Mediating Climate Change: Ecocriticism, Science Studies, and The Hungry Tide
Abstract and Keywords
This article examines Amitav Ghosh’s climate change novel The Hungry Tide, which has become something of a canonical text for environmental critics. It explains that this novel shows the literary processes of mediation and argues that, instead of viewing mediation as a substitution of the sign for the real, we follow Latour suggestion that the mediated circulation of things is what makes them real. It also argues that by tracing mediation in literary texts, ecocriticism can begin to describe their innovations in the world of things.
Imagining climate change is an enormously difficult task. Deliberate politicized spin campaigns have contributed to public uncertainty, but setting this aside, perhaps the single greatest difficulty is that it is impossible to have a direct experience of climate. Human technologies are thoroughly invested in weather, from wearing animal skins to turning on the air conditioning unit, from looking at clouds to tuning in for the five-day forecast. Climate is a pattern of weather demonstrated over time, so no single storm or heat wave can be ascribed to climate change. Other difficulties abound. Direct cause and effect make a satisfying narrative, but anthropogenic global warming is expansive: tailpipe and smokestack emissions can lead ultimately to storm surges or rising sea levels on the other side of the globe. Similarly, the effects of species loss can be difficult to see, even when they participate in ecosystems worth billions of dollars. There are no clear villains, either. Billions of people, including you and me, are implicated: buying food grown with petrochemicals; working in offices or shops or factories powered by coal plants; driving in cars or riding in buses or flying in planes that burn fossil fuels; or using the furnace or air conditioner that came with our home. The timescales of climate change are difficult as well: failing to alter the power plants built in the next five years will affect global climate through the twenty-second century, even though many of the worst changes may not be realized for fifty years.1 Fiction can help us think about these difficulties, but the form of the novel and the state of literary criticism make the task more difficult. In order to approach climate change in fiction, it is necessary to re-examine some of our basic assumptions about what things do the work in novels.
The novel would seem to be an enormous resource: over two hundred works of fiction about anthropogenic global warming have been published in the last thirty years. Nearly all of these novels shift the fictional climate for the sake of drama. Often, the novel is set in a distant future, when the catastrophic effects of climate change have already taken place, flooding Britain or turning continents to ash. Otherwise, novelists rely on the plausible but unpredictable idea of sudden climatic change to plunge familiar (p. 206) characters into an unprecedented blizzard or drought. If the novel is set in the present, villains must be found, whether these are fraudulent energy corporations, corrupt governments, or individual consumers made grotesque. The majority of these novels are set in familiar cities (Washington, D.C.; New York; or London), but these locations make it all but impossible to show its effects on inhabitants of developing countries and species around the world. These shifts are not inconsequential: by making climate change spectacular, dramatic, and containable in a single setting and a cast of characters, they almost universally avoid the political problems we face in the uncertain present, trying to act on climate change before it reaches the dystopian phase that is threatened.
Climate change has proved to be even more troublesome for academic criticism. Almost invariably, writing about contemporary literature involves making claims about which authors should be included in the congealing climate canon (Brauner 206). Not only is such judgment precarious, but it also leads to a set of assumptions about literary production disowned by nearly all historicist and theoretical accounts. Harold Bloom sets out the view:
Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness. That depth of inwardness in a strong writer constitutes the strength that wards off the massive weight of past achievement, lest every originality be crushed before it becomes manifest.
At every turn, canonical criticism privileges the human. Authorship depends on the deep, private, inward soul, rather than the material activities of research and composition, not to mention editing and printing. In practice, this also leads to characters that are not, in principle, contextualized within a society, let alone engaged significantly with nature, the pathetic fallacy notwithstanding. The “ultimate inwardness” of canonical criticism deliberately eschews analysis of both politics and things more generally, and rules out a sublime or sensuous experience of global warming, because a wider scientific and social infrastructure is needed to make it appear. Climate change, having everything to do with places, politics, and things—car engines and coal mines and tropical fruit—is anathema.
Many of the authors in the contemporary canon have, in fact, written climate change novels, but the evasions and transformations they find it necessary to perform are so bizarre that they are among the worst. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood raises climate change as a fundamental threat to biodiversity, only to refocus completely on human exploitation and genetic modification in order to get purchase on ultimate inwardness. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road suppresses the causes of catastrophe, turning climate change into a biblical melodrama. Ian McEwan’s Solar ensures the problem seems all but insoluble by choosing an obese, sex-crazed physicist as an allegorical everyman. Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann elides any question of human causes or responses by replacing global warming with a natural ice age. Products of the authors of the contemporary Western canon, all of these novels return the focus to the internal, human soul, while evading questions (p. 207) of environmental justice for those not of European ancestry.2 Also supposed irrelevant or insufficiently dramatic are the things we use to know climate change, like ice cores, temperature surveys, and computer models. Still less do they concern themselves with the political processes that might avert catastrophic anthropogenic climate change in the first place.
