Below, Benjamin elaborates on the importance of Victorian Studies as it relates to contemporary ecological crises.
“Fin du Globe: On Decadent Planets” seeks to highlight the importance of Victorian Studies to contemporary understandings of ecological crisis. The essay is part of my new book project, In Human Scale: Form and Aesthetics in the Era of Climate Change, which traces a cultural history of imaginative barriers to thinking clearly about large-scale problems like climate crisis. The most important of these barriers, in my view, is “scalar incommensurability,” the difficulty of bridging our human experience of time with bigger units of centuries or millennia. Changes in climate seem slow, but this is an artifact of our limited human frames of reference; at a geological scale we are changing the climate at an almost unthinkably rapid rate. Although scalar incommensurability is an especially important problem now, it has been an issue for humanistic thought at least since Hardy’s novels struggled to find a “scale for the human” in evolutionary time.
The project joins an exciting field of work within Victorian Studies that has begun to engage closely with the environmental humanities, including the newly formed Vcologies group (helmed by Deanna Kreisel and Liz Miller); Jesse Oak Taylor’s The Sky of Our Manufacture; Allen MacDuffie’s Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination; and the forthcoming essay collections Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geological Times (Fordham UP, eds. Tobias Meneley and Jesse Oak Taylor) and Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire (Penn State UP, eds. Nathan Hensley and Philip Steer). This surge of work reflects a growing awareness that Victorian Studies is situated in a unique way to contribute to the environmental humanities: both because of the field’s commitment to interdisciplinarity and because the period is, if not the “origin” of climate crisis, certainly one of the crucial turning points in the advent of fossil energy systems and extractive capitalism.
But at the same time, I think that certain of our critical habits as Victorianists can get in the way of embracing what Anna Kornbluh and I have described as strategic presentism. As Victorianists, we often value historical distance very highly, and we sometimes embrace an altericist notion of historical context that can “box in” our objects of study, to borrow a metaphor from Rita Felski’s “Context Stinks.”
So how can we retain what makes the field strong—its historicist perspicacity and its multidisciplinarity—while also opening up possibilities for new engagements with the environmental humanities? There are many ways to answer this question. You might want to say that our role is to enrich literary and cultural histories of climate change, to identify the ways in which cultural imaginaries of energy systems and of global extractive capitalism originate in the nineteenth century and persist today. This is an important historicist project, and much of the excellent work I mention above moves in this direction. But my own sense is that Victorian literature and culture most importantly give us transtemporal aesthetic categories or models that yield new ways of understanding climate crisis—models that emerge at a specific historical moment, but that also escape it. Elsewhere, I’ve written on the arctic sublime as one such category. My emphasis on aesthetic categories, models, and forms draws energy from Ursula Heise’s work on genre and extinction as well as from Caroline Levine’s thought about worlds as models.
The forms I focus on in “Fin du Globe” are frames and scales. Frames give you a window onto a situation but their edges also make aspects of it invisible. Frames are partial. Scales, defined by proximity and distance, similarly shape what you can see in space or time: evolution can be observed only at a temporal distance of at least tens of thousands of years; grains of sand are visible only at a proximity of a few inches. Frames and scales are highly portable structures of perception that are operative in the visual arts, of course, but also in many other domains (observational sciences, poetics, statistics, and so on).
This is abstract, so let me elaborate using the example that I address in the essay, M.P. Shiel’s decadent novel The Purple Cloud. Shiel’s novel, which describes a volcanic eruption that wipes out all human and animal life except for two people, is obsessively interested in the planet. Its “scale” is that of the earth itself. Adam Jeffson, the last man, travels the globe burning major cities; and as he does this, he reflects on how the earth has become strangely animated following the eruption. The novel also begins by describing a medium who enters a trance state and mentally zooms in and out from the Earth’s surface. But even as it adopts this planetary scale of representation, the planet’s “frame" is shifting and unstable. Sometimes we see the Earth from a scientific perspective (Jeffson discerns that the deadly cloud was made up of hydrocyanic acid). But at other times we see it from a political perspective (Jeffson compares his dominion over the earth to that of a Sultan or Duke).
Shiel’s novel gives us a window into some of the ways that decadents thought in very large scalar units, both temporally and spatially. Decadence is a story about decline over vast time scales: decadent writers were accused of being evolutionary degenerates (and therefore aesthetically symptomatic of millennia of species decline), and the heat death of the sun that was thought to be just thirty million years away (!) was a significant inspiration for many fin-de-siècle writers. Global cooling, not global warming, was worrying to a culture that had just learned that the pre-Holocene “snowball earth” was comparatively recent. In some ways, decadence solves the problem of how to connect micro and macro scales of time and space. But its adherents also recognized that large scales (of planetary space, of geological time) were constructed and unstable: in The Purple Cloud, for instance, just as you think that the novel frames the planet in geophysical terms, it upends this reading, viewing it instead as a political domain.
The Purple Cloud is an astonishing novel, and I hope this essay might send a few more readers its way. But the broader aim of the essay is to think about how a decadent aesthetics of planetarity links up with the questions of scale related to climate crisis I mention above. I’ll leave the details of this argument to the essay itself, but I can say here that decadent planetarity may help us think through a tension between the “globe” of globalization and the “globe” of climate change. Many of the conceptual tools we have used to make sense of the planetary scale of our human life—drawn from postcolonial thought and globalization studies—must now reinvent themselves in relation to the Earth Sciences, as Dipesh Chakrabarty and Ian Baucom have each argued. Decadent writing scales up and down from individual physiology to the planet to evolutionary time to literary style in ways that create an opening for such a project—and this essay represents a first step toward thinking in this direction.
Beer, Gillian. Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth Century Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.
Benjamin Morgan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago. His book The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in 2017, and his essays have appeared in ELH, New Literary History, and American Literary History.
More from Victorian Studies 58.4
Elizabeth Carolyn Miller
BOOK REVIEWS, including
Paul Dobraszczyk on Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, by Lee Jackson
Jock MacLeod on Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, by Edmund Fawcett
Hilary M. Schor on Subversion and Sympathy: Gender, Law, and the British Novel, edited by Martha C. Nussbaum and Alison L. LaCroix
Jonathan Smith on Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination, by Allen MacDuffie and Romantic Naturalists, Early Environmentalists: An Ecocritical Study, 1789-1912, by
Dewey W. Hall
Sharon Aronofsky Weltman on The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss, and Opera in the British Isles, 1875-1918, by Paul Rodmell