An Initial Exploration
by Jeff VanderMeer
Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, which sets out a series of thoughts about “dark ecologies,” has become central to thinking about storytelling in the modern era, in my opinion. Morton’s central idea of a hyperobject is in a sense a way of using a word as an anchor for something that would be otherwise hard to picture in its entirety–it is an all-encompassing metaphor that also has its own reality, both literal and figurative, here and there. The word therefore is a very important signifier for any fiction writer wishing to engage with the fragmented and diffuse issues related to the Anthropocene.
What is a hyperobject? Something viscous (they stick–to your mind, to the environment) and nonlocal (local versions are manifestations from afar). Their unique temporality renders them invisible to human beings for stretches of time and they exhibit effects in the interrelationship of objects. In the instance of most interest to both Morton and to me, global warming can be considered as hyperobject. And even with just this bare context given, it should be clear why the term is of use. Because a hyperobject is everywhere and nowhere, cannot really be held in one place by the human brain, reaction to it by the human world is often irrational or inefficient or wrong.
If global warming in the Anthropocene can be identified in general as a hyperobject, there is perhaps further value in describing it specifically as a kind of haunting. At least, this is of extreme interest to me as a fiction writer and someone who wants to find new ways of telling stories that better fit the extremes of our era.
As Maria de Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren write in “Possessions: Spectral Places” in The Spectralities Reader (Bloomsbury), “Repetition of events, images, and localities is one of the recurrent motifs of the uncanny.” What is global warming but repetitions bound by laws of cause and effect that come to feel uncanny because no one can see the entire outline of a hyperobject (i.e., elements of both cause and effect seem invisible)? Global warming is an inherently destabilizing force for this reason, whereas the uncanny is neutral because it can be used to either destabilize the reader’s perception of the world, or, by story’s end, to reinforce the status quo.
Rather than creating escapism, mapping elements of the Anthropocene via weird fiction may create a greater and more visceral understanding (render more visible)—precisely because so many of the effects of this era are felt in and under the skin, as well as in the subconscious (whether manifesting as a denial of civilization’s death or in a more personal manner).
In the introduction to the anthology The Weird, coedited with my wife Ann VanderMeer, I wrote that the weird tale “represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane—a ‘certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread’ or ‘particular suspension or defeat of . . . fixed laws of Nature’.” [i]
In the modern era, the hyperobject of global warming makes such a mockery of what our five senses can perceive that the “fixed laws of Nature” seem more and more, through, for example, extreme weather events, to have become un-fixed, the compass spinning wildly. The laws of science, which often seem resolute, begin to seem less so, even if this is just our faulty perception.
The uncanny has infiltrated the real, and in some sense that boundary is forever compromised. What, for example, is William T. Vollman’s Imperial, a thousand-page rumination on the psycho-ecological cost of the ruination of the Salton Sea, other than a vast and apocalyptic haunting?
It is a haunting first of the author, who confesses at one point he could not remove his personal perspective because he was too affected by what he was observing. It is a haunting second in the reader through the repetition of description of ecological impact and loss, which begins to manifest as physical stress or nightmares. The book is an especially potent example of purgatory in the uncanny, because it provides a glimpse of mid-Collapse in the Anthropocene—a transitional state in which those affected may not even realize the progression of decay in the moment. This kind of haunting in progress dislocates and relocates both the mind and the body. The value of such a book lies not in its facts or its adherence to ideas about science, but in conveying the totality of this mid-Collapse condition.
Extrapolating outward from the epicenter of the Salton Sea, we find the visible in the invisible and the same repetition across other bodies of water and water in general—which has become the ultimate uncanny element. The consequences of our actions in even the deepest parts of the ocean lie hidden from us, “out of sight, out of mind.” Plastic bottles of water are also part of the visible invisible, the repetition of idea and ideology we don’t often acknowledge or don’t know what to do with—a bottle of water is at this point life and death packaged in the same object. We, in our millions, like a cute octopus hiding in an open soda can on the sea bed, surrounded by a desolate landscape denuded of life without acknowledging we’re looking at trash. Only when the evidence is too visible or extraordinary to be overlooked or subsumed by the landscape does this kind of haunting become noticeable—as when toxic algae bloom on the coast of Florida in part because of the untenable practices of large-scale agriculture. Otherwise, it is an unpleasant hum in the background that continues to colonize our bodies and our lives despite our inattention to it. Even as the pumps being built on Miami Beach to keep the water out make sounds as they work like a dark absurdist laughter from an unseen specter.
Reading about hauntings and thinking about them in terms of Vollman’s book helped me understand where the idea for Area X in my Southern Reach trilogy came from . . . something that was not immediately apparent. Yes, I had a dream of walking down into a tunnel-tower and seeing living words on the walls. Yes, I woke up and the biologist character was in my head and that next morning I wrote the first ten pages of Annihilation, which would remain more or less unchanged in the final draft.
But for a long time I didn’t realize what irritant or issue or problem had lodged in my subconscious to force Area X out. Finally, though, I realized that the Gulf Oil Spill had created Area X. It wasn’t something I said out loud at first because it sounds vaguely or not so vaguely pretentious—overly earnest. But it’s true. By the time of the Gulf Oil Spill I had lived in North Florida for over 20 years and through my hiking and experiences in the wilderness along that coast I felt for the first time in a wandering life like I belonged in a place, in a landscape.
