Melting Laboratories, or: Ecocritical Readings of Icy Landscapes

Guest Post by Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz

It is my pleasure to welcome guest author Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz. Svenja is a doctoral researcher in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Conditions of Disruption” at TU Dresden, where she investigates “Contact Scenes” between humans and non-humans, scientists and non-scientists, knowledge-seekers and their ‘objects’ (together with Kirsten Jüdt, Jakob Hammerschmidt and me).

Ice and Ecocriticisms

Ice is at the forefront of global debates about climate change. Rising temperatures cause ice to melt and melting ice causes temperatures to rise even further. The consequences of these processes are disastrous on every scale: the collapse of the gulf stream, rising sea levels, the loss of habitats for numerous species, droughts and hunger, erosion. Melting ice is the imagery that is used whenever there is a discussion about climate change. Dramatic pictures of ice shields with a single polar bear on them circulate through tabloids and social media; in documentaries such as the BBC’S Planet Earth, we see time lapses of Arctic ice, that, like lungs, breathes by retreating in summer and expanding in winter, thereby providing the planet with processes that are vital for the survival of life. Ice is ubiquitous in environmental discourses whenever the need arises to show something that is hard to see in more temperate (or tropical) climates. It serves as hard, but disappearing proof. The act of disappearing symbolizes such a convincing image for change, that it promises to bring (hard) science into contact with everyday life and convince even those, who deny what is so clearly visible.

Yet, despite the fact that almost every debate on climate change at least mentions ice, its full potential in discourses in ecocriticism is yet to unfold. There is a rising interest in ice and its disappearance, as books ranging from Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice, Andri  Snær Magnason’s On Time and Water, or, in literary studies, Sabine Frost’s Whiteout show, yet in comparison with literary texts and scholarships on trees, animals and other “wild things”, ice ranges at the fringes of public and academic interest. The reasons why ice does not receive the same attention as other ‘natural’ beings or spaces are as manifold as ice itself, but, at this point, remain somewhat speculative. It might be that landscapes as extreme as Arctica and Antarctica are way too hostile for humans to associate ideas of reconnecting with nature, which is one of the focal points of early ecocriticism. They often remain tied to stories of survival and dominance and rarely to those of coexistence. It might be that ice is a landscape that is too remote, too far removed from everyday life for most people to be thought of as a medium for cultivating relationships to non-human nature – at least from a western point of view; indigenous groups such as Sámi and Inuit show otherwise. 

Ice is hard to grasp, literally as well as cognitively: It is the frozen state of water, but when it melts, it turns into a different state, and the description of being solid and frozen not longer fits. A fact as simple as that brings forth a number of complex problems for scientists and literary scholars alike. Established ecocritical premises, viewpoints and modes of analysis can fall short when confronted with icy landscapes: Frozen landscapea do not seem like spaces in which an individual person can understand that they are part of an ecosystem; the barrenness hardly suggests a life for people in reciprocity with the land. The extreme cold suggests hostility and does not seem like a space that offers refuge or a safe haven as a familiar forest might. Ice is dynamic, it tells different stories compared to mountains or trees in spring. Where to place humans in such a landscape? How to narrate and depict the instability of ice? Not only the ice itself challenges analysis and criticism, the icy environment deprives humans of their senses, their ability to distinguish individual ‘things’ and thus, treat them as such. Yet, ice-texts hold a great potential for ecocritical readings: They produce critical nature relations and allow us to re-evaluate human-nature-connections. Polar ice, in the extra-textual reality often serves as a laboratory for science on global warming, for military tests and a still largely untouched field for resource extraction. Yet, it can also become a laboratory for ecocriticism. Ice-texts challenge us to think about coexisting with threatened nature, but even more so with threatening nature. Icy landscapes can be visited, enjoyed, experienced if one is either a inhabitant of the Arctic circle or wealthy enough to afford a touristic trip. Storytelling, then, provides a form of access, that in some respects is not just “second hand” but provides information and context that is not even available to those who have “been there”. Herein lies another challenge and potential of ice: it questions notions of authenticity on a fundamental level.  

Harley D. Nygren – NOAA At The Ends of the Earth CollectionImage ID: corp1014 ([1]), , https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22083

Ice intensifies questions that are important for environmental storytelling in general – it isolates (like a laboratory setting) problems that are not necessarily unique to “ice” but to human-nature-relationships under the conditions of change: How, then, does one narrate a landscape that could disappear without a visible trace, that is dynamic in spreading, retreating, melting, growing? Are they even “landscapes” (with all the cultural baggage this term implies) or are they seascapes, waterscapes, something entirely different and does it even matter what you call them? How can you read ice, whether as a reader, as an ecocritic or as a scientist?

Ice is exceptional in its role and potential in ecocriticism, both as a precarious archive and as a producer of human-environment-relationships. Moreover, polar ice presents a canvas for the literary imagination, filling the vast amounts of white with stories on human survival from the age of polar explorers. It is a refuge for all kinds of creatures such as Frankenstein’s monster disappearing into the frozen wilderness, home and residence for Lovecraft’s horrible tentacle-headed Cthulhu, or polar worms being considered for biochemical weapons in Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. It is romantically charged with the sublime, the awe-inspiring. And it is part of a history of domination, turning Arctic and Antarctic poles into prizes in a long-ongoing scramble for nationalist and economic supremacy; polar ice is embedded in discourses of post- and neocolonial environmental protection and resource extraction that marginalizes the voices of the people that live there. Yet, these voices are not necessarily lost and reading ice through an ecocritical lense has the potential to shift the focus from tales of domineering and loss to coexistence and creativity. Therein lies the potential to highlight agencies beyond humans.

