Literary theory for the past century has been dominated by the assumption that the novel is a genre that responds to the feeling of “transcendental homelessness” that is both described and partially caused by transcendental philosophy. Central to this assumption is the idea that we can only relate to nature via an intervening screen of social representations; that is, through what Theodor W. Adorno called a “second nature.” In the Anthropocene, however, these layers become blurred, since nature itself becomes a medium for the inscription of texts that contain portentous clues regarding our collective destiny as a species. This article deploys a mixture of historical case studies and theoretical forays into the fields of linguistics and poetics to argue that what Roman Jakobson would have called the “expressive” and “poetic” functions of language are more important for an understanding of the new “book of the world” than the “referential” function that stands as the traditional center of novel theory. The article concludes with a close reading of Adalbert Stifter's novel Indian Summer (1857) in order to demonstrate what an approach to a canonical text that is informed by our current environmental predicament might look like.
Reading the Book of the World: Epic Representation in the Age of Our Geophysical Agency
tobias boes is associate professor of German language and literature at the University of Notre Dame, where he also teaches in the PhD in Literature Program. He is author of Formative Fictions: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Novel (2012) and is currently working on a new book project tentatively called “The Representative German: Thomas Mann in America.” In addition to modernist cultures and the theory of the novel, he pursues research interests in the environmental humanities.
Tobias Boes; Reading the Book of the World: Epic Representation in the Age of Our Geophysical Agency. Novel 1 May 2016; 49 (1): 95–114. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3458261
Download citation file: