Panel 9: Ecocriticism III



Panel 9: Ecocriticism III

Towards a Benjaminian Environmental Historiography: Shattering the Anthropocene

Molly Hall, University of Rhode Island

This talk brings together the historical philosophies of Walter Benjamin with contemporary concerns about environmental discourse. By expanding his ideas of progress to the narrative of ecological collapse, this talk posits the ability for Benjamin’s thoughts to open up political models for sustainable subjectivity (more).

The Rills Not Taken: Hydropower in Early National Science and Poetry

Michael Ziser, University of California, Davis

Utilizing the poet-naturalist Alexander Wilson’s writings and the ornithological fieldwork revolution they inspired, this talk gives new insight into the cultural history surrounding energy and its production. This insight seeks to differentiate between what in our cultural past belongs to sustainable energy practices (and is therefore savable) and what is wedded to intensified carbon emissions (and is therefore not).

Q & A

Have questions or comments? Feel free to take part in the Q&A!

Before posting, you must first registerNote that questions and comments can be intended for individual speakers, the entire panel, or anyone who has posted to the Q&A. Respond directly to a particular question/comment by way of the little “reply” below it. The vertical threadlike lines are there to make it easier to see which part of the discussion (i.e. “thread”) you are taking up. You can choose to be notified via email (see below) whenever a question, answer, or comment is posted to this particular Q&A. Because the email notification will contain the new comment in its entirety, you can both follow the discussion as it is unfolding, as well as decide whether you would like to step in at any point. You can choose to receive email notifications for as many of the conference Q&A sessions as you like, as well as stop notifications at any time. Because the Q&A sessions will close at the end of the conference, all email notifications will also end at this time. Although only registered conference participants can pose questions and make comments, Q&A sessions are visible to the public and will remain so after the conference has ended, as we hope that they will become cited resources.

18 replies
  1. Molly Hall, University of Rhode Island says:

    Greetings fellow environmental thinkers and humanities scholars! In my talk on a Benjaminian approach to environmental rhetoric of the Anthropocene, I am looking to complicate and make explicit the implicit assumptions our critiques of climate change and other environmental issues make, for better and worse, in order to ask a question about what role temporality and representation must play in ethical questions of the Anthropocene. While I only begin to outline here the political potentials of looking at the relationship between aesthetics and environment through such a lens, I hope to begin a conversation about the uses and abuses, as Nietzsche would say, of historiography to cultural critics of our contemporary environmental moment.

    • Danen, Dalhousie U says:

      Hi Molly,

      I love your application of Benjamin to current climate change concerns. When I was listening to your talk, I was struck by how it really resonates with Judith Butler’s critiques of the way that “hegemonic conceptions of progress define themselves over and against a pre-modern temporality that they produce for the purposes of their own self-legitimation” (in Frames of War, p. 102). She is concerned with the way that the myth of ‘progress’ in homogeneous time perpetuates Western norms, and though I don’t recall her connecting that to environmental concerns explicitly, I think it’s applicable to these issues in the same way that Benjamin’s ideas are. As you note, it seems vital to activism that open-ended possibilities are framed through an understanding of heterogeneous time, to avoid being paralyzed by a myth of linear temporal progress (that can deflate subjective, responsible action in the Now) – and this cognitive reframing intersects with many other forms of activism. Really appreciate your optimism about the possibility for a happier ecological trajectory: thanks for bringing Benjamin’s warnings about fascist conceptions of linear-progressive time to this conference’s environmental concerns

      • Molly Hall, University of Rhode Island says:

        Hi Danen,

        Thank you for your suggestion of Butler’s work, I had not read that particular work of hers, but it seems extraordinarily germane to my work, thank you. I am glad you found my discussion of the political potentiality of Benjamin’s work optimistic and not naive. In the extended work of which this talk was a part, I hope to demonstrate more explicitly how such a cognitive reframing might work in literary studies.


    • Michael Ziser, University of California, Davis says:

      Hi Molly:

      I’m just now getting a moment to listen to some of these great papers! Your piece reminds me of discussions of a several years ago, when the question on ecocritics’ lips was: “what new narrative do we need to adequately represent and imagine a way out of a dystopic climate future?” In the years since then, I’ve come to think that the crucially wrong thing about this question was the word “narrative”–which implies the kind of linear time you are examining here, either in its progressivist or declensionist form. I am more and more convinced that my students working with poetry (mostly non-narrative) have the most appropriate approach, though of course the gap between avant-garde poetry and policy is and should be abyssal! Anne-Lise François (Comp Lit, UC Berkeley) writes densely and beautifully on this ability of poetry to depict and enact “recessive action”–a kind of non-affirmative, non-progressive offering of possibility. See her book Open Secrets. More recently, she has taken this in an explicitly ecological direction, noting the power of environmental poets’ non-declarative modes to sketch an ethic of daily provisioning and “sojourning,” which if taken up generally would short-circuit the tied temporal, financial, and anti-ecological logics of capitalism. I think this latter stuff is unpublished still, but there is a recorded talk on the subject here:

      Breaking out of a rigidly linear sense of time also requires a revision to how we assign value to things. So much of what we do–even in the margins of academia and the art world–is understood to require the blessing of official, institutional progress narratives to be legible as worthwhile. We can see this process in the way that “the Anthropocene” as an official designation–backed by the most linear of the sciences!–confers authority on a wide range of local speculations. What would Benjamin think?

