Slow Narrative and Nonhuman Materialities (Frontiers of Narrative) 1496229096, 9781496229090

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Slow Narrative and Nonhuman Materialities (Frontiers of Narrative)
 1496229096, 9781496229090

Table of contents :
Cover
Title Page
Copyright Page
Contents
List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. Immersion for Slow Audiences
2. The Pace and Place of Qualia
3. Ontocatalogs and Nonhuman Materiality
4. Narrative, Philosophy, and Essayistic Attractions
5. Textural Patterns in Multimodal Narrative
6. Visual Narrative and the Narramorphism of Matter
7. Radical Environmental Storytelling in Video Games
Coda
Notes
References
Index

Citation preview

Slow Narrative and Nonhuman Materialities

Frontiers of Narrative

Se rie s E ditor

Jesse E. Matz, Kenyon College

Slow Narrative and Nonhuman Materialities Marco Caracciolo

University of Nebraska Press  |  Lincoln

© 2022 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska All rights reserved

Library of Congress Control Number: 2021036607 Set in Minion Pro by Laura Buis.

Contents

List of Illustrations  vii Acknowledgments ix Introduction: Decelerating Story  1

1. Immersion for Slow Audiences  23



2. The Pace and Place of Qualia  43



3. Ontocatalogs and Nonhuman Materiality  69



4. Narrative, Philosophy, and Essayistic Attractions  94



5. Textural Patterns in Multimodal Narrative  112



6. Visual Narrative and the Narramorphism of Matter  136



7. Radical Environmental Storytelling in Video Games  161

Coda: Slow Retreat  189 Notes 195 References 209 Index 229

Illustrations



1. Two stills from Frammartino’s Le quattro volte 2



2. Dannenberg’s visualization of readers’ transportation to a narrative world  26



3. Unconventional typography in Danielewski’s House of Leaves 75



4. Two sketches from Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish 122



5. Stitching patterns in Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword 132



6. Mimetic typography in The Fifty Year Sword 134



7. The first page of Cheyrol’s Gaïa 148



8. Anthropomorphic figuration in Gaïa 150



9. A cosmic explosion in Gaïa 151



10. Comet and scenes from Vuillier’s L’année de la comète 154



11. Planet and comet’s tail in L’année de la comète 155



12. Getting around the city, from Submerged by Uppercut Games  174



13. Climbing buildings in Submerged 174



14. Last eight tiles of “The city’s story” in Submerged 176



15. Main screen of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine 181



16. One of the sixteen main characters of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine 182

vii

Acknowledgments

This book is the second installment of what I half-­jokingly refer to as the “narmesh trilogy.” If Narrating the Mesh: Form and Story in the Anthropocene (University of Virginia Press, 2021) argues that narrative form has a central role to play in conveying insight into the ecological crisis, Slow Narrative and Nonhuman Materialities identifies slowness as a particularly meaningful experience arising in the interaction between narrative form and readers’ environmental imagination. The third installment, Contemporary Fiction and Climate Uncertainty: Narrating Unstable Futures (Bloomsbury, 2022), shifts from the experiential to the existential, imagining the ways in which formally sophisticated narrative may empower readers to welcome an unpredictable future in times of climate change. Early echoes of that third book are, no doubt, present in the following pages. narmesh is a five-­year project funded by the European Research Council (grant number 714166). All of my thinking in the past years has been fueled by my fellow Narmeshians—­Susannah Crockford, Shannon Lambert, and Gry Ulstein—­a long with a sizeable host of visiting fellows and lecturers. Among the latter, Kaisa Kortekallio has been particularly influential for this book. I am immensely grateful to the European Research Council and to all these colleagues and friends for the inspiration and enriching interactions. I presented papers based on individual chapters of this book in Basel (New Developments in Theory lecture series), Davis (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment conference), Honolulu (American Studies Association conference), as well as New Orleans and Pamplona (International Society for the Study of Narrative conference). On each of these occasions, my audiences, large and small, and my copanelists were fantastic in offering feedback. Special thanks go to Ridvan Askin, Monika Fludernik, Jon Hegglund, Erin James, Brian McAllister, Laura Oulanne, and David Rodriguez. One chapter was written during a Black Forest re ix

treat with Wibke Schniedermann, my beloved partner-­in-­slowness, and Lars Bernaerts, my narratological soulmate. Admittedly, despite the locale, ours was not a very Heideggerian retreat. If you read that chapter closely enough, you can hear the laughter and the rustling leaves. I would also like to thank Bridget Barry and Heather Stauffer at the University of Nebraska Press for their helpful advice and guidance as I was finalizing this manuscript. Lastly, I am grateful to two anonymous readers for providing stimulating input and critique.

x  Acknowledgments

Slow Narrative and Nonhuman Materialities

Introduction Decelerating Story

By the end of Le quattro volte (2010), a film by Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino, viewers have heard far more goat bleats than human words. The film is set in a rural village in southern Italy. The title translates as “the four times” or, alternatively, “the four turns,” and indeed Le quattro volte falls into a fourfold structure. The first part centers on an old goatherd; when the goatherd dies, one of his goats takes over as the narrative’s protagonist; then—­in the third part—­a fir tree takes center stage and is shown, in time-­lapse style, as seasons pass; finally, wood from the tree is turned into charcoal with a traditional technique, which the film displays with documentary-­like exactness. The titular “turns” capture these narrative shifts from human life (the goatherd’s) to the animal, vegetal, and mineral forms of the nonhuman world. This seamless motion from a human protagonist to charcoal evokes a sense of fragile interdependency: inescapably, Le quattro volte demonstrates that the goatherd’s rural society is woven into natural patterns and rhythms and relies on them for its survival. The human-­nonhuman entanglement that emerges from the film sidelines dichotomies between subjectivity, agency, animacy—­and “mere” matter. Frammartino’s cinematic style is crucial to achieving this vision and creating a level playing field for humans and nonhuman entities. Consider a sequence occurring near the end of the film’s first part. The camera displays a pickup truck parked by a city gate, a goat enclosure on the left-­hand side (see fig. 1). A long take lasting more than five minutes shows a fractious dog barking and a religious procession making its way down the road (with the camera swiveling to the right to follow their progress, then backtracking to the view of the gate). The scene combines slowness of pace with openness of outcome: as the viewers’ attention is divided between the physical space of the city gate, the dog’s insistent barking, and the drums and trumpet of the procession, they will won 1

Fig. 1. Before and after the goats are freed. Two stills from Le quattro volte (Frammartino 2010).

der where this long take, with its minor and seemingly random events, leads. Eventually, the dog approaches the truck and removes the wheel chock that keeps the vehicle in place. The truck rolls back and crashes into the goat enclosure, freeing the animals. This event is barely significant in terms of advancing the film’s already thin plot; its function is symbolic: it suggests a release of the nonhuman (the dog and the goats) into the normally human-­scale space of storytelling. 2  Introduction

