Michael Verderame, The Stuplime Object of Ideology: Report from MLA

Monday, January 23, 2012

Projected European Coastal Changes after a Rise in Sea Level
[Below Michael Verderame, a graduate student affiliate in English and recipient of a Unit for Criticism travel grant last fall, writes about his recent experience at a panel on climate change and the humanities at the 2012 Modern Language Association annual convention.]

The Stuplime Object of Ideology: Report from MLA

Written by Michael Verderame (English)

Recently I randomly came across three news stories. One, an opinion piece, lamented the (by-now predictable) failure of the international community to take meaningful action on climate change. An article on tourism pointed out that Antarctic tourism has boomed over the last 15 years as the disappearance of sea ice has enabled cruise ships to penetrate more deeply into that most forbidding of terrain than ever before. And a political article described the attacks suffered by Newt Gingrich at the hands of some of his Republican rivals, not for any of his host of reactionary and half-baked policy proposals, but for the fact that a few years ago he had sat alongside Nancy Pelosi and articulated the need for action on climate change. Like Governor Jon Huntsman, who alone among the Republican presidential candidates affirmed that he believes the earth is growing warmer as a result of human activity, Gingrich may have paid a high political price for this short-lived dissent from climate-change skepticism, which has only recently congealed into orthodoxy on the American Right.

These stories illustrate the strange status of climate change as a political and cultural subject in the U.S. today. Every year scientific projections grow more and more dire, yet each year the likelihood of meaningful, coordinated political action diminishes. After the failure of a heavily compromised energy bill last year, it seems less and less likely that the U.S., regardless of which party controls the government, will address the issue.

At a panel I participated in at this year’s Modern Language Association convention, on humanistic approaches to climate change, fellow panelist Stephen Sipirstein (Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Oregon) suggested some possible reasons for the inattention to climate change that went beyond the political and economic factors usually cited. He proposed a new theoretical frame for addressing the issue. Climate change as a cultural subject, he argued, is a textbook example of the phenomenon denoted by Sianne Ngai, as “stuplimity.” Like the sublime, the stuplime is overpoweringly vast to the point that our intellectual and sensory faculties are disoriented. Climate change occurs on a scale and timeframe that is so outside of our embodied experience as to be almost incomprehensible. Yet unlike classical formulations of the sublime by Burke and Freud as a source of energy and action, the distinctly modern phenomenon of the “stuplime” is enervating and stupefying, beating us into inaction through an accumulation of incomprehensible information. The stuplime is simultaneously shocking and boring. Each frightening new piece of data or dire prediction, each report of disappearing species or of freakish weather,vanished glaciers or rising sea levels, force us deeper and deeper into a kind of waking stupor in which we seem to lack all agency, rather than mobilizing us into action.

I found this an intriguing way of thinking about our difficulties in navigating seemingly intractable public policy problems such as climate change. Of course, there is nothing essentially “stuplime” about climate change—many people do become energized around the issue—but as a large-scale phenomenon it does seem to me to have some descriptive power, which suggests, as many humanists working on climate change have always maintained, that we need to understand climate change as a cultural subject as well as a technocratic and political problem. How we as a species navigate these treacherous waters may depend in large part on our ability to understand, diagnose, and address the unexamined structures of feeling that shape our responses.While outright climate change denialists (or skeptics, to use their preferred branding), who are marginal in the scientific community but who receive generous funding and media exposure, are usually cast as the principal villain, a recent column by Mark Hertsgaard drew attention to the perhaps more pernicious “de facto denialists”: “Serious people who actually run governments, or at least negotiate on behalf of those who do,” have negotiated an agreement that fails to meet the 2-degree Celsius target widely believed to be the absolute maximum temperature rise that can be permitted to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate impacts. Hertsgaard argues that we don’t need the likes of Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann to derail meaningful action on climate change. The leaders of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries, all of whom affirm climate science and many of whom are aligned with center-left governments, are already doing a good job of that.

While activists have been doing innovative, visible, energetic and, to some extent, successful work around issues such as mountaintop mining and the Keystone pipeline, well-funded denialists manage to create enough debate in the public mind about the underlying science. Many of the denialists use science to claim that the lack of empirical evidence gives enough reason to doubt arguments by environmental activists. Facing a global economic crisis, political and business leaders, and the general public, choose to avoid the significant cuts in consumption and investments in energy alternatives that climate scientists warn are necessary but which might well have devastating economic effects. And the neoliberal ideology that has so thoroughly saturated our thinking makes it easy to conceive of environmental activism individualistically: if we all just drive a little less, change our light bulbs, and unplug our cellphone chargers, maybe the worst results will be averted.

A friend recently mentioned to me that his approach on climate change at this point is simply to hope for the best; so cynical had he, and many like him, become about the possibility of political action. This very cynicism, it seems to me, might be more pernicious than the denialism of the hard Right. And yet it is something of a puzzle. Why have many of us who recognize the science of climate change come to see inaction as inevitable? “Stuplimity” is one way of understanding this puzzling phenomenon.


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