Category Archives: Literature

When Talking Canines Took Over New York

By Jeff VanderMeer

Re-posted from The Atlantic, May 9, 2017

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Twenty years after it was first published, Kirsten Bakis’s extraordinary novel Lives of the Monster Dogs still has a lot to say about the entwined destinies of animals and humans.

When Kirsten Bakis’s novel Lives of the Monster Dogs was first published in 1997, it was translated into multiple languages, adapted for the stage, and included on the New York Times Notable Books list. Among other honors, it became a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction and won the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel. In a year dominated by juggernaut explorations of the human condition—like Don DeLillo’s Underworld—the novel’s level of success seemed destined to accord it cult status. But 20 years later, as it gets a much-deserved reissue, Lives of the Monster Dogs feels undeniably like a classic.

What makes all this perhaps surprising is that the novel is so strange, if beautifully so, imagining as it does a breed of humanistic dogs, the result of brutal experiments, that walk and talk and attempt to coexist with polite society in New York City. The novel comes to us in the form of journal entries, excerpts from an opera, and other “real” evidence, framed and explained by Cleo Pira, a woman assigned to write a magazine article about the dogs. Her explorations delve into the past, including the hideous experiments of the 19th-century Prussian surgeon who created the monster dogs. The horror and unease in the narrative derives in part from its verisimilitude in conveying the grotesque and in part the blurring of the animal and the human, resulting in a fascinating exploration of both.

Read more here.

 

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Call for Papers: SLSA 2017, Out of Time

Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference

Tempe

SLSA 2017: Out of Time
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona
November 9 – 12, 2017

SLSA text

Call for Papers here: http://litsciarts.org/slsa17/submissions/
Deadline: May 15th, 2017.

 

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Life in the Broken Places with Jeff VanderMeer

Borken Places

See short video about urban ecology and VanderMeer’s new novel, Borne here.

Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5stee_pAAU&feature=youtu.be

 

 

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The Roots of Creative Darkness

by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois (Copyright © Michael Uhall)

 

two men

Two Men Contemplating the Moon, Caspar David Friedrich

Michael Uhall is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with an M.A. in Philosophy from the same institution. He is writing a dissertation prospectively titled “On the Political Uses of Creative Darkness: Nature, Companion Ecologies, Biopolitics,” and his website can be found at https://www.michaeluhall.com/.

CS: What follows are excerpts from a longer piece which can be found on Uhall’s blog, here .

Introduction: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling

At first glance, the three figures under discussion – Algernon Blackwood, Marion Milner, and Friedrich Schelling – seem to form a rather unlikely trio, especially if you’re looking for insights into politics in the Anthropocene. Before I can examine why they complement each other so well – not to mention what insights they do, in fact, provide when grouped together – I’ll introduce each figure, since my impression is that none of them tend to be particularly familiar to us.

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Algernon Blackwood  (1869-1951) was an English writer of horror and fantasy tales in the early 20th century. Best known for such stories as “The Willows” – considered by H. P. Lovecraft to be one of the finest weird tales ever written – Blackwood’s output ranges from the didactic and whimsical to the disconcerting, eerie, and haunting. As Mike Ashley, S. T. Joshi, and others document, his stories tarry constantly with dark vitalities and psychic doctors, with transformative terrors and with the radical disruption, even dissolution, of the subject upon her encounter with natural forces that exceed and escape from the prisonhouse of modern selfhood.

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Marion Milner  (1900-1998), by contrast, was a practicing psychoanalyst, best known for her development of freewriting techniques and introspective journaling, as well as her classic case study of a 20-year-long analysis with a severely schizophrenic analysand, Susan, and her wry self-reflections on the negative capacities of the self in On Not Being Able to Paint (1950). [ . . .] Always of principal interest to Milner is what she perceives as the fundamentally unconscious origins of existential creativity, and how it is that creative acts and practices can be blocked – or else made possible – by the subject’s own comportment toward “inner” and “outer” nature alike. “The idea of a live tree,” she writes, “with its roots hidden in darkness and its branches outspread in the light, seems to me an apt symbol for a way in which one can experience oneself creatively.”

Last, we have Friedrich Schelling, a 19th century German philosopher of nature writing mostly between 1794 and 1815. Schelling argues that nature fundamentally consists of infinite productivity – that is to say, nature is neither the aggregate of all products, nor is it an embodied or underlying “substance,” as for Spinoza. Rather, nature is the very principle of productivity as such. [ . . .] Apparent momentary stability appears insofar as the constitutive opposition of forces in nature flirts with equilibrium and then falls repeatedly into disequilibrium. What this produces, Schelling claims, is not an entropic slide into absolute disequilibrium, but, rather, developmental stages of increasing complexity and reticulation – what Schelling calls “potencies.” A potency is a formal degree of complex organization (or self-organization). Each is composed of “darkness,” that is to say, of matter that is organized more or less differently, thereby giving rise to potencies that exceed basal norms. As Schelling writes in an 1806 essay: “Das Dunkelste aller Dinge, ja das Dunkel selbts nach einigen, ist die Materie” (“Matter is the darkest of all things – indeed, it is the darkness itself”). Accordingly, we see in Schelling a deep fascination with what we can call the “nightside” of nature, that is to say, those expressions of nature that do not reveal themselves easily or, perhaps, at all to the instrumental techniques of the natural sciences.

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Contexts

So there we have them: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling. An author of weird horror stories, a psychoanalyst, and a German Idealist. It’s necessary to note, in passing, the various ways in which we could reconstruct genealogies of influence or force fields of effect that link these apparently disparate figures together. For example, much scholarly work (e.g., Ellenberger, Ffytche, McGrath, Žižek) has been done to show how the German Idealists – and Schelling, in particular – contribute to the development of the concept of the unconscious prior to Freud. On the other hand, the lineage of Dark Romanticism that precedes the weird tale bears no small relationship to these very same discourses – E. T. A. Hoffman was a touchstone for Freud, of course, while a figure like Heinrich von Kleist was close friends with Gotthilf Schubert, one of Schelling’s disciples. In Blackwood’s case, some of the meager scholarship addressing him examines the influence of Gustav Fechner upon his work. Fechner, a German psychologist in the mid-19th century, was a late devotee of Schelling’s, and much of his work assigned itself the task of reconciling the mind/body problem, specifically. Rather than dwelling further on any of these genealogies, however, I’d like to put all three figures to a more speculative use.

Inherit the darkness: Schelling

It’s from Schelling primarily that the concept of creative darkness emerges, although, as Eugene Thacker and others have noted, affinities between various descriptive vocabularies of darkness and some sense of primal, or primary, creativity can be discovered in many alternative traditions (ranging from various Western mystical traditions to the Hawaiian creation chant Kumulipo and even the Tao Te Ching).

Creative darkness refers to the interaction between the emergence of ontological novelty as the product of creative agency or action, on the one hand, and the alluring, but often disconcerting or even horrifying opacity of nature, on the other hand.

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For Schelling’s philosophy of nature, the question is always: How do free subjects emerge in nature? I think this is a particularly relevant question for any attempt to think a meaningful, nonpostural politics in the Anthropocene – a term that, as Timothy Morton excels at pointing out, implies both the remarkable power of human agency and nevertheless implicates the human in the ecological crisis we face today. Accordingly, the attempt to conjure possible existential alternatives to our current path is one of our principal political tasks today. To do this – to create “new modes and orders” (borrowing the term from Machiavelli) – requires first that we attend closely to the seething darkness of nature itself – both “inner” and “outer.”

“Rooted in darkness”: Milner

It’s here, then – for our sense of the “the inner darkness of our nature,” or the natures that we are – that the turn to Milner proves most productive, for she unceasingly directs our attention to the expressions and sources of the creative unconscious as implicit in the materiality of the body itself. For Milner, the unconscious is not a generically ideological writing machine, nor is it the subject of symbolic interpolation, but rather, the interface between the body and what we still rather unimaginatively still call “the mind.” For Milner, the body and the mind are not distinct entities in any sense. Bodies dream, feel, and think long before they are conscious. Having a mind – or, perhaps more clearly, making a mind happen – is one of the many things that bodies do. So there’s a sense in which the unconscious is the body, or that function of the body that makes minds and enables minds to take shape, to endure, to change, and to shift over time.

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I think Milner is directing our attention toward what I’d call a deeply personal materialism, one which simultaneously separates and sutures action and ideation in the conscious and unconscious personality of the subject. Hence Milner’s advocacy for what we might call a arboreal model of the self (as against the various [rhizomatic] [] models of subjectivity proposed in the wake of Deleuze and Guattari): “So it was that I came to try thinking of the tree as a symbol for the ego’s direct, non-symbolic sense of its own being: something rooted in darkness, but spreading its branches into the light.”

Sylvan darkness: Blackwood

In Blackwood’s novella, “[The Man Whom the Trees Loved],” [] precisely this same structural emergence of the subject takes place, albeit at a different scale. Although Blackwood almost always directs our attention expressly to the seething darkness of nature “out there” – consider, for example, the endless, earthly alien whispering of the willows in “The Willows” – his interest often turns to dissolving subjects whose very dissolution opens up the possibility for a heightened attunement to the natural world, or else whose interpenetration by inhuman agencies makes possible radically different forms of life or ways of being-in-the-world.

“The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” then, concerns the long, slow seduction and integration of the retired forester David Bitacky by the forest near which he retires. What this seduction largely entails remains ambiguous, although the main character of the story, David’s wife, documents the seduction with unsettlement, at first, and, eventually, horror at the darkly vital stationary green hurricane that the forest embodies. David spends more and more time in the depths of the forest alone – “a man, like a tree, walking.” Eventually, of course, the forest consumes David, and sylvan dread becomes a fierce, verdant joy. As Punter and Byron state, “the transcendence of human concerns that this implies is carefully balanced against his wife’s powerful sense of loss.” Returning to Blackwood: “In the distance she heard the roaring of the Forest further out. Her husband’s voice was in it.”

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Toward a conclusion

In conclusion, I argue that considering the concept of creative darkness through the speculative lens these three figures provide gives us access to a dimension of speculative political theory that we often overlook. Specifically, two central contentions animate the foregoing considerations. First, I want to suggest that the politics of ecological receptivity and transformation we need now are impossible without a new theory of the human subject. Second, I think we need to start looking at why this doesn’t mean what we probably think it means – for by abstracting her out of the conditions of creative darkness, we have fundamentally lost touch or misunderstood what sort of creature a human subject is.

Read the whole paper here.

Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2000.51/

 

 

 

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Open Land Art & Fact Team: Interactive Installation at DePaul

DF.Mock_Up

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.

centralfire

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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