Environmental criticism has also elided the climate change novel, though for very different reasons. Having productively criticized the canon’s anthropocentric assumptions, it has gone on to create a canon of its own, largely composed of texts that give a sensuous, immediate sense of place and describe its effects on human beings. Climate change fiction, set in the future, dispersed over the globe, when “pure” nature has all but vanished, doesn’t sit easily with the ecocritical canon, but this is not the fundamental problem. In the last decade, important monographs by Jonathan Bate, Lawrence Buell, Dana Phillips, Greg Garrard, and Timothy Morton have invoked climate change as part of the “environmental crisis,” without having much to say about its specific causes, possible remedies, or how literature might be involved.3 There have been a handful of articles examining the most prominent authors of climate change novels, and a few attempts to consider literary theory and historicism in light of global warming, but there is relatively little research that takes a systematic approach to climate change literature.4
When a novel successfully mediates climate change, making the scientific phenomenon appear in the narrative, the possibilities of the novel are also altered. Stories about floods are as old as writing, appearing in Genesis and Gilgamesh, but when a deluge sweeps through the capital in Maggie Gee’s The Flood or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain, we are encouraged to judge characters’ agency and ethics in a very different way. (Mediation can also fail: when James Herbert’s Portent tries to pin the responsibility on an evil, fat, black sorceress from New Orleans, no less than when George Bush tried to recast climate change as an invention of the Left, the internal contradictions render anthropogenic climate change absurdly unrecognizable.) If one of ecocriticism’s most important insights has been the recognition that places in literature are far more constructive than was assumed by humanist critics obsessed by character, things achieve a new sort of prominence in the climate change novel. Landscapes, animals, devices, vehicles, buildings, and other people have always been formally constructive entities in fiction: in eighteenth-century society novels, the English country house contains and elevates a cast of characters, and implies a moral context judging them, while narration of the city enables anonymous, acquisitive, amorous, and amoral encounters. But the invention of the motor car in the early 1900s made very different kinds of narrative gestures possible: the hero who races from city to country house to correct a misunderstanding with his intended demonstrates a new agency over his destiny, while the narrator gains a new play with distance and immediacy not lent by stagecoaches or trains.5 Another century on, the aristocratic Land Rover has another set of meanings. Melting ice caps, global climate models, solar technologies, and tipping points are actively altering the formal possibilities of the novel, but to understand how involves a close reading of things.
(p. 208) The critical difficulty here is not ignorance of climate change, but a general misunderstanding of how fiction mediates. Following an important argument between Buell and Phillips, environmental critics too often chose between the assertion that real, natural things (trees, to be specific) can enter a text referentially, and the argument that literary texts operate according to their own rules, with no essential relationship between a described tree and one found in the author’s backyard. In practice, this amounted to cheerleading for realism and postmodern formalism, both of which have become all but exhausted as literary modes.6 The difficulties were multiplied as ecocriticism tried to articulate a theory of interdisciplinarity: from the 1970s through the 1990s, one side claimed ecology could provide a material, nonhuman foundation for criticism by allowing it to trace a transhistorical, natural subject, like ecosystems, wetlands, or birds. 7 The other side paid lip service to the “scientific method,” but claimed its findings were irreducibly socially embedded (Levin 6–7) and that criticism offered a superior approach to immaterial emanations of the mind or the “hyperreal.”8 Unfortunately, both positions attacked straw men on the other side. Literary texts are able to mediate things precisely because they are wholly unlike the thing itself. A literary description of a tree carries specific, chosen aspects of a real tree into the narrative, while suppressing other, undesirable aspects: a novel will sit comfortably in a reader’s lap. The result was literary criticism that was either blinded to the interplay of things, forms, and ideologies across historical periods, or that dematerialized science’s truth claims into mere historical ideas. Both are disastrous for ecocriticism, which must be able to describe the historical conditions that led to the proliferation of emissions and the truth of the greenhouse effect across history and culture.
Since the late 1990s, a number of ecocritics have turned to science studies to resolve the ontological difficulties that result from combining environmental sciences and literary criticism. In an important article, Bruce Clarke argues ecocriticism must avoid scientism, “the appropriation of science within a non-scientific context,” while also avoiding the strong social constructivism that tended to dematerialize the sciences (Clarke 150). For a third direction, Clarke turned to Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, which argues that modernity is not a particular invention or historical moment, but rather a style of thinking and writing, often confused with science, that insists upon an untenable ontological separate between Nature and Society, objects and subjects. This modernist purification continues to operate in postmodern theory, primitivist nature appreciation, and the critique of nature as a social construction (Clarke 155–56). Science, for Latour, is not modern at all, nor is it a single, stable “method” of creating representations of things; instead, it is the practice of creating new situations for things to express their agency. (Latour’s description privileges “research,” leaving the door open to practices such as literary criticism, or novel-writing.) The things that emerge from this process are neither merely material, real, independent of human beings; nor are they pure intellection, constructed by the will of scientists, ideology, or discourse. Categorically, they are “hybrids,” “half object and half subject,” resisting human agency and producing human knowledge at the same time.
To speak of the agency of things—red dwarves or mud or dolphins—is not to ascribe interiority, intentionality, or choice to them. Interiority and intentionality are specifically (p. 209) human categories of agency: we express our agency and intentionality by studying red dwarves, walking around muddy puddles, and trying to conserve dolphins or teach them tricks. However, things have an agency of their own, though this is inextricable from how we know them: red dwarves will not radiate light beyond a certain spectrum; mud will splash despite our best wishes; dolphins will learn tricks in a way that a duck simply will not. Their “behavior” is not a choice, but it distinguishes them from otherwise similar things. Agency is a useful concept because it acknowledges things’ real existence without necessitating the transcendentalist argument that we can know about them without interacting with them, as well as trouncing the common environmental canard that things are only natural if they are purely beyond human influence. Thus, Latour’s model suggested a means to escape the binary opposition between naive scientific realism and anti-scientific reaction (Phillips 2003). Subsequently, environmental critics have used Latour’s model of hybridity to describe human modification of animals’ genes and the atmosphere (Wallace), to construct a sustainable vision of place (Ball), and to trace the dynamic historical interactions between culture and climate (Markley). Gert Goeminne and Karen François, following Emily Potter, have shown anthropogenic climate change is inextricably hybrid: it is naturally produced, operating beyond human understanding or control, but it is also socially produced and the consequence of human actions (Goeminne and François 2010). Unfortunately, there has been much less work exploring how Latour’s actor-network theory might inform our interpretation of fictional texts.
