A Call to Recognize and to Imagine
Amitav Ghosh, and Others, on Writing the Earth Differently
The crises of the contemporary are severe, especially if we are unable to recognize how and when we went wrong. Amitav Ghosh teaches us about recognition, about the dangers of modernity, and the way our blindness has been institutionalized in the petrocapitalist narratives that dominate scientific analysis and many forms of knowledge important to our times. Discussing the way petrocapitalism frames current issues like air pollution and the Fukushima disaster, this text highlights the art of recognizing the state of the earth. Together with the arts (primarily literature, as Ghosh also suggests), the aim of this text is then to place a greater emphasis on imagining the earth otherwise, or, recognizing a different earth. This way we do not so much critique modernity, or the petrocapitalist forms of science, but rather, affirmatively, search for an alternative, a more inclusive and less human-centered way to deal with the crises of the contemporary.
Keywords: Recognition, Modernity, Earth Studies, Amitav Ghosh, Alfred North Whitehead
In his book The Great Derangement, writer Amitav Ghosh looks at climate change and the unthinkable, and starts by saying that taking the current ecological crises seriously, as a writer of non-fiction and of fiction, requires us to recognize the changes that the earth is undergoing, or to recognize the processes of change that are reshaping the earth as we live it. Calling upon the responsibility of his fellow writers in particular, he emphasizes ‘recognition’ because he feels it is key to writing the earth differently. It is what we have ‘forgotten’ especially in the 20th century, when the novel, guided by Modernism, as he refers to it, was reduced to an ‘unreal’ anthropology, a play between humans, not situated on our earth. Between ignorance and knowledge, recognition, he claims, asks us to re-member, which means to think and evaluate the ‘earthly conditions for truth’, as we live and practice them.
Ghosh makes a strong plea, calling on his fellow writers from all over the world, to break with this Modernist humanism, and to imagine earthly life in all of its possibilities/impossibilities. Only in this way can we open ourselves up to the realities that can disqualify the truths we have accepted for so long. Recognizing these unknown processes of change that underlie our lives today, he continues, will come (directly or indirectly) from the mapping of the petrocapitalist ideologies and their impossible relationships to the earth, id est, to the financial flows (of oil, of currency, of data) that freely roam the earth today. Revealing their impotence, and, at the same time, their ability to somehow persevere in being, and grow even stronger, is, according to Gosh, the greatest responsibility of contemporary authorship. But of course, to recognize that the earth we live on has, by now, been deeply wounded because of these Modernist flows, is not an easy process.
Ghosh gives us some striking examples of the sudden and unforeseen way in which these unknown realities can reveal themselves. Observing everyday life in cities like modern-day New Delhi or Beijing, he stresses that in these places, ‘the air too can come to life with sudden and deadly violence.’1 David Wallace-Wells2 (2019, 100-9) already gave us a crystal-clear analysis of how fragile our atmosphere is and how quickly the rise of CO2 levels (for instance in our closed-off classrooms) makes our cognitive ability drop dramatically. More dramatically even, he claims that today, one in every six deaths is already caused by air pollution globally. Why is this danger still not recognized; why have literary authors in particular, even in the past decades, paid so little attention to these non-human dangers? Of course, writing novels for a living, Ghosh is not asking his fellow authors to include figures like those from Wallace-Wells in their writings. But to have an eye for today’s crises as they have such an impact on the everyday life of cities like New Delhi and Beijing also means that ‘air’ should play a more prominent role in all of our writings, including our novels. Something we would have considered ‘unimaginable’ not too long ago needs to be explored and experimented with in all of our thoughts. And Ghosh reminds us that not too long ago, in the first part of the 19th century, in fact, both in fiction and in non-fiction, and in the many different mixtures of the two which were, back then, still highly appreciated, writing was much more concerned with an exploration of the earth. Think, for instance, of how both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace are known in large part for their non-academic diaries, in which not just animals and plants, but in fact the earth in its totality played a much more vibrant role.
