Latin-American liberation theology and the Neo-Baroque: a point of connection

This is one of those “I have more reading to do, but . . . ” posts.  Some context, first of all: as part of a chapter, on New World rhetoric(s), for the book project, I’ve been reading essays by the early 20th-century Peruvian socialist José Carlos Mariátegui and Latin American liberation theologians of the ’70s and ’80s.  The former was an important influence on the latter, in that each believed that socioeconomic theory and theology, respectively, had to have as their starting points the actual conditions of–and solidarity with–the people being witnessed to (that verb being as appropriate a description for Mariátegui’s arguments for a distinctly Latin American style of socialism as it is for describing clergy and laypeople engaged in making the arguments for a theology of liberation).  While my reading has so far confirmed all of this for me, the reason for this post is the diagram you see below and its strong evocation by analogy of Cuban theorist Severo Sarduy’s discussion of the Neo-Baroque.

Dussel The synchronic and diachronic dimensions of analogy in theology

from Enrique Dussel’s “Historical and Philosophical Presuppositions for Latin American Theology,” found here.

In this chart, Dussel seeks to illustrate his argument that, as represented by the shaded area of the chart, the Church throughout history has always held in common the divinity of Jesus as the Son of God and that humankind finds its salvation through belief in him.  At the same time, however, “We can also have participation in that same catholicity in different historical epochs, thereby forming one and the same tradition through time (i.e., diachronically); but the “sameness” would not be of a univocal sort” due to the “analogical ‘distinctions’ that are characteristic of the metaphysical innovativeness of a given theologian or a given culture in all its inimitable uniqueness” (193; italics are Dussel’s).  This recognition that the Church is located in particular spaces and times may seem quite obvious, but theologians of liberation use as their starting point the recognition that European theologies would too often presume that their teachings have always and everywhere been true, which had the effect of marginalizing non-Europeans and the non-powerful.

All those ellipsoid shapes in Dussel’s diagram are where Sarduy and his discussions of the Baroque come in.  In his essay “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler,” Sarduy argues (and I’ll be quoting from an earlier post of mine),

“Though Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the cosmos (and Galileo’s confirmation of it) was indeed truer than Ptolemy’s description, it nevertheless retained the circle as its shape and thus, for Sarduy, implicitly continues to value a social politics in which power emanates from a single, clearly defined center.”

Kepler’s discovery that the planets orbit the Sun in ellipsoid orbits, by contrast, Sarduy says,

alter[s] the scientific foundation on which rested the entire knowledge of the age [and] create[s] a reference point in relation to which all symbolic activity, explicitly or not, is situated. Something is decentering itself, or rather, duplicating, dividing its center; now, the dominant figure is not the circle, with its single, radiating, luminous, paternal center, but the ellipse, which opposes this visible focal point with another, equally functional, equally real, albeit closed off, dead, nocturnal, the blind center, the other side of the Sun’s germinative yang, that which is absent. ( “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler” (trans. Christopher Winks), p. 293 in Baroque New Worlds.)

I have much to say in that earlier post about how the brute facts of the Americas’ landmasses, its indigenous flora, fauna, and peoples and, later, its mixed-race populations are the cause of the decentering that Sarduy describes.  For now, I’ll just add here that those theologians of liberation whose work I’ve read likewise note that, as Juan Carlos Scannone puts it, “it would be a completely new reworking and formulation of theological activity as a whole from a completely new standpoint: i.e., the kairos of salvation history now being lived on our continent” (215).  Dussel’s discussion of the various manifestations of the Church as having, in effect, dual centers of attention is a direct reflection of that new standpoint as well.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have more reading to do; moreover, what you see above is no more than a sketching-out of these links.  But it’s a good feeling to see some initial confirmation of some claims I’m making even when I’m not actively looking for something to confirm my biases.

The New World as “textual drama”: Julio Ortega on Borges and “El Inca”

 

Ortega [b. 1942; apparently still living] is a poet and critic. He was born in Peru and has lived and taught in the U.S. for many years. In the passage below, he is rebutting the familiar critical observation that Borges’s work is an anomaly in Latin American writing:

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in his natural habitat.

