Edited by Stephanie Foote

Introduction to Stuckness

Stephanie Foote

Stuck in the Future (of the Past)

John Levi Barnard

Icebound, Not Down

Hester Blum

Stuck with Each Other: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

Stephanie Foote

Tim Kaine’s Orange; or, Stuck in Traffic

Jeffrey Insko

Dyspossession: Notes on the Black Commons

Jennifer C. James

“Of course, the world continues to end”: Weather and the Climate Crisis Ordinary

Dana Luciano

On Being Stuck at Customs: The Poems of Solmaz Sharif

Min Hyoung Song

Severance, Stuckness, and the Hurricane Fix

Pamela Thurschwell


Stuckness might be the prevailing affect of late modernity. In contrast to the humanities' valorization of sustained attention to the nuance of textuality, or to the accelerated demands on our attention required by daily life in late capitalism, stuckness feels flat, hollowed-out, immobilizing. Intensified by the isolation entailed by the global pandemic, the feeling of being stuck is not simply about feeling trapped, nor simply a recognition of the limits of individual agency. It is a rational response to the evacuation of once-expected possibilities, an embodied stillness in the face of better futures that never seem to arrive. The eight short essays in this cluster ruminate on how contemporary literature, film, television, and culture figures the ambivalent temporalities the stuckness of environmental decline, paying particular attention to differences of race, gender, and class.

The essays assembled here meditate on films, television shows, novels, poetry, and lost histories. They stick by the texts' ambivalences about movement and change in a world in which a long history of capitalist extraction seems to have precluded the ability to choose anything that might resemble a future not already haunted by an inevitable climate catastrophe. Focusing on how contemporary narrative is fascinated by the problem of temporality and scale, the essays collected here observe, text by text, event by event, worlds brought into focus when narrative itself is brought up short by the still quietness of being stuck in a place, at a border, in a memory, in a feeling, in a relationship, in a history that is somehow out of joint. And yet the essays remind us that stuckness is generative and productive narratively, in part because it is so personally immobilizing. 

Stuckness is the narrative sign that putatively universal terms like "progress" or "development" or "place" or even "climate" are yoked to a sense of collective pasts and futures unavailable and even unbelievable to people whose daily lives alienate them from any sense of a shared world, a shared future. Contemporary American culture has many ways of describing that feeling of alienation, and it has a rich vocabulary for thinking about stuckness' causes causes that include profound structural, racial, class, and gender inequalities.  The writers of this cluster use that vocabulary to ask: What new forms of feeling, political meaning, and social alliance might emerge from a feeling of stuckness? What does a future look like when we are stuck, with all the time in the world, to witness the end of the world?

In "Stuck in the Future (of the Past)," John Levi Barnard focuses on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' "Doomsday Clock" as an exemplary figure for life in the Anthropocene, one marked by the intensifying planetary threats of climate change and nuclear war. Like the Anthropocene concept, the Doomsday Clock is both useful insofar as it clarifies the severity of the problem and not so useful, in that it figures us as perpetually stuck in the final quarter of an hour, inching ever closer to the stroke of midnight that would signal the end of human civilization. If the clock emphasizes our stuckness within the energy and weapons regimes of the post-45 world order, he argues, then the clock is also a provocation to get unstuck in time.

Hester Blum argues in "Icebound, Not Down" that polar expeditionary history is replete with ships that become icebound and stuck, imperiled, and under threat of being staved or starved; yet what is experienced as static or threatening for Qallunaat (or non-Inuit) travelers can be mobile and generative for Inuit. This essay meditates on stuckness in ice, both in the nineteenth century and today, through a reading of the speculative Arctic exploration horror of the AMC miniseries The Terror (2018), which concludes with a remarkable and revisionary shot of Arctic stasis. Read against her own experience as an Arctic researcher, Blum asks us finally what it means to account for the ways in which we are stuck in the accumulated details of standard and normative histories.

