Kate Marshall – The Readers of the Future Have Become Shitty Literary Critics

Glassy sea ice with iceberg. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This review is the third in a three-part series on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. The first part was written by Jesse Oak-Taylor. The second part was written by Ursula K. Heise. boundary 2 also published a conversation between J. Daniel Elam and Amitav Ghosh in March 2017.   

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Kate Marshall

One of the most commonly bemoaned features of the contemporary climate crisis is its resistance to narrativity. The source of this resistance might vary, from scalar incompatibility, to the nature of data representation, to the insidiousness of discourses that subordinate the needs of collectives to those of individuals. Who better to bridge the gap between subject and object, or narrator and that which shrinks from narration, than a novelist versed in the logics of scale, one whose range includes not only the future of science (The Calcutta Chromosome) but also the grandeur of intertwined family, political, spatial and environmental networks of historical fiction (The Ibis Trilogy)?

Amitav Ghosh’s quietly startling account of the novel in the era of climate change, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, gathers a set of stories about both the subjects of fiction that takes place on a warming planet and about their authors. And while the failings of the latter set, as well as their cultural arbiters, constitute much of the deranging to which the title refers, the most fascinating author to emerge in the book is a nonhuman one. This nonhuman author, Ghosh notes early in the text, is one he had recognized much earlier without fully apprehending the consequences of such recognition, and quotes himself in 2002 describing “land that is demonstrably alive,” a vision of the earth as, as he put it then, “protagonist” (6).

Of great fascination to Ghosh is the manner and richness with which the protagonicity of the planet and nonhuman matter have emerged in critical discourse and as agents of ecological awareness. The Great Derangement opens with the question, “Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive?” He then immediately posits a speculative subject, “the readers of the future,” a collective that understands, through the material experience of its effects, the unfolding ecological catastrophe of today (3). The readers of the future, for Ghosh, know more than is contained in the subject matter of the literary fiction of our present, which is a “manor house” controlled by publishing interests and critical discourses more interested in the intimate dilemmas of bourgeois life and the valuing of “freedom” writ large to be attuned either to geological scales or the agency of nonhuman objects, systems, and lifeforms. This present-day literary world, in addition, is held back from such topics by its refusal of the scalar dramas, cosmic viewpoints, and nonhuman assemblages more at home in genres that precede the contemporary novel (like epic and romance) or run parallel lives to it (like science fiction and fantasy). In light of the failures of our novels and our readers, Ghosh points to the Anthropocene itself as the one knowing critic of our time, registering the issues persistently at hand yet stubbornly evading the gaze of the literary.

The periodizing derangement named by the title refers to such failure – the inability to produce within the cultural frame of contemporary literary fiction accurate accounts of both the totality of the unfolding catastrophe as well as the unevenness with which it is experienced. These, however, are just some of the narratives that Ghosh’s text provides and analyzes. Much of the volume, while unfolding from the original claim about the novel today, deals instead with providing a timely and well-told tale about the mixed legacies of imperialism when climate change takes precedence in historical narrative.

Ghosh contextualizes his account of the novel in the time of climate change within this larger tale of how colonial policies and points of view play a surprising role in the development of ecological behavior in colonial and postcolonial Asia. While sympathetic to the important developments in humanist studies of the Anthropocene that focus on its deep entwinement with capitalist development, he finds that these narratives often leave empire and imperialism in an awkward blind spot. “The imperatives of capital and empire,” he says, “have often pushed in different directions sometimes producing counterintuitive results” (87). These imperatives, importantly here, become more visible when brought into contact with skilled narration. Early in the volume Ghosh provides a lesson in point of view, suggesting that a colonial perspective always aligns “power and security, mastery and conquest,” with proximity to water, resulting in the great nineteenth-century cities like Singapore and Hong Kong as products of that vision whose futures are tied to its ultimate ends – manifested in their proximate and rising seas (37). The colonial point of view, which for Ghosh is an agent with material force, also produces habits of mind that are reflected in the most readily available narrative technologies for registering larger-scale shifts in how we understand capricious categories like collective ways of seeing.

The most succinct and surprising section of The Great Derangement, “History,” unpacks the consequences of narrating climate change from the point of view of empire. It includes the kinds of hyperbole that are endemic to studies invoking the vocabulary of the Anthropocene, such as his argument that “certain crucial aspects of modernity would not have become apparent if they had not been put to an empirical test, in the only continent where the magnitudes of population are such that they can literally move the planet” (92). While true, this participates in a grandiosity of collective human agency at the geological level about which Ghosh himself seems otherwise suspicious. More illuminating by far is his point about how the present-day carbon economies of countries like India were shaped by colonial commitments that proved paradoxically beneficial. Telling the story of carbon fuel in these regions with an attention to the point of view of empire, he suggests, results in an alternate story.