Ghosh is not overreacting when he stresses that we do not recognize the dangers of the air, for instance. I myself, was, until recently not aware of (or ‘blind to’) how serious an enemy ‘air’ has turned out to be. Growing up in Western Europe, I’ve always lived close to the sea, where the wind usually comes from. The polluting industries that dominate the economy here, such as agriculture and the petrochemical industries in the harbour, have definitely had a detrimental effect on my environment: polluting, exhausting, suffocating both the earth and the air. But the wind and the water have, until now, been able to wash much of this pollution away (as in, it transported it to less fortunate places) – at least, from our human perspective. We are experiencing more dry periods, more wet periods, and we are being told that biodiversity (insect life in particular) is under pressure, especially in and around the farmlands. But apart from that, we seem to think here that climate change happens in other parts of the world. Living seven metres below sea level, even flooding is not supposed to happen here, but in less fortunate parts of the globe, where water management is poorly developed, places like Dhaka and Jakarta.
Over the past years, I was invited to talk in Beijing several times, where I quickly found out that the whims of rainfall we struggle with in the Netherlands do not come close to how sudden clouds of air pollution define the wellbeing of the whole city of Beijing (with its 20 million human inhabitants). Within a matter of hours, the Air Quality Index (AQI) could go from okay to terrible (meaning over 500 micrograms of pollution per cubic metre). Heavily polluted air has a severe impact on everyone’s health and wellbeing, and in a much more persistent way than a heatwave or a heavy storm. Probably because severe air pollution quickly ‘becomes a part of you’, traverses you, it is almost impossible to ‘keep it out’. It is something I never experienced at home in Europe, and more importantly, I could not even have imagined that the air we breathe on an everyday basis could turn so lethal, so suddenly. (I am not talking about clouds of poison or any other accidental situation.)
The moment one starts thinking about ‘what air can do’, one realizes that there is no ‘within and without’, that the distinction between using and being used is becoming blurry, if not completely senseless, at least when it comes to air. Ghosh analyses this kind of sudden and deadly violence air can bring, as it comes from directions one could not have imagined, and as it overwhelms us, not gradually but immediately, and situates us in a wholly other earth. And he concludes that these ‘are moments of recognition, in which it dawns on us that the energy that surrounds us, flowing under our feet and through wires in our walls, animating our vehicles and illuminating our rooms, is an all-encompassing presence that may have its own purposes about which we know nothing.’3
Isn’t it interesting, that it is in fact not sameness which is recognized, according to Ghosh? Rather, it is in recognition that difference occurs, that difference intervenes. Difference is a moment when the purpose of everything that surrounds us does not so much suddenly reveal itself or make itself knowable. Rather, as the writer recognizes, it is difference which gives us an idea of this all-encompassing presence of which we know nothing. What we do understand, in recognition, is the sheer fact that this great derangement can happen any time. Or, it is better to say, it is already taking place.
So, I should write down that the weather changed. The temperature was not rising; the rain was not increasing. What changed was that all of a sudden, I had situated myself in an environment where people were discussing the weather according to the Air Quality Index. How’s the PM10? How’s the NO2? How’s the O3?
The Objects, Space and Time
Again, is the way the artist approaches the earth so very different from how the scientist does? In the first Tarner Lectures, delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in November 1919, mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said he would practice a philosophy of science by studying, as Mr Edward Tarner would have wanted it, how science takes nature as its subject matter.4 In the seventh lecture, Whitehead offers us two terms which are elementary to his take on how science works. The lecture proposes a theory of objects, and he defines them as follows: ‘Objects are elements in nature which do not pass. The awareness of an object as some factor not sharing in the passage of nature is what I call “recognition”.’5 Like Ghosh, Whitehead understands that recognition is key to understanding how the earth matters otherwise. Between ignorance and knowledge, something recurs. This is by no means a ‘thing’ in the pseudo-materialist sense of the word. Whatever recurs, whatever is recognized, whatever, in the end, vaguely stands out, he calls an object, or an object of analysis (if we insist on taking the science perspective).
I sense an interesting resonance in how Amitav Ghosh and Alfred North Whitehead talk about recognition. Whitehead introduces the term ‘object’ to identify what is recognized, and stresses that this object does not share the passage of nature. Its ‘outstandingness’, rather, is picked up by our senses.
