Characterising the Anthropocene

Ecological Degradation in Italian Twenty-First Century Literary Writing

by Alessandro Macilenti (Author)
©2018 Thesis 212 Pages


This book applies the analytical methods of third-wave ecocriticism to selected twenty-first century Italian literary works. Turning abstract issues into narrative form, literary writing increases awareness of environmental issues as well as exerting a deep emotive influence on its readership. The author analyses Roberto Saviano's «Gomorra», Kai Zen's «Delta blues», Wu Ming's «Previsioni del tempo», Simona Vinci's «Rovina», Giancarlo di Cataldo's «Fuoco!», Laura Pugno's «Sirene», and Alessandra Montrucchio's «E poi la sete». He demonstrates that these works offer an invaluable opportunity to communicate meaningfully and accessibly the discomforting truths of global environmental change.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 Enter the Anthropocene
  • 1.2 Writing Italian Nature
  • 1.3 Methodology
  • 1.3.1 Literature Review
  • 1.3.2 Theoretical Approach
  • 1.4 Conclusion
  • 2. Locality 1: Chemical Pollution
  • 2.1 A Toxic Tour through “La terra dei fuochi”
  • 2.1.1 The Mechanisms of Gomorra
  • 2.1.2 Saviano’s Narrative Strategies
  • 2.2 Violent Metaphors: Delta blues
  • 2.2.1 A Delta of Intersecting Texts
  • 2.2.2 Fast and Slow Violence
  • 2.2.3 Zen Archery
  • 2.3 Waste and Gold: Previsioni del tempo
  • 2.3.1 Criminal Midas
  • 2.3.2 A Landscape of the Mind
  • 2.4 Conclusion
  • 3. Locality 2: Changes in Land Use
  • 3.1 A Look at Our Changing Landscapes
  • 3.1.1 Narrating Land Use Change in the Twentieth Century
  • 3.1.2 The Foundations of Criminal Wealth
  • 3.2 A Story of Places and People: Rovina
  • 3.2.1 The Structure of Ruin
  • 3.2.2 A Landscape of Denial
  • 3.3 Wild Passions and Wildfires: Fuoco!
  • 3.3.1 A Burning Issue: Wildfires in Italy
  • 3.3.2 Teenage Treehuggers and Adult Dolts
  • 3.4 Bloodied Cement Handprints: Gomorra
  • 3.4.1 The System
  • 3.4.2 The Materiality of Cement
  • 3.5 Conclusion
  • 4. Translocality
  • 4.1 Transcending Political Frames
  • 4.2 Uncanny Hyperobjects: Sirene
  • 4.2.1 Imagining an Uncannily Imminent Future
  • 4.2.2 Black Gods: Sirene’s Hyperobjects
  • 4.3 A Climate of Fear: E poi la sete
  • 4.3.1 Literary Writing: The How and the Why
  • 4.3.2 Envisioning Hyperobjects: Climate Fiction
  • 4.4 Conclusion
  • 5. Conclusions
  • 5.1 Reviewing Premises and Findings
  • 5.2 Looking Forward to Future Directions
  • Appendix A. Intervista a Jadel Andreetto, Kai Zen
  • Appendix B. Intervista a Laura Pugno
  • Appendix C. Intervista a Wu Ming 2
  • Works Cited
  • Series index

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Chapter 1. Introduction

In this monograph, I ask a simple question: is the role of literary writing limited to that of an observer of the unfolding ecological catastrophe or can it play an active part in human survival? Environmentally-minded activists, scientists and intellectuals who seek to understand the global environmental crisis from different points of view are experimenting with new and more effective ways to inform the public about the dangers of a business-as-usual environmental policy. However, their message has to adapt quickly both to new scientific findings and to the attacks of those who find it convenient to minimise or deny. Specifically, the aim of this work is to explore the twenty-first century Italian literary responses to the ecological crisis, focusing on works that depict radically degraded environments. In doing so, it endeavours to understand how relevant to the aims and challenges of environmentalism these works are. Moreover, this research investigates what might be the social function of such literature. How do authors use language in order to communicate environmental degradation to the Italian public and how do they attempt to engender a heightened environmental awareness in their readership? How do they stimulate debate and, potentially, encourage direct citizen action against the abuses, while avoiding, on the one hand, the pitfalls of an exceedingly detached scientism, and on the other hand, the misrepresentations of ideology? Finally, my research tries to determine whether the twenty-first century Italian environmental literature might play a role in revising the cultural frames that have contributed to global environmental change.

