Tag Archives: philosophy

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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Timothy Morton: University of Chicago Lecture

tim-morton_web2
Oct 23, 2016, 2PM

Kent Hall, Room 107
1020 E 58th St
[view map]

In Urth, Ben Rivers partially draws on the work of philosopher Timothy Morton, who offers vivid new perspectives 
on ecological thinking, our uncanny interconnectedness with the nonhuman, and the future to come.

In his latest book, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (2016), Morton argues that ecological awareness in the present Anthropocene era takes the form of a strange loop or Möbius strip, twisted to have only one side. Deckard travels this oedipal path in Blade Runner (1982) when he learns that he might be the enemy he has been ordered to pursue. Ecological awareness takes this shape because ecological phenomena have a loop form that is also fundamental to the structure of how things are.

The logistics of agricultural society resulted in global warming and hardwired dangerous ideas about life-forms into the human mind. Dark ecology puts us in an uncanny position of radical self-knowledge, illuminating our place in the biosphere and our belonging to a species in a sense that is far less obvious than we like to think. Morton explores the logical foundations of the ecological crisis, which is suffused with the melancholy and negativity of coexistence yet evolving, as we explore its loop form, into something playful, anarchic, and comedic. His work is a skilled fusion of humanities and scientific scholarship, incorporating the theories and findings of philosophy, anthropology, literature, ecology, biology, and physics. Morton hopes to reestablish our ties to nonhuman beings and to help us rediscover the playfulness and joy that can brighten the dark, strange loop we traverse.

This event is presented in partnership with the Arts, Science & Culture Initiative, the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, and the Open Practice Committee of the Department of Visual Arts, all at the University of Chicago, and the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. His books include Ecology Without Nature (2007); The Ecological Thought (2010); Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (2013); and Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (2013); and he has published more than 150 essays on ecology, philosophy, art, literature, music, architecture, and food. He has collaborated with several artists, including Björk, Olafur Eliasson, and Haim Steinbach, and blogs regularly at ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com.

urth-13

Related Exhibition

Ben Rivers
Urth

Sep 10–Nov 06, 2016

Source: http://www.renaissancesociety.org/events/1156/timothy-morton/

 

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so much less than the sum of one’s parts

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Brian Massumi valuing Guattari’s Virtual Ecologies

Rich presentations from Brian Massumi and Jane Bennett, via the virtual ecology of (you guessed it) synthetic zero.

Video post.

Source: Brian Massumi valuing Guattari’s Virtual Ecologies

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Radical Empiricism: Speculative Field Notes (complete)

Grand Prismatic Spring

William James’s posthumously published Essays in Radical Empiricism is neither well known nor well understood for various reasons. The collection is not particularly coherent, the essays are uncharacteristically abstract, and the work is generally hard to understand outside of the context of James’s substantial corpus. However, a concept of radically inclusive, multi-dimensional fields, gleaned from James’s work in various disciplines, might be helpful in grasping, interpreting, and indeed applying James’s theoretical position in Essays. The ecological imagination can also help us envision such a field or fields. A three-dimensional, experiential field is categorically distinct from a two-dimensional “screen” field. One is akin to the experience of walking out of doors; the other is like watching television. Ecological imagination, in this sense, might be cultivated by spending more time in nature, moving through space, and without any particular goal or focus of attention.

A primary argument of James’s Essays is that the concept of pure experience ought to replace the given categories of subject and object. James asserts that these terms denote positions that are both relative and arbitrary. He also makes clear that any thing can be a subject—not only human beings or sentient creatures. And conversely anything can be an object[i]. This implies a kind of leveling of subjects/objects compatible with some trends in contemporary continental philosophy, at the same time that it anachronistically challenges both late twentieth-century critical theory and some millennial speculative realism and new materialisms.[ii] However I’d like to proceed, here, on a more common sense or pragmatic level.

An obvious challenge to including the subject in a field of experience, not related to contemporary philosophy, is the problem of the implied third person.   In conceiving a universe with neither subjects nor objects we may initially place ourselves in a new subject position regarding the “new world” as an object. How can we escape this dichotomy, given our inherited sense of biological coherence and ontological autonomy? How can we “back out” of the subject position, even if we realize that we are also objects?

