Citing Catherine Gallagher on `fictionality’ as the `ontological ground of the novel,’ LeMenager seeks a similar `alternative grounding’ for progressive, transgenerational social change in a time of epistemic and ecological crisis. The essay is one of many selected for co-production in ebr and our two collections from Bloomsbury Academic, Post-Digital: Critical Debates from electronic book review .
Last year, the poet and essayist Eileen Myles posted a screen capture of a tweet on Instagram, a tweet apparently written by “@realdonaldtrump.” It reads: “Literature is fake news that stays news.” Myles’s response was: “No poet.” True enough. But this Trump tweet seemed more substantive than many, alluding to Ezra Pound’s famous statement, “Literature is news that STAYS news,” in the ABC of Reading—and suggesting the influence of an actual reader in Trump’s intimate cadre (perhaps Steven K. Bannon) who admires Pound and the Italian fascists.1Thanks to Eric Dean Rasmussen for making the connection between Steven K. Bannon and Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading. As it turns out, the tweet was a fake, apparently created by poet Noah Eli Gordon as a joke, then commented upon and retweeted by Myles. Gordon’s joke invites some serious thinking about the differences between literature, news, propaganda, and lies. The joke itself remains more memorable and, in its allusion to Pound, more literary than most of Trump’s actual tweets—in which, to this date, there has been no mention of the word “literature.”
As “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree,” (36) to quote Pound, literature doesn’t tend to erode as quickly as lies, tweets, or alternative facts injected into the news cycle. Literature may not succeed in outlasting news but typically it aspires to do so. Meanwhile, propaganda, or what we might call the fake news generated by the Alt Right in the United States, tends to “overwhelm affective states.” Unlike the news reporting actual events, propaganda overwhelms us purposefully, in order to promote ideologies dependent upon group identities that are solidified against scapegoats, for example, the “snake-like” Muslims to whom Trump likes to allude in his opportunistic misreading of the Oscar Brown Jr. song “The Snake.”2Jason Stanley, in How Propaganda Works, writes that “demagogic contributions employ, whether intentionally or unintentionally, flawed ideologies to cut off rational deliberation and discussion. In characteristic cases, they do so by using the flawed ideologies to overwhelm affective states”(47). In contrast to both propaganda and the news, literature captures nascent or self- contradictory public emotions, reporting, as it were, the feeling-states of possible worlds and unrealized histories. It represents scenarios too complex and complete in their fictionality to be taken as imperatives to organize.3The term “fictionality” is taken from Catherine Gallagher (341) to suggest the “ontological ground of the novel” as Anglo-European literature developed from the eighteenth into the nineteenth centuries. Gallagher recognizes fictionality to imply “the widespread acceptance of verisimilitude as a form of truth, rather than a form of lying,” where verisimilitude means a truth-likeness without reference to actual, historical persons. To accept fictionality as a ground for literature was to understand literature as a form other than lying, slander, or news, and to develop a “flexible” relationship to truth which, Gallagher suggests, promoted the speculative economies and fluid identities of modernity. In short, literature asks readers to consider verisimilitude as an alternative reality, a form of being that is plausible but “nowhere,” or “not yet.”
Rather than fall down the rabbit hole of news, real or fake, I’d like to consider fictionality as the alternative ground from which both the novel and transformative social change are born. Broadly conceived, acts of fiction have been key strategies for building a politics of life in times of epistemic and ecological crisis. Such strategies refuse the explicit ideological agenda of propaganda and commit themselves to the infinitely messier representational problem of living in the present, which means—among other things—living climate change. Living climate change names the everyday dimensions of an ambitious cultural project that writers, artists, scholars, and activists have been undertaking in the United States at least since NASA scientist James Hansen’s first testimony regarding the dangers of “global warming” on the Senate floor, in 1988. For the purposes of this essay, I call the cultural project of living climate change in the United States a “Civics for the Sixth Extinction.” Although my “civics” has several cultural dimensions, in the context of a discussion of literary media, it draws from Jason Stanley’s recent definition of “civic rhetoric” as rhetoric that “can repair flawed ideologies, potentially restoring the possibility of self-knowledge and democratic deliberation” (Stanley 5; Gallagher 346). The rights and responsibilities of civic engagement are not easy to imagine in the present tense of climate change, ocean acidification, and mass extinction, and these rights and responsibilities are even more difficult to practice. Yet climate change cultures have been in development alongside the rise of exclusionary forms of neoliberal statehood since the 1980s. These cultures move across disciplinary boundaries in academia, across print and digital cultures, and across national borders.
From Climate Science to Climate Change Cultures
The literary and cultural work of scientists in both the former Soviet Union and the United States brought us the Anthropocene idea, one of the most potent metaphors of the current era and a complement if not a goad to post-humanist philosophies of nonhuman agencies and collaboration. I use the Anthropocene idea to organize a diverse body of climate change cultural work. But I want to acknowledge that, as a concept that pivots around the “anthropos” or universal human, the Anthropocene risks obscuring important aspects of living with climate change, including the precariousness of nonhuman lives in this moment and the relevance of colonialism to climate change as a planetary crisis.4The latter limitation was first called out within literary and cultural studies by Dipesh Chakrabarty, while the former has been a topic of concern for diverse scientists and cultural critics. See also Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg. Still, “Anthropocene” usefully sums up what it has meant for many humans to recognize just how much we inadvertently affect the conditions of our own thriving. The Anthropocene idea introduces no less than a new “genre” of humanism—to use the phrase of the postcolonial theorist and writer Sylvia Wynter. Before we had the Anthropocene idea to index astonishment and loss, Bill McKibben prepared the way for it in his book The End of Nature, which in 1989 was the first popular literary response to climate science. In the early 1990s, the science journalist Andrew Revkin gave us the “Anthrocene.”5The term first appeared in Revkin’s book Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast (1992), as he recounts in a retrospective article. Andrew Revkin, “Confronting the Anthropocene,” Web blog post. Dot Earth. New York Times Company, May 11, 2011. Like McKibben, Revkin was responding to James Hansen’s public testimony. The award-winning science fiction writers Kim Stanley Robinson and Octavia Butler both read the work of climate scientists and responded to their findings in some of the first and best climate fiction or “Cli Fi,” as did the climate change denialist Michael Crichton, whose science-bashing novel State of Fear (2004) was introduced to the second Bush White House by Karl Rove.6Shelley Streeby has researched Butler’s extensive reading on climate change, some of which research appears in Streeby, Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism.
The literary and cultural work of climate scientists laid the groundwork for verisimilitudes of a climate-changed world, in speculative fiction and Cli Fi, and for Anthropocene philosophies. Yet climate science refines the at times bombastic Anthropocene idea by approaching climate change through scientific practice and its professional culture of humility (in terms of the typical scale of investigation in the natural sciences), of distributed authorship, and of witnessing, if we consider witnessing a correlate to empirical method. While Ian McEwan’s novel Solar (2010) has been recognized as realist-satiric Cli Fi for its portrayal of an unethical and self-centered climate scientist, actual climate scientists have produced a collective memoir that more aptly depicts the emotional labor associated with discovering the physical facts of climate change. The online gallery Is This How You Feel, developed and curated by the Australian science communications expert Joe Duggan, presents handwritten micro-memoirs by climate scientists that for the most part express frustration, about not being taken seriously, grief, in regard to their findings, and, finally, hope that the human knowledge project readily summed up by the word “science” might one day rule political decision-making.
An excerpt from the project that is exemplary both for its eloquence and its expression of a divided emotional response typical of many of the memoirs is by Dr. Jessica Carilli, at the University of Massachusetts, Boston:
I am a scientist mostly focused on studying precisely how human activities are destroying coral reefs. On coral reefs climate change effects are hugely obvious and very depressing. Huge swaths of coral have died due to heat stress and more will continue unless drastic changes occur.
It is very hard not to feel totally overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and depressed by the extreme apathy of most of the world’s population (it seems) towards doing anything about climate change.
But then there are bright spots of hope:
Suggestions of political will to actually change emissions.
Amazing ingenuity from people designing new fuels and engineering clever solutions to counteract emissions.
Some bits of evidence that the natural world is more resilient than it may at first appear (sometimes).
