Saturday, November 27, 2010

Literary politics in the Anthropocene

Below is a fairly unaltered copy of a paper presented mid-year at the Australasian Association for Literature's  'Literature and Science' conference. Seeing Ian McEwan's Solar in a bookstore window, recently, reminds me of this paper and one of its central purposes: to place Solar against Andrew McGahan's much more interesting novel about the connections between climate, libido, madness, magic realism and sublime geological experience. 
Can we understand the geological sublime? Ian McEwan's Solar and Andrew McGahan's Wonders of a Godless World.
A quick precis before offering the detail of this paper. Firstly, I’ll outline historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s recent essay on the challenges to historical practice posed by anthropogenic global warming, and focus in particular on his argument that placing human species history in conversation with histories of capital—a conversation or dialogue that he claims is necessitated by climate change—is an exercise in probing the limits of historical understanding.  In the second part, I’ll draw on one of the central arguments in Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative: which is that whether in fictional or historical form, narrative can work with, and on, the aporia produced by thinking cosmological and phenomenological time together. The hypothesis that is built out of the first two parts of the paper is that fiction’s capacity to refigure time provides distinctive resources in pushing the limits of understanding.
The third and final parts test this hypothesis against two recent novels that take climate change as a central subject: Ian McEwan’s Solar and Andrew McGahan’s Wonders of a Godless World. Finally, running through these last two parts will be my claim that in spite of it not being explicitly concerned with anthropogenic global warming, McGahan’s novel more successfully addresses itself to the ways that fiction can partake in the politics of climate change because its key characters are intimate with geological time and have degrees of geological agency. Effectively, they have understandings of dimensions of geological time and space that might usually be experienced as sublime.

1. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Climate of History.

Chakrabarty’s essay “The Climate of History: Four Theses” is a series of cumulative arguments which set out the ramifications of climate change for human histories. I’ll quickly outline the first three theses, before unpacking the fourth a little more.
Thesis 1: Anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse between the Age-old distinction between natural and human history.
Chakrabarty argues once you accept anthropogenic global warming, or other human-induced causes for climate and geological change, then the human history/natural history dichotomy collapses due to human species being considered geological agents: a force of nature in the geological sense akin to those events when there has been mass extinctions of species. So, rather than nature being portrayed as the unchanging, seasonally cyclic backdrop to the theatre of political or social history, these backdrops have come to life and must be presented as more dynamic and enmeshed in human history than before.  The inverse is also true: that natural histories that cover the last 250 years need to take our geological agency as a species into account.
Thesis 2: The idea of the Anthropocene, the new geological Epoch when humans exist as a geological force, severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/ globalization.
For Chakrabarty humanist histories of modernity and globalization place freedom at their centre. The story of the last 250 years of human civilization is, he claims, thematically centred on the development and spread of freedom. Yet, the last 250 years has also been periodized as the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene. The previous epoch of the Holocene, stretching back around 10 to 12, 000 years, provided a rise in temperature conducive to agrarian civilization. But since the onset of the industrial revolution, the affect on the earth of fossil fuel use has shifted it into a new set of conditions in which human species are geologically potent. To place geological and human time scales together like this is quite unsettling, and one implication of this polyrhythm is we are led to conclude that, to quote Chakrabarty, “The mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use.”
Thesis 3: The geological hypothesis regarding the Anthropocene requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans.
The argument here is that it is at the level of species, and not nations, for example, that humans have become geological agents in the last 250 years. This argument, however, is not compatible with global histories of capital in which uneven development and intra and inter-national inequality mean that the benefits of industrialization have not been enjoyed in a just manner. Similarly, within recent histories of globalization the problems posed by climate change are a matter of a crisis in capitalist management. Chakrabarty poses the question “If capitalism were to mutate beyond its current forms or even to end, would climate change still pose a problem?” His answer is that it would and it does because there are certain boundary or parameter conditions, such as temperature bands, which once crossed spell the end of the species, whether our dominant system is capitalism or not. We therefore can’t subsume species history of humans to histories of global capital but instead need to place them in dialogue.
We are now at the fourth and crucial thesis, which is

