I have just now finished my first read-through of PrairyErth and will shortly begin to work my way through it again, this time looking at notes I’ve made in the book by passages that might serve well as jumping-off points for writing assignments for my class this fall. So, this seems like a good time to take stock of academic-related work I’ve accomplished so far this summer.
As I worked toward a conclusion in my previous post, it occurred to me that some things yet remain to be said about the implications of using Naturalism’s presuppositions about the world and our place in it as a foundation on which to build the Anthropocene novel. To point the reader toward Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and say “Here is something like a template for what those presuppositions would look like” is to say, in effect, that such novels would be dark indeed.
Well, many of them, yes. But perhaps not all, or at least all the time. But because Nature, in these novels, will Matter, such novels’ respective zeitgeists will be situated in such a way that human concerns and hopes and fears cannot but be depicted as direct responses to Nature–whether in accord with or defiance of Nature, no matter, but never independent of it, never with Nature as a passive backdrop or submissive setting, but always with it having an unmistakable bearing on the resolution of the narrative, usually “winning” or at least bending people to its will (whatever those might look like given Nature’s fearsome indifference), and yet itself remaining inscrutable. In other words: if we’re looking at American literature for examples of what we might call proto-Anthropocene novels, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, canny as they occasionally are, through Natty Bumppo, about what we would now call sustainability, would not be models for Anthropocene novels; they are ultimately about human choices in dialogue with other human choices, but not in dialogue with Nature–at least, that latter dialogue seems not to rise to the level of narrative. On the other hand, I’d nominate Melville’s Moby-Dick as a fine candidate for an Anthropocene novel (no “proto-” about it, come to think of it): the central activity of the novel, whaling, is an activity which God, speaking out of the whirlwind to Job, taunts Job (and the reader/listener) as something humans are supposed to be incapable of doing (recall that one of the novel’s Extracts is from Job); Ahab sees Nature, as embodied by the whale, as a malevolence he must try to overcome so as to understand his place in the cosmos; in contrast to Ahab, Ishmael’s post-Pequod musings on whale-ness end in the whale’s nature (and Nature itself) remaining inscrutable, as unreadable as those scars on some whales’ outer skin that resembles writing; Nature “wins.” (And as I write this, I begin to realize there is much, much more to say about Moby-Dick within this context than I can here.)
Anyway. Below the fold are some fairly knee-jerk, broad-stroke speculations regarding what Anthropocene novels might look like, along with some uninformed musing, combined with heavy reliance on John Berger and a shout-out to Dan Barber, about what an Anthropocene aesthetics arising from Nature might look like.
“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.” –James Eskridge, mayor of Tangier Island, Virginia, an island that is now one-third the size it was in 1850. (Source)
If readers follow the link for the quote above, they will find that Mayor Eskridge says what he says above even as he was talking with President Trump about expediting the funding of a proposed jetty that, he hopes, will help mitigate the now-frequent inundation of his island by the sea. Even occupying the space that he and his city do, responding as they are to the effects of climate change, the thing itself remains a term, an abstraction. As Mayor Eskridge says, it is hard to see, which makes it even harder to imagine. To which I would add that, encouraged at every turn by our culture to live in the Now and give as little thought to the past or future as possible, Mayor Eskridge easily could be–is–all of us in the collective.
Via my Facebook feed yesterday comes this fascinating short essay by Siddhartha Deb, “Stranger Than Fiction,” in The Baffler. Here’s its core argument:
If [literary] fiction has been unable to come to terms with our steadfast rapaciousness, it is because to truly represent the ravages of the carbon economy involves understanding capitalism, and even nationalism, as failures, and this is not something contemporary fiction is capable of doing. This is why in the context of India, which Ghosh focuses on, there is almost no fiction that depicts the industrial disaster in Bhopal in 1984, or, in more recent years, the displacement of people by dams in central India or the ravaging of tribal communities by mining companies, including the uranium mining carried out in Jadugoda and that the Indian government is attempting to expand, against protests from local people, into the north-eastern state of Meghalaya where I am writing this.
