Can we read the changing work of literary genre as a sign of the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, a symbolic parallel to geological markers? Tobias Menely suggests that the rise and fall of rural descriptive poetry in Britain indexes an early but formative phase of this transition. Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head (1807) provides an example of a “Late Holocene Poetics,” a mixed mode closely attuned to the forces energizing capitalism as a world ecology. Internalized in the form of Beachy Head is a pre-thermodynamic conception of energy conversibility, of the intertwinement of planetary and socio-historical forces, a model of energy exchange that takes as its paradigmatic object not the steam engine but the Earth system. For Smith, the definitive unit of power is daytime, the geographically and seasonally variable period during which the “sunny ray” reaches a portion of the Earth. By recovering this late Holocene imaginary, we gain a new vantage on the Anthropocene.
Tobias Menely (Associate Professor, English, University of California, Davis) is the author of The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice (Chicago, 2015), and many essays on ecocriticism and climate change. His essay “The Present Obfuscation: Cowper’s ‘Task’ and the Time of Climate Change” won the MLA’s William Riley Parker Prize for the best essay published in PMLA in 2012. He is co-editor (with Jesse Oak Taylor) of the forthcoming Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (Penn State), and he is completing a book titled The Climatological Unconscious.
Organized by The Anthropocene, a crossdisciplinary research cluster of the Simpson Center for the Humanities. The cluster will meet for a reading group in preparation for Menely’s visit on Thursday, October 6, at 3 pm. Menely will also lead a brown-bag seminar on Thursday, October 13, at 12:30 pm. To participate in either event, contact Jason Groves (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Jesse Oak Taylor (email@example.com).