Loving, Laughing, and Accepting in the Anthropocene; or, How It Feels to Teach Romanticism at the End of the World

Brian Rejack (Illinois State University)

Track 1: “4 Degrees,” Anohni

Two summers ago I was lucky enough to get married in Estes Park, Colorado, amidst the grandeur and geologic variety of the Rocky Mountains. The day before the ceremony, some friends and I visited Rocky Mountain National Park, driving along its famed Trail Ridge Road, eventually stopping at a parking area located more than 12,000 feet above sea level, where we gawked at a herd of grazing bighorn sheep. After getting our fill of the sheep, we proceeded to walk up the gentle slope of the Tundra Communities Trail. It brought us to a group of several mushroom rocks, so named for their mushroom-like appearance, and which, a small plaque informed us, were composed of some of the oldest rocks in the park. The granite base and schist cap date back approximately 1.7 billion years, having been formed through volcanic and metamorphic processes respectively, then covered for millions of years by a sea and the many layers of sediment it deposited on top of them, sediment that would later erode away through several periods of glaciation. So it happens that the mountain range’s ancestral rocks come to reemerge in our present.

Figure 1: A mushroom rock located in Rocky Mountain National Park. The rocks, among the oldest in the park, date back approximately 1.7 billion years. Photograph courtesy of the author.

The deep time of geologic processes was not the only thing on my mind over the course of the nuptial weekend. Getting married, it turns out, tends to focus one rather intensely on the present. In addition to basking in the love flowing between all those gathered in celebration, there are pressing issues like ensuring that one’s eyebrows look good (failure), figuring out how to lower the room temperature at the reception (mostly failure), or getting the background music to the perfect volume level for all parts of the room (success!). Even so, I had geologic time in the back of my mind. Living in the Anthropocene has this effect: we can’t help but think of the unimaginably vast stretches of time and space that brought the world to the state we find it in, while also recognizing that we inhabit a present in which we are responsible for the anthropogenic destruction rendering the future so tenuous. As the editors of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet pose it, “living arrangements that took millions of years to put into place are being undone in the blink of an eye” (Tsing et al. G1). The shock and sadness that accompany this strange temporal situation came to mind during the reception, when I was at once deeply touched by a family member’s remark that he and his wife would be celebrating their fortieth anniversary next year, and deeply troubled by the thought that 40 years from now my spouse and I might not have much of a world in which to celebrate that milestone for ourselves. I recognize that talk of “the end of the world” or other dire speculations on the fallout from climate change may seem alarmist, exaggerated, or overly dramatic. But the reality of what we will have wrought by 2057, or whatever arbitrary future target we set for ourselves, doesn’t matter as much as the feeling that such calamitous things may come to pass. As David Collings writes in Stolen Future, Broken Present: “We are now caught in a surpassingly strange, horrific moment—a moment when we cannot help but think, is it too late? Do we still have a future?” (11). We don’t and can’t know for certain the answers to those questions, but that we exist in a moment when asking them is not ridiculous enhances the urgency of responding to them. The affective experience of living in the Anthropocene matters crucially when we consider, as Collings writes, that “the future is never just for the people of the future; without that future, what we do now loses its force. Without a future, there is no present and not much of a past” (19).

I focus in this essay on how the feeling of living in the Anthropocene and its strange temporality affects how we teach, and specifically how we teach Romanticism. Teaching without a solid sense of futurity cuts at the core of the practice. In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton suggests that “the greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses . . . is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead” (23). How does one teach—a profession predicated on the future and on stable structures of civilization—with that realization? In the spring of 2016 I taught a course in which that question was always present in my mind; through that experience I sought to understand the intersections between Romanticism, ecological collapse, and the role of affect in the space of the classroom. The course was a 200-level undergraduate class on Romanticism I titled “The Failures of Romanticism,” and the conceptual premise was that as much as Romantic writers exude optimism, in other ways the recognition of Romanticism’s own failures is built into the project. With this focus, I asked students to recognize one way we continue the legacy of Romanticism, given that we now reckon with so many systems (economic, political, social, and of course, ecological) falling apart. The experience of consistently bumming out my students about the fate of the world, however, led me to think deeply about the pedagogical effectiveness of such affective work. The neoliberal university in its terrifying ideal form would turn faculty members into little more than customer service workers emitting mandated positive affect like any other laborer in the precarious gig economy. Such a fate in no way appeals to me, nor does it make much sense when contemplating ecological catastrophe. Even so, I continued to wrestle with the nagging sense that melancholy and anxiety might not be the best affects for pedagogically engaging with the Anthropocene.

So what to do, then? I would suggest that teaching in the Anthropocene calls for a shared embrace of vulnerability, which ought to begin with the teacher’s own displays of (often melancholic) feeling, but must not end there.

