The Harrisons’ Art of Generosity: Poetics and Ecology

The Harrisons’ Art of Generosity: Poetics and Ecology

Monica Manolescu

This article offers a literary perspective on Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s discourses, texts, stories and voices, and the ways in which they act in performative ways, creating an art of doing things with words. I would like to argue that this performativity is the expression of a strong commitment to the present moment that Camus qualified as “generosity” and that defines the models of authorship, agency, art-making and ecological involvement that the Harrisons have imagined over five decades, in dialogue with the world and the human and more-than-human communities that inhabit it.

The idea of art as a gift offered out of disinterested generosity by an artist or received as such by a viewer takes various forms in philosophical, artistic and literary discourses. In philosophical and religious contexts, generosity is associated with giving, gift-making, philanthropy and the virtue of donating, but it is plagued by suspicions of impurity, interestedness, debt creation and narcissistic satisfaction. Marcel Hénaff notes “the unusual interest of so many contemporary philosophers in the question of the gift” and the many distinct goals and expectations that rise from their reflections on the topic:

to define the nature of our relationship to being; provide the foundation for an ethic of generosity; legitimize forms of solidarity; satisfy the requirement to recognize the Other; redefine the specificity of the social bond; conceptualize the obligation of reciprocity; and move beyond the utilitarian view of production and exchange. It is a constant source of puzzlement that those various and sometimes contradictory demands converge on the same word, as if that word always involved the same question.[1]

Among the many contemporary interpretations, Derrida’s is particularly prominent: there is no such thing as pure giving that “interrupts the system” of exchange and circulation.[2] By definition, the gift is “the very figure of the impossible,” since its mere acknowledgement as gift triggers expectations of restitution, reciprocity and payback.[3] Hénaff elaborates a critique of Derrida’s analysis (mainly his deconstruction of Mauss’s seminal text The Gift) where he insists on the many anthropological, social, and linguistic nuances inherent in the polysemy of the term and which he considers to have escaped Derrida’s discussion of the gift as aporia.

From an aesthetic perspective, generosity can be associated with a constellation of notions spanning a large range of theories and practices from Kant’s disinterestedness in terms of aesthetic reception to contemporary examples of collective participation that emphasize sharing, co-creation and the disruption of liberal economies of profit.[4] The emphasis on the writer’s generosity is particularly prominent in modernist literature, reverberating in postmodernist and contemporary literature as well. In a 1931 interview, James Joyce, for instance, famously stated that his fiction was meant to keep the reader busy for a lifetime: “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.”[5] This is an ambivalent statement, suggesting both a generous gift and an expectation of hard work for the reader who “should devote his whole life to reading his works.” Generosity is answered by arduous toil over carefully crafted sentences and proliferating cultural references, which are the product of arduous toil themselves. The Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, a modernist verging on postmodernism, also famous for his complex writing and rich intertextuality, was similarly characterized as a playfully generous author by his biographer, Brian Boyd, who argued that Nabokov’s generosity in his writing allowed attentive readers to make successive discoveries and illustrated “the generosity of his metaphysics, his hunch that the world itself sets before us the possibility and the pleasures of endless discovery.”[6] This is a much brighter, but no less committed, version of the reader’s interpretive work than Joyce’s more demanding and totalizing prescription. Writers give bountifully and readers take gratefully, but the reward comes at the expense of time, effort and “insomnia.” “Insomnia” is Joyce’s keyword, who declared that his fiction was meant for “the ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia.”[7] These remarks point to a certain understanding of the individual artist who produces works of great intellectual sophistication and allusive density that result from the arduous practice of a craft cherished by the modernists and their heirs,[8] and that require a lifetime of sustained hermeneutic activity from dedicated readers.

The generosity underlying Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison’s art and approach to authorship is very different from the modernist paradigm of the individual genius offering challenging experimental works that delight and challenge their readers. If modernist literature was “obsessed by individuals and their individuality”[9] – an obsession prolonged in critical discourse through the identification of towering individual figures of modernism (see Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, 1971) – according to Grant Kester in Conversation Pieces, there was a shift after conceptual art towards participation, shared authorship and conversation that emphasized socially engaged and community-based art outside of the museum. The Harrisons adopt a strategy of “conversational drift” through dialogic forms that embrace whole ecosystems, giving voice to collective lore and mobilizing various discourses and expertise from scientists, historians, and ordinary citizens.

