The Temporal Order of Modernity Has Changed: J. Daniel Elam in conversation with Amitav Ghosh on the Anthropocene, climate change, and world literature

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by J. Daniel Elam

This interview is excerpted from a longer version by the same title. The full interview will appear in an upcoming issue of boundary 2.

Amitav Ghosh is the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction including The Shadow Lines (1988), In an Antique Land (1992), The Glass Palace (2000), The Hungry Tide (2004), the Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies [2008], River of Smoke [2011], and Flood of Fire [2015]); he has also written essays in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New Republic. The list of awards he has received is equally long and includes the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Sahitya Akademi Award; he has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Man Asian Literary Prize. In 2007, the Indian government awarded him the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian honors.

Ghosh’s latest book, The Great Derangement (University of Chicago Press, 2016) grew out of his Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Family Lectures, which he delivered at the University of Chicago in 2015. Multiple critics have called the book “dazzling,” and I humbly add my name to this list.[1] The Great Derangement is a reflection on the work of literature in the age of global climate change. The age of “the Great Derangement” – the name that future scholars will give our literary period, according to Ghosh – marks the stubborn unwillingness of contemporary literature and politics to come to terms with the clear, present, and global danger of environmental disaster. “The brilliance of The Great Derangement lies in its persuasive revelation of how our modes of representation have derailed humanity, blinding us to our real condition,” notes Julia Adeney Thomas.[2]

The Great Derangement mixes family history, literary criticism, historical analysis, and political imperative in a way that few scholars and authors have achieved. It is both a polemic and a reflection – both of which are necessary – as well as a self-reflexive call to political action. It is also a reminder of the collaboration that must occur between literary critics, authors, historians, and activists – now, more so than ever, in the age of the Anthropocene. “The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination,” Ghosh writes at the beginning of the book.[3]

The Anthropocene, as Thomas reminds us, does not simply mean that humans have altered the environment – we, like most animals, have always done that – but that humans have now caused “an irreversible rupture of the Earth system itself.” Ghosh’s use of the term “Anthropocene” in The Great Derangement, Thomas writes, “demands not local adjustments to our structures of power, representation, and production but their radical rethinking, with Asia at the core.”[4]

The Great Derangement asks us to reconsider the very foundations upon which the promises that modernity and globalization offered were alternatively secured and denied. Global histories of capitalism and empire can no longer be untethered from the species history of humans – and, as Ghosh argues, are not always as clear cut as they sometimes appear.

We should consider this conversation in dialogue with two recent discussions with Amitav Ghosh: a forum in the American Historical Review (December 2016), on the Ibis Trilogy; and a roundtable in Journal of Asian Studies (December 2016), organized by Julia Adeney Thomas, on The Great Derangement.[5]

 

Elam: First of all, congratulations on The Great Derangement. It’s fantastic.

Ghosh: Thank you.

Elam: As you note, The Great Derangement is indebted to a type of thinking promoted most prominently by Dipesh Chakrabarty in 2009,[6] when he argued historians should produce a new way of writing history in the age of global climate change.[7] It is easy to say that this essay was incredibly influential to historians and literary critics everywhere – especially those of us working on postcolonial theory and literature from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. With some important exceptions, most of us hadn’t been doing this work at all. But it seems equally easy to argue that that all your work has been about the Anthropocene – The Glass Palace (2000), The Hungry Tide (2004), and certainly the Ibis Trilogy to name a few – and not incidentally so. Why do you think the Anthropocene has taken a subtle role in your work?

Ghosh: Once I started writing The Great Derangement, and I was developing the ideas in those lectures, I suddenly realized that I had been thinking about these things for a long time – and not simply the Anthropocene. Many years ago I wrote a short piece in the New Republic called “Petrofiction”[8] as a review of Abdelraman Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet. Unbeknownst to me that piece went on to become a foundational text for a whole new field of study – “petroculture”. I learnt of this on a visit to the University of Oregon at Eugene; I had no idea. These things had been on my mind and I imagine, just as I described in The Great Derangement, a lot of it has to do with accidents of my birth. I am Bengali and I was told the story about my family’s eviction from our ancestral village, by a flood, at a very early age. The relationship between humans and the environment has always been in my mind in some way.

