Climate Change Lurking Behind Every Corner: Review of Mark Bould’s The Anthropocene Unconscious
The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture. Mark Bould. Verso Books, November 2021.
The impending ecological disasters that we are faced with will, with some likelihood, prove to be the fulcrum of human history, certainly of the post-war period. This sentence deserves some unpacking, if only to be as clear as possible. By impending ecological disasters I refer, of course, primarily to the climate crisis, but also to related issues: the threats of a collapse in biodiversity, of ocean acidification, and of a breakdown of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. Any of these catastrophic breakdowns would surely degrade the habitability of the planet for the vast majority of people alive today. And these problems reinforce one another, almost invariably for the worse — a worsening climate will also mean more ocean acidification, both of which will accelerate the sixth mass extinction. The most prominent term we use for this state of affairs is that of the Anthropocene. Mark Bould, in his new book The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture, adds to the increasing stack of literature from the (environmental) humanities on the topic; he focuses on the question of how the looming threat of utter ecological collapse has affected literature and other fiction. Has it remained untouched, unconcerned? Or has it become, unconsciously, all about the Anthropocene?
Before I continue, let me clarify that the underlying assumption – that we live in a time of potentially immense catastrophe – is surely correct. Those generally opposed to what one could call the chauvinism of the present may flinch at the suggestion the present is a decisive moment in history, arguing, as Frank Kermode did in his 1967 study of apocalyptic thinking and literature, that every generation thinks of their present as the most important time in human history:
We think of our own crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises […] But it would be childish to argue, in a discussion of how people behave under eschatological threat, that nuclear bombs are more real and make one experience more authentic crisis-feelings than armies in the sky. There is nothing at all distinguishing about eschatological anxiety.
Written in the 1960s, Kermode’s text must be read as being influenced most clearly by fears of nuclear war. Yet the temporality of nuclear war differs fundamentally from that of climate change: like the meteor strike of Adam McKay’s recent film Don’t Look Up (2021), the mutually assured destruction of global thermonuclear war was (and remains) a rather binary affair, which either happens or does not. Climate change and our related ecological degradations, by contrast, are built piece by piece, day by day, with the emissions of today determining not just the climate of tomorrow but that of decades hence. And the later we start doing enough, the worse the catastrophe gets, though that function is not entirely linear — at certain tipping points, failing to do a little more will result in things getting a lot worse.
At current emissions levels, many of these tipping points will be breached in the 2020s. As such, our decade is, pace the injunctions of a Kermodian relativism, indeed pre-eminent, more worrying, more decisive than others. The present year is the most important year for climate action — unless we do too little once again, in which case 2023 will become the most important year for climate action, and so on. As Andreas Malm (2018) has put it laconically, “For every year that total decarbonisation of the world economy is postponed […] more impacts become unavoidable. There have already been many years of that kind” (emphasis mine).
I have indiscriminately used the term “we” in the preceding paragraph, but this “we” can of course be filled with different meanings; is it really “humanity”, the anthropos of the Anthropocene, which has caused our present situation, rather than, say, capitalism, the West, the Anglosphere, modernity, et cetera? As with many scholarly works about the Anthropocene, Mark Bould therefore begins with a discussion of the term and its many suggested alternatives, because “changing the name” of something “changes the story”. The term Anthropocene implies a certain narrative whereas another term might imply a different one. Bould does not dwell long on the definitional struggles of the term Anthropocene, but here he defines the basic object of study of his work: as a scholar trained in the humanities, especially film studies and science fiction studies, Bould focuses on stories, narratives, art: in a word, fiction.
No Great Derangement
More specifically, as becomes clear in the introduction, Bould’s book can be read in significant part as a response to Amitav Ghosh The Great Derangement (2016). Ghosh, in his oft-cited work, laments that contemporary literature has almost entirely ignored the climate crisis. Imagine, Ghosh says — in a rather science-fictional gesture! — museums and libraries of the future collecting the culture of our present, and finding almost no signs of the ecological breakdown in our culture, only distractions:
what should they — what can they — do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight?