Grass roots movements to make lifestyle changes and create community momentum towards sustainable living.
In her notation of what she has witnessed regarding the effects of climate change on coral reefs, her admission of the pain of witnessing, and her willingness to find “bright spots of hope,” Carilli performs a generative grief, one that moves through loss toward new objects of affection and care. As a collective memoir, Is This How You Feel suggests that scientific culture can be understood as a culture of care—rather than the fiercely competitive, market-driven parody of knowledge work that McEwan recognizes in Solar and that also represents aspects of contemporary science. While Is This How You Feel intends to make clear that scientists are “real people,” in its powerful presentation of internally differentiated but collective voice, it also makes clear that scientists comprise a vital, if not foundational, culture of climate change.
Dynamic climate change cultures have moved from the scientific community through popular science writing and activism, and into fiction, film, and philosophy. These energetic, if unevenly informed, cultures pursue no less than a way of being human, ethically, politically, and ecologically in a time of almost unthinkable planetary change. Scholars like the literary historian Adam Trexler and activists like the Cli Fi promoter (and creator of the term “Cli Fi”) Dan Bloom have uncovered roughly two hundred climate-related novels.7https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/36205.Cli_Fi_Climate_Change_Fiction. I have counted approximately one hundred print and spoken word climate change poems, over a dozen feature films and art exhibits, three devoted climate museums (in Hong Kong, Dubai, and New York), over one thousand aspirational climate bohemias like the transition town of Totnes, England,8The Transition Network claims 1,400 transition initiatives in over fifty countries. and activist groups dedicated to participatory democracy, energy transition, and anti-racism, from 350.org to Rising Tide to Idle No More. Some of these cultural expressions have strong material consequences, for instance, the twenty-five US cities committed to run on 100 percent renewables, with some well on their way. All of these cultural expressions cultivate an affirmative path forward, choosing life over nostalgia and denial.
The plural and productive cultures of climate change aren’t news, by which I mean that I am neither the first person to notice them nor do I often see them reflected in news media, outside of dedicated climate venues. So far, Cli Fi, the genre of speculative fiction devoted to imagining climate change, has garnered more mainstream press than other expressions of climate change culture. My own relationship to the New York Times, Time magazine, and other venues that interviewed me about Cli Fi taught me that my interviewers believed a new literary genre about climate change could work to prepare the way for a national dialogue about living climate change in the United States which keeps getting silenced.9I’m referring to my introduction to the mainstream news media (apparently based on a tip from Dan Bloom) in 2014, which included a feature story in the New York Times and interviews in Time magazine—later on NPR’s Science Friday and in Bloomberg Businessweek. See Perez-Pena, Rothman, and Rutkoff. My response to this has been to stop looking for the national dialogue and to look instead to the shadow political communities that express themselves either internationally (e.g., the polar regions) or at the margins of US national debate. The project of living climate change has been popularly associated with subnational movements, particularly urban ones, although this focus on cities as potential saviors of global climate also has met stringent criticism.10For a popular example of the cities-as-saviors argument, see Bloomberg and Pope; for a rebuttal of the cities argument, see Perry World House. My focus in this essay remains the United States both because that’s my own area of study and because the United States remains the world’s most influential climate change denier. The story of American climate change cultures as told even by advocates remains one of scientific uncertainty being used in the service of inaction. Social scientists use the acronym SCAMS to characterize “Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods”—methods meant to blur scientific consensus—that pervade lobbying circles (Lewandowsky, Oreskes, Risby, Newell, and Smithson). Conservative think tanks in the United States have been remarkably successful in undermining public trust in climate science. Yet that story competes with public acceptance and heterogeneous levels of concern. Partisan mapping of climate change attitudes in the United States (mapping that breaks down climate change attitudes according to political affiliation) has shown that “stark political polarization between Republicans and Democrats in the aggregate masks substantial within-party heterogeneity.” For example, nearly half of Trump voters (49 percent) in the 2016 general election believe that global warming is happening.11See Matto Mildenberger, Jennifer R. Marlon, Peter D. Howe, and Anthony Leiserowitz (540). For data on Trump voters in the 2016 general election, see Leiserowitz et al.
