We have a new word for that feeling when travel makes everything new

by Liam Heneghan, DePaul University

On a double-decker bus from Dublin airport to Drumcondra early one June morning, a young lad stretched out on the back seat and started to rap. What he lacked in talent he made up for in gusto. I was with a dozen of my students who were travelling from DePaul University in Chicago on a study abroad trip and this was their very first impression of Ireland. I cringed and tried to ignore the atonal reveller. Their response, it turned out, was at odds with mine. ‘That’s American rap!’ one of them chortled. ‘Why is he rapping Kendrick?’ The oddity of the situation entertained them, and they discussed it with a fervour typically reserved for matters of greater significance.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years of bringing my students to Ireland – my homeland – is that they pay rapt attention to the little things. This heightened and delighted attention to the ordinary, which manifests in someone new to a place, does not seem to have a name. So I have given it one: allokataplixis (from the Greek allo meaning ‘other’, and katapliktiko meaning ‘wonder’). In Modern Greek katapliktiko and the related word katataplixie can be used to register astonishment. Admittedly, in Ancient Greek the family of words surrounding kataplêxis sometimes signified ‘terror’ and ‘panic’. It is, however, the note of pure ‘amazement’ and ‘fascination’ present in this word that I want to celebrate in my neologism.

Allokataplixis, as I use the term, is the gift, usually unacknowledged, that the traveller offers to the places they visit.

For the past five years, I have travelled around Ireland each summer with a bunch of allokataplixic American kids. Almost everything draws them in. In the city, they never choose to stay downstairs on the bus – there’s just too much to see from the upper deck. Marvellous to them also is the slight smell of salt in the air when you arrive in Dublin, the raucousness of seagulls crying overhead, the low-rise and higgledy-piggledy appearance of the city’s architecture, the garrulousness of the people, the little fossils embedded in the bridge that spans the pond in St Stephen’s Green, the 99 Flake ice-cream cones, the inclination of Irish people to traditional music, the almost unfathomable reverence in the west for uilleann pipers, the omnipresence of sheep on hilly tracts of land, the unhealthy deliciousness of Tayto crisps, the intense greenness of the vegetation, the yellowness of the butter, the perennial greyness of the sky, the presence of poets – actual poets – in the streets, Martello towers, walled gardens, the frankness about matters of mortality, the way the elderly habitually cross themselves as their bus lurches past the churches, the vat-loads of tea consumed, the vat-loads of stout consumed, the strangeness of Ireland’s youthful drinkers hailing Budweiser as a premier beer, the national addiction to sweets, the quantity of dog shit left to gently steam in the thoroughfares, the medical acumen of pharmacists in ‘Chemist’ shops, the casual insults that friends sling at one another, the extravagant length of the midsummer’s day, the gorgeousness of the sun setting on the Atlantic viewed from the beaches of the west, the melancholy slopes in County Kerry that were abandoned during the famine. And so on.

There is, of course, so much to learn when any of us visit a place for the first time and it would be easy to assume that information passes in one direction only, from the host nation to its guests. Yet over the years that I’ve been bringing students to Ireland I’ve observed that their thirst for fresh experience is contagious. It oftentimes brings out the best in people. A tourist generally has an eye for the things that, through repetitive familiarity, have become almost invisible to the resident. What is revealed need not always be congenial of course – visitors can make the resident aware of the shortcomings of their home: litter in the streets, poor service, even troubling cultural attitudes such as xenophobia. A tourist can stir within us a recognition of both the delicious strangeness of mundane things and our own unseemly peccadilloes.

