Southern Reach I: Cosmopolitics and Area X

by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois (Copyright © Michael Uhall)

Michael Uhall is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with an M.A. in Philosophy from the same institution. He is currently interested in the applications and implications of developments in political theory sometimes termed the new materialisms – particularly insofar as they relate to theories of nature and politics and to our contemporary era of environmental devastation.

 

As we navigate the unfolding ecological catastrophe in which we reside, we need increasingly to elaborate and occupy a cosmopolitical stance toward the world. We can find resources for articulating such a cosmopolitics in many places. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach novels (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) provide us with exactly such a resource. Let’s see why.

Southern-Reach-paperback-covers

The term “cosmopolitics” stems from the Greek word κοσμοπολίτης, itself from κόσμος (meaning “the world conceived as an ordered whole”) and πολίτης (meaning “citizen,” or “one who belongs to a political community”). As such, κοσμοπολίτης refers to a citizen of the cosmos, to a citizen of some bigger, broader collective or order rather than to a mere citizen of some specific state – or state-of-affairs – in the here-and-now. We can follow easily the association of κοσμοπολίτης, then, with the discourses of cosmopolitanism that emerge in the modern period with Kant and onward.

However, the term comes well into its own in the work of Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour. Stengers explicitly distances herself from the Kantian sensibility of cosmopolitanism, preferring instead to examine and valorize the numerous relations between ecologies of practices and those “new immanent modes of existence” that arise therein.[i] Likewise, the early Latour proposes a flat ontology in which he foregrounds the symmetrical relationship between human actants and inhuman actants that takes shape in ANT (Actor-Network-Theory), and which he folds into his recent modes of existence project.[ii]

Crucial, then, is the expanded sensibility of the political that attends the cosmopolitics articulated by Stengers and Latour. If politics is about collective action and collective imagination, as I think it is, the collective in question opens up to include a much wider range of agencies. This greater inclusiveness does not occur simply for the sake of inclusiveness, nor to effect a mere expansion of our ethical sensibilities. Rather, in it, what qualifies as political becomes, itself, a matter of political claim and contestation – that is to say, a politics about the makeup of the cosmos. As Kyle McGee puts it, “The politics of the cosmos describes the practical problem of living together, or better, the challenge of building a world in which we, humans and nonhumans, can live together in durable association.”[iii] For Stengers and Latour, then, cosmopolitics exceeds the merely or only human. Institutions, practices, and subjectivities must also engage and overlap with the inhuman. We must think conjunctively: animals and atmospheres, technics and territories, flesh and firmament.

Principally, such a cosmopolitics indicates the degree to which conventionally political categories and practices are themselves both products of, and constituents within, the ecological materiality that throngs around us and makes us possible.

In the Southern Reach novels, Jeff VanderMeer takes even further the cosmopolitical vision that he shares with Stengers and Latour, and taking it further allows him to make contact with the ecological more directly than can either Stengers or Latour. The novels elaborate upon the cosmopolitical stance by unfolding a dramatic, uncanny narrative of affective transformation and material negotiation between landscape and subject. Indeed, I argue that the relationship between landscape and subject dominates the Southern Reach novels, and they articulate this relationship by enacting a weird psychogeography. Psychogeography, Guy Debord writes, refers to the “study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”[iv] The psychogeography of the Southern Reach is weird precisely because it simultaneously undercuts and produces new subjectivities. It is in this psychogeographical frame that the narrative unfolds.

The primary setting of the novels is Area X, a tract of land found along the Florida coast, seemingly isolated by “an ill-defined Event” and, now, “a pristine wilderness devoid of any human life,” at least superficially (Annihilation, 94; Authority, 9). Area X “lay beyond a border that still, after more than thirty years, no one seemed to understand” (ibid.). The first two novels revolve around two characters: a biologist who goes on an expedition into Area X, and Control, the newly minted director of the Southern Reach organization, “a backward, backwater agency” established in order to contain and study Area X.

Policing the boundary between Area X and everything else is Control’s responsibility, although it is soon revealed to be an impossible task, as the landscape behind the boundary inexorably, albeit slowly, expands, resisting all attempts at comprehension. However, this expansion does not exactly threaten destruction, as whatever exists within Area X finds itself transfigured, rather than destroyed. Nor does Area X embody a classical depiction of vengeful nature, bearing down violently upon the human race in reprisal for poor environmental management or general lack of character.

To the contrary, Area X is precisely a space of unmitigated natural being, self-expressive beyond the conceptual bondage of theorized natural law or function – it is the active, motile embodiment of what the late Merleau-Ponty calls “être sauvage.[v] Merleau-Ponty articulates the savage being of the world in terms of what he calls its flesh. The flesh is his term for the entirety of the immanent distribution of the sensible, which is to say, the body of existence as such. It encompasses both “my flesh,” as in the body in its lived experience, and “the flesh of the world,” as in the continuum that preserves and produces entitative singularity precisely by virtue of its seamless contiguity. He writes of the flesh that it means “that my body is made of the same flesh as the world (it is perceived), and moreover that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world” (248). This allows us to start fleshing out what exactly Area X does

Area X embodies the truth of landscape as such. It is not a nostalgic depiction of a natural world untrammeled by the human. Nor is it the romanticized wild at issue in the so-called “wilderness debate.”[vi] Rather, the seething being-singular-plural of Area X, which always somehow just avoids our conscious apprehension, captures what it means to be a landscape altogether – that is, to be the ecotonal space composited by distributed agencies and interleavings.

Consider the recurrent imagery VanderMeer employs regarding samples taken from Area X by researchers at the Southern Reach, writing:

Not a single sample had ever shown any irregularities: normal cell structures, bacteria, radiation levels, whatever applied. But [Control] had also seen a few strange comments in the reports from the handful of guest scientists who had passed the security check and come here to examine the samples, even as they had been kept in the dark about the context. The gist of these comments was that when they looked away from the microscope, the samples changed; and when they stared again, what they looked at had reconstituted itself to appear normal. (Authority, 125)

What emerges from this passage is the uncanny sense that there is always a pretense performed by the natural, a pretense that comprises part of what it means to be natural in the first place. One need only imagine the eeriness of feeling that a terraced garden is only pretending to conform to our desires and techniques of control – that catching it by surprise might reveal a green inferno of writhing, clamorous, and underlying wildness (as opposed to wilderness).

As the biologist notes of Area X: “I had the unsettling thought that the natural world around me had become a kind of camouflage” (Annihilation, 98). And VanderMeer emphasizes that those who visit Area X come back changed and transformed – both “utterly human and inhuman” (139). You could say that they have been re-inscribed as a part of the living landscape. It is fitting, then, that it is the biologist who attunes with Area X, embracing its weirdness and becoming transformed by it into such an uncanny creature herself, whereas Control endeavors to combat its effects and even its very existence (“[h]e liked the word enemy – it crystallized and focused his attention more than ‘Area X.’ Area X was just a phenomenon visited upon humanity, like a weather event, but an enemy created intent and focus” [Acceptance, 80]).

There lurks here, in VanderMeer’s novels, a cosmopolitical vision other than that suggested by Stengers and Latour. It is a much weirder vision, I think – but, as Eileen Joy notes, the weird can be seen as “an ethical act, one invested in maximizing the sensual and other richness of the world’s expressivity.”[vii] This, I claim, is precisely how the ecological apprehension of the world’s flesh that VanderMeer makes possible gives us a cosmopolitical landscape worth preserving – what we might call an Area X to be conserved.

Image source: The Southern ReachJeff Vandermeer

<http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2015/04/29/southern-reach-vandermeer-event-schedule-summer-fall-2015/&gt;

 Notes

[i] Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I and Cosmopolitics II, trans. Roberto Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010/2011).

[ii] http://modesofexistence.org/

[iii] Kyle McGee, Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 77.

[iv]Guy Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Wandering,” Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 5.

[v] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

[vi] J. Baird Callicott and Michael Nelson (eds.), Wilderness Debate Rages On: Continuing the Great New Wilderness Debate (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008): http://www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/wilderness_debate

[vii] Eileen Joy, “Weird Reading,” Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism IV (2013), p. 30.

 

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Road Trip: Accelerating to Alzheimer’s

by Jeff Tangel

mit_memories_fade_away

 

My son Jack is a nice young man. I haven’t been nice since I was a young man. Hopefully he’ll have more stamina. Isn’t that the kind of thing we wish for our children? Or ought to anyway.

 

Last weekend we drove downstate, to Farmington—a place just like it sounds—to see his grandmother who, after many years of sharing her talents with the people thereabouts, now lives in what we Americans call a “nursing home”. She taught 5th Grade for 31 years and raised six children. Now she has Alzheimer’s and can’t take care of herself, her memory a flickering flame.

 

On the way down Jack and I talked. He said that he had been thinking about the number of ways he could be contacted, nowadays, with all the technology. He counted out for me about fifteen: Facebook post and message, Facetime, cell phone call, cell phone text, email (2 accounts), g-chat, Skype, i-message . . . well, that’s ten, the others I’m forgetting right now. Maybe I’ll remember later.