The other term that Whitehead discusses in these lectures, and which he is more famous for, in fact, is ‘event’. Earlier he related the event to the object and introduced us to a neologism which gives us more to think about, especially on how the arts and the sciences work jointly with an idea of time. He states, ‘Events are only comparable because they body forth permanences. We are comparing objects in events whenever we can say “There it is again.” Objects are the elements in nature which can “be again.”’6 Whitehead is telling us that every day, when we wake up, the new day could introduce us to what he calls an event, a chaotic amalgam of happenings in which these objects or permanences recur. Not so much ‘in themselves’ but in how a series of objects (always more than one), in its togetherness, is again.
Recognition now seems to realize a double extension. Or at least, and this is of course a crucial addition, in recognition a double extension occurs to us. Objects, on the one hand, unfold the space of the event (‘There it is again’); they realize nature (their landscape), since the resonances that bind them give form to the face of the earth. Yet objects, immediately, offer us a sense of time (‘There it is again’), as in order to body forth, they have to be re-cognized; they have to function with particular memories. They situate these memories in the present, perhaps even propelling them into a possible future (‘and this is what may happen now’) and thus also expand through time. The ‘present’ is an interesting concept here, as it combines the three phenomena discussed: space, time, and above all, the object, as it was given to us by the event (and which we were expecting to receive). In the process, in the presenting, furthermore, the present actualizes a fourth phenomenon, that being the subject.
It is no coincidence that both Ghosh and Whitehead reject the Cartesian idea that all forms of knowledge find their origin in human subjectivity (the ‘I think’), but instead, consider knowledge a consequence of the process of recognition. For both of them, recognition is not about setting up a humanist politics of space and time; it is not even about realising a sociology. When Ghosh talks of air and Whitehead talks of the industrialization of the English landscape he loved so much, they are both seeing recognition as an eco-philosophy, a starting point of a philosophy of nature.
The start of any new day can be considered an event, a chaotic amalgam in which a series of objects reveals itself. We wake up, we switch off the alarm, and look at our mobile phones to see what the wind is bringing us today. What’s the AQI now, and how will it evolve during rush hour? Should I cover my mouth? Is it okay to stay outside for a longer period of time? Or at least, if we are in Beijing, or New Delhi for that matter, this is our way of objectifying the situation. It is very different from how, in the Netherlands, for instance, a day happens. In the Northwest of Europe, the objectification of the energy that surrounds me happens in a very different way.
If the ongoing ecological crises that have dominated the 21st century until now are teaching us anything about ourselves, it should be that over the past two centuries, packed with ‘revolutions’ in art and ‘discoveries’ in science, the advances of modernity have made us so self-confident, so completely trusting in efficiency and profit, that we find it unimaginable or unthinkable that the earth might very well, all of a sudden, act very differently from how we imagined it would. This blindness would have started in the early 19th century, the time when modernity radically renewed our ideas of science, technology and art. All three fields of study were occupied by a narrative of progress, which came with alienation and abstraction, meaning an unearthing, as that still dominates the narratives of science, technology and art, to a large extent. Michel Serres summarizes beautifully how this new narrative rephrased the relationship between science, nature and society:
Nature lies outside of the collectivity, which is why the state of nature remains incomprehensible to the language invented in and by society-or that invents social man. Science enacts laws without subject in this world without men: its laws are different from legal laws.
And he continues:
Natural law is dying because science has conquered its space. Science plays the role, now, of our Last Judgement. Henceforth law and science are opposed as the man-made and the natural once were, always to the benefit of the natural.7
Yet the well-known series of petrocapitalist processes that fuelled the Modernist idea of nature (introducing the wider tendency towards industrialization, the dependence on fossil fuels, the need to increase profit maximization) were never unique to the West but had been at work all over the world. Ghosh is right to stress that throughout the populous parts of Asia (the Indian subcontinent, China) there are dozens of examples of places where we find that the characteristics of petrocapitalism have a much longer history. The oil intensive economies of Burma (such as Yenangyuang, a name that even refers to the smell of oil) and the coal and gas intensive economies of pre-industrial China show that the technologies of modernity were not ‘new’. Leibniz’s calculations were perhaps preceded by the Kerala school of Mathematics, and the ideas of Descartes were translated into Persian (by Francois Bernier) within ten years after his death, which, Ghosh claims, also shows that there was nothing exclusive about modern Europe in terms of ideas. Petrocapitalism was, in a way, a global destiny, which had been explored in many parts of the world before it became the leading social system in 19th century England.
