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On the Obsolescence of the Bourgeois Novel in the Anthropocene

How can cultural workers respond to climate change? Can the cultural work of responding to climate change be a global conversation? In his latest addition to his General Intellects collection of critical appreciations, McKenzie Wark writes about the novelist Amitav Ghosh's influential lectures on "the great derangement."

McKenzie Wark16 August 2017

Marine Drive, Mumbai, 2005

You can run the numbers and show that climate change is really happening. But that doesn’t change how people feel about it, and how they feel about it depends on who they are, where they are, and to what from their particular past they can connect it. Enduring climate change, let alone doing anything about it, may depend in part on the biggest, most diverse, most multi-lingual and multi-cultural conversation the planet has ever had.

A modest step in that direction might be a geo-humanities project that puts what we know about earth science in contact with the critical and post-colonial voices that have pushed back against imperial mappings of the world. Hence the relevance of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016), in which this respected writer of both fiction and non-fiction considers climate change from a literary point of view with roots in the Indian subcontinent.

I’d like to start where the book ends, with Ghosh’s reading of two documents of international significance. One is the Paris Agreement. That the United States might refuse to honor it gets a lot of attention, and many say it hardly goes far enough even if all its signatories honor it. Ghosh focuses on its language. It is laced with the terminology of contemporary business: innovation, stakeholders, good practices, public and private participation. It makes much of technological solutions, which is not surprising given the participation of ruling class do-gooders who can’t possibly imagine how their self-interest could not but be enhanced by the general interest.

But the most telling detail is that the treaty also extinguishes any claim to climate justice — a term that hardly appears in the document. The signatories give up any future claim to recompense for harm that will happen to them from what Ghosh insists is an essentially imperial distribution of the short-run benefits of the carbon political economy. Climate change is not just about capitalism for Ghosh, it is about empire.

Climate justice does appear in the text on climate change by Pope Francis, Laudato Si’. It is a more open and inclusive document, which recognizes the right to a voice by more than government and corporate actors. For the Pope, ecological problems are also always social problems; climate justice is also social justice.

There’s a conceptual difficulty here. One has to avoid excluding the diversity of human voices, and yet at the same time avoid excluding the non-human world and rendering it a mere background, or "environment." One has to voice “the urgent proximity of nonhuman presences.” (5) The particular perspective Ghosh brings to bear on this is to consider it as a literary problem.

Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is now a genre. It includes some quite terrible books. In Ian McEwen’s Solar, the imminent collapse of industrial civilization is a good excuse to write about a middle-aged white man’s issues with his penis. But it also includes some very interesting books, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy, as well as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and my friend James Bradley’s Clade.

But the fiction that takes climate change seriously is not taken seriously as fiction. Ghosh: “It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extra-terrestrials or inter-planetary travel.” (7) I would argue that some of the best responses to climate change, or the Anthropocene more generally, are science fiction, including work by Kim Stanley Robinson and Margaret Atwood.

Climate change exceeds what the form of the bourgeois novel can express. As Ghosh acknowledges, it isn’t working in this “time when the wild has become the norm.” (8) Perhaps realizing its limitations, Arundhati Roy, for example, preferred to write in nonfiction about what Rob Nixon has so aptly called the slow violence of a developmentalism that imposes itself on a nature it cannot really perceive or value. As Nixon, Roy, Anna Tsing, and others are quick to note, to that developmentalism, local or indigenous people are either invisible or part of that "nature."

Ghosh fears we are now entering into a great derangement, a time when art and literature concealed rather than articulated the nature of the times and the time of nature. His inexplicable attachment to the bourgeois novel as form at least makes him an acute observer of how this derangement works through its formal limitations.

Here he makes brilliant use of Ian Hacking’s book, The Emergence of Probability. In both science and literature, there were parallel movements to eliminate the weird and the miraculous from serious consideration, but at the expense of making the world seem a little more probable and predictable than it may actually be. When nature becomes predictable, the novel can move any strangeness emanating from it into the background. The everyday moves into the foreground.

Novels clog up with what Franco Moretti calls filler, the everyday life of bourgeois society, its objects, decors, styles and habits. Ghosh: “Thus was the modern novel midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishment of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.” (17) The novel becomes a form for narrative pleasure compatible with the everyday pleasures of bourgeois life.

