Tag Archives: Aesthetics

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.

Gardens and Invisible Bird Cages: Stifter on Making Nature Natural

My last postAnthonis_Leemans_-_Hunting_gear,_Still_Life_-_Google_Art_Project looked at a moment in Stifter’s novel Indian Summer in which the protagonist Heinrich Drendorf is thinking about the relative insignificance of humans and human production relative to geological time. I raised the possibility that this might even be an especially ecocentric moment in the novel.

But let’s not be too hasty. One need not look far in his stories to find that he is hardly “ecocentric” by most understandings of the term. From the early Studies to later stories such as Nachkommenschaften (Descendants) nature is caught up again and again in a transition from natura naturans to natura naturata: nature doing its own thing, that is, “nature naturing” to ordering nature. The clearing of forests, draining of swamps, and the extermination of undesired fauna elicit are featured prominently without any particular concern on the narrator’s part.

One might chalk this up to Stifter’s own historical circumstances, that it is only with the benefit of experience that we in 2014 know how disastrous such “conquests of nature” can be. But that does not mean that Stifter lacks any concern for the integrity of the nature he so meticulously represents. We need only look back at Indian Summer, at the chapter “The Departure,” where Freiherr von Risach delivers a delightfully endless and sublimely boring monologue on his garden. He has a particular fondness for birdsong, and comes to the problem of getting a bird to sing naturally:

If [the bird] is caught young or even old, he forgets himself and his misery, becomes a creature that hops back and forth in a small space when he otherwise needed a large one, and sings his song; but this song is one of habit, not of joy. Our grounds are actually a colossal cage without wire, bars or doors where the birds sing from an extraordinary joy that comes to them so readily, where we hear a medley of many voices which would only be a discordant scream in a room together, and where we can observe the birds’ housekeeping and behavior which is so different and can often make us smile even when things are gloomiest. … People want to enjoy them; they want to enjoy them from up close, and since they are incapable of making a cage with invisible wire and bars where they could observe the true nature of the birds, they make a visible cage in which the bird is locked and sings until his premature death. (95-96)

Risach’s garden is the utopia of ordered nature: he has found a way to get the flora and the fauna to do as he would have them by manipulating their beings. His garden is an invisible birdcage because he creates conditions under which the birds would not wish to be anywhere else. That is one reason why nature is made more natural through Risach’s intervention, he is able to produce a space of harmony. Reading Stifter’s criticisms of the 1848 revolution makes it clear that this harmony is not incongruous with his notion of freedom. On the other hand, we are left with the question of the conditions of freedom in a cage in which a being is invisible, stays voluntarily, regards himself as free, and acts authentically as if he had authentic freedom?

Ultimately what’s at stake for Stifter is a kind of Platonic absolute, what Stifter will come to call the “sanftes Gesetz” or “soft law.” According to this, the absolute, which is both the guarantor of the sensible world and the source of moral reason, can only ever be known for its manifestations in the small and particular. “Nature” is not valuable as the given, but is a projection of the higher instance that anchors our immediate reality. To order nature is to make nature more natural by bringing out the general in the particular. But as any good Stifter reader knows, he just can’t help himself, there’s always some detail or circumstance that exposes the whole order as essentially a house of cards. And that’s what constitutes the singular pleasure of reading Stifter.

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.

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.

Tourism, Labor, and a New Raabe Translation

I brought home a few interesting souvenirs from my trip to Chicago last week. Submitted for your contemplation is this billboard I spotted near my hotel:

Odd Billboard

“How Sublime it is to be Small”

One might say that the statement in the advertisement is self-explanatory, since one experiences the sublime because one is physically small relative to the object. Add to this that the advertisement is for skiing; it hawks an experience that commodifies the mountains. Not that there is anything particularly new or remarkable about this, the billboard is simply another document at the end of a two hundred year history of the erosion of the concept of the sublime. Context matters here, as the billboard stands in the middle of downtown Chicago. Finally, let’s not forget the legacy of Caspar David Friedrich in the advertisement, another testament to Romanticism’s long legacy.

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich “Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer”

Another intriguing find comes from a strip mall in Avon, Ohio where I stopped in to get a burrito at Chipotle. Despite the fact that I had not request take-out, the burrito was tightly packed in layers of foil and paper. Chowing down, I noticed this on the back of the bag:

Odd statement on back of Chipotle bag from Ohio, January 2014

“Recycling turns things into other things which is like magic.”

