Essay

The Queerness of Straight Time in an Era of Climate Change

by Sylvan Goldberg

We live in strange times. This might be why theorizations of time have proliferated within literary studies of late. Much of this work—within queer theory, especially, but also in accounts of various national archives—has tended to stake its claims in opposition to a totalizing temporality attached to history, to the nation, and to other forms of cultural hegemony, a temporality envisioned as linear, forward-moving, and on a singular track. Figured thus as straight time, such a figuration has its roots in the standardization of time central to Benedict Anderson’s theories of nationalism, which often appear in the new temporal studies as the foil against which a cluster of temporalities operating at the subnational level set themselves. These other temporalities and rhythms appear as the grounds of a politically progressive path into a future—or not, as Lee Edelman has infamously argued—imagined to be more equitable and just than the present or the past from which they are argued to be radically decoupled. Despite this tendency to retain hope for a better future, by critiquing forward-moving historical time as part and parcel of oppressive regimes of cultural and political power, the new temporal studies’ has made privileging antiprogressive temporalities the default doctrine of progressive political critique, as if by resisting linear time we can resist the oppressive structures that deploy it.

Meanwhile, climate change is throwing a wrench into such faith. Humankind finds itself hurtling toward the end times, caught up in an apocalyptic linearity increasingly difficult to resist. Climate change certainly does exacerbate the types of violence against minoritized communities that the new temporal studies have helped to illuminate; indeed, the cascading climatastrophes we face impact minoritized groups and nonhuman others more heavily than those with traditional forms of social, political, and economic power, as numerous scholars working on questions of environmental justice and the environmental humanities have shown. But the violence wrought by straight time differs in scale than that of climate change, whose extinction of humankind ultimately renders such distinctions moot. (Again, it’s worth restating: extinction’s indiscriminancy does not negate the value of attending to the differential violences wrought by climate change en route to such an endpoint. But for the purposes of this essay, my point is something like the Second Law of Thermodynamics meets material ecocriticism.) Even Lee Edelman’s willful rejection of the future looks surprisingly quaint when read against climate fatalism. Taken seriously, that is, climate change might produce the most antisocial of theories, embedding us within the queerest time of all: the future we are hurtling toward may reject us before we have any chance to reject it. [1]

In an essay on Sarah Orne Jewett’s queer ecological futurity, Sarah Ensor has similarly put Edelman and the type of apocalyptic environmental thought I am discussing here into conversation, albeit as a way of claiming a future that might look different than the one proposed by straight time. For Ensor, “the question is not the future, yes or no, but the future, which and whose, where and when and how” (414). [2] She answers this question by turning to Jewett’s spinsters, who, without children of their own in whom to invest their desires for the future, “[engage] in a more impersonal mode of stewardship—one whose investment is neither linear nor directly object-based” (416). But to insist as Ensor does here that this is non- or antilinear is to negate what makes the future so strange in the era of climate change, which is its inevitable negation of all the markers by which culture has tended to imagine the future, peopled, as these imaginings are with, well…people. As Mark McGurl has written in nodding, like Ensor, toward the way in which the destructive capacity of the Anthropocene might open up space for social and economic relations to be reshaped more equitably, “Who knows but that what arises from that rubble might not be better than what we have now?—before someday most likely becoming incomparably worse.”[3]

McGurl’s view of the future opens up by way of a distant past that has become central to Anthropocene critique: deep time, which appears via the backward glance McGurl ascribes to the “new cultural geology.” So often held up as the exemplary temporality of the Anthropocene, deep time is both straight and queer—linear and nonnormative, historical and inhuman. It alters what we mean by history, blurring the line between human and natural histories, as numerous scholars, most notably perhaps Dipesh Chakrabarty, have shown.[4] This queering of history marks one of climate change’s most compelling features, for it warps what we have for so long taken for granted. To talk about what was once the most mundane of topics—the weather—is now to invoke crisis. Indeed, what climate change does so well is to render unfamiliar the things we have been looking at all along, to distort the known into something both familiar and strange. Doing so to the arrow of historical time by putting human history into the enlarged framework of natural history does not negate time’s linear thrust. It only elongates that long temporal line, even as it opens up a host of alternative ways of articulating what it feels like to inhabit a time that keeps marching on, far faster than we would like it to, as every missed goal for reducing carbon emissions reminds us.

