The Deconstructive Turn in Environmental Criticism
A “deconstructive turn” characterizes recent criticism on the environmental crisis. Within the past few years, there has been a spate of texts that address environmental issues with recognizably “deconstructive” arguments, or with frequent, though sometimes critical, references to the thinking of Derrida, and, in one striking recent study, to Paul de Man.1 This paper sums up the salient force of this new work, justifying the term “deconstructive turn” and highlighting the intellectual break being made from most given critical work on environmental issues.
The thinkers at issue here, from various disciplines, are Nigel Clark, Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook, J. Hillis Miller, Timothy Morton, and Bronislaw Szerszynski, along with some of my own work in ecocriticism. If any one thing gives impetus to this rush of texts, it is an engagement with the intellectual challenge of climate change, something still often absent from mainstream ecocriticism. It is as if this topic were inherently deconstructive of many previously reliable assumptions in the humanities. Ironically, some of the features that earlier ecocritics associated loosely with “deconstructionism,” “post-modernism,” or “post-structuralism,” etc. (usually not bothering to discriminate between them) sound like several now associated with climate change—lack of fully determinable reference; uncertainty as to authorship; a disconcerting sense of the arbitrary and of the incalculable; the refusal of clear moral/political signposts; the “specter” of “nihilism.”
It is not a matter of discussing or debating the empirical effects of climate change as predicted or already underway (flooding, drought, mass extinctions, and many unpredictable possibilities) nor the desirability of trying to curtail or diminish them, but the broad intellectual issue of what climate change “means,” of how it challenges inherited conceptions of the good, of economics, the earth and above all, the human. Most current readings render climate change too easily recuperable into given kinds of economic or moral accounting, with accusing critiques of anthropocentrism, of rampant global capitalism. Granted. But the issue in these essays finally [End Page 11] becomes something more disconcerting—readability itself, meaning, making sense. This new work is also just starting to face some of the uncomfortable intellectual implications of collective humanity’s patent inability significantly to engage with climate change, dangerous emissions continue ever to rise.
The first half of this essay sets out the basic arguments of these texts. The second considers the kinds of ethical or political prescriptions that they suggest for confronting global environmental degradation, and highlights some darker but unavoidable implications of their specific weaknesses.
Rejection of Knowledge as Representability
As opposed to romantic idealizations of nature through notions of harmony and homeostasis, these more deconstructive understandings are “textualist” in the broad sense of seeing natural processes in terms of the algorithmic or the semiotic, as open, complex systems of information exchange. One significant context for this has been the growing interest in the relatively new field of biosemiotics—though critics still tend merely to refer to biosemiotics rather than to engage in detail with its basic postulate that definitions of life broadly coincide with definitions of semiosis (i.e., the capacity for storing, replicating and expressing messages, either within the auto-poetic systems of an organism or between organism and environment).2 These readings also instantiate the contemporary interest in new or renewed kinds of materialism, comparable to those at issue in the cognitive sciences. It is a materialism of the automaticity of structures of information. Pheng Cheah writes of Derrida in relation to a “materialism without substance” (2010, 73), an understanding of matter through the notion of the text in general. Derrida had proposed “a certain materiality, which is not necessarily a corporeality, a certain technicity, programming, repetition or iterability, a cutting off from or independence from any living subject—the psychological, sociological, transcendental or even human subject” (qtd. in Cheah 2010, 77). Derrida’s maxim, “there is nothing outside of the text” (1998, 158), is far from being the kind of naïve linguistic idealism for which it was often taken (“that we are submerged in words—and other stupidities of that sort” [1984, 123]). It formed the far more challenging argument that modes of being first associated with textuality and intertextuality characterize reality more generally. “Text” here is not meant merely in a loose sense of “that which is always open to interpretation,” but refers to certain elemental logical “structures” of reference and recursion inherent in any informational entity, as a condition of any “meaning” or intentionality. Of Grammatology (1967) endorsed work which directly anticipated modern biosemiotics, especially [End Page 12] that of A. Leroi-Gourhan at the intersection of cybernetics and biology. Leroi-Gourhan had stressed the mechanicity of the structural processes in evolution, and developed a cybernetic conception of the “program,” an informational structure making possible the functions of living systems. In Christopher Johnson’s words:
As Derrida notes, the operative concept… that of the programme in the cybernetic sense of the term…is generalisable under the category of the trace or gramme [i.e. “writing” in Derrida’s non-textualist sense]. The programme is transcendent in the sense that it is the condition of possibility of all structured form and all ordered (sequential) function, from DNA to primitive nervous systems to the human brain to what Leroi-Gourhan terms the “externalization” (extériorisation) of the brain in the electronic memories, calculators and logical machines described by cybernetics. Within this generalized operation of the pro-gramme, both before and after the human, the human itself is simply “a stage or an articulation in the history of life” while “intentional consciousness,” so called “conscious subjectivity,” are merely “emergent” features.(2011, 91)
One can no longer take the opposition of “culture” on one side and “nature” on the other and then argue about the point or line of their differentiation. One questions the coherence of making any such distinction in the first place, and the anthropocentric fantasy that sustains it.