What was different in 19th century England, of course, was that petrocapitalism functioned as a totality there; its technologies and ideas, all together set up a condition for truth which, headed by science and technology, together with the arts, sped up the whole European continent, and its ambition to expand, rapidly. It meant that the laws of Galileo became the laws for the whole of Europe. And not just in theory; in a most practical way, modernity defined what was true (science), what was good (not the church but the increase of profit) and what was beautiful (modern art). Together, they realized the objects that practiced modernity, and consequently, the subjectivities that followed.
‘Do not build your homes below this point!’
This threefold condition for the true, the good and the beautiful, became the dominant narrative of the West which, through imperialism, was imposed upon the rest of the world. Ghosh gives us a recent example which shows how the new narrative of modernity, in the end, ‘overcoded’ society as a whole. This time we find ourselves at the coast near Fukushima, where stone tablets from the middle ages warn future generations about possible tsunamis. ‘Do not build your homes below this point!’, these tablets said8. We all know what happened next: not only did the 20th century versions of petrocapitalism decide that it was perfectly fine to build homes there, but exactly in the spot where our ancestors told us not to build, they constructed a nuclear power plant. Yes, this was the power plant that was destroyed by a tsunami in 2011, triggering a meltdown, only 40 years after it opened.
Isn’t it ridiculous how petrocapitalism soothes, alienates and ‘un-earths’ us with the scientific data, the figures, and the abstract objects we ourselves produced? Why do we have such faith in them; why do we consider them so trustworthy that we follow them blindly? Even after serious warnings from our ancestors, we built a nuclear power plant on dangerous ground. What makes us so confident that we collectively choose to ignore their knowledge? What makes us so confident that we collectively choose to ignore what the indigenous peoples of Australia are saying in respect to seasonal fires, what the people of the Amazon are saying about deforestation? Worse even, in all these cases (and not in the least place in Fukushima), the data, the figures, the objects we blindly accepted were not given to us by science (or scientific research), but simply spoke the language of science. Fukushima Daiichi I was the first nuclear power plant to be realised (designed, constructed and run) by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) (with some input from General Electric).
It’s interesting – in a sad way of course – that the stone tables from the middle ages sent us messages that were no longer recognized in our present-day context. These messages from our ancestors did not match with the conditions for truth that define the real today. These conditions, which are, by now, transmitted to us by neoliberal firms like TEPCO, made it all so true that in the end, not just policy makers and greedy managers, but the entire population was okay with the idea of building a power plant on this dangerous coast. A language very familiar to them (the same characters) with all too clear warnings, which still was not recognized? The warnings did not matter. TEPCO, the company responsible for building the nuclear power plant, was blind to what the tablets were telling us since they did not see scientific proof or recognize the narrative. The majority of the population was, for obvious reasons, not taken into account, but they also did not (strongly) reject this ‘overcoding’. Raised within petrocapitalism, they too did not recognize the claims.
Concerning the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazarato created an installation called Assemblages: The Life of Particles.9 It included a long interview with the photographer and anthropologist Chihiro Minato, whominutely explains how the commercial owner of the whole site, TESCO, worked closely together with the scientists responsible for measuring the effects of the catastrophe, for instance by strategically placing the measuring points for radiation emittance, which caused the test results to be less dramatic (a lower exceedance of the norms), which significantly lowered the compensation demanded through insurance companies. Minato also discusses how the newspapers might have presented the information differently, but by using different scales, they appealed to common expectations and fears of their readership; local newspapers zoomed in on the meltdown, suggesting it was a Fukushima problem and rest of the Japan had little to worry about, while international newspapers showed the whole of Japan, suggesting this was a Japanese problem and the rest of world had nothing to worry about.
