Lecture given by Jennifer Rutherford, Director of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, and Research Professor of Sociology and Literature, University of Adelaide. Co-sponsored by the Leslie Center for the Humanitites.
“If only it were just a crisis! If only it had just been a crisis!”
Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia
In Facing Gaia, Bruno Latour describes a dance-move in Stéphanie Ganachaud’s dance “The Angel of Geostory” in which the dancer — rushing backwards from a horrifying scenario —keeps turning her head to catch sight of the frightening obstacle impeding her backwards flight until, finally, she is forced to turn and face what is in front of her. For Latour, this dance captures the spirit of the times, the moderns’ flight from “the archaic horror of the past – and what they have to face today – the emergence of an enigmatic figure, the source of a horror that is now in front of them rather than behind.” To speak of this as a crisis, Latour argues, is to distance ourselves from the troubles that are facing us: “a profound alteration to the world which is the scholarly term for madness.”
In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh also argues that madness is at large, and singles out novelists for their complicity in derangement. Climate change, he writes, “is perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture in the broadest sense. […] Given what climate change portends for the future of the earth it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over”. But the bound-world of the realist novel, its reliance on probability and place-setting, and its inter-dependence with the bourgeois ideology of an ordered world, outcasts the uncanny and improbable events of the Anthropocene to the genres of sci-fi and fantasy.
Life writing, however, is particularly attuned to writing the uncanny and the improbable. Parsing the indecipherable elements of a life are its forte, as is its focus on an intimate self in order to illuminate aspects of a larger collective condition. This is my point of departure for The Encyclopedia of Lost Things, a work of life-writing comprised of 26 hybrid essays exploring my own sense-making of the crises of my childhood and adolescence, the many losses these entailed, and my various attempts to make sense of an external madness through recourse to the available social, political and intellectual lenses of the last decades. Constructed as an alphabet (each essay is organised around a letter) the narrator of The Encyclopedia excavates a bewildering, and at times overwhelming past of accumulating crises, but as she uncovers this dark world, obstacles up ahead begin to obstruct her backward gaze. I am interested in the challenge of writing this juncture, of a self burdened by the crises of the past, as the future promises to eclipse all.