On the Great Derangement and yearning for original fullness

Amitav Ghosh’s (2016) book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is a commendable thesis on how the climate crisis is not simply a manifestation of physical geographical quantities but also a qualitative crisis in human geographical imagination. In other words, the climate crisis reveals an inability of the cultural imagination to face up to this reality and to envisage alternative possibilities and ways out. Ghosh is a highly accomplished Indian novelist whose catalogue of fiction is distinguished by its interweaving of global and historical political economy with personal narrative. He is thus well positioned in his criticism of the literary profession:

“That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish. […] When the subject of climate change occurs in these publications, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the grave of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.” (Ghosh, 2016: 7)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Ghosh (2016: 22) contextualises this myopia of literary imagination as born out of nineteenth century discourse on modernity as orderly and progressive; a discourse which also shaped the discipline of geology:

“The victory of gradualist views in science was similarly won by characterizing catastrophism as un-modern. In geology, the triumph of gradualist thinking was so complete that Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which posited upheavals of sudden and unimaginable violence, was for decades discounted and derided.”

Narratives from fiction and nonfiction accordingly came to chime with the new regularity of bourgeois-dominated life, and yet the unpredictability of global warming now defies this conventional lens.

Ghosh (2016: 58-59) explains how the modern novel unfolds through a ‘setting’ – the construction of a ‘sense of place’ (as humanistic geography would understand it):

“settings become the vessel for the exploration of that ultimate instance of discontinuity: the nation-state. In novels discontinuities of space are accompanied also by discontinuities of time: a setting usually requires a “period”; it is actualized within a certain time horizon. […] It is through the imposition of these boundaries, in time and space, that the world of a novel is created.”

This fictive geographical imagining, a bounded and discontinuous spatial-temporal terrain, is contrasted with the holistic and fluid space and time of the Anthropocene:

“it was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.” (Ghosh, 2016: 66)

The setting of the novel, Ghosh (2016: 131-133) contends, mirrors a dominant culture of politics, economics and literature that has exiled the idea of the collective in the search for personal authenticity and (at best) a career in personal political virtue – impeding effective resistance to, and reimagining of, the climate crisis:

“the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum of secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church. Politics as thus practiced is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness. […] Of late, many activists and concerned people have begun to frame climate change as a “moral issue” […] When framed in this way, authenticity and sacrifice become central to the issue […] To think in those terms is to accept neo-liberal premises.”

Ghosh (2016: 129) continues, “the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction” in imagining alternative futures has been lost in its orientation towards the self and away from the human collective and the nonhuman; he astutely asks:

“Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, “Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?” or “where were you on 9/11” Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, “Where were you at 400 ppm [parts per million]?” or “Where were you when the Larson B ice shelf broke up?””

Echoing the title of the book, Ghosh (2016: 11) proclaims:

“Quite possibly then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

Ghosh is keen to distinguish himself from those who attribute the climate crisis to capitalism alone, since, he claims, this underplays the central role of empire and imperialism. He argues:

“To look at the climate crisis through the prism of empire is to recognize […] that the continent of Asia is conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming: its causes, its philosophical and historical implications, and the possibility of a global response to it.” (Ghosh, 2016: 87)

He elaborates:

“The factor that gave the carbon economy its decisive shape was not the provenance of the machines that ushered in the Industrial Revolution: these could have been used and imitated just as easily in other parts of the world as they were in continental Europe. What determined the shape of the global carbon economy was that the major European powers had already established a strong (but by no means hegemonic) military and political presence in much of Asia and Africa at the time when the technology of steam was in its nascency, that is to say, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From that point on, carbon-intensive technologies were to have the effect of continually reinforcing Western power with the result that other variants of modernity came to be suppressed, incorporated, and appropriated into what is now a single, dominant model. The boost that fossil fuels provided to Western power is nowhere more clearly evident than in the First Opium War, where armoured steamships, led by the aptly named Nemesis, played a decisive role. In other words, carbon emissions were, from very early on, closely co-related to power in all its aspects: this continues to be a major, although unacknowledged, factor in the politics of contemporary global warming.” (Ghosh, 2016: 108-109)

Whilst Ghosh recognises that both capitalism and imperialism are interconnected, he states that “even if capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action” (Ghosh, 2016: 146). And yet if a movement successfully overthrew capitalist social relations tomorrow – and it would have to be a mass, labour-based movement that could achieve this – such a movement would also (in its nature of being successful) represent a profound democratic shift to the grassroots that has radically altered the political and cultural sphere. Ghosh does not indicate who crudely separates capitalism from imperialism. In the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, Marx (1999: 376) in Capital makes no such separation:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China”

On a movement for radical social resistance and alternatives to the climate crisis, it is not an organised mass labour movement that Ghosh (2016: 111) sees as the lever for change, despite at times recognising the fundamental role of labour’s antithesis, capital:

““Money flows toward short term gain,” writes the geologist David Archer, “and toward the over-exploitation of unregulated common resources. These tendencies are like the invisible hand of fate, guiding the hero in a Greek tragedy toward his inevitable doom.” This is indeed the essence of humanity’s present derangement.”

Instead, Ghosh’s (2016: 159) desire for future alternative imaginings is actually a turn to past imaginings – a rediscovered sacred, community and kinship – that the forces of religion offer:

“Bleak though the terrain of climate change may be, there are a few features in it that stand out in relief as signs of hope […] the most promising development, in my view, is the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change.”

Religion represents, for Ghosh, transnational mass mobilisations of people capable of intergenerational, nonlinear and non-economistic thinking; but so too do capital’s gravediggers possess such potential imagination. Both the commonality and critical difference between the two can be explained by Marx (1977: 64) in Towards a Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”:

“Religious suffering is at the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo is religion.”

Ghosh’s hope in religion to move us beyond the present impasse reminds me of the words of Marx (1973: 162) from Grundrisse:

“It is ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint”

Rather than fixating in a nostalgia with the past, one must recognise the radical possibilities thrown up by the globalisation of capital (a global working class, a world literature, social intercourse in every direction, to paraphrase The Communist Manifesto) and sublate such potentiality out of capital’s heartbeat of profit-making from human and nonhuman resources.

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