Cogut Institute for the Humanities

8. On Catastrophe and Planetary Realism

How do the humanities help us respond to what feels like a new era of planetary catastrophe? Join Meeting Street host Amanda Anderson as she speaks with literary scholar and humanities institute director Debjani Ganguly about how humanities scholars and contemporary novelists have conceptualized large-scale transformations affecting our planet and our societies.


Amanda Anderson: From the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University, this is Meeting Street. I’m Amanda Anderson, the show’s host and director of the Institute.

In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the ways in which we are living in a time of catastrophe, with existential threats impinging on a number of fronts at an unprecedented intensity and scale. For example, we have moved from a sense that climate change would introduce effects gradually over the coming century, to one in which fires and extreme weather events seem to have accelerated, in part via feedback loops that appear to be intensifying. We now speak not so much of climate change, but of a climate emergency. Similarly, the recent COVID-19 pandemic presses home upon us the ways in which our interactions with the natural world have produced a greater susceptibility to viral threats, which can spread across the globe with alarming speed. And lastly, the growth of artificial intelligence and runaway technologies has led to fears that machine intelligence might override or overtake human intelligence. What used to be the stuff of post-apocalyptic fiction and film now appears to be occurring in real time. So what might a humanities scholar have to say about this situation and more generally, what role can the humanities play in our understanding of and response to these multiple intersecting crises?

I am joined today by Debjani Ganguly, professor of English and director of the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia. Professor Ganguly’s specialties include world literature, post-colonial studies, and what is coming to be called planetary humanities. She is the author most recently of This Thing Called the World: The Contemporary Novel as Global Form, published by Duke University Press in 2016, and she is also the general editor of the impressive two-volume Cambridge History of World Literature, released in September. She’s currently working on a book that directly addresses the topic of catastrophe. Its working title is “Catastrophic Modes and Planetary Realism.” I’m very excited to have her here today to talk about her ideas. Debjani, welcome to Meeting Street.

Debjani Ganguly: Thank you, Amanda. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Amanda Anderson: Let’s begin with your current project, which is certainly a timely one. It’s on the topic of catastrophe, as I noted, and focuses on a range of fascinating and terrifying topics, including viruses, drones, toxins, and the climate. First of all, what prompted you to begin writing this book and how does your training as a humanities and literary scholar inform your method and approach?

Debjani Ganguly: I have been working on global humanitarian crises, especially in the postwar era, including crises of the genocide, civil war, War on Terror, for a whole decade now, and as you just noted, I published a book that tracked the interlaced histories of globalism, information, technology, ethnic violence, and humanitarian connectivity through the genre of the novel. While working on this book and towards the end, I began thinking about climate refugees, the fallout of drone wars, the catastrophes of Chernobyl and Fukushima, and I realized that we were confronting technological and climatological shifts so unprecedented in scope and scale, as to render our familiar humanistic assumptions inoperable.

Another trigger was the Australian wildfires towards the end of 2019, and in which I had a personal stake as my family lives in that part of Australia—our children live there—where about 1 billion animals were dead and 25 million acres were destroyed by this devastating fire. So here, on a daily basis, we are confronting the agency of mega non-human entities: climate, technology, nuclear and radioactive waste.

To me, the more I began to think about their role, I realized that they challenged given understandings of the organic boundedness and exceptionalism of the human form, notions of personhood and character, and a certain narrative lexicon of the human—sovereignty, sympathy, rights, interiority, all of which have been so central to conceptions of both humanitarianism and the novel these past three centuries. I think we are now witnessing a fundamental mutation in this modern conception of the human, in which the figure of the human is increasingly entangled in and co-produced by biochemical, technological, ecological, and geological phenomena.

“ in catastrophe...we witness a vast scale disruption of lives on a global scale, over a prolonged stretch of time, that in this era of climate change exceeds the typical human lifespan. Our core psychic and moral ground is disrupted. ”

Debjany Ganguly

Amanda Anderson: That's fascinating. We hear the word “crisis” a lot lately, as well as the words “emergency,” as in the climate emergency, and “disaster.” There is in fact an academic field called critical disaster studies, which analyzes such things as the politics behind what gets designated as a disaster and what doesn’t, what suffering is newsworthy and which isn’t, who is most at risk for different kinds of disaster and why. Why do you use the word “catastrophe” and not these other words or not these other words as much? What is the importance of this particular word and concept?

