Happy to have spoken this past week in the "French Seminar Series" at UPenn, invited by two fabulous folks, Nathalie Lacarrière and Hanna Laruelle. It's good to keep talking about the project and to keep getting feedback as I wait for the final readers' reports.
The picture on the poster is incidentally one that I took while visiting Lecorbusier's (now almost dilapidated) Villa Savoye in Poissy, France. There's something about the this view, taken from the roof terrace, whose walls are starting to lose their paint, that seemed in my mind to speak to the idea of taking things "ex terra," of living with things taken "ex terra," all the time while looking on at Terra and terra.
Susanne Wofford (NYU) offered a crucial reading focused on epic similes and in particular on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, in which she made an intervention key for thinking the Anthropocene: what if we read epic similes as a way to access the phenomenology of geography? In other words: what if we look to epic similes not for their descriptions of, or references to, real (or not-real) places, but for how they “immerse us in” the experience of “being in” some place? This is key- One recurring thing we see in discussions of the Anthropocene is a flickering between saying that it defines humans “as” a geological force, or “as being like” a geological force, precisely sitting us at the frontier of literal/scientific and figurative language. (At NYU MARC's "Epic Geographies" conference.)
Spent a pretty fabulous morning (alas curtailed) at a cartography seminar at Harvard University’s’ Radcliffe Institute, organized by the amazing team of Tom Conley and Katharina Piechocki.
Theodore Cachey (Notre Dame) shared excellent work about the cartographic impulse in Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. Camille Serchuck (Southern Connecticut State University) talked about the “painterly” in/of early modern maps, esp. Guillaume Le Testu’s Cosmographie, of which Frank Lestringant recently prepared an excellent edition.
My own, rather different, contribution took this form: “Early Modern Cartography in the Humanist Anthropocene-- Some Thoughts Towards some Questions,” in which I asked, in a nutshell: given that so much work on cartography, since maps stopped being considered purely “scientific” or “objective,” relies on the idea that cartography “reflects” history (Dainville), then what happens if we take Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses” seriously for the history of cartography and relate the history of cartography not only to human history but also to Deep Time? We’re so used—now—to reading humanist cartography for the way it plots, for example, empire, or discovery, or religious fantasy, but what of geological time in all this? What of the planet-as-planet? Key to such thoughts are, inter alia, Ulisse Aldrovandi who coined the term geology in 1603 (see also here).
I’m sorry to be missing the other amazing speakers who have all shaped how we understand maps: Neil Safier (of the John Carter Brown Library), Anders Engberg-Pedersen (of Empire of Chance), Marc Shell (of Islandology), Bill Rankin (see his radicalcartography), Carla Nappi, Matthew Edney, Franco Farinelli, Jean-Marc Besse (whose Grandeurs de la terre is essential for its plotting of how the oikoumene comes to be equivalent to the whole planet), and others.
EXTERRANEAN MINDFULNESS ON THE BOULEVARD SAINT-MICHEL, or "YEs, Indeed, NO TEXT MESSAGES WITHOUT TANTALITE"
Thanks to the Ecole des Mines and the associated Musée de Minéralogie, the Boulevard Saint-Michel is a place of exterranean mindfulness: “Without tantalite, no text messages,” reads one of the signs, referring to the fact that, as the same poster explains in small print, tantalum “turns out to be necessary for the manufacturing of the miniaturized capacitors used in portable phones and laptops.” The s’avère nécessaire (turns out to be) situates the realization in the time of the person stopping to read the sign: “Why yes indeed, it turns out I wouldn't be able to send text messages without this chemical element.” The other posters make similar points for other elements.
This first exterranean awareness goes hand-in-hand with another slightly different one: just a few steps further along the boulevard, mined matter, turned into the very building of the Ecole des Mines, in its geological depths, carries the traces of human history in the form of bullet holes from World War II (see photo). Standing here, the flâneur becomes aware both that the phone in his pocket can't take photos and upload them without small bits of tantalite; and that other mined matter, in the form of the building, serves both in the wall and in the memorial plaques attached to it, serves to wind together geological history and memory in an uncannily similar way.
