*** The following is a paper I delivered at MLG-ICS 2014 on a panel titled "Discourses of Carbon Culture" with Bob Johnson and Jeff Diamanti (you can read Jeff's paper here www.analogouscity.com). This paper is also based on an entry I wrote for Fueling Culture: Politics, History, Energy edited by Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel, and Patricia Yaeger (Fordham UP, in progress).***

Let me repeat, we are dealing with a potentiality, the realization of which depends on prevailing circumstances. The emergence of a new style is dependent on many external influences; and there is also a double internal danger which, in the history of literature, has often marked periods of transition. There may be reluctance, on the one hand, to accept the logic of some new subject-matter; there may be a timid hanging-on to traditional styles, an unwillingness to give up old habits. There may also be, on the other hand, a tendency to overemphasize abstract aspects of new subject-matter (‘in history,’ wrote Hegel, ‘every new phenomenon emerges first in abstract form’). Abstraction thus gains the upper hand. Concrete realities—the exploration with the help of the new consciousness of as yet unexplored subject matter will be neglected or considered of secondary importance.—Georg Lukács, Realism in Our Time (1971: 115-116)

Lukács disqualified the sciences as fetishes of the particular, unable to grasp the totality, over which only the non-science of philosophy had dominion…But climate science is not such a science. And curiously, it takes as its object totality in a quite different sense: the totality of metabolic processes that take place on a planetary scale, and in particular the contribution of collective human labor to those processes.—McKenzie Wark, “Four Cheers for Vulgar Marxism”

In ecological thought, thinking big is back in a big way. And why not? The twin problems of global warming and ongoing pollution are both intensified by an energy-reliant system of accumulation and dispossession that operates at a massive scale. Thinking big seems to match the size of solution-seeking to the size of the problem. In “The Rise of Energy Humanities, Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman frame this problem in terms of an ecology-energy impasse: “It is not an exaggeration to ask whether human civilization has a future. Neither technology nor policy can offer a silver-bullet solution to the environmental effects created by an energy-hungry, rapidly modernizing and expanding global population. (Boyer and Szeman 2014). They posit that the problems we face as a species fall within the expertise of the human sciences, from studies of ethics, habits, and values to understandings of institutions, belief, and power. The discursive mode arguably most interested in coming to terms with the scope of our ecology-energy impasse is that of theory, with examples ranging from Eugene Stoermer's and Paul Crutzen's theorizations of the Anthropocene, to Timothy Morton’s attempt in Hyperobjects (2012) to furnish a language suitable to both new materialism and what he calls the “ecological emergency” (Morton 2012). But how do we begin to think between the proliferating big ideas of geology, climate science, new materialism, and the energy humanities?

I would argue that a particular risk in contemporary ecological theorizing is not the result of trying to think too big; rather, it is a problem of taking too easy a path to thinking that bigger picture. Totalities are nuanced, to say the least, and the way we imagine social and ecological relations can be expressed only in complex and indirect ways, lest we fall back into what Hegel called “picture-thinking.” To avoid the pitfall of mistaking the abstract whole for the sum of its concrete parts, I posit petrorealism – literary, cinematic, and gaming narrative forms, for example – as a possible way to creatively mediate the scalar problem between thinking big and the specific situations and contexts of petromodernity. I use Petro- because I think it is important to conceive of all texts produced within petroculture as functionally marked by the ontology of oil even as they anticipate a world after oil, and I use -realism because I aim to emphasize the way its variants share an ability to mediate the variegated scales implied in specific instances within a larger whole at once and, thus, better grasp the energy-ecology impasse.

Petrorealism (or its absence), for example, is what is really at stake in Amitav Ghosh’s seminal essay “Petrofictions: The Oil Encounter and the Novel,” where he observes the oil encounter does not produce an equivalently rich corpus of novels as the spice encounter (Ghosh 1992: 138). Extending Ghosh's desire for big thinking, in “Oil and the American Imaginary” Peter Hitchcock cleverly suggests that sugar and coffee are two commodities that could also function analogously to oil (Hitchcock 2010: 81). But if we understand Ghosh to be marking not merely a paucity of fiction of the oil encounter, but also expressing a desire for petrorealism, then these commodities are not so easily substituted for one another. Attention to the formal strategies necessary to representing the oil encounter would reveal that the scale of big thinking is itself among the subjects of this fiction. Realism, in its varied forms and modes, has a penchant for narrating structure without losing site of specificity. Indeed, Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet (1984-1989) and Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1927) respectively fuel Ghosh’s and Hitchcock’s desire for a realistic petrofiction. For Ghosh, the slow and careful details of Munif’s story make it stand out: for instance, few of the oil developers from the US are named, and instead are simply referred to as the Americans, one exception being Sinclair, who leaps out from the page like oil gushing from a well because his obvious namesake is the 20th century author. Hitchcock’s reading of Oil! attaches importance to Upton Sinclair’s realistic portrayal of the beginnings of US oil production and dependence. Hitchcock figures oil’s centrality to the American political and cultural imaginary, placing Oil! and Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation There Will Be Blood (2007) as bookends of America’s century. Hitchcock does acknowledge, however, that oil's centrality manifests primarily in its in invisibility: “it is oil’s saturation of the infrastructure of modernity that paradoxically has placed a significant bar on its cultural representation” (Hitchcock 2010: 81). Though oil’s ubiquity has seemed to keep it from being of central focus, petrorealism could elaborate the near omnipresence of oil in everyday life in an attempt to defamiliarize or to make strange our petrosubjectivity.

As a materialism term, petrorealism also has a polemic function: it offers an important corrective to philosophical senses of thinking big that evacuate the subject and any form of politics from its imaginations. The speculative realism of philosophers Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux contests our all-too-humanist claim that knowledge is ultimately subjective, while silently opposing already existing materialisms, which, as Wesley Phillips remarks, is notably strange when one considers their shared preoccupation with realism (Philips 2012: 290). Contrasting new materialism with historical materialism emphases a key difference between speculative realism and what I am calling petrorealism: as Phillips explains speculative realist philosophers share an understanding of “the real as the physical” (2012: 290), whereas I argue that petrorealism maintains that the abstract, and not the only the vulgarly physical, can be and is material. I do not want to suggest that the desire to decenter the human and human consciousness from the world is invalid; rather, I would suggest that by thinking along the lines of petrorealism, we can begin to recognize speculative realism as a symptom of the vast, alienating and thoroughly unhuman forces of oil-fueled capital accumulation. As Lukács suggested in the “The Ideology of Modernism,” intention can be read into a text, not as the author’s personal aim, but as the Weltanschauung or ideology of that author (Lukács 1971: 19). Thus, we might say, the object oriented ontologist seeks to escape a situation of their own making by subtracting the human from ecological questions and preferring to speculate about the consciousness of the geological formations on which human impacts have been wrought. No matter how one understands its intention, the effect of this subtraction of the human is an evacuation of politics. By contrast, Morton’s thinking about hyperobjects implies a politics: as a collection of discrete yet like objects (all nuclear materials, or all plutonium, or all uranium), or a place demarcated by a spatial imaginary (the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador), or an entity all but invisible except for its effects (a black hole), or a set of processes and relations (global capital) – a hyperobject can be transcoded as another word for totality. Yet hyperobjects still lack mediation – and thus with petrorealism, I aim to restore mediation to its place in thought, human or otherwise, especially big thought about the energy-ecology impasse.