Existing criticism has also tended to neglect an important feature of actor-network theory: many things are needed to produce scientific “facts.” Data is not a representation of a hybrid, but rather another hybrid thing itself. To take a simplified example: from 1850 local weather has been translated into temperature by standardized thermometers; handwritten logs charted daily temperature; these records are nowadays transcribed into computer files; the files are collected into much larger data sets; models are used to describe temperature around the globe; the temperature records ultimately inform and test predictive climate models; these findings are published in academic papers, and are themselves tested by other scientific processes. In each of these steps, the thermometer, handwritten record, computer file, database, climate model, and scientific article reproduce aspects of the original weather, while also taking a new form that can be used in a different way. Also, each step is tested for whether the new thing carries along, or mediates, the agency of the original thing: testing these steps is much of the process of doing science. Latour uses the term “immutable mobiles” to describe hybrid things like samples, records, and databases that are both stable and moveable, material and bearing ideas.9 Literary things are similar hybrids: the fictional Land Rover is both similar to and different from the one that nearly ran me over last week, though we could only determine precisely how by reading contextually. Moreover, the literary process of mediation can also fail to obtain. To take a previous example, climate change rendered as the fault of a fat black sorceress is radically insufficient: it carries none of the important features of climate change, and introduces a racism and misogyny that interrupts any consideration of the phenomena. By tracing mediation in literary texts, ecocriticism can begin to describe their innovations in the world of things.
(p. 210) In order to see this process of mediation at work, it is helpful to follow it through a text. Although the obvious choice would be to read one of the “better” climate change novels, a novel that actively resists global warming better shows the literary processes of mediation. Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide is particularly useful in this case. With considerable formal refinement, an interest in folk tale, historical narrative, realism and translation, the novel’s self-awareness marks it as worthy of formal critique.10 Ghosh’s novel has also been celebrated by postcolonial critics, who value his nuanced depiction of the interactions between Piya, an American scientist alienated from her Indian ancestry, Kanai, a Delhi businessman and translator, Fokir, an impoverished Sundarban fisherman, and Nilima, an NGO administrator.11 The novel’s preoccupations with differential power dynamics, discrete ways of knowing, and the contemporary world, make an amenable setting for poststructuralist approaches, while a back story involving repression by a Marxist regional government and the dispossession of peasantry invites a reconsideration of Marxist theory.12 Moreover, The Hungry Tide pays close attention to Piya’s field work, the colonial background to ecological research, the interplay between local myth and scientific knowledge, and tensions between human place and climatology, all of which makes an interesting field to explore the interconnections between science and literature.13 The Hungry Tide has rapidly become something of a canonical text for environmental critics.14 Set in the Indian Sundarbans, it is preoccupied with the conservation challenges to megafauna, specifically Royal Bengal tigers and Irrawaddy river dolphins. Ecocritics have appreciated the precise, evocative descriptions of the tide country, where storms wipe away villages and islands in hours, mangrove trees and tidal currents create unique habitats, floods threaten any human settlement, and humans are always only precariously able to maintain food, shelter, and safety. These features make The Hungry Tide a hospitable climate for a full range of critical models to encounter an ecocritical theory of mediation, particularly because science plays a central role in the novel. At the same time, the novel pointedly avoids anthropogenic climate change, even though, driven by concerns of melting ice-caps and rising sea levels, the shallow tide country of India and Bangladesh has been at the center of cultural and political accounts of global warming. Prominent climate change novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear are deeply concerned with the region, while other novels like T. C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth, Maggie Gee’s The Flood, and J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World envision climate-changed worlds that bear a marked similarity to the tide country. The combination of The Hungry Tide’s unimpeachable literary credentials and curious omission of climate change make it an ideal text to examine literary mediation’s relationship to anthropogenic global warming.
It is the practice of science that is central to the novel. It would be easy enough to argue that science provides a “real” context for the fiction: that hydrology provides a formal model for literary innovation; or conservation operates as an ideological structure for colonial demarcation; or scientific discourse stages a conflict between different social organizations; or ecology is disseminated differently in American and Indian culture; (p. 211) or even that Piya’s ecology suggests a new theory of environmental writing. Instead of science being only a ground for literary invention, though, Ghosh’s fiction follows an anthropological model that reports human truth practices, based on participant observation. Ghosh trained as an anthropologist at Oxford and spent two decades as a professional ethnologist. In interviews, he has emphasized how this shaped his own methods of composition, leading his imagination to “[engage] with real life, with the lives people lead,” instead of supplying the material for his novels “almost entirely out of his own head” (Aldama). The Hungry Tide was written after extensive research in the region, including accompanying a cetologist on a survey expedition, being introduced “to the ways of the Irrawaddy dolphin and to those of the cetologist” (Ghosh 2004 401). Ghosh’s methodology, then, shares a methodological lineage with Latour’s branch of science studies, which distinguished itself from the sociology of science when researchers began to perform ethnographic studies of scientific practice, following scientists into laboratories and the field.15 Put simply, both Ghosh and Latour describe the inextricably material and social practices that allow knowledge to emerge.
Such an ethnographic model challenges basic modes of literary explanation and contextualization. Before ethnographic models influenced science studies, the results of an experiment would be described in terms of nature’s truth, progress, or social forces like ideology, discourse, or capital. Similarly, critical interpretations of texts continue to use material reality, narrative, and social power as privileged means of explanation. Ethnographic approaches distinguish themselves from social scientific explanations of science by arguing that nature, society, and history are not sources of truth, but rather what is produced by scientific practice. A practice-based model of explanation also challenges the basic categories of human character and material things, as Andrew Pickering explains:
Scientists are human agents in a field of material agency which they struggle to capture in machines. Further, human and material agency are reciprocally and emergently intertwined in this struggle. Their contours emerge in the temporality of practice and are definitional of and sustain one another. Existing culture constitutes the surface of emergence for the intentional structure of scientific practice, and such practice consists in the reciprocal tuning of human and material agency, tuning that can itself reconfigure human intentions.
Pickering’s model suggests that both social constructionist and material (or naturalistic) explanations of things are incomplete, because the humans and things on which they depend emerge from such interaction.16 Moreover, neither social constructionist nor naturalistic theories can provide an incontestable basis for explanations of science, because both humans and things are “mangled” together from scientific practice. In scientific practice, therefore, human and material agencies are understood in terms of each other, through the unfolding of narrative. 17 In relation to literature, this makes good sense, because literary character and literary things don’t precede the narrative, but rather take their meaning from a network of other characters and things.18 Pickering’s account is also suggestive in its description of culture as the surface where human and (p. 212) nonhuman agency becomes further intertwined. Pickering means culture in an anthropological sense, but cultural studies’ productive slippage between culture as collective ideology and culture as art is helpful here, suggesting that works of art are also things that entangle human and material agency.