Bould’s verdict of Ghosh’s argument is stark: “This is, of course, nonsense”. An easy response to Ghosh’s question would be to point out the numerous literary writings that have in fact quite directly, forcefully, sometimes unsubtly grappled with climate change; none more, of course, than science fiction. Bould does not go this route, in part perhaps because this critique against Ghosh has already been leveled. Instead, The Anthropocene Unconscious works as a kind of immanent critique, willing to play by Ghosh’s rules: let us grant, Bould says, that science fiction directly concerned with climate change is not admissible evidence in the court of literary fiction. Is there not still a cavalcade of fiction, literary and pop-cultural, that ultimately turns out to be “about” climate change? It is Ghosh’s overly strict sense of how texts can be about something that is attacked. If The Great Derangement asks why there is almost no literature about climate change, The Anthropocene Unconscious argues that Ghosh’s sense of “about-ness” is simply too limited. So much of contemporary culture, including the literary fiction on which Ghosh focuses, is, just under the surface, suffused by a sense of the Anthropocene.
Under the surface: hence, naturally, the Anthropocene unconscious. Thus if the most direct way Bould structures the book is by writing against Ghosh, the way he does so in terms of method is to align himself with Fredric Jameson’s notion of a “political unconscious” that has to be actively teased out of cultural works or texts. Bould begins by citing Freud as well as Jameson’s 1981 The Political Unconscious, but as an SF scholar he would also almost surely be familiar with Jameson’s treatment of the genre through the same notion of a political unconscious, Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?, published in 1982. Sure, not much fiction may heavily feature climate change on the level of plot, but read a little against the grain and you will find a text that is “about” climate change soon enough.
Bould, despite the Jamesonian gesture, seems undecided about whether one has to read with or against the text. Yes, Bould says, one may have to read the lines as well as between them, sound texts out for their silences as much as for their sounds:
a text is always disrupted — fractured even — by the material its producer might rather exclude, and thus less coherent than it pretends. It is trailed by […] an eloquent jive of demurral, equivocation, circumvention, slippage, contradiction.
Yet somewhat contradictorily, the most prominent metaphor of hidden textual qualities, that of a spatial depth, is also taken to be almost entirely irrelevant: “critics are not bathyspheric explorers plumbing textual depths. At no point do we even need to break the surface”; when it comes to the Anthropocene unconscious, the “clamour of the unspoken is everywhere”. As a reader, one thus remains a little unsure of what to expect at this point. Bould’s ambivalent introductory chapter — depths or surfaces? — is followed by a number of readings that wish to show just how pervasive that clamour is.1
Sharknado and Serious Literature
The Anthropocene Unconscious focuses largely on literary fiction and on cinema, both mainstream and arthouse. Before turning to the “serious” literature that Ghosh’s argument is based on, Bould spends a chapter in the (so to speak) cultural gutter, reading Asylum Studios’ ultra-low-budget Sharknado (2013) and its sequels — all about tornadoes that carry with them, well, sharks — in the context of the climate crisis. He is especially interested in the ways in which the series whirlwinds through its wider cultural world and finds low-budget profitability in being extravagantly unconvincing rather than aiming for mimesis. If you don’t have the budget and the audience for the kind of expensive digital effects that conceal unreality, don’t try to conceal it at all; a strategy that has at least one far more high-brow advocate in David Lynch. Bould perceptively notes that without any “interest in absorbing the viewer”, the Sharknado series “bombard[s] us with scattershot textual moments intended to draw attention to themselves […] epiphenomena of commercially networked global media, glimpses of the informational hyperobject. The franchise churns through cultural detritus, resuscitating and recirculating it”.
It is precisely in this maelstrom of cultural detritus, plastered together in deliberate overkill, that Bould finds, just below (or perhaps above) the surface, the climate crisis: what is the titular weather event if not a series of “[l]udicrous, crudely rendered images of climate disruption and destabilisation, [gesturing] towards the weirdness and excessiveness of our changing weather”. From here, Bould goes on to think through the repressed representations of our ecological crises in films with loftier arthouse ambitions than Sharknado (largely in chapter four) as well as in films with, if nothing else, more mainstream budgets, from 28 Days Later and Pacific Rim (in the rest of chapter one) to the Fast and Furious series, around whose petro-cultural ambivalence Bould constructs his concluding chapter.
