Monday 8 May 2023

Cultures of Climate Change, Changes of Climate Cultures – Rafe McGregor

Climate Change Culture

Climate change is unquestionably the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity, even if we choose to ignore it. The question I want to answer here, which I hope will be of interest to most if not all Theaker’s Quarterly readers, is whether fiction has a role to play in meeting this challenge and, if so, what that role might be. Recently, this subject has transgressed the disciplinary boundaries of academia and escaped the confines of its ivory towers to be aired where it belongs, in the public domain. I shall trace the debate from its origins in a 2015 lecture series at the University of Chicago to the work-in-progress of a criminologist in Richmond, Kentucky. Jnanpith Award winner Amitav Ghosh delivered the lectures, which were published the following year in full as The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and in 2021 in part as Uncanny and Improbable Events. The latter is one of Penguin’s Green Ideas, a series that includes philosopher Timothy Morton’s All Art Is Ecological, which was also published in 2021 and is an extract from his 2018 book, Being Ecological. Morton’s long essay is tangential to Ghosh’s lectures, but film critic Mark Bould responded directly in his short 2021 book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture. Critical criminologist Avi Brisman responds to both Bould and Ghosh in “Ecocide and Khattam-Shud: Thoughts on How We Might Tell (More, Better) Stories of Climate Change”, an article due for release in the Journal of Aesthetic Education this autumn. I summarise each thesis in terms of its three primary claims.

Ecology is Nowhere

Ghosh’s “Great Derangement” is a play on the “Great Acceleration”, the dramatic and synchronous increase in a range of socioeconomic trends from population and gross domestic product to transportation and telecommunications since 1945. The derangement is contemporary culture’s lack of ability or will to address the climate change caused by the Great Acceleration. Ghosh imagines a future in which critics identify the paradox of a culture that both prided itself on its self-awareness and ignored its self-destruction. Ghosh’s thesis begins with the claim that literature has never recovered from the split into literary and genre fiction, which he dates to the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, in 1818. Second, he argues that while genre – science, speculative, or climate – fiction has attempted to meet the challenge of climate change, it has for the most part failed in virtue of being nothing more than disaster fiction set in the future. Finally, literary or artistic fiction has not even tried to meet the challenge and Ghosh cites Abdul Rahman Munif’s 1984 “petrofiction” novel, Cities of Salt, as one of the exceptions that proves the rule. Interestingly, the Hollywood film industry has been accused of a similar derangement with, for example, Rewrite the Future director Daniel Hinerfeld claiming that “Hollywood has not reflected the greatest drama of our generation”.

⁠It is hard to fault Ghosh because he is making a very specific point for which there appears to be ample evidence: criticism of cultures of mass harm such as classism, racism and sexism has traditionally been the purview of the institution of literature, which has failed to address the most significant mass harm of all, ecocide, understood as the destruction of the planet’s capacity to support human and nonhuman animal life. Like Ghosh, I believe the distinction between high and popular culture is irrelevant at best and harmful at worst, but he is right to point out that it remains as deeply entrenched as ever two hundred years after Frankenstein. Notwithstanding, he is at least partly complicit in maintaining the distinction by the significance he accords to the different ways in which each category of fiction has failed. I wonder why this is so important and also why he does not make more of the fictions of Margaret Atwood (whom he cites with approval), Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, N.K. Jemisin, and others that so clearly bridge the literary-genre divide.⁠

Ecology is Everywhere I

Morton is a member of the Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) school of philosophy, which was inaugurated by Graham Harman in 2002 with Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects and draws heavily on both Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology and Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism. Morton summarises OOO in terms of two key insights: nothing (whether object or subject) can ever be grasped in its entirety and there is no privileged mode of access to these ungraspable things, in consequence of which (OOO) philosophy cannot be anthropocentric. Morton’s thesis begins by delineating “ecological” as caring for nonhumans in a more conscious way, which involves recognising that one is already ecological, i.e. entangled in a symbiotic whole that is less than the sum of its parts. Second, the aesthetic experience of beauty – Kant’s elitist and baggage-laden theory does a great deal of work here – is an experience in which one feels solidarity with a nonhuman thing whose meaning is inexhaustible. Finally, artistic appreciation – a nod to philosophical aesthetics here – is appreciation of the simultaneity of familiarity and strangeness, the uncanny, in which it is difficult to sustain the distinction between self and other. The eradication of this distinction enables human beings to achieve solidarity with the nonhuman by recognising that we are already ecological or, to use a phrase Morton deliberately avoids, always already ecological.

What Morton is actually doing in All Art Is Ecological is setting out a theory in the tradition of aesthetic education, which originated with J.C. Friedrich von Schiller’s 1794 Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. Schiller, who also drew on Kant but managed to avoid some of his elitism, argued for a causal relation between aesthetic experience and both harmony of character (moral harmony) and harmony in society (political harmony). Literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak recently radicalised the tradition by describing the experience of literature as training for and practice in the experience of being ethical. In a similar manner, Morton maintains the experience of art is training for and practice in the experience of being ecological. Morton takes a great deal for granted and would benefit from piggybacking on Spivak in a similar manner to that in which Bould piggybacks on Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, but is prohibited from doing so because of the commitment to OOO (Spivak is a poststructuralist and OOO is phenomenology, broadly construed).