Frozen Agencies

In Marie Darrieussecq’s novel White (2003) ice does not only fulfill the role of providing the background for a plot that takes place in the precarious and extreme landscapes of the Antarctic. Much more than that, the polar ice brings forth its own agenda in the novel. It refuses to be analyzed by scientists, it refuses to be dominated by humans, it refuses to by claimed by explorers. Instead, it provides the characters in the novel as well as the readers with challenges – to be grasped, understood and categorized. This is due in part to not only the barren and extreme landscape, but also in part of the narrators, spectral beings that just like the ice, refuse to be categorized and analyzed, are fluid in their shape and appear visible, or rather, readable only to the reader, whether as ghosts of former polar explorers such as Amundsen or Scott. Edmée Blanco, the protagonist of Darrieussecq’s novel, is a telecommunications scientist who has to decide between two different scientific missions to participate in; one of them leading to Mars, the other to Antarctica. Blanco, whose telling name hints almost painfully obvious at the title of the novel, chooses Antarctica and goes on a journey to help establish a European scientific base at the south pole. As the title of the novel suggests, she is met with endless white surrounding her. As ecocritics, however, we can also take the white as a metaphor for the voids that are yet to fill when it comes to Ice-ecocriticism.

White : Darrieussecq, Marie: Amazon.de: Bücher

Looking at the Antarctic ice from a purely scientific point of view in White (it being as far removed from human existence as different planets like Mars), sets up expectations for (the) matter, presents it as an object to be discovered and analyzed based on rational, scientific methods and viewpoints. However, the spectral beings do their best to sabotage the mission and provide distractions for the scientists. Invisible and inaudible to them, they declare themselves to be like spiders, swinging on their thoughts and feeding on emotions – which, in the extremity of the surrounding hostile landscape provide a feast for them. As ungraspable as the ice itself, they provide a way to narrate about humans in the non-human landscape: in their spectraliltiy, fluidity, insgraspability, they form an in-between between the ice and the humans. On the first page, they tell the reader that the area is lonely and empty, and their awareness of their in-between state since there is, “[no] one left in a radius of four thousand kilometers, except for three Russians who are hibernating in the Vostok base. And us, of course, but how can we be counted?” (Darrieussecq, White, 3). Donna Haraway proposes that “It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledge knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds”( Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 35).

The spectral beings can be read as fictional expressions of this in taking a de-centered position that puts neither humans nor nature at the center but observes them in interaction with another. As the reader follows the protagonist Edmée Blanco going south, the spectral narrators present the ice as indifferent and independent to humanity as possible, when the first iceberg appears:

 “It is a scout, a sentinel. A warning. Something enormously white. And imagine how cold it must be, in the centre. It is not something that warms up the deeper you go, like the Earth, or bodies. And behind it, the impassive continent. You can imagine that if you went around the iceberg (how long? an hour’s yoyage? a day?) there would be the hidden side of the moon, signs that have been left there, an intention. But this has nothing to do with humans. It can do without them. Ice, that’s all there is to it. No meadows after the thaw, or trees, or streams, or even familiar deserts, with sand, scrub, a dried river bed.” (Darrieussecq, White, 17) [Emphasis added S.E.-K.]

Ice, that’s all there is to it, it has nothing to do with humans – and yet, humans and their impacts aren’t absent from the icy landscapes at all. Scientific proof for the connections of humans and the ice can be found in abundance. Even in the Antarctic, which, in Darrieussecq’s novel, remains unaffected by the discourses on climate change, is not an impassive continent that is as far removed from everyday existence as outer space. However, even by the wordings “It can do without them”, the ice is presented as independent of humans, as a place that doesn’t exist to be easily visited, or narrated. As the scientific mission reaches the southernmost continent, the reader is told: 

“This is a place to which visiting humans have given very few names. Not many come here, and none stay (alive, that is); and those who have kept a diary did so to recount their conquest, an exploit, or to say farewell to their loved ones with their frost-bitten fingers. Later, those who will stay here for scientific, political or military reasons will speak international pidgin English and will content themselves with snow, ice and white or hazard a desert and flat, or when effusive solitude. And when they are alone, quite alone in their minds, alone with their mother tongues, why would they describe anything?” (Darrieussecq, White, 61) [Emphasis in the original]. 

Only few visit the ice, thus direct experience of the matter (literally) is rare for humans. Those who do visit – for scientific, military and/or political reasons – are neither equipped to survive nor are they able in their records to account for how the ice affects humans (and vice versa). The oppositions (ice/humans; nature/culture) remain fixed and thus overshadow any kind of interaction. The environment seems so hostile that it deprives humans of their very human capacity to even utter the experience of the ice, language loss seems to turn the humans into parts of the environment instead of turning the environment into a background for them. 

