JANUARY 15, 2022
WHAT DO JANE Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (1814), DC Comics’s Swamp Thing (1971), and the Sharknado film franchise (2013–’18) have in common? According to Mark Bould’s new book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture, they’re all about climate change. In fact, all cultural texts are about climate change in one way or another, if we learn to read not for climate as the primary player, but for its latency, its exclusion, and what’s distracting us from it. For all the book’s somewhat playful irreverence regarding highbrow and lowbrow cultural distinctions, Bould puts forward a compelling argument about what cultural criticism in the Anthropocene should be, and he does so with the hope of curtailing some of the slow violence and injustices of the many widely and unevenly distributed effects of climate change.
Bould’s argument, especially in the first half of his book, is pointed squarely and unabashedly at Amitav Ghosh, whose 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, continues to be a crucial text on literature and the climate crisis. In The Great Derangement, Ghosh claims that contemporary authors are not engaging the topic of climate change nearly enough. In a climate-changed future where humans are searching for the evidence of its impending doom in past art and literature, Ghosh writes that they will fail to find it and will be forced to conclude “that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight[.]” Bould wastes no time disregarding Ghosh’s speculation: “This is, of course, nonsense.”
Bould is right, I think, to be critical of Ghosh’s slighting of the many sites that have long been engaging climate problems. Science fiction is, according to many SF scholars, the unquestionable predecessor to what is now popularly called “climate fiction.” In short, a critique of Ghosh’s elitism fuels The Anthropocene Unconscious from the start: Bould goes all in on “lowbrow” and popular culture throughout his analysis. Further, in chapter three, he reads exactly the texts Ghosh claimed were not about climate fiction against him, showing that actually, they are too. In short, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that one of the book’s major contributions is its brazen confrontation with what is often taken as a foundational text for climate change fiction and scholarship.
The variety of texts, media, and genres covered in this book is often unexpected and impressive in breadth. Each demonstrates that no matter where one looks, one will find that “the Anthropocene is the unconscious of ‘the art and literature of our time.’” One can find climate change in the unaccounted disruptions due to the effects climate change in the text. One can find topics such as histories of slavery and colonialism, both as events and structures that have contributed and continue to contribute to climate change, in the certain silences on the topics in the text or in the refusals by characters to respond to questions about slavery — for example, in Mansfield Park. Bould writes, “[C]ritics are not bathyspheric explorers plumbing textual depths. At no point do we even need to break the surface. The clamour of the unspoken is everywhere.” Instead, he imagines the work of the critic in the Anthropocene to “encourage the text to speak.”
The Sharknado franchise is the first example of where the Anthropocene unconscious lurks. Bould argues that despite only one utterance of the words “climate change” in the five films, the franchise enacts the consequences of anthropogenic climate change throughout. Admittedly, it’s a bit difficult to see what is exactly “unconscious” about the Anthropocene in this example, where tornados circling with sharks are the main event and one of the films is even titled Global Swarming. The films contain dozens of “[l]udicrous, crudely rendered images of climate disruption,” as Bould writes. But these “big dumb reminders” are precisely the excessive evidence of climate change that suggests real catastrophe lies in wait just below the surface. In part, it’s a point about the technological details of the editing of footage and CGI that distract rather than overtly address the effects of climate change.