Examples abound of novels, films, documentaries, and other kinds of texts that outline what petrorealism could be and do. Situated within distinct formal mechanics, the following examples manage to think big without falling into the trap of picture thinking, and are, at least provisionally, divided into five categories:

Maps of energy presents that do not foreground energy: Noel Burch and Allan Sekula’s exploration of container ships and the global circulation of commodities in The Forgotten Space (2010), Max Brooks’s depiction of social totality through circulation and exchange figured as contagion in World War Z (2006), or Steven Soderbergh’s chart of global flows and borders, whether figured through the drug trade or the spread of disease and the development of vaccines, in Traffic (2000) and Contagion (2011).
 Postcolonial film and writing: in the recent short film Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu 2010), water sovereignty and labor as a clean energy source clash with the protagonist’s discovery of uncontaminated soil. Jennifer Wenzel’s description of petro-magic-realism in Ben Okri’s story, “What the Tapster Saw,” combines “the transmogrifying creatures and liminal space of the forest in Yoruba narrative tradition” and “the monstrous-but-mundane violence of oil exploration and extraction, the state violence that supports it, and the environmental degradation that it causes” (Wenzel 2006: 456).
 Science fiction energy futures: when Kim Stanley Robinson discusses terraforming in the Mars Trilogy (1993,1994,1996) he shows that petrorealism need not be only about oil, but should be able to hold together the complex of various forms of energy, their scales, and temporalities.
Actual accounts of the petro-present: James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello’s travelogue The Oil Road: Journey from the Caspian Sea to the City of London (2012) maps the oil present spatially, economically, and ecologically. Their figure of the “oil road,” reviewer Adam Carlson notes, “gives us a powerful tool for representing the totality, for seeing through the haze, to make sense of both the physical Oil Road, and the Carbon Web – the political, social and economic, the superstructure of the infrastructure” (Carlson 2013).
 Interactive documentary and documentary/videogame hybrids: Offshore (Brenda Longfellow, Glen Richards, and Helios Labs 2013) and Fort McMoney (David Dufresne 2013) offer an immersive petrorealism. The former depicts an oil rig modelled on the Deepwater Horizon, which viewers explore at their own pace and direction by navigating an eerie maze of stations and compartments; in the latter, viewers travel to Fort McMurray, Alberta and explore the town – they can follow bottle collectors, visit the Oil Patch, and vote on important town issues.

Following these examples, petrorealism does not operate in terms of longing for a return to a time before oil. Instead, it follows Stephanie LeMenager’s (2012) insistence on the irreversibility of petrocapitalism and looks to futures that take the infrastructures and imaginaries of petromodernity into account, with ingenuity and rigor. Petrorealism is, of necessity, an attempt come to terms with petromodernity from within; indeed there is no vantage from outside from which to write about its flows and limits.

In Realism in Our Time (1971) Lukács makes a useful distinction between the view critical realism had from outside socialism versus the view socialist realism had from within it. As he points out, despite enabling the critical realist to better grasp his or her own age “it will not enable him [sic] to conceive the future from the inside” (Lukács 1971: 95). But this is precisely the task before us. To quote another mid-century Marxist “Petroleum resists the five-act form,” and so we must embrace the new styles and forms that resist petroleum! (Brecht 1977:29). My hope is that by learning from petrorealism we might reach as close to the root of the energy-ecology impasse as possible, drawing spatial connections between capital’s energy demands and effects and the temporal possibilities of reaching beyond our energy-dependant, growth-based system of social relations to a future in which energy is no longer the metaphor or the cause for speculation, but the actual driving force of our creative endeavors to overcome such crises. By maintaining a moment of narration within the elaboration of a vaster totality, petrorealism sharpens our focus on the task at hand: we must accept the logic of the impasse without overemphasizing its abstract qualities. It is here that the work of petrorealism stands revealed as a critical task to set for ourselves as much as it is an already existing archive of material.

Works Cited

Boyer, Dominic and Imre Szeman. “The Rise of Energy Humanities: Breaking the Impasse.” University Affairs (12 February 2014) Web (3 April 2014).

Brecht, Bertolt. 1977. Brecht on Theatre. ed. and trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang. Print.

Carlson, Adam. “Petrorealism in The Oil Road.” Introduction to Mika Minio-Paluello “Unpublished Talk” at the Humanities Centre, University of Alberta (18 October 13).

Ghosh, Amitav. “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel.”Incendiary Circumstances. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. 138-151. Print.

Hitchcock, Peter. “Oil in an American Imaginary.” New Formations 69 (2010): 81-97. Print.

LeMenager, Stephanie. “The Aesthetics of Petroleum, after Oil!” American Literary History 24.1 (2012): 59–86. Print.

Lukács, Georg. Realism in Our Time. New York: Harper Tourchbooks, 1971. Print.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Print.

Philips, Wesley. “The Future of Speculation?” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 8.1 (2012): 289-303.

Wark, Mackenzie. “Four Cheers for Vulgar Marxism.” Public Seminar Commons. (25 April 2014) Web (26 April 2014).

