Tag Archives: Conference

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.



German Studies Graduate Conference 2010

The German Studies Graduate Conference this Spring will be on the subject of space.  You can find our official blog here!

Below is our CFP.  Papers should be submitted to cornellspace2010@gmail.com

Official Title: TBA

Space is a conceptual field enlivening cross-disciplinary inquiry and facilitating the exploration of new analytical frontiers. Yet as trailblazing as the field is today, the discourse also has a long historical trajectory. Language and rhetoric have been conceived spatially within traditions of mnemonic techniques or topoi. Literary scholars have articulated in great detail the idyllic space of the village, the claustrophobic spaces of Kafka, the urban spaces of Modernism, and instances of the locus amoenus and locus horribilis. Elsewhere, space is produced by media-specific practices of seeing and reading, arranged and constructed to convey meaning in the context of architecture, photography, and painting. Notions of national, ethnic, or linguistic spaces supply a raison d’être for academic departments and disciplines, and they live on even in our efforts to overcome such distinctions.  And at the geopolitical level, borders drawn across maps demarcate spaces for specific populations, serving both to affirm social imaginaries and to construct an often undesired other.

This conference aims to examine the workings of space in German literature and culture. What sorts of spaces do we encounter, and what function do they serve?  In what ways does space serve us, either as a means of better understanding an object of analysis or as an object of analysis itself? How is space produced or defined in literature and in other media? Are there media or genre-specific concepts of space? How is space used in relation to different kinds of representations (literary, historical, artistic)? How are space and spatial practices used as an analytic tool in and across disciplines? How can we conceive of the history of spatial discourses and how does this tradition inform our treatment of space today? Is space so foundational to discourse that we cannot do without it?

These are just a few of the questions we hope to address.  Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • The history and tradition of spatial discourse
  • Constructed spaces in literature and other media
    Pre-Modern configurations of space
  • Space as Nature or Culture
    Urban spaces and Cityscapes
  • Social spaces and spaces of everyday life
  • Spaces of production/interpretation
    Gendered spaces
  • Erotic discourse and space
  • Chronotopes
    Space and Characterization
    Nation and the Transnational
  • Local space, global space
  • Borderlands
  • Space and Genre
  • Cultural Geography: Space/Place
  • Globalization
  • Projected space (utopia, dystopia, paradise, limbo, hell)
  • Sound and space
  • Spaces of Exception (Schmitt, Arendt, Agamben)
  • Romantic Landscape
  • Philosophical space, a philosophic metaphoric of space
  • Heimat/Gemütlichkeit
  • Spaces of war and occupation
  • Public and Private spheres
  • Topography (topos+grapho)
  • Liminality
  • The new non-spaces of supermodernity
  • The cyberworld and its mimetic space
  • Colonial cultures and Postcolonial Theory
  • Palimpsests
  • Maps and Mapping
  • Deconstructed spaces