      • Molly Hall, University of Rhode Island says:

        Hi Michael,

        Thank you for your recommendation of François’ work, it seems right up my alley, in fact, it speaks, as do your comments on working with your students on poetry, to speak directly to another project I am working on regarding Virginia Woolf’s reactions to fascism and how her aesthetics in her novels is not narrative in the sense you mention, but rather more of a poesis of productive failure. That she engages in these aesthetics through the fulcrum of landscape representation in her work is what I find most interesting.

        Regarding your comment on value, Benjamin, and the anthropocene designation, I believe he would be extremely distrustful of such terminology and the way in which capital may find a way to use that narrative to keep us on a path to further environmental degradation through greenwashing etc. He might be concerned that such things as going to starbucks over dunkin donuts because of their marketing themselves as an environmentally concerned company actually ends up fulfilling the inevitability of capital’s continuance at the peril of humanity (or at least those most precarious at the economic “bottom”).


  2. Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

    Greetings ecocriticism panel #3!

    I just watched Sam Solnick’s eco-poetics talk on Panel 6, which moves, as I noted to him, to an inspiring affirmation (starting around minute 15) of the importance of the poetry in the CC discussion.

    Any thoughts on this?


    By the way, I am really excited to view your panel and promise to get to it soon!

  3. Kacey Stewart, University of Delaware says:

    Thank you for this really interesting talk. From my own work with Bartram, I too have become a big fan of Wilson, and definitely agree with your assessment of his work, though I love Audubon too. While listening I could not help but think of Wendell Berry’s call for less energy usage, rather than simply more sustainable sources. I find it really interesting that it seems to be industrialization which drove Wilson to his interest in nature. What I am wondering is if there is any record of Wilson noticing environmental impacts of textile mills in Scotland, and if that could have driven his own anxieties about hydro-power in the Americas. I also wonder how Wilson may have viewed his ornithological project compared to the way in which his readers may have. Could this project have been a part of the very development he was hoping to avoid?
    Thanks again.

    • Michael Ziser, University of California, Davis says:

      Hi Kacey!

      Thanks for your interest and your excellent questions. One of the thought-experiments I often ask my students to indulge in is to imagine that tomorrow scientists announce a new, clean, abundant energy source, ready to be plugged into our existing system–in other words, the fantasy object of all who are worried about climate change and energy sources. It usually takes us less than 10 minutes of discussion to realize that this would be an *absolute disaster* for the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants…. So, yes, it is crucial to think beyond the local (if daunting!) question of dirty energy to think about patterns of exploitation and appropriation.

      On your specific questions…. No, Wilson does not seem to register any precocious environmental critique of the mills, either in their hydropowered or steam-powered forms. He doesn’t give much indication that he understands the global nature of the textile market, either, or that his personal economic problems might be traced to these larger economic movements in the period. Instead, he focuses on the concrete misdeeds of local textile buyers. And I actually don’t think that he develops a environmental conscience–beyond scattered references to the beauty and utility of birds–while in the US. Like many of his peers in Philadelphia during the period, he was overall pretty enthusiastic about the political and economic prospects of his adopted country, and seemed to share the Republican propensity to marvel before new technologies. As you suggest, bookmaking on the scale he conceived it was a serious technological undertaking, and one that certainly had environmental impacts that go unmentioned in the Wilson archive. (I’d be curious in partcular about the engraving process…)

      Ultimately what I’m tracking in the larger project (of which this paper is a part) is the stamp of specific economic practices on specific environmental practices (and vice versa): the ways the pedlar and the naturalist share a lifeworld, how natural phenomena figure as technological symbols, the extent to which natural history genres reflect contemporary trading itineraries, etc. The main goal for me right now is to try to think of an ornithological collection like Wilson’s as a kind of displaced labor history, and to extend whatever I learn to later historical moments….


