The early years of the twenty-first century have seen—among its various issues and events—the beginnings of a global assimilation of the recognition that the planetary home is not an infinite resource. While such a discovery has variously entered socio-political discourse—in the integration of new policy benchmarks, in the appearance of ‘sustainability’ agendas in every other domain, and so on—it seems at the same time to be in some sense (re)conditioning thought itself.
This is not just to do with anthropogenic harms to the physical and non-human world, but the ways these might rebound upon us. In our lives, environmental forces are making an appearance on terms that are not of our making or wanting. The recent spate of storms across the UK (December 2013-February 2014) is just one example of the way the weather seems currently to gather against us. Whether or not such storms disclose new patterns that signal global warming is a matter of speculation and likely disagreement. Nonetheless, the overall sense, as depicted across images in the media and experienced in the lives of those impacted, is of the unexpected power of natural forces and our inability to control them. Physical reality, even as we mark and record its patterns and movements, seems to emerge as always more than us.
The coming storm: do the UK’s recent winter storms signal new weather patterns that indicate global warming?
[Image by Vol’tordu under a CC BY-NC-SA license]
Tied up with this intrusion of the natural into our lives is an additional problem of death (or our relations with it), since our survival, or at least ‘life as we know it,’ relies—we now find—on planetary wellbeing. Furthermore, it is a modern biopolitical valorising of (human) life—or, our efforts to outdo death in the first place—that results, it seems, in this manifesting of death’s possibility. As Claire Colebrook puts it in a recent dialogue exploring the Anthropocene as a doomsday device, the very act of our ‘intentionality’, our ‘mastery’ in developing the technē for life-enhancement, now manifests ‘the tragic quality of coming back to destroy us’ (2013). Such a phenomenon appears to place in question much of what we have understood ourselves to be, posing challenges for our fundamental perceptions of and engagements with the world. Timothy Clark refers to this time as the ‘end of externality’, a time when ‘the consequences of human action […] build up with destructive effects in the air and in the street’ (2008, 48). As Timothy Morton’s toilet metaphor depicts, we can no longer simply flush away our problems, for there is no away anymore (2010, 9). Finitude, it seems, comes full circle as we collide with our own limits. Caught up in perspective, we finish a world which then finishes us—or such is the thinking of ‘environmental crisis’ today.
These disturbances in our self-world relations, if they impact on our thinking, have implications for literature and criticism. In environmental crisis fiction, for example, we see a kind of aesthetic narrative disturbance as the arrival of crisis (a deconstruction of the human subject) sits in conflict with the imperative to resolve or go forward (its reconstruction). For criticism, a question is posed as to the possible relation between (poststructuralist) notions of finitude, the reappearance of a banished death, and the manifesting of the real at a time of environmental crisis. There also arises a political problem in the way the drama of environmental crisis, with its threat of imminent death, presents this ‘crisis’ as the new apocalypse—an unhelpful doom-mongering that fails to elicit the response it demands.
In this article I remark on this set of problems in relation to a strand of environmental crisis fiction that offers a certain kind of response to the idea of humanity’s impending death. These novels all make use of ‘death’ as a trope; however they appear to advocate a taming of death, a conscious and philosophical turning to face death as a real possibility—albeit a movement that they also problematise. ‘Imagine how terrible it would be if there were no death,’ reads an opening epigraph in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (4). While the novel’s protagonist, Toby, immediately resists such an idea: ‘Do I still believe this?’ she wonders, ‘everything is different up close’ (4), nonetheless ‘death-facing’ as a conscious thought-paradigm is proposed: promoted by the novel’s eco-cult – the Gods Gardeners. This question of death-facing appears in differing forms across a strand of contemporary fiction, seemingly countering a sense of death as a ‘threat’ that rebounds on humanity. One issue that stands out is the way this death-facing seems to disclose an aesthetic turning, by the human subject, toward acknowledgement of the physical world per se.