There may be various approaches, but perhaps none is an absolute solution in the sense of evacuating our sense of self. This should not be a dead end however. James was not fond of absolutes; indeed, eschewing absolutes may be a necessary condition for moving beyond given subject/object dichotomies. As a critic of absolutes, both philosophical and scientific, James prompts us to explore gray areas and liminal spaces. The irreducibility of organism and environment, for example, is a strong challenge to the “black hole” of subjectivity. As surely as we can never escape our subject positions, we can never escape the influence of the environment. To argue that the result of such interactions (which result?) is ultimately all subject, all environment, all continuity, or all discontinuity, is merely to fall back into late Modern and early poststructuralist political camps. (Thus I continue on my politically naïve and institutionally undisciplined trajectory . . . )

Perception and judgment always occur in a complex field, or fields, characterized by interference patterns. Conventional ethics, critical literacy, and current-traditional “Eastern” philosophy, however, still focus on subject/object dichotomies. Ethical systems are generally based on perceiving the human other as an image of the self; race and gender equity and critiques of capitalism are still conceptually based on binary oppositions; and Western yogic, meditation, and mindfulness techniques seem to begin and end with objectifying subjective states. Though we move or oscillate along this line between the subject/object nodes, and often try to negotiate much more complex dynamics, this linear subject/object model, even when complicated, is an insufficient response to our most pressing contemporary problems.

Dualism, with which James struggled throughout his career, may be a result of this habitual oscillation. Perhaps when we truly attend to an object we cannot be fully aware of our selves, and when we are fully aware of ourselves we cannot be truly attentive to the object. (Certainly one or the other must be foregrounded.) This oscillation may create the impression that the object is both out there and in our heads. However, this may also be an effect of ignoring the space in between. I don’t mean to imply a monist “everything is connected” perspective, here, but rather a pluralist “everything (merely) is” perspective, including the unseen media through which we co-experience. Also, by “field” I don’t mean merely what appears in our field of vision, though visual context is certainly relevant, but a far more basic and far more complex ecological field.

James psychological works and his philosophical works both point to the idea of fields rather than linear trajectories of experience.[iii] Neurological pathways, for example, are parts of complex fields of mental associations and/as physical networks. Perception is a complex operation in which previous experience including unconscious memories modulate every moment. Social institutions and communal values, too, are complex structures or networks, situated within even broader and more complex structure and networks.

Within this context one cannot properly say that any autonomous subject perceives any autonomous object. There is no separate experience of a subject apprehending an object, but an inconceivably complex network of co-experiences. The very act of perception implies a plural, unstable field. Universes reflect on themselves, in a sense. Experiences experience themselves through each moment, and thus experience is radically plural.

This is not a mystical thesis, however. It doesn’t require mystical inspiration or insights. Because I would like this argument to be common sense and pragmatic, the category of the mystical is, in some sense, irrelevant. Practices defined as mystical, religious, philosophical, or contemplative might help us to cultivate our ability to experience “real” fields, but typically posit alternative/spiritual realities, and this “gesture” results in another unproductive dichotomy.  I don’t mean that we should exclude mystical experience (James would not approve). Rather, we should strive to frame our perceptions and judgments within broader contexts for “merely” ethical and pragmatic purposes.

Pushing beyond a subject position requires us virtually to shift our perspectives. We cannot simply stand back from ourselves, because standing back enlarges the frame without changing our role as spectators. Rather we could adopt multiple positions at once, in quick succession, or in our imaginations (virtually), to discover that neither subject, nor object (nor context) is stable.[iv] Perhaps thus we can become productively disoriented, and (on various levels) realize a three-dimensional moving field. James often refers to the chaos and flux of the universe, though chaos is not really a goal or threat of such experimentation, as sheer habit guarantees a degree of stability and discrimination.

Walking in nature, once a common practice, has long been identified with cultivating the imagination. Both scientists and artists immerse themselves in nature, in order to understand the world. Such understanding may be a kind of dynamic hypostatization of both subject and object, by which the distinction begins to break down. On the most obvious level, walking illustrates that our perspective is always changing. (As a subject we are always changing, moment-to-moment, whether or not we are in motion.) It reveals various aspects of various objects, and usually leads to some form of (dare I say) “altered” state, in which we enter a flow of experience. While we might have a sense of connection or well being, this should not lapse into an illusion of mastery. The wilder the context, the more aware we should be of “interference patterns”: obstacles, unexpected twists and turns, and the presence of various creatures walking their own, seen and unseen paths. Walking in nature also allows our attention to wander, undirected toward a particular goal. Such aimless attention is healthful and creative, and, I propose, a quality of “pure experience.”[v]

Perhaps such dynamic, pluralistic experiences must remain “alternative” for urban and suburban dwellers, and in this sense my desire to ground “pure experience” in the quotidian may be futile. However, I would like to suggest that such an experience is available to everyone through the simple practice (if not “practice”) of walking in a natural setting. I am not naïve in assuming this opportunity is available to everyone on a regular basis, though I suspect many of us willingly if not consciously trade this “luxury” for various commodities, every day.