Ghosh’s ultimate argument about how the colonial worldview shaped the destiny of carbon consumption worldwide is that “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). This, then, is for Ghosh a formal alignment of the carbon economy with the human, at least in terms of genealogy, where “many different lines of descent are commingled in its present form” (108). The unexpected case he makes is nonetheless an outstanding demonstration of his point about point of view, for he shows that the vantage point it produces lets in a powerful thought, which is that colonial power delayed the current climate crisis. It did so by restricting the access of the most demographically powerful region of the planet to fossil fuels. From this position, the present crisis is a reprieve brought on by colonial rapaciousness (he mentions, for example, that the first steps toward contemporary petroculture were taken in Burma, which could have led to an accelerated per capita global carbon expenditure if the forces of empire had not intervened when they did). Ghosh’s inclusion of this narrative within the broader critique he makes of the absence of Asian-specific conditions from broader discussions of climate politics and policy is illustrative of the richness of his narrative acumen and critical nous. If the earth is narrator and the Anthropocene a “sly critic” (80), Ghosh is the kind of interlocutor they urgently demand.

The introduction of historical paradox into the interlocking yet divergent narratives of capital and empire in The Great Derangement lead to a larger realization about how these historical narratives ultimately overlap, which is at the point where individual and national lives become structured in historical patterns that, no matter how divergent, nevertheless orient their subjects toward self-annihilation. But adept as these counternarratives prove toward illuminating how historical and fictional narratives together conspire to produce derangments of ever-increasing greatness, there is an important gap between them. What seems profoundly clear in The Great Derangement is that the complexity Ghosh affords to climate crises, historical narratives, and political motivations is the one thing he refuses to allow contemporary literary fiction.

Two key presumptions underlie Ghosh’s account of contemporary fiction’s response to climate change: first, that realism must rely on direct representation if it is to engage with a major socio-political or geological issue; and second, that only a certain kind of realist fiction is read by those interested in the “literary” novel today. Both of these presumptions lead him to argue that those future readers he mentions will look back at the literature of the early 21st century and will be stunned through hindsight to discover how little equipped our literature was to grasp the most important, and synthetic, issue of our time.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of these claims, precisely because of their attachment to the status of the realist novel and contemporary fiction more broadly. For Ghosh the central periodizing claim to make about the novel in the 21st century is that its central topics and concerns were the farthest from what mattered. Moreover, he sees an attunement to nonhuman interests, agents, and assemblages as absolutely central to the mattering and recognition of anthropogenic climate change. This now-uncontroversial point is extrapolated beautifully in this text, and Ghosh does a great service in rendering the urgency of a broader nonhuman reorientation of thought and art in genuinely accessible terms. But when he asks, “what is the place of the nonhuman in the modern novel?” and provides the answer, as seen by future readers, that answer is surprisingly rigid: “To attempt an answer is to confront another of the uncanny effects of the Anthropocene: it was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished” (66). The banishment to which he refers is the product of the twentieth century achieving its apotheosis in contemporary literature, and, in his view, its criticism. So when he asks, “now that the stirrings of the earth have forced us to recognize that we have never been free of nonhuman constraints how are we to rethink those conceptions of history and agency?” it’s logical that he should argue that the same question must now be posed to literature and art, but he then also insists that in the latter case the twentieth century reveals simply a “radical turn away from the nonhuman to the human, from the figurative to the abstract” (119). This is a move that he makes frequently throughout the book, but one that receives very little pressure, and the embedded assumptions about both genre and the status of representation within the argument are absolutely crucial to the future the Ghosh both imagines and wants to prevent.