In keeping with this data regarding the plurality of opinions about climate change within apparently cohesive partisan communities, a recent story in the New York Times notes that conservative white men—labeled “cool dudes” in one sociological study that found conservative white males to be highly averse to the facts of climate science—are aware of climate change but do not embrace the term “climate change” (McCright and Dunlap 1163–72). Ironically, Monsanto and other Big Ag companies now chafe at this conservative resistance. As Big Ag attempts to market new drought-resistant products, it finds itself in dialogue with agricultural journals about how to say “climate change” without using the words, how to market climate mitigation in a political register that does not suggest coastal liberalism (Tabuchi). Even fervent climate deniers live self-consciously in weather cultures, if not in climate change cultures per se. We might use the term “weather culturalists” to denote persons engaged in work that must take into account seasonal variations, for example, agricultural work, maritime work, or even gardening. The geographer Mike Hulme coined the term “weather culturalist” but uses it in a distinct way. Hulme contends that we all must become “weather culturalists,” attuned to weather events that no longer fit known seasonal expectations. He recognizes climate change as a referendum on the comforting concept of climate, with its implied ideas of a predictable contract between humans and regional weather.12Hulme writes, “In the Anthropocene there can be no climate in the old sense; only weathercultures, and people acting as weatherculturalists” (153).
In some of the most well-known calls by environmentalist authors to imagine a positive climate change politics, for instance, analyses of Anthropocene culture by the Indian-born novelist Amitav Ghosh and the American journalist Roy Scranton, the rich history of international climate cultures is eclipsed. Ghosh and Scranton lament widespread despair, bad dystopian fiction, and naive activism, with Scranton conceiving a transcendental, civilizational suicide for the modern West. The shunting aside of populist events like the People’s Climate March of 2014 by both men indulges a cynicism unworthy of the diverse climate change publics who work alongside political elites—or out of their view. The Californian activist-writer Rebecca Solnit wisely suggests that cynicism (such as that on offer by Ghosh and Scranton) incites despair and that despair is a form of impatience. More than that, both cynicism and despair reflect a mistaken understanding of the ongoing, multidirectional, and even ordinary temporalities of social justice activism. Seemingly revolutionary achievements, for instance, the federal decriminalization of homosexuality, may take up from “long-dormant seeds,” or they may branch unexpectedly, as an ever- renewing U.S. feminism initially sprung from the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement, or they may “look like … nothing,” because a victory quickly morphs into status quo (Solnit 72, 71). Solnit’s Angel of Alternate History, a comic double of Walter Benjamin’s darker angel, sees “the atrocities not unfolding” (emphasis mine) because of our actions—for example, the land that wasn’t annexed by the army, the mine that didn’t open. Such seeing flies in the face of heroic narrative conventions and the masculinist version of humanism that they give rise to. It requires an appreciation of ourselves as powerful when decentered and disinterested in power, making the world without leaving an image of ourselves stamped upon our collaborations with other, nonhuman actors.
From Fossil Fuel Nostalgia to Climate Grief
My last book was titled Living Oil, and it investigates the aesthetic and sensory dimensions of fossil fuel culture in the United States, speculating about how the fossil energy systems that we now recognize as ecologically unsustainable and politically toxic have worked as emotional infrastructures, giving rise to specific gendered and racial identities, national longings, and place attachments. As I wrote Living Oil, I imagined the possibility of living climate change as an alternative mode of cultural and emotional expression. In the past two years I have pursued what it might mean to “live climate change” through a set of essays, of which this is one, about living climate change through what I call “novel experience,” by which I mean novelistic genres—some digital, some performative, and some print—that attempt to shepherd a new genre of climate change humanism into being. For me, “living” means to be enmeshed in material circumstances that are multi-scalar, dynamic, productive of affect and emotion, and open to transformative change. Both problems, living oil and living climate change, speak to the everyday structures of feeling that encourage cultural habit in a given period. Living climate change as a thought-experiment and cultural investigation takes up where Living Oil left off, asking explicitly how to reimagine human being-in-the-world without the stability of Holocene climate. Sylvia Wynter’s speculations about climate change and her compelling concept of “genres of humanism” provide a rich context from which to consider living climate change. As Wynter has asked,
When situations change and the way we behave, oriented by the adaptive ways in which we lawlikely know Self, Other, and World, are no longer adaptive, as is now so urgently in our contemporary case, how can we come to know our reality outside the terms that had been adaptive to a reality that is now past and gone? How can we think outside the terms in which we are?13“The human story/history becomes the collective story/history of these multiple forms of self-inscription and self- instituted genres, with each form/genre being adaptive to its situation, ecological, geopolitical.”