Unhelpful doom-mongering?: the drama inherent to environmental crisis fiction implies inherent death and reconfigures environmental change in apocalyptic terms
[Image by Shakespearesmonkey under a CC BY-NC license]
Amitav Ghosh’s 2005 novel The Hungry Tide, for example, constantly emphasises the unremitting power of the world’s forces while presenting death as a natural event—a point that Atwood’s Gardeners also constantly refer to. The novel tells the story of Indian-born American cetologist, Piyali Roy, who travels to the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal to study the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. The Sundarbans is a reserve for the Bengal Tiger and a UNESCO World Heritage Site; but its wildlife and tidal ecologies pose dangers for the lives of its inhabitants—tigers turn man-eaters, islands submerge and reform, and storms batter the region. As we read early on in the novel, via local inhabitant Nirmal’s notebook:
At no moment can human beings have any doubt of the terrain’s hostility to their presence, of its cunning or resourcefulness, of its determination to destroy or expel them. Every year dozens of people perish in the embrace of that dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles (8).
This hostility of this Sundarbans ‘tide country’ landscape is particularly apparent in the novel’s use of water as a trope. As Divya Anand notes, ‘water,’ in the novel, is more than a ‘recurring literary motif’, it is ‘an active participant that dynamically engages and exerts an impact on the human drama’ (23). Water appears as distinctly agential in the novel, as seen for example in Nirmal’s description of the bãdh—an embankment built to protect the lands of the fictional Sundarbans island, Lusibari, from the tides. Nirmal writes:
See how frail it is, how fragile. Look at the waters that flow past it and how limitless they are, how patient, how quietly they bide their time. Just to look at it is to know why the waters must prevail, later if not sooner (205).
One might take this idea of ‘the waters’ or the natural world as inevitably prevailing as depicting ‘humanity’s impending doom’; however such nuancing does not quite sit with these novels. Rather they appear to propose a posthuman diminishing of the human subject, produced via its recognition of its own finite status. Such a diminishing, alongside a recognising of the immanence of landscape and its agencies, recurs throughout this strand of environmental crisis fiction. Thus Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann (1999) and its sequel The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter Griot and the Snow Dog (2005) employ vast temporal and geological scales to bury past civilisations, their artifices and archives, leaving Mara and Dann, along with other climate refugees, to traverse an African landscape of the distant future in search of habitable lands unaided by human archival knowledges and forms. Like Ghosh’s ‘hungry’ tide, the landscape in Lessing’s novels can simply swallow up iterations of humanity, its projects and constructs, presenting the tides or the landscape as temporal movements that far exceed the lives of humans.
The death-facing indicated here might be thought of as a encounter with the non-human world as ‘hyperobject’, a term given by Morton to describe such objects as climate change or the capitalist system, or the time it takes Styrofoam cups to degrade—none of which can be witnessed in their entirety (2013, 1). Prior conceptions of the ‘natural world’ as a utility that can be tamed, appropriated or destroyed without consequence is thus overlaid with a new sense that it contains—however we might resist it—death’s inevitability. While some environmental crisis fiction may seem to personify this newly vengeful world, perhaps as Mother Earth turned James Lovelock’s Gaia, the strand of fiction I identify here seems to disregard this in favour of a sense of the world as both real and beyond our capacity to fully grasp. This generates, in turn, a narrative emphasis on the ontology and aesthetics of the subject, and the functions and limits of thought.
