September 3, 2018KR Reviews

“Polysituating” The Great Derangement

This review appears in the Sept/Oct 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Amitav Ghosh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 196 pp. $22.00.

Polysituatedness: A Poetics of Displacement. John Kinsella. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2017. 448 pp. £95.00.

In his book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh examines why the human imagination—especially in literary fiction—has so often failed to come to terms with what he considers the greatest crisis of our times: climate change. He calls this a failure of our collective imagination—a “great derangement”—born out of an assumption that the earth is a separate and inanimate thing on which we live, rather than a living entity of which we are a part. In a partial answer to this problem, John Kinsella’s new multigenre book, Polysituatedness, presents a view of global citizenship in prose and poetry that serves as a treatise for how humans can engage with the planet. In doing so, he suggests possibilities for fueling our imagination about the climate crisis. It is, therefore, fitting to consider these two recent books together. They share an urgency that literature, which has often been at the vanguard of addressing the challenges of our times, must do more to bring this critical issue to the center of the humanities and to human consciousness.

Let me begin with Ghosh. Amitav Ghosh is best known as a novelist, whose stories traverse continents and are populated by characters who resist our assumptions about race, culture, and nation. The Great Derangement, however, is a concise set of essays based on lectures Ghosh delivered at the University of Chicago. The three essays, titled “Stories,” “History,” and “Politics,” discuss the shared deception—or misperception common in the past three hundred years or so—that human beings exist separate from the nonhuman, from nature. The result is that in art and literature, even more than in social science, there is an ignorance—a persistent ignoring—of our interrelationship with the earth and its climate. And so when climate change events take place they have proved “peculiarly resistant to the customary frames that literature has applied to ‘Nature’: they are too powerful, too grotesque, too dangerous and too accusatory to be written about in a lyrical, elegiac, or romantic vein” (33).

Ghosh provides three interesting explanations. First, he claims we are accustomed to the natural world playing a role of stability in a literary novel. Borrowing from the critical writing of Franco Moretti, he talks about nature as a “filler,” something stable that provides regularity and a sense of the commonplace in the context of the story (19). When something happens in a novel that violates this stability, we are taken aback—the appearance of a strange storm, the revaluation that something inanimate becomes animate. Second, he argues that on the occasions when such strange natural phenomena do make it into literature, they remain in the realm of the “uncanny,” and the novels in which they appear are usually relegated to the category of science fiction, a genre that is then given second-class status. Nevertheless, those “uncanny” descriptions of nature and weather that were once the domain of science fiction increasingly portray events that are now happening in the realistic world. He illustrates this with the story of his experience of a freak tornado in Delhi, a phenomenon so unfamiliar “the papers literally did not know what to call it.” He admits that he, too, despite a desire to do so, found it impossible to incorporate this event into his own novels (14). And third, he says literary fiction has rested decidedly in the realm of the human and ultimately the individual. For this reason it has deemphasized stories of human/nature interactions, which often characterize collective experience. This last idea is rooted in a critique of both human-centrisim and individualism that Ghosh traces to modern conceptions of freedom articulated in the European Enlightenment (119). Furthermore, since novels tend to be written by single authors, that individualist vision infuses both characters and the story.

Of course there are exceptions, which Ghosh takes the time to address, but central to his argument is a deficiency in the humanities in dealing with the stories of freak weather patterns, rising sea levels, and increasing temperatures. The other essays in The Great Derangement similarly tackle these issues in innovative ways that often challenge conventions. For example, in the essay “History,” Ghosh addresses the Western-centric nature of climate politics, first of all because it does not acknowledge Asia’s centrality to global warming, or if so, simply to “blame” India and China for their pattern of recent industrialization. Rather, he demonstrates that Asia—by population—is under the greatest threat by climate change. He does not shy away from technical descriptions of the climate crisis as well, providing details of potential human displacement, using real cases and estimates from Mumbai to Bangladesh (45–50). But the historical explanation requires an understanding of the experience of imperialism, which delayed Asia’s entry into the carbon economy and yet fueled Europe’s growth and development (108–09). He incorporates these historical realities into his analysis of global responses to climate change as well. And throughout the book, by introducing a global perspective—from Su Dongpo to Gandhi—Ghosh suggests that solving the climate crisis requires utilizing all the intellectual resources the world provides.

An important answer comes in John Kinsella’s Polysituatedness, a book global in scope that also challenges the modern humanities, but does so by employing multiple genres, including memoir, literary criticism, poetry, and photography. The term “polysituatedness” has four interrelated meanings. It refers to Kinsella’s worldview: that human beings need to define themselves, not by any one place or nationality, but in terms of their multiple “connections,” “belonging,” and “participation”—in different communities and with the natural environment (18). Second, it is integrated into Kinsella’s other important intellectual contribution—the idea of “international regionalism,” which recenters the discussion of globalization by focusing on its consequences at the local or regional level. Third, polysituatedness is apparent in the multivocal nature of the book, which brings together Kinsella’s encounters with different writers from across the world and across time, showing how their work describes places and the environment in ways that are inflected by race, gender, and politics. And finally, polysituatedness can be seen in the form the book takes by incorporating multiple genres, art forms, and even layout and type. Let me look briefly at a couple of these.

