January 11, 2012
The last day of the MLA: anyone still around? But it was one of the best panels I’d been to. A resonant title: “Velocities of Ecocriticism.” A full audience. And three great papers: Ursula Heise, Timothy Morton, Rob Nixon.
The title of the panel, of course, was inspired by Rob’s recent book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Rob argues that there is a stunning correlation between velocity and publicity: the more fast-paced an event, the more rapid-fire its effects, the more likely is it going to be above the radar. Our field of vision is dominated by events that explode and subside within split seconds; newsworthiness is almost synonymous with that smaller and smaller interval of time.
Catastrophes long in the making, requiring more time to unfold – like climate change, like environmental degradation – are non-events for that reason. Is the visual field always biased in this way? Rob is largely pessimistic, but he is not entirely without hope. In the epilogue to his book, he pays tribute to a 30-minute drama successfully staged by the Maldives government. On Oct 17, 2009, a couple of weeks before the Copenhagen Summit, President Nasheed held a underwater cabinet meeting, with the conference table anchored to the seabed and everyone in attendance wearing wetsuits and oxygen masks, while signing into law a national commitment to reduce carbon emission. Instant drama, that was the plan, and that what sea level rise would have to look like to be noticed.
Maldives is a “minnow nation,” but even an entity so without clout can sometimes act on the world stage. This is the “environmentalism of the poor” that Rob wants us to consider. Our panel discussed different time frames, the relation between macro and micro, between human and nonhuman, leaving unresolved, but urgently beckoning, the possible role of literary texts, also without clout, but habitually requiring and cultivating longer attention spans. Slow reading as green reading?