Category Archives: Criticism

neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental

Medium-length essay here by Rob Nixon, whose “slow violence” concept was briefly introduced to me back in early March at a little symposium thing in Utrecht; I’ve acquired the book, obvs, but it’ll likely be a while before I get to it, and I wanted to put up a quick placeholder for it on the digital wall-of-academic-crazy that this blog is slowly becoming. This, I would assume, is the thesis of the book in a nutshell:

We are accustomed to conceiving violence as immediate and explosive, erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But we need to revisit our assumptions and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. I want, then, to complicate conventional perceptions of violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is focused around an event, bounded by time, and aimed at a specific body or bodies. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges of environmental calamities.

Nixon’s task in this essay is more than a little inside-baseball, as it’s for the USian Chronicle of Higher Ed. He’s talking about the invisibility of slow violence in the humanities, which is just starting to fall away. The argument goes that Environmental Literary Studies / EcoCriticism and Postcolonial Studies developed in parallel, but rarely spoke to one another thanks to assumptions of divergence and incompatibility in subjects and theory alike; this dialogue is starting to emerge, says Nixon, but needs to be deepened. EcoCrit is particularly parochial (at least in the US, by Nixon’s account: “an offshoot of American Studies”; I can’t speak to its breadth or narrowness elsewhere with confidence, as it’s not my beat). To interrogate this parochialism, Nixon takes up the figure of martyred Ogoni author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in 1995 by the prevailing regime in Nigeria for a lifetime’s resistance to European and American oli interests and their “attritional ruination” of Ogoni homelands:

One might surely have expected environmentalism to be more, not less, transnational than other fields of literary inquiry. It was unfortunate that a writer like Saro-Wiwa, who had long protested what he termed the gradual “ecological genocide” of his people, could find no place in the environmental canon. Was this because he was an African? Was it because his writings revealed no special debt to Thoreau, to the wilderness tradition, or to Jeffersonian agrarianism? Saro-Wiwa’s writings were animated instead by the fraught relations among ethnicity, pollution, and minority rights and by the equally fraught relations among local, national, and global politics.

Some of the violence he sought to expose was direct and at gunpoint, but much of it was incremental, oblique, and slow moving.

It was not spectacular, in other words.

Nixon argues that Saro-Wiwa was illegible to EcoCrit in the US because his Africanness made it easy to tag him as a subject more suited to PoCo; at the same time, PoCo critics (in the grand tradition of Said) were dismissing environmentalism as a sort of “green imperialism”. Things have changed since then, with western activists wiser and more willing to learn from the marginalised (though Spivak would object to the use of that descriptor, as it reinforces the otherness that Nixon is seeking to undermine: marginal from what, to whom?); this is in part due to “the writer-activists, journalists, and documentary filmmakers who have helped bring news of those struggles to international audiences and, in the process, have underscored the link between social and environmental justice.” The “transnational turn” in American studies, sez Nixon, and a growing engagement with native literatures emerging from American Indian studies, “will help advance a more historically answerable and geographically expansive sense of what constitutes our environment—and which literary works we entrust to voice its parameters. For all the recent progress toward that goal, it remains a continuing, ambitious, and crucial task, not least because, for the foreseeable future, literature departments are likely to remain influential players in the greening of the humanities.”

I’m less interested in the academic politics of this stuff than the distinction in rhetorics that Nixon is driving toward with the “slow violence” concept. He claims that Global-Southern writer-activists:

… are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.

I got quite interested a while back in a spectrum of narrative logics from cinema studies, namely the spectacular and the dramatic, because it seemed to me a good way to start poking holes in the extruded product of the Hot Take Futures Factory. The spectacular logic might reductively described as the James Bay approach to storytelling (make a lot of things explode excitingly on screen, focus on moment-to-moment jeopardies and gun-point confrontations), while the dramatic logic is more driven by relationships, character growth, and a situatedness of events in contextual timespace.

(There may also be some useful cross-over here with the notion of flat and rounded characters, though the flat character is not an inferior form so much as one that does a different sort of work–particularly within the scope of modern sf, e.g. Bruce Sterling, who uses flat characters as avatars for ideas in a sometimes problematic but nonetheless powerful way.)

