Secondary Literature: Climate Context to Theory

Hello Everyone! I have spent the last week and a half or so reviewing some past secondary-criticism I have read on Ballard (mainly going over my annotations and transcribing quotes into easy access documents) – as well as delving into some new readings. For this post in particular, I will be discussing Jim Clarke’s 2013 essay Reading Climate Change in J.G. Ballard. Clarke’s essay has moments of excellence that I plan to build on in my thesis. He likewise includes a a dearth of interesting sources I am sure to follow up on for personal ends. His essay contains two main threads: the first concerning climate science and politics, the second concerning time and space. I will be dealing with these two strands respectively. However, it first must be taken into account that at moments Clarke’s essay glaringly shows its age and even contradicts itself in key theoretical moves. Often, some of these lapses in reason come across as bold claims without footing mainly to attain a rhetorical effect. The opening line quite clearly encapsulates this problem: “Before there was climate change, there was nonetheless climate fiction” (Clarke 7). I will here list an extended account of the scientific and historical evidence which directly refutes this claim. I am not intending to form an extensive list of evidence to pettily contradict Clarke, but to display the wealth of information going as far back as several hundred years which points out that climate change has long existed in human knowledge prior to 1962. Not to mention, Clarke’s essay is titled Reading Climate Change in J.G. Ballard, and so it is no understatement to say that it is essential and can fundamentally change interpretations of Ballard’s use of Climate if the author has a different understanding of the history of climate change.

The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz contains a condensed, well written account of sources on the history of climate change, “As recently as 1778, in his Epochs of Nature volume of Histoire naturelle generale et particuliere, Buffon explained that ‘the entire face of the earth today bears the imprint of human power.’ This imprint would be particularly exerted on climate” (Bonneuil Fressoz 4). This was no outlier, as just 100 years later  “the Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani defined humankind n 1873 as a ‘new telluric power’, and in the 1920s Vladmir I. Vernadsky, who introduced the concept of the biosphere, emphasized the growing human effect on the globes biogeochemical cycles” (Bonneuil Fressoz 4). Retroactively, scientists are still in a heated debate over when the effects of climate change began. Professor “William Ruddiman, paleoclimatologist at the University of Virginia . . . argues that some 5,000 years ago humans had already emitted sufficient greenhouse gases . . . to modify the climatic trajectory” (Fressoz 14). Opposed to Ruddiman’s far reaching thesis, “the British geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin have recently proposed starting the Anthropocene with the European conquest of America . . . the unification of the flora and fauna of the Old and New Worlds caused an upheaval in the agricultural, botanical and zoological map of the globe” (Fressoz 15).  Lewis and Maslin’s theory is also close to the theory put forth by Jason Moore the Marxist historian who dates the beginning of human induced climate change at 1450 due to the rise of capitalism in general rather than pigeonholing on industrialization (Moore 182-7).  Though, it is widely supported that industrialization is the point of human induced climate change: “it was with the power of fossil fuels that human activities so profoundly transformed the Earth system’s biology and geology (Fig. 1), thus supporting Paul Crutzen’s proposal of beginning the Anthropocene with the industrial revolution” (Fressoz 16). And at the very latest, scientists and environmental historians place the clear boundary of human induced climate change at the mid twentieth century, “geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, chair of the Anthropocene Working Group, sees unambiguous traces of a change of geological epoch in the mid twentieth century” (Fressoz 16). Though not exclusively post-1950m the Environmental historians J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke have published an entire book, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 which details many of the known and unknown forms of climate change occurring during and before Ballard’s writing career that are in line with Zalasiewicz’s argument. And, for more empirical examples contemporaneous with Ballard there is of course, there is also Rachel Carson’s scientific study Silent Spring 1962 which directly deals with human caused environmental degradation. And come December 2, 1970, the EPA was founded which established a public precedent of the seriousness of environmental damage by a major World Power. Out of this new environmental department both the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 emerged as regulatory frameworks intended to curtail pollution.