Image Source: <http://www.yellowstonenationalpark.com/Grand%20Prismatic%20Spring.jpg&gt;

[i] See “A World of Pure Experience” and the summary of “The Notion of Consciousness” in the Essays.

[ii] Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects describes such a level playing field, but academic philosophy, in general, may still be invested in assuming mastery. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/the-democracy-of-objects/

[iii] I am moving between the singular “field” and the plural “fields” here partly because this is a sincere essay (exploration). I do want to assert the abstract concept of a “field” as opposed to a “line” of experience, at the same time that I would prefer to eschew the idea of a unified, transcendent field as a proxy for anything.

[iv] The idea of virtually occupying multiple positions at once may resonate with notions of probability waves and parallel universes, though I hesitate to invoke popular physics for obvious reasons.

[v] For a discussion of the “restorative” value of being in nature as a rest from directed attention See Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. In “The ‘Restorative Environment’” section of Chapter 8, “Nature-Deficit Disorder and the Restorative Environment,” Louv cites the work of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, not coincidentally inspired by William James.

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The Quadruple Object Revisited

india_figure-7 

A philosopher, a biologist, a rhetorician, and an anthropologist walk into a bar to discuss The Quadruple Object.[i] The philosopher says, “It’s not Heidegger.” The biologist says, “He’s discovered the scientific method.” The rhetorician says, “I thought metaphysics was dead.” And the anthropologist asks, “Is this a mandala?”

What follows is neither a summary of, nor belated initial response to Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object (2011). That moment has passed. Though many readers didn’t quite grasp the book, the critical theoretical community has been experimenting with Harman’s key terms in various contexts. This is because much of the work is compelling and memorable, though the whole is a little obscure. I will use the comic scenario in my opening as a point of departure for discussing some stumbling blocks in The Quadruple Object, before arguing that the text deserves to be revisited and reconsidered. I assume a basic familiarity with the text. (The uninitiated should begin here; I’ve also recently posted a summary of Harman’s fourfold here.)

“It’s not Heidegger.“  Yes, this book isn’t about Heidegger. The Quadruple Object is not a reading, let alone a close reading, of any philosopher, and Harman makes no claims to that effect. This may be a stumbling block for the academic community, however, because the book is famously based on Harman’s Tool-Being which is about Heidegger (though not Heidegger). Revisiting even a few sections of Heidegger will confirm that The Quadruple Object is not Heidegger, not altogether a bad thing.  Nevertheless, The Quadruple Object effectively directs our attention to Heidegger, and some of the best parts.

Comparing TQO[ii] to the scientific method may not be a misreading.  Bacon, Locke, and Hume, fathers of empiricism, were far from naïve about access to objects. Bacon and Locke, more tentative in their assertions than Hume, might not only grasp, but also deeply appreciate Harman’s new fourfold. Bacon’s Idols foreground perception without bracketing reality, for example, and Locke struggled to balance under-standing with a desire to grasp things. The work of these philosophers has little to do with contemporary materialism and positivism, however. Harman is not a materialist, which is confusing since he critiques idealism (and some readers might assume a two-party system). Nor is he a positivist, though his engagement with metaphysics and “the real” may throw off those of us raised on critiques of essentialism.

This brings us to the rhetorician.  In the 1990’s critical theorists repeatedly announced the death of metaphysics. This was confusing because every theoretical “death” was hailed as a distinct event.  But, as I recall, the late twentieth-century complaint with metaphysics wasn’t so much philosophical (read, phenomenological) as ethical.  At the birth of identity politics, essences, meta-narratives, and  transcendent values were generally frowned upon, with good reason. This is not to say that Harman’s metaphysics are categorically insensitive to race, class, and gender, all of which may be productively understood as quadruple objects. However, metaphysics is a stumbling block, and in this book Harman appears unaware of the not entirely stale critiques (though he gestures to them in the Introduction to Guerilla Metaphysics).  Moreover, it’s not clear in the text why TQO must be a metaphysics (except to assert it’s not merely an epistemology).  Harman’s invention of partial access seems both more and less than metaphysics (as we know it), however, and metaphysics seems unnecessary to broad application of his thesis.