As pioneers of land art and ecological art starting in the 1970s, the Harrisons  aligned their work with ecology early on, insisting on the urgency of responding to climate change and the loss of biodiversity. While what is problematically called “the Anthropocene”[10] has attracted much attention from artists and activists over the past decades, the best way to confront its implications in art and discourse is still contested. One prominent approach questions complacency and consensual agreement, and the downplaying of aesthetic form in ecologically-minded art. Mark Greif, for example, has expressed concern about the closed and normative nature of many debates about the urgency of the Anthropocene:

Yet this discourse of the Anthropocene, like other environment- and “thing”-oriented intellectual projects of our moment, strikes me (…) as another kind of work done by thinkers upon themselves, with little either of analytic significance or useful activism likely to come out of it, but guaranteeing an obligation for mental, rhetorical, or spiritual participation by neighbors and colleagues in every field of inquiry, regardless of anything determinatively argumentative or truth-finding at stake. [11]

Greif contends that instead of adopting a rhetoric of the “crisis of man” (the intellectual history of which represents the object of his book), answers and reactions need to go beyond “sermonizing” and prescription, and into more immediate action:

Answer, rather, the practical matters, concrete questions of value not requiring “who we are” distinct from what we say and do, and find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim. Important investigations of “who we are” can exist and are conceivable, but you can be sure that they transpire somewhere else than here in our sermonizing about responsibility, urgency, and hapless prescription. [12]

A second significant line of inquiry into the Anthropocene’s bearing on current artistic practices concerns the articulation between art and activism, more specifically the nature of artistic responses that highlight the “interdependence of the aesthetic, the political and the ethical,”[13] a question that I will discuss in more detail later on.

While it started with a demonstration (and not simply a statement) of climate change’s urgency for the present moment, the Harrisons’ work exemplifies the argumentative urge that Greif advocates, and is endowed with an analytical force and heuristic hesitation that goes beyond accepted ideas and perfunctory expression. Their work is driven by improvisation, contradiction, research and analysis. The hybrid aesthetic forms they create (maps, photographs, poetry, performance…) form complex discourses on ecology informed jointly by philosophy, literature, science, history and art history.

 The Harrisons’ understanding of their artistic vocation and authorial practice aligns with a definition of generosity that Albert Camus put forth in The Rebel (L’Homme révolté): “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”[14] Published in 1951, The Rebel, is a historical and philosophical essay written in the wake of World War 2 that reassesses the horror of an epoch revolving around two emblematic spaces, Auschwitz and Kolyma, while also adopting a larger historical and intellectual perspective that offers a panorama of European revolutionary currents.[15] Camus posits rebellion as a superior attitude toward unjust contexts and authorities that imparts the individual with solidarity, responsibility and meaningfulness. As Camus sees it, the rebel does not serve an abstract or utopian future, but is rather committed to the concrete political and social imperatives of the present as a way of acting for the future. Camus’ definition of rebellion as generosity embedded in the present and, consequently, the future is particularly useful for our discussion.

While their scope exceeded Camus’ focus on the human by including the more-than-human, Helen and Newton Harrison’s art articulated a generosity that acknowledged the urgency of the present, and the necessity of undoing destructive patterns from the past to benefit the future. These three temporalities cannot be easily disentangled in their work. The present is not an interstitial moment isolated between a frozen past and an imminent future. Rather, it is a continuous, flowing time that links several historical perspectives. Gertrude Stein, in Composition as Explanation, connects this continuous present with her own writing: “I made almost a thousand pages of a continuous present.”[16] In her typical phrasing, she claims she was “groping” for this continuous present and the result was a “more and more continuous present.”[17] The same can be said about Helen and Newton Harrison: their monumental catalogue, The Time of the Force Majeure, contains not a thousand, but five hundred pages of continuous present in dialogue with past and future narratives.

Generosity is redefined to include ecosystemic rather than merely individual categories, entangled in history and context. It is an ethics of being in the here and now, aware of the past, which grows into an ethics of the future, an ethics for the future. It is striking to read Newton Harrison’s opening sentences from Making Earth: “It was 1970. Earth Day had happened. I was becoming ecologically aware and had made the decision that I would do only work that benefited the ecosystem in some way.”[18] In the wake of Earth Day, ecological significance emerges as an ethical imperative that connects the individual artist and the ecosystem. Ecological commitment inflects the present and all temporal categories and processes, grounding generosity in history. In the original contexts of land art, the passage of time was often read in terms of inexorable entropic degradation and dissolution, but the ecological turn taken by certain pioneering land artists (such as the Harrisons) gave a decidedly ecological interpretation to entropic flow, accompanied by the urge to reduce entropy and to imagine constructive possibilities for change.

