Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Finding the human and the posthuman in the Anthropocene.

Vanessa Daws, #pluralizetheanthropocene

St. John's University

A few weeks ago in late July, a tropical rainstorm cascaded onto my home in Connecticut. During high summer in the northeastern United States, violent thunderstorms often roll through after steamy afternoons. But we weren’t prepared for the speed and volume of water that fell in a few short hours during the evening of July 22, 2019. After we spotted rising water in the basement, spreading into my teenage son’s underground lair, we frantically filled 32-gallon garbage cans and hauled them up the hill from the flooded garage. We weren’t quite successful in keeping all the water out of his room – but we did save the Xbox, not to mention his bed.

Welcome, I didn’t say to him as we each strained to pull more than one hundred pounds of sloshing water up the steep driveway, to the Anthropocene.

According to the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Programme, July 2019 was the hottest recorded month in human history. The year 2019 also saw record-breaking heat in April, May, and June. Our planet is cooking, and since warm air holds more water vapor, storms are getting wetter. The downpour we experienced might not have been unusual for the tropics. But our cozy New England home wasn’t designed to handle that much water that fast. My flood situation seems pretty tame compared to the prospects facing residents of the Maldives or Marshall Islands, but the Anthropocene touches each one of us, unevenly, unexpectedly, and sometimes painfully.

As the lived experience of climate change becomes more tangible with each storm, flood, and heat wave, we need to activate our imaginations. It’s not easy to make sense of how it feels to live through dynamic ecological change. The buzzword “Anthropocene,” coined in 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, has been spreading its tentacles beyond climate science to the humanities, arts, and other public discourses, but it’s not clear what the term asks of us in response. We know that climate change has a human cause and that we are living through an “Age of Man” in a basic physical sense. We also know the abstract Anthropos that drives up carbon levels in the atmosphere is not the same as the individual Humans who suffer the most drastic effects. Industrial capitalism lights the fires, but people feel the waters rise.

I wrote Break Up the Anthropocene to add more imagination to our responses to climate change. I wanted to synthesize the many ways cultural theorists and eco-philosophers are describing our moment. I also wanted – to cite my argument-by-hashtag – to #pluralizetheanthropocene. That means transforming the ominous and monolithic rise of global temperature into varied, surprising, and radical possibilities. I wanted to exchange the global paradigms of 1.5 or 2 or 3 degrees Celsius with multiple responses to plural lived experiences of catastrophic ecological changes.

I needed help, and I got lots of it. The inspiration started with a gorgeous watercolor painting that swim-artist Vanessa Daws made for me in June 2018, when I was giving a #pluralizetheanthropocene lecture in Lausanne. The image, which balances a Ship of Fools alongside a mostly-hidden sea monster and an ocean full of plastic trash, launched this book with color and turbulence. I’ve tried to stay true to that spirit as the project has moved and turned.

The book’s seven chapters comprise forays into plural perspectives. A chapter called “Six Human Postures” treats Old Man Anthropos as a physical allegory, so that various eco-theoretical approaches involve asking the Old Man’s tired body to assume new positions. Yoga for the Anthropocene! Other chapters include investigations of anachronism as positive method, a Borges-meets-Shakespeare engagement with “now, now, very now” as the time of climate change, and a reading of errancy as central to natural systems. A glossary-chapter, “The Neologismcene,” catalogs two dozen proposed names for our warming age, from “Agnotocene” to “Trumpocene.” We need them all, and more besides. A concluding encounter with the whale-swallowed prophet Jonah suggests that the climate change stories we need today include both the human perspective that counsels repentance, change, and survival, and the posthuman vision that promises shock, disorientation, and new possibilities.

When I was writing this little book, I didn’t think that I’d feel one of its conclusions in my aching back. I need a better system for keeping stormwater out of my house. We need to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. But living in the Anthropocene means finding floods where you don’t expect them and hadn’t encountered them before.


Steve Mentz is professor of English at St. John’s University. He is the author of Shipwreck Modernity (Minnesota, 2015), At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (2009), and Romance for Sale in Early Modern England (2006).

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

This key point in US history urgently calls for peaceful, art-filled protest.

Teachers strike in Oakland. Photo credit: Brooke Anderson
Photography. Published on Common Dreams.
Used with permission.

Buchanan Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Washington State University

As Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth has carefully documented, throughout modern history large-scale civil disobedience has been the most effective way to bring about significant social change—including overthrowing authoritarian regimes. If only 3.5% of the population engages in such protests, they have almost invariably been enough to topple even the most repressive systems.

The United States is at a major turning point in history. If the country is to remain a democracy committed to being a nation of immigrants and a multi-ethnic society, it will take active involvement of citizens in political action of all kinds, including engagement in the “art of protest.”

My book The Art of Protest traces the last sixty years of cultural creativity in and around the social movements that have sought to make America live up to its promise as a land where all people have an equal chance to pursue their vision of a happy, productive life.

The title has a dual meaning: the arts are important to protest movements, and all protest needs to be artful in the sense of thoughtful and carefully crafted. Especially in this era of information overload from both old and new media, it is difficult to get messages of positive change through the fog of fake news and useless blather. In such a context, art can dramatically embody the hopes, concerns, and values of change movements.

The premise of The Art of Protest is a simple one: that the arts and cultural expressive forms have been at least as important a part of social and political change as legislation and other forms of governmental action. That truth continues to be enacted every day in this era of reactionary, right-wing reassertions of white supremacy, misogyny, and war on the poor.

My book offers a prism to examine the history of key moments of social change over the last several decades and to serve as a guide to strategies that can prove vital to the current, increasingly widespread Resistance movement against the new authoritarianism. Each chapter looks at a different movement and highlights a particular art form, asking what special force each art from can bring. I look at traditional forms like posters, painting, poetry, music, and theater, as well as newer forms like virtual reality and augmented reality digital art, and discuss the digital dissemination of these other forms. They all continue to contribute massively to positive social change.

Anti-globalization protesters in Seattle, 1999.
Photograph credit: Eric Draper/AP.
Used with permission.

Just a couple of weeks after The Art of Protest's second edition was released earlier this year, thousands of teachers around the country went on strike to help our schools fulfill their promise of giving all children a fair start in life. That movement quickly became centered on the use of art to embody the teachers’ values and goals. In both Los Angeles and Oakland, the strikes were highly successful—in no small part because of the artful forms of non-violent protest they employed. Kids, parents, teachers, local artists and supporters of all kinds contributed to visual representations whose creation strengthened the group’s unity, and were then suffused throughout the community via old and new forms of mass media.

The groups involved used a new set of techniques called an “art build” that is spreading to social change workers all around the country. These folks are themselves building on a long tradition of art that includes the use of freedom songs in the Civil Rights movement, murals in the Chicano/a/x movement, poetry as a tool of feminist consciousness raising, graphic and performance art in the fight against HIV/AIDS, rap songs and videos in the Black Lives Matter movement, digital art and giant puppets that spread the word that neoliberal globalization was increasing the gap between the rich few and the many struggling to survive, and hundreds of other example of art-infused progressive social change.

