This book addresses the role of interruption, as a theory and a practice, in response to the climate crisis. To do so, it rethinks the temporal models indebted to origins, linearity, progress, and teleology on which the Global North typically relies to address climate change questions. These temporal models assign origins to climate change as well as devastating ends.1 For many, the grim prognosis is the point around which to galvanize action. The series of intergovernmental reports on climate change culminated, most recently, in the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report’s conclusion that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.” The gravity of the climate crisis inescapable. The desire to avoid the destruction of the planetary habitat that supports the life of humans and other species, in short, should prompt us to act. The problem is that it doesn’t. The Global North needs compelling alternatives to the way in which the climate change story has been told, alternatives that rethink the chronological and representational models on which it has relied. This book explores interruption itself as one such alternative approach.
And yet: I am writing at a moment when many are questioning the academic format of the book and what it delivers. Concerned about climate change and the timeline it asks us to consider, what impact can an academic book have? It is not only that academic books take a long time to write but also that they take a long time to publish. If I seriously feel that climate change needs to be addressed, then writing a book that will, at best, not be read by the public for three years is surely not the most expedient route to take. Worse, it implies that I don’t fully endorse the idea of a climate crisis; my practice does not line up with my theory. Isn’t my time better put elsewhere? Further, the book itself has a carbon price tag.2 On what grounds, then, does it make sense to write an academic book on climate change?3 There are many ways to respond to this question. For me, three rationales underpinned my writing even if I sometimes also questioned them: my commitment to thinking as action; my interest in exploring new forms for the academic book, especially in this climate-imperiled moment; and my sense, however inchoate, that an approach to climate change that pivoted on interruption might offer something not found elsewhere.
As a scholar located in the humanities, I am inclined toward what I will call here modalities of thinking.4 I value the role of thinking to address seemingly intractable impasses like the current climate crisis. In these uncertain times, it seems important to develop modes of thinking that depart from, or at least do not cleave so closely to, traditional formats. It seems important also to reconnect thinking to the conditions—historical, political, material—that make it possible. Thinking requires time and it is also alert to, and inseparable from, form, mediation, and materiality. Consider, for example, the imprint of race in Lauret Savoy’s Trace, a book that traces the elided history of race in environmental writing. Consider the difference between a telegram, a letter, a postcard, and an email, even when the words they communicate are identical. In the context of climate change, like many other critics, I’m interested in recalibrating the sciences, social sciences, and humanities in an effort (1) to generate a more serious, supple, and sophisticated dialogue between the different disciplines; (2) to acknowledge the ways in which each of the disciplines is already bound up with its others and to bring this entwinement into conversation; and (3) to showcase what the humanities, in particular, have to offer our current moment. If one of the obstacles to a successful climate response in recent years has been an ongoing division between the sciences and the humanities, the humanities confront that division and reject it (this is point 2 above).5 Or they can. Humanities disciplines are nicely equipped to bind together disparate areas, to remind us they have always been connected, and to demonstrate the ways in which divisions are produced that sometimes serve a useful purpose and sometimes do not.6 And the humanities are also where the gaping hole finds its most hospitable home.
The humanities, in other words, are good at thinking about thinking. If this sounds like one more way to stall climate change action, getting mired in abstraction and distancing one’s self from doing anything, it is not. For the humanities have also demonstrated that thinking itself is a form of doing. In a recent book, Astra Taylor writes that democracy is a theory and a practice (88).7 And, importantly for me here, the practice is part of the theory. Democratic theory is realized in practices that will always improvise and adapt to situations and feed back into the theory to create something new. So, too, thinking. I want to exercise a practice of thinking, which is also a practice of conversation and co-writing. We can never know what the humanities can contribute to the climate change impasse without trying out a range of possibilities, a practice in which, happily, many scholars are now engaged. There is a value in participating in those conversations and practices even when, especially when, we’re not sure where our thinking will lead.
Waypoints: I’ve come to the field of climate change studies relatively late in my career. Often that sense of lateness is beset by the typical academic concerns—I don’t know as much as others, how could I possibly “catch up,” and so on—but sometimes that lateness also has a different register. This morning, for example, before sitting down to write this chapter, I heard on the radio that a space the size of 2,000 football fields is now being burnt in the Amazon rain forest each day. The rain forest not only absorbs carbon dioxide but also provides 30 percent of the world’s oxygen. Jair Bolsonaro, however, was elected president of Brazil in January 2019 because he promised to develop the land, and farmers interviewed on the radio said, not unreasonably, that their livelihoods depended on clearing the trees so that they could farm. It reminded me of the debate so frequently heard in Canada between those who want to stop oil pipelines and those who depend upon their expansion for jobs to feed themselves and their families. This account of the rain forest burning—the reporter described thick plumes of smoke filling the sky—is only one of the countless contests between planetary survival and jobs that are occurring almost everywhere. When I hear it (and before I begin to interpret it), I am stunned. I feel ever more acutely that I am, we are, too late to respond adequately to climate change; that we have not established the practices of working together, collaboratively, to do whatever is necessary to offset further harm to existing ecosystems; that we are carrying on in a surreal space (as I am here) as if we can still do all the things we have usually done, write books, teach classes, attend conferences. That capitalism, capped or not, will swallow it all and grow bigger. This is a detour. My belatedness punctures the present moment in which I write. Meanwhile, fields and fields of old-growth rain forest continue to burn.
If my first rationale for this book is my investment in thinking, my second is an investment in thinking that is extended and amplified through an exploration of different, less academic forms. The humanities and their habits of broad-ranging thinking are nicely equipped to navigate between the different approaches now required—political, economic, social, artistic, energy-related, scientific, and so on—and to remind us of the stakes at play in how we formulate the problem. So much of that work has been beautifully done. This book could not have been written without traditional academic books, but I am interested in something else.8 Scholars often undervalue what other approaches can accomplish, and even what they constitute. And, for the most part, academics haven’t begun to explore the many possibilities for alternative imagining and writing. I want to think about experimental approaches, then, approaches that seek to move out of the traditional boundaries that define critical thought, various and exhilarating and important as so many of them are, and to explore more options for thinking.
