Kristin George Bagdanov, The New Formalism of “Anthropocene Inscriptions”: A Poetics
The V21 Collective manifesto calls for a “critical rethinking of form and formalism” in order “to reconsider how forms persist across artificially designated historical periods.” And in the recent special issue of boundary2 online, Caroline Levine warns against a positivist historicism that insists upon “the observable data of the historical past—its objects, its records, its surfaces, its articulations.” In conjunction with Jesse Oak Taylor’s article, “Anthropocene Inscriptions: Reading Global Synchrony,” I consider how literary forms operate as records that can be read across time as dynamic recordings of ecological conditions.
The recent turn toward deep and geological time prompts a reconsideration of the ways in which literary forms are produced by material conditions, including ecological ones. This expanded temporality allows for an examination of how literary forms mediate these conditions across time, and how they reconfigure our relationship to the environment. In “Anthropocene Inscriptions,” Jesse Oak Taylor links the Victorian past with the present through the “shared geological moment” of the Anthropocene. In doing so, Taylor claims that we might consider points of “systemic convergence”—coinciding environmental and cultural “spikes” throughout human history—as material-discursive symptoms of the synchronous transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Compression and combustion, two forces that Taylor claims can register this change, offer a reconfiguration of the record itself. While thinking with deep time can potentially obscure important distinctions between historical moments, combustion and compression act as formal constraints that afford a dynamic oscillation of scale and materiality. In doing so, these limits figure literature as both a past and ongoing record. A poetics of this material dynamism might be articulated as lower limit stone / upper limit air.[i] That is to say, literary forms mediate ecological crisis via multiple scales and materialities—climate change is not inaccessible, as some have argued, but merely illegible when we confine our investigation to any single literary period. Tracing forms as they are reconfigured in literary texts across time and space, as they oscillate from globally pervasive (combustion) to locally specific (compression), allows us to apprehend the synchronous global change of which Taylor speaks.
To locate a lower temporal boundary for the Anthropocene—a globally synchronous trace—the very definition of ‘the event’ must be modified. Taylor asks: “How can something occur everywhere at once?” To address this contradiction, he proposes thinking in terms of combustion and compression. The atmosphere is a “vehicle for an event’s global reach.” Regardless of how nations divide air space, particles circulate within this “gaseous envelope” surrounding the planet. The sedimentary record provides another way of thinking synchronously, writes Taylor: “The Anthropocene is a lithic inscription, a tale of life compressed into stone, combusted into atmosphere, and then re-compressed into the stratigraphic record where it becomes a trace legible only in distinction from the strata that surround it.” This formulation expands the temporality of ‘the event’ by figuring it as the transition zone between the Holocene and Anthropocene. If focusing on “systemic convergence” rather than a “golden spike” reorients our relationship to the past, then it also reorients our relationship to the records by which we apprehend it.
The Anthropocene produces new methods of reading as well as recording by drawing together stratigraphic inscriptions and literary texts. To record is to remember, register, or take to heart—often associated with song, music, and language. The record is evidence, testimony, preserved knowledge, especially that which is intended to be permanent. The practice of stratigraphy reminds us of the record’s insistent materiality: plastics embedded in rock, pollutants trapped in ice—a material accumulation of humanity’s interactions with the more-than-human world. This compression of time and space reveals the lingering presence of smoke that ‘disappeared’ into thin air and chemicals that were diluted by ocean currents. However, the practice of literary interpretation insists that humanity’s relationship to the more-than-human world is also more-than-stratigraphy. In the Anthropocene, to be written in stone is the same as being writ in water.
How, then, can we think with global synchrony as it relates materially and temporally to literary texts? Can the oscillation between “lower limit stone / upper limit air” and the corresponding methods of combustion and compression translate to alternative methods of reading and periodization? Forms record ‘what’s in the air’ of their historical moments but are not reducible to mere ‘records’ or ‘reflections’ of these conditions. Together they configure a globally synchronous trace of the transition between Holocene and Anthropocene. The cycle of compression and combustion reminds us that forms are material-discursive records that are also always being re-recorded and so require equally dynamic methods of interpretation—some that eschew periodization altogether and others that simply work with a greater awareness of transitional zones versus events as limits. The Anthropocene is not simply a manifestation of humanity’s changed relationship to the world, but a record of recording—each action an inscription that re-records what we thought was fixed. The compression of atmosphere into stone and combustion of stone into atmosphere changes how we understand literary forms—not as pristine records of the past, but profane reconfigurations.
Levine, Caroline. “Historicism: From the Break to the Loop.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016. Accessed 6 January 2017.
Taylor, Jesse Oak. “Anthropocene Inscriptions: Reading Global Synchrony.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016. Accessed 6 January 2017.
V21 Collective. “Manifesto of the V21 Collective.” V21: Victorian Studies in the 21st Century, 2015. Accessed 6 January 2017.
Zukofsky, Louis. “A”. New Directions, 2011.
[i] This formulation echoes Louis Zukofsky, who said that his poetry exists within “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music,” as stated in his poem “A-12.”