By Jeff VanderMeer
This Earth Day it may be of use to think about how elements of weird fiction relate to the political sphere. Rather than creating escapism, mapping elements of the Anthropocene, especially malign agents operating in the real world, via the idea of the uncanny may create a greater and more visceral understanding (render more visible certain truths), precisely because so many of the effects of this era are felt in and under the skin, as well as in the subconscious.
The pursuit of the idea of hauntings in this context is in a sense the pursuit of recontextualizing or defamiliarizing, so that we do not normalize what should not be normalized. That weird fiction is up to this challenge should be clear even from the recent publication of Giorgio De Maria’s 1970s masterpiece The Twenty Days of Turin, an uncanny text that uses hauntings to comment on the neo-fascist violence in the city of Turin at the time. Because of the use of the weird in the service of the political, this novel remains relevant today.
Closer to home in both space and time, some hauntings are obvious because more noxious and aggressive, and they come with their own horror stories.
For example, in Florida, we have a sitting governor, Rick Scott, and a Department of Environmental Protection that showcase a particular nexus of toxic, counterfactual fictions spun out in the service of a particular agenda—including fracking, denial of global warming, and pollution of waterways—that occupies a traditionally nonfictional space that has become remarkably less so over the last twenty years. There is the world in which we breathe, eat, create waste, and absorb toxins from the air, earth, and water—and then there is an invisible world composed of strands of human thought that makes malign story-telling easier to sustain, for a variety of reasons.
Within this context, Scott represents a fiction that has metastasized as fact—deforming, creating stress for, and living in bodies as a form of possession of those ordered to carry out missives they know are destructive.
Scott’s psychopathy can also be thought of as a localized manifestation of a hyperobject wraith, Rick Scott’s Department of Environmental Protection re-envisioned as a haunting transformed under the skin by malignant storytelling and infiltrating Florida—an invisible pollution released into the world like the natural gas leak that went untreated near Porter Ranch outside of Los Angeles.
On the opposite side of this country from Florida, Oregon recently experienced a slightly different haunting: the reappearance of Manifest Destiny, in the form of the Malheur occupiers —terrorists, really—militia members who cling to another kind of fiction as their truth: That there never really were any Native Americans with a claim to the land and that Nature is just there to drive a road through and wildlife is just there to be used, and scientific discovery on the refuge is pointless.
We might think of the Malheur occupiers as outliers, but, in fact, like Rick Scott’s dysfunctional narrative of business and industry, what the Malheur incident lays bare is just a more extreme version of ideas encoded in the DNA of the United States and expressed in what is widely seen as acceptable ways—coursing through the subtext of car commercials, movies, books, and cultural and societal conversations.
Because a haunting is often about some issue or situation that has not been resolved, that society has plastered over or turned away from in order to avoid dealing with uncomfortable truths. (See also: Spain and Franco.)
The hauntings generated by Donald J. Trump pose a particular philosophical and ideological challenge or danger or trap, exemplified by how even a brilliant thinker like Latour can seem to partially miss the mark in his comments about the situation excerpted in the latest issue of Harper’s. We must all forgive each other for misdiagnoses given such a volatile and unpredictable landscape.
That said, in terms of the uncanny and dark ecologies, it seems useful to examine how Trump forms the nexus or landscape for a malign ecosystem, a kind of anti-ecology whose very lack of physical world granularity forms a kind of defensive shield around it. This anti-ecological system provides niches for deadly invasive species and by that I mean modes of corrosive thought that haunt us as policy positions and, now, national law.
Rick Scott lives within the corpse-face of Trump and so do the Malheur terrorists, along with myriad others. And if one parasite dies off, another inevitably takes its place—the Trump anti-ecosystem can re-seed at will. It is a stable space in that regard—the kind of void that attracts agency to it. With the organisms that live there identifiable only by their ability to thrive in a corpse-face death space.
(Although let’s be honest—we’re really looking at a rotting corpse full of maggots. Although to be honest yet again, there is nothing wrong with real maggots or real rotting corpses.)
A natural tendency to want to be predictive hampers us in diagnosing the haunting that is Trump—we want to know what will happen next or think the prior manifestations will continue into the future in the same manner. But it is not Trump, except in the most general of ways, that should be predicted, because while his ambitions are simple his agency often derives from the things that peer out from him. The haunting here is one that he hardly knows anything about even as it devours him and us.
So in our work of resistance, we must contemplate this void and also find the ghosts that live within it and ceaselessly drive them out. Exorcise them for good—a difficult but not impossible task. Even parasites and wraiths contain finite agency—and the void will become void again. Stable, yes, but perhaps a little more inert. With less power.
Geologic time, it should be noted, cares nothing for Trump. There is nothing about Trump that is huge or tiny to geologic time or to the physical laws of the universe; to those forces Trump simply does not exist. If this should seem to foreshadow a diminishment of our own powers, let us at least take solace, as we resist him, that he is not immune from the effects of any of the many things he denies.
The uncanny has infiltrated the real, and in some sense that boundary is forever compromised. The things that haunt us in this age are often the things we care about or have some connect to, no matter how slight, and if they are also the things that matter we either need to become cynics or hedonists and change the things we care about so we don’t care when they’re destroyed, so the hauntings cannot affect us . . . or, more bravely and with more effort, let them haunt us even if it is painful, and through that haunting find some kind of act or agency or sense of the truth that is meaningful. No matter how large. No matter how small.
All while the hyperobject I am trying to pin down looms over me and shines through me and is all places and in all ways is shining out and looming over.
Note: Image from VanderMeer’s Earth Week keynote address at DePaul University on April 19th, 2017.