Break Time

12 Min Read

April 3, 2023

In the Spring of 2019, in the midst of writing the book that would become Climate Change, Interrupted, I broke my arm. One year later, in the midst of revising this book for publication, the COVID-19 pandemic was announced. Although the former instance applied only to me and the latter to the world collectively, both were urgent situations demanding immediate attention and new arrangements to meet their challenges. In short, I was writing about a theory and practice of interruption in response to the climate crisis as the range and possibility of interruption itself dramatically and unexpectedly commanded my attention and, in the latter case, the attention of many others.

I can identify the books I read during the period after my broken arm by the way my underlining, written with my non-dominant left-hand, wobbles on the page, and by my large, wavering, and hard-to-decipher handwritten comments in the margins. The time of my break registered on my body and, in turn, on the pages of the books I read then. Those wavering underlines and unfamiliar handwriting—mine but not quite mine—are a way, for me, of telling the time.

A year later, the pandemic did not impact my writing on the page, but it did, coupled with the climate crisis, change the way I wrote. Confronted by a global health emergency and, a few months later, the indelible intersecting crises of racism, economic inequality, the decline of democracy, and the climate crisis writ large, I wanted to try to write a different sort of academic book. I was dismayed by the way that global carbon emissions, instances of police brutalities against marginalized peoples, and poverty continued to rise, despite clear information and escalating warnings. I was also dismayed by the fact that most proposed solutions did little to address those intersecting crises and the questions of injustice and equity with which the climate crisis was bound up. Those who had the power to make necessary changes seemed to hold ever faster to the political and temporal models that, arguably, led to where we all—however unequally—are now. That summer of 2020 Kim Tallbear gave a compelling talk in which she noted that while for many (like me), the pandemic was an abrupt rupture from established routines and comforts, for many others (especially those who lived in marginalized or racialized communities), it was a “sharpening of the already present.” This phrase stayed with me as I sought to sharpen my own sense of how to write in the context of these intersecting crises and the challenges they posed to linear time.

. . .

one can find in the literature and print culture of industrial modernity—the very period in which, arguably, linear, teleological, and progress-oriented temporal models became most entrenched—many explorations of other temporal modes and many appeals to other possibilities.

In the account above, I have organized the period when I was writing my book chronologically: my broken arm followed a year later by the pandemic. This is an oft relied on method for telling a story and, in many definitions, the way that narrative itself works. The IPCC6WG2 Report, for example, defines narrative as “a chronological chain of events, often with a premise and conclusions” (124) and uses narrative and storyline “interchangeably” (135). The story for all intents and purposes brings a messy world into line. But what happens when the story one tells does not conform to this linearity or its commitment to progress traditionally understood? What gets lost or elided and what gets emphasized? The climate crisis, as most critics note, complicates prevailing understandings of time: something corporations and politicians do now—releasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere—has an impact on future generations in ways, we now know, will change the biosphere and, with it, human and more than human lives. In the same way, we are currently living in a world impacted by carbon emissions released into the atmosphere over a century ago.

And yet one can find in the literature and print culture of industrial modernity—the very period in which, arguably, linear, teleological, and progress-oriented temporal models became most entrenched—many explorations of other temporal modes and many appeals to other possibilities. If the energy humanities bring into view the ubiquity of the energy systems that underpin life in the Global North and illustrate how those energy systems permeate and are indebted to the stories we tell, my book seeks to bring into view the temporal categories that support those systems and stories.

One of the best-known theorists to rethink how stories could be told and history written was Walter Benjamin. With his focus on constellations rather than lines, and material relations of production rather than the cultural work in isolation, he urged readers to see time. Indeed, one might say that Benjamin’s ideas introduce a waver and a wobble in prevailing views of time. In Climate Change, Interrupted, I take his dialectical image of the angel of history—oft-cited in climate change studies—and animate it for thinking not only about the past and the future and the storm that Benjamin invokes, but also for interruption. My treatment of interruption is indebted to Benjamin in combination with—perhaps idiosyncratically—Virginia Woolf and Donna Haraway.

