- Readings in the Anthropocene: The Environmental Humanities, German Studies, and Beyond ed. by Sabine Wilke, Japhet Johnstone
New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 288. $28.76.
The thirteen interdisciplinary essays assembled in this volume demonstrate that transatlantic German Studies scholars are at the forefront of cultural studies research on the Anthropocene, the period in the last two hundred years in which human activity has significantly changed the earth. The contributors, all affiliated with the main German center for environmental humanities scholarship, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, offer innovative examinations of German-language literature, film, photography, philosophy, illustrated periodicals, critical theory, and locations. The essays address how this new geological period was anticipated and represented in literature and art, and they explore the Anthropocene’s meaning for aesthetics, poetics, politics, and scientific knowledge. The interpretations thus underscore the varied ways cultural products reflect on how humans have changed the planet, and the contributors do not neglect the role of non-human agency and representations in the works they examine.
The editors’ introduction, Sabine Wilke’s chapter “Planetary Praxis in the Anthropocene: An Ethics and Poetics for a New Geological Age,” and the epilogue complement one another quite nicely; it pays off to start reading the book with these three sections. There is not a lengthy overview of theory and research in the Anthropocene at the beginning of the book; concise definitions of the Anthropocene are given and the arguments of the individual chapters are previewed. If we look to the penultimate chapter, Wilke lays out the stakes the contributors have been making throughout the volume in writing about German cultural production in the Anthropocene. She urges German Studies [End Page 100] researchers to revise naive modernity narratives about industrialization and global capitalism and insists that we take intellectual and personal responsibility for our relation to the Enlightenment’s regimes of power. In her framing, this intellectual movement established an exploitative and violent divide between nature and culture that fed an insatiable European and North American drive for scientific discovery, imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. She observes that North Americans and Europeans have been spared much of the devastation they for the large part caused by their own political, cultural, and economic hegemonic interests. In Wilke’s view, the Anthropocene alerts us to the need for critical and ethical approaches that apply the lessons of resistance found, for instance, in the postcolonial theory and environmental justice movements to the difficult legacies of the Enlightenment. By compensating for the outsized “anthropocentrism of human-centered notions of transcendental idealism, Enlightenment values, and their dialectical critique,” Wilke argues that we should take into account how people and nature have faced the Anthropocene in unequal terms (304–5).
The epilogue by Axel Goodbody then shows how German Studies has responded to the Anthropocene. Here, he has generated a useful synthesis of previous research in the field starting from Lawrence Buell’s work on the environmental imaginary in literature, to the path taken by foundational figures in German Studies, such as Hartmut Böhme and Jost Hermand. With his outline of the rich interdisciplinary approaches to Environmental Studies common to German Studies—literary anthropology, systems theory, genre, narratology, investigations of place and dwelling, disasters and perception—Goodbody insists that literature, in particular, helps us think about the Anthropocene in powerful ways because “stories are media for debate and forms of collective sense-making. They can motivate and mobilize readers by investing abstract and seemingly remote issue with affect, and they can arouse empathy with human and non-human others, thereby helping us to see the world from new perspectives” (317). In addition, Goodbody highlights how each of the contributions to the edited volume has pushed forward these debates in insightful ways. To my mind, Wilke’s essay and Goodbody’s epilogue can be easily assigned together in German Studies undergraduate and graduate seminars and then paired with one or more of the individual studies found in the center of this edited collection.
Readings in the Anthropocene...