In both Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton argues that melancholy is the privileged affect of the Anthropocene. While he does note that the “ecological thought . . . is realistic, depressing, intimate, alive and ironic all at the same time,” I suggest that irony—and particularly playful, joyful irony—ought to receive more attention and emphasis (Ecological Thought 16). I share with both Chris Washington and Morton the sense that we can do without the irony of “postmodern hipster posturing” and its “T-shirt sloganeering” (Washington 454; Morton, Hyperobjects 173).…

After the fall, we still exist, and we require other sensations. Collapse is, etymologically, a falling together.

From the Latin col- (together) labi (to fall). The OED notes that the participial adjective “collapsed” appears to have emerged (from the Latin form, collapsus) before the verb and noun usages.

Teaching Romanticism with this focus on failure and collapse reinforced for me my sense that Romantic-era texts can offer models of feeling appropriate to the affective experience of living amidst global ecological catastrophe, and maybe help us fall together better. The poetics of sensibility in Charlotte Smith’s The Emigrants and Beachy Head, the extension of sympathy to the downtrodden in Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales, John Keats’s experiments with the core being of sensation and affect, and Mary Shelley’s temporally layered contemplations of human finitude in The Last Man—all these textual encounters become newly inflected as we teach in a time when we cannot choose but feel in radically different ways thanks to what we have wrought. By the time we reached the end of the semester and read The Last Man, I (and, I think, my students) felt an affinity with its narrator and titular figure, Lionel Verney, who writes to no one save “the illustrious dead,” whom he bids “arise, and read your fall!” (466). Like Verney, we now experience the deep temporal disruption wrought by the Anthropocene. As Verney’s beloved Idris exclaims early in The Last Man, we too feel as if “already the to-morrow is come” (85).

But even if we are “Too, too late for the fond believing lyre” and its forward-looking messages of hope, teaching this class reinforced my sense that we cannot rely on despair or sadness alone for our affective pedagogical modes. Unlike Verney, my students and I did not have the option of responding to the recognition of global catastrophe by embarking on a solitary voyage around the world’s oceans. We are here. We are alive. As we find ourselves surrounded by the “haunted landscapes” characteristic of the Anthropocene, the persistent pasts we’ve attempted to raze nevertheless remain, and because of their ghostly presences, these pasts “relentlessly trouble the narratives of Progress, and urge us to radically imagine worlds that are possible because they are already here” (Tsing et al. G12). Or as Austra poses it in the opening track of her poignantly Anthropocenic album Future Politics, “It’s like we were alive.” After the fall, after the revelation that is apocalypse, we move forward with the recognition that the vitality of humans and nonhumans always has been there, even when we were too dull to sense it, and always will be there, even when we recklessly pursue our own destruction. In the span of geologic time, the earth will be just fine, even as climate change in our shorter-term span will render unimaginable suffering for human and nonhuman beings. We need to act as if we were alive, even if it is already too late for us. In the classroom, when teaching without a future, we must combine our melancholic embrace of vulnerability with other affective modes; at the risk of sounding like some sort of New Age self-help book, I propose we imbue our pedagogy with love, acceptance, and humor.

Loving Things

Track 2: “Winter Dawn,” Colleen

When we teach, we put our loves on display. We embody and perform our loves not necessarily of other people, but of the things that we teach, the things we attempt to commune with and communicate to our students. This assertion likely calls to mind any number of teaching narratives in which teachers profess their abiding passion for their subjects, for their students, for teaching itself. Indeed, one might say that passion for one’s subject material is an essential component of good teaching; we’ve all, at one point or another, been either praised or shamed for the degree to which we express enthusiasm for our subject material in the classroom. The unstated assumption is that the more visible the passion, the better the teaching, and the better the teaching, the better the learning. I hope to expand on our commonplace understanding of the relationship between passion and learning by drawing attention to an affect intimately related to love: namely interest, which Silvan Tomkins in his influential model refers to as the “most seriously neglected” of the affects (337). A pedagogy of love requires attunement to the transformations and rearticulations of interest (and perchance love) by students. This is not to say that we should love our students and that they should (nay, must) love us in return. Of course there are affective bonds between teacher and student, but for a variety of reasons including the inappropriate forms of teacher-student love that manifest at various levels of education, I call for something quite different. The love that transpires moves through objects, not subjects. We love the objects of interest; students themselves become interested in those objects; in the aftermath, both teacher and student come to love (or not) an object of interest that is and is not the object with which they began. That is to say, a pedagogy of love operates iteratively. We iterate our love and students translate that love into a new iteration, which we take up, transform, and reiterate.

While here I pose this cycle with specific beginning and ending points, of course in practice people enter into or exit the circle at different points and in different ways.