This annual migration to Ireland that I take with Hugh Bartling, a climate policy wonk, and our students, is focused primarily on the ecology of our national parks. Unlike the United States, where such parks are often regarded as wilderness areas, in Ireland there is an acknowledgement that even remote landscapes are as much a product of cultural forces as they are of nature. To instil an understanding of the history and resilience of these traditional, cultural landscapes, we prepare our students before they leave by reading a great quantity of Tim Robinson’s work. Over a period of four decades – from the 1970s until his recent departure from Ireland – Robinson walked, mapped and wrote about the west of Ireland with verve and enormous grace. Those who have read his brace of books on the Aran Islands – Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995 ) – or his trilogy on Connemara – Connemara: Listening to the Wind (2006), Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (2008) and Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (2011 ) – will know the story of his coming to Ireland fairly well. Jaded from the European art scene, Robinson and his partner visited Inis Mór in the 1970s and elected to stay. A local postmistress mentioned that a map of the island would be useful. What began as an index of place names mushroomed over the years into one of the great European literary projects of the last several decades: the work includes maps, books, a Gazetteer, essays and lectures. A central metaphor in Robinson’s body of work is the notion of the fractal – a geometrical pattern that shows the property of self-similarity at various observational scales. Snowflakes and coastlines are examples in nature. Robinson writes that the fractal promises to be a rich ‘source of metaphor and imagery’ in literature and life. He continues: ‘Like all discoveries it surprises us yet again with the unfathomable depth and richness of the natural world; specifically it shows that there is more space, there are more places within a forest … or on a Connemara seashore, than the geometry of common sense allows.’

Robinson, the one-time tourist, became one of the great natural and social historians of that part of the world. Though the work is rightly celebrated, what is not always noted is how Robinson, as an attentive outsider, awakens even his Irish readers to a recognition of the fantastical in the mundane landscapes of the west. Robinson is, in other words, a great writer of allokataplixis.

One does not need, however, to be an outsider or a tourist to be allokataplixic. Is it not the task of most writers to awaken us from the dull, the flat and the average sentiments that can dominate our lives? Many of the Irish writers that my students read before travelling have a knack for noticing the marvellous in the everyday, and of making the quotidian seem wholly other and amazing. Robert Lloyd Praeger, the great naturalist of the last century, is one such writer – as he travelled the rural counties, some of his greatest botanical discoveries were made right outside the guesthouse door. J M Synge, especially in his often-neglected writing on travels in Wicklow, Connemara and Kerry, is another such writer. And James Joyce, that profound naturalist of life’s epiphanic moments, specialised in observing how the ecstatic intrudes – sometimes painfully – into the everyday. My students read the story ‘The Dead’ as an ecological text, for it provides an abiding account of a rupture between Ireland’s supposedly refined east coast and its feral west. At the conclusion, Gabriel Conroy, cuckolded by the ghost of Michael Furey, his wife’s dead boyfriend, takes a melancholic psychological journey across a snowy Ireland to that boy’s grave. Joyce wrote in one of his most celebrated passages that the snow ‘was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.’

I’ll mention just one more recent writer, if only to illustrate that a new generation of allokataplixic writers is emerging: Karl Whitney, author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin (2014). In Hidden City, Whitney becomes a visitor to the city of his birth, a tourist of the commonplace. In one brilliant chapter, he inches along beneath the streets of Dublin, following the courses of rivers that have long been paved over. In another, he follows the excrement of the denizens of the city out to the sewage treatment plants and, once treated and refined, follows the liquid discharge out into Dublin Bay. Not since Leopold Bloom defecates so leisurely in an early chapter of Ulysses has urban excrement been so vividly described.

Last year as we crossed the Midlands, we walked out on the boardwalk at Clara Bog in County Offaly, where by chance we met with a local out on his morning constitutional. Tommy was a former worker for Bord na Móna, the Irish semi-state body that oversees the economic development of peat for use as fuel. He is now an enthusiastic conservationist. That my students took such a delight in the bog seemed to ignite something in him. Noticing that one of the students carried a tin whistle, he volunteered to play a couple of reels and so we listened to the blast of a few tunes out on the bog on an ordinary Saturday morning. He said he’d never done anything like it. Allokataplixis is contagious.

I don’t suppose one needs to live a life of perpetual astonishment. After all it’s adaptive to forget. Our daily grind is perhaps easier to endure in a state of mild amnesia. Muscle memory sets in, routine takes over, and one day seems the same as any other. But days go by, the years hum along, and one can careen towards senility without being unduly startled by anything at all. Surely, there are times when we must be released from our moorings and free ourselves up to notice the peculiarities of everyday life. Our greatest writers have, as often as not, lived in a state of astonishment – this is not an easy burden. But in a quieter register and perhaps in an equally instructive way, even the everyday tourist can alert us to the remarkable in our home terrain. When we are ourselves tourists, we notice things. But even in noticing how tourists are alive to their surroundings, might we not learn something from them? Observe the tourists on Dublin’s Grafton Street listening to the buskers, or watch them marvel at the lights on Broadway in New York. Witness them sip their ouzo at the Acropolis or behold them picking their way across the newly minted basalt lava-flow in the Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. They’ve brought their allokataplixis with them.