Szerszynski, in his “Reading and Writing the Weather,” dovetails quotations from Derrida with references to biosemiotics. A living metabolism, he writes, is necessarily an open system of energy circulation, an economy of its deferral and dissemination, something incompatible with atomistic conceptions of the human as self-enclosed in a separate “cultural” sphere. He reminds us: “Derrida’s rejection of humanistic notions of ‘man’ as the self-present subject and author of meaning went hand in hand with an insistence that semiosis has its own generative dynamic of dispersal and dissemination” (2010, 13). Whatever relative autonomy the human may possess is only conceivable on the basis of an originary relation to otherness, an originary environmentality, one might say, undoing the seeming solidity of the category of “human” in the first place.
Morton develops furthest this extended notion of “textuality:”
Humans keep trying to distinguish rigorously between the living and the mechanic. Countless sci-fi and horror narratives explore the anxiety that this distinction is untenable. Darwinism and genomics are very bad news for this anxiety, since they show that not only is the distinction untenable, but life as such is a machinic, algorithmic functioning, and that what we call “life” and “consciousness” are emergent effects of more fundamental machine-like processes.(2010b, 7) [End Page 13]
Morton’s work on textuality is at its most speculative in its adoption of Derrida’s concept of the “re-mark.” Just as a seemingly random, meaningless shape on a wall may suddenly be seen to form a set of letters, perhaps a message, the “re-mark” names the possibility—constitutive of meaning, signification, aboutness—that a material entity also functions as a sign, part of a network of relations to other such marks, transforming materiality into a conveyor of information. Given the constitution of living systems as forms of energy exchange, of material processes that are also signals, the “re-mark” is no trivial issue. Living things are characterized by their hovering or switching between existence as materiality and existence as information. In genomics, materiality and information are not separate. Morton is engaging with biosemiotics more closely than the other thinkers surveyed here, its postulate “that the laws of biology should be of interest for semiotics, for these are the laws of the functioning of texts” (Kull 1998, 301).
