“But a storm is blowing from Paradise.”
Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”1
Here in the Central Valley of California, five years of epic drought have wreaked havoc on the region’s soil, water, and infrastructure. In the early months of 2017, the drought has been replaced by one of the wettest, most damaging rain seasons in the state’s history. A series of intense storms has caused major flooding and threatened levee systems and dams, forcing evacuations in some areas. Across the state, reservoirs are at capacity and water infrastructure is strained, made worse by soil erosion and ground sinkage created by drought conditions. Such patterns of extreme weather in California and beyond will become increasingly common in the coming century, according to climate scientists.2
California’s drought and flooding is only one of a series of alarming environmental stories of the past year. The year 2016 was the hottest on historical record and the third record-breaking year in a row. By October, the planet’s CO2 levels had passed the 400 ppm mark, marking the near impossibility of maintaining a 2 degrees Celsius ceiling on warming. In Antarctica and Greenland, the pace of glacial melt reached unprecedented levels. And the election of Donald Trump has assured the further intensification of global extractivism, the rolling back of key environmental regulations and withdrawal from accords, and, of course, more “natural” disasters that will accompany them.3 Such stories of intensifying weather events and looming tipping points exemplify, in an ever more urgent register, the larger dynamics of accelerating earth-systemic change that this book has charted.
This book has focused its attention primarily on poetry as an essential site of postwar reflections on ecological calamity, but representations of weather’s strange signification of broader change abound across contemporary genres. Alongside the apocalyptic imaginary of cli-fi novels and films that speculate on new lifeworlds emerging in a bleak, storm-ridden future, we can discover a wide array of recent artwork attuned to the everyday register of calamity embodied in the strange weather of today. From films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild and Take Shelter to Tameka Norris’s “Post-Katrina” paintings, Nathalie Miebach’s storm sculptures, and Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris’s photographs of disaster sites, works in various media reflect on the violent, disorienting power of weather.4 These works often evoke natural elements like water, wind, and heat as agential forces with aesthetic properties and allegorical resonance.5 They dramatize the peculiar temporalities of weather events—periods of waiting, the propulsive motions and unpredictable path of the storm, the disjunctive time after.6 And they tarry with what is undone, left over, and newly emergent in the wake of these upheavals. With their attention to the destructive force and lingering aftermaths of severe weather, such pieces offer us examples, across multiple media, of the strange materialities of remainders that this book has charted.
In all these texts, the material fact of a storm is connected to larger conditions that are more intransigent, often difficult to see or understand. The excessive eruption of contemporary weather events, as mediated by a film narrative or photograph or poem, offers one visible instance of the larger ecological limits and crisis conditions of capitalism’s production of nature. In images of upturned trucks, ruined crops, dried-up lakes, and strewn garbage, we glimpse not singular spectacle but symptom, attuning us to environmental predicaments whose contours remain difficult to grasp. As with the larger archive of poems that this study has traced, these works hold open the strange urgencies of their present, allowing us a measure of the propulsive speed of socioecological change and the turmoil it brings.
One of the most urgent and moving of these meditations is a 2016 documentary text by the Bay Area poet Cheena Marie Lo titled A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters, which catalogs Hurricane Katrina from various perspectives. Arranging found phrases from coverage of Katrina, including eyewitness descriptions, quotes from government officials, and news and weather reports, Lo creates a multifaceted portrait of the storm in its many forms. In one of the most haunting sections, Lo evokes the material remnants of destroyed homes in the Ninth Ward by way of accretive repetitions:
yellow house leaning forward
foundation damaged by force of flood, yellow house leaning forward
shingled roof on yellow house leaning forward is patchy, blue-ish gray
shingles left on only the bottom right corner.
shingled roof on yellow house leaning forward is patchy, dark brown
and light brown patches of the roof underneath exposed, blue-ish
gray shingles left on only the bottom right corner.7
Like Norris’s “Post-Katrina” multitextural paintings of ruined houses, this piece surveys the textures of wreckage with patient attention.8 The haphazard forms of these wrecked spaces appear in almost abstract configurations of shape, color, “mess.” In the jumble of wood, concrete, and other detritus, Lo invokes the deathly force of Katrina’s deluge and the eerie calm of its aftermath, the physical structures standing as testament to the larger suffering and losses wrought by the storm. At the same time, this work subtly describes the ways precarious living preceded Katrina for the house’s now-dispossessed occupants. The fragile foundations, poor soil, thin walls gesture to a longer story of daily difficulty. Such images point back to Lo’s title, with its insistence that Katrina must be understood as connected to a larger history of structural violence, environmental racism, and slow-moving disaster.9 In this sense, the aftermath of the storm, visible in these broken-down buildings, is not represented as the storm’s end but as another manifestation of an ongoing pattern of disruption.
