Academic journal article New Formations

Stirring the Geopolitical Unconscious: Towards a Jamesonian Ecocriticism

Academic journal article New Formations

Stirring the Geopolitical Unconscious: Towards a Jamesonian Ecocriticism

Article excerpt

In the introduction to his celebrated Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson called postmodernism what we have 'when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good'. (1) Just a year earlier, journalist Bill McKibben had written a book entitled The End of Nature, in which he lamented that with the appearance of the 'ozone hole,' evidence of an impending global extinction crisis, and especially the possibility of catastrophic global climate change caused by human activities, nature, at least as we used to know it, has 'ended'. (2) While Jameson's book has been among the most influential ever published in cultural studies, McKibben's became an environmental bestseller. But despite their declarations, nature, if by that we mean the ecological and biological fabric of life on this planet, has neither ended nor gone away: that fabric is still largely intact, even if increasingly modified and interlaced with human activities.

In popular culture and in everyday life, however, nature often does seem to be somewhere outside the picture. McKibben has more recently lamented the lack of good art portraying the ecological facts of our time. 'One species, ours,' he writes, 'has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don't know about it. It hasn't registered in our gut; it isn't part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?' (3) One could respond to this exhortatory challenge by naming the many artists who are addressing environmental issues in their work in one way or another: earth and land artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long; ecologically minded conceptualists and performance artists such as Robert and Shana Parke Harrison, Mary Beth Edelson, and the late Joseph Beuys; the eco-restoration/reclamation art of Alan Sonfist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison; the environmental films of independent filmmakers like James Benning, as well as popular fare such as March of the Penguins, Happy Feet, and the recent spate of global warming related documentaries; the nuclear and post-industrial landscape photography of Richard Misrach, Peter Goin, and Edward Burtynsky; environmental themes in theatre, music, dance, and so on. (4) At the level of popular culture, however, McKibben's point is fair enough, at least insofar as ecological topics easily get lost in the din, and even when not--when they make a brief appearance in the arts news of the BBC or National Public Radio or even on the big screen, say, with the 2004 global warming blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow--they tend to be easily trivialised and rendered impotent toward any project of raising the environmental consciousness of the public at large.

My goal in this article will be to approach this dilemma from a different angle. I will examine a series of instances in North American cinema of the 1990s in which nature, in an unruly and threatening guise, returns to disrupt the everyday texture of human social life. These are not films about global warming, or about anything particularly 'environmental'; in fact, they are focused almost entirely on the social world. And yet that almost is the operative word. I would like to read these reappearances of nature--these returns of the repressed--as expressions of what Jameson has called the 'geopolitical unconscious,' a term that combines the method of a kind of psychoanalysis with Jameson's Marxian historicism.

Jameson introduced the term 'geopolitical unconscious' as a variation of his earlier 'political unconscious' in his second collection of writings on cinema, The Geopolitical Aesthetic. (5) What he means by it is that 'all thinking today is also, whatever else it is, an attempt to think the world system as such' (6) and that cultural texts can therefore be read as forms of 'political fantasy which in contradictory fashion articulate [. …

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