There’s a kind of oddly self-aware commodity fetishism at work here (“like magic”), offered, I suppose, to enhance my experience of consumption by appealing to guilt over the needless use of a paper product. If recycling seems like magic, that is only because the labor processes involved are so opaque, and as it happens recycling is a particularly labor intensive industry, one which recruits both its official and unofficial workforce from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic scale. For the record, Chipotle provided no recycling or compost bins, and yes, my bag went straight to the landfill. Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014

On another note, it has recently come to my attention that Die Akten des Vogelsangs has been released for the first time in English. Michael Ritterson has released a translation through the Modern Humanities Research Association. Buy it! I have not had the chance to peruse it myself, but I am excited to finally have this book available in English. German Moonlight, Höxter and Corvey, and At the Sign of the Wild Man are also available from the same series.

Environmental and Aesthetic Problems: A False Dualism

Today the New York Times’ reported on a city block sized, three story high pile of petroleum coke in Detroit. The coke is a byproduct of tar sands oil production.  Usually it gets shipped off to China or Latin America for fuel, contributing to the air problem out “over there” where we in the United States don’t have to see it.  But at the moment we have a growing mountain of the stuff in Detroit.  The source of outrage here, I would argue, is not the existence of such a pile but the use of Detroit as a “sacrifice zone,” to borrow Chris Hedges’ term.  If this is how we are going to power our civilization, then would it not be better to keep the ugly byproducts within our field of vision?  Yes, the waste becomes a very real social and environmental problem for the people who ultimately are left to deal with it.  But the reason our waste gets sent somewhere else to spoil the material basis of someone else’s life is so that we wealthy consumers in the global north do not have to be confronted with either the toxicity or the sheer ugliness of things like petroleum coke.  What we have is an empirically quantifiable problem of toxicity, yes, but that is not what the article is really about.  The real issue that dominates the article is the fact that it’s ugly, and we can’t hide the ugliness from view.  In other words, the environmental problem is also an aesthetic problem.

I remember watching the pieces that 60 Minutes did on Chernobyl in 1989 and 1996. The images of the nuclear fuel, which had melted, combined with the sand, and then solidified into a kind of glass flow, were beautiful.  The radiation level on the surface when it was discovered was 10,000 Röntgen per hour.  500 Röntgens in five hours is the lethal level for humans.  Radiation is not something that humans can perceive with their bodily sensory apparatus.  In other words, we have something beautiful but deadly, and if you were to go near it, you would only perceive the deadliness through its physiological effects on your body.  That is an aesthetic problem.

Plant and animal life is slowly re-taking the town of Pripyat, by Chernobyl.  Its social character is slowly vanishing as a second nature gives way to a first.  Luckily we now have the internet to satisfy our desire for the melancholy contemplation of ruination, because in spite of its appearances, the exclusion zone is a dangerous place.  That is an aesthetic problem.

The title of Rachel Carson’s classic book Silent Spring is an allusion to Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”  We start off, in other words, not with science, but aesthetics.  The book’s opening chapter “A Fable for Tomorrow” is about a town that knows it is poisoned because of the conspicuous absence of birdsong.  That is an aesthetic problem.

There’s a scene in Raabe’s novel Die Akten des Vogelsangs where the two main characters are standing on a hill, a kind of nature park where the people from the town go to relax.  In the novel, “nature” has been compartmentalized on this hill, it is planned and made beautiful.  In the middle is a copy of Canova’s sculpture of Hebe.  What we have is a compounding of aesthetic problems.

Kant observes in his discussion of the mathematical sublime that we can can estimate the magnitude of something (a mountain, a galaxy, etc.) through measurement, but that does not mean that I know the magnitude of the measure.   The metric system in America has the same problem, because when Americans ask how many miles are in x kilometers, they are trying to obtain a sense of the magnitude of the measure.  We haven’t understood the data if we haven’t grasped it through intuition and thus obtained a real understanding of the concept.  Put very basically, the numbers are meaningless if they are not understood aesthetically.  In my example of Chernobyl, I told you how deadly 500 Röntgens in five hours was so that you could have a sense of how much radiation is in 10,000 Röntgens an hour, and only then do you know what a problem that is.

Common sense would have us distinguish between environmental problems and aesthetic problems.  Nobody ever got poisoned by a novel, at least not literally.  But the distinction is illusory, and if we cling to it then we have failed to understand the environmental crises we are confronted with.  Aesthetics in the narrow sense of perception and judgment is how we arrive at a sense that there is a problem in the first place.  Aesthetics in the broader sense of “relating to art” can also help us to conceptualize how we got here and to imagine other possible kinds of relations.

This is the point, in other words, where we who do cultural studies can legitimately enter the conversation on environmental problems.  And we can do so without selling ourselves short simply because we operate in more speculative realms.