What is notably missing from this account of Katrina is the rhetoric of recovery that so often accompanies narratives of ecological disaster, in media depictions but also in ecocritical accounts of environmental literature and culture. Lo’s representations resist the optimism of such formulations. Instead, this text stays with the various forms of chaos and disruption of Katrina without offering more uplifting images, describing spray-painted Xs on destroyed homes, bedsheets hanging out of windows, people left with no refuge. Turning away from a historical frame that would situate moments of disaster as part of a progressive arc, these haunting images dwell within the chaos and stillness of the scene as they illuminate another, less redemptive history, where the long history of American state-sponsored racism against African-Americans meets the intensifications of economic and ecological crisis. The displaced occupants whose absence is rendered visible in the wrecked houses and flooded streets emerge, in Lo’s portrait, as climate refugees—an increasingly common figure in our contemporary era.10
In this way, Lo’s book, together with all the storm texts that this coda has gestured to, amplify a larger tendency in the poems that this study has surveyed. The works I have discussed throughout Remainders sidestep optimistic accounts of environmental history and tend to engage with hope in skeptical and ambivalent ways. Instead, they share an orientation toward the conditions of their present that I have characterized through the Adornian-Benjaminian framework of natural history, a modality attuned to what Benjamin calls “the untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful” workings of historical time.11 Like Adorno and Benjamin, these writers discern, in various decayed, broken-down, and persisting forms, the signs of a calamitous history in motion. At the same time, while the immanent effects of biospheric damage can be traced in such figures and forms, the long-range extent and magnitude of systemic catastrophes remain unable to be calculated with any certainty. It is this fundamental disjunction between what has been and what will be, the unknowability of future planetary conditions under capitalist production and the irreversibility of the damage already done, that defines the ethos that Remainders has explored.
How will we live in and with the storms on the horizon? The works throughout Remainders pose this question in immanent fashion as they confront the unsettling changes of their present. They do not offer easy answers. What they provide, instead, is a complex vocabulary for navigating difficult terrain. These works draw our attention to life and matter undergoing turbulent upheavals, as well as to presences, places, and phenomena that are now irrecuperable. They give voice to feelings of bewilderment and grief in the face of species destruction and ruined landscapes. They develop a language of critique with regard to the larger forces unmaking and reshaping their ecological surroundings, but they also explore feelings of complicity.
Perhaps most indelibly, these texts make clear links between seemingly disparate phenomena to reveal shared essential needs and forms of interconnection—what Lo calls the “feeling of proximity”—that persist or emerge anew amidst disruption.12 Ashbery’s poems, Sand’s “Tiny Arctic Ice,” and Spahr’s work all turn to the air as an image of shared life in all its toxic complexity. Niedecker, Snyder, and di Prima summon a poetics of soil and water as common ground. Hillman’s Practical Water attunes the reader to water’s centrality to planetary existence, taking California’s hydrology in all its complex and failing forms as key example. And through their depictions of wreckage and dispossession, these varied aesthetic representations of storms underscore the necessity of basic shelter and habitat for human and nonhuman life alike, gesturing back to Brooks’s midcentury portraits of urban displacement. At the same time, they portray recognitions, sometimes unexpected, of antagonisms and collective modes of being.
Approached from this vantage, we see the ways these works all describe air, water, soil, and habitat not as extractable resources or private property but as elemental parts of an ecological commons. In their portraits of the sustained degradation and loss of this common planetary inheritance, such cultural works powerfully remind us what is worth struggling for. Amidst increasingly turbulent planetary conditions, socioeconomic and climatological, this poetics of remainders lays imaginative ground for a contemporary politics of the commons. Such a politics begins less with an ethos of hope than with a demystified reckoning with what is lost and what persists. It dwells in the disrupted, stormbound present as the site of radical and unpredictable affiliation, highlighting the urgent need for solidarity in a calamitous time. It draws attention to the fact that whether we live in California or Honduras, the Marshall Islands or Nigeria, Quito or New Orleans, our everyday environments are undergoing profound and unpredictable alteration by that greater “storm” that Benjamin’s allegory evokes. But such a politics also insists on the violent unevenness of its effects across these regions and for their respective populations.
