Category Archives: Writing

discontinuity against ubiquity: narrative form and climate crisis

Lots of food for thought (and suggestions of novels to read) in this LARB dialogue on the topic of “fiction in the age of climate catastrophe” between authors Anne Charnock and James Bradley. It’s all of interest, but the following clips are relevant enough to merit excerpting here for reference purposes:

James Bradley:

The problem, I quickly realized, is that climate change is incredibly difficult to write about. Not just for all the obvious reasons to do with its gradual nature and inhuman scale, but because of its unboundedness, or what Amitav Ghosh has called “the inescapable continuities” of the Anthropocene. And that sense that climate change touches everything, and exceeds the kinds of temporalities humans normally inhabit meant that I quickly realized the subject was impossibly huge, and in some real sense writing a novel about climate change was like trying to write a novel about everywhere and everything.

The solution I came up with […] was to switch that problem around, and instead of trying to write a book about everything, writing quite a small story about a family across time. I think at the outset I thought that would let me come at the problem from different directions, and to capture a longer view by showing change over time. But once I was working on the novel, I realized it was useful in other ways as well: on the one hand shifting viewpoints and characters let me focus in on the affective dimension I wanted to capture, but it was also very effective at showing the incremental nature of change without me needing to foreground it.

[…]

I think there are probably a couple of things going on in this retreat from unitary narrative. One is writers developing a set of narrative conventions capable of engaging with the peculiar challenges of writing about climate change and environmental crisis. But I suspect it’s also another example of the way climate crisis resists and disrupts narrative more generally. Because even these kinds of narrative structures impose a kind of order and shape on something that exceeds human comprehension.

Anne Charnock:

I have always thought of fragmentation as a form that mirrors the complex lives we now lead. […] I agree that a discontinuous form works well for narratives on climate catastrophe, allowing the author to switch setting and switch voice, staccato in style, without warning. The reader may struggle to keep up, but isn’t that how we all feel with the onslaught of climate news from around the world? Each story declaring “the hottest,” “the wettest,” “the most destructive.” I’ve recently read a good example of this staccato approach, Stillicide (2019), a short and poetic novel by Cynan Jones about a future UK suffering from acute water shortages.

[…]

… I agree that fragmentation is an effective tactic in dealing with the “unboundedness” of climate change that you mention, and which Amitav Ghosh has interrogated.

James Bradley:

[… Amitav Ghosh’s 2019 novel] Gun Island is a really interesting reminder that the sort of fragmentation and mutation we’re talking about isn’t just about narrative fragmentation, it’s also about deeper kinds of rupture and transformation. That’s something you see very clearly in the work of people like Jeff VanderMeer and Karin Tidbeck, both of whom use the weird and the uncanny to capture the way environmental crisis dislocates and unhinges reality, and the rise of the eerie and various kinds of ghost stories and hauntings (a phenomenon VanderMeer and Robert Macfarlane have both written about very eloquently). I also think there’s a more fundamental dislocation at work, though, in the way the Anthropocene and climate crisis overwhelm narrative and rationality altogether. That collapse of meaning is difficult to think about, let alone write about, but you see it emerging in the critiques of modernity and progress embedded in the work of people such as Paul Kingsnorth and Roy Scranton, and in a fictional context in some of the weirder and more confronting fiction coming out of the UK at present.

Two levels of interest for me here. (Attention conservation note: authorial/academic navel-gazing hereafter.)