In the United States too, even well meaning liberal fiction, often falling under the rubric of cli-fi, reveals itself as incapable in grappling with this. This is perhaps because to think of modern life as a failure, and to question the idea of progress, requires an extremism of vision or a terrifying kind of independence. An indie bestseller like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, set in an eco-apocalypse, features rhapsodies on the internet and electricity. Marcel Theroux in Far North includes a paean to modern flight as one of the finest inventions of “our race,” even though the effect of air travel on carbon emissions is quite horrific.
Fiction, in other words, suffers from its own kind of anthropocenization, one that owes as much to post-war prosperity in the West and to globalization, which succeeded in universalizing the obsession with individuals, character, and interiority that dominates writing programs and its reviewing culture. Even nature, resource extraction, and climate change, viewed through the filter of character, become a kind of exoticizing backdrop.
As I read this, I could not help but think back to both my understanding of Bakhtin’s argument about the novel-as-genre’s essential contemporaneity (no matter its setting) in his essay “Epic and Novel,” and to Fredric Jameson’s discussions of modernism and postmodernism in the opening pages of his Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Each in its way indirectly explains, for me at least, the perceived failure of the novelistic imagination that Deb describes here, and they both got me to thinking what form the novel might take in order to grapple with the climatic (and climactic) consequences of the Anthropocene.
I find it interesting and important that the examples of narratives that Deb notes do engage in this grappling are written by Indians or Indian ex-pats, as if to suggest that one direction for the novel might be by way of pursuing to their eco-critically logical conclusions the tropes of the post-colonial novel. That is a perfectly logical progression: colonialism, above all else, is a clear expression of capitalism, and the consensus seems to be that, all things considered, capitalism as manifested in colonies historically has not benefited the peoples in those colonies. It may be a bit inaccurate to say that capitalism “failed” those peoples, since the colonial system was never intended to be of benefit to them. Still, it is but a short leap, in this globalized world of ours, to argue that late capitalism has colonized all of us in some way, even the well-off among us: every time we turn on our smartphones or engage with social media or forget to disable cookies, we constantly supply, for free, the raw ore of data to be mined and processed by algorithms into information used to create or point us in the direction of real and virtual objects designed to shape our decisions and purchases.
As I read this essay, however, I kept returning in my mind to Deb’s phrase elsewhere in the essay, “imaginative fatigue,” and found myself remembering a sentence describing the anonymous subject of Jack London’s well-known short story, “To Build a Fire” (1908): “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.” It seems to me that part of why writers for the moment have difficulty imagining the Great Climate Change Novel is that awareness of Nature qua Nature has pretty much been bred out of mainstream literary fiction’s DNA for well over a century now. In view of this, such a novel would have to re-establish and fully embrace, make a priori, Nature’s presence as a character in it–not, however, in a Transcendentalist-like, rather benign way, but, rather, the reminder that ignorance of and indifference toward Nature will not help but lead to our collective impoverishment, if not literal demise, as a species.
Enter Jack London and the Naturalists as a possible model for an American version of this kind of novel. But before they enter, I need to say a few things about Bakhtin and Jameson.
Last week was my college’s Finals Week, so now the summer has arrived. This academically-oriented to-do list for this summer that follows is, as the list progresses down the page, admittedly more aspirational in nature than anything else, seeing as well off even the margins of this particular list lie new-baby-oriented and puttering-around-the-house to-do lists. But list-make we must.
This is the version that the curriculum committee and/or the Board of Trustees won’t see, but it will be the truer version:
It has been so long ago now, I no longer remember whether it was my first or second commencement as a member of Butler Community College (then still known as Butler County Community College–something I will return to later). It was long ago enough, though, that I still felt myself to be a recent arrival here. Nor was it the moment when I had an epiphany about the value of offering a course or courses on various aspects of this distinct region of the nation; that would come much, much later. Still, it has stuck with me all this time, and in thinking about it now, it clearly is, indirectly, one of the reasons I think such a program of study would be valuable to offer to our students.
