Climate Change, Interrupted
Representation and the Remaking of Time
Barbara Leckie



A Gaping Hole in the Line

In April 2019 Ann Cognito and her service dog began a two-thousand-mile trek from Calgary to Ottawa. It took them seven months. Cognito made this arduous journey across Canada to protest the government’s lack of action on the climate crisis. When she arrived in Ottawa, where I live, she pitched her tent on what is little more than a traffic island across the street from Parliament. She soon gained the support of local environmental and climate groups, and other tents joined hers on the small snow-covered junction. Cognito planned to continue camping there until the prime minister listened to, and acted on, her demands. When I visited her on a bright winter day in December, banners that read “Climate Emergency Camp” and “Walk to Waken the Nation” hung from the orange, blue, and red nylon tents that were zipped tightly against the cold. It was -30°C, and I was there to bring some supplies and a thermos of tea.

Voices came from one of the tents. I called out, Hello? Someone answered and, beginning to unzip the front flap, invited me to join them. I declined. It was cold, I had work to do, and I didn’t have time to sit and talk. I wanted to participate but I didn’t want to enter their small tent. I didn’t say that though; I said that I didn’t want to let too much cold air in the tent and I’d just pass them what I’d brought. A hand reached out and took the things, and the voices from within thanked me. We talked briefly. They said they were cold despite the fact that they were huddled closely together. I inwardly congratulated myself on my decision not to enter. I’m an academic; I sit alone at my desk and write and read. When I do activist work, I don’t tend to huddle in small spaces with strangers. But as I’ve been writing this book I’ve often thought of Ann Cognito’s long walk, the climate emergency camp she set up in Ottawa, and that winter day when I visited.

What would it have meant to be in that tent? Cognito herself was there to participate in the much larger figurative tent of the Canadian government. In general, it’s better to be “under the tent” than outside, to be part of the decision-making group than watching from the wings. In an interview Cognito said that there was not much she could do in response to the climate crisis, but she could do this, walk across the country, set up camp. I began this book about a year before Cognito began her walk. In my case, writing is slower than walking, its slowness jars with and dismantles my focus on emergency. But like Cognito, I think to myself, I can do this. But what is this? And how does it add up to that, the systemic change necessary to confront the climate crisis?

Climate change, of course, is an established scientific fact. The climate change idea is the way in which climate change is understood by others, discussed, debated, and addressed.1 The climate change idea is distinguished from other new ideas in at least three ways: it poses formidable challenges to representation; it demands a rethinking of the temporal modes on which the Global North has relied since the nineteenth century;2 and it presents an existential risk to human and other species. The existential risk to living beings motivates a desire to confront the crisis, but the joint challenges posed by representation and time impede the clarity of that confrontation. Another way to put this point is that the climate change idea lacks a robust conceptual apparatus to address climate change; in other words, it is still in the process of being shaped. Rob Nixon names slowness as one aspect of climate change that contributes to its representational intractability.3 The incremental, attritional character of the climate crisis, with environmental and earth changes taking place across decades and centuries, makes it difficult to represent climate change with the clarity of more immediate and sensational crises.

In this book, I build on Nixon’s insight and extend it to the temporal modalities that have dominated in the Global North—the area of the globe most responsible for fossil fuel emissions—since the rise of the Industrial Revolution.4 I adapt an idea of time from Walter Benjamin to focus, like Nixon, on one aspect of temporality—in my case, interruption. I ask what a supple and capacious understanding of interruption might offer a crisis stymied by “slow time” and chronological timelines invested in progress.5 While I will develop the idea of interruption in more detail in what follows, Cognito’s climate emergency camp offers me one example of what interruption can look like. In short, I should have gone inside the tent.

When I think about standing outside the climate emergency camp that cold day in December, I know that part of my struggle to understand the climate crisis is to find the words—or mode—to capture its staggering dimensions. I can’t view this crisis from a distance. I am in it. Of course, in the last half century or so, academics have recognized the role that preexisting contexts play in shaping perception. I do not mean that I am in it in that way (although I am). Rather, what I am referencing here is being in it, in something, for which I do not yet have words. I could ignore that. I could carry on using the words and categories I do have and that have served me relatively well thus far. But I want to interrupt myself, I want to interrupt the patterns to which I turn, the conceptual models on which I rely, the tools that give me comfort and reassure me that I’m participating in a larger conversation. I’m enough of a product of my times and training to believe that there is no stepping outside those patterns and models. But I can pause. I can stop and listen. I can think about what other possibilities reside in the works I consult, the words I use, the work I do. In this spirit, I want to write with and through time, inhabit the nineteenth century in which my area of scholarly expertise lies together with the twenty-first century in which I live. I want to ask whether rethinking time can help me to address climate change more adequately and in the process contribute both to an idea in the making and a making of it otherwise.

