Reflection by Caroline Levine
Jesse Taylor’s new book, The Sky of Our Manufacture, yields unusually rich pleasures. Spurred by the political urgency of attending to climate change, it is a serious and necessary book, but it is also one jam-packed with intellectual excitements: a new way to read the realist novel’s settings and moods as crucial to apprehending atmosphere, a compelling case for the importance of the aesthetic to any apprehension of climate, and prose that crackles with intelligence and insight. I especially loved Taylor’s readings of the “invisible hand” and the “carbon footprint,” which, he suggests, we should understand as belonging to the same voracious body. In this particular analysis, Taylor makes a beautiful case for how literary reading methods might help us to remake political life. Only an astute literary critic could unpack the invisible hand as “a synecdoche that is itself a synecdoche for a metaphor, a sequence that indicates just how difficult it is to conceptualize the distributed agency of assemblages of myriad human and nonhuman actors” (60).
At the risk of seeming to neglect the importance of Taylor’s central concerns about climate, I would like to use his work here to take up another methodological question that this book raises for me, and that is the V21 call for strategic presentism. Presentism used to be such a bad word that it alone could shut down a conversation. And yet, even the most historical books in literary studies have often followed a certain presentist logic. A politically-minded critic might well take up a problem of urgent concern in her own moment—let’s say, debates about marriage or the consolidation of national identity. That critic would then think through that problem by way of the writing of another time and place—let’s say, the novels of Victorian England. She would perhaps take one of two paths to think the relations between past and present: she might link then and now in a causal way, showing how the Victorians created or entrenched the patterns that continue to organize us today. Or, she might do something like the opposite, reflecting on the ways that historical difference would free us from our too-naturalized habits and presumptions, defamiliarizing the present by way of the alternatives of the past.
But how is it that the Victorians were always already in the process of thinking about matters that even in my own scholarly lifetime have seemed excitingly new—the fluidity of sexuality, the boundaries between human and animal, the problem of disability, the Anthropocene? How could Dickens and Eliot and Wilde manage to be contributing to all of those debates, when we ourselves did not pay much, if any, attention to them even a couple of decades ago? The historical-literary-political feels particularly vertiginous when a critic reveals her own originality by discovering in a nineteenth-century writer a set of thoughts about a problem of interest to us today. Is the newest work in literary studies traceable to a brilliant contemporary critic’s responding to her own intellectual moment, or was it always sleeping there in Victorian culture, waiting to be activated by a critical school to come? If a Victorian writer threw light on a problem that troubles us today, and we are noticing it now for the first time, was it always present and alive, or did it need the historical present to bring it to life?
With marriage or national identity, the case is not hard to make, since the Victorians so explicitly obsessed over what marriages and nations should be and do. The case for the Victorian interest in animals and things—the nonhuman—might be easy to make too, but for a different set of reasons: it is the ubiquity, the inevitability, of the nonhuman that ensures its importance even when we forget it or try to relegate it to a realm of inconsequentiality. It is difficult to imagine a novel that is entirely and exclusively filled with humans. Thus the critic uncovers what might well be unintentional or unconscious to the Victorians but which is nonetheless and necessarily at work.
Taylor’s book takes on a more challenging task. How and why to invite writers from the Victorian past to enter productively into debates about climate change and the Anthropocene, terms coined only recently and in response to conditions that have been in the works for a long time but only newly understood? In writing about Bleak House, the answer Taylor gives tacks back and forth between past and future:
The chain of signification does not move from the city to the novel as a copy but the other way around, in the manner of a model making visible phenomena that are at once real, material, and beyond direct human perception. The novel serves as a model helping to bring a coherent idea of the broader system of which it is part into being. Dickens provides his readers with a mediating abstraction through which they will be better prepared to encounter the realities of the urban climate that exist forever out of reach. In so doing, he charts a course for the Anthropocene, in which the work of the humanities, like the influence of humanity, must be reimagined as a genuinely planetary enterprise. (43)
“In the manner of a model,” Taylor writes, the novel is not primarily a reflection or effect of material conditions, but a useful abstraction: it allows us to grasp relations between the institutional, geological, and economic factors that make up the climate, for example, which cannot be directly represented or know. It is for this reason that we need a mediating abstraction—novelistic form—to help us to imagine, understand, and act on the problem of climate.
Though historically meticulous, Taylor’s argument is very different, I would like to suggest, from those historicists who would strive most of all to situate Dickens’s account of the urban fog in a very specific place and time. Taylor explicitly reads the novel here as a model that can be put to use in the future.
This is a kind of reading that depends less on historical situatedness than on portability. Models, after all, are made to move across materials, media, scales. Think of the tiny lego model of a city, shrinking and simplifying the vast and teeming reality. Or think of a model apartment, the same size as all the others but existing in more than one place. Some models remain imaginary and two-dimensional, like an architectural plan that never becomes a building. But it is also true that models do not have to be static: think of a war game or economic theory, whose task is to test out multiple scenarios. In all of these cases, models carry—from small to large, from possible to actual—and they do so in order sharpen our knowledge of a reality that is not available to direct perception.
Taylor’s use of the nineteenth-century realist novel as a model for grasping climate suggests to me that portability is at heart of strategic presentism. Dickens is not just a nineteenth-century figure for Taylor but a resource for us in the moment of the Anthropocene. Dickens is politically consequential. And for a thought or a reading or a text to have consequences, it needs to have an afterlife, a set of effects or implications. That means it needs to look forward as well as backward—to possible futures as well as knowable pasts. For political change, we need portability, drawing models out of the particular contexts where they have worked in the past and putting them to use for the future.
Humanists, and especially those of us interested in the arts, have typically thought of our work as staunchly anti-instrumental, refusing to serve powerful ends. But Taylor hints that we might put art to use after all. It might just be that building sustainable alternatives to capitalism and imperialism and their poisoning of the air and water will involve creating new models for the future drawn from blueprints sketched in the past. Humanists might look to art less as a singular encounter than as—and here I’m drawing very much on the work of Anna Kornbluh—a site where models are put imaginatively to work, where both existing oppressive forms and new, utopian forms can be set in motion, spinning out the implications of forms for life. So instead of setting ourselves the task, always and adamantly, of undoing instrumentalities, strategic presentism might well involve an affirmative, alternative instrumentality. It would mean finding new models for sustaining life.
(I have to confess to having been one of Jesse Taylor’s teachers at Wisconsin, and so I hope you’ll excuse the particular thrill that comes from admiring one’s own students, but like so many superb students I have had the pleasure and honor to teach, Jesse had a project that was all his own, and he nourished and developed this in so many, many ways that his teachers could not and did not anticipate. I am happy to take no credit for this book here.)