Thanks to my wife Vassia Pavlogianis for discussions on the Modern Greek words for wonder, and to Dr Sean Kirkland of DePaul University in Chicago for a tutorial on the Ancient Greek etymology.Aeon counter – do not remove

Liam Heneghan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

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Bad Victories.

Bad Victories

Source: Bad Victories.

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Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People

 Humankind

In his characteristically eccentric and predictably enthralling new book, Humankind, Timothy Morton argues that Marxism has erred in excluding nonhumans from “social space,” but is capable of correcting its course because of its commitment to solidarity.  The exclusion of nonhumans is a bug, rather than a feature of Marxist thought.  Capitalism, based on property ownership and various forms of slavery, conversely, is necessarily exclusive and hierarchical.[i]  Resources, including humans and nonhumans, are subordinated to the transcendent value of capital, and human beings, in effect, develop kinship bonds with capital rather than human and nonhuman beings.  Folding anarchy back into Marxism, Morton argues that solidarity with nonhuman beings simply effaces our ties to consumer capitalism (“Kindness,” 2300 – 2313).  Though Morton criticizes the New Left’s focus on identity politics for reproducing essential difference and thus undermining solidarity, his vision is certainly a boon for the Left (“Things in Common,” 207-261).  I’m not quite sure if Morton’s radical reconfiguration of social space is Marxism as we know it, or as it was conceived, but Humankind might encourage intellectuals to trade their chains for an optimistic New New Left.  Humans and nonhumans in solidarity, willing Trump’s last tweet.

One of Morton’s most radical concepts is the symbiotic real.  I say it’s radical not because symbiosis is new, but because Morton presents non-hierarchical symbiosis as an integral feature of political life. When we become aware of the symbiotic real, solidarity is no longer a value, choice, or decision.  It simply is, and any social, economic, or political theory that externalizes nonhuman beings is recognized as inoperable—an insolvent fantasy (“Things in Common,” 66 – 87).  Another important element of Morton’s project here, and I think it’s his most significant one to date, is interrogating life, categorically. “Life” based on substance ontology, and specious distinctions between its various forms, is antithetical to life (“Life,” 807).  Rather than subordinating life to the “agrologistic” principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, that create mutually exclusive categories of life and non-life, and identify life with autonomous being, Morton rediscovers and celebrates life as quivering, shimmering, spectral (“Life,” 770, 776, 846, 850, 860).  He sings of life forms that overflow their boundaries, downward and upward.  Human beings, composed of myriad nonhuman beings, and haunted by what have heretofore been considered inanimate objects; nonhuman beings composed of what have heretofore been considered inanimate objects, and haunted by human beings. “[T]he intrinsic shimmering of being” (“Life,” 860).

The “correlationism revelation mode” is like a magic trick (“Specters,” 893 – 916).  First we see a subject and an object, and then suddenly the two are collapsed into the transcendental subject. The symbiotic real is supernatural, occult.  Everything has agency, and everything also withdraws (“Specters,” 942, 987).  While we are engaging with a nonhuman, even an inanimate object, it is also engaging with us, and hiding.  And this includes nonhuman aspects of ourselves (“Specters,” 942).  Humankind comprises the nonhuman aspects of the human, including the unconscious.  Both human and nonhuman beings are haunted by spectral others and spectral selves.  This is spectral phenomenology (“Specters,” 942).  Ecological awareness is being with a “ghostly host of nonhumans” (“Specters,” 1089).  “To encounter an ecological entity is to be haunted” (“Specters,” 1113).  Every life form has a spectral double, and “[b]eing alive means being supernatural” (“Specters,” 1323).

Subscendence is the most theoretically important concept of the book, and possibly the most important piece of Humankind’s political argument.  Under the sign of subscendence, Morton illustrates that wholes are smaller and more fragile than the sum of their parts (“Subscendence,” 1767 – 1794).  And this applies to menacing hyperobjects such as neoliberalism.  Though we imagine it as Cthulu, Morton suggests neoliberalism may be ontologically small and easy to subvert.  It pervades social space, but it cannot contain or rule its parts.  Our fear and cynicism is based on an assumption that neoliberalism is a transcendent whole, but solidarity with human and nonhumnan beings can help us dismantle it.  Locally unplugging from fossil fuel energy grids seems trivial, until we rediscover solidarity and begin to replicate such local forms of resistance (“Subscendence,” 1726 – 1828).