Wenzel, Jennifer. “Petro-Magic-Realism: Toward a Political Ecology of Nigerian Literature.” Postcolonial Studies 9.4 (2006): 449-464. Print.


zone one - it was new york city

*** The following is a chunk from the Epilogue of my dissertation. In a moment of poetic justice I am cannibalizing it into a sharper reflective section. Who wants to do readings in their conclusion anyway? This was largely influenced by Andrew Hoberek’s excellent review of Whitehead’s zombie novel (the full citation appears in my citations). So if you’re looking for a place to dig into that novel, I would start there. ***

With three long chapters titled “Friday,” “Saturday,” and “Sunday,” Zone One describes the passing of three days in the titular segment of Manhattan. The protagonist Mark Spitz is part of Omega Unit, and along with the gaunt Gary and the ever-practical unit leader Kaitlyn he moves up and down office towers and apartment blocks searching for any remaining “skels” or “stragglers.”[i] Skels resemble a typical zombie—hungry for human flesh, in a state of decomposition, more dangerous in groups, and vicious—the stragglers, less so. The latter are Whitehead’s contribution to the zombie plot: stragglers just stand or sit or lie and stare. They are skels that have thoroughly checked out; they often return to a fixed place, perhaps still meaningful to some recess of muscle or blood memory, and just wait. Omega unit’s mission is straightforward: clear each room, dispatch any skel found there, and record everything. However clear the plot is, the story must be pieced together through the regular digressions of the third person limited narrator, who fills the reader in on Mark Spitz’s story from the time of the ruin through to the present. The narrator’s dislocation and overlap with Mark Spitz dislodges a similar correspondence in earlier post-apocalyptic novels, from Stewart’s Earth Abides to Brin’s The Postman. There is no ruse of history here, instead Mark Spitz’s mediocrity, rather than his exceptionalism, is the root cause of his survival and the basis for his radical anti-post-apocalyptic decision at the end of the novel.

The narrator’s digressions cannot quite be characterized as flashbacks, but they are motivated by Mark Spitz’s memories. The narrator describes him as a “thorough, inveterate B,” while, in his review of the novel, Andrew Hoberek calls Mark Spitz “the modernist antihero cum superhero,” whose power of mediocrity “renders him perfectly suited to the post-Last Night world. Or so the narration, so finely calibrated that his thoughts blend seamlessly with those of the narrator, insists.”[ii] Similar to the way memory functions in The Road, this blending of memory and reflection maps the novel’s post-apocalyptic present through the affective attachment Mark Spitz maintains with the past. Unlike the way McCarthy’s novel maintained a distinct sparseness, Whitehead’s novel draws on popular and mass culture to fill in the gaps in the narrative. For instance, Mark Spitz identifies a skel in the first group he encounters as reminiscent of an old grade school teacher who had a hairdo called “a Marge, after Marge Halstead, the charmingly klutzy actress who’d trademarked it in the old days of red carpets and flirty tete-a-tetes on late-night chat shows.”[iii] This kind of reference shuffles the typical trope of zombie stories—rather than having to kill his friends (i.e. “I had to kill her, she was going to turn”) he dispatches unknowns but only after assigning them affective weight from his memory. But, memory in the novel does not only originate from within the individual; instead, the city itself seems to be able to project something resembling a memory.

In an incredible passage from early in the novel, the city becomes the subject, deindividuating any of its particular denizens and reframing the apocalyptic event of the novel as another in a long line of reformations and reshapings that have changed the composition of Manhattan. Mark Spitz used to visit his uncle there. He would stare and look out the window at the city:

He remembered how things used to be, the customs of the skyline. Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows. Inevitability was mayor, term after term, yesterday’s old masters, stately named and midwife by once-famous architects, were insulted by the soot of combustion engines and by technological advances in construction. Time chiseled at elegant stonework, which swirled or plummeted to the sidewalk in dust and chips and chunks. Behind the façades their insides were butchered reconfigured, rewired according to the next era’s new theories of utility. Classic six into honeycomb, sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubical mill. In every neighbourhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel. The new buildings in wave upon wave drew themselves out of the rubble, shaking off the past like immigrants. The addresses remained the same and so did the flawed philosophies. It wasn’t anyplace else. It was New York City.[iv]

Everything is here: the consecration of each age of urban planners and architects by the previous generation of social planners, the marks left by the smog of automobile use, the shift from labour heavy industry to the cognitive lightness of creative industries, and the crash of wave after wave of new immigrants eager to become “American.” But, for Whitehead, each of these figures becomes a mere synecdoche, something contained in the still vastness of the New York skyline as it is surveyed by the mediocre boy in his uncle’s apartment. This narrated rise and fall of a city echoes what Samuel Zipp has described as Manhattan Projects, those efforts in the nineteen-sixties to remake the city which allow Zipp to articulate “the rise of a world city and the decline into urban crisis,”[v] as twin processes, which, in turn, shapes the moment of Whitehead’s own formation in the wake of the nineteen-sixties and his response to this formation in Zone One.[vi] The turnover of New York City from the mid-century to the post-industrial city of tomorrow in the 1960s and 1970s is a change that Zone One figures in order to target the contemporary turnover of U.S hegemony—the places remain the same, and in many cases so do the names, but everything seems different now. This attempt to come to terms with a new economic order makes up the backdrop of Mark Spitz movements through the Zone.

Breaking up the action and mediating activity through memory and recollection, the insistent interruptions of the narrator demonstrate presumed self-importance through referentiality. As in other post-apocalyptic novels, the network of relations, now dead, from whom the protagonists draw sustenance, speak through the narrator, as they cannot speak in the present. In his review of the book Thomas Jones find this type of digression to be uninteresting:

The banality of the backstory is part of the point—Mark Spitz is proudly mediocre and credits his mediocrity as the core reason for his survival—but compared to a post-apocalyptic novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Zone One gives little sense of what, if anything, has been lost.[vii]

Mark Spitz is caught between a host of memories and the grim, slow task of combing nearly every square inch of Manhattan for skels. Through its focus on slow process, the novel suggests that loss is rarely a punctual event, but occurs slowly, accreting shape and form until one day it confronts us fully fleshed out and hungry. For commentators like McGrul, this process of loss registers a “rapid corrosion even of our secular myths about the self, not least the myth of its rational autonomy,” which shifts Zone One “not to realism but to the weirdness of allegory.”[viii] Not unlike the racialized fears captured by the earlier post-apocalyptic novels of the long-fifties, Hoberek suggests that Zone One could be read in an allegorical light “for more specific fears of immigrants, of terrorists, of the people who want to get into our gated communities.” The post-apocalyptic novel form that once used to contain and process white racial fears, as in Matheson’s I am Legend, in the hands of Whitehead becomes a critical tool to examine the way those anxieties return to fore after 9/11 and what this might mean for the U.S. in the wake of its catastrophic bid for hegemony in Iraq.