The spectacular logic is a thing of cinema, and for better or for worse, cinema is Hollywood’s creature, a recrudescence of Manifest Destiny and a perpetual recreation of the expansionist frontier mythology: cowboys’n’indians, heroic gunplay, a background of resource extraction, etc etc. Perhaps no surprise, then, that American studies was more drawn to such stories. I infer that the Global-Southern rhetoric thus draws more on the dramatic logic, which is precisely slower, more intimate and diffuse, less Black-Hat-White-Hat… and while I don’t know the EcoCrit or PoCo literatures that well, I’m getting strong echoes from (of course) Le Guin and Haraway, from carrier-bag stories and stayings-with-troubles, all of which suggests I need to talk more to my enviro-and-energy-humanities colleagues, and start reading more widely in fiction as well as theory. (There’s always more things to read, always more more-things-to-read…)

As a final aside, there’s probably something to say about the pandemic (whose mediatisation is entirely spectacular) using this slow violence lens (which would be a nice distraction from the way in which Agamben, while not exactly looking right about it all, is starting to look less wrong about it in a way that’s more than a little disturbing… see also Gordon White’s chaos-magickal take on the biopolitics of the pandemic). Slow violence (as distinct from spectacular violence) might be a better way to come at Oncle Bruno’s argument that the pandemic won’t necessarily make the climate change struggle more obvious and urgent to western folk, because it’s hard to make climate change spectacular without reverting into the other characteristics of such narrative forms: the spectacle is a more immediately compelling logic by comparison to the dramatic.

(But also because the effacement of extractivism’s consequences is an inevitable feature of the metamedium across which such stories are necessarily circulated–the projection/depiction of said consequences takes place upon the surface of the metasystemic prosthesis through which we collectively perform the extraction, and thus serves to efface its (and thus our) complicity in the extractivist dynamic. The machine through which the disenchantment of the world is shown to us is the same machine through which we do the disenchanting… it’s the tech-magician’s perpetual prestige, the show that never ends.)

Perhaps, because less thoroughly mediated, native and/or Global Southern narratologies are less optimised for the spectacular logic, and thus more capable of portraying the drama of slow violence. The failure, if that’s the right word, is the loss of our ability to parse such forms as familiar; if the environmental humanities can rehabilitate that collective literacy, even just a little bit, that’s surely a good thing.

(To which one might retort that the academic humanities are a pretty small bucket for a boat that’s leaking this fast… but hey, many small buckets have gotta beat arguing about who’s got the biggest one. Everyone grab what you got, and start bailing.)

interrupt your text

McKenzie Wark interviewed at Bomb Magazine:

I’m interested in writing that engages with the way people read now. If you are a literary person, perhaps you and your friends are on Twitter or Instagram and share photos of favorite passages from the books you happen to be reading. I certainly do. So, I wanted the text to read like a feed. I think we read texts in juxtaposition now. I make those juxtapositions intentional. I interrupt my text with my favorite writers who sometimes seem to comment or provide a contrast or who describe what I am failing to describe and do it better.

Interesting observation from a writer whose work I’ve long been inspired by. That said, I think this nascent tradition had its foundations laid in the golden age of blogging, which was often heavy on the blockquotes as well as the hyperlinks… and that was in turn surely influenced by the telos of academic texts, if not necessarily their style. A dialectics of style, perhaps?

Also wonder if this isn’t perhaps a way of short-circuiting the notorious “agony of influence”… instead of flinching from the inescapability of the megatext, make your way through it like a forest, hacking through undergrowth or racing through clearings as necessary, dodging wolves and befriending other adventurers along the way.

(The emerging genre of “theory fiction” appears to be one expression of this instinct… I’m thinking particularly of Sellars’s Applied Ballardianism, here, but mostly because that’s the only example of the genre I can confidently claim to have encountered on the genre’s own terms. Though one might counterclaim that theory fiction is just autofiction for the overeducated, I suppose… but what else are we meant to do with the multiple self-subjectivities that our scholarship has cursed us with, eh?)

the axioms others take for granted are painful

In which Stewart Hotston, a writer I was heretofore utterly ignorant of, propels himself into my need-to-read list:

In the end all storytelling is political. There is no ‘entertainment only’ version of storytelling because for someone in the audience the axioms others take for granted are painful, disempowering and even oppressive. Only those who are privileged to the point of being blind to their own world view can see stories as being (a)political. So science fiction is political, and because of its natural bent to look at the ‘what ifs’ of the world, those biases are magnified. If it extrapolates only what the majority or a particular interest group are evangelising, fine — but it should expect to get scoured in the court of public opinion.

Which is why writers matter to the culture, but also critics. Not every one of the former always agrees with the necessity of the latter, of course… and pity* those of us who wear both hats, if only for our tendency to tie ourselves in knots in either format.

[ * — No actual pity required. Please send help. ]

many bodies have borne the burden or paid the price / cli-fi as null category

Lindsay Lerman discusses What “Climate Fiction” Does. (They’re her air-quotes, by the way, although I’m in full agreement with her reasons for using them.)

… it is crucial that we recognize that, ultimately, there is no “cli-fi” and “not cli-fi.” All fiction has to grapple with place or setting in some way, and fiction often gives voice to concerns about place, setting, environment, etc. in ways that stretch our understanding, our imaginative capacity, and even the language we have at our disposal to describe unfolding phenomena. […] We must recognize that the ecological catastrophe increasingly featured in popular fiction is not new and that many bodies have borne the burden or paid the price of [this] catastrophe. Their stories have not often been told; indeed, they have not often been considered worth telling.

