This is a paper I gave in summer 2020. I haven’t gotten to turning it into a ‘proper’ article, yet, but I don’t believe in things rotting in my cloud, so here it is and I’d be thrilled to hear your thoughts on my thinking together deep time and literary history (with US-American literary history as my experimental ‘object’).
As an „exercise in environmental speculation“, historian and geohumanist Jared Farmer created the „future fossil“ of a BlackBerry Curve 8300. In his reflection of the hows and whys of this exercise Farmer contrasts the short lived usability of gadgets like this with their harmful longevity in the terrestrial ecosystems, and the cultural effects of this insight:
“If my fossil signifies extinction and e-waste, it also bespeaks a cultural moment when humanists and artists have synchronously turned their attention to temporalities like ‘deep time’, ‘deep history’, ‘long-terminism,’ and ‘the long now.’ […] After a period of cultural quiescence, geology – the leading realm of inquiry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – has regained philosophical, literary, and artistic significance.”Jared Famer, Technofossil, in: Future Remains (193)
Modernity seems to have come full circle in its choice of a paradigmatic way to know the world: geology’s temporal scales completely changed the way in which humans understood their place in Earth’s history two centuries ago and it seems to do so again, today. An old smartphone, a bit of polymer clay and some paint come together to turn a piece of waste into an “technofossil”, that is, a speculative object making tangible our present (or, at least, our immediate past) in the future perfect. The fake fossil wants to bring us to recognize the consequences of human actions from the perspective of an archaeologist in the far future. Imagining “us” – not as what we will be but as what we will have been – is not a new exercise but it gains significance at a time when the remnants of the actions of human collectives threaten to last almost forever. The material of the Blackberry device will persist for millennia and thus becomes visible as part of a global pollution crisis that is by no means an “environmental” problem only. It is a challenge to the Western way of life and unjustly threatens especially those who do not (yet) enjoy its comforts. The durability of the materials we fail to consume but throw away, the effects and exhausts of our lifestyle call into question not how, but if there can be a future for what we call ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’. “Perhaps” as Frederic Jameson wondered in Archaeologies of the Future, “we need to develop an anxiety about losing the future” (233)
Farmers’ is one of many attempts to chart Future Remains and create A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. The collection looks at past and present-day objects to find “clues” for intertwined human and natural histories and thereby develop a relationship to the future (remains) which at first glance seems as strange as the curiosities themselves: “The objects gathered in this book resemble more the tarots of a fortuneteller that the archeological finds of an expedition: they speak of the future” (x). Like the “technofossil”, jars of sand, pesticide spray pumps and artificial coral reefs narrate a future perfect perspective on the present. The hope is, that “[o]bjects have the power to bridge spaces and join times. They can summon all at once the past, present, and future, blending the global and local – and thus they can disrupt linear narratives, including those about the Anthropocene.” (xi) Through the “object stories” and the future lives of present and past things they bring to life, the cabinet of curiosities becomes a haunted space. The future perfect imagination brings out the ghosts that our intentions and desires will have become. More so, it makes the new, that is, soon to be discarded things we accumulate look quite sinister, because the future perfect loop shows that the afterlife is always already included in the thing itself.
A past that will have haunted the future – this is the sort of pun of the collection – is inherent in the objects we produce and use. Storytelling, here, becomes at once a means of divination and resurrection. It creates a narrative afterlife of already discarded things and shatters the illusion that you can ever truly throw something “out”. This collection of object-stories is a “future history” in many ways – most importantly, it imagines a future perspective on a shared present thereby creating a “we” that includes non-human actors in the story of what the future will bring. What makes this significance is not necessarily the Science Fiction premise to a collection of artistically and scholarly inclined interventions, but the fact that the interdisciplinary approach is translated into a series of speculative narratives. This is more than a playful way to engage in conversations and, ultimately, get active about ways to shape the future. Stories and storytelling gain new prominence in a discourse about the future that is characterized by a sense of peril which does not surpass so much as include and surmount past worst-case scenarios.