The first assumption, about the relegation of genre fiction to the “outhouse” of the literary establishment, seems to me a strange one to make after not only the rise to prominence of several late twentieth and early twenty-first century science fiction and fantasy authors in the literary main stream, but also ignores the marked engagement with genre that has become a commonplace feature of the contemporary Anglophone novel. To consider the role of genre hybridity in mainstream literary fiction in 2017, for example, one can look immediately to the fabulism central to the American winner of the Booker prize, George Saunders, or to the most recent novel of the 2017 Nobel prize winner, Kazuo Ishiguro’s experiment with the fantastic The Buried Giant. These casual examples are hardly exceptional – an element of fabulism and genre hybridity is central to the 2016 National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – and yet Ghosh insists on the seemingly anachronistic observation that the moves of fabulism, or the generic intermingling of science fiction, fantasy, romance and realism, are all alien to what will ossify as the canon of literary production in the decades most aligned with climate catastrophe. In Ghosh’s words, “The expulsion of hybrids from the manor house has long troubled many who were thus relegated to the status of genre writers, and rightly so, for nothing could be more puzzling than the strange conceit that science fiction deals with material that is somehow contaminated; nothing could better express the completeness of the literary mainstream’s capitulation to partitioning” (71).

What’s interesting here is that his argument about the potential of genre to think with the nonhuman is incisive and illuminating, even as he withdraws it from the horizon of possibility for writers with mainstream aspirations in the past half century. What novels need, he says, are “the unheard-of and the unlikely,” “fractures in time,” and a confrontation with “the centrality of the improbable,” all of which are characteristics of the kind of global systems, events and outcomes he thinks the fiction of this time requires for its non-humiliating posterity. I think he’s absolutely right about this, but it remains startling that Ghosh imagines his readers of the future looking back at the literature of the present, and our critical accounts of it, and seeing none of the generic complexity and narrative experimentation that seems so central not only to some of his recent work but also so much of the contemporary, and even realist, literary world. Why would this be?

The answer, I think, lies in the kind of critical eye these imagined readers possess. To look back on the literature of the age of accelerated carbon usage and anthropogenic climate change, as these imagined readers do, and not see deep, complex engagement with both the nonhuman and with the strange scales of ecological symptoms, is to fall prey to a demand that is often placed on scholars of the contemporary as well as scholars broadly concerned with the relationship of the environment to literature. We could call this most simply a demand for content: an idea that the work of the critic is simply to show where climate change is represented directly, centrally to the plot or setting, and easily identifiable. Critics then become collators of texts that are “about” forms of climate change or experience, or that contain aspects of such fact or experience within their most overt characteristics. And while it’s certainly useful to develop a library of “cli-fi” and understand and describe its generic and representational tendencies, to argue that it’s only this kind of direct fictional representation that can provide the kind of engagement with the material complexity of our current era is both dangerous and not a little depressing. Ghosh does not go this far, but does lament the relegation of “fiction that deals with climate change” to a science fiction excluded from the literary mainstream (7, italics mine), and nevertheless will describe a contemporary literary world that, in contrast to the epic, cannot contain multitudes in a manner that would require it to do so in its content: “Within the mansion of serious fiction, no one will speak of how the continents were created; nor will they refer to the passage of thousands of years: connections and events on this scale appear not just unlikely but absurd within the delimited horizon of a novel – when they intrude, the temptation to lapse into satire, as in Ian McEwan’s Solar, becomes almost irresistible” (61).

Happily, at least the possibility of resisting reading McEwan’s Solar remains alive in this account, and Ghosh does acknowledge writers like J. G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood, and Cormac McCarthy as novelists whose works address aspects of climate crisis with something more like a formal complexity. These are the writers whose ability to escape what Ghosh sees as the trap of the “individual moral crisis” as the primary subject matter of the modern novel makes them exceptional cases rather than the story of our contemporary literary scene and its inheritances from the course of fiction in the twentieth century. What they make clear, moreover, is that the crisis of “the great derangement” may not be what he calls it – a crisis in the production of fiction or in its market reception – but rather a crisis in criticism, or in our ability to value good criticism over bad.

For Ghosh is absolutely right, and urgently so, when he remarks that “to reproduce the world as it exists need not be the project of fiction,” and part of what our criticism can do is remain committed to unpacking the project of fictionality as such, especially as it transforms in changing material conditions. “What fiction,” he says, “…makes possible is to approach the world in a subjunctive mode, to conceive of it as if it were other than it is: in short, the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities. And to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis” (128). An alternative beginning of the project Ghosh envisions would be to make a stronger case for the literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries whose response to systematic change may not be overt but rather subtly and insistently present, and to look not only for the primary genres of climate fiction but rather their hybrid traces in novels not otherwise considered within that frame. It would also require keeping a critical attitude alive that can think the conjunction of form and materiality, in all of its abstraction and conceptual rigor, without relegating such thought to the realm of inaccessible or esoteric discourse. We need, in other words, to prepare the readers of the future to be good readers just as much as we need good aesthetic responses to the world as it is.

Kate Marshall is Associate Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.




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