In the context of the US at present, protests need to work in tandem with electoral politics. Done well, each reinforces the other, with movements assuring that elected politicians follow through on their promises to enact significant change. We need artful non-violent protest more than ever as part of the massive effort underway on hundreds of fronts to restore democracy, truthfulness, and something approaching “liberty and justice for all.”


T. V. Reed is Buchanan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Washington State University. His recent books include The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Present, Second Edition; Digitized Lives: Culture, Power, and Social Change in the Internet Era; and Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left. More information about past and present art-filled movements and The Art of Protest, is available on Reed's website.

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Value of University Presses, Then and Now

Press Director Douglas Armato has been a leader in scholarly publishing long enough that the Association of University Presses has asked him to help define the central values of the field—twice. In 2000, he worked with Steve Cohn of Duke University Press and Susan Schott of the University of Kansas Press on “The Value of University Presses,” a statement of how scholarly publishers benefit society, scholarship, and their parent institutions. In 2019, Armato was asked to form a group to revisit the document. Alongside colleagues Lisa Bayer (Georgia), Mahinder Kingra (Cornell), Erich van Rijn (California) and Stephanie Williams (Ohio), he worked on a renewed statement that will be used by AUPresses to guide outreach and communication efforts and educate new member presses on the core principles of the field.
On the occasion of the statement’s re-release, Press Outreach and Development Manager Eric Lundgren sat down with Armato to discuss the creation and revision of this key document. The full text of “The Value of University Presses” follows.

You have a unique perspective on “The Value of University Presses” as a lead author of both the original 2000 version and the 2019 revision. What caught your eye when you returned to this statement after 20 years, and what were some of the changes your group made?

I was struck by both the changes and the continuity. The 2000 statement was drafted before there were ebooks and before open access to scholarship was even a discussion. Google was only recently launched and Amazon was a minor and quirky presence in the bookselling world. Awareness of diversity and accessibility was mostly limited to our editorial programs—not our hiring and publishing practices. On the other hand, working with a younger generation of university press leaders on the 2019 revision, I was struck that every single item from the original list was retained. Those original items needed to be updated, and we added six new ones, but university presses have adhered to their mission and, in fact, expanded it.

The statement is broken down into three sections, “University Presses and Society,” “University Presses and Scholarship,” and “University Presses in the University Community.” Could you speak a little bit about how the University of Minnesota Press finds the right balance of providing value in these distinct but overlapping areas?

As you say, they are overlapping. And ideally, everything we publish should in some way simultaneously serve society, scholarship, and our parent institutions. We balance our lists among publications directed mostly to scholars and students, those that aim for a wider audience of readers, and works directed to our state and region. But all share a commitment to knowledge and toward advancing social conversation and debate. A scholarly work may be referenced by journalists or policy makers or be drawn upon by the author of a bestseller years later. A regional novel or memoir will help people think about their own positions in our society. And one of our children’s books will help spark interest in nature or history or other people’s lives in a way that helps them develop into thoughtful, inquisitive students and potentially into tomorrow’s scholars, researchers, and leaders.

Given continued consolidation of the publishing industry, pressure on humanities departments at universities, and political attacks on the media, one could argue that university presses are even more important today than they were in 2000. Are there things you would like to see university presses do to better articulate their value to their universities and communities?

The primary responsibility of a scholarly press is to publish verified knowledge and informed, fact-based debate. And yes, that is more critical now than ever. In the two decades since the original “Values” statement, we’ve all witnessed the rise of clickbait media, the hollowing-out of news and opinion sources under profit-driven corporate ownership, and the suppression of knowledge and open debate by political interests. The message university presses most need to get out there—and we’re beginning to do so—is the collective impact of our 100+ member presses. At a time when facts are literally under siege, we demonstrate the importance of verified knowledge and the university research mission. Universities and our society at large don’t always realize it, but they need us.

“The Value of University Presses” has become a guiding document for scholarly publishers. What might the next update look like in another twenty years?

I think the continuity of mission will still be there. You can look back even further than the almost twenty years between the two versions of “The Values of University Presses” to the founding of the Association of University Presses eighty years ago, and see how consistent our programs and guiding principles have been, even as we’ve adapted to constant changes in technology, bookselling, scholarship, and higher education. We’ll certainly see a new economic paradigm emerge for publication of scholarship, but university presses and libraries will be at the center of it. Bookselling will change, but university presses will still find ways of bringing their publications to broad global audiences. Scholars will find new ways of presenting their research, but university presses will help develop tools for making it available. Universities will diversify their faculty and student bodies and university presses will be part of that change and will benefit from it. So in another twenty years—maybe sooner—we’ll be updating this list again, and probably expanding it, but I have no doubt the values it lists will still guide us.

The Value of University Presses

University Presses are at the center of the global knowledge ecosystem. We publish works and perform services that are of vast benefit to the diverse scholarly network—researchers, teachers, students, librarians, and the rest of the university community. Our work also reaches out to a broad audience of readers, and ultimately to the larger world that depends on informed and engaged peer-reviewed scholarship published to the highest standards. Each University Press brings a distinctive vision and mission to its work. Yet we are all guided by, and united in, core values—integrity, diversity, stewardship, and intellectual freedom—that define who we are, the work we do, and the goals to which we aspire.

University Presses and Society

1: University Presses make available to the broader public the full range and value of research generated by university faculty and by scholars outside the academy.

2: University Press books, journals, and digital publications present the foundational research and analysis that is drawn upon by policymakers, opinion leaders, nonprofits, journalists, and influential authors.

3: University Presses contribute to the abundance and variety of cultural expression at a time of continuing consolidation in the commercial publishing industry.

4: University Press publications provide deep insight into the widest range of histories and perspectives, giving voice to underrepresented groups and experiences.

5: University Presses make common cause with libraries, booksellers, museums, and other institutions to promote engagement with ideas and expose the public to a diversity of cultures and opinions.

6: University Presses help draw attention to the distinctiveness of local cultures through publication of works on the states and regions where they are based.

7: University Presses seek a wide readership by publishing in formats from print to ebook to audio to online and by making publications available in accessible alternative formats for those with print-related disabilities.

8: University Press translation programs make available to English-language audiences vital works of scholarship and literary importance written in other languages.

9: University Presses rediscover and maintain the availability of works important to scholarship and culture through reprint programs and through revival of key backlist titles, often via open digital editions.

10: University Presses encourage cultural expression by publishing original works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and the visual arts.

University Presses and Scholarship

11: University Presses, through their rigorous peer review and faculty board approval process, test the validity and soundness of scholarship in order to maintain high standards for academic publication.

12: University Presses add value to scholarly work through careful editorial development; professional copyediting and design; extensive promotion and discoverability efforts; and global distribution networks.

13: University Presses include in their community a wide array of institutions – including scholarly associations, research institutes, government agencies, museums, and international presses – thus representing a diversified research culture.

14: University Presses recognize important fresh perspectives in scholarship by sponsoring work in emerging and interdisciplinary areas that have not yet gained wide attention.

15: University Presses sponsor and develop the work of early-career scholars through publication of their first books, which establish credentials and develop authorial experience.