In the wake of massive crisis, PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), one of the novel’s great innovations, generates a moment of profound reflection on the cultural function of post-apocalyptic genre as a whole. Most often used to refer to the still human who cannot seem to cope in their post-apocalyptic world, the novel plays with the aural similarity of PASD and past:

“What happened,” Mark Spitz asked, "he get bit?"“No, it’s his past,” he heard the comm operator say. The recruit moanedsome more.“His past?”“His P-A-S-D, man, his P-A-S-D. Give me a hand.”

Accounting for the trauma of the post-apocalyptic story world has not been done before in this way. Indeed, that version of skels known as the straggler even seem to have PASD and simply stop or return to places of profound meaning from their pre-apocalyptic lives. The novel names these figures stragglers because they seem to be living in the past. Hoberek neatly traces this slippage to the way trauma plays across the register of the individual and the collective, “like the Last Night story, and like a past more generally, trauma is the thing that makes everyone at once unique (because everyone’s is different) and the same (because everyone has one).”[ix] PASD, thus cuts across identity lines (and even unifies the living and the undead) to mark a culture that is in deep shock and denial. As Hoberek has it, “crucially, the moment late in the novel when we find out that Mark Spitz is black occurs when he is telling Gary his Last Night story, and Gary—otherwise an encyclopedia of ‘racial, gender, and religious stereotypes’—fails to recognize the one (black people can't swim) that adds an additional element of irony to Mark Spitz's nickname.”[x] Thus, Mark Spitz final decision in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), to dive into a mass of zombies, rendered in the novel as a “sea of the dead,” flags one resolution to the tired march of survival undertaken time and again in post-apocalyptic novels.[xi] Whitehead’s novel, which features zombies who have given up, dramatizes a new finale for the familiar narrative movement of post-apocalyptic novels from destruction to survival. Like the mother from The Road, in the face of an eternal return to the same, Mark Spitz decides to give up. So even though “Now the world was muck,” the narrator still suggests that systems die hard—they outlive their creators and unlike plagues do not require individual hosts—and thus it was a well-organized muck with a hierarchy, accountability and, increasingly, paperwork.”[xii] Rather than read Mark Spitz’s decisions to embrace the mass as a discreet act within a novel, what seems striking about his decision is that it flies in the face of the genre as whole. His gruesome decision to “learn how to swim” shakes the foundation of both the repetition compulsion and the focus on the individual demonstrably found in the post-apocalyptic. But, eliminating the focal character does not eliminate the post-apocalyptic scenario it only undoes our access to it.

The long architectural passage I quoted above gains new significance in light of the close of the novel. Whitehead may be narrating the changing urban plan of the city, the social relations that undergird it and shore it up, but in providing a theory of the urban metabolism he also gestures to a deeper connection between the form and content of the post-apocalyptic novel itself. If anything, the allegorical slippage of Whitehead’s narration makes up an informal history of formal change that is not strictly limited to the city at all, but can be read as a metahistory of the post-apocalyptic novel: “Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows.” The effects wrought by the writers taking on their visions of after the end are replaced or one-upped as “Time chiseled at elegant stonework, which swirled or plummeted to the sidewalk in dust and chips and chunks.” It wasn’t New York City after all it was a zombie novel.

[i] As Thomas Jones points out, the name Omega Unit is “a nod to the 1971 movie The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, one of the many adaptations of Robert Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, also a major influence onNight of the Living Dead.” Thomas Jones, “Les Zombies C’est Vous,” in The London Review of Books 34.2 (26 January 2012), 27.

[ii] Hoberek, “Living with PASD,” Contemporary Literature 53.2 (2012): 410.
[iii] Colson Whitehead, Zone One (New York: Doubleday, 2011), Zone One 14.
[iv] Whitehead, Zone One 5-6.
[v] Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in New York (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010), 29.
[vi] Hoberek’s review is one again instructive for me here: Whitehead “presents New York as an imagistic assemblage of scenes glimpsed through windows: the curator is none other than the author himself. Here we see a profound difference between Whitehead's approach to his genre materials and that of, say, Junot Diaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Both Whitehead (b. 1969) and Diaz (b. 1968) belong to a generational cohort of mostly male American authors—Michael Chabon (b. 1963) and Jonathan Lethem (b. 1964) are others—who embrace the genre forms of their youths. But whereas Diaz, in Wao, turns to the clunky, semi-Victorian diction of comic books, science fiction, and fantasy as a way beyond the minimalist, Carveresque prose of his first book. Drown (1996), Whitehead tells his zombie story in highly polished, formally perfect prose.” Hoberek, “PASD,” 409.
[vii] Jones, “Les Zombies C’est Vous,” 28.
[viii] McGurl, “Zombie Renaissance.”
[ix] Hoberek, “Living with PASD,” 411-412.
[x] Hoberek, “Living with PASD,” 412.
[xi] Whitehead, Zone One 259.
[xii] Whitehead, Zone One 162.


The Anthropocene, Genre, and Futurity

Not The World Without Us, but the World as Us

The Anthropocene is a spatial behemoth, a cognitive leviathan. I want to start with an example that highlights a problem with the Anthropocene as a genre perhaps, but certainly as concept that deeply impacts the ways we can think about the future of the planet and human life activity. In the summer of 2012, Russ George, of Plakos Inc., and a First Nations village on Haida Gwaii dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of British Columbia in order to encourage algae growth. George Dvorsky of i09.com says, “recent satellite images are now confirming [the iron sulphate’s] effects—an artificial plankton bloom that's 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) in size. The intention of the project is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the bottom of the ocean.” The decision was made unilaterally by George and First Nations on Haida Gwaii; Environment Canada and the UN are both investigating this rogue geo-engineering project. In The Huffington Post, Stephanie Pappas writes about the implications for large scale adoption of the technique: “Even widespread fertilization of the oceans would result in about 0.5 to 1 gigaton of carbon being shuttled out of the atmosphere annually…That's about a third to a quarter of the carbon added to the atmosphere each year from man-made and other sources.” Here, the realization that we are fully within the Anthropocene offers those interested a license to act and to take the responsibility for the well being of the planet into their own hands. In the case of this example, George convinced the Haida to contribute over one million dollars to the project.

Just across the Hecate Strait from Haida Gwaii the possible connections between ecological and racial politics becomes further complicated, where struggles have been raging between oil companies and First Nations over the Douglas Channel Energy Partnership.[1] Though not often treated this way by corporate interests, environmental action, in both examples, becomes a First Nations issue, in light of the tenuous status of treaty negotiation in B.C. The acceleration of action, in the case of the carbon trap, and the blockage of action, in the case of the pipeline, are two courses that take the ecological impasse we now know as the Anthropocene as their grounds for justification. Stopping the pipeline and creating new ways to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising are both gambits that address the global climate crisis: each is based on slowing the oncoming catastrophe and mitigating the effects of our carbon dependency.[2] What I hope to show with this overdetermined example of ecological activity is just how severely the Anthropocene underdetermines the dense crossover of ecological, economic, racial, and political lines.

