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VanderMeer’s Strange Bird and Animal Trauma in the Anthropocene

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Jeff VanderMeer’s new novella, The Strange Bird, is ingenious, provocative, and deeply moving. At times, it’s almost too painful and too beautiful. As a Borne story, it’s also revelation. Out of the futuristic world of Borne, VanderMeer conjures a totem for the Anthropocene. A hybrid spirit strange and familiar enough to wake us from our dogmatic stupor, Strange Bird guides us into unexplored regions of literature and the psyche. While we have excluded the secret life of animals from consciousness, on some level we understand their suffering because we suffer together. Nested in Borne, adjacent to VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, The Strange Bird brings us to the intersection of animals and the Anthropocene. We’ve been here all along, but now, slowly, we’re becoming aware.

Twentieth-century techno science created a false dichotomy of lab animals and animals in the wild. Born and bred to serve the medical and biotech industries, lab animals were primarily studied as surrogates for human bodies. Knowing them was generally synonymous with killing them, and always dependent on removing them from their natural environment and social context. This resulted in a culture that “understood” animals in isolation, and through the mottled lens of human interests narrowly conceived.

Wild animals were occasionally observed in the wild, during the last American century, but more often on television programing about animals in the wild. Mass media creatures were smart, charming, dramatic, and often hilarious. Masterfully edited, as well as narrated and set to music, such representations were a form of domestication or at least spectacle, related to zoos, aquariums and circuses. The most commonplace animals of the Modern era, however, were agricultural animals, not so much on farms, or even stories about farms, but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These animals didn’t have behaviors. They were invisible.

Twenty-first century animal and environmental activism has directed our attention to the plight of animals, but unintentionally maintains this twentieth-century dichotomy by focusing on animals in captivity and, conversely, animals in the wilderness. As the earth has become increasingly urban, however, conditions for all animals have changed. Academics and creative writers are becoming more attentive to interstitial ecology and urban animals, our neighborhoods and our neighbors, but we have not generally adjusted our assumptions about animal behavior.[i]

Enter The Strange Bird.  VanderMeer’s novella is as much urban odyssey as fantasy. At the beginning of the narrative Strange Bird, a biotech marvel, escapes the confines of a lab. In flight, she navigates an unfamiliar and frightening world, and begins to understand herself in new contexts and from different perspectives. Before long she is captured by a solitary old man who admires her, but who also imprisons her. He is attached and attentive, seems to want to commune with her, but he can’t appreciate her suffering. Like other humans in the novella, he rationalizes his cruelty even as he is haunted by it.

Eventually Strange Bird lands squarely into the narrative of Borne, where she is captured by The Magician, a sadistic genius who transforms her into a cloaking device. Somehow Strange Bird survives the radical transformation and enters a kind of bardo, where she communes with other animals, alive and dead.

Throughout the novella Strange Bird appears lost and alone. The cage is no home for her, but neither is the world. She is oriented to the voice of a friend or relative (intimate, stranger, and enemy), very close to her but also far away. Told from the point of view of a hybrid, engineered animal, The Strange Bird is one of VanderMeer’s most psychologically complex and heart-rending narratives. How does VanderMeer create and draw us into the inner life of Strange Bird?

 

Borken Places

 

Part of the answer must lie in his equally well-wrought and unapologetic anthropomorphism. As VanderMeer has explained in interviews and essays, the intellectual prohibition against anthropomorphism has prevented us from speculating about animal experience.[ii] But this stance betrays Modern prejudices. At a time when the popular media assertively preach the virtues of compassion (identification with the feelings of other human beings), we are reluctant to consider the thoughts and feelings of animals because we have already concluded they are categorically different. Even imagining what animals could be feeling is considered naïve, as if early twentieth-century phenomenology and Psych 101 behaviorism were articles of faith. Anticipating such objections, VanderMeer engineers human consciousness into his main character, though he also flirts with cross-species communication throughout.

Defending the speculative/creative impulse, I stubbornly note that human beings in all cultures still strive to understand one another every day. We dream of sympathy. We recognize ourselves in others.  Sometimes, it seems, others understand us better than we understand ourselves.  This counterargument has become a critical cliché, but it is also our way of life—our culture. Even if our sense of understanding and being understood are fabulations, why should we be dissuaded from striving to understand animals in this fashion? And why have we forgotten that this prohibition is a cultural and historical anomaly?

The long-standing, cross-cultural tendency to anthropomorphize is arguably a product of various and obvious similarities between human beings and animals. This is not only true from a biological perspective but also an ecological one. We share the same home. We are nurtured by the same planet.

I’d like to suggest that the leitmotif of habitat or home is a primary reason that VanderMeer’s novella is so moving. In The Strange Bird we can identify with the circumstances of the animal. If the storyteller is in a type of relation to the animal, he or she can help us imagine the creature’s circumstances, but perhaps that bond begins and ends with sharing a home.

Like so many of VanderMeer’s characters, Strange Bird is traumatized.  There are known and unknown causes of her trauma. Her inner life is familiar, strange, and mysterious, but readers can generally understand the experience of being imprisoned, for example. Though we may not be traumatized by such experiences, we have all had our freedom restricted, and we have all suffered as a consequence. Even if we ascent to such restrictions, through written, spoken, and unspoken contracts, we feel the tension between our competing desires for connection and autonomy.

Being conflicted, torn, fractured, and broken, are other common, potentially traumatic experiences. Particularly disturbing and provoking are VanderMeer’s first-person accounts of dismemberment. As Strange Bird is confined, tormented, and exploited by the Magician, we could and should reflect on basic bodily and psychological autonomy. How do we recognize and fail to recognize bodies in different circumstances? All sorts of relationships, perhaps even the imperatives of survival, tear us apart physically and psychologically. All animals are effectively dismembered when their bodies and brains are exploited. Even love tears us apart. To what extent, and why do we ascent to or resist various transgressions?

Most conspicuous about the main character and the story, is the fact that Strange Bird is always alone. We notice this first when she encounters other birds in social configurations. Later she begins to communicate with “the little foxes.”  This is a kind of solace for her, but also serves to foreground her physical isolation. When Strange Bird enters the narrative of Borne, she enters a second storyscape of alienation. She continues to commune with various creatures, in more or less out-of-body experiences, but Rachel and Wick are the only humans who show her kindness, who care for her.

We know from the example of the Passenger Pigeon that life and survival are intimately related to community.[iii] We also know that many animals need wide ranges in order to thrive even as individuals. All animals need space as well as society. Perhaps more significantly, each animal defines space in its own fashion. In this sense, human beings may not easily understand non-human behavior, though this may be a result of limited interaction rather than essential incapacity.

I don’t mean to suggest that The Strange Bird should function as a creative treatise on animal rights or metaphor for human suffering. Rather, I imagine the narrative as an entry point into a revelatory if not redemptive cycle of sympathy and self-awareness. As Sartre speculated in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, we label abject human beings as animals because deep down we recognize their humanity (Book I, section II, “Reciprocity, Exploitation and Repression”). Perhaps this is also why we define animals, categorically, as less than human beings, because we suspect they are not essentially different from us . . . and it’s the only way we can maintain our crumbling narrative of superiority.[iv]

As a Borne story, The Strange Bird is a creative but earnest speculation about animal behavior in the Anthropocene.  As such it’s also a story about animal trauma. It seems reasonable to speculate that animal trauma, in general, is connected to environmental degradation, survival pressures, displacement, and violence. We understand, and often repeat, the poorest populations are most affected by climate change, but we don’t generally include animals in this equation.

To the extent that animals are affected by environmental toxins, food deserts, homelessness, fast and slow violence, they may be generally traumatized.[v]  These conditions are not new. The beginning of the industrial era created terribly degraded environments for all animals, even if human beings were the focus of civic responses. Silent Spring invoked an animal totem and effectively created ecological consciousness, even if that consciousness still struggles with an imperial gaze. On some level, we are all aware of violence perpetrated by animals against animals. Bellum omnium contra omnes[vi]

What does all this mean for The Strange Bird as a new literary work by a prominent contemporary writer? I’m reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s imperative that literature in the Anthropocene should not be fantastic, because it masks real climate-change related horrors.[vii]  This may be a legitimate critique of popular dystopian fantasy, but the criticism makes less sense in the context of surrealism (qua surrealism), VanderMeer’s chief mode. Remembering that surrealism, historically, was an attempt to capture a more complete reality (a form of psychological realism), we can appreciate contemporary surrealistic literature as an attempt to include psychological strata that have been systematically excluded from realistic representations.[viii] Enter the unconscious.

