Some have recently argued that the age we now call the Anthropocene demands new understandings of human ontology and thus of history. I ask what such a renewed sense of history might mean for literary realism, invested as it is in the depiction of the passing of time. What is the future of the realist novel when the very notion of human history is being impinged upon by the existential upheavals of the Anthropocene? If, indeed, as Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, the Anthropocene requires the mixing of individual, epochal, and species histories, then it demands something more than the human-historical dialectic that some, such as Fredric Jameson, identify as the hallmark of realism. Among the possibilities for a new literary realism is that offered by Walter Benjamin’s conceptualisation of history. For Benjamin, a true understanding of history demands the recognition of the ‘image’ of history, a recognition occurring in a moment of ‘arrest’ in the flow of time and of thought. I speculate on the emergence of an Anthropocenic literary realism that performs just such an arrest, taking its reader beyond conventional understandings of (human) history and time.
Adeline Johns-Putra is Reader in English Literature at the University of Surrey. She was President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (UK and Ireland) from 2011 to 2015. Her articles on climate change and literature have been published in English Studies, Modern Fiction Studies, and Studies in the Novel, among others. Her most recent monograph, Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel, and an edited volume, Climate and Literature,will be published by Cambridge University Press this year.