ANTHROPOCENE FLOTSAM: Steve Mentz’s ‘Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719’

ECOCRITICISM NOW: The essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.

Steve Mentz, Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719 (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

By Peter Adkins

There is a moment about a third of the way through Derrida’s final seminars, translated into English in 2011 as The Beast And The Sovereign Volume II by Geoffrey Bennington, where he pauses from his sustained reading of Robinson Crusoe and reflects, not for the first time, on the question of whether it is not “artificial and unwarranted” to impose questions of technology and ontology onto the eighteenth century text at hand.[1] Is, Derrida asks, there an undue violence being enacted upon this canonical novel of shipwreck in demanding that it speak to contemporary concerns around bio-politics, species difference and autonomy? The question is a rhetorical one. Derrida has the answer waiting in reserve and, unsurprisingly, it is a clear “no”. “[E]very reading is […] anachronistic”, Derrida explains, insofar as there is always a “dislocation in the taking-place of the text” between the now of the reading and the then of its moment of composition. As such, it is not a question of avoiding anachrony, rather the imperative, according to Derrida, lies in making a distinction between “the good and the bad anachronism.”

In many respects, what Derrida is articulating here is a fairly uncontroversial, if often neglected, exegetical fact: to excavate a historical text is always to expose it to the contaminated air of the present. Yet it is not always immediately clear what separates the “good” anachrony from the “bad”. Even in The Beast And The Sovereign, the distinction is not particularly clear. For Derrida, addressing the attendees of his seminar, the final proof will be whether they, that is, his audience (and, by extension, his later readers), “find it interesting to listen to what I’m saying and [afterward] read Robinson Crusoe differently.” Since at least the 1980s, there has been a general consensus in literary studies that the “good anachrony” presents itself through a given text’s ethical force; that is to say, the “good” anachrony operates as an unveiling of the ways in which historical texts either foreshadow or productively problematize contemporary concerns, from queer theory to globalization. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that in recent years anachronistic reading strategies have been called upon to read earlier texts in relation to the ever-pressing questions of climate change, rising sea levels and planetary apocalypse. J. Hillis Miller has been one of the most prominent figures to profess the benefits to re-reading older works in the context of the Anthropocene, arguing that in “identifying the way a […] literary work mirrors the future” we can see how, for instance, modernist poetry speaks to a future characterised by a “global auto-immune disorder” and “catastrophic climate change.” [2]

More recently, Timothy Clark has outlaid how only criticism that takes stock of the incessantly “emergent unreadability” of all texts, in the sense that exegesis is always couched in the terms of its future nullity, can engage with the anachronous logic of climate change.[3] Indeed, every piece of literary criticism that takes the Anthropocene as its critical paradigm in its investigation of a pre-millennial text is arguably participating in this project. Anachronistic and non-linear models of history, literature and culture might not save the world from rising sea levels, but they might save literary departments from accusations that they’re not engaging with the biggest challenge to the long-term survival of the human species to date.

Amidst the inevitable rush to re-read the canon in the context of climate change, Defoe has done rather well. In addition to Derrida’s elucidation of the planetary dangers to the Robinsonade-drive to construct a world in one’s own all-too-human image (and here I impose my own Anthropocene anachronism on Derrida), Robert Markley has argued that Defoe’s 1704 book The Storm offers an eco-cultural materialism attuned to climate disequilibrium.[4] And more recently, the publication of Robinson Crusoe serves to bookend the historical parameter for Steve Mentz’s latest book, Shipwreck Modernity, an ecocritical analysis of shipwreck literature from 1550 to 1719 that asks whether early modern shipwrecks might reveal something of our current Anthropocene moment. The “Anthropocene”, however, is not a word that Mentz is particularly happy with. The term’s implicit privileging of Anthropos, Mentz explains, implies “the heroic, epic and tragic centrality of the old man’s body, spread now across our watery blue planet” and ensures man’s position at the “summit position” of the world. Instead, Mentz argues in his rigorous ‘Theoretical Preface’, we would benefit from having a range of critical terms at our disposal when engaging with planetary turmoil. In addition to the spectre of “old man Anthropos”, Mentz offers the Homogencene, which takes account of the horizon of “sameness” that is in the process of enclosing the planet, the Thallassocene, which addresses the oceanic, nautical and liquid implications to the warming planet, and perhaps most central to Mentz’s book, the Naufragocene, or the way in which humankind’s “violent encounter with disorder” can be productively likened to the figure of the shipwreck.

