Panel 3: The Anthropocene



Panel 3: The Anthropocene

“The Cloudflower Blossoms:” Doctor Atomic and Sublime Repetition in the Anthropocene

Patrick Milian, University of Washington

The idea of the sublime is still very much present in the 21st century, though no longer reserved for just natural events; as we’ve entered the Anthropocene, the awe and terror usually reserved for nature has come to include human events. Using the opera Doctor Atomic by John Adams as a case-study, the author presents an alternative way to view the sublime, one that is necessary given mankind’s profound abilities to alter the planet (more).

Vanua in the Anthropocene: Fijian Ontologies and Climate Change

Maebh Long, University of the South Pacific

This paper explores the complexities of the term vanua, an interconnectedness between people and place in which people are figured as belonging to the land. The term translates to ‘land’, which in Fiji includes the water and signifies the ocean’s significance within Pacific Island Discourse. Through the lens of vanua, the author examines the implications of anthropogenic sea-level rise in terms of a trespass and intrusion not merely into place, but into self (more).

Climate Change, AIDS, and Queering the Anthropocene: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

Kristen Angierski, Cornell University

Queer theory and ecocriticism has a history of conflict rooted in what is deemed natural. This talk explores this clash in the play Angels in America by Tony Kushner where earth and queer crisis collide over what is natural. By studying the competing temporal systems present in the play, the author ultimately argues the necessity of a reconciliation of queer theory and ecocriticism to address climate change (more).

Q & A

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14 replies
  1. Patrick Milian, University of Washington says:

    Many thanks to the conference organizers and my co-panelists. I’m excited to be a part of this and look forward to any comments or questions regarding my paper. I’ll do my best to respond to questions before the end of the conference. Thanks again.

  2. Maebh Long, University of the South Pacific says:

    My thanks to the organisers for putting together such an exciting variety of papers. I look forward to the discussions to come!

  3. Kristen Angierski says:

    Hi everyone! Thank you in advance for any and all comments/questions on my conference presentation! Looking forward to interacting with such a diverse group of scholars and panels.

    • Laura Perry, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

      Dear Kristen,
      Thanks for a great presentation — it hadn’t occurred to me to think of Angels in America as an ecocritical novel but your reading convinced me (queer rapture as ozone). Your connection between Chakrabarty’s visibility and the angel’s vision and illumination is useful, particularly in thinking about how literature can represent these (as you put it) competing temporal dimensions and chronologics. I’m particularly interested in visualizing the Anthropocene — my talk for this conference is on the Anthropocene and visual time in graphic novels ( )
      Thanks again,

      My Q: I wonder if you draw a distinction between the visibility of the play as text on the page and the visibility of the play as staged / performance? Is one mode or genre more likely to foreground a queer temporality and/or to foreground ecocritical concerns?

      • Kristen Angierski says:

        Hi Laura-

        What wonderfully kind comments! Thank you. I will be sure to check out your talk as well. I am teaching a graphic novel (Climate Changed by Philippe Squarzoni) next semester and could use some guidance! Reckoning with the visual is so crucial, and yet not always “natural” or easy for someone who has been trained to focus on language. I had not really thought much about the present-ness of Angels in America as a performance, but surely that is a rich and necessary area to explore. A play– in its now-ness and its expectation of communal viewership– has eco-political implications. I need to think more about this, but for now I would say that the visibly communal aspects of theatre (you are sitting in a room with a bunch of other folks and suspending disbelief for several hours) have the potential to catalyze a greater sense of community than, say, the solitary act of reading a novel. But, then again, people do not necessarily leave the theatre together. The community is ephemeral, temporary, and in no way guarantees any political action on behalf of that community. The notion of the “ephemeral community” of a theater audience maps onto the plausibly ephemeral human community on this planet in the Anthropocene; so in short, maybe there is something about the very act of attending a play that highlights how temporality itself is such an odd, “queer” thing that is so much more interesting (it slows down, speeds up, jumps about) than “heteronormative time.” Maybe the time of the Anthropocene and of drama are similar, if not the same. Thank you for such a great question; you have given me a lot to think about!

        • Laura Perry, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

          Hi Kristen,
          Yes! I was also thinking about how plays insist on duration — the experience of time is, as you say, communal, but it is also felt and physical in a way that reading a text isn’t always… watching a play evokes a particular kind of visual time (now-ness, as you write).

