Category Archives: Literature

Open Land Art & Fact Team: Interactive Installation at DePaul

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Mock up of the Open Land Art & Fact Team (O.L.A.F.T.) installation

The DePaul Institute for Nature & Culture is delighted to announce the upcoming installation of a new work of art on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. Conceived by Chicago photographer Doug Fogelson, Openlands Artist-in-Residence 2015-16, and executed by Fogelson and the Open Land Art & Fact Team in collaboration with Openlands.org, O.L.A.F.T. will be installed at DePaul University in April, as an interactive workstation. In an initial proposal, Fogelson described the project as a “conceptual art intervention.” At this stage, the audience is integral to the work:

This is meant to be an interactive experience where participants are invited to read, inspect, and comment on the items in the shelves. The table has instructions with stickers and comment cards that participants can affix to the back of photographs in the bin and leave with the objects. Artifacts in [sealed] bags are assorted natural objects such as leaves or twigs and assorted refuse such as plastic packaging, [that] have been found in forest or prairie preserves. There are also white sheet printed documents with demographic and ecological information on the locations (Initial Proposal).

The installation will be hosted by DePaul’s John T. Richardson Library in conjunction with Earth Day programming and the April 19th visit to the University of New York Times best selling author, Jeff VanderMeer (McGowan South, Room 108, 6:30-8:30 pm). University leaders are delighted by the obvious topical connections between Fogeslon’s work and Vandermeer’s, as well as the aesthetic resonance of O.L.A.F.T. and VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.

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Fogelson collaborated with a team of artists, over the course of a year, to photograph and creatively survey eight Openland sites. Faculty and students from all colleges, schools, and disciplines are invited to visit the installation, examine the maps, photographs, and artifacts, and add their responses to the project. By interacting with this installation/social experiment, faculty and students will contribute to “meaningful public conversation about the relationship between humans and the spaces we occupy,” in effect co-creating a regional research project and work of art (Open Land Art & Fact Team: O.L.A.F.T. Proposal).
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The installation will be located against the west wall on the second floor of the Richardson Library, near room 201, and will be accessible to faculty and students throughout the Spring semester.

More images here.

Lead Artist: Doug Fogelson
Installation: Open Land Art & Fact Team (O.L.A.F.T.)
Dates: April 1st – June 1st 2017.
Location: John T. Richardson Library,
2350 North Kenmore Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614,
Second Floor, west wall, near Room 201

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Dark Mountain Gathering

Base Camp at Embercombe near Dartmoor, UK

by Doug Fogelson

CS: I’m thrilled to share this piece from Chicago artist, Doug Fogelson

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When you believe in the dystopian future of climate change and ecocide, even if you support and appreciate the efforts of green movements, it can be hard to find places to discuss such a dark subject. This is when you need to discover Dark Mountain. Their work began almost a decade ago with one of the better manifestos written on the topic and a miscellany of efforts in literary and other creative modes. Now they are still a niche group but have become more widely appreciated with books, a blog, various events, and retreat style gatherings under their belts. And the co-creators Paul Kingsnorth and Dougie Strang have become celebrated authors and thought leaders along the way.

I came to know of Dark Mountain close to its inception, at a time when I was entranced by the written work of Derrick Jensen, particularly Endgame. Jensen is an American radical writer/thinker who brings a well-researched and (to my mind) balanced view on society in the midst of ecocide.When I first found the virtual mountain of darkness I just read online and kept tabs on their work. It was simply good to know they were there. Eventually, however, I subscribed. And when an e-mail popped up inviting subscribers to join a group of 150 Dark Mountaineers at the amazing permaculture site called Embercombe in the southwestern hills of England, I felt called to go find out more. At this point my own work had reached a deeply invested place with regard to sharing stories about the Anthropocene, climate change, and the Sixth Mass Extinction, so it made sense to seek out others with similar troubled, yet kindred souls. With plenty of carbon attached, I found my way to the Exeter St Davids train station and then into a cab that wound its way through the hills and narrow roads leading nicely away from Exeter. Those treacherous country roads, edged with tall hedges and steep banks, ribbon through a landscape like something out of a fairy tale. It wasn’t easy finding the place, which seemed part of the point.

Embercombe is an amazingly well-maintained permaculture farm and center, sited on a large parcel of rolling moorland that contains forest, lake, yurts, biodynamic farming, green woodworking/forge/art making space, meeting areas, fire gathering places, and so forth. It is managed with obvious love and an ethos focused on the generations which will follow “in our footprints,” whatever the global conditions may be. This makes it a perfect setting for a gaggle of calamity heads with hearts heavy from the discourse of a collapsing world. A place and time to process conditions we know to be real in the midst of false narratives that contemporary life and culture are jamming into our brains.

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The gathering slowly built up Friday evening as people came rolling in, setting up tents and checking into yurts. We had a group orientation and dinner— everything was very prompt on the timing. There were two simultaneous program events kicking off that evening which made for a hard decision, but I opted to begin my scheduled experiences with a folk duo, Crow Puppets, and storytelling, Tatterdemalion, on a stage built into the side of a vintage 1966 caravan complete with art, puppetry, a gypsy vibe and fashion to match. This proved to be a good choice as the stars came out amid harmonies and tales of a rugged future that shared more with the medieval past than anything in our plastic present.

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Saturday we had a large group exercise in listening and getting to know each other at the Centre Fire, an indoor meeting area, followed by a gripping story by Martin Shaw called The Crow King and the Red-Bead Woman. I later heard Paul Kingsnorth speak about his new novel Beast (which is situated in a moor landscape as well), and was captivated by the songs and writings of Catrina Davies, during her session titled Living with Less: Notes and Songs from the Shed. I began to notice something of a trend around regional myth and historical fact, at times focused on themes such as Normans vs. Anglo Saxons, the Green Man, fairies, and such.

After another farm-fueled vegan meal I joined the crowd for the Thylacine Tribute Cabaret from the silly Feral Theatre, followed by more folk music from a duo called Fly Yeti Fly, and finally the music of a bluegrass/country/Celtic variety from the good ole’ boys of the Kestor String Band (featuring a guy from Chicago originally). At this point all manner of dancing started—some with obvious connections to traditions like Irish and other folk dancing. However just as this was getting going properly, adherence to schedule dictated that it be cut short—too short! And the low point of the weekend followed with a heavy-handed performative push to the “procession.” This meant we were sternly herded out only to have to re-enter in strict silence and endure a long performance of chanting and more storytelling followed by the complicated dispersal of odd tasting mead (we were all tightly packed after a full, wet day of much storytelling/folk music/sitting). The party vibe continued to be held at bay at the fire circle afterward with the listening of, yes, another folkish guitar singer and a long story to follow. Many were delighted at the fire that night. However I enjoyed wandering off, looking at the Milky Way above, so clear and mixing with the clouds over the hills near the Atlantic, and even saw a few shooting stars later on.

Sunday’s activities included Walking the Territory featuring Monique Besten (my new buddy) and Nick Hunt, an artist and writer who walk great distances to experience time, history, culture, and the elements. After this session I chose to skip a “Re-wilding the Mind” workshop in favor of just taking my own long walk in the deeper woods on the grounds. I found quite a few more campsites in there, cozy fire circles, some primitive shelters, and a sweet caravan that was parked (perhaps forever) with a harmonious natural homestead built around it. I kept hearing children’s voices and thought it was the wind pushing their sound from the larger tent village, but I later discovered some kids had been exploring a long overgrown gully that ran the length of the woods. It was quite a sight to see these fresh-faced boys emerge from the thick growth, so confident and curious!

explorers

Many people were impressed with a session by David Abram in the main hall, but I was already beginning to detach from the program at that point, which raises the question, “if you are no longer interested in the stories Dark Mountain is telling us, and also the stories civilization tells us, then what ARE the stories that might bring meaning and joy to the future?” Of course this is meant rhetorically, as I did really enjoy my time there. It was just great to be present and have the chance to lie on a bed of moor grass, alive and in the moment. I met some very cool people, had more than casual conversations, shared my energy, and received their various gifts in return. I will cherish the memory of skipping an afternoon presentation in favor of chatting with some excellent souls while the rain sprayed just beyond our mugs of warm tea. I highly recommend a visit to www.dark-mountain.net, and perhaps one day I will be lucky to see some of my fellow dystopians in person again.