To be fair to Clarke, Crutzen’s term the “Anthropocene” did not come to be until 2000, and Wallace Broeker’s “global warming” was not coined until around until 1975. However, to claim there “was no climate change” during Ballard’s writing seems a bit intellectually disingenuous. It appears more as a move to make Ballard seem like a great prophet than a substantive point to enrich the reader’s understanding of Ballard’s work. To begin the first strand of argument in his essay, Clarke attempts to historicize Ballard’s work against the notion that climate change was not an understood idea at the time by arguing that the lack of human causation in the climate fiction of Ballard is a symptom of climate change not being a hot topic at the time. Instead, Clarke contends that Ballard’s narratives are purely theoretical considerations of devolution and adaptation (Clarke 9). While I do find the emphasis on devolution and adaptation interesting, I do not think that Clarke had to make this far reaching speculative connection that contradicts climate history to choose to focus on devolution and adaptation in Ballard. Nor do I think that it is impossible to have written a climate disaster novel without anthropogenic roots with the knowledge of anthropogenic climate change. Nonetheless, I do think Clarke’s perhaps most interesting a prescient point relates to Ballard’s general attitude of skepticism towards science in general. He writes “Ballard here undermines the modelling process at the heart of contemporary climate science . . . the provisional status of the future is used to deride science’s present stratagems as based on nothing but hypothesis” (Clarke 10/1). I should here clarify so as not to blatantly misuse Clarke’s language: neither is Clarke denying climate change or saying that science is rubbish which must be done away with, and neither is Ballard, and neither is Clarke saying Ballard is arguing this sort of thing. Rather, as Clarke notes, Ballard’s “texts function at the level of the individual’s response to climatic upheaval. They insist that since environment and climate are fundamentally experienced sensually, science is impotent in investigating what human response to climate change may demand from any particular individual” (Clarke 12). I find this a wonderful point to draw from Ballard’s general attitude of scientific skepticism and the deeply sensuous, affective rigor of his prose. I hope to expand some on the function of a literature of the Anthropocene in particular along these lines: which is to say, what business does the humanities, and theories of the environmental sciences have in discussing such an empirical reality?  Perhaps the answer does lie in structural affect and the ontological queasiness induced by climate change on the personal level.

Clarke wonderfully transitions from this little theoretical insight into a concise take on the political status of Ballard’s fiction. Specifically, Clarke references how Ballard’s climate texts relate to politics: “While Ballard’s texts cannot comment on the politics of anthropogenic climate change in the manner that later cli-fi could, they are not without extensive political subtexts” (Clarke 13). I here somewhat agree with Clarke in so far as I do not see Ballard as attempting to write a political novel. Ballard is not attempting to rally the troops go vote for a new regulation or something so on the nose. However, I think Ballard’s subtext’s subtlety is more so in its delivery than in its centrality. Ballard’s text does nonetheless speak volumes to political issues – but I will not be focusing on this aspect of Clarke’s essay much in my thesis. My reason for going around Clarke toward more so developing my own political interpretation along the lines of different scholars is Clarke’s inconsistency: “Though these novels comment wryly on postcoloniality, they ultimately dispense with politics, prioritizing the inner space over the outer. Yet they hold out the bitter promise of an achievable utopia, attained at the potential cost of everything we consider important” (Clarke 18). I do not see how one can claim that a novel dispenses with politics, then in the next sentence claim that it ultimately tells a tale with an incredibly radical utopian premise. Nonetheless, at the very least Clarke does insist upon the maintenance of a political subject of action in Ballard: “The Inhabitants of Ballard’s dystopias are no less cursed for being innocent of causing the collapse of their climate” (Clarke 16). This is a point I hope to develop more later down the road.