1.1 Enter the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene defines the period when human activities begin to dramatically affect planetary processes: changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere, increasing the acidity of the oceans, eroding the stratospheric ozone layer, dispersing radioactive isotopes and polymers whose life is measured in aeons and triggering a mass extinction event, wiping out uncountable species from the face of the Earth, forever. The accelerated transformation of the Earth’s biophysical conditions poses an existential danger to life as we know it, and threatens to plunge humanity into an era where survival, let alone any form of civilisation, becomes an untenable proposition for billions. However, a deafening silence prevents a meaningful discussion about this topic on most public ← 1 | 2 → platforms: mass media, academia, politics. This has been true for a long time: the conservationist Aldo Leopold remarked that,

On the one hand, I claim Leopold’s world of wounds for myself. A basic understanding of ecology and anthropology makes me aware that our unprecedented evolutionary success is rapidly changing the biophysical conditions upon which life as we know it relies. No day passes when I am not exposed to a litany of woe from the natural world: the oceans turning into seashell-dissolving soups of micro-plastics; birds, turtles and fish agonising in the oily sludge that has covered their home waters; the mangled bodies of whales, rhinos and elephants; the burning of the rainforests; the deadened buzz of poisoned bees; and, worst of all, the ideologues’ cynical doublespeak. However, unlike others, I have no shell of scientific countenance that I can harden. Far from being a curse, this sensitivity has been a blessing in disguise that prevents me from falling into a deluded positivist cynicism and highlights the marks of death in today’s decadent celebration of humanity’s power as well as the widespread denial of Earth’s physical limits. Given my training as a Humanist and as an educator, I have endeavoured to understand what might be my personal contribution towards a heightened awareness of the dramatic state in which humanity finds itself. The Physical and Social Sciences have found definite roles in investigating the implications of such epochal transformation, but the Humanities have been slow in characterising their raison d’être in the Anthropocene. An ill-judged belief that the Humanities can ignore the non-human realm prevents some humanists from accepting that a modern understanding of ecology has turned the modernist world-view upside down, highlighting the arbitrariness of the assumptions that construct our identities. It is partly understandable: our vanity hurts when we hear that we are not as important, as unique, or as ethereal as we thought. But, more than vanity, mere inertia determines the current state of affairs: it takes effort to uproot outdated thinking, a prime example of which is a belief in unlimited material growth. In his Requiem for a Species (2010), Clive Hamilton attributes the current ecological crisis to the “growth fetishism” of mainstream contemporary economics, which seems to assume that growth and the accumulation of wealth are the solution to any problem (Requiem for a Species 32–33). Hamilton suggests that the divergence between science and politics ← 2 | 3 → can be only understood when we realise that ecology and climate science have “thrown up some facts that challenge the foundation of the modern understanding of the world, that is, the conception of humans as self-determining agents able to control the future by exercising power over nature” (Earthmasters 206). A radical review of the way humanity relates to the non-human is in order, but overcoming the public’s apathy is essential to motivate the radical changes that humanity owes to the next generations (Aitken, Chapman, and McClure). In other words, it is necessary to move away from what McCright and Dunlap define as “Dominant Social Paradigm” to an ecocentric approach where Nature is considered intrinsically valuable and invent a “grand narrative” of repairing the Earth (McCright and Dunlap 107; Washington, Climate Change Denial 119–120). But how? To achieve real change, it will ultimately be necessary to enable the public to intuit the fundamental links that interconnect humanity with the Earth’s ecosystems and elicit a deep emotive response to the abuse and the destruction that are currently taking place (Hamilton, Requiem for a Species 153). In order to elicit such a response, the Humanities need to break free of some dangerous misconceptions have tainted it and adopt an ethical, reality-based approach superseding the models that have caused the present crisis.