Human consciousness, often understood as self-consciousness, has long performed a gate-keeping function. Because humans have a degree of consciousness about their own intellectual processes and emotional responses, we often assume that non-human cognition and affect is categorically different. Similarly, we tend to equate communication with conscious human languages. But human cognition and affect is also, arguably (and perhaps even primarily), unconscious. [ix]  Human communication is also partly unconscious as evidenced by language acquisition in children, who speak grammatically long before they have any concept of grammatical rules, and by studies on body language as a primarily mode of communicating intense emotions.[x]

Unconscious communication has been the purview of writers for well over a century. But all the arts engage the unconscious—consciously and unconsciously. Aesthetics might even be described as a paradigmatic unconscious value system. And while art, like language, is generally considered a uniquely human enterprise, we also know that many animals, birds in particular, sing and dance to attract mates. How is this essentially different than the conscious and unconscious behavior of  human “peacocks”?

In the context of Borne, The Strange Bird traces the terrible beauty of animal trauma in the Anthropocene, not as a surrogate for human trauma, but as a creaturely condition that directs our attention to the ubiquitous effects of climate change. If trauma can be communicated through non-verbal behavior, it may be an appeal to all animals. Artists like VanderMeer seem to hear that call, but are they uniquely aware of animal suffering, or uniquely responsive? I imagine that many of us are more aware of our collective suffering than we know. VanderMeer may not speak for non-human animals, but he surely gives voice to the unconscious.

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The novella is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073TSB1TW

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[i] See City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness, for example. Also see VanderMeer’s comments in his recent essay, “Moving Past the Illusion of Control.”

[ii] See “Moving Past the Illusion of Control,” above, as well as this Gulf Coast magazine interview on Borne.

[iii] The species became extinct because individuals can only mate in large flocks. See this Smithsonian Encyclopedia entry.

[iv] As DePaul philosopher Peter Steeves suggested at VanderMeer’s 2017 Earth Week address, perhaps we can’t ultimately define or understand animals because we strive to know them by comparison to human beings, whom we define by comparison to animals. (We can’t know non-human animals because we can’t know ourselves.)

[v] See Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor and VanderMeer’s comments on war and ecological degradation in his Environmental Critique article on Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology published here.

[vi] Read VanderMeer’s Finch, as well as his other Ambergris books, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: And Afterword.

[vii] See “Amitav Gosh: where is the fiction about climate change?” in The Guardian.

[viii] See this Met summary of surrealism.

[ix] The revival of the unconscious by the neurosciences and the influence of affect on cognition have become common knowledge in academic discourse. An interesting recent book on these topics is Richard Nisbett’s Mindware: Tools for Smart ThinkingIn a recent conversation, VanderMeer noted that we anthropomorphize animals in various sorts of propaganda, and I wonder if this is a marker of (social) media aesthetics as an unconscious economy.

[x] See this short Cambridge article on unconscious language learning, and this Princeton piece on body language and intense emotions.

 

Image sources:

Macmillian, https://us.macmillan.com/thestrangebird/jeffvandermeer/9780374714932

YouTube,  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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VanderMeer’s Ecological Mind

Annihilation-preview

Jeff Vandermeer is sometimes credited with creating a new genre of ecological fiction with his Southern Reach trilogy, and the startling “Area X” which functions as the scene, action, and main character of the novels. VanderMeer doesn’t like the moniker “cli-fi,” however, and his academic readers, at the very least, can appreciate why “climate change” doesn’t account for his work. Certainly ecological change is one of the main topics of the trilogy: Area X is generally interpreted as a territory in which ecological degradation is mysteriously reversed, with terrifying consequences for humanity. But VanderMeer’s vision is broader than climate change, and this breadth of vision might begin to account for the brilliant “weirdness” of his novels.

In a published conversation with critical theorist and philosopher Timothy Morton, published in Paradoxa (volume 28), VanderMeer commented that contemporary realistic fiction which somehow manages or contains climate change within given, classical forms isn’t very realistic. Mere climate fiction, conversely, may focus on the environment while forgetting the complexities of context writ large. The ecological context is most obvious in VanderMeer’s work, but sustained critical attention to environmental issues may have distracted readers from socio-cultural themes, as well as the vulnerable bodies and fragile psyches of his characters.

VanderMeer’s work began to be associated with Tim Morton, Hyperobjects, and the Anthropocene, with the publication of the Southern Reach trilogy, in 2014, and more recently with Morton’s new book, Dark Ecology. Morton is also known as a proponent of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), a popular philosophical mode of inquiry associated with Speculative Realism.  OOO is also very interested in the uncanny and the weird. Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy meticulously illustrates the relationship between object-oriented ontology and the weird, for example, and VanderMeer could easily substitute for Lovecraft in that work, and probably should. But this association with Speculative Realism may be limited and limiting.

Though I believe it to be theoretically broad-minded, agile, and pragmatic, Speculative Realism has come to be associated, in the public sphere, with merely philosophy speculation. And though the relationship between VanderMeer and the Anthropocene, within the context of Morton’s work, has been and will, no doubt, continue to be very productive, critical commentary focusing on ecological issues, as we currently understand them, in VanderMeer’s corpus, may have the same limitations as literature which tries to contain climate change within classical literary forms. Of course the Southern Reach is about the environment, but also, more accurately, about relationships among the environment, institutions, bodies, and minds.

Steven Shaviro’s recently published review of VadnerMeer’s Borne draws attention to capitalism in the work and suggests connections to accelerationism. This attention to capitalism as an institution is faithful to the new novel, but also VanderMeer’s work as a whole. I quote at length form Shaviro’s review for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with his superb work:

The Company itself seems to have come from elsewhere; perhaps it is (as the novel suggests at one point) a mechanism of “the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future,” or “another version of Earth” enriching itself at the expense of this one. (The issue is not resolved, but I find it suggestive: it’s a far better version of Nick Land’s fantasy of capital as an alien parasite from the future). (The idea of the future exploiting its own past — which is our present — is one that I find especially compelling; something like this is also the premise of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers).

Shaviro’s concept of “the future exploiting the past or the past exploiting the future” is particularly apt, at this moment, as the American fossil fuel oligarchy guarantees its “right” to extract as much wealth as possible from long-buried resources, at the obvious expense of current and future generations. But the concept is also generally true, and no one can escape the hyperobject of capital.

While accelerationists are often criticized as dystopian, anarchic, and even malicious, the “outside” stance of some environmental ideologues subtly undermines their own convictions of interconnectedness. VanderMeer’s work, including his soon to be released Borne, describes a much more intimate and complicit relationship to capital. There’s no “outside” to the meta-ecology of nature and capital in Borne, and none in the “real” world. Most of us occupy a liminal space, vulnerable to the influence and seductions of capital, even as we may deny our responsibility, and this self-deception may, in fact, be structurally necessary.

The novel has been described as the genre of the Modern human subject, which appeared, with capitalism, on the cultural scene in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Twentieth-century literature often described human subjects in existential crises, for obvious reasons, as did the “weird” Kafka, for example, and postmodern/posthuman fiction is characterized by the dissolution of the human subject as we know it. Alison Sperling’s article in Paradoxa (28), which features the conversation between VanderMeer and Morton, draws attention to the porous body in the Southern Reach trilogy, and the body as a major theme in VanderMeer’s work.

Sperling reminds us that human bodies are neither inside nor outside of the space of ecological degradation. The weirdness and threat of Area X in the Southern Reach constitutes a direct biological threat to human beings, even though the strangeness is atmospheric. When the biologist is infected with an alien spore, the contamination significantly occurs without direct contact. The atmosphere is the medium. This moment illustrates that Anthropocene bodies are vulnerable because they are non-separate from their environment. Sperling also makes the extremely astute argument that environmental threats may be complex and unmanageable, because the environment too is sick from multiple causes, related to complex human intervention. Thus the “weird” conceit, throughout VanderMeer’s work, that bodies are invaded but also became part of other organisms and/or organic systems, may “realistically” reflect current ecological conditions.