 

Though I had some idea about this, hearing the list was eye opening. In my class I require students to watch the The Matrix—the well known, 1999, action packed allegory of our modern lives by Chicago’s Wachowski brothers, who, it must be said, are fans of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations.[i] Me too. I won’t recount the whole idea here, but the upshot of the film is that human beings have become the power source for the ruling AI machines. That is, super-intelligent machines now raise humans in test tube cells, farm-like, to capture the energy that we naturally produce. Every-body is connected by a multitude of wires and tubes—like a terminally ill hospital patient with great insurance—monitoring functions, making corrections and delivering nutrients all to collect the product of the cell, energy, which is food for the machines. We humans, in our tubes, see and experience everything as simulacra—so real-like we can taste it, and so we are placated and unaware, while the AI machines are able to harvest that energy to continue both their own, and our simulacrum existence. Think of it as a form of levitated permaculture.

 

When Jack started describing all of the ways that he could be contacted, I thought of the movie. Isn’t each of these new technologies that “connect” us like tubes and wires running into our bodies? Sure they connect us horizontally. Humans in the movie have all sorts of intercourse. But aren’t we all connected to central servers? And it’s unclear to me who is being served even as technology seems to be satisfying our needs.

 

The heroes of The Matrix, and specifically the reluctant Neo, aim at setting humans free from the chains of their manufactured existence—from manufactured illusion and slavery—to exit the cave and reclaim our humanity.

 

Steven Shaviro explains “accelerationism” as, “the idea that the only way out is the way through.” In a recent online interview he characterized the controversial hypothesis just so: “If we want to get beyond the current social and economic order and reach a post-capitalist future, then we need to push through all the messy complications of capitalism, rather than revert to something supposedly older and purer.” [ii]

 

This seems a pragmatic and sage response to intractable socio-economic forces. But I’m not convinced.

“Accelarationism” may be a new and catchy name for a not terribly new idea. “Back” in 2008, UC Berkeley sociologist Peter Evans published an insightful essay along these lines titled, “Is an Alternative Globalization Possible?” [iii] in which he argues well for employing the tools of capitalist globalization to render the world more hospitable for humans. This means, more than anything, recovering the power of technology and repurposing it towards better than profitable ends. As Shaviro says, “If computational technologies are eliminating millions of jobs, then the best response is not to demand the jobs back, but to spread the wealth—to give back what the 1 Percent has stolen from everybody else—so that people can afford to lead comfortable lives without always worrying about the cost of housing or the size of their credit card bills.” [iv] So we can live contentedly, the fruit of our technology.

And yet I can’t recall ever being so tired as I am now. Maybe I just can’t keep up. So Godspeed to that century-long promise of progress. Or has it been longer?

 

For me, the most interesting thing about capitalism is its creation of a capital as a concept with ontological status. This fictional disembodied spirit now roams the world without restraint and wherever it goes it recreates the world in its own image. What is that? Well, in a phrase: reproductive efficiency. That’s what capital does. Messy is bad, so it finds the most efficient path for its reproduction. And to do this it has to simplify the world into neat productive interconnected silos. That’s what globalization is.

 

Interestingly, that’s also what technology does. Long ago we dropped the “ought,” question. “Ought we aim at doing this or that?” Instead, we just do. Why? Because “we” are not the deciders anymore. Nearly all technology now serves its makers, not its users, and its makers serve capital. In fact technology creates its users as University of Pennsylvania Professor Joseph Turow explains in his insightful book, The Daily You[v] as if we were cultured in a lab. All that data collection is not to provide better stuff to human beings, for which they may or may not clamor. Instead it’s a means of creating a clamor. It’s about creating better, more efficient consumers of technology so that capital can continue to reproduce itself in the most efficient manner possible.

 

Production is the master. Consumption the servant.

 

Aren’t nearly all the solutions offered by technology aimed at solving problems created by it-self—created by capitalism? I call this the economics, and metaphysics, of duct tape and bailing wire. Sure some amazing things can be done with those rudimentary tools (think ones and zeroes), but it can’t, and never will be able to offer an “ought” idea.

 

Embracing technology as a means of breaking through to the other side is like someone who’s had too much Guinness trying to sober up with a shot of Jameson. Neat.

 

Steven Fraser tells us in his book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, that the reason we’ve had so much trouble battling back, or reforming capitalism is because we have forgotten a time when it didn’t make all our decisions. [vi] We can’t collectively recall our past. And lacking recall, we can’t imagine another way to live. We’re stuck.