If the anthropologist thinks Harman’s fourfold evokes a mandala, s/he may not be far off the mark. The mandala, as a fourfold archetypal representation of the psyche evokes Jung (always in productive tension with Freud), as well as Lacan’s “four discourses.”  (See Levi Bryant’s A Democracy of Object, section 4.4.)  Harman discusses the psyche at length, but possibly with insufficient self-consciousness regarding his overall system. (And what about Deleuze’s Leibniz book, The Fold?)  Folding, unfolding, and fourfolds are ubiquitous archetypal tropes. This is both a stumbling block and strength of the work. Harman admits that TQO may seem too systematic, but he also remains in thrall to the genius of his particular system. As in the case of his discussion of metaphysics, we might find him insufficiently urbane here. I do think the system is productive beyond what anyone has imagined, with the exception of Ian Bogost who has suggested that TQO is a magnum opus in a deceptively small package. But TQO only opens up, for us, if we can overcome our uneasiness with Harman’s sweeping gestures. If this is a conception of “the world,” then it must also be a limited view of the world as a sensual object, and this comment (admittedly), a limited view of TQO as sensual object.

I will now offer a paean to TQO using the text as a heuristic scheme. Let me begin with a very brief defense of the text as a sensual object (SO).  If a sensual object is not identical to its qualities, and these qualities emerge over time, then TQO cannot be reduced to its initial bifurcated reception—caught up in a “political” struggle, praised by friends and snubbed by enemies of Object-Oriented Philosophy.  Whether or not the book ultimately deserves praise or blame, I would like to see future evaluations (in bars and such) linked more closely to the work’s particular qualities.

Let’s imagine my opening fantasy of stumbling blockheads as a reference to one set of TQO sensual qualities (SQ).  Now, let me balance these with some readily accessible points of praise for the work. TQO has been enthusiastically received by scholars and artists in various fields, and has invited them to explore Harman’s Tool Being, and Heidegger’s tool-analysis. For this reason, I think TQO is a relevant and successful work of philosophy (as love of wisdom rather than intellectual sparing). Particularly productive have been ecological applications, where TQO dovetails beautifully with Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects,” for example. TQO is obviously relevant to information technology, media studies, and the big questions of AI. Harman’s ontography also plays well with “carpentry,” as a coherent and fruitful, object-oriented aesthetic, as well as an allusion to real art as a hands-on mode of discovery. (See Graham Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics and Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology.)  Though political connections may be less obvious, TQO could productively be deployed to understand various forms of systemic discrimination and the technologies through which prejudices are iterated and dispelled.  I also think TQO could be influential on psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience.  Although TQO isn’t Heidegger, it is psychology.  The sciences and social sciences may come to understand and appreciate the value of Harman’s philosophical model, though its potential in this context might be in a cultural trade-off relationship with its rhetorical potential to critique scientific discourse.

Going back to my fictitious anthropologist, I propose that the real TQO is a mandala, in the sense of a representation that contains and affects the world. Alternatively TQO is Schopenhauer’s The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and also the Upanishads (which Schopenhauer intuited before reading the Upanishads).  Yes, these are wildly speculative metaphors, but no one cannot access the real object (RO) directly, because it categorically withdraws.  On a more serious note, Harman comes very close to illustrating that objects enfold the world, just as the world enfolds objects (and, we can assume, worlds enfold worlds). Such inversions are key topoi of folding as an archetypal figure, and reflecting on the archetype may be an eidetic approach to TQO as a real object. If we read the fourfold as an iterated, open structure, we may see a wildly productive concept withdrawn even from Harman (Harman would agree). Perhaps this is not Harman, but to the extent that Harman invokes Heidegger, Husserl, and Leibniz . . . TQO also enfolds the dizzying heights and depths of philosophical thought broadly distributed over time and space.

What about real qualities? While an object is depthless in its withdrawal, TQO invites us to imagine the real object as an infinite set of real qualities (RQ), also real objects with relations. Qualities, both sensual and real, are also objects in Harman’s scheme (though real objects can only relate to sensual objects). I don’t mean to confuse matters or flip the infinite into mystical monism here. The discourse of objects assumes more than one, critics will hasten to point out, and that argument is far from settled.  I’ve never been invested in partisan politics.  Nevertheless I share  Bogost’s opinion that The Quadruple Object can function as a relatively small opening into a much more complex analysis.

Coming soon to Environmental Critique—comments on Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy and the strangeness of ecology.

Image Credit:  SAH Blog, Northern India: The Golden Triangle

[i] Slavoj Zizek interrupts them.

[ii] Please advise of a better or better-known short hand—I’m beginning to think that enunciation is the first stumbling block.

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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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