End of Nature?: Anthropocene Literature

Professor: Judith Mueller
Institution: Franklin & Marshall College
Course Number: English 376

ENG376: End of Nature?: Anthropocene Literature
Fall, 2014

Prof. Judith Mueller                                                                                                         Keiper 306
Office Hours: T 12:30-1:30, R 11:00-1:00                                               Office Phone: X4290
and by appointment

Paulo Bacigalupi, Windup Girl (Nightshade) 2009.
Peter Heller, Dog Stars (Vintage) 2012.
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (Picador) 2013
Anne Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, The Ecopoetry Anthology (Trinity UP) 2013, marked (EPA) in schedule.
Karen Tei Yamashita, Through the Arc of the Rainforest (Coffee House) 2009.
Multiple PDF files to be found via Canvas, marked (PDF) in schedule.

The Anthropocene—Something New under the Sun:

Humans have organized the discipline of literary study, as its profession, around historical periods. I was hired twenty-one years ago, for instance, as the eighteenth-century British literature professor. This course on literature of the anthropocene meets a requirement for the historical core of F&M’s English major: literature in English written post-1800. It also meets an elective requirement in Environmental Studies.

Like all our 300-level courses in literary history, this one centers on a specific theme or defined topic: in this case, the startling recognition that humans are altering earth’s systems to the point that we can perceive our species as a global force of nature—geological, biological, climatologic and more; that the alterations to earth’s systems we’re causing spell disaster—or, at best, radical change—for much of life as we know it; and that the changes we’ve wrought and continue to cause will be evident in the earth’s geological record for millennia to come. This course assumes these themes as defining features of the historical period it sets out to study.

The very newness of this epoch makes us scholarly pioneers in largely uncharted territory. Your task, as advanced students of literature or environmental studies or the liberal arts, is to contribute to the establishment of this new subfield: literature and culture of the anthropocene. So in addition to reading/viewing lots of work that reflects the experience of humans in a geological epoch of their own making, you’ll also be hunting down material that you think should be counted in the as yet to be established canon of anthropocene arts and letters.

On multiple fronts, the anthropocene—a term advanced by Dutch nobel-prize-winning geologist Paul Crutzen—demands a whole new approach to literary study. A distinctive feature of our epoch: the old separations between the divisions of learning (Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences) no longer hold. Human societies and cultural production can no longer be approached as though they inhabit a realm apart from their animal, vegetable, mineral, fungal, bacterial, chemical, atmospheric and cosmic contexts. With the anthropocene, science enters literary study as it never has before. The anthropopcene challenges the age-old humanist assumption that humans are creatures set apart from (and above) everything else. We’ll dwell in that relatively new intellectual and—for lack of a better word—spiritual terrain, either wondrous or uncomfortable, maybe both, depending on your point of view.

Format and Assignments:

Class will be devoted primarily to discussion, so your thoughtful involvement is crucial to your success and to the success of the class. Discussion engages you in a process of learning that you can’t experience on your own. I expect you to attend all classes. More than 2 unexcused absences will adversely affect your final grade. Lateness disrupts class, so don’t be late. Every three times you are late will count as an absence.

Five times during the semester, you’ll submit a 2-3 page response paper on that day’s assigned reading. Everyone will write a response paper about the Dark Mountain Project for October 8th. Otherwise, you’re free to decide for which days you’ll write, but you must turn in three of the five response papers by November 5. Your response papers will often serve as springboards for discussion. I’ll often ask you to tell us about what you’ve written. It’s up to you to decide what’s important enough for a 2-3 page reflection. In some cases, it might be useful to spend your 2-3 pages making sense of the reading for your reader. Over time, we’ll accumulate a collection of themes and concepts that derive from thinking about the anthropocene. Relating the reading to those concepts, comparing it to what we’ve read before, testing theory out on a particular work, offering a close reading of a passage—all these activities would make for 2-3 pages well spent.

You’ll be a member of a springboard triad or diad that will introduce the day’s reading during four class periods of the semester. You’ll offer opening observations and a few questions to get us going. During those classes, one time per student, each member of your group or dyad will briefly introduce the class to a work not on the syllabus that he or she thinks belongs in the canon of anthropocene literature or art. You should take no more than five minutes to tell us about this work. For each group activity, you’ll turn in an electronic copy of your notes and questions. Also for each group activity, you’ll hand in individual statements describing your contributions to the group’s work.

You will write one longer (8-10 page) synthetic paper for the course. Paper topic proposals for that final project are due anytime before Thanksgiving break, and you’ll be free to revise your topic, in consultation with me, until the end of classes. The paper must include at lease one of each of the following: a theoretical text (Morton, Chakrabarty, Feder, Kerridge, Wrenn, Dark Mountain Project); a piece of creative non-fiction (Kolbert, Anderson, McKibben, MacKinnon, Scranton); scientific writing (Crutzen, Jackson); a poem; a film; a work of fiction; one work of not on the syllabus, any genre.

Participation and Preparedness . . . . . 25%
Five Response Papers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25%
Group contribution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25%
Final synthetic paper . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25%

Academic Honesty:
Plagiarism involves presenting someone else’s words or ideas as your own—whether you take them from a book or magazine or the internet or TV or radio. You must acknowledge any outside sources you use, even if you use only a small portion of them. Failure to do so makes you guilty of plagiarism, which can result in penalties ranging from failing an assignment to failing a course to suspension and even expulsion for multiple offenses. The college takes academic honesty seriously, and so do I. Academic dishonesty undermines the entire educational enterprise. If you’re unclear about what plagiarism entails, go to this link, provided by the Writing Center:


When you use outside sources, use the MLA style for documentation, for which you can find guidance in the document provided via this link as well.


