Welcome to the Posthumanities Hub seminar with Dr. Lauren LaFauci (Linköping University, SE) on “Histories and Perceptions of Climate in Early American Literature and Culture”.
The event takes place on 8th April 2019 at 13:15 – 15:00 in the big seminar room at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Teknikringen 74D, level 5, SE-114 28 Stockholm).
Histories and Perceptions of Climate in Early American Literature and Culture
This society [British America before the Revolution] . . . does not afford that variety of tinges and gradations which may be observed in Europe, we have colours peculiar to ourselves. For instance, it is natural to conceive that those who live near the sea must be very different from those who live in the woods; the intermediate space will afford a separate and distinct class.
Men are like plants; the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment.
. . .Whoever traverses the continent must easily observe those strong differences, which will grow more evident in time. The inhabitants of Canada, Massachusetts, the middle provinces, the southern ones, will be as different as their climates; their only points of unity will be those of religion and language.
—J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letter III, Letters from an American Farmer (1782)
In this passage from Crèvecoeur’s famous essay, “What is an American,” he offers a defining imagination of Americans growing alongside and in harmony with their environments. Importantly, he considers the social, political, cultural, and ecological as all part of the “environment” shaping the individual, and ultimately, the collective in the nation that was then taking shape. While Crèvecoeur himself fled the “New World” upon outbreak of Revolution to return to the Old, his collection of Letters from an American Farmer defined for many Europeans and Americans alike a way of understanding the citizen as an ever-evolving constellation of multivalent forces acting upon the body.
How did early Americans imagine, perceive, and interpret their climate? How did these formulations change over time, between first European contact and the turn of the 20th century? This talk will provide an overview of some of the ideas and assumptions about weather and climate common to early Americans. The place-based ontology Crèvecoeur theorizes here was not in itself a new way of understanding human development, but his formulation opened up the space for an enormous variety of regional and local human peculiarities as varied as the climates (and weathers) associated with them. The resultant environmental determinism became, in the United States at least, the dominant way of theorizing embodiment—including physical and mental disease and health—until the advent of germ theory at the turn of the 20th century.
A second, broader concern of this talk is to discuss the role of historicist environmental humanities work in an age of climate change. Much environmental humanities research is, understandably, presentist: we face a daily barrage of environmental crises, local and global, as well as the longer-term, slower violences of climate change at large. Amidst these imminent crises, the presentist focus is not only understandable; it may also be desirable. But where does such a focus leave those of us who spend our days teaching and researching in pre-Anthropocenic periods? What is the relevance and significance of environmental humanities research before the Anthropocene? What does such work have to contribute to environmental humanities at large? This second focus of my talk will, I hope, generate discussion about the theoretical concepts, empirical materials, and/or historiographical interventions that are significant to EH research today.
Lauren LaFauci is assistant professor of environmental humanities in the Unit of Gender Studies, Department of Thematic Studies at Linköping University in Sweden, where she also directs the “Multispecies Stories” research area of the Seed Box Environmental Humanities Collaboratory and serves as an international liaison for ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. She is part of the interdisciplinary team behind the citizen humanities website, Herbaria 3.0 (www.herbaria3.org), which collects stories about the intertwined relationships between plants and people. Her research and teaching are wide-ranging, focusing on histories of racial formation, medicine, and the body; US literature, history, and culture from to 1900; Scandinavian cultural studies; and multispecies story-telling. Lauren’s talk with the PH Hub will form the basis of a short article in preparation for a Cambridge UP volume on Climate in American Literature.