In fact, it has been apparent for too long that both modernist and postmodernist cultural studies have supported frontier ethics.1 On the one hand, the Grand Narrative of modernism constructs itself around the ideologies of capitalism, socialism, resourcism and consumerism, and fails to see any value in nature beyond that of being a repository of resources for human consumption (Washington, Climate Change Denial 112). On the other hand, postmodernism assists the status quo in several ways. At its worst, Stanley Cohen argues, postmodernist relativism has been, akin to Holocaust denial, “simply a fanatical rejection of evidence and a refusal to abide by the rule of rationality and logic” (282). In addition, whereas it is true that postmodernism deconstructs the grand narratives of modernism, thus exposing its mistakes, it is also true that the same mechanisms prevent the ← 3 | 4 → arising of a “grand dream” of actually fixing things (Washington, Climate Change Denial 113). Finally, although postmodernism questions the centrality of dominant narratives and advocates the emergence of peripheral points of view, it has stopped short of critiquing anthropocentrism. As Washington observes, for a number of reasons postmodernism is critical of the idea of wilderness, as it could not fathom that anything existed beyond human experience (“The wilderness knot” 441).

So far, there have been calls for the humanities to project themselves over and above self-imposed frames and recognise the limits of (post)modernism. In his essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Bruno Latour proposes a rethinking of the concept of critique by deconstructing its practice. Latour questions the necessity of applying deconstructionism to the empirical sciences for at least two reasons. The first reason is that it never worked: “[y]ou can try the projective game on UFOs or exotic divinities, but don’t try it on neurotransmitters, on gravitation, on Monte Carlo calculations” (242). The second reason is that it would be unwise to attack science at a time when “extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives” (227). Instead of the old iconoclasm aimed at subtracting from reality, he proposes a type of positive inquiry aimed at “generating more ideas than we have received, inheriting from a prestigious critical tradition but not letting it die away, or ‘dropping into quiescence’ like a piano no longer struck”: a switch from matter-of-fact to matter-of-concern (248). Similarly, Wu Ming argues that postmodernity is obsolete and that literature should dare to go beyond it, find new models and original frameworks to describe a profoundly mutated scenario:2

Finita la postmodernità, il postmodernismo è patetico residuo, riscalda avanzi già avariati. La contemplazione allucinata della società dei consumi e del linguaggio che la descriveva ha espresso tutto quanto poteva esprimere (difficile, o meglio implausibile, andare oltre J. G. Ballard), e una volta individuate cose divertenti che non farai mai più, non le fai più, punto. Il tempo che viviamo ora non ha ancora un’etichetta, e ciò è bene. Abbiamo un margine di libertà [With the end of postmodernity, the postmodern is a pathetic residue, heating up already rotten leftovers. The visionary contemplation of consumeristic society and of the language which described it has already expressed all it could express (it is difficult, or rather, implausible to go past J. G. Ballard). Once you ← 4 | 5 → have identified enjoyable things that you will never do again, you do not do them again, full stop. The time we now live in does not have a label yet, and this is good. We have a margin of freedom] (“Premessa alla versione 2.0 di New Italian Epic” 32).

This freedom offers a chance to revise our cultural frames and allows us to opt out of subservient modernism and nihilistic postmodernism. Thus, not rejecting but transcending the canons of postmodernity, this monograph aims to investigate how literature can find a new framework of operation and become a powerful cultural force helping humanity towards survival. In this scenario, the role of the Humanities would be that of generating and investigating epiphanies, overcoming “growth fetishism”, and thus eliciting a deep emotive response to the abuse and destruction that are currently taking place.

1.2 Writing Italian Nature


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (June)
Slow violence Ecocriticism Environmental humanities Ecomafia Posthumanism Material ecocriticism Hyperobjects
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. IIX, 212 pp., 1 fig. col., 1 fig. b/w, 2 tables, 4 graphs

Biographical notes

Alessandro Macilenti (Author)

Alessandro Macilenti obtained a doctoral degree at the Victoria University of Wellington. His research interests include the educational and communicative potential of literary writing depicting radical environmental degradation.


Title: Characterising the Anthropocene
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220 pages