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.”
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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