These reflections take me to a stormy afternoon in late December 1879, 140 years before Cognito set up her tent, when passengers in Edinburgh waited to board the last train to Dundee. Unlike Cognito, these passengers were availing themselves of the newest technology. They were about to make a journey across the longest bridge in Europe, completed only the previous year. The Tay Bridge was a stunning feat of engineering éclat and the subject of many paintings, drawings, and letters home. The Tay River itself was a busy transportation channel, and before the bridge was built, a ferry shared the two-mile-wide river with steamboats, fishing vessels, sailboats, and sightseeing rowboats in addition to, for several months a year, the whaling ships that brought their bounty to the busy port to be processed and distributed.

At 7:14 that December evening, the signal box from the other side of the Tay River announced the train’s approach. But the train did not arrive. Instead, as Walter Benjamin puts it in his 1932 radio broadcast for children, “the train simply plunged into the void” (Selected Writings, 2:566). Eyewitness accounts describe a gale strong enough to break windows and dislodge chimney pots. They describe an intermittently moonlit night, winds that drowned out all other sounds as families stepped outside to watch anxiously for the train due to arrive in Dundee. Several people also describe seeing lights that blinked and then suddenly vanished.6 Seventy-seven lives were lost in the railway accident that night. When another train was sent to investigate the accident, Benjamin writes, it cautiously proceeded along the bridge tracks “until the driver applied the brakes so fiercely that the train almost leaped from the track. The moonlight had enabled him to see a gaping hole in the line” (567).

Climate Change, Interrupted is about a gaping hole in the line.7 I take the Tay Bridge disaster as a point of departure for thinking about both lines and their interruption. What might it mean to hold the line and to interrupt it? Can the broken line be confronted not as a problem to be fixed but as an invitation to thinking otherwise? What might it mean to stay with, in Donna Haraway’s sense, the gaping hole? In my comments here, the gaping hole in the line refers to a hole in the railway line and, as such, invokes industrial modernity writ large and, more recently, the Anthropocene. My own reading embraces these approaches and expands them to address both linear time and the written line. I’m interested in thinking about the many different temporal modes that linear time has displaced—indeed, sidelined—since industrial modernity. How do linear time and the written line work in tandem, and how might they work differently to experiment with and envision new possibilities? One decidedly nonexperimental response to the collapsed bridge was William McGonagall’s poem, “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” But the accident also drew the attention of Theodore Fontane. Benjamin cites a section from his poem, “The Bridge by the Tay,” as follows:

And the watchman’s people full of alarm

Anxiously gaze out through the storm.

For the wind in furious play seemed to grow

and down from the sky flames did glow,

Bursting in glory as they descended

to the water beneath . . . and all was ended. (Selected Writings, 2:566)

Like the “watchman’s people,” I watch, full of alarm, as the storm gathers strength. But then that last sentence arrives with its breathtaking ellipses. The “. . .” is the gaping hole in the line. It is the pause before “all was ended.” Often, in climate change analyses, we rush to the dark end, read our own apocalyptic scenarios as harbingers of the end to come, and seek to ward off that full stop.8 Indeed, the climate crisis has generated a huge store of books about endings—living with the end, end times, apocalypse and so on.9 This book does not disavow or deny that catastrophe. That catastrophe is experienced today by the many people in refugee camps; in places where droughts persist for years; in places where flooding has taken away homes and livelihoods; in places where fires destroy and blacken beloved landscapes, homes, animals, and people. But it seeks to orient it, or tune it, to a different modulation of time that does not invest so heavily in “the end.” Indeed, that sees endings otherwise: as plural, multiple, and always unfinished—the ending as provisional, a pause that stays with the “. . .”. The ellipsis registers an interstitial, still-moving space, and that space invites us to think, too, about interstitial time, not only a line charging toward its end, but also the many possibilities for inhabiting time that the line on its own obscures.

In the days, weeks, and years that followed the Tay Bridge disaster, it was the subject of newspaper articles, poems, inquiries, and stories as people sought, through words and images, to understand it, to frame it in a way that offered some meaning. These accounts were part of a collective effort to find intelligibility for an event that had, that night, fractured understanding so grievously that it continued to ripple out across the decades. Indeed, as I have noted, in 1932, almost fifty years later, Benjamin was still returning to it in his radio address. And I am returning to it now in another moment of uncertainty as we again find before us a gaping hole in the line.