Ghosh connects this to Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, which among other things is about the displacement of geological theories of a catastrophic time with that of a gradual time. The new science of geology pushed aside biblical narratives of sudden creation and fall. James Hutton and Charles Lyell thought of slow processes with predictable rates. In both fiction and geology, the background world is mostly steady and orderly. Catastrophism is thought of as pre-modern.

Actually, I think the problem with addressing the Anthropocene may be that it is neither gradual nor catastrophic, but a third kind of temporality. Having spoken now to a lot of different audiences about the Anthropocene, what I notice is that as soon as one starts talking about it as a time that alters a predicable one, audience-members quickly default to trying to grasp it as catastrophe or apocalypse. Here Rob Nixon’s attention to the problem of writing about slow violence comes firmly into view. The other caveat to enter here is that climate change is actually pretty predictable. The earth science is rock solid. Its local and particular effects may be unpredictable, but the picture of the totality is not.

But to return to Ghosh’s line of thought: geology was able to work through and work out of the habit of thinking of a steady, predicable time and space. “But the modern novel, unlike geology, has never been forced to confront the centrality of the improbable: the concealment of its scaffolding of events continues to be essential to its functioning… Here, then is the irony of the ‘realist’ novel: the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real.” (23) I’d rephrase that: the novel has not adapted to new probabilities. The bourgeois novel is a genre of fantasy fiction smeared with naturalistic details — filler — to make it appear otherwise. It excludes the totality so that bourgeois subjects can keep prattling on about their precious "inner lives."

From the point of view of this interiority of the bourgeois novel, certain things one can know about the outer world can only appear as the strange or the weird or the freaky. Jeff Vander Meer has had some success in working this space. In genre terms they read like weird fiction but to any reader who has not hidden under a rock these last decades, they resonate strongly with the indexical traces of the Anthropocene.

Ghosh thinks that this strategy of introducing chance or the strange or the weird or the freaky into the novel is to risk banishment. But from what? Polite bourgeois society? The middle-brow world of the New York Review of Books? Perhaps it’s not the end of the world to end up exiled in genre fiction, with horror, fantasy, romance, melodrama, gothic, or science fiction. Frankly, I think there’s far more interesting readers to be found reading there.

To be a bit more generous: I firmly believe that to make progress on the culture of climate change, it is important to keep open a path from everybody’s particular culture toward thinking and feeling it in their own terms. Thus, while I personally think the bourgeois novel is a lost cause, I welcome attention to climate change from readers and writers of that genre. Similarly, let’s have a thousand names for the Anthropocene. Ghosh offers the catastrophozoic, and the penumbral period. Anything of this scale and complexity, not least emotional complexity, needs a whole poetics of its own.

Ghosh: “climate change challenges and refutes Enlightenment ideas.” (31) Not so fast. If one of those Enlightenment ideas was the scientific method, then it turns out to be indispensable for even knowing climate change exists. There’s a direct line from the geology of Hutton and Lyell to earth science. That geology contained an admixture of cultural assumption is hardly enough to discount it. Not least given that Ghosh has already admitted that it did a better job of being self-correcting in the light of new findings than the cultural form of the novel.

A related complaint I’d make here is Ghosh’s contention that the nonhuman can intervene directly in a cultural form, our job being simply to detect it. This is a strikingly "Protestant" idea, by the way, which as we’ll see later creates a certain inconsistency in Ghosh’s thinking. Here I want to stress that in both sciences and in cultures the nonhuman is always mediated to the human by what I call the inhuman, by an apparatus of labor and technology. Indeed, the inhuman is the zone where the partition between the human and nonhuman is negotiated, at the expense of rendering the inhuman labor in between invisible. There is no such thing as a "history of ideas," only of the labor and technics of producing them.

What seems to me to be happening in Ghosh is an identification of climate change with the alien or uncanny, which is generally excluded from the bourgeois novel (exceptions are noted). He does distinguish the environmental uncanny from the supernatural uncanny. But perhaps climate change does not best enter the form of fiction as the uncanny at all. Ghosh: “All of this makes climate change events peculiarly resistant to the customary frames the literature has applied to ‘Nature.’” I think the customary is the problem, and hence should be written against. We need an avant-garde that challenges that frame.