Morton expounds this in a striking, brief exercise in close reading. As a necessary element of any meaning, the re-mark also applies to a tiny one line “poem” or “unpoem” by Charles Bernstein (Morton 2010b, 10):
this poem is left intentionally blank
This “poem,” probably citing a legal nicety found on official forms in the United States, refers to its own material context, the page on which it is printed. It thus contradicts what it says—the page is not blank. Yet, also, at another level, this very statement highlights the blankness of the rest of the page. Thus, “this poem is left intentionally blank” is a kind of minimally generative engine of meaning—the question arising of “what does it mean?”, “what is the signal?”, as the blank page flickers between the status of a bare thereness and that of a sign of some sort. It is a re-mark, in a minimal sense, opening up only the space of possible signification, that the material “here” is also an informational referral somewhere else—like the stuff of a cell altered by a virus to make more copies of itself. The “re-mark” both makes possible and transgresses the boundary between the animistic and the mechanistic. Morton continues:
The poem compels its surroundings to become part of it, like a life form sucking in nutrients. But is it “alive”? Are we? Bernstein provocatively undermines beliefs that art is organic, living, squishy. Yet that poem is organic: it does what it says, and says what it does. In its formulaic, algorithmic quality, it erases distinctions between life and non-life.(11-12)
Is the distinction then between a living thing and Bernstein’s weird poem finally one of degree, not of kind? “Life, intentionality, even consciousness might all be intersubjective aftereffects of more ‘fundamental’ differential processes—though ‘fundamental’ is not quite appropriate, since the surface-depth manifold does not operate in this style of thinking” (15). [End Page 14]
In sum, there could not be a stronger contrast with the romantic humanism of much earlier ecocriticism, with its celebration of certain literary texts as enabling the recuperation of some “natural” part of the human identity seen as usually suppressed by the supposed effects of abstraction, instrumentalist rationality, urban life, etc. The poetic was held to enact a principle of homeostasis, rebalancing a mind supposedly distorted by instrumental rationality, etc. Morton’s reading, however speculative, also contrasts strongly with the simplistic appropriations of biosemiotics found elsewhere in ecocriticism, work greeting its seeming discovery of “meaning” in natural processes with trite reaffirmations of the human as part of nature and the overcoming of dualisms of mind and matter.3 In these new readings, however, the literary and poetic do still enact a certain essential truth about the human and the natural, but this is now a common mechanicity. The planet in its finitude acquires the force of an uncanny machine of which we are a part. Of the earth, J. Hillis Miller writes: “The earth is not a super-organism. It is not an organism at all. It is best understood as an extremely complex machine that is capable of going autodestructively berserk, at least from the limited perspective of human needs” (2012, 36).
The spur for Miller’s “Anachronistic Reading” is a simple one, the fact that Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Man on the Dump,” published in 1942, cannot but be read in many ways as a text that prefigures climate change and a planet drifting towards the condition of a vast garbage dump. Stevens’ concern was in part the need of modern poets to purge new work of “images,” ideological relics of a cultural past that stand in the way of seeing things without illusion. While the notion of the poet as the maker of supreme fictions (to replace, for example, those of religion) may seem merely anachronistic, Miller’s concern is a creative anachrony inherent in literary language itself, as this becomes unignorable in Stevens’ text. Since writers will, necessarily, not be able to much predict the affect and the effects of reference which a text may produce in a future reader, it is always possible that new, unforeseen contexts will alter the text, retrospectively, giving it new prophetic force:
A poem encrypts, though not predictably, the effects it may have when at some future moment, in another context, it happens to be read and inscribed in a new situation, in “an interpretation that transforms the very thing it interprets” as Jacques Derrida put it in Specters of Marx. The effects of a transformative reading exceed any intentions or intended meanings that may have been in the [End Page 15] poet’s mind when he put the words down on paper, or, in Wallace Stevens’ case, dictated the poem to his secretary.(2010, 76)
Miller’s reading of “Man on the Dump” affirms how the present alters the significance of a past text. Likewise, in Derrida’s “Living On,” Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life” is read through a narrative by Maurice Blanchot. Derrida’s The Post Card concerns a medieval image which shows, anachronistically, Plato dictating a written document to Socrates.
Such anachrony is a more general condition. Miller’s essay, “Ecotechnics: Ecotechnological Odradek,” sees the literary as a kind of incalculable machine whose meaning effects may be generated (re-markably, one might say) from out of previously meaningless and often unpredictable elements whose actions involve unforeseen consequences etc. In “Ecotechnics” he writes:
Given language systems or multiple language systems are non-rational assemblages in which the meaning of a given phoneme or string of phonemes may be apparently limited by context, by intonation, and by its difference from other phonemes or strings of phonemes. Nevertheless, a given string always exceeds its context and its differential limitations towards a limitless horizon of more and more remote but never entirely excludable puns, homonyms, and chance associations.(2012, 31)
A dominant critical paradigm is being rejected here: for a text is not completely “understood” by being resituated as carefully as possible in the cultural context of its time of production. It jumps out, lingers, and may have unexpected consequences (recalling Ulrich Beck’s aphorism: “We live in the age of unintended consequences” [1998, 119]). The sense of anachrony becomes a general malaise of the Anthropocene, as people come to realize how deeply inherited modes of thought and practice are contaminated by unintended side-effects, producing a general retrospective derangement of meaning.