One of the most important achievements of The Hungry Tide is the way it shows the agency of humans and nonhumans in the same framework. Too often, critics turn a novel’s things into a foil for human character or social forces, or treat animals as an extra-literary phenomenon.19 The Hungry Tide forestalls this mode of interpretation, giving a palpable sense of things beyond human control. After Piya falls from a boat and narrowly escapes a crocodile, she is all too aware of the reptile’s will: “She imagined the tug that would have pulled her below the surface and the momentary release before the jaws closed again, around her midsection” (194). Faced with a crocodile, few critics would describe its malign agency as a social construction. Tigers too exert agency: while Kanai assumes the hundreds of tiger attacks per year are caused by humans—“overpopulation, or encroachment on the habitat, or something like that”—Nilima, the head of a local NGO, has better information, and demonstrates tigers had been killing humans at the same rate since the 1860s. For the last 25 years, scientists, government, and local people had tried countless schemes to deter the animals from their prey, but the tigers’ agency proved frustratingly resistant to human intervention (240–2). Also unforgettable are the descriptions of storms that fling characters up to fifty kilometres away, hurl boats into trees, wipe whole islands into the sea, and kill as many people as the nuclear attack on Hiroshima in a single day. Things like crocodiles, tigers, and weather exert an agency that is irreducible to humans’ wishes; they need to be read in their own right.
The Hungry Tide also demonstrates that humans’ artefactual relationship to the world cannot be understood through established notions of character.20 A canonical critic would be tempted to interpret Piya’s scientific instruments, her range-finder, depth-sounder, data sheets on a clipboard, and GPS monitor, as props for characterization. As a graduate student, Piya buys a pair of expensive binoculars after going through dozens of catalogues, and then worries she might not have the physical strength to be a scientist after struggling to hold the heavy instrument for a few minutes, let alone the hours needed for scientific observation (73). All this could be read as an indication of Piya’s care, precision, frugality, and tenacity. Even politically engaged critics build on this human-centred approach: Mukherjee is dismissive toward “Piya’s gadgets” (156), arguing Piya “literally embodies the panoptical knowledge-machine of colonialism” (152), while Marzec reads her tools as showing the limits of “instrumentally-governed subjectivity” (431), preparing for Piya’s humanistic transcendence of technology. However, conservative characterization, Foucauldian knowledge-power, and transcendental humanism all struggle to account for the stubborn recalcitrance of nonhuman things, as well as the ways humans and nonhumans mutually transform each other in an experimental system. In fact, Ghosh describes Piya’s instruments as an ethnographer of science, emphasizing their irreducibility to human agency. The description of Piya’s binoculars accentuate their material existence: (p. 213)
The glasses’ outer casing had been bleached by the sun and dulled by the gnawing of sand and salt, yet the waterproofing had done its job in protecting the instrument’s essential functions. After six years of constant use the lens still delivered an image of undiminished sharpness. (73)
The details of the binoculars, the bleached and gnawed casing, the precision of the lens, emphasizes their material importance. At the same time, both binoculars and Piya are entangled in their use. The precise, scientific observations that are delivered through the binoculars are irreducible to Piya’s unaided gaze. During her first expedition, Piya’s physicality is altered as well, as she develops “huge ropy muscles in [her] arms” (75), her body inserted into a “cyborg” assemblage. Just as importantly, the binoculars’ patina distinguishes them from the shiny, expensive accessory of an amateur enthusiast.
To be clear, Piya and the binoculars don’t represent yet another binary opposition, a symptom of mind and materiality or culture and nature. Understanding them requires an interdependent system of things. In her first expedition, Piya’s agency is reconstructed as she is joined to a network of scientific things, with the binoculars, a boat, the river, and wildlife. When a herd “of possibly as many as seven thousand” spinner dolphins appears to the expedition, “at a certain point the binoculars” weight ceased to matter…the glasses fetched you the water with such vividness and particularity that you could not think of anything else’ (74–75). In this moment, the dolphins are remade as scientific facts, the expensive, leaden binoculars are remade into an ecological prosthesis, and the young student is reformed as a scientific observer. Their impure, assembled agencies allow the results to be translated from field observations to data sheets, databases at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, academic journals, and scientists around the world.21 At the same time, the instrumental act of scientific observation effaces the things that make Piya a character—her pain, her aesthetic enjoyment, her inner monologue, even “intimate involvements” with other humans (112). Even the convention of third person narration shifts to the impersonal “you.” Humanist critics view these transformations as a dangerous threat to human sovereignty, but this is merely an indication that our critical commonplaces can’t encapsulate one of the most important and common aspects of human experience. Piya is neither “instrumentally governed,” because her agency is necessary to the experimental system, nor is she an agent of colonialism, because the findings of the system are far beyond her control.22 Piya’s will is an important precondition for finding out about real dolphins, and therefore being able to conceive of conservation. By entangling ourselves with technology, we sometimes preserve things beyond us.