Each of these repetitions redoubles the line and, in ways I want to explore in this book, undoes it. I invoke the line to name the temporal mode—linearity and its accompanying commitment to progress—that has, in many ways, organized temporal thought in the Global North over the last two centuries.10 But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the line is what is in question here and the hole is a way of naming that space before questions are answered, concepts begin to form, and new ideas come into view. Although here, too, language defies me. For the gaping hole is also not before these shifts at all but always there, a disturbance, a disquiet, an unsettling. The capacity to define terms and articulate strategies affords individuals, communities, and nations a great deal of power. But the capacity to stay with what resists naming is its own power.11 The capacity to recognize the provisional and improvisational aspect of all naming is perhaps where another power resides, a power that allows and respects the gaping hole, a pause, possibility, stutter, and space for imagining otherwise.

My argument in this book is that climate disruption is a gaping hole in the line now. Like those witnesses to the Tay Bridge disaster, we also seek stories that can make sense of where we are, that can close the hole, and allow us to build better, more secure bridges, cross wider rivers, and find safer modes of doing so. But unlike the Tay Bridge disaster, our gaping hole in the line is not confined to a moment in time, is not something for which solutions are readily at hand, is not, indeed, something that can even be adequately named. Of course we have names like climate change, climate crisis, and climate disruption. But for most people in the Global North, these names are only partially adequate to the conditions—the gaping hole—that currently confront us.12 As in the Tay Bridge disaster, commentators try to find ways to define our crisis that will enable at once a processing of it and a way to address it. These responses inevitably draw a frame around where we are that allows it to feel more intelligible and manageable, that gives it a shape and a substance. This book, by contrast, pauses with the ellipses, stays with the gaping hole in the line—what I will variously call interruption and post-time in the pages that follow—to work the gaping hole and the alternatives to linearity that it suggests. The first half of this book does so with three essays that remain within the parameters of the academic albeit with a few nods to a different accent or note. The second half offers a suite of four experiments offering approaches that are more fully experimental.

Ann Cognito’s climate emergency camp also resonates with the much larger Occupy movement begun in 2010. People camped out in New York’s Zuccotti Park to protest the stark economic inequalities that had not been prevented—indeed, were abetted—by democratic principles and practices. The movement, tellingly, gained its name from Adbusters, a magazine that focused on capitalism’s erosion of democratic ideals, and the replacement, in Ailton Krenak’s words, of the citizen with the consumer (30). In particular, the slow fraying of ideas of democratic equality were starkly captured in the divide between the “1 percent” and the “99 percent”—terms the Occupy movement succeeding in bringing indelibly into public debate.

The Occupy movement’s genius was to recognize the radical loss of urban public space and how camping in newly privatized and corporatized spaces made this loss instantly legible. The movement used space to make a larger point, the point of the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor that is now remembered as the leitmotif of the Occupy movement. That is, the movement took something that had happened to public space—its privatization and its incorporation—and refused it. It did so in the most basic and provisional way possible: by camping in that space. There is much to be said about tents being erected in the city and the way that this tactic offers a commentary at once on homelessness, the rising refugee encampments emerging around the world, and the conceptual divide between city and country. But I want to move in a different direction.

I want to think of provisional urban encampments in terms of time. If capitalism erodes free public space, it also erodes “free” time.13 What might it mean to “occupy” time? When people camped in capitalist spaces, they sought to revise capitalist tenets through their actions. They changed how these spaces were understood by living in them. Within the existing world, they built something new. To be sure, the Occupy movement’s contribution and the conversation it generated seems almost comically ineffectual now as we consider, over a decade later, an even greater economic gap and an even more attenuated democratic structure. But it is for these very reasons that a new orientation to time seems critical.

To occupy time differently could mean this: living with, staying with, the gaping hole instead of suturing it over and returning to the line; living with, staying with, the interruption.14 Benjamin develops his theory of interruption, in part, to contest and revise histories of progress. He wants to write history differently, alert and attuned to the voices that have been excluded from mainstream histories. But, importantly, his project is not one of historical recovery, of looking back in time, finding those figures and restoring them to the narrative. Instead, his project is one that seeks to collapse, superimpose, or constellate time, to make time and revolution register, as he puts it, “quite otherwise” (Selected Writings, 4:402). This interruption occupies time differently, in ways that defy representation but that nevertheless demand acknowledgment. In this context, the gaping hole generates a reconstellation of time in which new possibilities, a living otherwise, emerge. The climate crisis is our gaping hole in the line today, a crisis so profound and deeply seated that it dislodges and upsets long-established responses to crises. It does so, in part, because the climate crisis itself involves a refiguration of temporality, a triggering of the interruption that helps us to think otherwise. That said, it is not usually addressed as such. But to evade the gaping hole is not only to sidestep or evade a vital component of what we confront as a species today but also to miss its invitation to inhabit time differently and, with it, to imagine responses to the crisis calibrated to a different experience of time.

