With The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture, Mark Bould gives a new contribution to the study of the Anthropocene in literary, televised and cinematic fictions by providing a different perspective to some influential statements included in Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). Indeed, whereas the latter maintains that “most forms of art and literature” not only conceal but also avoid dealing with climate catastrophe, Bould posits that the “art and literature of our time is pregnant with catastrophe, with weather and water, wildness and weirdness” (p. 3).
After providing a brief outline of the history and the controversies around the term the Anthropocene, Bould compares it to the Freudian unconscious, as it seems to underlie every cultural production while remaining largely repressed. Within this perspective, the Anthropocene is not absent from artistic and literary texts, but it is unspoken and, therefore, the critic’s role is to identify the textual fractures which reveal its presence and make textual silences speak, as claimed by Pierre Macherey’s theory of literary production. Bould also evokes Fredric Jameson’s political unconscious (1981) and the related idea that the critic rewrites “a given text in terms of a particular interpretive master code”. Along these lines, The Anthropocene Unconscious embarks on a critical rewriting and rereading of a large raft of texts, to reveal their unspoken representation of climate crisis.
To structure his analysis, Bould begins his book with an introduction where he sets out the above-mentioned purpose of his work; then, he proceeds with five thematically bound chapters, and he wraps up his critical reading enterprise with a conclusion, which is circularly connected to the introduction in pointing to a wider socioeconomic agenda. In the final part, Bould posits that bringing up the Anthropocene unconscious in different texts and productions might appear useless compared to the existential threat represented by the current climate crisis, but if it is turned into a collective critical practice, it can instil a slow but pivotal cultural and behavioural change towards an unconditional care for the biosphere.
To get to this point, the book’s five chapters explore almost thirty-six titles across different time periods (from 1880s to present days), countries (the USA, Canada, the UK, France, Spain, Norway, Russia, and India), and media (literature, television and film). Bould’s analysis traverses different forms of high and popular culture and different examples of the so-called Anthropocene unconscious. In Chapter 1, he explores texts that contain various anthropogenically induced predators, such as zombies, and highlight human complicity in climate change. In Chapters 2 and 3, Bould presents different examples of mundane, middle-class fiction, which seems to be loyal to ordinary and every-day details, but which reveals the presence of the Anthropocene as a distortion of “ordinary, if still relatively privileged, lives” or as a refusal of its effects on land and different species. Chapter 4, instead, probes a series of genre fiction and arthouse cinema that not only are set in watery landscapes but that also presents different perspectives on progress, reframed by water. Chapter 5 finally analyses different representations of trees in various texts, and their role in displaying different types of the environmental uncanny, as well as in providing sustainable and alternative examples of existence.
Undoubtedly engaging and innovative in its perspective, Bould’s study should be read by both experts and laymen who acknowledge the importance of reflecting on the Anthropocene. However, readers might be disoriented by the lack of explanation of the reasons why the author has selected certain texts and productions and displayed them in an apparently unstructured way. Indeed, Bould’s analysis evidently defies any national compartmentalisation, chronological categorization and aesthetic distinction and it is guided only by theme-analogies that make his reasoning comparable to the non-linearity of either the unconscious or tree branches. The book efficaciously unravels the unspoken potentialities of the mundane novels in revealing much more than the limited norms and tastes of the bourgeois life, but it also touches on a hazardous terrain: claiming that every contemporary cultural and artistic production speaks about the current climate crisis might be conceived as an attempt to unnaturally see something even when it is not there. To conclude, we are not sure if the Anthropocene is the unconscious of every text, but this essay invites us to adopt a critical attitude towards those textual fractures that might reveal what type of human – non-human relationship is unconsciously portrayed in every work of high and popular art.
28.04.2023 by Monica Peluso, PhD Student from University of Bologna
Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981). London: Routledge, 2002.
Macherey, Pierre. A Theory of Literary Production. London: Verso Books, 2006.