The Future of Sustainability. Literature, Time, and the Environment

Sustainability strains both our affective and temporal consciousness by compelling us to think ahead into a future that stretches out beyond our own finitude. How, though, can humans imagine such a world? Literary texts provide humans with the opportunity to experiment with forms of stability in continuity, and in this way to rehearse an outlook on the future that meets the demands of sustainability. Texts are particularly suited to such experiments because they appear as inexorably fated to come to an end as humans themselves. What, then, do texts that sidestep finality in favor of stability in continuity look like? These “sustainable texts” employ a variety of aesthetic strategies, ranging from enumeration to fragmentation or serialization. Literary form reflects the temporal challenge of sustainability by performing it as well as by depicting it.

The project explored the history and function of sustainability in German literature from the early 18th to the early 21st century. An analysis of the linguistic history of the German term Nachhaltigkeit (sustainability), which dates back to 1713, reveals that Nachhaltigkeit in fact already begins to seep into a variety of discourses early in the 19th century. The project proposed that the reason for the semantic proliferation of sustainability lies in its ability to absorb and negotiate the psychological challenges posed by radically new outlooks on the future that emerge over the 300 years under examination.

By emphasizing the dimension of time, this study differs from previous approaches that have sought to bring literary criticism into dialogue with ecology. The careful analysis of aesthetic representations of sustainability demonstrates that, after the emergence of an “open future,” models of sustainability in fact combine static and dynamic qualities by interweaving descriptive (atemporal) with narrative (temporal) modes of representation. In doing so, the idea of sustainability allows humans to build on the sense of stability inherent in its original definition, even as they respond to the challenges brought about by more open conceptions of the future.

Funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2016–2017
Head researcher(s): Markus Wilczek