Genres of the Anthropocene

Professor: Nathan Hensley

All ideas have shape, and every story we tell, no matter its subject, has a literary form. This module in the environmental humanities takes off from the apparently simple question: what is the aesthetic form of climate change?

To engage this question, we will together approach our human-made, geological present (“the Anthropocene”) as a set of conceptual problems that generate productive challenges for telling stories. These intellectual dilemmas have to do with coordinating massive systems and individual action, mass extinction and possible regeneration, resource depletion and unevenly distributed disaster, all of it set along a radically extended timeline that links the present to a geological past far beyond the capacity of any single human to imagine. What genres might be required to tell this impossibly long story? How best to fit human-scaled dramas–the stuff of regular lives–inside the enormous fluctuations in earth systems that make climate change a planetary challenge? And is all this best understood in terms of tragedy, in which futurity is foreclosed and possibility extinguished? Or could it be (as Darwin suggests) that it’s a strange kind of comedy too, always springing toward unimaginable futures?

Using close reading and a careful, historically attuned attention to literary form, this unit will explore tragedy and comedy, lyric and narrative, and various subsets within these broad designations; our goal will be to consider how these various templates for thinking help us engage with our unique moment in geological history. Reading may include science fiction, “cli-fi,” and the eco-disaster film, but also Greek tragedy, the dramatic monologue, and the nineteenth-century sonnet. In dialogue with early and more recent efforts to imagine how “nature” and the human might become entangled, we will test whether literary forms might offer models not just for writing our present disaster–but also, perhaps, for thinking beyond it.

  • Categories:
    Humanities
  • Spring
    Module Three and Four

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