A similar model of love exists in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s short essay “On Love.” His attempt at a definition begins:Thou demandest what is Love. It is that powerful attraction towards all we conceive, or fear, or hope beyond ourselves, when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void, and seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with what we experience within ourselves. If we reason we would be understood; if we imagine we would that the airy children of our brain were born anew within another’s; if we feel we would that another’s nerves should vibrate to our own, that the beams of their eyes should kindle at once and mix and melt into our own; that lips of motionless ice should not reply to lips quivering and burning with the heart’s best blood:—this is Love. This is the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with every thing which exists. (503–4)’ I draw on Shelley’s notion of love since it’s as much a theory of communication as it is a contemplation of love. It figures love as a communicative process of tuning or harmonizing signals. Love begins in what Roman Jakobson calls the phatic register of communication, when an utterance exists primarily to test the status of the channel (e.g., “Can you hear me now? Is this thing on?”). In a manner similar to how Maurice Blanchot poses the communicative content of a work of literature, “What it says is exclusively this: that it is—and nothing more” (22), love likewise references itself. Love, however, operates in the interrogative. What love says is exclusively this: is it that? Promising something ever more about to be, love requires response. As Shelley puts it, love demands that “another’s nerves should vibrate to our own.” We approach love with trepidation because the answer to “is it that?” may return as a resounding, Prufrockian “That is not it, at all.” Phatic communication likewise risks never receiving a reliable response indicating an open channel. When I speak to a silent classroom, it might as well be engulfed in a wall of noise that my meek voice could never hope to rise above. This pedagogy of love, then, is not some magical answer to the ambiguity of transfer. Instead, I propose that we table the question altogether. Much is to be gained from the acceptance of noise, darkness, obscurity, and the anxiety such obstacles provoke.

In testing our love for the objects we teach, students potentially become the signal-boosters of the message. With no future, though, what kind of signal can we ever hope to hear echoing back to us? First we must simply accept that communication moves through “enfeebl[ing] . . . mediums,” as Shelley puts it in A Defence of Poetry (513). But a related strategy is to shift the agency of love to the side of those objects that interest us (for me, always my first love, Keats). Embracing a Latour-inspired distributed agency, one that posits the crucial role of nonhuman objects, ought to come easily, given the language we use to discuss interest in loved objects. When something piques our interest, it stabs us, leaving an imprint of itself in the shape of a wound, a remnant of its liveliness. When interest wanes, the object does nothing for us. When we say that interests me, the causal emphasis ought to fall on the same side as the grammatical subject of the sentence. When interest begins, we say I’m into that right now, emphasizing the spatial and temporal aspects of affective interest. Objects are mediums for interest to navigate between the different things existing in the spaces those objects occupy and coproduce. Such spaces emerge, evolve, and dissipate over time. Using the intransitive valence, we can say that objects are always interesting, always doing the activity of interest, whether or not some other object (like a teacher or a student) comes along to respond to its vibratory activity.

My account of the vibrancy and vitality of objects in this paragraph is indebted to Jane Bennett’s model of agency in Vibrant Matter.

Here we can point again to Shelley’s model of love as a communicative process involving requests for other lively objects to act in concert with us, to share interest and thereby “kindle,” “mix,” and “melt” with one another. The bonds of this kind of love connect not only humans to humans, and not only sentient beings to other sentient beings, but “every thing which exists.”

What are the payoffs then? For one, this approach to love in the realm of pedagogy, when articulated via the kinds of vocabulary I’ve adopted throughout, counters some of the reigning assumptions about the role of passion in teaching. Love in the sense I invoke it operates not as something that one willfully adopts, but rather as an affect acting through us and our interactions with others (humans and nonhumans). One benefit of such a theoretical alignment is the possibility of novelty. Because our interests choose us as much as we choose them, new things emerge without our conscious designs necessarily implementing their arising. This other-oriented love, this haunted and haunting love for dark objects, is also ethical and political in nature. It demands that we reckon with the being of all things in the altered ecology of the Anthropocene. Objects of interest speak to us. Sometimes we know not what they say until their voices resound through our students’ taking up of those same objects, and thus we commune with our students. We share that which is common, that which means. We correspond by co-responding, responding together, to things that are not us. Thus a pedagogy of love—not a selfish, but an otherish love; in Blakean terms, the love of a clod, not of a pebble—offers a means of resisting a key ideological assumption of neoliberalism: the notion that we are all autonomous, divided selves fully responsible for our own successes and failures, both of which can only ever be adjudicated by the dictates of the market. Shelley argues that “the great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature” (Defence 517). Poetry and imagination operate on us by strengthening our ability to go out of our natures, and now that the Anthropocene urgently forces us to reimagine our natures and the imbrication of our natures with our altered environments, we need to exercise those faculties as much as possible. The classroom may be one of our last discursive places in which such exercises are not only possible, but actively encouraged and cultivated. This expansive notion of love and the forms it circulates in will not prevent Anthropocenic despair, but attempting a pedagogy rooted in love may at least help us and our students better attend to the world in which we find ourselves, tenuous and temporary as it is. And attending to reality is the first step toward imagining another one.