A hungry tide: Amitav Ghosh’s 2005 novel emphasises the dangers of Bengal’s Sundarbans reserve for its inhabitants, both people and animals
[Image by joiseyshowaa under a CC BY-SA license]
At the same time, these novels seem to explore ways in which this diminishing subject might turn toward the reconstructive. To face death is thus, paradoxically, not to die but to view life differently. By switching from a mode of destruction to one of acknowledging the reality of the world and one’s own finitude, life emerges as a reconstructive project. We see this depicted across this strand of fiction, for example in the character Spike, a posthuman Robo sapiens (artificial life-form) in Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007). Spike—who also points out at every opportunity that humans and Robo sapiens are not as distinct as humans would claim—presents the world as beyond human capacity to grasp, yet nonetheless as inseparable from human (and other) behaviours or actions. She states: ‘This is a quantum universe […] neither random nor determined. It is potential at every second’ (75). One can therefore ‘intervene’ in this potentiality by one’s (differing) actions. Depicted here is not the earth as Mother or Gaia or even as a ‘world’ in any totalising sense. Life seems, rather, to be a quantum state that unfolds us in its agencies along with our deaths and our births, posing implications for the subject reminiscent of Karan Barad’s claim: ‘We don’t obtain knowledge by standing outside the world; we know because we are […] part of the world in its differential becoming’ (2007, 185). As Morton puts it, reality is a ‘mesh’ (2010, 28-33, 33) in which we participate and are entangled.
The death faced by the subject, as depicted in these novels, thus appears as a various acknowledging of a problematised material world. We encounter its appearance as ‘real,’ as outdoing or diminishing us, and at the same time as inseparable from our participation in it. Yet these novels seem to encounter a difficulty, even so, with this route to a reconstructing subject, perhaps because to envisage death is always to grasp at the ungraspable. Hence, while to face one’s own finitude may in some sense be to recondition the ways we think about the world, and perhaps correspondingly our responses to it, it is also to face that which one can never fully represent.
In their fascinating and innovative depictions of the impact of environmental crisis on human thought and perception, these novels negotiate a broad set of dangers; yet their success in doing so may be in question. Such dangers include the problem of representation, whereby language—or the means to tell stories—is challenged by the appearance of the physical world within thought itself; a problem of ethics, whereby the human subject strives to grasp an acknowledgement of, and possible means to counter, our impacts on the planetary home; and a problem of possibilities, whereby our acknowledgment of ‘the world’—in epistemological terms—is constantly problematised. In dealing with such difficulties, these novels depict and contend with a death-facing imperative, re-construable as an imperative to face the physical or worldly situation, as opposed to avoiding it. This is also, though, to acknowledge a problem, which—like death—is in some sense ungraspable. How can we ‘face’ that which we cannot represent? Each novel thus ends with an underlying sense of irresolution, unable to sustain the conceptualising of the real (if we say ‘death’ is real) upon which it also relies. Yet one might alternatively say that this irresolution is, in itself, an important marker of these novels’ success, given the condition of thought, broadly speaking, in today’s contemporary environmental crisis moment. Either way, it opens up the possibilities for ongoing consideration of the effects of environmental crisis on thought and on literature.
CITATION: Louise Squire, “The Thoughts in our Head: A World,” Alluvium, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2014): n. pag. Web. 24 September 2014 http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v3.1.05.
Louise Squire is a doctoral candidate at the University of Surrey currently in her third year. Her thesis explores a strand of contemporary environmental crisis fiction that draws links between the emergence of environmental crisis and the human fear of death.
Anand, Divya. ‘Words on Water: Nature and Agency in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide’ Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 34.1 (March 2008): 21-44. Online: http://www.concentric-literature.url.tw/issues/Water/2.pdf
Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood (London: Virago, 2010).
Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007).
Clark, Timothy. ‘Towards a Deconstructive Environmental Criticism.’ Oxford Literary Review 30.1 (2008): 44-68. http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/E0305149808000163
Colebrook, Claire, pers. com., Cary Wolfe and Claire Colebrook, dialogue. ‘Is the Anthropocene a Doomsday Device?’ 12 January 2013. The Anthropocene Project, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Published on YouTube, Jan 23, 2013. Online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLTCzth8H1M (accessed 28 December 2013).
Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide (London: Harper Collins, 2005).
Lessing, Doris. Mara and Dann: an Adventure (London: Flamingo, 1999).
Lessing, Doris. The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter Griot and the Snow Dog (London: Harper Perennial, 2006).
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: Harvard University Press, 2010).
Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
Winterson, Jeanette. The Stone Gods (London: Penguin, 2008).
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