Elam: It seems to me that the kind of literary genre of the period you are calling “the great derangement” is something like the confessional, or the autobiographical form. What we’ve lost are literary experimentations about collectivity. I’m thinking of Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938), where the high-modernist collective narrator is a village on the brink of anticolonial revolution. I’m also thinking of parts of Mrs Dalloway (1927) – that opening scene where Mrs. Dalloway steps out into the London cityscape, or the conclusion to Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1936) where the untouchable protagonist, Bakha, finds himself waiting in a massive crowd for M.K. Gandhi. All of these moments are moments of collective subjectivity. And these are moments of collective subjectivity shot through with the vicissitudes of actual historical facts – Clarissa sees the city and remembers World War I, Bakha is waiting for Gandhi, who delivers a speech verbatim from one of his publications.

Ghosh: That is an interesting point, actually. Yes, Raja Rao certainly does try to do that. I don’t think Kanthapura is a successful book but certainly it does attempt that experiment. Again as I say in The Great Derangement, the collective is everywhere present in the picture, but what happens is that from the mid-century onwards, there is a move away from the collective to a hyper-individualized kind of subjectivity. This is to the point where today, it’s almost impossible for many young writers to actually step outside their subjectivity because increasingly people have come to feel that if anyone steps outside their own subjectivity they’ll be appropriating someone else’s.

Elam: I want to press a bit more on the question of scale that you are envisioning for the literary form, especially the novel, to account for. In The Great Derangement, you note that we likely can’t remember what we were doing “at 400 PPM” – that is, when scientists in Hawai’i marked that carbon dioxide had crossed the “healthy” threshold of 400 parts per million [March 2013].[9] On one level, we have to imagine an event occurring in the difference between 399 PPM and 400 PPM, or 400 PPM and 401 PPM. At another level, the Anthropocenic novel must envision a globe and a collective political subjectivity. To write the Anthropocene seems to need a fictional imagination that is extraordinarily large and extraordinarily small in scope – given that, as you point out, that the hurricane affecting North Carolina is part of a system is that includes flooding in Bengal, that includes flooding in Assam, that includes the drought in California.

Ghosh: Yes, the vastness of the scale is certainly the problem. It’s very difficult within the conventions of the modern novel to take on these issues, which are so vast. It’s interesting to read Ian McEwan’s novel Solar (2010) in that context because in fact it’s the very vastness of the subject that ultimately pushes the book into satire. You can see that McEwan is concerned about climate change, yet the very form of the novel pushes the book in a certain direction. Solar becomes a satirical novel. You might call it “the revenge of the bourgeois”: from a certain perspective to take on or even to contemplate climate change becomes absurd.

Elam: Science fiction might be a better genre for the Anthropocene, but as you argue in The Great Derangement, it is simply not allowed into what you call the “manor house” of proper literature.[10] Yet it seems like in science fiction – Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and all of these leading figures of what we might call ‘borderline literary sci-fi’ – seem to be thinking quite seriously about the collective and collective politics in the way that you call for, especially Le Guin.

Ghosh: That’s certainly true of Ursula Le Guin.

Elam: And yet even the re-canonization of world literature has continued to exclude that kind of form.

Ghosh: That’s absolutely the case, that kind of literary form is absolutely excluded. The reality is that the audience and the impact of what used to be called serious literature has dwindled away over the years, and this is one of the reasons why. Its concerns are increasingly more narrow. Actually much of the work that continues to be read today, that survives from the mid-twentieth century, is science fiction.

Notes

[1] “Round Table on The Great Derangement,” Journal of Asian Studies (December 2016).

[2] Julia Adeney Thomas, “Round Table on The Great Derangement,”, page 10.

[3] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), page 9.

[4] Thomas, “Round Table on The Great Derangement,” page 4.

[5] The “JAS Roundtable on The Great Derangement,” Journal of Asian Studies (December 2016) includes essays by Julia Adeney Thomas, Prasannan Parthasarathi, Rob Linrothe, Fa-Ti Fan, Kenneth Pomeranz, and Amitav Ghosh. The “AHR Roundtable on the Ibis Trilogy,” American Historical Review (December 2016) includes essays by Clare Anderson, Gaurav Desai, Mark R. Frost, Pedro Machado, and Amitav Ghosh.

[6] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009): pages 197-222.

[7] Chakrabarty, 221.

[8] Amitav Ghosh, “Petrofiction.” The New Republic 2 March 1992: 29-33.

[9] Ghosh, 129.

[10] Ghosh, 71.

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