Media Adaptations and Ecocritical Perspectives in the Anthropocene: Teaching Wordsworth’s "Written in Germany, On One of the Coldest Days of the Century"

This essay outlines a media adaptation exercise instructors can use to investigate the role of the Romantic subject or the lyric “I” in this latest phase of geological time, the Anthropocene. As a test case, it focuses on the overlooked lyrical ballad, Wordsworth’s "Written in Germany." It explores terms for analyzing media and media adaptations in the classroom. It investigates how media adaptations can lay bare the rhetoric of the first-person perspective and the philosophical implications of the self’s relationship to nature. Last, it situates the Romantic-era subject within a broader historical and ecological context, and it considers the centered, first-person perspective in relation to marginalized perspectives and the “view from nowhere.” The essay concludes with the importance of allowing shifting perspectives to migrate across multiple media.

Media Adaptations and Ecocritical Perspectives in the Anthropocene: Teaching Wordsworth’s "Written in Germany, On One of the Coldest Days of the Century"

1.        In a discussion of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), Dipesh Chakrabarty writes that historians now find themselves in a paradoxical moment where the tools used for reflecting on the past may no longer aid us in thinking about the future. If the end of human existence, or something close to it, is a future on the horizon, it requires that “we [historians] insert ourselves into a future ‘without us’ in order to visualize it” (197–98). By “visualizing” it, Chakrabarty may refer to the graphs and figures that historians use to spatialize events occurring over time. A history of the formal visualization of history would likely begin in the eighteenth century with Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), who was, according to Rosenberg and Grafton, “the first to lay out systematic principles for the translation of historical data into a visual medium” (116). Indeed, Priestley’s maps of time, and others like it, were dramatically changing the image of humans in history.

2.        But visualizations of history may also refer to human relations, if not in a world without us, then perhaps in a postapocalyptic world where humans have been reduced to oral culture or no culture at all. In the Anthropocene, a term coined by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer to indicate the planetary stage from 1750 to the present, humans have become geological agents, and with this agency it has become increasingly clear that the relatively hospitable environment of the Holocene could be replaced by the relatively inhospitable “desert of the real.” Indeed, The Matrix (1999), from which the quote is taken, along with other postapocalyptic films like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), have already provided images of human relations on the brink of total annihilation. Yet the maturation of these more artistic visualizations and their rhetorical implications can be traced back to the late eighteenth century and the postapocalyptic imagery of Romanticism.

3.        The historical narrative of our mediated relationship to the planet is more significant today in the age of global warming. It is important because the various media through which humans can know the conditions of the earth might ultimately determine our species’ place on it. Yet a pernicious skepticism with respect to climate science (second only to capitalist greed) continues to impede global measures towards curbing the human destruction of a habitable planet. Can the origin of this current skepticism also be located in the Romantic period? While Romanticism can be characterized by what Kevis Goodman refers to as an emerging “medium consciousness,” which shared an almost parallel rise with what James McKusick calls the “[invention] of ‘human ecology,’” the same period also emphasizes local and subjective beliefs that render scientific data about the earth’s conditions too “calculating” and “instrumentalist” to be of concern for serious humanistic inquiry. [1] Of course, the antiscientific understanding of Romanticism is no longer tenable, as has been made clear by numerous studies, like Noel Jackson’s Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (2008) and Theresa Kelley’s Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture (2012), among others. But it is worth asking exactly how the synthesizers of media consciousness and ecology (i.e., Romantic-era authors) parsed out and hierarchized different genres of media and why; how these media shaped the way that that they related to the planet and thereby produced a particular brand of ecology; and how their conclusions can aid visualizations of human relations in the forthcoming age, if they can at all. My aim in the present essay is to outline an exercise for eliciting such an inquiry in the classroom. In short, this essay asks: How can we use media adaptations to teach and reinforce the history of our mediated relationship to the earth in the Anthropocene?

4.        Numerous studies have recently drawn attention to media in the Romantic period, focusing variously on the mediation of the past (Goodman), present human feelings (Chandler), human relations at a distance (Favret), and the sheer excess of media and information (Langan). [2] Meanwhile, few studies have yet to address the Romantic mediation of the planet as a thing with a particular history extending into the present. Some might object to this warrant’s presentism, a position that has sparked renewed debate. [3] The problem is that charges of presentism can be narrowly anthropocentric, and so it should be asked: Presentism according to whom? From the perspective of the planet, the human geological reengineering of its surface is a roughly 300-year-old problem “beginning” with the Industrial Revolution (not counting the thousands of years it took to accumulate the necessary technical know-how). If the present is a problem of perspective and metrics, and the Anthropocene has been and will remain the geological period for some time, even after human existence, then our only recourse to encountering this present is through a mediated—indeed, a very mediated—relationship.

5.        But it is also productive to revisit Romantic-era writers in discussions of the Anthropocene because they were thinking about the instability of their position on earth, as David Collings and others have demonstrated. [4] While poems tend to maintain a centered, subjective, personal outlook, there are also moments when the species’ position on the planet is called into question. Accordingly, the first-person perspective might become subordinated to other views; it may become of equal value; or it may be represented as the one and only one in a “last man” scenario. Regardless of the outcome, it is appropriate and timely to reinforce the emphasis on media in Romantic-era texts by introducing an adaptation project that fleshes out our mediated relationship to the planet. And adaptations are important because they encourage students to think critically and creatively about changes to human relationships that adapt with changes to the earth.