All of the projects developed by Helen and Newton Harrison around the world show an awareness of history and time, from the long temporality of evolution to recent historical events.[19] Doing fieldwork and preliminary research to unveil the layers of history in a given place is an important procedure undertaken by postwar American artists and poets, especially in land art, where the history of the site becomes prominent, even in the case of artists who seem less preoccupied with history, such as Robert Smithson.[20] Entropy is palpable in smaller and larger scales of temporality, and is always associated with historical change. In Portable Orchard, the citrus orchard is a fragile trace, “a last whisper from the past, barely perceptible in the face of endless development.”[21] In The Lagoon Cycle, the history and politics of Sri Lanka are discussed by a series of individual voices that form a dissonant chorus.[22] In Fortress Atlanta (1983), the history of the Civil Rights movement stands at the heart of the project.[23] In Dreaming the Yarkon River Alive, the history of the river from King Herod to 1989 is part of the project’s documentation.[24] In Trummerflora on the Topography of Terror (1988), Berlin is shaped by World War 2 and the Cold War, and these historical pressures are foregrounded in the Harrisons’ monument, which sought to give an unsanitized version of the city’s past.[25] Their “Manifesto for the 21st century” (2007) opens with a series of historical inflections that take us from Gilgamesh (even before) to today:

We of the Force Majeure Center believe (…)
That a series of events have come into being
Beginning in the time of Gilgamesh and before
Beginning with agriculture and genetic manipulation
Beginning with culturing of animals and ongoing genetic manipulation
Beginning with globalization 6000 years ago, with the Salt Route
A little later, the Silk Route
Especially with science informed by Descartes’ clock
And with modernity recreating the cultural landscape
While deconstructing nature in the process
From the Industrial Revolution to the present
Until all at once a new force has become apparent
We reframe a legal meaning ecologically
And name it the force majeure.[26]

Newton and Helen Harrison’s commitment to the present as an ethics for the future is best exemplified by this combined creed and manifesto, which invites an ecological and political reckoning with the extreme pressure of human agency on ecosystems beginning with ancient cultures up to today, and to act accordingly. The Force Majeure provides the scientific, historical and ecological framework within which art is made, and being and acting in the world are conceived. The opening lines do not conjure the vague mythical ahistoricity of the epic genre (which usually relies on the hazy temporality of myth illustrated by the formula in illo tempore), but rather condenses and collapses a whole series of specific events in history and culture, whose echoing and interconnected effects across time suggest an unusual multidirectional temporality. The term “globalization” is used to refer to phenomena of commercial exchange and circulation that happened 6000 years ago. The beginning of agriculture already adumbrates genetic manipulation. Modernity is considered to have accelerated these processes that started long before. Maria Stavrinaki coins the phrase “prehistoric modernity” to suggest the dialectic articulation of temporal scales, of historical beginnings and endings.[27] The historical narrative constructed by the Harrisons is made up of anticipations, repetitions with variations and anachronistic resonances. Such unsettling temporalities in which various layers of the past and the present refer back and forth to one another is reminiscent of similar collusions between past and future in certain key land art concepts, such as Smithson’s “ruins in reverse” developed in The Monuments of Passaic (1967) and Hotel Palenque (1969-1972). As Lytle Shaw explains, Smithson “proliferated as many discrepant temporalities inside a single landscape and environment as there were things, each, in his view, not subject to a binding, or overriding temporal measure, but rather making, itself, an argument about its imagined futures or distant pasts.”[28]

For the Harrisons, entropy is not an inescapable and immutable scenario, but can be acted upon. This reversal can only be imagined if the jumbled knot of temporalities and the ethical imperative it entails, condensed in the notion of the “Force Majeure,” are recognized socially and institutionally, and lead to significant change. It should be noted that many of Helen and Newton Harrison’s projects (urban projects or reclamation projects) have been implemented in collaboration with political authorities and administrators (presidents, governors, mayors, urban planners). Their artmaking is constantly turned towards action (in constant tension with and against institutions).