 [T]he mechanisms that produce [Borges’s] writing confirm, in fact, an operative tradition that is characteristic of the Spanish-American text. In this sense the novelty of Borges’s prose is not its negation of previous Spanish-American languages but, on the contrary, its privileged manifestation of those languages.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Inc_Garcilaso_de_la_Vega.png

Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), known as “El Inca” to distinguish himself from his uncle, the Spanish poet of the same name. “El Inca” was the son of a Spanish soldier and an Inca woman who was a member of that people’s royal family.

 Let us look, for instance, at the interaction of various genres. At least since Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries of the Incas [1616-1617], Spanish-American writing has been constituted through the polyvalence of its formalization. Beginning with that text, Spanish-American writing has reflected the following characteristics: it dramatizes its manifestation in a textual space based on history understood as politics (the Incan utopia as the realized projection of the Neoplatonic order); it is formalized through a critical sum of texts (chronicles that are refuted or inserted as a probatory intertext); it is self-referring as a way of producing itself (the narrative that unfolds, splits, and is rechanneled); it shares frontiers with novelistic and philosophical treatises with criticism; and, finally, it reveals the web of history and fiction in a context that generates the cultural discourse of a Spanish America whose first existence is as a textual drama. (“Borges and the Latin-American Text,” p. 22 in Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative.)

This passage struck me on more than one account.  It so happens that I’ll soon be writing about de la Vega’s Royal Commentaries, but that’s less important than Ortega’s placing of Borges firmly in the mainstream of the larger tradition of writing in Latin America (and I broaden this from Ortega’s “Spanish America” because I see, certainly, Brazilian writing as fitting that list of characteristics in the paragraph above).  I’m not an expert on Borges, but it is clear that the traditional take on him is that his perceived European-ness makes him stand out from the pack–and, indeed, is one of his virtues as a writer.  Ortega clearly doesn’t have much patience with that take.

The real hook for me, though, is Ortega’s assertion that (and sure, I’ll broaden his remark here still further to include the United States) writing in this hemisphere “reveals the web of history and fiction in a context that generates the cultural discourse of a Spanish America whose first existence is as a textual drama.” 

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Wallace Stevens in Wonsevu

Wonsevu Christian Church. Wonsevu, Chase County, Kansas. Taken by me, March 2019.

The church you see here is, not counting the large barn and cattle pen facing it, one-third of the buildings in the village of Wonsevu [“ONE-seh-voo”], Kansas. There is also a small community hall and a frame one-room school house, built in 1885 and long since closed. The house nearest to these buildings (which happens to be blocked from view by the church in this picture) is between a quarter- and a half-mile away.

You are reading about this because I and some students of mine and two colleagues made Wonsevu our first stop on a driving tour of Chase County, Kansas, this past weekend. For a couple of years now in my first-semester composition classes, I have had the opportunity to teach William Least Heat-Moon’s book PrairyErth, a book whose subject is Chase County, a sparsely-populated farming and ranching county in the Flint Hills about an hour northeast of Wichita. As part of the class, I schedule two optional field trips into the county: the driving tour, in which we visit some of the places Heat-Moon mentions in his book; and a trip to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to have the experience of walking land that still looks pretty much like it did when the Kaw and other tribes lived there. Before this past weekend, these trips, admittedly, had not been ringing successes: students wouldn’t show, or the weather wasn’t ideal. This time, though, two students attended (out of six; a third would have come except that a day or so before he’d gotten a new job), and two of my colleagues joined us as well. Last but certainly not least: the predicted drizzly day never materialized–indeed, after an overcast start, the sun broke through and the day was sunnier and pleasantly cool. But it was at our stop at Wonsevu that, in a small way, the hopes I’d had for teaching Heat-Moon’s book and making the trips out to the county became larger than the logical kind of sense they made for me.