“The future we face today is one that threatens our very existence as a species. It threatens the comfortable urban lifestyles that many of us hold dear and the habitability of the earth itself. The times we are in are critical, and the challenges we face as global citizens are complex, intractable, and planetary.”Gidley, Jennifer M.: The Future: A Very Short Introduction (1)
Global Warming, Ocean Acidification, Terrorism, and an ongoing Nuclear Threat position “the Future as catastrophe” (Eva Horn) not at the end but the beginning of our stories. Again, Modernity seems to have come full circle: In The Future as Catastrophe, Eva Horn identifies the coming disaster as a major anxiety and motivator of modern activities from the 1700s until the present. Geology as a leading scientific paradigm popularized the idea that not only civilizations but whole species went extinct because of catastrophic events. Hence, the imagination of one’s own gadgets as future fossil is not a new but a thoroughly modern idea with a history of its own. That does not mean, though, that the current moment in history is a mere repetition of our modern beginnings, rather the “Catastrophe without Event” that is climate change and the subsequent popularization of the collapse of natural and cultural history require us to rethink not only possible futures but also our approach to rethinking the relations between Modernity and time:
“Whether or not the Anthropocene becomes part of the official stratigraphic record, its advent as a scientific object has already altered how we conceptualize, imagine, and inhabit time.“Preface to Future Remains (ix)
As I am talking to you about fossils and forever changed relationships to deep time pasts and futures in a literary studies context, you already guessed why I stress the existence and importance of stories and storytelling in catastrophic futures discourse. It is not least an opportunity for academics in these disciplines to take part in a discussion that claims to influence every realm of life. What I want to talk about, however, is that this is more than a chance to claim a part of the current discourse, but that our expertise as literary and cultural scholars is indeed a vital one. Literary and cultural studies can contribute to this discourse an invaluable perspective: They do not predict, they do not forecast or calculate probable futures – but what they do do is follow, collect and navigate through the stories that make up and hold together the connection between pasts, presents and futures. As I am using the plural for all three terms, I am already hinting at the most important aspect of this contribution: the way in which literary and cultural studies are able to deal with multiple actors and temporalities without reducing them to a common denominator. What I want to look at, today, is the relationship between futures and storytelling that is expressed in both literary histories, that is both fictional histories and histories of literature. I will highlight some pitfalls and promises of literary history as a critical and scholarly endeavor and connect them to literary and future histories in two novels – Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (2006) and The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018). My aim is to show how time is being linked to storytelling as a practice of producing futures and how literary genres, practices and histories are employed to scale up human stories to planetary ones. Both novels challenge and tempt the imagination of their readers to look at their present and past as if from a distant future; they do so by disrupting the idea of human control over nature and narrative alike and, instead, map out ways in which stories and storytelling become instrument and actor in the production of futures.
While Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (2006) bursts with plots, characters and cultural references, its historical scope seems fairly narrow. It begins in 1893 with the “World’s Columbian Exposition” and ends in early 1920s Hollywood. The novel revolves around turning points in American and world history, or, to be exact, it lays out how turning points in American and World History were synchronized to a point where they became indistinguishable. Strikingly, many of the familiar historical landmarks of this period play at most a marginal role in Against the Day. Although almost all of the protagonists are in Europe at the time, even the “Great War” remains latent and unable to change a course of events that has been set in motion long before. The individual plots seem difficult to entangle, except maybe for readers of historical novels, fantasy and science fiction sagas. I stress this fact, because reading a text this dense with names, titles, references, points requires intense training in networked reading – it’s no accident that there is a “Pynchon Wiki” in which readers help each other navigate through the texts – that comes, I’m tempted to say “naturally”, with reading genre fiction. And this is, where Pynchon’s novel takes its cues: the historical references, seemingly second-tier events, more suitable for conspiracy theories than the historical record, connect to plot structures from Western, adventure, spy, conspiracy, and science fiction. Dime novel material that finds its apex in the plot strand about the “Chums of Chance”, a “celebrated aeronautics clubs” (3) whose members, in the course of the novel, get confused about their own status. Up to a certain point, they are both fictional and non-fictional characters within the novel. They meet all other protagonists and they are the heroes of countless youth-adventure-books that many of the other characters read. Only when confronted by so-called Trespassers, however, are they forced to question their own “reality”. Trespassers are future humans who manage to employ the Chum’s ambivalent status in space and time to travel into their past and confuse the aeronauts by sharing their future perspective:
SOON THE CREW began to find evidence of Trespass everywhere, some invisible narrative occupying, where it did not in fact define, the passage of the day. And it was soon evident that at all levels, from local to international, a neuropathy had taken over the Chums of Chance organization. [The Trespassers had studied their targets closely, knew of the Chums’ unquestioning faith that none of them, barring misadventure, would ever simply grow old and die, a belief which over the years many had come to confuse with a guarantee.] On learning that they might be no more exempt than any of the human supernumeraries they had been so carelessly aviating above all these years, some Chums of Chance turned in panic to the corrupt embrace of the Trespassers, ready to deal with Hell itself, to betray anything and anyone if only they could be sent back to when they were young, be allowed to regain the early boys’-book innocence they were so willing now to turn right around and violate on behalf of their insidious benefactors.Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day (418)
Among the novel’s numerous plays on the relationship of time and space, time and faith, time and history and so on, this might be the most striking from a literary history perspective: If the stories we are telling us about ourselves and our place in history and culture can be shaken so easily by a future perspective – how can we keep telling them?