If Helen and Newton Harrison create an art of giving, what is expected in return? Joyce expected the reader’s insomnia, a lifetime devotion to interpreting his texts. For Derrida the gift is a figure of impossibility accompanied by the impurity of an expected retribution or acknowledgement. For the Harrisons, giving (by the artists through the work of art) comes with the expectation of further giving (by their audience, to the ecosystem, which gives back to them). Generosity becomes generative and regenerative, feeding on its own impulse endlessly renewed. Here, the ideal objective is a change of attitude from passivity to critical reflection and then to action, from indifference to attention, a change of paradigm from the individual to the communal and the systemic. The agency of art, its political outreach and its effects are closely articulated with the agency of the viewer and reader, who are invited to engage and react. Giving is no longer accompanied by taking, but by further giving, by the perpetuation of an ethical urge. But not everybody gives, of course. There is a funny moment in the Kassel works (1987) where Newton and Helen Harrison remember how the president of the Federal Republic of Germany and former mayor of Berlin, Richard von Weizsäcker, stopped to admire their work, praise their insight and invite them to Berlin, while the curator, Manfred Schneckenburger, who disliked their project, was trying to pull the president away and rush him through their section.[29] This dual attitude, of appreciation from some and reticence from others, is often mentioned by Helen and Newton Harrison in their reminiscences of how various projects were received. Their work has the power to draw the reader and viewer into conversation, consensual or polemical, while it is itself a complex form of conversation (Kester).

This brings about an important series of questions: what are the Harrisons’ means of persuasion? How is generosity expressed? And how does a viewer/listener participate or join in the conversation and give to the present? These questions address the complex issue of the efficiency of art, its ramifications in politics and also its power to solicit an aesthetic and political reaction from a specific audience. The viewer/listener here is neither abstract nor excluded from authorship, since the Harrisons’ projects always involve the audience at various stages, in research and performance.

Among the authorial personae the Harrisons have created throughout their work, there is a whole series of fluctuating frames and dynamics of authorship. From the early works, centered on individual performances like Making Earth, with emphasis on the body and on the process of making earth (even tasting it), authorship moves to a dual configuration of voices in dialogue in The Lagoon Cycle, to the “third artist, operating in the space between us” in San Diego as the Center of a World,[30] to collective rituals of sharing meals in Portable Fish Farm and walking in urban environments in Baltimore Promenade, and an inclusion of more-than-human creatures in a “collaboration with life-support systems” in Peninsula Europe IV.[31] At the end of Peninsula Europe IV, we find a utopian (and certainly polemical) invitation to “yield agency, enforceable by law/To the lives that are not ourselves/Dare we say Nature or better yet, the life-web.”[32] Speaking as one, as two, as an open collective entity addressing other open collective entities (the audience and the life-web), Helen and Newton Harrison are artists, poets, map-makers, photographers, experimental scientists, psychologists, educators, social researchers, historians, activists, gardeners, cooks and more. There is something generous and joyful in their polymorphic proliferation of identities and voices that responds to our own multiple interests and talents as an audience.

 Among all of these creative identities, I would like to consider their poetic persona, which embraces performative dialogues and collective readings. Helen and Newton Harrison have produced a vast body of written work always combined with other media, in complex hybrid projects. They have experimented with a variety of genres and discourses, literary, artistic and scientific, among which poetry is quite distinctive. The aesthetic experience of their work often involves a great deal of reading from the audience. The Afterstory to The Lagoon Cycle recalls the fact that “The critics found it boring because of all the reading that was required.”[33] Indeed, reading does require an effort, an active intellectual investment. Poetry gives a unique linguistic, metaphorical and material touch to the complex interaction of arts and media that is specific to Helen and Newton Harrison, an observation that builds on Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle’s essay “What poetry does best. The Harrisons’ poetics of being and acting in the world.” Poetry provides a special expressive form, an extensive use of stylistic strategies and an emphasis on language, on the material aspects of the support and on its vocal, performative enactments. The poetry written and performed by Helen and Newton Harrison revisits a whole series of strands and traditions: the flow of free verse, the playfulness and abstraction of conceptual poetry, the oracular phrasing of ancient prophecies, the cadences of old epics and of oral literary traditions, the vocal emphasis of ethnopoetics, the poetic inflections of certain literary manifestoes, the occasional informality of talk poems, the scripted performative dynamic of happenings and the boldness of experimental poetry.

