Reflection by Corbin Hiday
In his illuminating and inclusive work, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf, Jesse Oak Taylor produces a timely and insightful account of the London fog and its various imaginings, across genre and historical particularity. Taylor balances a menagerie of relevant and related sources, while stretching his research across disciplinary, genre, and periodizing boundaries—“from Victorian through the fin de siècle to modernism” (218). For Taylor, this project is twofold: on the one hand the fog becomes “an instance of rendering anthropogenic climate change visible at a discrete geohistorical scale,” while on the other hand he theorizes the novel “as a climate model at the intersection of literary and meteorological atmosphere” (10). At the heart of the book then, are various levels of how we think or theorize “scale.” Scale is historical—relating to geological or deep timescales; material and abstract—evidenced by the move from London “particular” to global climate change; and literary—in particular the novel, which “provides a formal structure for this endeavor because it helps reconcile the expansive timescales of evolution, climate, and geological change with those of human history and everyday life” (11). The novel attempts to balance the convergence of the previous two scalar iterations, operating within historical and abstract registers, a project of the universal and particular, the individual and collective (11).
Taylor investigates a series of British novels “as producing theory rather than as receptacles for it,” analyzing “cultural artifacts as at once products of and participants in ongoing historical processes, processes that now extend to the limits of Earth’s atmosphere” (15). The “ongoing historical processes” situate the novels at once inside and outside of their respective historical moments, either Victorian or modernist, a reimagining of scale that serves as a theoretical model for Taylor’s own form of criticism. In this process, questions about our contemporary critical moment arise: What is strategic presentism? How do we practice historical scholarship, particularly transforming archival work from the “endless accumulation of mere information” to a larger scale? An archive that is planetary, or of a world-scale stretched into deep-time; in other words, how can the icecaps be important archives for literary scholars? Taylor practices historical scholarship through rethinking scale, revealing the genealogy of our current ecological catastrophe through literary analysis, while enacting a mode of criticism that challenges current institutional restrictions and crises as well. In the face of these realities, both historical and current, these questions and concerns become imperative.
One of the most rewarding aspects of Taylor’s book is that its argument pushes against the aforementioned strict disciplinary and periodizing boundaries, borrowing from and contributing at the same time to Victorian studies, eco-criticism, Anthropocene studies, Science Studies and literary history. Despite a renewed scholarly interest in eco-criticism broadly conceived, Taylor remarks upon the “relative scarcity of explicitly ecocritical work in either Victorian studies or modernism,” an aversion he locates in potential “charges of presentism,” what Taylor calls, “the anachronistic fallacy of mapping present concerns onto historical materials” (9). In many ways, the recent imperative to reassess our geological epoch, and the renewed attention to ecologically aware criticism, has us playing catch-up to the Victorians. As Taylor notes, in response to charges of presentism and in favor of a “strategic presentism”: “[i]nviting the Victorians and Edwardians into our conversations about anthropogenic climate change is valuable not in spite of the historical distance between their worldview and our own but because of it” (9). Literary scholars are forced by reevaluations of geological epochs to reimagine scale, thus opening new possibilities for scholarship, while also challenging rigid institutional boundaries imposed on disciplines and historical periods. Taylor ultimately prioritizes the novel, following Charles Lyell and suggesting that “the novel may be the literary form of the Anthropocene, not simply by making the Anthropocene visible but also by participating in its emergence” (202). The novel, as scalar object, becomes the ideal form for thinking crises, historical and contemporary, of scale.
Taylor’s chapters on Dickens’ novel, Our Mutual Friend and Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula are especially strong. Taylor deftly shows us how these novels ultimately reveal the ways in which networks and infrastructure determine agency, theorize the relationship between the individual and collective (or corporate), and, ultimately, grapple with consumption and production, with responsibility unevenly distributed in relation to economic and ecologic justice. On the scale of both character and title, Our Mutual Friend displaces the individual subject as the locus of novel. Forcing readers to reconsider our assumptions regarding form and genre, Taylor writes, “[p]utting this explicit plurality [“Our”] in place of a named protagonist in the title (and capitalizing it as a proper noun throughout) serves as a counterpoint to the dominant idea that the novel as a genre is predicated on individuation” (66). Our Mutual Friend’s social and material collectivities (like its dust heaps), prompt us to think of both disparate materials and social bodies at disparate scales of value: accumulation of dust as opposed to Podsnappery and trading in the “intangible economy of shares” (55). Similarly, Dracula’s theorization of assemblages and embodiments of technologies and information, featuring an eponymous character that “trade[s] in the physical stuff of death” (139), reveals an infrastructural scale of the corporate body, with Dracula existing as the “remnants that the industrial age has ostensibly left behind” (140). In Taylor’s readings, such scalar experiments model the “apprehension of pollution and ecological change” through the novel’s unique formal “framework of observation” that theorizes mediation, models and virtualization (136). The theoretical and material difficulties in interrogating corporate personhood, the problem of agency, and the vexed relationship between the particular and universal exist beyond the Victorian novel and manifest as contemporary ecological problems, speaking vociferously to our contemporary “manufactured climate.”
Taylor’s engagement with these the two novels exemplifies the type of analysis he produces throughout the book with readings that reveal the fictional models useful for rescaling our interventions into ecologic and economic justice. We can understand the notion of rescaling through Taylor’s explication of the transition from the “London fog” to “global climate change,” a “shift” that is “not simply one of spatial expansion but rather is a scale transition in which the dynamics in question become both larger and more complex as the level of scale increases. Understanding that shift demands that we similarly scale up our thinking in response” (217). While Taylor examines the relationship between the ecologic and the economic, particularly when discussing Our Mutual Friend and Dracula, this relationship deserves further attention, especially in light of recent work that challenges the very notion of Anthropocene discourse and its homogenization of “human” action (see Jason W. Moore, Donna J. Haraway among others). Within the Anthropocene, the relationship between production and consumption seems to become muddled, and Taylor, in the process of explicating the role of agency through the relationship between the individual and collective, identifies the “invisible hand” and “carbon footprint” as “collective metaphors,” part of what he sees as the “anthropomorphism of projected appendages” (67); however, in my view these metaphors are better understood as consistent with capital’s project of disembodiment and atomization, an incessant drive that has had and will continue to have catastrophic environmental effects. Ultimately, Taylor’s work opens up space for continued eco-critical engagement, particularly for those of us interested in the convergence of the ecologic and economic within both novelistic and material global production. The difficulty in assessing the role of the “Anthropogenic” (218) in relation to climate change is itself a product of the contradictions inherent to climatic thinking—a mode of thought that requires inhabiting various scales, historical and material. Concerns such as the problem of agency in relation to the individual body and shared collectivities, the question of how we distribute responsibility within these shared networks and assemblages, and the ability to embrace abstraction as a way to envision an elusive “climate” are problems shared between novelistic and critical production. Thus, the type of reorientation necessary in both eco-critical and eco-social engagement requires nothing less than, as Taylor remarks, pushing “beyond the terms of the current political or ethical debate” (219) and toward new and large-scale ideas, concepts that reveal “alternative meanings” consistent with the type of revised historical and contemporary critical and ecologic reality.