Yet, even in White, the rational scientists cannot escape their humanity which operates not only on rational, but also on emotional, poetical, and philosophical motifs. They are in need of more words than the snippets of pidgin English exchanged in the novel, and they do feel the urge to describe their icy environments – and yet, they lack the words, the language to do so. As they drill holes into the frozen ground and pull the ice cores to the surface, they are reminded of their humanity, as Peter Thompson, once of the engineers in the novel exemplifies: “And these long tubes of raw, blue, deep-frozen time which the glaciologists are extracting, millimetre by millimetre, carefully clutched in their gloves, make Peter philosophical.” (Darrieussecq, White, 89) This works because the cores and their time scales put a single human life in a different perspective and challenge familiar relations and relationships. As Nancy Campbell puts it, “Human beings, lodged on Earth’s thin crust, must drill deep or soar high to understand their environment. Knowledge comes from far beneath our feet, from distant outer space.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 25). This knowledge is hidden in the ice and not necessarily easy to access even if you suspect it is there. The ice, in the novel White and outside of it, gains meaning or is viewed as a storage for knowledge because humans look for understanding of themselves in their surroundings and put their own perspective and agenda onto the frozen matter. The ice itself, the frozen matter, merely (still) exists, and “[i]t is there for no one, just like the snow, the ice, the lakes in the depths and the bedrock beneath them, like the sky and the tiny hint of wind and empty space. It is expecting nothing. It wants nothing. It is flat, cold and indifferent.” (Darrieussecq, White, 64)

But the polar ice is not flat, cold and indifferent to the humans because it brings them their physical and psychological extremes. The seemingly barren, empty landscape reflects the sun multiple times, polar ecosystems, though everything but lifeless, contradict (European) expectations of ‘natural environments’ that were developed with trees and lakes, meadows and fields in sight.  . The protagonist of Darrieussecq’s novel has to grapple with these extreme conditions: “[…] Edmée Blanco stares at the five suns, and her human brain is the sole living thing, messy and living, in all that array of spheres and crystals.” (Darrieussecq, White, 63). Not only does this landscape provide extreme physical conditions that cause the human senses and perceptions to be warped, it also comes with another predicament that makes life for humans difficult: Extreme loneliness. Places as hostile and as far removed from urban centers and settlements seem to be hardly reconciled with ideas of the movement of ecocriticism, to foster a reconnect to nature.

However, they are there. The polar ice regions might be indifferent, but they are affected and impacted by humans, changed by global warming. The scientific interest in this frozen matter is huge, for research on climate change, for research in geology and biology, for military reasons and after all, for capitalist regions, since there are vast amounts of natural resources hidden underneath the ice; gasses and fossil fuels. However, reading the frozen mattera through an ecocritical lens bears much more potential than just an analysis of Cli-Fi novels that deal with current political development, but allows to develop a self-critical ecocriticism in re-assessing ecocritical perspectives. 

Ice-Ecocriticism

In the novel White, going to Antarctica is set to be as likely as going to space. Already in 2021, billionaires like Elon Musk launch their own rockets and announce “affordable” space travel in the near future. If you can leave earth, how far away can the end of the world be? At the same time, accelerated global heating moves polar ice closer because it becomes obvious how closely connected global ecosystems are… Reading ice ecocritically also means to find ways for how humans inscribe meaning into indifferent matter. Ice, as the abundance of ice texts shows, is charged emotionally and imaginatively, it is a reservoir for myths and mythologies across epochs and cultures. In a way, thus, ice becomes an archive for human activity both in a scientific and cultural sense. It shows how theories such as the nature-culture-distinction no longer hold (frozen) water. Even the scientists in White are amazed by the possibilities of ice:

“’You can’t imagine what can be found in the snow. Ten metres down, the smoke from the start of the industrial revolution. At three metres, the ash of the Solfatara. Stick your arm in up to your elbow, and you’ll pick up the remains of the World Trade Center. But if you dug much deeper, deeper even than our glaciologists, then you’d discover prehistoric climates, the evaporation of the primitive oceans and the scents of the forests that covered Gondwanaland!’” (Darrieussecq, White, 99)

Ice cores, drilled into the Antarctic and Arctic landscapes show remains of events that were important for humanity. This works only because we ascribe meaning to them, because we declare them to be culturally significant, we turn them into archives for human history. Ecocriticism, here, has the potential to parallelize the correlation between science and the production of knowledge with its counterpart in literature.  In the era of the Anthropocene, we take the focus away from the indifference of the ice, its mere existence, and turn it into a space that holds the evidence of our modern existence, as Nancy Campbell shows in the Library of Ice: “The polar ice is the first archive, a compressed narrative of all time in a language humans have just begun to learn. Only a few people are fluent: we rely on scientists to read the alphabet of elements and isotopes for us.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 26)

File:K.A.Colorado Ice Core Sculptures Series.jpg
K.A. Colorado’s proprietary series of Ice Core Sculptures include this group portraying climate change and ocean health, created for NOAA for their permanent collection. Photo taken in 2015 at the artist’s studio. M.R.Tahan.books, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What happens to those archives when they disappear? Ice does not only confront ecocritics with questions of how it can be read, but more interestingly how it can be narrated and grasped. In works of creative non-fiction such as Campbell’s, it is understood as a conservation of all traces of human existence, providing glimpses into the circumstances of living in the present and living in the past. But what happens when such a conservatory disappears? What happens with the contents stored in this archive? And who is able to talk about this ice? And who listens? The ice, read as an archive, provides a canvas for ecocritical possibilities that blurs boundaries, it is mesmerizing. Rational, scientific language is not enough to unveil the sublime, the mundane, and the archival potential of the ice:

“These giant icicles are witnesses to global climate and its history. Within them is evidence of past temperature, the gas composition of the lower atmosphere, solar variability, ocean volume, volcanic eruptions, rainfall, the extent of deserts and forest fires. Under the magnifying glass the cross-sections of the core glow like magic lantern slides. Summer and winter snowfall have an entirely different appearance: the coarse-grained summer hoar is covered with a fine-grained layer, densely packed by the winter winds. This pairing is known by scientists as the ‘depth hoar/wind slab couplet’. It is a surprisingly poetic term, which calls to mind the neat closing lines of a sonnet. The couplet forms an annual marker that – like the growth rings of trees – can be counted to date the core.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 25)