The other strand of fiction that Bould engages with, in more direct response to Ghosh, is literary fiction. In chapters two and parts of chapter five, Bould thinks through the “mundane” novel — literary fiction — both in the abstract and through a few select examples. In chapter three, meanwhile, he aims his guns squarely at Ghosh, re-reading the work of three novelists picked up by Ghosh in his original argument: Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (2015), Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), and several of Ghosh’s own novels, finding evidence of the Anthropocene in all of them. These books, Bould concludes,
invoke apocalypse, particularly images of water and fire, inundation and conflagration. They recount shifts in land-use, including the catastrophic destruction of subsistence agriculture in favor of export crops and monocultures. They capture changes in weather patterns and seasonal cycles. They chart complex ecologies and interspecies relations. They unfold complex temporalities that disrupt simple models of linear cause-and-effect. They track the violence of imperialism, colonialism and the world market…
His counter-readings of these novels are largely convincing, although I think there is at least a little sleight of hand at work here. Remember that Ghosh is concerned specifically with the (lack of) representation of the climate catastrophe; Bould, however, to some degree conflates climate change and the Anthropocene (note the full title, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture). Though climate change and “the Anthropocene” seem to go hand in hand these days, there is a difference. To the degree that the Anthropocene is indeed an epoch of the earth, we can date its beginning (as Bould argues in the introduction) to anywhere between 1945 and the 14th century. But over half of all human greenhouse gas emissions have, as an oft-cited statistic goes, been produced in the last 30 years. Anthropogenic climate change has of course been measurable for longer than that, but I think there is nevertheless a significant, real difference between climate change today and climate change forty or fifty years ago — the situation today is almost infinitely more urgent, if only because it was not taken to be urgent at all in the past decades. The ride to avoiding catastrophic climate change could have been enormously less bumpy if the governments of the world had started acting ten, or fifteen, or twenty years ago.
The situation today is thus not the situation of 30 years ago; the Anthropocene unconscious of today accordingly would seem to me to be qualitatively different from the Anthropocene unconscious in, say, Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason from 1986. Bould, I think, misses an opportunity here to tease out some of these differences. This, at any rate, is the basic structure of the book. Everywhere in literature and film, the Anthropocene lurks; in flood imagery, in preoccupations with the human-nature relationship, in giant machinery that hums along, or breaks down.
Depths or Surfaces?
Having established the rough contours of Bould’s textual journey, we may ask once more: is this about finding the Anthropocene unconscious in the depths, or along the surfaces? Do we have to read against the grain, or can we simply follow the footsteps of where literature leads us? What becomes apparent quickly is that Bould, one could say, trusts the texts which he reads; trusts them, if nothing else, to speak for themselves. He manages to show that much of the literature Ghosh finds incapable is indeed anthropocenic simply by citing the same texts that Ghosh does. This means, however, that much of The Anthropocene Unconscious is devoted to replicating the fiction it purports to analyze.
This works largely because Bould is a good stylist; at just 142 pages, The Anthropocene Unconscious is a quick, breezy read that excels on the sentence level. Bould revels in prolonged descriptions of the things he reads, especially filmic, and does so with a prose that strives, and largely succeeds, to be more than “mere” academic writing. The worst that can be said is that at times his use of the full-stop over the comma becomes a little excessive: “In the depths of the ship, the remorselessly throbbing turbine governs all. Tainted red, it beats. A brutal machine heart. Its clanking thumps like the distant native drums of some colonial yarn.” Even in such instances of stylistic excess the book remains enjoyable. But Bould misses some chances to probe the Anthropocene unconscious a little deeper, focusing instead on proving Ghosh wrong.
But perhaps it cannot be probed more deeply at all. Consider again Fredric Jameson’s Progress versus Utopia (written, as mentioned, exactly forty years ago). Early on, Jameson claims that “no serious literary critic today would suggest that content — whether social or psychoanalytic — inscribes itself immediately and transparently on the works of ‘high’ literature”. But is this true? It seems to me that a lot of contemporary literature can in fact no longer be read in the way that Jameson would like us to. The notion that literature reveals to us some political unconscious seems faintly quaint when those who write the literature are aware of the fact that this sort of thing may be expected of them. Vast amounts of literary fiction is produced by writers who have received university degrees in English and/or MFAs in creative writing; Mark McGurl has called this period of American post-45 literature, in light of this increasingly fundamental intertwining of the production of literary fiction and the university, “the program era” (2009).
This literature, it often seems, is perfectly capable of reading itself. Anecdotally but, I think, tellingly, consider the way Bould begins his reading of The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers (whose books often seem tailor-made for the academic production of “readings”). Bould relates that there “were six trillion trees before humans evolved” and that “half of them will disappear in the next century”, before first mentioning the novel: “Richard Powers’s The Overstory is constantly amazed by trees. It is also a serious literary novel skeptical of the serious literary novel”.
The initial short paragraph on the number of trees at first reads like the preparatory context in which to read the novel; this is the state of our forests, the ecological context within which to place the novel. But flip forward to the endnotes and you will find that the reference for the number of trees is not, say, a report by forest ecologists but rather Richard Powers’ The Overstory — before Bould ever mentions the novel, it already supplies its own ecological context. If literature has become savvy about what people do with literature, who needs academic readings at all? What depths remain to be probed?