Debjani Ganguly: This is such a great question. I’ve been reflecting on this for months now. So here’s how I see it. So while the terms “disaster,” “crisis,” and “catastrophe” are often used synonymously in everyday conversations, catastrophe, in my reading, happens at a scale, at an intensity, and across a temporal frame that far exceeds a disaster, which I see as a contingent event occurring at a specific time and place. It causes substantial damage that is then sought to be collectively managed by governmental and non-governmental entities, and disasters may often require a loss of personal freedom to enable mass evacuations, provide security, or redistribute resources. But there is a belief that one comes out of it and there is some semblance of normalcy that is restored.

The idea of crisis is fascinating. I’ve been exploring this in recent months and the crisis has a long intellectual history, starting with the work of the philosopher Reinhart Koselleck who has this insight that the term acquires a new charge since the 1770s. As a fundamentally new mode of interpreting historical time, marked by revolutionary changes in the social and political order, and since the American War of Independence, crisis has become the structural signature of modernity, both recurring and utterly unique, an epochal threshold with universal significance for mankind. So an example: Thomas Paine’s journal, The Crisis, has pages depicting the American battle [for] independence as an inescapable moral challenge that would decide if natural democracy or corrupt despotism would prevail. These are times, Paine writes, that tried men’s souls. So crisis, in this sense, urges moral endurance and is tied to the idea of collective human progress and perfectibility over time. It is also profoundly anthropocentric.

Against this, in catastrophe, the way I am beginning to formulate in this book, we witness a vast scale disruption of lives on a global scale, over a prolonged stretch of time, that in this era of climate change exceeds the typical human lifespan. Our core psychic and moral ground is disrupted in unprecedented ways. So we enter a realm, especially as Karl Jaspers noted in the era of the nuclear and the atom bomb, that the fact of the atom bomb is monstrous enough to put politics in a different state of aggregation, and the moral stamina that this calls for, in Jaspers’ words, is “endurance in the tensions of insolubility.”

So we enter a realm of non-human time. And so you have these temporal scales, where in putting forward the idea of the anthropocene in the year 2000, Paul Crutzen and [Eugene] Stoermer write that human activity has “increased species’ extinction rate by [1,000 to] 10,000 fold  . . . and several climatically important ‘greenhouse’ gases have substantially increased in the atmosphere . . . mankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years to come” [IGBP Newsletter no. 41 (2000): 17–18]. We can no longer afford to think along a teleology of infinite enhancement, but what we can think of is, a moral stance can be a life in a mode of repair and a recouping of energy in interaction with other life forms—and think of ourselves with deep humility as one among many species and natural and inorganic entities that make up our planetary system.

Amanda Anderson: Thank you very much for thinking through what the viable response might be at the present time, which is still recognizably moral, but not along the model of progress and enhancement.

“ [both] air policing and drone surveillance embody a sensory experience that annihilates a sense of reciprocal visuality that has been identified as a requisite for ethical life. ”

Debjani Ganguly

Amanda Anderson: There are two interesting claims that appear in your work on catastrophe: one is the importance of looking to history to better understand the present, and the other is a claim about how we have now entered a terrain in which fundamental moral and epistemological frameworks that have been in play for centuries are no longer applicable given the scale of changes underway and our diminished agency. In a way, these claims are in tension with one another insofar as the current situation can feel like a break with most of recorded history, but in another way, the two claims inform each other. To begin with the first, can you give an example of how history can illuminate current conditions with respect to the catastrophic situations that you examine?

Debjani Ganguly: So this is an extremely important question that I’ve been grappling with too, about the dialectic of historical precedence and the unprecedented. So let me begin with an example from a chapter I’ve recently completed on drone wars that I call “Drone Form and Biotechno Terror.” Drone wars, we all agree, are a humanitarian scandal. Now, in order to understand our contemporary era of drone wars, I found it very useful to turn to histories of the early 20th century and the rise of imperial air power. It was very illuminating to turn to that era. Now air power, as we know, is an Edwardian era invention. Mesopotamia, which is present-day Iraq and the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, were particularly exposed to unspeakable air stress. Just as drone attacks have become continuous and routinized in zones identified as insurgency hotspots in the Global South—Yemen, Somalia, Gaza, Waziristan—aerial bombardment continued in the colonial peripheries in the interwar peace era between 1919 and 1938.