Ice helps us to understand that there is no one single approach to ecocriticism, in fact that there is no ecocriticism but multiple ecocriticisms that bring humanities and sciences together, not in a binary model but as a layered, cylindrical core, describing hard facts  in poetic terms that provide glimpses into human existence in a time of crisis. Ice seems to be non-graspable, non-narratable – it’s just there. Ice-ecocriticism weaves together these multiple strands to unveil meaning or knowledge from the ice for non-experts since “[t]his knowledge can’t be separated from the words in which it is expressed. But, like the ice, the reach of some languages is diminishing, to the extent that the state of the language may be of as much concern as the ecosystem it describes.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 116) The ways to speak of ice are manifold – whether as Creative Non-Fiction in The Library of Ice, or in Cli-Fi novels such as White. The ways to read it ecocritically are just as diverse. And just as urgent.

Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz is a doctoral researcher at TU Dresden where she works in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption”. She studied Comparative Literature and English/American Studies at Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany), Limerick (Ireland) and University of Oklahoma (USA). She received her M.A. in 2021 from Ruhr-University Bochum with a thesis comparing French, German and US-American Climate-Fiction (Cli-Fi).

The research project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption” is part of the Excellence Measure “Disruption and Societal Change” at TU Dresden (TUDiSC) and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Freestate of Saxony under the Excellence Strategy of the Federal Government and the Länder.

Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016.

Marie Darrieussecq: White. Translated by Ian Monk, Faber and Faber, 2005.

Nancy Campbell: The Library of Ice. Readings from a Cold Climate, Scribner, 2018. 

Cite this article as: Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz, "Melting Laboratories, or: Ecocritical Readings of Icy Landscapes," in Ecological Imaginaries, 10/02/2022, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/155.

„A Temptation to the Imagination“ – The Future History of US-American Literature (Long Read)

This is a paper I gave in summer 2020. I haven’t gotten to turning it into a ‘proper’ article, yet, but I don’t believe in things rotting in my cloud, so here it is and I’d be thrilled to hear your thoughts on my thinking together deep time and literary history (with US-American literary history as my experimental ‘object’).

As an „exercise in environmental speculation“, historian and geohumanist Jared Farmer created the „future fossil“ of a BlackBerry Curve 8300. In his reflection of the hows and whys of this exercise Farmer contrasts the short lived usability of gadgets like this with their harmful longevity in the terrestrial ecosystems, and the cultural effects of this insight:

Cover of Future Remains with an image of the “future fossil” in the upper right corner: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/F/bo27213130.html

“If my fossil signifies extinction and e-waste, it also bespeaks a cultural moment when humanists and artists have synchronously turned their attention to temporalities like ‘deep time’, ‘deep history’, ‘long-terminism,’ and ‘the long now.’ […] After a period of cultural quiescence, geology – the leading realm of inquiry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – has regained philosophical, literary, and artistic significance.”

Jared Famer, Technofossil, in: Future Remains (193)

Modernity seems to have come full circle in its choice of a paradigmatic way to know the world: geology’s temporal scales completely changed the way in which humans understood their place in Earth’s history two centuries ago and it seems to do so again, today. An old smartphone, a bit of polymer clay and some paint come together to turn a piece of waste into an “technofossil”, that is, a speculative object making tangible our present (or, at least, our immediate past) in the future perfect. The fake fossil wants to bring us to recognize the consequences of human actions from the perspective of an archaeologist in the far future. Imagining “us” – not as what we will be but as what we will have been – is not a new exercise but it gains significance at a time when the remnants of the actions of human collectives threaten to last almost forever. The material of the Blackberry device will persist for millennia and thus becomes visible as part of a global pollution crisis that is by no means an “environmental” problem only. It is a challenge to the Western way of life and unjustly threatens especially those who do not (yet) enjoy its comforts. The durability of the materials we fail to consume but throw away, the effects and exhausts of our lifestyle call into question not how, but if there can be a future for what we call ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’. “Perhaps” as Frederic Jameson wondered in Archaeologies of the Future, “we need to develop an anxiety about losing the future” (233) 

Farmers’ is one of many attempts to chart Future Remains and create A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. The collection looks at past and present-day objects to find “clues” for intertwined human and natural histories and thereby develop a relationship to the future (remains) which at first glance seems as strange as the curiosities themselves: “The objects gathered in this book resemble more the tarots of a fortuneteller that the archeological finds of an expedition: they speak of the future” (x). Like the “technofossil”, jars of sand, pesticide spray pumps and artificial coral reefs narrate a future perfect perspective on the present. The hope is, that “[o]bjects have the power to bridge spaces and join times. They can summon all at once the past, present, and future, blending the global and local – and thus they can disrupt linear narratives, including those about the Anthropocene.” (xi) Through the “object stories” and the future lives of present and past things they bring to life, the cabinet of curiosities becomes a haunted space. The future perfect imagination brings out the ghosts that our intentions and desires will have become. More so, it makes the new, that is, soon to be discarded things we accumulate look quite sinister, because the future perfect loop shows that the afterlife is always already included in the thing itself. 

