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  • The Procession of Identity and Ecology in Contemporary Literature
  • Patrick D. Murphy (bio)

Taking Ranjan Ghosh's provocative remark that "The earth is more a process than an object" as my starting point, I want to discuss the ways in which some contemporary literature attempts to help readers realize this awareness through the thought experiments and experiential scenarios that they relate. It is important in this regard to consider how such aesthetic texts must necessarily be not only forward thinking in their concepts but also in their imagery. Plot, character, rhetoric, style, structure all necessarily have to be engaged in order to immerse the reader in a potential reality and a reality filled with potential. In like manner, plot itself must not be Aristotelian and while we may not want a work to end on a note of irresolution, neither can we afford a resolution that wraps it all up, so that readers may remain passive spectators and trust to the heroic actions of others or technological fixes to return the world to some false impression of a secure, static state of being, rather than the flux and instability of evolutionary and anthropogenic environmental changes, which may include sudden shifts, mutations, and alterations.

One might think of these literary engagements as furnishing the study for performing the household by resolving static cling. "Household" places the emphasis on the activities and functions rather than the building as an object, while "performing" comes from the Latin root "to furnish." "Resolve" means both "to solve" and "to remove," as well as to make visible parts of an image, and to separate out constituents. As for my title, "procession" comes from the Latin procedere, to advance. But, an ecological advance should not be confused with either the capitalist or Marxist concept of progress, which is founded on illusions of unlimited expansion and assumes that past practices invariably become obsolete and must give way to new practices. In late capitalism and market socialism these new practices are driven by a faith in technological fixes and denials of resource scarcity and finite biospheric carrying capacity. It is both extremely difficult and urgently necessary to work against reification and discreteness in wielding English; participles and definitionally multiplicitous words can help with thinking processionally.

In what follows, I will combine these concepts, practices, and behaviors to emphasize how contemporary environmental novels question [End Page 77] human perception, preconception, and misconceptions about the nature of nature and of human beings as discrete individuals. These works challenge readers to think about what it means to inhabit this planet, as opposed to merely living on it for a while. They challenge the devices by which human beings generate static perceptions of the processional realities unfolding through and around them, preventing them from thinking ecologically or interrelatedly about planetary events in their grandest forms, such as geological periods, or in their smallest ones, such as infections.

Particularly pernicious at this point in time are two static views of the planet that take contradictory yet mutually reinforcing positions. One claims that the Earth exists for the benefit of the human species; hence there can be no true environmental crisis, since it will remain always a benign habitat, while technology will preclude resource scarcity. The other claims that the Earth is constantly changing and people cannot have any significant impact on ecological processes, which are far larger, slower, and inexorable than any human actions can affect, positively or negatively. Both positions lead to the same conclusion: no environmental action needed.

Surprisingly, some novels reinforce this kind of mentality even while providing scientific information that points to human responsibility for influences on the biosphere. John Barnes's The Mother of Storms and Stephen Baxter's The Flood are striking examples. Barnes's plot centers on a cataclysmic release of methane clathrates (hydrates) following a preemptive nuclear strike against a submarine lurking beneath the Arctic ice. A super hurricane feedback loop then produces significant sea level rise and wreaks havoc on all civilizations. The resolution depends on a deus ex machina geoengineering fix developed by a cyborg super intelligence; the human characters are passive recipients of this species-saving technology. It is structurally reminiscent of H...


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pp. 77-99
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