Screen caption from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Copyrights The CW Television Network / Warner Bros Television.
It seems to me that one of the most crucial roles for contemporary literary and cultural criticism is to map the ways cultural production grapples with large-scale problems like ecological collapse and the attendant affects that circulate in a world riven by the threat of apocalypse. Various claims are made for one particular literary mode or another being most ably suited to describing the large temporal or spatial scales that contemporary thinking must address if we are to interrogate the collected set of interconnected crises facing the world. (It’s the novel! It’s poetry! It’s certainly not speculative fiction!) These internecine arguments do little to think holistically about how different aesthetic and cultural production addresses climate chaos in different ways. In contrast, I am most in favor of adopting what Fredric Jameson has called an “ad hoc disposable canon,” which might be supple or elastic enough to begin to think through and along the various contours of the present. Bringing together heterogenous, quirky, oddball, and eclectic works, ad hoc disposable canons are speculative and tentative formations. The ad hoc disposable canon is particularly useful in the present because it comes out of the bewildering subjectivity of “no longer [existing] in a world of human scale.”1 This has long been part of Jameson’s bag of tricks—as he writes in Brecht and Method (1999), part of a critical methodology is “combining ingredients and learning to use new and unusual tools,” which to my mind is the central task of theory in the dark times of the contemporary moment.2 Whatever might come—and what is coming certainly looks apocalyptic, and certainly already is apocalyptic for some—will not be singular; it will be multiple, multivalent. Not just a flood, not just a fire, not just capitalism, not just a plague, but an interleaved and overlapping series of combinations. This is one of the many reasons the scale of apocalypse is so hard to imagine.
It seems almost rote now to begin work talking about the end of the world with Jameson’s ubiquitous declaration that “it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism,” but his line is less often continued as he finishes the sentence “perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination.”3 Here is perhaps part of the blinkered perspective of Amitav Ghosh declaring “climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena.”4 Throughout The Great Derangement, Ghosh cannot see beyond a certain literary hierarchy, which condemns genre fiction to the unserious, and thus ignores crucial literary work by authors of speculative fiction like N.K. Jemisin or Kim Stanley Robinson. Thus, when he writes “inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished” he further marginalizes certain forms of genre fiction into the unserious and irrelevant.5 Yet, the outhouses of literary production—and more broadly speculative fiction television as well—insistently tries to imagine other ways of being that can arise out of a world beset by climate chaos.
In that vein, I want to talk about the utopian possibility of radical and queer care evinced in the CW show Legends of Tomorrow. Any synopsis is going to sound bizarre, but basically the show involves a rag tag group of characters who are so insignificant to the timeline that they can be taken away from 2016 and become time travelers who go around space and time on zany missions. There are many moments when Legends exemplifies radical and queer forms of care in the face of overarching apocalyptic narratives.
In the finale for the third season (2018), our group of plucky adventurers are trying to stop a demon intent on destroying time named Mallus (pronounced Malice, although this is a point of contention throughout the season). To do so they need to combine six elements: earth, wind, fire, water, spirit, and death to create a being of pure goodness in tune with all six of the bearers of the elements. While linked, the totems allow their bearers to be in one another’s minds, which extends a process of belonging and empathy that has already been a central concern of the show.6 In their first attempt they create a grotesque monstrosity because they cannot work together and do not believe in themselves or each other. They are stuck on the idea that being misfits somehow means being unworthy. However, on the second attempt while facing hordes of time traveling zombie vikings, pirates, and roman soldiers they do succeed in creating a being, and in an homage to Ghostbusters, they summon something truly ridiculous—a being called Beebo, who is a talking plush toy based on Tickle Me Elmo.
Beebo speaks in its cartoony catchphrases “Beebo love love loves you” and “Beebo want cuddles” while fighting the demon. The battle ends with a giant blue cloud of fuzz forming a heart—the characters are split apart at the bottom of the crater caused by their explosion. In their uncombined state they hug it out at the end, with one character describing the whole experience as “the worst orgy ever.” Crucially, the team’s moments of mischievousness, play, and humor, all work to enact forms of care and belonging in contradistinction to the malevolence and destruction envisioned by Mallus.
This moment, and the show in more general terms, encapsulates a form of queer kinship of misfits discovering ways of belonging together and caring for one another in a world that has rejected them. This subterranean belonging elevates the characters into something more than their individual parts and allows them—often coming at a problem through a series of failures—to succeed in their attempts to make the world a better place. What we see, then, is a form of care attenuated to an insistence that ideologies of individualism are inherently flawed and incapable of addressing large scale problems like climate chaos. Legends of Tomorrow’s insistence on care and collectivity models a queer belonging that, in its rejection of neoliberal subjectivity, posits forms of care and being in the world that are not inherently immiserating. Perhaps what we can see here is an ontology that melds human and non-human actors—an ontology that has at its core sustenance, care, love, queerness, and arrayed forms of screwing things up for the better. To me this doesn’t seem like a stretch as the most recent season features a mycological understanding of the interconnectedness of every living creature—in this case through a mushroom alien that has been protecting the earth from other alien invasions.
What I am writing about here is an example of what I have recently been calling an aesthetics of the fucked. I think of this as a contemporary aesthetic category that attempts to describe the affective space of the present—a present that can seem overwhelming in its deleterious negativity, but also—crucially—an aesthetics dealing with a complicated temporal relationship to disaster. After all, apocalypse is unevenly distributed, and the temporal scales involved in global warming, plastic pollution, ocean acidification, etc., often sees humans coming in already too late. I find myself returning to a claim I made earlier in Hope Isn’t Stupid (2017), that utopia in its smallest measurement is hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Living in a salvage zone, having to increasingly make do with what is around, whether this is imaginative recombinations, ad hoc disposable canons, or a series of misfit time travelers, carries the provocation as Stacy Alaimo has put it of “dwelling in the dissolve.”7 The blurring of boundaries might, just might, open up possibilities (and certainly the necessity) of learning new ways to care that are not reliant on a pernicious insistence on individualism, while also pointing to the need for forms of care that also recognize the tension between ideologies of individual subjectivity and the possibility of collective belonging.
There is something joyously ridiculous about all of this, but perhaps we need the joyously ridiculous at times. Not as a form of avoidance, or wish fulfillment, but as hope. Here the utopian impulse is part of a pedagogical approach to learning different or alternate ways to be in the world and keeping fidelity to what forms of belonging arise in dark times.
This is part of the cluster Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come. Read the other posts here.
- Fredric Jameson, “Aesthetics of Singularity,” New Left Review 92, Mar Apr (2015): 110.
- Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (New York: Verso Books, 1999), 2.
- Fredric Jameson, Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), xii. Robert Tally Jr. has recently plumbed this line as part of a trenchant polemic against surface reading in For a Ruthless Critique of All that Exists: Literature in the Age of Capitalist Realism (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2022).
- Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 7.
- Ibid., 66.
- For these kinds of empathy models see my discussion of Toni Morrison’s Paradise in Hope Isn’t Stupid: Utopian Affects in Contemporary American Literature (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017) and Phillip Wegner’s discussion of Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace in Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
- Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics & Pleasures in Posthuman Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 2.