Heather Sullivan, Professor of German, Trinity University
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Material Ecocriticism and Agentic Nature: Goethe as Case Study
For material ecocriticism, “agency” is distributed across many forms of matter. Conceiving agency as a spectrum alters traditional views of nature/culture by placing human beings within the overall breadth of creative material flows rather than at the top of creation as subjects examining objects. This broader notion of agency derives from the new materialisms such as Karen Barad’s analysis in Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007) of how the subatomic realm of relations precede relata so that reality consists of “intra-actions” rather than individual things “interacting”; Jane Bennett’s description of the vibrant and unpredictable flows of electrons through power lines that create unexpected courses in Vibrant Matter (2010); and Stacy Alaimo’s tracing of the transcorporeal exchanges amongst bodies, foods, and toxic substances in her Bodily Natures (2010). Material ecocriticism thus studies the cultural and literary portrayals of elemental forces and agentic nature as our “mesh” (to borrow a rephrasing of “environmental webs” from Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought (2010)). Human beings do not write the world in anthropocentric monologues, but rather we co-author it along with shared discourses, electrons, weather patterns, the actions of other living forms in the biosphere upon which we depend, toxic substances, and the elements broadly. In material ecocriticism, our environments consist not of static places but rather of processes of intra-actions amongst matter’s agentic relations that include both narrativity and the emerging materiality of discursive patterns.
As a case study for material ecocriticism, this paper re-evaluates Faust’s final “ascent” upwards through the “Bergschluchten, Wald, Fels” by evaluating the substantial number of references that Goethe makes to his meteorological studies in the scene. Although most readers base their readings of Faust’s final ascent on the blatantly theological framework and thus assume primarily a positive ending with divine forgiveness, I look instead at the scene’s direct parallels to Goethe’s discussions of how air pressure derives from the conflicting forces of gravity and rising air currents that are altered by the mountainous terrain. I contend that the scene’s overt references to Goethe’s cloud studies and his analysis of the water cycle deserve more attention, and, in fact, that the materiality of earth’s gravity and rising air currents radically overwrites the assumed metaphysics of Goethe’s most famous drama. Faust is a play moving from apparent transcendence into elemental agency; in other words, it documents a move not only into modernity, but one already pointing towards postmodern science studies with much significance for environmental scholarship. Reading the tragedy in light of agentic nature means that we read human beings as a biological species (instead of as superior spirits), and that we understand cultural actions as processes within the biosphere. The challenge remains, however, of translating the knowledge of biospheric intra-actions into cultural choices that could maintain existing ecological patterns rather than writing them out of existence.
Abstract for talk, EH conference, University of Washington, 2012
Posthumanism currently follows two main directions: the “techno,” or cyborg posthumanism of Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles, and the species posthumanism of animal studies guided by Haraway and Cary Wolfe. Both these posthumanisms reject the supreme position usually accorded to human beings in contrast to everything else in the biosphere. The techno-cyborg strand explores our interface with technology as a means of documenting our non-dualistic relations with our surroundings, whereas animal studies address both human beings as a biological species and our interactions with our “companion species,” as Haraway writes. While humanism firmly draws lines around the rational individual subject positioned atop the assumed hierarchy of beings and things, posthumanism rejects the notion that we are primarily isolated and self-determining bodies. Posthumanism, in other words, puts us in the thick of things, bodies, machines, and other living beings.
Ecological posthumanism provides a third direction to the productive re-thinking of the human being; in additional to technological and species interfaces, this option looks at our biotic and abiotic environment as our inextricable milieu in the same way that the water is the milieu for fish. Such a view of ecological enmeshment has particular resonance during this time when climate change brings record droughts, heat, storms, fires, and weather events across the globe. It is similar to Louise Westling’s proposal for a third form of posthumanism, one she describes as an “ecological ontology” based on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work. Human beings in this vision are immensely influential, but still only one of many “kindred species.” In such a posthumanist view, “[w]e are no longer alone as transcendent Minds locked in decaying bodies on an Earth where we don’t belong, and separate from the myriad creatures around us. Now we can see ourselves as vibrant bodies pulsing in harmony with our whole environment.” Although I am more skeptical than Westling regarding the “pulsing harmony” of our “vibrant bodies” with our “whole environment” (indeed, one basic necessity of life is its requisite ability to delineate itself from its surroundings sufficiently enough to have its own rhythms, temperature, and chemical content), I nevertheless follow her proposal to add a third option for posthumanism based on ecological considerations.
Ecological posthumanism documents our material exchanges with our material and cultural surroundings. The air that we breathe, water we drink, and institutions we occupy all have a physical impact on us, as our actions do on them. It is a matter of reciprocally enabling conditions, as Val Plumwood writes in Environmental Culture (2002). Our bodies are physical sites of exchanges with others humans as well as other species and technology, and they are also nodes of intense ecological agency including consumption, production, and the inevitable mergence with the elements (water, air, nutrients, energy, etc.). In fact, human culture itself must now be considered a prime agent in shaping—or damaging—ecological systems: this is the spectrum for ecological posthumanism that contextualizes our bodies and cultures within the environments we inhabit and alter.
This project assesses various literary portrayals from Goethe and the romantics to Karen Duve in order to provide a range of humanistic and potentially posthumanist visions of human beings in terms of material interactions with the biotic and abiotic milieu. Although posthumanism offers a radical rethinking of humanity with the hopes that green contextualization will diminish our destructive hubris, these German texts neatly suggest that human and environmental processes are more interwoven than we typically acknowledge but also that our anthropocentric consumption of land and life is not just a recent cultural trend arriving with modernity. Ecological posthumanism looks at the current environmental circumstances with a long-term perspective including Faustian air travel and Duve’s taxi-driving protagonist (in Taxi 2008) crisscrossing Hamburg in the seemingly meaningless meanderings of modern transport burning fuel but leading nowhere—except, of course, to the Laundromat. These modern landscapes emerge from the literature as a maze of ongoing motion and change that are blind—literally in the case of Faust—to their long-term material and environmental impact. Recognizing the flaws of humanism through the insight that we are environmentally enmeshed is the broad goal of ecological posthumanism; yet these texts from the German tradition offer no false hopes for promethean conquering of our own actions within a world that ever draws us onward (or “zieht uns hinan”). Indeed, the most significant contribution of an ecological posthumanism may be the task of learning to see human beings more clearly in our gritty context rather than aspiring to transcend it or ourselves—these are, after all, inseparable.