The release is modulated by the scene’s slowness and looseness of purpose—­two aspects underlined by the shot’s contemplative distance from the events. In a more action-­oriented sequence driven by the teleology of who does what and for what reason, the truck’s crashing into the fence would barely register: it would be, at best, a comical by-­product of a human drama unfolding elsewhere and monopolizing the viewers’ attention. Here, by contrast, the slowness and apparent lack of design of the goats’ release signal a broader turn from the human protagonist of the film’s first part to the animal protagonist of the second part. The deceleration of narrative progression thus proves instrumental in departing from the human-­centeredness of the narrative and in channeling the vision of human-­nonhuman interconnectedness that the film as a whole affirms. This book investigates how the experience of slowness in contemporary narrative practices can create a vision of interconnectedness between human communities and the nonhuman world. Particularly with the advent of modernity, Western culture has rested on a set of binary distinctions between human agency and inanimate matter, with animals and plants occupying a problematic middle ground between them. Typically, during most of this cultural history, the human was not seen as coextensive with the whole human population but only referred to individuals who, by virtue of gender, race, class, or education, held a position of power. If this human, defined by exclusion, serves as the locus of rational agency and subjectivity, matter remains inert, passive, and liable to human exploitation—­and so do individuals living at the margins of society. If humanity faces the vast challenges of today’s climate crisis, it is because this Western view of nature as a set of “resources” to be harvested has become entrenched in a global financial system based on linear narratives of economic growth and technological progress.1 A position diametrically opposed to these views is one that emphasizes the material entanglement of human societies and the nonhuman at large. The term “nonhuman” gained currency in the wake of Richard Grusin’s (2015) discussion of the “nonhuman turn”: it is an umbrella concept referring to physical, biological, climatological, and geological processes that have traditionally been seen as impermeable to culture and to human activity in general. These are the “nonhuman materialities” of this book’s title. The standpoint of entanglement stresses that human communities depend on material dynamics in ecosystems Introduction  3

for their own survival—­when it comes to farming crops or fishing, for instance. Less trivially, human activities—­such as the release of plastic into the environment or the burning of fossil fuels—­can alter these dynamics and turn our planet into a dramatically more inhospitable place for other species, as well as for our own. The nonhuman turn is characterized by a renewed interest in materiality, a concept distinct from matter in that it resists the latter’s connotations of passivity and inertness. Materiality is a dynamic property: it shapes the world (including the human world) by exerting forms of nonhuman agency, as the sequence from Frammartino’s film (with the goats’ release) shows so clearly.2 The efficacy of nonhuman materiality is a central tenet in the field of so-­called new materialism, which is closely related to the nonhuman turn and will be often invoked—­especially through Jane Bennett’s (2010) work—­in the chapters that follow. Discussions on the “Anthropocene” also tend to emphasize the materiality of human-­nonhuman interdependency. The Anthropocene is the age in which humans leave a physical mark on planetary history, for example, by exhausting in a couple of centuries fossil fuels that result from millions of years of geological processes. The term “Anthropocene” was popularized by a scientist, Paul Crutzen (2002), and has quickly taken root in debates in the humanities and social sciences, not without controversy: effectively, the word “anthropos” associates humanity with the exploitative capitalist system that has led to the current crisis without spelling out the differing political and social responsibilities that the crisis involves.3 Historically, Western countries on both sides of the Atlantic have been the main driver of carbon dioxide emissions, but the catastrophic effects of—­for example—­rising sea levels and desertification have put developing countries on the front line of the crisis: these societies are far more vulnerable to natural disasters than those in the affluent West for geographical, infrastructural, and economic reasons. In a widely cited article, Dipesh Chakrabarty presents this predicament as a “collision . . . of three histories that, from the point of view of human history, are normally assumed to be working at such different and distinct paces that they are treated as processes separate from one another for all practical purposes” (2014, 1). The histories in question are those of human societies, particularly the history of capitalism, which played and still plays a major role in shaping the ecological crisis; the history of 4  Introduction

the evolution of life on Earth; and the geological and climatological history of our planet. In the Anthropocene, these seemingly distinct temporalities come together, exposing the fundamental interconnectedness of human activity and nonhuman processes. Timothy Morton (2010) uses the metaphor of the “mesh” for this intimate, and constitutive, connection between humans, animals, and material things and processes that our culture has taught us to see as categorically distinct from the human. This is the entanglement that Frammartino’s film brings out through its fourfold structure, which juxtaposes a human character, animals (the goats), plants (the tree), and mineral matter (the charcoal). From the detached perspective promoted by the film, the human is only one fold in the fabric of reality—­a perspective that opposes a linear understanding of (narrated) time whereby human beliefs and desires are the sole focus of the reader’s attention and steer the plot from beginning to end. The deliberately slow and contemplative pace of this narrative is what allows Frammartino to implement a critique of anthropocentric and teleological conceptions of narrative. Likewise, the film destabilizes the default assumption that nonhuman animals and landscapes serve either as a tool or, at best, as a passive backdrop to human affairs. This setup, which is widespread in the fictions of Western modernity, is the narrative equivalent to an instrumentalizing view of nature. Artistically and experientially, slowness challenges this vision and reveals the rich interconnectivity of human subjectivity and nonhuman materialities. This insight into the value of slowness is nothing new, of course. Tina Young Choi and Barbara Leckie (2018) discuss—­to quote from the subtitle of their article—­“the function of narrative in an age of climate change.” The concept to which Choi and Leckie turn is slow causality. They argue that Victorian writers like George Eliot and Charles Lyell, the geologist and popularizer of “deep time,” “employ slowness in instructive ways, to signal at once a disengagement from the strictly empirical . . . and a mobilization of secular belief. Slow causality functions for them—­as it might for us, too, in an age of climate change—­as a narrative practice, a strategic methodology for reconciling human to geological temporalities” (Choi and Leckie 2018, 567). In Choi and Leckie’s discussion, slow causality is a theme and narrative practice in Victorian literature. This book adopts a broader understanding of slow narrative, which I take as shorthand for narrative experienced in a slow mode. My shift from the Introduction  5

inherent causality of story to story-­driven experiences recognizes that some narratives are more conducive to slowness than others.4 However, even when it is strongly cued at the textual level, slowness is never the only available response. Slow narrative emerges when certain readers encounter certain narrative strategies that disrupt and decelerate their engagement with the text. The core claim here is that, when embraced in both experience and interpretation, slowness contributes to the narrative imagination of human-­ nonhuman enmeshment. This possibility is fruitfully explored by contemporary works like Frammartino’s film. Correctly understanding the value of slowness vis-­à-­vis nonhuman materialities is no easy task: it requires a grasp of the challenges that narrative faces as it contends with Anthropocenic processes like climate change; it also requires a thorough definition of slowness as an affective experience emerging through the interplay of audience members’ predispositions and textual strategies. Climate change, as has been remarked multiple times, is at the heart of the Anthropocene in that climate change exposes the entanglement of human activity and the causality at play in biological, climatological, and geological processes. One need only think of Rob Nixon’s (2011) influential concept of “slow violence” to realize how the ecological crisis involves temporal scales that cannot be easily expressed through the representational practices of modernity, including narrative practices. Discussing the consequences of environmental degradation and how they affect, slowly but devastatingly, entire populations in developing countries, Nixon writes that a “major challenge is representational: how to devise arresting stories, images, and symbols adequate to the pervasive but elusive violence of delayed effects” (2011, 3). The ecological plight of the poor in South America or the Indian subcontinent, for instance, doesn’t make the headlines because it involves a trickle of diseases and victims rather than the spectacular narratives the news media are invested in—­ short-­term narratives with a clear-­cut villain. The sluggish pace of these “attritional catastrophes” (7) clashes with the Western public’s appetite for stories that follow a clear arc with a sudden crisis and dramatic finale. Ursula Heise (2016) also discusses the temporal paradoxes bound up with the ecological crisis. On the one hand, geological history moves at a sluggish pace compared to human societies, particularly in the context of modernity, with its well-­k nown commitment to speed and tech6  Introduction

nological innovation. On the other hand, climate catastrophe on a global scale is approaching more and more rapidly because of serious delays and structural shortcomings in political decision-­making, including international climate negotiations, which advance far too slowly to deal with a crisis of this urgency and magnitude. Humanity is, at the same time, too fast and too slow to cope with environmental collapse. This paradox, which Heise links to the postmodern condition, generates unprecedented temporal disorientation and uncertainty: “Postmodernism watches itself riding toward the future, not knowing whether it is moving in time lapse or slow motion” (2016, 257). The difficulties highlighted by Nixon and Heise—­t he shrinking attention span of the Western world, the unsettling temporality of the present—­create formidable challenges for storytelling. It has become commonplace in the field of ecocriticism (or environmentally oriented literary criticism) to refer to the difficulty of representing climate change adequately in narrative-­based genres such as the novel (Trexler 2015; Ghosh 2016). Novelistic plots are geared toward events unfolding at the human scale; they are driven by the flurry of human beliefs and desires that is central to what psychologists call “theory of mind.”5 Monika Fludernik, an influential narrative theorist, refers to narrative’s “anthropomorphic bias” (1996, 13) as a fundamental premise of storytelling; such bias is hardly surprising, given the central role that stories play and have arguably played throughout human history in coordinating with other individuals socially and in transmitting shared cultural values.6 In premodern and traditional societies, narrative is frequently used to explain geological or climatological phenomena by ascribing anthropomorphic intentions to the nonhuman: this strategy, which can be seen at work in ancient mythology, for instance, extends the network of human intersubjectivity to make sense of an event such as a volcanic eruption or a thunderstorm. But this anthropomorphizing use of narrative runs into trouble vis-­à-­vis climate change, and not only because Western science denies any intentional agency steering the history of the earth system. Climate change resists anthropomorphic explanation because it is a scientific abstraction, not a phenomenon that can be captured through the grid of a single narrative (Simon 2018). Indeed, climate change involves causal interactions so staggeringly complex that it is impossible to predict climatological trends with absolute certainty—­a fact that often plays Introduction  7

