thinking that it was about time I take One Hundred Years of Solitude back off the shelf. Admittedly I did so with something of a guilty conscience, as his obituary in the New York Times mentioned that Márquez had feared that that book would overshadow his other literary accomplishments.

I first encountered One Hundred Years of Solitude in twelfth grade English. Suffice it to say, I was dazzled from the very first line. I was partial to the fantastic element, but also to the detailed plasticity of the narrative world – i.e. Pilar Tenera’s “explosive laugh [that] frightened off the doves” or José Arcadio’s “flatulence [that] withered the flowers.” I read the novel first out of the 1998 Harper Perennial Classic’s paperback, which had on the back a quote from William Kennedy’s review of the novel saying that “it takes up not long after Genesis left off and carries through to the air age.” It was a claim that stuck with me, and one of the questions that I had of the novel when I first read it was about the relation of the narrative to actual historical time. In other words, when and where is Macondo?

While at the time that question might have come from a privileging of the “realism” in “magical realism,” the novel itself raises this question. The major turning point in the plot is loosely based on the 1928 Banana massacre, in which the Colombian army slaughtered an unknown number of workers on the behalf of United Fruit Company, today’s Chiquita Brands, lest anyone forget. And the novel also depicts the process of Macondo’s integration into a thoroughly disenchanted world history: at the beginning Macondo is an island whose contact with the outside world comes through fantastic products brought in by Arab and Gypsy traders, but as our solitary one hundred years proceed, we see the introduction of centralized bureaucracy, film, and most disastrously, the train.

In the April 18th episode of Democracy Now! in honor of Márquez, Isabel Allende remarked that Márquez “gave us back our history.” And it is the creation of an officially sanctioned historical narrative and the concomitant act of amnesia that shook me most re-reading the novel now. After the massacre José Arcadio Segundo wakes up on the train with the bodies of the striking workers on the way to being dumped in the ocean. He jumps off and walks back to Macondo, only to find that in the minds of the people, the massacre never happens. Solitude catches up to him as the only human in the town who remembers the event. The climate itself instead becomes a site of collective grief, as the town’s atmosphere of decadence is washed away in a four year rainstorm that gathers as the bodies of the workers are transported to the ocean and into oblivion.

Official Versions: Reflections on Teaching “Blade Runner”

Students in my first year writing seminars are often surprised to discover that the supposed intention of the author is not the ultimate measure of literary criticism. The confusion is understandable for a readership with the luxury of being unconcerned with intentional fallacies and the death of the author. Because the writing seminars are about making the transition to college-level writing and argumentation, rather than casting discussions of authorial intent as a literary studies no-no, I bring in texts where “intent” is a serious critical problem that in turn helps the students practice looking at an object of study and asking first, “what kind of argument can I build with the materials at hand?” In the “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” seminar I taught in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012, I did this with Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.

Blade Runner is part of a unit I have on Los Angeles, in which I pair the film against the first chapter of Mike Davis’ 1990 book City of Quartz. This chapter covers various “myths” of Los Angeles, and Davis reads this film and the noir genre in general as a “great anti-myth” (37) to Southern Calfiornia boosterism (Davis’ section on the German exiles is also a handy way for getting the Frankfurt School on the students’ radar when we don’t have room to read the culture industry essay). Where Los Angeles and Southern California in general is famous as a happy land of sunshine, it constantly rains in Blade Runner, and moreover a pall of sadness and decay hangs over the world of the film, one that for Los Angeles’ detractors has more truth to it than the booster image.

Seven different versions of Blade Runner appeared between 1982 and 2007. The 2007 remastered version was released also included some “tweaks and enhancements,” as Scott put it in his introduction to the 2007 version, and he has given this last version an official sanction. I show students the 1992 version, but in order to investigate the question of intentionality, I like to compare one still from the 1992 version and a still from the same scene in the 2007 version. This scene is from the movie’s climax, the replicant Roy gives a very moving speech about the marvelous things he has seen, then dies. He realizes that it is death the gives those experiences meaning, and then we see a dove he has been holding fly off, rather obvious symbolism for the soul’s departure. The camera places us, the viewer, within the world of the film, and we look up as the soul leaves (as opposed to the possibility, one used very commonly, where the camera retreats into the sky and we look down on the scene of death from the perspective of the soul). Here are the stills I show my students, both showing the dove’s flight. The first is from the 1992 version, the second from the 2007 version.

dove 1

Dove’s flight, “Blade Runner,” 1992.