In Living Oil, I anticipated this problem of being stuck, essentially, in a reality “now past and gone,” as I curated an archive of visual, cinematic, and literary artifacts that show the early-twenty-first-century United States in the grip of a feeling state I call “petromelancholia.” “Petromelancholia” names the melancholic attachment to fossil fuels and the version of American modernity that they underwrite. The relatively cheap energy of the mid-twentieth century was easier to extract than shale or tar sands oil, and this cheap energy enabled many forms of progressive culture in the United States, from environmentalism to feminism to modern art. Petromelancholia describes a structure of feeling that allows the messaging of corporate advocacy groups like the American Heartland Institute to resonate, touching deep attachments to energy infrastructures, which are also cultural infrastructures. Of petromelancholia, I wrote,
What impedes the productive grieving of oil, if we’re to follow Freud in supposing that grief should be superseded by the taking of a new object, is that we, by which I mean myself and most Americans, refuse to acknowledge that conventional oil is running out and that Tough Oil isn’t the same resource, in terms of economic, social, and biological costs. Denial inhibits mourning, a passage forward. (LeMenager 105)
The petroleum infrastructure has become embodied memory for modern humans, insofar as everyday events like driving or feeling the summer heat of asphalt on the soles of your feet are repeated performances that become encoded in the body. Decoupling our bodies’ memory from the infrastructures that sustain them may be the primary challenge to ecological emotion and climate action into the twenty-first century. (LeMenager 104)
The poignant and real North American grief for jobs in coal country or the Rust Belt or northern Alberta has degraded across corporate and social media into a libertarian meme that fossil fuel regulation is an insult to personal freedom. In the grip of petromelancholia, we forgo what could be a productive mourning (following China into a multibillion dollar renewables industry, for instance) in favor of contrarian symbolic performance.
Perhaps the most theatrical example of such symbolic performance from within the cultural problem of living oil is the practice of “rolling coal,” which involves modifying a diesel engine to increase the amount of fuel entering the engine in order to emit an under-aspirated, sooty exhaust that appears as a black cloud of pollution. Coal rollers may also intentionally remove a vehicle’s particulate filter, literally poisoning their immediate environment. Having been “rolled on” by a pickup truck near Denton, Texas, I can attest to the actual violence of this apparently ridiculous practice—to be engulfed in a black cloud of pollution is to be temporarily blind, no joke when driving fast on a highway. As a movement that self-identifies as predominantly white and working class, coal rollers “roll” to protest environmentalism and, more implicitly, feminism and anti-racism—one can find YouTube videos of coal rollers boasting of themselves as “Prius repellent” and “rolling” on women and protesters. The feminist ecocritic Stacy Alaimo writes about coal rollers as symptomatic of what she describes as “the carbon-heavy masculinities of impenetrability and aggressive consumption” that have become dominant US gender styles in the wake of 9/11, when fear of penetration by foreign terrorists sparked an aggressive masculinist response, shaping US rhetoric, foreign policy, and style. “While coal rollers could be seen as an eccentric fringe movement,” Alaimo argues, “they epitomize the jacked-up consumerism of the United States as well as the populist conservative stance against government regulations” (Alaimo 95, 97). Alaimo’s emphasis on masculinist consumerism as a stylization of national strength betrays the occluded, actual injury to the US working class— for example, the vanishing of manufacturing jobs overseas. From the petroleum-based styling products that maintain the iconic sweep of President Donald Trump’s hair to his interests in Arctic oil and his poignant campaign promise to rebuild the coal industry in Appalachia—we can see ourselves in the United States in the grip of a carbon-heavy masculinity steeped in petromelancholia. Who will we become in the wake of the so-called American century?