The strongest parts of The Great Derangement are where Ghosh stays closest to his own labors as a novelist, and works outwards to the research he has done related to it. The key example is his book the The Hungry Tide (2004), which includes a cyclone in the Sundarbans, on the Bay of Bengal. In India, as elsewhere, bourgeois culture has come to love being on the waterfront, whereas traditional coastal people have often been rather wary of the ocean, even if compelled to be close to it to secure a livelihood.

Imperial powers have had a particular enthusiasm for coastal and estuarine cities. Through the ages of sail, steam and oil, maritime trade and the navy define imperial geography. The water-linked capitals of Amsterdam, Hamburg and London are connected to colonial-era constructs such as Cochin, Dakar, Hong Kong and Sydney. While hardly built on nothing, New York and Mumbai are largely products of British empire. They are deep water harbors at maritime strategic points. Empire made them. “These cities were thus the drivers of the very processes that now threaten them with destruction.” (55)

Mumbai is on the Arabian Sea, on the west coast of the Indian subcontinent, which in the past saw less cyclonic activity that than the east coast. But the Arabian Sea is probably producing more storms as the climate changes. Colonial era Mumbai was already struck by cyclones several times. As it was again in 2005 and 2015. The city does not have systems in place for this, unlike in Bangladesh over to the east in the Bay of Bengal, where storms are more common. Mumbai even has a nuclear power plant, and another nearby. There are other colonial-era cities with parallel risks, such as Chennai (Madras) and Kolkata. The latter is one of the global megacities most at risk.

The majority of victims, current and future, of climate change are probably in Asia. The waters flowing down from the Himalayas sustains almost half world’s population, but have already lost all the ice formed since the 1940s. At the other end of the water cycle, the partial inundation of just one island in Bangladesh has led to displacement of half a million people. The populous deltas of the Irrawaddy, Indus, and Mekong rivers are also at high risk.

Coastal colonial development suffered devastation even before the climate really started heating up. Henry Piddington (1797-1858) of Calcutta, wrote a book on storms and storm surges, and coined the term cyclone. When Port Canning was being constructed in West Bengal, he warned of its vulnerability to storms. And he was right: It lasted 3 years. How could colonial administrators have been so short-sighted?

Ghosh attributes this in part to the cognitive habit of discontinuity. One might think of this as a pre-condition for a certain kind of science. The object of study has to be delimited in time and space, to be bracketed off from the world. This stable object of study then has to yield regularities to be considered an object of knowledge at all. The "freak storm" can’t then appear, as it is outside the starting parameters.

In a startling move, Ghosh links this habit of thought to the categories of setting and period in the novel. The novel too exists because of discontinuities. Setting and period define a stable object. Setting as metonym for the nation; period as metonym for history. A certain kind of science and a certain kind of fiction exist because of this carving out of a miniature stable world. One might almost say then that all modern fiction is science fiction.

As Ghosh is quick to add, there are other kinds of narrative, the great Indian epics, for example. And there’s no shortage of what now reads as the uncanny in pre-modern literatures, such as Biblical and Koranic images of the apocalypse, or pralaya in Sanskrit. One might add, however, that these are not exactly "literature," except to the modern reader. They pre-date the discontinuity that produces literature itself as something separate.

The bourgeois novel generally draws a sharp distinction between the human and the nonhuman, and concerns itself with actions, motivations and inner lives of its humans. Not only are the setting and period discontinuous with the world (although sometimes a metonym for it), the actions of the humans are discontinuous with other agents. “But the earth of the Anthropocene is precisely a world of insistent, inescapable continuities…” (62) Ghosh sees this as a problem, as he sees understanding climate change as a problem of understanding continuities. But he wants to see the human as continuous with the nonhuman while playing a bit less attention to the inhuman, to collective labor and its instruments. The emphasis on the continuous is also a bit one sided, given that climate change results from a metabolic rift, a discontinuity, in the way imperial and commodified systems of production function.

Modernity was a global phenomenon, and there were multiple modernities. The oil industry started in Burma, but its development in Burmese hands was put to an end by British imperial intervention. Ghosh: “the emerging fossil-fuel economies of the West required that people elsewhere be prevented from developing coal-based energy systems of their own, by compulsion if necessary.” (107) Imperial fossil modernity depended on preventing imitation in the colonies. It was a self-reinforcing power that suppressed, contained or incorporated alternatives, while still extracting from its colonies what Jason Moore calls the cheaps: cheap food, cheap land, cheap labor, cheap resources.