First of all, regarding my own fiction work (currently very much stalled and sidelined, but still nagging at me most days):now, I found myself drawn to fragmentary or mosaic narratives as far back as my Masters dissertation piece (so, 2011-12). In that particular case, the catastrophe I was trying to explore was not climate change, and indeed wasn’t entirely a mimetic catastrophe, either*… but the sense that any genuinely significant disruption of context, even across a relatively limited geographical space, expresses itself precisely through the different and fragmentary perceptions and experiencings of multiple viewpoints. Or, more bluntly, catastrophes at scale (or possibly of scale?) simply can’t be comprehended by any one subjectivity, let alone depicted by one. In my ongoing project (much battered and blocked by the sociopolitcal events of the last three years, as well as the climactic ones), the multi-strand approach seemed so inevitable that I never questioned it at all… I would note in passing, however, that it’s not really so novel an approach (hah!), whether you look at e.g. DeLillo on the literary shelves, or Brunner in the genre nook. (Stand on Zanzibar contributed considerably to my interest in the mosaic form during my Masters, as I recall it.) Quite what this seeming resurgence of the techniques of high modernism might bespeak, I am not enough of a literary scholar to say… but I know that a lot of authors of my acquaintance have been drawn to it over the last decade or more. An instinctive narratological response to the times, or something to do with postmodernity’s systematic recrudescence of discarded cultural forms? Maybe both? I DUNNO.

Regarding my academic work with narratives of adaptation in the context of climate change: design fiction’s focus on the particularity of the “use case”, and the foregrounding of mundane experience as a way to bring contextual change into the frame, seems to have some similarity to Bradley’s approach noted above: tell a small story, and the large leaks in, intruding upon the narrative much as climate change intrudes upon our actual lives, both as a background litany in the culture, and—increasingly—as actual concrete adversity and obduracy to activities and lifeways we heretofore never questioned. Where the line lies between “only practical mode of depiction” and “mode of depiction selected by and for cultural and environmental circumstances” would appear to be an open question, or perhaps a pointless one.

[ * — With hindsight, it’s obvious that the catastrophe in my Masters piece was in fact very personal and individual, at least in its origins: it was me working out what it meant to have left a city where I’d spent over half my life, among other things. But thoughts about the plurality of experience of urban crises had been strongly prompted by the riots of 2011, I suspect; the hypermediation of that bundle of events—and, in a very different way, the Olympics immediately afterward—marked a serious turning point for me in a lot of ways, many of which I suspect I’m still working through to this day. ]

post-partum

On Monday I finshed a (long-overdue) chapter for an academic handbook on placemaking. I outlined the thing months ago—almost half a year ago, in fact—but then life happened (and then the virus happened), and it got shunted onto the backburner. And so when I came to actually cranking the thing out, a process which I started on Saturday, I pretty much had to reconstruct it wholesale from a list of bullet points and sketched references which it seemed that someone else had written (albeit a someone else who knows a great deal about my field and my work and my theory). The first of three sections was about as much fun as ploughing a concrete field with a rusty Soviet-era tractor, but the other two came more easily. Unusually for me, I only overran my wordcount by about 20%… but given I know that’s just how I work, and given I know that the editors will inevitably want to cut a bunch of stuff, I just filed it on Monday night with the overrun, and with the intention of fixing it when the rewrite request comes in.

Then came a day of what I think of as a form of post-partum depression (with apologies to anyone who can or has actually given birth, for what may be a distasteful metaphor coming from a cis-man). For as long as I’ve been writing, the completion and submission of a work is always followed by a period in which I loathe what I’ve just released into the world, and loathe myself for having created it. I think it was perhaps exacerbated yesterday by the more general circumstances, which are stressful and angsty to say the least, but it’s a familiar thing now—and I guess the familiarity makes it easier to deal with, as does the relative stability of my life compared that from which earlier work emerged. (Submitting my PhD thesis destroyed me for about a fortnight, for instance—as did both sets of corrections. And my story “Los Piratas…”—OMG, don’t even go there. I think it worked out well in the end, but it was a horribly self-destructive act of creation.)

This is mostly a note-to-self: I spent most of yesterday reading work by other people online, people doing what seems to be an amazing job of thinking through the current situation, collating ideas and citations and themes into admirably coherent examinations of the issues… and, perhaps most importantly, producing. Everything I read just made me feel like a monstrous fake, a fraud.

