Given this week, which pivots around a Wednesday New Year's Day, I figured a two-part post on either end would be appropriate.
I recently read a blog post by Sonali Prasad, titled “Climate Change Storytelling Gets Multidimensional,” (Nieman Lab Dec. 24, 2019). Prasad, a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, writes that “Climate change is so far-reaching that it’s taken the form of a giant kraken, piercing its tentacles into our politics, economics, health, food, and culture.” Because it is a global phenomenon that permeates all aspects of life – political, cultural, technological, biological – it invites us to break down our mental “silos”:
Cue the creatives, the fluttering kites of the newsroom: the artists, graphic designers, performers, coders, gadget nerds, poets, cartoonists, and musicians who will harness the emotional craft of science and climate journalism to tackle an overwhelming beast. They will look for inspiration outside the rigid boxes of standard news reporting to tell more visceral stories to a varied audience. They will lay their breadcrumb trail of ideas, covering the science and the hard-hitting impacts that drive decisions. Through their different forms, they will challenge the inflexibility of our thinking.
If you’ve read any of my past posts, you probably know I’m down with this – with documentary poetry, living newsreels, science fiction. But for me, Prasad’s comments have even wider import than literature or performance per se.
That’s due, in part, to something else I recently read, a little book Polity Press put out earlier this year (2019) called simply Politics and Aesthetics. It’s an extended interview of philosopher Jacques Rancière by editor Peter Engelmann. As the title of the book suggests, Rancière wants to look at the big picture – something a single short book can’t do justice to, let alone a blog post, but it's a start. For him, “the aesthetic dimension” can be defined as “the striving to live in a different sensual* world” (29). He opposes this dimension to the “regime of identifying art” (34) – that is, to policing generic boundaries, thinking about what is and isn’t art, debating the nature of artistic “excellence,” and so on.**
Later Rancière explains that “there are essentially three possible attitudes towards what we call a work of art” (36):
1.) the “ethical regime”: art as extension of religion or philosophy – or the hostility towards art as an extension of religion or philosophy (e.g., Taliban or Plato)
2.) the “representative regime”: “a law of imitations that dictates what a poem should be like, what a work of art should be like, why and how one should make it, what audience one makes it for, what feeling it’s meant to evoke.” (37) – whether it’s Aristotle in the Poetics or the Jena Romantics. In other words, in the representative regime, “the arts” and the several genres of “literature,” each with its own “laws,” become realms that are seemingly independent. Their several “laws” purport to be based on those of “human nature,” but represent the values and interests of dominant classes. In it, an artistic hierarchy has “a very close connection” to a political or social one.
3.) the “aesthetic regime”: in which “the entire hierarchical order of representation is questioned,” leading to a paradox. “The paradox is that the aesthetic regime will define a specific sphere of art in which the arts no longer exist, but rather art.” And art (as a single, abstract noun) becomes “a sphere of specific experience which no longer obeys the same rules as other spheres of experience” – such as those imposed by political or social hierarchies (40). It is a short step from this idea to seeing art as actively opposing those hierarchies. So Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin “formulated a kind of embodiment of thought in the sensual forms of collective existence and placed them in opposition to the idea of the state” (48): an “aesthetic education” would produce a “human revolution” rather than a strictly political one. Still later, in the early 20th century, “artists of the avant-garde don’t want to make art in the service of politics or create works of art, but rather create forms of life” (49). What others call art works were, for them, constitutive parts of those new forms of life – either by creating them or thinking them into being as a totality.
This way of thinking has implications for thinking through the climate crisis, it seems to me.
To be continued . . .
* “Sensuous” probably would be a better translation here. “Sensual” carries the connotation of “erotic” or “sybaritic.” “Sensuous” contains these, but relates to the workings of the senses more generally – that is, human beings’ interactions with the material conditions of existence.
** For instance, the way that poetry has become purely a vehicle for evaluation of itself. Contemporary poetics is not about what poetry is or does, but about who knows their poetry & who can set the pace.
New South Wales, Australia, planet earth:
the butt-end of a butt-ugly year
(climate-wise, anyhow) . . .
xmas day in n.e. kansas felt
like my childhood xmasses in
the 1970s in west tennessee, which
in the 2010s feels like the 1970s in
texas. ah nostalgia. right now
(10 a.m.), 33 f; wind chill 23.
