The below is the text of short remarks I gave as part of the MLA 2019 roundtable, "Ecological Crisis in the Long Nineteenth Century." I'm incredibly grateful to Liz Miller for organizing this excellent group of scholars, and to my fellow presenters, Benjamin Morgan, Jesse Oak Taylor, Lynn Voskuil, Sukanya Banerjee, Daniel Williams, and Liz herself. Ranging from pedagogical techniques, urban abandonment, and empire to post-growth socialist practice, it was, for me, a fascinating discussion. My own talk relied heavily on images, which I intersperse here in line with the text. At MLA I had to cut some material for time, which I reintroduce here; the text is therefore not exactly as it was presented, though it's close. All of this is preparatory for my current book project, tentatively titled "After it Almost Unmade: Action in the Wake of Nature." I'd welcome the chance to talk about that, or this, with anyone who might be interested.
“Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe…. Europe now lives at such a mad, reckless pace that she has shaken off all guidance and all reason, and she is running headlong into the abyss” (312). That is Frantz Fanon, not me, and it comes from the conclusion of The Wretched of the Earth, of 1961.
Having scanned the physical and cognitive wreckage of the Algerian war, Fanon identifies a fully colonized world, a global plantation, where (he says) “they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them” (311). The sadism of this colonial world, or "earth," a will-to-dominate so well evidenced in the mental trauma and state terror Fanon knew from his clinical work, is also masochistic, or perhaps better, suicidal: it is an extractive, nonrenewable project of accumulation and immiseration that aims, inevitably, toward its own death.
Marx understood the suicidal nature of capitalist imperialism as early as the Communist Manifesto, in 1848; Freud needed until 1920, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, to process the fact that an organism might desire, and then pursue, its own destruction. For Fanon in 1961, imperial capitalism moves at a mad, reckless pace, and pushes itself toward what he calls “the abyss.”
Perched, as we are, at the far end of a nineteenth century bourgeois project built on extraction and mastery, and tending to suicide, Fanon’s call to have done with Europe rings out for us as provocation. I read it here against the cascading details of an 1808 watercolor by William Berryman because those details show the relation of human and nonhuman disaster in one epochal scene of ecological crisis in the long nineteenth century. As David Brion Davis observes in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, the British sugar islands, like the factory farms of today, ran on an “extreme model of speculative profits, absentee proprietorship, monoculture, [and] soil exhaustion,” as well, of course, as the mass death of its labor source, who died at such rates, perhaps 8% a year, that their populations, unlike in the United States, could not be sustained without a steady supply newly imported human bodies [Davis 52]. All this means that the early British plantations only radicalize logics of extractive profitmaking and human disposability that remain our own. It means too that ecological crisis is human crisis, and vice versa. Berryman was a white painter detailing Black life in Jamaica after 1807, when a nominal liberty had been secured for slaves in the British Empire. But here we see not liberty but subjection, of earth and man: a dab of black mineral wash is skin of ox or human; green is palm, cane, mountain; all is stilled into something that is itself a commodity: “landscape."
When I read Fanon’s comments about the European lifeworld pushing into abyss, I find my mind drifting to scenes of plantation extraction like this, at the front end of our long century, and find it hard not to then move toward our end of it: ice melts, plastic eddies, mass extinctions, and CO2 charts spiking skyward, electrocardiograms of a dying world. In the rest of my time here, just one and a half minutes, I want to raise only two corollaries to Fanon’s insight about the terminal crisis of the bourgeois world, and suggest two ways in which we live in the wake of the nineteenth century, in Christina Sharpe’s sense of the wake as a temporal disturbance tinged with loss, where “the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (9).
First is material and, in a way, obvious. As Philip Steer and I say in the introduction to Ecological Form, and I wish he was here to read this in stereo, “the carbon-saturated air we breathe today is, in both metaphorical and brutely chemical senses, the atmosphere of the British Empire” (3). I take it that the evidence for this claim about the material legacy of coal-fired combustion and imperial terraforming need not be rehearsed in a roomful of people here to talk about the environment.