It should be noted that throughout their long career the Harrisons were exposed to and interacted with poets and artists adopting poetic expression in combination with other artistic forms. Influence is certainly not the right word to use, but it is highly relevant that poetry and poets were very much present in the contexts in which they worked. Jerome Rothenberg (practitioner and theorist of ethnopoetics) was professor of visual arts and literature at the University of California at San Diego, where the Harrisons also taught.  They were also familiar with poets such as David Antin, Steve McCaffery, Jackson Mac Low, and Eleanor Antin. The Harrisons’ poetry combines conceptual poetry and the type of oracular poetry cherished by Rothenberg and included in his anthology Technicians of the Sacred. A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceaniapublished in 1968. Informed by oral traditions from all over the world and open to performance, the poetry written and performed by the Harrisons is centered on the expression and experience of a voice, or rather, voices in dialogue.

If we read and listen to the opening lines of Meditations on the Sacramento River, the Delta, and the Bays of San Francisco (1977), one can sense the articulation between ecological content on the one hand and poetic form on the other:

Diking, channeling, pumping
Diverting the flow of the San Joachin River at Friant and the Sacramento River at the delta
Limiting the flushing of the delta and the bays
Crisscrossing the valley with ditches and canals
They dammed all the rivers and most of the streams that
Flow into the delta and the bays
They dammed the Sacramento River, the Trinity River, the McCloud River and the Pitt River
Fall Creek, Hat Creek, Cow Creek, Stony Creek, Battle Creek
Putah Creek and Butte Creek (…) [34]

We can hear the repetitive pounding of the first three verbal forms (“diking, channeling, pumping”) which suggest the rhythmic pumping of water in their very accumulation and thumping effect. We can also hear the pun in “They dammed,” playing on dam, the construction, and damn, to condemn and destroy. In the second line, we can sense the diverting flow of the San Joachin River reflected in the longer line, suggesting precisely a diversion, a circumvolution through the length of the meandering line itself, which becomes, metaphorically, a river of words. The enumeration of river names in the last three lines succeeds in mapping the territory, in creating a literary counterpart to the map that individualizes the various components of the watershed by naming them. River names matter and by naming them, one after the other, the poem performs an act of care for and attention to the complexity of the water system, threatened by the politics of irrigated farming. The poem works in conjunction with the maps included in the Meditations, as literary and visual cartographies addressing the same question. By reproducing the toponymy and topography of the water system, by linguistically and syntactically suggesting the effects of irrigation, the poem invites us to experience the web of water and the intrusions that unsettle it through the poetic performance itself. Political content is materialized in poetic form and poetic form enacts the political message. In Guadalupe Meander, we are told that “A river is a medium for a discourse between life forms which exist in mutual support.”[35] Conversely, the text becomes a river and enacts the water system, together with the pressures that bear down on it, in a dual poetic and political procedure. This is how the Harrisons succeed in “doing things with words,” that is in creating a poetic experience of the water system and of the shortcomings involved in its administration. Unlike an illusory magical discourse that would instantly materialize a desired change, the Harrisons’ poetic language creates the conditions of understanding ecosystems by enacting them verbally and performatively.

The temporal component of performing the text carries special significance. The Meditations on the Sacramento River gave rise to a performative experiment at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1977:

The 10 texts that made up the Meditations were designed to be read in two voices, male and female. They were also designed to be read collectively in about 13 minutes or about 1 minute 10 seconds per image. The discipline set out to answer the question of how much information you could compress and in how short a reading time for understanding to take place of extremely complex eco-political observation, leading ultimately to the understanding that all Central Valley operations – farming, water usage, damming – were a form of extraction operating in indifference to the laws of the conservation of energy and therefore in the relatively short term were self-cancelling.[36]

A parallel is drawn between reading time and the short-term horizon of agricultural operations, between the compression of information in discourse and the compression of agricultural processes, between understanding the poem as it is performed and understanding the mechanisms of extraction and depletion predicated on the water system. The possibility of agency, of acting, starts from the awareness that ethical gestures unfold in longer durations, beyond the benefits of immediate usage and production, and beyond the limitations of human time. To think on larger temporal scales, which are those of our ecosystems, generosity is needed, the temporal generosity that gives all to the present in order for the future to become less constricted and mechanized, closer to a process of flowing, like an unimpeded water system.