& so it goes.
but dig this:
moscow stopped removing snow;
they’re importing it now.
yep. warmest winter since 1886
(no snow in dec. there like = no
warm in texas – weird, un-
natural); the animals hibernating
at the zoo woke up; some flowers
bloomed; so, they made fake snow,
since the real thing hasn’t showed,
& dumped it near the kremlin for a
snowboard demo there, & putin sez
climate change maybe caused by
a shift in earth’s axis –
“nobody really knows.”
but alas, nobody does know.
and i’m nobody, too, so i know
there is a shift, but not to that kind
of axis –
jesus, what is this?
serious question, jesus –
four australian states on fire:
“an area twice the size of
massachusetts” (and what if
mass. were on fire? they
voted for clinton), w/temps
100+ f – but t’storms on the way!
but less rain
than lightening in the forecast.
never fear – sydney’s
new year’s fireworks are a “go”!
while 30 k urged to evac – “they
didn’t realize they couldn’t get out
by the main road. now they’re all
locked in and they’re saying,
‘wow, we didn’t know
this was going to happen’”;
firefighters cut down trees to
save trees – and houses, lives:
"we just heard that the plan is
that firefighters will set up
trucks around us at the
wharf & spray it to try to keep
us safe" – like being stuck on
the drawbridge, while the castle
& the land & the moat are on fire;
the actual massachusetts looks
like an icebox: spin-outs,
tree-falls, powerlines down –
blizzards across the upper tier
of states, a “no-travel” advisory
in fargo, n.d. (fargo!). so,
as janus, the god facing
forward & backwards, both,
ushers us into january &
let us review:
2nd hottest yr on record (?);
wettest yr on record in u.s.;
15 x-treme weather events
cost $1 bn or more – 8 of those
over $10 bn; calif. wildfires: $25 bn;
cyclone idai killed 1300 people;
1900 people dead from monsoons
in india; hurricane dorian: $11 bn;
cyclone fani: $18 bn;
typhoon lekima: $10 bn;
400 people dead of dengue in
central america (107 k cases in
honduras alone – 13x last year); &
o yeah australia is burning up
& the decade?
last 5 yrs = hottest ever on
this li’l planet; 4 out of 5
worst wildfires in calif. ever;
6 cat 5 atlantic hurricanes in
4 yrs straight; arctic sea ice?
↓ 13% (that don’t sound
too bad, right?); lots of
1,000-year floods this decade;
& 100 $10 bn disasters since
2010. & earthlings hit a new
high for co2 emissions! (40.5
bn tons) . . .
“insect armageddon” –
hell’s a poppin
along w/the champagne corks, as
round and round it goes,
& when it stops,
"We’re all running the cost/benefit analysis of acting directly. We all have different “fuck it” points—the point beyond which we can no longer prioritize our immediate wellbeing but instead must act regardless of the outcome. In the meantime, we’re waiting until it seems like we can act and actually have a chance of winning.
"All over the world, even in some Western countries, people are no longer waiting. They’re acting. We need to be helping them, supporting them with words and actions, while we get ready to act here as well."
A clear-eyed look at the near-term future. Read the whole thing here.
Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day - nobody is going to be reading blogs about climate change & literature next week! It would be like a lump of clean coal in your stocking. So, we'll resume on Monday, January 30, to ease you into a new, uncertain year. Until then, remember: don't talk politics with the family: even if they agree with you, everyone will just get mad.
Here are two book descriptions I wrote a while ago about novels you may have already read and might ought to, if you haven’t.
Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller
This book is good ol-fashioned cyberpunk, but way more multiracial and less gender- & hetero-normative. A consortium of wealthy elite, the “Shareholders,” has built a city on pilings in the Arctic Sea because, per the typical cli-fi canard, old cities are underwater (if only it were that simple). There’s an avenging woman warrior who rides an orca whale, the de rigueur speedy street messenger, and of course the evil old guy who’s pulling the strings. All the seedy megacity topoi of the cyberpunk canon and its noirish black-leather-clad denizens. And it’s all set against a world that is both watery and liquidated.
The writing can be a bit wooden, and the dialogue, pretty predictable. But the premise and backstory are incredibly detailed and all-too-believable. There is some actual science-fiction, too (i.e., fiction based on science). And the social and economic analysis of the book – esp. its understanding of a rentier economy and how forced migration causes it to metastasize – is immaculate. Definitely worth a read.
Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins
Southern California and the US southwest have been declared sacrifice zones, due to lack of water and the presence of a mega-dune, growing, shifting, and covering much of the west. Our heroes, Luz (rhymes with “buzz”) and Ray, have taken up residence in an abandoned mansion in an LA canyon. They end up running into a small child who is in the custody of some sketchy characters. They decide to try to make it across part of the desert to a smuggler who says he can get them to Lawrence, Kansas, and thence to more verdant points east. Adventures interrupt the trip.