I suggest that we can find in the work of nineteenth-century writers like Mary Shelley, Henry Mayhew, and George Eliot, new ways to think about, experience, and see time. I put these writers into dialogue with many twenty-first-century examples, from Richard Mosse’s stunning documentaries to Greta Thunberg’s rhetoric of warning. The first three chapters address time, representation, and warnings, respectively, in relation to the climate crisis. They seek to demonstrate some of the limitations with linear temporality, documentary representation, and warnings with respect to climate action; and to offer, accordingly, a different orientation to time routed through interruption, “post-time,” and what Benjamin refers to as “the real state of emergency.” As I wrote, however, a voice in my head accompanied my writing, asking, but where does this get us? It’s fine to reflect on these issues but we’re in a crisis and we can’t afford to dally down academic avenues for too long. What should be done?

The second half of my book is a response to this voice, albeit still within the constraints of an academic book. It is comprised of four experimental chapters in which I depart, to a degree, from the linear argument to experiment with different forms. One chapter is written in six bands across the page in an effort to think through, at the level of the printed page, geological strata, deep time, and human time. Another collects together only questions taken from the works of others. Another rewrites George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a self-help manual on procrastination oriented to the climate crisis. And the last one is written as a palindrome that loops back on itself and, I hope, on the other chapters in the book. These experiments, then, are some very provisional examples of the “otherwise” to which I gesture in the book’s first half. I try this out as an academic but, in general, it is a call for all of us, in the context of climate precarity, to put pressure on and/or to reinvent the boundaries of the domains in which we work, think, and act.

I began this piece with a reference to breaks, in part, because I have been busy of late and longing for a break. Since the relaxing of pandemic restrictions, in my world, the pace has quickened and the demands intensified. It is as if the break forced upon us by the pandemic could be stepped over so that we can now return to “normal.” But as Kim Tallbear also noted in that talk in the summer of 2020, for many people in the world, normal is not a baseline to which they want to return.

But I also began with a reference to breaks to think about what breaks make possible. And I hesitate here because of the way the language of breaks maintains the line. I take a break, for example, and then I return to work. There is nothing about breaks that necessarily provokes a different approach. That said, without breaks, it can be hard to see the line. And some breaks are so dramatic that they rearrange language and time and the social and political structures they inform.

I have always written academic books and articles. It is a genre that is familiar to me and I value what it does and the many, many works from which I’ve learned. But what I try to do in Climate Change, Interrupted is to pause, to interrupt the patterns to which I habitually turn, the conceptual models on which I’ve relied, the tools that give me comfort and reassure me that I’m participating in a larger conversation. I know I cannot step outside of these patterns and models. But I can stop and listen. I can think about what other possibilities reside in the works I consult, the words I use, the work I do. I can try to write with and through time, to inhabit the nineteenth century in which my scholarly expertise lies together with the twenty-first century in which I live. I ask if rethinking time can help me to address the climate crisis more adequately and, in the process, contribute both to its shaping and a shaping of it otherwise.

. . .

Is it possible, then, to mobilize interruption to curtail the climate crisis before the climate crisis forces an interruption that cannot be curbed? To be sure, in many places the climate crisis has wrought devastation that many in the Global North have thus far avoided. Climate inaction is due, in part, to an orchestrated criminal cover-up of climate science by big oil companies and news outlets catalogued here and here. And in part it is due to the rise of neoliberalism that at once enables such cover-ups and privileges economic growth over ethical, human, and more-than-human considerations. In this context, interrupting the current trajectory, as Benjamin makes clear, is a pressing responsibility.

I finished my book in the Spring of 2021 and it was published in the Fall of 2022. These days, my arm is a harbinger of damp weather and the COVID-19 deaths continue to be recorded daily just as the lives lost continue to be felt in myriad ways. These things are ongoing and no timeline can tame that. The same is true of books. No book is ever truly finished. As soon as it is read, it is begun again, and in the books I most appreciate, this reading generates a waver and a wobble that constellates out, multiplying interruptions, holding the sequential, the multitemporal, and the open-ended together at once, offering modalities for climate change action that do not rely on the line alone.

Barbara Leckie is a professor in the Department of English and the Institute for the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa. She is the author of Climate Change, Interrupted: Representation and the Remaking of Time (Stanford UP, 2022). She is also the founder and coordinator of the Carleton Climate Commons; and the academic director of Re.Climate: Centre for Climate Communication and Public Engagement.

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