into the hands of climate change deniers (see Lewandowsky et al. 2014). Because the climate is a highly nonlinear system, it does not sit well with narrative’s built-­in tendency toward the linear teleology of human intentions. Put more simply, stories are attuned to the patterning of human mental and social life, not to the ways in which human activities on a large scale can impact the climate. Narrative, however, is a capacious concept. That narrative practices in general gravitate toward linearity and the teleology of human action doesn’t mean that this setup cannot be questioned by certain stories and, more specifically, by formally innovative and challenging stories. I have already discussed in Narrating the Mesh: Form and Story in the Anthropocene (2021) how literary narrative can implement a range of formal strategies that put pressure on anthropocentric thinking and convey a deeply intermeshed vision of human-­nonhuman relations. With Slow Narrative and Nonhuman Materialities I pivot from formal devices to the interactions between form and the audience’s experiential and affective meaning-­making. Decelerating story means, potentially, uncoupling it from the configuration of human characters’ intentions. Slowness is the attentional state that accompanies the opening up of narrative form to nonhuman materialities. Slowness prompts us to reconsider and redraw conceptual categories by expanding our awareness of multithreaded connections between the human world and nonhuman phenomena. But because narrative cannot force readers or viewers to do anything, this experiential effect requires a willing and predisposed audience. In watching Le quattro volte, for example, the audience may simply miss the point of Frammartino’s subversive inclusion of a goat, a tree, and charcoal as protagonists: boredom and indifference will ensue. Appreciating slowness is, no doubt, a matter of taste, as well as skill and training in close reading and interpretation: it is certainly not for everyone, but the stakes of such appreciation are high as humanity hurtles toward catastrophic climate change. To understand the predicament we are facing, we need patience and an eye for complex patterns; to rebuild society along more sustainable lines, we need to pay close attention to the multiple threads that link human communities and the slow-­moving processes of the climate and geological history. Slow narrative thus becomes an imaginative platform for retraining our affects and concepts and reimagining our place in the world. By distancing ourselves temporarily from human values, 8  Introduction

as Le quattro volte prompts us to do through its distinctively slow style, we come to envision interactions on a more-­than-­human scale and embrace their complexity. This account of the importance of slowness may strike my readers as utopian and wide-­eyed. How are we supposed to “retrain our affects and concepts” using cultural texts like Le quattro volte, which is presumably a long-­haul project, when the climate crisis is already upon us and coordinated action is needed with such urgency?7 Slowness, it would seem, is the one response we cannot afford. My answer is that slowness, as I understand it in this book, does not rule out immediate action. Festina lente—­“make haste slowly”—­is the time-­honored Latin adage, and it holds value in the present situation, too. As a form of attention attuned to complex patterning, slowness remains largely independent from objective, measurable time. We need a swift response to the ecological crisis and the ability to experience its causes and consequences in a slow mode. It is possible to make haste slowly because the depth of vision that comes with slowness does not undermine political action but complements and supports it. Once a climate mitigation strategy is in place on a global level, or (in a far bleaker but also more realistic scenario) once the consequences of inaction become inevitable, we will need to make sure that humanity doesn’t come so close to environmental collapse again, with all that it entails for human societies and nonhuman ecosystems. It is in these terms that slow narrative can make a difference, heightening our awareness of interconnectedness and undermining the hierarchical and instrumentalizing way of looking at the nonhuman world that has led to the current crisis. Focusing on Slowness Emphasizing slowness implies a return to form. Viktor Shklovsky, a key figure in Russian formalism and an immensely influential player in twentieth-­century literary theory, argued in his classic account of “defamiliarization,” or ostraneniye, that the goal of art is to disrupt everyday perception. Shklovsky wrote in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique”: “A work is created ‘artistically’ so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception” (1965, 22).8 Life, Shklovsky suggested, has a way of dulling our cognitive faculties: we let our thinking fall into certain conceptual ruts be Introduction  9

cause they are culturally available and comfortable. The upshot of such habituation is that we stop paying attention to the perceptual qualities of the world. For Shklovsky, art “exists so that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known” (12; emphasis in the original). “To make the stone stony” involves recovering the perceptual thickness of the thing, which is not interchangeable with conceptual knowledge (“as they are known”): as Shklovsky highlights, concepts gloss over the perceptual richness of the material world, leading to an understanding of matter as passive and inert. Through their defamiliarizing strategies, the arts are in an excellent position to reveal the active role that nonhuman materiality plays in human cultures.9 The deceleration of experience is the device through which art makes this revelation possible. Concretely, this deceleration takes the form of what Jan Mukařovský (2014)—­another literary theorist working in eastern Europe in the wake of Russian formalism in the 1920s and 1930s—­called “foregrounding.” The term refers to literary strategies that challenge established conventions and undermine the audience’s expectations; whenever we encounter foregrounding—­in the form of a striking metaphor or an odd metacomment on the part of the narrator, for instance—­language comprehension slows down. At the same time, the reader’s affective involvement spikes. This hypothesis was demonstrated empirically by David Miall and Don Kuiken in the early 1990s and still remains one of the cornerstones of the field of empirical approaches to literature: via foregrounding, “defamiliarization obliges the reader to slow down, allowing time for the feelings created by the alliterations and metaphors to emerge” (Miall and Kuiken 1994, sec. 1.1). This formalist account of art points to the deep link between aesthetic experience—­in the sense of aisthesis, or “embodied sensation”—­and slowness. By decelerating the reader’s experience, literary narrative brings into imaginative and affective focus a broad array of patterns, which this book will capture through the image of “texture.” Suggesting connectedness across a plurality of strands, the concept of texture operates at multiple levels: it conveys the entangled dynamics of the reader’s attention when working in a slow mode, but it also expresses the complex ecological linkage between human communities, nonhuman species, 10  Introduction

and larger ecosystemic processes. Slowing down experience is also, as already implicit in Shklovsky’s discussion, a means of challenging culturally entrenched assumptions. By bridging the gap between individual subjectivity and the nonhuman, the imagination of texture helps us move beyond binaries between activity and passivity, human psychology and “mere” matter, culture and geological or climatological processes. In this way, the challenges of the ecological crisis infuse Shklovsky’s deceleration of perception with new significance. Slowness is at the center of a number of cultural debates today, including the popular “slow food” movement, spearheaded by Italian journalist Carlo Petrini. In general, the discourse of slowness resists the cult of speed that is the signature gesture of modernity.10 In a seminal meditation on the value of slowness, Carl Honoré (2004) discusses how activities and disciplines as different as urban planning, child-­rearing, and medicine can be practiced in a slow mode—­w ith, Honoré claims, significant benefits for all parties involved. As Heise writes, over “the last two decades slowness has become a master trope for the resistance to capitalism, globalization, standardization, mass production, new media, and other new technologies” (2016, 251). My appeal to slowness in this book works somewhat differently. I do not measure slowness against a certain cultural standard, such that we can say—­for instance—­t hat a slow meal takes a full hour instead of half an hour. Rather, slowness reflects what I call the “thickening” of attention, a state of absorption in the multiple layers of narrative (its texture), as opposed to a narrow focus on the plot’s ending and whether the protagonist is successful in pursuing his or her goals. In that respect, slowness is a mode of experience that can be uncoupled (to some extent, at least) from questions of objective duration or length: a short text can be read in a slow mode, and we don’t need to spend days watching and rewatching a film to experience slowness. As a modality of attention, slowness arises in the encounter between the audience members and stylistic strategies prompting distance from the teleology of progression, especially progression understood as an emanation of the human (or anthropomorphic) protagonist’s mental life. By valuing the presentness of experience and resisting the drive toward closure, slowness also resonates with the deep uncertainty of our collective future, which flickers between gloomy and more optimistic scenarios. In some instances, slow narrative may even Introduction  11