The question of poetic form (of aesthetic form more generally) in performative frameworks is central to the Harrisons’ art. Suzaan Boettger has recently written about the lesser attention paid to aesthetic form in various examples of art that deals with climate change and the Anthropocene: “Most often, emphases on knowledge of the crises’ dimensions and on finding fixes have led to enlarging subject matter but slighting the persuasive powers of artistic form itself.” [37] She considers that the experimentation with aesthetic form represents a challenge faced by “environmentalist art”:

The ongoing challenge of environmentalist art is devising forms effective in altering public consciousness—and conscience—about climate change. The inventive works of art analyzed in this essay, among others, exemplify sensitivity to the ways that visual and material qualities engender affects and create intimacy with urgent subject matter. Powerful as both advocacy and art, they offer compelling models of persuasion.[38]

Similarly, Mark Cheetham (quoted by Boettger) also inquires about the “difference” of art in the context of ecology: “Is some degree of separation warranted [here, between art, science, and engineering], perhaps even to uphold art’s ability to make a difference precisely through its difference?” [39] Cheetham relies on Adorno’s argument in Aesthetic Theory claiming that “if art is to remain connected to momentous societal problems, it must fight for an identity distinguishable (if not fully autonomous) from its ambient culture.”[40] While Boettger and Cheetham reflect on artistic form and its effects, other critics and art historians choose to consider form as diverting attention from content and from the directness of activism. For instance, Emily Eliza Scott and Kirsten Swenson explain that the work included in Critical Landscapes “foregrounds the economic, social, and political status of land rather than allowing this to be disguised by formal concerns,” although the question of representation (especially in its political dimension) remains crucial.[41] T. J. Demos, in Decolonizing Nature, seeks to highlight the intersections of art and activism. In terms of art world circuits, as Grant Kester explains, the question of “unofficial art” or “para-artistic practices” is an important one, since many contemporary artists prefer “alternative modes of distribution and production” that question aesthetic autonomy and lead to the “specific identity of art” being “challenged and transformed in contact with other, adjacent cultural practices.”[42] In Conversation Pieces, he mentions certain attacks against “dialogical works” as “unaesthetic” or “failed art”, which leads him to question the normative assumptions of art criticism.[43]

The question of poetic/aesthetic form is undeniably fundamental to the Harrisons’ art and deserves further scrutiny due to the specific poetic and performative strategies that come into play. Poetry offers the experience of the web of life itself, including the temporal effects of the Force Majeure. Time, in its largest scale, beyond the span of human existence, emerges as a central concern. Contemporary writers such as Amitav Ghosh in his work of nonfiction The Great Derangement and Richard Powers in his novel The Overstory have pleaded for fiction and art to use larger temporal categories that would do justice to the long temporality of climate change and more-than-human creatures like trees. Ghosh insists on the difference between epic poems “which often range over eons and epochs” and novels, which “rarely extend beyond a few generations.”[44] The Harrisons’ use of the epic mode in their writings allows them to compress and render thelongue durée in intense poetic performances that seek to offer listeners, within the present moment of listening, a sense of the disastrous shaping of nature across eons and epochs. If Joyce wanted the reader to spend her life deciphering his prose, Helen and Newton Harrison would prefer that we project beyond ourselves and our existence, in the longer time that only generosity can make possible.

Monica Manolescu is Professor of American literature and art at the University of Strasbourg, France. She is the author of three books: Jeux de mondes. L’ailleurs chez Vladimir Nabokov (Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2009), Lolita. Cartographies de l’obsession. Nabokov/Kubrick (Presses Universitaires de France, 2010) and Cartographies of New York and Other Postwar American Cities. Art, Literature and Urban Spaces (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). She is currently a junior member of the Institut Universitaire de France working on a project entitled The spatial imagination in postwar American literature and art. She has been a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, an honorary research fellow at the University of Kent and a short-term visiting professor at the International Christian University, Tokyo.


[1] Marcel Hénaff, The Philosophers’ Gift. Reexamining Reciprocity, translated by Jean-Louis Morhange (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 37.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Given Time. Counterfeit Money, translated by Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992), 25.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Given Time, 19.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), tr. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Aesthetic judgment (pleasure in the beautiful) is disinterested, meaning that a genuine aesthetic judgement does not include any external considerations toward the object of judgement, such as utilitarian or political concerns. Kant connects disinterestedness with the claim to universal validity of the judgement of taste.