Subscendence replaces mastery.  Because parts exceed wholes, and because all objects withdraw, increasing knowledge does not result in mastery.  The more objects and levels of objects we discover, the more objects withdraw. And this includes our knowledge of ourselves.  The more we know about ourselves the more we perceive our withdrawl. “You are a haunted house” (“Subscendence,” 1965).  The dream of access to the thing itself is replaced by a real feeling of being followed or watched.  Intimacy is paranoia, and truth is being haunted (“Subscendence,” 1912; “Kindness,” 2649)

Humankind, like human beings, is “a fuzzy, subscendent whole that includes and implies other lifeforms, as a part of the also subscendent symbiotic real” (“Subscendence,” 2013).  This quote reminds us not to reify the symbiotic real—it’s not a new transcendent whole, God or Gaia. Just as humankind is haunted by the inhuman, so the symbiotic real is haunted by spectral beings in a spectral dimension (“Specters,” 1198; “Kindness,” 2274).

As an explosive whole, speciesism is a violent form of exclusion, predicated on racism and substance ontology (“Species,” 2016, 2243).  Morton argues that agrologistics not only severed humans from nonhuman beings, but created technologies like caste systems, and property ownership, that severed humankind from itself (“Species,” 2206, 2243).  Institutionalized, systemic, racism (subsequently) naturalized difference, and telegraphed social hierarchies into the domain of the nonhuman (“Species,” 2206).  The symbiotic real, conversely, undermines hierarchies.  In a symbiotic relationship both members are dependent on one another.  Neither is on top (“Things in Common,” 70).  If human beings are dependent on each other and on nonhuman beings in non-hierarchical ways, what maintains social hierarchies?  The severing of kinship with human and nonhuman beings.

“The Severing” is a “traumatic fissure” between the “human-correlated world” and the “ecological symbiosis of human and nonhuman parts of the biosphere” (“Things in Common,” 272). Solidarity is the “default affective environment,” but anthropocentrism suppresses solidarity between humans and nonhumans, and erects boundaries between humans (“Things in Common,” 296 – 299). The effects of this intergenerational trauma are widespread, resulting in a desert landscape “from which meaning and connection have evaporated” (“Things in Common,” 312, 355).  This results in alienation, not from some transcendent presence but from “an inconsistent spectral essence we are calling humankind,” as well as the spectrality of nonhuman beings (“Species,” 2197-2201).  “What capitalism distorts is not an underlying substantial Nature or Humanity, but rather the ‘paranormal’ energies of production” (“Species” 2204).

Ultimately, Morton argues that solidarity is kindness, and kindness is an unconscious aspect of ourselves, which we share with nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2283- 2306). Acknowledgement, awareness, and fascination are all aesthetic and ethical/political acts of solidarity (“Kindness,” 2296 – 2368).  And since our origins lie in the symbiotic real, these “styles” of being also belong to nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2294, 2453, 2835).  Indeed, recent animal behavior studies suggest that solidarity is inherited from nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2860).  Morton ends by queering the active and passive categories, and “veering” love toward the environment (“Kindness,” 2963, 3119).  Solidarity requires nonhumans because we are inseparable from the symbiotic real (“Kindness,” 3123 – 3127).  We are them.  “Solidarity just is solidarity with nonhumans.”

[i] “Things in Common,” 416, 430. All in-text references are to chapter titles and locations.

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This was I-10 before Harvey. Now it looks like an ocean

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(CNN)Logan Wheat went out on a small boat to check on cattle and ended up capturing one of the most startling photos of flooding from Harvey.

See article here.

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Walk the Line, September 30th

Walk the Line

Walk the Line – Pipelines carrying Tar Sands oil—the dirtiest form of oil there is—are running through our neighborhoods in Northwest Indiana. Join us on Sept. 30, 2017 as we walk along the path of the tar sands pipelines that pass through our communities to help support a just transition to a renewable energy economy.

When: Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017 at 9:00 a.m. (arrive by 8:00 a.m.)

Where: The route is 10K (or 6.21 miles). The Walkathon will begin at the Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve (135 E Main St, Schererville, IN 46375), just west of the Enbridge Pipeline Co. entrance.

