Category Archives: Capitalism

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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Filed under Affect and Ecology, Animals, Capitalism, Objects, OOO, Tim Morton

VanderMeer’s Ecological Mind

Annihilation-preview

Jeff Vandermeer is sometimes credited with creating a new genre of ecological fiction with his Southern Reach trilogy, and the startling “Area X” which functions as the scene, action, and main character of the novels. VanderMeer doesn’t like the moniker “cli-fi,” however, and his academic readers, at the very least, can appreciate why “climate change” doesn’t account for his work. Certainly ecological change is one of the main topics of the trilogy: Area X is generally interpreted as a territory in which ecological degradation is mysteriously reversed, with terrifying consequences for humanity. But VanderMeer’s vision is broader than climate change, and this breadth of vision might begin to account for the brilliant “weirdness” of his novels.

In a published conversation with critical theorist and philosopher Timothy Morton, published in Paradoxa (volume 28), VanderMeer commented that contemporary realistic fiction which somehow manages or contains climate change within given, classical forms isn’t very realistic. Mere climate fiction, conversely, may focus on the environment while forgetting the complexities of context writ large. The ecological context is most obvious in VanderMeer’s work, but sustained critical attention to environmental issues may have distracted readers from socio-cultural themes, as well as the vulnerable bodies and fragile psyches of his characters.

VanderMeer’s work began to be associated with Tim Morton, Hyperobjects, and the Anthropocene, with the publication of the Southern Reach trilogy, in 2014, and more recently with Morton’s new book, Dark Ecology. Morton is also known as a proponent of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), a popular philosophical mode of inquiry associated with Speculative Realism.  OOO is also very interested in the uncanny and the weird. Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy meticulously illustrates the relationship between object-oriented ontology and the weird, for example, and VanderMeer could easily substitute for Lovecraft in that work, and probably should. But this association with Speculative Realism may be limited and limiting.

Though I believe it to be theoretically broad-minded, agile, and pragmatic, Speculative Realism has come to be associated, in the public sphere, with merely philosophy speculation. And though the relationship between VanderMeer and the Anthropocene, within the context of Morton’s work, has been and will, no doubt, continue to be very productive, critical commentary focusing on ecological issues, as we currently understand them, in VanderMeer’s corpus, may have the same limitations as literature which tries to contain climate change within classical literary forms. Of course the Southern Reach is about the environment, but also, more accurately, about relationships among the environment, institutions, bodies, and minds.

Steven Shaviro’s recently published review of VadnerMeer’s Borne draws attention to capitalism in the work and suggests connections to accelerationism. This attention to capitalism as an institution is faithful to the new novel, but also VanderMeer’s work as a whole. I quote at length form Shaviro’s review for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with his superb work:

The Company itself seems to have come from elsewhere; perhaps it is (as the novel suggests at one point) a mechanism of “the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future,” or “another version of Earth” enriching itself at the expense of this one. (The issue is not resolved, but I find it suggestive: it’s a far better version of Nick Land’s fantasy of capital as an alien parasite from the future). (The idea of the future exploiting its own past — which is our present — is one that I find especially compelling; something like this is also the premise of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers).

Shaviro’s concept of “the future exploiting the past or the past exploiting the future” is particularly apt, at this moment, as the American fossil fuel oligarchy guarantees its “right” to extract as much wealth as possible from long-buried resources, at the obvious expense of current and future generations. But the concept is also generally true, and no one can escape the hyperobject of capital.

While accelerationists are often criticized as dystopian, anarchic, and even malicious, the “outside” stance of some environmental ideologues subtly undermines their own convictions of interconnectedness. VanderMeer’s work, including his soon to be released Borne, describes a much more intimate and complicit relationship to capital. There’s no “outside” to the meta-ecology of nature and capital in Borne, and none in the “real” world. Most of us occupy a liminal space, vulnerable to the influence and seductions of capital, even as we may deny our responsibility, and this self-deception may, in fact, be structurally necessary.

The novel has been described as the genre of the Modern human subject, which appeared, with capitalism, on the cultural scene in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Twentieth-century literature often described human subjects in existential crises, for obvious reasons, as did the “weird” Kafka, for example, and postmodern/posthuman fiction is characterized by the dissolution of the human subject as we know it. Alison Sperling’s article in Paradoxa (28), which features the conversation between VanderMeer and Morton, draws attention to the porous body in the Southern Reach trilogy, and the body as a major theme in VanderMeer’s work.

