- Baddest Modernism:The Scales and Lines of Inhuman Time
EarthSolar SystemMilky Way GalaxyLocal GroupVirgo SuperclusterObservable Universe—Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos1
Class of ElementsClongowes Wood CollegeSallinsCounty KildareIrelandEuropeThe WorldThe Universe—James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man2
What is the point of immense expansions of perspective? In the first episode of the 2014 reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson presented the list above as the sobering “long address” of the human. Often the long view evokes awe-inspiring totality: think of the earliest pictures of earth from space, such as “Earthrise” from Apollo 8 in 1968 and the whole-earth photograph “Blue Marble” from Apollo 17 in 1972 (figs. 1, 2). However, as our view got more and more distant—relayed from 3.7 billion miles away, for instance, by Voyager 1 in 1990 (fig. 3)—our here we are pictures seemed to offer only humbling vantages, perspectives from which we could see the entirety of everything we care about contained, as Sagan famously put it, “on a mote of [End Page 515] dust suspended in a sunbeam.”3 As is typical in grand reflections on our inconsequence, Sagan’s meditation on the Voyager 1 image tacks from the “demonstration of the folly of human conceits” to perhaps the most desperate conceit of second modernity—that we must “deal more kindly with one another and … preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known” (Pale Blue Dot, 7). Our long address, while always partly a litany to our expansive technological abilities, is largely a set of directions to humility: we arrive at our contingency and global responsibility by enfolding a decentered humanity in ever-larger totalizing frames.
Similar shifts in perspective have taken place in recent literary studies, which have enlarged not only our understanding of situatedness from the national to the planetary, but also the notion of historical context from shallow diachrony to what one might call “deep historicism.”4 In Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time, Wai Chee Dimock argues that in nationalist historicisms, to “contextualize … is simply to synchronize” with a date, to aggregate only the most proximate phenomena within “thin slices of time” of a nation-state’s narrow chronology.5 To counter the use of “time as a measuring tape, uniform and abstract,” she looks to the “large-scale sciences” whose vantage points and objects alter “the threshold of differentiation, raising the bar so high that what once looked like huge differences now fall below the line”, (2, 55). Scoping out temporally from parochial synchronizations, Dimock stretches “American literature” across wide “expanses of slow-moving history” and brings distant and disparate phenomena together in a larger continuum.6 As critics have pointed out, [End Page 516] the results of Dimock’s commitment to “nonstandard space and time” turn out to be enduring, cross-cultural “categories of experience, such as beauty or death,” “longlasting genres, such as epic and the novel,” and the institution of literature itself (4–5).7
While deep historicism gives us a view of what lasts—of Braudelian mini-hyperobjects strewn across the ages and places of the world—scaling up just as often shows us what doesn’t last, or won’t.8 Instead of bringing new units of analysis to light, it provokes apocalyptic anxieties about the perishability of all units—including, needless to say, literature, its genres, and the “universal” categories of experience associated with the humanities. As Mark McGurl points out in his responses to Dimock, to stretch literature across spans larger than Braudelian durations is really to foreground the failure of human institutions.9 This perilous outcome...