Randall Honold, Institute for Nature and Culture, DePaul
(photographs by the author)
Good science fiction makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy – Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – is good and strange. Over a span of 600 pages he imagines a present-time place – a coastal area perhaps in north Florida – that has undergone a transformation into something mysterious and mostly inaccessible. This place is dubbed Area X by the Southern Reach, a government agency set up to study it. A lot happens as part of this effort, but I would like to focus what doesn’t happen: people coming to know Area X. In other words, my interest is how trilogy explores the limits of epistemology. I’ll try to show this in two “takes.”
To start, let me recount just a bit of the plot. Over thirty years ago an event occurred that began to transform the area and simultaneously cause a border or wall to appear. The “Southern Reach” was established by the government to investigate what happened, under the cover story of managing an environmental catastrophe. To this end there were twelve official expeditions into Area X but dozens more clandestine incursions. Investigators came back altered in various ways – if they came back at all. Reporting was fragmentary and contradictory; specimens collected exhibited unusual qualities but analysis of them was always inconclusive.
The Southern Reach analysts determined that something in Area X has the power to replicate people who entered the territory. Sometimes the replica is sent, or finds their way, back across the border while the original is incorporated into Area X in order to form hybrid beings. These vary from the somewhat recognizable (pig-human, dolphin-human, owl-human) to the bizarre (a whale-size human-amphibian with eyes covering its body; a human-mineral who communicates by writing with fungi). Most humans/replicas who returned from Area X died of disease, committed suicide, developed psychoses, or simply went missing. The trilogy starts with the most recent expedition and ends approximately a year later.
If you know the books, you’ll probably recognize a lot of the lines in the next few paragraphs. I’ve “sampled” and reassembled them into a kind of argument against epistemology-by-default.
The first response to an encounter with something new is to want to get to know it. Humans go repeatedly into the unknown in search of answers. A question motivates them: What is that thing? Attempts are made to separate the thing from its context, to outline it. Likewise regarding its origin and purpose. It appears to be acting differently from what’s around it – how did it get there and what does it want? Measurements are taken, but the numbers mean nothing, without knowing the wider context. Without context, clinging to those numbers is a form of madness. To say “I don’t know” becomes a kind of witness to our own ignorance or incompetence. Or both.
Maybe the written is more accommodating, more manageable. Words about things. Words become new things. Sketches, drawings, paintings, photographs about things are new things too, added to the mix. Looking for hidden meaning in papers is the same as looking for hidden meaning the in the natural world around us. If meaning were to exist, it could be activated only by the eye of the beholder.
Wherever we go, we explore things that might contain a second mysterious thing, which itself uses yet other things to – write words, draw pictures, capture light; move capital, conscript bodies, assign status. Always, the emphasis is on our own capabilities and knowledge base. Always, there is an almost willful intent to obscure, to misdirect, disguised as concern that we not be frightened or overwhelmed. We know everything…and we know nothing.
Ill-defined events are natural to persistent, even resilient, beings. But what about when the history of exploring a being starts becomes that being? When do the strange things that have been happening become The Strange? We are not trained to encounter what is uncanny. The uncanny shows up at the border between the strange stuff in the background and the slightly less strange thing being explored. It displaces the distinction between the background and the thing under investigation. The uncanny becomes the new, interesting thing to look at, but without the standard investigatory tools, we don’t know what to make of it. It’s there and it isn’t there. It shows up and slips away. It’s mine and it isn’t mine. It’s a bit terrifying. It terrorizes. My terror grows from my terroir. Perhaps we need a new “thesis on terroir” that amounts to a “comprehensive ecosystem” approach. With such a method we might have “terroir precognitions” allowing us to foresee the uncanny up at the border, when we’ll know what’s what and who’s who, here and there. By merging theoretical viewpoints, into one meta-method, we shall know the uncanny! Even after the apocalypse, when we don’t know if there’s still a world out there as we know it, or a way out to that world, we shall know soon enough. Yes we will. We’ll know. While existing in that moment in a world so rich and full we will still employ our pebble tools, throwing them in front of us to find the invisible outline of a border that might not exist anymore. We will walk for a long time, throwing pebbles in the air. The questioning continues while the questioning is over – before we are nowhere; before we are everywhere.