Schedule (subject to revision):

Backgrounds—New Ground

W Sept. 3          Introduction: Paul Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind” (PDF, handout); C. D. Wright, from “One Big Self”: “My Dear Affluent Reader” (EPA).

M Sept. 8          Bill McKibben, “The End of Nature” (PDF); J. B. MacKinnon, “A Beautiful World” (PDF); Davis McCombs, “Lexicon” (EPA).
Group 1

W Sept. 10       Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (Chapter 1, “The Sixth Extinction” (4-22); W. S. Merwin, “For a Coming Extinction” (EPA).
Group 1

R Sept. 11       Viewing of Wall-E, Ware College House, 7PM.

M Sept. 15        Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction Chapter V, “Welcome to the Anthropocene” (92-110); Alan Weisman, “Earth Without People” (PDF); Discussion of Wall-E (Viewed the previous Thursday evening).
Group 2

W Sept. 17       Discussion of Wall-E continued; Timothy Morton, Introduction to Hyperobjects: “A Quake in Being” (PDF).
Group 3

Poetics of the Anthropocene

M Sept. 22        Greg Wren, “The 23rd Century Nature Poem” (PDF); Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” (EPA); D. A. Powell, “Republic” (EPA), “Chronic” (PDF).
Group 1

W Sept. 24       Richard Kerridge, “Ecocritical Approaches to literary Form and Genre” (PDF); C. K. Williams, “Not Soul” (EPA); Juliana Spahr, from “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” (EPA).
Group 2

M Sept. 29        Helena Feder, “Ecocriticism, Posthumanism, and the Biological Idea of Culture” (PDF); Robinson Jeffers, “Shine, Perishing Republic” (EPA); A. R. Ammons, from “Garbage” (EPA).
Group 3

W Oct. 1            Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, Chapter X: “The New Pangea” (193-216); Ed Roberson, “To See the Earth Before the End of the World” (EPA).
Group 1

M Oct. 6            Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction Chapter XII “The Madness Gene” (236-258); Jay Leeming, “Law Office” (EPA); Juan Carlos Galeano, “History” (EPA).
Group 2

W Oct. 8            The Dark Mountain Project (about which all will write a response paper): http://dark-mountain.net/about/the-dark-mountain-project/

Read the entire Manifesto (you’ll find a link on this page), which ends with “The Eight Principles of Uncivilization.” Be prepared to discuss other features of this website that you find interesting. What’s your assessment of The Dark Mountain Project as a response to the anthropocene? Exactly what are its creators proposing as a response?


Post-Colonialism and the Anthropocene

W Oct. 15         Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History” (PDF).
Group 3

R Oct. 16         Viewing of film, Sweet Crude, 7PM Brooks House.

M Oct. 20          Golda Mowe, “A Jungle for my Backyard” (PDF); discussion of Sweet Crude (viewing previous Thursday evening).
Group 1

W Oct. 22         Paolo Baccigalupi, Windup Girl (86).
Group 2

M Oct. 27          Windup Girl (179).
Group 3

W Oct. 29         Windup Girl (250).
Group 1

M Nov. 3           Windup Girl (359).
Group 2

T Nov. 4           Viewing of film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 7PM Brooks House.

W Nov. 5           Discussion of Beasts of the Southern Wild; Patricia Smith, “Man on the TV Say” (EPA), “Won’t Be But a Minute” (EPA).
Group 3

M Nov. 10        Karen Tai Yamashita, Through the Arc of the Rainforest (70). Bacigalupi, “The People of Sand and Slag” (PDF)
Group 1

W Nov. 12        Through the Arc of the Rainforest (138). Return to poems instead: Spahr, “Gentle Now Don’t Add to the Heartache” (EPA); Galeano, “History” (EPA)
Group 2

M Nov. 17        Through the Arc of the Rainforest (212). Return to poems instead: Ammons, “Garbage” (EPA); C. K. Williams, “Not Soul” (EPA).
Group 3

The Sea Around Us

W Nov. 19        Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, Chapters VI and VII: “The Sea Around Us” and “Dropping Acid” (111-146); Ralph Black, “21st Century Lecture” (EPA).
Group 1

R Nov. 20        Common Hour: Jeremy Jackson, “Ocean Apocalypse”

M Nov. 24        Randy Olson, “If a Frond Falls in a Kelp Forest (Does it Make Any Sound?)” (PDF); Jeremy Jackson, “Ecological Extinction and Evolution in the Brave New Ocean” (PDF); Sheryl St. Germain, “Midnight Oil” (EPA).

1-page review Jackson Common Hour due (counts toward P&P grade).

T Nov. 25        11:30 Joint meeting with Conservation Paleobiology, location TBA.


Living with/in the Anthropocene

M Dec. 1           Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (159).
Group 2

W Dec. 3           Heller, The Dog Stars (236).
Group 3

M Dec. 8           Heller, The Dog Stars (320).

W Dec. 10        Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, Chapter XIII: “The Thing with Feathers”

(259-269); Roy Scranton, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” (PDF); Erik Anderson, “In the Holocene” (PDF).

W Dec. 17       Final, synthetic paper due.