Accepting What We’ve Done

Track 3: “Valley Boy,” Wolf Parade

We hear a lot about climate denial in the United States, although perhaps less than we used to, now that alternative strategies to the complete rejection of facts and science have surfaced (“I’m no scientist!” “Sure, CO2 plays a part, but we can’t know what other factors are involved,” or the utterly inane, childish, nonsensical Pittsburgh-not-Paris excuse). Just as grieving individuals work their way through denial and eventually proceed to acceptance, we as a species (and especially the U.S. as a country) need to work toward that point. The difference in this situation is that we need to accept not only the reality of anthropogenic climate change and all that it has already and will continue to do; we need also to accept that we are to blame. If a murderer were to pass through the five stages of grief for his victim, I suppose that’s what humanity now faces. In this case, though, the murder occurred through billions and trillions of tiny cuts, with all of us joining in the slaying like so many Caesarian conspirators, albeit with many more stabs coming from some peoples and places (i.e., the citizens, myself included, of the one country that continues to deny the existence of climate change most vociferously, despite having across history accounted for the greatest proportion of cumulative CO2 emissions of any one country).

If we treat the objects of our inquiry with love, honor, and care, we will ideally be led to respect their full reality, even if we cannot fully apprehend it. When we apply that thinking to the reality of climate change and global ecological catastrophe, a corollary affective response will be acceptance, as long as we can find ways to move through denial, anger, and other understandable responses to the recognition of inhabiting a planet that may already be locked into a future in which human life will more or less become impossible. For this reason, acceptance of our complicity in creating the Anthropocene ought to become the emblematic affect of our new epoch. The challenge is to prevent ourselves from moving immediately after acceptance into quiescent despair. But first I should explain why I even conceive of acceptance as an affect, given that it may more readily be understood as a logically reasoned position one consciously adopts. True acceptance emerges precisely from not knowing. While I can certainly affirm that I am complicit in anthropogenic climate change, I can never know exactly how I am folded into it (to gesture toward the etymology of complicit, which comes from the Latin plicare, meaning to fold or to weave). The folds of causality and responsibility are aesthetic in nature, meaning that we cannot know them, but we can feel their effects and affects.

In Hyperobjects Tim Morton argues as much to explain the impossibility of fully cognizing a massively distributed (across time and space) object like global warming.

As Keats attempts with the Grecian urn and the mysterious “leaf-fring’d legend” which “haunts about [its] shape,” the contours of my part in affecting the global climate can only ever be probed by questioning contemplation, by being teased out of thought and into embodied response by encounters with the ghostly objects moving about us. When I type this sentence on my computer, I play a part in introducing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Yet it’s a part for which I do not know the lines, even though I’m so obviously already standing on the stage. To accept is to feel one’s presence in the drama that is the Anthropocene even while remaining in the dark about how the play began and how it will end. The classroom becomes a recursive, iterative performance of this pageant, one in which my embodiment of acceptance helps to guide students into recognizing that they too share the stage with us all.

Acceptance is thus a particularly performative affect. As is the case with Sara Ahmed’s discussion of the stickiness of affect, my notion of acceptance involves how we orient ourselves toward, and how we are oriented by, other subjects and objects. What is the point of acceptance if we do not embody it forth for others? Here we arrive at the strategy to make other outcomes than despair issue from acceptance. For an illustration of this strategy, I turn to Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Acceptance (aptly titled for my purposes). Acceptance is the last volume in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, a series that revolves around an unexplainable ecological catastrophe in an unknown location described simply as Area X. Across the three novels we learn some things about the past of Area X and its present situation, as well as characters’ attempts to make sense of the fundamentally altered world they find themselves in. Toward the trilogy’s conclusion, one of the main characters provides this gloss on acceptance specifically with respect to the new reality of Area X, but which can be readily translated into a reflection on living in the Anthropocene: “The world we are a part of now is difficult to accept, unimaginably difficult. I don’t know if I accept everything even now. I don’t know how I can. But acceptance moves past denial, and maybe there’s defiance in that, too” (338). To accept that we have no future, to accept that we are to blame, is perhaps the best means we have for defiance today. Acceptance marks a refusal to fight against things as they are, but it does not mean that we refuse to work toward how things might otherwise be. The defiant force of acceptance comes from the affectively embodied recognition of what we’ve done, even while not fully knowing how or why we did it, or even precisely what it was. We thus open a space for the future, even if it’s an already doomed one. A doomed future is nonetheless a future, and it’s ours if we accept it.