Classic imposter syndrome, amirite? Not to mention an internalisation of the neoliberal logic of valuing oneself through the lens of arbitrary and ulitimately unquantifiable metrics of productivity. I managed to deal with it, in the end, by sitting down and cranking out an outline for the next piece of long-overdue writing that’s in the pipeline… as I just remarked to C, you’ve gotta get back on the horse after it’s thrown you, right? I worry that by doing so I’m effectively doubling down on the neoliberalisation-of-the-self thing… but given the enduring inescapability of that ideological context, I guess there’s not much to be done about it. More immediately, however, it’s good to know that there’s a way of dealing with the self-doubt that still accompanies any significant act of creation on my part—which I knew already, in a way, but which I somehow still forget every time.

The point of the work is the work.

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?)

Developing Potential: a report from the Local Trust

Around this time last year, I started doing some freelance work with a community development consultancy. We were working on a report-cum-strategy-guide for the Local Trust, and more specifically for community groups who are having redevelopment done to them: advice not on how to stop the development process — because once it’s started, it’s effectively impossible to stop, and that’s very much by design — but on how to stand up to it and, perhaps, wrest some concessions and community benefit out of the suits, flacks and hucksters who play The Regeneration Game.

That report — finally given the stirring title Developing Potential — was released earlier this week; you can read the guidebook for communities and the Big Local case studies as separate documents, or you can hoover down a pdf of the whole thing with all the trimmings.

Despite my shocking lack of objectivity on the topic (as demonstrated above), Blue Chula put me to work on background research and report drafting. My text is in many places unrecognisable in the final version — turns out my prolixity is about as appropriate for third sector publications as it is for academia — but BC and the Local Trust have nonetheless done me the great honour of naming me as one of the report’s authors.

It’s a shame we couldn’t have released something closer to our earlier drafts, but recent changes in the legal system mean that charitable organisations have to be extremely cautious about criticising the government, as they risk forfeiting their charitable status and/or funding if they are seen as being too “political”*. But nonetheless Helen at BC pushed hard to publish case studies in which the communities portrayed could see themselves and their experiences represented fairly, and while the guidebook is notably less torches-and-pitchforks than my earliest outlines suggested it should be, I think it’s realistic about the prospects, and about the sacrifices necessary for a community to get involved in the redevelopment of their neighbourhood.

In other words, I am genuinely honoured to have my name on it — even as I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t entirely deserve to be there.

[ * — Thankfully I am not a charitable organisation, which leaves me free to decry this policy as being born of the same craven sleight-of-hand that trumpets a rejigging of the planning system in the name of “inclusivity” while actually watering down what remains of the planning system to the extent that developers can largely do what they want, provided they have the funding for a good law firm, which of course they always do. If there’s one thing I learned from spending a few months digging into UK planning law and the way such projects play out on the ground, it’s that not only is the planning system of the UK deeply dysfunctional and biased toward the developer, but that it is working exactly as its designers intended it to work. I’d hold those designers in somewhat lesser contempt if they had the courage to admit that. ]

beyond the valley of the trolls

Interesting interview with Anna Wiener, The New Yorker‘s woman-on-the-ground in Silicon Valley. Her critique is informed by actually having spent a number of years in the trenches of tech, always on the non-coding side of the payroll.

Today’s iteration of Silicon Valley seems ahistorical, anti-intellectual, irreverent in a way that is more reflective of the current phase of capitalism than of any unique industry value. I feel the industry needs to be more closely tied to both the government and academia, and better integrated—not in the current NSA, Stanford-pipeline sort of way. We’ve lost, for example, the tradition of research labs. In the late twentieth century, the countercultural idealism hardened into a libertarian ethos, an anti-institutional, anti-government stance, and also this new form of hubris that was legitimized by venture capital. I think people are incredibly reluctant to surrender that underdog identity, regardless of how true it was, then or now.

Like the interviewer here, I read (and was blown away by) her memoir piece at n+1 back in 2016; if her just-about-to-drop book manages to sustain that same tension and vibe, it’ll be a great (but also enervating) read.