[On April 19, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory held an author’s roundtable hosting Dipesh Chakrabarty (U of Chicago) to discuss his new book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (U of Chicago Press, 2021) , with David Sepkoski (History); Roderick Ike Wilson (History/EALC) and Gillen Wood (English/iSEE) as respondents. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student Arkaitz Ibarretxe Diego.]
Written by Arkaitz Ibarretxe Diego (Spanish and Portuguese)
The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, an author’s roundtable with Dipesh Chakrabarty
Dipesh Chakrabarty's The Climate of History in a Planetary Age argues that we must combine two perspectives in writing history: the global and the planetary. The former centers the human perspective and the latter de-centers it. The question of the difference between natural sciences and human sciences, along with the usefulness of the concept of the Anthropocene generated a stimulating discussion, leading Chakrabarty to preface his remarks with the observation that “every time you finish a book you realize how unfinished it is, and it is really the conversation that follows the book that continues the writing of it.”
David Sepkoski (History), Roderick Ike Wilson (History/EALC), and Gillen Wood (English/iSEE), the three respondents, concurred that Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age is a “provocative” book in the best sense of the word. They praised many of the book’s central theses as well as Chakrabarty’s larger claim that the Anthropocene poses a fundamental challenge to the terms and methods of humanistic inquiry. They also agreed with the author in underscoring the need rethinking the relationship between history, ethics, and the non-human.
David Sepkoski argued that, as a historian of science, he found Chakrabarty’s claim that we are currently experiencing a collapse of the distinction between natural and human history to be somewhat problematic. He pointed out that this distinction was not actually as longstanding as the book posits, and that several scholars, including himself, note that the sense of deep geological time that emerged in the 19th century was entirely continuous with contemporary historiography of what Chakrabarty calls “World/Human History.” Sepkoski concluded his response by offering a friendly amendment to the book’s thesis: the Anthropocene should not be considered as a break in modernity, but rather as modernity itself. While Sepkoski echoes the book’s call for the reconstruction of the political, he suggests that this reconstruction should be made “through the critique of the structures that have led us here.” Viewed thus, the concept of the Anthropocene “could be a doorway to something new.”
The second respondent, Roderick Wilson, had two central questions. The first one was whether there was a difference between the threat to humanity posed by climate change and previous large-scale threats, such as nuclear war or a Malthusian catastrophe. The second question concerned the implications and limitations of the author’s extensive use of a pre-climate change “20th century reservoir of political philosophy and theory” to discuss the non-human, or to “imagine our own place and future today.”
Gillen Wood’s intervention started with an interesting anecdote about a malfunctioning 1950’s air conditioning unit that he found when he was assigned a new office in the English Building on the UIUC campus. Wood used this anecdote to connect, among other things, with Chakrabarty’s discussion of air conditioning and the rise of the Indian middle class. Chakrabarty’s chapter analyzes the seemingly counterproductive trend of citizens in the increasingly hotter city of Delhi, who are installing air-conditioning units that are contributing to further increasing urban temperatures. At the same time, Chakrabarty explained, these families are also enhancing the academic performance of their kids by doing this. Wood cited Montesquieu to comment on this phenomenon: “climate is literacy.” Next, Wood raised a thought-provoking question: “In this planetary neo-environment with technology embedded in the geosphere, can the humanities actually be taken off grid? Can any of us?” Wood then concurred with Chakrabarty’s characterization of anthropocentrism as “our innate assurance that the earth provides a stable ground on which we project our political purposes.” Thus, he concludes, anthropocentrism considers air-conditioning to be “trivial and luxurious, not world-historical and planetary”.
In the following part of the roundtable, author Dipesh Chakrabarty tried to answer the questions that were put forward by the respondents. First, he commented on how this was actually the first discussion of his newly published book and he thanked the respondents for their comments and critical thoughts. He continued by accepting some of Sepkoski’s criticisms and commented on how interesting he found it that “earth system scientists experience affect about the system they constructed,” even after trying to distance the object of their analysis from their affect in order to be objective. This, he further explained, is because “as citizens they feel a certain urgency about what they are finding out about the earth system.” Chakrabarty also reflected on how he approached the writing of The Climate of History in a Planetary Age and commented that, perhaps, “the book has many of the birthmarks which [he] hoped that later embalming would not show.” One of the birthmarks was the issue of the opposition between natural history and human history. Chakrabarty further explained that the opposition that, in his mind, held the book together was actually “the one between the globe and the earth system,” the globe being a human construct. Chakrabarty concluded his reflections by pointing out that it started as “a historians’ book, but actually was also trying to address what [he] sees as a change in human condition.” He affirmed that the present predicament lends itself to the kind of humanism that addresses that very change in the human condition.
During the round of Q&A, Chakrabarty answered the audience’s questions with the occasional intervention by the respondents. One such question pertained to the role of literature departments and how they could contribute constructively on the discussion about climate and climate change. Chakrabarty answered by emphasizing the importance of this question and remarked that “literature is everywhere” even in scientific discourses and narratives. He also added that both scientists and literature people could learn from each other. Wood’s and Sepkoski’s comments regarding this question also stressed the importance of narratives and the need for scientists and humanists to work across disciplinary boundaries.
A related question asked whether “academia needs to be re-made to be able to respond to the problems at hand by moving away from knowledge.” Sepkoski’s answer stressed the necessity of questioning the “self-evident”; while Chakrabarty acknowledged that there is a certain degree of change already happening, he emphasized the importance of offering interdisciplinary courses to undergraduate students. Wood agreed with Chakrabarty but noted that the change towards interdisciplinarity and the shift from expertise to competences is not happening fast enough. The author’s roundtable ended, perhaps appropriately, with a discussion of the end times. Chakrabarty concluded that understanding Indian or Chinese frameworks regarding the Anthropocene and climate change through Judeo-Christian traditions of the apocalypse does not make sense, and that “there is an argument to be made about the social heterogeneity of Anthropocene times.”