This is a chapter I've written for a forthcoming book, A Cultural History of Climate Change. It's probably a little long to read on a screen -- but I can't work out how to upload pdfs to blogger. No doubt it can be done, but not by me -- apologies.
It's in seven sections: 1) a short intro; 2) a discussion of metaphorical and literal climates; 3) a look at Wittgenstein's late concept of 'atmosphere'; 4) some comments on the etymology of 'climate,' and its links with the Lucretian concept of the clinamen; 5) a discussion of Taine's climatic theory of literary history; 6) a closer look at climate in Taine's concepts of race, milieu, and moment; 7) a few concluding remarks towards a literary history of climate change.
Climate Change and Literary History
What does climate mean?
The Western history of the concept of climate is intertwined in quite complex ways with the history of the concept of meaning, which entails that even when controversies surrounding the contemporary scientific meaning of climate change are set aside, as I will largely do here, the answer to the question—what does climate mean?—is far from straightforward. Since the early modern period at the latest, climate has often been thought of as meaningful because climates have been understood to shape distinct cultural worlds, exercising a formative influence over the actions and lives of all those who dwell within them. Different climates, this old story runs, shape different national characters, dividing up the human species racially, politically, culturally, linguistically and so on. The intellectual history of this argument, from its classical sources in Herodotus and Hippocrates, through its re-activation in such modern disciplines as political science, anthropology, literary history and geography, from Montesquieu, Herder, Taine and Huntington Ellsworth respectively, is too well-known to need any detailed rehearsal here (Boia, 2005; Peet, 1985; Livingstone 2002; Fleming 2005). Equally well-established are the ideological functions that climatic determinism has often served, notably providing colonialist projects, for instance, with ostensibly natural and scientific legitimations (Frenkel, 1992). My focus in this chapter, to begin with, is restricted solely to the circular relationship this type of argument tends to set up between climate and meaning: the idea being that if cultural meanings are climatically determined, then climates must in some sense already be intrinsically meaningful. And climatic determinism is just one of a number of ways in which climate has functioned historically as a recursive concept—a concept, that is, the deployment of which has often entered into a circle, to become a reflection on the nature of conceptuality itself. One of the principal ways in which the word ‘climate’ has been used since it first entered the English language, and since its cognates concurrently entered other modern European languages, was to designate the totality of meaning that shapes and colours all discourse in a given historical moment or delimitable cultural formation. In consequence, it often became difficult to disentangle thinking about the meaning of climate from thinking about the meaning of meaning, so that climatic theories retraced some familiar philosophical paradoxes of linguistic self-reference. In what follows, I describe this circular self-referentiality of climate as one dimension of a more general paradox of atmosphere—a paradox that complicates any inquiry into the meaning of climate. I then turn to Hyppolite Taine’s 1863 History of English Literature for a model of literary history that sought to make this climatic paradox operational, locating in climate’s semantic ambiguity a means for parsing the complex co-implications of writing and its environments.
Climate, climat, ‘climate’
In a 1937 essay on the meaning of the French word climat, the Romance philologist Rosemarie Burkart identified what she termed the ‘modern meaning’ of climate in the word’s shift from having a strictly natural scientific frame of reference to acquiring in addition an extended meaning evident in such phrases as ‘the political climate’ or ‘the intellectual climate’ (Burkart, 1937). She described this development as ‘the transition from the concrete to the metaphorical meaning,’ dating it roughly to the early years of the twentieth century. ‘Climate,’ in this figurative meaning referred to ‘the characteristic atmospheric or moral conditions of a region, a personality, an ideology which as such establish and exercise a particular changeable agency over the individual exposed to them (192). (The fact that Burkart in effect uses ‘atmospheric’ and ‘moral’ here as near synonyms is very much to her point.) For Burkart, climate’s scientific meaning was overlaid in the early twentieth century by a more figurative and cultural significance, which may well have borrowed semantic elements from the word’s primary sense, but which nonetheless remained metaphoric, and so derivative and indeed essentially separate. A metaphoric climate is cultural, not natural. But a closer survey of the philological record complicates Burkart’s narrative, for it calls into question the sharp and somewhat ahistorical division that was assumed by Burkart to lie between climate’s scientific and what she saw as its purely metaphorical meanings. And it also greatly extends that narrative in time, pushing the interplay between these two meanings of ‘climate’ back into the early modern period.
Writing a decade prior to Burkart, for example, Alfred North Whitehead proposed the true subject of his book Science and the Modern World as being ‘the climate of opinion’—a phrase, he noted, that he had first encountered in writings from the mid-seventeenth century (1926, p. 4). The expression ‘the political climate’ was in common use in English by the mid-eighteenth century at the latest.‘Moral climate,’ ‘spiritual climate’ and ‘intellectual climate’ were all well established in the lexicon by the early decades of the nineteenth century. The currency of these idioms perhaps helps account for the fact that, in the first appearance of ‘climatology’ in English, a translation of Herder’s new German coinage, Klimatologie, the term was essentially equivalent to anthropology, being defined as the cultural and historical science of ‘all the sensitive and cognitive faculties of man’ (Herder, 1800, p. I: 174). The phrase ‘climate of ideas’ entered the language somewhat later, but appears to have been in frequent use by the mid-nineteenth century. Set against this background, the expression ‘the cultural climate’ appears rather anomalous, apparently not having been coined until the middle of the twentieth century. That comparatively late semantic development may well tell us more about the slow evolution of the word ‘culture’ than it does about the history of the word ‘climate.’ For the philological record makes clear that culture was understood in climatic terms long before the emergence of our modern concept of culture itself.