Finitude and Irony
The climate itself has become, to an incalculable degree, artificial, without the usual predictability or knowability of an artifact—the day’s weather begins to be noted uncomfortably, as if it could “mean” something. A notion of “reading” rather than just perceiving or measuring the weather is explicitly defended by Szerszynski in terms related to deconstructive literary criticism. Dominant readings of the climate and proposals to deal with climate change are even analogous to old modes of criticism or interpretation that believed in an easy access to simple meaning in a text. A dominant, falsely reassuring story runs as follows: [End Page 16]
First, we unknowingly marked the climate: then we learned to read those marks, to turn them into meaningful signs; through learning to read them we learned the laws governing our marking; and through learning to read the marks well, we are thereby learning to control our marking.(2010, 11)
We believe, as Szerszynski puts it, that our models can bring the weather “indoors,” mapping it out in the contained box of our representations, or that climate change is just a “problem” to be solved, rather than an being an issue which must induce a profound, even ironic sense of human finitude:
Furthermore, because such reading rests on dubious assumptions about the accessibility and calculability of its object, such mapping of the weather is implicitly already the writing of it, a sense of the availability of an easy fix or repair. Now, however, these simplistic notions of readability must give way to a far deeper sense of the difficulties of interpretation. The human condition has become one of a generalized dramatic irony, one in which there is no longer a human actor who can authorize the meaning of actions.(16-7)
This is a kind of irony that highlights the finitude and complacencies of given systems of representation. It does this not, like postmodern irony, to highlight the way power works to include some and exclude others, but as an interference effect obeying no human-directed or conscious interest. Irony of this kind also characterizes the overview emerging from Nigel Clark’s concern in Inhuman Nature (2011) with the likelihood of abrupt climate change (107-136). While abrupt and unpredictable shifts of climate characterize the long meteorological record, the dominant tendency of bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been to overemphasize a predictable gradual or incremental impact of human actions on the climate. This has helped keep the issue within manageable, if arguably evasive, frames for predictability and conceptualization. Abrupt climate change, however, would undermine the basis of our accounting practices or methods. Environmental arguments and readings about the decisive urgency of a change in human practice and values would be rendered unstable by the unpredictable interference patterns of incalculable non-human agency.
More disturbing than these arguments about irony and finitude are those that emerge with revisionist readings of Paul de Man’s variety of deconstruction. In Theory and the Disappearing Future: On de Man, On Benjamin (2011) by Cohen, Colebrook, and Miller, the issue becomes less the limits of knowledge, but the depth and even the inevitability of self-delusion in human readings of the world. De Man’s work as a critic had offered a “mere reading,” that is, one which coldly analyzed a text as a machine of language that produces possible if ultimately undecidable meaning effects to which less demystified readers wrongly attribute the seeming stability of concrete perception, practicing what de Man termed “aesthetic ideology.” Cohen [End Page 17] draws a helpful parallel between de Man’s work here and an argument made independently in Morton’s Ecology without Nature (2007, 32ff). Morton criticizes a now dated kind of ecocriticism for its naïvely realist investment in modes of language that are somehow supposed to give us privileged access to the actual presence of natural objects, a fantasy he finds especially striking in passages of ecocriticism where the critic launches in the present tense into a supposed account of his or her immediate surroundings (“as I write…,” “the trees outside…,” etc.). Cohen, Colebrook, and Miller argue against the way we inhabit the complex operations of language as if the latter were more or less transparent, and we give the cognitive status of intuitions or percepts to what are, in fact, syntactically generated referential effects of signifying systems, something whose modes of operation cannot necessarily be assumed to mimic or to re-represent other elements of reality.