We might even venture beyond defiance and into what Jean Baudrillard, in a much different context, calls “refusal by overacceptance” (219). I know that my love for Keats (or any other writers/texts from Romanticism) will remain always devoid of any clear, unambiguous vibratory response, but I accept and love nonetheless. And I know that what I do now as a teacher might not matter if we have no future as a species, but I accept and love nonetheless. Thence proceeds melancholy, but also joy, which is what I find on every track of Anohni’s recent album, Hopelessness, and in particular on the track “4 Degrees,” which provides the soundtrack to this essay’s opening. Encountered as quotations in an essay, the song’s lyrics (such as “I want to see this world / I want to see it boil,” or “I want to hear the dogs crying for water”) probably seem anything but joyful. Indeed, they are disturbing, and deeply sardonic. But if something can be simultaneously sardonic and sincere, this song accomplishes it. Anohni performs radical acceptance. She sings with glee of her desire to “burn the sky” and “burn the breeze,” of reveling in seeing “the animals die in the trees.” A purely sardonic reading of the song would perhaps imagine Anohni performing the role of some crazed fossil fuel baron, cheering on the destruction of the globe as we pursue four degrees of warming as if it were a quarterly earning target (here, and throughout her album, she is not unlike Wordsworth taking on different voices in Lyrical Ballads, or Robinson making similar moves in Lyrical Tales). While that reading is certainly a valid one, we might also read in the affective sincerity of her voice an admission and acceptance of her own complicity. Sure, those in the extractive industries who actively work against the interests of reducing emissions are easy to caricature as monstrous villains devoted to global destruction, but the brilliance of Anohni’s song is its insistence that we are all monstrous. We are all folded into this complicated mess, even if we try to get off the grid. The problem is there is no off-grid. As Anohni sings in the final lines of the album, “We are all Americans now.” No one escapes blame, even as different levels of blame are surely warranted. While sorting out and apportioning blame in just ways is crucial for the politico-economic realm, the more fitting affective and aesthetic answer is to belt out an electro-pop number proclaiming just how mired in it we all are: “Let’s Go! Let’s Go!” The song won’t do anything to stop rising CO2 levels (and how could it?), but it does teach us something about the irony of acceptance and the complexity of how it feels.

Laughing in the Anthropocene

Track 4: “Generation Why,” Weyes Blood

It may be a stretch to claim that “4 Degrees” is funny, but it certainly has a kind of gallows humor beneath its macabre surface. Does gallows humor become unfunny when the entire globe is approaching the scaffold? In any case, the path from love to acceptance next takes me to humor, or at least irony and the possibility of joyful laughter always residing in irony, even in its darkest forms. In this final affective register I find the greatest value in what I regularly do in my Romanticism classrooms, which I’ve modeled throughout this essay: putting contemporary materials into relation with Romantic ones. As D. B. Ruderman and Rachel Feder point out in their introduction to Teaching Romanticism with the Contemporary, this method may seem to risk “potential anti-historicist implications,” but they counter that “sometimes one must think trans-historically in order to produce a historicist understanding.” They continue, “it is possible to wield the contemporary to peel back the cloak of canonicity that sometimes obscures Romantic literary experiments, all the while making students better readers—indeed, Romanticist readers—of their own literary, cultural, and historical moments.” One element of the current historical moment that the Romantic and neo-Romantic pairings can illuminate is the set of geologic, political, cultural, and ecological forces and effects that we have come to denominate with the term Anthropocene.

In loving, honoring, caring for, and accepting our past histories and texts, and in seeking to understand them in relation to our present and future in the Anthropocene, contemporary materials help with the crucial task of privileging and supporting the voices of nonnormative, oppressed, disadvantaged, or otherwise unjustly treated peoples. In the political arena we need to align climate advocacy with broader social justice issues; as Naomi Klein points out in This Changes Everything, those on the front lines of the climate fight, those inhabiting what she calls “Blockadia,” are often indigenous peoples who’ve been systematically oppressed and abused while not experiencing the benefits that the extractive industries have afforded to those of us removed from the front lines. We need to do the same in the cultural realm. With respect to pedagogy and living in the Anthropocene, queer and trans theory in particular offer poignant perspectives (that Anohni released Hopelessness as her first album publicly announcing her trans identity while also engaging deeply with issues around climate change strikes me as a fitting congruence). The knowledges afforded by queer and trans perspectives teach us, among other things, what it means to inhabit realities, environments, and embodiments that do not conform to normative scripts of various kinds.

In her book Strange Natures, Nicole Seymour offers a compelling union of queer theory and environmental criticism, using the former’s means for resisting “the natural” to help us see more clearly the world around us in all its nonnormative brilliance. Significantly, Seymour departs from strains of queer theory that reject futurity outright.

Seymour writes that while “queer theoretical work has tended to characterize futurity and future-thinking as heteronormative and pro-capitalist,” she maintains instead that “a queer ecological focus on futurity can highlight the fact that lack of concern for the future more accurately characterizes regimes such as heteronormativity and global capitalism” (183).

She insists that queer ecology must make room for thinking the future, but instead of a triumphalist, masculinist approach to environmentalism, she advocates for “a specifically queer ecological ethic of care: a care not rooted in stable or essentialized identity categories, a care that is not just a means of solving human-specific problems, a care that does not operate out of expectation for recompense” (184). In both Strange Natures (particularly in her chapter on Shelley Jackson’s Half Life) and in her more recent work, Seymour insists on the value of adopting ironic, irreverent, and humorous forms of engagement with ecological issues.

Seymour explores more fully a wide range of irreverent takes on environmentalism in her recent book Bad Environmentalism (U of Minnesota P, 2018).