Within US climate change cultures, some philosophers, writers, and artists have promised new (renewable) public feelings—and post-carbon subjectivities, perhaps even more sustainable gender expressions. The community-building, social practice art of Brett Bloom offers one compelling example, inviting us to “de-industrialize” our “sense of self ” in intensive workshops intended to break down our “petro-subjectivities” in order to prepare for forms of civil society that are self-consciously disarticulated from economic globalization, fossil fuel transport, and war.
I want to conclude by connecting the project of “civics for the sixth extinction” to the practice of transformative fiction I refer to as “serious fantasy.” By “serious fantasy” I mean utopianist cultural projects like Bloom’s and, more explicitly, fantasy fictions that intend to support post- oil civil society and collective action. First, a gloss on fantasy as the basis of shared attention and sociability—from the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler. In his book Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2008), Stiegler outlines a concern that’s also present in climate fiction and Anthropocene philosophy. In brief, Stiegler laments the interruption of acts of intergenerational communication—acts of storytelling and play—by corporate media that call us to attention through appeals to our most basic drives, starting in early childhood. Stiegler’s concern is that “fantasy … humanity’s most precious gift,” the gift of play and shared attention that engenders human culture, has been captured and constrained by “psychotechnologies” that assume responsibility for our attention, captivating us with market-driven entertainment before other, more sociable forms of shared attention can develop. “Care is completely destroyed,” Stiegler laments, “since the diversion of attention occurs before the formation of any other definition of attention can be passed, through symbolic regimes and their bequeathed transindividual significations, transferred as education” (Stiegler 15). A transindividual reality, based on the communication of lived experience to children from living ancestors who in turn carry the experience of dead ancestors, fails to develop. “This lost care is also the reciprocal recognition of ancestors by their descendants, which is … vital to the function of proper attention,” Stiegler writes (15). The intergenerational relationship at the foundation of education fails, and with it “care.”
What interests me about Stiegler’s argument is that it is not simply another lament about the destruction of the affluent child’s attentional capacity—a worry about the seductions of smart phones and notebooks vis those young who can easily access such devices. Rather, Stiegler imagines the destruction of the social category of “the adult,” whose primary meaning lies in training the attention of the young. The responsibility that imbued adulthood as a unique social status has been ceded to “psychotechnologies,” making adults irrelevant. Stiegler’s lament shares some of the concerns of indigenous philosophers who recognize that the loss of tribal sovereignty has meant the loss of the “right to be responsible” for their future generations, through the practice of traditional knowledges (Kyle Powis Whyte, LeAnn Simpson). My point is not to absorb the specific modes of violence of settler-colonialism into a larger concern about human losses in the time of climate change—and in fact the indigenous thinkers who discuss “the right to be responsible” for the future recognize threats to this basic right as preceding concerns about climate change by centuries. But climate change may present settler-colonialist cultures used to being dominant with an intimate knowledge of what the loss of sovereignty entails—for example, the loss of the right to be responsible for one’s children, or the means— even the languages—to teach them. At the center of climate change cultures, in their many forms, lies the question of how to educate.
The anxiety that Holocene-born parents can no longer educate our children in such a way as to further their chances of survival permeates the writings of climate change culture, which is also the culture of corporatized social media. That double whammy—social media and its interruptive calls to attention—plus the unprecedented geologic abyss of a new climate era makes for a problem of transgenerational knowledge transfer perhaps more disturbing than any other social aspect of climate change. The “ontological insecurity” that sociologist Kari Norgaard recognizes from her ethnographic work in Norway as the crux of “living in climate change denial” in the global North relates, I think, to a fear that we may not any longer know how to teach our children what “human” should be, or how “humans” (as a biocultural category) can thrive. It’s not only the specter of climate change qua climate change that initiates this ontological insecurity—but all of the social and material events entangled in our changing climates, from resource wars to aggressive industrial extraction to racial and ethnic scapegoating.