Whoever the commencement speaker was, he began by noting something I’d known since at least junior high school: that we were only a couple of hours to the southwest of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states. I instantly began writing the rest of his address in my head–the version I wanted him to give, at least: I’d been at Butler long enough to know that many of my students thought of themselves as living in the middle of nowhere, and so I became hopeful that, by using his geographical nugget as a kind of metaphor, he’d turn their nihilism on its head: “You’re not in the middle of nowhere–you’re at the center of everything!”
Of course, that address, whatever its eventual theme was, wasn’t the one I’d hoped for. As I think back on that day, however, I am more and more persuaded, for various reasons, that our students need to hear something like the address I had imagined, and for this reason: We equip our students pretty well for the task of making their chosen way in world; however, though it’s true most of our graduates stick around here, I’m not sure that what we do actually gives them a reason (apart from family or work) to stay. (Much) more existentially, many of my students also lack a sense of place, by which I mean “a sense of at least being from somewhere, if not a sense of connectedness to where they happen to be living now.” I think that coursework whose subject is the Flint Hills would give them a context and intellectual tools that would help them find what William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth describes as “some old compass in the blood”–and if not for the Flint Hills, then for whatever place in which they happen to find themselves.
I think that such courses would also provide my college with a version of that compass.
Early in Gabriel García Márquez’s magnificent novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), we find José Arcadio Buendía immersed in his studies and neglecting the domestic affairs of his household, much like Don Quixote at the beginning of his own novel. However, while José Arcadio is not studying books of knight errantry but instruments of navigation and Portuguese maps, the effect his studying has on him is a remarkably similar one:
Suddenly, without warning, his feverish activity was interrupted and replaced by a kind of fascination. He spent several days as if he were bewitched, softly repeating to himself a string of fearful conjectures without giving credit to his own understanding. Finally, one Tuesday in December, at lunchtime, all at once he released the weight of his torment. [. . .]
“The earth is round, like an orange.”
Úrsula [his wife] lost her patience. “If you have to go crazy, please go crazy all by yourself!” she shouted. “But don’t try to put your gypsy ideas into the heads of the children.” (14)
In a novel filled with Baroque moments (in the Foucauldian sense of “[s]imilitude [no longer being] the form of knowledge but rather the occasion of error, the danger to which one exposes oneself when one does not examine the obscure region of confusions” (The Order of Things, 51; see a (much) fuller discussion here), this is merely one of those moments. But for the purposes of this post, not to mention my larger study, it is also a crucial one: as I argue in the post I linked to in the previous sentence, the Baroque begins with Columbus’s claims on his third voyage that the planet is in fact shaped far differently from its assumed shape so as to make his encounters with the landmass of South America square with then-accepted descriptions of the world. Indeed, when José Arcadio demonstrates to the men in his village of Macondo, “with theories that none of them could understand, the possibility of returning to where one had set out by consistently sailing east” (14), he becomes a kind of Latin American Columbus, one who looks to the east this time as the source of knowledge, as well as an analogue of Don Quixote.
But what prompts this post is García Márquez’s novel’s extraordinary opening sentence and how it positions the reader relative to the events it refers to: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (11). This sentence not only simultaneously presents to us the future and the past of this man; it also, we perceive, grants us equal footing with its omniscient narrator relative to the narrative’s place and time, from which we also are privileged to survey the whole, or any one segment, of that place and time, and often, as with that first sentence, looking forward and back in time. The world of García Márquez’s novel is not our own; we can observe it at our leisure and as we wish. This ability we as readers have to survey the whole of this narrative at once de-centers, Baroque-like, its author’s authority: José Arcadio’s realization that the world is orange-shaped is madness within his world, but we in ours recognize it as wisdom. (And to be sure, the very opposite kinds of recognitions occur just as frequently throughout the novel as well.) Thus, the reader becomes more fully a participant in meaning-making in this fluid, dynamic narrative space, joining in the activity of pointing and naming objects in this still-new world (11).
