Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Rest Is Silence: Postmodern and Postcolonial Possibilities in Climate Change Fiction

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Rest Is Silence: Postmodern and Postcolonial Possibilities in Climate Change Fiction

Article excerpt

Climate change is one of the most prominent symptoms of an age of unprecedented human impact on the biosphere--the age sometimes called the Anthropocene. In identifying humanity as a geological agent, the term "Anthropocene" exposes the fallacy of human exceptionalism, reminding us of the entangled nature of human and nonhuman agency, and the vast and decidedly nonhuman proportions of human action. For, as climate change and other Anthropocene events make clear, the effect of humans on their environment will far outlast human dimensions of individual lifetimes and even historical epochs: some of the impacts of humans' activity--for example, species depletion--are irrevocable; others, such as polar ice-melt, are reversible (if at all) over immense durations of time. But in its recognition of the imbrication of human action with the biosphere (in all its human and nonhuman complexity), the concept of the Anthropocene captures a profoundly and existentially disturbing paradox. That is, even as we must confront the damaging illusion of human agency existing aloof and apart from nonhuman "nature," we must also consider how to recuperate a nuanced view of human agency that enables humans to engage more fully with the unprecedented crisis now engulfing human and nonhuman organisms and environments. (1)

Yet, that increasingly popular cultural response to the Anthropocene--climate change fiction--has so far tended to adhere to firmly anthropocentric conventions. Timothy Clark, in Ecocriticism on the Edge (2015), finds that the novel's penchant for realism means that it offers an impoverished view of the world, with the immediacy, individualism, and intimacy of its perspective standing in stark contrast to the enormity of the impact of human actions and behaviors now being disclosed in the Anthropocene. As I read it, Clark's critique is, in effect, a call for a dose of radical self-reflexivity if fiction is to have relevance as a form of (human) expression in a climate-changing world.

In this essay, I speculate on the extent to which this call is being met. Specifically, I speculate on the dawning of a postmodern sensibility in climate change fiction. I thus explore the possibilities raised by two recent novels for an emerging postmodern awareness of the limitations of realist fiction's anthropocentric perspectives in the Anthropocene. While it might seem that climate change fiction has come rather late to the postmodern party (which has, after all, been going on for decades), I would argue that postmodernism--defined, in Jean-Francois Lyotard's pithy phrase, as "incredulity towards metanarratives" (xxiv)--now possesses a peculiar urgency and relevance, considering the damage done by the metanarratives of the Anthropocene. The two novels I discuss--Alexis Wright's The Swan Book (2013) and Chang-rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea (2014)--are definable as climate change novels inasmuch as they are set in a future world ravaged by climate change. They are postmodern in their sensibilities inasmuch as they question the dominance of master-narratives. They are also postcolonial in their identification of this dominance as both a cultural and a speciesist imperialism. That is, Wright's and Lee's novels destabilize the primacy of what Val Plumwood labels the "hegemonic centrism" of "[d]ominant western culture," which is "androcentric, eurocentric, and ethnocentric, as well as anthropocentric" (Environmental Culture 101) all at once. For Plumwood, "hegemonic centrism" designates the discursive maintenance of a white, masculine, human perspective at the center of power, and describes the ways in which the pervasive belief in human entitlement coincides with historical patterns of political mastery. In these novels, I argue, such a perspective is dislodged by a range of postmodern strategies. Indeed, domination per se is questioned, as the dominant perspective--whether that of an omniscient narrator or other focalizing agents--is placed under erasure. …

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