Lesson: After Nature: Dystopia and Detournement

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Global History, Language Arts, Geography and Environmental Studies
  • still from "Lessons of Darkness," 1992.still from "Lessons of Darkness," 1992.


Written by New York artist, Lan Tuazon.
This lesson is centered on the screening and interpretation of Werner Herzog’s film Lessons of Darkness. Students will discuss the concept of dystopia as it relates to natural and unnatural environmental cases such as the burning of the oil fields in Kuwait, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and Hurricane Katrina. This lesson includes a film screening, discussion, writing, and an art activity using stop-action animation.


  • Students will understand and analyze the work of Werner Herzog.
  • Students will study specific case histories of environmental disasters and discuss the concept of utopia and dystopia.
  • Students will be exposed to various examples of the artistic technique of detournement and will apply this knowledge to their own project responding to social, political, cultural, and natural life.


Utopia is an unachievable ideal, a perfect place and civilization. The state of social, political, and cultural perfection that utopia promises can only be achieved through unitary though not universal notion of the ideal. This contradiction is exactly what renders utopia an impossibility. The word itself literally means “no place.”
Dystopia is a Greek term that translates to ill, bad place. Dystopia is the binary opposite of utopia. In order to achieve the perfection of utopia, social restrictions must be set in place to guarantee it. Among many visions of a dystopian society is the enforcement of social conformity, lack of sexual and personal freedoms, and social class division and isolation.
Detournement is a method of critique through which artists appropriate materials, styles, or techniques used by dominant culture to re-create a new work that contains a meaning that is oppositional to the intent of the original.
Scorched Earth is a military term, a strategy for destroying resources such as morale, food, shelter, transportation, and industry that may be useful to the enemy.

Lesson Strategy

Watch Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darknesss.

  • What are some things you see in this film?
  • Describe the landscape and the music.
  • Who are the characters in the film?
  • What story is the narrator telling?
  • Where do you think this is taking place?
  • How does the music affect our reading of the work?
  • In the beginning of the film we read a quote by Pascal that reads: “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur ‘like creation’ in grandiose splendor.” How do you interpret this quote in relation to the content of the film?
  • What type of mood does Herzog create?

Introduce Werner Herzog, his biography, and his work.
Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness was produced in 1993 using documentary footage from the burning of the oil fields in Kuwait. Despite the documentary nature of this film, Herzog refuses this description of the work, choosing to call it a science fiction instead.

Define detournement
Herzog’s use of this documentary footage and his process of reframing it as science fiction is a technique of detournement. Another example of is Herzog’s use of Blaise Pascal’s name to author a quote that he himself wrote. By putting words into Pascal’s mouth and using his name, Herzog’s intention was to add authority and meaning of the message by having it come from a notorious mathematician and philosopher.

Provide historical context and discuss the Persian Gulf War and Iraq’s scorched-earth strategy.

  • In 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi troops practiced the military strategy of scorched earth by setting 700 Kuwaiti oil wells on fire before withdrawing. For eight months, six million barrels of oil burned daily causing weather pattern changes, carbon fallout in the Arabian Peninsula, and health defects such as the Persian Gulf War Syndrome among veterans, brain cancer, birth defects, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and allodynia, a painful reaction to non-pain related stimuli.
  • Kuwait paid 1.5 billion US dollars to primarily American private companies to put out the fires.
  • For more information about Iraq and Kuwait history, read Saddam Hussein’s New York Times interview

Open Discussion

  • After learning that the footage of this film is a record of the burning of the oil fields in Iraq, why do you think Herzog insists calling this a science fiction?
  • What types of artistic license is Herzog taking by calling it this?
  • How does this film affect your understanding of the Persian Gulf War?

Define and discuss utopia and dystopia.

  • What types of stories and popular cultural references have you read or encountered that are representative of the notion of utopia?
  • Describe how Lessons of Darkness is an example of dystopia.
  • The film title includes the word “lesson.” What do you think is the lesson on darkness?
  • Use eugenics as an example of scientific utopia. What implications does this utopia have in practice? What is the relationship between utopia and dystopia?

Present environmental cases: Hurricane Katrina, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and Chernobyl. Teachers may want to choose more specific case studies in other fields that are more appropriate to your academic plan. List and discuss other forms of dystopian realities.

Writing Activity: Students will choose one dystopian reality to research using images, journalistic articles, and video footage. Students will write a one-page expository essay on their chosen topic.

Assignment: Students will employ the technique of detournement in response to their chosen topic of dystopian reality. Present artist projects using the technique of detournement.

Brainstorm: Encourage students to develop a coherent position on their topic.

  • Encourage students to think about how detournement is method of appropriation through which artists use materials to recreate a new work that contains a meaning that is critical or oppositional to the intent of the original.
  • What is the original meaning of the material they are using?
  • What new meaning or critique will they attach to the original?


Art Activity: Students will create detournement pieces using dystopian realities. Encourage students to use drawing, sculpture, collage, and stop-action animation.


Student ability to use new vocabulary words introduced in the lesson.
Thoroughness of research and the clarity of expository writing.
Student ability to complete their project.
Student ability to understand and analyze the work of their peers as well as their own.
Participation in discussions.

Extending the Lesson

  • Make connections by analyzing the effects of military weapons and warfare. Watch the movie Threads, which envisions the consequences of nuclear and atomic bombing and its effects on the planet.
  • Make connections to Global Studies with a study of the Persian Gulf War.

Additional Resources

New York Times article Sea of Trash

Saddam Hussein’s New York Times interview about Iraqi international relations with Kuwait

Lesson Plan: After Nature: Dystopia and Detournement

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