- Climate Change as Chronic Crisis in Ben Lerner’s 10:04
Part I: Chronic Crisis
What constitutes a crisis, and is the concept of crisis useful for understanding climate change? Historically imagined as a short- term problem with a conclusive ending, crisis at first seems unsuited for describing millennia- long shifts in the global climate. But on a geological scale of billions of years, the brief period in which humans are causing carbon emissions to spike may eventually appear as a momentary disturbance— a crisis. These questions about the place of crisis in the narrativization of deep time arise from recent provocations about the capacity of fiction to represent climate change and from a fresh reckoning with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” in which the historian argues that people need a new way of thinking about the history of the human species in an era of anthropogenic climate change.1 Scholarly interest in the deep history of our species has spiked since the naming of the Anthropocene, the new geological era barreling toward full recognition in the sciences though still competing with alternative narratives of environmental impact caused by (some) humans in the humanities.2 In this essay, I develop the concept of chronic crisis, a period of jarring transition lasting longer than a human life, to describe how climate change manufactures crisis, shapes contemporary consciousness, and reframes our understanding of our species history. I then read Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04 as an early example of a text narrated by a protagonist living in chronic crisis as a result of his own climate change awareness; in it, the narrator reinvents crisis mode by pairing classic stream-of-consciousness techniques, including [End Page 1] repetition, with scenes of hurricanes presented as chronic events and musings on the place of human history in deep time.
A decade after its publication, it is possible to read “Four Theses” both as an example of contemporary scholarship deconstructing the Anthropocene and as a primary text about species history, among the first of an avalanche of calls for further study into the deep past of Homo sapiens as we consider an Anthropocenic future in which we can no longer ignore the long-term impact of our species’ actions on our surroundings.3 Reading Chakrabarty as a species historian reveals an interesting pattern in his vocabulary— he uses the word crisis twenty-seven times to describe anthropogenic climate change. Chakrabarty does not analyze crisis the way he does a newer term like Anthropocene. For him, crisis serves as a utilitarian placeholder rather than as a concept in need of careful consideration or redefinition. Chakrabarty refers to climate change repeatedly as a “planetary crisis,” situating the phenomenon broadly in space; he also calls climate change the “contemporary crisis” and the “current crisis,” situating global warming in the present day— a narrow frame given the ambitious parameters of his historical argument.4 His use of the word challenges the way we define the concept today in contrast to the way it was defined in the recent and distant past and shows that we can use crisis to understand our position as a short-lived, high-impact species in a long geological history.
The word crisis has been associated with an ultimate idea of “current” or “contemporary” for most of its etymological history. Crisis comes to us unaltered from its Latin spelling. In that language, and in ancient Greek, it means “decision” or “discrimination.”5 Crisis entered the English language in the sixteenth century as a medical term, signifying the acute turning point in a disease when it becomes clear whether the patient will recover or die— the moment of decision or judgment in the progress of an illness. This medical concept of crisis remained dominant for several centuries, as for example in the Emily Dickinson poem “’Twas Crisis— All the length had passed,” which shows crisis as the judgment of an instant in time:
’Twas Crisis— All the length had passed—That dull— benumbing timeThere is in Fever or Event—And now the Chance had come— [End Page 2]
The instant holding in its clawThe privilege to...