Mat Johnson’s Pym and Reflecting Whiteness in the Anthropocene

Taylor McHolm


As critics begin to construct a literary and cultural archive of the Anthropocene, I argue that this archive must include works that demonstrate the epoch’s White supremacist and settler colonial roots in addition to focusing on geologic stratigraphy and altered atmospheric conditions. I read Mat Johnson’s novel, Pym (2011), as an exemplar text of an expanded Anthropocene archive. Through its narrative form and use of genre, Pym makes visible how racial ideologies in Euro-centric forms of environmental representation actively produce an altered atmosphere by way of ignoring the effects of anti-Black racism and settler colonialism. Throughout the novel, Johnson weaves together African American cultural traditions with complex allegories of climate change and the Anthropocene, showing that the so-called world made by humans signaled by the name ‘Anthropocene’ is much more precisely what philosopher George Yancy calls a ‘white world making.’

To trouble the ideological power of ‘the Anthropocene,’ I engage the climate science concept of the ‘Albedo effect,’ arguing that the Anthropocene—as both a narrative concept and a physical reality—figures as a metaphorical inversion of the Albedo effect. In climate science, the Albedo effect refers to the whiteness of a surface and its attendant capacity to reflect solar radiation, thereby preventing the solar radiation from being absorbed by the land, air and sea. Albedo is Latin for ‘whiteness,’ and more whiteness means less warming. I argue that the Anthropocene exhibits an inversion of this reflective process: in the Anthropocene, what is reflected is Whiteness, not as a color, but as a racial and settler colonial strategy.


Anthropocene; atmosphere; pastoral; African American literature; race

Full Text:



Ahuja, N. (2015) ‘Intimate Atmospheres: Queer Theory in a Time of Extinctions.’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 21(2-3), pp. 365-385.

Buell, F. (2014) ‘A Short History of Oil Cultures; or, The Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance.’ In Barrett, R. and Worden, D. (eds) Oil Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 69-90.

Hsu, H. (2017) ‘Literary Atmospherics.’ Literary Geographies, 3(1), pp.1-5.

Johnson, M. (2011) Pym: A Novel. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Luciano, D. (2015) ‘The Inhuman Anthropocene.’ Avidly: A Channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, March 22, 2015.

Marshall, K. (2015) ‘What Are the Novels of the Anthropocene? American Fiction in Geological Time.’ American Literary History, 27(3), pp. 523-538.

McElya, M. (2011) ‘Painter of the Right: Thomas Kinkaid’s Political Art.’ In Boylan, A. (ed) Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 54-80.

Moore, J. (2017) ‘The Capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis’ The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(3), pp. 594-630.

Morrison, T. (1992) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Norgaard, R.B. (2013) ‘The Econocene and the California Delta.’ San Francisco Estuary & Watershed Science, 11, pp. 1-5.

Omi, M and Winant, H. (2014) Racial Formation in the United States. London: Routledge.

Outka, P. (2008) Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Springer.

Parikka, J. (2014) The Anthrobscene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Patel, R. (2013) ‘The Misanthropocene?’ Earth Island Journal, 28(1), 21-21.

Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror from the Air. Trans. Patton, A. and Corcoran, S. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Stewart, M. (2006) ‘Slavery and the origins of African American environmentalism.’ In Glave, D. and Stolls, M. (eds) ‘To Love the Wind and the Rain’: African Americans and Environmental History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 9-20.

Vansintjan, A. (2016) ‘Going Beyond the ‘Ecological Turn’ in the Humanitie’ ENTITLE blog: A Collaborative Writing Project of Political Ecology, March 1, 2016. [Online] [Accessed 5 April 2019]

Waters, C. et al. (2014) ‘A Stratigraphical basis for the Anthropocene?’ In Waters, C. et al. (eds) A Stratigraphical Basis of the Anthropocene. Geologic Society, Special Publications, pp. 4-5.

Wilks, J. (2016). ‘‘Black Matters’: Race and Literary History in Mat Johnson’s Pym.’ European Journal of American Studies, 11(1).

Williams, R. (1975) The Country and the City. Cary: Oxford University Press.

Yancy, G. (2004) ‘Introduction: Fragments of a Social Ontology of Whiteness.’ In Yancy, G. (ed) What White Looks Like Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. London: Routledge, pp. 1-24.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2019 Taylor McHolm