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All Photos by Doug Fogelson.

 

 

 

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Jeff VanderMeer Going Beyond Lovecraft: Thomas Ligotti

Short interview with Jeff VanderMeer (via synthetic zero).

 Jeff VanderMeer Going Beyond Lovecraft: Thomas Ligotti

Plague Doctor

Image: Robert Warden’s Plague Doctor via The Critique

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Article: Martin MacInnes, Farm

I had not seen the family in twenty-one years, since my grandfather’s funeral here at the over-full cemetery just above the waterline, gravestones beaten and inscriptions weathered to illegibility.…

Source: Article: Martin MacInnes, Farm

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The Politics of Science Fiction: Kim Stanley Robinson and the Rise of Solarpunk

Reblogged on WordPress.com

Source: The Politics of Science Fiction: Kim Stanley Robinson and the Rise of Solarpunk

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The Quadruple Object and Weird Realism

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Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy is an eccentric monograph that misses various marks of contemporary literary criticism and yet presents a useful tool for reading weird literature. Harman’s References to a few Mid-Century Modern critics including Edmund Wilson and Cleanth Brooks effectively dismisses criticism published in the last fifty years. Admittedly this Cthulu-like body of data is daunting even for literary critics, but Harman doesn’t even gesture to the current discipline. Harman interprets one hundred passages from the major works in the order that they appear, further undermining his own promising thesis with this bare method. The monograph is also repeatedly derailed by secondary arguments about paraphrase, and comedy and tragedy, which contribute little to the overall thesis. Nevertheless Harman’s primary conceit is original, and his application persuasive enough to warrant the serious attention it has received from a cross-section of the critical theoretical community. Within the context of speculative realism, “hyperobjects,” alien phenomenology, and panpsychism, the weird has become a category not only for fiction and philosophy, but also for contemporary readings of the built and natural environment, and the fuzzy borders between any number of given categories of experience.

Let me summarize Harman’s thesis, which is closely based on the “new fourfold,” introduced in his Tool-Being, and the focus of The Quadruple Object. Harman’s matrix is derived from combining Husserl’s distinction between qualities and objects, and Heidegger’s distinction between sensual the real objects (4-6). (Sensual objects appear to the subject; real objects categorically withdraw, even from themselves.) From these two axes Harman arrives at sensual objects (SO), real objects (RO), sensual qualities (SQ), and real qualities (RQ). This fourfold is intended as four aspects of all objects (rather that four categories of objects). Nevertheless, these four aspects interrelate in distinct ways, and these interrelationships are the focus on Harman’s “ontography,” as well as his reading of Lovecraft.  (See a recent review of The Quadruple Object here, though the present post contains a better summary of Harman’s basic thesis in that work.)

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Sensual objects are comprised of sensual qualities but are distinct from those qualities because not all qualities of a sensual object are apparent at once. Sensual objects and their sensual qualities are accessible but dynamic. Thus Harman denotes this relationship (SO-SQ) as “time” (32). Because they withdraw, real objects do not interact with one another; however, real objects can interact with sensual objects. The relationship between real objects and sensual qualities (RO-SQ) is termed “space” because both withdrawal and access are presumed to occur within this dimension (239). Real objects also have real qualities. Neither is accessible, but real qualities differ from sensual qualities because they cannot be separated from the object—hence Harman’s choice of “essence” to define the RO-RQ relationship. And real qualities can indirectly affect sensual objects. This indirect relationship (SO–RQ), is illustrated by the visible effects of an inaccessible object, like Harman’s example of a black hole indicated by swirling light (238). Harman argues, referencing Husserl, that we can derive real qualities from sensual objects through a form of theoretical inference he terms “eidos” (31-32). This scheme does not exhaust the possible relationship between the four aspects of an object or between two fourfold objects; however, it provides a powerful heuristic for understanding allusive language and for reading literature, which is categorically allusive.