A past that will have haunted the future – this is the sort of pun of the collection – is inherent in the objects we produce and use. Storytelling, here, becomes at once a means of divination and resurrection. It creates a narrative afterlife of already discarded things and shatters the illusion that you can ever truly throw something “out”. This collection of object-stories is a “future history” in many ways – most importantly, it imagines a future perspective on a shared present thereby creating a “we” that includes non-human actors in the story of what the future will bring. What makes this significance is not necessarily the Science Fiction premise to a collection of artistically and scholarly inclined interventions, but the fact that the interdisciplinary approach is translated into a series of speculative narratives. This is more than a playful way to engage in conversations and, ultimately, get active about ways to shape the future. Stories and storytelling gain new prominence in a discourse about the future that is characterized by a sense of peril which does not surpass so much as include and surmount past worst-case scenarios. 

“The future we face today is one that threatens our very existence as a species. It threatens the comfortable urban lifestyles that many of us hold dear and the habitability of the earth itself. The times we are in are critical, and the challenges we face as global citizens are complex, intractable, and planetary.”

Gidley, Jennifer M.: The Future: A Very Short Introduction (1)

Global Warming, Ocean Acidification, Terrorism, and an ongoing Nuclear Threat position “the Future as catastrophe” (Eva Horn) not at the end but the beginning of our stories. Again, Modernity seems to have come full circle: In The Future as Catastrophe, Eva Horn identifies the coming disaster as a major anxiety and motivator of modern activities from the 1700s until the present. Geology as a leading scientific paradigm popularized the idea that not only civilizations but whole species went extinct because of catastrophic events. Hence, the imagination of one’s own gadgets as future fossil is not a new but a thoroughly modern idea with a history of its own. That does not mean, though, that the current moment in history is a mere repetition of our modern beginnings, rather the “Catastrophe without Event” that is climate change and the subsequent popularization of the collapse of natural and cultural history require us to rethink not only possible futures but also our approach to rethinking the relations between Modernity and time:

“Whether or not the Anthropocene becomes part of the official stratigraphic record, its advent as a scientific object has already altered how we conceptualize, imagine, and inhabit time.“

Preface to Future Remains (ix)

As I am talking to you about fossils and forever changed relationships to deep time pasts and futures in a literary studies context, you already guessed why I stress the existence and importance of stories and storytelling in catastrophic futures discourse. It is not least an opportunity for academics in these disciplines to take part in a discussion that claims to influence every realm of life. What I want to talk about, however, is that this is more than a chance to claim a part of the current discourse, but that our expertise as literary and cultural scholars is indeed a vital one. Literary and cultural studies can contribute to this discourse an invaluable perspective: They do not predict, they do not forecast or calculate probable futures – but what they do do is follow, collect and navigate through the stories that make up and hold together the connection between pasts, presents and futures. As I am using the plural for all three terms, I am already hinting at the most important aspect of this contribution: the way in which literary and cultural studies are able to deal with multiple actors and temporalities without reducing them to a common denominator. What I want to look at, today, is the relationship between futures and storytelling that is expressed in both literary histories, that is both fictional histories and histories of literature. I will highlight some pitfalls and promises of literary history as a critical and scholarly endeavor and connect them to literary and future histories in two novels – Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (2006) and The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018). My aim is to show how time is being linked to storytelling as a practice of producing futures and how literary genres, practices and histories are employed to scale up human stories to planetary ones. Both novels challenge and tempt the imagination of their readers to look at their present and past as if from a distant future; they do so by disrupting the idea of human control over nature and narrative alike and, instead, map out ways in which stories and storytelling become instrument and actor in the production of futures.

While Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (2006) bursts with plots, characters and cultural references, its historical scope seems fairly narrow. It begins in 1893 with the “World’s Columbian Exposition” and ends in early 1920s Hollywood. The novel revolves around turning points in American and world history, or, to be exact, it lays out how turning points in American and World History were synchronized to a point where they became indistinguishable. Strikingly, many of the familiar historical landmarks of this period play at most a marginal role in Against the Day. Although almost all of the protagonists are in Europe at the time, even the “Great War” remains latent and unable to change a course of events that has been set in motion long before. The individual plots seem difficult to entangle, except maybe for readers of historical novels, fantasy and science fiction sagas. I stress this fact, because reading a text this dense with names, titles, references, points requires intense training in networked reading – it’s no accident that there is a “Pynchon Wiki” in which readers help each other navigate through the texts – that comes, I’m tempted to say “naturally”, with reading genre fiction. And this is, where Pynchon’s novel takes its cues: the historical references, seemingly second-tier events, more suitable for conspiracy theories than the historical record, connect to plot structures from Western, adventure, spy, conspiracy, and science fiction. Dime novel material that finds its apex in the plot strand about the “Chums of Chance”, a “celebrated aeronautics clubs” (3) whose members, in the course of the novel, get confused about their own status. Up to a certain point, they are both fictional and non-fictional characters within the novel. They meet all other protagonists and they are the heroes of countless youth-adventure-books that many of the other characters read. Only when confronted by so-called Trespassers, however, are they forced to question their own “reality”. Trespassers are future humans who manage to employ the Chum’s ambivalent status in space and time to travel into their past and confuse the aeronauts by sharing their future perspective:

SOON THE CREW began to find evidence of Trespass everywhere, some invisible narrative occupying, where it did not in fact define, the passage of the day. And it was soon evident that at all levels, from local to international, a neuropathy had taken over the Chums of Chance organization. [The Trespassers had studied their targets closely, knew of the Chums’ unquestioning faith that none of them, barring misadventure, would ever simply grow old and die, a belief which over the years many had come to confuse with a guarantee.] On learning that they might be no more exempt than any of the human supernumeraries they had been so carelessly aviating above all these years, some Chums of Chance turned in panic to the corrupt embrace of the Trespassers, ready to deal with Hell itself, to betray anything and anyone if only they could be sent back to when they were young, be allowed to regain the early boys’-book innocence they were so willing now to turn right around and violate on behalf of their insidious benefactors.

Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day (418)

Among the novel’s numerous plays on the relationship of time and space, time and faith, time and history and so on, this might be the most striking from a literary history perspective: If the stories we are telling us about ourselves and our place in history and culture can be shaken so easily by a future perspective – how can we keep telling them?

In Pynchon’s novel, the past has an advantage over the future in that it is able to believe itself even if individual (hi)stories contradict each other. This leads, different to popular narratives, to a more diverse world in which factual and fictional stories are not mutually exclusive. Three developments that reach from the future into the past change this diversity of realities: the Tunguska-Event (an explosion of still disputed cause that in 1908 destroyed vast amounts of forest in Siberia), the development of new ways to connect and represent the world through photography, film and electronic means of communication (the telegraph), and the developments in mathematics and physics that fundamentally changed how time is conceptualized. While at the World’s Columbian Exposition in the beginning of the novel, everything seems possible, the Hollywood ending suggests that different realities are forever distinguished in real and made-up ones – only no one knows which are which. The consequence is a future that seems inevitable. If the present is reduced to a single narrative – how would one attempt to shape the future?

Despite all declarations of the End of History (Fukuyama) or the End of the Gand Recit (engl? Lyotard), the narrative that still dominates is global capitalism’s notion of progress, the perverted epitome of Modernity. Interestingly, in the course of the 20th century, the main metaphor for this endeavor shifts from progress as technological (and social) innovation to economic growth, thereby naturalizing human endeavors once more as “organic”. This is where Richard Power’s recent novel The Overstory takes up and in many ways reverses Pynchon’s narrative. In the novel, trees become protagonists and enlist humans to aid them in ensuring their survival. Surprisingly, the novel, despite its strong references to Thoreau and the environmentalist movements, does not at all develop a luddite “back-to-nature”-narrative. Instead, it takes its cue from genre fiction and the stories that can be told based on the new images of trees and plant communication. The novel follows the stories of eight humans and their way to become ‘tree-people’, that is, they find connections to the plant world which compel them to fight for them by any means available. It turns out however, that the kind of co-existence humans and trees envision is not possible in the world as it is. The dominance of the modern-capitalist narrative and its strict distinction between real and unreal things, humans and non-humans, value and waste prevents open futures and might, in the end, prevent the future (for humans) itself. The Overstory offers a way out that, again, depends on future history and a future perfect perspective. Neelay, a Computer Game developer with a disability, envisions a world that does not cling to the opposition of materiality and immateriality but frees individuals, and that includes trees, from it by employing plant thinking (Marder), that is, existentially networked modes. The novel does not play out what that might look like exactly but offers a (utopian) vision, reactivating a pre- and early modern mode of imagining alternatives. The source of this vision, however, is not classic Utopianism but science fiction and future history:

“[Neelay] still binges on old-school reading. At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter. Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks. Domed cities like giant terrariums. Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds. There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it. When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.”

Powers, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel (97)

The engineers vision of storytelling as a multi-temporal and historical endeavor that is decidedly not limited to literature, could be a defining principle for ‘making’ futures (happen). He learns how to make it real by listening to trees and learning about the symbiotic, multi-species webs that keep forests alive and thriving. More than a metaphor for future societies, Power’s novel reverses the reduction that Pynchon’s laments: learning from trees how to build futures, here, allows for more stustainable and more diverse societies.

If, following Jennifer Gidley, futures studies must deal with and open up multiple futures to resist the reduction to mono-narratives, we need to look at both texts about the future and the texts we write about those texts. Reading literary histories as sites that produce the ‘future remains’ of literature and literary studies, is a pivotal task of self-reflection and -assertion. To demonstrate what I mean, when I say that literary histories produce ‘future remains’ I will distinguish between those ‘literary histories’ that are ‘histories of literature’ and those that are ‘fictional histories’, that is, part of explicitly literary texts – this distinction is artificial, of course, but it serves a purpose: by taking into account the status of a text the practices of producing narratives can be made transparent. That is, by asking – am I reading a novel or am I reading an academic collection of texts? I assume different things about the position and aim of a text and its author(s). While in a novel – especially in a postmodern one like Pynchon’s and Powers’ – I expect the lines between fact and fiction to be blurred (or, at least I would not get angry if I find out that I have been fooled); a literary history follows a different set of rules. As they provide information and orientation through academic and or critical expertise, literary histories provide (and potentially deny) access to a literary canon by assigning each work a place in a larger landscape of literature. The emerging literary landscape is by no means a record of who wrote at what time, but the result of a rigorous selection process, that is, literary histories ultimately decide who is considered to write important or influential texts, what is considered to be literature (or a significant enough influence on literature) and who the intended and worthy readership is. This becomes more difficult and problematic with the scope of the endeavor. Even though, it seems, that never before has such a wide variety and diversity of texts and authors been so readily available to read and study, the concepts behind the histories – nation, gender, literature – have been challenged to a point that makes it seem impossible to provide guidance without discriminating against everything and everyone who falls out of one’s arbitrary “order”. Especially the project of so-called “national literary histories” – one of the most popular forms, often aimed at academics, students and an “interested public” alike, runs danger to popularize and manifest too narrow views of what nation, literature and history are. In the words of Elaine Showalter, author of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx:

The twenty-first century must be the best of times for doing American literary historical research. Yet, ironically, the twenty-first century is also the worst of times for actually writing American literary history. Philosophical debates about whether literary history in general is theoretically possible or intellectually valid have discouraged the attempt to write histories like this one. Academic doubts that Americans still have “a unifying vision of national identity” have added to the complicated theoretical problems. By the end of the twentieth century, even scholarly authorities admitted they were no longer certain “we know what American literature is or what history is, and whether we have the authority to explain either.”