In what follows I elaborate the Anthropocene as a genre of writing alongside other kinds of environmental writing in order to emphasize what I think we all will agree is fundamental shortcoming of the term’s explanatory and political usefulness. Libby Robin has already begun to elaborate how the ways we imagine and write the global state of things can intervene in our understanding of the present. In “The Eco-Humanities as Literature: A New Genre?” she concludes, neatly, that the extent to which this may be effective “will depend on our capacity to write Nature as a subject and to understand the Human as a physical force in the Earth's ecosystems” (302).[3] Robin’s claim may be correct, but our capacity to “write nature as subject” is severely altered in the wake of the Anthropocene. As Robin suggests, ecology is a “useful tool for writing about 'place in time' (human scale and sensibilities of place) because it takes context into account, including evolutionary history and local environment” (291). Robin’s piece turns to Australian environmental writing to articulate her argument, demonstrating the activity of shuttling from what she calls “global frameworks” and “global scale” to the particularity of the local. I hope to show the ways the Anthropocene makes this kind of conceptual shuttling difficult. I consider the Anthropocene as one symptom, among many, of a global energy dependency premised on the goal of limitless growth and accumulation. I will begin with the ways the authors of the Anthropocene frame the future, before discussing Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy (2004, 2005, 2007) as texts that engage the epistemic, ecological, and political interregnum of the Anthropocene where the force of humanity has lead itself: not to The World Without Us, but to the world as us.

The Anthropocene and Futurity

A number of researchers in the sciences have declared that we have entered a new geological age characterized by the impact of the fervor of human life activity on the planet since the invention of the coal-powered steam engine. This announcement sounds the depth of research and thought in the humanities through different means than in the sciences or for engineering, and I intend to read discussions surrounding the Anthropocene in terms of the period they construct and the futures they both describe and imply. In their 2007 piece, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill propose three historical stages to the development of the Anthropocene: the industrial era (ca. 1800-1945), the great acceleration (ca. 1945-present), and the latest, something they term “Stewards of the Earth System? (ca. 2015–?)” (618). Here, the shift from thinking the global through human impact moves ever so quickly from the conditional, ‘if humans are the greatest geological force on the planet, we would need to respond by…’, to the imperative, ‘human beings are the greatest geological force: act now,’ which frames the opening example of Haida Gwaii in a new light—not as a criminal act but as an act of stewardship. In the article, this shift opens on to three possible trajectories for the future: business as usual, mitigation, and geo-engineering.

Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill describe business as usual based on several assumptions. First, adopting an anti-apocalyptic stance, they suggest that “global change will not be severe or rapid enough to cause major disruptions to the global economic system or to other important aspects of societies, such as human health” (619). One need only think of the latest super storm, hurricane Sandy and now the polar vortex, and the on-going municipal, state, and federal government efforts to repair and rebuild to recognize problems with the business as usual model.[4] Second, they assume, “the existing market-oriented economic system can deal autonomously with any adaptations that are required” (619), displaying wonderfully what would be registered only a matter of months after the publication of their article by a financial, and not an ecological, crisis. Third, they suggest that “resources required to mitigate global change proactively would be better spent on more pressing human needs” (619). The assumption that seems to be undergirding Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill’s assessment, is that the political, ecological future will look strikingly like the present. To their credit, it seems most pertinent to read this model as a straw man argument, making this version of the future a rhetorical device with an ecological agenda designed to move readers beyond this first vision of the future to the following two, dialing up the political stakes in the process.

If the business as usual response shrugs off the possibility of catastrophe, mitigation tries to completely reverse it. Mitigation, for Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill, aims to “allow the Earth System to function in a pre-Anthropocene way” through vastly improved technology and management, wise use of Earth’s resources, control of human and domestic animal population, and overall careful use and restoration of the natural environment” (619). Acknowledging the impacts humans have had on the bios in this form however naively requires a faith in science and scientific progress. This fits what Imre Szeman describes in his article “System Failure” as “techno-utopianism” where scientific or technocratic solutions sweep in at the final hour to resolve the looming threats to the Earth and human and animal life (812). But, as Szeman points out, the problem with such a faith in science is that this type of resolution has no history.[5] Here, the tension between a lurking catastrophism and the generative potential of imagining what is to come animates this second future in Antropocene as a genre of reactionary extrapolation. That we could return to a pre-Anthropocene age simply through sage managerial practices seems beyond the scope of possibility for current systems of governance. For evidence of this one need only remember the difficulties the Kyoto Protocol has faced over the past fifteen years, leaving Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeil’s third option, seemingly, as their best.

Geo-engineering also runs along the lines of Szeman’s techno-utopianism. This version of the future assumes that since humans have already affected the Earth to the degree and extent that they do, we should take full responsibility and engage in purposeful, planned endeavours to reshape the planet in the form of humanity’s desire. Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill are careful to elaborate the dangers of geo-engineering, suggesting that the fix would require massive coordination and cooperation on a global scale—something possible only in Sezeman’s fourth possible future: the planned economy. In other words, the problem ceases to be entirely ecological and becomes political, meeting up with discourses of modernization and industrialization, uneven development, and problems in global consensus. This moment of transformation also marks a structural limit to the term Anthropocene: it tends to elide economic or geographic difference and homogenize humanity into one agent that acts on and against the planet, rather than thinking the dense complex of relations that subtly and deeply impact the Earth over a number of operations and repetitions. The concept of the Anthropocene leaps to totality both in ecological terms—from the locale of Haida Gwaii to geology writ-large—and in governmental terms—from the overdetermined struggle of one group to the entire human population—leaving behind the capacity to accurately frame the ecological impasse and offer reasoned solutions.

