Category Archives: ecologies

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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What is the Lay of the Land: Part II

by Joshua Mason

Editor’s Note:  This essay is based on Mason’s presentation at DePaul University last October. See Part I here.

To ask ‘What is the lay of the land?’ is to ask what the land looks at when it sees itself.

Joshua Mason_Mirrorworks B.jpg

I’ve continued to photograph mirrors in the landscape. Of course the mirror has become a symbol retaining a long history and meaning, from reflection and perception to a stage in the formation of subjects, etc.. Is it a symbol of our seizure by desire, a beautiful hallucination, or is it the artist’s embraced place allowing for artistic liberty? Is it a way of looking at the world implying a psychological opening? All works of art are quotations of moments of the reflectivity as visual proof of one’s existence—it is ‘here I am’ for a time—but art is a terrain truly of that which is not me. As an artist I am not reflected in the mirror.[1] The mirror is also an abyss, shedding our interpretation for an unaccountable infinity. The other of us that it reflects is the stranger of the mirror itself.

Joshua Mason_Mirrorworks

Critchley, paraphrasing Socrates, says that to do philosophy is “to learn how to die.” I think something similar ought to be said about doing art, which is after all a form of philosophy. We are all subject to finitude. I think every artist who is sensitive to their craft knows this on an intuitive level: they feel it in the materials, at the edge of the catastrophic. As an artist I am conditioned by my own extinction.

Certain abstractionists wanted surfaces to be smooth, streamlined, hygienic—a sterilized picture plane, an insinuation of reduction of nature, complexity and chance. But time asserts itself upon sleek surfaces. Malevich, for example, who wanted to break from the earth and in whose discourse the earth takes on negative valences.[2] The Black Square, nevertheless, as one of the pivotal works of twentieth century art has cracks upon the painted surface. It is the revenge of the geomorphic quality of painting.[3]

The Extinctions series is a recent set of photographs. I am using a black square placed into the landscape. It cuts into the landscape like a black hole. It places a bomb in between images and the associations attached to them.[4]

Black Square.2

Escaping from words and into being, to be silent in the face of a work of art is to practice that silence elsewhere in the face of other objects. That being is catastrophic, poised always at the edge. It is subject to materialization and decomposition, sedimentation and erosion—to becoming. From confrontation with the edge, I look at nature in wonderment and trepidation. I am interested in geomorphic tendencies to mineralize the imagination. I am caught up in excitation and intensity. I am interested in speculating on my own disappearance in the midst of nature. To stretch out beyond oneself in a condition of difference, to that which loses the intellect. When this occurs the initial question—what is the lay of the land?—disappears.

All photographs by the author.
________________________________________________________________________

[1] The mirror, traditionally associated with identity, is placed into the natural environment: the forest, the field, the shoreline. I am not reflected in the mirror because it is important that in the face of nature I attempt to displace identity. The beholder also sees the photograph of nature that includes the mirror but the mirror does not reflect the beholder: instead what appears in the mirror is the forest, the field, the shoreline—the land looking at itself, captured in a moment.

[2] See Malevich to Mikhail Matyushin, June 1916, cited in Zhadova, Malevich, 124, n 39. The symbol even of the negation is itself subject to nature’s ubiquity: entropy, erosion, sedimentation, disposition, weathering, time—becoming.

[3] Geologic catastrophism covers over the culture of painting like a landslide.

[4] A dream of escaping from words into being. Leaving the realm of conventions behind—historic, linguistic —in order to attain immediacy, moving signification out of the realm of the discursive where the object’s meaning would be the essence itself. To the challenge of the crisis of the sign, via signing and naming nature, via the image and its association, the black square is an extinction.

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The A.I Cargo Cult | Kevin Kelly

 

I’ve heard that in the future computerized AIs will become so much smarter than us that they will take all our jobs and resources, and humans will go extinct. Is this true?

That’s the most common question I get whenever I give a talk about AI. The questioners are earnest; their worry stems in part from some experts who are asking themselves the same thing. These folks are some of the smartest people alive today, such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Max Tegmark, Sam Harris, and Bill Gates, and they believe this scenario very likely could be true. Recently at a conference convened to discuss these AI issues, a panel of nine of the most informed gurus on AI all agreed this superhuman intelligence was inevitable and not far away.

[ . . . ]

Human minds are societies of minds, in the words of Marvin Minsky. We run on ecosystems of thinking. We contain multiple species of cognition that do many types of thinking: deduction, induction, symbolic reasoning, emotional intelligence, spacial logic, short-term memory, and long-term memory. The entire nervous system in our gut is also a type of brain with its own mode of cognition. We don’t really think with just our brain; rather, we think with our whole bodies.

These suites of cognition vary between individuals and between species. A squirrel can remember the exact location of several thousand acorns for years, a feat that blows human minds away. So in that one type of cognition, squirrels exceed humans. That superpower is bundled with some other modes that are dim compared to ours in order to produce a squirrel mind. There are many other specific feats of cognition in the animal kingdom that are superior to humans, again bundled into different systems.

Read more here: The A.I Cargo Cult | Kevin Kelly

 

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Do Not Normalize What Should Not Be Normalized

By Jeff VanderMeer

 

A Void

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.

Resist.

 

Note: Image from VanderMeer’s Earth Week keynote address at DePaul University on April 19th, 2017.

 

 

 

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Ravi Agarwal: Fluid Landscapes

5_4fb305aaPhoto by Ravi Agarwal: http://www.raviagarwal.com/index.php

Agarwal will be speaking at DePaul on Monday, April 24th.  See details in sidebars.

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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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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.

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Read more here.

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

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Filed under Accelerationism, Capitalism, ecologies, Jeff VanderMeer