Cohen develops Morton’s argument into a broader kind of cultural and intellectual diagnostic. While a lot of Cohen’s argument concerns the divided heritage of deconstruction, something of probably little immediate interest to environmental critics, a crucial move in his reading of de Man is a suggestive, if arguably under-examined, engagement with biosemiotics. In effect, the biosemiotic insight that “signs are not added onto the bios, but rather that the latter emerges with and from mnemosemiotic process and formalizations” (Cohen 2011, 110) lends support to a reading of the intensifying human degradation of the biosphere, and accompanying modes of denial and false consciousness, in terms derived from de Man’s own radical engagements with semiosis. In arguing how human judgments and effects of subjectivity emerge from the impersonal mechanics of semiotic systems which they cannot fully command, de Man’s concern with an inhuman mnemotechnics “would not be unrelated to nonhuman zones of life-forms and dynamic processes (DNA, abiosemiosis)” (108). De Man’s work reads with an uncanny prescience as if he were a thinker from the twenty-first century (146). Climate change then emerges not as some token of human greed, depravity, or stupidity but as a stark index of how little we understand or really command of those complex social, technical, informational, biological and geological systems that make possible even modern humanity’s confident self-conceptions.
Vittorio Hösle, stressing the often bewildering multi-and inter-disciplinarity of environmental questions, sees the pursuit of a new ecological metaphysic as moving towards a possible unification of the faculties of human knowledge (an Einheit des Wissens) (1994, 18). What, however, if thinking through climate change had the effect of revealing such unity as not only an impracticable but even an impossible aim? One crucial illusion of “aesthetic ideology” is the deep supposition that reality itself is “continuous,” that being can admit of synthesis in some overarching linguistic/conceptual unity. Yet, the kinds of irony, anachrony and incalculability associated with the textual, in first the limited and in now the extended sense, underline how far singularity, opacity, the incalculable and discontinuous are also inherent to any ultimate nature of things. [End Page 18]
It is a matter of reviving not de Man’s techniques of reading, but the force of his work as a more general account of an early twenty-first-century culture of almost ubiquitous environmental denial or evasion, the continuation and even intensification of modes of practice and thinking that are causally implicated in probable disaster:
The problem—and a species on the ecocatastrophic brink has, as we say, a problem—would necessarily include cognitive regimes, perceptual templates, organizations and technologies of memory, the manner in which reference is generated or codified, or phenomenality produced.…
Blindness to the impersonal logic of climate change in which the human is entangled takes the form, in the humanities, of a revamping and continuation of twentieth-century programs of “emancipation” and “democracy,” the giving to a particular liberal humanist agenda a foundational role in almost any issue regardless of the extent to which the anthropocentric enclosure of such thinking undermines its ultimate conditions of possibility.
Climate change enforces a break or moment of crisis and transformation in knowledge and human understanding. There is a huge gulf between this emergent, chastened understanding of the human and the dominant managerialist, anthropocentric instrumentalizing conceptions implicit in discourses on “dealing with” climate change. We live in a moment, contradictorily, of both responsibility and of extreme uncertainty: “the very notion of the Anthropocene contains an element of indecision: is this the epoch of the apotheosis, or of the erasure, of the human as the master and end of nature?” (Szerszynski 2010, 16).
Ethics and Politics
It is in relation to questions of ethics and politics that the thinkers surveyed here differ most and are arguably the least convincing. Nigel Clark in “Volatile Worlds,” arguing for the need to accept the way non-human agency can skew would-be self-consistent human systems of accounting and explanation, relates this to Bataille’s notion of a general as opposed to a restricted economy. The ethical/political corollary of this is, however, a vague endorsement of “an opening up of the political to the exorbitant energies beyond its normal bounds” (Nigel Clark 2010, 49). This sounds ambitious but, beyond inculcating a sense of human finitude and humility, what Clark actually suggests is still relatively lacking in specificity. He writes of practices of self -expenditure in risk-taking, improvisation, “generosity and creativity” in our own lives, as opposed to the “closed circuits” of pretended certainty (49). A later concluding sentence also remains rather promissory: “So too should we remember that loosening up and going with the flow is itself likely [End Page 19] to be a long and costly adventure, at least as dependent on innumerable daily acts of endurance, compassion and making-do as it is on moments of high drama and breakthrough” (50).