While we walked around the three buildings situated around the T-intersection that constitutes Wonsevu’s center, I pulled out my cellphone to see if I had any messages from my wife.  There was no signal out there.  I looked around me, and I realized what I was hearing–the wind, some birds–and what I was not hearing–no road noise (the nearest paved road of any kind is about 10 miles away), no trains (the railroads, though frequently traveled in the county, are even farther away), no aircraft overhead.  I felt, for a fleeting moment, the full weight of the landscape on me; I offered no resistance to it.  I felt the meaning of the concluding lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man”: I was beholding “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (l. 15).  And that’s when I knew with absolute certainty–something the rest of the day only confirmed–that I am right to want to create opportunities for our students to have moments of this full immersion in a space right next door to them that they are almost completely ignorant of, and earn academic credit to boot.

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“Spunish language” and neo-Baroque Aesthetics: Cabrera Infante and Fuentes

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The cover of the U.S. edition of Christopher Unborn

As I’d mentioned in my previous post,  I am in the middle of revisiting and expanding on a chapter whose two central texts are Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  As part of that work, this morning I thought I would re-read the opening chapter of Carlos Fuentes’ 1987 novel Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn), since that section in particular is one of the other texts I take up in that chapter.  In so doing, I realized that earlier remarks about another novel I’ll be discussing in that same chapter, along with commentary by Fuentes himself, will serve to reinforce some of my project’s larger claims about the Baroque and the New World, this time with a focus on literary aesthetics.  All of that, I hope, will tie in (I hope not hog-tying style) with the politics of Martí and Mariátegui that I’ll also be adding to this chapter.

(The perils of “quick re-reads”: This post’s original title, when I started on it two days ago, had in it the phrase “a few quick comments.”  So you see . . . )

Dalkey Archive edition of Three Trapped Tigers.

The other novel is by Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Tres tristes tigres (1967; translated as Three Trapped Tigers).  Its title (the first line of a Cuban tonge-twister) and its description by its English translators, David Gardner and Susan Jill Levine (with assistance from the author) of having been translated “from the Cuban” alert the reader that it is no ordinary novel.

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Show Boat, Huckleberry Finn, and Intertextuality

huck finn hamlet's soliloquy

The Duke strikes a pose during his rehearsal of (a version of) Hamlet’s soliloquy, in Chapter XXI of Huckleberry Finn.  (Illustration from first edition, via First Edition Huck Finn Illustrations. 

This is not the promised Part II of the previous post but, instead, an elaborating on the following passage from that post:

Meanwhile, beneath (quite literally) all of this, enabling the narrator’s and characters’ lack of interest in these matters, is the brute fact of the Mississippi River and its tributaries and, more to the point, the Cotton Blossom‘s ability to travel upstream as well as downstream.  In Show Boat‘s jacket art, the other unseen-yet-constant presence, in addition to the riverboat itself, is the river.  As in Huckleberry Finn, this novel is obsessed with the various features of its setting; also as with Twain’s novel, though, the river becomes, in Lauren Berlant’s words from a slightly different context, “an apparatus of forgetting” (414).  Or, more accurately, in both those novels at least some of their respective characters fervently hope, even if subconsciously, that it become such an apparatus.

In no place do the characters in Ferber’s novel mention Twain’s novel; indeed, it would be very surprising if they were to do so, seeing as most of Show Boat‘s action takes place before or right around Huckleberry Finn‘s American publication date of 1885.  Moreover, as of my writing this post I do not know if Ferber had Twain’s novel in mind as she composed hers.   Even so, the correspondences between these novels are striking.

In the world of the novel itself Andy Hawks begins his career as a riverman in the 1850s, about ten years after the time in which Twain’s novel is set.  We can fairly say, then, that these novels’ respective worlds’ starting points, at least, are contemporaneous with each other.  However, I want briefly to point out that, as alluded to in the quoted passage above, these novels have more in common with each other than the same chronological starting point, or even their shared setting of the Mississippi River. Continue reading

The Narrator of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat: A Speculative Reading (Part I)

Show Boat dust jacket

A facsimile of the dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat.   Via.

The dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat (1926) is fascinating to contemplate.  Laid flat as it is here, you can see how the procession of people moves from left to right, up the Cotton Blossom‘s gangplank to the very edge of the book’s front-right edge, their movement seeming to invite the reader to open the cover and process into the novel.  The paddle-wheel itself, though, is out of the frame; the gangplank rests not on the deck of the boat but on the text of the jacket blurb that describes the novel.  The Cotton Blossom itself is not exactly invisible (the novel’s title tells us it is there), but neither is it yet seen.

This procession toward an unseen boat that nevertheless serves as the titular character of the novel fits, I think, the reader of the book that this dust jacket enveloped.  As a novel, Show Boat itself seems on its surface to be rather conventional, its style often quite gaudy and given to flights of sentimentality.  It is, as it were, a bit show boat-like in quality.  But when we look closer at certain crucial moments in the story it tells, the novel’s narrator, ostensibly a rather ordinary third-person omniscient narrator, suddenly reveals herself** to be ignorant of important matters.  At best, she seems uninterested in knowing the truth of those matters, but it may also be the case that she would simply not rather know the truth.  Or, she does know the truth but will not say them out loud.

While it is difficult to say precisely what is the narrator’s relationship to that knowledge, there is no doubt that those matters, as it happens, are part of Show Boat‘s persistent subtext of secretiveness regarding race.  We encounter this secretiveness despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that much of the music and plays at the heart of the Cotton Blossom‘s troupe’s repertoire originates in minstrelsy, a genre whose trappings are dependent on the exaggerated-verging-on-offensive mannerisms of African-American speech and gesture.  Moreover, it is a secret regarding race that serves as the catalyst for the novel’s (and the musical’s) most famous moment, the revelation that Julie Dozier and Steve Baker, two members of the boat’s acting troupe, are a miscegenated couple.  But even as Andy Hawks, the Cotton Blossom‘s captain, sends the couple away from his boat, the subtext of racial secretiveness accompanies the rest of the novel’s plot, Magnolia’s transformation into a noted singer of songs associated (correctly or not) with 19th-century African-American folk music who performs them in an “authentic” style, shaping the novel’s subsequent action but otherwise never examined directly.

This post and one following it will explore that subtext, beginning, here, with an attempt to firm up the novel’s hazy chronology.  Because Show Boat is, as much as anything else, a celebration of nostalgia, we can safely assume that Ferber intentionally wants to impart a dreamy feel to the novel’s events.  However, nostalgia also happens to facilitate the maintaining of secrets about race, and not just in this novel, either. Whether this facilitation is also Ferber’s intention is difficult to say, but the effect is undeniable.  It seems equally undeniable to me that once we have a firmer chronology for the novel, it begins to reveal its possible secrets–or, better put, we can see that the novel has secrets that no one in it seems especially interested in but which are of the utmost importance.

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Jose Carlos Mariategui: An Anthology (a review)

Jose Carlos MariateguiJosé Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. and trans. by Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (Monthly Review Press, 2011).  Amazon.

I want to state from the outset that I’m glad this book is available.  As Vanden and Becker note, Mariátegui is still not well known in this country, and this collection aims to both remedy that and augment the other, best-known (in the United States) collection of his writings, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality I had first run into  Mariátegui’s thought in a book on Faulkner, Hosam Aboul-Ela’s  Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition, and discuss at length Mariátegui’s idea that history is comprised of “stages that are not entirely linear in their development” as it might apply to Go Down, Moses’ narrative structure in  this old post.  Thanks to this anthology, I now know considerably more about Mariátegui’s thought than I had before.

