With the fall come brightly covered leaves, football – and hundreds of thousands of students enrolling in humanities courses to meet basic degree requirements.
How might climate change figure in these courses? This compilation looks at 12 books, all published since 2010, on cultural, film, and literary criticism with a perspective of climate change.* Descriptions are drawn from copy provided by the publishers.
Climate Change and the Humanities, edited by Emil Morhardt (Cloud Ripper Press 2016, 310 pages, $19.95 paperback)
In 2011 Mike Hulme published an opinion piece, Meet the Humanities, in Nature Climate Change. “Although climate is inarguably changing society, social practices are also impacting on the climate,” he asserted. “Nature and culture are deeply entangled, and researchers must examine how each is shaping the other. But they are largely failing to do so.” This book sets out to rectify that, documenting what a broad selection of academics, journalists, artists, and others working in the humanities and social sciences have been writing about climate change recently. It consists of over 200 summaries of such works and provides a good introduction to the range of thinking about climate change addressed by non-scientists, and a good entry point to a growing literature.
A Cultural History of Climate Change, edited by Tom Bristow and Thomas H. Ford (Routledge/Earthscan 2016, 244 pages, $155.00 hardcover, $38.47 ebook)
Climate change compels us to rethink many of our traditional means of historical understanding, and demands new ways of relating human knowledge, action and representations to the dimensions of geological and evolutionary time. To address these challenges, this book positions our present moment of climatic knowledge within much longer histories of climatic experience. Only in light of these histories, it argues, can we properly understand what climate means today across an array of discursive domains, from politics, literature and law to neighborly conversation. Its chapters identify turning-points and experiments in the construction of climates and examine how contemporary ecological thought has repoliticised the representation of nature.
Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, edited by Stephen Siperstein, Shane Hall, and Stephanie Lemenager (Routledge 2017, 294 pages, $39.95 paperback)
Climate change is an enormous and increasingly urgent issue. This important book highlights how humanities disciplines can mobilize the creative and critical power of students, teachers, and communities to confront climate change. The book is divided into four clear sections to help readers integrate climate change into the classes and topics they are already teaching as well as engage with interdisciplinary methods and techniques. Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities constitutes a map and toolkit for anyone who wishes to draw upon the strengths of literary and cultural studies to teach valuable lessons that engage with climate change.
Cultural studies and criticism
Antarctica as Cultural Critique, by Elena Glasberg (Palgrave Macmillan 2012, 174 pages, $100.00 hardcover, $69.00 ebook)
Arguing that Antarctica is the most mediated place on earth and thus an ideal location for testing the limits of bio-political management of population and place, this book remaps national and postcolonial methods and offers a new look on a ‘forgotten’ continent now the focus of ecological concern.
“Antarctica as Cultural Critique is a witty, imaginative, theoretically-informed explanation of Antarctica as the limit case to U.S. imperialism. Glasberg’s eco-feminist account of Antarctica as a non-territory that aroused hysterical efforts to exert total territorial control also explains how this ‘little America’ at the end of the earth now co-ordinates the psycho-geography of neo-liberal globalization.” – Donald Pease, director of the Future of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth
Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, by Timothy Morton (University of Minnesota Press 2013, 240 pages, $24.95 paperback)
Global warming is perhaps the most dramatic example of what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects” – entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place. Moving fluidly between philosophy, science, literature, visual and conceptual art, and popular culture, he argues that hyperobjects show that the end of the world has already occurred. Instead of inhabiting a world, we find ourselves inside a number of hyperobjects, such as climate, nuclear weapons, evolution, or relativity. Insisting that we have to reinvent how we think to even begin to comprehend the world we now live in, Hyperobjects outlines a genuinely postmodern ecological approach to thought and action.
Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, by Bruno Latour (Polity 2017, 300 pages, $26.95 paperback)
For the last three centuries new ideas of nature have been continually developed by theology, politics, economics, and science, especially the sciences of the material world. The situation is even more unstable today, now that we have entered an ecological mutation of unprecedented scale. So the question now arises: what will replace the old ways of looking at nature? This book explores a potential candidate proposed by James Lovelock when he chose the name “Gaia” for the fragile, complex system through which living phenomena modify the Earth. In this series of lectures on “natural religion,” Latour argues that the complex and ambiguous figure of Gaia offers an ideal way to disentangle the ethical, political, theological, and scientific aspects of the now obsolete notion of nature. He lays the groundwork for a future collaboration among scientists, theologians, activists, and artists as we begin to adjust to the new climatic regime.