[5] James Joyce, interview with Max Eastman for Harper’s Magazine (1931) quoted in Amy Hungerford, Making Literature Now (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 338. On collective participation, see Claire Bishop, Participation (London: Whitechapel, 2006). For a specific discussion of exchange and generosity in recent art, see Ted Purves (ed.), What We Want Is Free. Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004).

[6] Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The Magic of Artistic Discovery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 247. It should be noted that Nabokov’s last Russian novel, Dar (The Gift) deals with the question of artistic genius and art as gifts. Other examples of scholarly emphasis on writers’ generosity can be found in Stéphane Vanderhaeghe’s creative study of Robert Coover, which foregrounds the generosity of writing (rather than the author) as the guiding principle of reading and hermeneutic activity. Robert Coover & the Generosity of the Page (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).

[7] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2012), 120.13-14.

[8] Mark McGurl, The Program Era. Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 23.

[9] Mark McGurl, The Program Era, 4.

[10] For a synthesis of existing critical interpretations of “the Anthropocene,” see Sandrine Baudry, Hélène Ibata and Monica Manolescu, “Introduction,” Ranam. Recherches anglaises et nord-américaines 54/2021, issue on “Landscapes and aesthetic spatialities in the Anthropocene,” 7-17.

[11] Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man. Thought and Fiction in America (1937-1973) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 327.

[12] Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man, 328.

[13] Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces. Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), xviii.

[14] Albert Camus, The Rebel. An Essay on Men in Revolt, tr. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), 304. This quote serves as an epigraph to Richard Powers’s novel Generosity. An Enhancement (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009), whose protagonist is nicknamed Generosity.

[15] Due to its critique of Marxism-Leninism and condemnation of Soviet camps, The Rebel was negatively received by Sartre, who wrote a scathing review in Les Temps Modernes (1952). This led to a definitive break between Camus and Sartre. See Sartre’s “Réponse à Albert Camus,” Les Temps modernes, no. 82, 1952, included in Situations IV. Portraits (Paris: Gallimard, 2015).

[16] Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation” (1926),

[17] It should be noted that “Composition as Explanation” was delivered as a lecture at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in 1926, and should be understood as a performative event. Hence, the present moment becomes even more prominent for the enactment of the ideas about the continuous present that it puts forth.

[18] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure (London: Prestel, 2016), 18.

[19] Grant Kester comments on a combined spatial and temporal imagination in the Harrisons’ work “that allows them to envision the long-term impact of current human and environmental processes on a given ecosystem.” Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, 66.

[20] See Jennifer Roberts for a reading of Robert Smithson in relation to history and historical contexts. Mirror- Travels. Robert Smithson and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[21] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 41.

[22] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 100-101.

[23] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 156-159.

[24] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 196-203.

[25] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 204-211.

[26] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 379.

[27] Maria Stavrinaki, Saisis par la préhistoire. Enquête sur l’art et le temps des modernes (Dijon : Les Presses du réel, 2019), 18.

[28] Lytle Shaw, New Grounds for Dutch Landscape (Stockholm: OEI Editor, 2021), 30.

[29] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 192.

[30] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 52.

[31] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 403.

[32] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 403.

[33] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 147.

[34] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 70.

[35] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 170.

[36] Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, The Time of the Force Majeure, 67.

[37] Suzaan Boettger, “Ways of Saying. Rhetorical Strategies of Environmentalist Imagining.” In The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, edited by T. J. Demos, Subhankar Banerjee and Emily Eliza Scott (London: Routledge, 2021), 252.

[38] Suzaan Boettger, “Ways of Saying. Rhetorical Strategies of Environmentalist Imagining,” 261.

[39] Mark A. Cheetham, Landscape into Eco-Art. Articulations of Nature Since the 1960s (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018), 11.

[40] Mark A. Cheetham, Landscape into Eco-Art, 11.

[41] Emily Eliza Scott and Kirsten J. Swenson (eds.), Critical Landscapes. Art, Space, Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 3.

[42] Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, xix.

[43] Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, 10-11.

[44] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement. Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2016), 103. It should be noted that Ghosh’s interpretation of the novel as a genre supposedly unable to capture the specific problems of the Anthropocene has been contested, for instance by Kate Marshall and Jesse Oak Taylor. See also, for a distinct reading of how fiction addresses the Anthropocene, Mark Bould, The Anthropocene Unconscious.


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