help audience members alleviate the anxieties that such ambivalent futurity brings.11 In film and media studies, slowness has been the subject of much discussion lately in relation to “slow cinema” and “slow t v.”12 Lutz Koepnick’s (2014) account in On Slowness stands out for its theoretical sophistication. For Koepnick, slowness is a salient concept in contemporary artistic practices ranging from photography to video art and cinema. While discussing extensively the link between slowness and a modernist aesthetics of acceleration and speed, Koepnick opposes a reductive understanding of slowness as a “mere inversion of the modern idolatry of speed. Slowness instead allows us to behold the passing of time in the first place, and in so doing it has the potential to complicate and refract dominant understandings of movement, change and mobility” (2014, 251). The key word in this passage is “complicate”: slowness is not a merely oppositional practice of resistance (as it tends to be framed in the slow food movement, for example) but a mode of contemplation that deepens the perception of the temporal plurality of the present. In other words, slowness reveals that multiple strands of affect and sensation coexist within the seemingly bounded “now.”13 This plurality is a direct equivalent of what I call the texture of slow narrative, which reflects both the complexity of textual strategies and the thickening of attention through which predisposed readers experience such strategies. Koepnick’s chapters guide the reader through a number of fascinating case studies on the aesthetics of slowness, from Michael Wesely’s ghostly photographs of train stations to Werner Herzog’s cinematic imagination of the Chauvet Cave in France; ecological concerns emerge in chapter 3 of Koepnick’s book via an interest in aerial photography that engages with geological time scales and retreating glaciers. Yet Koepnick’s visual analyses tend to sideline, perhaps pointedly, how slowness may become embedded in narrative practices. To the extent that narrative is part of Koepnick’s discussion, it serves as a foil to a contemplative aesthetics of slowness freed from the demands of plot. While retaining Koepnick’s focus on slowness as a hallmark of contemporary artistic expression, this book argues that slowness can inhere within the fabric of story, decelerate its progression, and in doing so extend and enrich narrative’s confrontation with the nonhuman world. This effect is particularly valuable vis-­à-­vis today’s ecological crisis. An idea that has 12  Introduction

been gaining traction in science communication (see Dahlstrom 2014) is that narrative is uniquely suited to translate scientific models into an emotional experience that can influence the public perception of climate change. Slowness enhances this power of storytelling by eliciting a state of attention that is attuned to the vast and ramified consequences of humanity’s impact on the planet. Work by researchers including Erin James (2015) and Alexa Weik von Mossner (2017), along with my own Narrating the Mesh, has already started to explore the ecological and ecocritical relevance of both narrative and the academic field of narrative theory (also known as narratology).14 Slow Narrative and Nonhuman Materialities extends this scholarship by placing the experiential effects of narrative center stage and by offering a range of theoretically grounded close readings that complement the formal language of narrative theory. Chapters 1 through 5 focus on verbal strategies in genres such as the short story, the novel, and experimental fiction. Literature presents an extremely rich repertoire of stylistic devices that create slowness by undermining the teleological and anthropocentric setup of narrative. Chapters 6 and 7 turn to comic books and video games in which similar strategies of narrative deceleration and textural proliferation emerge either through the erasure of verbal language (in wordless comic books) or through a sophisticated interplay between words and the interactivity of the video game medium. Mainly because of the substantial body of work already devoted to the aesthetics of slow cinema, film doesn’t feature in my discussion other than my comments on Frammartino’s Le quattro volte in this introduction. I am confident, however, that many of the ideas in the chapters that follow are applicable to cinema as well. Narrative, as many commentators have highlighted (Ryan and Thon 2014), is a fundamentally transmedial phenomenon, even as its realization in different media is contingent on their unique affordances and limitations. Keeping this point in mind, the next section engages with the narratological challenges of theorizing about slowness. Disrupting Narrative Teleology In an article provocatively titled “Eighteen Hours of Salmon,” Dan Irving (2017) develops a narratological approach to “slow tv.” This strand of contemporary television presents a process that takes up several hours—­ Introduction  13

whether it’s salmon fishing or a train making its way across Norway—­ with minimal editing and no overt plotting. These shows, as Irving notes, tend to be paratextually framed as narrative. One could, of course, question this framing and argue that what happens on-­screen has narrative potential, just as any other experience, but not enough to qualify as a narrative in the full-­fledged sense. That is not the route Irving takes, however. Instead, he develops a scalar model of narrativity, where slow tv becomes an intriguing example of weak narrativity: viewers of these shows are encouraged to create their own stories, which are not textually realized but still inflect the audience’s meaning-­making as potentialities or counterfactual scenarios.15 Narrativity is part of the experience, even if it is not necessarily or straightforwardly part of the show. To put the same point another way: nothing happens, but a lot could happen, and this virtuality is sufficient to sustain the viewers’ narrative interest. The “slowness” of slow tv thus depends on several factors: the objective duration of these shows; the fact that the situations they depict have no obvious teleology or overt emotional patterning of suspense, curiosity, and surprise; and the many unactualized narrative scenarios that hover around viewers, or at least the narratively predisposed viewers, as they take in these sequences.16 These considerations bear on discussions of pace, speed, and rhythm in narrative—­three concepts that have been variously used to express the experienced patterning of narrative time. In Narrative Discourse, a landmark contribution to structuralist narratology, Gérard Genette (1980, 93–­ 94) discusses rhythm or “duration” as an idealized ratio of story to discourse time. Story time refers to the reconstructed chronology of the story (also known as fabula), whereas discourse time (also known as syuzhet) denotes the actual textual presentation of that story, which may deviate from the chronological order significantly. Genette provides us with categories to describe quantitative variations in discourse time relative to the inferred story time: summary (when story time appears to accelerate vis-­à-­vis discourse time), descriptive pause (when story time stops), and scene (when story time roughly equals discourse time). For instance, the goat release sequence in Le quattro volte hovers between descriptive pause and scene because of its emphatic slowness. Yet Genette’s textual categories are insufficient to account for slowness as a matter of experience. Kathryn Hume’s discussion—­a lso in a 14  Introduction

narratological vein—­of the uses of speed in postmodernist fiction comes much closer to an experiential understanding of narrative rhythm or pace; Hume explores how the readers of works by the likes of William Burroughs and Ishmael Reed may feel that “the narrative [is] being accelerated beyond some safe comprehension-­limit” (2005, 106).17 In many ways, this sense of acceleration is directly opposed to the experience of slowness as I conceptualize it in this book. Both Hume’s speed and my slowness are more than a quantitative relation between textual temporalities; instead, they present themselves as affective experiences when predisposed readers encounter a set of accelerating or decelerating textual devices. Speed and slowness, then, call for a phenomenological approach to narrative that centers on how narrative meaning-­making taps into our experiential background and affords vivid imaginative experiences. In discussing what she terms the “uses” of literature, Rita Felski (2008) has argued for the importance of a phenomenological approach able to do justice to the diversity of the experiential values that readers—­including both scholars and the general public—­bring to bear on literary texts. It is within this experiential focus that I position my account of slowness, highlighting the possibility of an ecological use of story that—­while not explicitly discussed by Felski—­resonates with the patterning of recognition, knowledge, enchantment, and shock that she sees as central to literary experience.18 All my close readings adopt slowness as a heuristic concept that guides my own experiential engagement with narrative. I embrace “surface reading,” in Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s terminology, where surface is understood as “the intricate verbal structure of literary language” (2009, 10)—­something akin to what I refer to as texture. As a method, surface reading brings out the affective dimension of narrative experiences both as we engage with narrative and as we reflect on our engagement—­two experiential layers that are consistently difficult to extricate from each other. Further, all my chapters adopt a comparative method, juxtaposing two texts that pursue a broadly similar approach to slowness in terms of genre and medium, even as the formal techniques they implement can produce vastly different effects. While my discussion reflects my own introspective intuitions, the approach is phenomenological in that it aims to uncover patterns within the experience of slowness that may be shared intersubjectively—­a lthough of course they are unlikely to be universally shared.19 My goal is not to generalize about Introduction  15

