- Beyond Here Lies Nothing
In Antarctica as Cultural Critique: The Gendered Politics of Scientific Exploration & Climate Change, Elena Glasberg brings the unpeopled continent controlled since 1959 by international treaty into American studies, feminist theory, and visual and media studies. In the aftermath of Al Gore’s apocalyptic An Inconvenient Truth (2009) and Werner Herzog’s more sublime Encounters at the End of the World (2007), the subject of Antarctica has reentered the American consciousness as a barometer of environmental disaster and global degradation. Now seems to be the time for a scholarly book to question the exceptionalism beneath perceptions of the icy continent as a proving ground for masculine heroic display, technoscience, and even ecological preservation. Glasberg explores U.S. policy toward Antarctica—reminiscent of nineteenth-century imperial expansion—within contemporary contexts of neoimperial science management.
While the focus on Antarctica as a source of inspiration for thinking about American modernity, exploration, and expansion seems pressing and plainly obvious in this book, Glasberg’s attachment to the icy continent has not always been met with immediate acceptance or approval by colleagues in cultural studies; as [End Page 427] one Americanist put it to her, “No one is exactly waiting for the next book on Antarctica” (xii). Lacking any native life, distant and unknown, the continent has been met with critical ambivalence, as its subject contrasts with the scholarship and cultural critique that fetishize the new and most politically and culturally relevant. Still, though, while academics and critics may scratch their heads and wonder what there is left to say or write about Antarctica, it remains, Glasberg points out, “the most mediated place on earth” (xix): not only was its emergence within modernity concomitant with the advent of photography, but the continent’s distance from centers of population, not to mention the difficulties of maintaining human life in its icy wastes, will always demand some form of attenuation. Glasberg presents the continent as a living paradox. On one hand it is overexposed by photographic representation, and on the other hand it is still imagined to be a blank and empty canvas. The politics of all this are, for Glasberg, extremely timely, as she argues that it has become “an exceptional place . . . whose rescue from the fate of the rest of the planet becomes talismanic of global survival” (3). Antarctica is, it seems, both a frozen paradox and an ever-melting alibi.
Glasberg’s approach to the continent, relayed by her wry, unsentimental manner of writing, views contemporary interest in Antarctica as another effort (in a century-long string of efforts) by America to capitalize on the South Pole. A stunningly compiled and beautifully written book, Antarctica as Cultural Critique offers a materially based history of Antarctica, not as a territory or possible site of territorialization and monetization but rather as just ice. Carefully attending to Antarctica’s place in the world as more fantasy than material reality, Glasberg focuses on the traces, footprints, and affective shadows that have been cast over the continent and its unyielding ice since the beginning of the twentieth century. She tells a story that, in the end, recognizes that the radical inhospitality of ice cannot be understood or transformed. The message that the continent has provided Western interests and explorers has always been the same: “Go Away.” The story that the ice offers, Glasberg argues, “points to the field of American Studies as it is no longer founded on a notion of America that is a consequence of an overly secured, too-knowable past” (135). And to contemporary rhetoric about melting ice and a continent in constant peril, Glasberg retorts with what she refers to as “ice time,” which is “not reversible” and “not recursive, leading always back to its own origins” (134). Ice is not in danger; it “cannot be undone” (135). A stellar example of what contemporary New Materialist criticism has to offer fields of scholarship too focused on the human and the [End Page 428] knowable, Antarctica as Cultural Critique seeks out...