Tag Archives: Ecocriticism

Highlights from Berlinale 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

Picturing (Eco)misanthropy in Ilija Trojanow’s “Eistau” (“The Lamentations of Zeno”)

A comeistau-9783423142885mon charge used against ecological politics is that it hates humanity and reflexively rejects the benefits of progress. Consider, for instance, this New Yorker cartoon of 2006, where two cavemen muse on the fact that they have clean air and organic food, yet don’t survive past thirty (never mind that infant mortality accounts for the “low” life expectancy before 1900, and that in the Paleolithic if you could make it to 15 you had a decent chance of making it to 54). This kind of charge is little more than a cudgel that reduces all of environmental politics to a deep ecology caricature. At the same time the charge does not come from nowhere, and what’s more, it’s not at all clear that (eco)misanthropy is necessarily a bad thing, especially as a corrective to the kind of blunt anthropocentrism that gave us Interstellar.

Ilija Trojanow’s novel EisTau (The Lamentations of Zeno, the paperback edition of which appeared this year) is an exploration of a character given to a kind of ecomisanthropy. Zeno Hintermeier is a glaciologist through whose eyes we see that such a seemingly taboo attitude at least comes from an understandable place. Reflecting on how whale oil was a source for glycerine, Zeno thinks:

Was für eine bewundernswerte Innovation, aus Walen Sprengstoff herzustellen, was für ein leuchtendes Sinnbild des Fortschritts: Wesentliches zerstören, um Überflüssiges zu produzieren.

What a marvelous innovation to make explosives from whales, what an illuminating symbol of progress: destroying the essential for the production of excess. (131)

Zeno is based in Munich for most of his career, and his work is devoted to a distressed Alpine glacier. When he visits his beloved glacier to find nothing more than a few scattered, muddy blocks of ice, his personal and professional lives sink into crisis. He joins a company that takes ecotourists on Antarctic cruises, where he gives talks about the local ecology. The text of the novel shifts between his journal entries and montage of mass media language from after the novel’s end, in which we slowly discover that Zeno has hijacked the ship, marooned all the people on board, and eventually committed suicide. The protagonist has an interesting name: Zeno of Elea, after all, is known for his paradoxes of motion, such as that when traveling we never reach our destinations as we are only ever halfway. Global warming is a kind of catastrophic personal and environmental break-out from this non-movement in movement: Glaciers hit definite points of no return as they melt, a circumstance correspondingly mirrored in the activation of Zeno Hintermeier’s Todestrieb towards the end of the novel.

Zeno is something of a latter day Cassandra, who is now not simply ignored, but dismissed as an irrational wet blanket:

Er war eine Spaßbremse, er war ein Spinner, aber wenigstens ein Spinner mit Überzeugung, Sie werden ihn nicht verstehen.

He was a party pooper, he was a nut, but at least a nut with conviction, you will never understand him. (140)

As a teacher Zeno is in the bind of wanting others to appreciate the subject he specializes in, and frustrated that his students necessarily don’t share his appreciation or devotion. During an expedition to the glacier he has devoted his life to, he remarks of his students:

Sie waren nicht einmal peinlich berührt ob ihrer Ignoranz, als stünde ihnen das Grundrecht zu, Vernichtetes zu vergessen.

They did not even have a touch of embarrassment over their ignorance, as if they had a fundamental right to forget what had been destroyed. (56)

The situation is presumably worse on the ship. Zeno shares an enclosed space with a group of passengers present for the aesthetic consumption of nature. We learn, for instance, that the cruise ships space themselves out so that all on board have at least the illusion of being the only humans in a space radically other from civilization, even as human economic activity is transforming the terrain before their very eyes. In this context Zeno is little more than a form of infotainment, the knowledge he shares ultimately does not result in any change in his audience’s attitudes towards nature or everyday practice. At one point a passenger sees a skua steel an egg from a penguin’s nest. The passenger saves the egg, for which she is rewarded with a bite in the hand, causing her to fall down and crush another penguin and the eggs in her nest.

One of the questions I pursue in my research is how an environmental thematic squares with a certain historical notion of the autonomy of the work of art. The reception of the novel was initially cold partly because it was seen as didactically coerced. My own feelings about the novel were mixed. Zeno’s ecomisanthropy is actually quite interesting, but the character’s own voice makes for some exasperating moments. The descriptions of sex struck me as particularly hackneyed. That would just be a complaint about artistic merit, except that the female characters end up appearing as distant and flat. Zeno’s ex-wife is a shrew, and even the more sympathetic Paulina, with whom Zeno has an affair in the novel, appears as a more distanced sexual object viewed through the lens of national stereotypes. This doesn’t combine well with the portrait of the ecomisanthrope that the novel sketches. And that’s unfortunate, because instead of a nuanced portrait of an attitude that is often quickly dismissed, we encounter in this novel yet another example of an ugly and ultimately self-defeating masculine brand of conservationism.