In this context I am heartened by many recent studies by ecology-inflected scholars who have begun to push against the boundaries of the academic book as traditionally defined. Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World, for example, tells a different anthropological story (of the matsutake mushroom) in a different form. In a moving passage, Tsing acknowledges that she wrestles with linearity but, at the same time, does not know how to think about social justice without the idea of progress. How does one articulate and work toward social and environmental justice goals, she wonders, without thinking about progress? She suggests that we require “new tools for noticing,” among which she includes “interruption” (37); indeed, she organizes her book as “a riot of short chapters” that “tangle with and interrupt each other” (viii). Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick adopt a distinctive format—at once bold heading, conversation, and argument—to convey Wynter’s theories in “Unparalleled Catastrophe for our Species?” Karen’s Pinkus’s Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary riffs creatively on Jules Verne and the energy humanities in a series of alphabetized “dictionary” entries. Donna Haraway, in Staying With the Trouble, appends a science fiction story to her study of climate change and what she calls the “Chthulucene.” The edited collection by Anna Tsing et al., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, draws the reader’s attention to the work’s form and mediation: it is printed as two reversible books bound together as one, its print fluctuates between black and grey (the latter to indicate the idea of “ghosts”), and illustrations are innovatively placed throughout.9 Another edited collection entitled Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapour Ray by Katrin Klingan et al., similarly draws attention to its form through the paper stock for the different covers of its three volumes—rough, smooth, and shiny, respectively—and it explores a number of different visual strategies for delivering its material. Kath Weston’s Animate Planet stops midsentence.10 All of these works, and many others, invite us to see how form is always part of the story that is told. They also remind us that there is always another way of writing an academic book.
Waypoints: Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, is a large, rectangular, wooded area in the middle of Manhattan. The country in the city. On the morning of 9/11, I rode my bicycle through the park with my husband and our three-year-old daughter. We had just watched the Twin Towers fall. We had also watched the gaping hole left behind, blue sky and white smoke, unable to move or look away. When we entered the park there was a palpable shift in the air—the alarms of the fire trucks were more muted, the scent of autumn leaves more intense. Every hundred yards or so, people were clustered around transistor radios listening for news. Everybody wanted to know. We stopped and listened—You saw what? What? What? And then continued biking. I am returned to that day because we are in the midst of another crisis, again seeking news, listening with others, exchanging stories. I am returned to that day because then, on 11 September 2001, we were in the midst of the current climate crisis and I did not know about it (or, rather, I did, but it was like a small, hollow ball that had lost its track and rattled every so often from somewhere deep in the machine but I was never sure where it was or what it meant). I am returned to that day because I cannot bike away from the climate crisis, cannot find temporary solace and community in the park, and cannot tune into any clear station that will tell me what is happening and what I should do. But mainly I am returned to that day because of the 2019 release of a new docudrama miniseries, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us.
In 1989 Central Park catapulted to public attention when a white female—known as the Central Park jogger—was brutally raped and beaten. Five boys, known then as the Central Park Five, were arrested, detained, interviewed, and ultimately convicted for sentences of between five and fifteen years; in 2002 these convictions were overturned and the men were exonerated. DuVernay’s miniseries revisits the story from the perspective of the wrongfully convicted boys. The docucrama is painful to watch as it starkly represents the ease with which a corrupt political system extinguishes the hopes and possibilities of these boys’ lives.
On the night of their arrest, the boys were asked what they were doing in the park. They responded: “Whiling.” “What’s whiling?” the police detective asked. Not satisfied with the boys’ answer, the detective constructed one herself: whiling was wilding. This “translation” has been taken as an example of racism (which it is), but I want to think about it, too, in relation to the force of words. As DuVernay notes in an interview, words are weaponized against Black people. For the boys, whiling means hanging out, whiling away the time. For the white detective, it means being wild. These opposing ideas come together and get defanged and naturalized with Thoreau and so many other “nature writers” who while away time in the wild. Not so for Black teenagers in Central Park. The Central Park case is a potent reminder that, yes, words are weaponized. But also: words are dense and alive with meanings that do not always align or that are violently misaligned. I want to think about what it means to mistranslate, to try to translate, to fail to translate, and also not to try at all. Words are weapons. They are the unrepresentable, unspeakable difference between whiling and wilding.11
My third rationale speaks more directly to my specific contribution in this book: the role of time and, in particular, interruption in climate change thinking. In this context, I have found Walter Benjamin’s work both inspiring and provocative. While many critics, like Benjamin, challenge what he calls a universal, absolute, and empty time consonant with linear histories, very few do so with such fine attention to form, method, and mediation. This focus is inseparable from his desire to think of history as surcharged and, importantly, as unrepresentable moments puncturing, but by definition never realizing, the present. In other words, Benjamin challenges the often-unquestioned link between representation and knowledge, and he does so through a close consideration of the materiality—form, method, and mediation—of knowledge. His efforts to mount this challenge lead him to introduce many alternatives to teleological and linear form: montage, quotation, layering, constellation, superimposition, and interruption, among others.12 His description of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre “as a series of experiments” that generate “astonishment” (“Author as Producer,” 235)13 could also be a description of his own writing. That said, Benjamin’s famously difficult texts may not seem the most obvious place to turn in my desire to broaden the audience for humanities-inflected approaches to climate change.
Nevertheless, I am not alone in finding Benjamin’s work a productive source for climate change thinking. In particular, Benjamin’s final essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” written in 1940 in the months leading up to his ill-fated attempt to seek asylum across the Spanish border, offers a disquieting meditation on representational and linear histories of progress that for many scholars have resonated with our differently imperiled period of climate precarity. Benjamin’s essay captures, with uncanny precision, the sense of paralysis and propulsion by which many in the Global North are daily confronted in the context of climate change. In an oft-cited passage he writes:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned to the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress. (257–58)
From Benjamin’s interwar writing to our own period we are swept along, with a force at once violent and elemental, by a storm we, too, “call progress.” It gives no indication of letting up, and many now discuss, with varying degrees of resistance or acceptance, a world “without us.”14 Faced with a differently bleak future, Benjamin picked up a pen and wrote. He wrote essays, he wrote books, he wrote letters, he wrote those documents now forever lost in his missing suitcase, and he wrote notes toward his unfinished Arcades Project. I can appreciate that turning to writing and thinking may seem a thin response to climate peril, but I also pin my hopes on the possibility that if we continue the conversation Benjamin began, we can begin to build better responses to the current and the coming “storm.”
I am grateful that Benjamin gave us these images of the angel and the storm through which to filter and amend our own experience. I am grateful, too, that his comments have generated so many insightful responses, seeding a long afterlife of climate change conversations. One of the first essays to bring climate change into dialogue with the humanities, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s pivotal “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” for example, takes its impetus from Benjamin’s essay with its “angel of history” and eighteen theses.15 Michael Löwy’s Fire Alarm, Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital and The Progress of This Storm, Ulrich Beck’s The Metamorphosis of the World, Ian Baucom’s History 4° Celsius, Priscilla Wald’s “Science and Technology,” and Bruno Latour’s “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto,’” all invoke Benjamin’s “Theses” to sharpen their own climate change thinking.16 Malm incorporates Benjamin’s language as follows: “From the very start, at the very smallest scale—there emerged a pattern—some swept away by the storm we call progress, others sailing to their fortunes—subsequently magnified and iterated on progressively larger scales, until climate scientists discovered it in the biosphere as a whole, where the self-similar storm now spirals on. Every impact of climate change unfolds a fraction of that hitherto folded past” (Fossil Capital, 393). He uses this analysis as a springboard for at once despairing—climate change should be “the movement of movements”—and inviting, even now, the required action. The “question is—as so many have pointed out—whether [the climate change movement] can attain that status and amass a social power larger than the enemy’s in the little time that is left” (394, emphasis in original). What Benjamin’s work asks us to do, however, is step away from these sorts of configurations of time—what little time is left—and to inhabit time differently. To inhabit time in a way that multiplies it. To inhabit time, above all, in a way that makes it the movement of movements—in other words, the dialectical image or dialectics at a standstill—that animates a relation that cannot be pinned down or circumscribed and that opens the now (now-time or Jetztzeit) into a multitude of possibilities, doubled and redoubled, from which descriptions like Benjamin’s the angel of history emerge. This approach is indelibly bound up with Benjamin’s powerful and idiosyncratic treatment of the concept of interruption.
“Interruption,” David Ferris writes, is “an essential starting point for reading Benjamin” (4). Benjamin’s interest in the concept spans his career from his early work on the Romantics through his later more philosophical writing (in which Andrew Benjamin identifies a “more generalized sense of interruption” ), through the Arcades Project that exemplifies what we might think of as interrupted form. Interruption is also bound up with an obstacle critics almost always note when writing on Benjamin’s work: its resistance to paraphrase.17 Benjamin’s work resists paraphrase because, like poetry, it conveys its meaning through its form. Any effort to offer a summary or commentary will be a distortion of something fundamental to Benjamin’s contribution to thinking. And yet to write about Benjamin, one must summarize, and such objections to summary, while valid, can appear trivial. Is not every summary a necessary distortion that enables us to animate and build on the writing and to serve its vitality over time? Is it not enough to notice the form of the work, distil its meaning from that form, and illustrate how the meaning intercuts with the form when applicable? This is what scholars, myself included, tend to do. It is a valuable exercise. But Climate Change, Interrupted asks what happens when we pause, when we interrupt that practice, and attend to the form for a little longer. Consider Ferris’s quotation with which I began this paragraph. To reinforce and validate my focus on interruption, I drew on an established scholar whose book is in a respected Cambridge series. But if we return to Ferris’s claim, we can quickly see the limitations of the summary mode here. Benjamin, as Ferris reminds us later in his text, does not support “essential starting point[s].” Further, how could interruption be a starting point? To interrupt something, doesn’t one have to have started already? Interruption—even as a concept—does not seem capable of being a starting point if by that one means, as Ferris seems to, the first point on a continuum.
But I agree with Ferris: interruption is integral to Benjamin’s thinking. Ferris, moreover, is not alone in making this claim.18 Close attention to interruption illuminates not only the reservations about interruptions as a starting point noted above but also, more fundamentally, the idea of always divided origins, in general.19 As Ferris notes, the interruption introduces a pause that Benjamin, in his work on the Romantics, links with the breath and the body. Benjamin writes (in a passage cited by Ferris): “Tirelessly thought begins continually from new things, laboriously returning to the same object. This continual pausing for breath is the mode most proper to the process of contemplation” (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 28; cited in Ferris, 4). The pause enables the reflection that our digitally interruptive culture tends to compromise. For us, interruption often coincides with distraction. Whereas for Benjamin it is the opposite: a doubling down on thinking. If we’re all distracted enough, the brute force of capitalism and neoliberalism can have their way.20 In this sense, too, Auden’s much-discussed “Poetry makes nothing happen” emphasizes how it makes nothing happen: it produces the pause.
If interruption is suggestive of a pause that prompts thinking, it is also, Andrew Benjamin argues, identified with the break wrought by modernity (104). Modernity, of course, is variously defined. Susan Buck-Morss, however, identifies 1850 as a pivotal turning point for Benjamin. It is in this period that the impress of new technologies is inescapably felt; it is this period, too, with the rise of industrial modernity, that many associate with the origins of the Anthropocene.21 In 1851, London’s Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace that housed it—with its iron and glass construction and its promotion of English industrial advances—was an apt symbol for this shift. And 1851 was the year in which Henry Mayhew published London Labour and the London Poor, a brutal reverse mirror image of the Great Exhibition documenting the lives of the urban poor made precarious and insecure by the very processes that made the Great Exhibition such a success. Mayhew’s account, moreover, adopted an inventive, unprecedented form suggestive of print culture’s potential to chart new avenues for thinking, a project to which I will turn in greater detail in “Post-time.” Benjamin does not reference Mayhew, but both writers are sensitive to new modes of writing history that value the transient, the mobile, the discarded, and the humans and nonhumans who have not traditionally figured in the historical record. Narratives of progress, as Benjamin famously notes in “Theses,” are narratives told from the point of view of the oppressor. We can interrupt that story to tell a different story. But Benjamin is not just calling for a different documentary account with different historical actors. Rather, he is calling for a different understanding of the documentary—or representation—altogether.
Waypoints: Meanwhile. Fires crest a hill. The sky is orange. This is what whiling looks like when wildfires wild. A colleague, learning of my interest in the Amazon, recommends Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think.22 I watch the fires on screens and I wonder what forests are thinking now. I wonder if the thinking is burnt out. Burn out: what happens when one fights fires, gets no sleep, makes no headway. What happens when there’s not enough whiling. But also, burn out: what happens when there’s not enough wilding.
