Friday, November 10, 2017

Jeff VanderMeer's Radical Unknowing

Here is my Conference Paper from SLSA 2017
(it will be getting a lot of revision)

art copyright Theo Ellsworth


Jeff VanderMeer’s recent fiction, from the Southern Reach trilogy to Borne and The Strange Bird, breaks our current understanding of how to respond to ecological crises and rebuilds a speculative, immanent ecological politics, that is similar to those described by object-oriented and compositionist philosophers Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour, but unique in that it grows out of fiction.

Things become other things in Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction. Or it might be better to say that things are other things in Jeff VanderMeer’s books. I’ll start with four examples. A ghostbird. A strange bird. A bird watcher. A squid-like shape-shifting creature.

In Annihilation, the biologist thinks about the nickname bestowed on her by her husband: “Ghost Bird.” Inside Area X, “a ghost bird might be a hawk in one place, a crow in another, depending on the context. The sparrow that shot up into the blue sky one morning might transform mid-flight into an osprey the next. That was the way of things here” (Annihilation 110-111). Things are not themselves. A hawk is also a crow. Things do not stay the same. A sparrow becomes an osprey. Everything in Area X cannot be measured or pinned down.

In The Strange Bird, the titular animal flees a laboratory. Meeting a “flock of tiny birds,” (58) she quickly realizes that she is not just a bird. The flock “did not recognize her as kin. There was too much else inside her” (68). Three “living satellites” (78) that look like turkey vultures define the Strange Birds composition: “avian, overlaid with Homo Sapiens, other terrestrial life-forms. Unstable mélange” (109). She looks like a peregrine falcon. She dive bombs foxes. “Her feet ended in talons meant to rend, to slice, to tear. . . Her beak was sharp and curved” (109). Later, she becomes an invisibility cloak. Still later, she becomes four sparrow-sized birds, and then three die, leaving one small bird. 

In Borne, Mord is a giant flying bear who can drink toxic water. He is so large that humans scavenge through his fur while he sleeps. He has multiple names: “Seether. Theeber. Mord” (5). He has become “the de facto ruler” of the city (4). But he was not always a giant bear. Once, according to Wick, who knew Mord when they were much younger, “he liked bird-watching and we ate lunches together and he read so many books. He was curious about so many things” (Borne 249). Had he been human? Perhaps.

Rachel, the human narrator of Borne, finds Borne on one of her scavenging missions over Mord’s body. Borne might be the thing that is other things more than any other thing in VanderMeer’s fiction. He is a shape-shifting creature who looks like a sea anemone or a vase. He pulses, changing color and shape. He eats and grows. He resembles a plant (18). He mimics humans. He might be animal, vegetable, or biotechnology.

When Borne learns (or maybe he already knew how) to write, he writes about himself. “My name is Borne . . . My name is not Borne . . . I came here on Mord’s body . . . I did not come here on Mord’s body . . . I am human . . . I am not human . . . I was made by someone . . . I am not actually alive . . . I am a robot . . . I am a person . . . I am a weapon . . . I am not/intelligent . . . What if I cannot die? . . . What if no one made me?” (190). In VanderMeer’s fiction, all of these things are true about Borne. Or they could all be true. We can never really know. There is always a new context, a new transformation, a new perspective, a new thing. Things can change. Things are futural. Things are indeterminate, except when they are determinate.

When asked how he “describe[s] the indescribable,” (2) VanderMeer talks about the Southern Reach trilogy as “compositional” (2). Certain elements, such as backgrounds and mundane details must be “clear, crisp, well-defined” (2) “Precise detail” (2) must be used in developing character and perception, so that, eventually “the uncanny can lurch out across the landscape and contaminate the brain in the right way” (2). This “compositional” element applies to Borne and The Strange Bird. VanderMeer’s narrators “smell the pressed-flower twist of the salt” (Borne 3) of a tidal pool. His readers see “the rats in the walls, who were in the process of rewiring everything” (279). These details underlie the appearance of many-eyed sea creatures and giant flying bears.

These notions of composition and contamination are clearly central to VanderMeer’s fiction. They are also central to Bruno Latour’s re-definition of political ecology. For Latour, modernist notions of environmentalism must be abandoned because they rely on a human separation from nature. “The dominant, peculiar story of modernity is of humankind’s emancipation from Nature” (50). This emancipation is often characterized as progress, as a frontier spirit that seeks dominion over the environment. According to this logic, science will eventually explain the natural world. “A modernist, in this great narrative, is the one who expects from Science the revelation that Nature will finally be visible through the veils of subjectivity — and subjection — that hid it from our ancestors” (51). Thus, humankind will finally be able to emancipate itself from both nature and our own subjective perspective. Science will one day take the measure of all things.

Latour argues that such a viewpoint has always had a fatal flaw, namely “that we can never separate ourselves from the nonhuman world” (39) in any meaningful way. Such entanglements are both conceptual—“science, morality, religion, law, technology, finance, and politics”—and real—“the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the space shuttle, and in the Fukushima nuclear power plant” (41). A strong political ecology would embrace attachment; it would not seek to “return to our narrow human confines, leaving the nonhumans alone in as pristine a Nature as possible, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” (43). For Latour, pristine nature has always been a myth; human has always been entangled with non-human in a way that requires not separation, but close attention. The future of political ecology lies in paying more and more attention to these connections “at a greater and greater scale and at an ever-tinier level of intimacy requiring even more detailed care” (41).  Latour calls this attention a “compositionist” ethics, a means of “becoming ever-more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of nonhuman natures” (48). Latour says that we should “love our monsters” unlike Dr. Frankenstein, whose “real sin” was precisely the abandonment of his “monster,” and not the “combination of hubris and high technology” he used to create him (45). Dr. Frankenstein failed when he thought he could run from his creation, when he could call it unnatural and separate from himself.

