When In These Times launched in early 2017, it gave voice to a collective sense of shock, a need to connect scholarship with activism and “engage, engage, engage.” Since then, contributors have offered a range of thoughtful reflections on how to study and teach modernism and modernity in these catastrophic times. But until recently the forum has been unsettlingly silent on the climate crisis—even as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, record-breaking floods and wildfires proliferate, droughts threaten crops and ecosystems, glaciers continue to melt and coral reefs to bleach, and a million animal and plant species face extinction at heartbreakingly accelerated rates.
Critical, speculative, and imaginative forays into modernism’s relationships with energy systems, ecological change, and the nonhuman world.
In October 2019, The Getty Center in Los Angeles opened its “Manet and Modern Beauty” exhibit, a major reappraisal of Manet’s late work.
Whether we accelerate the growth of a plant through time-lapse photography or show its form in forty-fold enlargement, in either case a geyser of new image-worlds hisses up at points in our existence where we would least have thought them possible.
—Walter Benjamin, “News About Flowers”
The apocalypse stressed me out. This is an obviously true, maybe irresponsibly glib statement in material terms—the sixth extinction, global pandemic, nuclear annihilation, space rocks, methane farts, these all terrify me daily in ways that I have the luxury to be terrified.
In a 1907 letter to Stefi Geyer (the young violinist for whom he wrote the First Violin Concerto), Bartók writes: “It’s not the body that’s mortal and the soul that’s immortal, but the other way around. The soul is transitory and the body (that is, matter) is everlasting! . . . The body, as matter, is ‘immortal’ indeed, for matter in this world is never lost; it only changes its form” (Béla Bartók Letters, 76, emphasis in the original). Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918; first version, 1911) can be read as an attempt to give expression to the idea of “immortal,” as well as agential, matter, beginning with the castle itself. The drama of the opera revolves around the opening of the castle’s seven doors by the light-bringing human characters, Judith and Bluebeard, leading to the inner chamber. Here Judith becomes absorbed into the object world of the castle as Bluebeard simultaneously becomes swallowed by the closing “night forever” of the opera’s final curtain. The sweating, weeping, sighing, bleeding, and shrieking castle was originally conceived by librettist Béla Balázs as the third character of the opera: it is both a noisy environment into which the characters are thrust and a sonic agent in itself, its “voice” (and the discordant voices of its objects) as central to the opera as those of its human characters.