          I taught Climate Changed in an introductory composition course this semester and it seemed to be a hit. One of my students was so taken by CC that he created a graphic novel about a local bioprairie for his final project. I paired it with other graphic novels addressing ecological and technological narratives… the two I discuss in this conference talk, Radioactive (Lauren Redniss) and Here (Richard McGuire) as well as excerpts from R. Crumb’s Short History of America and excerpts from Visual Storytelling (a 2015 graphic novel collection from OUP). Pairing Climate Changed with other graphic novels that were more expressive and experimental — and less educational (without charts, statistics, recognizable brands) — was a great way to consider other ways of being political, or other ways that visual representation can be eco-political, beyond explicitly engaging with these debates in the text of your graphic novel like CC does.
          Thanks for responding!

          • Kristen Angierski says:

            Thank you so much! I now have a list of graphic novels I need to read and some pedagogical ideas. Your student’s project sounds incredible.

            I am definitely interested in the less-explicit/more experimental graphic novels you mention. In a course on literature and climate change, I should, probably, include works that are not 100% “about” the Anthropocene. Thanks again, Laura!

  4. Danen, Dalhousie U says:

    Thank you all for contributing to this thought-provoking panel. I love Maebh’s use of vanua as a lens – it’s a fascinating way to look at the permeable intersections of living in the world, aptly focusing on the threats faced by individual communities as a result of global interdependence, and the oceanic perspective really highlights the fluid interchange+interaction of supposedly discrete elements. Those intersections have a lot of resonance with Kristen’s comments on the obfuscation of boundaries, through a humanizing of the spiritual and natural (and reciprocally connecting the human to the natural and spiritual), with a great conclusion on earth as a home, highlighting the interrelations we have with our place of dwelling, leading to a demand for more life (increasing rather than diminishing biodiversity). As Patrick astutely points out, thinking of inhumanly large finitudes of such global interconnections leads into the territory of the sublime, which perhaps descends into aporetic paralysis… The point that “the post-anthropocentric sublime, through its complication of temporal situatedness and representation of anachrony prompts responsible engagement with the massive interpentetration of human and non-human timescales” really brings a lot of these themes together: all three talks seem to raise questions of interdependence (rather than isolation), bringing up connected emphases on questioning boundaries (self/other/community/politics/nature/environment/world/temporality/etc). Each of your talks brings up different perspectives on the needs for people to act now, in the face of things that are far beyond the level of the individuals who are affected by massive interconnections. All three of your videos made me think of Deleuze’s “body without organs,” and I’m now wondering about the rise of trans-humanist movements (aiming for the post-Anthropocene). In practical terms, what do you three think of are the specific ethical implications for individuals as a result of the understandings of the world that you raise, and what are your responses to people who disparage Anthropocentric theorizing for its wide dispersal of responsibility? (for example, see:

    • Patrick Milian, University of Washington says:

      Thanks for bringing up some really fascinating points, Danen. I especially appreciate the link to Malm’s piece. It reminds me of the work that Jason W. Moore has been doing on the Capitalocene and his thesis that it’s too easy to blame mankind and industrialization when the makings of what we’re calling the Anthropocene have been in place since the rise of capitalism and the beginning of the long twentieth century. I saw him speak not long ago and he made a rather unusual aside while explaining the role of capitalism in in the climate crisis. He said “If you don’t like capitalism, just pick another word.” I’ve been puzzling over that comment ever since, but it gestures toward some of the catchphrases that circulate around these discussions. First is the ecocritical perspective that global worming isn’t a product of carbon emissions, per se, but a product of a failure of the imagination. Second is that we have an easier time imagining the end of the world than we do imagining the end of capitalism.

      All this is to say that I understand the Anthropocene as a jumping off point for interrogating that failure of the imagination and for expanding imaginative faculties. It provides a sort of intersection between the poetic and the scientific, an intersection that my co-panelists engage with in quite astounding ways. In terms of the ethical implications of the understandings we raise, it means that we stop treating lowered carbon emissions as a sort of silver bullet for climate change and start treating the anthropos (if you don’t like anthropos, choose another word) and study of the humanities as sites lacking in imagination. This means challenging disciplinary and methodological boundaries. It takes a great deal of imaginative work to envision a carbon atom and traversing degrees of complexity means taking up that challenge. Perhaps this further disperses responsibility, but it can serve as a necessary corrective to the narrowing of responsibility–I am responsible for this problem because I belong to this discipline–and the boundaries that you mention and that contribute to this sense.