At first glance, José Martí’s best-known essay, “Our America” (1891), seems to place us in a similar position relative to Latin America (the “Our” of the title) as the speaker in its first paragraph regards the region as a blissful Macondo-like village unaware of the political and cosmic forces that could destroy it. At one point, Martí writes that the nations of Latin America “arise and salute one another. ‘What are we like?’ they ask, and begin telling each other what they are like” (294). However, the penultimate sentence of the following passage, the essay’s first paragraph, signals to the reader that Martí’s voice in this essay will not be an epic but a prophetic one.:
The prideful villager thinks his hometown contains the whole world, and as long as he can stay on as mayor or humiliate the rival who stole his sweetheart or watch his nest egg accumulating in its strongbox he believes the universe to be in good order, unaware of the giants in seven-league boots who can crush him underfoot or the battling comets in the heavens that go through the air devouring the sleeping worlds. Whatever is left of that sleepy hometown in America must awaken. These are not times for going to bed in a sleeping cap, but rather, like Juan de Castellanos’s men, with our weapons for a pillow, weapons of the mind, which vanquish all others. Trenches of ideas are worth more than trenches of stone. (288)
Spring Break has arrived for us, and so I have a chance to post some brief comments on some things that I’ve been engaged in/preoccupied by since my last post, back at the beginning of the semester:
Reading. For the book project, I have been reading and thinking about certain writings of the 19th-century Cuban nationalist José Martí, both his well-known essay “Our America” and writings he produced about his experiences while living in New York, in exile from his native Cuba. What is noteworthy about Martí’s rhetoric in “Our America” is that he simultaneously distinguishes Latin America (the “Our” of the title) from the United States and describes a politics for Latin America that does not yet exist. In Foucauldian terms, in the essay Latin America becomes something like a heterotopia-in-formation, a space whose political grammar, at least, has yet to come into being. Seeing as Martí wrote this essay while in New York, his subject position as exile relative to the space that is his subject makes for an interesting dynamic to consider within my book project’s larger subject of the New World as a heterotopic space. It seems to me as well that Martí’s writings serve as both precursors and exemplars of the cultural work of writers in Latin America, who occupy a space that Brazilian cultural theorist Silviano Santiago calls o entre-lugar, “the space-between” the cultural hegemonies of Europe and the United States. So anyway, some of this will be finding its way to that part of the Cabeza de Vaca/Last of the Mohicans chapter in which I discuss other writers’ various attempts to produce, as I put it there, “a language” through which they can more authentically convey the lived experience of this hemisphere’s new peoples.
Interdisciplinary course(s) on the Flint Hills. I recently learned that a long-time colleague of mine in our college’s biology department has wanted to develop a course called something like “A Natural History of the Flint Hills.” This caught my attention because, off and on for the past couple of years, I have wondered about the possibility of and interest in some sort of interdisciplinary course, or maybe even discipline-specific offerings, on various aspects of this distinctive region. The college’s main campus is in El Dorado, on the western edge of this place, and we even have a couple of branch campuses in towns in the hills themselves; yet, we offer nothing along the lines of what we have in mind. Though I’m pretty sure it’s not the case, it seems as though our orientation is toward equipping students so that they can leave from here rather than equipping them to give them reasons to stay–an issue of no little concern for a part of the state whose growth is projected to be more or less flat for the next couple of decades. So anyway, last week I dropped by my colleague’s office to ask him about his interest in maybe doing something together, and as soon as we realized we’d both read William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth, we knew we’d be good fellow travellers on this adventure. The plan right now, such as it is, is to identify other colleagues who might be interested in working with us on this, and see about creating some space in the academic calendar for spitballin’ sessions on how to incorporate a course/several courses into our offerings, ideas for how to facilitate off-site study, etc. You may also see some writing appear here on this general subject in the months ahead.
Wish us luck. We think we can persuade our colleagues and administration that this is something that can help us add another dimension to how community colleges can serve their regions.