Some notes on MLA panel #752 on “Anthropocenic Agency in the Nineteenth Century” (Sunday, 10 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 8C, ACC).
Siobhan Carroll (Univ. of Delaware), author of An Empire of Air and Water- Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750-1850 (2015), spoke on “Mediating Agency in the Nineteenth-Century Anthropocene.” To explore the question of which kinds of agency are afforded by different media/forms, Carroll gave a two-part talk. The first part focused on Victorian board games, such as Smith Evans’s The Crystal Palace Game (1854), in which players travel along trade routes and navigate sea currents and The British Tourist, produced by the Wallace family, which features sixty-five views of the British Empire. These games are produced somewhat like maps, i.e. printed, folded, portable. A fabulous discussion then of how Victorian games afford agency to the players in a “celebration of swift circulation” and early globalization—yet the player’s agency is the point here, i.e. the extent to which the player accepts or not certain narratives of global circulation and imperial power. The second part of the talk focused on Brontë’s Villette, whose main character, Lucy Snowe, possesses a form of “planetary consciousness,” read here via Nixon’s idea of slow violence.
Jesse Oak Taylor (Univ. of Washington, Seattle), author of a forthcoming book The Sky of Our Manufacture: Climate, Pollution, and the London Fog, spoke on this topic: “Evolution’s Aimless Feet: Tennyson and the Forms of Species Being in the Anthropocene.” A smart talk that defines the Anthropocene as a human agency that implies “a particular instantiation of the human” accompanied by certain “technological enhancements.” A useful reminder that the anthropos is a new kind of “species being” in which it is not that homo sapiens is like a geological force, but is a geological force-we must be weary of how much of a metaphor the concept is-or rather is not. The anthropos implies a “Cyborgian species.” Building on this, Taylor offered a reading of Tennyson’s poem 108 as an “elegy for the human,” wherein the human is being replaced by this something new, by the “anthropos” or the post-human:
Contemplate all this work of Time,
The giant labouring in his youth;
Nor dream of human love and truth,
As dying Nature's earth and lime;
But trust that those we call the dead
Are breathers of an ampler day
For ever nobler ends. They say,
The solid earth whereon we tread
In tracts of fluent heat began,
And grew to seeming-random forms,
The seeming prey of cyclic storms,
Till at the last arose the man;
Who throve and branch'd from clime to clime,
The herald of a higher race,
And of himself in higher place,
If so he type this work of time
Within himself, from more to more;
Or, crown'd with attributes of woe
Like glories, move his course, and show
That life is not as idle ore,
But iron dug from central gloom,
And heated hot with burning fears,
And dipt in baths of hissing tears,
And batter'd with the shocks of doom
To shape and use. Arise and fly
The reeling Faun, the sensual feast;
Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die.
Timothy Sweet (West Virginia Univ., Morgantown) spoke on: “"Moby-Dick and Nineteenth-Century Extinction Discourse,” arguing that Deep Time is the “whale’s domain,” opposing “Whale’s immortality” and “human finitude.” A useful reminder: “Whale’s have their own chronology.”
The final speaker, Gordon Mitchell Sayre (U. of Oregon), author of books including Les Sauvages Américains- Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature (1997) and The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero: Native Resistance and the Literatures of America, from Moctezuma to Tecumseh (2005), spoke on “'Alive and Moving': Aesthetics, Agency, and Technology in Audubon's Birds of America.” Really interesting talk on how ideas about biodiversity-what we think of that diversity-depend upon the affordances of media, with a particular emphasis on the moment in which representations of diversity switches from painting/drawing to photography. Sayre discussed the particular contribution of Audubon. See his essay “My style of drawing birds.” Sayre thus asks why Errol Fuller’s Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record claims that somehow a photograph of an extinct animal captures “more” of the (affect related to) the lost animal than any drawing. Audubon wanted to show animals “alive and moving.” [Useful comparison here would be with Pierre Belon.] Hence the paradox: Audubon’s drawings, in which Audubon would draw a dead animal “alive” in full color, somehow show animals more alive than a photograph of a living (if extinct) animal in its own habitat, which raises key questions about what photography does (cf. Barthes’ La Chambre Claire): “en déportant le réel vers le passé (“ça a été”), [la photographie] suggère que [l’objet] est déjà mort”; “la photo me dit la mort au futur”; “toute photographie est cette catastrophe.” [I might wonder how this plays out similarly in the early modern, e.g. how Belon’s woodcuts differ from Palissy’s use of live (then dead!) animals as/in molds—both rely no doubt on dead animals, but the latter seems still closer to photography because of its material “capture” of the object.]
