I Like Short Books: The Anthropocene Unconscious

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I have grown weary of big books, proposing big ideas, and written by big name scholars. They stimulate debate, in part, because of their ambition and their flaws which is a consequence of their length. Of course, an overly long, complicated, and problematic book often attracts the kinds of readers and critics that leads to wider awareness and stronger sales. When I’m done a long book, I often feel like it not only monopolized my head, but my interest in the book contributes to the publication of other books that will, in turn, monopolize my head and the heads of others. 

One way, for me to get out of this dreadful cycle, is to just read a small book and talk about. This weekend, I read Mark Bould’s The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso 2021). Superficially, the book is a response to Amitav Ghosh’s famous observation in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago 2017) that the modern novel, with its preoccupation with the mundane and even internal lives of characters, has proven itself uniquely incapable of helping us understand and think through climate change. Bould argues cleverly that this is a choice on our part as readers and critiques as well. If we chose to read the modern novel as a commentary on climate change, it can be in much the same way that applying a queer lens to a piece of literature both opens new ways of thinking about plot, character, and setting and mitigates against a heteronormative view of the world.  

He then goes on to apply the lens of climate change to a range of both popular and classic literature including (so very cleverly) Ghosh’s novels which he reveals to offers perspectives which can provoke productive insights into climate change and its consequences ranging from rising sea levels to displacements, changing notions of home, and a growing sense of alienation from a world that we can never recover. Similarly incisive critiques of everything from J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) to the Fast and the Furious film franchise make the case that everything may well be about climate change. In fact, for Bould the climate catastrophe lurks throughout the modern unconscious and factors into the very anxiety that makes the reflective and banal world of the modern novel so gripping. 

This got me thinking about history and archaeology, of course, and how our preoccupation with periods of rise and collapse in the past saturates our confidence in the inevitability of our own society’s inevitable demise. Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to see in this a kind of Freudian death drive or a deeply fatalistic awareness that our efforts to avoid short term catastrophe through violent and aggressive war just represents their conversion into the long term destruction of our species through the market. Because we lives with the expectation that every boom has a bust, we find ourselves unwilling or unable to imagine a sustainable future. 

Bould makes this sweeping argument in about 140 generously spaced pages that took me a couple of hours to read. This gave him plenty of room to dive as deep as was necessarily into individual works and to reiterate his larger points without belaboring them or indulging in distracting displays of erudition. There is plenty to chew on here as we face down the end of the world.

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