16: University Presses publish established and start-up scholarly journals in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines that contribute to a thriving ecosystem of article-based scholarship.

17: University Presses actively promote the translation of works by English-speaking authors into other languages, making their scholarship available to researchers, students, and readers worldwide.

18: University Presses commit to multivolume publishing projects and dynamic digital resources, partnering with librarians, foundations, and other organizations on works of wide scope and enduring importance.

19: University Presses collaborate with learned societies, scholarly associations, and libraries to explore how new technologies can benefit and advance scholarship.

20: University Presses publish books, journal articles, and digital projects used in undergraduate and graduate courses as essential components of well-rounded syllabi and reading lists.

University Presses in the University Community

21: University Presses extend the mission, influence, and brand of their parent institutions, making evident their commitment to knowledge and ideas.

22: University Press publishing programs span the humanities, arts, social sciences, STEM fields, and professional schools, representing the full expanse of university research.
23: University Presses demonstrate their parent institutions' support of research in essential academic fields – particularly in the humanities and social sciences – that are rarely supported by federal or corporate funding.

24: University Presses extend their parent institutions’ efforts at community engagement and outreach by publishing books of interest to their local communities and to a broader regional readership.

25: University Presses raise the public profile and reputation of their parent institutions by generating positive news coverage and reviews, receiving book awards, and maintaining active social media presences.

26: University Presses play a leading role in experimenting with and developing new platforms for delivering and engaging with scholarship.

27: University Presses partner with campus libraries, digital humanities centers, and other university departments to advance non-traditional initiatives in scholarly communication.

28: University Presses provide distribution and other publishing services to other university units and also act as distributors for independent publishers, ranging from established presses to innovative scholar-led initiatives.

29: University Press staff act as local experts for faculty and administrators, providing guidance on intellectual property, scholarly communication, and the publishing process.

30: University Presses engage in the teaching and learning mission by providing substantive work study, internship, and apprenticeship experiences for undergraduate and graduate students.

This essential document, articulating the value of university presses, was originally created in 2000 by a working group of three Association board members, Douglas Armato (Minnesota), Steve Cohn (Duke), and Susan Schott (Kansas). In 2018, the Association of University Presses invited Armato to form a new author group to update it. Our thanks go to him, Lisa Bayer (Georgia), Mahinder Kingra (Cornell), Erich van Rijn (California), and Stephanie Williams (Ohio) for this renewed statement.
Approved by the AUPresses Board of Directors June 2019.


Thursday, August 1, 2019

Mauna Kea: "More than just a list of physical attributes."

Recent events on Hawai’i’s Big Island represent the latest in a nearly decade-long dispute between Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and settler colonial forces seeking to build the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit of Mauna Kea. Kanaka Maoli have resisted the construction of TMT on the summit, one of the most sacred sites for Native Hawaiians.

On July 15, Hawaiian Governor David Ige announced that construction would begin on the telescope. Since then, in scenes reminiscent of other profound moments of peaceful environmental protests led by indigenous peoples such as Standing Rock, Native Hawaiian protectors have blockaded the roadway leading to the summit. On July 17, the arrests began, and many Native Hawaiian elders were forcibly removed and arrested for taking part in the blockade.

To amplify the messages of Kanaka Maoli protectors demonstrating their profound love of ‘āina (land), the University of Minnesota Press is sharing an article published in volume 4, issue 2 of Native American and Indigenous Studies. Written by Iokepa Salazar, assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College. Salazar is currently working on a book manuscript on the TMT controversy.

—JASON WEIDEMANN, Editorial Director, University of Minnesota Press



The article analyzes scientific, legal, and popular discourses surrounding Hawaiʻi’s famed mountain summit, Mauna a Wākea, to show how the co-constitution of Western science and imperialism is evidenced in astronomy’s cultural imperative to build its $1.4 billion “Thirty Meter Telescope” (TMT). TMT advocates promise to “discover new worlds” and to observe “the origins of the universe,” but their claims to objective knowledge are betrayed by the legacies of violence on which they are based. The article examines narrative practices that serve to rationalize settler privilege, possession, and belonging on Mauna a Wākea by recasting Kānaka ʻŌiwi as anti-science, criminal, and irrational. Using rhetoric that invokes a familial connection to “ancient Hawaiians,” “modern astronomers” imagine themselves as inheritors of Hawaiian lands; along the way conjuring systems of qualification whereby Kānaka ʻŌiwi are legitimate only insofar as we remained trapped in the past, and politically neutralized. Mauna a Wākea is more than just a list of physical attributes; it is our kin and the knowledge of our genealogies, rooted in the land itself, lies at the heart of our aloha ʻāina and activism.

Read the article's full text.

Download a PDF.

Read the article on Project MUSE.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

American xenophobia and the roots of the housing crisis

Harris Fine Block, Broome and Orchard Streets, New York (1898 and 1901).
Hornberger & Straub, architects. These facades are typical of many immigrant-built
tenements of this period. Recently rehabilitated, they command high rents
 in an increasingly desirable neighborhood. Photograph by Sean Litchfield.

Lecturer, Parsons/The New School of Design

As I was finishing the final manuscript for The Decorated Tenement over the course of 2016-17, the nation was once again thrust into the depths of a culture war that in so many ways resembled the story I was telling about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The elements were there: xenophobia that dissolved into calls for a sharp curtailment of immigration; a widespread public debate on what it means to be an American; vocal anti-urbanism despite the growth of cities; and all of this in a time of heightened economic disparity. But in some ways the past was not like the present. During the Gilded Age the housing question, indeed the thrust of the housing reform movement, was not about quantity or even affordability (at least in New York and Boston, where I focused my research); in fact, the Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century was at many times a renter’s market, with vacancy rates and competition among landlords that would be the envy of any current-day, rent-burdened New York City tenant.

The Decorated Tenement demonstrates that the old American xenophobia is deeply intertwined with the roots of the new American housing crisis. My story focuses on a widespread, but little understood, culture of erecting radically improved “decorated” tenements in the Lower East Side and the North End and West End of Boston between about 1880 and 1910. This construction was carried out almost exclusively by recent immigrant builders (primarily Germans, Eastern European Jews, and Italians) who built buildings designed by immigrant architects. In an era when the needs and desires of the immigrant working class were routinely disdained or ignored, these buildings represented a vast physical, technological, and aesthetic advancement over the iconic slums that they replaced—even if they did not meet middle-class expectations (or subsequent ideals).

Yet if the increasingly vocal proponents of housing reform in this period even perceived the substantial social and material improvements represented by these buildings, they dismissed them as cheap shams or a distasteful sign of misplaced priorities. Whatever their other motivations in advocating the reform of housing conditions, many viewed the tenement as simply un-American: a foreign invasion, an evil that civic-minded elites were called upon to restrict by leveraging their cultural, political, managerial, and spiritual prowess. Most considered the eventual elimination of the tenement in favor of a cottage in the suburbs to be the highest social good. Many saw multi-family housing as a treacherous deviation from a divinely inspired social order. William B. Patterson, a leader in the Methodist Episcopal church, was perhaps the most unabashed, suggesting with rhetorical flourish that the biblical murderer and city builder Cain himself was the originator of the tenement. Patterson plainly articulated an idea commonly held by many American Protestants: “The tenement is an impediment to God’s plan for the home.” No matter how decent, safe, or commodious such a building could be made, he insisted, “this basic fact will remain.”

Elaborate parlor of a Mulberry Street tenement, pictured circa 1905.
From Lewis E. Palmer, “The Day’s Work of a ‘New Law’ Tenement Inspector,”
Charities and the Commons 17 (October 6, 1906): 85.
Courtesy of Harvard College Library. 

The permanence and intentionality of the new, immigrant-built decorated tenements seemed to embody the elite fear that highly visible signs of social, cultural, and economic difference were now an immutable feature of American urban life. In these buildings tenants had a whole host of things that many in the working class never had access to before: a kitchen with a range, a boiler, and a sink with running water and sewer connection; a dumbwaiter easing the vertical lugging of goods and fuel; a flush toilet, albeit likely down the hall and shared with a number of other families; a separate parlor, wallpapered, with folding blinds, a faux-marble mantel, and fancy lambrequins, even if the room was rented out at night or doubled as a bedroom; gas lighting; maybe a dining room; a marble lobby with colored glass, painted frescoes, and tile floors; all in a building whose facade employed widely understood visual symbols of respect and propriety.

Reformers critiqued these buildings harshly. Many framed their denouncement with ethnic stereotypes, often with explicit racism and anti-Semitism. “For the old absentee landlord, who did not know what mischief was afoot,” reformer Jacob Riis noted in 1902, “we have got the speculative builder, who does know, but does not care, so long as he gets his pound of flesh.” Earlier Riis had called the Jewish tenement builders of the Lower East Side “intruders,” nefarious outsiders impervious to criticism and insults. Riis was particularly blunt about the spiritual dimensions of his war against the tenement and its creators. “It is the devil’s job,” he declared of tenement building, “and you will have to pay his dues in the end, depend on it.” These characterizations served to bolster the reformers’ claims of superior knowledge and moral standing, reinforcing their claims to greater control over the working-class landscape.

Just as many immigration restrictionists in this period called for a curtailment of European immigration as a way to preserve an American identity, many housing reformers advocated for and succeeded, by the 1920s, in constructing a regulatory structure that led to a sharp decline in the private construction of affordable housing. Nothing like it has happened in the American city since. Soon a severe but essentially permanent housing crisis developed, which even public housing and rent regulation were ultimately inadequate to address. The demonization of the tenement also provided fodder for proponents of the mid-twentieth-century urban renewal schemes that led to the destruction of wide swaths of these neighborhoods. In many ways we still live with this legacy. Despite the thousands of decorated tenements still extant and occupied — at increasingly high rents — we can see the roots of the present housing crisis in the conflict over their construction.


Zachary J. Violette is author of The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age. Violette is preservation consultant and lecturer at Parsons/The New School of Design.

"A rich array of unique historical insights into market-driven design, urban building and financing practices, and the consumer desires and aesthetic preferences of immigrant renters grasping for modernity in America."
—Donna Gabaccia, University of Toronto

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

College is for the connections . . . and the architecture


After the recent college admissions scandal in the United States, many people were left scratching their heads. Who would pay half a million dollars just to secure a place for a child at the University of Southern California? Sure, USC comes in at a respectable 22nd place in one national ranking of American universities, but one of the perspective undergraduates had already posted a video on her YouTube channel in which she explained: "I don't really care about school, as you guys all know." She went to college for the connections, not for the academics.

Such an attitude is not new, even if the medium, YouTube, is. One of the key themes in Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory is that since the 1600s Americans have imagined the collegiate experience as an opportunity to socialize. It’s not that academics were unimportant, but they were not the main event. In 1741, Ben Franklin hinted that a good reason to attend college was to make a good marriage, which was especially necessary because the colonies did not have the long-standing social registers that were built into the British class system.

Soon, Americans were constructing dormitories on the Oxford and Cambridge model as a means of cementing relationships among young men of a certain social class. And thus the quintessential form for an American dormitory, lifted from Oxbridge, became the quadrangle.

Credit: Ayla Lepine

In 1903, Charles Van Hise, then-president of the University of Wisconsin, stated that if one were to name the most fundamental characteristic of English universities, it would be "the system of halls of residence." He then went on to make an astonishing claim: those residential colleges gave rise to the British Empire. He wrote that "the college system may seem absurd, but for some reason these universities have produced an astonishingly large proportion of great statesmen, writers, and scientists. The men of Oxford and Cambridge have been largely instrumental in extending the empire of Britain over the earth; they have contributed liberally to the greatest literature of the world; they have furnished many fundamental ideas to science." This rather extreme endorsement demonstrates the intense affection for the dormitory as a space that shaped student character.

Credit: Carla Yanni

But why the quadrangle? The quadrangle looks back to the traditional shape of the cloister in a monastery or an Italian Renaissance palazzo. Although a series of linked quadrangles is typical in the UK, the sequential type is less common in the US. Demonstrating characteristic brashness, the members of America’s ruling class took the British examples as bland suggestions to be improved upon with Yankee wealth and extravagance. The quadrangles at Yale are far more elaborate than their British forbears—no Yale student had to go the men’s room in a cold dark basement. In addition to the romantic associations with English elite universities, the geometry of the quadrangle creates an enclosed, private outdoor space, like a room that is open to the sky. The square donut reinforces the smallness of a community within the larger university and sets a firm boundary that prevents possible encroachment by the outside world. It is a laboratory for forming friendships, creating networks, and socializing.

The study of one building type over time allows us to see different architects solving the same problems in different contexts. In my research, I study the social history of college residences to reveal the way designers and patrons tried to shape the social lives of students. Architecture is implicated at every level of the social and relational environment in which students live.


Carla Yanni is professor of art history at Rutgers University. She is author of The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States (Minnesota, 2007) and Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display.

"Living on Campus is an outstanding contribution to the research literature on student life and college residence halls. Carla Yanni’s rigorous scholarship and captivating writing style invites the reader into the lives of students and the places they live from the early colonial period to present day. She skillfully uses students’ life experiences and her deep historical and architectural knowledge to show how student life, architectural design, and educational philosophy interacted throughout history to shape the collegiate experience. This is a must read for anyone interested in student life in college residence halls."—Gregory S. Blimling, author of Student Learning in College Residence Halls: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why

"What a lively and fascinating study! Living on Campus offers compelling looks at architectural plans, façades, and interiors of residential buildings for college and university students. Attentive to the myriad issues of college life, the work links the history of dormitories to the diverse lives lived within—and without—their walls and to the changing goals of campus administrators and donors."—Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, author of Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s

"In clear, elegant prose, Carla Yanni tracks the 350-year architectural history of the college dormitory and exposes its contested social meanings, marked by inclusions and exclusions on the basis of class, gender, and race. This is a remarkable achievement—a welcome addition to the architectural history of youth, higher education, and institutions."—Marta Gutman, author of A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950

"In Living on Campus, Carla Yanni interrogates the social history of college residences to map the struggles between inclusion and exclusion that frame the daily life of the American campus. From the development of moral character to the creation of a democratic citizenry, these buildings go hand in hand with the libraries, classrooms, and laboratories that make up the pedagogical space of higher education today."—Sharon Haar, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

An Interview with Helene Uri, author of CLEARING OUT


As the translator of Clearing Out, I’m delighted to be able to introduce the Norwegian author Helene Uri and her marvelously written and moving novel to a North American audience. Clearing Out is a novel of losses (languages, histories, and parents), but also of discoveries and rediscoveries (heritage, memories, and love). In asking Helene Uri the questions below, I’ve focused largely on the Sami elements of Clearing Out. Yet the strength of the novel is that it succeeds on many levels, parallel and overlapping, in telling two stories, one autobiographical (Helene) and one fictional (Ellinor): two contemporary Norwegian women, both linguists, both dealing with the loss of an older parent.