The decision to include or exclude a work or an author gives this particular genre of academic and critical writing unique power. Every text that is left out runs danger to be forgotten; everyone who is once claimed to be important or not might never be put in his or her place – but, at least there is hope that some of the texts and authors might, like fossils, persist and be re-discovered. Yet, more still, to stay in the metaphor for a moment, will dissolve into their surroundings and, hopefully, provide nourishment for their descendants, albeit invisibly. But even if one wanted, there is just too much material to include each and everything: “That’s why national literary histories are usually huge team efforts, with a board of editors, a village of consultants, an army of research assistants; and even then, many scholars have died before finishing their own contributions to the whole” (Elaine Showalter). In other words: before you might complete your contribution to what you think should remain of a literary period, author or ‘national literature’, you yourself might perish. Even if you don’t die in the process of writing your contribution or editing a literary history, you become or hope to become a “future remain”, a “literary fossil” by contributing to ‘literary history’. Like other historiographic disciplines, literary historiography is confronted with the fact that however well researched and structured their particular version of “history” is, they are creating a narrative whose capability to serve as a foundation for the development of future literatures, literary studies and (national) identities is more than doubtful. Since Hayden White and others trained our eyes to look at the literary qualities of (literary) histories, their status has changed, and yet, they are still written and might, as I will argue, have to be written and read. Showalter solves the dilemma of her literary history of Women Writers by stressing the fact that she, and she alone, is telling a story: “In this book, however, I tell a story of American women’s writing with a beginning, middle, and end, and I make selections, distinctions, and judgments.” She clearly marks her standpoint offering her authorial position for criticism by stating deliberateness and expertise instead of authority. 

Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors undertook this massive effort of a national history in A New Literary History of America (2009). The promise of “newness” in the context of written history deserves its own talk, but what interests me, today, is the revealing way it is at once supporting and undermining its own premise. More than a hundred essays by literary scholars, critics and authors explore historical moments; the first being “1507. The name ‘America’ appears for the first time on a Map. [A new Geography]” and the last a visual essay: “2008, November 4. Barack Obama is elected 44th President of the United States” (2008):

“The goal of the book is not to smash a canon or create a new one, but to set many forms of American speech in motion, so that different forms, and people speaking at different times in sometimes radically different ways, can be heard speaking to each other.”

New Literary History of America (xxiv)

The sheer number of stories that form this history, their contradictions and the disruptions of a clear cut all-American comes close to a poly-phonic almanac. The rigid chronological order – almost like the alphabet in an encyclopedia – seems to manage the feat of stepping back from a “meaningful” system. There is a system, yes, but it doesn’t judge, what it presents. Of course, the chronological system is conservative in many ways and everything but innocent, but it stands against a division in epochs and chapters resists a teleology and at least shows an effort to step away from an ideology of progress. Then again, Marcus and Sollors, betray their own non-system, when they compare their book to others in the series: the New Histories of French and of German Literature. A comparison of the titles – literary history of America vs. histories of French and German literature respectively – gives away, what the editors of the New Literary History of America have in mind as “their” project:

“this book represents an entirely different sort of challenge. The earlier projects began in the eight century and moved forward to trace the organic literatures of organic societies that preceded the emergence of modern French and German nations. […] this is the story of a made-up nation that in many ways preceded its society. Its literature was not inherited but invented, as if it were a tool or a machine, and discovered, as if it were a gold strike or the next wonder of the Louisiana Purchase. No tradition has ever ruled; no form has ever been fixed“

New Literary History of America (xxiii)

It does not need a comparatist to see that this comparison is itself made up. Yes, German and French histories of literature begin in the single digit centuries, but even without going into the details of European history, linguistically, politically or culturally, it is prudent to assume that the “organic” nature of both literatures and societies is a highly problematic notion. Apart from the fact that it suggests, that French and German literature – in comparison – reads like a transcript of ‘organic’ societies (what would that be?); the notion of a literature free from tradition may be a poetological statement, but it betrays a collective “Anxiety of Influence” (Harold Bloom). Still, the intent is striking and it mirrors the structure and diversity of the New Literary History. Like the literature that was “invented, as if it were a tool or a machine, and discovered, as if it were a gold strike or the next wonder of the Louisiana Purchase”, this is meant to be less a history of American literature, it is the story of America [“the American story”, xxvii]. 

The editors draw their guiding idea, the made-up nation, or “Made in America/America made” (xxiv), from two novels: Robert Macauley’s novel A Secret History of Time to Come (1979) and Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt (2006). The first, a future history in a narrower sense is chosen for its Rip-Van-Winkle hyperbole: in the time to come, America will have been forgotten, as if it never existed. Like van Winkle during the Civil War, people fall asleep and wake up in a completely different country. Apex on the other hand deals with the practice of naming (in this case a town) and the history of emotions of nomenclature. Both stories serve the editors as evidence that:

“America was made up, as its historical story has always stood, from its first steps, as a temptation to the imagination. As America is made up out of nothing, it can vanish in an instant.”