The Anthropocene and Genre

Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007) works through expert testimony to explore the ways that Earth might recuperate in the wake of humanity.[6] Weisman’s thought experiment removes humanity, and its future actions, from the ecological equation so that we might better be able to understand and respond to its effects. Especially when the problems are vaster than human reckoning, Wiseman diligently narrates them. For instance, in his chapter on plastics, the pacific garbage gyre, and futurity Weisman points out that “plastics haven't been around long enough for us to know how long they'll last or what happens to them” (116).[7] Weisman’s book remarkably engages in what Gerry Canavan, Lisa Klarr, and Ryan Vu, have described as an attempt to “narrate the unnarratable” (21) to move beyond both science fiction and other ecological writing in order to frame the ecological impasse. Like discourses of the Anthropocene, Weisman’s book reveals that the problems we are only beginning to name in the present have been a long time in the making—plastics being a prime example. The World Without Us plays a formal trick that writing on the Anthropocene doesn’t—it declares humanity’s incalculable effects on the planet not by shouting about our geological force, but by appearing to subtract us from the equation.

Whether or not describing a world without us is possible, the era of our deep impact on the planet is already over a century old, in the words of Kim Stanley Robinson, “our inadvertent terraforming of Earth [has] already begun by accident” (179). Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy (2004, 2005, 2007) fills in the specificity and dynamism missing from the discussions of the Anthropocene above. Rather than focus on crisis and impasse through a science-fictional displacement onto an estranged future space and time, the trilogy unfolds in the present after omniscient narration describes the increasingly rapid melting of the polar ice and the resulting uptick in weather volatility. In other words, Science in the Capital quickens the pace and effects of global warming to test various scenarios and human responses. Like Weisman’s thought experiment, Robinson presses fast forward on the gamut of possibilities: catastrophe, mitigation, and geo-engineering.

Unlike discussions surrounding the Anthropocene, Robinson’s climate change trilogy doesn’t foreground one ideological agenda over another; instead, it provides us with what Mathias Nilges has described as “a matrix of conflicting positions” (81). Nilges assessment is that it is this mode of realism that makes the trilogy so effective at mapping and working through the political, economic, and ecological contradiction. He writes, “reading Science in the Capital means to dissolve what we conceive of as paralyzing impasses (politically as well as formally) and show them…as the multipositional processes they are” (83).[8] Robinson, it seems, already addresses what Eddie Yuen, in “The Politics of Failure Have Failed” suggests—that the epistemic emergence of the Anthropocene could bring with it a shuffling of political positions: “of course, political categories never neatly fall into categories of left and right—in fact there are often a range of bizarre combinations, and there is a strong likelihood of “morbid symptoms” in the interregnum between the Holocene and the Anthropocene” (39). Robinson’s main intervention, on K. Daniel Cho’s account, moves beyond the politics of the Anthropocene, which by and large seek to create a future as some idealized version of the present, to “explore the possibility of ecological disaster creating the preconditions for the wholesale transformation of capitalist society” (24). Rather than seeking to contain or downplay these “morbid symptoms,” Robinson writes their tension, their conflicts, and their somewhat unsatisfactory solutions, presenting a much more complex and nuanced characterization of life on Earth in the massive wake of humanity’s impact.

Concluding Notes

The Anthropocene is as much a problem of representation as it is an ecological one. In the Anthropocene we see the politics and limits to thinking in broad strokes. But the short-circuit, for me, isn’t about trying to think too big, it’s a problem of taking an easy path to thinking that bigger picture. Totalities are complex, nuanced, and shape relations in indirect ways. The project of thinking an ecological totality that takes into account the impact of one species on all of the others measured through the visible signs that species leaves on the face of the planet is a good place to start. The difficulty lies in developing the thought, in weighing it against other discourses and problematics, from uneven development to the politics of geo-engineering, and, even more so, in meaningfully bridging that thought to action.

Three tangled threads simultaneously inform and complicate discussions of the Anthropocene: enlightenment ideas of progress, a description or theory of the world as a totality, and an agreement about the ethics and politics of human impact on the Earth. These threads weave into descriptions of the Anthropocene and spool outwards again as scientists, engineers, ecologists, and social scientists alike think through what it means for our collective future. However, the intensive impact of human life activity on the planet is not just a fiction; rather, the ways this activity is described are fully narrative in scope and tend to draw on fiction in order to give shape to imaginative or notional encounters with the diverse effects of this life activity. All of this brings us back to history. The Anthropocene, if we accept its periodization in The Philosophical Transcripts and elsewhere, began in the enlightenment and has unfolded through the industrial innovations of the 19th century, the great wars of the 20th, and, in the face of ecological catastrophe, stands revealed at the dawn of the 21st. What this means for politics is up for debate. I have tried to show some of the limits to the forms of thinking the future implied by and addressed to the Anthropocene, as well as highlighting Weisman and Robinson’s as alternative ways to approach representing or formalizing the Anthropocene.

By way of a concluding thought, in “Après Nous, Le Deluge” Canavan takes the right approach emphasizing a collective failure and that collective solutions are needed: “Three months after Hurricane Sandy, eight years after Hurricane Katrina, 25 years after James Hansen testified before Congress, 40 years after the development of a scientific consensus around global warming in the 1970s, 70 years after climate models in the 1950s first began to point to the problem, 107 years after Svante Arrhenius first modeled the greenhouse effect in 1896, we still sit and wait to see what happens.” Whether or not we agree with the actions taken off the coast of Haida Gwaii, deep in the Anthropocene, the future of the world it seems is still, and perhaps problematically so, up to us.

Works Cited
“Is Global Warming Behind the Polar Vortex.” Rutgers Today. 30 Jan. 2014 Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Bahrani, Ramin. “Plastic Bag.” FutureStates.TV, 7 Sept. 2009. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Canavan, Gerry, Lisa Klarr, and Ryan Vu. “Ecology & Ideology: An Introduction.” Polygraph 22 (2010): 1-32.
Canavan, Gerry. “Après Nous, le Déluge.” The New Inquiry, 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Cho, K. Daniel. “‘When a Chance Came for Everything to Change’: Messianism and Wilderness in Kim Stanely Robinson’s Abrupt Climate Change Trilogy.” Criticism 53.1 (Winter 2011): 23-51.
Dvorsky, George. “A Massive and Illegal Geoengineering Project has been Detected Off Canada's West Coast.” I09.com 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Nilges, Mathias. “Marxism and Form Now.” Mediations 24.2 (Spring 2009): 66-89.
Pappas, Stephanie. “Iron Dumping In The Pacific Ocean Stirs Controversy Over Geoengineering.” Huffington Post 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.
Rose, Deborah Ed. “The Ecological Humanities.” The Australian Humanities Review 47 (2009): 87-187.
Robin, Libby. “The Eco-Humanities as Literature: A New Genre?” Australian Literary Studies 23.3 (2008): 290-304.
Robinson, Kim Stanley, Imre Szeman, and Maria Whiteman. “Future Politics: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson.” In Science Fiction Studies 31 (2004): 177-187.
Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 36.8 (2007):614-621.
Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Cultural and Historical Perspectives.” The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369 (2011): 842-867.
Szeman, Imre. “System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.4 (Fall 2007): 805-823.
Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us. New York: Picador, 2007.