Critics’ complaint against Piya’s instrumental logic actually has more to do with the discourse of modernity than her relationships with things. For Latour and Ghosh, modernity rigorously separates nature and society: “Nature is defined by its exemption from contamination by people: it is as it were, the other of society, a province defined by its exclusion of human sociability” (Ghosh, “Wild Fictions”). Humans are correspondingly ranked on a scale from primitive to modern, based on their apparent “distance” from nature. Certainly Mukherjee and Marzec are right to object to Piya’s snobbish (p. 214) amazement at the compatibility of her work, depending on geostationary satellites, and Fokir’s, involving “bits of shark bone and broken tile” (118). Modernity’s exclusions are even uglier when Piya rejects the thought of making Fokir a scientific partner, because she can’t imagine him boarding a plane dressed in lungi and t-shirt (320). Curiously, both Piya and Fokir understand nature as a rigorous separation from human sociality, when Piya invokes “what was intended…by nature, by the earth” (301), and when Fokir argues that “when a tiger comes into a human settlement, it’s because it wants to die” (295). These discursive separations between moderns and primitives, society and nature, are policed with considerable violence: at the political level, the Forest Department beats and kills humans who try to live in the purified area of the nature reserve, and Piya and Kanai find themselves unwillingly implicated in this discourse, involuntarily describing villagers through Conrad’s “the horror,” “something from some other time—before recorded history” (300, 326). Paradoxically, their horror is precisely at the violence Sundarban locals use to protect themselves from the (natural) tigers, suggesting that neither cosmopolitan intellectuals nor villagers in the developing world are exempt from the relentless purification of human and nature. The reader’s ability to sympathize with either side is indicative of the ubiquity of modernity.
One of Latour’s insights is that the purifications of modernity cannot be overcome by transcendent consciousness or postmodernism, because neither of these forms describe how things and humans actually cooperate. Piya and Fokir are not connected by a desire to commune spiritually with nature, but rather by practices of technological entanglement with natural things that they increasingly come to share.23 As Latour has argued, “I may use an electric drill, but I also use a hammer. The former is thirty-five years old, the latter hundreds of thousands” (Latour, Modern 75). Piya learns it’s better to “hunt” river dolphins in Fokir’s canoe than a motorboat, while Fokir learns to supplement his fishing income by hunting waypoints on Piya’s GPS (250). The discourse of modernity leads us to expect a successive model of history—Piya is shocked at the compatibility of their labour—but Piya and Fokir actually interact with a network of things that spans humans’ earliest and most recent inventions. By looking past the discourse of modernity to humans’ inescapably instrumental relationship to the world, we can begin to trace the effects of our complex entanglements with the material world.
For both scientists and literary critics, the central issue is how the agency of nonhumans can be preserved as it is circulated. Of course social power can shape knowledge—as British naturalists like “the great Gray of London” handed down erroneous judgements from the imperial centre (Ghosh 2004, 231)—but things also emerge through scientific discourse, cultures, publics, and individual experience, their agency intact. Often things move from scientists to the public: Ghosh singles out natural history as an “indispensible science of interpretation that allows the environment to speak back to us,” creating knowledge that is “capable of universal application” (“Wild Fictions”). Thus, Piya’s research is designed to shape public behavior, and when she loses her data sheets in the storm, the story leads friends and colleagues to fund further research. Even more tangibly, orcaella fetch up to one hundred thousand U.S. dollars on the black market, to be shown in aquariums in eastern Asia (Ghosh 2004, 306). In such cases, (p. 215) environmental science mediates between the environment and the public, letting natural things “speak.”
Just as often, though, cultural mediations of things are transferred to science. As a child, Fokir learns to follow the orcaella from the legend of Bon Bibi (307), which later allows him to show Piya the dolphin’s favored haunts. European literary traditions also allow the things to be seen, as when Nirmal recognizes a the independence of a dolphin’s gaze through Rilke’s mediating language: “some mute animal/raising its calm eyes and seeing through us,/and through us. This is destiny…” (235). Things can also teach scientists and publics: the dolphins’ sensitivity to atmospheric pressure warns Piya of an approaching cyclone, and Fokir finds fish by following the river dolphins (366–67). The animals, mediated through scientific discourse, folk legend, and European literary forms, exert their agency as they circulate through scientific instruments, cultures, and natures, giving and receiving influences along the way. Instead of viewing mediation as a substitution of the sign for the real, The Hungry Tide suggests that the mediated circulation of things is what makes them real.24
In an important sense, the form of mediation shapes the content of what is known. One of the central problems for cultural theory is why one group’s knowledge is apparently incompatible with another’s: a problem that appears between laboratories, political groups, and nations. Social accounts of incommensurability (e.g., Kuhn) argue that a shared paradigm, ideology or episteme differentiates one group from another. However, Latourian accounts suggest incommensurability is rooted in different technological assemblages of people and things, a crisis illustrated in The Hungry Tide when a tiger becomes trapped in a livestock pen, having previously killed two villagers and many of their animals. Ghosh paints a lurid, torchlit scene, with the village’s men plunging sharpened staves into the tiger, “their faces…in the grip of both extreme fear and uncontrollable rage.” The village’s women and children look on, “screaming in a maddened bloodlust ‘Kill! Kill!’” (292–33), while Fokir helps sharpen spears. Ever the conservationist, Piya is appalled, wades into the crowd to stop it, but is dragged away by Fokir as the crowd sets the tiger on fire. The scene frames a moment of incommensurability, and the dramatic stakes are raised by the literary echoes of villagers torching modern civilization and burning science’s monsters with it. In the controversy, the technological framework of subsistence livestock farming co-produces the tigers’ agency as malignantly pitched against humans’ food source, while the technological framework of conservation zoology (in a highly specialized labour economy) co-produces tigers’ individual agency as independent of human goals. Both technological frameworks produce an incommensurable opposition, although participants, readers and policymakers are not, in reality, completely constrained by either framework. What none of these humans can do is distinguish the “truth” of an unmediated tiger.25
Some ecocritics have suggested that the problems of mediation can be overcome through a primary experience of things themselves, but The Hungry Tide shows the limitations of this strategy.26 After Kanai falls in a mud pool and abuses Fokir, he finds himself alone on an island known for its tigers. The urbane translator becomes terrified and (p. 216) crashes through tangled vegetation into a grassy clearing, where he has an unmediated experience of nature:
He could not bring himself to look around the clearing. This was where it would be, if it was here on the island—but what was he thinking of?…The words he had been searching for, the euphemisms that were the source of his panic, had been replaced by the thing itself, except that without words it could not be apprehended or understood. It was an artefact of pure intuition, so real that the thing itself could not have dreamed of existing so intensely. He opened his eyes and there it was, directly ahead, less than a hundred metres away. It was sitting on its haunches with its head up, watching him with its tawny, flickering eyes. The upper parts of its coat were of a colour that shone like gold in the sunlight, but its belly was dark and caked with mud. It was immense, of a size greater than he could have imagined, and the only parts of its body that were moving were its eyes and the tip of its tail. (329)
In terror, Kanai pushes aside the mediating word, “tiger,” and discovers a state of “pure sensation,” a romantic experience where mediated nature is replaced with immediate contact. He feels tigerness with his eyes closed, and sees it when he opens them. The language here poses an unanswerable dilemma, as the “artefact of pure intuition” is uncertainly invented or real. In the moment Kanai “sees” the tiger, “its head up, watching him,” “greater than he could have imagined,” the description’s specificity—“tawny, flickering eyes,” “belly…caked with mud”—draws on the realist novel’s conventions, exerting its own gaze and seeming more real “than he could have imagined.” At the same time, Kanai is having a mythic confrontation: the island is said to be a testing ground where only those pure of heart will survive. His survival in the mythic conflict self-servingly designates him “pure,” although later, Kanai’s tiger story runs into trouble after Fokir and Piya are unable to find any tiger prints (another mediating inscription) and pointedly doubt his success in any such mythic trial. In this way, the passage stages a formal conflict by raising incommensurable romantic, realist, and mythic frameworks of interpretation. With no clear way to adjudicate between them, there is no means of establishing what has taken place.27 What hangs in the balance is precisely the tiger’s agency: without mediation, it becomes impossible to say whether Kanai has seen a tiger. In short, mediation enables things to emerge in narrative.