Minato, in the end, also concludes that alienation from nature is key here; the limited methods of institutionalized science offer us, intentionally, a biased and coloured (i.e. petrocapitalist) narrative: ‘We cannot resolve the problem of radioactivity with this relationship between nature and culture. In Japan after Fukushima, geography is psychology. The atmosphere does not move geometrically. We adapt not only to our environment but also to our psychosis.’10
Imagine the Earth Otherwise
These days, we have great difficulty recognizing the unthinkable, as Ghosh already said. This is what needs to be cultivated again, what needs to free itself again from our thinking: to imagine another Earth. It is not about knowing the alternative, it is about recognizing that another earth is possible! And of course, we need to be willing, to be bold enough, to open ourselves up to the unknown, to the powers in the interstices of all the data and the figures we use today, and to those far outside of it.
I understand that this is not an easy assignment, but it does seem very necessary and urgent: instead of saying ‘there it is again’, could we instead search for those moments where we could say ‘there it is otherwise?’ Can we at least try not to fall into the traps of the present, not to accept the authority of the state blindly, the analyses of petrocapitalist science, not to accept blindly the objects that have been produced to stop time, objects that have been produced to prevent the revolution from happening? Not to recognize but to imagine all those other voices, voices from the deep that we do not know (anymore) but that somehow still have the power to make us change our mind, to make us look in a different way and to make us realize that so many of the objects we had seen before were actually illusions, wrong, mischievous. Like so many of the stars that populate the skies every evening, the objects that surround us are all too often long gone, ‘alive’ only in the light they still reflect, in the ‘information’ that is somehow mirrored back to us.
Ghosh ends his book by making a strong plea for imagination, claiming that the writers in our times should also be more creative in imagining the earth differently, in taking fiction writing seriously instead of limiting themselves to what is nowadays considered to be sincere and authentic in writing. He critiques Karl Ove Knausgård, who told himself he was ‘sick of fiction’, and, ‘As opposed to the “falsity” of fiction, […] “set out to write exclusively from his own life”’.11 In his magnum opus, the six-volume autobiography called My Struggle, he indeed seems to spend all of the 3600 pages on non-fiction, on writing ‘himself’. But as anyone who read this hallucinatory, Proustian journey, will attest to, it is actually one of the best examples of what the imagination has to offer us. As if he, like Proust, took a bite from a madeleine, which immediately brought him back to all of the possible childhood memories and made him explore the minute details of all that he could have experienced, in a flash of the eye. Isn’t that exactly what imagination is all about, to experience the virtual as it is real, in all of its consequences, as it is not so much present and synchronized with the objects that claim to surround you, but by all means alive and empowered?
Of course, for all of us, there are many new childhoods to discover, many non-carnal births. But in order to realise this we must radically rethink our environment, and to stop saying ‘there it is again’, which is not an easy task… it is definitely dangerous, because it asks us to put things at stake, to think creatively about another earth. It makes an appeal to the art of paying attention, as Stengers calls it.12
It calls for the art of hearing, and feeling, and seeing the earth otherwise.
Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2016), p. 5.
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2019), p. 100-109.
Ghosh, The Great Derangement,p. 5.
Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature: The Tarner Lectures Delivered in Trinity College, November 1919 (Charleston, SC: Bibliobazaar, 2007), p. 14.
Ibid., p. 118.
Ibid., 18 f.
Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 85.
Ghosh, The Great Derangement,p. 55.
Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazarato, Assemblages: The Life of Particles, 2012, audio-visual research project, 82 mins.
Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 128.
Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, trans. Andrew Goffey (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press and meson press, 2015), p. 62, http://dx.medra.org/10.14619/016.
- Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2016.
- Melitopoulos, Angela and Maurizio Lazarato, Assemblages: The Life of Particles, 2012. Audio-visual research project, 82 mins.
- Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2019.
- Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract, Translated by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
- Stengers, Isabelle. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Translated by Andrew Goffey. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press and meson press, 2015. http://dx.medra.org/10.14619/016.
- Whitehead, Alfred North. The Concept of Nature: The Tarner Lectures Delivered in Trinity College, November 1919. Charleston, SC: Bibliobazaar, 2007.