Which brings me to my other major reservation with the book: what is gained, ultimately, by proving Ghosh wrong? Why does it matter whether our contemporary literary and filmic culture is or is not sufficiently “about” the Anthropocene? Imre Szeman argues on the back cover that Bould presents us with “an essential read for anyone wanting to better understand what we know and don’t know about what comes next” — but if one really wishes to know what comes next, how helpful is it to read about our Anthropocene unconscious? How helpful is it, in other words, to read about climate change as it is mediated by fiction? What “matters” in hard, material terms, are two things. First, the physical reality and potentiality of climate change — the knowledge that physics, soil chemistry, ecology, earth systems science and so on produce about climate change (and biodiversity collapse, et cetera). And second, the political reality and potentiality of climate change: what needs to be done where, by whom, in what quantities, why has it not been done yet, and where can political forces be mobilized to make sure it will be done?
Culture matters in that second sphere, yes, but this is not culture in the sense of more or less artful fictions — literature, film, TV sitcoms — as it is culture in an anthropological sense. Consider again that science fictional gesture of Ghosh which Bould cites in his introduction: a museum from the future, collecting cultural artifacts of our present, finding only a fiction interested in concealment. But why would such museums of the future exhibit literature and cinematic films at all, rather than, for example: SUVs, plastic bags, photographs of landfills, blueprints for oversized McMansions, the daily departure tables of the world’s busiest airports, and, the centerpiece of this museum, a replica of an open-pit coal mine, a vertiginously inhumane landscape even in miniature?
Perhaps something like the Fast and Furious series has its small place in this construct of a petro-culture, doing its part in entrenching (or questioning, or simply registering) a belief system in which masculine self-worth, indeed a sense of freedom itself — a quarter mile at a time — can be proved and defended through ownership of fuel-inefficient cars. But on the whole what has to be understood, then, is a system of culture, politics, and economics that is usually traced more ably by historians or by social scientists than by scholars of literature engaging in close readings, which is what Bould does, what our profession has been trained to do. In other words, to analyze the “culture” of climate change, not in the wider anthropological sense but rather simply conceived as so many literary or fictional texts, is to analyze what we could call a kind of second-order culture: culture that is already in the business of observing culture. Eco-fiction today, whether by Richard Powers or by Kim Stanley Robinson, cannot simply be analyzed for its ecological themes; it must be analyzed, at minimum, as a second-order culture strategically writing about certain ecological themes, and strategically writing itself into certain literary traditions.
Power and Powerlessness in the Anthropocene
To produce academic readings of this kind of highly aware second-order culture, however, removes us further and further from the “facts on the ground” of climate change. In that sense, the book is not so much an essential read, as Szeman claims, as it is an essential write: people like Bould and I are required by the demands of the university to produce something, which inevitably means to produce something written; our publications are among the few things that we can show to hiring committees as a sign of productivity. But our principal object of study — literature, “texts” — was bequeathed to us by the formative period of disciplinary subdivision in the modern university in the 19th century. Back then national literatures were an integral part of public (elite) discourse in a way that is simply no longer the case. So: what does it matter whether literature is or is not sufficiently about climate change? And since Bould does, to his credit, read mainstream film alongside literature, one may add: what does it matter that a few thousand specialists in the practice of reading critically may find the semblance of a petro-cultural contradiction in the Fast and Furious series? To appropriate the caustic conclusion of German climate activist Tadzio Müller, not even climate politics has, after all, put a dent in climate change.
Bould would perhaps say that politics has failed to do so precisely because it lacks the power of fiction. Let me return to what he writes early on in the introduction, on the issue of the anthropocene as a conceptual term: “changing the name changes the story”, the implication being that the stories we tell ourselves matter. And clearly they do. Political, cultural, economic beliefs are underpinned by narratives, by stories we tell ourselves. But this notion of the power of narrative can itself become a kind of narrative, a story that we in the humanities like to tell ourselves. In the conclusion, Bould argues that the
elusiveness [of texts] should be celebrated. It is perhaps the greatest asset in making meaning meaningful, in making criticism activism. It can turn an often-recondite practice, usually confined to academia and middlebrow media, into transformative praxis.
As sympathetic as I am to his project up to this point, I cannot help but disagree entirely: this is an overblown belief in the power of literature, though one that Bould shares with much of the (not just environmental) humanities for a simple strategic reason: we have to say, and perhaps believe, these things to get funding. (There is also a more personal reason: since a “career” in the humanities barely offers a living wage or job security until one is well into one’s’ thirties or forties, it can simply be too sad to dwell on the fact that the things we do are also not very important.)
