Laments of Nature

proposed seminar at the ACLA 2018 Annual Meeting, UCLA March 29th-April 1st 


organized by Juliane Prade-Weiss ([log in to unmask])

“It is a metaphysical truth,” Walter Benjamin writes in 1916, “that all nature would begin to lament if it were endowed with language. […] even where there is only a rustling of plants, there is always a lament.” Benjamin cites a theme that, while seemingly uncommon in metaphysics, is a staple of literatures since antiquity: In Hittite verse the lament of a personified nature bewails drought and hunger. In the epic of Gilgamesh and the myth of Orpheus, nature’s lament for the dead hero, resounding in the echo and other phenomena, mirrors economical as well as phonetic links between the human, the organic, and the inorganic nature. In the mediaeval De planctu naturae, lamenting nature voices an allegorical discourse of social norms. Herder’s 1772 Treatise on the Origin of Language features plaints as the first, physical source of the otherwise metaphysical human language. Herder’s essay can be read as a model for Benjamin’s inquiry into the origins of human language that varies the theme of a lament of nature in order to ask why, and how, human language came about.

In both Herder’s and Benjamin’s primal scenes of language, plaints are located at the very rim of language, forming an expressive natural substratum that is covered by, but still functional in, articulate human speech. Communicating experiences of suffering, lamenting seems to form a fault line and contact zone between the specific human language of articulate words on the one hand, and other living beings, and even the inanimate, on the other hand. This systematic location, however, evokes a complication illustrated by the allusive and subjunctive character of Benjamin’s reference to the “metaphysical truth”: The lament of nature portrayed as fundamental to all language and world-relation is attainable, for theory, merely as a fading rest or “impotent” (Benjamin) vestige of language. Nature’s lament does not fit the grasp of terminological language, and it remains unanswered by theological concepts, and this very lack of communication, Benjamin suggests, might be the actual reason for nature’s lament. – Yet even this hypothesis says nothing more about nature, one of the “fundamental concepts of metaphysics” (Heidegger), than that it remains unattained by theory.

The panel invites discussions of the theme of a lament of nature in philosophical, literary, and other texts that pay particular attention to:

- forms of plaintive language,

- tensions between terminological and other language in- and outside ecocritical discourses,

- the role of scenic thought in theory, or

- the issue of a response by that which is conceptualized as nature.


Please submit 300-word proposals for twenty-minute papers through the ACLA portal ( during the submission period (August 31 – September 21). Interested individuals are encouraged to contact the seminar organizer by email with inquiries. The seminar organizer will review all submitted papers and propose their rosters to the ACLA; the ACLA Program Committee will review all submitted seminars for consideration for inclusion in the program in October/November.


Dr. phil. Juliane Prade-Weiss

DFG Research Fellow

Yale German Department

******************* The German Studies Call for Papers List Editor: Sean Franzel Assistant Editor: Olaf Schmidt Sponsored by the University of Missouri Info available at: