tue 28/05/2024

Mark Bould: The Anthropocene Unconscious review - climate anxiety is written everywhere | reviews, news & interviews

Mark Bould: The Anthropocene Unconscious review - climate anxiety is written everywhere

Mark Bould: The Anthropocene Unconscious review - climate anxiety is written everywhere

Foreboding is never far away, even in our trashiest entertainment

Mark Bould - 'an idiosyncratic selection'

Our everyday lives, if we’re fortunate, may be placid, even contented. A rewarding job, for some; good eats; warm home; happy family; entertainment on tap. Yet, even for the privileged, awareness of impending change – probably disaster – intrudes.

Our entertainment is saturated with foreboding. In the Anthropocene, the hard-to-define era when the human collective has planet-wide effects that will endure for aeons, any new fictional world bears traces of the ways our real world is being made, or unmade.

Mark Bould’s book explores how these reveal what he calls the Anthropocene unconscious, which seeps into every corner of cultural production, even when the film, TV show, comic book, game or story is not ostensibly “about” our planetary peril.

He offers a small book on a big subject, responding to Amitav Ghosh’s widely discussed claim in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) that “most forms of art and literature” are intent on ignoring our new reality. Nonsense, says Bould. Ghosh’s claim has some warrant in serious literary fiction. But he has to rule out of consideration a stash of books on the science and politics of climate change, and ignore science fiction, “not to mention all the gussied up ‘climate fiction’ too fancypants to consider itself SF”.

The Anthropocene Unconscious (book cover) They aren’t Bould’s main concern either. His argument is that one may learn more about our imaginative response to the Anthropocene by ranging more widely. The kind of thing he means becomes clear when, after a brief academic introduction, he launches with glee into a plot summary of the future-schlocky Syfy channel movie Sharknado (2013) and its five increasingly bizarre sequels.

I’ve not seen any Sharknado movies but Bould’s distillation of their stories, too complex to summarise, is worth the price of admission. They are all trash, but cleverly crafted trash, full of ludicrous plotlines, laughably cheap special effects, and portentously tongue-in-cheek screenplay. They are also, from the get go – when a storm-driven waterspout dumps sharks over LA – to the finale, rooted in climate disturbance as a threat that runs through human history. And, via their budget-conserving use of reams of stock footage of disasters, they invite an over-the-top, comic escapism served with a large helping of reminders of real-world catastrophe. Hyper-aware products of a media apparatus that continually devours and regurgitates its own products, they are chock-full of references to almost everything. But Bould convinces that, however many distractions and diversions the makers weave into these films, global climate calamity is ever present.

Having shown this, he then goes on to treat a selection of other items in similar fashion. Zombie movies come into his critical sights next, followed by contemporary novelists. He finds that the latter, contra Ghosh, either strive to suppress the Anthropocene unconscious (Paul Auster) but usually fail in the attempt (Lucy Ellman or Karl Knausgaard), or confront it directly without necessarily saying so explicitly (Paul Kingsnorth and Arundhati Roy). He dips into some watery science fiction via Arthur Clarke and JG Ballard, then turns to arthouse cinema – he is particularly good on film and its qualities. He also enjoys switching between highbrow and more popular forms, from Swamp Thing and Marvel comics’ Groot to Richard Powers’ Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory (2018).

It’s an idiosyncratic selection, to be sure, but he just about carried this reader with him. There’s a vast amount more to say on his subject, and it’s a pity he didn’t take a bit more time to put his project in context. We can wonder, for example, how the books and movies he talks about relate to Susan Sontag’s foray into science fiction criticism in The Imagination of Disaster (1965), a text that isn’t mentioned. And in that light, it’s hard to judge how much of the imagery he displays here may be uniquely contemporary, how much timeless. Nor how our current world-encompassing fears compare with the – pardon the expression – cultural climate of the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis, or the world on the brink of conflict depicted in Louis MacNiece’s Autumn Journal (1939).

Finally, while Bould’s critical arguments are carefully made, he is clear that his method includes reading an awareness of the Anthropocene into the cultural gems he examines. That aligns with his suggestion that the unconscious is concerned with damping down awareness of the inadmissable. He is thus allowed to infer, in a Freudian move, that not finding much in the way of tropes that stand for global climate crisis is evidence of strenuously maintained repression. But it does mean the overall approach risks offering a conclusion that mirrors its premise. Personally, though, I feel all too conscious of the Anthropocene, and not in a good way, which may be why I reckon he offers enough evidence to make his case.


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