There are also other parallels worth noting. Much like imperial air policing and bombardment in colonial, mandated, and protectorate zones of the interwar period, drone attacks can only take place in uncontested airspace, that is, they can only be perpetrated against people who cannot fight back. Further, both modes—air policing and drone surveillance—embody a sensory experience that annihilates a sense of reciprocal visuality that has been identified as a requisite for ethical life. So basically, I argue that it is impossible to grasp the drone’s post-human choreography of combat without attending to a long history of dehumanization of vast swathes of the globe’s population under the aerial gaze of colonial era militarism.

Amanda Anderson: So perhaps explain using that same example of drone warfare, how we are now in a terrain that is unrecognizable from the vantage point of most of human history?

Debjani Ganguly: In comparing the old imperium and the new, what has changed is really the massive technological overhaul of the viewing military machine. And what we see now is a deepening virtuality—via robotic technology, algorithmic reasoning—that has actually overtaken the visual modes of the photographic-era air surveillance in the pre-digital era. The drone camera does not have a human visualizer: it’s a post-human aperture. Its visual yield consists of a machinic aggregation of data on various so-called insurgent soldiers that are brought together and create a machinic assemblage of the target. So there is a dehumanizing that happens at a scale that one never saw in the imperial photographic age.

And the drone form is informed by, also, what Jody Berland has called a three-dimensional environmental influx—so air, water, temperature become visible matter in remote sensing and thermal imaging that in turn generate virtual photos of potential targets. So what this gives rise to are what I in the book begin to call technogenic life forms that are understood as machinic abstractions of the organic human body, that are exposed to surveillance, manipulation, and annihilation. So traditional personal markers of identity, whether by race, by gender—things that really make our individuated selves—they recede into the background and the targets become an agglomeration of abstract data on the screens that are then primed for annihilation.

“ the realist novel could begin to be re-conceived as a mutant form that has its pulse on our catastrophic present. ”

Debjani Ganguly

Amanda Anderson: What I find fascinating about this particular example is it invites one to think about how this affects individual experience, say the individual experience of drone operators and of course, the experience of people on the ground who are being victimized. And it brings to mind the question of your role and commitments as a humanities scholar, and I want to turn now, actually, to talk a little bit about more specific questions of literature and literary form, because literature is often the site where we kind of depend upon an intensive exploration of human experience.

So one question that arises now is: does the contemporary novel capture these kinds of experiences and how, especially if they are seen to challenge conventional understandings. And simultaneously, how do we think about the contemporary novel in relation to the history of realism, which is of course one of your major specialties. What sorts of challenges are posed to the traditional understanding of realism by the current catastrophic conditions?

Debjani Ganguly: My primary focus, of course, as these questions weave themselves through the book is through the genre of the realist novel. So the weight of the present sits most heavily on the realist novel, and it’s a commonplace and what Fredric Jameson earlier called the ability to capture “a sense of ontology of the present as a swiftly running stream.” So the question I’ve asked throughout is: what happens when we are forced to confront futuristic post-apocalyptic scenarios in the present?

To think of realism as a catastrophic mode runs counter to all theories of the realist novel thus far. So all through the late 18th and early 19th century, as we know, the realist novel came to be seen as factual, plausible, as far removed from a catastrophic worldview as possible. I would think of Ian Watt’s classic study of The Rise of The Novel [1957] and his theorization of formal realism. By formal realism, he actually means novels that not only offer a strong verisimilitude of a recognizably plausible texture of life, but also within which run documentary evidence that confirms or chronicles the guise of authenticity of the stories at hand. So when he wrote that the realist novel was the aesthetic equivalent of a more dispassionate scientific scrutiny of life than had ever been attempted before, Watt was not thinking of timescales associated with geological and evolutionary phenomena, nor was he thinking about quantum, molecular, or nano scales. The alignment of science and literature that he envisioned was less about a deeper engagement with the scientific breakthroughs than with a particular mode of apprehension of the world. So the investment in a factual and rational everyday matrix was not meant to accommodate implausible shifts in scale that threaten the collapse of a newly forged rational and demystified novelistic universe. So say for instance, concepts such as non-linearity, irreversibility, tipping point could not be part of this conception of formal realism in ways that I argue it can now be.