Interruption, etymologically, is a break in a continuous line. When Andrew Benjamin suggests that modernity marks an interruption, he invokes, accordingly, such a break (97). And, to be sure, the title of this book, Climate Change, Interrupted, gestures toward the possibility of interrupting our current climate change course. But, building on Benjamin’s thinking, I also want to explore another, to my mind more potent, register of interruption. Decisive breaks are not the norm. Another form of interruption, however, occurs when old forms of understanding are no longer adequate to current conditions. In such contexts, one interpretation is overlaid on another and there is a disconnect; the two versions cannot be reconciled and yet they both coexist. Consider the so-called decisive break of 9/11, for example. In retrospect, that day seems to mark a change, a before and an after. But, at the time, as we tried to make sense of what was happening with the tools at hand, those tools were inadequate. Instead, there was a gaping hole. New words like “terrorism” and “homeland security” and “alert levels” entered our vocabularies. At some point those new words become the new conceptual frameworks through which we understand our world. But those adjustments take time, and they happen incompletely. A “break,” in other words, takes time to be felt, to penetrate the social field. And as we adjust, there is another form of interruption—the gap between incommensurate, dissonant interpretations—that obtains. It is this form of interruption that Benjamin’s work also helps me to understand, a form of interruption that is attuned, to borrow Benjamin’s terminology, to the flow and arrest of thought.
This understanding of interruption strikes me as useful in the interwar years when there were at once decisive breaks and the ongoingness of daily life. It also strikes me as important in our own period of climate change upheaval. Precisely because climate change is not a decisive break, it brings into relief the overlaying or superimposing of discordant views that also apply across quicker timeframes, in periods of more decisive transition. We witness all around us politicians and others promoting contradictory positions simultaneously. In Canada, as I am writing, protests are taking place across the country in opposition to the advancing of a pipeline through Indigenous Wet’suwet’en territory. Canadian politicians recognize and promote the seriousness of climate change, and they know we must act. At the same time, they give the green light to a bill that contradicts this view entirely. All of us in the Global North daily enact contradictions on a smaller scale; we know the reality of climate change and yet we get in our cars, heat our houses, make our vacation plans. My point is not that we are wrong to do so, or even that the government is wrong to support the pipeline (although I think it is). My point is that we all occupy places riddled by interruption in this sense. In some periods that interruption is more muted than in others. It makes sense, however, to learn to recognize when we reach for forms of thought because they are familiar even when they are inadequate to lived conditions.23
In addition to understanding interruption as a break and (more pertinently, I am arguing) as a gap between incommensurable positions, several recent critics have, as I am doing here, linked interruption specifically to our current moment of climate precarity. Roy Scranton, for example, borrows Peter Sloterjik’s understanding of philosophy as interruption and relates it to climate change. He cites Sloterjik as follows: the “subject can be an interrupter, not merely a channel that allows thematic epidemics and waves of excitation to flow through it. The classics express this with the term ‘pondering’” (86). Scranton glosses this point as follows: “Sloterjik compares the conception of political function as collective vibration to a philosophical function of interruption. As opposed to disruption, which shocks a system and breaks wholes into pieces, interruption suspends continuous processes. It’s not smashing, but sitting with. Not blockage, but reflection” (87). This emphasis on suspension and “sitting with” comes close to capturing the sense of occupying a between or gaping hole that the inter in interruption signifies.24 Tsing, as noted above, similarly turns to the role of interruption in responding to climate change. Her response, however, is one that focuses on method and form. She writes: “To listen to and tell a rush of stories is a method.” “A rush of stories,” she continues, “cannot be neatly summed up. Its scales do not nest neatly; they draw attention to interrupting geographies and tempos. These interruptions elicit more stories. This is the rush of stories’ power as a science” (Mushroom, 37).25 Sloterjik, Scranton, and Tsing, in very different ways, use interruption to highlight a form of thinking that pauses, turns things upside down and inside out, unsettles us.
While Benjamin’s approach to interruption could be said to embrace the different modalities I have outlined above—interruption as thinking, philosophy, and decisive break as well as interruption as the overlay of incommensurable positions—something more fine-tuned in his account has been relatively overlooked in the critics who develop his work for climate change studies. In an effort to understand Benjamin’s pursuit of “pure language,” Samuel Weber cites Benjamin citing Holderlin: “Tragical transport is namely actually empty, and the most untrammeled.—Thereby what develops in the rhythmic sequence of ideas wherein the transport presents itself is that which is called in prosody a caesura, the pure word, the counter-rhythmic interruption, necessary, in order to meet the rush of ideas, at its height, so that not merely the change in ideas appears but the idea itself” (78). Weber glosses this now twice-removed passage as follows: “Pure language as the word that is without expression, pure word, is here designated as the caesura that, all of a sudden, stems the rush of ideas, arrests its flow, cuts against the grain of grammatical meaning” (78). This passage, in turn, recalls Benjamin’s well-known comment on thinking (itself a rephrasing from another iteration in “Theses”): “Thinking involves both thoughts in motion and thoughts at rest. When thinking reaches a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions, the dialectical image appears. This image is the caesura in the movement of thought” (Arcades Project, 67). The standstill, constellation, dialectical image, and caesura all invoke, in different ways, interruption. As Andrew Benjamin suggests, “Perhaps the most emphatic” treatment of interruption in Benjamin’s work is “the ‘caesura’” (98).26 To caesura and these other words, Weber also adds “pure language” and the “pure word” as concepts which arrest the “rush of ideas.” Pure language interrupts and suspends the sequential rhythm.
Pure language also raises questions about translation or, as Samuel Weber puts, translatability. Weber alerts our attention to a suffix often used in Benjamin’s writing: -abilities. As Weber notes, -abilities is a time word in German—“aka verb, that is inseparable from time insofar as it involves an ongoing, ever-unfinished, and unpredictable process” (7). In English this suffix often goes unnoticed. But once it has been noticed, it is impossible to overlook. It underscores the idea of unrealized possibility—something could be translated but it is not yet translated—and, in Weber’s thoughtful commentary, the impossibility of realizing that possibility even when one tries. Paraphrasing itself is only a variation on translating. Quite often, for example, Weber cites a passage from Benjamin and then “translates” it into his own words. All literary scholars do this, as I noted above. We cite passages and then we elaborate on them. But Weber does so while respecting the movement and media of Benjamin’s thought. I mention this point for two reasons. First, I worried about folding Benjamin’s work into my study when I do not myself speak German. For a critic like Benjamin, whose thought is so forcefully embodied in his words, style, form, and structure, this ignorance struck me as an insurmountable shortcoming. Further, while Weber and other scholars point out mistranslations or alternative translations to prevailing versions, Benjamin himself often uses different words—the equivalent of the phrase in other words—to convey, seemingly, similar ideas. That is, he translates himself.
