Writing About Slow Violence

Rob Nixon's scholarly works display a lucidity and nimble thought that should be the envy of most academics; his nonfiction is inventive and affecting. Here are some questions I asked him about his new book.
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A few years ago, when the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to J.M. Coetzee, it was striking how many commentators, including the members of the Nobel Prize Committee, referred to Coetzee's pitiless vision of the world and the absence of any consolation in his writing. I disagreed with such one-sided readings. Coetzee's protagonist in the novel Life and Times of Michael K. was a gardener who knew that he would not join the soldiers or even the armed men in the mountains. "He even knew the reason why: because enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children. That was why."

When I read that I thought of the great range and achievement of Coetzee, of course, but I also thought of the writing of another South African, Rob Nixon. Nixon is the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His new book is Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Nixon is a very appealing writer. His scholarly works display a lucidity and nimble thought that should be the envy of most academics; his nonfiction is inventive and affecting. Here are some questions I asked him about his new book but also about academic writing and style:

What was the greatest challenge for you while writing Slow Violence?

RN: I have tried to walk the line between environmental story telling and analytical insight. On the one hand, Slow Violence celebrates those nimble, determined writers who have testified to the environmental struggles that are intensifying across the global South--struggles for access to water, land, food, energy, and sustainable hope. I'm thinking here of writers like Arundhati Roy, Indra Sinha, Wangari Maathai, and Ken Saro-Wiwa who encourage us to rethink what environmental activism looks like, beyond the stereotypes of affluent, hippy-dippy tree-huggers in the Pacific Northwest. I am moved by the stories such writers tell -- and fascinated by the rhetorical strategies they develop to gain an audience, against all odds. In the course of reflecting on their story telling, I recount some environmental stories of my own.

But there's another, less narrative side to this book, as I try to generate a different analytic vocabulary from the standard one we use for talking about violence. Most environmental crises -- from climate chaos to deforestation and the poisonous aftermaths of wars -- are characterized by a slow-motion urgency. In an age that genuflects to the divinities of spectacle and speed, how do we take seriously the forms of environmental slow violence that are deficient in instant drama but high in long-term catastrophic effects? If, as psychologist Christopher Chabris notes, the Web intensifies our tendency to "vastly overvalue what happens to us right now," how do we balance that restless drive for immediate novelty with activism that needs to remain focused on the long term? In an age of digital drift how do we keep track of toxic drift -- those deferred casualties of our poisonous, unsustainable practices?

So the primary challenge the book posed was how to reconcile these contending impulses. I wanted to find a voice that was conceptually freighted yet not so weighed down that it felt alienated from the story telling impulses that I sought to celebrate and participate in.

What tips can you offer those who are interested in writing on environmental issues?

RN: Edward Said stressed the need for creative vigilance when we confront "the normalized quiet of unseen power." There are so many lively precedents out there for that kind of vigilance. I'm thinking of all those writer-activists who have found ways to disturb the "normalized quiet," people like Naomi Klein, Mike Davis, Wangari Maathai, Rebecca Solnit, Arundhati Roy, George Monbiot, and John Berger. So my first advice to aspirant environmental writers would be go get a feeling for the possibilities by soaking up the writings of such exemplary figures. Pay attention not just to the arguments but even more so to the voice, on the assumption that before you can be true to your own voice you'll need to be indebted to someone else's.

In volume and velocity, the new media are making available testimony on a previously unimaginable scale. I'm neither as romantic about the new media landscape as, say, Clay Shirky, nor as cynical as Malcolm Gladwell. But what's indisputable is the experimental energy that digital forms are unleashing. Among my students and among up-and-coming artists, I find myself startled by the creative responses to the technological, environmental, and political upheavals of our time. Let me ground this in example: "My Water's On Fire Tonight," the so-called fracking song, which compresses into a hip, educational two-and-a-half minute music video the basic science and politics of hydraulic fracturing.

Under the banner of austerity, we are witnessing a gigantic resource grab that is widening the gulf between the uber-rich and the ultra-poor. But if neo-liberal austerity is the new normal, so too are the resource rebellions being mounted, from Wisconsin to Egypt, from China to Brazil, by people whose dignity and prospects are being trampled on. I am talking about ordinary people making the link between their communities being treated as disposable and the assumption that the environments they depend on are disposable as well. What gives me hope is the kind of bridgework I'm seeing between social movements on the one hand, and young writers and artists on the other, all intent on opposing such pitiless, short-term thinking.

You started out with a book that is a cogent work of critical scholarship, London Calling. By the time we come to Dreambirds, your ambition has changed and we see you producing a book that can be a model for a different kind of writing. Can you explain what happened in between?

RN: Since I was a graduate student, I've done a lot of journalism on the side, for The Village Voice, The Nation etc. And my greatest passion, as a reader, has always been nonfiction, with its vast, often underestimated imaginative and formal possibilities and its aura of the real. I find that combination seductive. So I really wanted to try my hand at something book length in that vein.

Do you believe that writing in a familiar, or dominant, theoretical mode is often easier than making the attempt to say difficult things in simple, surprising ways?

RN: Yes, I think it's often easier to theorize in the official codes of theory rather than to theorize lightly through scene, object, story, and incident in ways that keeps alive the sensual serendipities of language. This is not a question of being for or against theory, but rather of being suspicious of orthodoxies that concede, in advance, that what passes for theory must be signaled by a narrowing of diction, sentence rhythms, and sensual awareness. I'm in favor of surprise.

What kind of writing advice do you give to your students?

RN: Before a graduate student embarks on a dissertation, I ask them to find two works of criticism that turn them on stylistically. At least one of these works they should disagree with intellectually, preferably vehemently so. Then I ask the student to photocopy a couple of pages and ventriloquize the voices of their chosen critics. It's not a matter of simply emulating someone's style but of absorbing, through concentrated exposure, certain ideas about how you'd like to sound.

In my early work on Naipaul I was -- and remain -- profoundly skeptical of the role he played as a public intellectual during the latter decades of the Cold War and the height of structural adjustment. Yet reading and rereading his work -- the sheer variety of his sentence structures -- was, though I didn't recognize it at the time, a profound blessing. Just to have that voice wash over me even as, intellectually, his ideas often enraged me.

I also encourage students to read literary criticism that is deeply personal yet formally inventive and intellectually expansive... books that offer unorthodox ways of doing double duty as literary criticism and as love letters to the power of literature per se.

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