VanderMeer’s characters do not run from monsters. They embrace the natural and the unnatural, or maybe they do not make that distinction. Rachel, in Borne, notes that things had been different once. “Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders” (37). But, in her present, she notes “how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world” (37). There is nowhere to run. The biologist, known as Ghostbird, in Annihilation decides to stay in Area X.

These ghosts become an entry point for defining the subtle political ecology of VanderMeer’s work, especially as VanderMeer has talked about his own understanding of hyperobjects. In a published conversation with Timothy Morton, VanderMeer says, “after I wrote Annihilation, I started seeing reviews that mentioned your work in connection with it; that’s why I picked up Hyperobjects. . . the very term “hyperobject” kind of encapsulated what was going on organically in Annihilation” (interview). VanderMeer goes on to note that hyperobjects are “both concrete and abstract at the same time” and “Even as you define hyperobject, it oddly begins to slip away” (interview). In response, Morton says “it’s really to do with a sort of futural orientation. Something’s coming, but I can’t quite point to it, and I don’t know what it is. That’s why the word “hyperobject” is so interesting, because it’s like finally we’ve all got this word. It happened to me first, right? The word popped in my head before I actually knew fully what it was” (interview). At the risk of being glib, this conversation between VanderMeer and Morton suggests to me that the word “hyperobject” is itself a hyperobject. It resists definition but it changes the way one thinks. It is a human created concept but it only makes sense if one takes the nonhuman seriously. Hyperobjects are slippery in meaning, as VanderMeer says, but also in time and space, as Morton notes that something unknown is approaching. The word itself is infectious, it “popped” in Morton’s head and now “we’ve all got this word.” So what should we do with it?

We should run with it. Compositional hyperobjects are everywhere in VanderMeer’s fiction—the ever-expanding Area X, the city of Borne and The Strange Bird. Put simply, the setting of VanderMeer’s recent fiction is all compositional hyperobjects. Most of his characters, too, are compositional hyperobjects. Hyperobjects populated by hyperobjects. Futural. Present. Concrete. Abstract. Slipping away. Precise. Setting. Character.

Borne, the character, comes to exemplify what Isabelle Stengers calls “the art of paying attention.” As he learns to write, as he roams his poisoned world, as he mirrors Mord the giant bear, Borne pays careful attention to his world as he finds what Stengers calls “connections between what we are in the habit of keeping separate.” Borne becomes everything in Borne and then he nearly becomes nothing. Reading Borne calls for a reading after the end of the world that embraces what Borne writes in his journal as non-contradiction. “I am human. . . . I am not human.”

Reality is broken in VanderMeer’s fiction. The mysterious “Company” created the “dysfunction” that has ruined the world. The Company itself exists only as an abandoned compound of buildings at the end of Borne. The Southern Reach of the trilogy cannot contain the expansion of Area X. The world as a whole no longer makes sense. And here is VanderMeer’s ecological ethics. The world of his fiction does not make sense in precisely the way that the world we live in does not make sense. While writing The Southern Reach Trilogy, VanderMeer remarked “the entire time I’m writing this the hyperobject of global warming looms over me and shines through me and is all places and in all ways is shining out and looming over. How can it not be in the subtext
of much of what we write?” Likewise, he writes of how the Gulf of Mexico oil spill infected his dreams and then his fiction.

In a world of hyperobjects, VanderMeer’s fiction is realistic. Or, in worlds of hyperobjects, reality and VanderMeer’s fiction touch each other. There is a world of oil-spills and global warming. There is a world of Area X, and the destroyed city of Borne. They infect each other, contaminate each other, damage each other. They haunt each other with the indeterminant futural specificity of hyperobjects.  Morton, in trying to articulate the finitude of capitalism in order to think a different future, writes “it’s like figuring out that one is also a specter in a haunted house of illusions and specters.” If Ghostbird is a ghost, so am I when I read Annihilation. If Borne is alive and human and not human and a robot, so am I when I read Borne.

The last chapter of Borne is called, “How I Live Now.” In it, after contemplating the destruction wrought by Mord and Borne, Wick asks, “What now, Rachel?  . . . What do we do now?” She replies, “Whatever we want to do.” Borne is damaged: “weak, tiny,” unable to move or speak, now “a kind of plant, taking sustenance from the sun.” At the end of The Strange Bird, the narrative asks “For what are bodies? Where do they end and where do they begin? And why must they be constant? Why must they be strong?” The Strange Bird sings with joy to another bird, even as she had been winnowed, had “suffered” and “been reduced” (1152). Both books end not with devastation, but with cooperation. And cooperation is not an arbitrary endpoint. Morton writes,

“cooperation is the zero-degree, cheapest coexistence mode, something you rely on when all else fails. Mutual aid is not teleological.” (2869). Cooperation comes after capitalism, especially in its neoliberalist form. Morton argues that “the violence of neoliberalism is necessary to break through mutual aid to the extent that mutual aid is intrinsic to humankind” (2869).  Mutualism outlives survival of the fittest. Borne, unmoving and nonspeaking, and the Strange Bird, weak and broken, both exist to break their worlds.

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