Californians are the new Okies: people in other parts of the country don’t want them. There’s an underground detention facility to house migrant wanderers. Whole shopping malls are alternately buried and uncovered by the shifting sand mountain range. And there’s a cargo cult of sorts. Great quirky detailed observations in both omniscient narration and characters’ thoughts. The thought and speech patterns are weird enough to be true; and a great depiction of a charismatic sociopath – the type already flourishing in our overheating global climate.
i remember nafta.
when it kicked in, 25 yrs ago,
the zapatistas rose in chiapas,
chanting “first world
ha ha ha”
as the soil dries out
& the crops fail in s. mexico,
are they laughing at australia?
in on the beach, australia’s
the last place the apocalypse
happens, the only place not
covered by the radioactive pall
that’s killing everywhere else
in this apocalypse, they’re
first in line –
hottest day ever – avg. hi
107 f +, breaking the previous
record, set the day before.
& in the 100s everywhere.
and on fire.
60+ of 120
blazes labelled “uncontrolled”;
sydney “blanketed” by thick smoke,
iconic opera house “shrouded,”
one “megafire” inching towards
the suburbs; & their p.m. in hawai’i
(also sweltering in record heat)
all this after
driest spring on record;
farm profits ↓ 22%
(we don’t talk about other species
on this poem, so we won’t mention
the “1000s of kangaroo corpses” –
& certainly not what’s happened
to those cuddly li’l koala bears)
“i’m not sure we are shocked by
much any more,” sez the aussie
climate bureau head forecaster.
meanwhile, in russia, there’s
no snow – a few flowers bloom –
low of 43 f overnight breaks
133-yr record; “this is not our winter,”
sez the pensioner. “it came from
yes and no.
already the warmest dec. on record
in switzerland; in britain, they’re
growing peaches & nectarines now;
now then: that isn’t so bad, is it?
canada’s had a year of wacky weather:
“it's the same old weather that
our grandparents talked about, but
it's just that the statistics are
different: the frequency, the intensity,
the out of season, out of place,
anything like that that just seems
to make it different than it was"
(don’t think worse, think different);
record # of tornadoes in
oklahoma, home to all those
oil-wells welling carbon-burning oil,
had a record number of tornadoes
hey first world:
ha ha ha
joke’s on us
There is reason to believe that the number of people in the U.S. who read (outside of work) is declining. Anecdotally, as an educator of young adults, I can tell you that their readings skills are not improving. And there are fewer and fewer literature majors every second.
It might be logical to put this decline on the rise of social media, streaming services, videogames, etc. However, Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post cites an NEA study that suggests that “reading has been on the wane since at least the 1980s, well before the advent of Facebook and Fortnite.”
The 1980s, though, does coincide with the emergence of another phenomenon: neoliberalism.
The term “neoliberalism” can be confusing for people in the English-speaking world, who think of the twentieth-century meaning of “liberalism,” with its emphasis on social programs & government regulation. But back in the early 19th c., liberalism meant the right of the individual to be free (Lat. liber), free from infringements upon individual rights by government, in particular (think American colonists vs. King George of England). The argument has been made (more than once) that the meaning of “liberalism” flipped to its opposite over the course of 100 years, between the early 19th & early 20th centuries.
It’s the original meaning of liberalism (sometimes called “classical” liberalism) that “neo-liberalism” aims to bring back, with a vengeance. Persons (including “artificial persons,” such as corporations) are not to have their liberties infringed upon one iota more than is absolutely necessary to protect private property; taxes should be as low as possible; business should be unregulated; capital and products (but not people) should be able to cross borders freely and seamlessly; the welfare state should be expunged. In other words, the regnant political philosophy from the time of Reagan and Thatcher to the present.
Along with reducing or eliminating taxation – progressive taxation, especially – a prime tenet of neoliberalism is privatization, i.e., that resources and enterprises currently run by governments using tax money should be sold to private enterprise to be run at a profit for paying customers & shareholders. To the extent that government should run anything, say the neoliberals, that thing should be marketized – that is, run like a business, with a pay-for-play, citizen-as-customer model. This is why public universities continue raising tuition, laying off employees, using a more “flexible” workforce (short-term contracts, no benefits) – and why they receive shrinking contributions from governments. Primary and secondary education, in the neoliberal regime, are either being farmed out to private contractors or allowed to atrophy for lack of monetary support.