reader response but rather to identify a slow mode of interpretive and affective engagement that should be fostered in audiences to put pressure on anthropocentric hierarchies and reimagine human-­nonhuman relations along the lines of constitutive entanglement. To home in on the experience of slowness, I propose in the next chapter that slowness emerges when narrative becomes uncoupled from linear teleology and still retains the audience’s attention. What do I mean by linear teleology? Because, as discussed above, narrative is closely coupled with human intersubjective interactions, the teleology in question consists of beliefs and desires, as well as their expression in narrated actions. When a character wants something—­the premise of most narratives—­a temporal arc is created that readers will want to see completed. Typically, narrative tends to foreground a single arc, reflecting—­for instance—­t he protagonist’s desire to marry into a rich family or find a weapon that will kill the villain. A desire or goal sets the plot in motion, in textual terms, and drives the audience’s emotional investment in the events and their resolution, in experiential terms. This is the fundamental principle of plotting that Marie-­Laure Ryan explores in Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (1991, 147): plot is produced by the close interplay of characters’ beliefs and desires; it is, in other words, an expression of human mental life and its search for fulfillment. Within this pattern, the nonhuman world is likely to serve as a backdrop, as an instrument in the protagonist’s quest, or as a mirror of interpersonal tensions. It does not, generally, take on autonomous agency. However, when no single arc can be found or the coupling of characters’ beliefs, desires, and actions seems excessively loose, linear teleology breaks down. To return to Le quattro volte, this breakdown of teleology becomes apparent as soon as the goatherd dies early on in the film, depriving the narrative of a human protagonist. The goat that replaces him doesn’t have any obvious goals other than surviving a harsh winter; a fortiori, it is hard to read the tree or the charcoal as having any humanlike desires. The narrative pattern thus departs from linear, goal-­ oriented thinking; in the viewer’s imagination, linearity is replaced by a sense of circularity (as I discuss in Caracciolo [2021, chap. 1]). When narrative is no longer guided by a teleological structure but manages to retain the audience’s attention through its stylistic and formal qualities, an experience of slowness arises. We are absorbed by the story, but our 16  Introduction

attention is spread out—­rather than narrowly aimed at the ending and the possibility of achieving closure—­as we take in the full complexity of textual devices. A slow pace develops, and it is directly grounded in the audience’s embodied, affective experience of narrative progression (Caracciolo 2014b; Kukkonen 2020). Examples of devices that decelerate and disrupt linear temporality include the excavation of characters’ mental lives as they are refracted through memory (as discussed in chapter 2); the strategic use of lists and enumerations that highlight nonhuman materiality (chapter 3); drawing inspiration from the essay as a literary form that tends to oppose, through its digressive nature, the progression of story (chapter 4); a multimodal strategy such as unconventional typography or illustrations that extend a work’s significance along a nonverbal route (chapter 5); the foregrounding of visual textures and forms in wordless graphic narrative (chapter 6); the open-­ended trajectory of the player’s peregrinations in narrative-­focused video games (chapter 7). As I will detail in the next chapter, the slowness that emerges from these devices displays a multithreaded patterning that is closely reminiscent of the entanglement of human societies and nonhuman processes in the Anthropocene (Morton’s “mesh”). The experience of slowness thus offers a phenomenological equivalent of humanity’s capture in a more-­ than-­human world; it enables us, perhaps more than any other experience, to sense—­in embodied terms—­t he elusive and abstract connections that underlie our Anthropocenic moment. If this book’s argument concerning the value of slowness were a story, teleology, linearity, and closure would be its villains. In contemporary culture, narrative experience is frequently thought of as a form of consumption whose main (or only) goal is knowledge of the ending. In a world where spoiler alerts are de rigueur, we easily accept the idea that immersion in storyworlds can be undercut by any revelation disrupting the linear temporality of the telling. The ending has to be “consumed” at the proper time, and once this happens we are ready to move on to another story without much further thought. Closure is far more satisfying than openness and ambivalence because it mirrors the kind of neat order and linear progression we aspire to in our lives—­this is part of the reason why endings are so difficult to “get right,” as viewers of popular tv series will no doubt know. Likewise, narrative is seen as conveying a message typically tied to authorial intention, just as companies or polit Introduction  17

ical parties have an agenda or pursue certain goals—­a teleological reading strategy that most of us teachers of literature observe and strive to correct in our students. I admit that this way of thinking about narrative is something of a caricature: it does not claim to capture the reading or viewing habits of all present-­day audiences but only what I consider to be a worrying tendency in the discourse and practices surrounding contemporary storytelling. Moreover, it is certainly possible to read teleologically the works I will examine in the chapters that follow. Just as villains tend to display exaggerated moral flaws, it is tempting to depict teleology, linearity, and closure in an overtly negative light to fully bring out the virtues of our hero, slowness. A linear story does have something in common with culturally circulating ideas of unlimited economic growth and technological progress—­metanarratives, in Jean-­François Lyotard’s (1984, xxiv) terminology, that are at the root of today’s ecological crisis. But, plainly, it won’t do to push the connection between narrative linearity, teleology, and closure and the imagination of human-­nonhuman relations too far: the gap between them is too significant to be ignored. Instrumentality in thinking about narrative (as conveying messages or being exclusively geared toward the ending) is clearly not interchangeable with or indicative of a utilitarian view of the nonhuman world (seeing nature as a set of resources available for human exploitation). Moreover, getting rid of goal-­oriented thinking may be impossible, given our cognitive predispositions and biases, and may well be undesirable: especially in the context of today’s ecological crisis, we need clear goals and the capacity to envisage the outcome of our actions lucidly and straightforwardly. Yet when teleology, linearity, and closure become a totalizing way of looking at the world, they spell trouble. The experience of slow narrative is uniquely positioned to counter such notions. According to the Fifth Assessment Report, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a “majority of people perceive climate in a linear fashion,” which “reflects two common biases” (2014, 164). Both biases have to do with the correlation between the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global emissions. It is misguided to believe that curbing emissions will immediately lower the concentration (first bias) and that we may be able to stabilize the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, regardless of the amount (second bias). Also because of this kind of linear 18  Introduction

reasoning, the international community keeps putting off the implementation of climate change mitigation policies based on the (false) assumption that our actions will always be reversible. Climate change is a deeply nonlinear phenomenon, which is another way of saying that it can easily get out of hand: past a certain point, the climate will fail to respond to any mitigating strategy. By the same token but in causal terms, climate change arises nonlinearly from actions taken and decisions made on the human scale in a series of feedback loops of unimaginable complexity. Teleology and linearity have their limits, then, and closure can be difficult to achieve (or even envisage) in a world that wobbles on the brink of ecological cataclysm, with an uncertain future split between pessimistic and optimistic scenarios. This is why teleology and linearity must be contested, even if they may not be full-­fledged villains. This book’s engagement with a range of literary, visual, and video game narratives offers a hands-­on demonstration of slowness and its value in destabilizing linear conceptions of time and accepting the uncertainty of the climate crisis. If teleology and linearity can never be completely eliminated in stories and in our reading strategies, this book argues that there are significant affective and intellectual benefits to be reaped from resisting those impulses and allowing our attention to follow, nonlinearly, the strands of formally sophisticated narrative. Overview of Chapters Chapter 1 lays the theoretical groundwork for this book by imagining and accounting for an ideal “slow” audience, which my subsequent analyses will demonstrate in practice. The history of literary theory presents us with a large number of readerly figures, from Wolfgang Iser’s (1978) implied reader and Umberto Eco’s (1979) model reader to the algorithmic reader of today’s digital humanities.20 My slow reader is perhaps most closely related to Karin Kukkonen’s (2014) “embodied reader,” given my understanding of slowness as a fully affective phenomenon grounded in readers’ embodied engagement with narrative. Thus, in this first chapter I chart a convergence between embodied models of reading comprehension growing out of psycholinguistics and work in the environmental humanities that posits the need for a somatic imagination of the climate crisis. Slowness, I argue, is an embodied experience that arises as narrative loses a clear teleological orientation, allowing for the reader’s attention Introduction  19