6.        In what follows, I focus on a shorter exercise in which students adapt a lyric poem to a hand-drawn illustration. Of course, other media might seem more obvious. Recently, Stephanie Hershinow has written an instructive essay on selfies and Romantic-era novels in the classroom. At bottom, Hershinow’s essay is a “defense of relatability.” No doubt, the ubiquity of the digital image today helps students relate to the text. But it helps them relate to the text according to today. The purpose of the illustrated adaptation may seem a bit backwards given the emphasis on the current geological epoch. And yet, adapting the poem to an illustration allows students to open a new point of access by transforming something unfamiliar into something rudimentary (indeed, rude), the importance of which cannot be overstated. For if humans are to survive in an age of recurring climate disasters, in barely habitable slums, and with minimal access to resources, digital visualizations might help. More likely, under such grim conditions, maintaining basic tools for thought and communication may become a key feature of teaching/education at any level, because, in short, making pictures might be what is available.

7.        The goal of the adaptation is to see the source text in a new way that can draw attention to the poem’s details—especially those related to the medium itself—which may be less apparent by reading the poem in its written form only. Through the same process, students will enhance their media literacy; they will investigate a Romantic relationship between the self and nature; and ultimately, they will situate this relationship in a larger history of ecocritical perspectives. It is within this larger history that Romanticism becomes especially useful in the Anthropocene, for it unabashedly raises questions regarding how to orient one’s self in a world without clear markers for orientation, without an indication of one’s dominant (or subordinate) status, or a path leading one beyond any foreseeable horizon. For readers primarily interested in an in-class activity that they can add to their repertoire, I will focus in the first section exclusively on an adaptation exercise with respect to Wordsworth’s “Written in Germany” from Lyrical Ballads (1800). In the second section, I will present a vocabulary for interpreting media and media representations in Wordsworth’s poem. The third section focuses on the poem’s depiction of a typical Romantic-era ecocritical perspective: the centered point of view. Last, by offering a brief outline of a class as a whole, I show how a course might locate Wordsworth’s outlook in a broader historical context, bringing the Romantic outlook into contact with views from the Anthropocene that cannot afford to be restricted to the margins.

Illustrating Wordsworth’s "Written in Germany"

8.        "Written in Germany, on One of the Coldest Days of the Century" features Wordsworth sitting alone in his cottage, warmed by a stove, and addressing a housefly that mistakes the stove’s heat for the warm weather that has yet to arrive. What follows is a short description of the fly’s predicament in relation to Wordsworth’s situation. It contains a promise that Wordsworth will look after the fly until the coming spring, followed by an apostrophe to a lover, and concludes with a reference to God as the witness guaranteeing the equilibrium of the world (the return of spring). The poem thereby ends with a more optimistic and less ambiguous version of Shelley’s question, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (70). Between the address to a nonhuman thing and the emphasis on return or recuperation, "Written in Germany" certainly belongs to the larger body of Wordsworth’s work on nature. But given the obscurity of the poem and its almost utter absence from literary criticism, why focus on this nature poem?

9.        While most classes on ecopoetry or ecocriticism are likely to study Wordsworth’s "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" (1798), pairing it with "Written in Germany" more adequately demonstrates Wordsworth’s direct engagement with the conditions of the planet: [5]

Our earth is no doubt made of excellent stuff,
But her pulses beat slower and slower,
The weather in Forty was cutting and rough,
And then, as Heaven knows, the glass stood low enough,
And now it is four degrees lower. (6–10)
Departing from his pantheistic stance in "Tintern Abbey," regarding nature as a motion and a spirit, Wordsworth looks at the earth in "Written in Germany" through a Lockean lens. The planet is a body with a lifespan—and it is on a downward trajectory. A course on ecocriticism and textual studies would make much of the fact that the second stanza was included in the poem from 1800–1815, and from this date on it is absent from most collections. One could argue that the later editorial decision as well as the poem’s current online presence overlooks an earlier, more ecocentric version of Wordsworth.

10.        In the classroom, students can synthesize the many variables of Wordsworth’s poem by illustrating it. When they arrive in class, the desks are clustered together with paper and markers, crayons, and colored pencils. I withhold prefatory remarks, and instead, with the prompts already distributed, I let students jump into the activity. Beginning with the activity is an inductive approach to teaching. It allows students to go “into the field” to create a host of examples, and from these samples their conclusions ensue. If the course is more focused on environmental science (perhaps as part of a literature and science course), this approach can reinforce the rise of inductive reasoning. [6]

11.        After which, students select a quote from the poem that captures an important part or the “whole” of the image. It is an especially useful step for demonstrating how images and the written word are in conversation with each other. Through various combinations, students can play with literal reinforcements, ironic twists, or juxtapositions. Finally, students share their work, providing an account for why they chose to depict Wordsworth’s poem the way they did, and why they selected this particular quote.

12.        Administering this exercise on five separate occasions, I have seen an impressive range of variations on Wordsworth’s poem. A typical adaptation includes a poet/speaker figure by a stove inside a cottage. Many of the illustrations place the speaker in the center of the image. The other common variation removes the poet altogether, as if the student were assuming the role of poet describing the cottage, objects, and atmosphere. There is also a significant tendency among students to interpret the poem from an ecocentric standpoint—centering the fly rather than the human narrator.

13.        The adaptation becomes an exercise in visual rhetoric. The transposition from one medium to another requires students to ask a different set of questions regarding how the objects depicted relate to one another: [7] Why are some things big and some small, some centered and some marginalized, some outlined and some filled in, some foregrounded and some backgrounded, and some included and some excluded? As students hear the many explanations behind these myriad images, they realize that each iteration convinces audiences of a different message. Some are anthropocentric, some ecocentric; some are optimistic, some pessimistic. Finally, hanging the images together on the wall demonstrates the incredible nuances of the source text and our reading of it. As I say, it is just like in art class: we’re all painting the same bowl of fruit, but the variety of outcomes is nearly infinite.

14.        The exercise also demonstrates that drawing can be part of the writing process. The illustration provides a foothold allowing students to see the poem as a whole and from multiple perspectives. Plus, drawing in a group setting demonstrates the collaborative nature of reading and writing. Last, because students engage with the poem in a creative register, they gain insight into how artworks are made—namely, by transposing an idea from one medium to another. So, while it may seem like a gratuitous detour, students ultimately arrive at a greater appreciation for the wide range of steps leading to a final product and the individual value of those steps.

15.        Before entering an extended analysis of the exercise’s significance, I want to point out what is obvious and also the easiest point to miss: if we want to visualize ourselves in the Anthropocene, any picture of the self today already achieves this goal. Twenty-five years ago, I doubt that anyone was drawing this particular Wordsworth poem. And no one was posting images of this poem to Twitter. It is a truism of phenomenology that it is difficult to notice an old medium, or one taken for granted, like a hand-drawn illustration. But technically, once the picture is posted online, that particular combination of media (a digitized illustration) is a relatively recent outlet. The blending of older and newer media can obfuscate not just what we are seeing, but when we are seeing. In other words, visualizing ourselves in a world without us is still a challenge to be addressed, but it is important to bear in mind that we are already visualizing ourselves in the Anthropocene. We could not use these media in this combination without the Anthropocene, and the converse is also true. So, if hand-drawn illustrations of Wordsworth’s poetry strike some as too cute to be taken seriously, consider that their digitized existence on the internet is bound necessarily to the geological reengineering of the planet.

Media Hot and Cold

16.        Conducting media adaptations in the classroom clarifies the content of the source text, but it also draws attention to the media of the source text and its adaptation. To understand the significance of the media involved, it is necessary to provide students with a vocabulary for interpreting how we relate to media and how different mediums relate to one another (“media” and “mediums” are both acceptable plural forms of “medium”). [8] The OED defines a medium variously as “something which is intermediate . . . a middle state”; an “intermediate agency, instrument, or channel; a means”; a currency or “anything commonly agreed as a token of value and used in transactions”; “any raw material or mode of expression used in an artistic or creative activity”; a “channel of mass communication” or a “physical material (as tape, disk, paper, etc.) used for recording or reproducing data, images or sound”; and, in the natural world, any “intervening substance through which a force acts on objects at a distance or through which impressions are conveyed to the senses.” I tell students to think of the medium as the vehicle for the content (which is really just another medium). Studying media avoids hermeneutic questions like “What does the text mean?” Instead, media studies can ask, “How fast is a text produced/circulated? How many copies are there? And how many audience members can participate at a given time?” In short, media studies describes how literature functions.

17.        Marshall McLuhan offers two useful terms for describing how media work: “hot” and “cold.” A hot medium is one that provides lots of information that targets multiple senses. [9] For instance, the theater of the eighteenth century included moving bodies, spoken language, music, costumes, sets, props, and lights (each one is, of course, a different medium under the sign of “theater”). In such an immersive setting, a case could be made for affecting sound and vision, as well as olfactory and haptic senses. On the other end of the spectrum, a book of poetry is a relatively cold medium. It is ink and paper, read with the eyes and held with the hands. The most important distinction between the two examples is the audience’s level of participation. In the case of the theater, the viewer receives expressions of characters’ faces, the inflections of actors’ voices, and the hues of lights, costumes, and scenery. The theater’s details are determined external to the audience’s subjective perceptions. A written text might describe faces, voices, and environmental appearances, but the reader must mentally determine the output of this information. I tell students, cold media require lots of imagination, while hot media provide all the information “prepackaged.” One student, Dexter Blue, added the compelling idea in a recent class that hotter media require less imagination but an increase in attention: there are fewer blanks to fill in but more details to follow. [10] The more students parse out the nuances of a medium (and its many media), the more complicated the conversation becomes.

18.        Comparing the poem "Written in Germany" to an illustration requires a subtle analysis. Students might object: “If we’re only concerned with the medium, then our drawings are no different than the poem.” Indeed, the two artifacts belong to the same medial family: both are ink on paper. But typeface and hand-drawn illustrations vary in terms of style and expression, including texture, color, and movement. These conventions can all be measured in terms of determination. In the majority of printed texts, the type tends to be relatively uniform from copy to copy and even from book to book; when it is not uniform, the typeface calls attention to the written word as a medium (consider the genre of concrete poetry, for example). At which point, the word migrates from a linguistic to a visual modality. So yes, the two media share a great deal. The challenge is dividing them.

