Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Germanic Languages and Literatures
This dissertation confronts a contradiction that has come to define human life over (at least) the past quarter millennium: though we have, collectively, become the first species to inscribe ourselves into the geological record, we have, individually, diminishing power over the shape of the world toward which we blindly work. While imperial expansion and unfettered fossil fuel extraction threaten to undermine the material conditions of all human life, there is, I argue, a more fundamental problem manifest in anthropogenic climate change, one that poses a representational challenge. Because of its own globality, the threat posed by something as diffuse and total as the climate seems to demand the articulation of an equally global subject: the human as a species. What does it mean, however, to represent the everyday experiences of individuals as unified by such an abstraction? While some scholars have argued that this abstracted collectivity poses a challenge to the traditional tools of humanistic representation, this dissertation begins with the claim that experiencing ourselves as a species is a problem of representation. Climate change, I argue, exposes the inadequacy of a social totality emptied of its determinacy and demands that we represent our universality through the materiality of our everyday phenomenology. If we are to take a humanistic approach to the ecological crises we face, we must begin by developing new figures for the unity of our social world.I confront this representational problem through three pivotal moments over the past century in which thinkers have turned to the figurative power of language to articulate and address the frailty of their social worlds. These moments, I argue, articulate a poetics of emancipatory collectivity adequate to our current crisis. The first chapter turns to the moment when philosophy transformed its static conceptual environment (Umwelt) into the lived world (Welt). By following Martin Heidegger’s development of “worldliness” during the 1920s, I show that his central figure, ekstasis, dissolves the totalizing threat, not of a specific historical form of political life, but of the very methodological approach of all metaphysics. More than the individuated unification of selfhood, I argue, ecstasy articulates the spatio-temporal universalization (“worlding” as he called it) of any given moment of experience. This figure of phenomenological worldliness, then, not only placed philosophy back on the firm ground of everyday experience, but uncovers, contra Heidegger’s own conservative derailments, the coherence of “authenticity” (Eigentlichkeit) in the collective rearrangement of our embodied worldliness (Weltlichkeit). The second chapter explores the political possibilities of this ecstasy through Hannah Arendt’s inversion of Heidegger’s enclosed individualism into a theory of porous collectivity. Arendt subverted the Heideggerian antagonism between selfhood and the social world, I suggest, by insisting that our entanglement in an endless “web” of the actions of others grounds our own capacity to act. In order to explore the inherently poetic character of this narrative web, I turn to a close reading of Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel of life in Nazi Berlin, Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone). I read the novel as an attempt to poetically weave together the threads of responsibility and complicity that National Socialism had so successfully torn apart. It offers, then, a world in which the reified and totalizing disfiguration of collectivity under Nazism becomes legible in its everyday fabrication and, therefore, its potential transformation into a world that could once again figure the possibility of freedom. The third chapter seeks to more directly understand how the material threat of climate change challenges our modes of political and poetic representation. I suggest that 10:04, a recent autofictional novel by Ben Lerner, offers a helpful starting point by navigating the alienation characteristic of urban bourgeois consumers. Against the allure of various pseudo-political salves to this alienation, Ben, the protagonist, diagnoses his consumptive passivity as a function of the “bad forms of collectivity” that the global economy imposes upon him. To illuminate the stakes of this gesture, I return to the key Marxian dialectical figure of our “social metabolism” between labor and the world as a whole to argue that Lerner’s project exhibits a kind of metabolic poetics. Lerner’s novel, I argue, reactivates consumption simply by reconfiguring the universalizing mechanism in which it latently participates, revealing the dialectical relation between the individual and the arrangement of its world. Through close readings of these figurative re-animations, this dissertation insists that humanistic methods are necessary to any approach to our contemporary global crises that hopes to remake our world with an eye toward justice, joy, and collective freedom.
Chaoulideer, Maximilian Elihu, "Figuring Collectivity in the Age of Climate Crisis" (2021). Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertations. 27.