 

What use is the past to capital? What use is the past to technology? Doesn’t technology now mean obliterate the past? Back in the 1940’s Schumpeter called it “creative destruction”.   Today Silicon Valley calls it “disruption”. Whatever. New duct tape. We’ve naturalized Alzheimer’s because it’s good for business. That’s all the “ought” we have.

 

I haven’t yet remembered those other five ways my son can be contacted.

 

But I do remember many years ago my elderly neighbor saying, “If you find yourself in a hole, first thing to do is to stop digging.”

 

***

 

Image Credit: ” A Gene for Forgetting” <http://www.kurzweilai.net/a-gene-for-forgetting&gt;

[i] Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations (P. Foss, P. Patton, & P. Beitchman, Trans.). New York: Semiotext (e).

 

[ii]“What is Accelerationism?” <https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/what-is-accelerationism/> partial repost from: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/is-consuming-like-crazy-the-best-way-to-end-capitalism-050

 

[iii] “Is an Alternative Globalization Possible?” <http://www.learningace.com/doc/57794/dfa1e8c1c7a26773e2bdd42973d1935c/evans-alter-globalization-pol-soc-v36n2-june08>

Peter Evans: <http://sociology.berkeley.edu/professor-emeritus/peter-evans>

 

[iv]“What is Accelerationism?” <https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/what-is-accelerationism/> partial repost from: <http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/is-consuming-like-crazy-the-best-way-to-end-capitalism-050>

 

[v].Turow, J. (2012). The daily you: How the new advertising industry is defining your identity and your worth. Yale University Press.

<https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Daily_You.html?id=rK7JSFudXA8C&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false> Book TV Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zt2KwcsMbks> (8:27)

[vi] Fraser, S. (2011). The Age of Acquiescence. Little Brown.

 

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To Paris and Beyond: Climate and Freedom

by Erik Lindberg, originally published by Transition Milwaukee

For the modern radical is as confident in the moral expression of his stances and consequently in the assertive uses of the rhetoric of morality as any conservative has ever been.  Whatever else he denounces in our culture he is certain that it still possesses the moral resources which he requires in order to denounce it.  Everything else may be, in his eyes, in disorder; but the language of morality is in order, just as it is.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

In my previous installments in this series[i]–a series in which I question how and to what extent “freedom” can be the main organizing principle of a sustainable civilization–I argued that most of what passes for freedom is dependent upon an open system.  To put this in historical terms I developed earlier, freedom is attendant to a cosmological transition from a closed world to an infinite universe.[ii]  I have been working these metaphysical metaphors in order to illustrate a suspicion I have been meditating over: not only that the “closed world” of our global ecology has been suffering because we treat it as an “infinite universe”; but also that this treatment is by and large the natural outcome of the unrestrained freedom which serves as the main operating principle of our politics, economy, and Liberal moral code. While I realize there are number of risks in questioning the modern unquestionable, I am working towards an articulation of human good and morality that does not hinge mainly on the notion of individual liberty, especially the freedom to consume, or the freedom to have whatever we can afford.

At the end of my last installment, however, I entertained a possible reversal in the main course of my argument, adopting for my purposes a title from one of the late Richard Rorty’s excellent papers on the relationship between philosophy and politics.[iii]  As “an end of philosophy” philosopher, Rorty suggests that most of the questions that philosophy has attempted to answer cannot be answered in the absolute terms the same philosophers tend to demand.  According to Rorty, we should expect the sort of suggestive answers that we get from novelists or poets.  The lack of absolute answers, Rorty argues, is hardly something to mourn—in large part because Liberal, democratic politics do not depend on a strong philosophical glue, any more than they depend on shared religious beliefs.  Rather, democratic deliberation requires only a process of negotiation and compromise, a process that is actually aided by the humility one gains by seeing his or her interests as having no solid philosophical backing.  We don’t need better philosophy, in short, we need better politics; a new philosophical theory or metanarrative won’t help us learn to treat our environment and each other better.

Continue reading here.

 

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SLSA: Creativity

30th Annual  Meeting

Call  for  Proposals

Creativity

November  3-­‐6,  2016
Westin  Peachtree Plaza Hotel
Atlanta,  Georgia
“The  Society  for  Literature,  Science, and  the  Arts (SLSA) invites  session,  panel,  and stream  proposals  and  artistic  works  for  our  thirtieth-­annual  conference.  The  theme  of  this  meeting  is “Creativity.” SLSA  invites papers or panels that consider how new technologies; new understandings of  the  human,  the  nonhuman,  and  the  post-­human; and  emerging theories in  science and aesthetics affect  understandings of creativity.”
250-­word  abstracts  for  papers/proposals due by  May  15,  2016.
Read more here.