19.        At another level, McLuhan’s terms can also inform students’ understanding of media as represented in the poem. In the last lines of the second stanza, Wordsworth explains that in 1740 the weather was “cutting and rough,” but “now,” according to the “glass” (or the thermometer), it is “four degrees lower.” It is a happy coincidence that an exercise on the poem and the “temperature” of its medium includes a thermometer among the poem’s many images. Likely a representative or metonym for “science,” it seems like a cool medium at first: thermometers provide very little information and target only a single sense faculty. Indeed, counter to the theater, scientific instruments tend to belong to a strictly visual field. And unlike the printed text, their strictly quantitative notation system diminishes room for interpretation: 40 degrees is 40 degrees in all times and places (of course, this absolute is a little less than absolute, given the competing scales, Fahrenheit and Celsius, both eighteenth-century inventions). But when determining the “temperature” of a medium (in this case, the thermometer), it is necessary to consider the object in relation to other objects of its time (synchronically) as well as its place within a wider history of media (diachronically). [11] In this case, Wordsworth wants the coolness of the technical object to stand in stark contrast to the “excellent stuff” that makes up the planet. And the planet is of an ever-increasing age and an ever-decreasing temperature. Accordingly, the thermometer is technically “hotter” than the earth. The poem thus becomes a debate on scientific media versus natural or ecomedia, where the former (instruments) are becoming increasingly adept at “reading” the latter (planet). It is not the case that Wordsworth’s scientific object actually provides more information or targets more sense faculties than the earth (synchronically), but if he is evaluating them on a scale according to age, then scientific inventions are on the newer, hotter end of the spectrum (diachronically).

20.        Thus students learn that no medium operates in total isolation. Even the various media in and outside of Wordsworth’s poem maintain a relationship: the planet does feel cooler, which requires a thermometer to measure and a stove to keep warm; the stove allows Wordsworth to remain awake, meditating with his mind and speaking with his voice; we are holding the book documenting this scene; and through the printed words on the page, we are giving voice to Wordsworth’s ideas, very likely with the aid of a light bulb or a screen. McLuhan would say that media alter human relationships—the stove brings humans around the fire, and the lightbulb allows us to have night class. Today, we might say that we are entangled in an “ecology of reading” and the terms “hot” and “cool” can help us measure these relationships—if not precisely, at least in terms that students can readily apply in and outside of the classroom. [12]

21.        The end goal is to help students think about the value of the range of temperatures among different media in the Anthropocene. As literary scholars concerned with the conditions of the planet, there may be a tendency to downplay the value of hot media. After all, they require less imagination, thus diminishing one’s ability to enter another’s perspective. But the downside of a cooler medium may be that visualizing one’s self leads to some pretty solipsistic interpretations of the present or the future. So it is not enough to simply say that cool media are worth more than hot media, for the perspective one embodies in the act of imagining a world can quickly diminish the adequacy of the representation. It may become, in John Keats’ terms, an instance of the egotistical sublime. Accordingly, in an evaluation of media adaptations in the Anthropocene, an analysis of media at play still requires additional modes of inquiry: perspective must also be considered.

Self and Nature

22.        Adapting “Written in Germany” to a visual modality and different media also draws out the poem’s implications for the self or the lyric “I” in relation to nature. The history of the lyric “I” is already tied up with the development of this genre’s medium. With the rise of print culture comes the parallel shift from a public to a private lyric. The material history corresponds with a change internal to the genre, the switch from external address to internal meditation. As Scott Brewster introduces the topic, this turn within the genre represents the dominant form of lyric poetry, and reaches maturity during the Romantic period, at the same time that Wordsworth and his circle “elevate” the poet “who becomes synonymous with the lyric ‘I’” (30, 73). In addition to the dialectic between public and private, Brewster’s study explores additional dichotomies within the lyric: timelessness and history, objectivity and subjectivity, and, what is most important for our purposes, self and nature. Echoing Robert Langbaum, Brewster claims that the lyric “constitutes a blurring of the inner and outer worlds: the self is projected onto external nature, which in turn becomes a mirror that reflects back an image of the self” (84). While it is a convenient way to model the self, in the last decade Timothy Morton has promoted a critique of this binary relationship. For Morton, the ecocritic ought to beware of the Romantic subject showcasing the natural landscape: “Instead of looking at the trees, look at the person who looks at the trees” (125). Morton’s advice is rhetorical; for him, the speaker determines the message. Thus, critics should ask, Who is the figure at the center? How have they come to be determined as a speaking self in the first place? And can the speaker be trusted? An examination of the medium through which this figure is encountered can contribute to answering these questions.

23.        Because Wordsworth is often depicted in student drawings as a singular individual resting inside a cottage, his position stands in contradistinction to the freezing landscape, which the students make visible by way of a lone window. It is an apt depiction of the “theater of the mind.” This arrangement quickly establishes a division between self and nature, inside and outside, or mind and world. At this stage, students might be introduced to empirical and idealist tendencies in the long eighteenth century. For if everything “outside” the cottage is determined by Wordsworth’s narrator “inside,” the poem seems to maintain the so-called idealist views of George Berkeley, whose influence can be felt in the period from Blake to Byron. [13] An empirically based idealism calls into question any certainty with respect to objects “outside” of one’s thoughts. The appeal of such a philosophy is the stability it lends to the self. The problem is the instability it lends to everything else. In addition to centering the narrator, the students’ images continue to bolster the poem’s latent idealism by “flattening” the entire poem onto a single page or domain, with only a window to indicate something beyond the medium.

