Saturday, April 22, 2017

Jeff VanderMeer @ DePaul

photo by Kyle Cassidy
This last Wednesday, I was able to catch Jeff VanderMeer's talk, "Area X: Environmental Storytelling in the Age of Trump and the Anthropocene". Hosted by DePaul's Institute for Nature and Culture, his lecture meditated on the material and experiences that went into the Southern Reach trilogy, as well as some interesting post-publication developments. Most fascinating, for me at least, was his exploration of how weird art, philosophy, ecology, and politics intertwine—what we can learn about the world, about storytelling, and about resistance in this deeply weird time we're going through. Lots of discussion of animals and thinking/writing about the non-human.

This talk was delightful and thought-provoking. Annihilation has quickly joined my inner circle of most-important books (most re-read, most recommended, most pondered-upon), and learning some of the nature experiences & philosophical/ecological thought that went into that was really cool—speculative fiction, philosophy, and nature are so central for me, this lecture had me in the clouds.

The Southern Reach has become a touchstone for most of my Chicago book-clubs (it seems Think Galactic's discussion is the only one I have recorded on Positron); his forthcoming novel Borne sounds great, and there's two more chances to hear him talk:
Brief, incomplete, and possibly-disjointed notes from the lecture below:

  • Randall Honold's introduction mentioned an article that called VanderMeer's work "epistemic pessimism in the tradition of Kafka", which is a nice phrase.
  • Photos and stories from his usual hiking grounds at St. Mark's Wildlife refuge in North Florida, including encounters with scaly basset hounds, a charging wild boar that influenced a key scene in Annihilation (though the original encounter, at least in this re-telling, elicited quite a bit of laughter), otter attacks that "you can't put in a serious novel", and an encounter with a panther that infuses Acceptance—the humbling surrealism of a threat you can't necessarily do anything about.
  • Cryptic references to porch dolphins. Florida is a strange place.
  • Some fun anecdotes about the Southern Reach books now that they're out in the world, including finding the "strangling fruit" words written out completely, murals of the moaning beast, True Detective crossover fanfic, and positive reviews from erotic hypnotism sites.
  • Sounds like I really must read Timothy Morton's Hyperobjects (2013), which VanderMeer talked about for quite a while: climate change as a kind of hyperobject, everywhere and nowhere. He also talked about global warming and other ecological crises as a kind of haunting, which is something I need to ponder.
  • Also mentioned drawing on works from the MIT Semiotext(e) series.
  • Interesting writing-process discussion where he essentially talked about needing to digest and distance himself from lots of research—reading and learning tons on a subject, and then beginning to have it show up in his fiction years later, rather than right away.
  • "The Gulf oil spill created Area X": the idea that the Gulf was dying, Area X as the place where "the oil was being taken out". Fiction that had metastasized as fact.
  • Comments on Rick Scott, the Malheur terrorist occupation, and the Trump administration, thinking of them as arising from and enabling "anti-ecologies", "the kind of void that attracts agency to it", and less dangerous as individuals than "the things that peer out from him". Also had some gross and accurate visual metaphors of Trump and the Surinam toad (CW: don't look that up if you have trypophobia).
Kayla Harren
  • Interesting list of artists in various media playing around with similar ideas, including:
  • "The totality of this mid-collapse moment."
  • Some notes of realism and possible activism from the WWF's 2016 Living Planet Report, which his daughter Erin Drew Kennedy contributed to. Eat less meat, drive less, get active politically and involved with local projects, you know the drill.
  • I was really intrigued by his comments on dystopias and climate fiction—also really appreciate his preference for "global weirding" over "cli-fi" as a genre/movement term. He had this cool critique of a lot of post-apocalyptic stories as 2% Solution Fiction, where the survivors of some disaster are essentially the kind of privileged white folks who tend to avoid the worst problems of ecological/economic crises before the apocalypse—so the post-disaster world for them is in some ways a fantasy of something better, simpler, without really paying attention to the (possibly preventable) human and non-human destruction it cost to get there. "Micro-utopias", though pitched as dystopias. "The usual escapism begins to seem very wrong."
  • (Throughout this bit, thinking a lot about that talk at SAIC about SF & environmentalism, as well as some Gary K. Wolfe essays on post-apocalypse fiction I've been reading. Wolfe's history lines up very closely with VanderMeer's "2%" critique.)
  • Interesting line of thought about animals, animal life, how we think about them—this position of anthropomorphizing them too much or not enough. Interesting connection made between animals and ghosts in terms of this haunting, non-human presence looking back at us, I need to think about that some more. Mentioned some good work being done in fiction with animals, including Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper and Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen.
  • Trying to get away from animals and other non-human things as "beings described as inert objects". Interesting idea that even historical films can erase the non-human, as for instance the way that European exploration of the Americas is portrayed without the intensely different, rich, thronging landscape that they actually encountered.
  • That's a theme and a sadness I've often reflected on—the way that our landscapes today are so radically biologically impoverished compared to what they once were that our "imaginative standard" for healthy environments is deeply skewed.
  • Good Q&A:
    • talked about the "commodification of hope" 
    • other strategies for writing the non-human
    • thinking about how birds think
    • W.G Sebald's work compared to J.G. Ballard's
    • suggesting renaming the Anthropocene to the Capitalocene, because "maybe you think it's really capitalism effing everything up"
    • Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement
    • cognitive studies & neurology "reducing the distance" between animals and humans as we learn more about brains, but also "sentience as a distraction" where preservation is concerned (preservation value shouldn't just be based on how like us something is)
Great talk! So glad I caught it. We're going to be talking about VanderMeer's new novel Borne on a near-future podcast. Again, highly encourage you to go see him read next week—via Anderson's out in DeKalb, and Volume in Chicago, at the illustrious Athletic Association building downtown.

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