Apart from his idea about history’s non-linear development, though, Mariátegui is fascinating to me more generally as an example of a thinker from Latin America (in his case, the Peru of the turn of the 20th century) who is drawn to a philosophy from Europe (in his case, Marxism) who, instead of slapping it on his country and region to use as a kind of one-size-fits-all template for making sense of its history and culture, does something almost like the reverse: he looks closely at his region and its people, its history and culture, and borrows and modifies elements from Marxism to make it a more-fitting tool for change.  As just one example: in several writings included in this anthology, Mariátegui implicitly notes the common root in the words communism and community and argues that Inca society had been its essence a communist society because of its communities’ agricultural lands had been held in common by the members of those communities: “Inca communism, which cannot be denied or disparaged, developed under the autocratic rule of the Incas, is therefore designated as an agrarian communism” (in “The Land Problem,” p. 73 of the present edition).  A kind of communism, thus, not only pre-dates Marx but is actually autochthonous to this hemisphere.  Mariátegui goes on to note that indigenous and mixed-race communities in Peru still retain this communal impulse as they tend to organize and work together to complete large-scale projects, and he concludes that Peru’s peasant class, with training and organizing led by people from those communities, would be receptive to those parts of communism that would lead to workers’ seeking to control the means of production (in most Peruvians’ case, this would mean controlling the land).  It is thinking like this, along with Mariátegui’s full-throated argument for the necessity of myth in a culture (thus rebutting orthodox Marxism’s rejection of religion), that explains simultaneously (for me) both Mariátegui’s continuing influence in Latin America and that he remains relatively unknown in this country.  And, indeed, Vanden and Becker write that  “Mariátegui’s writings . . . . represent the dynamic, creative vein in Marxist thought that can, we believe, best nourish cogent analyses and potent praxis” (9).

So, then, why is this book so frustrating at times?

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Maira: The Cannibalization of Iracema

Maira

Originally published in Brazil in 1978, this translation (by E. A. Goodland and Thomas Colchie) was published in 1984.

In her important study, Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (1991), Doris Sommer discusses a range of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novels from throughout Latin America that, she argues, were intended to create in readers a sense of national identity in the wake of independence.  These novels, she writes, “are almost inevitably stories of star-crossed lovers who represent particular regions, races, parties, economic interests, and the like.  Their passion of conjugal and sexual union spills over to a sentimental readership that hopes to win partisan minds along with hearts” (5).  We have no exact equivalent to these novels in the U.S., though Sommer discusses Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans as inspiration for some South American novelists; but, if one squints in a Leslie Fiedler kind of way, one can see how Huckleberry Finn would be an exact fit for the description Sommer provides.  For Brazilians, one such novel would be Iracema (1865), by José de Alencar (1829-1877), who was an important political figure in mid-nineteenth-century Brazil.  It allegorizes the origins of Brazil by means of the tale of the Tupi Indian woman Iracema (an anagram of “America”) and Martim, a Portuguese colonist, who together conceive a son; his birth, however, even as it symbolizes the emergence of the Brazilian people, also leads to Iracema’s death.  (Notably missing from this novel is the presence of the third race that, combined with indigenous and European peoples, led to the emergence of the Brazilian people: people of African descent brought to Brazil as slaves.  But all of that belongs, for now, in a discussion for another time.)

I am sharing all this because, while reading Darcy Ribeiro’s novel Maíra (1978) and becoming a bit frustrated with it as I did so, I finally realized that it is writing both in response to and against the romantic myth of Brazil’s founding that Iracema helped establish.  Moreover, it does so by turning Iracema‘s elements inside-out in an attempt not to re-mythologize Brazil’s past but to cannibalize that nation’s literary past so as to render the truth of Brazil’s present, at least as Ribeiro had come to understand it.

More below the fold.

