Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Contemporary Fiction vs. the Challenge of Imagining the Timescale of Climate Change

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Contemporary Fiction vs. the Challenge of Imagining the Timescale of Climate Change

Article excerpt

Humanity's impact on the planet has become so profound that our presence will be discernible as a separate stratigraphic layer, therefore we are--for now still unofficially--living in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. (1) Despite the growing scientific knowledge about the anthropogenic causes and the consequences of climate change--the most salient manifestation of the Anthropocene--little effective action is taken, either by governments or individuals. (2) Cultural responses to the problem might help make people care about and relate to it. Writing about climate change and the Anthropocene, however, confronts writers with formal challenges. In this essay we will discuss three novels that seek to capture the temporal dimensions of climate change and the Anthropocene more generally. (3)

In the Anthropocene humankind "rivals some of the great forces of Nature" and "has become a global geological force in its own right" (Steffen et al. 843). As a consequence there will be a time in the future, after the extinction of humankind, when "the planet will bear the scars of a species having created such impact on the planet that their existence will be discernible as a distinct geological strata [sic]" (Colebrook, "TAA"). Although the Anthropocene's status as a geological unit has yet to be formally recognized, the term is already widely used in scientific discourse as well as in the humanities and social sciences, and has even started to make its way into popular discourse (Steffen et al. 843). The name emphasizes "the central role of mankind in geology and ecology" and the impact of human activities on the planet (Crutzen and Stoermer 17). Paradoxically this epoch denotes a time in which we are becoming increasingly aware that we are just one of many species that might go extinct, and that there will be a time after us, thus complicating the anthropocentrism that has characterized our culture for centuries.

The strange thing about the Anthropocene is that it is a kind of "prospective archaeology": it will only be detectable as a geological stratum after humans have ceased to exist (or, at least, after the modern, industrial way of living has ended). To think about such a possibility, Richard Klein points out, we need to imagine a future in which our future has already become the past; "we need the future perfect tense" (83). There will be no archaeologists or geologists with instruments to excavate our artifacts or to investigate the stratigraphic signals we will have left because it will be after the total destruction of the archive (83). Klein refers to Jacques Derrida's idea of the archive as not just the material sources but also "all the systems of cataloguing and retrieval that make access to it possible, not to mention the infrastructure and markets that sustain it" (83). Even if there are survivors, civilization will have been terminated, Klein explains, "not because material fragments won't remain, but because its organizing systems will have been lost" (83). Imagining the Anthropocene means imagining "the end of social memory, hence the loss of social mourning. There will be no one left to record the absence of the historian, no archive left that might permit the act of recovery" (83).

The idea of the Anthropocene thus opens up the possibility to extend the time of the novel to inhuman temporalities, but at the same time it confronts writers with formal literary problems (Colebrook, "TAA"). If we imagine a time after human extinction, we have to imagine a future from which organized social memory will have disappeared (Klein 83). We can think of a time when we no longer exist, but "[h]ow would we imagine ourselves as if viewed from a position beyond the humanly inscribed archive?" (Colebrook, "TAA"). In this context Klein speaks about the "pragmatic problem of enunciation": if the destruction is total, "there will have been no future in our future," no one to tell our story retrospectively (84). …

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