It remains largely true today, as it was for Burkart in the 1930s, that the meaning of such phrases as ‘the political climate’ or ‘the economic climate’ is circumscribed broadly by what are thought to be the limits of human culture. We tend to understand such climates as metaphors or figures of speech, and as referring to phenomena that occupy an ontological order quite separate from the actual climates studied by actual climatologists. But for us, unlike Burkart, this metaphoric understanding is increasingly unsustainable, given that climate and its human limits are amongst the most intensely contested political questions of our times, and given that the political climate is now widely recognised as influencing the physical climate. But again, rather than focus here on the contemporary collapse of metaphoric into literal climates, I want instead to recover some aspects of the history of this distinction; first, to suggest that it has always been blurrier than we might have thought; and second, to link this persistent blurriness or undecidability between literal and metaphoric climates, to which the philological archive testifies, to the formal paradox that results from the use of ‘climate’ as a term for a totality or encompassing environment of meaning. For Whitehead, for example, the ‘climate of opinion’ named the mentality or collective state of mind in which certain ideas first became thinkable, while others faded unnoticed from view. Whitehead’s ‘climate of opinion’ is then a useful term for historians, N. Katherine Hayles has more recently suggested, because rather than invoking mechanical or efficient models of cultural causation, it instead suggests an underlying and pervasive background of multidirectional and reciprocal influences (1984, p. 22). For Hayles, such a climate is best understood as an ambient social mood or shared framework of largely unrecognised presuppositions—collective ways of seeing and thinking that seem somehow to be simply ‘in the air’ at a given moment. ‘Climate of opinion’ that is, names the interconnectedness and diffuse unity of a world of meaning. Climate, while functioning as a single element in the modern semantic system, has also been used prominently as a name for any semantic system taken as a whole. And so to speak about climate is to encounter the set of paradoxes that ensue whenever we speak about the totality of what can be said, or speculate about what may lie beyond those limits: the unsayable. To illustrate how the language of climate so often folds into the self-referentiality of language, I want to turn now[PC2] to Wittgenstein, before coming back to some of the ambiguities suggested by climate’s semantic history.
More than any other modern philosopher, Wittgenstein performed and so formalised the basic paradox of linguistic self-reference. Indeed, commentators have seen in this paradox the key philosophical problem that impelled Wittgenstein’s intellectual career, which can be read as a series of attempts to forestall and prevent linguistic self-referentiality. The basic problem has been neatly formulated by Boris Groys:
Of course an outright prohibition can be placed on speaking about the whole of language and about the logos as such, as Wittgenstein demanded. However, such a prohibition is not only unnecessarily repressive, but is also contradictory in itself, for one must speak about the whole of language to be able to prohibit such speech (2009, p. 11–12).
Wittgenstein’s later Philosophical Investigations might then be understood as an attempt to defuse this paradox. This is what motivates, for example, his famous definition of meaning: ‘the meaning of a word is its use’ ( 2001, p. §43). The guiding idea is that it is a mistake to think that we can appeal to some fact outside language in order to discover the meaning of a term within a language, and that this is particularly mistaken when it comes to such general terms as ‘meaning’ itself. By ceasing to speak about words like ‘meaning’ in this way, Wittgenstein suggested, we could then begin to see that traditional philosophical problems which had centred on such terms as ‘knowledge’ and ‘being’ were essentially misunderstandings of the nature of language. Metaphysics required us to somehow lift ourselves outside of language in order to speak about language as such, language as a totality. And the basic problem with such a belief, Wittgenstein argued, was that ‘Language is not contiguous to anything else. We cannot speak of the use of language as opposed to anything else. So in philosophy all that is not gas is grammar’ (1989, p. 112). Language doesn’t have any such ‘outside,’,] and attempts to push it beyond the limits of use produced only vapid ‘gassing.’ Wittgenstein’s anti-philosophy was dedicated to exposing these airy metaphysical mirages as so much windy confusion: ‘What we are destroying are nothing but castles of air, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood’ (PI¸§118. Translation altered ). Gas, castles of air, atmosphere: Wittgenstein repeatedly turned to this aerial vocabulary to describe the metaphysical illusions he wanted to deflate. Linguistic atmosphere, in this account, is what is produced when we mistakenly try to talk about language as a whole, and to describe the limits of meaning as if from beyond them.
But this attempt to avoid the paradoxes of linguistic self-reference by re-grounding meaning in use in fact only succeeded in reproducing them. Considered as a definition of meaning, Wittgenstein’s account is notably circular, as is clear when his famous aphorism is returned to the full sentence in which it first appeared: ‘For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ (PI, §43). We know that the meaning of a word is its use, this sentence claims, because that is how the word ‘meaning’ itself has been used. But to set out to discover the meaning of ‘meaning’ in this way, by looking at a set of actual cases, is already to presuppose what you want to find out. In order to determine the meaning of a word, Wittgenstein suggested, we should look to its use. And yet he also advanced this definitional strategy in order to disallow certain types of use that generate, rather than meaning, only atmosphere or gas, as when we talk, for example, about meaning as such, or about the use of language as a whole. This is to treat some types of use as meaningful, and to rule out other types as giving only an illusory atmosphere of meaning. A prior judgement about what is properly meaningful would appear to delimit the field of use that is supposed to explain, in turn, what meaning is, and to distinguish meaning from mere gassy atmosphere. The circularity of Wittgenstein’s definition of meaning leads to a vicious regress, as has been shown, amongst others, by Graham Priest (1995, p. 228–235).