Appropriately, Kinsella, whose commitment as a poet has always been to poetry’s “responsibility to bring change,” encapsulates the book’s purpose in the introduction with “A Polysituated Ode with Occasional Demi-Boustrophedon.” For readers, like me, who might not immediately know the verse form “boustrophedon,” it refers to a stanza in which the writing moves back and forth—left to right and then right to left again. The form is especially suited to this poem, since it is all about the flow of land and animals and water and how humans move with them:

                                                                 . . . I chitchat along the way—

some welcome me, some turn away, some concentrate on a speck on the ground
!moment the share me let they’d only if them as much as me fascinates which
swap notes, learn ground and air and water by rote, make metaphysical leaps. (xvi)

And embodying the idea of polysituatedness, it says “I am never in one place when I am here. A composite.” Subsequently, both the poem and book move freely from Jam Tree Gully, Australia, to the Cambridge fens, and to icy winters in Gambier, Ohio (xvi–xvii).

For Kinsella, therefore, the concept of “place is never static . . . it is always defined in contradictory as well as complementary ways by outsiders and insiders, by those with vested interests and those indifferent” (18). The book shows that “home,” too, has many variables of intersecting meaning. Is it the place you grew up or where you live now? Kinsella resists senses of home that link it to ownership or to controlling space by fencing it. (Fencing, here, especially evokes the powerful political meaning of the Australian context.)

Much of the book, like Kinsella’s rich body of poetry, is explicitly about politics. Kinsella’s concept of “international regionalism,” reveals how globalization differently affects people and communities based on race, class, circumstance, and geographic resources. It is an important corrective to tendencies in the social science to look at globalization in toto or comparatively across continents. We see this in the intellectual trends to study “transnational feminism” or “global environmental politics,” which stress shared oppression or similarities of crises, but often blur the differences in how they affect specific people, depending on their local history and circumstances. Kinsella, rather, focuses on diverse narratives retold by those who have experienced the most local consequences of global capitalism—indigenous communities, farmers, displaced people. And even here he shows that not all indigeneity or displacement manifests in the same way. If one can’t build a single grand narrative, so be it.

As a result, Kinsella forces us to question the “very nature of origins, birthplace, allegiance and loyalty, rights by soil, and other expressions (legal or conjectural) of connection to a particular set of geographical coordinates and their claimant communities” (19). Implicitly responding to Ghosh’s appeal to integrate the human into larger ecosystems, Kinsella’s brings to our attention a variety of writers—living and not—whose work engages powerfully with nature and landscape.

So taking on history, Kinsella tells the story of Auguste Lacaussade (1815–1897)—born in Le Réunion (a French colony still) in the Indian Ocean—an “intense writer of place, whose ‘displacement’ to France focussed his literary and social gaze on his absent home” (187). The irony of Lacaussade’s displacement reflects the particular racism and patriarchy of the time. Since his mother, who was a freed slave, and his white French father were not permitted to legally marry, Lacaussade was refused entry in local schools due to his “illegitimate” birth. Later living in France, he suffered a different form of racism and fought against slavery. In this poem, translated by Kinsella, Lacaussade expressed his political anger through a counter-pastoral engagement with natural world:

In his fury, a mortal man takes umbrage
Lightning ignites and flashes from his eyes
His fixed stare sparks with light
And all his features reflect his spirit
Behind his eyelids one sees no tears
But his eye has shone with vengeance
Night is like that too. Dark and glorious night
You were not destined for repose. (193)

Then traversing to another continent, Kinsella examines a contemporary American poet, Janet McAdams, for her multiple positions of “witness, experience, horror, and interrogation.” He says that “in McAdams cultures meet and breathe,” which he attributes in part to her “insider-outsider perspective” of “Native American heritage mixed with European ancestral concerns.” He quotes McAdams’s Seven Boxes for a Country After for its use of nature in an underlying critique of the surveillance state:

If white is the color of mischief, then these white walls, this
little house of marble we hide behind, willing the man with
his notebook to find someone else to follow. We hide, kin to
bone, to tuft of fur caught in the chain-link fence to everything
under the snow: tooth, grass, a skunk’s belly boated and
facing heaven. . . . (256)

Moving not only across time and place but also into innovative forms, Polysituatedness experiments with literary styles—diagrams, political manifestos (including one on veganism), a dialogue between writers, journals, and collaborations. This includes poems he wrote with Charmaine Papertalk-Green of the Yamaji nation in Australia—a collaboration that challenges the idea of individual artistic production.

The result is a book that provides so much to think about regarding our social, cultural, and political relationships to the world, that one picks it up and reexamines it over time, not only because of its 428 pages, including a rich bibliography, but also because of Kinsella’s creative use of language. There is pleasure in engaging his vocabulary and looking up the words for poetic forms or geological formations—concretions, djitty-djitty, boustrophedon.

Most significant, Polysituatedness, along with Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, evoke the potential power of literature to make sense of ecological catastrophe as a step toward stemming it. Both books, therefore, also identify an apparent obstacle: the narrow circle in which English literature has evolved and often continues to be defined. If as Ghosh says, “Asia is conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming” (87), a way of projecting that urgency may be for the stories, experiences, and perspectives of writers from that continent to be more widely broadcast. And so the way out of derangement may be the multidirectional focus Kinsella brings to his work. In Polysituatedness, he brings together his own and others’ writings that are deeply connected to the natural world. As Ghosh imagines, this can be the result when writers rediscover “their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient will find expression in a transformed and renewed art and literature” (162).

Wendy Singer is the Roy T. Wortman Professor of History and South Asian Studies at Kenyon College. She is author, recently, of Independent India (Routledge, 2012), a thematic history of India since independence that includes sources of art and literature. Believing in the power of storytelling that lies at the heart of history-writing, she is currently collaborating on creative writing workshops for academics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.