24.        Yet the self-contained image of the lyric “I” is often disturbed in literature by a nonhuman intervention. In Wordsworth’s case, a fly happens upon the scene and tiptoes across the stove’s hot iron surface. In literature more generally, Morton explains, the introduction of a nonhuman other destabilizes the illusion of a self-contained “I,” separated from the nature “over there” (99–100). It is an object from the outside which has broached the barrier separating the dreamer from the dream. Furthermore, the fly is the very figure of the disorientation that comes with significant, global, ecological changes. The fly in "Written in Germany" has lost all sense of space and time. The fly is a “fool,” “seduc’d” from its “winter retreat” by the heat of the stove, and now creeps across the flat black iron surface, a postapocalyptic image wrought by human hands (11–15). The parallel between the fly and Wordsworth is apparent enough: the poet is also a fool in the wrong place at the wrong time, vacationing in Germany in the dead of winter. Moreover, the postapocalyptic situation of the fly (the sun is gone; the earth is flat, black, and hot) is just one of many possible outcomes also available to Wordsworth. Thus this stranger thing calls into question the stability of the presence that the lyric “I” presupposes, and encourages the suspicion that the fly, Wordsworth, all of us really, are just aimless objects.

25.        Of course, Wordsworth attempts to reestablish the inside/outside barrier, but through two very different means: generically and theologically. Consistent with Morton’s formula for ecomimesis, first denying a separation between self and nature but then reifying the difference in the process, the poet contains nature by naming it. [14] Wordsworth identifies nature according to a particular time and place, a common convention of Romantic nature/lyric poetry (Brewster 76–77). In "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth points to a particular time and place in the title, "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798." He thus transitions once and for all from the timeless/divine plane to a historical/earthly one, creating a convenient heading for the index at the end of the book of the world. The title, "Written in Germany," is a less obvious marker because it provides no chronological date, but—and perhaps in a more adequate representation of a particular aspect of reality—it names a specific “location” in the history of the earth through temperature (“on One of the Coldest Days of the Century”). Date and location become temperature and location. Or perhaps more accurate still, especially in a discussion of the longue durée of the planet: time is temperature. Here, the reality of Wordsworth’s situation gets the better of his ecomimesis: between the poet’s relocation to Germany and the temperature’s low point, the central figure of the poet is, in fact, just as disoriented as the fly—he just doesn’t know it yet.

26.        Wordsworth’s final attempt to secure the self and the planet can be linked to an apostrophe, or an address to something or someone not present within the poem. [15] In this desolate plane, Wordsworth’s final recourse is God. It is the same logical move Berkeley makes in his philosophy. If essence is perception, things can exist independent of the human mind—even without humans—because ultimately, everything is a perception of God. Wordsworth also finds atonement in the divine testimony, “Yet, God is my witness” (36). God sees all, and thus, even the tree falling in the forest without a human nearby to hear it is real. The problem is that, if Wordsworth finds recourse through an all perceiving and all preserving deity, he remains in good standing even if he disavows scientific knowledge about the planet. Science charts global temperatures and allows Wordsworth to know that, in fact (as far as the information he had at the time could provide), the earth was cooling and becoming less hospitable to life. The safety net God provides brings Wordsworth in the end to the familiar conclusion of optimists, that all will return to a happy equilibrium: “thou small helpless Thing, / Thy life I would gladly sustain / Till summer comes up . . . and with crowds / Of thy brethren a march thou shoud’st sound through the clouds, / And back to the forests again” (36–40). Certainly, if Wordsworth restricts himself to “this” year, a “balance” between winter and spring, nature and self, life and death seems to be had. But the scale with which he begins (“coldest day of the century”) haunts the local perspective: the conditions of the earth must be measured according to hundreds of years (really, millions of years), not what’s happening next month. [16]

27.        While students can see Wordsworth in relationship to (nonhuman) others, neither poem nor visual adaptation satisfies the need to narrate social, political, and economic changes over such a long period time. This conclusion conflicts with the argument put forth by Nick Sousanis, who explains in Unflattening that illustrations (especially, comics), “are read sequentially like a text [and] the entire composition is also taken in—viewed—allatonce” (62). As the pictures on the page and the final phrase’s compression make clear, visual images can demonstrate change without movement, which makes them powerful tools for describing a longer (a much, much longer) narrative about the human position leading up to, within, and even after the Anthropocene. The problem in class is that most students do not draw Wordsworth’s story as a sequence. Instead, they depict Wordsworth and his relations in “a moment,” as the lyric genre would seem to encourage. So the source of the problem—visualizing the self in the Anthropocene with adequacy—can be located in Wordsworth’s point of view, the lyric “I,” which dominates the poem. What is needed then may be a different medium, but it also might be a different way of collating the information from within the same medium.

Center, Margin, Nowhere

28.        Placing Wordsworth’s poem and the Romantic subject in a broader historical context can raise awareness regarding the larger consequences of the centered view. The course can be divided into three sections. Opposite to the “center” is the view from the “margin,” and all first-person perspectives are called into question by the “view from nowhere.” The organization of the course allows students to recognize the consequences of multiple perspectives, as well as how these have developed over the centuries. Certainly, one could conduct an entire class on ecocritical perspectives from the standpoint of Romanticism alone, switching from anthropocentric to ecocentric views or, for instance, from Wordsworth to Charlotte Dacre. [17] But opening historical and generic boundaries is important because we cannot afford to approach the Anthropocene synchronically. While it will not be immediately apparent by focusing strictly on the centered or marginal view, by combining these perspectives with the view from nowhere, it becomes clear that what has happened is still happening and what will happen has happened already.