Second, if Benjamin’s texts resist commentary and are about the impossibility of commentary, they do not resist “translatability.” They are invested in and bound up with its possibility. They alert our attention again and again to mediation (although this is not Benjamin’s word) and the ways in which it renders impossible documentary representation. As Weber puts it, “Translatability is the never realizable potential of a meaning and as such constitutes a way—a way of signifying—rather than a what” (92).27 Pure language, he writes, happens when “ways of meaning, their distribution and relations, have priority over what is meant” (75). Pure language happens when translation hits a roadblock, when nothing happens, and a word sits there like a stone. In a trivial sense, one might say that all written language in foreign tongues are pure languages for us insofar as we see the language but we don’t know what it means. Except that ways, distributions, and relations do signify in a pure language; indeed they come into sharp focus. Still, while it is an undeniable obstacle that I cannot read Benjamin in German, I take solace in the fact that my failure serves as a constant nagging reminder of the layers of meaning—the overlapping of the German word on the English typically captured in print by parenthetical notations, which are themselves a version of pure language—that comprise any work and the ways, distributions, relations it ignites. Benjamin’s work foregrounds form—at the level of the word and the work’s structure—to remind readers, through interruptions to the reading process that bring form into view, that dynamic and relational forms are always part of what and how one reads and thinks.
Consider again Benjamin’s description of Klee’s painting. It is thesis nine of eighteen theses and falls, accordingly, exactly in the middle of his essay. In doing so, its engagement with mediation, its in-between-ness or middleness, is foregrounded. And yet that in-between-ness is not a discreet item between two points but rather a distribution of relations, a movement, a hinge or fold from which the essay as a whole is indivisible. The description, moreover, follows a citation of a poem by Gershom Scholem that, based on my comments on translation above, is a different poem now that it is placed in this new context. And Benjamin’s description, of course, is a description of an image. At the heart of these numbered theses, then, are a poem, an image, and a commentary. These four forms—numbered theses, poem, image, commentary—speak to the continued traction of these terms and ideas in thinking and dialogue. They are also examples of translatability. All of these things gesture to an afterlife, even if they will not reach it, and it is that afterlife that translation, at its best, captures. They generate further afterlives to come as my own “afterlife” commentary here testifies.
Waypoints: Meanwhile. The fires in the Amazon are still burning, but their story has been displaced by the fires burning in Australia. And then those dim too, replaced by other news. I am planning my classes, and as more and more local bookstores close and libraries confront cutbacks, I find myself increasingly turning to Amazon to order books. They arrive the next day. My brother tells me that his books arrive the same day. For a teacher and reader, this feels like bliss. And then I learn that Amazon pays no taxes, despite their staggering profits, and what I know already sinks in: Amazon the bookstore’s success mirrors Amazon the rain forest’s destruction. I fuel that success, and in doing so I fuel the fire. I am one person, but still I vow not to order from Amazon again. I last less than a week. There are many things that I can tell myself—that systemic change is what we need and my small actions are just that, very small; that it is just one book (and one more); that I will redouble my energies in other directions—but still I cannot do this one thing. And yet, of course, that is not the point.
Perhaps this is what is at stake in whiling and wilding. They both share a boundlessness. Time as loose and shaken out and running wild. They gesture toward the incalculable. And they ask us to act from that whiled, wild place.
Writing and reading and thinking, for Benjamin, are about stopping and interrupting one’s self, and this is also something I do as I read his work. I start and stop, start and stop. But if I interrupt myself as I read “Theses,” “Theses” is also marked by two gaping interruptions that have a bearing on my discussion thus far: Benjamin’s Paralipomena to the essay and Paul Klee’s drawing of the angel. These items interrupt my reading because their absences are like holes in the essay signaling what is not there but could be. That is, neither the Paralipomena nor Klee’s image are part of the essay proper, and yet they inform it. The former, moreover, includes one of Benjamin’s most oft-cited comments on interruption, and the latter is now synonymous with Benjamin’s writing. I will consider them in turn.
The Paralipomena is composed of, in the words of Benjamin’s editors, “fragments [written] . . . in the course of composing ‘On the Concept of History’” (Selected Writings IV, 408).28 The English edition, the editor tells us, includes only a “selection” of these fragments. The one in which I am interested here speaks to revolution, thinking, and interruption:
For the revolutionary thinker, the peculiar revolutionary chance offered by every historical moment gets its warrant from the political situation. But it is equally grounded, for this thinker, in the right of entry which the historical moment enjoys vis-à-vis a quite distinct chamber of the past, one which up to that point has been closed and locked. The entrance into this chamber coincides in a strict sense with political action, and it is by means of such entry that political action, however destructive, reveals itself as messianic. (Classless society is not the final goal of historical progress but its frequently miscarried, ultimately [endlich] achieved interruption.) (Selected Writings IV, 402)29
It is labeled Thesis XVIIa and falls, accordingly, between Thesis XVII, in which Benjamin—as he has been doing throughout the essay from different angles—again distinguishes between historicism (Ranke’s history “the way it really was” [“Theses,” 255]) and materialistic historiography (involving “not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well”30 ), and Thesis XVIII, the essay’s last thesis, in which Benjamin reminds his reader of the miniscule amount of time—“one-fifth of the last second of the last hour”—that humans occupy “in relation to the history of organic life on earth” (263).31 It is thus envisioned in Benjamin’s notes as the penultimate thesis, but it did not make it into the final version. Instead we read it into that in-between space, before the end, between Thesis XVII and Thesis XVIII. Most readers also likely read it after they have read the essay and only insert these words retrospectively and provisionally. They are like a shadow text, an angel’s wing.
The last sentence of this passage is especially interesting to me: “(Classless society is not the final goal of historical progress but its frequently miscarried, ultimately [endlich] achieved interruption)” (Selected Writings IV, 402). What does it mean to achieve an interruption? What Benjamin seems to be envisioning here is a departure from teleological histories—bourgeois, Marxist, and otherwise—that gestures toward different modes of meaning. It strikes me as apt, accordingly, that this passage on interruption not only does not make it into the theses proper but also is in a parenthesis. One of the definitions of a parenthesis is “interlude or interval,” and, etymologically, it means “to place beside.” Not in front. Not at the end. Beside. The phrase “in parenthesis,” moreover, means to offer a “digression or afterthought”; in an essay comprising discrete theses by a writer who promotes a method of digression, this attention to rhetorical form becomes part of what the essay imparts. Like a Buddhist koan, one could dedicate years to meditating on this passage, and the remainder of this book could be devoted to elaborating its many possible meanings. Instead, however, I simply want to point to the ways in which interruption is bound up with these many possibilities and is activated by the form Benjamin chooses.