Ecology is Everywhere II

Jameson published one of the most important works of cultural criticism to date with The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act in 1981. He demonstrates that all texts are political because they are all produced and consumed within the historical context of class struggle between oppressor and oppressed and that this struggle permeates both the form and the content of the stories human beings tell themselves and one another. Bould begins with the provocative claim that all cultural texts are ecological, i.e. about the Anthropocene, usually on an unconscious level. Given that the popularisation of the novel as a literary form was contemporaneous with the Industrial Revolution, first novels and later feature films and television series were all produced and consumed within the Anthropocene. Second, in the same way that the class struggle permeates all texts to characterise them as political so the Anthropocene permeates all texts to characterise them as ecological. Finally, Bould evinces his thesis by delineating the environmental uncanny as involving both recognition by human beings that they are in the presence of nonhuman agency and an anthropocentric hubris which assumes it will be able to control its nonhuman creations. As such, Bould turns Ghosh’s environmental uncanny against him: the environmental uncanny is everywhere, from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park to Richard Powers’ The Overstory and from Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead to the Fast & Furious and Sharknado film franchises.

⁠What strikes one immediately is that the uncanny is central to all three theses, albeit to a lesser extent for Ghosh than Morton and Bould. There is a more obvious similarity between the latter two theses, which can both be abstracted to ecology is everywhere, although the relationship between the ubiquity of ecology and the environmental uncanny differs in each. While Bould would benefit from fleshing out this relationship in more detail, a more trenchant criticism was recently made in the Ancillary Review of Books by science fiction critic Fabius Mayland, who claims he is naïve to assume that “climate politics just needs a little more imagination and storytelling to really get going”. Neither more fiction about climate change (first-order culture in Mayland’s taxonomy) nor more theory about fiction about climate change (second-order culture, where Bould fits in) can achieve this aim. Both the crisis and its solutions have been established beyond all reasonable doubt by the sciences so what is required is the political power to implement them. I agree with Mayland about the need for political power, but I think he misses an important part of the problem, to which I return in my conclusion.⁠

Ecology is Everywhere and Nowhere

Brisman’s contribution to the debate is the article mentioned above, but it is also worth noting that he is expanding the article into a short book, Climate Change as a Crisis of Imagination, which will be published by Bristol University Press in 2024. With his permission, I draw on both the article and his work-in-progress. Brisman begins by contending that Ghosh and Bould should be read as complementary rather than contradictory because they are actually arguing for the same result, a cultural turn towards the Anthropocene. When viewed through this lens, Ghosh motivates the cultural turn by drawing attention to the failure of the institution of literature to perform one of its core functions (cultural critique) and Bould enables it by raising awareness of the Anthropocene from its unconscious depths. Finally, the synthesis of Ghosh and Bould reframes the climate crisis as (also) a narrative crisis that can be resolved by allegorising a broad range of stories for their climate messages in a way that foregrounds the temporal and the utopian. The significance of the utopian to Brisman dovetails with Ghosh’s critique of genre fiction neatly: counterfactual narratives should present us with possible future worlds that contrast with the probable dystopian future in order to provide a pathway to those possible future worlds.

A great strength of Brisman’s “green criminology” is his own utopian impulse, the desire to seek allies rather than opponents, and this is very much reflected in his work-in-progress. Everyone involved in this debate is, after all, really enthusiastic about culture, really enthusiastic about avoiding ecocide, and really enthusiastic about finding a role for the former in the latter. It is in this spirit that I have included Morton in my discussion, in spite of my reservations about OOO, because – at the very least – All Art Is Ecological raises awareness of the issue at stake. There is nonetheless an aspect of Brisman’s utopian ideal that is problematic with respect to narrative. Focusing on utopia rather than dystopia – on cooperation rather than conflict – is a tall order for writers and undermines what may be the most fundamental narrative heuristic of all: character + conflict = plot. So much so that Anna Jayne Joyner established her nonprofit, Good Energy, in 2019 for precisely this purpose and their open access playbook provides screenwriters with a host of solutions to the problems of representing climate change.

Political Power and Climate Change Culture

Where does this all leave us? I began by asking whether fiction has a role to play in meeting the challenge of climate change. I am confident the answer is “yes”. While I agree with Mayland about the need to exert political power, it cannot come exclusively from the top-down. Most governments are already too invested in the capitalist world-system to dismantle it and the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the extent to which proportions of the population are prepared to resist even the most benign official impositions, never mind radically altering their lifestyles on a permanent basis. What is needed is a complementary change from the bottom-up, which would require nothing more than the reconfiguration of human consciousness from hyper-capitalist consumption to post-capitalist sustenance. Which leads to the second part of my opening question: if fiction does have a role to play, what is it? That role was identified by Ghosh at the beginning of his first lecture in 2015, to change human consciousness by changing individual desires. Culture – including literature, art, film, and narrative – shapes desire and shaping of desire is at least as much of a solution to the problem as exerting political power. Humanity needs both changes, top-down and bottom-up, if it is to avoid its dystopian horizons.

Published online ahead of its appearance in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #76, due in September 2023.

Rafe McGregor lectures at Edge Hill University. He is the author of two monographs, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays and reviews. His most recent work of fiction is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

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