In Pynchon’s novel, the past has an advantage over the future in that it is able to believe itself even if individual (hi)stories contradict each other. This leads, different to popular narratives, to a more diverse world in which factual and fictional stories are not mutually exclusive. Three developments that reach from the future into the past change this diversity of realities: the Tunguska-Event (an explosion of still disputed cause that in 1908 destroyed vast amounts of forest in Siberia), the development of new ways to connect and represent the world through photography, film and electronic means of communication (the telegraph), and the developments in mathematics and physics that fundamentally changed how time is conceptualized. While at the World’s Columbian Exposition in the beginning of the novel, everything seems possible, the Hollywood ending suggests that different realities are forever distinguished in real and made-up ones – only no one knows which are which. The consequence is a future that seems inevitable. If the present is reduced to a single narrative – how would one attempt to shape the future?
Despite all declarations of the End of History (Fukuyama) or the End of the Gand Recit (engl? Lyotard), the narrative that still dominates is global capitalism’s notion of progress, the perverted epitome of Modernity. Interestingly, in the course of the 20th century, the main metaphor for this endeavor shifts from progress as technological (and social) innovation to economic growth, thereby naturalizing human endeavors once more as “organic”. This is where Richard Power’s recent novel The Overstory takes up and in many ways reverses Pynchon’s narrative. In the novel, trees become protagonists and enlist humans to aid them in ensuring their survival. Surprisingly, the novel, despite its strong references to Thoreau and the environmentalist movements, does not at all develop a luddite “back-to-nature”-narrative. Instead, it takes its cue from genre fiction and the stories that can be told based on the new images of trees and plant communication. The novel follows the stories of eight humans and their way to become ‘tree-people’, that is, they find connections to the plant world which compel them to fight for them by any means available. It turns out however, that the kind of co-existence humans and trees envision is not possible in the world as it is. The dominance of the modern-capitalist narrative and its strict distinction between real and unreal things, humans and non-humans, value and waste prevents open futures and might, in the end, prevent the future (for humans) itself. The Overstory offers a way out that, again, depends on future history and a future perfect perspective. Neelay, a Computer Game developer with a disability, envisions a world that does not cling to the opposition of materiality and immateriality but frees individuals, and that includes trees, from it by employing plant thinking (Marder), that is, existentially networked modes. The novel does not play out what that might look like exactly but offers a (utopian) vision, reactivating a pre- and early modern mode of imagining alternatives. The source of this vision, however, is not classic Utopianism but science fiction and future history:
“[Neelay] still binges on old-school reading. At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter. Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks. Domed cities like giant terrariums. Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds. There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it. When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.”Powers, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel (97)
The engineers vision of storytelling as a multi-temporal and historical endeavor that is decidedly not limited to literature, could be a defining principle for ‘making’ futures (happen). He learns how to make it real by listening to trees and learning about the symbiotic, multi-species webs that keep forests alive and thriving. More than a metaphor for future societies, Power’s novel reverses the reduction that Pynchon’s laments: learning from trees how to build futures, here, allows for more stustainable and more diverse societies.