And that’s where literature comes in: that same NEA study cited above also shows a clear correlation between level of education and time spent reading literature. And my anecdotal observation suggests that the quality of that education is also directly correlated: the middle-class & rich kids who went to private school, who don’t have to work as many hours as their working-class, first-generation counterparts, tend to do better than them, academically. And in the U.S., there also tends to be a correlation between class and race, so that’s another aspect of educational inequity.
The primary reason for this is that rich people and corporations don’t want to pay taxes. If you try to tax them, they simply relocate to a jurisdiction that will not. So, “shrinking” public education – which tends to be a high-ticket item in any state or national budget – makes eminent sense, for that class of persons. Moreover, the more educated people are, the more their political views tend to drift leftward; so eliminating public education has an added political benefit, from the point of view of the pro-business, global neoliberal elite.
OK, but where does climate crisis figure into this? Well, most of the CO2 in our atmosphere was put there since – you guessed it, the 1980s. The “liberalization” of regulation and taxation allowed for more industries to pollute more in more places – which generated a few economic boom-times, but also generated a lot of coal-fired electricity and petroleum-fueled transport of goods (from, say, China to the U.S.). Any governmental incentives to switch to renewables or limit use of carbon fuels have been quashed, by and large.
So, neoliberalism allowed corporations to do whatever they wanted and shift the cost to the non-hyper-rich. They didn’t want to pay for schools (or hence, reading & books); but they did want to pay for fossil fuels. And the less educated people become, the less likely to read books, to think critically, or even to have any idea what’s going on. As Donald Trump says, “we love the poorly educated!” (by “we” he means “I”).
In other words, the decline of reading and literature has the same root cause as the climate catastrophe, and both are accelerating, despite the fact that more reading and critical thought might just help (or have helped) alleviate or slow the damage. Likewise, in order for literary culture to effloresce and for the climate to eventually arrive at homeostasis, neoliberal globalized capitalism would have to die. But the way things are going, the people and other species will go first. And the books.
“there were morbid symbols
throughout the whole event,”
sez the youth activist last wk
at the u.n. climate meeting:
half the plants in the hall
were dying, half were
plastic; delegates taking
smoke breaks; &
quatar (where they now
have outside a/c) handing out
dates wrapped in their own in-
dividual plastic wrap. . . . now
the u.n.’s talking about a
“youth summit,” but the
youth refuse to
“sit at the kid’s table”;
it was obvious: the people in-
side the meeting rooms have
absolutely no intention of
doing what needs doing:
they’ve got theirs, jack –
so, sauve qui peut, suckers!
while, saudi aramco, the single
biggest co2 producer on
the planet, “went public” . . .
but here in li’l ol’ lawrence, ks,
the snow’s piled up, as
the crazy-wavy jet stream
sucks air down from arctic skies,
moisture up from gulf of calif.:
yesterday’s hi: 26f / norm 41
lo: 21 / norm 21 – ??! – well,
the lo’s are higher nowadays:
global heating = more humid
everywhere, even where
it’s cold – like here, where
it’s 23, or anchorage, where
& it’s official! –
noaa sez nov 2019 = hottest ever;
& the year on pace for 2nd place –
but don’t tell icelanders:
they’re digging out from a
winter cyclone – blizzards,
avalanches, phone & electric
out . . . whereas,
in kigali, rwanda, officials have
a solution for increased flooding:
tear down houses near wetlands!
they say they’re saving lives;
residents are not compensated,
tho, which makes for life problems;
true, 48 people died from storms,
floods, landslides, etc. this fall,
but being homeless can’t be
much of a bargain either . . .
& in yemen (which has plenty of
other human-made problems),
climate chaos takes its toll:
“the weather now is between
two extremes: heavy drought or
destructive brief floods and rains,”
sez the farmer/herder – who’s
having a harder time farming
& herding: “the strong rains &
floods are due to our sins,” he sez
[i’m not saying anything to that]
in australia’s most populous state,
120 wildfires blaze; 3 m acres
scorched; a 37 mi-long “firefront”
n.w. of sydney burning since nov;
"people should be under no
illusion, we won’t contain the fires
by the time the weather
deteriorates later this week,"
sez the state fire official, temps
already hi 90s f, no rain in sight
til april; & as firefighters use
more water, water levels sink
faster, & contaminants con-
taminate more – like the nasty
mix of chemicals in the ash from
the fires, which settle on
reservoirs, as well as every-
where else, including
people’s lungs . . .
s.e. u.s.: december tornadoes: 24 +;
63-mi path of destruction through
louisiana; “giant pecan trees”
uprooted in alabama; roofs
ripped off, people trapped in
homes, deaths, total chaos;
30 ugandans dead in past 2 wks.