In a recent essay, I’ve begun to speculate if the realist novel could begin to be re-conceived as a mutant form that has its pulse on our catastrophic present. Interestingly, there is a resonance there with my preoccupation with the nuclear era in the book, because the term “mutants” began to be used during the nuclear era—[mutants] that embody a complex coding of time, both past and future, a new species logics in the nuclear age, and an unpredictable future at the cellular level ramifies across social, cultural, and political spheres. So extrapolating from this, I begin to make a case for the contemporary novel as the realist form, as a mutant form, one that encodes futurity in the present as it registers the shock of unpredictable biological, geological transformations on a planetary scale, and this is not the imaginary future of science fiction I'm talking about here, but non-human planetary futures that are already being written into the earth and its stratigraphy by our carbon intensive life-worlds. So I begin to theorize a mode of planetary realism in this regard, which becomes a formal and figural recalibration of the scale of human habitation on this planet, in relation to non-human life forms and inorganic matter.

“ The Hungry Tide [by Amitav Ghosh] brilliantly illustrates what I’ve been calling this braiding of historical time and geological time in planetary realism. ”

Debjani Ganguly

Amanda Anderson: So could you give an example of a novel that deploys some of these kinds of strategies or new forms, and how they’re challenging our traditional conceptions of plot or narrative mode or style of characterization?

Debjani Ganguly: So one very good example is a novel by Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide, published in 2004. And when the novel appeared, the idea of catastrophe, interestingly, was associated more with geopolitical upheavals such as the 9/11 and global state of war, rather than climate change. The novel is set in the Sundarbans, a vast deltaic region of mangrove forest, straddling the two districts in the state of West Bengal in India and Southern Bangladesh, and Sundarbans is also one of the most complex and endangered ecological zones in the world. So since its publication, the novel has overwhelmingly been read as a postcolonial classic, staging an agonistic battle between the demands of environmental conservation, species extinction, and the urgency of social justice for refugees. So it has a very distinct plot where the battle over certain refugees resettled by the government in this particular endangered zone—there is a political and social unfolding of that crisis with very distinct characterization of this crisis.

What I trace in my reading is, if one reads this novel through the planetary lens, then certain other aspects begin to come to the fore, the forcings of the geophysical and the climatological on the Sundarbans. And in some senses, the climatological catastrophe and the humanitarian catastrophe begins to get braided in the novel’s structure, in the way the novel’s plot unfolds. And this braiding is mediated by a character—so, the novel does not abjure characterization.

In fact, there is a very powerful character called Nirmal, who is actually dead in the diegetic plot of the novel, but his presence in the novel appears in the form of a journal and throughout the journal, he reflects on the precarity of human and non-human lives in the Sundarbans. And this braiding of the humanitarian catastrophe and the geophysical catastrophe is captured in the novel’s textual design, such that Nirmal’s diary appears in italics and alternates with the rest of the narrative in normal typography. And The Hungry Tide brilliantly illustrates what I’ve been calling this braiding of historical time and geological time in planetary realism.

And three features in particular are probably worth noting. The first is the novel’s magnificent depiction of the Sundarbans as an ecological and geological force. It appears as an actant, more powerful than humans in the novel, and one that determines the fate of both human and non-human actors. The second is the novel’s spectacular capture of multi-species relationality through the figure of the endangered dolphin, the Irrawaddy dolphin, that Ghosh writes about extensively in the novel; the role of the cetologist, Piya Roy, [and] the fisherman, Fokir; and the tides in which they explore, swim in, and even fatally encounter a world teeming with crabs, shrimps, and other aquatic creatures. So this multi-species entanglement constitutes the novel’s biotic surround. And the third feature of the novel is how it braids mythographical and geological time with the historical. It’s a fine illustration of the scalar recalibration that goes on in the novel, a recombinant literary mode that registers human-generated climatological shocks as they reverberate in the present.

Amanda Anderson: I’m struck in your description by the interesting ways in which you see the novel moving beyond the framework of the political. It puts me in mind, too, in thinking about your description of the use of the journal within the narrative, of the 19th-century novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens, which has an alternation between a third-person omniscient narrator and a first-person narrator, Esther, and part of what’s so estranging about that novel is that it is attempting to force the reader to think from a systems perspective even as they enter into the experience of the individual first-person narrator. I’m just struck because there’s a way in which omniscience in the 19th century is trying to do something estranging as well, trying to force readers to think from—the standpoint of sociology is one way to put it, but another way to put it is just, from a perspective that really isn’t human, and it’s about an evolving perspective linked to a form of knowledge. So I’m struck by the continuity between that sort of example and the profound discontinuity.

