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Title: Reading the Anthropocene through science and apocalypse in the selected contemporary fiction of J.G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy and Ian McEwan
Author: Fevyer, David
ISNI:       0000 0004 5992 0012
Awarding Body: University of Southampton
Current Institution: University of Southampton
Date of Award: 2016
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This thesis examines how six contemporary novels variously intervene in the current crisis of climate change. Through close readings of J G Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) and Hello America (1981); Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006); Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Galapagos (1985); and Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010), the thesis aims to identify how the narrative and generic resources of contemporary fiction might help readers to think through and beyond the consequences of anthropocentric ways of thinking about the biosphere. Drawing upon the concept of the Anthropocene – and in particular the account of this concept provided by the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty – the thesis suggests that these novels raise profound questions about how climate change is represented and understood. If accounts of the human history of modernity have until recently overlooked the complex ways in which both the human species and its contemporary fossil fuel cultures are intertwined with the geologic history of the planet, how has contemporary fiction attended to this oversight? What light can imaginative apocalyptic future histories of the biosphere, such as those presented in the fiction of Ballard, Vonnegut and McCarthy, shed on predominant understandings of climate change? How has fiction highlighted the ways in which the insights offered by the Anthropocene complicate the promises of scientific ‘reason’ to explain and provide solutions to anthropogenic climate change? How do fictions such as those of Vonnegut and McEwan contribute to a more nuanced account of the limits of such reasoning? To address these questions, the thesis draws upon Martin Heidegger’s account of the anthropocentric enframing of nature through technology, and suggests a re-thinking of Louis Althusser’s account of ideology through which we can begin to understand how anthropocentric perspectives are naturalised in ways that illuminate some of the difficulties identified by Chakrabarty. By bringing these three perspectives together, the thesis seeks to develop a distinct critical approach to reading the responses of these literary fictions to climate change. The first section of the thesis examines how the generic resources of apocalyptic fiction defamiliarise assumed relationships between the human subjects and societies of industrial modernity and the biosphere. Chapter 1 suggests that J G Ballard’s novel The Drowned World (1962) imaginatively connects geologic and human history in order to disrupt key anthropocentric assumptions concerning the relationship between humanity and the biosphere, whilst his later novel Hello America (1981) foregrounds the anthropocentric inscription of industrial modernity through a self-consciously hallucinatory re-imagining of American history. Chapter 2 examines Cormac McCarthy’s recent novel The Road (2006), and suggests that the text presents a particular form of apocalyptic narrative that complicates the anthropocentric sub-text of traditional apocalyptic narratives. The second section of the thesis examines how the fictional representation of science and scientists can help to illuminate the ways in which an anthropocentric faith in the technoscientific promise of human power over nature serves to legitimate an illusion of human mastery over the biosphere. Chapter 3 considers how Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) offers a counterpoint to this faith by ironically depicting scientist characters whose assumptions of beneficial technoscientific progress are undermined by complex interconnections between individuals and the biosphere – connections that have apocalyptic consequences. Such complex interactions are also a feature of the insights offered by ecology and evolutionary science. Reading Vonnegut’s fiction after the Anthropocene underlines the ways in which Vonnegut’s literary techniques can help readers to think through and beyond the complex connections between natural and human history that these scientific disciplines begin to elucidate. As chapter 3 suggests, Vonnegut’s later novel Galapagos (1985) provides a particularly imaginative account of this complexity through its fictional narrative of an evolutionary future history across the longue durée of geologic time. Building on the insights developed in chapter 3, chapter 4 considers the significance of Ian McEwan’s ironic depiction of a fictional scientist who is unable to restrain his own overconsumption of resources in his novel Solar (2010). In my reading, McEwan’s scientist figure functions as an allegory for the paradoxes of a technoscientific culture that seems unable to apply scientific reason in meaningful responses to the dangers of the Anthropocene. In so doing, the chapter illustrates how the use of allegorical codes and irony in Solar draw attention to the ways in which a faith in technoscientific reason to provide solutions to anthropogenic climate change is misplaced. This misplaced faith also naturalises the on-going enframing of nature as a resource, with potentially apocalyptic consequences. The apocalyptic narratives of the Ballard and McCarthy novels can be understood as quasi-scientific literary speculations, which disrupt anthropocentric assumptions through the experimental futures they depict. Similarly, the ironic depictions of scientists and scientific thinking in the Vonnegut and McEwan novels draw attention to the anthropocentric limitations of conventional scientific thinking for fully understanding and productively responding to the apocalyptic implications of climate change. In bringing these readings together, the thesis attempts to provide valuable and timely insights into the techniques through which the literary fiction of Ballard, Vonnegut, McCarthy and McEwan can help readers to think differently about the complex relationship between human life and the biosphere. These readings also trace how such fiction can draw attention to the ways in which anthropocentric patterns of thought contribute to the catastrophic climatic implications of technoscientific culture.
Supervisor: Morton, Stephen ; May, William Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available