Jack Halberstam writes at the end of The Queer Art of Failure that “to live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately to die; rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy” (187). Seymour works with a similar insight and ports it into the realm of ecological thinking, feeling, and action. Writing about ecocinema, she argues that “unserious affective modes can do serious work, sometimes even more successfully than serious ones” ( “Irony and Contemporary Ecocinema” 73). That does not mean that serious affects have no place in discourses concerning ecology, nor does it mean that we ought to stop seriously searching for ways to prevent ecological catastrophe from getting worse. But it does mean that we ought to accept that it’s already happened, that we’ve made it happen, and that as we fight against the forces that brought us here, we ought to do so precisely by continuing to fail, by reveling in our own absurdity, and by examining ourselves with irony, humor, and care. To do so is a collective endeavor (“Failure loves company,” writes Halberstam), and if we fail together, if we co-llapse, then “all our failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winner” (121, 120).

Romanticism is arguably a failed project, but it’s one that continues. We hear it when listening to the minimalist techno of Gas or The Field and pairing their relentless looping patterns with Wordsworth’s poetics of repetition in Lyrical Ballads. We see it when gazing at the lush trash-pesties of El Anatsui, who takes the detritus of global capitalism and converts it to sensuous excess, not dissimilar to Keats’s translations of the materials of his belated literary inheritance into something entirely richer, fairer, brighter than what came before him (all the while failing more spectacularly than he ever could have succeeded). We sense and feel it in the system-creating work of saxophonist Colin Stetson (after seeing him perform in between two days of reading Blake with my students, I enthusiastically related to them that I had an epiphany: at a particularly intense moment of his consistently visceral performance, a massive glob of spit fell from his mouth to the floor; meanwhile his alien soundscapes continued to flow throughout the room, and I realized that the saliva was a latter day “corroding fire,” stripping away the surface of things to reveal the substance of his art as material all the way down, but infinite nevertheless). And we think through it when we attempt to contemplate the spatiotemporal vastness of climate change.

In Timothy Morton’s term, the distribution of climate change across massive spatial and temporal scales renders it a “hyperobject.”

Helen Maria Williams’s mental time-travel reflections on the French Revolution anticipates the structures of thought we must adopt when contemplating the future of humanity, though we might replace Williams’s enthusiasm with our melancholy (which, we need always to remind ourselves, shares an abode with joy):

Future ages will celebrate, with grateful commemoration, the fourteenth of July; and strangers, when they visit France, will hasten with impatience to the Champ de Mars. . . . I think I hear them exclaim, “Here the Federation was held! here an assembled nation devoted themselves to freedom!” I fancy I see them pointing out the spot on which the altar of the country stood. I see them eagerly searching for the place where they have heard it recorded, that the National Assembly were seated! I think of these things, and then repeat to myself with transport, “I was a spectator of the Federation!”

But these meditations have led me to travel through the space of so many centuries, that it is really difficult to get back again to the present times. (107–8)

It is difficult, but we do get back again to present times, where we recall our failures, as Williams would do in her later volumes of the Letters Written in France, as her enthusiasm about the revolution waned, even as she ultimately remained optimistic. Perhaps now that our own ruin is so apparent to us, optimism is the wrong affect. Let us adopt instead, modifying Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” a kind pessimism. Optimistic triumphalism in the realm of the Anthropocene would merely reinscribe the same ideologies that got us here. “History Lesson,” the closing track on Nicholas Jaar’s album Sirens, sums up the Anthropocene well: “Chapter one: we fucked up. / Chapter two: we did it again, and again, and again, and again.” Let’s accept it, admit it, and do what we can with love and care to move into a future that we cannot possibly know.

Contemporary fiction, music, and art are crucial for helping us to imagine new worlds with the kindness needed to accompany our pessimism. That means empathy, love, and humor in the place of the nihilistic despair we find in popular postapocalyptic fictions like The Walking Dead, which compulsively repeats hypermasculinist fantasies of pure capitalist competition wherein the currency is life and success means taking someone else’s before they take yours. Instead we need works like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, in which most of Manhattan is underwater, but where new social and political forms nevertheless take shape, and where the possibilities for the future are not simply echoes of past moribund systems. We need music like Austra’s Future Politics, which refuses to accede to the stagnant politics of despair, hypocrisy, and moral decrepitude embodied so horrifyingly by the current American president, and instead creates a musical and lyrical vocabulary for sincerely envisioning a future of love, empathy, and radical alterity. We need novels like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, the final entry in the trilogy of the same name, in which we find humans, pigoons (genetically engineered pigs designed to have their organs harvested), and Crakers (a new species of human abandoned by their creator) forging solidarity across species lines in the aftermath of ecological disaster and the death of most of the Earth’s human population. Atwood’s novel manages uproariously funny moments throughout, even as it also consistently reminds readers of the unimaginable suffering humans have visited upon one another in its world.