to fan out and follow a plurality of textual patterns. Through this slow imagination of texture, the reader becomes attuned to the complexity of today’s ecological crisis. While the focus throughout this discussion remains on reading, the concepts I develop—­particularly thickening, texture, and embodied immersion—­can be fruitfully applied to nonverbal media, as the analyses at the end of the book make clear. In chapter 1 this theoretical model is briefly exemplified through commentary on “Boca Raton” (2018), a short story by contemporary American writer Lauren Groff. In chapter 2 Groff returns with her novel Arcadia (2012), which is read alongside Paul Harding’s Tinkers (2009). The chapter aims to refine the link between texture and consciousness, focusing on two novels that carry out an in-­depth exploration of their protagonist’s mental life. This exploration brings out the texture of what philosophers of mind call “qualia,” the elusive qualitative properties of consciousness, such as the smell of fresh paint or the azure of a clear sky. The literary evocation of qualia creates slowness by intensifying the protagonist’s (and potentially the reader’s) attention—­an experience that I discuss by drawing on contemporary psychological research on mindfulness. Chapter 3 shifts from psychology to debates within the so-­called ontological turn in anthropology. For anthropologists like Eduardo Kohn (2013), every society is engaged in a world-­building project that carries its own distinctive ontology, that is, a set of unique distinctions and connections between people, things, and natural processes. My two case studies in this chapter—­Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String (2013) and A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok (2011)—­participate in this ontological play through the tools of fiction: they imagine cultures and mythologies that redraw Western boundaries between the human subject and material objects. The formal signature of that conceptual operation is what I call an “ontocatalog”: lists, enumerations, and inventories that decelerate—­or even halt—­t he progression of narrative in an effort to thicken the reader’s imagination of nonhuman materialities. Another decelerating device comes to the fore in chapter 4, namely, the inclusion of essayistic passages in J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (1999) and Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010). Both works contend with what philosopher Cora Diamond (2003), in direct dialogue with Coetzee, calls “the difficulty of reality,” or the painful intractability of the ethical questions surrounding nonhuman animals—­a dramat20  Introduction

ically relevant problem amid an unprecedented wave of human-­induced extinctions. When grafted onto narrative, the intrinsically winding form of the essay creates space for readers to experience the full force of these ethical dilemmas. The fragmented and open-­ended “plot” of Field’s book, in particular, confronts the reader with the urgency of the ecological crisis through the distressing final image of a monstrous baby crying in the “Hall of Evolution.” Chapter 5 is positioned at the crossroads of the preceding chapters’ focus on verbal narrative and the interest in visuality that informs the rest of the book. The forms of slowness I explore emerge from an interplay of verbal style and the “multimodal” devices that are becoming increasingly common in contemporary fiction, including my two case studies, Gould’s Book of Fish (2001), by Richard Flanagan, and The Fifty Year Sword (2012), by Mark Danielewski. Through illustrations and unconventional typography, the visual dimension of Flanagan’s and Danielewski’s works does not serve a merely auxiliary function but leaves a profound imprint on the narrative. The imagination fostered by this multimodal strategy foregrounds textural patterns that weave the human protagonists into a richly material, more-­than-­human tapestry, providing a foil to the horrors of colonialism (in Flanagan’s novel) and interpersonal tensions (in Danielewski’s work). If chapter 5 introduced the narrative possibilities of multimodality, words abruptly disappear in chapter 6, which explores two silent comic books, Gaïa (2017), by Thierry Cheyrol, and L’année de la comète (2019), by Clément Vuillier. These albums imagine physical and astronomical events—­the birth of life on Gaia/Earth and the flyby of a comet—­in the absence of human or even anthropomorphic observers, even though traces of anthropomorphism are present in Cheyrol’s work. Without verbal language, which normally functions as a pace-­setting device in comics, the reader is put in a position to appreciate the remarkable detail of these visual narratives in a slow mode. The concept that guides my discussion is the “narramorphism” of matter, the storylike configuration of material events. The foregrounding of narramorphism—­as opposed to anthropomorphism—­in the two comic books succeeds in detaching the reader’s imagination from anthropocentric assumptions. Throughout the chapter, I contrast these insights with ideas emerging from the field of material ecocriticism. Introduction  21

Chapter 7 looks at the emergence of slow narrative in the interactive medium of video games. Employing two independent games, Submerged (2015) and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (2018), as case studies, the chapter argues that games can establish a tight coupling between storytelling, the spatiality of the game world, and the player’s movement through this landscape. This coupling is closely reminiscent of Indigenous cultures’ embedding of narrative in material space—­an idea perhaps best exemplified by the “storylines” that connect far-­off locations in Aboriginal Australia, providing navigational orientation and at the same time cultural grounding in physical space and its characteristics. By embracing a similar vision in an interactive medium, Submerged and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine demonstrate that the time-­based experience of slowness and the narrative evocation of space can go hand in hand. Finally, in the coda I return to the value of slowness and further discuss why the attunement of attention through narrative can prove highly beneficial in environmental terms. As we retreat from anthropocentric assumptions, we gain insight into the patterned multiplicity that nourishes—­and makes possible—­human societies’ embedding in a more-­ than-­human world. However, appreciating the significance of slow narrative requires challenging the view, widespread in contemporary debates, that story’s primary role vis-­à-­vis the ecological crisis is as a call to environmental action. Building on Joshua Landy’s (2012) work, I argue that slow narrative should not be reduced to a straightforward political message or agenda. Rather, it should be seen as promoting an ethically engaged practice based on the gradual “training” of readers’ consciousness.

22  Introduction

1

Immersion for Slow Audiences

We have seen in the introduction that one of the key takeaways of recent debates in environmental philosophy is that human societies are deeply entangled with nonhuman materialities. Such entanglement involves fundamental reciprocity in the era of the Anthropocene: not only are human societies shaped by the slow material processes of the climate, biology, and geology, but human activities and, more particularly, industrial activities within a capitalist economic system shape—­at a much faster pace—­the nonhuman world. Thus, increased carbon dioxide emissions reshuffle the earth’s climate, while species extinction and environmental pollution dramatically rewrite the planet’s biology and even geology. Eileen Crist (2013) offers a forceful critique of the assumptions that tend to infiltrate the discourse of the Anthropocene. For Crist, bland references to humanity’s “stratigraphic imprint,” or the “entanglement” metaphor I have just used, tend to obscure the violence perpetrated by capitalist societies: “The Anthropocene discourse veers away from environmentalism’s dark idiom of destruction, depredation, rape, loss, devastation, deterioration, and so forth of the natural world into the tame vocabulary that humans are changing, shaping, transforming, or altering the biosphere” (2013, 133). If we seek to confront the scale and magnitude of anthropogenic violence, we need to infuse this “tame vocabulary” of science with emotional significance. But how can we counter the neutrality of scientific discourse? The solution that this book proposes lies in embracing narrative and reducing its pace in order to augment its emotional impact. Literary discourse excels at this kind of deceleration. As discussed in the introduction, all instances of stylistic foregrounding slow down the pace of comprehension and thus invite us to savor the experiential density of the words we are reading and the worlds we are imagining. Foregrounding is fundamentally a deviation from the audience’s expectations, generic 23