Dove2

Dove’s Flight, “Blade Runner,” 2007.

Clearly we have here one of Scott’s tweaks/enhancements. When I show these I ask the students to break into partners and do two things. 1.) Describe exactly what you see on both images, and how one differs from the other then 2.) what is the effect of each version of the shot for the scene and the film as a whole (now you can bring in a little interpretation)? The objective is to help the students practice thinking of the text on its own terms, as opposed to Ridley Scott’s terms, and to take seriously this scene as a moment that does its own work in constituting the meaning of the film as a whole. Change the scene, change the meaning.

How would I answer the question of the effect of the shot for the scene? First a bit of context: Roy dies in a rainy landscape bathed in the blinding light of advertisements (the “D” in the background is from a TDK product placement).TearsinRain

After he sinks into death, we cut away to the dove. But in the versions up until 2007, his soul flies off into a seemingly sunny sky. The 2007 version creates more consistency between shots, as the weather is the same and the architecture is more consistent.

Prior to 2007 the realism of the world breaks down at the moment of Roy’s death, and we see the soul retreat into a blue sky. But the smog and cold buildings remain in the shot; the world that we have seen throughout is not suddenly gone or forgotten. Were that world to be completely wiped away, we would have something more like the happy ending of 1982, where the city is gone completely and our main characters fade into a mountainous “natural” landscape.

From the final scene of "Blade Runner," 1982 theatrical release.

From the final scene of “Blade Runner,” 1982 theatrical release.

I always read the scene of Roy’s death pre-2007 as an image of hope and even redemption that does not collapse into some kind of simplistic escape. But in the 2007 version, the dove’s flight is more uncertain. The course out of the sad, rainy, overbuilt LA of November 2019 is less direct, the clouds form a kind of iron grey ceiling. Maybe the cloudbreak that seems to be forming gives us back some hope, but that seems to invest a lot in that one small spot on the screen. In making the environment of the scene more consistent from shot to shot, the 2007 version also makes the world of this LA much more tightly sealed.

Closeup 2007 Dove's flight

Closeup 2007 Dove’s flight

According to the commentary on the 2007 DVD, the sun was coming up as they were shooting the scene, and without 21st century digital technology it more or less had to look that way until it could be “corrected.” So in one sense the hope and redemption reading derives from an accident. But my aim in the class discussion is to guide the students to a point where they can view the pre-2007 version as a document that has its own legitimacy as a historical cultural artifact that is still out in the world. The fact that we living after 2007 have access to a more “realistic,” or more accurately a more consistent version does not invalidate readings of the prior version. It just makes the 2007 version different. Whether that difference amounts to more artistic merit is a matter that individual viewers can decide for themselves. The point is that a text will always be more than the vision of a single creator, and not just because of technical limitations, external pressures from editors, publishers, and audiences, or the creator’s own status as historically contingent subjects. Instead my objective is to bring the students to a place where they reflect on the text as a living thing out in the world, and in cases where we have multiple versions. Examples from literature include Goethe’s Werther, Shelley’s Frankenstein, most of Stifter’s stories, Raabe’s Ein Frühling, and Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich. In most of these instances preference for one version or another has shifted over the years for different reasons, even though we know there is one version the author endorsed over others. What texts with competing versions reveal is that even in instances where we can safely speak about the author’s intention, that does not mean that we the critics have to yoke ourselves to the figure of the author. This may be self-explanatory for people who already have degrees in literary studies, because it legitimates our own practice, but when we teach it is important to remember that for the students this is an unconventional way of thinking about an object of study.

For the record, my preference is for the 1992 version, and that is the version I show. It splits the difference between Scott’s vision and the technical contingencies that determined the making of the film in the early 1980s. I am not in principle opposed to “tweaks and enhancements,” even though these seem to me not substantively different from the practice of colorizing classic black and white films. But I do care about watching a film as a product of a particular historical moment, flaws and all.

 

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Brothers, 2007. DVD.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 2006.