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  • Antarctica as Cultural Critique: The Gendered Politics of Scientific Exploration and Climate Change by Elena Glasberg
  • Nicole Starosielski
Elena Glasberg, Antarctica as Cultural Critique: The Gendered Politics of Scientific Exploration and Climate Change New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 204 pp. ISBN 9780230116870

“We are in the midst of a new kind of Ice Age,” Elena Glasberg observes at the outset of Antarctica as Cultural Critique (xii). Unprecedented attention has been directed at the poles in recent years, not only by scientists but also by journalists, artists, and scholars across the humanities and social sciences. These treks to the Antarctic, whether for research, tourism, or contract work, can no longer be viewed as mere encounters with a purified landscape or the “blank backdrop for empire,” Glasberg argues (110). They are attempts to index the Anthropocene, to gauge the geologic transformations of man on the remote ice, and to witness the ruin of yet another part of our endangered planet. As the poles are reconfigured in relation to the emergent epistemologies of global climate change, Southern ice now comes “with a ready-made politics” (xii).

Antarctica as Cultural Critique interrogates the hierarchies of power that make access to and knowledge of Antarctica possible, striations all too often obscured in climate change art and science. Offering a compelling critique [End Page 318] of Antarctica’s exceptionalism, a characterization based on its apparent lack of war, natives, and territoriality, the book tracks through the multitude of actors and agencies that entangle the ice in histories of imperial expansion, performances of heroic masculinity, and strategies of transnational corporate development. Glasberg’s excavation of the American history of neoliberal scientific expansion, in particular, forms a much-needed intervention into European and British Commonwealth–dominated polar studies.

Although explicitly oriented toward American studies, Antarctica as Cultural Critique operates in an interdisciplinary context, addressing the historical and cultural specificity of a wide range of materials, from governance structures, to feminist literature, to the visual media that has “blanked out” the continent. Glasberg analyzes representations such as the ubiquitous satellite views of Google Earth and the sector map that divides Antarctica into a set of slices, suggesting that rather than a “whiteout” that naturalizes a limit to human seeing, many visions of Antarctica resemble a blackout: an intentional, geopolitically produced exclusion. Even the Antarctic Treaty System, an agreement that curtails state powers and sets aside Antarctica for scientific purposes, has made the continent “especially vulnerable to non-state or trans-state actions and phenomena,” processes of which few are aware (69). Initiatives that purport to show us more of the landscape, such as the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, are often projects of cultural imperialism. Glasberg observes that imaginations of the Antarctic, especially ones that chart the impending environmental catastrophe, fall in the domain of the “post-Heroic”—a modality that simultaneously resents and reveres the Heroic age of exploration and the Western discovery of the continent.

While the book reveals the imperial and national actors, scientific epistemologies, and gendered formations embedded in Antarctic ice, it moves beyond the simple narratives of loss and hope inscribed by climate change discourse, offering an alternative to the imagination of Antarctic “ice as either a laboratory or repository of data, or as a pure wilderness” (xviii). Whereas geopolitical analysis can only see Antarctica as “exceptional, extreme, pure, outside territory” and ice as object to be exploited, blank to be occupied, or text to be read, Glasberg’s feminist materialism reconceptualizes Antarctic ice as a material becoming within such distributions of human and nonhuman agency (xiv). She instead asks us to consider: “How can the ice be discovered outside of historical determination?” (110) The book most explicitly grapples with this question in the expansive second chapter on Ursula Le Guin’s “Sur,” a short story about a group of South American women explorers who reach the South Pole before Scott’s failed expedition in 1911–12, but choose to leave nothing behind, not even footprints. As the story refuses traditional heroic, masculine relationships to Antarctica and yet runs the risk of corroborating official accounts, it serves as a mutable [End Page 319] ground from which to consider...


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pp. 318-320
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