Becoming Human: Literature of the Nature-Culture Borderlands


The boundary between “nature” and “culture” is always assumed, yet it is never fixed, permanent, or uncontested. As the site of a fundamental philosophical question—what does it mean to be human?—it is one of the richest themes of world literature, often articulated through narratives of encounter between human beings and the various “others” in contrast to whom they define themselves: gods, animals, nature, and machines. In recent times, growing environmental awareness, fuelled by looming ecological crises, has brought new urgency to the question of how we humans conceive of our relationship to what philosopher David Abrams has called “the more than human world.” Drawing upon concepts and methods from the burgeoning literary-critical field of ecocriticism, this course we will look at how this theme has been explored in world literature, in a variety of literary genres and styles as well as a variety of cultural and historical contexts. How have imaginative writers described the place of the human in the natural order? What different accounts of both the human and the non-human arise from these fictions, and what role is played in them by such cultural and political categories as age, gender, religion, class, and nation? Conversely, how are these categories themselves altered when viewed through the lenses of environment, nature, and species? How do these accounts shape the history of concepts like “reason,” “soul,” “science,” “family,” and “freedom?” How might a renewed engagement with this vast theme amplify our understanding of—and guide our response to—our current ecological challenges?


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