For Szerszynski, the Anthropocene means “this moment of responsibility” (2010, 10). He adapts the later Derrida’s work on responsibility as a non-calculable legacy in which what is given to us from the past compels us to decision in the light of a similarly incalculable duty to the future. Perhaps the stress in the orthodox Derridean argument on how responsibility cannot be calculated in advance underlies some vagueness in the ethical and political change envisaged by Szerszynski, which takes the more familiar form of an erosion of anthropocentric concepts: “We will have to develop new forms of solidarity and security, predicated not on closure and independence but on the recognition of vulnerability and exchange with nature…” (25).
Morton explicitly engages the political dangers inherent in the erasing the concept of the human, hoping to counter it: “Darwinism frees the mind for an ethics and politics based not on soulless authoritarianism, but on intimacy with coexisting strange others (Autrui) because Darwinism shows how utterly flimsy and contingent and non-teleological the biosphere is” (2010a, 9). Nevertheless, the resulting proposed “dark ecology” still seems a relatively vague cultural prescription. To “truly love nature,” he writes, “would be to love what is non-identical to us” (2007, 185), to love the monstrous, the automaton as such, without romantic illusion. In practice, however, would not loving the utterly other as such soon make only limited sense? Since love implies a preference for some things over others, to love the nonhuman may be really tantamount to not loving anything in particular, but only a loosely affirmative state of mind.
So why might these ethical and political responses be relatively weak? One reason may be the hidden but all-pervading struggle in these essays to address climate change in terms compatible with the currently dominant liberal progressive culture of the humanities. It still remains a pervasive and perhaps increasingly fragile assumption among most ecocritics that environmental issues and ethics will always somehow support and be supported by the latest nuance in a left-liberal political program of ever-expanding social inclusiveness. Beck’s “Climate for Change, or How to Create a Green Modernity” contains a statement of what, intellectually at least, it would be most convenient to believe: “Social inequalities and climate change are two sides of the same coin” (2010, 257). This seems easy to endorse. Climate change is already intensifying that syndrome whereby it is the poorest people who directly suffer from the irresponsibilities, greed or blindness of the rich. However, as an intellectual position, Beck’s sentence is also incomplete and even evasive. Apart from the fact that climate change also involves the capricious unpredictable effects of nonhuman agency, can one honestly claim that increased carbon emissions are unimplicated in such issues as an expanding population (especially but not only in the “developed” world), increasing levels of material prosperity, increased longevity, even the [End Page 20] eradication of poverty? Addressing social inequality is easily acknowledged as a political duty, but there are problems with aligning the question of addressing climate change with familiar, modernist programs concerning distributive justice. It is to attempt to make this intractable issue something that can be approached by the academic left in terms of business as usual.
Cohen, however, is more willing to grasp the nettle. Old modes of thinking, he argues, now continue but in various zombie forms—“the era of ‘democracy’ is a palpable anachronism covering telecratic corporatism” (2011, 109). In literary and cultural criticism, various re-assertions and assumptions about “the political” now serve as a delusory ground of justification, while “those wedded to tropes of ‘emancipation’ soldier on” (102):
surely this group or class, committed to politics in its muted way, no doubt liberal, would understand that in entering this promised economic order now resisting disclosure, everyone must give up, sacrifice, something, wealth certainly, but also consumption of a certain order, energy use, and so on, as a different calculus of futures, resources, and currency emerges (in its first phases). Surely they know that.(102)
A second, darker reason for the ethical cul-de-sac in which this deconstructive thinking finds itself may be that the arguments tend, within themselves, towards a view of relative human powerlessness.
