Allison Turner

Society of Fellows in the Humanities
Columbia University

Wasteland: Literature, Aesthetics, Environment

Download full PDF version here.

Course Description

The term “wasteland” describes land that has eluded, frustrated, or repelled human ends. However, our collective sense of what counts as a wasteland—and what should be done about such spaces—has changed significantly over the past three centuries. Whereas “waste” once meant uncultivated land, it now refers primarily to garbage, the noxious byproducts of human activity. Today’s wastelands are not vacant fields and unoccupied forests—they are landfills and toxic waste sites, ecological disasters in the making.

In this course, we’ll explore the various wastelands that have populated literature and visual media from the eighteenth century to the present. We’ll be interested in the historical transformations that have helped produce our present moment of ecological crisis, when human waste (in the form of garbage, toxicity, and other types of environmental degradation) now threatens the stability of life on our planet. Our object will be to understand how aesthetic and cultural objects have registered these changes and produced new ways of sensing and interacting with our not-so-pristine world. We’ll be attuned to the ways in which writers and artists respond to the wastelands generated by large-scale human activity—repurposing desolate, discarded, and otherwise misused spaces for alternate and surprising ends. Throughout, we’ll approach these waste environments not simply as backdrops against which human history unfolds, but as objects of political, ethical, and aesthetic concern. What does it mean to describe a tract of land—or its inhabitants—as waste? Why have certain landscapes and those who inhabit them been subjected to greater levels of environmental risk and harm? And what role, finally, can literary, aesthetic, and cultural objects play in attuning us to these dynamics? Over the course of the semester, we’ll work to answer these questions through readings, in-class discussion, individual presentations, and writing (both creative and analytic).