Readers familiar with Mentz’s work won’t be surprised by his salt-water focus or his argument that “global thinking must become oceanic rather than merely terrestrial” in order to think rigorously about ecology and climate change. Mentz has been vocal about the limitations imposed by ecocriticism’s clear bias towards terrestrial landscapes, critiquing its uncritical veneration for “green” pastoralism and outdated notions of ecological harmony. In its place, Mentz offers a “blue ecology” that both addresses the scarcity of ecocriticism of the oceanic variety and more closely engages with ideas of disruption and complexity that characterise contemporary ecology. His previous book At The Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean proved the value such an approach can offer in early modern scholarship, whilst his 2012 article ‘After Sustainability’ published in the PMLA, the flagship journal in literary studies, is undoubtedly one of the most important ecocritical tracts of recent times, addressing head-on the ways in which “green” ecology has produced conservative ideas of Nature that are both ideologically dubious and scientifically inaccurate. Shipwreck Modernity continues Mentz’s analysis of blue ecology in early modern literature, and, whilst Mentz might have little love for the word, it joins a growing number of books investigating the Anthropocene through the act of literary criticism.

Like others working to couch the Anthropocene in earlier contexts, Mentz synthesises historicism and literary theory. “We might still need historical periods,” he explains in the book’s preface, “we would have trouble organizing the humanities without them – but we need them to be messy and intermingled.”[5] Like Hillis-Miller and Clark, Mentz deviates from linear or teleological understandings of history, and instead argues for “a composting model of historical change” that “recognizes multiple presences in multiple states of decay at all times.” More importantly, it is a model that attempts to think beyond humanist or anthropocentric norms in which humans are the only historical actors, and instead aligns itself with “posthuman critics from Bruno Latour to Timothy Morton in an attempt to think past and across the nature/culture divide.” Mentz focuses on written accounts, mostly literary ones, that

narrate catastrophe in order to endure catastrophe. Shipwreck stories represent the human experience of natural hostility, narrating humankind’s failed attempts to navigate an uncertain world. By using shipwreck to examine the ecological crises occasioned by the early stages of globalization, this book aims to reconsider the cultural changes associated with early modernity.

To borrow one of the book’s many brine-soaked metaphors, Mentz intends this study to trawl the depths of what he calls “wet globalization” in its earliest phases and the ways in which the shipwreck functions, both literally and figuratively, within the emergence of a globalised modernity. The seven chapters run thematically rather than chronologically. Chapter one focuses on the shock of immersion itself, chapter two on questions of divine providence, chapter three focuses on Bermuda’s impact on the English literary imagination, chapter four and five look at the more-than-human technical skills necessary for surviving a wreck, and chapter six and seven focus respectively on maritime poetry and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

The opening three chapters, focusing on the experiential event of the wreck itself and shifting ideas of divine providence, establish Mentz’s interest in recreating the early modern sailor’s sense of the sea as both a source of prosperity and a space of otherness. Drawing from a wide number of textual sources, including John King’s sermons from Lectures Upon Jonas (1597), Jonathan Dickinson’s fascinating account of being shipwrecked off the coast of Florida, God’s Protecting Providence (1699), and Andrew Marvell’s ‘Bermudas’ poem (1653?), Mentz examines the different ways in which the rise of seafaring produced narratives that reworked the relation between the divine will of God and the alterity of nonhuman nature. Moreover, Mentz traces how the ocean’s demand for human ingenuity in the face of extreme circumstances (both in the moment of the wreck and the recounting of it later) is shown to have forced its early modern subjects to discover new modes of adaptation and sense-making. In his analysis of the skills needed for survival, Mentz draws both on the Latourian notion of assemblages comprised of actors / actants who are human, nonhuman and more-than-human, and Morton’s notion of the hyperobject as any entity that “exceed human scales.”[6] This understanding of networks of actants, hyperobjects and nonhuman intentionality breaks with the more traditional duality of active subjects and passive objects, and affords Mentz a non-anthropocentric position from which to make the claim that

beyond its economic and human consequences, early globalization was fundamentally ecological in nature.

This claim, which depending on your position either rightly decentres the human as a historical actor or diminishes human responsibility in the story of planetary exploitation, works to further Mentz’s thesis that shipwreck narratives capture the dissonance, disruption and incessant change that characterises both early modern seafaring and the challenges posed by climate change.