The second piece that interrupts my reading of Benjamin’s essay is the “missing” image of Klee’s drawing. Here, too, the positioning of the absent image is important. In Thesis VII Benjamin introduces the idea of “the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly”; describes historicism as a history of “cultural treasures” that not only ignores the history of the oppressed and what falls by the wayside but also is heedless of the force of the image; and includes the haunting phrase, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (“Theses,” 256–57). In Thesis VIII Benjamin introduces the state of emergency in which he lives (fascism and the onset of war) and calls for bringing about “a real state of emergency” (257), presumably something like the interruption to which he refers in the Paralipomena passage discussed above and on which I will elaborate in “Alarming.” And then we have: a poem; a description of a painting. What are they doing here? Thesis IX turns a “cultural treasure”—Klee’s image—to use for a revolutionary history that reorganizes temporal understandings. Unlike the Paralipomena passage, it is unclear where the image might be inserted. Should it be before Thesis IX? After it? In between the citation of the poem and the text? It seems to hover, or vibrate, in all of these spaces.
We can understand Benjamin’s description of the image here as a “translation” in the “translatability” sense that Weber articulates above. A quick glance at it will illustrate, however, the degree to which the drawing does not correspond in any direct way to the words Benjamin records. What do you see? An angel of history, wreckage piled at its feet, looking at the past, his back to the future, a storm in progress? Or something else? Benjamin’s description “translates” the image in a manner that tells us a great deal about his attention to the form, montage, and structure that he values in any interpretation; it attempts not the “inessential content” (“Theses,” 253), to which Benjamin refers in the “The Task of the Translator,” but that glimpse of translatability, of potential, of possibility. Climate change critics, as I have noted above, find this image, as Benjamin imagines it, a potent catalyst for climate change thinking. It radically departs from the more familiar images of the climate crisis: icebergs, polar bears, forest fires. These documentary images are intended to communicate information, create compassion, and compel action. But documentary images like these are demonstrably limited in what they accomplish, as several critics have illustrated and as I will elaborate in more detail in “Post-time.”32 Benjamin’s angel of history offers a different way of thinking about the image by considering it in relation to temporality, history, and translatability. In this account, history is not a narrative told by the powerful that moves chronologically through time but rather a condensed materiality—more like a star or a fossil—that provokes and unsettles.
Benjamin’s elaboration of Klee’s image has not only been of interest to scholars. In his novel 10:04 Ben Lerner also references Klee’s painting. The novel is set in New York City in the period between Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. His novel grapples with climate change not by imagining an apocalyptic future but rather, like Benjamin, by compressing, condensing, and turning up time. Lerner includes Klee’s image without commentary in his novel (at least without direct commentary) whereas Benjamin’s essay includes commentary on the image without the image. In Lerner’s novel, moreover, instead of having our back to the future like the angel (and also the movie Back to the Future that Lerner weaves through his novel), we turn around and around. To make this point, Lerner takes a passage from Walt Whitman’s 1856 “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and reproduces it, save one word, as the final line of the book: “I know it is hard to understand / I am with you, and I know how it is” (240). This line is about union, community, returning, and creating through words a collective co-written bond to confront whatever faces us. What makes this line relevant to Klee’s image and Benjamin, however, is that Whitman deletes it from the Leaves of Grass edition in which the final version of the poem is printed. Lerner, then, resurrects it and brings it back to the future, a potent reminder and harbinger, words as a holding pattern.
In The Snows of Venice, a collaboration with Alexander Kluge, Lerner returns to Klee’s image and the “recent discovery” that it is “mounted on a print of none other than Martin Luther.” This “secret hiding in plain sight,” Lerner continues in a conversation with Kluge, is “remarkable . . . for a number of reasons”:
That the “Angel of History,” so long a symbol of left Jewish messianism, is mounted on top of Luther. That it places Benjamin’s theses and Luther’s theses in new relation. It’s also a story about reproduction because part of the reason the print went undiscovered is that the borders of the Klee are normally cropped when the image is reproduced. Given Benjamin’s thinking about reproducibility, this is a striking irony—that we haven’t really seen the image in reproductions, that only a person who is physically present can see the traces of the engraving of Luther’s cape. (81–82)
I agree with Lerner: this is a remarkable observation. For me, it was also a sobering reminder of mediation. Sobering because I had read Benjamin’s essay many times and had discussed its mediations via its debt to earlier versions of the thesis form (Luther’s theses central among them), and I had used Benjamin’s interpretation of Klee’s drawing as a commentary on the limits of representation but I had not thought of the materiality of the drawing itself. In other words, even when I was looking for mediation, I looked right past it. This discovery, then, also serves as a lovely materialization of the layering of meaning to which Benjamin refers in so much of his writing.33
Climate Change, Interrupted explores the ways in which the discordant temporalities specific to climate change pose a challenge to prevailing responses to crises. It does so by returning to the period of industrial modernity in which linear time took decisive hold and considering different approaches to temporality, now less often recognized, that emerged in the nineteenth century and resonate again in our own.34 Each of the three iterations of these Beginnings also return to “Theses on the Philosophy of History”’s relevance to climate change in our own time.35 The next Beginning, “Post-time,” focuses on the relatively noninterruptive forms of realism and documentary representation. What happens to forms, this chapter asks, when new social actors and events are introduced? And how does changing the form relate to changing the time? To respond to these questions, this chapter develops and adapts George Eliot’s term, “post-time,” for climate change studies in relation to Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1849–51) and Richard Mosse’s Incoming and Heat Maps (2017). The last Beginning, “Alarming,” turns, by contrast, to an extreme of interruptive form, the rhetoric of warning. It takes Greta Thunberg’s warning “Our house is on fire” as a point of departure for thinking about the rhetoric of warning and emergency in climate change discourse. If “Post-time” suggests a revision of our thinking about temporality and documentary representations in climate change advocacy, “Alarming” suggests a revision of our thinking about immediacy and the rhetoric of warning and alarm.