Uri is one of those authors whose work spans many forms: literary fiction, young adult fiction, popular nonfiction about language, and academic work on linguistics. She has a PhD in Linguistics; she has appeared frequently on Norwegian television (including a past stint as host of the travel-bicycling reality program Girls on Wheels); and she writes a regular column on language for Aftenposten, one of the country’s main newspapers. Her most recent book, Who Said What: Women, Men, and Language (2018), won the country’s prestigious Brage prize for nonfiction for its witty and intelligent take on the issue of gender in speech.

Language, including the linguistic phrase “language death,” which occurs when a language loses its last native speaker, plays a large role in Clearing Out. In Norwegian the title Rydde ut means, in its most direct translation, “to clear out,” and can describe the efforts adult children make to deal with the accumulated possessions of their elderly parents, which sometimes spark questions and reveal secrets. But the term can also have more sinister, active meanings: “utrydde” means “eliminate, eradicate, obliterate, wipe out, exterminate, kill off.” An “utryddet språk” is a language threatened with extinction.

There are nine Sami languages in Sápmi, which covers the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Sami language with the most speakers (estimated at around 20,000) is Northern Sami. Over the past decades, numerous programs have been created to help save and promote several of the languages, with success. Yet other Sami languages are edging closer to extinction. The character of the linguist Ellinor has much of interest to say about dying and dead languages from around the world but until she arrives for a research project in Finnmark and engages with the men and women who speak or don’t speak Sami, who remember when they stopped or why they never started speaking Sami, Ellinor doesn’t fully engage with the pain of language loss. Helene, as Ellinor’s creator, is not unlike others in Norway with a forgotten, often suppressed knowledge of a family tree that includes Sami grandparents or great-grandparents who decided for various reasons to “pass.”

For millennia the indigenous Sami people hunted and herded reindeer, fished, and built boats along the coasts and in the mountains and valleys of inland Fennoscandia. Often coexisting peacefully with settlers from the south, their existence became more precarious in the seventeenth century with the advent of missionaries and colonists, who dislodged them from their age-old grazing, hunting, and fishing territories. Punitive laws followed, including sending children to boarding schools and forbidding the Sami language. Many Sami resisted and fought back in the courts and engaged politically; others intermarried or assimilated and hid their old identities. Some emigrated to North America and, in doing so, erased their Sami backgrounds

There’s currently a resurgence of interest in the United States and Canada in Sami heritage. The Minnesota-Finnmark writer Ellen Marie Jensen, author of We Stopped Forgetting: Stories from Sámi Americans (2012), is part of a new wave of Sami-American researchers, organizations, and cultural events dedicated to delving into family connections and celebrating new forms of engagement. In Norway the issue of Sami identity and rights is complex and often painful. Along with cultivating pride and a renewed exploration of culture and language, the Sami grapple with continued prejudice and the “shame” that Uri refers to below (as well as ongoing struggles against resource extraction from corporations that threaten their land and livelihoods). In 1997, King Harald V of Norway made a formal apology on behalf of the state to the Sami parliament. Norway’s parliament recently instigated a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to investigate and attempt to heal past injustices and abuses against the Sami and Kven (ethnic Finns in Norway) population.

One of the things that sets Clearing Out apart from much of contemporary Norwegian fiction is the inclusion of Sami history and Sami characters, not just as window dressing but an integral part of the narrative. Anna and Kåre are fully realized characters, intelligent, complex, and generous individuals—far from the stereotyped Sami figures that have appeared on the margins of Norwegian literature for two centuries. Ellinor’s relationships with them add depth to the story, and Anna and Kåre’s irony and insight also intensify the themes of historical displacement, political conflict, and renewed interest in Sami culture (Anna was and is an activist and Kåre’s grown children take pride in their Sami background). The novel also casts a welcome light on the coastal Sami society of Finnmark.

Beautifully constructed, Clearing Out is both a clearing out and a gathering together of old and new stories from Norway’s past history and current preoccupations. For many Norwegians (and readers of Norwegian fiction in translation) the far north is a strange country. In this novel Helene Uri bravely takes a step toward acknowledging what has been lost of language and memory, as well as what can be recovered and remembered.


Novels that combine fiction and autobiography seem to be gaining currency, in Norway as in other countries. How do you see Clearing Out fitting into this literary genre?

I was surprised when I discovered I was unable to write about language death and the Sami language without writing autobiographically. It took me a long time to realize I actually had to include myself, as myself! I’d never done that before. In my earlier novels, the "I" has always been someone else. Now there was a close, if not completely overlapping, relationship between the novel's first-person narrator and the novel's author. I didn't want to write an autobiographical text, but it couldn't have happened otherwise.

There are relatively few novels in Norway that include Sami characters such as Anna and Kåre, characters who defy certain stereotypes. What was in your mind as you created them?

Generally speaking, I suppose I thought of them as I always do when I create my literary characters: I want them to be alive and believable. People are people regardless of ethnicity, social class, gender, and age. A human being is first an individual, then a member of a group. But after having said that, it’s obvious that the certainty of your own background is one of several factors that shape you as a human being. And when a group of people has been oppressed, the certainty of belonging is something that characterizes the people of that group. And I wanted this certainty to be reflected in the characters.

One of the main characters, Ellinor Smidt, has a PhD in linguistics and so do you. You’ve also published a number of popular books about the Norwegian language. Can you say something about your choice to look at language through the prism of a character studying “endangered languages” in Norway itself? Was your intention in part to educate the general Norwegian reader?

When I write nonfiction books on language, I want to inform, and yes, "educate," my readers. When I write fiction, nothing could be farther from my mind! I wanted to write about language death because the theme has enormous narrative power. An image that popped into my head early on was this: A grandmother sits with her newborn grandchild on her lap. She bends over the child and sings a lullaby that her mother and grandmother sang to her, and she knows that the child she holds in her arms will never understand the words in the song.

But if my readers end up thinking about language death­—that around fifty languages ​​disappear every year—then that’s a good outcome as well.

What has been the reaction from the Sami community(ies) in Norway to Clearing Out?

I’ve only heard positive things. I’m telling my story and others must tell theirs. In any case, many feel it’s a relief to read a narrative where the shame is lifted.

