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  • Infrastructural ProlepsisContemporary American Literature and the Future Anterior
  • Reuben Martens (bio) and Pieter Vermeulen (bio)

1. Introduction: Infrastructure after Apocalypticism

Infrastructure and the current climate emergency share a paradoxical temporality. In the case of infrastructure, it is customary to remark on its “inherent boringness” and to conceive of it as routine and rigorously unexciting.1 Infrastructure, it seems, is something that we only notice when we see it explode on our screens or when it lets us down spectacularly. The temporality of infrastructure vacillates between continuity and apocalypse, between routine and emergency; it is supposed to sustain our everyday lives, never to become a cherished part of lived experience. This bipolar temporality also characterizes life in the current environmental crisis more generally (at least for the kind of privileged constituencies to which the audience—and both authors—of this essay belong). While scientific research leaves no doubt that we are in a state of climate emergency and we know that we need to act now (a diagnosis relentlessly confirmed by footage of forest fires, floods, and overheating urban spaces in our newsfeeds), it hardly ever feels like we can envision a remotely realistic plan of action for addressing environmental deterioration. As long as the energy and economic regimes that sustain our ways of life have not irrevocably broken down, it is tempting to cling to available remainders of normalcy, especially when the only other imaginable scenario seems to be ecoapocalypse.

The oscillation between normalcy and emergency is a disabling one that alternately fosters modes of denial, immobility, as well as self-fulfilling emergencies. It leaves unaddressed a desire for what Jennifer Wenzel has called “something other than apocalypse or business as [End Page 15] usual.”2 It is by now a commonplace that the notion of the Anthropocene presents the human impact on the planet in all too homogenizing and historically and culturally myopic terms, and it needs to be, if not abandoned, at least “pluralized” or “broken up.”3 This also involves realizing that the effort to imagine amelioration beyond apocalypse is not self-evident; as Jessica Hurley has shown, the dominant insistence in ecological thought on “realistic” solutions and the avoidance of apocalypticism disregards (Indigenous and other) constituencies for whom “the unlikely, implausible, and unrealistic saturate the everyday.”4 In terms of the temporality of infrastructure, this means enriching an all too provincial focus on “boringness” and invisibility by attending to the hesitations, aspirations, and false promises of infrastructure. As we set out in the first half of this essay, developing this more variegated approach to infrastructure involves moving beyond what Stephanie LeMenager has influentially termed “petromelancholia”5: an affective and imaginative attachment to “self-sustaining (yet unsustainable)” energy regimes that precludes imagining and desiring less toxic and self-defeating modes of life.6 Even if we accept that the infrastructures that (barely) sustain us are often monuments of political and economic power, we argue in this essay that they can be repurposed for more viable ways of living. Through a combination of a commitment to continuity and a sense of emergency, infrastructures can become objects of temporal apprehension and affective investment.

In the second half of this essay, we explore how contemporary literature participates in these negotiations of temporal and affective investments. These negotiations need not take the form they reliably do in ecoapocalypse fiction—where such negotiations, in their categorical irreconcilability between apocalypse and the everyday, often appear as a form of imaginative blackmail: your money or your life, radical diminishment (e.g., The Road) or technology-enhanced survival (e.g., The Windup Girl). Instead, this essay zooms in on two novels that more considerately situate their engagements with infrastructure in relation to questions of affect, desire, promise, and community. In both Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997) and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014), the figure of prolepsis emerges as a rhetorical and imaginative strategy for apprehending a future that is not, as in customary sci-fi or disaster-fiction templates, a radical intensification or denial of the present but that is strangely continuous with what is worth preserving and sharing [End Page 16] in the present. Prolepsis, we argue, by projecting...


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pp. 15-39
Launched on MUSE
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