The idea of the sailor as a node within a network of often hostile nonhuman actants is further developed in the two chapters focused around the idea of “metis”. Metis, a Greek term that Mentz, develops in order to “describe the expert labor of the mariner” who “combines both ‘cunning intelligence’ and skill with technology,” provides the framework for Mentz to re-evaluate the lives and narratives of Jeremy Roch, a naval lieutenant and seaman who wrote journals and poetry about his experiences at sea, and Edward Barlow, a mariner who wrote an extended journal of his experiences whilst stuck in the Banka Strait off Sumatra in 1672. These two chapters, which follow the post-humanist turn in dissolving the clear cut binary separating human culture from nonhuman nature, offer both careful manuscript analysis and illuminating close readings of sailors, technology and the ocean. Mentz’s decision to engage with a dazzling breadth of literary resources, both in these chapters and throughout the book, makes for a stimulating mix of close reading, careful historicism and contemporary theory. Having said that, there are moments where the breadth of texts might have benefited from more heterogeneity. The lack of sustained attention paid to writing either by or addressing the experiences of women, slaves or non-Westerners, for instance, derives from the fact that Mentz wants to remain focused on the experience of “early modern seamanship in close detail rather than relying on the view from the shore”. But, at times, this imposed restriction feels limiting and problematic, particularly in the later chapters, which depart from the early modern parameters but keep the predominantly white male focus. Charles R. Johnson’s portrayal of the slave trade in his postmodern novel Middle Passage (1990), which won the National Book Award, springs to mind as an example of just one maritime text that might have added some variation in the closing analysis. Nonetheless, in the texts that Mentz does turn to, his readings are both illuminating and convincing. For instance, his careful tracing of the development of piscatorial poetics, a short lived-lived phenomenon during the seventeenth and eighteenth century which took the techniques and tropes of pastoral poetry and reworked them to meet the needs of maritime subjects, is one of the book’s best sections. Drawing out the “swimmer poetics” at work in the works of Phineas Fletcher, William Diaper and John Donne, Mentz brings to light the ways in which these poets emphasize the “mismatch between pastoral simplicity and oceanic alterity,” forging a whole new type of poetry in the process.[7]

Mentz’s commitment to a spatial rather than linear conception of history is reflected in the book’s composition itself. Chapters are punctuated with paragraph-length interludes detailing other shipwrecks, two creative-nonfiction “interchapters” offer diverting pauses and, as mentioned above, the final two chapters transgress the book’s early modern focus, counterpointing early modern writing with later shipwrecks in the works of Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Wallace Stevens and Bob Dylan. In the concluding chapter, which brings together both James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and the violent aftermaths of 9/11, Mentz argues that our own modernity, as characterised by violence, change and disequilibrium, remains comparable to the tumultuous experiences of a shipwreck. Indeed, to be alive is to be caught up in an unceasing storm, according to Mentz, and so we should not try to avoid shipwrecks so much as to learn how to better live inside them. This is where, in his view, we might glean a thing or two from shipwreck narratives, which he argues contain many of the skills and ideas needed to attune ourselves better to a constantly changing environment. Or, as Mentz summarises in his short series of epilogues, “out of disasters come possibilities for new order and new ordering systems.” In Mentz’s radical blue ecology, Nature functions more like a violent whirlpool than a calm shoreline and we need to prepare ourselves to be submerged into “insight and depth, to a cold and lightless place – but also a new place.”

Mentz’s closing remarks feel both timely and incisive, and further establish his position amongst a number of notable scholars who in the last five-years or so have undertaken a radical re-evaluation of ecocriticism’s aims and methods. Furthermore, Mentz’s choice of shipwreck as a metaphor for modernity is doubly fitting, in its implicit nod to the fact that the coming decades are likely to be defined by oceanic storms and rising sea levels. Yet, there is also a problem with Mentz’s conclusion here and it is in the universalised “we” that he uses to frame his closing remarks. This “we” who must prepare to be submerged does not take into account the fact that there is not a universal human subject insofar as climate change is concerned. Indeed, for some humans (i.e. those from poorer countries and poor people within rich countries) the risk of submersion is not a metaphor, but a violent and devastating material reality that is already here. Whilst Mentz rightly theorizes a radical ecology in which “catastrophes are opportunities,” what he overlooks is that beneath the storm clouds of the twenty-first century, these disasters will present more opportunities for some than others. Just as Dipesh Chakrabarty has been criticised for arguing that anthropogenic climate change means that for the first time in history we should think of the human species as a single agent [8], there is a tendency in Mentz’s account to think of the human in terms that do not take into consideration the different gradations of power, privilege and vulnerability that mark the term “anthropos”. This is perhaps particularly surprising given that Mentz’s subject is essentially the development of modern empires and the globalisation of capitalism. Indeed, given that Mentz is theorising and historicising early colonial accounts and simultaneously making an argument about climate change, the lack of attention paid to the way in which European colonialism from 1550 to 1719 shaped the Anthropocene means that it is hard not to feel that an important part of the story is missing. The fact that migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean have in the last twelve months become a pervasive symbol of the material realities to global inequality further problematizes the fact that metaphor at the centre of Shipwreck Modernity operates through a universalised understanding of the human.