The search for buried family histories is a resonant one in North America, where many immigrants often shed their names, language, and even ethnicities in order to fit in. A number of Sami-Americans have had no idea they had Sami ancestors. Do you think this phenomenon might be more prevalent in Norway than many have thought?

They say that if you have family from the north of Norway, then it’s likely that Sami or Kven (a Finnish ethnic minority) forefathers and foremothers will turn up. So, yes, this is common—and it’s also common that one does not know because the shame of it has been covered up. I recently visited a library in Nordland where they had blown up a huge photograph of two older people sitting on stone steps in front of a house. In itself, the photograph was beautiful, but the most interesting thing about the photo was what a later relative had done with it: He had scratched off the footwear of those depicted. Both of the elders were wearing komagers (traditional Sami shoes), but where the komagers should have been, there were only lots of angry, white lines on the image.

Have you continued to learn more about your family since your novel was published a few years ago?

I’ve gotten to know several relatives—and I hope to continue to learn more about them. And about the family. And about the Sami people. It will probably turn out that I have some relatives from that side of the family in the United States as well.


Helene Uri is a Norwegian novelist whose writing has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She is a trained linguist and the author of thirty books, including Honningtunger and De beste blant oss. She was awarded Norway’s 2018 Brage Prize, determined annually by the Norwegian Book Prize foundation, and has served as a board member for the Norwegian Language Council and the Norwegian Writers Union and was on the jury of the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. She is vice president of the Norwegian Academy of Language and Literature and lives in Oslo.

Barbara Sjoholm is an award-winning translator of Norwegian and Danish and the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction. She translated the Sami stories collected by Emilie Demant Hatt in By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends (Minnesota, 2019).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Turbulent Thoughts of a Peaceful Mind


"Who am I? A vortex. A dispersal that comes undone." —Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics

An extraordinary philosopher of science has passed away.

Michel Serres was a Henri Bergson for the fractal age. He combined a precise grasp of the sciences with a philosophical appreciation of its lack of understanding of time and history.

His philosophy may have seemed “incomprehensibly French” to an Anglo-analytic eye, but Serres was a true polymath in a classical vein that has gone extinct in a world of institutional specialization. He was a philosopher of science who eschewed the dominant languages of both philosophy and science, and for this reason he was more incisive and relevant than most.

Deeply erudite in mathematics, physics, history, philosophy, and literature, Serres witnessed scientific revolutions first hand that transformed his thinking: the invention of topology in mathematics and that of quantum mechanics and cybernetic systems in physics.

At the turn of the 1900s, Bergson tried to speak across an emerging divide between philosophy and science, but half a century later Serres realized the widening gulf had made such a task impossible. Philosophy was fundamentally unable to account for the new directions of science, and science no longer had any use for philosophy (unless it served a legitimatory function). He had to blaze his own trail.

One of Serres’s key insights was that both philosophy and science were stuck in a framework of thinking in terms of subject and object relations: representation vs. reality, theory vs. experiment or observation, scientist vs. nature, etc. He tried to show a “third,” usually invisible, element at work in any such relation—a mediator or an excluded middle. Serres proposed philosophy in terms of prepositions rather than subjects or objects, theorizing relations between beings rather than beings themselves.

From this arose influential concepts like quasi-objects, exemplified by a football in a game, which is neither subject nor object but rather confers subjectivity on the player who has it. A quasi-object is a relation that structures the game. Serres’s ingenuity of thinking inspired, among many things, the development of actor-network theory in science and technology studies.

In The Parasite, he weaves together fable, history, and science to describe a logic not definable as subject or object, or within a certain space, but in terms of a host-guest relation. As a hidden “third” actor, the parasite works as an operator of change, a “thermal exciter,” on all scales, including humanity itself and its relation to the environment.

The parasite is intrinsic to the system as an operator of change, a disruptive tendency, a chaotic variable introduced to a smooth flow. In The Birth of Physics, Serres shows how the same logic is found at the heart of an ancient idea of Lucretius and Archimedes.

In the vortex, Serres finds a leitmotif of nature and thought itself.

What is readily apparent in rivers and clouds is also present in all dynamic behavior, from the double helix of DNA via parasitical disruptions to cosmic scales. For what are spiral galaxies if not vortices of force?

As I show in my own work, inspired by Serres, the metaphysics of the vortex resurfaces constantly in the history of science, as an early cosmology (Descartes), as atomic ether theory (Thomson), as implosive dynamics (Schauberger), and in other forms. But this qualitative understanding of the relation between energy and matter is always eclipsed by a framework of quantification—mechanistic or probabilistic—that tries to purge the chaotic element from the system. Despite its explanatory simplicity, the vortex remains “but a metaphor” to the physicist, who has inherited a certain language of science introduced in the era between Archimedes and contemporary chaos theory.

Serres’s abandonment of the traditional languages of both philosophy and science came at the price of not always being understood. His distinctive style resisted academic jargon and used ordinary language (playing with the French in the way Heidegger played with the German, often making him eminently untranslatable into English). He combined a poetic sensibility with the logical precision and erratic (sometimes frustrating) swiftness of a brilliant mathematician. If he does not leave behind a school of thought, his legacy is consonant with his style of philosophy: inspiring unorthodox thinkers and opening new pathways across divides.

But inspiration still flows, and the vortex keeps spinning.

Rest in peace, Michel Serres.


Bjørn Ekeberg is a philosopher of science and author of Metaphysical Experiments, published by University of Minnesota Press.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Growing Up in Westeros: Breaking the Wheel of Fantasy Expectations


The tendency to set up—and then dash—the expectations of fantasy has always been crucial to HBO’s Game of Thrones and its source novels by George R. R. Martin. (I refer to them collectively below as GoT.) From the beheading of Ned Stark to the slaughter at the Red Wedding, much of the story’s claim to fame comes from the way that it “realistically” kills off high-minded main characters. The shock and emotional anguish that fans express at these moments reveals just how widely held and deeply cherished the norms of medievalist fantasy are; in particular, the expectation that the “good guys” will win, or at least survive. But Martin has always been unapologetic about his mission to explode people’s expectations of fantasy, and has referred derisively to the pseudo-medieval worlds in works by “Tolkien imitators and other fantasists” as “a sort of Disneyland middle ages”: childish, inauthentic, idealized, sanitized.

This statement reminds us of something that viewers may have forgotten: GoT has always been about the gap between childhood expectations and adult experience—seen especially clearly in the concluding montage of the show, which focuses on the destinies of the surviving Winterfell kids. The stories of Stark children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon, and the fostered boys Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy overturn an array of popular children’s fantasy plotlines from the twentieth century, with GoT offering its own brutal alternatives as part of a “grown-up” retelling for adult audiences today. This is not to say that there are no moments of triumph, heroism, and luck in the series; instead, it maintains a constant pleasurable (or anxious, depending on your view) uncertainty about whether its plots will tip towards catastrophe or towards what J. R. R. Tolkien called “eucatastrophe”: the “sudden joyous ‘turn,’” the characteristic happy endings of fairy tales.