Sperling reminds us that human bodies are neither inside nor outside of the space of ecological degradation. The weirdness and threat of Area X in the Southern Reach constitutes a direct biological threat to human beings, even though the strangeness is atmospheric. When the biologist is infected with an alien spore, the contamination significantly occurs without direct contact. The atmosphere is the medium. This moment illustrates that Anthropocene bodies are vulnerable because they are non-separate from their environment. Sperling also makes the extremely astute argument that environmental threats may be complex and unmanageable, because the environment too is sick from multiple causes, related to complex human intervention. Thus the “weird” conceit, throughout VanderMeer’s work, that bodies are invaded but also became part of other organisms and/or organic systems, may “realistically” reflect current ecological conditions.

But these incursions and transformations are not limited to bodies. VanderMeer’s charcters are not merely bodily hybrids, but also psychological hybrids. As each character is contaminated they change psychologically. The introduction to Paradoxa (28) reminds us of the origins of the uncanny in Freudian psychology, and the requisite condition of uncertainty. (Freud notes that fairytales are not uncanny, for example, because they have almost no connection to reality.) Uncertainty is only remarkable within a generally predictable, certain, context. And we find uncertainty on various levels of the Southern Reach trilogy, within various levels of “reality.”  As Area X is a mysterious space within a realistic setting, the characters’ psychological “symptoms” manifest within functioning psyches and more or less conventional institutional cultures.  Among the most memorable psychological moments in the Southern Reach trilogy are the initial contamination of the biologist which she seems to interfere with her perceptions; Control’s darkly humorous resistance to hypnosis by screaming obscenities at his superior over the phone; and the rapturous madness of Whitby. But most intriguing is the problem of origins. Does the madness of Area X originate with an alien invasion, institutional attempts to control the invasion, human frailty, or some combination of the above? Is it a form of original sin? Is it a weapon of the invasion, collateral damage, or something else entirely?

In “Character Degree Zero: Space and the Posthuman Subject,” the first chapter of Science Fiction Beyond Borders (2016), Elana Gomel argues that the posthuman characters of contemporary science fiction are affectively “flat” because their psyches are somehow extended into the environment, rather than contained within their bodies.[i] In lieu of the pathetic fallacy of traditional fiction, in which the natural environment metaphorically reflects the internal psychological states of the characters (but remains essentially separate), contemporary science fiction is often marked by “character eversion,” a novel state in which a character’s psyche escapes the body. Eversion is also an inversion of space and character. Rather than focusing on round characters in flat worlds, posthuman science fiction presents flat characters in round worlds (6).

The affective flatness of Southern Reach characters could also be interpreted as a symptom of trauma or disassociation. Like ecology and culture, trauma may be our habitat. VanderMeer has speculated that the Gulf Oil Spill entered his psyche and became the tunnel/tower at the heart of Area X. This makes sense in the context of Gomel’s thesis. Though trauma may originate outside of the psyche and breach its barriers, it must also be externalized, because it’s categorically too big to be contained.

Returning to Gomel, the posthuman subject suggests, even demands, a posthuman politics. I quote at length from her concluding pages:

The fusion between place and character in SF can also be seen politically, as an expression of the emerging eco-consciousness. Character eversion generates subjects who give up the temporal coherence of the liberal-humanist self in favour of a more capacious and inclusive sense of belonging. They lose themselves but gain the world.

Certainly when cultural emphasis is shifted to context, the liberal human subject will be marginalized (and not a moment too soon). Gomel also makes clear that the anthropocentrism of traditional narrative discourse is no longer appropriate nor ethical:

This discourse is no longer adequate either narratively or politically. The “everted” characters, fading into the alien landscape, offer a revolutionary, if unsettling, view of the possibilities of interaction between humans and other living creatures: surely an important subject in the Anthropocene age.

The sum of these critical reflections points to a broader, forward-looking ecology in VanderMeer’s work, a whole far greater than the sum of nature, consumer-capitalism, body politics, and even posthuman notions of the psyche. This bigger, emergent “thing” is not quite organic, artificial, animal, or machine, but something novel and challenging, demanding novel, challenging responses . . . which brings be back to VanderMeer’s ideas on realism and form.

Realism to date has been unapologetically anthropocentric. What would a non-anthropocentric realism look like? Visionary, uncertain, dream-like? Hard-edged, crushing, hyperreal? As the boundaries between human beings and their environment begin to dissolve, epistemologically, realism may become impossible, or at least very quaint. A kind of nostalgic, historical mode . . . leaving us with pure experience.

[i] Gomel vacillates between flat as one dimensional and flat affect. In this piece I’m referring to the latter sense of the word.