Baby coming. Finally, that most domestic–and the most issue-y–of domestic issues is that my wife and I will be welcoming a baby boy into the world three days from now, on March 21st. This new life is a blessing for us in more ways than the usual ones associated with babies, and so we are excited to welcome him into our lives and to see what new course(s) his life will set ours upon. Waiting on his arrival, especially during these last couple of weeks as my wife has begun to experience the occasional contraction, has also been an enormous if happy distraction from what I’m supposed to be doing; so having him here will be a more concrete and thus more manageable distraction. I think. Since I’ll be taking a leave of absence from teaching for the two weeks following Spring Break, I’ll have ample opportunity to find out just how mistaken I am.
To my students, both those I have had in class before and those who are new to me and/or new to college, welcome to the new year and a new semester! I have not required any of you to visit this blog or this post, so your visit here reveals something about you to me: you are curious, inquisitive people who, yes, want to know as best you can what the the path straight ahead of you looks like, but who also aren’t above looking around the passing scenery as well. Looking at the scenery–or reading this post–won’t get you any faster to where you are going; on the other hand, it just may be the case that the scenery might reveal to you something you hadn’t been aware of before, something that you might in fact find to be of even greater value to you than what you imagine awaits you at your destination. (I won’t make the same claim about this post.)
Oh–the picture up there. In a way, it is about you.
I’ve been gearing up to get some writing done now that the semester has ended, and while reviewing work on Cabeza de Vaca I’d written back in the summer, I found myself recalling some writing and thinking I’d done about the journals of Lewis and Clark from a long time ago. Specifically, I have found myself thinking how the Journals participate in a kind of writing produced in this hemisphere from the very earliest days of the Encounter, writing initially resulting from Europeans’ completely-unanticipated encounter with the material fact of the land, flora, fauna, and peoples (not only indigenous peoples but also, within a few generations, the bewildering variety of peoples of mixed race) of this hemisphere–a manner of writing, by the way, that persists into our own times. This is an idea I keep returning to in my work; no doubt that will continue to be the case.
Way back when I was still at the University of Mobile, I once tried to teach an abridged version of the Journals as part of a course on the themes of nature and wilderness in 19th-century American writing. At the time, I was struck by a dramatic shift in the rhetorical style of the entries: while the expedition is moving across the Plains (which, relatively speaking, was familiar territory for the expedition, even if only indirectly via the French), the entries have a staccato, just-the-facts-ma’am style to them. However, almost immediately upon entering the Rockies–land which no white man had yet seen–the language switches to a much more narrative style: the prose becomes, in effect, another map of the journey, another record of the expedition’s movement through space and time that had not been so necessary while they were still on the already-mapped Great Plains. In addition, the Journals have several pages like the one you see here: drawings of animals and plants and topographical features compete for space on the page with language describing it. It is as though Lewis and Clark felt that even the material reality of the various specimens the expedition collected and sent back to Thomas Jefferson, along with language used to describe them, did not suffice to convey the experience of these items. Frank Bergon, in his introduction to the edition I taught that class from, captures the style of the Journals well when it makes that stylistic shift:
Conventional rhetoric and cultural assumptions also break down as the facts of the actual country, animals, and native peoples of the West give shape to new forms of perception. Language itself has to be altered to describe a new country and its native inhabitants; words coined and twisted and adapted to the occasion in the journals produced the addition of more than one thousand new words to the American language. In gradually abandoning attempts to present their experience through conventional aesthetic forms and expressions, the explorers seem to let the wonder of the country and its incredible wildlife speak more and more through plain fact and events. (xviii)
(Note to Facebook friends: below the fold is something I posted on FB yesterday that you may or may not have already seen.)
When I started this blog, I’d hoped to keep its content strictly academic and pedagogical in nature. As everyone who teaches knows, however, events in the world outside often make themselves become the stuff of what goes on inside. Our recent elections have become just such an event in my classes, and I’m certain in yours as well. I thought I’d share with you something that happened between me and a student as we talked about her final paper for the semester, and how the usual spaces between class work and the world outside, between teacher and student, became blurred in a completely unanticipated way. What I describe below is a version of precisely the set of ideas I want this blog’s title, Domestic Issue, to evoke in the reader.