The Climate of Fatigue: What Comes After Exhaustion?

Steven Swarbrick's picture
Call for Papers
Subject Fields: 
Cultural History / Studies, Environmental History / Studies, Film and Film History, Race Studies, Sexuality Studies

ACLA (American Comparative Literature Association) Conference, April 8-11, virtual event

Abstracts due: October 31, 2020

Co-organizers: Sarah Ensor, University of Wisconsin-Madison & Steven Swarbrick, Baruch College (CUNY)


Let’s begin with the obvious: we’re tired. From the waning of affect (Massumi, 2002) to the waning of sleep (Crary, 2014), and from the debilitation of bodies in societies of control (Puar, 2017) to the ever renewed demands of the neoliberal university to measure and extract intellectual labor under increasing levels of austerity, being ‘tired’ today is no longer just an isolated condition; it accounts for an entire political strategy of violence against the weary—against all those Beckettian subjects who now say, “I can’t go on, I must.” In Capitalist Realism (2009), Mark Fisher diagnoses this widespread fatigue as a political strategy for evanescing the future. “It could well be the case that the future harbors only reiteration and re-permutation,” Fisher writes. “Could it be that there are no breaks, no ‘shocks of the new’ to come?” Meanwhile, new materialist and ecological theory has sought to re-open the future with calls for increased vibrancy, posthuman agency, and actor-networks. Our suspicion, however, is that this proliferation of bodies-objects-things, each one more ‘lively’ than the last, repeats rather than ruptures the global structure of fatigue: across the theoretical spectrum, the call for more ‘life’ echoes the vitalism of late stage capitalism, with its unending demand for more work.


Enter “climate realism,” capitalist realism 2.0. As corporate elites turn to geo-engineering and other market ‘solutions’ to climate catastrophe, and as disaster capitalism looks to profit on further planetary chaos, student protestors the world over are left carrying a heavy truth: time is running out. Or it has already run out. Or it is simply unraveling. Queer theory has long known that the future is kid’s stuff, of course (Edelman, 2004). Today, however, the kids are saying something different. Confronted with so many nightmarish images of an uninhabitable earth, they’re asking: Don’t you see we’re burning? Although this Freudian echo of the burning child in The Interpretation of Dreams suggests that the only possible response to climate fatigue is action—a call to wake up—this panel seeks papers that dwell in the impossibility of that response. In other words, we wish to explore the uses of exhaustion, to write from what we know. What are the unique affordances, affective and cognitive modes, shaping the aesthetics and politics of fatigue today? And how do these differences shake or displace the image of the active, humanist subject, so pervasive, and so often coded as white and ableist, in recent ecotheory? N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) excavates the politics of exhaustion in both the mineralogical and corporeal sense: the novel asks us to begin after the end of the world, thus exhausting our usual imagistic repertoires of catastrophe and renewal. After all, “When we say ‘the world has ended,’ it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.” Likewise, Kathryn Yusoff in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018) urges readers to think outside white geology’s racializing divisions of matter into active and inert by tracing the ways “nonbeing … lives differently in the earth.”


This panel considers exhaustion as one form of “nonbeing” and asks panelists to theorize the ways exhaustion lives differently in the earth, particularly in relation to climate change. As Gilles Deleuze writes in his essay “The Exhausted” (1997), “Being exhausted is much more than being tired…. The tired person can no longer realize, but the exhausted person can no longer possibilize.” We invite papers from all fields and disciplines to examine the uses of exhaustion in a time of eco-systemic collapse, when narrative futures are no longer actionable. Are there ways of being exhausted that short-circuit the sleeplessness, violence, and slow wearing down by fatigue? And how do the arts, from literature to cinema to performance and TV, intensify ways of being energy-less, in contrast with the 24/7 demands of an on-call, ‘gig economy’? In short, might exhaustion, semantically and affectively construed as burnout, collapse, lassitude, prostration, depression, or weariness, produce something like the ‘shock of the new’?


The ACLA submission portal opens Oct 1 and closes Oct 31. Please visit the ACLA website to submit your abstract (