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Buen Vivir, Degrowth and Ecological Swaraj: Alternatives to ble development and the Green Economy

by Ashish Kothari, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta

Introduction

Concern over the ecological unsustainability of human presence on Earth, and the growing inequality coupled with continuing deprivation of a huge part of humanity, has grown rapidly in the last couple of decades (Rockstrom et al., 2009; Piketty, 2014; Steffen et al., 2015). Inequality, injustice and unsustainability, already part of many state-dominated systems, have clearly been worsened by the recent phase of capitalism’s accelerated expansion (Harvey, 2014).

Along with this, however, the global exploration of pathways towards sustainability, equity and justice has also grown. These are of two broad kinds. First, and currently on the ascendance, are ‘Green Economy’ (GE) and ‘sustainable development’ (SD) approaches. These entail a series of technological, managerial, and behavioural changes, in particular to build in principles and parameters of sustainability and inclusion into production, consumption and trade while maintaining high rates of economic growth as the key driver of development. These attempts have failed (and we argue, will continue to fail) to deliver what they promised: halt the worsening of the planetary health, eradicate poverty and reduce inequality. Somewhat on the fringes, as the second broad trend, are paradigms that call for more fundamental changes, challenging the predominance of growth-oriented development and of the neo-liberal economy and related forms of ‘representative democracy’. This essay attempts to provide a critique of the ‘Green Economy’ model, and describe the alternative notions or worldviews of well-being emerging (or re-emerging) in various regions. By comparing the two, it suggests how the latter can contribute to re-politicize the public debate by identifying and naming different socio-environmental futures: Buen Vivir, Ecological Swaraj or Radical Ecological Democracy (RED), and Degrowth. Finally, it discusses the risk of mainstream co-option of radical alternatives, and concludes on the need to strive for genuine political and socio-ecological transformation.

Continue Reading here.

Published in Development (2014) 57(3–4), 362–375. doi:10.1057/dev.2015.24

 

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What is Accelerationism?

By Charlie Ambler, reposted from VICE

Is Consuming Like Crazy the Best Way to End Capitalism?

Hang out on Tumblr or in a dorm lounge long enough and eventually the talk will turn to ending capitalism. These discussions are all theoretical, of course—there have been endless attempts at shifting from our market-based economy to something more egalitarian and enlightened, but nothing has stuck and some of the larger scale efforts have turned into horrific disasters. Anti-capitalists of various stripes haven’t stopped coming up with theories about how this system could finally fall, however. One of these theories is called accelerationism—the idea is that hyper-stimulation of the market on a mass scale will end with the collapse of capitalism. Consume like crazy, only drink from styrofoam, and throw handfuls of dead batteries into our oceans so the impending apocalypse can hurry up and get over with.

The spread of this idea is rooted in Marx’s belief that capitalism can’t sustain itself forever and will eventually fizzle out. The means by which people will bring about its end are unclear, but that’s where the ideas about accelerationism come from. Accelerationism is essentially the belief that the best way to shorten capitalism’s lifespan is to push it to the extreme. If normal capitalism is Mick Jagger, accelerationism is Jim Morrison.

A while back, Steven Shaviro, who teaches at Detroit’s Wayne State and studies the impact of technological capitalism on culture and everyday life, wrote an essay about accelerationism, explaining what it is in language that wasn’t clouded by the usual academic jargon. Accelerationism has been explored by philosophers like Nick Land and Reza Negarestani, but Shaviro has become known as an authority on the topic—probably because he can articulate these complex philosophical ideas in a simple way that us plebs can understand. Shaviro just finished up a book out on accelerationism called No Speed Limit, so I called him up to learn more about the theory and see if my Amazon Prime addiction is actually helping society

Continue reading here.

 

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Climate Change, Ethics, & Water

E-mail notice received from Center for Humans & Nature.

Join the Center for Humans and Nature, Ecomyths, and the
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum as we bring science, policy,
and ethics to a timely panel discussion reflecting on the
Paris Climate Conference (COP21).

Stream or listen live to this conversation on Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview Thursday, December 10, at 12:00 noon CST on WBEZ 91.5 FM.

with Kathleen Dean Moore, Curt Meine,
Joel Brammeier, Adele Simmons, and
moderated by Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell

 

 

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