Then suddenly the oil was gushing out in the Gulf, and it couldn’t be contained, and for many of us in the area it was gushing in our minds, and we could not get away from it. It was haunting us day and night, always there—a phantom sound, a phantom thought. For a time, for more than a month it wasn’t clear the well would ever be capped. For more than a month, many of us thought this catastrophe would last for years, and the Gulf and Gulf Coast would be, in essence, gone.
But even after they capped the well, it was still somewhere in the back of my mind, and eventually that dark swirl coalesced into a dark tunnel with words on the wall, and an invisible border and Area X: a strange place in which nature was always becoming more what it had always been without human interference: less contaminated, less compromised. Safe. Where the oil was being taken out.
Oil, like water, creates a particular kind of haunting. The best recent example might be the airport scene in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island. The narrator fixates on the scenes of oil that haunt the backdrop of news reports as he walks through the transitional space of the terminal and the details about oil not only place it in the foreground, leaking out over fellow travelers but, in the descriptions, oil attains a kind of agency or power—and an intentional fetishizing—that is, indeed, almost uncanny. McCarthy’s hierarchy in the scene inhabits both the surface and subtext, providing a view of oil as a more ubiquitous and over-arching definition of planet Earth than humankind. After reading this scene, it would be impossible to view oil as “inert” or unalive ever again, or as non-political. Supposedly we already know these things, but sometimes fiction can make us feel them in our bones.
The uncanny has infiltrated the real, and in some sense that boundary is forever compromised. There may be only one way into Area X, but there are a thousand ways out. As Michel de Certeau explains in The Practice of Everyday Life, “Every place has its own . . . proliferation of stories and every spatial practice constitutes a form of re-narrating or re-writing a place . . . Walking [into a place] affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects . . . haunted places are the only ones people can live in.”
In the second Southern Reach novel, Authority, the hauntings are smaller and more intimate. The size of rooms inside the Southern Reach building often doesn’t match their insides and lines of dialogue from Annihilation spirit across the hallways the main character Control walks down and a member of the twelfth expedition comes back as someone called Ghost Bird and the psychological overlays of some of the characters, across both the landscape and fellow employees, form a haunting with multiple sedimentary levels. The obsolete tech of past decades haunts the present.
With that sanctuary left behind in Acceptance, manifestations pour out across the sky, birds “trailing blurs of color that resemble other versions of themselves and the air seemed malleable, or like it could be convinced or coerced . . . In the lengthening silence and solitude, Area X sometimes would reveal itself in unexpected ways. Standing in a clearing one evening, I felt a kind of breath or thickness of molecules behind that I could not identify, and I willed my heartbeat to slow, hoping to be so quiet that without turning I might hear or in some other way glimpse what regarded me. But to my relief it fled or withdrew into the ground a moment later.”
“The correlation between movement and progress is broken [in a haunting] and progress is broken and the subject succumbs to a feeling of ungroundedness and spatio-temporal disjointedness,” Blanco and Peeren write.
“Time runs on time,” writes the great dark ecologies poet Aase Berg, “Time runs on time and starvation and the weakness carries me in across the gray regions. And the soul’s dark night will slowly be lowered through me. That is why I now slowly fold myself like a muscle against the wet clay…I will sleep now in my bird’s body in the down, and a bitter star will radiate eternally above the glowing face’s watercourse.”
Thomas Hardy writes of a fallen soldier, “Yet portion of that unknown plain/Will Hodge for ever be;/His homely Northern breast and brain/Grow to some Southern tree,/And strange-eyed constellations reign/His stars eternally.”
In Authority, my main character, Control, hung-over and definitely not in control and caught in the grip of horrors, stares from the window of a café, bleary-eyed at the liquor store that in his youth had been a department store and reflects.
“Long before the town of Hedley was built, there had been an indigenous settlement here, along the river and the remains of that lay beneath the liquor store. Down below the store, too, a labyrinth of limestone cradling the aquifer, narrow caves and blind albino crawfish and soft-glowing crickets. Surrounded by the crushed remains of so many creatures, loamed into the rock and soil, pushed down by the foundations of the buildings. Would that be the biologist’s understanding of the street—what she would see? Perhaps she would see, too, one possible future of that space, the liquor store crumbling under an onslaught of vines and weather damage, becoming akin to the sunken, moss-covered hills near Area X.”
In the Anthropocene, hauntings and similar manifestations become emissaries or transition points between the human sense of time and the geological sense of time, “Earth magnitude” as Morton puts it. In a very real sense, the weird can convey a breadth and depth that otherwise belongs to that land of seismic activity inside of a geologist’s brain.
“Yeah, this place is haunted,” Giant Sand sings, “but only by a ghost.”
The things that haunt us in this age are often the things we care about or have some connection 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 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.
Author’s note: In exploring these ideas, I may be retracing some of Timothy Morton’s own ideas as expressed in interviews and essays. For the moment, I’ve avoided reading the bulk of this possible influence, while planning to come back to it, so as to first emphasize my own perspective as not a philosopher but a writer of weird fiction. Some portions I gave as a lecture at Vanderbilt University earlier this year. Some sentences are reworked from related essays I wrote for Electric Literature, but are here redeployed in the service of different concepts. This essay constitutes an excerpt from a nonfiction book in progress.
[i] Examples abound locally. Governor Rick Scott’s psychopathy treated as a localized manifestation, once independent, now controlled by a hyperobject wraith generated by the Gulf Oil Spill. Governor 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 of hauntings released into the world like the natural gas leak that went untreated near Porter Ranch outside of Los Angeles.
Image source: Making the Invisible Visible <http://www.svrdesign.com/blog/2013/08/making-the-invisible-visible> CS