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Negotiating the Inhuman: Bakhtin, Materiality and the Instrumentalization of Climate Change

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journal contribution
posted on 2019-10-22, 11:22 authored by Angela Last
The article argues that the work of literary theorist Mikhail M. Bakhtin presents a starting point for thinking about the instrumentalization of climate change. Bakhtin’s conceptualization of human–world relationships, encapsulated in the concept of ‘cosmic terror’, places a strong focus on our perception of the ‘inhuman’. Suggesting a link between the perceived alienness and instability of the world and in the exploitation of the resulting fear of change by political and religious forces, Bakhtin asserts that the latter can only be resisted if our desire for a false stability in the world is overcome. The key to this overcoming of fear, for him, lies in recognizing and confronting the worldly relations of the human body. This consciousness represents the beginning of one’s ‘deautomatization’ from following established patterns of reactions to predicted or real changes. In the vein of several theorists and artists of his time who explored similar ‘deautomatization’ strategies – examples include Shklovsky’s ‘ostranenie’, Brecht’s ‘Verfremdung’, Artaud’s emotional ‘cruelty’ and Bataille’s ‘base materialism’ – Bakhtin proposes a more playful and widely accessible experimentation to deconstruct our ‘habitual picture of the world’. Experimentation is envisioned to take place across the material and the textual to increase possibilities for action. Through engaging with Bakhtin’s ideas, this article seeks to draw attention to relations between the imagination of the world and political agency, and the need to include these relations in our own experiments with creating climate change awareness.


I would like to thank James Kneale, Mireille Roddier, Malcolm Miles, Doreen Massey and three anonymous referees for invaluable comments on an earlier draft. I would also like to thank Kathryn Yusoff for inviting me to present a short version of this article at the 2011 AAG meeting in Seattle, and the librarians at Central Saint Martins, the School of Slavonic and East European Languages and the British Library for their assistance. The initial research was made possible by an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at University College London’s Geography Department (Award No. PTA-026-27-2869).



Theory, Culture & Society, 2013, 30 (2), pp. 60-83

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/Organisation/COLLEGE OF SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING/School of Geography, Geology and the Environment


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