Overall a fantastic panel that showed how “uncanny” the relationship is between the 19C and the Anthropocene.
Footnote: Taylor made reference to the proclamation “We are as gods as might as well get good at it,” in the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, which might as well be the epigraph for volume two of the “Humanist Anthropocene.”
I’m busy planning the course I’m teaching in the fall at Harvard University titled “Gods and Giants in the French Renaissance,” a course intended as an invitation to think about “supersized agencies” (like those of all anthropoi as a “geological force”) from the perspective of early modern literature. The aim of the course is to see how early modern writers imagined and pictured such agencies, in order to explore how formulations of “huge” agencies relate to political ecologies. One train of thought will be the question of gender: giants (though not gods) tend to be masculine, and fighting a giant often has to do with proving/defending a certain culturally constructed notion of masculinity. Thanks to this particular train of thought, then, I’ve come across some interesting articles and reflections that will figure somehow in the course.
In the Guardian in October 2014, Kate Ranworth asked “Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene?,” pointing out that: “Leading scientists may have the intellect to recognise that our planetary era is dominated by human activity, but they still seem oblivious to the fact that their own intellectual deliberations are bizarrely dominated by white northern male voices.” More recently (May 2015), Noah Theriault responded to Ranworth’s article, to ask the more theoretical question: “How does our perspective on the Anthropocene change when we take gender into account?,” to which a first answer is given: “Our conversations about habitability are inevitably about power and difference and thus also inevitably about gender” (emphasis mine). In a word, “Difference matters, even (and perhaps especially) in a time when global accountability and cooperation seem increasingly necessary.” Theriault concludes: “What habitability means in the Anthropocene is a question fraught with many others. For whom do we hope the planet will be habitable? Whose voices define habitability? Which earthly beings have a right to habitability? And so on. We cannot convincingly or justly answer such questions—and thus we cannot convincingly or justly address habitability—without a gendered perspective on the world we inhabit and the challenges we face.” (My emphasis). A number of scholarly articles also call to be read in this context: Gibson-Graham’s piece on “A feminist project of belonging for the Anthropocene”; Haraway’s piece on “Making Kin.” There is also the recent book by Wendy Harcourt and Ingrid L. Nelson about “Practising Feminist Political Ecologies.” (Nelson teaches at the University of Vermont- her page is here)
It's the end of June, almost. It's been an intense month of writing.
Pope Francis's encyclical about climate change (May 24, 2015) has been provoking lots of fascinating responses on all sides. One of the most interesting parts of the encyclical itself has to do with how it juxtaposes/problematizes the notion of "humanity" as a whole (i.e. "we" as "anthropoi") and the notion of "different humans" (i.e. how "we" are not all the same, because of history, gender, etc.), something I've unpacked more in one chapter of the Humanist Anthropocene.
The Guardian discusses the televised interview of Barack Obama and Sir David Attenborough: "it is Attenborough, on the day in which he marked his 89th birthday, who poses the most probing questions of their encounter, asking the president why he cannot show a commitment to tackling climate change in the same way previous presidents had strived to put people on the moon."
The World Policy Institute's Summer 2015 journal is dedicated to "Climate's Cliff," i.e. how close we are to "falling off."
Mic.com announces that "ahead of a series of major events later this year, The Foundation for Deep Ecology and the Population Media Center released a collection that illustrates the devastating effects of out-of-control growth and waste, and it's breathtaking." The collection includes many breathtakingly frightening extraction landscapes, such as this one (Mining Diamonds).
Project THE HUMANIST anthropocene
is a thought archive and workspace of Phillip John Usher (NYU) at the crossroads of early modern humanism and the problems and insights of the Anthropocene. Main Research Page.
ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment)
Environmental Humanities (journal)
Resilience (A Journal of the Environmental Humanities)
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