If, following Jennifer Gidley, futures studies must deal with and open up multiple futures to resist the reduction to mono-narratives, we need to look at both texts about the future and the texts we write about those texts. Reading literary histories as sites that produce the ‘future remains’ of literature and literary studies, is a pivotal task of self-reflection and -assertion. To demonstrate what I mean, when I say that literary histories produce ‘future remains’ I will distinguish between those ‘literary histories’ that are ‘histories of literature’ and those that are ‘fictional histories’, that is, part of explicitly literary texts – this distinction is artificial, of course, but it serves a purpose: by taking into account the status of a text the practices of producing narratives can be made transparent. That is, by asking – am I reading a novel or am I reading an academic collection of texts? I assume different things about the position and aim of a text and its author(s). While in a novel – especially in a postmodern one like Pynchon’s and Powers’ – I expect the lines between fact and fiction to be blurred (or, at least I would not get angry if I find out that I have been fooled); a literary history follows a different set of rules. As they provide information and orientation through academic and or critical expertise, literary histories provide (and potentially deny) access to a literary canon by assigning each work a place in a larger landscape of literature. The emerging literary landscape is by no means a record of who wrote at what time, but the result of a rigorous selection process, that is, literary histories ultimately decide who is considered to write important or influential texts, what is considered to be literature (or a significant enough influence on literature) and who the intended and worthy readership is. This becomes more difficult and problematic with the scope of the endeavor. Even though, it seems, that never before has such a wide variety and diversity of texts and authors been so readily available to read and study, the concepts behind the histories – nation, gender, literature – have been challenged to a point that makes it seem impossible to provide guidance without discriminating against everything and everyone who falls out of one’s arbitrary “order”. Especially the project of so-called “national literary histories” – one of the most popular forms, often aimed at academics, students and an “interested public” alike, runs danger to popularize and manifest too narrow views of what nation, literature and history are. In the words of Elaine Showalter, author of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx:
The twenty-first century must be the best of times for doing American literary historical research. Yet, ironically, the twenty-first century is also the worst of times for actually writing American literary history. Philosophical debates about whether literary history in general is theoretically possible or intellectually valid have discouraged the attempt to write histories like this one. Academic doubts that Americans still have “a unifying vision of national identity” have added to the complicated theoretical problems. By the end of the twentieth century, even scholarly authorities admitted they were no longer certain “we know what American literature is or what history is, and whether we have the authority to explain either.”
The decision to include or exclude a work or an author gives this particular genre of academic and critical writing unique power. Every text that is left out runs danger to be forgotten; everyone who is once claimed to be important or not might never be put in his or her place – but, at least there is hope that some of the texts and authors might, like fossils, persist and be re-discovered. Yet, more still, to stay in the metaphor for a moment, will dissolve into their surroundings and, hopefully, provide nourishment for their descendants, albeit invisibly. But even if one wanted, there is just too much material to include each and everything: “That’s why national literary histories are usually huge team efforts, with a board of editors, a village of consultants, an army of research assistants; and even then, many scholars have died before finishing their own contributions to the whole” (Elaine Showalter). In other words: before you might complete your contribution to what you think should remain of a literary period, author or ‘national literature’, you yourself might perish. Even if you don’t die in the process of writing your contribution or editing a literary history, you become or hope to become a “future remain”, a “literary fossil” by contributing to ‘literary history’. Like other historiographic disciplines, literary historiography is confronted with the fact that however well researched and structured their particular version of “history” is, they are creating a narrative whose capability to serve as a foundation for the development of future literatures, literary studies and (national) identities is more than doubtful. Since Hayden White and others trained our eyes to look at the literary qualities of (literary) histories, their status has changed, and yet, they are still written and might, as I will argue, have to be written and read. Showalter solves the dilemma of her literary history of Women Writers by stressing the fact that she, and she alone, is telling a story: “In this book, however, I tell a story of American women’s writing with a beginning, middle, and end, and I make selections, distinctions, and judgments.” She clearly marks her standpoint offering her authorial position for criticism by stating deliberateness and expertise instead of authority.
Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors undertook this massive effort of a national history in A New Literary History of America (2009). The promise of “newness” in the context of written history deserves its own talk, but what interests me, today, is the revealing way it is at once supporting and undermining its own premise. More than a hundred essays by literary scholars, critics and authors explore historical moments; the first being “1507. The name ‘America’ appears for the first time on a Map. [A new Geography]” and the last a visual essay: “2008, November 4. Barack Obama is elected 44th President of the United States” (2008):
“The goal of the book is not to smash a canon or create a new one, but to set many forms of American speech in motion, so that different forms, and people speaking at different times in sometimes radically different ways, can be heard speaking to each other.”New Literary History of America (xxiv)
The sheer number of stories that form this history, their contradictions and the disruptions of a clear cut all-American comes close to a poly-phonic almanac. The rigid chronological order – almost like the alphabet in an encyclopedia – seems to manage the feat of stepping back from a “meaningful” system. There is a system, yes, but it doesn’t judge, what it presents. Of course, the chronological system is conservative in many ways and everything but innocent, but it stands against a division in epochs and chapters resists a teleology and at least shows an effort to step away from an ideology of progress. Then again, Marcus and Sollors, betray their own non-system, when they compare their book to others in the series: the New Histories of French and of German Literature. A comparison of the titles – literary history of America vs. histories of French and German literature respectively – gives away, what the editors of the New Literary History of America have in mind as “their” project:
“this book represents an entirely different sort of challenge. The earlier projects began in the eight century and moved forward to trace the organic literatures of organic societies that preceded the emergence of modern French and German nations. […] this is the story of a made-up nation that in many ways preceded its society. Its literature was not inherited but invented, as if it were a tool or a machine, and discovered, as if it were a gold strike or the next wonder of the Louisiana Purchase. No tradition has ever ruled; no form has ever been fixed“New Literary History of America (xxiii)
It does not need a comparatist to see that this comparison is itself made up. Yes, German and French histories of literature begin in the single digit centuries, but even without going into the details of European history, linguistically, politically or culturally, it is prudent to assume that the “organic” nature of both literatures and societies is a highly problematic notion. Apart from the fact that it suggests, that French and German literature – in comparison – reads like a transcript of ‘organic’ societies (what would that be?); the notion of a literature free from tradition may be a poetological statement, but it betrays a collective “Anxiety of Influence” (Harold Bloom). Still, the intent is striking and it mirrors the structure and diversity of the New Literary History. Like the literature that was “invented, as if it were a tool or a machine, and discovered, as if it were a gold strike or the next wonder of the Louisiana Purchase”, this is meant to be less a history of American literature, it is the story of America [“the American story”, xxvii].
The editors draw their guiding idea, the made-up nation, or “Made in America/America made” (xxiv), from two novels: Robert Macauley’s novel A Secret History of Time to Come (1979) and Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt (2006). The first, a future history in a narrower sense is chosen for its Rip-Van-Winkle hyperbole: in the time to come, America will have been forgotten, as if it never existed. Like Van Winkle during the Civil War, people fall asleep and wake up in a completely different country. Apex on the other hand deals with the practice of naming (in this case a town) and the history of emotions of nomenclature. Both stories serve the editors as evidence that:
The literary history, then, is a tool to ensure the endurance of not only literary texts but of the nation itself. Whereas Margaret Atwood in her 1972 guide to Canadian Literature, Survival, claims that “the main thing [in Canadian Literature] was to avoid dying” (24), the made-up nation and literature of “America” want more: it is diverse both in respect to authors and of genre and media. Sequoyah, Superman, Dr. Seuss, Billie Holiday and Alfred Hitchcock find their place next to Thomas Jefferson, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, Edith Wharton, Malcolm X and Toni Morrison. However, the “single unifying and informing symbol at its core” might still be, as Atwood claims in 1972, “the frontier”. The individual literary and cultural texts, as well as the essays about them, can fortunately be read against this grain. Even though Marcus and Sollors probably aimed to stress the arbitrary quality of “America” as a concept and its inclusive possibilities, the conflation of the United States and the Americas as a whole can – especially through the comparison with the supposedly organic European histories – be all too easily mistaken as an imperialist gesture. In the name of “e pluribus unum”, the intriguing idea of American exceptionalism as a fiction finds itself undermined by its own assertion: yes, it is made up, but it’s working too well to let it go. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the best literary histories that you can possibly read, the essays are excellent and challenge many preformed assumptions about what literature, history and nation can be. But the opposition of organic and made-up literatures, of literature preceding society in America but not in Europe and of an exceptionalism that positions “America” away from any (!) influence and tradition apart from its own, calls into question the ability of (this) literary history to think beyond its own story.