Film studies and criticism
Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction, by E. Ann Kaplan (Rutgers University Press 2015, $27.95)
Drawing from recent scholarship that analyzes climate change as a form of “slow violence” that humans are inflicting on the environment, Climate Trauma theorizes that such violence is accompanied by its own psychological condition, what its author terms “Pretraumatic Stress Disorder.” Examining a variety of films that imagine a dystopian future, renowned media scholar E. Ann Kaplan considers how the increasing ubiquity of these works has exacerbated our sense of impending dread. But she also explores ways these films might help us productively engage with our anxieties. Lucidly synthesizing cutting-edge research in media studies, psychoanalytic theory, and environmental science, Climate Trauma provides us with the tools we need to extract something useful from our nightmares of a catastrophic future.
Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on Big Screen, by Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann (University of Nebraska Press 2016, 270 pages, $50.00)
Horror films such as Godzilla invite an exploration of the complexities of a monstrous nature that humanity both creates and embodies. Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann demonstrate how the horror film and its offshoots can often be understood in relation to a monstrous nature that has evolved either deliberately or by accident and that generates fear in humanity as both character and audience. Organized in relation to four recurring environmental themes in films that construct nature as a monster – anthropomorphism, human ecology, evolution, and gendered landscapes – Monstrous Nature applies ecocritical perspectives to reveal the multiple ways nature is constructed as monstrous or in which the natural world itself constructs monsters. This interdisciplinary approach to film studies engages cultural, theological, and scientific critiques.
Magical Thinking, Fantastic Film, and the Illusions of Neoliberalism, by Michael J. Blouin (Palgrave Macmillan 2016, 245 pages, $79.99)
Considering films such as Candyman, Frozen, The Cabin in the Woods, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Michael J. Blouin contends that fantastic tales allow audiences to maintain the status quo instead of inspiring purposeful action. These films promise dramatic change, but they too often deliver more of the same. Although proponents maintain the illusion that the militant enforcement of free-market economics will resolve racism, climate change, and imperialism, their magical thinking actually fuels the crises. Magical Thinking, Fantastic Film, and the Illusions of Neoliberalism explores the ways in which the visual economies of Hollywood fantasy compliment this particular political economy.
Literary criticism and theory
Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect, by Heather Houser (Columbia University Press 2014, 328 pages, $30.00 paperback (2016))
Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction establishes that we cannot comprehend environmental and medical dilemmas through data alone and must call on the sometimes surprising emotions that literary metaphors, tropes, and narratives deploy. In chapters on David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Leslie Marmon Silko, Marge Piercy, Jan Zita Grover, and David Wojnarowicz, Heather Houser shows how narrative affects such as wonder and disgust organize perception of an endangered world and orient us ethically toward it. She also positions ecosickness fiction relative to emergent forms of environmentalism and technoscientific innovations such as regenerative medicine and alternative ecosystems. Houser approaches contemporary fiction as a laboratory for affective changes that spark or squelch ethical projects.
Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, by Adam Trexler (University Press of Virginia 2015, 272 pages, $29.50 paperback)
Anthropocene Fictions is the first systematic examination of the hundreds of novels that have been written about anthropogenic climate change. Drawing on climatology, the sociology and philosophy of science, geography, and environmental economics, Adam Trexler argues that the novel has become an essential tool to construct meaning in an age of climate change. The novel expands the reach of climate science beyond the laboratory or model, turning abstract predictions into subjectively tangible experiences of place, identity, and culture. Political and economic organizations are also being transformed by their struggle for sustainability. Anthropocene Fictions argues that new modes of inhabiting climate are of the utmost critical and political importance, when unprecedented scientific consensus has failed to lead to action.
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by Amitav Ghosh (University of Chicago Press 2016, 176 pages, 15.00 paperback)
Are we deranged? The acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so. How else to explain our imaginative failure in the face of global warming? The extreme nature of today’s climate events, Ghosh asserts, make them peculiarly resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining. This is particularly true of serious literary fiction: hundred-year storms and freakish tornadoes simply feel too improbable for the novel; they are automatically consigned to other genres. Ghosh argues that literature and politics have become matters of personal moral reckoning rather than arenas of collective action, but the climate crisis asks us to imagine other forms of human existence. His book serves as a great writer’s summons to confront the most urgent task of our time.
*Editor’s note: Previous bookshelves have covered ethics and philosophy, religion, and, indirectly, history. YCC will return to these disciplines from the humanities in future bookshelves.