(mudslides); nile bursts its banks,
transport paralyzed; 55 k dis-
placed & 300k acres farmland
obliterated (in a small poor country);
24 people killed in d.r. congo in
a single landslide, under
& this weekend: record hi’s
across canada, in n.e. u.s., hawai’i;
plastic holly on people’s doors
starts to look like so many
necropolis not polis:
obey obey obey
Editor’s note. According to philosopher Enrique Dussel, it wasn’t until Europeans colonized the Americas, subjected and slaughtered its people, and plundered its wealth that they went from being inhabitants of a backwater of the world to thinking they were inherently better than everyone else. True, the notion of Indigenous people as natural-born “stewards of the land” is a stereotype. But then again, they didn’t invent the steam engine.
And here we are, in a climate emergency.
Today’s guest post of two poems by Denise Low shows you how it all began.
First Contact: Interglacial Sagas
Anno Domin / i Domin / ion Domin / ate
half the known edge
world’s end waves Mer-men
first blow first
breath of sea monsters
[I find a map illustrated with sea pigs]
two worlds [and oceans between]
1. white-skinned people
2. brown skinned with ochre paint
[in another map’s ocean swims a fish-centaur man]
Saint Brendan in annals
The voyage is dated to AD 512–530
(Betha Brenainn / Vita Brendan)
“vines suitable for wine”
When they light a fire, the island sinks; they realize that it is actually a whale.
Skraelings, those who wear skins
[Later my black straight hair
at birth turns Norse blonde
under cloth my Mongolian spots]
Furs valued and traded
A market was formed between them; and this people in their purchases preferred red cloth; in exchange they had furs to give, and skins quite grey. They wished also to buy swords and lances, but Karlsefni and Snorri forbad it.
milch /milk given for furs before they would leave without bloodshed
[trade these years of warm seas
before another age of cold returned]
A great crowd of Skrælingar boats, coming down upon them like a stream, the staves this time being all brandished in the direction opposite to the sun’s motion [backlit]
in Markland / in Forestland
[named on parchment]
Then took they and bare red shields to meet them. They encountered one another and fought, and there was a great shower of missiles.
voiceless Indigenous unvoiced amidst
waters between Iceland and Newfoundland
roll of unceasing waters
a birch bark cartograph
[thin as parchment]
glyphs of epic stories: Listen
Greenlandic Inuit Newfoundland Inuit
Innu Mi'kmaq Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut
[Munsee Unami Lenape to their south
and my grandfather’s people]
[Irish Scots English to their east
and my other grandfather’s people]
[1400s MS illustration of St. Brendan, Wikipedia
The Saga of Erik the Red, 1880 translation into English by J. Sephton from the original Icelandic ’Eiríks saga rauða’.https://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en ]
My ([Broken] [Forbidden] Indigenous) Identity
Pale mountain lions a female and mate
low-slung bodies whip tails
Our neighborhood laps their territory
The cats walk night edges
shapeshifters turning into lynxes
enormous tabby cats with whiskers
ear tufts almond-shaped green eyes
The first I dream of cats that day
I find Julie Buffalo Head’s painting
Blood and a Single Tree dripping vermillion
A crow looks outdoors from a windowsill
Another crow holds chalk draws a spiral
a portal where words rise like smoke
A raccoon against a wall of red stains
bleeds from fatal wounds reaches for blue
A deer lies on the floor tongue lolling
side covered in Ponca floral designs
A suited man’s figure wears a cat’s face
Na shëwanàkw White Man
What have you / I done to us?
Denise Low is the author, most recently, of The Turtle's Beating Heart: One Family's Story of Lenape Survival (U of Nebraska Press, 2017); Mélange Block (Red Mountain Press, 2014); Natural Theologies: Essays about Literature of the New Middle West (The Backwaters Press, 2011); New and Selected Poems (Penthe, 2007); and the forthcoming Northern Cheyenne Ledger Art by Fort Robinson Breakout Survivors (with Ramon Powers, U. of Nebraska Press, 2020). She lives (and dodges wildfires) in Northern California.
Tune in tomorrow for a couple of fascinating, compelling poems by Denise Low. Looking foward to it!
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.