It would be impossible to detail all of the texts covered in this book, as each chapter moves swiftly between genres and media, even centuries and continents. Suffice it to say that after we leave the waters of Sharknado and the landscapes of zombie apocalypse in the first chapter, we migrate next into the “mundane novel.” What interests Bould about the mundane novel, which in his account developed in the 18th century in Europe, is that it turns its focus onto the ordinary, the regularity of daily life, and a notion of bourgeois individualism. Bould refutes the notion that bounded individualism was (or still is) a function of the novel form through a number of examples that demonstrate the larger and unconscious role of climate change and its layered histories. Although it might seem that something as vast and distributed as climate change would have little obvious place in the mundane novel, he convincingly locates it again and again. Mansfield Park, for example, is a story about what some have called the Plantation-o-cene (instead of the Anthropocene) because of the way in which the enslavement and forced labor of Black Africans can be said to have initiated the Anthropocene. In the novel, for example, Fanny Price, staying at the Bertram estate, which is dependent on Antiguan plantations, asks about slavery, but receives only silence in return. The many silences in the texts examined (Paul Auster, Lucy Ellmann, and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 4,000-page autobiographical novel are also studied) reveal the ways in which the Anthropocene unconscious can also be operative in the service of evasion of responsibility or a refusal to acknowledge complicity in the ongoing history of enslavement and forced labor that continues to undergird the conditions of the Anthropocene.
While chapter three analyzes three novelists against claims made by Ghosh in The Great Derangement (including novels by Ghosh himself), in chapter four Bould reads Arthur C. Clarke and J. G. Ballard alongside contemporary arthouse cinema by Mauro Herce (Dead Slow Ahead, 2015), Ryan Gosling (Lost River, 2014), Lucile Hadžihalilović (Évolution, 2015), and others. He recounts a lot of novels and films in this book, but his description of Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead was for me the most poetic and captivating writing in the book (“There is water above and below. The machinery beings to sound like whale song. Aquatic, amniotic, as if we are being borne, and born, out of this world and into another”). The film presents a development narrative that disrupts the temporal forward march of industrial time, what Bould calls a “temporal mismatch between humans and physics.” The reading of the concept of “development” in the film is just beautiful; it’s about time clots and time lags, lost connections and cut ties, and, in the background, a throbbing turbine and the distant groan of machines. Moving from water to trees, the last chapter, “We Am Groot,” examines trees to draw out an environmental uncanny that troubles distinctions between animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman. Again, we move between unlikely bedfellows: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s films to DC’s Swamp Thing, Marvel’s Man-Thing to Groot, a humanoid tree that can speak, but only to announce itself: “I am Groot.” Bould describes at least two forms of the environmental uncanny, which can insist on a kind of nonhuman aliveness “webbed into our environment” and in which nonhumans must, and which can be accounted for in a multitude of ways and in dozens of texts. “It is not a hopeless case,” he writes, to include other species and beings in human cultural imaginaries and social orders.
However irreverent and playful the book is, it also accomplishes the serious work of modeling a kind of critical practice — one not reserved for academics, but rather one that should be widely employed as a way of reading in and for the Anthropocene. Bould writes that the more widespread this kind of criticism, the drawing out of the Anthropocene unconscious, “the greater our chances of bridging the gulf between, on the one hand, the too-little/too-late/if-at-all responses to climate catastrophe […] and on the other, a flourishing biosphere in which we too flourish.” The Anthropocene Unconscious believes in the work of the critic in this mode to transform the world, or the planet, by reading differently. In this case, reading for the Anthropocene unconscious cracks wide open the plurality and multitude of narratives and histories that must all be recognized as contributing to the so-called Anthropocene. It teaches that it is not possible to extract a cultural object from the mires of capitalism, colonialism, histories of enslavement, land dispossession, and genocide that continue to fuel what we call the Anthropocene. Of course, these ongoing structures of violence are not compatible with the longevity of this planet or its many human and nonhuman inhabitants.
Bould therefore gives us two choices on the final page, where we find ourselves in what he calls (to my delight), the “Fast-and-Furiocene”: ride or die. To choose to ride is to choose to pursue something other than death for the planet and its inhabitants — it’s ecosocialism. But choice is complicated, especially in a world in which, as Bould writes, we’re sort of trapped and over which we feel we have no direct control. It is also indeed too late for many of the biophysical processes already underway that will have terribly devastating effects on the planet. Bould does not deny these facts, but, precisely because of them, stresses instead that we still can — in fact, must — be responsible for the ways in which certain impending catastrophes, and their respite, are being distributed now and in the future.