Understanding fiction as a collection of mediated things helps resolve some of criticism’s main theoretical difficulties. Too often, fiction is understood as “imaginary,” essentially separated from the real, in opposition to the mediating language of commerce and day to day existence. Kanai raises this model when he retells his own youth, as he abandoned poetry’s “riches beyond accounting” in favor of profitable commercial translation (Ghosh 2004, 198–99). Here, most language enumerates, makes happen, and makes money, but literature is language that doesn’t mediate. (This sense of literature bears a striking resemblance to “nature,” defined as whatever remains uncontaminated by society.) Such a model struggles to understand literature’s relationship to power, politics, knowledge, and things. But when fiction is understood as a collection of mediations (p. 217) of things, both its artifice and its truthfulness come into focus. Novels artfully invoke—mediate—our technologies for mediating things. By integrating technical ways of knowing the world—fishing, ecological surveys, local myth, and so on—into narrative, fiction allows us to explore the making of the real. Ghosh has made a similar point, noting novels provide “a canvas broad enough to address [the relationship between human beings and their surroundings] in all its dimensions” (“Wild Fictions”). Interpretation tests how successfully a novel mediates these technologies, by assessing the things that shape characters.
How, then, are such fictions of place to be historicized? Pickering suggests that new things constantly emerge in the world, and that new societies of humans emerge with these things. This is probably the most important achievement of The Hungry Tide, articulating the emergence of a new social configuration resulting from the endangered river dolphins. In the epilogue of the novel, Piya proposes a new conservation organization named after Fokir and under the sponsorship of a local NGO, creating a partnership between formerly disparate agents: ecological scientists and American environmentalists, academic funding bodies and web-based environmental contributors, a grassroots organization for women and underemployed men, local fishermen and endangered marine mammals (397). The novel also describes a contemporary transition from apparently pure science to research that is visibly implicated in capital, development, and social justice. Notably, this emergence is unthinkable outside the specific agency of orcaella brevirostris: its habitat ties it to the people of the tide country; its complex migration patterns and deep tidal pools demand seasoned fishermen’s knowledge of local environment; its struggles to survive interest the Indian Forest Service; its unique behavior draws first world ecologists. The emergence of this organization is not subject to a logic of “dominance” by one of the actors, because their interests in orcaella brevirostris and each other only emerge through the project-narrative. The novel is also at pains to show that “ideological influence” alone is powerless to make new societies emerge: David Hamilton’s utopian community founders on the unruly climate; a Marxist government violently exiles Sundarban settlers; Kolkata’s capital never reaches the tide country; Science “with a capital S” doesn’t know enough to save river dolphins or protect humans from tiger attacks; Project Tiger funds a repressive military force while failing to protect the animals. Utopian organization, leftist politics, globalized markets, scientism, and mandated environmentalism alike catastrophically fail to engage with the emergences of heterogeneous systems like the Sundarban environment. When “Fokir’s” new organization emerges, the ideological structures are made the cause of a thing they could not have anticipated. As a result, the emergent organization is historically significant in its own right.
When new connections are made between epistemological things like characters, settings, animals, and objects, the past is retrofitted to cause their emergence. In The Hungry Tide, the same operation occurs at the level of history, romance, and description. Regarding history, a journal provides Kanai with a history of refugees who founded a Utopian community on the island of Morichjhapi, only to be exiled by a Marxist government in the name of environmental protection. It would be easy to (p. 218) misread this “history” as a “context” for the novel, but it is more accurate to say that the novel reconstructs history to allow itself to exist in the present. Thus, the “past” of the journal allows “Fokir’s” contemporary conservation group to emerge, tying together social and environmental justice.28 The novel’s romantic arc operates similarly: a love triangle between Kanai, Piya, and Fokir should result in one of the men becoming a hero and Piya falling in love. Instead, Kanai is humiliated when he falls in the mud and claims to see a tiger; Fokir dies while shielding Piya while whispering the names of his wife and son; and Piya declines any sexual encounter in the field. Piya also denies she is motivated by intellectual ambition or political efficacy, seeking “an alibi for life” instead of a deep sense of self (126–27). This rejection of romance and heroism enables a new kind of relationship to form between Piya and the orcaella brevirostris, leading Ghosh to imagine a new kind of conservation organization. At key moments in the novel, moreover, description is remade as something new: as the climactic storm picks up strength, language is remade to describe it: “[The gale’s noise] sounded no longer like the wind but like some other element—the usual blowing, sighing and rustling had turned into a deep, ear-splitting rumble, as if the earth itself had begun to move” (378–79). Normally passive air becomes like an earthquake, even as it tears the earth. A bit later, the transparency of sky and mysterious danger of water are inverted: “It was as though the sky had become a dark-tinted mirror for the waters of the tide country” (379). In these passages, the agency of the storm reworks standard tropes of nature, which apparently cause the phenomenon even as they are superseded.29 This model of literary practice locates formal innovation not in authorial genius or the working out of historical forces, but rather in the mediations between new collections of things that, put together, produce unprecedented literary events.
