Panel Abstract: Utopian Geologies

I just got word that a panel I organized was accepted for the 2015 Society for Utopian Studies Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, taking place November 5-8. I have included the general abstract for the panel, and the abstracts for each individual paper.

The panel will take place on Saturday, 7 November 2015, 8:30 -10:45 am.

 

Utopian Geologies

Panelists: Racheal Forlow, Dan Malinowski, and Bradley J. Fest

In the twenty-first century, the Anthropocene has emerged as an important concept for understanding the impact of human life on the planet. As activists, journalists, and scholars attempt to respond to the challenges this new epoch presents, many invoke deep time as a significant mode of thinking. This panel will take up the question of how the utopian imagination, long a site for speculating about the future, might contend with such geologic timescales. Responding to the conference topic of “global flows” by discussing things that flow at very, very slow paces, each paper will consider an important literary encounter with utopian geology. From Walt Whitman’s emergent poesis, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s posthuman environmental ethics, to the emphasis on human finitude in recent speculative thinking, these papers all signal a desperate need to reinvest in the imagination in the face of observable climate change.

 

Walt Whitman’s Geologic Imagination and the Future

Racheal Forlow, University of Pittsburgh

Western utopian traditions imagine how human activities might create better futures. Today, those who pursue projects of this kind confront a singular set of challenges. Scientists argue climate change and a range of other environmental emergencies threaten the future of the species. Because most agree the activities a tradition of Enlightenment thinking privileges produced these threats, the present seems to demand we conceive anew the ways we hope to project and build better worlds. Some artists, intellectuals, and activists committed to this work therefore suggest we abandon anthropocentric views of the universe and autonomous views of human individuals for more broadly materialist accounts. In this paper, I argue a tradition of American poetry Walt Whitman originates offers projects of this kind historical and conceptual resources. Whitman treats the human faculties contemporary projects require—among these imagination, reason, and feeling—in thoroughly material terms. In “Song of Myself” (1855), he imagines human creative power is an evolutionary force that emerges out of deep, geologic history. So conceived, the human is not a powerful, autonomous agent that dominates what is not identical to it. Instead, the species participates in a broader set of transformative processes. I believe recognizing US traditions offer this alternative vision of the human might serve attempts to project and build futures in the novel ways contemporary crises compel.

 

Should We Eat the Dirt? Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Geology, and New Materialism

Dan Malinowski, Rutgers University

No matter where humanity goes, it will shape and be shaped by its environment. In this talk, I will explore the ways in which Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1994-96), through the long time-spans in which it occurs, allows us to follow the flow of human society on literally untouched land, providing a useful thought experiment for exploring the ethics of the relationship of humanity to geological features. I will examine the debates surrounding terraforming enacted within these novels, highlighting their central aporia: namely, how a utopian society can (or cannot) coexist with a posthuman ethics towards the natural landscape. I will show how the recent work in the New Materialism can articulate this problem more productively than the Heideggerian model of geological ethics proposed by Fredric Jameson in his essay on the trilogy. In doing so, this paper will articulate a view of the world in which the interactions of the “dead” world and its new inhabitants flow back and forth in an ongoing and multi-directional process, a consideration inseparable from any utopian possibility whether here on Earth or there on Mars.

 

Speculative Criticism, Black Metal Theory, and Utopia: Richard Grossman’s “Torah Ball”

Bradley J. Fest, University of Pittsburgh

In recent years, invoking Fredric Jameson’s famous quip about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism has become something of a cliché. Given the realities of observable climate change and the seeming inability for human institutions to make the broad, sweeping changes necessary for responding to life in the Anthropocene, one might find it difficult to disagree with claims about the foreclosure of the utopian imagination. So it is perhaps surprising that a variety of thinkers, emerging from the school of Speculative Realism (or New Materialism), have been emphasizing species finitude, particularly with regard to deep, geologic timescales. Rather than explore possible utopian futures, writers like Ray Brassier, Nicola Masciandaro, Reza Negarestani, Eugene Thacker, McKenzie Wark, Evan Calder Williams, and others, often writing under the heading of “Black Metal Theory,” frequently invoke the utter inevitability of human extinction. As part of a larger project of articulating what I am calling “speculative criticism,” this paper will explore what such dark geologies might offer for both the study of literary works massively extended in space and time and the pressing need to reconceive and reinvest in the utopian imagination in the twenty-first century.

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