Embracing Ecological Uncertainty through Fiction

By | May 19, 2022

Guest post by Marco Caracciolo

The future has always been uncertain, but the ecological crisis presents us with an unprecedented degree of uncertainty in thinking about the future. Scientists who model the effects of global warming typically distinguish between pessimistic and optimistic scenarios. The gap between them is significant: concretely, it could mean the difference between societal collapse and more localized disruptions. The uncertainty inherent in governments’ responses to climate change only deepens the unreadability of our climate future. Coexisting with this kind of uncertainty isn’t straightforward. An influential psychological study by Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman shows that people are willing to incur financial losses to reduce uncertainty, particularly when the uncertainty is negatively connoted. [1]

The focus of my recent book (Contemporary Fiction and Climate Uncertainty: Narrating Unstable Futures) is how reading literary narrative may prompt the opposite reaction—not reduction but acceptance of uncertainty in the face of disaster. I start from the observation that, while uncertainty is an integral component of narrative, some narratives work towards the intensification of uncertainty.

A character in How to Be Both, a novel by Scottish writer Ali Smith, remarks: “we live in a time and in a culture when mystery tends to mean something more answerable, it means a crime novel, a thriller, a drama on TV, usually one where we’ll probably find out—and where the whole point of reading it or watching it will be that we will find out—what happened.” [2] What if narrative did not resolve mysteries and uncertainties, but instead sought to train the reader’s ability to live with such things?

That is the central question I explore in Contemporary Fiction and Climate Uncertainty. I examine a number of contemporary fictional narratives—in prose but also in digital media, particularly video games—that cultivate the audience’s imagination of uncertainty and link that uncertainty to the instability of our climate future. Smith’s novel is one of these case studies. Contemporary Fiction and Climate Uncertainty surveys the ways in which stories can concretely capture the experience of uncertainty through unconventional narrative strategies: for instance, nonlinear temporality, unstable spatial settings, and the use of metafictional devices that blur the boundary between immersion and self-reflection, the flesh-and-blood author and their fictional personas. In the final chapter, on digital fiction, I examine two video games that use the tools of interactivity to implicate the player in the logic of uncertain decision-making. One of the key assumptions is that uncertainty is never just a gap in empirical knowledge but carries profound ethical and affective ramifications.

The “acceptance of uncertainty” I theorize about in the book can be described as an affective shift: from a predominantly negative understanding of uncertainty—as a source of frustration, anxiety, and even dread—to a more nuanced and appreciative stance. In a review article on “The Relationship Between Uncertainty and Affect,” Eric Anderson et al. discuss several psychological theories that explain our typically negative outlook on uncertainty. [3] However, they also point out that there are situations in which uncertainty has a more positive value. Interestingly, their examples of positive uncertainty include fictional narratives in “television shows, movies” and “mystery books.”

My discussion suggests that repeated engagement with certain narratives can train people’s ability to cope with uncertainty and associate it with positive affect. Uncertainty and mystery thus become a positive force, a source of resilience and appreciation of the fragile entanglement between human societies and nonhuman realities. This embrace of uncertainty allows us to rethink the concept of sustainability, uncoupling it from the questionable rhetoric of economic growth: instead, sustainability becomes a matter of what can be “sustained” ethically and existentially. It is on this plane that fictional narrative can make an important intervention in contemporary debates on the ecological crisis.

[1] Lovallo, Dan, and Daniel Kahneman. “Living with Uncertainty: Attractiveness and Resolution Timing.” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 13, no. 2 (2000): 179–90.

[2] Smith, Ali. How to Be Both. London: Penguin Books, 2015, 72.

[3] Anderson, Eric C., R. Nicholas Carleton, Michael Diefenbach, and Paul K. J. Han. “The Relationship Between Uncertainty and Affect.” Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2019). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02504.

Marco Caracciolo is Associate Professor of English and Literary Theory at Ghent University, Belgium.

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