The literary history, then, is a tool to ensure the endurance of not only literary texts but of the nation itself. Whereas Margaret Atwood in her 1972 guide to Canadian Literature, Survival, claims that “the main thing [in Canadian Literature] was to avoid dying” (24), the made-up nation and literature of “America” want more: it is diverse both in respect to authors and of genre and media. Sequoyah, Superman, Dr. Seuss, Billie Holiday and Alfred Hitchcock find their place next to Thomas Jefferson, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, Edith Wharton, Malcolm X and Toni Morrison. However, the “single unifying and informing symbol at its core” might still be, as Atwood claims in 1972, “the frontier”. The individual literary and cultural texts, as well as the essays about them, can fortunately be read against this grain. Even though Marcus and Sollors probably aimed to stress the arbitrary quality of “America” as a concept and its inclusive possibilities, the conflation of the United States and the Americas as a whole can – especially through the comparison with the supposedly organic European histories – be all too easily mistaken as an imperialist gesture. In the name of “e pluribus unum”, the intriguing idea of American exceptionalism as a fiction finds itself undermined by its own assertion: yes, it is made up, but it’s working too well to let it go. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the best literary histories that you can possibly read, the essays are excellent and challenge many preformed assumptions about what literature, history and nation can be. But the opposition of organic and made-up literatures, of literature preceding society in America but not in Europe and of an exceptionalism that positions “America” away from any (!) influence and tradition apart from its own, calls into question the ability of (this) literary history to think beyond its own story. 

In “Big is a thing of the Past” Historian Deborah Coen (2018) asks for a new methodology of historical research: In light of the impeding environmental and societal changes, she demands a “History of Scaling”, one that can deal with both the human and the planetary scales necessary to understand climate change and other potentially disastrous transformations. Making it up as we go won’t suffice if we look at the present, as Farmers “technofossil” suggests, from a future perfect perspective. The ecocritic Timothy Clark proposes a very similar thing to Coen’s “history of scaling”: “scale framing” (71) – Asking: “What could be more private that a couple deciding to have a baby? What could be more public that a couple deciding to have a baby?”, Clark develops a way to adapt reading to the deep-time thinking that is required in a historical moment in which the human impact on Earth has become a geological force. Starting a car in a short story becomes – intended or not – part of a larger narrative of humans irreversibly changing the face of the Earth. But how does “reading [a story] on a scale of six centuries” fit into writing a literary history that encompasses five hundred years?

You could say, it is a temptation to the imagination and not a new one: Whether you think of the promises of resource extraction that drove settlers to the Americas; of Thomas Jefferson’s Plans to rid “America” of the tree-cover that prevented its agricultural success; of Henry David Thoreau discovering the vegetal nature of all form in the melting snow on the train tracks close to Walden Pond; of Captain Ahab and the Whale; the city-jungles and jungle-cities of the domestic and military memory; the frontier excitement, gold and oil-rushes – all of these connect stories of individual exploration with spatial and temporal scales beyond the humans (some explicitly, some as an undercurrent). Surprisingly, that does not diminish the notion of the “made-up nation” and literature. According to environmental historian Donald Worster, from the first settlers onwards Americans succeeded in convincing themselves of being the “chosen people” regaining paradise and, thus, felt justified to exploit The Wealth of Nature (Worster). 

When “Nature” is basically up for grabs, everything that is built from and upon it, is an entirely human creation (approved by God, so to speak). Hence, these narratives can be read as testaments to a gothic nature claiming and reclaiming a place in the stories that seem to have denied their “organic” qualities for too long. As Leo Marx has shown in his seminal study The Machine in the Garden (1964), the American pastoral can only become visible in the moment of its disruption – a train whistle, a steam ship or another non-organic sound. But that’s not “America” breaking into the virgin wilderness, it is precisely in the (disturbed) wilderness that the myth of a “made-up nation” is contrasted with that of an untouched pastoral Nature as the real source of the nation. One directly sprung from a supposedly “virgin” land and always able to “return to nature”. But the disturbances have grown louder and threaten to displace Nature as a point of reference and a material reality. In order to seriously reimagine a sustainable relationship between storytelling and world, new future histories need to be written that transcend the lines between organic and made-up, fact and fiction, and, ultimately, human and non-human.

Turning our attention to forms of storytelling and narratives that are not part of the anthropocentric, Western narrative of progress and growth, this suggests, is a way to actually free our ability to imagine and shape futures. What both Pynchon and Powers (albeit in very different degrees of optimism) suggest is, that the tools are already there, the stories have begun to be told. The problem is, that we don’t take them seriously – they are “just” stories, “pop” culture and “children’s books”; that is, they are considered consumables without lasting value, maybe not even a spot in literary history. The “technofossil” at the beginning of this talk, however, reminds us that “consumables” are the very things that might define the future just because they remain. Imagining literary “future remains”, in other words, might not only teach us (literary and cultural scholars) to question the validity of our own narratives, it might just as well help us to tell new stories, to help shape futures in the plural and let us have been taught by those who must inhabit them.

Cited Texts:

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. A List. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2012 [1972].

Coen, Deborah. „Big is a Thing of the Past: Climate Change and Methodology in the History of Ideas“. Journal of the History of Ideas 77, Nr. 2 (2016): 305–21.

Farmer, Jared: Technofossil, in: Mitman, Gregg, Marco Armiero, und Robert S. Emmett, Hrsg. Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Gidley, Jennifer M. The Future: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Marcus, Greil, and Werner Sollors, Hrsg. A New Literary History of America. Harvard University Press Reference Library. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2009.

Powers, Richard. The Overstory. A Novel. New York; London: Ww Norton & Co, 2018.

Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day. London: Vintage Books, 2007.

Showalter, Elaine. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. 1. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "„A Temptation to the Imagination“ – The Future History of US-American Literature (Long Read)," in Ecological Imaginaries, 24/09/2021, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/109.