And indeed, as someone who, like Bould, works in science fiction studies, I cannot help but take recourse to literature myself. One of the protagonists of Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent The Ministry for the Future (2020) finds the ability to describe, to give a name to something, to do very little. After experiencing first-hand an enormously deadly heatwave, Frank May develops Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of what benefit is that term for him?
[As] one of his therapists had once explained to him, one of the identifying characteristics of the disorder was that even when you knew it was happening to you, that didn’t stop it from happening. In that sense, the therapist admitted, the naming of it was useless. Diagnosis was necessary but not sufficient; and what might be sufficient wasn’t at all clear.
For Frank May the name of a phenomenon itself does nothing. We are invited here, I think, to read a parallel between PTSD and climate change, a parallel perhaps shared with many other issues in the world. What work is being done simply by correctly naming things, and what work still remains? As with PTSD, even when you know that climate change is happening to you, that knowledge doesn’t stop it from happening. Reading political fiction is not itself political, certainly no replacement for politics. One of the reasons for why Robinson’s novel became a focal point of the climate discourse after its publication was, perhaps, precisely that it seemed to be readable as a strategic primer on what can be done politically about climate change.
Since the great financial crisis of 2008, there has been a marked return of politics, of “the political”, but that return has so far scarcely translated into political victories for the left. Leftist politics have not yet found the path to eco-socialist success which Bould hopes for in the conclusion. I share these hopes. But to imagine, as many scholars of fiction do, that climate politics just needs a little more imagination and storytelling to really get going feels quaint. Climate change is not a problem that is under-theorized, or under-fictionalized. It is a reasonably well-defined problem whose reasonably well-defined solutions are inexorably opposed by many powerful people in the world. Consider another issue that specifically haunts American rather than global politics: does America lack universal healthcare because the left has not yet found the best theoretical language to describe the problem? Or does it do so because, for lack of a less conspiratorial tone, powerful special interests do not wish to see universal healthcare become reality in the United States, and their political power has simply not been overcome yet?
What is needed against the ecological crises that loom is not academic theory but naked political power. Is our culture today “about” climate change? Bould’s account is, I think, more convincing than that of Ghosh. Nor is the question necessarily an uninteresting one. We in the humanities should be honest enough, however, to admit that the stakes of answering this question are low either way. Early on, Bould writes that where Ghosh sees a “near-universal failure” by fiction to engage with climate change, “The Anthropocene Unconscious often finds negotiations with the limitations of the form”. What I really found to be missing from the book is, perhaps, a negotiation in turn with the limitations of its ownform: that of academic writing overdetermined by a belief in the power of fictional narrative.
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1 Bould’s book can also be read in the context of one of the more prominent “method wars” (however non-violent and mild-mannered these wars are) of the North American English department: should one consider texts to have depths which need to be uncovered, read them as symptoms of a worldly condition that is otherwise hidden from us? Should one, in other words, engage in what Rita Felski has called the “hermeneutics of suspicion”? Felski has brought forward (2015) a response to overly “critical” reading methods, casting her own project of post-critique as less suspicious, more willing to read with rather than against a text (this is, naturally, a simplification of Felski’s position.) For adherents of post-critique, Fredric Jameson’s notion of the political unconscious is something like the poster-child of an overly suspicious reading method, always trying to find something hidden in the depths of a text. ↑
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Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Penguin, 2016.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell University Press, 1981.
———-. “Progress vs Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies
Vol. 9, No. 2, Utopia and Anti-Utopia (Jul., 1982), pp. 147-158.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford University Press, 1967.
Malm, Andreas. The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World. Verso, 2018.
McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. Orbit Books, 2020.
Fabius Mayland (he/him) is a research associate at the research cluster Temporal Communities and a PhD student at the Graduate School of North American Studies, both Free University of Berlin, where he is writing his dissertation on ecological Science Fiction. His true passion, however, is 1980s Hong Kong action cinema. You can find him on Twitter.
This review was commissioned through a direct Twitter pitch to editor Jake Casella Brookins and offered at a complete draft status. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Arina Nabais; the author and editors had no previous relationship. Although this author already had a copy of The Anthropocene Unconscious, ARB would like to thank Verso for providing a review copy for a previously-assigned reviewer. The author received funding while working on this project from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany’s Excellence Strategy in the context of the Cluster of Excellence Temporal Communities: Doing Literature in a Global Perspective – EXC 2020 – Project ID 3900608380.