And yet, throughout Wittgenstein’s life and works there is a line of atmospheric thought that runs counter to his critical attacks on linguistic atmosphere. Wittgenstein, whose first academic job had involved testing kites at the University of Manchester’s Kite Flying Upper Atmosphere Station, saw his philosophy, he reportedly said, as having been written ‘for people who would think in a quite different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men’ (Wright, 1955, p. 527). One of the intellectual dangers of Cambridge, he once remarked, was that it was effectively airless: but ‘it doesn’t matter to me. I manufacture my own oxygen’ (Monk, 1990, p. 6). In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein had sought to prohibit self-reflexive meta-statements—statements, that is, which described, as if from outside, the limits of the language in which they were formulated: ‘You can never get outside it, you must always turn back. There is no outside; outside you cannot breathe’ (PI, §103). Beyond the common ground of language lies only asphyxiation—or the intoxications of metaphysical gas. Yet Wittgenstein’s self-reflective remarks hint, conversely, at an abiding desire for atmospheric transcendence, potentially orienting philosophy to the manufacture of new linguistic climates: to making its own oxygen, so to speak. Perhaps there is an outside, after all—or at least a blurrily liminal breathing-space on the atmospheric margin of language.
In some rather cryptic late comments, Wittgenstein appeared to retract his idea that atmosphere was what befell language when speech strayed beyond meaningful use. Instead, he proposed atmosphere to be a linguistic means for communicating an encompassing non-linguistic field. Atmosphere then figures a potential way of speaking meaningfully about the limits of language. In the manuscripts published as Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, Wittgenstein suggested that the expression ‘the word has an atmosphere,’ although figurative, was nonetheless comprehensible, a point he advanced in considering slight phonemic and graphic variations of common words ‘For example, the word “knoif” [Sabel] has a different atmosphere from the word “knife” [Säbel]. They have the same meaning, insofar as they are both names for the same kind of objects’ (1996, p. §726). The ‘atmosphere’ of a word here presumably relates here to sound and spelling—the word’s sonorous and graphic particularity as illustrated in the difference knife/knoif—rather than to its referential scope, which in this case remains unaltered by an atmospheric difference. But while this atmosphere appears to reside in the non-signifying specificity of the word as a distinct vocalised and inscribed object, it also evokes more loosely associated elements of feelings, moods, and memories, invoking the haze of recollection and emotion that seems to cluster around certain words. Perhaps significantly, Wittgenstein’s example for this involves music: ‘The “atmosphere,”’ he wrote,
is precisely that which one cannot imagine as absent. The name Schubert, shadowed around by the gestures of his face, of his works.—So there is an atmosphere after all?…these surroundings seem to be fused with the name itself, with the word ( (1994, p. 4).
As such, the word ‘Schubert,’ Wittgenstein noted, ‘can feel to us to have taken on the atmosphere of Schubert’s music (Wittgenstein 2009, section 229).’ It seems to subsist in a connotative swirl of half-remembered melodies, and so to communicate a singular historical experience of music, although this is one that may well lie beyond the realm of fully articulable meaning. These remarks position atmosphere as something that is conveyed by language and that takes place in language, something shaped and tinged by words, and yet that is bound up with the asemantic material specificity of the word. Indeed, Wittgenstein would even suggest it is not in fact meaning but rather ‘the atmosphere of a word’ that is its use (1994, p. 38). Atmosphere, rather than being what language generates in the absence of meaning, comes instead to resemble meaning, and even to convey meaning, for it is without question positioned here as a communicative dimension of language. As we have seen, ‘climate’ has often functioned as the name for the enabling (or constraining) totality of linguistic uses, the whole historical set of what can meaningfully be said. Wittgenstein’s late notion of linguistic atmosphere suggests another way in which such a linguistic climate may be understood: atmosphere is what reaches beyond that set or climate of meaning to articulate, however fuzzily, the unnameable and the inexpressible, what lies on the other side of meaning, what cannot yet be said.
However provocative or far-reaching the implications of Wittgenstein’s rethinking of atmosphere, he was careful nonetheless to insist that, in speaking of the atmospheres of words, he was not speaking literally. ‘The word has an atmosphere,’ he wrote ‘—A figurative expression’ (1996, p. §726). Linguistic atmospheres were seen to be comprehensible only as figures of speech. They remained bound up by a specific limiting context: namely, the language-game of metaphor and figure. In effect, Wittgenstein appealed to the same semantic distinction described by Burkart. On the one side, there are literal and scientific climates and atmospheres; on the other, figurative, fictional and metaphoric climates of meaning. But while Wittgenstein’s late remarks on atmosphere distinguish the atmospheres of language from those of the world, they also serve to identify this distinction as the site of a paradox. Indeed, atmosphere in Wittgenstein’s account makes for a notably vague, mobile and elusive boundary-object. It seems, for instance, to be transmedial: in atmosphere, language merges with recollections of music in a haze of meaning enveloping the word ‘Schubert.’ It is generated by language, and is even writable—the atmosphere of ‘knoif’ differs from that of ‘knife,’ for instance—but it also works to blur and fray the limits of language. Wittgenstein’s atmospheres are at once singular and vague, particular and indeterminable, communicable yet outside of meaning. They point to a paradoxical and para-linguistic dimension that erodes away the foundational distinction between figurative and metaphoric that Wittgenstein had previously instituted in order to introduce the notion of linguistic atmospheres into philosophy.
Climate, clima, clinamen
Despite these late and suggestive comments, atmosphere remained a relatively minor category for Wittgenstein, as it has arguably been for most modern philosophers of language. Indeed, Luce Irigaray ( 1999) went so far as to convict the tradition of Western philosophy of a wholesale ‘forgetting of air.’ But while this may have been true when Irigaray was writing in 1983, air seems no longer to be forgotten by philosophy today, with a growing number of theorists proposing atmosphere to be an indispensable category for the philosophical comprehension of the present (Böhme 1995; Sloterdijk 2004; Anderson 2009). One of the speculative appeals of atmosphere for these writers is precisely the way in which it seems to blur—or even entirely disallow—any firm distinction between figurative and literal climates. Wittgenstein’s late notion of atmosphere describes both aspects of this complex and ambiguous structure of meaning. On the one hand, it takes the distinction between figurative and literal atmospheres to be foundational. On the other, it erodes this distinction from within, for figurative atmospheres spill beyond the limits of language to draw non-linguistic experiential qualities—tones, sounds, memories of music, raw elements of the texture of being—into the realm of communicable meaning. In formalising this paradox, Wittgenstein gave philosophical description to the doubled function that climate had long served in self-descriptions of modern knowledge: of at once marking a distinction between figurative and literal language, and of erasing that distinction in the same breath. And this paradoxical logic of atmosphere can be found at work in a much wider cultural history of climatic and aerial writing.
In a recent essay on ‘The History of Air’ in Hamlet, for example, Carla Mazzio reads early modern theatre as an technology or medium for exhibiting the aerial limits of instrumentality, including language (Mazzio, 2009). As Prospero remarks of theatricality in The Tempest, ‘these our actors / As I foretold you, were all spirits, and / Are melted into air, into thin air.’ On Mazzio’s reading, the fact that this most metatheatrical of Shakespeare’s plays is also the most meteorological is no coincidence. Steven Connor similarly describes seventeenth and eighteenth century figures of air in similar terms as ‘recursively self-designating,’ involving a ‘reflexive doubling’ (Connor, 2010, p.63). Such early modern reference points serve to remind us that the period when climate first began to be constructed scientifically as an atmospheric zone or dynamic and fluid system was also the same moment in which the term first came to be employed in its ambiguously figurative sense, as in ‘the climate of opinion.’ Indeed, the self-referential paradox of atmosphere often marked air’s appearance as a troubling and liminal dimension on both the technical margin of early modern scientific knowledge , and on the aesthetic margin of the secularising humanities (Shaffer and Shapin 1985; Lewis, 2012). Climate’s ambiguity thus played a central part in the modern discursive formation of these diverse fields of knowledge, and of their differences from each other. But for all their singular modernity, these shifts in meaning also reactivated a semantic potential latent in earlier understandings of climate, which had linked climate to the ambiguities and slippages of meaning itself.
Prior to this early modern moment, the word ‘climate’ had been primarily a technical term of geometric and geographical knowledge, not a term connected to the weather or to the aerial environment. The etymology of climate is well-established: the word stems from the Latin clima, which in turn developed from the Greek verb κλίνειν, which meant to lean, slope or deviate—such words as ‘decline,’ ‘inclination’ and ‘clinic’ all come from the same Greek root. Climate named the differing inclinations at which the sun’s rays strike different points on the Earth’s surface: climate was, in effect, a solar and geometrical expression of latitude. And this meaning persisted as the term’s primary scientific frame of reference well into the nineteenth century, when it was finally replaced by our current sense of climate as a global thermodynamic atmospheric system. Dictionaries and encyclopedias from the early nineteenth century continued to distinguish between what they saw as climate’s correct, geometrical meaning, and its merely ‘vulgar’ sense of a region defined by the prevailing temperature of the air.
These etymological and philological continuities, which run far into the modern period, relate our word ‘climate’ to the Lucretian term ‘clinamen,’ which derives from this same Greek root-verb κλίνειν. Clinamen has become a familiar term within contemporary critical theory thanks to its recuperation by some influential post-structuralist thinkers, including Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, Althusser, Badiou, Serres and others. Here, I want only to note how Lucretius’ own description of the clinamen (and its associated vocabulary: declinare, inclinare) resonates with his description of the climate, which he understands in its ancient, geometrical sense. In the clinamen, Lucretius writes,
When the atoms are carried straight down through the void
By their own weight, at an utterly random time
And a random point in space they swerve a little,
Only enough to call it a tilt in motion.
For if atoms did not tend to lean, they would
Plummet like raindrops through the depths of space… (1995, p. 63)
By their own weight, at an utterly random time
And a random point in space they swerve a little,
Only enough to call it a tilt in motion.
For if atoms did not tend to lean, they would
Plummet like raindrops through the depths of space… (1995, p. 63)
The language of swerving here is rejoined later, in Book 5, when Lucretius recounts how there is, in his words,
No reason, simple and direct…
For how the sun from his summer quarters swerves
To his midwinter turn in Capricorn
Then veers back into Cancer… (1995, p. 176)
For how the sun from his summer quarters swerves
To his midwinter turn in Capricorn
Then veers back into Cancer… (1995, p. 176)
The clinamen, the infinitesimal swerve that was for Lucretius the locus of human freedom and also, by leading to the concatenation of different atoms, the source of all natural phenomena, is linguistically correlated here to climatic difference, to the swerves of the seasons and the changing inclinations of the Sun’s appearance in the sky. And this Lucretian connection of climate and clinamen was recovered in modernity, according, at least, to Louis Althusser, by Montesquieu, who in effect brought modern political science into being by refiguring climate as a concept of political analysis. Montesquieu’s category of climate, Althusser argued, marked the first appearance in the modern understanding of politics of a conception of history as ‘the concatenation of heterogeneous political forms and the contingent encounters between them (Peden, 2015).’ Notoriously, Montesquieu is also the person who gave climatic determinism its modern canonical form. But if we re-read Montesquieu’s climates via Lucretius, as Althusser suggested, it would seem that climatic determinism may actually involve a paradoxical rethinking of determinism as clinomatic indeterminacy (Althusser 2006). This is because, for Althusser, Montesquieu’s theory of climate gave expression to the central problem of modern political history, which is that of the intelligibility of contingency, of the meaningfulness of the randomness of what happens.
Climate has then long named atmospheric conjunctures in which the distinction between human systems of meaning and their material media grow vague. Climate has meant meaning—meaning in its swerves, silences and unpredictable shifts, in the unanticipated intersections it effects, in its irreducible ambiguities, in its undecidability between literality and metaphor. It describes language’s tendency to lean, veer, or slope when it is used to describe itself. Climate is not the smooth fall of atoms in the void, but the chaotic deviation through which those distinct elements come into sudden conjunctions with each other, giving rise to new forms. Climate designates the historical indeterminacy of meaning as the meaning of history’s own indeterminacies. Climate has then always also meant change, naming both shifts within semantic structure and also those more paradoxical transitions from semantic systems to whatever may lie beyond them. Understanding climate in light of this philology might help restore to critical legibility a whole series of apparently now moribund literary and cultural theories that took it as a central term for their analysis of the social field: Taine’s History of English Literature , for example .
Writing climatic culture
Taine is a figure who has almost entirely disappeared from contemporary literary critical discussion. Although he was a vital touchstone for cultural thought of the later nineteenth century—his followers and admirers included Zola, Nietzsche and Bergson—he now tends to be seen as trivial and redundant, when he is not forgotten altogether. But Taine’s ideas still shape the practice of literary history, if in selective and often unnoticed ways. Indeed, for Peggy Kamuf, it is precisely because Taine is no longer read that we risk uncritically perpetuating aspects of his intellectual program—specifically, of his ambition ‘to make of art the object of a methodical science,’ in the interests of legitimising literary study as a discipline within the modern university (1997, p. 89). Kamuf touches here on questions about the social functions of literary research, and about its relationship with the hard sciences—questions which are being asked with renewed urgency in the era of climate change, which appears to be overturning the traditional disciplinary settlement or division of labour between the sciences and the humanities. But whatever appeal the synthesis of science and literature may now have, or may once have had in an earlier moment, Taine’s own attempt at this synthesis has long appeared to present an intellectual dead-end. The consensus view is that he is radically incoherent, at once too scientifically systematic—too committed to the discovery of law-like regularities within literary production—and too impressionistic, romantic and stylistically florid: in short, too literary. Kamuf’s deconstructive reading pushes this sense of inconsistency further. The tension between Taine’s methodological claims and his rhetorical techniques, she states, indicates ‘a fundamental instability in the scientific foundation of the modern university’ (91). Trying to make art scientific, Taine ends up demonstrating that science is actually a kind of art. We might refine this point for our own climatic moment: Taine’s literary history suggests that the production of knowledge can never be finally disambiguated from the politics of inquiry in any discipline, whether of the sciences or the humanities. To me, that suggestion seems quite relevant to our current situation, in which something as apparently value-neutral as the measurement of air temperature has become a matter of political dissent.
The borders of climate change are notoriously indefinable: it is, in Sheila Jasanoff’s words, ‘everywhere and nowhere’ (2010, p. 237). Climate change renders cause and influence diffuse and indeterminate. Today, any cataclysmic weather event—hurricane, drought, heatwave or cold-snap—will swiftly be followed by a public controversy over its cause. Does this strange weather fall within the parameters of natural variability? Or can we identify some element of human responsibility? Logically, the same controversy could equally erupt at every moment of every day, about the weather we barely even notice and almost immediately forget, as well as about the great tele-mediated collective weather events of a globalising public sphere. If climate change is the new normal, it is because it can be very normal indeed, as well as extreme and hyperbolic. Whatever your weather today, it is climate changed. And because the carbon logic of climate change infiltrates every moment of our lives, and is implicitly at work in every action we take, however trivial, it becomes very difficult to tell where climate change finally stops, in its causes as well as its effects, and in cultural and intellectual formations as much as in more purely physical processes. Ecologists are fond of the maxim that correlation does not imply causation. But climate change introduces the disconcerting suspicion that we might need to reverse this slogan: it hints at forms of latent causation that may exceed or elude any contemporary perception of actual correlation. Once you start pulling the loose threads of climatic action at a distance, the fabric of causality never ceases to unravel. We cannot help but suspect that climate change is present in ways which are impossible to pinpoint, and that largely escape notice, even as we recognise these unknowable quantities as ultimately ours.
