Academics At Work: Seth Peabody explores connections between German ecology, identity, and art

Peabody, assistant professor of German, discusses how he focuses his German film studies through an environmental lens.

Daniel Myer ’24 29 March 2024 Posted In:
Headshot of Seth Peabody.
Professor Seth PeabodyPhoto:

How do different societies, at different times, define “home?” How can a language’s storytellers define and shape this idea? How do we relate “home” to our physical space and the natural world? How does one translate this idea in the face of new challenges like climate change? These many questions have guided the scholarship of Seth Peabody, assistant professor of German.

The German word for home, Heimat, has historically had dramatically different interpretations in German art and politics. Peabody’s research has built on those interpretations in a variety of ways. One of his projects, a study on German mountain films titled, “Image, Environment, Infrastructure: The Social Ecologies of the Bergfilm,” combined the concept of Heimat and identity with Peabody’s previous work in environmental studies, an interest he shares with fellow Carleton German faculty Kiley Kost. Peabody and Kost have collaborated on multiple projects in this area, including a series of articles in the German-language journal Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German. Together, the two have created a more nuanced view of the relationship between German literary studies and portrayals of German ecology, and had the chance to showcase their work in environmental scholarship and activism at the German Studies Association’s annual conference last year.

Peabody’s Bergfilm research re-imagined the traditional genre of German mountain films. German directors began setting movies in or around the Alps by the 1920s, with some directors imagining that the striking landscape provided an effective complement to melodramatic plot lines and character arcs. For example, in certain Alpine films, “the mountain basically became a character… and contributed to an eerie, gloomy feeling,” according to Peabody.

Prior to beginning his research, much of the existing scholarship Peabody found around mountain films analyzed the role of the early twentieth-century movies in political and social movements. That makes sense, Peabody says, because traditionally, German literary studies have focused on the relationship between German media and major German political and social changes. German nationalists, for example, have tried to weaponize German artistic representations of nature to promote exclusionary understandings of German identity. German ecological art, including film, became a way in which one could understand how nationalist groups tried to promote a distinct set of images as defining the German self. This conflict inspired some of Peabody’s earliest research, as he used these films to deconstruct German understandings of what Heimat means in individual and political contexts.

However, Peabody wanted to go beyond the current body of scholarship, and beyond traditional expectations of German studies, to apply these methods to modern environmentalist movies. “Many talk about the first German this or that,” Peabody said. “I’m not particularly interested in that tradition,” instead seeing German cinema as part of an ongoing dance between German art, the German environment, and German imaginations of the self.

With his research, Peabody seeks to tie German ecological literature to today’s ecological questions and movements. In his Bergfilm paper, he wrote, “Film, I propose, acts as an accelerator: It allows representations to suddenly move faster and show more than would be possible with words or still images; it can thus move the field of representation at a rate that can far exceed the pace of change in actual experiences.” His argument, as he writes, “points in a distinctly different direction than much of ecocinema studies, which frequently thinks about what film can do to change people’s habits, thoughts, and actions in relation to the natural world.”

Peabody’s latest work, a monograph titled, Film History for the Anthropocene: The Ecological Archive of German Cinema, continues his work of adopting an environmental focus, rather than a solely political one, for his German film studies. He acknowledges the role of natural settings in the country’s political and social context — as he says, “you can’t really separate those two” — but he goes beyond current scholarship to link film to German understandings of the environment. Ultimately, Peabody sees his work as an opportunity to reinterpret an important body of German artistic cultural study and apply his findings to modern questions of environmental education.

This story is part of a series of interviews with Carleton faculty about their research and engagements with the Carleton community. The Academics at Work series allows Carleton professors to talk about the changes they have observed and help lead in their own academic communities, as well as provide further insight into the work they do at Carleton.

Daniel Myer ’24 is a former student of Professor Peabody.