Modernism in the Anthropocene

Researcher Peter Adkins explores how radical early 20th-century literary shifts reimagined the human within broader planetary processes, a ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ expanding understandings of our geological agency long before global environmental predicaments became the widespread crises of our times.


2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes


1922 is often considered a golden year when it comes to literature. James Joyce published his epic modernist novel Ulysses, a work that was almost immediately banned in Britain and America on account of its transgressive content. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land arrived as a fiery example of how verse might respond to the upheavals of post-World War One life. And Virginia Woolf’s experimental narrative of a young man who doesn’t return from the front, Jacob’s Room, established her as one of the foremost novelists of her generation.

Literature was reinventing itself, pushing at the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be said. Along with similar revolutions in the visual arts, music, and architecture, rapid transformations were sweeping cultural forms, breaking down the old ways of experiencing the world and offering new ways of conceptualising lived experience.

Less well-known is the degree to which 1922 was something of a threshold year in attempts to conceptualise what we now refer to as the Anthropocene. The Cambridge geographer, R. L. Sherlock published a book entitled Man as a Geological Agent, in which he argued that we have to think of the human species as both a biological and geological actor — predating Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential argument about the human as a geological agent in the Anthropocene by almost 90 years. And perhaps even more remarkably, the Russian geologist Aleksey Pavlov actually used the word ‘Anthropocene’ in a 1922 paper, arriving at it as a term that might recognise the longstanding influence of human activity on the planet. 

Human in the nonhuman world

When I began the research on what would become my book, The Modernist Anthropocene, I wanted to know if there were any links between these two spheres of activity: one revising how we understand literature and the other revising how we understand planetary life.

Certainly, it was the case that modernist writers were interested in how humans interact with and imagine the nonhuman world. In one of the moments of Jacob’s Room that moved me when I first read it during my PhD, Jacob Flanders is described as overcome with the urge to press himself against the ground and “feel the earth spin; to have–positively–a rush of friendship for stones and grasses”. Woolf’s writing is so often attuned to geology and ecology. The middle portion of her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), entitled ‘Time Passes’, is largely devoid of human characters and instead imagines the decay of a house on the Isle of Skye, left abandoned during World War One and slowly succumbing to the sea air. It is a vision of life after humans, of the world we might leave behind us. While in Orlando (1928), whose narrative covers over four hundred years, Woolf charts the vicissitudes of the English climate seeming, at moments, to appear to intuit the concept of anthropogenic climate change (possibly, as I discovered during my research, influenced by her reading of the early climatologist John Tyndall).

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the cover for the first edition of Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse' (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell
Cover for first edition of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell

This cosmological orientation towards the earth and the air is shared by Joyce, albeit in starkly different ways. Leopold Bloom, one of the principal characters in Joyce’s Ulysses, frequently turns in his thoughts towards nonhuman life, from other animals to celestial bodies. Towards the end of Ulysses, the reader finds Bloom reflecting on the puniness of the human when placed within a planetary frame that runs from macroscopic to micro. In a tour de force sentence, Joyce presents Bloom meditating on:

the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

For Bloom, whose interest in science provides a worldview in which the human is itself a constellation of otherworldly processes, there is a clear continuity between the geological and the biological. As we find throughout Joyce’s writing, the human is divisible into flows and processes that firmly situates it within broader planetary processes. The human is, in an important sense, resolutely inhuman.

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the first edition of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (1922), banned in Britain and USA.
First edition of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922), banned in Britain and the USA.

Tipping points in the Modernist Anthropocene

As I wrote The Modernist Anthropocene, I discovered that there were clear points of confluence between the modernist writers shaking up the literary world and those in the sciences, both in terms of direct points of connection and indirect areas of resonance and overlap. The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, provided one such connection. Eliot had attended Bergson’s lectures while in Paris and his writing on evolution both inspired Joyce (who owned a copy of Creative Evolution while writing Ulysses) and Vladimir Vernadsky, whose work Geochemistry helped pave the way for the field of climatology. Indeed, Joyce and Vernadsky lived in Paris at the same time in the 1920s. Although I am yet to find any evidence of their having met, I like to think that they might have drank at the same cafés or attended the same operas, unaware that they were in the company of a fellow intellectual revolutionary.

Another question which presented itself as I wrote my book was: why then? Why was it during the 1910s, 20s and 30s that these developments took place in literature and science?

Part of the reason was that they were looking to dislodge ideas from the previous century that now appeared lacking in certain respects. In literature, modernist writers were looking to challenge (although not necessarily wholesale reject) Victorian literary conventions. For novelists, this meant utilising narrative techniques such as free indirect discourse and interior monologue to break with what they saw as the artificiality of the realist novel and get closer to the subjective experience of life itself. A similar rationale could be found among figures such as Bergson and Vernadsky, who saw nineteenth-century ideas in evolutionary biology and physics as being too mechanistic, unable to account for what Bergson famously termed ‘élan vital’ – the vital spark which powers life onward.

Yet this was only half the story, as I discovered. The early twentieth century was also a period of environmental tipping points and thresholds. The period saw the development and use of liquid fuels, the nascence of motor and air travel, the invention of human-made nitrate fertiliser, as well as continued rapid growth in industrialism, urbanisation, fossil fuel extraction, and intensive agriculture, all of which were responding to, and fuelled by, ever-expanding population levels.

And although the figures I look at in my book cannot be said to be ‘environmental writers’ in the sense of writing with the explicit aim of ecological consciousness-raising, they were nonetheless alert to the poisoning of the world around them. In Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, we find repeated descriptions of Dublin’s polluted status. In one particularly memorable description, the River Poddle is described as a “tongue of liquid sewage” emptying out into the Liffey. Later in the book we discover that Bloom knows a family who, reliant on collecting mussels for food, have been poisoned by the sewage. In his attention to the unequally distributed consequences of pollution, Joyce might be seen as intuiting the notion of slow violence, or the way in which many of the effects of the Anthropocene materialise not through cataclysmic instances but gradual processes that unfold so slowly as to become near invisible to all those but most directly impacted.

Showing a postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.
Postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.

The concept of the ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ emerged as a synthesis of these observations and insights. The term, as I use it, denotes both a historical period, in which significant environmental change and scientific developments occurred that profoundly altered our relationship to the planet, and an identifiable set of aesthetic responses to that historical moment, represented in the works of innovative writers who were highly aware of the way in which humans were influencing nonhuman processes.

The finished book explores this idea by looking in detail at three modernist writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes. T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Vita Sackville-West and others also make appearances at various points. As I write, I’ve just finished a follow-up book, an edited collection entitled Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene. Woolf, for me, might be the modernist writer who was most sensitive to developments in the physical world and the edited collection, which brings together essays from ten leading scholars, explores various facets of her writing as they relate to the Anthropocene. My own contribution to the volume is a chapter on Woolf, petroleum and colonial extractivism and reflects what, I hope, will be the subject of my next book: modernism, energy transition and oil.

Literary works are, as critics are increasingly recognising, uniquely poised to open up new ways of thinking about emergent planetary conditions. As Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor frame it in the introduction to their edited collection, Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (2017), literature might be approached as offering a kind of stratigraphic record, providing us with snapshots of specific points in planetary history and thereby helping us understand how we have historically imagined the world. Yet this stratigraphic approach also insists that texts are not just historical artefacts but lively and vibrant materials which can enter into dialogue with the present and help us make sense of ongoing crises and challenges.
Reading and writing are, as the modernists showed us, activities that can help us see the world afresh and foster new ways of understanding what it means to live on a damaged planet. 

Showing 'The Modernist Anthropocene' by Peter Adkins


Peter Adkins

Peter Adkins

A researcher and writer exploring how literature helps us imagine, understand and rethink environmental history, planetary change, resource use, and relationships between humans and other animals.

The Modernist Anthropocene: Nonhuman Life and Planetary Change in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Peter Adkins (Edinburgh University Press, 2024) is published in a paperback edition and is also available for free as an open access e-book. 

Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press, due for publication in June 2024. 

Peter mentions how the writings of key modernist authors such as Joyce prefigure or intuit ideas that have become established in 21st-century accounts of the Anthropocene. Among these are the works of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and literary scholar Rob Nixon. 

In 2009, Dipesh Chakrabarty published The Climate of History: Four Theses (Critical Inquiry, Volume 35, Number 2) in which he suggested that: anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history; the idea of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch when humans exist as a geological force, severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalisation; the geological hypothesis regarding the Anthropocene requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans; and the cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding.

In 2013, Rob Nixon published Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press), discussing how the violence wrought by climate change, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly: a “slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.”

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