One of the most brilliant adult dystopian fantasies of climate change culture is the British novelist Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited (2012), which dramatizes this crisis of transgenerational knowledge transfer. The Uninvited begins with what seems to be an unconnected rash of murders by preteen children and destructive attacks on corporate property that are committed by adults who claim to have been possessed by children, and who eventually commit suicide. As the novel proceeds, its narrator, an evolutionary anthropologist named Hesketh, attempts to find scientific explanations for what becomes a violent pandemic. It turns out that the murdering children are born with a genetic aberration that expresses itself through the presence of extra kidneys. The children have a profound love of salt, innate foraging skills, and the impulse to murder their elders. They describe themselves as emissaries from a “New World,” a desert future where the sun is so hot it pops human eyeballs and food so scarce that the “new people” must salt and eat their dead. Here, it seems, is the climate change generation, the next human genre.
Throughout, Jensen refuses to allow the children to be written off by the reader as monsters or freaks—she stages a lengthy internal conversation at the center of the novel about precisely that friable line between evolutionary adaptation and monstrosity. Finally, our narrator—an evolutionary anthropologist—decides that these children are human, but also “saviors, bearing the undeserved and astonishing gift of a second chance. […] It is thanks to them that we discovered a new metaphysics of being” (Jenson 301). In The Uninvited, Jensen reflects on her own chosen literary genre, which is dystopian fantasy fiction (a genre often aimed at children or about them). By making the future happen within the present, in the form of children who are kin and, at the same time, an almost unknowable new world, Jensen reminds us that fantastic, speculative fiction at its best confronts the alter-worlds of the future not as externalities but as the present, as the cultural work that we do now. For adults, parents, and educators, the horror redoubles if we refuse our right to responsibility for these almost unrecognizable kin, a truly distinct genre of the species Homo sapiens. Jensen’s climate change novels, including both The Uninvited and The Rapture, engage in a serious biocultural fantasy wherein the reader can only resolve the tense question at the core of the fantastic, the question of “What is real?,” by assuming responsibility for what is given as real, however unthinkable (Todorov).
I call this “serious biocultural fantasy” because what is given as real, in both novels, is a praxis of being human so unrecognizable to the adult protagonists of the novels, and so attuned to the conditions of climate change, that to disbelieve in this new human praxis is to make oneself a victim of it. Failing to recognize what Tvzetan Todorov calls the “hesitation” of the fantastic (“Shall I take this as real?”) as an invitation to transformative change will be fatal. Jensen’s novels make explicit an argument that is also present in many of the now forty-some titles of Young Adult fiction in English that treat climate change. (And I would argue that Young Adult fiction often shares Jensen’s critique of and challenge to building out the social category of “the adult.”) These typically are not pious environmental screeds about “saving the children” but rather warnings about being possessed, emptied, forsaken, and even murdered by the children if we (implied adult readers) fail to recognize the material limits and affordances of their futures and how the biocultural inscription of humanness must shift to adapt. These are novels where the ontological insecurity of losing the late-modern inscription of humanness, which I’ll call liberal humanism, becomes ontological horror—a shiver at the foundations of being.
From the point of view of the wealthy world and its most privileged, these novels of failing adulthood, failing to educate, and simply failing to play the role of insider in the contest for what is real point to a coming redistribution of knowledge, skill, and power. Climate change becomes a referendum on the long histories of empire and their current expression within a global capitalist realism that is faltering, at least as a cultural framework for the real and good, which were always confused in the moralist construct of American realism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the liveliest if not most affirmative expressions of climate change cultures have come, in the United States at least, from indigenous and African American thinkers, those who have already known the end of worlds and lived past them. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s best-selling memoir Between the World and Me both explicitly reaches out to the next generation, as did James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and, at its conclusion, imagines the fiery ends of the (white) American Dream in climate change. Kyle Powis Whyte, a Citizen Potawatamie philosopher, proposes the “conservation of what species crucial to cultural survival that are left” (Coates 150) as a pragmatic, indigenous method of living with catastrophic change, that is, colonialism and its latest manifestation in climate change. Whether the novel and the edifice of subjectivity that it helped to erect, a unique expression of cultural memory and specific experience, will count as such necessary objects of conservation remains to be seen. In the meantime, climate fiction points to the need for new genres of humanism or posthumanist practice.
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