Despite these limited innovations, The Hungry Tide proves to be quite a traditional novel, founded on the purifications of modernity. By his own account, Ghosh’s fiction depends on an atmospheric sense of place and naturalistic dialogue, making it difficult to describe “a world that is intrinsically displaced, heterogeneous, and international” (Ghosh, “Petrofiction” 142). The novel is intensely local: save a few flashbacks, it is entirely set in the Sundarbans. As with the country house, the setting provides a framework for interrelating characters, and local myths provide a romantic interpretation of the novel’s events, but this localism depends on the violent exclusion of other kinds of relationships. In effect, the tide country polices its boundaries, suppressing rival interpretations. The novel opens with Kanai’s business documents being destroyed as he enters the Sundarbans and closes with Piya’s scientific records being destroyed by the storm, ensuring only narrative circulates between the Sundarbans and the rest of the world. In a slightly more subtle way, characters are cut off from the world outside. Despite leading a powerful nongovernmental organization (NGO), Nalima never seems to travel out of the area. Even more implausibly, Kanai seems perfectly content to leave the BlackBerry and satellite phone at home, letting his business take care of itself. This narrative localism is presented as an ethical force: Piya’s new conservation model looks after indigenous people and animals, reifying localism as a criterion of justice and excluding national and international political bodies from assessment. Global (p. 219) citizenship and responsibility are also excluded. Not only are conservation efforts emanating from international scientists and national bureaucrats condemned as a violent imposition, but the new conservation work is to depend on charity (and stories’ ability to pull at the heart strings) rather than governmental taxation and the collective obligation that implies. Similarly, the naturalistic frame is assiduously maintained: no reference to the reader spoils the illusion with an uncomfortable feeling of responsibility. Actually, political mediation is excluded full stop: Weik has observed that the novel omits “the disconnected political forces that cannot relate to persons and localities, but are driven only by well-meaning concepts (at best) and global flows of capital” (136–37). No surprise, then, that newspaper reports, scientific papers, conservation officials, and non-local NGO workers never arrive on the scene to warn about climate change. This absence of global modes of mediation may hold the novel together, but the cost is a suppression of global warming.
What if the The Hungry Tide had merely hinted at climate change, perhaps in Piya’s internal monologue? Even its mention would tear the novel’s frame apart. Instead of gathering a community of characters, global warming is documented by scientists, set in the future, and marked by contention. It seems impossible that Piya would not recognize that the Irawaddy dolphin is particularly vulnerable to climate change, and that conservation efforts depend on “incorporating information about cetacean populations into national, regional and international climate adaptation decisions” (Alter 943). Climate change also contributes to stress on the mangrove forests, which act as a natural buffer to tropical cyclones and underpin the ecosystems for many marine invertebrate species and fish; by 2100 sea-level rises could lead to the destruction of 75 percent of Sundarbans mangroves. Similarly, Nalima would not really be unaware of pronouncements by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the greatest threat to the sustainable adaptation of the Sundarban population is sea-level rise, leading to flooding, retreat of shorelines, salinization and acidification of soils, and changes in the water table (Colette 36). If international action is not taken, wells will be fouled, crops will fail, and eventually main islands will be wiped away, creating a refugee crisis far exceeding Morichjhapi. On the other hand, Kanai is at the forefront of Indian development, his translation company providing the mediations needed to convey a vast influx of global capital into the country. It is almost certain that he would be wary of emissions reductions that might hurt economic growth, and that he would favor India’s “largely negative position” in climate negotiations, refusing to join a treaty and take on internationally agreed binding targets, even though “India is more vulnerable to climate change than the USA, China, Russia, and, indeed, most other parts of the world.”30 And Fokir would seem just as likely to support Indian development as to defend his traditional method of fishing. These differences would make the love triangle linking Piya, Kanai, and Fokir impossible, pit the generations of Kanai and Nalima against each other, undermine the limited resolution provided by Piya’s local conservation group, and destroy the ethic of local environmental justice the novel proposes. At all costs, the future must be avoided, as it threatens to coopt a present that has already become impossible. The heterogeneous things that produce climate change—international consumption, climate (p. 220) models, carbon dioxide, international emissions accords—exceed local place, time, and character by their very nature. Global warming would simply dissolve the sensuous, local scene.
Despite, or perhaps because of these difficulties, environmental criticism has a significant role to play in the articulation of climate change. Individuals, communities, nations, and international bodies have struggled to account for climate change in their practices, even as they have expressed passionate concern. In the past thirty years, environmentalisms based on leftist politics, Utopian communities, globalized markets, scientism, and bureaucratic mandate have proved themselves all too human. Carbon credits, offsets, energy-saving light bulbs, hybrid cars, and wind farms entangle human agency with the climate’s, while what passes for literary fiction tries to create authentic characters by ignoring global dynamics. If climate disaster is to be averted, far more entanglement is needed. Ecocritics have often fretted that literature is too cultural, without acknowledging culture’s central role in entangling those supposedly distinct entities, nature and society. By sharing in the strategies of mediation that make up the world, fiction can articulate new connections, inventing individuals, social organizations, and things. Novels that do this are inherently impure, blending sensuous description with abstract ideas, moving between place and scientific terminology, extending beyond recognizable characters to the world of things. They cannot be chosen according to a pre-existing canon of taste because they are remaking the traditions on which literary studies depends. Such novels are part of a larger cultural project to imagine our future with climate change, using all the strategies of mediation at our disposal and inventing new ones along the way. This work is far more complex than any single novel could encapsulate, and so environmental criticism has a role as well, building connections that are simultaneously material and political.