While the three Beginnings present their arguments in a relatively traditional academic format, the chapters that form the body of the book offer four different experiments in academic form. The first chapter, “Layering,” is composed of six bands that imperfectly reproduce the geological stratification that has given us insight into deep time. The bands address Percy Shelley’s “last days” on the Italian coast before his tragic boating accident, Jacques Derrida’s “Living On / Borderlines,” Virginia Woolf’s reflections on the ellipsis in relation to interruption, and geology’s stratigraphical reading practices, to tell familiar stories against the grain. The second chapter, “In the Idiom of the Self-Help Guide,” develops the form of the self-help guide against itself. It toggles between the nineteenth century and our own period to harness Eliot’s reflections on procrastination in Middlemarch for climate action.
The third chapter, “Found Questions,” is a “found chapter” composed of questions excised from their contexts and put into conversation with other questions. Both Mayhew and Benjamin explore the resonance of the discarded or overlooked item for historical studies; this chapter applies that practice to questions by collecting questions from a range of texts and putting them into relation. The last chapter, “FrankenClimate,” returns to the Shelleys, to consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in relation to unfinishedness, temporality, and interruption. Written in a series of nested frames modeled after Shelley’s structuring of Frankenstein, it illustrates how frames often subdue the disorder that subtends any attempt to confront issues for which existing conceptual frameworks are inadequate. Figuring the Creature at once as climate change, a monster, and a blank, this chapter demonstrates what happens when we frame and hold the frame open at once. In short, it highlights a thematics of interruption and incompletion and interrupts traditional novelistic form to change the time and, accordingly, open new possibilities for thought and action.
Overall, Climate Change, Interrupted suggests a response to climate change that focuses less on representation, visibility, and linear narratives, and more on interruption, mediation, and thinking. It argues that changing the form is one way to change the time and that to change the time is to reorient the climate change idea. The multiple and layered conceptions of time that climate change itself registers, as well as the hard deadlines it delivers, offer alternatives to progress narratives and invite new possibilities. These new possibilities do not preclude progress, but they are not wedded to it. They ask us to recognize the important work that all stories do—fictional and otherwise—to chart new paths for thinking and imagining. In relation to the climate change idea that I am tracing here, these stories, moreover, are a collaboration in which we all participate whether we give our assent or not, contribute our voice or not, change the narrative or not, pass on a story or not, participate in a climate action or not. In other words, this is a story that is still being told, and its stakes, like other stories before it, will in turn shape the way we live and understand our lives.
I can write about interruption but, importantly, I cannot represent an interruption. As Benjamin illustrates, however, writing and thinking can facilitate interruptions, pauses, breath. Ferris describes Benjamin’s work as advocating the “continually renewed beginning” (8).36 Andrew Benjamin similarly notes that Benjamin’s work opens a “field of infinite deferral” (99), and Buck-Morss emphasizes its insistence on beginnings (290). While Benjamin imagined starting a journal entitled Angelus Novus after Klee’s painting, he never did so. And yet that journal perhaps begins again and again in different ways. When he crossed the Pyrenees, Benjamin carried a suitcase heavy with his most precious writings clutched to his chest. Every writer can identify with that sense of loss—not of the material item perhaps, but of its potential. I imagine the many diverse writings and conversations that Benjamin’s comments on Klee’s painting have generated as a kind of afterlife. I like to think of them as jarring us out of our torpor and prompting a different sort of action. I like to think of them as interrupting our response to climate change and provoking the novus of the painting, the angel newly visioned. I like to think of us pausing, seeing the wreckage, catching our breath, and facing the flames.
Waypoints: On a warm spring day in 2018 the writer Nathan Englander went to Prospect Park in Brooklyn with his family. On that same day, he writes, David Buckel, a civil rights lawyer and environmentalist, also headed to the park. When Buckel got there, he doused himself in fossil fuels and lit a match to protest our nonresponse to climate change. Englander was struck by the fact that no one really noticed or registered this protest. He closes his article as follows: “Sad as Mr. Buckel’s death is, as uninspiring as it should be to others, if he set himself aflame to send a message, and it’s impossible to unburn him, and too late to direct his energies another way, the least we can do is spread the word.”
The point is one degree.
1. These origins are variously defined in terms of the introduction of agriculture (10,000 years ago), the impact of colonial exploration (1610), the invention of the steam engine (1784), or the great acceleration (1952–54).
2. See the Appendix to Lemenager’s Living Oil (197–200).
3. Some might respond that e-books would offset many of these objections, but they have also been debated in this context.
4. My understanding of “thinking” here embraces both thinking in the everyday sense (thinking about things, mulling over questions, pursuing ideas) and thinking in the Benjaminian sense. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin famously describes thinking as follows: “Thinking involves both thoughts in motion and thoughts at rest. When thinking reaches a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions, the dialectical image appears. This image is the caesura [i.e., interruption] in the movement of thought. Its locus is of course not arbitrary. In short it is to be found wherever the tension between dialectical oppositions is greatest. The dialectical image is, accordingly, the very object constructed in the materialist presentation of history. It is identical with the historical object; it justifies its being blasted out of the continuum of the historical process” (475).
5. A lot of the early work in this area came from science and technology studies as well as the social sciences. Latour’s lament, in 1990, that bringing the different disciplines into dialogue and recognizing their interconnection was “unthinkable” no longer holds—there has been a lot of work and a lot of thinking on precisely this point—but there is also certainly more that could be said. “Our intellectual life is out of kilter. Epistemology, the social sciences, the sciences of texts—all have their privileged vantage point, provided that they remain separate. If the creatures we are pursuing cross all three spaces, we are no longer understood. . . . In the eyes of the critics the ozone hole above our heads, the moral law in our hearts, the autonomous text, may each be of interest, but only separately. That a delicate shuttle should have woven together the heavens, industry, texts, souls and moral law—this remains uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly” (Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 5).
6. They also remind us that thinking itself is not reserved for humans and help to shift us out of an anthropocentric frame.
7. See also Estes’s “Water Protectors” and Tallbear for discussions of practice as theory.
8. There are many books that wrestle with what the humanities can contribute to climate change action, with the divide between science and the humanities, and, to a degree, with explorations of how the way in which a problem is defined shapes the solutions that can be imagined. The humanities are keenly attuned to how language works; humanities critics point out, for example, that in the phrase climate science “climate” often rubs up against “science,” undermining its authority. And there have also been robust discussions of the pros and cons of the terms “global warming,” “climate change,” “climate crisis,” “climate emergency,” and “ecocide,” among others. See especially Hensley and Steer.