Go to WalkTheLineNWI.com to register to walk or to sponsor a walker.

Please contact Melissa Brice, Chicago 350 with any questions and we hope to see you!

E-Mail: 350chicago350@gmail.com

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“An Inconvenient Sequel” Screenings and Much More

See below information about “An Inconvenient Sequel” screenings, and various related resources for educators, business professionals, and concerned citizens.

Inconvenient-Sequel-850x400

From a New York Times review:

In a summer movie landscape with Spider-Man, a simian army waging further battle for the planet and Charlize Theron as a sexy Cold War-era superspy, it says something that one of the most compelling characters is Al Gore.

“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” a follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth,” Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning documentary from 2006, is a reboot that justifies its existence — and not just because Mr. Gore has fresh news to report on climate change since his previous multimedia presentation played in multiplexes.

Read more here.

See trailer here.

Get tickets and find various resources here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image source: Occasional Planet, http://occasionalplanet.org/2017/04/03/just-time-inconvenient-sequel/

 

 

 

 

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VanderMeer’s Strange Bird and Animal Trauma in the Anthropocene

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Jeff VanderMeer’s new novella, The Strange Bird, is ingenious, provocative, and deeply moving. At times, it’s almost too painful and too beautiful. As a Borne story, it’s also revelation. Out of the futuristic world of Borne, VanderMeer conjures a totem for the Anthropocene. A hybrid spirit strange and familiar enough to wake us from our dogmatic stupor, Strange Bird guides us into unexplored regions of literature and the psyche. While we have excluded the secret life of animals from consciousness, on some level we understand their suffering because we suffer together. Nested in Borne, adjacent to VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, The Strange Bird brings us to the intersection of animals and the Anthropocene. We’ve been here all along, but now, slowly, we’re becoming aware.

Twentieth-century techno science created a false dichotomy of lab animals and animals in the wild. Born and bred to serve the medical and biotech industries, lab animals were primarily studied as surrogates for human bodies. Knowing them was generally synonymous with killing them, and always dependent on removing them from their natural environment and social context. This resulted in a culture that “understood” animals in isolation, and through the mottled lens of human interests narrowly conceived.

Wild animals were occasionally observed in the wild, during the last American century, but more often on television programing about animals in the wild. Mass media creatures were smart, charming, dramatic, and often hilarious. Masterfully edited, as well as narrated and set to music, such representations were a form of domestication or at least spectacle, related to zoos, aquariums and circuses. The most commonplace animals of the Modern era, however, were agricultural animals, not so much on farms, or even stories about farms, but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These animals didn’t have behaviors. They were invisible.

Twenty-first century animal and environmental activism has directed our attention to the plight of animals, but unintentionally maintains this twentieth-century dichotomy by focusing on animals in captivity and, conversely, animals in the wilderness. As the earth has become increasingly urban, however, conditions for all animals have changed. Academics and creative writers are becoming more attentive to interstitial ecology and urban animals, our neighborhoods and our neighbors, but we have not generally adjusted our assumptions about animal behavior.[i]

Enter The Strange Bird.  VanderMeer’s novella is as much urban odyssey as fantasy. At the beginning of the narrative Strange Bird, a biotech marvel, escapes the confines of a lab. In flight, she navigates an unfamiliar and frightening world, and begins to understand herself in new contexts and from different perspectives. Before long she is captured by a solitary old man who admires her, but who also imprisons her. He is attached and attentive, seems to want to commune with her, but he can’t appreciate her suffering. Like other humans in the novella, he rationalizes his cruelty even as he is haunted by it.

Eventually Strange Bird lands squarely into the narrative of Borne, where she is captured by The Magician, a sadistic genius who transforms her into a cloaking device. Somehow Strange Bird survives the radical transformation and enters a kind of bardo, where she communes with other animals, alive and dead.

Throughout the novella Strange Bird appears lost and alone. The cage is no home for her, but neither is the world. She is oriented to the voice of a friend or relative (intimate, stranger, and enemy), very close to her but also far away. Told from the point of view of a hybrid, engineered animal, The Strange Bird is one of VanderMeer’s most psychologically complex and heart-rending narratives. How does VanderMeer create and draw us into the inner life of Strange Bird?