Image source: http://screencrush.com/annihilation-set-photos-garland/

 

 

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VanderMeer’s BORNE: how the story folds

Jeff and Borne

NOTE: POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT

Borne has been described as one of the most anticipated novels of 2017, following the success of VanderMeer’s New York Times best-selling and critically acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy. The first novel of the trilogy, Annihilation, also attracted the attention of Paramount and Alex Garland, writer and director of the superb 2014 film, Ex MachinaAnnihilation, the film, currently in post-production, is scheduled to be released before the end of the year. But neither of these feats seem as remarkable, to me, as VanderMeer’s ability to captivate and hold the attention of an academic audience, particular those in the Humanities who collectively hold writers to a standard set by well over 300 years of literary fiction in the modern languages. On its surface Borne seems like a relatively simple tale, certainly compared to the multi-faceted, deep-mapped narratives of the Southern Reach and, even more so, VanderMeer’s astonishing, and astonishingly underappreciated Ambergris series. But once you begin to examine Borne more closely, once you begin to unfold its surface layers, you may discover, in addition to a moving story, a series of meditations on age-old topics of being and becoming . . . the relationship of parts and wholes, biological growth, the development of a psyche, and the relationship of creatures to their natural environment, to name a few.

Borne is patently about parts and wholes. The population scavanges, salvages, tinkers, and trades in a chaotic array of very strange biotech. DIY meets dystopian science fiction/fantasy, but this is no dark green fantasy camp. “Human” actors are not just tinkerers; they are also tinkered with. Everyone is technically improved—more or less. This state of affairs generates unusual tension in relationships; considerable anxiety about wholeness, completeness, and authenticity; and almost compulsive soul searching. I am not what I seem . . . something’s missing . . . how did I get here . . . what is wrong with you . . . this doesn’t add up . . . did you see where I left my soul?

A less obvious tension between parts and wholes, though integral to the narrative, is the dislocation of individuals from any broader community. Borne foregrounds binary relationships, but in the context of general social collapse. The City, once dominated by the Company, disintegrates when the Company is destroyed by its own monstrous creation. This is one of the reasons academics are going to be talking about the novel. As American academic, Steven Shaviro suggests in his recent The Pinocchio Theory blog post, Borne is a startling illustration of accelerationist hopes and liberal fears.[i]

In the broken city, a diverse population of hybrids survives on biotechnical scrap. The more human creatures find distraction in the usual dystopian pursuits of drugs and violence. And while the main characters, understandably misanthropic, retreat into a dark cave, they also remain complicit in the Company’s boundless abuse, and categorically ashamed.

Though literary fiction should neither serve nor accommodate philosophy, Borne’s sustained focus on the problem of parts and wholes, at various scales, reminds us of classical and contemporary problems of mereology (the study of parts and wholes). VanderMeer’s appeal to Speculative Realism, and virtual dialogue with Timothy Morton and some of the major topics of Object-Oriented Ontology, furthermore, remind us of the very long relationship between mereology and ontology (the study of being). We create monsters out of parts, for example, but recognize them as such, perhaps, because of our intractably provincial sense of integrity.

Though every character in the novel is monstrous, the title character and the universal antagonist, Mord, are categorically more monstrous, by virtue of their scale. Borne is a briny, psychedelic, biotech blob, who grows and changes at an alarming rate. His surrogate mother just can’t keep up with him, and her boyfriend, understandably, doesn’t like the way Borne looks at him (with those eyes). Mord, is a rogue, flying-bear created by the Company to control the City. Predictably he gets too big for his britches, turns on the Company, and destroys its laboratory compound as well as its ability to control the City’s inhabitants. If the Anthropocene is an age in which human beings have substantially altered the environment, the world of Borne is a “posthuman” environment, in which human beings have fundamentally changed what it means to be human.[ii]

As a story of hybrids, Borne is also a story of folding. Human beings are folded into animals, and animals into human beings. And if we assume animals are already folded into human beings through evolutionary processes, then the technological processes of humans being folded into animals (in the novel) comprise a second fold. This figure might prompt us to wonder if human beings are also folded into animals, in a biological sense? Is the seed/code of the human present in every form of life? If not, how did we get here? Is life multiple or one? (But these are philosophical questions. Don’t pester the biologist just yet.) In any case, as Borne’s origami creatures interact with one another in an origami world, approaching, withdrawing, and turning from one another, they suggest infinite folds, a high-tech baroque fractal.[iii]

Borne, the creature, might be described as an example of technologically accelerated evolution folding in on itself. He moves from sea anemone to plant to animal to person to leviathan, and then somehow evolves into a giant, single-celled creature, before returning to his original state. Because Borne is continually changing shape and because the direction of his development is so unpredictable, he ultimately seems to occupy all points at once. Is he born or programmed to be everything at once? Is he some kind of super-complex, living hypercube? Or is he a really big mistake?