To conclude, then, where might we find humor in Romanticism? And more importantly, where do we find the right kind of humor, one appropriate to confronting the Anthropocene? As I so often do, I find answers to these questions through John Keats. Although he might often be seen as an emblematically serious poet of High Romanticism, Keats is also ridiculously funny, even in his darkest moments of despair. My friend and colleague Michael Theune has pointed out (in many conversations with me over the years, and recently in print) that when Keats writes of feeling like he is “leading a posthumous existence” (Letters 359)—a phrase that becomes deeply entwined with narratives about Keats’s deathly seriousness—he is making a pun! When he comes up with that phrase, Keats has arrived in Italy, separated from his love and increasingly resigned to his imminent death. As if dying from tuberculosis apart from all his loved ones weren’t bad enough, he also had to endure a vicious journey by ship, and upon finally arriving in Naples, he still could not go ashore for another 10 days, needing first to survive a quarantine period. Writing from Rome a month later, Keats tells his friend Charles Brown about using punning as a response to his horrific circumstances: “at my worst, even in Quarantine, [I] summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life” (Letters 360). It’s in this same letter that Keats reflects on the feeling of “leading a posthumous existence.” Now, Keats loves to pun; we know this. Keats loves Shakespeare; we know this as well. What we tend to miss with “posthumous existence” is that it combines these two loves. As Theune explains, “Keats, exiled to Italy, away from his beloved Fanny Brawne, is leading a life like that of Posthumus, the character from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, who is exiled to Italy and so separated from his beloved Imogen” (48). If Keats can find space for humor in his grim personal circumstances, then surely we can do so in the face of collective global doom.

But there remain more ways to learn humor from Keats. If humor and irony (and maybe even acceptance) emerge out of failure, then Keats ought to be able to teach us a thing or two. The critical discourse around Keats from his day to our own rests on the idea that he begins his career with (mostly) embarrassing failures which he manages to transform into affirmative successes a few years later. While this narrative certainly has merit, I suggest that one under-regarded area of late failure, and late humor, is Keats’s final, long but unfinished poem, The Cap and Bells; or The Jealousies, or as Keats himself referred to it, “Lucy Vaughan Lloyd,” so named for the moniker under which he planned to publish it. One imagines that as Keats was travelling to Rome with the knowledge that he was surely to die there, perhaps still feeling, as he had in February 1820, that he had “left no immortal work behind” (Letters 263), he might have thought to himself, with a bit of gallows laughter, “And 'Lucy Vaughan Lloyd' was the last thing I worked on?!” I don’t have the space here to develop a full reading of the poem, but for the purposes of putting its humor into the context of affective response to the Anthropocene, consider two things: the poem narrates a civilization of fairies who seem to have a better understanding of the vast spaces of the globe and their interrelations than do humans, even as the main fairy characters desire to flee to the human realm and be with their human lovers; and at the same time, the poem subtly gestures toward the defining global climate catastrophe of the Romantic period, the eruption of Mount Tambora.

The poem includes Crafticant’s diary recollections from traveling with Bellanaine across the world, in which he recalls the following sight:Beheld afar off, in the hooded shadeOf darkness, a great mountain (strange to speak),Spitting, from forth its sulphur-baken peak,A fan-shaped burst of blood-red, arrowy fire,Turban’d with smoke, which still away did reek,5Solid and black from that eternal pyre,Upon the laden winds that scantly could respire. (660–66)