In "Stuck With Each Other," Stephanie Foote asks how the process of reading Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Aurora echoes the text's fascination with how to narrate the life of a species and an individual in one literary horizon. The novel's final assertion that humans will be stuck on earth together and that extra-planetary colonization cannot work gives stuckness a kind of paradoxical temporal urgency, a political charge mobilized only through narrative that aims to break through despair and paralysis over climate change.

In "Stuck in Traffic," Jeff Insko works at the intersection of the energy humanities and infrastructural studies, examining stuckness as both a material and an affective condition in the Anthropocene, focusing upon two works of contemporary multi-ethnic fiction. In Helena Maria Viramontes's Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) and Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange (1997), characters find themselves stuck in relation to traffic. Moving from micro-scale to macro-scale history, from the construction of the world's first stack interchange in Los Angeles to the geological formation of petroleum, his essay argues that the distinction between finding oneself caught in a traffic jam as in Tropic of Orange and finding oneself stuck on the edge of a freeway as traffic passes as in Under the Feet of Jesus reveals the unevenness and injustice produced by petromodernity.

In "Dyspossession: Notes on the Black Commons," Jennifer James takes up the issue of stuckness in relation to Black environmental experiences of enclosure, especially the desire to own land. James moves through historical records and manifestos and through accounts of her own ancestors and public records to trace the desire for a commons underwritten by the desire to own land. What if, she asks, ownership of land itself is not the only relationship to the commons? What desire does land ownership really mark, and what other relationships to land can achieve a Black commons?  What if, she argues, a proprietary relationship with land is the first step toward a new relationship to it?

In "Of Course the World Continues to End," Dana Luciano explores the promise and pitfalls of the recent turn to affect theory in the environmental humanities. She addresses the new visibility of "climate grief," a concept that has gained prominence in the wake of the American Psychological Association's 2017 report, "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate." Climate grief indexes a range of depressive responses to the increasing precarity of life on a warming planet, affirming the difficulty of negotiating psychic engagement with climate precarity without established social frameworks for recognizing and affirming the reality of such feelings. Yet responses to the concept too often fall prey to the long-established liberal-sentimental pattern of restaging encounters with loss as a means of capacitation. In a reading of Jenny Offill's novel, Weather, Luciano argues that negative affects around climate change test the conventions of cli-fi to find satisfying and narratively rich accounts of agency and futurity. "What happens," she asks, "when this idealized trajectory fails when the affective fullness and narrative promise of climate grief give way to the plodding tenacity of climate depression?"

In "On Being Stuck at Customs: The Poems of Solmaz Sharif," Min Hyoung Song considers Solmaz Sharif's latest book of poems Customs. This text contains only one poem that makes overt reference to "glacial water" and rising shores, which are themselves the least interesting ways of thinking about climate change. But many nearly all of its poems are presented to the reader in fragments. The poems center on habits, on the experience of passing through immigration control, on borders that exceed geographical designations and in its last and most elegiac poem "An Otherwise," which resonates with Avery Gordon's "imagine otherwise," and Kandice Chuh's further reflections on this phrase, contains a sharp reference to oil culture, starting as it does with the phrase "Downwind from a British Petroleum refinery." Even if these poems are not overtly about climate change, they provide a good occasion to think about being stuck, because they are centrally about the experience of being stuck: with the past, with loss, with borders that start and end long before any imaginary line, with a toxic culture.

And finally, in "Severance, Stuckness, and the Hurricane Fix," Pamela Thurschwell reads the multiple and clashing genres in Ling Ma's Severance (2019) satirical office drama, Chinese-American immigrant memoir, millennial anti-bildungsroman, zombie apocalypse as part of its interest in mapping the incompatible temporalities that characterize our contemporary moment. To theorize the novel's insistence on global capital's stuckness and repetition, Thurschwell shows how the story is catalyzed by a violent and engulfing climate change apocalypse that doesn't in fact happen. The Hurricane Sandy-like storm that begins the novel fizzles out, becoming instead a nostalgic or celebratory interlude; a way of experiencing a New York that is in the process of disappearing. Thurschwell uses Severance's sidelong glance at climate change's grand narrative to think about the way contemporary texts map the interpenetration of neo-capital stuckness and environmental devastation. 

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