Capital’s Shade: Battlegrounds and Luxurious Estates in a Heated Climate

Shade is a commodity both figuratively and materially. With cities heating and electricity ceasing to be cheap, the availability of shade becomes political. Who has access to shade? Who or what provides shade and whose shadows loom over those who are in need of cooling? These questions reach far beyond current ecological crises and reveal social and economic inequality in which trees become more than just objects who block the sun’s rays, but agents of a (possible) future in which shade might become a common good.

Cutting Back

Who would have thought that trees were to play a significant role in a labor conflict? In July Hollywood’s struggle between screenwriters, actors and major studios, indeed, came down to trees. 

Universal studios were fined for illegally trimming a row of trees that happened to shade the picket line of strikers just before a heat wave was expected to hit Los Angeles. Who would do that? Temperatures over well over 103°F (40°C) are a major threat to humans and the only thing between the relentless rays of the sun and the strikers would have been the leaves of the trees (probably a species of Ficus). Outrage ensued and while the 250$ fine won’t have hurt the studio, it at least acknowledges that you cannot cut trees whenever it suits you. 

The LA Times used the opportunity to put out a pun-ridden headline: “Striking writers and actors throw shade over tree trimming at Universal picket line”. The headline is a sad reminder of the difference between the figurative throwing of shade – making someone look bad or disrespecting them – and the literal meaning of shade in a city in which shade is a precious commodity.

Although no one at Universal admitted to having the already sparse canopy cut to inconvenience strikers, the act is reminiscent of sinister battleground tactics. It seems crass, to compare the illegal trimming of city trees to warfare deforestation, but both acts lie on a common spectrum of environmental violence. The cutting or, in a more 20th century ‘fashion’, the defoliation of forests (e.g. by means of chemicals like the infamous “Agent Orange”) serves the purpose of depriving the enemy of cover. Being able to hide in the shadows of a familiar forest is so huge an advantage that even the most sophisticated armies are in severe trouble when a forest is involved. The Varian Disaster (Clades Variana), that is the defeat of the Roman army in the Teutoburg Forest is the stuff of legends and taught the Romans to quickly get rid of forests in which rebellious barbarians could hide. This resonates with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, whose conviction that he will be defeated by a forest comes true (even though it is an army disguised as a forest, but who’s counting). Environmental violence is not an ancient prerogative and, maybe most chillingly, it is not restricted to warfare.

Die Hermannsschlacht (kolorierte Reproduktion),
Gemälde von Friedrich Gunkel, 1862–1864

Robert Pogue Harrison, in his cultural history of the forest, describes how deforestation itself was viewed as an enlightened practice, because it literally brought light into the dark worlds under the canopy. Only much later, it seems, did people realize that they needed the shade as much as the shady environments.

The old stories gain significance in light of the tactics of oil-drilling and mining companies in the Amazon and rainforests all over the world. Once the forest is gone, protest literally loses ground, hence many enterprises, be they illicit or not, create a fait accompli rather than following due process. The fines and punishments, if there are any, often hurt no more than the 250$ that Universal was faced with. War tactics, it seems, still pay off. What remains are dry fields, scorched by the sun. The arboreal dimension of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment leaves behind L.A. sidewalks and deserted rainforests alike.

Owning Shade

Ancient Romans did not only establish deforestation as a weapon, but also claimed shadow as a luxury. Preceding the Romans, trees were a domain of gods and kings. The sacred groves of ancient Greece and Persia inspired the landowning nouveau riche in Rome to establish lush parks and gardens in which they invited their guests to lounge in the shade. Claudia Klodt, a classicist at Ruhr-University Bochum, has demonstrated the importance of trees as status symbols in Roman private horti by collecting a truly staggering amount of literary and epistular examples (see Klodt 2020). Owning trees, especially old trees, did not only, according to Klodt, locate the tree-owner within the social hierarchy, but also demonstrated power over nature itself. Most importantly, shade-trees manifested their owners status as a member of the owning classes (if you excuse my Marxist’ anachronism, here). The trees were both symbols and materializations of the leisure their owner was able to afford. A pine or poplar tree afforded the shade in which its guests could pursue leisurely practices such as music and poetry. Both human and arboreal beings were forced to labor like the poor peasants and their fruit trees. 

The rich of the Roman empire, like so many in the ruling classes of the following millennia, lounged comfortably in the idea of being like the shepherds in Virgil’s eclogues – that is, simple, idyllic humans enjoying nature and themselves. This powerful fiction depended both on the ability to return home when the tree’s shadow grew too dark and on someone else performing the labor that one’s own wealth is built on. 

Come, let us rise: the shade is wont to be
Baneful to singers; baneful is the shade
Cast by the juniper, crops sicken too
In shade. Now homeward, having fed your fill-
Eve’s star is rising-go, my she-goats, go.

(Virgil, Eclogue X)

The freedom and possibility to access and leave shade whenever it suits you is, like leisure itself and the opportunity to pretend to be a poor shepherd as long as it does not become too uncomfortable, is undeniably a privilege. But it is not only a privilege of the ancient roman landowners or the mean capitalists at Universal, it is one that forms the condition to connect with trees beyond necessity. Sure, you care for a fruit tree in order to harvest and you might appreciate its shade, but this kind of care is framed as labor and still not valued as high as the outdoorsy variety of nature lover’s pleasure that is the present equivalent to the “arboreal attachments” of the past. Labor and necessary care seems to taint human-nature relationship and once you need a tree (for food, wood, shade) rather than simply enjoying it, it becomes somewhat impure. At the very least, it depends on your status whether you can afford to sit inside in your climate controlled office or home and laugh at the poor souls who sweat outside and mourn the foliage that provided at least some relief form the scorching sun and the necessity to fight for fair labor conditions.

Shade Commons

The history and present of shade distribution is complex and Los Angeles is only one of its prominent battlegrounds. Shade, of course, is not only provided by trees but by architecture and other ‘natural’ features and the amount you need varies from location to location. What seems to be common to most places where shade is necessary to mitigate the impact of hot and heating climates, is that shade has become a commodity. While being able to create comfortable environments has always been a prerogative of the rich, access to shade or lack thereof and, moreover, the ability to provide shade or take it away, is one of the most audacious signs of inequality in modern societies. Retreating into summer houses and seaside resorts while others sweat in increasingly unlivable city environments is an established practice. Watching from air-conditioned rooms while having the little shade cut away that might enable workers to enact their right to strike , seems especially cruel.

It is, however, an opportunity to discuss the potentials of “shade commons” or the possibilities for activism and city planning, to provide shade and help make cities more livable and equitable. But, as journalist Sam Bloch has shown in his article on shade in Places Journal, Los Angeles is one of the cities historically not too keen to provide much comfort outside privately owned property, lest people without the means might enjoy leisure they have “not earned”. The cynical conflation of private property and the impossibility to “make a living” from one’s work is obvious in the challenges to plan a city lush with shade-providing green. 

But not only are there many activists fighting for a more sustainable city canopy, the celebration of trees as co-conspirators in the effort to create new commons for livable futures is palpable world-wide. Maybe it is time for trees and people to go on strike together and engage in a common fight for the right to access the means of production not for some abstract kind of profit but for the right to live and breathe where you are and to sit in the shade and do nothing for once. A tree will never do nothing, but I am sure trees appreciate being left alone, too.

Further Reading/Listening on Shade

  • The Podcast 99 Percent Invisible created a couple of fascinating episodes on the topic: Shade & Shade Redux
  • Sam Bloch’s Article will be expanded into a book to be published with Random House
  • A very different perspective on the difference of the shade LA trees throw compared to the live oaks and giant maples in the deep south is provided by Amaud Jamaul Johnson in his Emergence Magazine essay Felling Light
  • For a celebration of trees and city canopies read: Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli: Cities and Canopies. Trees in Indian Cities (2019)

Cited Texts

Claudia Klodt. “Zu Gast im Garten. Bäume im zweiten Odenbuch des Horaz.” Heimgartner, Stephanie, et al., editors. Baum Und Text: Neue Perspektiven Auf Verzweigte Beziehungen. 1. Auflage, Christian A. Bachmann Verlag, 2020, p. 27-64.

Robert Pogue Harrison. Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Paperback ed., [Nachdr.], University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Giulia Pacini. “Arboreal Attachments: Interacting with Trees in Early Nineteenth-Century France.” Configurations, vol. 24 no. 2, 2016, p. 173-195. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/con.2016.0015.

Idyllic Abandonment and the Hope for Redemption

Some thoughts on Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment and the pastoral genre

Once more, I have Twitter to thank for the recommendation to read Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. Life in the Post-Human Landscape (2021) (@wolfseule this time)! I devoured it last summer and it hasn’t left my mind since. In this book, Flyn not only reports her encounters with abandoned spaces and people (human and nonhuman), she does so in a way that confronts the still prevailing stereotypes of human-nature-relationships head on. This is not a book about saving the world, but about letting it be.

Places like Bikini Atoll and Chernobyl and the Lothian bings show us that the absence of man is often all the stimulus required to start the resurrection. Time is, after all, the great healer. The question is: how long does it need? Then: how long have we got?

Cal Flyn. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (S.239).

Her accounts of Chernobyl and the buffer zone in Cyprus as well as the reports from the volcanic exclusion zone in Montserrat are so well written that, as @wolfseule put it, you almost become suspicious of the seductive narrative. How, you ask yourself, can someone write so beautifully about places that are wrecked beyond recognition, beyond reproach? How are you supposed to follow the narratives of redemption without feeling the utter despair of being part of the culture that destroyed the sites in the first place? Do you even still know what that means – destroyed vs. intact, beautiful vs. ruined?

No, you don’t and that makes Islands of Abandonment so intriguing. This might very well be a prime example of a third nature poetics. That is, a way of writing and story-telling that, like its ‘subject’, refuses neat categorization and, instead, reaches out in uncanny ways. Flyn’s text reflects and envisions a poetics that is neither purely textual nor material but instead connects them in a sort of post-apocalyptic poiesis. So much for my opinion of the book – of course, there are things that I will criticize (that’s my job), but this is a magnificent book and it has sucked me in like no other in the past year. Still, it left me wondering about practices of abandonment and their pastoral (latin) or idyllic (greek) qualities. If only to get a little closer to my unease regarding Flyn’s concluding optimism, I’ll attempt to unravel some of these threads here.

Apocalypse or pastoral; or does it even matter?

Despite decades of critique, it seems that “pastoral” and “apocalypse” remain the dominant modes of ecological storytelling and, possibly worse, the interpretation of environmental history. Greg Garrard summarizes the critique in Ecocriticism (2004) and identifies what they have in common: both are ways to assert human dominance over nonhuman nature by means of (narrative) pervasion. According to Garrard, the prevalent relationship in the pastoral is that of the pathetic fallacy (Garrard 2004, 36), the recognition of one’s own feelings in the ‘behavior’ of one’s environment – you know, when a character is brokenhearted and it starts raining, when trees lean toward people to console them, any reflection of human feeling in nonhuman nature. John Ruskin, the art critic who coined the term in 1856, used it to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nature poetry or linguistic imagery of nature. He is, to put it mildly, not a fan of the Romantics and their tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman nature and he does have a point. Idealizing nature, especially by means of anthropomorphizing nonhuman behavior, always runs the risk of eradicating nonhuman nature altogether. Whether that is really what happens in the pastoral, a genre that dates back to the ancient Greeks, and whether it is fair to throw out Vergil with Woodsworth (or whether they should be thrown out at all) is a debate for another time. But what strikes me is that the risk of eradicating nonhuman nature precisely by projecting humans onto it can be read as the literary equivalent of an apocalypse. After all, there is no ‘nature’ left in both cases.

Bear with me, I am aware that there is a stark difference between an idyll (and especially its 21st century incarnations – think Instagram and suburban backyards) and an apocalypse (think Mad Max), but I want to point out the structural similarities. The secularized apocalypse of the modern period, that is, the end of the world without hope for a metaphysical afterlife, is one of the major ideas to fuel the very processes that now threaten to make the apocalypse a reality (cf. Horn 2018). Yet the pastoral as an ideal is nearly as dangerous because it limits ideas of nature to a very narrow set of images. An example: while national parks act as (often no doubt necessary) refuges for vegetal and animal wildlife, they threaten to exclude humans. Mostly, you guessed it, humans that are not white, male and affluent. But it also hinders nature to do what nature does by preserving a state that a limited group of historically and culturally situated humans deem ‘pristine’. It stops being ‘nature’ right the second when you try to pin it down as such. Any concept of purity produces shadows which might subvert the whole effort. So is it all the same in the end? Does it matter whether you speak ‘of’ nature in terms of pastoral or apocalypse? Or is speaking ‘of” nature the actual problem? From the vantage point of the 21st century it becomes obvious, that the risk to confuse the two is real:

When the early European settlers of America walked out into what seemed a vast and pristine wilderness, thinly peopled, it seemed to them to be an empty place, God-willed, ready to be claimed. They cast themselves in heroic roles, struggling against a wild and untameable nature. And even today, in popular culture, a vision of the primordial wilderness – the unsullied Eden – that preceded modern America persists: a place where deer sprang nimbly through the tall grass, and darted through endless forest. But what has grown increasingly clear is that much of this ‘forest primeval’ must have been relatively recently regenerated. The Arcadian dreamscape celebrated by the colonial pioneers was, in fact, a post-apocalyptic one. (Flyn, 68)

In this passage, Flyn interweaves not only pastoral (Arcadia is the mythical site of the pastoral/idyllic) and apocalypse, but also imaginary and material landscape. In her narrative (and hers is exemplary in that respect) text and material world are closely entangled. The settlers project their idea of Arcadia onto the land they occupy while being (conveniently) ignorant of the reason why the land they “find” is so empty. This is, pastoral imagination serves the purpose of universalizing an a-historical view of the world. This is precisely what pastoral does (at least more often than not) and why ecocritics like Greg Garrard criticize it: because the pastoral is so closely connected to an idea of time-lessness as an idea of being away from history (i.e. the hustle of everyday life, which, for most of history, meant war, famine, disease). To be clear, we are still talking about a literary mode, or, genre – but it should have become clear that “genre”, here, means more than a container for certain motifs and plots. Genre is also (I’d even go so far as to say first and foremost) a set of devices which puts things in motion, or – like the pastoral – seems to have the opposite effect. For my reading that means, genre is never the result of an interpretation or a mere category for texts (i.e. this and that text “belongs” to this or that genre) but something that shifts and changes within a text and in conversations between texts. So, when I look at texts and genre, rather than organizing them by genre, I look at what genre does in or for them. And this is particularly important, when the genre comes with as much cultural, moral and historical baggage as pastoral.

So what does it do? So far I have tried to show that pastoral works almost like a time-out. The idyll provides momentary relief from the outside world – a space within which time and history do not matter. But only for a while. Virgil’s Eclogues, for example, make it very clear that resources are scarce and can only support so many shepherds who have to leave the shadows of the trees at night. What makes the pastoral potentially dangerous, then, is forgetting to leave. That is, denying the (human) history of a space and, thus, naturalizing a situation that is in itself the product of history. This is not a new insight. Far from it: Already in 1964, Americanist Leo Marx looked at the disruption of the pastoral myth of the United States, environmental historian Donald Worster has written extensively on the harmful identification of the “New World” as a paradise (for the colonizers and settlers that is…). This idea is too complex to unravel here, but note that it can be understood as a spatial realization of something that was expected after the end. And I mean THE END, that is the promised lands fell together with the kindom of the heavens promised after the apocalypse (again, only to a lucky – or pious – few…). No wonder, everyone got so excited. This kind of eschatological perspective on an actual space that was at the same time merged with ancient ideas of a-historical spaces is still at work. At the very least it is in cultural criticism, scholarship and pop culture.  

Whether or not they are spatially or temporally organized – the paradise within the wasteland or the redemption after judgement day – contrasting a desirable and peaceful vision of human-nature relationships (pastoral) with one in which everything has gone awry (apocalypse) is still a go-to way to make an argument or paint a picture (figuratively as well as literally). However, I do nurture the suspicion that the main reason we (literary scholars, that is) only keep those opposites to have an excuse to present ourselves as smart enough to undermine them. But then again, they do help to sort through things and this is what Cal Flyn does in order to develop a kind of ecological reading that might translate into both ecological story-telling or writing and, possibly, action.

Writing after the End

In the manner of post-human and post-apocalyptic writing, Flyn moves well beyond lamenting the loss of a supposedly pristine nature and looks instead for “life in the ruins” (Tsing). She does so, because there is no way around the fact that humans have transformed the earth: 

We have written ourselves into the DNA of this planet, laced human history into the very earth. Every environment bears a palimpsest of its past. Every woodland is a memoir made of leaves and microbes that catalogue its ‘ecological memory’. We can learn, if we want, to read it – to observe in the world around us the story of how it came to be. (Flyn, 13)

This is far from the idyllic violence she observes in the above quote on settlers confusing a post-apocalyptic landscape with Arcadia. That there is no nature (left) is the premise of Flyn’s book. At least if “nature” is identical with the idea of ‘pristine’, ‘untouched’ wilderness devoid of humans. Well, if that was ever even conceivable, it’s well beyond reach in the present. But Flyn goes further. She looks at the places which have been wrecked beyond belief. The culprit of this wreckage is with very few exceptions: human beings. Mining dumps, sites of nuclear disaster, toxic harbors, forests invaded by non-native plants and ruined cities – the places Flyn visits and so vividly describes are the opposites of the idyllic photographs in travel advertising and instagrammable encounters with beautiful nature. Yet, the two have more in common than you might think:

And, as with other forms of aestheticism, it can be taught. To come into an abandoned mine, or spoil heap or quarry or car park or oil terminal, and see it for the natural wonderland it has become is, I admit, a difficult ask. But in these environmentally straitened days, it is a taste worth cultivating. (29)

This is such a modern thing to say. I adore the sentiment personally (you should have seen me on Christmas, arguing with my grandmother about the beauty of weeds – she was not convinced!). At the same time I want to acknowledge, that not only are ruins and wrecked places already highly aestheticized (#lostplaces), the habit to cultivate this particular taste is as Romantic as it gets. As in: the Romantics (great connaisseurs of the pastoral, too, by the way) were the original ruin-appreciation club. Of course, with ‘vanitas’ and the discovery of Roman ruins (in Rome) as an inspiration and reminder of either the classics or of the fragility of life and (high) culture) the fascination with ruins reaches back further, but the Romantics really turned it into a trend.

Sure, the kind of ruination Flyn explores is different from the romantic longing for bygone times insofar as the capacity to destroy landscapes, soils and atmosphere is far greater than it was in the still mostly pre-industrialized world of the early and mid-19th century. Yet, the admiration for plants and other nonhuman life to prevail and re-colonize the residue of human civilization is closer to today’s taste for destruction. 

Caspar David Friedrich: Ruine Eldena mit Begräbnis (Der Friedhof bei der Kirchruine). After 1801.

As the Romantic period (especially in Germany) is once again used as a scapegoat for each and every esoteric failure of the present, I want to make sure that I am clear here: Re-activating Romantic sentiments and perspectives, or, as German Poet Marion Poschmann puts it “re-romanticizing” the world, is not automatically a bad thing. In fact, many ‘nature writers’ argue it is necessary and if it is, there is not much left that the human-stained environments we are left with (Poschmann’s example are street trees). Nevertheless, it makes sense to be wary of aestheticism – and Cal Flyn makes it clear in many instances that it is not the goal of her book to justify or propel the destruction of natural environments. Rather, she looks at “islands of abandonment” as “forbidden experiments […] – though conducted unwittingly, they nevertheless offer insights into processes too immoral to otherwise induce: nuclear meltdown, toxic contamination, stalemate warfare, political and social collapse (Flyn, 237-238).

 In other words, the (relatively) confined spaces of these islands offer glimpses into a possible future on an even larger scale. Again, Flyn activates a genuinely modern trope: the “future as catastrophe.” Literary scholar Eva Horn has argued that this is a way for modern humans to imagine themselves in the future perfect (in German “Futur II”) in order to assess the present. By imagining stand-ins like the “last man on earth” in catastrophic or even post-apocalyptic futures, it becomes possible to connect one’s present self (and society) to a future which has to live with the consequences of present decisions. If there is anyone left, that is. 

But there is almost always someone left, if not necessarily human. Island of Abandonment tells truly amazing stories of plants and microorganisms transforming toxic waste dumps to livable spaces, of forests recovering almost the minute humans leave them alone (or lets say, a minute in tree time). Flyn is smart enough to include criticism of her optimism – doesn’t she devalue the work of conservationists and the like? 

To me, these narratives of redemption offer something different: they are torches burning in a darkened landscape, beacons of hope in a world that sometimes feels bereft of it. They remind us of the power inherent in the world around us. And they are studies, too, of the benefits of sometimes surrendering control. We have a tendency to roll up our sleeves, to ‘get involved’ in natural processes – often on the basis that sites have been impacted by humans in the past: that it is ‘our responsibility’ to undo the damage wreaked by our kind. But these sites remind us of the value of holding off from some of our most invasive, interventionist methods of conservation (238).

Flyns islands work similarly. However, they take up the curious spatio-temporal position of the idyll. They are at once part of the present and the future, they are part of the world and not and – like in the classical idylls – she cannot stay in them. With the notable exception of Detroit, Michigan, the places she visits are too toxic or otherwise rendered unlivable (for humans). Consequently, her optimistic perspective is a projection, too. The proposal is intriguing, if maybe suspiciously so: Let it go! Don’t roll up your sleeves and get to work – the result of human interventions speak for themselves. But what does “abandonment” mean, then, can or should we really just let go? What does that even mean?

Abandonment done right

To be honest, the idea of “letting go” freaks me out, yet, when it comes to nature, I am curiously intrigued by things running wild. Even this prompts me to formulate yet another clarification – during the pandemic, letting things run wild, is most often a convenient excuse to do nothing and avoid responsibility – this is not what I mean. And I don’t think it would make sense in terms of ecologically responsible behavior. But I agree with Flyn. If you watch what happens to, say, an abandoned lot, it is difficult not to be amazed at the speed with which it grows into a wilderness. It might not contain the plants you deem desirable, that is, it will be full of ‘weeds’, but why not?

Visiting Chernobyl, Flyn reflects on the value of abandonment. Once you look past the displaced people (and it does need some astheticizing to do so), what you see is a wildnerness like no other. James Lovelock, the earth systems scientist who coined the Gaia-hypothesis together with Lynn Margulis, apparently thinks we should cherish the fact that we have sites like this.

But Lovelock went further still: we might choose to contaminate land, thus creating exclusion zones voluntarily, as a perverse method of protection. Perhaps, he mused, ‘small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers’ (Flyn 78).

But Lovelock’s idea of intentional abandonment is ignorant of many of the effects nuclear contamination has on the environment. Flyn, on the other hand, is very aware of the fact, that what she sees is only a fraction of what goes on:

What we don’t see are the stillborn, the stunted, the mutants that have died and been eaten before they have ever been observed. And even when we can find some – the double-headed pines I come across at Yanov, their torsos twisted, and limbs braced against each other, conjoined twins at war with their siblings – those individuals don’t tell us much (80).

If not in so many words, Flyn acknowledges that abandoning is a choice, too. Not rolling up your sleeves requires a decision, too. Doing nothing and doing something, then, lie very close together. But they are not the same. There are “various flavours of abandonment” (92) to which one can become accustomed and it is this becoming accustomed to abandonment and/or surrender that might be the point. Letting go, that is, is a form of care. Knowing when you hold someone back by intervening, is an important step not only in human relationships. But this is a difficult task, because we are so used to performing control. “At what point must we learn to let go, and watch the repercussions of our past actions spin out into the void, and give the Earth its head to respond and adapt in the ways only it knows how?” (Flyn 169)

Maybe it is time to actually assume the role of “stewards of the earth” – but not in the Spaceship Earth kind of way of the late 1960s, not as a figure in control, but as someone who cares enough to let go. This sounds almost too sweet, but would you know how to clean up a toxic waste dump? Probably not, but plants do, and bacteria do and the best thing we can do is to let them. In my view, this is where it really becomes idyllic. Not because it is too good to be true (it might be), but because it imagines a human-nature-relationship that is build on coexistence and companionship rather than intervention, control and exploitation. You enjoy the fruits, the shadow of the trees, the honey and the buzzing bees, but you leave. None of this is yours. At least, this is my proposal to read this post-human narrative of redemption in a way that is sympathetic to Flyn’s approach. What I cannot to is shake off the feeling that ‘nature’ might indeed be better off without us. Not the most idyllic ending in the conventional sense, but one that takes the genre seriously.

P.s.: It was the research network “Politiken der Idylle” that got me into reading and thinking about idylls and the pastoral. I was surprised how complex and nuanced especially Virgil’s Eclogues are in terms of environmental reflexivity – so thanks for introducing me to these texts.
If you read German, you might be interested in the collection “Paradigmen des Idyllischen” that I edited together with Nils Jablonski. Do make sure to check out the cover..


Aleida Assmann: Cultural Memory and Western Civilization. Arts of Memory, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Cal Flyn. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (S.169). HarperCollins Publishers 2021.

Eva Horn: The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age (transl. by Valentine A. Pakis). New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Marion Poschmann: Laubwerk, Berlin: Verbrecher Verlag 2021.

„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:

“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.

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