The Poetics of Description

Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature

by Joanna Stalnaker

The essay begins:

Today, when thinking about the divide between literature and science, we may tend to associate literature with the imagination and science with observation and description. The prehistory of this assumption can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when description first emerged as a contested category in urgent need of definition, beyond the traditional rhetorical notion of enargeia, the figure by which an absent object or person is made vividly present through words. As Lorraine Daston, John Bender, Michael Marrinan, Cynthia Sundberg Wall, and I have shown, the practice of description underwent significant transformations in the eighteenth century, as competing regimes of description emerged and were defined in opposition to each other. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s famous Encyclopédie, published over two decades beginning at midcentury, offered three separate entries on description: one for geometry, one for natural history, and one for belles lettres. A later iteration of that work, the Encyclopédie méthodique, added yet another entry on the newly invented genre of descriptive poetry, which purportedly undermined classical poetics by failing to subsume description to narrative or didactic design. Yet the disciplinary landscape operative in these definitions—and in the descriptive practices surrounding them—cannot be easily mapped onto our familiar opposition between imaginative literature on the one hand and scientific description on the other.

423px-thumbnailIn what follows, I will look at two writers from the French eighteenth century whose work illustrates the contingency of modern categories and definitions of description. The first is the famous naturalist and renowned stylist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, whose multivolume Histoire naturelle spurred the vogue for natural history across Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. The second is the once-celebrated but now obscure poet Jacques Delille, who took the Scottish poet James Thomson as his model and introduced the so-called genre of descriptive poetry in France in the last decades of the Old Regime. Taken together, these two writers exemplify what the great naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier called “the age of description.” This age has fallen out of view since Cuvier’s lifetime, lost to the modern fracture between literature and science. Yet I will argue that it holds special relevance for us today, at a time when short-story writers and political theorists alike share an impulse to ascribe agency to nonhuman things and to question the centrality of human perspectives. One of the biggest surprises to emerge from the unfamiliar landscape of the eighteenth-century age of description is its elaboration of a poetics of description grounded in dramatic shifts in scale and nonhuman perspectives on nature. Continue reading …

This article looks at two writers of the French eighteenth century, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon and the poet Jacques Delille, whose innovative practices of description call into question our modern opposition between literature and science and raise the issue of how literature might be transformed through attention to nonhuman views of nature.

JOANNA STALNAKER teaches in the French Department at Columbia University. She is the author of The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia (Cornell, 2010) and is currently working on a book about the last works of the French philosophes at the end of the Enlightenment.

Intellectual History and the Anthropocene

Deep Time at the Dawn of the Anthropocene

by Noah Heringman

The essay begins:

Man can have an influence on the climate he inhabits, and, in a manner, fix its temperature at any point that may be agreeable to him; and, what is singular, it is more difficult for him to cool than to heat the earth.

—Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Epochs of Nature (1778)HeringmanOnlineFig4

The Anthropocene poses a radical new answer to an old question: where do humans fit in the story of deep time? As a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene comes freighted with the Enlightenment origins of the geological time scale, an escalation so profound that it dislocated time itself into a spatial register: deep time. The urgency of this intellectual history in the Anthropocene may seem less clear than the urgency of remembering and disentangling the contingencies of a global political economy built on fossil fuels. Still, as Dipesh Chakrabarty observed in 2009, “In the era of the Anthropocene, we need the Enlightenment (that is, reason) even more than in the past.” One Enlightenment text, Buffon’s Epochs of Nature, provides grounds for questioning Chakrabarty’s insistence on the novelty of the Anthropocene, defined memorably by him as a time in which “humans wield geological force” by virtue of anthropogenic climate change. “In no discussion of freedom in the period since the Enlightenment,” Chakrabarty contends, “was there ever any awareness of the geological agency that human beings were acquiring at the same time as and through processes closely linked to their acquisition of freedom.” As my epigraph shows, however, Buffon does construe freedom as geological agency (“heat[ing] the earth”), signaling the critical potential of a history of deep time in the Anthropocene. All too often civilization has presented itself as the culmination or completion of geological and anthropological time. This Enlightenment legacy is encoded in the very name of the Anthropocene. Recalling it might help to make the Anthropocene less anthropocentric. The cognate stories of deep time and the Anthropocene converge in the present on what I will argue is a primary symptom of the new epoch, and a part of its forgetting: evolutionary nostalgia. Continue reading

In this essay Heringman argues that the concept of deep time is essential to the intellectual history of the Anthropocene—the name widely (though not yet formally) used for our current geological epoch. Buffon’s Epochs of Nature, one of the earliest secular models of geological time in Enlightenment natural history, uses inscription as a metaphor to mark the advent of biological species, including humans, in the course of earth history. The Anthropocene extends this project of writing ourselves into the rock record. Buffon makes a productive interlocutor for the Anthropocene because he is one of the first to examine climate change and related constraints on human agency in the context of deep time. The essay examines Buffon’s natural history and associated Enlightenment discourses of primitive art and culture to gain a purchase on the challenges of scale posed by the Anthropocene.

NOAH HERINGMAN teaches English at the University of Missouri. His latest book is Sciences of Antiquity: Romantic Antiquarianism, Natural History, and Knowledge Work (2013).