But biotech is more correctly about animals and machines.[iv] And indeed, animals are folded into machines and machines into animals on every level of the work. Most of the hybrids in the novel seem more animal-like—enhanced animals rather than enhanced machines—but perhaps we just don’t see the machine (so much) because we are vitalists (as well as speciests), conditioned to privilege familiar forms over unseen functions. A recent revival of academic interest in vitalism, from Henri Bergson to Brian Massumi, seems to point to the wisdom and virtue of “real life,” in response to, or possibly in reaction to, various AI turns. AI is generally a frustrating discourse, for outsiders, but the playful yet philosophically earnest, and extremely insightful, speculations of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing remind us that operating systems can be endlessly fascinating, and even charismatic, once you get to know them.

The overarching soft-tech, wet-ware bias of the novel seems consistent with VanderMeer’s Ambergris sensibilities, but thinking about cultural distinctions between nature and technology is inherent in all of his recent works. At what point, precisely, do simple tools become machines? What was forged in the iron age? What snaked in and out of the age of information? And why are we turning away from both at this point in time, going back to “nature” and “life,” so much so we don’t even question the value of the turn, even as we are more, and more intimately, bound up with and bound by technology?

In some ways Borne, the character, doesn’t evolve very much at all, and this might be an indication of his limitations as a hybrid. What machine, part or whole, could match the fathomless history of life? While many readers will undoubtedly become attached to Borne as a child-like figure, sacrificial lamb, and/or distant relation of Southern Reach’s Crawler, Borne remains, for the most part, an empty, inverted vessel. He can take on any form and contain multitudes because, in his absurd versatility, he remains formless and empty. He’s not really up to the task of a relationship with anyone, though there is a moment . . . of heartbreak. For some reason (it was sudden and surprising for me), we feel Rachel’s love for Borne most keenly when she is forced to abandon him. She can’t bear to leave him, but he can’t evolve beyond his monstrous impulses, though he clearly wishes he could. Grow up. Stop acting like a two-year-old. But two-year-olds don’t have regrets, and neither do machines. In the end, Borne, becomes a misfit among misfits, but also a hero, and a sacrifice. And in this sense human.

Mord is a colossal menace form the start, and seems much less complicated, but he’s also a sleeper. Once you get past the frenzy of trying to make sense of him . . . once you overcome the compulsion to put him back into the author’s psyche to understand how he was conceived and nurtured, you might discover you actually like him. Compared to Borne, Mord has too much substance, but there’s something charismatic about his matted mass. He’s solid, genuine, unapologetic . . . even sincere. You always know where you stand with him. You know he could and would stomp you, given the chance, and you know that he should. No ethical prevarication.

At the same time Mord also presents a conceptual riddle. He’s a bear—grumpy, willful, wild, and out of control. He eats and sleeps a lot, has really bad breath, and mostly bad hair days. Like Borne, biology seems to be his dominant trait.  However, he doesn’t seem to have emotions (except for an undifferentiated rage, hardly recognizable as feeling). And his mode of flight, makes no sense whatsoever in an animal world.

As a flying bear, Mord is categorically mechanical, and yet barely “real.” Without the Company, it seems, he would have no reason to exist. Without their avarice, manic sense of proportion, epic resource grab, and complete lack of accountability, he would not have left the drawing board. Truly, Wick’s discarded fish, even a giant walking fish—sitting on the porch drinking lemonade—beats a flying bear, every time. I remain anxious about VanderMeer’s freedom, but admit there’s ultimately something compelling about the combination of the mammoth animal and enormous machine in Mord. Biotech at this scale becomes a difference in kind. A different kind of biotech. A different kind of novel. A different world.

The jump in scale from minnows to Mord, in Borne, invites us to first notice, then see, and subsequently reflect on the still larger, ecological scales of biotech in the novel. Not only Borne but Borne’s world is a biotechnological monstrosity.   Biotechnical creatures, great and small, cannot be contained in a lab, inside a built environment, or outside of an ecological space. And biotech weapons certainly can’t be contained. Anything created in a lab is already part of the environment. There’s no inside and no outside. And before you know it, you have a toxic biological and cultural soup that can only evolve toxic creatures.

