Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Nineteenth-century climate change

I’m currently working on a project provisionally titled “Nineteenth-century climate change.” The aim of this blog is to look at contemporary fiction and climate change—materials that are related to my project, but related too distantly to form part of it. In the next few days, I'll be posting some thoughts on Ian McEwan's Solar and Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene.

In the meantime, here’s a short project description of Nineteenth-century climate change:

Not until the beginning of the nineteenth century was the word “atmosphere” first used to denote the element or material of thought (OED s.v. “atmosphere”). This same period witnessed a dramatic increase in the prominence and frequency of the word “climate” being used similarly, to refer to a set of prevailing conditions that shape ideas while remaining largely unremarked. Today, such uses of “atmosphere” and “climate” are metaphoric. While we may speak of a “changed political climate,” for instance, thoughts and opinions are generally held to be cultural, while atmosphere and climate are seen as natural processes. But in Romantic-period Britain, these new uses of “climate” and “atmosphere” were not metaphoric, but quite literal. Opinions and ideas were understood to be made of air; perceptions to be aerially mediated. In turn, words and thoughts were seen to colour and inflect the air that bore them, thereby materially altering the climate. In this sense, atmosphere came to be understood as a mass medium of communication, positioning climate as an overarching framework for modern culture.

My project positions the early nineteenth century in Britain as a formative moment in the cultural history of climate change, a moment when the modern sciences of atmosphere first came into being and when atmosphere and weather became newly central to art and literature. Climate provided the conceptual vehicle for representing and understanding these disparate scientific and artistic activities as belonging to a common cultural field. Because atmosphere was positioned as a medium of culture in this way, cultural changes could then be seen to lead to climatic changes. Drawing on Romantic aesthetic and scientific practices from Wordsworth to Ruskin and Priestley to Davy, the project establishes historical links between science and literature, climate and culture, that can help re-engage the humanities with climate change debates today.

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