conventions, and everyday standards of language use. Beyond the verbal domain, whenever unconventional narrative strategies are deployed in film, video games, or comic books, audience members need to take the time to work things out and develop new approaches to meaning-­ making that depart from the usual pathways of interpretation. Slowness can thus be traced in formal terms, and the following chapters will have much to say about those formal devices through close engagement with a wide range of narrative media. But, just as importantly, slowness manifests itself in the patterning of an audience’s attention, and that is a matter of receptivity and mindset, of approaching and performing narrative in ways that resonate with its slow pace. This encounter between formal and experienced pattern underlies my concept of slowness. Before turning to my case studies and the theoretical issues they raise, this chapter focuses on how the experience of engaging with slow narrative should be conceptualized: What kind of attention does an audience need to appreciate the decelerating strategies deployed by the works I examine in the rest of the book? To phrase the question in a slightly different way, what are the defining features of an ideal “slow audience”?1 Answering that question involves a series of steps. I start by arguing that while the experience of slowness can be understood as a form of immersive engagement with narrative, the best way to frame that phenomenon is to shift the emphasis from standard metaphors of immersion as containment within a storyworld to the affective and embodied texture of the audience’s attention as it becomes absorbed in narrative patterns. Containment implies dualistic separation between the reader’s world and the storyworld, while texture resonates with human-­nonhuman entanglement by suggesting a nonbinary encounter with a reality experienced in bodily terms. In a further step, I turn to work in the environmental humanities to explore these multiple meanings of texture. Further, I proceed to anchor this embodied model of the reading experience in psycholinguistic work on reading comprehension and my own concept of the “thickening” of situation models: from this perspective, thickening helps bring out the textural nature of narrative, and it becomes salient in the experience of slowness. Finally, a textural reading of a climate change–­ focused story by Lauren Groff, “Boca Raton,” illustrates the ideal slow audience developed in the course of this chapter, which underpins the textual analyses I will offer in the rest of the book. 24  Immersion for Slow Audiences

From Containment to Texture Narrative theorists have tended to think about involvement in narrative in terms of metaphors such as “being lost in a book,” “immersion,” “transportation,” and “presence.” Victor Nell (1988), Richard Gerrig (1993), Marie-­Laure Ryan (2001), and Anežka Kuzmičová (2012) are among the scholars in both psychology and narrative studies who have offered comprehensive discussions of these phenomena. The language they use to talk about narrative experiences favors spatial metaphors that suggest relocation from the audience’s physical surroundings to a fictive domain variously referred to as “storyworld” or “fictional world” (see Ryan 2013). Further, these metaphors emphasize a relationship of containment between audiences and worlds: the reader or viewer, normally contained in the actual world, “is transported to” a fictional world, where he or she “becomes immersed” or even “lost,” thus developing a feeling of “presence,” of being fully and physically part of that world. Narrative theorist Hilary Dannenberg (2008, 24) visualizes the two aspects of that process—­relocation and containment—­in her book Coincidence and Counterfactuality: Plotting Time and Space in Narrative Fiction (figure 2). Despite the popularity of the discourse of immersion, there are risks in foregrounding metaphors of relocation and containment, as Dannenberg and many other narrative theorists do—­first and foremost, the risk of shortchanging the way in which fiction always bears on and intervenes in real-­world issues.2 In an escapist reading of immersion, discussed extensively by Nell (1988), the value of fiction lies in how it diverts our attention from the presence of actuality, often seen as tedious in comparison to the enchantment that fiction can provide. There is room for slowness to emerge in such escapist reading or viewing practices: think about the Tolkien fan rereading The Lord of the Rings for the nth time and savoring every spatial description or gradual development in the story—­k nowing full well what to expect and nevertheless appreciating it because of its comforting familiarity. That form of engagement is valued subjectively because of how it departs from the dullness of everyday life or brings the reader back—­nostalgically—­to previous reading experiences. But that escapist way of understanding immersion as comforting distance from reality is a dead end from an ecocritical perspective: if absorption in narrative means suspending the demands of the real world, then there can be no guarantee of the ecological relevance of narrative experiences.

Immersion for Slow Audiences  25

Fig. 2. Transportation to a narrative world, adapted from Dannenberg (2008, 24). Reproduced from Coincidence and Counterfactuality: Plotting Time and Space in Narrative Fiction by Hilary P. Dannenberg by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2008 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.

An alternative possibility is to posit a direct correlation between immersion and environmental awareness. This is the route taken by Erin James in The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives: “Econarratological readings of narrative storyworlds, via their analysis of the textual cues that aid the immersion of readers into subjective spaces, times, and experiences, help us appreciate the fact that aesthetic transformations of the real really do stand to reshape individual and collective environmental imaginations. That reshaping is an essential role that literature can play in protecting the earth” (2015, 39). For James, 26  Immersion for Slow Audiences

immersion in narrative, or in certain kinds of narrative at least, expands and deepens readers’ environmental imagination and thus fulfills a significant ecocritical function (“protecting the earth”). James foregrounds spatiality as a site for encountering the nonhuman; this goes hand in hand with a way of thinking about immersion in predominantly spatial terms as a feeling of spatial presence. However, as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing ([1766] 1962) already argued in his eighteenth-­century aesthetics, narrative, unlike painting or sculpture, is fundamentally a temporal art; it is also a practice that plays a major role in the segmentation of experienced time: we make sense of temporal experience by slotting agents and events into the conceptual grid of stories (Herman 2003). At the very least, in narrative, time and space are deeply intertwined, since the narrative imagination of space is always embedded in a temporal dynamic.3 To fully understand how fictional texts can expand the environmental imagination, we need to factor in time in addition to space; as this chapter and this book as a whole argue, slowness is the mode of temporality that is most conducive to insight into human-­nonhuman entanglement, and it can be best captured through metaphors of textural entanglement rather than more rigid (and dualistic) images of containment and relocation. Conceptualized in this way, the experience of slowness opens up opportunities for audiences to fully take in the destructive consequences of humanity’s impact on the planet, thus overcoming the “tameness” of scientific language critiqued by Crist. This is where recent discussions in both cognitive literary studies and environmental philosophy can help bring into focus slowness and its ecological significance. The first step toward developing an account of slow narrative experiences is to frontload the embodied nature of being immersed in story. Slowness is an affect inscribed in the body, a somatic rhythm that registers in our absorbed awareness as we read or watch a film. Intuitively, we all know that a slow-­paced narrative can be exasperating, soothing, or hypnotizing—­vastly different emotional responses whose common denominator is that they are experienced in somatic terms.4 This embodied aspect of narrative engagement can be expressed through a metaphor alternative to containment in a storyworld, namely, immersion as experience of texture. Peter Stockwell also foregrounds texture in his cognitive poetics of literary reading: for him, texture is “the experienced quality of textuality” (2009, 1), that is, the quality of the stylistic and rhetorical