The second inheritance is conceptual. The epistemological procedures or thought-forms that enable us to scientifically describe, historically analyze, and even philosophically critique that world-burning configuration are themselves a product of the material condition, imperial capitalism, that set the world to fire in the first place. As thinkers like Lukacs and Adorno, but also Sharpe and Fred Moten have observed, at the core of this bourgeois thought-system is the subject-object relation. From that fundamental antinomy of bourgeois thought arise all the corollary fictions, of nature set against culture; of individuals set against “environment”; of “Man” set against that subhuman figure Fanon calls the native. Enslavement is the radicalization of this bourgeois antinomy, since (in Brion Davis’s words): “slavery has always embodied a fundamental contradiction arising from the ultimately impossible attempt to define and treat men as objects” (82).
Subject and object, man and thing: this set of conceptual protocols and mental dispositions, this ultimately impossible ontology of the modern, is what kept Berryman's cane-cutters dangling in the space, in Sharpe’s words, “between cargo and being” (111).
In the above document of the planter class, published just days after the first spasms of revolt on St. Domingue, we see this ontology come to a condensed form of its inevitable crisis. We get choice bits of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (right), and, on the next page, a citation of THE UNIVERSAL RIGHT OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND UNIVERSAL RIGHT OF CITIZENSHIP (all caps). But that page also contains a report about the “insurgents” in Haiti, who (insisting on this UNIVERSAL RIGHT) are said to have “triumphed in villainy”; this paradoxical formula itself adjoins notices of dry goods for sale, land for auction, and, below all this, a note about a horse gone astray. Next to these, a few inches from the Paine quote, is an ad for a runaway slave. The tableau, not in any way uncommon for the moment, shows in miniature Susan Buck Morss’s observation, in "Hegel and Haiti," that our most enduring theories of liberty, our UNIVERSAL RIGHT[S] OF CITIZENSHIP, developed intimately alongside, were unknowable without, chattel slavery and its detailed protocols of desubjectification.
This internally conflicted system of bourgeois reason, this dialectical scenario, partitioned, and still does partition, human and nonhumans alike into functions of a scheme characterized by expropriation, capture, and calamatious mastery. This system cleaved the world into a grid of subjects and objects, some its and some shes, corn planters separated from old drivers separated from "house negroes digging corn holes," all part of a putatively productive engine aimed in fact —as we now know definitively— toward collapse.
Rather than ignore or wish away this ultimately impossible thought system, as so much white ecocriticism continues to do, our task I think is to show how human capacity might disrupt it from within, in acts of what Gayatri Spivak has called affirmative sabotage.
To see, I mean, how life might shake free from numbered protocols and preset codes of the white supremacist archive, and to find outside bourgeois freedom, or in its ruins, something like what Fred Moten calls “subjectless predication,” a liberty without freedom, or slanted from it. And with that turned knowledge, to build forms of livable being, music, from the broken wreck of our plantation modernity. “Here we are in the weather,” Sharpe writes. “Here there is disaster and possibility” (134).
"Grew, shivered, and passed away": Comments for Genre / Scale Roundtable, Society for Novel Studies 2018
The below text is adapted from a short talk I gave at a seminar on "Genre / Scale" at the 2018 meeting of the Society for Novel Studies (SNS), in Ithaca, NY. I thank Jed Esty and Paul Saint-Amour for their leadership in framing the discussion, and my fellow panelists, Rachel Sagner Buurma (Swarthmore), Jennifer Fleissner (Indiana), and Yumi Dineen Shiroma (Rutgers), for their brilliant remarks and sharp conversation. The audience was great too.
“I drew a breath, set my teeth, gripped the starting lever with both hands, and went off with a thud.”
When the Time Traveler punches the gas on his machine in HG Wells’ 1895 novel, he describes what we could call the phenomenology of scale shift: as days become minutes and time begins to blur, the Traveler experiences what he calls the “peculiar sensations” that flow from a widening mismatch between the observer’s protocols for viewing and the world he views. “[E]very minute mark[ed] a day,” he says: “I saw trees growing and changing life puffs of vapour, now brown, now green; they grew, shivered, and passed away. …. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed——melting and flowing under my eyes” (25). Weird feelings follow. That’s because here, perceptual capacities fitted to one scale or speed of analysis –attuned to and comfortable in, for example, a human-scaled lifeworld, are made now to address an entirely different, geological one, where seasons pass like dreams and days stretch to the “thousands of millions” (106). For the Traveler, this caesura in phenomenological experience is “excessively unpleasant”: it causes “sickness and confusion,” a “hysterical exhilaration” (25).