What I see as the second strand in Clarke’s essay concerning space and time begins with a wonderful line: “everything in these novels, from the titles onwards, is defined by the novum of total climate upheaval” (Clarke 8). This is a sentiment I can get behind – and plan to incorporate into my work. I, however, do not quite understand why Clarke makes this claim only to later subordinate the outer-climatic upheaval to “inner space”: “The outer environment is subordinated to inner space, and what action or response it requires is primarily internal and transformative” (Clarke 16). This seems to completely contradict his first point – and I would argue correct point – about the entire novel being defined by “total climate upheaval”. For, if the outer environment is subordinated to inner space, then there would have to be some weird causal link between the inner space of the characters and the outer climate of the setting. I do not see this as the case in Ballard’s work. Rather, in line with Clarke’s first claim, I would argue the inner space is formed and undergoes change or is re-formed by the radical external changes that occur in the novel’s outer spaces (environment). I think Clarke does get back on track – even if he does go off the rails again eventually – when he claims of Ballard’s first four novels that “their more useful function as cli-fi texts may be in iterating a form of climate change stripped of transient concerns which considers our environment primarily as an ontological structure whose changes can transform or destroy our inner worlds” (Clarke 19). Here, the reader can once again see the emphasis on the function of outer climate in Ballard’s work – and the subordinate secondary transformation of an inner space. Clarke even identifies the central function of ontological structuring in the outer environment and its transformative capacities for the interiority of subjectivity.

I think that part of the issue here concerning inner worlds (which I will continue to discuss in future posts) is the way in which Ballard’s novels are intimately engaged with questioning the modality, nature, and function of temporality in relation to being. Clarke writes and is later echoed by a number of critics including Levesque and Willems that “Time and climate are indelibly linked in Ballard’s early novels . . . climate disruption in these novels is also temporal disruption. Time and space are rendered a single continuum in how the cataclysm is experienced by his protagonists” (Clarke 15). However, time is considered the ultimate point of causation emerging from the subject once again emphasizing inner space over outer space in Ballard’s work. This is a quasi-Kantian formulation of temporality in which the faculty of time is intrinsic to the human subject a priori. This Kantian interpretation of time seems unanimously to be a presupposition in the criticism written on Ballard’s use of temporality in his early novels and mid-career short stories. I do think this may need serious probing. I have always read Ballard as an author of space and intensities; not as someone interested in inventing new human faculties. As this is the case, and my interpretation clearly conflicts with a number of contemporary scholars of Ballard, I plan on brushing up on my Kant and going through some of my annotations on Bergson, Deleuze, Whitehead, Daniel Smith, and James Williams before I make any definitive claims. I think perhaps if I do find something, it could produce a nuanced understanding of Ballard. More to come on this point, though!

In a somewhat inoffensive though unexpected conclusion, Clarke shifted towards reflecting on if Ballard’s climate fiction had borne out any real-world predictions concerning disaster. I don’t personally know that the specifics of Ballard’s speculative disasters matching up with real world disasters is where Ballard’s focus on climate carries weight. I would rather myself go forward focusing on more general principles, themes, and insights Ballard produces in his work. Further Clarke considers if Ballard’s climate science fiction works are as timeless as other sci-fi works for their lack of technological speculation, indicating that they may not inspire the imagination of scientists towards greater innovation (Clarke 20). I likewise find this an odd end point. It seems bizarre to question the importance of Ballard’s works’ legacy against the backdrop of technological science fiction in the first place, let alone in terms of its ability to inspire scientists in particular. Though, I must say, I did like Clarke’s essay very much. It made me think in new ways, it produced new starting points and solidified new opinions, and had a pleasant rhythm to it.

More to come soon! Thanks for reading – Noah Terrell

Bonneuil, Christophe. Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste. The Shock of the Anthropocene. Verso, 2016.

McNeill, J.R. Engelke, Peter. The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945. Belknap Press, 2016.

Clarke, Jim. Reading Climate Change in J.G. Ballard. Critical Survey Vol. 25, No. 2, 2013. Pp. 7-21.

Moore, Jason W. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Verso, 2015.

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