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Boatwright Memorial Library

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Nick Dease
Boatwright Library, Rm. 185
261 Richmond Way
University of Richmond, VA 23173

Language of Man

This guide is resource for the 2024-25 Humanities Center theme question: How (and why) do we represent nature? It features several readings from before the 20th century that have been influential in shaping dominant language for “nature.”


Aligned with the 2024-25 Humanities Center theme question How (and why) do we represent nature?, this micro-syllabus features mostly pre-20th C. writing that has significantly shaped our received understandings of “nature.” The Center will host events—some overlapping with the Tucker-Boatwright Festival of Literature and the Arts—that interpret syllabus texts by situating them in contemporary environmental humanities scholarship and in conversation with other interdisciplinary fields including the posthumanities, Black studies, and queer and trans studies. 

Faculty across campus may add one or more texts to fall 2024 class, but we also welcome anyone on campus to participate! 

In 1918, Walter Benjamin wrote, in “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” that “there is no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not in some way partake of language, for it is in the nature of each one to communicate its mental contents.” 

The “Language of Man” Syllabus investigates the limits of the language of man at a moment when this “man”—anthropos—has become a geological agent in the “Anthropocene.” It does this in two distinct ways. One, will consider human languages as iterations or “versions” of more-than-human, “natural” languages. Second, we will explore Sylvia Wynter’s distinction between the human (as an evolutionarily and politically open-ended verb) and Man: a specific colonialist version that uses violence to “overrepresent” itself as if it were the only way of being human. By linking these, “The Language of Man” explores how the current climate catastrophe is inextricable from colonialism and anthropocentric worldviews. 

Beyond the main micro-syllabus of texts we hope will be read widely on campus in the fall and into the spring, both in and beyond classes, the Center will also host open discussions of “difficult” texts (including by Walter Benjamin and Sylvia Wynter). While these are texts that even many faculty will find daunting, everyone is invited to participate! And Librarian Nick Dease has curated a wider list of texts that have shaped our received sense of “nature,” inviting all of us to carry our study in other directions.