 

Borken Places

 

Part of the answer must lie in his equally well-wrought and unapologetic anthropomorphism. As VanderMeer has explained in interviews and essays, the intellectual prohibition against anthropomorphism has prevented us from speculating about animal experience.[ii] But this stance betrays Modern prejudices. At a time when the popular media assertively preach the virtues of compassion (identification with the feelings of other human beings), we are reluctant to consider the thoughts and feelings of animals because we have already concluded they are categorically different. Even imagining what animals could be feeling is considered naïve, as if early twentieth-century phenomenology and Psych 101 behaviorism were articles of faith. Anticipating such objections, VanderMeer engineers human consciousness into his main character, though he also flirts with cross-species communication throughout.

Defending the speculative/creative impulse, I stubbornly note that human beings in all cultures still strive to understand one another every day. We dream of sympathy. We recognize ourselves in others.  Sometimes, it seems, others understand us better than we understand ourselves.  This counterargument has become a critical cliché, but it is also our way of life—our culture. Even if our sense of understanding and being understood are fabulations, why should we be dissuaded from striving to understand animals in this fashion? And why have we forgotten that this prohibition is a cultural and historical anomaly?

The long-standing, cross-cultural tendency to anthropomorphize is arguably a product of various and obvious similarities between human beings and animals. This is not only true from a biological perspective but also an ecological one. We share the same home. We are nurtured by the same planet.

I’d like to suggest that the leitmotif of habitat or home is a primary reason that VanderMeer’s novella is so moving. In The Strange Bird we can identify with the circumstances of the animal. If the storyteller is in a type of relation to the animal, he or she can help us imagine the creature’s circumstances, but perhaps that bond begins and ends with sharing a home.

Like so many of VanderMeer’s characters, Strange Bird is traumatized.  There are known and unknown causes of her trauma. Her inner life is familiar, strange, and mysterious, but readers can generally understand the experience of being imprisoned, for example. Though we may not be traumatized by such experiences, we have all had our freedom restricted, and we have all suffered as a consequence. Even if we ascent to such restrictions, through written, spoken, and unspoken contracts, we feel the tension between our competing desires for connection and autonomy.

Being conflicted, torn, fractured, and broken, are other common, potentially traumatic experiences. Particularly disturbing and provoking are VanderMeer’s first-person accounts of dismemberment. As Strange Bird is confined, tormented, and exploited by the Magician, we could and should reflect on basic bodily and psychological autonomy. How do we recognize and fail to recognize bodies in different circumstances? All sorts of relationships, perhaps even the imperatives of survival, tear us apart physically and psychologically. All animals are effectively dismembered when their bodies and brains are exploited. Even love tears us apart. To what extent, and why do we ascent to or resist various transgressions?

Most conspicuous about the main character and the story, is the fact that Strange Bird is always alone. We notice this first when she encounters other birds in social configurations. Later she begins to communicate with “the little foxes.”  This is a kind of solace for her, but also serves to foreground her physical isolation. When Strange Bird enters the narrative of Borne, she enters a second storyscape of alienation. She continues to commune with various creatures, in more or less out-of-body experiences, but Rachel and Wick are the only humans who show her kindness, who care for her.

We know from the example of the Passenger Pigeon that life and survival are intimately related to community.[iii] We also know that many animals need wide ranges in order to thrive even as individuals. All animals need space as well as society. Perhaps more significantly, each animal defines space in its own fashion. In this sense, human beings may not easily understand non-human behavior, though this may be a result of limited interaction rather than essential incapacity.

I don’t mean to suggest that The Strange Bird should function as a creative treatise on animal rights or metaphor for human suffering. Rather, I imagine the narrative as an entry point into a revelatory if not redemptive cycle of sympathy and self-awareness. As Sartre speculated in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, we label abject human beings as animals because deep down we recognize their humanity (Book I, section II, “Reciprocity, Exploitation and Repression”). Perhaps this is also why we define animals, categorically, as less than human beings, because we suspect they are not essentially different from us . . . and it’s the only way we can maintain our crumbling narrative of superiority.[iv]

As a Borne story, The Strange Bird is a creative but earnest speculation about animal behavior in the Anthropocene.  As such it’s also a story about animal trauma. It seems reasonable to speculate that animal trauma, in general, is connected to environmental degradation, survival pressures, displacement, and violence. We understand, and often repeat, the poorest populations are most affected by climate change, but we don’t generally include animals in this equation.