[1] A poignant example being how Enbridge erased several islands from the Douglas Channel – according to davidsuzuki.org removing “1,000 square kilometers of islands off their route safety video and map to make the oil tanker route look much less treacherous than it actually is.”
[2] Sasha Liley’s edited collection Catastophism (2012) and Eric C. Otto’s monograph, Green Speculations (2012) form two tendential poles to the limits and possibilities of ecological thought today. Catastrophism trenchantly critiques those forms of politics that draw on the imagination of disaster in an effort to shock a sluggish or complacent population into action; while, Green Speculations affirms the interconnection of science fiction and transformational environmentalism. The former describes catastrophism as either eminently co-optable by the political right (39) or as leading to only moralizing or technocratic solutions (18); while, the latter reads the genre connection between sci-fi and environmental writing, since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), as a privileged site to engage the ecological imperative to alter our collective course through history. Though Liley and Otto’s projects appear to turn in different directions, they each take form and genre as their starting point to shaping or critiquing a version of the future based on the limits and possibilities of the present.
[3] See also The Australian Humanities Review special section on “Ecological Humanities” collected by Deborah Rose. In her introduction, Rose writes: “The articles in this issue of Ecological Humanities explore the role and dimensions of writing in this time of environmental change. They seek out the kinds of writing capable of shaking up our culture, and awakening us to new and more enlivened understandings of the world, our place in it, and the situated connectivities that bind us into multi-species communities” (87).
[4] See “Is Global Warming Behind the Polar Vortex.”
[5] Szeman writes, “Technology is figured as just around the corner, as always just on the verge of arriving. Innovation can be hurried along (through increased grants, for instance), but only slightly: technological solutions arrive just in time and never fail to come…History offers no models whatsoever: the fantasy of past coincidence between technological discovery and historic necessity simply reinforces the bad utopianism of hope in technological solutions to the looming end of oil.” (814)
[6] National Geographics’ Aftermath: Populaiton Zero (2008), The History Channel’s Life After People (2008), and the more speculative BBC show The Future is Wild (2003-)
[7] The futurity of plastic is treated in “Plastic Bag” a FutureStates.TV short directed, written, and edited by Ramin Bahrani. The short follows the life of a plastic bag on its way to the pacific garbage gyre, tracing its lifetime well after both its usefulness and the death of its “maker” – the woman who first used it for groceries. It is voiced by Wernor Herzog who concludes the piece with a fantasy about meeting the “maker” one final time to say: “I wish you created me so that I could die.”
[8] “We find this formal strategy on the level of plot, where dialectical contradictions drive forward a process that never suffices itself with positivistic (or satisfying) resolutions: libertarians struggle with neoliberals who struggle with neoconservatives, Buddhists struggle with humanist leftists, philosophers struggle with scientists, capitalism struggles with sustainable development, and luddite politics compete with the ideal of terraforming” (82).


contagion *

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh US 2011). Warner Bros Pictures. NTSC Region 1. Widescreen 16:9. US$31.98. 

* - this DVD Review  was first published in Science Fiction Film and Television 6.1 (2013), 119-123, and is reprinted here with permission from Liverpool UP. I’d like to thank and acknowledge the input of the excellent editors of SFFTV, Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint, as well as my colleague Jeff Diamanti with whom I had quite a discussion about optics, picture thinking, and totality (you can check out Jeff's excellent blog here).

Contagion, like Steven Soderbergh’s earlier Traffic (Germany/US 2000), maintains a dynamic – one might even say dialectical – relationship between space and time. Just as Traffic works as a realist mapping of social space, charting the transnational drug trade and the limits to politics over the US–Mexico border, so Contagion does more than just follow an epidemic. It appears to be a study in global circulation, picturing the spread of the disease, press conferences, international and multinational video conferences and, ultimately, global circuits of capital in the form of commodity shipments earlier in the film and vaccine shipments later on. Traffic and Contagion can therefore be thought of as bookends to the first decade of the twenty first century, with the former imagining border concerns that fell out of public notice after 11 September 2001, and the latter – focused, as it is, on the circulation of disease, vaccine, rumour and speculation – following on the heels of the fallout from another type of speculation, the 2008 financial crisis. While Traffic suggests that everyone, drug lords and officials alike, is corrupt or corruptible (save, perhaps, for Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro)), Contagion suggests that ‘in a world gone catastrophically wrong, the only folks to be trusted are government officials’ (Clover 8). However, the complicity of government officials in the film seems to have little to do with what the circulation of disease renders visible.

In contrast to other contemporary apocalyptic and disaster films (for a review of a number of global pandemic films, see Maio), such as 2012 (Emmerich US 2009), Contagion rarely gives in to imagining the globe from the outside or above. Instead, the narrative tends to follow characters and end up in locations that are intimately related to the disease itself. Even the grandest shots of treatment centres, food lines or vaccination centres are only as wide or as long as a hockey arena or a public square could allow. The film works from within government agencies, families and villages, much like Traffic, elaborating the relation between space and time in two major zones: the United States and Hong Kong/China. Indeed, the dividing line between the two zones can be drawn between the politics of the family and the politics of the village – Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) calls his wife to warn her to leave Chicago before the city is quarantined, while Sun Feng (Chin Han) takes a world health official, Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), hostage in order to ransom her for the vaccine to save his village.

The film works through a variety of explanations for the breakout before positing a final narrative explanation. The foremost explanation is a moral one, with patient zero, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), being punished by the disease for her extra-marital affair. Indeed, we only get a brief shot of the man in Chicago she sleeps with and thus kills through the spread of MEV-1 (Meningoencephalitis Virus One). This narrative plays itself out between her step-daughter, Jory Emhoff (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and husband, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon). Jory’s father protectively keeps her in the house throughout the majority of the film, sheltering her from the disease and the outside world. Another narrative – conspiracy – is touted by blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who traces responses to the disease back to the financial relationship between corporate interests, the US government and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), even while he is paid off and lies about the effectiveness of forsythia, a homeopathic treatment described as a cure for the contagion.