29.        To account for the margins, Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988) provide a long arc, obfuscating the “starting point” of the Anthropocene. Plus, turning from Wordsworth’s printed word to Shakespeare’s theater allows students to adapt the text to yet another medium: the stage. Performing the drama makes palpable the connection between Enlightenment science, the human determination of the planet, and the subordination of an indigenous people to European colonialists. [18] Reinforcing lessons from The Tempest, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day contrasts techno-rationalist science with local folk magic. [19] The former (science) is found in the city, whereas the latter (magic) endures on an island—on the margin of the continental United States. But Naylor’s narrative also complicates The Tempest and the view from the margin in meaningful ways. Unlike Caliban, Naylor’s characters are not explicitly oppressed by a single white patriarch; instead, they grapple with the subtle ways in which they have internalized white-American, rational-scientific values and beliefs with respect to people and the planet. Students benefit from analyzing how Naylor adapts aspects of Shakespeare’s play, while at the same time recognizing, as Donald J. Reilly points out, how she embeds Gothic conventions dating to the eighteenth century for the sake of creating “a space in which Naylor is able to write back against American hegemony” (243). Within the medium of the text there is a parallel tension with respect to “when” we are as well as “who” or “what” we are. Shakespeare and Naylor call into question the stability of the power over nature that accompanies the centered Romantic outlook even as they reckon with the difficulties that accompany resistance to this power.

30.         If the ability to resist the capitalist, patriarchic, and techno-rationalist destruction of the planet is compromised by one’s position within this system, then the view from the margins demonstrates on another level that visualizing the instability of the self and human relations within the Anthropocene may be a problem of perspective after all. Of course, such a conclusion ought to raise objections, as if I were suggesting that global warming—a sign of the Anthropocene—is merely a matter of interpretation. While global warming may be an adequate characterization of the planet’s current trajectory, human access to this current and future state remains subject to one’s cultural position. Plenty of information is available with respect to global warming and the Anthropocene, but an understanding of the fuller implications of this information requires the ability to visualize one’s self as subject to it, which requires the ability to visualize one’s self in an unstable position. The earlier part of this essay attempted to outline an exercise for precisely this purpose, visualizing one’s self in an unfamiliar time, place, and climate. But if the information being visualized is grounded in a centralized or marginalized perspective, the information may not communicate the actual conditions and changes to the earth. The information given and the changes depicted may become mere plot devices for effectuating a narrative of blind hope (or a capitalist vision of productive negativity).

31.        One solution to this potential pitfall is to subtract perspective altogether. In a section on the “view from nowhere,” students investigate representations of a view detached from its own situation. [20] Taking the subject out of the landscape eliminates the phenomenological approach to ecology, personal encounters with other objects and species, and perhaps most importantly, local time and space. Instead of near becomes far and far becomes near, here becomes nowhere and nowhere becomes everywhere. Such a view is exemplified in digital databases, and a good one to accompany Wordsworth’s poem is the "World Meteorological Organization Global Weather & Climate Extremes Archive," hosted by Arizona State University. It is a database containing extreme temperatures (similar to those found in "Written in Germany"), according to geographical location and date. As students gloss over the various names and numbers, I ask: Who is the narrator in this database? Who is the protagonist? Where is the beginning of this database, the climax, and the dénouement? Because databases do not include a narrator, hero, or a clear beginning, middle, and end, it is difficult to identify with the text or to follow it in relationship to one’s own position. Unlike a Wordsworth poem, The Tempest, or Gloria Naylor’s novel, there is no sequence that mirrors a moment, a few days, or the years of one’s life. Compared to the image, the database flattens time and space by eliminating any centered or marginal “I,” as well as the step-by-step sequence that inevitably leads to some action, discovery, or resolution. In the database, all events are equal.

32.        A database does not eliminate bias, but it is an additional aid for exposing “blind spots” in one’s reading. [21] In the case of "Written in Germany," Wordsworth writes about a foreign country he visits at a particular time, providing the English with a glimpse at the relative ways humans live out their moral-aesthetic lives. By contrast, the database can provide information on Germany in 1800 as well as the Philippines in 2017. With all of this information combined, climate scientists can make predictions about the planet hundreds of years into the future. Accordingly, the lack of a personal view (and the concomitant absence of a narrative) allows any place at any time on earth to have an equal value in relationship to any other place or time on earth. While some might see this “flattening out” of time and space as equivalent to an “emptying out” of personhood, the same mechanism also affords a place, such as the Philippines, an equitable position in relationship to the United States or the United Kingdom in its struggles with global warming. While some in the United States may suffer from less anxiety over rising sea levels and temperatures, these are exigent environmental issues for the archipelago that makes up the Filipino nation, and it may only be through a database that these two regions (and many more) can be regarded simultaneously and their needs weighed in the balance. [22]

33.        Of course, as N. Katherine Hayles claims, databases still require narratives to “achieve dramatic impact and significance” (178). While the database is a great equalizer, it leads back to the historical depictions of humans in time of the kind Joseph Priestly was so adeptly renovating at the end of the eighteenth century. They certainly attempt to achieve a degree of adequacy, but these maps say little about how to relate to others. Nor can we find total satisfaction with Wordsworth’s "Written in Germany," as it reveals how one’s personal outlook can obscure the facts regarding normative and nondiscursive registers. Really, what is needed is Wordsworth’s narrative in relationship to a larger network of human and nonhuman relations throughout time and space, and media adaptations can still help map such interconnections. One can envision a larger project that asks students to incorporate all or most of the materials from a class on environmental literature into a final project, repurposing Wordsworth’s lyric in combination with other poems, novels, dramas, even blogs, scholarly articles, and databases. Based on the amalgamation of these modes, genres, and media, students might make their own conjectures regarding human relations in the last instant, at the end of the Anthropocene, or just prior to a world without us.

Works Cited

Brewster, Scott. Lyric. Routledge, 2009.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. "The Climate of History: Four Theses." Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no 2, 2009, pp. 197–222.