[…] we must keep in mind this capacity of ours to think into existence what does not yet (fully) exist. As broadly understood as possible, this capacity is what we call imagination—something that artists and thinkers with “political” interests and concerns have understood well. Imagination can never take the place of policy, but we must ask ourselves whether and how imagination can inform policy.

Very germane to our work in Climaginaries and elsewhere.

not oppositional, but negatory

An interview with M John Harrison by Jonathan Lethem, done earlier this year at Festival Internacional de Literatura de Buenos Aires; scroll down for the (original) version in English. (Hat-tip to the man himself for linking to it.)

I recall joking to a colleague a few years back that part of me wished Harrison wrote social theory rather than science fiction. The real joke being upon me, of course, in that he kind of always-already has been writing social theory:

The breaking of forms came later, out of a desire to test the limits and traumatise the reader’s assumptions about what a story is. I deliberately refused plot and closure. I bricolaged one genre or form on to another. I asked questions like: What would happen if I took the horror out of a horror story but left everything else in? I was concerned with doing damage to the foundational structures of fiction (causality, linearity, “character development”, etc), not to game them on behalf of fresh “twists”, or to toy with readerly expectations in the traditionally “experimental” ways. (Experimental Modernism is by now, after all, a genre of its own. It’s as old and over-developed as sci-fi, divided into easily-recognisable subgenres. There are rules to follow, textual markers to be laid down, easter eggs to be hidden for the knowing reader.)

[…]

People talk about science fiction as if it’s an end-product, an aim in itself. (In fact that’s almost a definition of the difference between genre SF and SF written from outside the genre: in the latter, “SFness” is a secondary product.) But for me SF isn’t a kind of content—it’s a vehicle, which on one day might be ideal for my purposes, and on another quite useless for them. I’m a writer: my voice and my concerns are what count, not that I write science fiction (or literary fiction or any other genre). I don’t, these days, make much of a distinction between genres. You choose one or another because it gives you the best chance to manage and present the themes of the story. Or, if one alone won’t do, you pick and mix. Every story an act of bricolage. Soon you find you have a voice of your own, and you want people to read for that, not for the nearest genre it resembles.

[…]

Personal agency is the great obsession of our day: the more you lack control over your life, the more you are likely to believe you’re in charge of it. Advertisers and ideologists are happy with that: they’re happy to mirror back to you to the sense that you are indeed the centre of the universe, the heroine of the story. If my characters come back from the heroic journey at all, they never come back bearing useful gifts–because I don’t believe anyone ever does. If people didn’t have Joseph Campbell’s artful wish-fulfilment fantasy to place them at the centre of events and keep them enchanted with their own reflection, they might dump their wish to be princess of all they survey, and instead channel their dissatisfactions into making a better world for everyone.

Of both academic and artistic interest to me here is the way that Harrison seems to be reaching toward the same rejection of the heroic that interested Le Guin… but rather than taking her path of showing non-heroic routes into futurity, he’s littering the supposedly heroic structures with trapdoors, deadfalls, monsters that turn out to have been mirrors. This is not a dystopian project, exactly, but it’s definitely not a critical utopia either… and this is why I’m not sure that KSR’s Greimas square of utopia is quite right. Because if the critical utopia occupies the bottom leftmost position (which KSR labels anti-anti-utopia), then there’s something useful and under-explored in the bottom rightmost position (which he labels anti-utopia).

I realise it’s more than a bit bold to call out Jameson’s most famous student for not using the Greimas square properly, and I really need to go back top the primary sources myself in order to truly get to grips with it. But if Felluga is not too far wrong in his reading, the Greimas square is exactly about transcending the simple oppositional binary of pro- and anti-; the lower positions are not opposites (not antis) of the upper, but (to quote Felluga quoting Jameson) “are the simple negatives of the two dominant terms, [which] include far more than either: thus ‘nonwhite’ includes more than ‘black,’ ‘nonmale’ more than ‘female'”.

So by that token, KSR’s square should instead read (clockwise from top left) as follows:

  • utopia
  • dystopia
  • not-utopia
  • not-dystopia

Seen this way, the critical utopia stays in position at bottom left (the not-dystopia — including, as suggested above, far more conceptually than the dystopia it negates). It feels to me, then, that Harrison’s writing occupies that bottom-right corner, the not-utopia — because the entire point is that it is conceptually far richer than the utopia it negates. Harrison’s not-utopias undermine the utopian precisely by exceeding it, by showing the tangle of unfinished infrastructures and unfinished buildings behind the fakeries and false promises of its glossy yet flimsy hoarding…