In “Big is a thing of the Past” Historian Deborah Coen (2018) asks for a new methodology of historical research: In light of the impeding environmental and societal changes, she demands a “History of Scaling”, one that can deal with both the human and the planetary scales necessary to understand climate change and other potentially disastrous transformations. Making it up as we go won’t suffice if we look at the present, as Farmers “technofossil” suggests, from a future perfect perspective. The ecocritic Timothy Clark proposes a very similar thing to Coen’s “history of scaling”: “scale framing” (71) – Asking: “What could be more private that a couple deciding to have a baby? What could be more public that a couple deciding to have a baby?”, Clark develops a way to adapt reading to the deep-time thinking that is required in a historical moment in which the human impact on Earth has become a geological force. Starting a car in a short story becomes – intended or not – part of a larger narrative of humans irreversibly changing the face of the Earth. But how does “reading [a story] on a scale of six centuries” fit into writing a literary history that encompasses five hundred years?
You could say, it is a temptation to the imagination and not a new one: Whether you think of the promises of resource extraction that drove settlers to the Americas; of Thomas Jefferson’s Plans to rid “America” of the tree-cover that prevented its agricultural success; of Henry David Thoreau discovering the vegetal nature of all form in the melting snow on the train tracks close to Walden Pond; of Captain Ahab and the Whale; the city-jungles and jungle-cities of the domestic and military memory; the frontier excitement, gold and oil-rushes – all of these connect stories of individual exploration with spatial and temporal scales beyond the humans (some explicitly, some as an undercurrent). Surprisingly, that does not diminish the notion of the “made-up nation” and literature. According to environmental historian Donald Worster, from the first settlers onwards Americans succeeded in convincing themselves of being the “chosen people” regaining paradise and, thus, felt justified to exploit The Wealth of Nature (Worster).
When “Nature” is basically up for grabs, everything that is built from and upon it, is an entirely human creation (approved by God, so to speak). Hence, these narratives can be read as testaments to a gothic nature claiming and reclaiming a place in the stories that seem to have denied their “organic” qualities for too long. As Leo Marx has shown in his seminal study The Machine in the Garden (1964), the American pastoral can only become visible in the moment of its disruption – a train whistle, a steam ship or another non-organic sound. But that’s not “America” breaking into the virgin wilderness, it is precisely in the (disturbed) wilderness that the myth of a “made-up nation” is contrasted with that of an untouched pastoral Nature as the real source of the nation. One directly sprung from a supposedly “virgin” land and always able to “return to nature”. But the disturbances have grown louder and threaten to displace Nature as a point of reference and a material reality. In order to seriously reimagine a sustainable relationship between storytelling and world, new future histories need to be written that transcend the lines between organic and made-up, fact and fiction, and, ultimately, human and non-human.
Turning our attention to forms of storytelling and narratives that are not part of the anthropocentric, Western narrative of progress and growth, this suggests, is a way to actually free our ability to imagine and shape futures. What both Pynchon and Powers (albeit in very different degrees of optimism) suggest is, that the tools are already there, the stories have begun to be told. The problem is, that we don’t take them seriously – they are “just” stories, “pop” culture and “children’s books”; that is, they are considered consumables without lasting value, maybe not even a spot in literary history. The “technofossil” at the beginning of this talk, however, reminds us that “consumables” are the very things that might define the future just because they remain. Imagining literary “future remains”, in other words, might not only teach us (literary and cultural scholars) to question the validity of our own narratives, it might just as well help us to tell new stories, to help shape futures in the plural and let us have been taught by those who must inhabit them.