Part of the difficulty of analysing the subgenre of climate change novels, for example, is the impossibility of knowing where to draw the line. Take the case of Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985). The novel’s central section is titled ‘the airborne toxic event.’ More widely, it describes a pervasive postmodern atmosphere of anxiety, electronic mediation, finitude and consumerism. The vital element of contemporary life, White Noise suggests, is a manufactured affective atmosphere. All that was solid has melted into air conditioning. But the doom-laden climate of White Noise, at once physical and cultural, cannot be correlated with climate change via any one-to-one schema of indexical representation. The novel’s airborne toxic event may well be anthropogenic, but it is clearly not global warming. And yet, on the other hand, this airborne toxic event can never be finally dissociated from climate change. White Noise describes our time as one of a generalised climatic anxiety, and so actively solicits being read with a type of conspiratorial or premonitory logic, through a hermeneutics of atmospheric suspicion. Climate change institutes a similar kind of ambiguity or fundamental undecidability within all our cultural signs. The glimpses we get of it hint murkily at unrepresentable changes just beyond our perception, perhaps projected into the future, perhaps withdrawing into the opacity of the present. By eliciting this kind of irreducible suspicion, climate change presents us with something like a collective material unconscious, a realm of self-inflicted but often unrecognisable determination and compulsion. Taine’s term for precisely this type of all-pervasive yet elusive determination was, in fact, ‘climate.’ Climate for Taine was a realm of ineradicable yet obscure and ambiguous traces—material scripts which record our actions and shape our being and yet escape not just our control but also potentially the limits of our perception, whether they be understood aesthetically or scientifically.
One reason almost no one reads Taine today is because he is seen as a strong climatic determinist. He notoriously claimed that if we could measure and compute climate and the other environmental and social forces of literary determination, then ‘we might deduce from them as from a formula the specialities of future civilization’ (Taine, 1:14) . This is a type of predictive claim that literary historians today tend to discount severely. But as Kamuf suggests, there is more play in Taine’s system than may be at first apparent from determinist claims like this. Indeed, Taine immediately goes on to discount this claim himself, writing that the ‘crudeness of our notations’ and the ‘fundamental inexactness of our measures’ mean that we can in fact only ever hope for a vague prophecy of our future destiny, rather than any scientifically precise prediction (1:14). Writing and notation, understood as the inescapable material mediation of knowledge, distance literary history inescapably from predictive formulations, instead restricting it to spectral and uncertain prophecies. So what at first might appear as a hubristic claim to deterministic scientific knowledge in Taine might in fact be better understood as a moment of medial self-reflection, for writing is a medium [PC13] that literary history shares with its subject-matter, literature. The paradoxes of self-reference thereby entailed are part of the reason why literary history is often seen as an impossible discipline. And Taine seems more aware of these medial paradoxes of knowledge than he is often given credit for. He repeatedly positions writing as a medium of uncertainty and variability, locating within it a mode of self-differentiation that opens it to an unknown future. Taine tends to do this, particularly, in moments of disciplinary self-reflection, as in this discussion in the methodological ‘Introduction’ to his History of English Literature, of whether literary history can predict the destiny of civilizations; in passages, that is, in which he reflects most directly on the challenges of writing history. If we take Taine’s fundamental claim to be that climate determines literature—that climate determines writing—such moments suggest how Taine’s own theory of writing unsettles this notion of determination. Taine co-implicates climate and writing; one determines the other. But is it his writing that first allows this claim to be advanced, or is it the climate in which he writes? Circularity and self-reflexivity are so built into the theory that a final answer to this question can never be given.
Although Taine is now often seen as an early and failed sociologist of literature, the scope of the determinative forces he considers extends well beyond the limits of human societies. ‘Social history,’ Taine declares, ‘is but a prolongation of natural history’ (Taine, quoted in Brown, 1997, p.60). The forces included within the tripartite conceptual grid of race, milieu and moment, the key to the system he presents in his ‘Introduction,’ are environmental as well as social and political, as the central case of climate makes clear. It is this ontological inclusiveness that led Kenneth Rexroth to credit Taine with the first ‘ecological theory of literature’—in what appears to be the first appearance of that phrase in print (1987, p.294). ‘Hyppolyte Taine,’ Rexroth wrote,
evolved an ecological theory of literature. He looked first and foremost to the national characteristics of western European literatures, and he found the source of these characteristics in the climate and soil of each respective nation. (1987, p.294)
Nonetheless, Rexroth continued, ‘It is doubtful that anyone today would agree with the simplistic terms in which Taine states his thesis (1987, p.294)’
I will return a little later to the reason why Rexroth thought Taine had been discredited—the reason, that is, why we cannot accept climate as the ultimate interpretative horizon of literary writing, at least as Taine formulated this position. But first, I want to consider a possible reason Rexroth could have given for dismissing Taine, but didn’t. It is a surprising omission, because what Rexroth left out has in fact been the primary argument over the last few centuries against climatic determinism. Simply put, the argument attacks the notion that climates shape cultures on the basis of its ahistoricism. More broadly, it asserts the primacy in human affairs of social communication over environmental influence. Perhaps the most celebrated example is David Hume’s refutation of the idea that climatic differences cause distinct national types of subjectivity. In his 1748 essay ‘Of National Characters,’ Hume wrote that
Our ancestors, a few centuries ago, were sunk into the most abject superstition, last century they were inflamed with the most furious enthusiasm, and are now settled into the most cool indifference with regard to religious matters, that is to be found in any nation of the world (206)
The English people had changed, and changed again, while their climate presumably had not. And if radical social transformations could occur independently of any atmospheric alteration, then climate was effectively valueless as an explanatory category of historical understanding: no correlation, therefore no causation. Rexroth had good reason not to deploy this argument against Taine, however, for in Taine climate, rather than being history’s determining other, is actually the hidden truth of history, an immanent, motive power of social and cultural self-transformation. To see how this is so, I want to look a little more closely at Taine’s conceptual trinity of race, milieu and moment.