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The rise of Amazon and the loss(?) of place

To those of you reading this, Happy New Year, first and foremost.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a moment to write anything of real substance here.  The big (academic) deal, which I will write about in another post, is how teaching PrairyErth went this past fall.  However, this post is about that book, sort of–or, rather, mostly about the moment in time that that book was researched and written.  It is also about a book PrairyErth quotes from in several places, John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s classic work of landscape studies, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984).  All during the fall semester, the fact that PrairyErth is 27 years old kept rearing its head, in a good way: While much in Chase County has not really changed much from William Least Heat-Moon’s time to ours, our various engagements with that space and the issues raised in PrairyErth have changed as much because of the Internet as because of the simple passage of time.  When I began reading Jackson’s book last week, though, I had assumed its arguments, because of their historical and theoretical nature, would not require much if any modification, even more than 30 years later.  Jackson, in his defining of landscape as “a composition of man-made spaces on the land” (7, author’s italics) and distinguishing between political and inhabited landscapes (the latter being very similar to what people mean by “place”), is considerably more sanguine about the fate of rural life in this country than Heat-Moon or Wendell Berry is: so long as people maintain some sort of connection to physical space, Jackson argues, our various landscapes will evolve as on-the-whole positive responses to evolving human social needs.  Heat-Moon senses in the Chase countians he meets that most of them know better than a bunch of outsiders what’s best for their county; Berry’s argument that farm mechanization in the name of efficiency has killed the vitality of rural life and is itself not sustainable in the long term is the very embodiment of a de facto detachment from the land.

For whatever it may be worth, I don’t share Jackson’s optimism about the fate of rural life, either; but I’d assumed that I was responding in that way because of my reading of the aforementioned Heat-Moon and Berry.  But then recently I read something that reminded me, again, that the Web has reshaped our understanding of how humans are linked to topography: it has so reshaped it that it feels as though culturally we’re all but unmoored from topography, all but completing (Western) culture’s separation from Nature that began a little over a century ago with the advent of Modernism.

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Living within Nature’s means: Some further thoughts on the Anthropocene novel

moby_dick_by_mumblingidiot-d36w1qz

One of the more striking images for Moby-Dick that I’ve come across; it seems to be as much about the novel’s ideas about the interaction between humans and Nature as about its central action. Source

As I worked toward a conclusion in my previous post, it occurred to me that some things yet remain to be said about the implications of using Naturalism’s presuppositions about the world and our place in it as a foundation on which to build the Anthropocene novel.  To point the reader toward Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and say “Here is something like a template for what those presuppositions would look like” is to say, in effect, that such novels would be dark indeed.

Well, many of them, yes.  But perhaps not all, or at least all the time.  But because Nature, in these novels, will Matter, such novels’ respective zeitgeists will be situated in such a way that human concerns and hopes and fears cannot but be depicted as direct responses to Nature–whether in accord with or defiance of Nature, no matter, but never independent of it, never with Nature as a passive backdrop or submissive setting, but always with it having an unmistakable bearing on the resolution of the narrative, usually “winning” or at least bending people to its will (whatever those might look like given Nature’s fearsome indifference), and yet itself remaining inscrutable.  In other words: if we’re looking at American literature for examples of what we might call proto-Anthropocene novels, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, canny as they occasionally are, through Natty Bumppo, about what we would now call sustainability, would not be models for Anthropocene novels; they are ultimately about human choices in dialogue with other human choices, but not in dialogue with Nature–at least, that latter dialogue seems not to rise to the level of narrative.  On the other hand, I’d nominate Melville’s Moby-Dick as a fine candidate for an Anthropocene novel (no “proto-” about it, come to think of it): the central activity of the novel, whaling, is an activity which God, speaking out of the whirlwind to Job, taunts Job (and the reader/listener) as something humans are supposed to be incapable of doing (recall that one of the novel’s Extracts is from Job); Ahab sees Nature, as embodied by the whale, as a malevolence he must try to overcome so as to understand his place in the cosmos; in contrast to Ahab, Ishmael’s post-Pequod musings on whale-ness end in the whale’s nature (and Nature itself) remaining inscrutable, as unreadable as those scars on some whales’ outer skin that resembles writing; Nature “wins.”  (And as I write this, I begin to realize there is much, much more to say about Moby-Dick within this context than I can here.)

Anyway.  Below the fold are some fairly knee-jerk, broad-stroke speculations regarding what Anthropocene novels might look like, along with some uninformed musing, combined with heavy reliance on John Berger and a shout-out to Dan Barber, about what an Anthropocene aesthetics arising from Nature might look like.

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