In many respects, the problems with Mentz’s use of the shipwreck as a metaphor for the Anthropocene speaks to a broader challenge in the discrepancies between a theoretically sophisticated ecocriticism and the lived realities for much of the globe’s poorer population. The celebratory conclusion to Shipwreck Modernity, describing the “pleasure” of “feeling environmental pressure on our skin and tasting acrid salt in the back of our throats” is difficult to reconcile with the near weekly new reports of mass drowning in Europe (indeed, as I write this in late May 2016, BBC News is reporting that 700 people have drowned just in the last few days). And whilst not necessarily detracting from the validity of Mentz’s arguments and theoretical conclusions, such inevitable comparisons should prompt us to ask questions not only about the language in which we couch a philosophically robust ecology, but larger questions of what we want ecocriticism to achieve politically and socially. It feels only fair to emphasise that Mentz’s ecological configurations of disequilibrium and submersion long predate the media attention that has been given to migrant shipwrecks in recent years (although such wrecks have long been a feature of the Australian and Florida coastlines), but, to return to Derrida’s distinction of the “good anachronism” and the “bad anachronism”, this is where anachrony makes for particularly hazardous sailing. Whether it’s the 2016 animated film adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, which has completely done away with the character of Friday and replaced him with an American-accented animal [9], or J. Hillis Miller’s reading of Wallace Stevens that validates the anxiety that his “beautiful shore property on Deer Isle, Maine” might be lost to the ocean [10], anachrony can all too often reveal our own all too uncritical predispositions and privileges vis-à-vis climate change and globalisation. And whilst the rigour and incisiveness of Mentz’s book means he is a long way from the clumsiness of either of these examples, his shipwreck metaphor nonetheless poses difficult and awkward questions about the extent to which ecocriticism is addressing the global inequalities that have been intensified by the violence of anthropogenic planetary change.

To an extent, my criticism might be met by the rebuttal that Mentz’s focus is on the ways in which accounts of early modern maritime narratives need to be rethought in non-anthropocentric, ecological terms, in which nonhuman actants and hyperobjects are given as much attention as human actions and social structures. And in this respect, Shipwreck Modernity is rigorous, critical and breaks new ground. Ecocriticism continues to be thin on the ground when it comes to thinking non-terrestrially, and if anything, the wider implications to Mentz’s arguments – for instance, how colonial structures and ecology intersect in shipwreck narratives – gesture towards the work that remains to be done under the guise of blue ecology. Mentz’s careful and convincing reading of early modernity’s “ecopoetics of the maritime encounter” will undoubtedly be of great value to scholars in the field of early modern studies, whilst his sophisticated blend of theory and history presents Shipwreck Modernity as an indispensable volume for those working in the environmental humanities or Anthropocene studies. Even his conclusion which, as I have argued, raises as many problems as it does ecological solutions, will be an important voice in the coming debates around how we are best to understand climate change within the humanities. All in all, from the wreckages of modernities both past and present, Mentz has shaped an account that looks poised to become a key ecocritical text in the years to come.


[1] Jacques Derrida. The Beast & The Sovereign Volume II. Tran. Geoffrey Bennington. Eds. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet and Ginette Michaud. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.

[2] J. Hillis Miller. “Anachronistic Reading.” Derrida Today 3.1 (2010): 75-91. Print.

[3] Timothy Clark. Ecocriticism On The Edge: The Anthropocene As A Threshold Concept. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print.

[4] Robert Markley. “”Casualties and Disasters”: Defoe and the Interpretation of Climatic Instability.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 8.2 (2008) Print.

[5] See also Mentz’s ‘messy transition’.

[6] See a recent blog by Graham Harman on Bruno Latour and Latour’s biography. See also Ecocriticism Now thread editor Tom White’s review of  Jeffrey J. Cohen’s (ed.) Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green and Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.

[7] See for example Steve Mentz’s Four Poems and a Picture as part of this Ecocriticism Now thread.

[8] Historian Timothy Cooper has criticised Chakrabarty in this respect, arguing that “the proposal to treat humans as an undifferentiated species, or agents, in the Anthropocene is, of course, an assault upon everything that history and historicity stand for” (see here). In contrast, Timothy Morton has complained that he and Chakrabarty have been “banned from a few postcolonial journals” for having the audacity to think about the human at a species level when theorising the Anthropocene.

[9] Robinson Crusoe, dir. by Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen (Studio Canal, 2016)

[10] J. Hillis Miller. “Anachronistic Reading.”

One response to “ANTHROPOCENE FLOTSAM: Steve Mentz’s ‘Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719’”

  1. […] about bifurcated anachronisms since the summer, when I read Peter Adkins’s perceptive essay “Anthropocene Flotsam”, as part of this Ecocriticism Now thread. Writing in response to my latest book Shipwreck […]

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