But these incursions and transformations are not limited to bodies. VanderMeer’s charcters are not merely bodily hybrids, but also psychological hybrids. As each character is contaminated they change psychologically. The introduction to Paradoxa (28) reminds us of the origins of the uncanny in Freudian psychology, and the requisite condition of uncertainty. (Freud notes that fairytales are not uncanny, for example, because they have almost no connection to reality.) Uncertainty is only remarkable within a generally predictable, certain, context. And we find uncertainty on various levels of the Southern Reach trilogy, within various levels of “reality.”  As Area X is a mysterious space within a realistic setting, the characters’ psychological “symptoms” manifest within functioning psyches and more or less conventional institutional cultures.  Among the most memorable psychological moments in the Southern Reach trilogy are the initial contamination of the biologist which she seems to interfere with her perceptions; Control’s darkly humorous resistance to hypnosis by screaming obscenities at his superior over the phone; and the rapturous madness of Whitby. But most intriguing is the problem of origins. Does the madness of Area X originate with an alien invasion, institutional attempts to control the invasion, human frailty, or some combination of the above? Is it a form of original sin? Is it a weapon of the invasion, collateral damage, or something else entirely?

In “Character Degree Zero: Space and the Posthuman Subject,” the first chapter of Science Fiction Beyond Borders (2016), Elana Gomel argues that the posthuman characters of contemporary science fiction are affectively “flat” because their psyches are somehow extended into the environment, rather than contained within their bodies.[i] In lieu of the pathetic fallacy of traditional fiction, in which the natural environment metaphorically reflects the internal psychological states of the characters (but remains essentially separate), contemporary science fiction is often marked by “character eversion,” a novel state in which a character’s psyche escapes the body. Eversion is also an inversion of space and character. Rather than focusing on round characters in flat worlds, posthuman science fiction presents flat characters in round worlds (6).

The affective flatness of Southern Reach characters could also be interpreted as a symptom of trauma or disassociation. Like ecology and culture, trauma may be our habitat. VanderMeer has speculated that the Gulf Oil Spill entered his psyche and became the tunnel/tower at the heart of Area X. This makes sense in the context of Gomel’s thesis. Though trauma may originate outside of the psyche and breach its barriers, it must also be externalized, because it’s categorically too big to be contained.

Returning to Gomel, the posthuman subject suggests, even demands, a posthuman politics. I quote at length from her concluding pages:

The fusion between place and character in SF can also be seen politically, as an expression of the emerging eco-consciousness. Character eversion generates subjects who give up the temporal coherence of the liberal-humanist self in favour of a more capacious and inclusive sense of belonging. They lose themselves but gain the world.

Certainly when cultural emphasis is shifted to context, the liberal human subject will be marginalized (and not a moment too soon). Gomel also makes clear that the anthropocentrism of traditional narrative discourse is no longer appropriate nor ethical:

This discourse is no longer adequate either narratively or politically. The “everted” characters, fading into the alien landscape, offer a revolutionary, if unsettling, view of the possibilities of interaction between humans and other living creatures: surely an important subject in the Anthropocene age.

The sum of these critical reflections points to a broader, forward-looking ecology in VanderMeer’s work, a whole far greater than the sum of nature, consumer-capitalism, body politics, and even posthuman notions of the psyche. This bigger, emergent “thing” is not quite organic, artificial, animal, or machine, but something novel and challenging, demanding novel, challenging responses . . . which brings be back to VanderMeer’s ideas on realism and form.

Realism to date has been unapologetically anthropocentric. What would a non-anthropocentric realism look like? Visionary, uncertain, dream-like? Hard-edged, crushing, hyperreal? As the boundaries between human beings and their environment begin to dissolve, epistemologically, realism may become impossible, or at least very quaint. A kind of nostalgic, historical mode . . . leaving us with pure experience.

[i] Gomel vacillates between flat as one dimensional and flat affect. In this piece I’m referring to the latter sense of the word.

Image source: http://screencrush.com/annihilation-set-photos-garland/

 

 

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