Colebrook takes up the almost ubiquitous image of de Man’s work as a textually enclosed nihilism to ask, “what if not leaping into the political, or the real, or life, were—however discomforting—more responsive, if not responsible, to the present?” (2011b, 10). Instead of demanding and asserting foundations known to be illusory as the basis of an ethics (“nature,” “earth”), we need to go all the way in thinking the future in the absence of such foundations. Her challenge seems almost like the throwing down of a gauntlet:
For can we be so certain today that good thinking and good reading will lead us to ethical norms? Might not a dose of nihilism alert “us” to all the ways in which our morality has been destructive or, at least, violent with regard to this good earth that we have treated as our ethical environ?(2011b, 13)
This is chilling stuff. Nevertheless, one needs to ask: may this form a finally more useful, less evasive way of thinking the Anthropocene than any facile impression that ecologies and lives can be restored through application of a few ethical or political principles, if we all came to our senses somehow, or underwent some kind of vast but always under-specified cultural shift?
In Clark and Morton, the deconstructive force of their arguments is perhaps being curtailed to protect the credibility of cultural politics as the arena for effective agency. Here de Man’s “nihilism” might become a [End Page 21] purgative. It is not difficult to think that de Man would have been a keen reader of Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (2007) and its coldly and lucidly sustained criticism of those accounts of human agency sometimes termed “folk psychology” (2007, 3-9). This names the “manifest image” (first theorised by Wilfrid Sellars in 1963 [qtd. in Brassier 2007, 3]) which we have of ourselves as people, of what being a person means—that commonsense philosophy of mind according to which human beings are relatively free agents and that what they do can be explained by reference to such posited entities as inner thoughts, decisions, desires, projects, and intentions, each held to be directing meaningful sequences of action. This commonsense model of mind has emerged over the millennia as seeming to provide a reliable framework in which to conceive of ourselves and our interactions. What, however, if one answer to the question “what does climate change mean?” were an end or at the very least the severe erosion of this image of the human?
The Anthropocene poses imponderable questions about conceptions of human agency, questions comparable if not identical to those of the kinds of eliminative materialism about the brain that Brassier discusses in relation to Sellars and others. The questions arise not directly from materialist would-be reductions of the human mind, but from the large scale mapping of human populations and behavior considered en masse. Environmental history suggests that the agency of the human is far more circumscribed and saturated with illusion than one might initially suppose. Human beings, regarded on a global scale, may now appear as zombies bent on the destruction of their own conditions of existence, puppets of various ecological, economic, social and population dynamics that seem both to embrace, result from and in many ways override the myriad seemingly free decision of people’s day-to-day life and decisions. What might look on one time scale like unqualified success—people living longer, more and more material wealth, an expanding population, increased use of resources, territorial expansion—could even appear on a larger scale graph as the upward sweep of a curve indistinguishable in crucial ways from, say, those tracing the cycles of population growth and collapse in field voles. In relation to climate change it may mean that so vast an issue cannot be adequately understood in terms of given categories of the human or the cultural, but engages thought at a broader, impersonal biosemantic or geo-semantic level at which intentional human agency, even at its most would-be managerial, may be no more than epiphenomenal.
In the humanities, the “manifest image” is sometimes supported by forms of second-hand psychoanalysis and sociology. It dominates almost all literary criticism with its widespread use of such pseudo-explanatory notions as “the self,” or readings in terms of “a quest for identity.” In relation to the challenges of the Anthropocene, however, Szerszynski and Cohen present a more alarming view of the relative insignificance of intentional human agency. Cohen reads in de Man “the absolute dissolution of any ‘subject’ [End Page 22] effects into the forces and effacements of rhetorical agons without outside” (2011, 104). “Perhaps our only choice is thus which kind of extinction of the human we are prepared to let happen: an ontic or an ontological one” (Szerszynski 2010, 17).
What are the stakes for literary criticism? A contrast between these deconstructive arguments and Ursula K. Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet (2008) may be useful here. Heise’s book also partly concerns climate change and literature, but uses comparatively traditional methodological assumptions. It also exemplifies the now dominant paradigm of the critic as a sort of cultural historian, in this case of the immediate past, a practitioner of “cultural analysis” (Heise, 2008, 13). The critic’s task is to offer a kind of descriptive overview, tracing the transformation and genealogy of art forms and discourses (e.g. “Part of today’s antiglobalization rhetoric, with its allegorization of villainous transnational corporations, descends directly from this corporate-conspiracy discourse of the 1960s and 1970s” ). Heise examines novels, films and other forms of art, including emerging digital forms, to discover modes of form and rhetoric that can accurately reflect the inter-implications of local and global that characterize our time, the way climate change, for instance, compels us both to represent to ourselves the earth as one physical entity while also keeping alive the plurality of the earth from a cultural point of view. Underlying such an argument is a commitment to the reality of the cultural as a prime agent and the place of art in identity formation: the idea that “the aesthetic transformation of the real has a particular potential for reshaping the individual and collective ecosocial imaginary” (Heise, 2010, 258). In Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, the “cultural” is assumed to form a semi-autonomous sphere of effective agency and human self-understanding, to be that which the work of criticism reflects and which it hopes, in turn, to influence.