Thesis 4: The cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding.
This cross-hatching or conversation between species history and history of capital throws up the enormous problem of historical understanding. Chakrabarty is using understanding here in a technical sense, derived from the hermeneutic tradition, where the primary technique of interpretation in human sciences, like history, is the practice of re-imagining or re-enacting the life experience of others based on your own life. Humanist history is also based in the technique of explanation—a technique it shares with the natural sciences. But the argument here is that while we can give explanations for what caused, say, the depression of the 1930s, and while we can understand what it might have been like to have lived through those times—explanations and understandings that are available to us in histories of capital—we can offer only explanations for how human species are and have become geological agents. The reason we cannot understand ourselves as human species is because we can never experience ourselves as a species. Chakrabarty: “Even is we were to emotionally identify with a word like mankind, we would not know what being a species is, for, in species history, humans are only an instance of the concept species as indeed would be any other life form. But one never experiences being a concept.” As he also puts it: “ There can be no phenomenology of us as a species.”

2. Time and Narrative

The problem Chakrabarty develops is dealt with on a more general level in Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative. Ricoeur wants to know, alongside other questions, if we can reconcile our lived or phenomenological experience of time with what can be called, objective, cosmological, or universal time. These two forms of time map fairly neatly onto the problem that Chakrabarty puts his finger on: namely, how can we reconcile phenomenological time—the time of understanding—with human species and geological time—the time made available through quantification and explanation? Ricoeur’s response is that narrative can figure time in ways that enable degrees of understanding and explanation, which help us to bridge these two poles of time. Ricoeur makes a series of distinctions between historical and fictive time, two of which will help make the transition in my argument here toward its discussion of Solar and Wonders of a Godless World. Unlike narrative historical time, fictive time removes a set of constraints on the narrator who as historian needs to re-inscribe lived time onto cosmic time through reference to such temporalizations of time as calendars, generations, and archival traces. Secondly, and related to the first point, fiction can explore new figurations of lived time that can be related to cosmological time in new ways. Freed from some of the constraints of historical time, fiction can, perhaps, assist us to imaginatively understand what a conversation between human species history and a history of capital can be, or to understand what the geological agency of human species might be like to experience.
So, the hypothesis built here out of the first two parts of the paper is that fiction’s capacity to refigure time provides distinct resources in probing the limits of understanding. I now turn to the third and fourth parts of the paper, which will test this hypothesis.

3. Solar 

Ian McEwan’s Solar, published earlier this year, takes climate change, its politics and economics, as its central topic and focus for a comic satire. Its central literary techniques are narratorial irony and synecdoche, in particular the fleshing out of the central character—Noble prize winning physicist, Michael Beard—as a despicably, all-too-human assemblage of sins and flaws which is part of a whole humanity unsuited to the altruism called out by the challenges of climate change. His is a part of the glutton-ness, slothful, proud, lustful, greedy, wrathful and envious whole. A whole beholden to Neoliberal capitalism with little altruism to recommend it. McEwan’s narrator focalizes the narration through Beard and his numerous adventures, varying the level of irony to achieve satiric effects, and to oscillate between a distancing and drawing close to Beard who we are invited to both despise and empathize with. This oscillation in narratorial distance combined with its satirical aims, make Solar a realist comic apocalypse novel. Again, the apocalyptic allegory runs through Beard, whose appetites—one too many sandwiches or packets of chips, one too many sexual affairs—are speeding up his own end, which we are encouraged to think of as an allegory of the end of the species. His appetites are, however, not tragic but comic flaws, for in spite of his sinfulness, he has some redeeming attributes, and is himself sometimes victim to the sinful drives of others.

Solar’s presentation of technological innovation, biophysics research, institutional (bureaucratic, academic, state) politics, and capitalist entrepreneurialism, provide both the novel’s targets for satire and its pathway through to a more redemptive and hopeful opening, emblematized in the central character, Beard’s, ambivalent ‘final’ feeling: an intensely strong emotion, which is either a last heart attack/stroke, or his paternal love for his young daughter, whose long future, his efforts—almost as a by product of his drives/sinfulness—in the field of photosynthetic energy production, might well ensure. 