Burning half of my time on Wells is its own scalar miscue, but I risk opening with this famous moment because it helps me point to what has come to interest me about the topics of scale and genre, which is how they come undone, or mismatch. Both of our title terms today name domains of more or less stable cognitive operation or perceptual fitness. If we follow John Frow to see genre as a set of socially enforced conventions that enable and constrain the production of meaning (10), then we know that genre constitutes a loose contract between reader and text and secures in that encounter a common ontological structure or world: an “implicit realit[y],” in Frow’s words, “which [a] genr[e] form[s] as a pre-given reference” (19). “To speak of genre,” he goes on, “is to speak of what need not be said because it is already so forcefully presupposed” (93). Scale, meanwhile, is “an aesthetic phenomenon,” in Julie Orlemanski’s words, one that “refers us to our specific capacities for attention, cognition, perception, and feeling”. It is, she says, “irreducibly a concept of relation” (218). Scale, like genre, conjures and then presumes a world and legislates our (embodied) place in it.
Genre constitutes a loose contract between reader and text and secures ... a common ontological structure or world
The ideological consequences for this are obvious, as readers like Amitav Ghosh and Nancy Armstrong, to pick just two, have noted: an artifact like a novel, scaled to human size and revolving around the inner life of a bourgeois subject, reproduces worlds in ways whose political limitations have long been obvious. But the diagnostic and exhumatory reading practices that would make these background states visible again, turning ground back into figure——these would need to be supplemented by the creative labor of making new forms from old ones: to show, for example, where the extant genres of bourgeois modernity stretch, fail, and go haywire, and to locate in those generative failures the possibility for new thought, new worlds. In my new project this commitment to the productive, thinking power of literary structures has led me to wonder what happens when stable lifeworlds start to fall apart.
What happens when the right-sized worlds of genre start to fracture from within?
By focusing on moments of generative collapse within generic and scalar systems, I’ve been trying to ask what happens when the right-sized worlds of genre start to fracture from within. It is just such a perceptual breakdown that makes the Time traveler nearly puke, of course, and it’s probably no accident that Wells felt he had to drum up a new genre term —scientific romance— to name his experiment, even if the presence of Weena, the “little doll of a creature,” tips us off to the fact (1) that any seemingly new genre is but a Frankensteined combination of past elements (they’re always unevenly historical); but also (2) that any form then bears within it the newly reorganized social logics of its own hybridized aesthetic infrastructure. (Here the misogynist marriage plot.) A footnote to this is that the real work of genre is properly unseeable from within the maximalizing and binaristic perceptual capacities of machine reading. That’s because what we’re looking for is not a series of examples that do or don’t fit a category but internal discord or works-against-themselves, literary performances that, like any member of a set, belong without belonging, as Derrida says memorably in "The Law of Genre."
For me lately, a good example has been Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, since Carroll's novel flips binaristically between one set of relatively stable, internally consistent ordering codes and another, above ground and below ground, and famously thinks this as a problem of scale. In a foray into book history fanaticism, I’ve so far catalogued 85 different versions of the asterisks that denote Alice’s moments of embodied transition between what we could call these two stable states. Those nonverbal graphic marks do not represent so much as perform or enact the unthinkable switchpoint or conversion moment between mutually exclusive generic registers, scalar regimes, or phenomenological states ——internally coherent worlds, I mean, where scale feels right and expectations match outcomes in a way you can bank on. To sit in the interval between such established worlds, to live in a boundary event, for example, as we do now, would be to exist between codes or genres, distended and ungrounded, “half-expecting,” as Alice does, that anything might happen at any time, or never. “What a curious feeling,” she says (14).
If the novel theory will have anything to say about our curious new present, it will need I think to adopt forms of thinking genre and scale that see individual works not as exemplars or symptoms, but as themselves containing theories, coded as an unwinding of generic structure, of what it feels like to experience collapsing lifeworlds. For in a present characterized by equally by political unwinding and ecological ruin, maybe we can learn again from Alice, who “sat down with her face in her hands, wondering if anything would ever happen in a natural way again.”
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.