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Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaftliche Fakultät

Professur für Amerikanistik (Nordamerikastudien) - Prof. Dr. Jeanne Cortiel

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Subproject 1:   "The Aesthetics and Ethics of the North American Climate Change Novel – Towards a Definition of the Environmental Risk Narrative"

Researcher: Sylvia Mayer

This subproject focuses on developing a definition of the environmental risk narrative. Taking the growing body of U.S. American and Canadian climate change novels as representative of an attempt to narrate the multiple, diverse, and controversial experiences of this global risk, it aims at mapping its key characteristics in terms of its aesthetics and ethics. The corpus of texts to be analyzed at the moment consists of about 40 novels, 20 of which have already been studied in earlier work (see Mayer 2013, 2014b). In terms of genre, the novels cover the range from realist through speculative fiction to science fiction. Not taken into consideration will be climate change novels for young adult readers.

Drawing on Ulrich Beck’s definition of risk as “anticipation of catastrophe,” the project starts from the premise that the genre of the climate change novel has already developed into two subgenres that can be categorized as two types of environmental risk narratives: “risk narratives of anticipation” and “risk narratives of catastrophe” (Mayer 2014b). The former type is characterized by its temporal focus on a pre-catastrophe present, the phase of the anticipation of climate collapse; the latter type is characterized by its temporal focus on a post-catastrophe present, the phase after climate collapse – which more often than not can be regarded as revealing a new phase of anticipation of catastrophe since new (environmental and other) risks have been the result of climate collapse.

In addition to this basic categorization, it is, however, necessary to study in much more detail the narrative strategies and techniques the novels at stake employ in order to establish a more detailed aesthetics of this particular type of environmental risk narrative. Analysis of genre conventions, modes of representation, plot patterns, character constellations and configurations, spatial settings, and imagery are necessary to find out how the novels have met the challenge of representing a natural and cultural phenomenon that is, to a certain extent, intangible (for instance, due to the “invisibility” of greenhouse gas emissions and to the long spatial and temporal scales that have to be taken into account). Here the cooperation and exchange with the projects engaging more specifically with science fiction in graphic narrative and film will sharpen the focus on the genre characteristics.

Moreover, linked to insights into the aesthetics of the climate risk narratives, the (environmental) ethical positions of these risk narratives will be analyzed. Since literary texts can be regarded as a specific mode of moral inquiry (see, for instance, Nussbaum 1990, Oehlschlaeger 1995), the climate change novels must be investigated in terms of the ways they address the challenges to develop a sustainable – or, to refer to Ursula Heise’s concept – an “eco-cosmopolitan” ethical stance. The issue of ethics, moreover, reflects cultural anthropology’s claim that any kind of risk perception is fundamentally expressive of historically specific social values.


Verantwortlich für die Redaktion: Univ.Prof.Dr. Jeanne Cortiel

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