Climate, race, milieu and moment
Race, for Taine, is the site of biologically inherited predispositions, what he calls ‘differences in the temperament and structure of the body’ (Taine 1:10). The history of race may run slowly, over vast stretches of time, but remains historical for Taine. He writes, for instance, of the ‘almost immovable stedfastness of [these] primordial marks’—a phrase in which I want to stress the word ‘almost’ (1:10). Race is only ‘almost’ unchanging, and what appears to change it, most significantly, are climatic changes. Taine writes:
As soon as an animal begins to exist, it has to reconcile itself with its surroundings; it breaths after a new fashion, renews itself, is differently affected according to the new changes in air, food, temperature. Different climate and different situation bring it various needs, and consequently a different course of actions; and this, again, a different set of habits; and still again, a different set of aptitudes and instincts. Man, forced to accommodate himself to circumstances, contracts a temperament and a character corresponding to them; and his character, like his temperament, is so much more stable, as the external impression is made upon him by more numerous repetitions, and is transmitted to his progeny by a more ancient descent. So that at any moment we may consider the character of a people as an abridgment of all its preceding actions and sensations (Taine, 1:10-1).
Race can then be understood as the agency of climate viewed over a long evolutionary timescale. For Taine, it is something like an indelible—or almost indelible—biological record of past climates, a reader’s digest of genotypic prehistory.
Milieu occupies a middle temporality. It involves what Taine calls ‘these prolonged situations, these surrounding circumstances, persistent and gigantic pressures, brought to bear upon an aggregate of men who, singly and together, from generation to generation, are continually moulded and modelled by their action’ (Taine 1:12). Milieu is the primary category within which Taine locates the cultural agency of climate. Indeed, Taine often uses these terms, milieu and climate, almost interchangeably. But alongside climate, the category of milieu also includes the force of political forms and social conditions, bringing together natural and cultural factors. In his essay on ‘Milieu and Ambience,’ Leo Spitzer attributes the word’s adoption outside the French language to the prestige of Taine’s theory: he also attributes the introduction and consolidation in other languages of broadly equivalent terms, notably including the words Umwelt in German and ‘environment’ in English, to the influence of Taine’s term ‘milieu’—a semantic history that underlies and justifies Rexroth’s description of Taine as an ecological theorist of literature. We can already begin to see how Taine’s categories shift about and morph into one another; how they are beset by a series of fundamental ambiguities. Where does milieu end and race begin? Both seem equally to be dimensions of climatic time. The milieux of the past determine race, which in turn determines how a being relates to its milieu in the present, and so on, circularly.
Whatever the complexities of their interrelationship, when taken together, race and milieu form an enduring archive of environmental history. At the opposite end of the temporal spectrum is the microchronology of the moment, Taine’s final determining force of history. Moment involves the way the traces of race and milieu are imprinted on the present. In an essay on Taine, Marshall Brown notes that ‘Taine regards organisms not as beings that can reproduce themselves but as beings that can differ from themselves' (Brown, 1997, p. 76). Moment is the primary site of this capacity for self-differentiation. At any given moment, Taine writes, the forces of race and milieu act ‘not upon a tabula rasa, but on a ground on which marks are already impressed. According as one takes the ground at one moment or another, the imprint is different; and this is the cause that the total effect is different’ (Taine, 1:12). As a figure for cultural reproduction, this is rather difficult to read: there is a ground on which marks are impressed, and which then imprints or re-marks itself variably on the present. This seems to involve taking a print of something already printed, or making an impression of an impression. But if the causal lines are hard to disentangle, it is, nonetheless, easy to recognise a process of mechanical reproduction here, even of something like a printing press—albeit a press that does not produce invariant, identical copies, but is instead devoted to differential repetition and the creation of errata-strewn singular editions. Moment, Taine states, can be reduced neither to an exact nor to an approximate formula. Instead, he writes ‘we cannot have more, or give more, in respect of it [moment], than a literary impression’ (Taine, 1:13). So moment, which is how sedimented climatic history is impressed on the historical present, can only enter knowledge via yet another imprecise and differential impression—a specifically literary one, even. I have already mentioned how Taine has often been read as a deeply inconsistent literary critic, committed to an impossible fusion of scientific determinism and literary impressionism. Taine’s concept of moment suggests how fundamental this contradiction is to his model of literary history. It is necessarily entailed by his sense of historical time as a multi-layered surface of inscription, a palimpsest or mystic writing pad.
In The Nature of Things Lucretius described the origin of the universe as atoms falling through the void, like raindrops falling through space. Clinamen names the sudden deflection or deviation of an atom from this path, which leads it to bump into other atoms, thereby giving rise, ultimately, to the atomic combinations that underlie the world of everyday experience. The clinamen is unpredictable, apparently uncaused, and irreducible to prior determination. As such, it is also, for Lucretius, the basis for the freedom of living beings. Without the clinamen, atoms would continue to fall infinitely, unswerving, and without collision, so that there could be no history, or indeed no nature, even no being whatsoever. Given the close etymological and semantic relationship between climate and clinamen, Lucretius’s notion of the clinamen suggests that climate might be a factor not only of fixity and territorialisation, but also one of indeterminacy. For Taine, race and milieu are forces of climatic determination. Moment, by contrast, names this aspect of climatic indeterminacy: climate as tendency or inclination, a vector of movement or change from a pre-existing state to a new one. Together, race, milieu and moment describe how history is at once determined and undetermined—determined precisely in this variability or lack of determinacy. Moment is the way climate encounters an unknown future.
So climate for Taine cannot be understood as standing outside of historical time, as an unchanging stage-set, a static set of parameters to which all actions necessarily conform. Instead, history consists of underlayers of near indelible climatic inscriptions, slowly accruing and metamorphising, and a top surface upon which these traces become differentially legible in the present. History for Taine is fragmented, composed of the disjunctive yet interweaving climatic strands of race, milieu and moment—distinct temporal dimensions of deep time, middle time, and momentary transience. It may be possible, even, to draw some fairly precise parallels between Taine’s three-way division of historical temporality and the multidimensional model of time developed by the Annales school of the mid-twentieth century. Race, milieu and moment, that is, can be mapped quite neatly onto the longue durée of structure, the medium history of conjuncture, and the flickering, ephemeral history of the event, as described by Fernand Braudel (1980). Braudel’s model of the multiplicity of historical time now forms something of a theoretical touchstone for historians trying to come to grips with the conceptual challenges of writing the history of climate change. For climate change appears to collapse these discrete temporal orders into each other. It stages jarring intersections between deep climatic time, for instance, and the rapid temporality of everyday politics. How do you mediate between ice cores and election cycles? As Tom Griffiths (2010) has recently noted, Braudel’s longue durée deals in ‘awesome geological eras,’ while his history of events takes its maximum ‘chronological scale from a human lifespan. The climate change crisis challenges us to connect these dimensions, to work audaciously across time and space and species.’ For Griffiths and others, the absence of any fleshed-out vehicle of mediation between these different temporal forms in Braudel is what points to the difficulty we confront today: it is up to us to fill this gap, and to generate forms of historical understanding that will somehow embed geological eras within the fleeting transience of contemporary political discourse. But if we take our model of historical temporality from Taine instead of from Braudel, then the challenge looks quite different. For in Taine, this vehicle of historical understanding, which is capable of shuttling between the glacial pace of lithification and the feverish pace of political decision, between the geological timescales of continental drift and the communicative ones of the public sphere, is nothing less than climate itself: climate, which is already installed within each of Taine’s discrete orders of time, because he understands it as possessing the disjunctive and fissured temporality of writing, of simultaneous slow erasure and lightning inscription.
For a literary history of climate change
Rexroth’s criticism of Taine, as we have seen, is not the standard argument directed against climatic determinism; namely, that it is insufficiently historical. Instead, Rexroth attacks the unquestioned national and racial frame of his literary history. In some ways, it is not even Taine’s category of ‘race’ that is the real problem, however much his use of this term may jar with us today. For Taine’s notion of race is of something unfixed, mobile and discursive, a motor of self-differentiation rather than a monolithic and inescapable essence. But an assumed organicism—organicism in the bad sense—does creep back into Taine in the form of the category of ‘English,’ and it is this that Rexroth picks up on, writing:
modern civilization becomes more and more a world civilization, wherein works of all peoples flow into a general fund of literature. It is not unusual to read a novel by a Japanese author one week and one by a black writer from West Africa the next. Writers are themselves affected by this cross-fertilization (Rexroth, 294).
Rexroth is basically following Marx’s account in The Communist Manifesto of how capitalism creates world literature—one of capitalism’s ambiguously liberatory and even potentially communist effects. So my first point of conclusion is this: if the literary history of climate change is to borrow anything from Taine, it will first need to attend, critically, to these vectors of world writing. If climate determines writing because it is a kind of writing, then it does so in modernity as an ever more global climate, one that is deterritorialised, released from regional specificity into the flux of what Rexroth calls ‘wholesale cultural exchange’ (294).
My second concluding point is that this critical reformulation is worth undertaking. Taine gives us a vocabulary that might help us describe an important type of change that climate change is exercising on the literary field, including literary criticism—that insidious, partly unconscious change that eludes precise description. The overlay Taine identifies between climate and writing hovers somewhere between literality and metaphor. It is this in-between status that generates its ambiguity, its indeterminacy, and its suggestive power. Climate change makes the statement that ‘we write the climate’ much more literal. Pieces of writing—legislation, contracts, treaties, judgements, but also perhaps the types of writing I have been discussing here—quite literally change the climate. But this shift doesn’t entirely erase climate writing’s constitutive metaphoricity. It ramifies the indeterminacy of climate writing, rather than removing it.
My final point addresses the disciplinary specificity of literary history. There is a view that climate change erases disciplinary boundaries, and that we could adequately address it only through some kind of popular front of all the disciplines. This may well be true. But there may also be reasons to pause before diving into any interdisciplinary melange. Climate change often presents us with a kind of cognitive impasse or breakdown, exceeding our conceptual and imaginative capacities. But literary history is also impossible, and for some of the same reasons. One mode of its impossibility involves paradoxes of self-reference—the fact, that is, that for literary criticism there really is no metalanguage, and barely even the presumption of one. Like climate, there is no outside. Literary history shares a second mode of impossibility with cultural history more broadly; namely, the attempt to understand the transhistorical power of an artwork by historicising it. Taine embraces this paradox. For him, the historical categories of race, milieu and moment can return to us the vocal presence of the dead. Perhaps it is these impossibilities that might allow literary history to speak meaningfully of climate change, as a discipline that reconvenes past climates of writing, even as it hollows out our current climate with writing’s non-presence and ambiguity, opening it to an alternative and as yet undetermined future.
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