Ann Cognito’s emergency climate camp came to a sudden close. After enduring a hard, cold winter with night temperatures often plunging below -20°C, after talking to reporters and fellow activists but not to the prime minister, Cognito folded up her tent in late March 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic eclipsed the climate emergency. And yet they are both different faces of the same emergency.15 Like climate change, the pandemic was a global event that threatened all people, but its impact was more grievous and brutal for the poor and marginalized. And like climate change, the pandemic reminded humans of their vital connections with each other and with other species.16 Climate change and the pandemic are also entwined in ways that extend beyond these formal parallels. As scientists have illustrated, the pandemic is most likely the result of the climate crisis.17 It has, pace the focus of this book, interrupted daily life around the world and, in many cases, reoriented the ways things are seen and done. It has also offered an unexpected and unparalleled example of global partnerships forged in the face of a shared crisis. To be sure, tempers have also flared, patience has frayed, and critiques of the global response have been issued from all corners. But the world has also received a glimpse of what a united response might look like as the climate crisis continues to deepen.

The pandemic forced Cognito to pack up her camp. For me, it had a different impact. I was writing about interruption—its importance and its possibility—when the world as many people knew it was interrupted. In this book I don’t seek repairs or retreats, better or stronger bridges, figurative or otherwise, or carrying on along the same lines, whether those lines are iron rail lines of trains, the flight lines of planes, or written lines. I seek, instead, something that is more like a makeshift tent: provisional, conversational, unexpected, unfolded, and open to all. I want to think about different ways of working the gaping hole in the line, of mobilizing interruption, of living time. I also want to consider more closely the climate change idea that is emerging now through stories, debates, discussions, images, as well as silences and what we struggle to represent. It is not only that climate change is difficult to represent because of its slow violence; it is also difficult to represent because it animates a gaping hole in the line. It reminds us, indeed, that we are all the figurative “watchman’s people,” in the midst of the storm, watching as it gathers strength.


1. In making this distinction between climate change and the climate change idea I am drawing, in part, on Edward Said’s distinction between the Orient and Orientalism (2–3). See also my discussion of the architectural idea (Open Houses, 37–42) and the sanitary idea (“Introduction,” Sanitary).

2. Tobias Menely makes the point concisely: the Anthropocene is “a name for a problem of time” (“Ecologies,” 85). See his “Ecologies of Time” for an excellent overview of the ways in which critics have addressed questions of time in relation to climate change. See also Elizabeth Callaway, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Anne-Lise Françoise, and Bruno Latour. Ian Baucom offers the most ambitious response to these issues that I know of to date.

3. See also Callaway, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Timothy Clark, Amitav Ghosh, Timothy Morton, and Rob Nixon among many others. As Clark puts it, climate change “resist[s] representation at the kinds of scale on which most thinking, culture, arts and politics operate” (x).

4. The research in time studies is vast, and I cannot come close to covering the rich material that has contributed to my thinking in this area. For a philosophical overview, I found Hoy especially helpful. His book does not replace reading the philosophers themselves, but it does provide a lucid overview of the different philosophical positions on time spanning the Greeks to our current moment. The philosophers most helpful to this project were Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, Elizabeth Grosz, Martin Heidegger, Bruno Latour, and, especially, Walter Benjamin. For considerations of time in relation to the long nineteenth century, Nathan Hensley, Tobias Menely, Benjamin Morgan, Jesse Oak Taylor, and Sue Zemka (all of whom also address climate change) were indispensable. Elizabeth Miller’s Extraction Ecologies was published after this book was completed but it, too, addresses nineteenth-century studies, questions of time, and climate change with great insight. The revelatory work of Susan Stanford Friedman helped to orient me in relation to modernist studies. For treatments of contemporary temporalities, two edited collections were especially useful, Amelia Groom’s Time: Documents of Contemporary Art and Joel Burges and Amy J. Elias’s Time: A Vocabulary of the Present. Two fields that offer rich treatments of time are queer studies and Indigenous studies. Here Elizabeth Freeman’s work is pivotal in relation to queer studies and Nick Estes’s, Robin Kimmerer’s, and Kyle Whyte’s work offered me roads into Indigenous studies. I want to stress that none of the ideas I explore here are new; they have all been covered in inventive and compelling ways by others, but they have not always been rallied together for climate change action. In part, then, this book seeks to revive older ideas and put them into dialogue with each other and with the climate crisis. While I build, in particular, on existing studies that consider Benjamin’s contribution to time studies and to climate change in a largely Western tradition, I have come to believe that Indigenous studies now offers the most supple, generous, and capacious orientation to time, and I hope future studies will further explore what I have attempted to begin in this book. Each of the references here also includes extensive bibliographies that are worth consulting. Finally, I argue throughout that narratives of progress become entrenched with the Industrial Revolution and, for the most part, have only deepened since then (see Donna Haraway, Latour, Anna Tsing, and Imre Szeman in addition to many of the critics noted here).