Harman claims that Lovecraft, as “a writer of gaps and horror” is the poet laureate of object-oriented philosophy (2, 5, 32). Eliding for a moment the unfortunate resonances between Lovecraft’s racism and Heidegger’s fascism, we can readily appreciate Lovecraft as a chronicler of weird objects, and more so when we see his work through the prism of Harman’s “ontogrpahy” (33). Here are four examples that may be considered emblematic of Harman’s thesis.

A central figure in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountain of Madness” and Harman’s discussion is an alien, “Cyclopean” Antarctic city of incomprehensibly strange and complex geometry and design (165-66). Harman compares Lovecraft’s description to a cubist painting (197). The object is presented from myriad, conflicting, perspectives and yet it remains impossible to grasp as a whole, in “time.” Harman identifies this moment as a tension between a sensual object and its sensual qualities (234). The proliferation of sensual qualities suggests a sensual object that might potentially be grasped, and yet remains elusive.

Lovecraft’s famous Cthulu idol/monster represents the tension between real objects and sensual qualities (RO-SQ). The monster is described with the sensual qualities of an octopus and a dragon, for example, but Lovecraft makes clear that no combination of these qualities approaches a description of the thing itself, which withdraws from its sensual qualities (237–38). Like many science-fiction monsters, Chtulu exceeds our comprehension in scale, nomenclature, motivation, and sheer potential. Under Harman’s sign of “space,” it is alarmingly present and yet “absolutely distant” (239).

A third example is a concept with withdraws on all levels, though as Harman notes this is rarer in Lovecraft’s corpus. “The Dreams in the Witch House” alludes to a “blind idiot god Azothoth“ through various literary tropes, but Lovecraft makes clear that these tropes merely cloak a “monstrous nuclear chaos” (234-35). Language indicates an absent presence: “both the object and its features resist all description” (234). Azohoth is a real object with real qualities (RO-RQ) but lacking any accessible sensual qualities. This is an example of Harman’s “essence.”

A final example is a controversy in “At the Mountain of Madness,” concerning fragments of slate which elude scientific testing. This example represents a tension between a sensual object and real qualities (SO- RQ). While we have come to expect that the scientific method is a means of inferring real qualities through sensual objects (“eidos”), the common sci-fi trope of introducing objects, such as space matter or alien technology, that remain resistant to scientific scrutiny illustrates a tension between sensual objects and real qualities (151-53). The confounded scientists identify sensual qualities, but these qualities have no relation to existing sensual object or their real qualities. Thus a sensual object can be present while resisting eidetic processes (235).

Harman’s arguments are often hard to follow, but generally worth the effort. However the most perplexing moment in Weird Realism is the discussion of Lovecraft’s racist stereotypes. (See previous Environmental Critique post on Lovecraft here.)  Harman acknowledges that these representations create an atmosphere of anxiety and panic, but misses an opportunity to explore a fairly obvious relationship between race and “ontography.” A racist stereotype is patently a tension between a sensual object and a real object. And socio-cultural biases in general can be confounded by counterexamples, in which sensual qualities exceed their sensual objects. Indeed, the process of destroying stereotypes might be described as circulating sensual qualities that challenge stereotypes as sensual objects. In this sense Lovecraft falls short as a writer for our time, and Harman misses a cue to connect object-oriented philosophy, science fiction, and race. Weird Realism provides a model for understanding some other monstrous aspects of contemporary culture, however, through Harman’s association with the common topoi of object-oriented philosophy at large.

