For hundreds of years, our perception of nature as a momentous, constant force was exemplified in literature by cascading waterfalls, snow-tipped mountains and dependability of the seasons. But as the planet warms and the climate changes, professor Robert Oventile told PCC students Tuesday that the way we interpret literature from the past and write new literature is also changing.
In the first of six seminars organized in conjunction with the Pasadena City College Honors Program, Oventile discussed his five theses regarding the ways our current era affects the ways English majors analyze and write literature in a time when human activity has had great impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.
In explaining his first thesis, Oventile said that we have entered into the Anthropocene epoch, a term recently coined in a 2000 International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme newsletter article by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer. They define it as the epoch following the Holocene in which human actions have drastically affected the environment, changing how we live and interact on the planet.
While academics propose different dates for when they believe we entered into the the Anthropocene, Crutzen and Stoermer suggest that it occurred around the industrial revolution and the advent of the steam engine in the mid to late 18th century when atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane started to rise.
“In our current era of global warming and climate change, many academic fields are changing in relation to the new challenges and objects of study that era involves,” said Oventile. “This is certainly true in the sciences, but it is also true in the humanities, including the study of literature.”
Secondly, writers in the Holocene viewed “nature” as stable and constant, unlike today in which our view of our environment is more complex and changing with our understanding of global warming and climate change. Third, most of our referenced literature was written during the Holocene epoch, though this is starting to change in current curriculums.
“Professors of English and students majoring in English are starting to study new works of literature that explicitly deal with global warming and climate change,” said Oventile. “An example is the novel ‘Boxing the Compass’ by Sandy Florian, published in 2013.”
In his fourth thesis, Olventile said that with these changes comes the advent of new words to describe conditions that didn’t exist before and old terms lose their meaning as species become extinct, glaciers melt and lakes dry up. Lastly, the idea of the “sublime” is naturally shifting as our previous pillars of the sublime, such towering waterfalls and awe-inspiring glaciers referenced in great works of the past, are no longer a promised constant in our lives.
Nirinjan Khalsa, a student of Oventile’s at PCC, asked whether a modern writer can truly be an “Anthropocene” writer, as they are so heavily influenced by literature written in the epoch that preceded them.
“We’re going to school, we’re studying Holocene writers or Holocene literature and therefore being influenced by that as like a form of imitation,” said Khalsa. “Or what our writing comes out to be can still be influenced, whether or not we’re aware of it.”
Oventile said that all writers will have influences from other periods, but it is how a writer deals with those influences and their ability to craft a unique voice for themselves that sets them apart from those that simply imitate.
“It’s an agonistic competition to have your voice heard,” said Oventile. “Part of that agonistic competition is to wrestle with the literature that came before.”
Derek Milne, an anthropology professor and Honors Program coordinator, said the series was created to help honors students prepare for student research conferences—the biggest being the Honors Transfer Council of California Student Research Conference held in the spring at UC Irvine.
“It started out as an English series last year and this year we decided to expand it beyond just English as a discipline, which is great,” said Milne. “And we chose the theme of the Anthropocene, which is a long time academic interest of Oventile’s.”
The Honors Transfer Program, which prepares students to transition to university through a series of challenging general education courses, currently has more than 1,000 students participating in the program.
Following the four faculty seminars, two student sessions will be held in the beginning of November, allowing students to present their research on the topic of “Your Major, Your Anthropocene.”
The next faculty seminar in the series, “Reinserting the Verb: What Becomes of Canada When the Ice is Gone?” by Dr. Brian Kennedy, will be held in room C333 on Oct. 15 from noon to 12:55 p.m.