Can we tell stories that span 1,000 or 10,000 years? Can an individual’s affect be contextualized not only by her immediate environment but by the epoch in which she lives? What formal techniques—time lapse, montage, allegory—can be used to convey that our creaturely fragility is shared not only with species contemporaneous to us, but with species extinct before we ever knew them?
Perceptions of geological time—what this course will refer to as “deep time”—systematically developed since the mid-1700s, are especially relevant for our contemporary moment defined by environmental crises of long duration. Attempts to predict anthropogenic climate change 100 years into the future; the redefinition of our era as the “Anthropocene,” an epoch in which humans have become a geological force; the production of radioactive waste whose half-life is measured in millennia: these and other environmental dilemmas require a flexible repertoire of narrative tools if we are to comprehend our current and lasting impact on the planet. Yet, as Rob Nixon has noted, “slow violence”—impacts that are temporally and geographically diffuse—is difficult to narrate, not least because of our short attention spans and distraction by the spectacular. This course places the contemporary turn toward “big temporal thinking” within a larger discourse of deep time and attempts to narrate the longue durée.