This politics has found material form in various ecological movements across the globe, from indigenous groups fighting locally against extractivist development—oil drilling and pipelines, fracking, coal-mining, dam-building, logging—to the emerging climate-justice and climate-debt movements in the Pacific and global South. These burgeoning radical movements enact concrete modes of collective struggle that some of this study’s texts, particularly di Prima’s radical anticapitalist visions of the 1970s, imaginatively reach toward. In turn, these struggles are generating powerful cultural works that give voice to perspectives and draw on imaginaries beyond the hegemonic United States domain, engendering a global ecopoetics for a planet in turmoil.13 Amidst a twenty-first century already defined by accelerating immiseration and climate migrancy, by megadroughts and storms, these politics, and the cultural forms that accompany them embody a refusal to naturalize these material conditions or to approach them as the only possible mode of being. If the recent history of the Great Acceleration has revealed the profound entanglements of capitalist production with earth-systemic processes—a calamitous chapter in the longer history of capitalism’s socioecological transformations—it teaches us, as well, the stark necessity of discovering other ways of occupying our ecological present. What is to come depends, quite urgently, on the insurrectionary imaginations and strategies we find, and the kinships we form, to fight for what remains.
1. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938–1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 392.
2. Lydia O’Connor, “California’s Wild Climate Will Only Get More Volatile As Temperatures Rise,” Huffington Post, March 5, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/california-climate-temperature_us_58a49f38e4b03df370dca5cf?5l6o77pl9ynmnp14i&.
3. Naomi Klein, “Get Ready for the First Shocks of Disaster Capitalism,” The Intercept, January 4, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/01/24/get-ready-for-the-first-shocks-of-trumps-disaster-capitalism/.
4. Beasts of the Southern Wild, dir. Benh Zeitlin (Century City, CA: Fox Searchlight Pictures), 2012; Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols (Hollywood: Sony Pictures Classics), 2011; Tameka Jenean Norris, Post-Katrina painting series, 2009–2010, http://www.janelombardgallery.com/tameka-norris/; Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, The Disappearing City, 2006, digital images, http://www.polarinertia.com/may06/disappear01.htm; Nathalie Miebach, Katrina’s Track, 2016, wood, yarn, paper, 22x22x6, http://nathaliemiebach.com/gulf33.html.
5. Miebach’s intricate sculptures of yarn, wood, and paper, woven into patterns that map the meteorological data of powerful storms such as Hurricanes Noel and Sandy, materialize these weather systems in eerily beautiful and strangely embodied forms.
6. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild depicts an unfolding storm and its lingering aftermath in the bayou community of the Bathtub via a child narrator’s divigational, imaginative sense of time. Zeitlin’s film places this storm in complex relation to the melting of ice caps and reemergence of prehistoric creatures, the aurochs.
7. Cheena Marie Lo, A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters (Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2016), 62. Reprinted with permission of Cheena Marie Lo.
8. Norris paints with oil on plaid or patterned bedsheets, depicting houses in various states of decay after Katrina from photographs she took. In an interview, she says that she “wanted to remember and remap those places so that they did not disappear”; her own grandmother’s house was destroyed in the hurricane. Tameka Norris, “Tameka Norris: Almost Acquaintances,” interview in Hunger, January 30, 2014, http://www.hungertv.com/feature/tameka-norris-almost-acquaintances/.
9. On the environmental-justice dimensions of Katrina, see Gregory Squires and Chester Hartman, eds., There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina (New York: Routledge, 2006); and Michael Dyson, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007).
10. On the contemporary global history of climate refugees, see Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011).
11. Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 166.
12. Lo, A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters, 39.
13. See Elizabeth Ammons and Modhumita Roy, eds., Sharing the Earth: An International Environmental Justice Reader (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015), which gathers writings of contemporary activists from around the world. For discussions of transpacific ecopoetics, see Hsinya Huang, “Toward Transpacific Ecopoetics: Three Indigenous Texts,” Comparative Literature Studies 50.1 (2013): 120–147; and Rob Sean Wilson, “Towards an Ecopoetics of Oceania: Worlding the Asia-Pacific Region as Space-Time Ecumene,” in American Studies as Transnational Practice: Turning Toward the Transpacific, ed. Yuan Shu and Donald Pease (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth University Press, 2016), 213–236.