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Report Session for the seminar Romancing the Anthropocene – Urban Diffractions of the Technosphere

Anthropocene Curriculum
Campus: The Technosphere Issue
2016, Apr 14, Thu — 2016, Apr 22, Fr

Reportsession for the seminar: "Romancing the Anthropocene – Urban Diffractions of the Technosphere" - Rapporteur: Gregory Cushman, Moderation: Gabrielle Hecht

Tracing shadows—an examination of technological datasets and Romantic concepts in the study area of Berlin-Moabit
The seminar begins with the curious tale of Peter Schlemihl, the shadowless man, as a trope for contemporary urban diffractions of the Technosphere. Written in 1814 by the Berlin?based botanist and Romantic novelist, Adelbert von Chamisso, the tale of the shadowless man casts a critical light on issues of capitalism, mobility, scientific advancement, social responsibility, and statelessness and immigration—then as now. As the story goes, the hero trades his shadow and thus his existence and identity to the devil for limitless wealth only to be shunned by society. After a period of inevitable philanthropy, he trades in his riches for a pair of magical, seven?league boots, with which he travels the world in search of peace before finally finding solace in the study of earth sciences.
The first part of the seminar unpacks the legacy of the shadowless man in the context of Berlin as a hub for multiple Technospheres. Schlemihl’s (i.e. Chamisso’s) scientific ambitions can be traced in the Berlin Digital Environmental Atlas, a comprehensive dataset documenting almost every possible aspect of the city’s natural and built environment, from breeding bird populations and rare flowers, to carbon dioxide emissions, population density, and environmental justice. This wealth of knowledge stands in sharp contrast to the complicity of a political elite who have sold the city’s public lands to devilish investors in the face of climate change, demographic upheaval, and the wanderings of tens of thousands of displaced individuals who, like Chamisso’s hero, possess nothing more than their shadows, but bring new forms of knowledge to an already complex repository.
The second part will embark on a collective field exercise through the Westhafen area of Berlin-Moabit to explore the potential dialogue—or divergence—between quantitative data, personal narrative, and changing imagery. Using methods of participatory observation, a form of anthropological “shadowing,” ecological site surveys, creative cartography, artistic invention, and radical story-telling participants track down evidence of industrial infrastructures and biological niches, local perceptions and everyday visions, and the paths and patterns of resources being shipped, stored, sold, or wasted. Literary moments from the Schlemihl story and key concepts of Romanticism, such as mystery, spontaneity, horror, and the sublime (concepts that appeared as revolutionary counterpoints to the scientific rationalization of nature in the nineteenth century), are applied to the overly quantified contemporary city. Amidst a sea of data, new romantic protagonists develop alternative narratives of the city.

Anthropocene Curriculum | Campus: The Technosphere Issue, 100 Years of Now 2016

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