Solar has been received and marketed within the framework of the politics of climate change. McEwan appeared on ABC’s Lateline commenting on the Copenhagen Conference, for example. But how, if at all, does it refigure time? Does it help us to understand the sublime dimensions of a geological time that is now affected by human species activity?
Solar offers one figuration of time with which to develop an understanding of the relationship between human species time and geological time. This scene comes at the start of part 2 as Beard’s plane prepares to land at London, in 2005. As it descends, Beard has a geographically wide-angled and longue duree vision of the city and its surrounds which juxtaposes key events, relationships, places and concerns in his life with the rise of industrialization and modernization. “The hot breath of civilization. He felt it, everyone was feeling it, on the neck, in the face. Beard, gazing down from his wondrous and wonderfully dirty machine believed in his better moments that he had the answer to the problem. At last, he had a mission, it was consuming him, and he was running out of time. “ (Kindle version location. 1756-63). The central metaphor in this scene is his own apartment, which is full of spore-infested food and unwashed dishes. This trope becomes an emblem in the final passage of this section, when he wonders “how could we ever begin to restrain ourselves? We appeared, at this height, like a spreading lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a soft fruit – we were such a wild success. Up there with the spores!” (loc. 1833-47). Human species spreading over the rocks as lichen. It’s a nice image but not one that really opens up a way of understanding geological agency in the Anthropocene.
Solar doesn’t really help us to understand what living in the Anthropocene means, except that human species, in spite of ourselves, might have a future by virtue of a liberal techno-scientific-capitalism that we hope will function to produce new energy sources. The logics of physics and the market seem to lie outside this comically corrupted human species, and these are, it seems, what we might best place our faith in. Solar’s comic apocalyptic mode, avoids the fatalism, even biocentrism, of some ecological discourse, and provides a more pluralistic and provisional set of openings to the problems of the Anthropocene than a novel written with the conventions of a tragic apocalypse. But unless you can stretch the allegory so far as to see Beard’s body as an emblem of the geological body of the earth, I don’t see how Solar can be read within the problematic that Chakrabarty draws attention to.

4. Wonders
Andrew McGahan’s 2009 novel Wonders of a Godless World—which will be shortened to Wonders—is oriented around the relationship between madness, geological human agency, and geological phenomena. There are very few comic moments in this mix of science fiction and magic realism, and it treads a more tragic apocalyptic generic terrain than Solar. Its central literary techniques are the use of alternating third and second person narrative voices, which are crucial in how the novel’s characters become able to experience and communicate sublime dimensions of geological phenomena and time. 

The plot involves a young woman known as the orphan, who is on the cusp of coming-of-age and who works in an unnamed island hospital with a range of mentally ill patients. A mysterious, almost constantly unconscious figure enters the hospital and her life—the Foreigner. The mythically titled characters extend to Four other inmates, all suffering from different forms of trauma-based madness, are given similarly mythic or archetypal names: the Duke, the Witch, the Archangel and the Virgin. The reason for these mythic and even fairytale-type names is that the orphan is almost completely aphasic: unable to express or understand speech and text. She has some linguistic facility, but cannot remember names. The third person narration of the novel is, somewhat magically focalized through her subjectivity, her thoughts. And here is where the plot develops, for the Foreigner, it transpires, can make himself understood to her and understand her through a type of psychic communication, which he performs in the second person narration of the novel. The Orphan’s possible madness becomes an undecidable question in the novel: is she hallucinating the dialogue with the Foreigner, who lies unconscious for much of the time of the novel, or is he engaged in a type of education for her which is a cover for a more menacing project?