So there’s a lot more than biotech, as we know it, being folded in this dystopian laundry. There are ecological folds—water, chemicals, soil, and vegetation in unsustainable proportions. Geological folds in the salient caverns and crevices. Institutional folds within the Company. Folds in time and space, in worlds within the novel, intertertextual folds. And ecology is folded into geology, and into the ruins of culture. Time and space are folded into characters, worlds, and texts. Vandermeer’s brain, folded back on itself, unfolds freely in the text, and we too are brought into the fold. We open each drawer of this ornate cabinet, curious, reckless, guilty, but also compelled. Unfold a letter addressed to someone else, and watch incredulously, as the cyphers themselves begin to unfold.

I am not what I seem, but I made you whole. You are not what you seem. Do not forget. We can outrun them.

We can outrun ghosts?

Borne’s different scales of biotech, and stretches of the imagination may challenge fans of VanderMeer’s weird realist, Southern Reach Trilogy. One might worry that VanderMeer has wandered from his post as a virtuoso world-maker and painstaking literary craftsman. One might worry . . . if one had become too attached to the diamond-tough characters, dazzling descriptive passages, and old-world pacing of his Southern Reach and Ambergris novels. While very different from these previous works in some ways, Borne “sticks” because it emerges from and points to various directions at once. And this is both exhilarating and frightening. The compass needle spins wildly as we enter a new territory. Do I wake or dream? Am I hypnotized, or mad? Can I trust our leader? A distant shriek, barely animal. Saints preserve us.

*

Reading and writing fold minds over time. Communication suggests—perhaps guarantees—another type of fold. Bare existence. And conversely, bare existence might guarantee communication. We gravitate toward dialogue, even internal dialogue, with a sense of purpose, while understanding (surely) that it never ends. We can close a chapter and a book, but we can’t outrun ghosts. And even those pages we will never read, leave a trace in cultural memory.  Borne is a striking moment in the ongoing conversation about our futures.  An unframed original, a sacrifice, and a gift.

[i] Acclerationism is a popular socio-political concept expressing the hope and expectation that capitalism will accelerate beyond its capacity and suddenly collapse, bringing about radical change.

[ii] Though the distinctions are not at all clear in any context, the term “transhuman” usually represents an anthropocentric, futuristic ideal of overcoming human limitations, while the “posthuman” denotes a more critical or value-neutral worldview, which calls the concept of humanity into question.

[iii] I’ve borrowed this conceit from Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. However, folding and unfolding as approach and withdrawal might also be considered in the context of Graham Harman’s 2011 The Quadruple Object.

[iv] What kind of speciest would get so excited about animals being folded into humans in the first place?

Image source: http://chicago.eventful.com/events/jeff-vandermeer-borne-book-tour-/E0-001-101117488-6

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High Praise for VanderMeer’s BORNE

Borne

“Jeff VanderMeer’s BORNE”
By Steven Shaviro
Reposted from The Pinocchio Theory, 4/9/17

Borne is Jeff VanderMeer’s first new novel since his Southern Reach trilogy. I was stunned by reading it, and I am not sure that I can really do it justice. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape: a nameless city that was first transformed by a biotech enterprise known only as the Company, and then abandoned when the Company broke down or abandoned the region (it is not entirely clear which). The Company itself seems to have come from elsewhere; perhaps it is (as the novel suggests at one point) a mechanism of “the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future,” or “another version of Earth” enriching itself at the expense of this one. (The issue is not resolved, but I find it suggestive: it’s a far better version of Nick Land’s fantasy of capital as an alien parasite from the future). (The idea of the future exploiting its own past — which is our present — is one that I find especially compelling; something like this is also the premise of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers).

In any case, the city in which Borne is set is basically a desert; and there is nothing left but ruins, noxious chemicals, and the remnants of the Company’s biotech — much of which is mutated and broken. There are many dangers: polluted water, violent feral children, venomous beasts, and a gigantic flying bear named Mord who ravages and destroys whatever he cannot control. There doesn’t seem to be any exit from this hellscape: there are remembered past scenes, and the elsewhere from which the Company emerged, and to which it has presumably returned — but none of these are accessible to the characters in the world of the novel.

[ . . . ]

Read more here.

Image source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28225843-borne

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Filed under Accelerationism, Capitalism, ecologies, Jeff VanderMeer

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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Filed under Capitalism, Climate Change, Policy, politics, Social Justice

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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Filed under Capitalism, ecologies, economicss, Equity, Policy, politics, Social Justice, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Accelerationism, Capitalism, politics, Uncategorized