 

On edit: 27. April 2016: Eistau is now available in English under the title The Lamentations of Zeno.

The Salton Sea: The Pleasures of Ecocatastrophe

I was recently alerted to the existence of the 2006 documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, now available on YouTube. The film is a curious short history of the Salton Sea, essentially a century old environmental accident. The area was supposed to become a major resort in the middle of the twentieth century, but the film tells how flooding and the vicissitudes of speculative capital ended up killing those schemes, so that today the Salton Sea is a landscape of spectacular devastation.

John Waters narrates the film, and given the landscape of the sea and the people whom we meet, it’s not hard to imagine what drew him to the film. The documentary is done in a screwball style, but its humor does not trivialize the environmental dilemma that the sea poses nor the economic bind that the characters living there find themselves in. What it points to instead is a way to love a blighted place. The lake is fascinating, both in the film and in real life, as the site of the detritus of the sort of grandiose visions of American capital that at least appear to be more intact on the coast.

On a personal note, I’ve always had something of a fascination for the Salton Sea. I grew up in San Diego, and I had found out that the lake existed in a unit on the geography of the region when I was in third grade. As it happened, the family of a friend of mine had a cabin in Salton Sea Beach, one of the resort towns built on the shore during the boom years. Having read about the lake in school, I was excited to pay it a visit. I had not expected the sight that actually greeted me. To get to the shore, we walked first through a line of trees, whereupon we crossed a field filled with trash, including a half buried, rusting automobile. The ground was white, and with each step my foot sank in inch or so directly into the earth. We had to climb across some dunes to the beach itself. I heard a crunching beneath my feet, and was startled to see a band of dead fish stretching as far up and down the shoreline as the eye could see. The actual condition of the lake was startling, but I had a fantastic weekend, and I hope to have the chance to go back some day.

Anyway, the film is worth watching. It will be an hour well spent.

 

Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed

There is a common assumption underwriting much 51vMHuzcL2Lof so-called “first wave” ecocriticism that our contemporary ecological dilemmas are a matter of some sort of wrong thinking that grounds our destructive behavior. Certain modes of writing, the thinking goes, reorient us back towards nature, and so the major intervention of ecocriticism when it first hit the scene was precisely in giving serious critical consideration to the political aspect of literary encounters with nature such as Thoreau’s at Walden Pond or Abbey’s in what is now Arches National Park. When I first picked up my copy of Philippe Squarzoni’s graphic novel Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science, I assumed from the cover that I was in familiar territory. I expected to follow the narrator through the basics of global warming science, and to see a triumphant conversion at the end. The persistence of conversion narratives in environmentally themed writing is fascinating, but Squarzoni is after something different. His book seizes on the ambiguous moment prior to the sea-change of conversion.

As always, translation is interpretation, and the original French title Saison brune is much more ambiguous. The “brown season,” we find out, is a liminal moment in Glacier National Park where the ice is gone but the green of spring has yet to make an appearance. The novel is an exploration of that liminal moment as a general condition when the shape of the future is not yet determined: on the global scale, the fact that we could still take charge of our destinies and avoid the worst impacts of global warming, while on a personal scale, it reflects Squarzoni’s (by which we mean the narrator who wears Squarzoni’s face) feelings about being middle aged. He reflects on the political and economic problems that are warming the planet, and confronts their intractability. To board an international flight or not? To drive a Hummer or to drive a smaller vehicle? Squarzoni spends much of the book reflecting on these issues at a personal and at a global scale while wandering through the world, both the real world “out there” and the utopian images of advertising.

The visual economy of the book is remarkable. It draws widely from literature, art history, and film to consider what it means to unpack the “brown season” as a global and as a personal condition. At one point the narrator recounts the story of a skydiver who jumped without his parachute, a single mistake that could never be undone. We see the plane flying away, just after the moment that the individual’s future had been determined (as it happens the skydiver in question was one Ivan McGuire, who died in 1988). The departing plane also ends the memory of childhood summers in the south of France, and makes an appearance when Squarzoni decides not to fly to a conference because of the carbon planes put into the atmosphere. As he knew, the plane still takes off without him. The falling is also significant: in one panel Squarzoni and his partner fall from a bridge and land in the streets of Manhattan, doing battle with a personified consumer culture. The shooting of Santa Claus was an especially satisfying turn in this fantasy. Such drastic imagery is poised against pages of “talking heads,” that is, experts Squarzoni interviews. I personally liked these parts of the book, they seem at first repetitive, but I found the portraits to be very expressive, bringing a strong affective component to the science portions of this personal journey.

Because this is a graphic novel, to write about it without sharing actual images from the book seems somewhat unjust, but I don’t want to overstep the bounds of fair use. However, pieces can be viewed at this interview with Squarzoni.

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.

Kim Stanley Robinson: 2312

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

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

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

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

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

The Politics of Celebrating the City

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

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

Spitzweg "Newspaper Reader in the Garden"

Carl Spitzweg “Newspaper Reader in the Garden”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.