In addition to your important scholarly work, you also direct a humanities research institute at Virginia, and you previously directed a humanities research center at the Australian National University. I’m curious: how has the experience directing research centers influenced your scholarship and your approach to humanities research more generally—and your understanding of catastrophe, I guess I would say?

Debjani Ganguly: Well, my experience in directing humanities centers and institutes these past 14 years now has been central to the way my projects have unfolded, and especially this particular project. While I, of course, work within my discipline and work with genres and forms that we are trained to read, the opening up of humanistic horizons, of humanities research, through various meta challenges of the late 20th and 21st century—whether they are the environmental, the digital, the technospheric—they have been central to the way I have begun to imagine the role of humanities research and humanities scholarship.

One window that one has a point of entry in through in directing humanities research centers is various avenues of conversation with multiple disciplines, not just disciplines that are proximate to us—the social sciences, the interpretive sciences, science and technology studies—but also for instance, the environmental sciences, computational sciences, the legal sciences. And the various collaborative nodes and projects that emerged over the years have suddenly opened and widened my grasp of thinking through what it means to live in our times and how we begin to find a language that braids insights from these various multidisciplinary engagements and also critical theoretical paradigms.

So I found my experience hugely generative, and certainly I could not have imagined beginning this work and writing about, say, drones, or writing about thinking the human through the machinic, without the work of the humanities informatics lab that I helped co-establish at my institute in Virginia. We are focused on the impact of this new phase of digital intensification of our lives through web 2.0, social media, the rise of big data, algorithmic reasoning—what implications this has for the way we imagine global public spheres, the role of imagination, the role of literary and creative genres, our philosophical and moral orientation to some of the fundamental questions about human existence. And so I’m deeply indebted to the work of the collective research and collectivity that emerges in our institutes.

“ I feel very optimistic that the humanities will play a much larger role in the next 20 years. . . . the interpretive ability, the interpretive force of our disciplines, I think, becomes crucial and central to how we begin to make sense of our extraordinary times. ”

Debjani Ganguly

Amanda Anderson: As a last question, I guess I’ll just ask you, how do you see the future of the humanities? Where do you think the humanities will be in 20 years?

Debjani Ganguly: You know, one thing that we’ve been talking about are deep existential questions that have come to the fore, and the longue durée perspectives that urge us to distinguish, in some senses, between a problem that requires a solution and something called a predicament where— which is kind of not amenable to a ready-made solution. And this is where I think the humanities can play a very large role.

I feel very optimistic that the humanities will play a much larger role in the next 20 years. So catastrophes, you know, of a magnitude that we discuss generate a crisis of intelligibility, about large questions relating to the nature of life, human/non-human agency, violence, culpability, reciprocity, responsibility, suffering, death—think of the current pandemic as an example. How we live and die together as individuals, collectives, organisms, and species has emerged as urgent in the aftermath of this pandemic. 

And literary works that I've been reading in recent years on pandemics interrogate, fascinatingly, the trope of mastery one finds in many of the scientific modeling exercises of mega events that can be catastrophic. In recent months, we daily witnessed the tremendous authority accorded to all these vast datasets and models, and the interpretive ability, the interpretive force of our disciplines, I think, becomes crucial and central to how we begin to make sense of our extraordinary times. So that for instance, there’s a recent novel by Lawrence Wright called The End of October, which was published maybe a couple of months before COVID-19, that reminds us that although we humans think we are the dominant within our ecological niche, many other niches exist that overlap with our own, and that operate by entirely different rules over which we have less and less control.

So with catastrophes over on the horizon, I think technoscience, science, becomes more and more necessary, but less and less efficient to account, in some senses, for the inexperienceable that lies at the heart of these vast temporalities of our technoplanetary era. And we need every power of the imagination and our interpretive capacity to make sense of our time.

Amanda Anderson: I really appreciate your sounding so inspiring on a topic that, in many ways, can feel quite dispiriting, which is to say our current catastrophes, but thank you so much, I think you’ve really demonstrated, with great insight, the kind of work that we can do in response to our current conditions. Thank you so much for being on the show, Debjani.

Debjani Ganguly: Thank you so much for having me. Deep pleasure, Amanda.

Amanda Anderson: Meeting Street is dedicated to exploring some of the most innovative work being done in the humanities today. Through conversations with scholars and thinkers who are extending the boundaries of their respective fields. If you enjoyed this week’s episode of Meeting Street, please leave a review wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.