DAAD German Studies Seminar 2015
Nature in Thought and Image:
The Ecological Imagination from Romanticism to the Present
University of Chicago
July1-August 12, 2015
David E. Wellbery
LeRoy T. and Margaret Deffenbaugh Carlson University Professor
Germanic Studies, Comparative Literature, Committee on Social Thought
University of Chicago
The atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen (Max Planck Institut für Chemie, Mainz) has famously argued that the earth and its denizens now dwell in the anthropocene: the era of decisive human impact on geological history. With this term, Crutzen brought to expression a “green” awareness that has had widespread political and theoretical consequences, especially, but not exclusively, in Germany. The 2015 DAAD Summer Seminar will address the consequences of this development within the field of German Studies.
Our approach will be interdisciplinary and historical. We shall examine three phases in the modern “history of nature,” attending to crucial artistic, literary, and theoretical contributions within each phase. Our starting point will be the period around 1800, the age of Romanticism in a broad sense of the term, acknowledged both by historians and by contemporary ecologists as a crucial source of holistic ecological concepts. A primary point of reference will be the work of Alexander von Humboldt, with readings in his Kosmos as well as his report on his South American journey. But we will also examine selected scientific writings by Goethe, Schelling, and Ritter. Our artistic or visual case study for this period will center on the landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The second phase of the Seminar will consider the representation of nature in roughly the first half of the twentieth century. Here the thought of Umwelt as formulated by the theoretical biologist Jakob von Uexküll as well as its reception in philosophical anthropology (Plessner, Jonas, Portmann) will provide one major point of reference, but we shall also attend to the rethinking of the notion of physis and the critique of technology in the work of Martin Heidegger. Our major artistic example for this phase of the seminar will be Paul Klee, whose work is rooted in an encompassing view of natural-artistic processes. Finally, we shall turn to the “contemporary” situation. Here our starting point will be the political-ecological-artistic enterprise of Joseph Beuys. Another topic will be the “aesthetics of nature” as developed by philosophers such as Martin Seel and Gernot Böhme. On the political front, we shall consider Das grüne Manifest (1978) and the difficulties of “ecological communication” (Niklas Luhmann) in modern society. We will conclude with a discussion of the possibilities of “ecocriticism.”
The major aim of the seminar is to foster reflection on the concept and image of “nature” among literary scholars, historians, art historians, and philosophers working in the area of German Studies. A secondary purpose will be to create a web-based archive of texts, images, and bibliographical references that can usefully be drawn on for future teaching and research.