While Ghosh makes some inroads into thinking of imperialism and not just capitalism as at the root of the climate change problem, he spends rather a lot of space excoriating Protestants for the habit of discontinuity. “But even within Christianity, it was not till the advent of Protestantism perhaps that Man began to dream of achieving his own self-deification by radically isolating himself before an arbitrary God.” (65) At this very general level, one might think of Protestantism as an immediate relation between man and God, without the intercession of saints or priests or angels. As Ghosh points out, this could result in a focus on the individual. But also, as he doesn’t, it can result in a focus on the totality. The latter aspect of Protestantism may of anything be useful now. The discontinuity between construct of the individual and the actual totality of the biosphere is, as Ghosh himself points out, the problem.

There’s the Protestantism of Thomas Malthus, but there is also the Protestantism of Søren Kierkegaard, with its leap out of the bourgeois individual self into a weird and uncanny totality. And there’s the (lower case) protestantism of the Jean-Paul Sartre of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, whose categories of the practico-inert, inter-passivity, and seriality are, as I’ve argued elsewhere, an excellent way of thinking about inaction in the face of climate change. Almost any structure of thought can have its uses. Contrary to Ghosh’s claim that climate denialism is higher in Protestant countries, it seems rather to correlate with the power of the fossil fuel industries.

Curiously, where the novel is concerned, the discontinuity between human and nonhuman agents goes together with discontinuity between the individual human agent and the collective, inhuman one (labor + tools). While the cold war gets a discreet mention, one could add here much that Ghosh elides. It was not an abstract doctrine such as Protestant individualism that diminished the novel, so much as an actual, institutional and cultural struggle to suppress the proletarian novel in favor of the bourgeois one. This went hand-in-hand with the intentional steering of resources towards the production of an individualistic model of the subject, society and development.

Let’s name some actual agents who are responsible for the production of a culture that would replace the collective and collaborative one, of which the proletarian novel was the literary expression: the University of Chicago and the Ford Foundation. The former provided much of the economics, the latter some of the developmentalism and cultural weaponry of a bourgeois individualism that justified American empire. But perhaps this line of thought is vulgar, given that those institutions are the patrons whom Ghosh names in the acknowledgements.

Protestantism becomes an even more diffuse culprit, modernity. Ghosh follows Latour’s famous argument that “we have never been modern.” The modern here stands for a differentiation of nature from culture, with the former becoming the sovereign domain of science. There was of course a resistance to this split, which if we are staying at this level of generality we might call romanticism. This in turn splits into conservative and radical strands. The latter finds its way into the labor movement, as exemplified in the figure of William Morris. Ghosh leaves out such radical resistance to the partition of nature from culture, as indeed does Latour. Liberal complicity in its suppression is not a story that meshes well with the liberal habit of innocence.

Here it is helpful to delaminate two arguments Ghosh runs together: the partition of nature from culture is not quite the same thing as modern, or historical time. This, for Latour (or for Jameson) is a temporal figure in which the past and future are not transitive. There’s always a difference between them. One version of this is progressive time, the forward and upward march. But there’s a conservative modernism too, which accepts that the future differs from the past, but sees the difference as regression or decline. There’s actually a quite diverse array of ways temporal figures and the "spatial" one of nature’s relation of culture were and are combined.

Ghosh recognizes this, in part. Many novelists crossed the nature-culture divide in their work. Just look at the mathematics and science in Moby Dick, Alice in Wonderland, or War and Peace. It is the case however that the canonic fiction of the twentieth century often lacked this quality. Perhaps because this line was continued in what would become the genre of science fiction or sci-fi, rather than in what would become the bourgeois genre of literary fiction, or lit-fic.

No surprise, then, that science fiction has responded more strongly to the Anthropocene. N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season would be a fine example. Ghosh: “I think it can be safely predicted that as the waters rise around is, the mansions of serious fiction, like the doomed waterfront properties of Mumbai and Miami Beach, will double down on its current sense of itself. Building ever higher barricades to keep the waves away.” (71) Serious fiction, like bourgeois culture, now seems rather unserious, indeed frivolous.

But I can’t agree with Ghosh’s contention that “The Anthropocene resists science fiction.” (72) HG Wells’ The Time Machine offers a glimpse of a posthuman future, because Wells had read his Darwin. JBS Haldane’s "The Last Judgment" even imagines collective social action as changing a climate, as does Bogdanov’s Red Star. JG Ballard’s Hello America even gives an imaginary 45th President a role in a climate change story.