Like Ensor, I want to turn to Jewett here, but less to consider what Jewett tells us about how we might more equitably inhabit the future than to see what Jewett can tell us about inhabiting a present in which historical time appears both deranged and inescapable.[5] Dunnet Landing, the setting of Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) feels timeless even as the town has been noticeably left behind by the economic and cultural changes sweeping through the United States at the turn into the twentieth century. For numerous critics, this temporal disjuncture has been rooted in an opposition between Dunnet Landing’s outmoded socioeconomic life and its timelessly pastoral natural world. As Warner Berthoff noted in an early appreciation of Jewett, although she writes of a “community that is inexorably, however luminously, dying,” it is “[o]nly society [that] is dying, only human life: water, rock, woods, birds, vegetation are alive and—in the time we are allowed to look at them—surpassingly beautiful” (33, 39; original emphasis). Sixty years after Berthoff noted this distinction, praising Jewett’s descriptions of the natural world, we now know that human life wasn’t the only aspect of coastal Maine entering its twilight: average temperatures have climbed by around 2 degrees Fahrenheit since Pointed Firs was first published; sea levels have risen by a foot; native plant life has been decimated by rising temperatures and an influx of invasive species; animals on land and in the sea have seen their populations shrink. These are only the beginnings of an anthropogenically induced environmental instability that will continue to accelerate, wreaking greater havoc on a state that remains economically dependent on its natural resources.[6] In writing of a coastal community being left behind by a rapidly industrializing nation, Jewett encapsulates not only the sociological shifts in the United States taking place at the end of nineteenth century, but the remaking of the material world—both its natural and built environments—effected by these changes, rendering the melancholy of dispossession that haunts her stories an anticipation of a much broader condition, a century on. Dunnet Landing, suspended in a changing world, thus turns out to be far more like the ghostly Arctic village described in Jewett’s sketch “The Waiting Place” than even critics recognizing the parallel have claimed.[7] Like the Arctic “inhabitants . . . neither living nor dead” of whom Captain Littlepage hears tell, Dunnet Landing, too, seems “a kind of waiting-place between this world an’ the next” (22, 21). It is a ghostly space that, in light of the dramatic alteration climate change threatens to effect, we too now inhabit—a world poised between life and death. 

When Littlepage begins his Arctic narrative in earnest, the amount of mediation in which Jewett embeds its narration calls attention to the aesthetic as a register for both encountering and displacing the natural world. The narrator tells of Captain Littlepage’s relation of a story he heard from a sailor, Gaffett, whom he met in the northern reaches of Canada—a story within a story within a story. Like an actual Arctic expedition, these narratives have a difficult time reaching their destination: Gaffett “seem[s] speechless” when Littlepage first meets him, and although he is “waiting to find the right men to tell” how to reach the waiting-place and has “all his directions written out straight as a string to give to the right ones,” he refuses to give them up (20, 23); Littlepage’s story proceeds in fits and starts and near its end he loses its thread altogether, “suddenly forgetting his subject” (24); and the narrator stretches Littlepage’s tale across three chapters, as if it is somehow ill fitting for the sketch-based chapters of Pointed Firs.

In this tension between an inability or unwillingness to tell and a form of telling that exceeds its acceptable boundaries, Jewett mimics here the narratives of Artic exploration that had been popular in the nineteenth century. Benjamin Morgan has written of this genre’s “tension between a claim to transparent description and a poetic evocation of the indescribable.” [8] For Morgan, the Arctic and its nineteenth-century accounts challenge our traditional forms of historicization by offering up a lingering “afterness” through technical description and climate data that make visible a transhistorical feeling human body, susceptible as it is to a numbing cold that doesn’t quite fit within the triumphalist narratives we have associated with the Arctic sublime (4). If this compresses time’s progressive quality, conflating past and present, these exploration narratives also operate within the narrative we are getting better at telling, of the changes in global climate; as Morgan acknowledges, their climatological data has found new life within contemporary climate science. Thus, even as Morgan’s trans- or antihistorical human body resists linear history, the afterness of which he writes reimposes that forward movement of time.