The fairies understand the global environment, but they desire to inhabit an insouciant and unknowing human perspective in which erotic desire is all that matters. At the same time, during their journey the fairies Crafticant and Bellanaine conquer space and time with more mastery than humans, given that they travel through the Gobi desert to Afghanistan and arrive in western India, even though their journey began in Nepal. Perhaps the imprecise or impossible aerial navigation results from Keats’s lack of knowledge or interest in such matters. But if that is the case, it only supports the poem’s broader satire, which demonstrates that the fairies who know too much simply want to be silly like us and not worry about the broader world. The Anthropocene shows us that we can’t afford to not know, but if we are to survive it, we also need to laugh at, critique, and ironize the bases upon which our knowledges rest, particularly now that the reigning political discourse in the United States treats knowledge with such disdain. To do so is an affective challenge that will permeate all aspects of cultural life; the classroom enables the possibility that such affective poses could radiate outward, gathering strength and spreading to other people and spaces as we all move into the future.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 29–51.
Anohni. Hopelessness. Rough Trade and Secretly Canadian, 2016.
Atwood, Margaret. MaddAddam. Anchor, 2013.
Austra. “We Were Alive.” Future Politics, Domino, 2017.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media.” Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster, Stanford UP, 1988, pp. 207–19.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke UP, 2010.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Translated by Ann Smock, U of Nebraska P, 1982.
Colleen. “Winter Dawn.” A flame my love, a frequency, Thrill Jockey, 2017.
Collings, David A. Stolen Future, Broken Present: The Human Significance of Climate Change. Open Humanities Press, 2014.
Frost, Samantha. Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human. Duke UP, 2016.
Gillis, Justin, and Nadja Popovich. “The U.S. Is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal.” New York Times, 1 Jun. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/01/climate/us-biggest-carbon-polluter-in-history-will-it-walk-away-from-the-paris-climate-deal.html. Accessed 26 Jun. 2017.
Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
Jaar, Nicholas. “History Lesson.” Sirens, Other People, 2016.
Jakobson, Roman. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” Style and Language, edited by Thomas Sebeok, MIT Press, 1960, pp. 350–77.
Keats, John. Complete Poems. Edited by Jack Stillinger, Belknap Press, 1978.
———. The Letters of John Keats, 1814–1821. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, vol. 2, Harvard UP, 1958.
Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard UP, 2010.
———. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. U of Minnesota P, 2013.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. Orbit, 2017.
Ruderman, D. B., and Rachel Feder. “Introduction.” Teaching Romanticism with the Contemporary, edited by D.B. Ruderman and Rachel Feder, Pedagogy Commons, Romantic Circles, April 2017, http://www.romantic-circles.org/pedagogies/commons/contemporary/pedagogies.commons.2016.contemporary.intro.html.
Scranton, Roy. Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. City Lights Books, 2015.
Seymour, Nicole. Bad Environmentalism. U of Minnesota P, 2018.
———. “Irony and Contemporary Ecocinema: Theorizing a New Affective Paradigm.” Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, Ecology, and Film, edited by Alexa Weik von Mossner, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2014, pp. 61–78.
———. Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination. U of Illinois P, 2013.
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Edited by Morton D. Paley, Oxford UP, 1998.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton, 2002.
Theune, Michael. “Keats’s ‘Negative Capability’ and Hazlitt’s ‘Natural Capacity.’” Keats’s Negative Capability, edited by Brian Rejack and Michael Theune, Liverpool UP, 2019, pp. 47–59.
Tomkins, Silvan S. Affect Imagery Consciousness. Volume I: The Positive Affects. Springer, 1962.
Tsing, Anna, et al. “Introduction.” Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts of the Anthropocene, edited by Tsing et al., U of Minnesota P, 2017, pp. G1–G14.
VanderMeer, Jeff. Acceptance. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014.
Washington, Chris. “Romanticism and Speculative Realism.” Literature Compass, vol. 12, no. 9, 2015, pp. 448–60.
Weyes Blood. “Generation Why.” Front Row Seat to Earth, Mexican Summer, 2016.
Williams, Helen Maria. Letters Written in France, in the Summer 1790, To a Friend in England. London, 1790.
Wolf Parade. “Valley Boy.” Cry Cry Cry, Sub Pop, 2017.


1. In both Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton argues that melancholy is the privileged affect of the Anthropocene. While he does note that the “ecological thought . . . is realistic, depressing, intimate, alive and ironic all at the same time,” I suggest that irony—and particularly playful, joyful irony—ought to receive more attention and emphasis (Ecological Thought 16). I share with both Chris Washington and Morton the sense that we can do without the irony of “postmodern hipster posturing” and its “T-shirt sloganeering” (Washington 454; Morton, Hyperobjects 173). Washington suggests that Romantic irony, particularly in its tragic register, can help us “be relocated into the tragedy of the present rather than the farce of the future” (454). But the tragedy of the present needs the irony of the fool as well—an irony of joy as well as of sorrow, and utterly, embarrassingly sincere with respect to both. [back]
2. From the Latin col- (together) labi (to fall). The OED notes that the participial adjective “collapsed” appears to have emerged (from the Latin form, collapsus) before the verb and noun usages. [back]
3. While here I pose this cycle with specific beginning and ending points, of course in practice people enter into or exit the circle at different points and in different ways. [back]
4. My account of the vibrancy and vitality of objects in this paragraph is indebted to Jane Bennett’s model of agency in Vibrant Matter. [back]
5. In Hyperobjects Tim Morton argues as much to explain the impossibility of fully cognizing a massively distributed (across time and space) object like global warming. [back]
6. Seymour writes that while “queer theoretical work has tended to characterize futurity and future-thinking as heteronormative and pro-capitalist,” she maintains instead that “a queer ecological focus on futurity can highlight the fact that lack of concern for the future more accurately characterizes regimes such as heteronormativity and global capitalism” (183). [back]
7. Seymour explores more fully a wide range of irreverent takes on environmentalism in her recent book Bad Environmentalism (U of Minnesota P, 2018). [back]
8. In Timothy Morton’s term, the distribution of climate change across massive spatial and temporal scales renders it a “hyperobject.” [back]
9. The poem includes Crafticant’s diary recollections from traveling with Bellanaine across the world, in which he recalls the following sight:
Beheld afar off, in the hooded shade
Of darkness, a great mountain (strange to speak),
Spitting, from forth its sulphur-baken peak,
A fan-shaped burst of blood-red, arrowy fire,
Turban’d with smoke, which still away did reek,5
Solid and black from that eternal pyre,
Upon the laden winds that scantly could respire. (660–66)