    • Kristen Angierski says:

      Hi Danen. Thanks for watching and thinking critically about all of our talks! I would second a lot of what Patrick has already said, specifically the connection he makes to the “Capitalocene” as, potentially, a better term. What I “like” (and maybe me “liking” it is besides the point) about the term Anthropocene is that it allows us to imagine, or at least forces us to consider, species membership; there is a community there , a community which (against some visions of queer theory) has an interest in communal survival: a community centered on vulnerability. Although I do not think we should ever forget who the primary contributors to our increasingly, dangerously hotter planet are, I think the term Anthropocene is nonetheless a useful starting point. I would also argue (an argument that I presented at the ACLA conference in Boston this year) that there are representative strategies that allow us to think in two places: at the macro- and micro-levels. Because I am a literary scholar, I would point to works that I would call “ecofeminist allegories” (Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, Mad Max: Fury Road) that imagine both individual and communal blame for eco-disasters by way of their very allegorical structuring. To put it bluntly, I guess I would ask why using the term Anthropocene forecloses attention to the workings of Global capitalism (or, as often gets elided in conversation about climate change, the workings of patriarchal norms and masculinist and/or Darwinist visions of nature–human nature included)?

  5. Susan Rowland, Pacifica Graduate Institute says:

    To all three speakers,
    Thank you for taking the discourse of the Anthropocene into some important and humanizing dimensions. Your work here is invaluable. However I still want to fling out a challenge to the paradigm of the Anthropocene as a necessary starting point for the environmental humanities. For doesn’t it inevitably rely upon a) the dualism e.g. man/nature; culture nature (the same one that gives us those old favorites masculine/feminine; straight/queer) that got us into this crisis in the first place.
    Secondly, and a related point, what about the unconscious. So much of what has been destructive in human relations with the planet has been based on false science, patriarchal religion, colonial arrogance, disciplinary hierarchies, and self delusions that the role of what is not currently known about the psyche is also part of those very unintended consequences. Put another way, in our struggles to take apart yet another dangerous binary happening in this conference – that of individual versus collective, it is not enough to stick the unconscious into a bin marked individual pathology. There is a cultural unconscious too. The Anthropocene is here inheritor of the colonial mindset of human culture as intrinsically other to nonhuman nature. Given that many societies do not believe this, must action against climate change become yet another assault on their values?
    Susan Rowland (talk in ecopsychology section)

    • Kristen Angierski says:

      Hi Susan!

      Thank you so much for your comments. I am not as familiar as I would like to be with critiques of the language of the “Anthropocene” but it does seem totally right to say that in the term’s very linguistic structure is a denial of humanity’s placement in a community: an interconnected community of being. While I think the term does collapse to some extent the supposed disjuncture between natural history (the history of the Earth) and the history of “Man,” I take you to be saying that the time of Man has always been the time of the Earth and that this new vocabulary simply reinforces this problematic dichotomy (natural history/history of humanity) by claiming that that formerly “right” way of understanding history is now wrong. I wonder what you would propose in the place of the Anthropocene? Are you with/against Haraway? Thanks so much and I look forward to viewing your talk!

  6. John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

    Terrific panel everyone, thanks very much!

    Maebh, very interesting research. In particular, I was struck by the correspondence between ‘vanua’ and the Aboriginal Australian term ‘country’ – have you had the chance to examine some of the parallels between Fijian ontologies and those of other South Pacific and Oceania cultures?


  7. Molly Hall, University of Rhode Island says:

    Hi Patrick,

    I love this talk on what sounds like a wonderful opera. I hope to be able to encounter it one day myself. I am wondering if, based on the musical criticism you adeptly undertake here, you have heard at all of this (non-scholarly, but well researched) book that came out a few years ago, that I thought I would bring to your attention: The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination by Guerrieri, []. I also wanted to note that the motivic musical aesthetics of Adam’s/Seller’s opera, as you describe them, remind me both of the modernist aesthetics which came out of British responses to the First World War, as well as to the nuclear aesthetics in such Generation X novels as Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero, which I have argued are haunted by nonreferential atomic imagery. Have you looked into either period much, or is your general emphasis on very contemporary work. If so, do you find this dynamic itself to be temporally situated in the sense of being periodized?


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