Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire”

Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” reflects the Western teleology from which so much environmental sentiment and discourse emerges.  We may be so unaware of how imbricated these views of civilization are in Western culture that these images may seem “obvious” to you.  But one of the things I want us to become critical about is the fact that this view of civilization’s rise and fall— and the various relationships to nature each stage presents– is uniquely Western, and uniquely American.  Our notion of time and where we are in these stages of the course of empire shape our politics and our environmental values.   What kind of eschatology does this narrative present?  What ‘moral’, if any, is implied?

Cole Thomas The Course of Empire The Savage State 1836.jpg

Cole Thomas The Course of Empire The Arcadian or Pastoral State 1836.jpg

Cole Thomas The Consummation The Course of the Empire 1836.jpg

Cole Thomas The Course of Empire Destruction 1836.jpg

Cole Thomas The Course of Empire Desolation 1836.jpg


5 Responses to “Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire””

  1. brian Nichols Says:

    Brian Nichols
    English 418/Ray
    First Blog Post
    This week’s reading about the origins of Apocalyptic Rhetoric, made it clear that contemporary discussion about environmental owes much of its development from history. The Stephen O’Leary reading claimed that its purpose was “to provide a theoretical framework of understanding millennium and apocalyptic discourse” (O’Leary 1-2). In doing so he looks to the Greek definition of the word apocalypse and defines it as, “a discourse that reveals or makes manifest a vision of ultimate destiny, rendering immediate to human audiences the ultimate end of the cosmos in the last judgment” (O’Leary 5). He continues to argue that historically apocalyptic theory then, “has function[ed] as symbolic resource to define and address the problem of evil” (O’Leary 6). He elaborates on this line of reasoning by claiming that this rhetoric has become a form of storytelling that has traditional served to build communities, “in which human individuals and collectives constitute their identities through shared mythic narratives that confront the problem of evil in time and history (O’Leary 6).
    Greg Garrard seems to agree with O’Leary as he quotes Lawrence Buell who claims that, “Apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal” (Garrard 93). Garrard continues to argue that, “several of the most influential books in the environmentalist cannon make extensive use of the trope, from Carson’s Silent Spring [to] Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance” (Garrard 93). He even explains that,” Apocalyptic rhetoric is deployed in the activist literature of Earth First” (Garrard 93).
    Garrard further explains that Earth First! “combined revolutionary inhumanism, apocalyptic beliefs and direct action to protect wilderness areas” ( Garrard 103). He continues to explain that the organization eventually became fractured because some members considered humans as less important than other forms of life while others, “ saw people as differentiated in their responsibility for environmental problems according to gender, class, and ethnicity, and envisaged radical political change through negotiation as well as direct action” (Garrard 104). Garrard’s writing then becomes a good introduction to Martha F. Lee’s book Earth First!
    Lee explained that Earth First! was created out of a discontent for the environmental politics of the time. The founders of Earth First! believed that older radical environmental organizations such as Green Peace had become had become too entrenched into government machinery. Earth First! believed that grass roots activism and direct action then was the only real solution to make changes in environmental policies. Earth First, however, did meet political opposition as right winged factions of government pursued campaigns to discredit them. Frederick Buell’ s book, From Apocalypse to Way of Life then goes into greater details on this subject following how radical environmental organizations fit into the conflict between preservationists and conservationists values from the 1980s into present.

  2. Apocalyptic Rhetoric Origins: Thoughts and Afterthoughts
    January 29, 2010 by juneaudale

    Before moving forward onto “implications” of Apocalyptic Rhetoric, i wanted to share a few insights from readings and brief discussion regarding “Apocalyptic Rhetoric 1: Origins” as referred to in our syllabus. Upon readings about apocalyptic rhetoric, i have detected many connections but i will mention 5 main commonalities that all these expressions and rhetoric share or at least evoke.

    First, they all offer a critical perspective of the failings or falsities of apocalyptic thought. No religious based apocalyptic visions have come into fruition (yet). And so, over time, a more “enviro” based version of the apocalypse has come to fill the void among others. The Rhetoric of catastrophe within the Environmental movement tends to “produce the crises it describes” (Garrard). It is filled with Eschatological narrative that is ‘emotionally charged reducing complex issues to mono caused events further polarizing responses and society at large’ (paraphrase, Garrard). Second, “good vs evil” remains an obvious theme running through all criticisms on the Apocalypse. Third, the concept of Millenarianism. It’s foundations come from the Old Testament in the book of Daniel then revisited in the New Testament in Revelations. As pointed out by Lee, our forfathers arguably subscribed to this Millenarianistic view, and proclaimed themselves as a chosen society that would embark upon a new land, a new Eden; thus founding “a nation that would set an example to the world” (Lee). And it appears the world did indeed follow. Fourth, Determinism versus Existentialism. This is a basic struggle between the idea that reality (including the Apocalypse) is either a result by a predetermined means or a result of the power that we as free responsible individuals have in creating it. And lastly; Optimism! As irresistible as the doom and gloom mind is to entertain, through rational and heart felt analysis on Apocalyptic Rhetoric; above all things imagined, we are all here. The succession and survival as the human species whether from an anthropocentric or bio centric perspective has proved inescapable. It is my belief that humans as a life form as with other forms of life find a way to demand existence on this planet. Survival is so fused and inherent in our makeup. Though i hold an existential belief for my own personal existence, still beyond myself, a much larger concept of life in general exists and will continue until it simply can not anymore.

  3. coolaccordionest Says:

    I love this idea of using paintings to show the end of the world or at least the cycle the world would go through. I found it was interesting in our readings how one of the main points was that the artists and writers in the end, would help save the world at a greater level then anyone else. This really shows that.

  4. […] brian Nichols Says: January 28, 2010 at 5:33 pm […]

  5. Fantastic Post. I have read many posts on this subject and you have written about it the best. Keep it up!

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