Jewett’s arctic, a landscape reached by traveling beyond the Arctic ice and filled with ghostly “fog-shaped men,” is far queerer than this, for it pulls in two directions at once, offering up both an afterness and a beforeness embedded within an apocalyptic linearity Jewett herself could not have fully recognized (22). That Littlepage believes Gaffet’s story shows his attachment to the myth of an open polar sea, which had circulated for centuries but had by the time of Jewett’s writing been largely debunked, only to return again in our own moment as a vision of climate change’s dystopic future. Gaffett’s temperate waiting-place is thus both already anachronistic and yet prescient of the material reality of a climate-changed Arctic that will be free of ice and marked by the trace of former inhabitants. The moment in which Jewett wrote, when an ice-free Arctic seemed mere fantasy, now seems like the anomaly. Such a landscape invokes the doubled sense of being “out of time” that Dunnet Landing exemplifies throughout Pointed Firs: on the one hand, absented from the linear, forward-moving time of national progress; on the other, rapidly approaching its own end, as in the phrase “running out of time.” If this marks Jewett’s collection as an anticipatory allegory, Littlepage’s failure to continue his story after his own feeling of this doubled asynchrony—no longer of economic value to the nation and nearing the ends of his own mortality—stands in for our own crisis of narration in a moment when the natural world feels no longer either recognizable or redemptive. Appropriately, then, Littlepage loses his narrative thread upon looking at a map of North America, drawn more recently than his own Arctic travels and so with newly mapped coastlines, that forces him to confront a world that looks little like the one he thought he knew: “his eyes were fixed upon the northernmost regions and their careful recent outlines with a look of bewilderment” (23). Like Littlepage’s bewildered gaze, we too look around us at a world we barely recognize, even as we look back—whether into the far reaches of a pre-human deep time or to earlier fantasies of an ice-free Arctic—to one that presents to us our post-crisis future.

Works Cited

Abel, David. “In Maine, Scientists See Signs of Climate Change.” The Boston Globe, 21 Sept. 2014, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/09/20/maine-climate-change-taking-toll/P41vVDd9v3knTUeDH2U6SP/story.html.

Berthoff, Warner. “The Art of Jewett’s Pointed Firs.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 1959, 31-53. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/362211.

Caserio, Robert L., Lee Edelman, Judith Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz, and Tim Dean. “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory.” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 3, 2006, 819-28. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25486357.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2, 2009, 197-222. JSTOR, doi: 10.1086/596640.

Eakin, Paul John. “Sarah Orne Jewett and the Meaning of Country Life.” American Literature, vol. 38, no. 4, 1967, 508–531. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2923456.

Ensor, Sarah. “Spinster Ecology: Rachel Carson, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Nonreproductive Futurity.” American Literature, vol. 84, no. 2, 2012, 409-35. doi: 10.1215/00029831-1587395.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement. U of Chicago P, 2016.

Hobbs, Michael. “World beyond the Ice: Narrative Structure in The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 29, no. 1, 1992, 27-34. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/1297937286?accountid=14026.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. 1896. The Country of the Pointed Firs. Penguin, 1995.

McGurl, Mark. “The New Cultural Geology,” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 57, no. 3/4, 2011, 380-90. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41698758.

Morgan, Benjamin. “After the Arctic Sublime.” New Literary History, vol. 47, no. 1, 2016, 1-26. Project Muse, doi: 10.1353/nlh.2016.


[1] See the PMLA forum “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory,” with contributions by Robert L. Caserio, Lee Edelman, Judith Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz, and Tim Dean.

[2] Sarah Ensor, “Spinster Ecology.”

[3] Mark McGurl, “The New Cultural Geology,” Twentieth Century Literature 57.3/4 (2011), 389.

[4] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses.”

[5] On climate change as deranging our traditional forms of meaning, see Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement.

[6] As David Abel writes in the Boston Globe, in an article on the detrimental effects of climate change in Maine, the state has “the highest percentage of forested land and a long, famously scenic coastline, where timber and fisheries remain at the heart of the economy.”

[7] See, for example, Michael Hobbs’s “World Beyond the Ice: Narrative Structure in The Country of the Pointed Firs,” and Paul John Eakin’s “Sarah Orne Jewett and the Meaning of Country Life.”

[8] Morgan, “After the Arctic Sublime,” 5.

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