Reflection by Megan Ward
Forms that Travel
Jesse Oak Taylor’s ambitious book, The Sky of Our Manufacture, proposes the Victorian and Modernist novel as a model for understanding not only these novels’ historical climate conditions but also our current climate crisis. It offers valuable insights into both novel theory and contemporary eco-criticism through readings of novels by Dickens, Eliot, Stevenson, Conrad, Woolf, and others. In its formalist and at-times presentist methodology, this book also engages the current interest in exploring different relations between form and history (variously termed neo-formalism, “strategic formalism,” or “activist formalism”). Taylor’s work asks us to imagine the limits of how far – historically and disciplinarily – fictional form can travel.
I focus here on the first of the book’s three sections, “The Novel As Climate Model,” as it most directly engages these questions. Taylor’s “atmospheric thinking” urges us to attend to novelistic climate over more traditional attention to plot or character. Doing so, he argues, “simulates the process of attending to the atmospheric and ecological impacts of the various plots of social interaction” (50). In other words, reading atmospherically models ecological citizenship while also highlighting important and lesser-studied elements of the nineteenth-century novel. Reading for plot, this suggests, is a way of learning to pay attention to – and even predict – environmental crisis.
This method allows Taylor to weigh in on key novel theory questions such as the rise of individualism and the reality effect. For instance, he argues effectively that reading atmospherically means that we experience our own smallness, the lack of impact an individual makes, even in the human-oriented Anthropocene. This, in turn, causes “a reevaluation of one of the key strands in novel theory, namely, the idea that the genre hinges on the conceptualization and development of the individual subject” (40). Though I was less convinced that Eliot’s famous ethos of “unhistoric acts” need necessarily be read as a figure for the unpredictable effects of climate, Taylor offers compelling readings of Bleak House, Hard Times, and Our Mutual Friend that move nimbly between novelistic and environmental forms. So when Taylor concludes that the phrase “our mutual friend” refers not to an individual but to “a palpable absence, or rather a web of connections woven around that absence,” he does so not only to diagnose fictional form but to argue for that form’s help in understanding ourselves outside individual agency and as part of a species (66).
Taylor displays his historicist chops in engaging relevant Victorian contexts such as weather forecasting (including a “tempest prognosticator”) and the London smog, while also making a case for the importance of fictional form beyond context. He argues that “ecocriticism must embrace the power of mediating constructions, instruments, and models if it is to engage productively with the imaginative challenges posed by anthropogenic climate change” (30). By situating the novel as not simply a reflection of climate change but as an “instrument” of its study, Taylor emphasizes the importance of fictional form as not only representation but mode of study. This opens up the possibility that we can rethink twenty-first problems of climate change by practices more familiar to us from novel-reading: understanding individuals, for instance, as not only forming their environment but signifying it, like fictional characters in that they not only create but reflect meaning.
This occasionally ends up being somewhat vague, as in an early claim that “literature and arts have a crucial role to play” in understanding contemporary climate crisis (9). Other moments, however, display the full potential of this method – we not only understand the Victorian novel better but also our current perceptions. For instance, Taylor argues that reading a novel is “a form of cognitive climate modeling, tacking back and forth between the immediate sense perception of the weather and abstract configurations of meteorology, culture, and discourse” (10). Forecasting, then, becomes a skill practiced in the reading of novels, a way to understand the role of human prediction in our often-disastrous climatic encounters.
Taylor offers the best argument for his methodology when he remarks that “form is what enables any object or assemblage to become an agent because it is what allows an entity to become present, not merely to others but also to itself” (65). Becoming “present,” then, occurs over and over again, as a novel is read and re-read. This book captures several of these moments, asserting that as we read the Victorian novel, fictional form becomes an agent for seeing climate anew.