The Southern Reach Trilogy explores what happens at the limits of epistemology. In this borderland, knowledge is both too much and never enough. The efforts of agency officials to figure out Area X read as a parable about how knowledge, specifically reductionist scientism, seduces and blinkers us. This is not because of ineptitude, lack of rigor, or inability to resist, but because of a misconstrual of the place of epistemology. In the trilogy, Area X’s resistance to knowledge exemplifies this misconstrual. The investigators rack their brains to solve the problem of Area X, when the problem-solution framework is a miscasting of the situation. It’s akin to asking an absurd question such as: What’s the problem of existence, and how do we solve it? Southern Reach agents are stuck in knowledge-seeking mode where they reduce ontology to epistemology.
There’s little doubt that the new but robust critical approaches being developed by the speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and vital materialism movements would be helpful for responding to something like Area X. Area X behaves like a hyperobject (per Tim Morton), it has an agency that derives from its vital materiality (per Jane Bennett), and it resists human correlation to it (per Graham Harman). Ecological concepts could work on Area X, too: system resilience and accompanying ideas of turbulence, complexity, non-linearity, and phase shifting; the fecundity of boundary conditions; the myriad forces leading to speciation; the porosity of the living and non-living; the halting ways scientific experimentation often proceeds; the micro-politics of group-think; and the macro-politics of knowledge production. Add also the now “classic” formulations of reality by Donna Haraway as “material-semiotic” and by Bruno Latour as “hybrid,” and we have a set of alternative conceptual tools that Southern Reach officials do not. (I say it this way intentionally, which I’ll echo shortly.) Let me throw two more approaches into the mix which likewise aim not to get knowledge about things right, but to practice coexisting with things intimately.
One is what Barry Allen calls “vanishing into things.” He describes this as the classical Chinese way of thinking co-existence. This isn’t quiescence, but the beginning of a new kind of acumen:
“The problem of knowledge is not how to get beyond perspective, a view from nowhere. The problem is to see deeper into the world, to know it more intimately than concepts and language allow…” (VIT, 10)
The humans to make their forays into Area X are successful in coming to know the place only when they cease trying to remain outside while inside, but by becoming more immanent within it. The Biologist who becomes the multi-eyed, dark, phasing mass knows Area X intimately by vanishing into it. As does the Lighthouse Keeper who becomes part of the respiring underground structure, which, like a Klein bottle, functions as an point of porosity between the inside and outside of Area X. These two characters suffer their immanent knowledge, bearing it in the new bodies they have become, straining to their limits when trying to communicate their new identities with other beings.
The other is found in the Creation Hymn of the Rig Veda. Here we find relentless questioning that exhausts itself until only co-existing, really co-breathing, with reality remains:
“Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?” (RV, 25)
Again, this isn’t a state of rest, but a relinquishment of the need for the objective knowledge of the unconnected perceiver. This way of living calls forth rituals to deal with mysterious, often untoward things. Whatever intellectual knowledge there is to be gained emerges from ritual behavior, without contradiction between doing and thinking:
“What was the original model, and what was the copy, and what was the connection between them? What was the butter, and what the enclosing wood? What was the meter, what was the invocation, and the chant, when all the gods sacrificed the god?” (RV, 33)
My too-quick references here are only to show alternatives to “epistemology-first” positions and that we need not replicate the Southern Reach’s error of defaulting to scientism when encountering something new or strange.
The protagonist of the trilogy, Area X itself, despite the mystery that surrounds it, is the character that shows us an alternative way, having the least amount of knowledge troubles in the trilogy. Area X arrived on the scene how other beings arrive, in media res, with certain imperatives but no discernable ultimate purpose. It rather casually develops its knowledge of what is outside of it mostly by letting what’s outside in and “playing” with it.
All this leads to my main point, contained in the title: We are always already in Area X. We have been and continue to be here/there. Area X is in parallax with what we ordinarily see; the bottom note of a scent already in noses; a tang on tongues, a modulating hum in ears, a rippling of skin, a pulse through innards, motifs in dreams. New beings emerge from the patterns drawn by the crossing of Area X and its outside. Too bad the Southern Reach folks didn’t see it this way – they might have come up with a better way to coexist with Area X. Instead of the common description of science fiction I opened with perhaps more a propos here is Francoise Laruelle’s definition of science fiction what asks the questions, “Should humanity be saved? And how?”
RV: The Rig Veda. Translated by Wendy Doniger, Penguin Classics (1981)
VIT: Vanishing Into Things. Barry Allen, Harvard University Press (2015)