Ingrid Diran (Pacific Northwest College of Art) and Antoine Traisnel (University of Michigan)
“Climate Change, Natural History, and the Extinction of Dialectical Thought”
In “The Climate of History,” Dipesh Chakrabarty asserts that “Marxist analysis of capital, subaltern studies, and postcolonial criticism” fail to account adequately for the realities of climate change, for the latter erodes the distinction between geological and human time. In this paper, we argue that the crisis of Marxist criticism to which Chakrabarty attests is symptomatic of a larger threat that the Anthropocene poses to traditional thought: the extinction of dialectical critique.
The most rigorous attempt to think nature and history dialectically is the notion of “natural history” developed by Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. For both philosophers, nature and history form a chiasmus of antithetical temporalities. The juxtaposition of nature (in its continuity) and history (in its transience) charges every figure in which they coincide with considerable force. Thus, for instance, Benjamin can write, with a flourish simultaneously allegorical and critical, that the patrons of the Paris Arcades were “the last dinosaurs of Europe.” Not only are these consumers pre-historic, he implies, but their antediluvian appearance blasts any “natural” or continuous sense of the development of consumerism as such. It is to the legibility of this juxtaposition of nature and history that Chakrabarty’s essay addresses itself. For to the extent that the Anthropocene implies a convergence of human and geological time, it is suddenly uncertain whether the dialectical charge behind the notion of natural history can be maintained. If climate change erases the distinction between nature and history, has it also rendered dialectics itself the newest fossil of an extinct epoch of thought?
Far from settling the matter, our essay seeks to identify particular features of Anthropocenic discourse that appear to spell the doom of dialectics. In particular, we examine the combination of scale and speed that informs its imaginary. Attending to the strategies by which the Anthropocene’s planetary scope secures the place of the “anthropos” at the centre of climate change while simultaneously rendering such change largely intractable to human action, we consider how an announcement of the acceleration of geologic time obscures what is unchanging in the Anthropocene: the nature of capitalist production.
Antoine Traisnel is an Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has published on various topics in the fields of American, French and German literature and philosophy, critical theory, cultural studies, and the posthumanities. He is the author of two monographs: Hawthorne: Blasted Allegories (Aux Forges de Vulcain, 2015) and Donner le change: L’impensé animal (Hermann, 2016), written in collaboration with Thangam Ravindranathan. Traisnel’s current book project, Life in Capture: Animal Pursuits in Early America, looks to literary, artistic, and scientific works from Melville to Audubon, Cooper to Muybridge to track how the capture of animals, both literal and figural, composed the tacit logic and representational grammar of biopolitical modernity.
Ingrid Diran is an instructor in liberal arts at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. She has written on various topics in the field of biopolitics, critical theory, and African American literature. Her book project Mutinous Muteness: Radicalizing Illegibility in Twentieth-Century African American Literature explores how black modernism develops a poetics of illegibility that uses the self-explanatory and invisible presumption of whiteness against itself. She is currently at work on two new projects, one elaborating a poetics of unthinkability in the era of digitization, biosecurity, and the Anthropocene, and another that reads the work of Foucault and Du Bois in tandem to rethink the history of biopolitics in the U.S.