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(1) . For recent data on this issue, see International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2011, Paris: OECD/IEA, 2011.
(2) . Lessing’s Mara and Dann is the most egregious in this sense, describing two white siblings passing through Africa as supreme, chosen leaders.
(3) . Heise indicates the problem in her monograph, but finds few literary or critical approaches to it. Garrard and Kerridge have played an important part in remedying this situation, writing articles on the topic and convening a symposium on ecocriticism and climate change in 2010.
(4) . For an overview of scholarship engaging with climate change and literature, see Trexler and Johns-Putra.
(5) . Of course, the author can just as easily invent a new kind of vehicle—a time-traveling police box, let us say—but the meaning of this invention is worked out by showing its role in the form of the novel.
(7) . Joseph Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory is an oft-cited precursor to this work, arguing that evolutionary biology provides a “theory” for both literary criticism and ecology and exploring literary form’s role in evolutionary survival. Love is probably the most important advocate of the position that the scientific method can provide a rationale for ecocriticism.
(9) . Latour introduced the model of immutable mobiles in Science in Action (1987). For a succinct and recent articulation of its application to field work, see ‘Circulating Reference: Sampling the Soil in the Amazon Forest’ in Pandora’s Hope (1999). Mediation, as it is used here, is entirely different from the Marxist sense of translating between base and superstructure. In Latour’s formulation of hybrids, real and ideal are wholly mixed up in each thing, and the expression of these features comes through a network of other things.
(10) . Rollason reads the novel through ideas of translation, while Agarwal interprets it through various critical notions of language.
(11) . Mukherjee and Weik have analyzed The Hungry Tide as a novel that bridges postcolonial and environmental discourses, particularly its movement between global and local conceptions of place.
(12) . Marzec reads The Hungry Tide in the long history of enclosure laws, and invokes Deleuze and Guattari, Edward Said, and Lacan.
(13) . There is a much larger body of science-themed work on Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, which spins intricate fictions around malaria and genetic research. Both Diane Nelson and Christopher Shinn have read The Calcutta Chromosome through Latour and Haraway.
(14) . Rajender Kaur has proposed the novel as a new paradigm for contemporary, transcultural environmentalism. The novel has become something of a favorite for conference papers and is also frequently used for teaching (see Garrard).
(15) . See especially Latour’s Laboratory Life (with Steve Woolgar, 1979) and Science in Action (1987). Diane M. Nelson has also read Ghosh’s work through his social science training and Latour, but sees science fiction and social science as “mixing…categories,” a very different model from the one I am proposing here (248).
(16) . Similarly, Latour argues that modernity isn’t characterized by an increasing distance between society and nature, but rather a deepened intimacy, a more intricate mesh, between the two (Latour, Pandora 196).
(17) . Latour and Haraway controversially used Greimas, the literary theorist, to delineate a limited number of ways that agency unfolded in time. By using “narrative” here, I only mean that agency is temporally emergent: its alliances seem endlessly open to me.
(18) . The question of pre-existence is knotty, but the simple version is this: neither microbes nor David Copperfield existed, as such, before Pasteur and Dickens, but there were historical phenomena that the terms successfully captured: disease and orphans made good.
(19) . Mukherjee, for one, veers away from considering animals, focusing on human oppression under a postcolonial framework. Other ecocritics have discussed animals but struggle to integrate their accounts with the humans of a novel.
(20) . Indeed, at least one reviewer slated the novel because “none of the many characters [come] properly alive” (Robinson).
(21) . Latour refers to the things that are translated thus as “immutable mobiles.”
(22) . Although authorial intent is peripheral to the interpretive issue at stake, it is also interesting to note that Ghosh has repeatedly valorized contemporary ecological scientists like Piya and distinguished them from colonial naturalists of the 19th century. See Ghosh 2004, 401; “Wild Fictions,” 20.
(23) . Weik makes a similar point about Piya, Fokir, and modernity, but attributes “harmony with nature” to Fokir (127–8).
(24) . Nelson has used Latour to read The Calcutta Chromosome, finding labs make strong, “real” science “if they can mobilize the highest number of associations, linkages, resources and allies” (253).
(25) . Of course, most ecocritics would side with Piya, while Mukherjee’s postcolonial allegiances lead him to call Piya’s outrage “nauseous” and to claim she lacks “a properly ecological ethos” (152).
(26) . For example, Love has approvingly cited Richard Dawkins’ thinly veiled threat to throw cultural relativists from planes “at 30,000 feet” (45), as well as Edward Abbey’s prescription: “To refute the solipsist or the metaphysical idealist all that you have to do is take him out and throw a rock at his head: if he ducks, he’s a liar” (26). Love redeploys Dawkins and Abbey to attack literary theory, and with it, critical scrutiny of mediation.
(27) . This hasn’t stopped critics from trying to adjudicate between the alternatives. Marzec assumes Kanai has seen the tiger (434); in my reading, Kanai’s experience is purposely indeterminate.
(28) . Nirmal is similarly retrofitted in the novel’s present, changing from a failed Marxist to the heroic designer of a storm shelter (388).
(29) . Kaur has read the novel through more traditional tropes: pastoral, idyll, and Tennysonian nature that is “red in tooth and claw” (136), but this formal conservatism does a disservice to the “new paradigm” he also recognizes in the novel.
(30) . Joshi 169. There are legitimate ethical issues surrounding India’s (as well as China’s) right to pollute on the path to development, since their per capita emissions are and will remain lower than those in developed countries. However, the increases currently projected in India and China will nullify efforts to reduce emissions elsewhere.