As I implied in my introductory comments, Cluthu is like big data. We can access parts of the object, but we can never apprehend the whole, and have few reasons to believe the creature is subject to our control. Even more frightening may be a feeling that we are compelled to interact with this monster—that we are in a sense hypnotized. We see the effects of information but cannot grasp the sensual object. Similar comparisons could be made to other hyperobjects such as transnational consumer capitalism and anthropogenic climate change.

And so, inevitably, to the Anthropocene.  While some writers and critics see nature or human beings as the problem, it may be more accurate to say that human culture is the problem, or rather some contemporary aspects of human culture, both familiar and strangely beyond our grasp.  While pundits point fingers at corporations that profit from consumer culture, the monster may be closer to home.  It may be that the formless leviathan of the consumer is to blame.  This incomprehensibly complex hydra, with a widely distributed, prosthetic brain, billions of blind eyes, and an insatiable appetite for resources, amoral, seemingly immortal, and yet withdrawn from its animal, technological, and alien qualities (sensual and real), has become our intimate, our paramour, but seems completely beyond our most advanced cultures of discipline and control (be very afraid).

And yet hyperobjects are more frightening if we remain self-important, assuming they are out to get us—that we are the object of “alien” aggression.  Indifference is not aggression, there are no antagonists, and we are not tragic heroes.  Imagining “nature” or “culture” is poised to destroy us may be sheer adolescent, if not infantile, narcissism.  And if fear of a faceless, aggressive other is a contributing factor to paralysis, then perhaps getting over our selves might help to focus our own actions and energies and motivate sustained meliorative action.  Rather than preparing to fight off alien others, we could begin by recognizing the alien self, which categorically withdraws from our fortified self-image.  Alluding to Jeff VanderMeer’s contemporary weird fiction, acceptance may be a productive stance. (See previous EC post here.)[i]  I don’t mean that we should accept the status quo, but rather accept the uncomplicated responsibility to clean up our ecological mess, whether or not such reparations will ultimately benefit what we heretofore recognize as our kind.

 

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Image credits:

  1. http://zero-books.net/blogs/zero/weird-realism-lovecraft-and-philosophy-graham-harman/
  2. http://www.zero-books.net/books/quadruple-object-the
  3. http://io9.gizmodo.com/acceptance-proves-weird-stories-are-the-best-way-to-und-1686164322

 

[i] See additional Environmental Critique posts on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy here.

 

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Southern Reach IV: Annihilation and the Strange Origins of “the Novel”

question-concept-conceptual-image-green-mark-growing-ruins-41642578Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach novels, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, evoke a wide variety of canonical literature. Reviewers have pointed to Poe, Thoreau, Kafka, Lovecraft, and Eiseley.[i] As an academic once focused on the origins of “the Novel” I associated Annihilation with Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. This comparison would not surprise those familiar with Defoe’s work. Both writers have a mesmerizing prose style that traps the reader in an expanding domain of uncertainty and anxiety, and both works confound epistemological categories and flatten hierarchies.

A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), though generally considered a work of fiction, reads like a straightforward personal account of living in London during the plague of 1665. Defoe’s language is somewhat ornate, in the typical manner of Eighteenth-Century literature, and in its rich details of London’s topography and culture, but this enhances rather than detracts from the “reality effect.”  The meandering narrative and elaborate syntax mirror the labyrinthine forms of London as a built environment, lead us through a maze of uncertainty and indecision, and help to articulate the emotional complexity of the scene.

In its depth of description, elongated periods, and flat affect Defoe’s writing creates a profound sense of dread and powerlessness. Indeed the steady rhythm of the Journal seems to induce a kind of trance or sleep paralysis. The reader is trapped in the web of the text, silently witnessing the horror and despair, and sharing the narrator’s conflicted impulses to remain within and flea the awful scene. Defoe’s “everyman” narrator deliberates at length about the best course of action, but the reader remains helpless. We become frozen spectators, watching the steady progress of an indifferent, “supernatural” disaster.

The Journal’s London is not only a maze of streets but also an alien cultural landscape marked by extraordinary civic and medical procedures, and myriad rituals of defense against the invisible threat. At the same time, the City is revealed as an organic, biological whole. The plague too is a creature of sorts, expanding and contracting, desiring, consuming, unpredictable—apart from and a part of the City. Hierarchies of the divine, the human, and the nonhuman are flattened. The formless plague has dominion, humans are subject to its inscrutable will, and God is degraded to desperate measures and last resorts.

Returning to Annihilation (2014), VanderMeer’s writing is also realistic and copious.  The first novel and the trilogy are clearly science fiction, but “read” like accounts of actual events. VanderMeer employs figures liberally, but generally in the service of detailed description: language brings natural and unnatural objects to life. Once the reality effect is established, however, these living, breathing objects become figurative language of another order. Annihilation’s complex “democracy of objects” evokes Gnosticism, the very best Twentieth-Century fantasy and science fiction, and the New Materialisms.[ii]  Within the context of VanderMeer’s virtuoso “objective” mapping of Area X, Southern Reach humans are, perhaps, predictably inscrutable, and the alien energies somehow familiar. (Read, Robbe-Grillet as an idée-fixe for this particular reader). Nevertheless, the trilogy contributes to a vatic survey of an epistemologically flat new “world,” or “worlds,” expanding the democratic topoi and perspectives of many canonical novels.

VanderMeer’s prose style has the same trance-inducing quality of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, in its steady, protracted periods, and arresting syntax and diction. Many reviewers have commented that the novels engender a kind of compulsive engagement. One enters Area X and never really escapes. Like the former expedition members, the reader remains haunted by an alien agency with unfathomable potential. The novels colonize the psyche like a hypnotic suggestion. This may be true of all notable literature and art, to an extent, but in the Southern Reach trilogy hypnosis is an explicit leitmotif. The novels repeat hypnotic suggestions employed on characters in the narrative. In thrall to Southern Reach, we too are induced, bitten, compelled. “Paralysis is not a cogent analysis.” Who of us stunned by the sublime of global ecological crisis can forget such a statement? Is this counter-hypnosis? Does the VanderMeer cast or break a spell?

Though one might feel overwhelmed, even trapped, while reading the novels, the final chapters of Acceptance goad us to transgress boundaries of truth and fiction, real and unreal, original and simulacra, natural and unnatural.  Area X is largely indifferent to human beings, their ego investments, their technologies, and their institutions (or institutions, technologies, ego investments and their human beings). Indeed the structures and methods of the ineffective government agency, the Southern Reach, and its similarly ineffective parent, Central, are primarily a subject of ridicule. The illusion of human sovereignty is shattered. Something “other” is now ascendant.

Area X is surreal in the forgotten sense of “more than” real. It’s also more than human. VanderMeer plays with worlds to see what happens when they collide, and he may even offer us an unstated ontology. When two or more worlds are unceremoniously introduced they become one, alienated to itself, disoriented, but struggling for reconciliation. Is this the karma of the colonist and space invader, or just another passing phase? When we embraced the indifferent universe  did we imagine it could assert itself against our hubris?

If Southern Reach is ultimately a morality tale it is an unusual one. VanderMeer’s world is a trickster figure. The detailed mapping of Area X enhances the literary and philosophical conceit that objects within the landscape are pregnant symbols, but the ciphers remain unintelligible. This more than ecology as more than text effect defines a territory of questions, or provocations, rather than answers. Are we utterly dependent? Are we both dependent and responsible? Are we already exiled? We see the writing on the wall. We understand the words but not the meaning. We may never understand, but we may come to realize that we are functionally illiterate.

 

Image source: http://www.dreamstime.com/photos-images/grass-symbol-question-mark.html

 

 

[i]  “The Weird Thoreau”

“Annihilation”

“Jeff VanderMeers ‘Authority’ and More”

“Deciphering a Lost World”

 

[ii] See New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics on Duke University Press ; New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, available here; and Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects, here.

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