The plot thickens when volcanic activity near the hospital is experienced by the orphan as a range of vibrations and felt forces, which she has the capacity to read in ways that are precise and predictive. If her linguistic aphasia is a form of madness, then this madness might be due to her astonishing geological literacy. The Foreigner is quick to detect these skills and begins his seduction of her, which includes a type of biospheric travel, where he and the Orphan leave their bodies, and travel together as shadow selves or ghost bodies to the freak climate and geological events that have caused him to die and be reborn 4 times.  In this string of 5 lives, the foreigner lives each life, motivated by his drive to either avenge or transcend his initial rejection by the earth, in a particular manner—as a rapacious mining venture capitalist, as a Gaia-worshipping conservationist, as a New Age transcendental Guru and solitary island dweller, and as an astronaut. In both these travels and in the stories the Foreigner re-enacts for the Orphan, we see phases in the history of capital, and see them start to act as geological agents. Indeed, the plot trajectory of Wonders is toward the Foreigner stoking then violently taking over the Orphan’s latent powers of geological telekinesis to enact his revenge on a malign earth, 

an immensely powerful beast. I saw the hard, carved faces carved faces of the continents, and the inexorable currents of the oceans flowing. I felt the atmosphere humming with electricity, and the inside of the planet bursting with suppressed heat. I sensed what a savage thing the world really is—strong, hot and driven by systems so vast that they dwarf mankind and all his works to nullity. (237)

In the final scenes of the novel, geological agency is embodied in these characters. Back in third person narration the Orphan attempts to act on the local volcano’s magma to assist in her benign scheme to thwart the Foreigner’s plot, by accessing
the aura of life enfolding the whole planet. So it wasn’t a matter of squeezing the power from herself, it was a matter of shaping her mind into a conduit through which the energy could pass—and then of inviting the power to flow from the planet’s vast supply.
The orphan took a deep breath, considered the magma once more. Then she breathed out, opened her mind, and asked . . .
And the living world answered.
Ha! It was like being accelerated to an incredible speed while standing still, it was like being lifted by a thousand warm hands. It was wonderful. And as the energy burnt though her, she turned it and focused it upon the underground reservoirs. The magma turned livid gold. And then to white hot, bursting upwards. (301)

In interviews McGahan has said his original intention was to write a novel with no human characters; only weather and geological events. Finding such a task outside the realm of the novel form, McGahan’s compromise is a novel where geology and climate are not so much ‘characters’ as intimately proximate and understandable phenomena. Finally, the Orphan’s “understanding” of natural energy systems seems to be based on principles (and feelings) of how phenomena act across dimensions of time-space different to those made available in the natural or human sciences. Her understanding, perhaps, is situated at the boundary between geological times and human species time(s).  She crosses that boundary, aided—for us as readers—by the Foreigner’s and the novel’s narrator’s narration of her thoughts and feelings, which push a fictional sense of understanding toward forms of madness that, in Aristotle’s theory of poetics, are a probable impossibility
Seemingly locked into the closed circuitry of capitalist realism, a sustained political and cultural response to the challenges of climate change hits a number of walls. Understanding, rather than just explaining, that human species have been geological agents since around the time of the invention of the steam engine--for at least the last 250 years--confronts those fundamental liberal political rationalities that capitalist realism and its latest neoliberal phase are based in: that freedom is a function of the limits of the sovereign's or the state's capacity to promote security and growth; the corollary being that civil society and the 'market' are the spheres that 'naturally' produce security, growth and freedom. All three of these values of liberalism (biopolitics--the turn to life) are threatened by climate change: the physical conditions on which the life of human species depends are seriously under threat as temperatures rise. Liberalism's long rapprochement with a fossil fuelled capitalist economy is, it appears, unsustainable and no guarantee of the freedom, growth and security of the human species. Belief in the natural genius of the market, which is what underlies Neoliberalism's faith in non-government solutions to challenges, is what has led us into the anthropocene. Understanding that we have been in this new epoch for a while is surely a first step in forging a realignment of ethics and politics: new environmentalities, perhaps. 

Accepting the explanation of climate change in anthropogenic global warming, challenges our understanding of human and natural time, human and natural histories. Fictive narrative, myth, and even Big History provide ways into new realisms. These promise alternatives that can exceed the possibilities offered by the Neo-Lib/Neo-Con thinking that informs McEwan's glib, capitalist realist satire. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010