Collings, David. "After the Covenant: Romanticism, Secularization, and Disastrous Transcendence." European Romantic Review, vol. 21, no. 3, 2010, pp. 345–61.

Coombs, David Sweeney, and Danielle Coriale. "V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism: Introduction." Victorian Studies, vol. 59, no. 1, 2016, pp. 87–89.

Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Harvard UP, 2015.

Drucker, Johanna. "Why Distant Reading Isn’t." PMLA, vol. 132, no. 3, 2017, pp. 628–35.

Goodman, Kevis. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism. Cambridge UP, 2004.

Gruber, Elizabeth. "Back to the Future: Ecological Crisis and Recalcitrant Memory in The Tempest and Tar Baby." Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 21, no. 4, 2010, pp. 223–41.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. U of Chicago P, 2012.

Hershinow, Stephanie. "Romantic Selfhood and the Selfie: Relating to the Novel." Teaching Romanticism with the Contemporary, edited by D. B. Ruderman and Rachel Feder, Pedagogy Commons, Romantic Circles, April 2017, . Accessed 24 June 2017.

Klein, Naomi. "Why #BLM Should Transform the Climate Debate." The Nation, 12 Dec. 2014, . Accessed 24 June 2017.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Signet, 1964.

McKusick, James. Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. St. Martin’s, 2000.

"Medium." Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., 2001,

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. U of Minnesota P, 2013.

———. Nature Without Ecology: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Harvard UP, 2007.

Nagel, Thomas. The View From Nowhere. Oxford UP, 1986.

Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. Vintage, 1988.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. U of Minnesota P, 2015.

Posthumus, Stephanie, and Stéfan Sinclair. "Reading Environment(s): Digital Humanities Meets Ecocriticism." Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, vol. 18, no. 3, 2014, pp. 254–73.

Redding, Paul. Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche. Routledge, 1999.

Reilly, Donald J. "Mama Day: Where Gothicism and Magical Realism Meet." Moments of Magical Realism in US Ethnic Literatures, edited by Lyn Di Iorio Sandín and Richard Perez, Palgrave, 2012, pp. 241–58.

Rosenberg, Daniel, and Anthony Grafton. Cartographies of Time. Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. Routledge, 2006.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Signet, 1998.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Ode to the West Wind." Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, Norton, 1977, pp. 221–23.

Shoptaw, John. "Why Ecopoetry?" Poetry Magazine, 4 Jan. 2016, Accessed 24 June 2017.

Smith, Jonathan. Fact and Feeling: Baconian Science and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. U of Wisconsin P, 1994.

So, Richard Jean. "All Models Are Wrong." PMLA, vol. 132, no. 3, 2017, pp. 668–73.

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Harvard UP, 2015.

The Matrix. Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, performances by Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Moss, Warner Brothers, 1999.

Wordsworth, William. "Written in Germany, On One of the Coldest Days of the Century." Lyrical Ballads: 1798 and 1800, edited by Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter, Broadview, 2008, pp. 359–61.


[1]Goodman traces the emerging medium consciousness to the seventeenth century, with the convergence of media theory, the scientific revolution, and a renewed attention to Virgil’s Georgics (18–20). For McKusick, he points to Wordsworth as “one of the first” to give rise to human ecology, “if by that phrase we mean the study of the complex relationships between human communities and their dwelling places” (70). BACK

[2]See Goodman’s Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism (2004), James Chandler’s Archaeology of Sympathy (2013), Mary Favret’s War at a Distance (2010), and Celeste Langan’s "Understanding Media in 1805: Audiovisual Hallucination in The Lay of the Last Minstrel" in Studies in Romanticism, 40.1 (2001). In addition, a growing number of articles, collections, and monographs have emphasized the materiality of artworks and the discussions of media that take place within those texts more generally, including Miranda Burgess, Alexander Dick, and Michelle Levy’s special issue of European Romantic Review (2011), Andrew Burkett’s Romantic Mediations: Media Theory and British Romanticism (2016), as well as James Brooke-Smith and Andrew Burkett’s edited collection for Romantic Circles, Multi-Media Romanticism (2016). BACK

[3]In their introduction to a special collection for Victorian Studies, David Coombs and Danielle Coriale make an appeal for a more “strategic presentism”: “To make presentism a strategy means asking how presentism might help us better understand and address the ways the past is at work in the exigencies of the present . . . from the economies of consciousness as a so-called global workspace to the anthropocene as an epoch whose hallmark, paradoxically, is the radical compression of the longue durée of geological change” (88). Strategic presentism is not a call to merely “act now.” It is a call to recognize that historical periods/events—including “the” present—cannot be viewed in a vacuum. BACK

[4]For Collings, eighteenth-century discourse tended to align “divine intentionality” and “natural design,” while forgetting about the “transcendental excess” of the biblical deluge, whereas Romanticism turned its attention to the latter (351). BACK

[5]According to John Shoptaw, it is the direct engagement with the earth that qualifies Wordsworth’s poem as an ecopoem. Counter to Shoptaw’s claim that an ecopoem must be “environmental” and “environmentalist,” Timothy Morton believes that, at bottom, all poetry is ecopoetry (Ecology Without Nature 79). BACK

[6]On the inductive method in Romantic-era literature see Smith’s Fact and Feeling (45–91). BACK

[7]By transposition, I mean transferring an artwork from one medium or genre to another, while maintaining some fidelity to the original. For a summary of three types of adaptation (transposition, commentary, and analogue), see Sanders (17–25). BACK

[8]Also see Goodman on the etymology and meaning of “medium” (17–20). BACK

[9]McLuhan actually writes that a hot medium extends a “single” sense in “high definition,” for instance, a photograph with many pixels targets sight in particular (36). This side of his definition must be weighed in the balance with his overall definition: warmer media are immersive because they enwrap the viewer, thus targeting multiple sense faculties simultaneously. BACK

[10]For participating in this exercise and contributing their imaginative thoughts and questions, I would like to thank Dexter (who gave me permission to include his idea and name) and the rest of the students in English 200, "Ecocritical Perspectives: Genres, Media, and Narratives," at the University of Washington, Seattle, winter 2017, plus several sections of Composition 101 that focused on ecopoetry at Highline College (Des Moines, WA). BACK

[11]McLuhan touches on the historicity of the media he discusses. Today, the scope of McLuhan’s study has been expanded to include Siegfried Zielinski’s concept of “deep time.” Jussi Parikka charts the Anthropocene’s development from a deep history, namely its “systematic relation to the carboniferous” (17), to its dystopian present and futurity, in which our everyday technical objects (laptops, mobile phones, and so forth) add to “a new future layer of zombie media” (114). BACK

[12]For an overview of criticism on “ecologies of reading” and the way that computational methods and digital media complicate the reader-text-environment relationship, see Posthumus and Sinclair. BACK

[13]Berkeley only denies the reality of material substance. In its place, he espouses the existence of God or a spiritual mind independent of human thought. Accordingly, Berkeley’s theories can be regarded as idealist, but his idealism is not antirealist. As Paul Redding points out, it is rather a brand of “spiritual realism” (3–4). BACK

[14]For Morton, ecomimesis “aims to rupture the aesthetic distance, to break down the subject-object dualism, to convince us that we belong to this world. But the end result is to reinforce the aesthetic distance, the very dimension in which the subject-object dualism persists. Since de-distancing has been reified, distance returns even more strongly, in surround-sound, with panoramic intensity” (135). BACK

[15]For more on apostrophe, or lyric address, see Brewster (38–42), and Culler (186–211). BACK

[16]Timothy Morton points out that large time scales are far more difficult to process than infinity, and they severely complicate human relationships: “no one then [one hundred thousand years from now] will meaningfully be related to me; and my smallest action now will affect that time in profound ways. A Styrofoam cup will outlive me by over four hundred years” (Hyperobjects 60). BACK

[17]Dacre’s ecopoetry was first brought to my attention by Ashely Cross during her talk, "‘Thou art my dew’: Atmospheric Embodiment in Charlotte Dacre’s Hours of Solitude (1805)," at the annual International Conference on Romanticism in 2016 at Colorado College. BACK

[18]Following the connection Noël Sturgeon makes between racist and anthropocentric ideologies, and Jonathan Bate’s claim that The Tempest prefigures Baconian/Enlightenment science, Elizabeth Gruber argues that, as an adaptation of The Tempest, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby “takes up the narrative of a postcolonial setting, so that the novel comments on processes and practices rendered only in inchoate terms in Shakespeare” (226). Gruber’s essay is not only an excellent introduction to the dichotomy between white-patriarchal-naturalistic science and black-matriarchal-pantheistic magic, but she also provides an instructive application of adaptation theory, noting that the “magic of adaptation resides in paradox, depending as it does on the simultaneity of repetition and transformation” (225). BACK

[19]I am indebted to Francesca Royster who first pointed out to me the parallel relationship of The Tempest and Naylor’s novel. While Naylor herself denied that Mama Day adapts The Tempest (Gruber 238, note 4), that fact only provides an additional topic for discussion: Must adaptations be intentional? And what is the responsibility of a critic in the face of an author disavowing another work’s influence? BACK

[20]In his eponymous book, Thomas Nagel links the view from nowhere to representation: “To represent an experience from outside by imagining it subjectively is the analogue of representing an objective spatial configuration by imagining it visually. . . . What is represented need not resemble the representation in all respects. It must be represented in terms of certain general features of subjective experience—subjective universals. . . . But the capacity to form universal concepts in any area enables one not only to represent the present situation from without but to think about other possibilities which one has not experienced and perhaps never will experience directly” (21). BACK

[21]In a recent edition of PMLA (2017), a number of scholars debated the strengths and weaknesses of “distant reading.” I am writing about a scientific database and not a model of literary history, but models are relevant because they rely on datasets to produce predictions with accuracy. In her discussion of textual analysis, Johanna Drucker rightly points out that some scholars mistake computational methods for absolute objectivity. They forget that “automated methods are also fraught with cultural, historical, and other prejudices built into their design” (631). Indeed, all models are situated in a human, moral-aesthetic domain. But as Richard Jean So also points out, models are not intended to “[bring] forth intractable empirical truths that one must accept or reject, [rather] the reader is encouraged to reason with the model and its maker to better grasp the data” (671). So concludes that what models do well is expose error, and error should be thought of as a “constitutive part of science . . . something to be integrated formally into our research,” instead of something to be merely “tolerated or avoided” (672). While a view from nowhere may not be entirely possible, attempting to see from the perspective of an idealized nonlocation can expose errors reinforced by an all-to-comfortable faith in our subjective, first-person observations. BACK

[22]According to Naomi Klein, even “good intentioned” Westerners that believe in global warming are guilty of not considering the impact of their “solutions” on regions remote from their own homes and are even comfortable with a slight increase of temperature because it will “improve” the weather “for them,” while encouraging major disasters for others. BACK