  4. Tom Doran, University of California, Santa Barbara says:

    Hi Mike,

    I’m excited that you’re working on Wilson again! I’ve done a lot of work on Wilson for my dissertation, and I’m indebted to your EADA digital edition of his work. The way you’re linking Wilson’s labor activism (and the Scotland biography in general) to his ornithological research is particularly exciting since I work on the connections between his ornithological field research and his bird protection rhetoric, and I’m always interested in thinking more about the Scotland biography. In Foresters, I hadn’t thought much about Niagara as a depiction of the trajectory of modernity, and I wonder how you would read this in light of the larger journey portion of the Foresters narrative, especially the fantasies of wild, uncultivated wilderness being converted into productive villages, lurking wolves replaced by dancing children, and, well, lots of “swift . . . fiery death” for the animals encountered along the way. And, of course, there are the eagles. I’m sure you know Wilson reproduces that “High o’er” passage at the end of your talk in his bald eagle entry of American Ornithology (with minor revisions), one of only about seven poems across the nine volumes. And he reproduces the whole stanza from Foresters, including the final two lines you’ve left off about the vampiric eagles “Intent, alone, to sate themselves with blood, / From the torn victims of the raging flood.”

  5. Michael Ziser, University of California, Davis says:

    Hi Tom,

    It is great to hear of someone getting some value from that edition of Wilson!

    You raise some questions here that I am still struggling with. I think Wilson has a complex psychological attachment to the natural world. On the one hand, he clearly associates it with a treasured moment of his life that was introjected by early trauma, leading him to identify with it in ways that are obvious in his prose and poetry. On the other hand, he frequently embodies the early national spirit of “environmental reform” in the sense of domesticating the landscape. Hence the modernizing rhetoric en route to Niagara. Those eagles thus seem to represent some synthesis of the preindustrial world and the (desired) power of the incipient industrial revolution.


    • Tom Doran, University of California, Santa Barbara says:


      Thanks for your response, which makes a lot of sense. Have you ever thought about trying to publish a selected edition of American Ornithology? I’ve been thinking for a couple years now about what an open-access digital edition might look like (and do).

      • Michael Ziser, University of California, Davis says:

        I had thought about a more scholarly print edition, but the rise of Google Books makes the value added thereby pretty small. But maybe a popular selection would be worthwhile? Let’s talk about this more when I have more time to think through the possibilities!


  6. John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

    Thanks very much Molly and Michael for your talks.

    Michael, I am curious about the parallels between Wilson and Muir, in your view. If course Muir died a full 100 years later, but do you see any conjunctions in terms of naturalism, views of wilderness, religious fervour, the sublime, shared Scottish roots, etc?

    Thank you!
    John (Chiang Mai. Thailand)

  7. Michael Ziser, University of California, Davis says:

    Hi John:

    Muir was born in Dunbar, about 100 miles from Wilson’s home of Paisley. Despite the generational differences, I think they were both influenced by the same landscapes, economic conditions, and popular scientific culture (the latter, i.e. the wide interest in natural history among the Scottish middle and working classes, is in my view especially important). Muir’s psychological investments in preservation seem to come more directly from his reaction to his strict religious upbringing and his maltreatment by his father, two crucial things that don’t apply in Wilson’s case.

    If I were to draw a stronger connection to Muir, it would be through his opposition to the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy, which was–as many people forget–as much a hydroelectric power project as a drinking water reservoir. (Power was delivered from the dam 9 years before any water was!) Until I thought about Wilson’s Niagara trip in the context of waterpower, I hadn’t really thought about the ways that the historic fight over Hetch Hetchy might also be connected to cultural memories around the disruptive effects of new power supplies.

  8. John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

    Hi Michael,

    Fascinating connections – thanks – there’s certainly a book in there (if it hasn’t already been written) on the connections between Scottish landscapes, American environmentalism, and issues of hydro-power!

    All the best, John

  9. Michael Ziser, University of California, Davis says:

    There was a missed opportunity for this in Fredrik Albritton Jonsson’s Enlightenment’s Frontiers, but I’m not aware of any work on the mutual influence of these two landscapes of the sort that Ian Tyrell undertook for California and Australia….


  10. Molly Hall, University of Rhode Island says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for a great talk! I have found, though I too am just now getting to the better part of the talks, that many of those in the first few panels address a similar concern we both expressed in ours–that a hyperfocus on specific large scale issues of climate change may be missing the boat. In my own work, I frequently find myself problematizing the politics inherent to the periodization of the anthropocene. You mention at the top of your talk that this is really a longer process, and you seem to suggest the work of Wilson is optimally situated to make this clear–by making more visible these connections between an economic and labor history and a more contemporary post-industrial environmental history in his writings. I wonder if the “war” part of Becker’s “war capitalism” as a designation for this process, upon closer investigation, would produce any illuminating results. Though my work is primarily British and 20th century, I find there to be something particular about war as a nexus of environmental and industrial-economic practices, especially those surrounding “nation,” which both contributes to our desire to only value catastrophic climatological change as concern-worthy, but which also seems to register more banal shifts in cultural memory regarding human-environmental relationships. Have you found that the any of the European or American wars in his lifetime left an imprint on his writings about natural history–the revolutions say in America and France, or Napoleonic wars, etc.?


Comments are closed.