To the extent that animals are affected by environmental toxins, food deserts, homelessness, fast and slow violence, they may be generally traumatized.[v]  These conditions are not new. The beginning of the industrial era created terribly degraded environments for all animals, even if human beings were the focus of civic responses. Silent Spring invoked an animal totem and effectively created ecological consciousness, even if that consciousness still struggles with an imperial gaze. On some level, we are all aware of violence perpetrated by animals against animals. Bellum omnium contra omnes[vi]

What does all this mean for The Strange Bird as a new literary work by a prominent contemporary writer? I’m reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s imperative that literature in the Anthropocene should not be fantastic, because it masks real climate-change related horrors.[vii]  This may be a legitimate critique of popular dystopian fantasy, but the criticism makes less sense in the context of surrealism (qua surrealism), VanderMeer’s chief mode. Remembering that surrealism, historically, was an attempt to capture a more complete reality (a form of psychological realism), we can appreciate contemporary surrealistic literature as an attempt to include psychological strata that have been systematically excluded from realistic representations.[viii] Enter the unconscious.

Human consciousness, often understood as self-consciousness, has long performed a gate-keeping function. Because humans have a degree of consciousness about their own intellectual processes and emotional responses, we often assume that non-human cognition and affect is categorically different. Similarly, we tend to equate communication with conscious human languages. But human cognition and affect is also, arguably (and perhaps even primarily), unconscious. [ix]  Human communication is also partly unconscious as evidenced by language acquisition in children, who speak grammatically long before they have any concept of grammatical rules, and by studies on body language as a primarily mode of communicating intense emotions.[x]

Unconscious communication has been the purview of writers for well over a century. But all the arts engage the unconscious—consciously and unconsciously. Aesthetics might even be described as a paradigmatic unconscious value system. And while art, like language, is generally considered a uniquely human enterprise, we also know that many animals, birds in particular, sing and dance to attract mates. How is this essentially different than the conscious and unconscious behavior of  human “peacocks”?

In the context of Borne, The Strange Bird traces the terrible beauty of animal trauma in the Anthropocene, not as a surrogate for human trauma, but as a creaturely condition that directs our attention to the ubiquitous effects of climate change. If trauma can be communicated through non-verbal behavior, it may be an appeal to all animals. Artists like VanderMeer seem to hear that call, but are they uniquely aware of animal suffering, or uniquely responsive? I imagine that many of us are more aware of our collective suffering than we know. VanderMeer may not speak for non-human animals, but he surely gives voice to the unconscious.

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The novella is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073TSB1TW

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[i] See City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness, for example. Also see VanderMeer’s comments in his recent essay, “Moving Past the Illusion of Control.”

[ii] See “Moving Past the Illusion of Control,” above, as well as this Gulf Coast magazine interview on Borne.

[iii] The species became extinct because individuals can only mate in large flocks. See this Smithsonian Encyclopedia entry.

[iv] As DePaul philosopher Peter Steeves suggested at VanderMeer’s 2017 Earth Week address, perhaps we can’t ultimately define or understand animals because we strive to know them by comparison to human beings, whom we define by comparison to animals. (We can’t know non-human animals because we can’t know ourselves.)

[v] See Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor and VanderMeer’s comments on war and ecological degradation in his Environmental Critique article on Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology published here.

[vi] Read VanderMeer’s Finch, as well as his other Ambergris books, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: And Afterword.

[vii] See “Amitav Gosh: where is the fiction about climate change?” in The Guardian.

[viii] See this Met summary of surrealism.

[ix] The revival of the unconscious by the neurosciences and the influence of affect on cognition have become common knowledge in academic discourse. An interesting recent book on these topics is Richard Nisbett’s Mindware: Tools for Smart ThinkingIn a recent conversation, VanderMeer noted that we anthropomorphize animals in various sorts of propaganda, and I wonder if this is a marker of (social) media aesthetics as an unconscious economy.

[x] See this short Cambridge article on unconscious language learning, and this Princeton piece on body language and intense emotions.

 

Image sources:

Macmillian, https://us.macmillan.com/thestrangebird/jeffvandermeer/9780374714932

YouTube,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5stee_pAAU&feature=youtu.be

 

 

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Filed under Animals, Climate Change, Jeff VanderMeer