But how did we come to expect safety and triumph for our favorite characters in the first place, when they exist in worlds defined by violence and supernatural dangers? Why are we rooting for feudal lords, monarchs, and colonizers anyway? The answer lies tied up in the history of the fantasy genre, which emerged as the form we now know during a period when English literature and culture was being transformed by modernism, cosmopolitanism, the decline of Empire, and a pervasive belief that science and rationalism had disenchanted the world. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Tolkien and his Oxford colleague C. S. Lewis launched a counterattack against these cultural directions, using a surprising, and wildly effective, weapon: children’s literature. Their fantasies The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia drew on the heroic traditions of medieval literature and recast such tales in line with more recent ideas about children as inherently magical, innocent, and inclined towards goodness. Ignored by the academy and literary establishment, their writing sparked a wildfire of new medievalist fantasy in the second half of the twentieth century, the “imitators” that Martin mentions above. And these stories, which so many people encounter in childhood, set the norms that GoT repeatedly upends with its darker twists and turns.

Of the Stark children, Robb, the oldest son, suffers the sharpest and most complete lesson in the unreliability of fantasy conventions. Robb takes on the role of the chosen boy hero, right-born and well-meaning like Peter Pevensie in the Narnian tradition, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, or Will Stanton in Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence. Too trusting, he dies in a trap alongside his followers. Sansa is the fair damsel, a princess figure who dreams of courtly love and advantageous marriage. She becomes a victim of sexual and other forms of violence, a political pawn repeatedly married off for others’ gain. Only after Sansa experiences what Shiloh Carroll calls “violent reeducation” does she end GoT as queen of her own people, a position achieved through her own shrewd and powerful actions. Arya takes up the tradition of female knights like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, Tolkien’s Éowyn, and women warriors of medieval literature who hide their gender for the chance to fight. But in GoT, Arya’s survival through disguise comes dangerously close to turning her into a cold, unmoored assassin (“a girl is no one,” she learns to say of herself) before she returns to her family, destroys an undead king, and turns to other quests. Her younger brother Bran, body broken but endowed with supernatural abilities, journeys into the wilderness seeking wisdom like Lewis’s spiritual searchers in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Bran gains greensight as the Three-Eyed Raven and returns to his family as an eerie and emotionally distant presence. His crowning as king of Westeros at the end of the series is hardly joyful; barely human, Bran finds little pleasure or triumph in the role. The Stark family’s youngest, Rickon, is hidden from his family’s enemies early in the series much like the young Arthur of medieval legend. While his fate in the books remain unknown, in the TV show he is betrayed and executed by his father’s former bannermen for their political gain.

The trajectories of the Starks’ two foster-children also allow GoT to explore the common theme of outsiders in children’s fantasy. Jon Snow is the unlikely hero, a Frodo-figure dedicated to the higher good and—like the young Arthur of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and, later, Harry Potter—an orphan who longs for acceptance and roots while secrets swirl around his identity. In spite of Jon's successes and (in the TV show, if not the books) the revelation of his noble birth, he ends GoT where he started, a literal outsider banished to the far northern reaches of Westeros after murdering his own lover and queen. Meanwhile Theon, Ned Stark’s ward, plays the part of the arrogant incompetent who needs to be reformed, a descendent of Lewis’s Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Scrubb in the Narnia books and Ursula Le Guin’s Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea. Theon tries to play the role of usurper in Winterfell, but is captured by a sadist whose torture reduces Theon to a trembling servant. His happy ending is the chance to die with honor, defending the family he betrayed and demonstrating the capacity for redemption.

These characters’ suffering in GoT raises questions about how well “Disneyland” upbringings in safe, morally “stark” spaces of childhood--such as the plots of most medievalist fantasy--serve young people as they enter into adult life. Moral clarity; the certainty of right overcoming wrong; eucatastrophe and the promise of happy endings; heartwarming family reunions and the finding of true love: these are not only the norms of children’s fantasy since Tolkien and Lewis but also the dominant myths of modern Anglo-American childhood, cycled and recycled through children’s media from picture books to video games to holiday specials. At the same time, the fates of the Winterfell kids don’t suggest a simple rejection of fantasy norms so much as a shift towards what Lee Konstantinou calls “postirony”: a twenty-first-century mode that acknowledges the miseries of life but which “moves past irony” to find meaning and, I suggest, alternate forms of enchantment.

The dragon queen Daenarys Targaryen repeatedly claims that her goal in seeking the Iron Throne of Westeros is to “break the wheel” of power that crushes so many people in the GoT’s world. Jon kills her as she reiterates this dream in sight of the throne, in spite of his love for her, because he has come to recognize that self-righteous idealism can lead to despotism just as well as greed and malice can. The series ending suggests that audiences, too, have to “grow up.” We must kill our dreams of fantasy conventions and follow the postironic paths of Jon and the other remaining Winterfell children by first recognizing the hidden tyrannies of simplistic hierarchies and inflexible moral ideals, and then finding re-enchantment in more complex, unexpected arrangements of people and power.

But even as it aims to overcome tired fantasy tropes, GoT remains caught in and reaffirms one of the genre’s most exhausted norms of all. From the Winterfell brood to the dragon-strafed youth of King’s Landing, the young people we are asked to identify with in this narrative all look suspiciously similar; only white children’s stories seem to really count. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas argues, the one black girl in Martin’s books, Missandei of Naath, appears in the TV show as a sexualized adult; and her story is cut short to further the stories of white characters in the most brutal and degrading of ways. Even the series’ more hopeful conclusions betray its Orientalist mindset: as one Atlantic historian friend pointed out, Arya’s sailing west under the Stark crest at the show’s end unproblematically celebrates her turning into a settler colonist. Martin’s dated understanding of history shows, as Kavita Mudan Finn has suggested, and the misogynist and colonialist biases of his sources carry into the series’ ambitious attempt to rethink the underlying premises of the genre. When will medievalist fantasy break that wheel?


Maria Sachiko Cecire is assistant professor of literature and founding director of the Center for Experimental Humanities at Bard College, and the author of the forthcoming book Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children's Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Poetry and Extinction in the Anthropocene


Life itself is a form of poiesis, a perpetual world-making. But if eco-criticism also sees the poem as an exercise in world-making, how are we to read it in an age of extinction?

Perhaps more than any other environmental crisis, extinction pitches us into deep time: into awareness of the richness of our inheritance from the deep past, and the depleted legacy we will leave to the deep future. But in the midst of death, the pull of connection persists. To make kin is to incline towards another, relinquishing the illusion of the separate, bounded self for the startling reality of the self in community; that is, to perform a clinamen, a swerve between contexts. As I argue in Anthropocene Poetics, clinamen can help define a poetics of kin-making in an age of extinction.

In Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Latona and Her Children,’ we find an example of kin-making organised around the swerve of clinamen. The poem is an ekphrasis, responding to a seventeenth-century Dutch tapestry depicting a scene from the myth of Latona, or Leto as she appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ovid’s telling, she is seduced by Jupiter and conceives twins (Artemis and Apollo), and as punishment is made by Juno to wander the earth without refuge, “debarred from settling anywhere in the world.” Her exile continues after she gives birth, and one day, under a blazing sun, she arrives with her children by a lake in the land of the Lycians. She seeks permission from the Lycian men working the shoreline to drink from the lake, and to give water to her children, but they refuse to take pity on her, and even maliciously stir up the muddy bottom with their feet. Outraged, Latona pronounces a curse on their inhospitality—“live forever in that lake of yours, then!”—and turns the men into frogs.

As a form of clinamen, ekphrasis encloses a number of swerves: like apostrophe, it performs a turn towards an object; as in citation, it draws another artwork into itself; comparable to metaphor, it is an account of one form in the manner of another. It also poses a particular temporal relation: that of the stilled scene. The archetypal Romantic ekphrasis is, of course, Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ which rhapsodises “silence and slow time.” Capildeo, however, shows how ekphrasis may allow us to think “fast and slow time together”, as the artist Ilana Halperin suggests we must do in order to grasp our own “geologic intimacy.” The first stanza reads:

This tapestry’s in sympathy

with wives who have been wronged

in gorgeous-feeling houses

where rage bindweeds into rugs.

You could lay your cheek against this

woolly silky rosy thread,

smug in a censored village

where the frogs have been erased.

The opening lines positions this as a poem in search of affinity: art is a form of kin-making, Capildeo affirms, a means of inclining beyond singular experience. The maltreated Latona is, of course, the primary focus of sympathy, but Capildeo’s prefatory note, that in making the tapestry, “the heads of men were woven as frogs and then altered to human,” also introduces a rather ambivalent sense of multispecies relations. For one, it inverts the metamorphosis, changing frogs to men rather than men to frogs, introducing a ghostly sense of kinship. The human genome shares around 1,700 genes with the genome of the African clawed frog, and many common elements of structure—structures that were present 360 million years ago, in the last common ancestor of all mammals, amphibians, and birds alive today. Prefaced by this creaturely haunting, we enter the poem aware that we, like all species, are what Deborah Bird Rose calls densely woven knots of embodied time.

The inversion (frogs to men rather than men to frogs) initiates a series of clinamen or swerves that undo the neat justice of the Ovidian myth. The erased frogs in the first stanza turn towards the ‘erased’ Latona, wandering in exile in the second; the “bastard fruit” she carries in her womb turns towards the final stanza, which is preoccupied by the Dutch weavers’ decision to enclose the scene of abuse in a vision of bucolic calm, surrounded by “green, without drama.” The frame transmutes the violence of the myth into the violence of enclosure, and the forcible exclusion, like that of Latona, of nature as the outside of human experience.

Capildeo’s swerves show us that the malice of the Lycians begins in their destructive attitudes towards their environment, as no more than a resource to be exploited or withheld. In turning attention to the frame, however, Capildeo also looks beyond it, laying the poem open to other times and places that torque the myth into an Anthropocenic context. The “reassuring woodland décor” also hints at “signs of Artemis to come,” and this intimation that another kind of relation with the natural world is possible prompts a final turn: one that looks back to the animal of its opening stanza, and to the fast-and-slow-time-together of extinction—back, that is, to the “censored village / where the frogs have been erased.”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Sixth Extinction opens with a visit to El Valle de Antón, a town in Panama that, in 2006, lost virtually its entire population of golden tree frogs in an outbreak of a deadly chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Bd is responsible for the extinction of around ninety frog species since the 1970s, along with serious decline in around another five hundred amphibian species; a quarter have lost more than 90% of their population. It emerged in the Korean peninsula sometime in the 1950s and, coeval other symptoms of the Anthropocene, spread rapidly worldwide. International shipping, the mass transit of soldiers during the Korean War, and the global trade in amphibians as pets have introduced Bd to Australia, North, South, and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula in a matter of decades. Kolbert notes that frogs evolved “at a time when all the land on earth was part of one large mass”—the Pangaea supercontinent—a geologic reality of the deep past effectively reconstituted by global trade: biologists refer to contemporary trade networks as “a functional Pangaea for infectious diseases in wildlife.”

Like Leto searching for a place to rest, Bd has found a home on six continents in a matter of decades. There are other peculiar parallels, other swerves between myth and reality. One key early driver in the spread of Bd was the use of African clawed frogs in mid-twentieth century pregnancy tests; the disease itself causes the animals’ skin to harden and slough off, preventing them from taking in fluids. There is currently no viable cure for Bd in wild frog populations, which continue to decline alarmingly, embedding a deep irony in Latona’s curse on the Lycians: “live forever in that lake of yours.”

Although erased, the frogs populate the poem’s soundscape, in the many ‘g’ sounds—wronged; gorgeous; rugs; smug; glanced at too in rage and village—that cluster in the first stanza. Rage is bound into this tapestry, not just the wrath of maltreated Latona but the scandal of extinction as well. As Capildeo’s ekphrastic poem swerves away from the tapestry’s frame and inclines towards the animal hidden in the weave, the immense slow time of evolution and the devastatingly fast time of species loss flow through it. Through the figure of the clinamen, Capildeo’s poem urges us to swerve back towards life, and to see that our responsibility in the Anthropoecene is to cultivate collaborative rather than exploitative relations with other species. It reminds us that life, woven in deep time, is itself a form of poiesis, an ongoing exercise in world-making.

David Farrier is senior lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Unsettled Narratives: The Pacific Writings of Stevenson, Ellis, Melville, and London and Postcolonial Asylum: Seeking Sanctuary before the Law.

"The Anthropocene spells trouble: not only with respect to the global environmental changes, largely for the worse, to which it refers; but also in terms of the troublesome nature of the word itself. David Farrier’s brilliant elucidation of a multi-faceted ‘Anthropocene poetics’ delves into these troubles with great philosophical, scientific, social-ecological and aesthetic discernment. Whilst acknowledging the limited efficacy of poetry in response to the immense challenges of our perilous times, his carefully contextualized close readings of exemplary texts do indeed demonstrate how literature, and other art forms, can ‘help to frame the ground on which we stand as we consider which way to turn.’ This is, moreover, not only a work about poetry: it is also an exquisitely poetic work of scholarship." —Catherine Rigby, Bath Spa University, author of Dancing with Disaster

"In Anthropocene Poetics, David Farrier ventures into a poetics of the Anthropocene and calls for the need to create ‘an Anthropocenic literary imagination.’ Exploring the Anthropocene conundrums and dysphorias with avant-garde and lyric poetry, Anthropocene Poetics will certainly change the way we perceive deep time as well as our understanding of the poem. Imagine a creative becoming enfolded by the new poetics of deep and thick time!"—Serpil Oppermann, Cappadocia University

"The Anthropocene needs poetry. With its vorticular temporalities, swift shifts in scale, enmeshment of the human and the nonhuman, and constant challenges to the adequacy of language, this age of ecological crisis may never be better understood by any other technology—even as the Anthropocene changes what we understand a poem to do. David Farrier’s brilliant new book is a rapturous meditation on ecocriticism, time, the limits of human comprehension, and the power of the humanities in a turbulent era." —Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman