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Theory of the Novel  

Jesse Rosenthal

Novel theory sets out to explain a set of literary objects that are already fairly familiar to most modern readers. In fact, it is this assumed familiarity—the sense that there is something in the novel form that aligns with the lived experience of modernity—that animates the tradition of novel theory. Instead of seeking to explain one novel, or to narrate a history that includes all novels, theories of the novel tend to describe a certain set of recognizable, usually formal, features that conform to certain notions of modern subjectivity. The result, nearly across the board, is that theories of the novel operate by excluding far more books in the category of “novel” than they include. Although assuming a descriptive rhetoric, they are instead prescriptive, vastly delimiting the field of possible novels into a much smaller, more manageable, group. This is not offered as a critique as much as definition: what separates novel theory from a critique or history. By seeing the tradition of novel theory in terms of its exclusions, we are better able to understand both the larger “novel theory” genre. But we are better able to understand its blind spots too. By focusing on a particular model of European modernity, and centering its formal concerns around realism and the everyday, academic discussions of the novel have often found difficulty in describing non-European experiences, the experiences of historically marginalized populations, and the catastrophic changes brought about by the Anthropocene. Yet this is not so much a shortcoming of the novel form, as some have suggested, but rather a set of possibilities that lies in the negative space of the novel demarcated by previous novel theory. Reading the history of novel theory in terms of its exclusions, then, offers a sense of the future possibilities of the novel form.



Daniele Rugo

The “posthuman” is an umbrella term frequently employed in a number of theoretical and critical discourses. It is difficult to find a definition of the term that is shared by all the different approaches that use it, since “posthuman” seems to denote a very diverse group of phenomena, some ongoing and others only predicted or imagined. The “posthuman” is used to describe modes of being resulting from potential enhancements to human nature generated through applied science and technological developments. However, it is equally adopted to identify the decentering of human exceptionalism and the overcoming of the principles of humanism. Depending on the descriptive strategy adopted, the term can be used to identify very different philosophical and theoretical positions, from technoprogressive stances to outlooks that are very critical of technological determinism. These positions, rather than seeing in posthumanism opportunities for an extension of rational mastery and an overcoming of humanity’s biological limits, see in the posthuman condition a chance to redress the balance between human and nonhuman and promote horizontal ontologies and expanded ethics. What these different conceptual positions share is the blurring of boundaries between human, technology, and nature in favor of more hybrid and fluid configurations. Finally, while the term “posthuman” finds a home in science-fiction, it has come to be applied to literary and filmic works that are less rooted in traditional science-fiction themes and subject matters but rather respond to specific events or phenomena, in particular environmental and ecological ones.



Andrew Kalaidjian

In the works of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, a philosophy of history developed to consider how thought and culture are historically situated and to present human civilization as an organizing force that subdues nature toward a form of progressive improvement. This new sense of being situated in history subsequently shaped philosophies of “historicity” in the writings of Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, and others. It also led to less desirable political investments in collective fate and destiny. Against these teleological and culturally reductive forms of historicity, poststructuralist articulations of multiple historicities conceive of historical engagement as a cyclic or stratigraphic configuration of unlimited potential. Theorists such as Derrida, Deleuze, and Baudrillard provide more open, associative, and playful approaches to historical frameworks. An understanding of historicity requires the articulation of related terms such as historiography (the writing of history) and historicism (the analysis of culture through historical context). Historicity as a sense of historical development as well as of future potential is an important theme for discussions of diverse topics, including identity, community, empire, globalization, and the Anthropocene. Literary engagements with historicity range from the rejection of history to the interrogation of historicism as a series of competing and contradictory narratives. Historicity is a vital concept used by literary theorists to critique authoritative accounts of history, as well as a self-reflexive mode for considering institutional and disciplinary biases. The following article surveys different forms of historicity in philosophical and theoretical traditions, analyzes institutions that influence official accounts of history, and posits literary and imaginative engagements with the past as an important mode of social and cultural critique.


Performance Art, Performativity, and Environmentalism in the Capitalocene  

Jane Chin Davidson

Since the late 20th century, performance has played a vital role in environmental activism, and the practice is often related to concepts of eco-art, eco-feminist art, land art, theatricality, and “performing landscapes.” With the advent of the Capitalocene discourse in the 21st century, performance has been useful for acknowledging indigenous forms of cultural knowledge and for focusing on the need to reintegrate nature and culture in addressing ecological crisis. The Capitalocene was distinguished from the Anthropocene by Donna Haraway who questions the figuration of the Anthropos as reflexive of a fossil-fuel-burning ethos that does not represent the whole of industrial humanity in the circuit of global capital. Jason W. Moore’s analysis for the Capitalocene illustrates the division between nature and society that is affirmed by the tenets of the Anthropocene. Scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer had dated the Anthropocene age to the industrial acceleration of the late-18th/mid-19th century but Moore points to the rise of capitalism in the 15th century when European colonization reduced indigenous peoples to naturales in their modernist definition of nature that became distinct from the new society. As material property, women were also precluded from this segment of industrial humanity. By the 20th century, the Euro-American system for progressive modernism in the arts was supported by the inscription of cultures that represented un-modern “primitivist” nature. The tribal and the modern became a postcolonial debate in art historical discourse. In the context of the Capitalocene, a different historiography of eco-art, eco-feminist art, and environmental performances can be conceived by acknowledging the work of artists such as Ana Mendieta and Kara Walker who have illustrated the segregation of people according to the nature/society divide. Informed by Judith Butler’s phenomenological analyses of performative acts, the aesthetic use of bodily-oriented expression (with its effects on the viewer’s body) provides a vocabulary for artists engaging in the subjects of the Capitalocene. In the development of performances in the global context, artists such as Wu Mali, Yin Xiuzhen, and Ursula Biemann have emphasized the relationship between bodies of humans and bodies of water through interactive works for the public, sited at the rivers and the shores of streams. They show how humans are not separate from nature, a concept that has long been conveyed by indigenous rituals that run deep in many cultures. While artists have been effective in acknowledging the continuing exploitations of the environment, their performances have also reflected the “self” of nature that humans are in the act of destroying.



Theodore Martin

Time is not a strictly literary category, yet literature is unthinkable without time. The events of a story unfold over time. The narration of that story imposes a separate order of time (chronological, discontinuous, in medias res). The reading of that narrative may take its own sweet time. Then there is the fact that literature itself exists in time. Transmitted across generations, literary texts cannot help but remind us of how times have changed. In doing so, they also show us how prior historical moments were indelibly shaped by their own specific philosophies and technologies of timekeeping—from the forms of sacred time that informed medieval writing; to the clash between national time and natural history that preoccupied the Romantics; to the technological standardization of time that shaped 19th-century literature; to the theories of psychological time that emerged in tandem with modernism; to the fragmented and foreshortened digital times that underlie postmodern fiction. Time, in short, shapes literature several times over: from reading experience to narrative form to cultural context. In this way, literature can be read as a peculiarly sensitive timepiece of its own, both reflecting and responding to the complex and varied history of shared time. Over the course of the 20th century, literary time has become an increasingly prominent issue for literary critics. Time was first installed at the heart of literary criticism by way of narrative theory and narratology, which sought to explain narrative’s irreducibly temporal structure. Soon, though, formalist and phenomenological approaches to time would give way to more historically and politically attuned methods, which have emphasized modern time’s enmeshment in imperialism, industrial capitalism, and globalization. In today’s critical landscape, time is a crucial and contested topic in a wide range of subfields, offering us indispensable insights into the history and ideology of modernity; the temporal politics of nationalism, colonialism, and racial oppression; the alternate timescales of environmental crisis and geological change; and the transformations of life and work that structure postmodern and postindustrial society.


Actor-Network Theory  

T. Hugh Crawford

Actor-network theory (ANT) is a methodology developed in the 1980s by scholars working primarily in the sociology of science and technology. It is a novel approach as it attempts to redefine actors not so much as willful or intentional agents but instead as any entity—human or nonhuman—that in some way influences or perturbs the activity of a techno-social system. Most effective when examining limited systems such as ship navigation, electrical network failures, and the like, ANT resists large generalizations and categories, including the very notion of the “social” which, according to actor-network theorists, is never an explanation but instead is that which must be explained. Well into the 21st century, practitioners have both embraced and critiqued ANT, but it remains a useful form of inquiry.



Cheryl Lousley

Ecocriticism describes and confronts the socially uneven encounters and entanglements of earthly living. As a political mode of literary and cultural analysis, it aims to understand and intervene in the destruction and diminishment of living worlds. A core premise is that environmental crises have social, cultural, affective, imaginative, and material dimensions. Although ranging in its critical engagements across historical periods, cultural texts, and cultural formations, ecocriticism focuses on the aesthetic modes, social meanings, contexts, genealogies, and counterpoints of cultural practices that contribute to ecological ruination and resilience. These include myths about frontiers, progress, and human mastery over animality and nature; capitalist modes of valuing, devaluing, and radically transforming lifeworlds; and biopolitical and racialized inequalities in health, risk, development, and disposability. Ecocriticism also involves broad theoretical engagement with discursive formations and semiotic significations, including the interrogation of crisis frameworks and apocalyptic representations, considering their histories, scales, and temporalities, while also asking how any particular socioecological arrangement comes to count as a matter of concern, for whom, and in which contexts. The concept of nature is a long-standing theoretical topic in ecocriticism. While nature may seem, rather straightforwardly, to be the domain environmentalism seeks to protect, it is a concept on which hinge crucial and contested claims about ontology (the nature of something, such as assertions about human nature as an inherent, often determining set of shared qualities) and epistemology (how we know what is real, such as the scientific practices through which credible assertions can be made that the planetary climate is changing), claims whose modern authority has rested on positioning nature as a domain outside culture. While structuralist and poststructuralist theorists have destabilized the binary opposition of nature to culture, the political and epistemological imperative to engage with nature as simultaneously material and semiotic has spawned an array of theoretical developments, from Donna Haraway’s cyborg figure and other “natureculture” assemblages to new materialisms. Meanwhile, nature circulates as a commodity form and spectacle animating digital, film, and television screens as well as many other consumer products and experiences. Cultural studies approaches to ecocriticism raise questions about the relationships of visual, narrative, and sound representations to economic power, media technologies, and the material and social ecologies through which they are produced and which they form and transform.