9. See also Tsing’s latest collaborative project, an interdisciplinary and interactive website, Feral Atlas (Tsing et al., 2021).
10. There is, of course, a long and sometimes vexed history of formal experimentation in relation to the academic book. Jacques Derrida’s work, especially in the latter half of his career, perhaps offers the best example here. In a more popular context, Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather (2019) experiments with form, with varying degrees of success, through lists, a staged-debate format (echoing a Socratic dialogue), and a personal voice. See also Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s and Steve Mentz’s essays in Menely’s and Taylor’s Anthropocene Reading and Susan Stanford Friedman’s “Scaling Planetarity,” which she calls a “collage of meditations” (119). See also Eric Hayot’s lively essay on academic writing.
11. See Derrida’s discussion of the translation of je-weilig in Heidegger as at once “lingering awhile” and “a passage . . . whose transition comes, if one can say that, from the future” (Specters of Marx, 28).
12. Pierre Bourdieu similarly notes how visual art at the end of the nineteenth century produced new ways of thinking that disturbed people’s minds (148–49).
13. I’m indebted to Samuel Weber for drawing my attention to Brecht’s role in Benjamin’s thinking about interruption. (I have used the John Heckman translation here.)
14. Alan Weisman (2007) introduces this term that is now oft-used.
15. See Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age for an expansion and extension of this essay and a careful response its critics.
16. Two excellent recent books—Jason Groves’s The Geological Unconscious and Tobias Menely’s Climate and the Making of Worlds—consider earlier literary periods through the double lens of Benjamin and climate change, but they don’t discuss the angel of history.
17. Ferris stresses “how important Benjamin’s style of writing is to his thought” (3); his work “squarely relocates thought in the means of expression rather than seeing it as something that expression represents” (8).
18. See also Andrew Benjamin, Samuel Weber, Michael Jennings, and Buck-Morss in particular.
19. See especially Weber’s discussion of Derrida and Benjamin in this context (122–28).
20. As Ghosh writes, “at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike” (80). Scranton, Klein, Latour, and many others make the same point.
21. See Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor for a good summary of the debated origins for the Anthropocene (1–25).
22. I am indebted to Devin Griffiths for this suggestion (personal correspondence).
23. Here one could argue, for example, that sustainability discourse is an outmoded form of thought insofar as it cleaves to a capitalist framework in a moment when that framework only functions with a commitment to unrestricted growth that cannot be reconciled with a reduction in carbon emissions. This example is obviously open to debate, and others would offer different examples.
24. Christina Sharpe uses this language of “sitting with” to think about methodology in a way that also chimes with my treatment of post-time in this book: “I’ve been trying to articulate a method of encountering the past that is not past. A method along the lines of a sitting with, a gathering, and a tracking of phenomena that disproportionately and devastatingly affect Black peoples any and everywhere we are” (13). One of those phenomena that disproportionately and devastatingly affect Black peoples is, of course, climate change.
25. Just as a rush of stories “do not nest neatly” (Tsing, Mushroom, 37), so, too, the timescales of the climate crisis do not nest neatly.
26. A. Benjamin writes: “The caesura allows . . . the relationship between the particular and the Absolute to be thought” (104–5).
27. Weber later writes: “But if it is a way, if it makes a way, where is it headed? Not simply back to the original or to the origin, but rather away from it. In moving away from the original, translation unfolds the ways of meaning by moving words away from the meanings habitually attached to them, and which are generally construed as points of arrival rather than of departure. Meaning is generally conceived as a self-contained, self-standing universally valid entity, one that precedes the words that express it. Translation’s way to go, by contrast, leads in the direction of other words and meanings, exposing a complex and multidimensional network of signification in which word-occurrences are inevitably inscribed” (92).
28. There are two titles for this work, speaking again to the vagaries of translation.
29. Callaway offers a good reading of messianic time and climate change through the prism of Benjamin and Agamben: “Instead of defeatist attitudes that may result from climate change presented as apocalypse, or as too slow and banal to represent, messianic time is a call to action, a call to have a different relationship to time, even distant time. We are urged to recognize that the past has great bearing on the present, we are called upon to take up the monumental task of imagining potential worlds, and we are challenged to recognize that we create these worlds in our present” (31).
30. The Arcades passage cited earlier is, of course, a rephrasing of this citation.
31. I will return to deep time in “On Layering.”
32. On the image, in particular, Stephanie Lemenager writes that environmental discourse’s “attraction to middle-class rhetorics of rights, consumption, and sacrifice forecloses structural critique, and its overinvestment in spectatorship [oil-covered birds] troubles its relationship to action” (Living Oil, 24). Sontag, Ranciere, and Nelson, she continues, “theorize the deficiencies of ‘the image’ as a route to action—with images figuring as ‘our normal condition,’ in Ranciere’s words, rather than a special prompt to social change” (35).
33. It also contributes to the superimposition or binding together of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism in Benjamin’s eighteen theses. The Angelus Novus is drawn on an image of Luther, thus placing Benjamin’s theses into dialogue with Luther’s; in Catholicism the Angelus bell is rung eighteen times as a call to stop what one is doing and remember the incarnation of Christ; and in Judaism the number eighteen represents being alive, or life, through the Hebrew chai (life) whose letters add up to eighteen. The Amidah, moreover, was initially composed of eighteen blessings.
34. The temporal models at play in different Indigenous times are also relevant here. Indeed, Indigenous thinking resonates with, but of course is also very different from, how I develop Benjamin’s reflections on time for the current moment.
35. There are many different ways this story could be told. Time studies is rife with examples of innovative treatments of time, from surrealist experiments through modernism and postmodernism to our current moment. Visual culture, in particular, offers rich explorations of alternative temporal modes (see, for example, Amelia Groom’s Time: Documents of Contemporary Art). But if these works push back on chronological or linear temporal modes, there are also several models for living time that have never subscribed to the temporal shift in the Global North following industrial modernity. Many Indigenous cultures, for example, have temporally polyphonic ways of living time from which the Global North has much to learn. See, for example, Nick Estes, Kyle White, and Robin Kimmerer. I focus on Benjamin here because he has so often been a touchstone for climate change scholarship, because his thinking on the dialectical image spans the period I address, and because his work offers formal innovations that are suggestive for academic scholarship in climate change studies.
36. Ferris also writes: “Although this rescue [of the past from conformity] is continual, it is not continual in the sense of an unbroken line but rather in the sense of what has to be repeated over and over again, what in fact has to be begun over and over again” (15).