- "Polysituating" The Great Derangement
In his book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh examines why the human imagination—especially in literary fiction—has so often failed to come to terms with what he considers the greatest crisis of our times: climate change. He calls this a failure of our collective imagination—a "great derangement"—born out of an assumption that the earth is a separate and inanimate thing on which we live, rather than a living entity of which we are a part. In a partial answer to this problem, John Kinsella's new multigenre book, Polysituatedness, presents a view of global citizenship in prose and poetry that serves as a treatise for how humans can engage with the planet. In doing so, he suggests possibilities for fueling our imagination about the climate crisis. It is, therefore, fitting to consider these two recent books together. They share an urgency that literature, which has often been at the vanguard of addressing the challenges of our times, must do more to bring this critical issue to the center of the humanities and to human consciousness.
Let me begin with Ghosh. Amitav Ghosh is best known as a novelist, whose stories traverse continents and are populated by characters who resist our assumptions about race, culture, and nation. The Great Derangement, however, is a concise set of essays based on lectures Ghosh delivered at the University of Chicago. The three essays, titled [End Page 106] "Stories," "History," and "Politics," discuss the shared deception—or misperception common in the past three hundred years or so—that human beings exist separate from the nonhuman, from nature. The result is that in art and literature, even more than in social science, there is an ignorance—a persistent ignoring—of our interrelationship with the earth and its climate. And so when climate change events take place they have proved "peculiarly resistant to the customary frames that literature has applied to 'Nature': they are too powerful, too grotesque, too dangerous and too accusatory to be written about in a lyrical, elegiac, or romantic vein" (33).
Ghosh provides three interesting explanations. First, he claims we are accustomed to the natural world playing a role of stability in a literary novel. Borrowing from the critical writing of Franco Moretti, he talks about nature as a "filler," something stable that provides regularity and a sense of the commonplace in the context of the story (19). When something happens in a novel that violates this stability, we are taken aback—the appearance of a strange storm, the revaluation that something inanimate becomes animate. Second, he argues that on the occasions when such strange natural phenomena do make it into literature, they remain in the realm of the "uncanny," and the novels in which they appear are usually relegated to the category of science fiction, a genre that is then given second-class status. Nevertheless, those "uncanny" descriptions of nature and weather that were once the domain of science fiction increasingly portray events that are now happening in the realistic world. He illustrates this with the story of his experience of a freak tornado in Delhi, a phenomenon so unfamiliar "the papers literally did not know what to call it." He admits that he, too, despite a desire to do so, found it impossible to incorporate this event into his own novels (14). And third, he says literary fiction has rested decidedly in the realm of the human and ultimately the individual. For this reason it has deemphasized stories of human/nature interactions, which often characterize collective experience. This last idea is rooted in a critique of both human-centrisim and individualism that Ghosh traces to modern conceptions of freedom articulated in the European Enlightenment (119). Furthermore, since novels tend to be written by single authors, that individualist vision infuses both characters and the story.
Of course there are exceptions, which Ghosh takes the time to address, but central to his argument is a deficiency...