Perhaps future criticism in relation to the environmental crisis will divide between those readings whose methodology, like Heise’s, simply uses or adapts inherited conceptions of the human, the social, cultural, etc., and those for whom the environmental crisis questions the seeming self-evidence or coherence of such conceptions.
These deconstructive readings break from Heise’s kind of program of representationalism altogether: the literary is not regarded as a mode of representation which may or may not be adequate to its object, but as a well-studied instance of effects of textuality, in an extended sense, of the irony and illusion that characterize the human predicament. It may be less a matter of finding adequately complex cultural representations of climate change and more something with far deeper ramifications than a quest for the right cultural button to push. Pace Heise, the issue becomes now not the construction of an eco-cosmopolitan identity but a drastic reexamination of inherited notions of the human, the cultural and “identity” in the first place. In relation to climate change, the general condition of psychotic denial may imply that those deep biological imperatives towards human flourishing, [End Page 23] reproduction, expansion and maximized resource use which have always driven human beings cannot be overridden by that species itself, even in a context that renders them self-destructive. Faced with the spectacle of collective humanity’s intensifying failure rationally to engage with climate change, questions arise which cannot be evaded even if they cannot yet be answered: how far is the “cultural,” with its debates, arguments, aspirations, policies, controversies, commitments to a green economy etc., merely an epiphenomenon, while various ecological, social and biological laws cut through it as surely as a helicopter blade through a hologram?
The conclusion, reached by de Man from another direction, is that “the ‘human’ does not, strictly, exist” (Cohen 2011, 106). This is easy to say, but what may be the ethical, social and other consequences of the erosion of concepts of human autonomy that may accompany the Anthropocene—chaos, massive denial, a general sense of helplessness, indifference? Wilfred Sellars wrote, ominously perhaps: “[M]an is that being which conceives of itself in terms of the manifest image. To the extent that the manifest image does not survive…to that extent man himself would not survive” (qtd. in Brassier 2001, 6).
The difficulty is not the intellectual fragility of these concepts of the human, but their practical necessity, even as partial illusion. Brassier makes the de Manian point that the importance of the manifest image is not as a description of states of factual affairs, of what a human being actually is. Rather, it is normative, giving the basic framework “in which we think of one another as sharing the community of intentions which provides the ambience of principles and standards (above all those that make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives” (6). My own work tries to meet this challenge by explicitly mapping out the contradictory implications of reading the same text or issue on several very different scales of space and time. For instance, in a reading of Raymond Carver’s short story “Elephant,” events which may read as acts of great generosity on a small personal scale and which would, on the cultural scales familiar to literary critics, probably be related to questions of social inclusion or exclusion, emerge on the planetary scale as blindly following an impersonal, ecological-statistical dynamic that must ultimately prove destructive (Timothy Clark 2012, 148-66). The contradictions between life as perceived on the personal scale and the ecological scale are acknowledged but not overcome. Nevertheless, surely a less evasive reading of the human predicament may be more finally constructive, more conducive to what effective cultural and political change may remain possible, than to keep on recycling self-deceptive and often intellectually demeaning forms of thinking? [End Page 24]
Timothy Clark is Professor of English at the University of Durham and a specialist in the fields of modern literary theory and continental philosophy (especially the work of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida), also in Romanticism (especially P.B. Shelley) and ecocriticism. He is currently working on a monograph provisionally entitled Ecocriticism on the Edge.