Perhaps the strongest force in Contagion, though not necessarily as an explanation for the disease, is the enlightenment narrative of progress implied at the CDC as scientists store the cured MEV-1 alongside H1N1 and SARS and eight to ten other disease storage vats. In the film, this type of progress is brought about largely by rogues: Professor Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) does not follow orders to destroy his attempts to grow the virus – a necessary step in curing the disease – and Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), in the spirit of her father’s story about the discovery that bacteria not stress caused ulcers, injects herself with the vaccine rather than waiting months for the approval of test subjects. However convincing this may be for the audience, the explanatory power of medicine and progress is challenged in the film as Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) struggles to explain the R0 (the basic reproductive rate) of the disease to Minnesota health officials. Their response is not encouraging: ‘We’re gonna need to walk the government through this before we start to freak everybody out. I mean, we can’t even tell people right now what they should be afraid of. We tried that with Swine Flu and all we did was get healthy people scared. It’s the biggest shopping weekend of the year.’ While these narratives animate the film, offering different plot threads to follow, a material, and thus more accurate, explanation is implied in the film’s final scene.

It is one of only a few scenes that fall out of narrative sequence, and the only one conspicuously to do so. Unlike Traffic’s inconclusive final scene, Contagion offers a narrative closure that retroactively answers any lingering questions the audience may have, but I will hold off on discussing it just for a moment. Other shots from out of sequence do not read as conspicuous because they rely on Dr Orantes reviewing the Hong Kong casino’s surveillance footage in the hopes of finding patient zero, and these dreamy shots of Beth Emhoff alive and enjoying herself shed little light on the causes of the disease. Caetlin Benson-Allott provocatively suggests that in the final scene ‘what we are seeing is the video record Orantes wants, not the one she has’ (15). Unlike the narratives generated by morality, conspiracy or the enlightenment, this final scene offers up a different interpretation, as the restoration of the status quo in the Emhoff household – Mitch Emhoff gives his daughter the prom she never got – signals the film’s final moment, an indication that nothing has taken place outside the status quo since the start.

In the scene in question, the camera moves in a revelatory fashion, tying together loose threads: a dissolve from the Emhoff household to dusky Macau Forest is sustained by what was the diegetic sound of prom music now turned non-diegetic, signalling, as we will see, a jump in temporality. The camera tilts up past dense foliage in the foreground to reveal heavy machinery bearing the discernible corporate marker AIMM: Alderson International Mining and Manufacturing, the company Beth Emhoff worked for and the reason for her trip to Hong Kong. The camera tracks left as it follows the machinery and tilts up to reveal trees, which then fall out of the shot as bats take flight from them. After a dissolve, the camera follows a bat from its perch on some bananas through its flight to a large structure. The shot cuts to frame the bat hanging from the ceiling inside the structure, which is only revealed to be a pig barn once the camera tilts down to follow some fruit and/or guano the bat drops amongst the pigs. The tempo picks up as a series of shots – reminiscent of those earlier in the film that elaborated the movement and development of the disease – follow the pig off the farm and into a restaurant, which is then revealed to be in the casino where Emhoff caught MEV-1 in the first place. The circle is completed as the chef who was preparing the pig goes out to greet Emhoff without washing his hands. A definitive title, ‘Day 1’, is displayed in the bottom centre of the shot just as the film ends.

The theory of the disease’s outbreak that ends up proving true is floated earlier in the film when Dr Hextall says, ‘somewhere in the world the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat’. My reading of the last scene picks up on Benson-Allott’s analysis of Contagion as a critique of hypervisibility. Discussing films, from Fantastic Voyage (Fleischer US 1966) and Innerspace (Dante US 1987) to Blade: Trinity (Goyer US 2004) and The Thing (van Heijningen Jr US/Canada 2011), that ‘teach viewers that computers can render truths our senses cannot’, she argues that ‘by separating digital visual aids from the rest of the characters’ environments, Contagion indicates that seeing the virus – or even the moment of its transmission – can never fully explain the biological catalysts behind the epidemic’ (14). She nuances the spatial relations within the film by buttressing them with a dialectic of visibility. The ending of the film pulls back the veil on its ideological content – the film’s apparent moral lesson about Emhoff’s fidelity is revealed to fall short – and the scene with the bats and the pigs suggests a different narrative explanation, a different containment strategy: things are chaotic, the world is a big messy place, and the ways that we understand our place within it are propped up by little more than narrative alone. Benson-Allott reads this final scene in terms of what it reveals and the inherent limits of that representation: ‘Because it must find a way to represent transnational capital, Soderbergh’s final sequence participates in a logic of visible evidence that only leads to certain kinds of culprits – those which can be seen and identified – such as Beth Emhoff’s company’ (15). Indeed, that Dr Hextall’s explanation is shown to be accurate at the end of the film takes us closer to what it portrays throughout; a bridge is made between capitalist circulation and large-scale manufacturing and farm production, each with its intrinsic risks. The necessity of a named culprit results in a bad form of politics – AIMM is a bad corporation with bad practices, meaning that what is needed, then, is a good corporation.

Instead of stable explanation, we are left with a question about narrative film and its relation to depicting totality, about the relation of aesthetics and politics, which drives at the absent cause of Contagion itself. Contagion depicts not just the collision between the microscopic circulation of MEV-1 and the visibility of global actors through surveillance and digital technologies, but also figures the representability and manageability of the world as globe as a problem. The question is not about the mystery of the disease, which in retrospect is so easily vanquished (in an affirmation of enlightenment progress), but about the real remainder of Contagion, the real gap between the capitalist dialectics of circulation and production. The film suggests an answer in Jory’s question – ‘Why can’t there be a shot that keeps time from passing?’ – which can be read as a clever pun, if one has the inclination or desire to read film as having the potential to accomplish what Contagion sets out to do – to come to an understanding of social relations and the way disease, rumour, speculation and capital spread around the world. Jory’s question leaves out the element of space, an acute problem treated very carefully throughout the film. That is, if the world is now a fully global one, then Contagion reminds us that it is a fully capitalist one, too, but in such a way that implies we look to the absences for explanation, rather than what is made entirely, accurately visible. At its core, the film points out that the precise remainder of enlightenment progress cannot be represented – that is, the picture thinking of a contagion could only produce the question of totality and not its thought, not its cognitive map. That practice is left to us.

Works cited
Benson-Allott, Caetlin. ‘Out of Sight’. Film Quarterly 65.2 (2011): 14–15.
Clover, Joshua. ‘Fall and Rise’. Film Quarterly 65.2 (2011): 7–9.
Maio, Kathi. ‘It’s A Small (Sick) World – But Love Still Makes It Go Round’. Fantasy &
Science Fiction 122.1/2 (2012): 158–63.