Ghosh thinks of science fiction as escape, as making up imaginary worlds. But it’s standard in science fiction criticism to think the genre works by the two devices of estrangement and cognition. Yes, it makes up another world, but then it has to convince the reader of the possibility of that world. It returns the reader to imagining our world through the displacement. It’s an exercise in imagining a totality.

If sci-fi convincingly simulates another world, it gives the reader ways of imagining our world otherwise. Science fiction is more, not less, "realist" than literary fiction. It does not produce the fiction of a severed part of a world, as if the rest was predictable from the part. It produces a fiction of a whole different world as real. Not surprisingly, with the repression of proletarian literature during the cold war, a lot of critical literary energy went into science fiction. Of course the genre had its reactionaries, but it was also a place where critical visions, some leftist, some (like Ballard) unclassifiable, could find an audience, bypassing the gatekeepers of literary good taste.

This was just as well, given the banality of the critical standards descending on lit-fic, once it was purged of the challenge of proletarian fiction. There are not that many good novels about fossil fuel production, for example. There’s Zola’s Germinal, but the writing it spawned is not usually considered literature: Upton Sinclair’s Oil! Or the slew of coal-mining novels produced in Britain, of which Raymond Williams’ Loyalties or Margot Heinemann’s The Adventurers are fine examples.

Ghosh points to Abdel Rahman Munif’s very fine oil industry novel City of Salt and its sequels as a key example of what went wrong with literary taste. He does so by quoting what the chronicler of American suburban subculture John Updike says in a dismissive review. For Updike, it lacks the moral drama of an individual’s struggle with himself. Munif had the poor taste to write about masses, peoples, movements. He wrote to make the inhuman human. As Tariq Ali has shown, Munif was a leftist writer. The proletarian novel is part of the material he imaginatively reworked.

Ghosh: “what is banished from the novel is… the collective.” (78) Banished by who? The passive verb seems evasive here. Where was it to begin with? Where did it do? Ghosh picks Steinbeck as an exemplar of the fiction of the collective, but as Alan Wald has shown, there’s a whole forgotten counter literature in America, and indeed around the world. It produced at least one unarguable writer of genius, Andrey Platonov. Who did write at least one story about fossil fuels, and who was a writer in advance of the Anthropocene. He is an acceptable figure to bourgeois western literature because he was suppressed by the Soviets. In the west, the equivalent literature was suppressed by those same champions of bourgeois literature.

Proletarian literature presented itself as the cultural wing of an historic avant-garde. What displaced it in the west was another avant-garde, a modernist one that declared its "freedom" from historical allegiance, all the more easily to be coopted by American empire. McCarthyism suppressed the former; the CIA promoted the latter, as is now well established. The source of the decline of the bourgeois novel into mere lit fic was not ‘Protestantism’, let alone avant-gardes. The novel was impoverished by extra-literary means.

Still, it may be, as Ghosh suggests, that the political commitment of writers corresponded to an era of fossil fuel consumption. What would it mean to think of Lorca, Brecht, Lu Xun, or Tagore as efflorescences of coal and oil? But rather than turn away from the forward-thinking avant-gardes, I think we may need one of another kind. Ghosh quotes Guy Debord more than once, always a risky move for those of us with institutional homes, not least because he was a life-long avant-gardist with a way of avoiding recuperation that was both canny and uncanny. By his own account Debord was among those who, when they saw this civilization on fire, brought gasoline.

But late in life he certainly saw the need for a new kind of avant-garde, in-and-against modern temporality itself. He saw a sick planet. He saw a disintegrating spectacle, producing pollution and proletarians as its irredeemable waste products. While I welcome Ghosh’s interventions in the form of the bourgeois novel, I cast my lot as always with the avant-gardes.

All our traditions are implicated in the Anthropocene. It doesn’t help all that much to point fingers at each other. Nor is it helpful to discount the value of those who march in the streets, as if one had a better answer to the strange inter-passivity the infrastructure of modernity generates in all of us. Ghosh: “the bourgeois belief in the regularity of the world has been carried to the point of derangement.” (36) It is more than a belief. It’s a form of institutionalized cultural power. It is time to start building new civilizations, or new-old ones, in the ruins of the one that now dominates the totality, the whole earth.

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Filed under: anthropocene, climate-change, imperialism, literature