5. See Marco Caracciolo, Choi and Leckie, Jonathan Sachs, and Sue Zemka for elaborations of slow time. Interestingly, the timeline itself only began to take hold in the public imagination in the later eighteenth century (Daniel Rosenberg, 60).

6. There was extensive newspaper coverage of the accident in the period. These details come from local newspapers as well as the Illustrated London News and Mr. Rothery’s lengthy courtroom report.

7. A comment on my title and subtitle: the phrase “Climate Change, Interrupted” will be familiar to some readers in the context of Vermeer’s “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” (1660–61); and to others in the context of Suzanne Kaysen’s account of mental illness, Girl, Interrupted; and to yet others still in the many works that adopt this locution. The first chapter of Eugene Richardson’s Epidemic Illusions, for example, is called “Colonizer, Interrupted.” My own reasons for choosing this formulation are many. All titles work in unexpected ways, encouraging some comparisons and discouraging others, and I see this title as part of a wider conversation that can be pursued in several directions and that carries a certain history within it. The subtitle was added after the book was written, as subtitles so often are. I could comment on the time of writing and how the introduction of a subtitle changes what has already been written, but I will limit myself to noting only that had I been writing with this particular subtitle in mind, I would have engaged more directly with the debates on representation (and description, and realism, and narrative) in my field. As will be clear in the pages to follow, I use the term representation capaciously and variously, and I hope its meaning will always be clear from the context provided. The “re- . . . re-” in my subtitle also nicely captures the complexity of time—what is anew and returned, what is behind and after.

8. In general, I use “we” and “our” to refer to communities of academics, although sometimes, as here, I extend the reference to embrace a shared narrative in the Global North. That said, Sylvia Wynter’s work has alerted me to the pitfalls and assumptions of what she calls the “referent-we” (Wynter in McKittrick, 24; see also McKittrick, 7). The referent-we defaults to unnamed but assumed privilege while implying that it includes everyone. As a result, the referent-we makes silent exclusions that Wynter seeks to make visible and, in the process, to transform.

9. See Ailton Krenak’s Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, Bill McKibben’s End of Nature, Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, and Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times, among others.

10. See especially Gould as well as the critics in note 4. It is worth noting that James Secord does not agree with Gould’s interpretation of Charles Lyell.

11. See Janice Lee’s interview with Robin Kimmerer for a discussion of the power of not naming.

12. See Kari Marie Norgaard and Alan MacDuffie (“Charles Darwin”) on climate grief and climate denial. See Andri Magnason for an account of the ways in which language often fails to cohere into something that makes sense in the context of climate change; he suggests that many people often hear, instead, “white noise” because climate change concepts are inadequate to the enormity of the crisis.

13. See Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 for an excellent discussion of how late capitalism redefines the meaning of free time.

14. Christina Sharpe, drawing on Dionne Brand, considers “sitting with” as a method for Black studies (13). I will discuss “sitting with” in the context of interruption in the first Beginning, “Interruption.”

15. This sense of interlocking and connected crises that extend beyond the climate crisis and the pandemic to include anti-BIPOC racism, the decline of democracy, and economic inequality has been discussed perceptively by a number of critics. See, for example, Dionne Brand, Arundhati Roy, and Kim Tallbear. See also my six-part podcast with Joel Westheimer. I am indebted to Chris Russill for the phrase “same emergency.”

16. At the same time, the fracture lines in communities around the world also came into vivid relief. As added stress was placed on unequal and unrealized infrastructures, it became impossible to continue to uphold these structures without public outcry, protest, and calls for reform. The interruption the pandemic produced may perhaps be understood as an example of what happens when a gaping hole in the line comes into view and is not sutured over.

17. See the January 2021 issue of The Lancet entitled “Climate and Covid-19: Converging Crises.”