Immersion for Slow Audiences  27

strategies that make up a literary narrative. What Stockwell does not emphasize is that texture is also a straightforwardly embodied metaphor and that it points to a temporally extended process, as when we take in the patterning of a piece of fabric by touching and rubbing it. Texture is a figure of entanglement that channels the dynamics of attention as audiences become immersed in a story. Within this attentional dynamic, slowness can arise, deepening the textural nature of the reader’s imagination and thus echoing a basic ecological insight into the interdependency of human societies and nonhuman processes. Just as there is qualitative texture in reading, the form of humans’ implication in a more-­than-­human world closely recalls the multithreaded linkage of texture.5 In a three-­part work titled Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray (2015), Katrin Klingan and her colleagues highlight the ecological potential of the concept of texture. Commenting on the tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region of Japan in 2011, they resort to an enumeration to draw attention to the material texture of catastrophe and how it troubles the boundary between natural and human-­made: “salty seawater, cultivated soils, chemical residues, fats, oils, livestock cadavers, the dispersed debris of houses, trees, cars, plastics, electronics, metal alloys, textiles, crops, stuff,” and so on (Sepahvand, Rosol, and Klingan 2015, 24).6 Understood in this way, texture channels the dramatic materiality of human societies’ reliance on a nonhuman world that they have contributed to shaping. Similarly, it is by bringing into focus the textural dimension of immersive narrative experiences that we can properly understand slowness and use it to gain insight into human-­nonhuman entanglements outside of fiction. This move involves correcting two assumptions that tend to sneak in when we talk about immersion in narrative through metaphors of relocation and containment. The first assumption is that when audience members are immersed, the story they are engaging with becomes transparent; their attention is focused narrowly on the what of narrative (the situations and characters it evokes) at the expense of the how, the stylistic qualities of that evocation.7 Such understanding of transparency is problematic because it leads to a dualistic approach to immersive experiences: we are paying attention either to the form of the text or to its “content.”8 Instead, foregrounding the textural nature of narrative engagements suggests that there is pattern at the level of both style and diegesis and that, more often than not, 28  Immersion for Slow Audiences

these patterns coexist without tension or opposition at the level of audiences’ experience. A second common misconception is that immersion is an either-­or phenomenon: at any given point, either audience members are in an immersive psychological state or they are not. This strikes me as an oversimplification of the processual and temporally extended nature of narrative engagements, whereby our attention becomes entangled in certain patterns over time. Again, the “texture” metaphor brings out the braided and multidimensional nature of immersion. The following sections seek to bridge this model of narrative experience with work in environmental philosophy that underscores the primacy of the body in understanding human-­nonhuman entanglement. Overlapping and Intersecting Patterns Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker’s article “Weathering” is an ambitious attempt to develop a conception of the body that does not involve separation between human subjectivity and nonhuman materialities. To make climate change tangible, to think and talk about it in ways that avoid what Crist characterizes as the “tameness” of scientific language, we need new ways of experiencing and relating to the body. Stacy Alaimo’s (2010) influential concept of “transcorporeality” is a first step: that term refers to how anthropogenic disturbances to the environment break down the barrier between the human body and the material world. For example, the health risk posed by toxic pollutants (from asbestos to heavy metals and ddt) reveals the permeability of human embodiment, how we tend to absorb—­transcorporeally—­what is seemingly external to us. Building on Alaimo’s concept, Neimanis and Walker argue that to “bring climate change home . . . entails reconfiguring our spatial and temporal relations to the weather-­world and cultivating an imaginary where our bodies are makers, transfer points, and sensors of the ‘climate change’ from which we might otherwise feel too distant, or that may seem to us too abstract to get a bodily grip on” (2014, 559). Neimanis and Walker discuss some of the factors that limit our ability to think about embodiment in these transcorporeal terms. One of them is the Western obsession with spatial metaphors and, more specifically, the tendency to reify metaphors of linearity and containment, regarding them as hardwired cognitive structures rather than reversible cultural constructs.9 Interestingly, Neimanis and Walker include immer

Immersion for Slow Audiences  29

sion in their inventory of problematic spatial metaphors: “Continuity, contiguity, and immersion are all primarily spatial relations. They fail to capture the crucial ways in which transcorporeal weathering is also temporal” (2014, 566). Insofar as it presupposes a relationship of containment between a reader and a text or of linear relocation from the real to a fictional world (see again figure 2), immersion is unable to capture the embodied complexities of humans’ involvement in a fundamentally transcorporeal reality. That involvement is deeply nonlinear and nonhierarchical and therefore doesn’t sit well with notions of containment (which presuppose a clear hierarchy of what is contained within what) or unidirectional movement. To conceptualize narrative experiences in a way that resonates with the complexity of human-­nonhuman interactions in the Anthropocene, we need to shift the focus from immersion as containment to immersion as texture. It is the latter understanding of immersion that enables us to grasp the nature and ecological significance of slowness. Drawing on her fieldwork with Aboriginal people in Australia’s Northern Territory, anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose also develops a critique of geometric language as it structures conceptualizations of time in the Western world. Both ideas of linearity (“time’s arrow”) and circularity—­the two dominant temporal schemata in the West—­are insufficient to capture the complexity of temporal experience in the context of Aboriginal culture.10 Instead, Rose explores the patterning of Aboriginal dance and its rich embodied rhythmicity, which builds on a series of “flips”—­sudden shifts in the music’s tempo and in the dancers’ performance. In Rose’s words, there are “multiple flips: not just background and foreground as a dualism, but a multiplicity of possible foregrounds and backgrounds, a multiplicity of flips, a multiplicity of overlapping and intersecting iridescences” (2000, 293). Rose’s move resonates with Neimanis and Walker’s transcorporeal embodiment, which also involves a shift from a static and geometric view of our body in space to a flexible sense of embodied time: “A transcorporeal temporality—­rather than a linear, spatialized one—­is necessary to show how singularities (whether a blade of grass, a human, a slab of marble, or a drop of rain) are all constituted by a thick time of contractions, retentions, and expectations of multiple kinds” (2014, 571). The metaphor that emerges here is that of the “thickening” of embodied time, which 30  Immersion for Slow Audiences

of course recalls Clifford Geertz’s (1973) “thick description.” Time becomes thick when it is seen as “a multiplicity of overlapping and intersecting” patterns, to quote again Rose, which are apprehended in embodied terms. Various entities, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, are positioned (entangled) within these strands of temporality, helping constitute the assemblage of what we call “reality.” The metaphor of texture seeks to channel this embodied complexity, which does not resolve into geometric regularity but remains multifaceted and unpredictable. The challenge lies in extending the metaphysical view of the body that emerges from work such as Alaimo’s, Neimanis and Walker’s, and Rose’s to the concreteness of narrative experiences. Two ideas are worth retaining: the first is the focus on bodily patterns and how they preexist the conceptual separation of animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman; the second is an interest in the branching temporal dynamics of readers’ attention, which cannot be reduced to a geometric model of containment or linear, teleological progression. These ideas underlie my textural account of storytelling and how narrative can generate slowness by multiplying and thickening temporal patterns. Thickening Situation Models Research in psycholinguistics shows that readers of narrative construct and manipulate mental scenarios known as “situation models.” A situation model is a dynamic template that allows readers to keep track of what is happening in the story, for instance, who is present in a given scene and how the characters are physically positioned vis-­à-­vis other characters and relevant objects or spatial structures. Consider, for instance, the first paragraph of “Boca Raton”: “It was very late and Ange couldn’t sleep. She had tried the usual things, had drunk a bottle of wine and watched a glacial Scandinavian film, had stared at her daughter smiling in her dreams, but her mind stayed bright, and there was no fatigue in her bones” (Groff 2018, loc. 11, Kindle). These lines will prompt reader to construct a situation model that encodes information such as setting (domestic, late at night), objects (a bottle of wine, the tv), and characters (Ange and her daughter). Work by Rolf Zwaan (2004) and by Zwaan and Gabriel A. Radvansky (1998) suggests that these situation models are built on the basis of traces left by past embodied interactions with the world, in this case, film

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viewing, late-­night insomnia, physical energy when we would least expect or need it. Situation models are thus embodied in the very straightforward sense that they implicate the reader’s memories of real-­world situations and embodied interactions. A term that has gained currency in cognitive approaches to literature (Wojciehowski and Gallese 2011) and also in ecocriticism, thanks to Alexa Weik von Mossner’s (2017) work, is “embodied simulation.” Reading narrative involves an internal reenactment, or simulation, of the verbally evoked situations.11 Hypothetically, then, embodied simulation is the process that underlies the construction of situation models in narrative engagements. Yet embodied simulation comes in many flavors.12 While all situation models build on embodied traces, not all of them are equally experienced in bodily terms. In fact, most of the time situation modeling and embodied simulation unfold below the threshold of consciousness as a spontaneous (but largely tacit) accompaniment to narrative. The metaphor of “thickening” was proposed by Neimanis and Walker in the context of their discussion of transcorporeality; in my usage, it expresses how situation models can emerge in the reading experience, becoming experientially vivid and directly implicating audience members’ bodily feelings and sensations. This is a dynamic process that has its own rhythmicity: thickening occurs over time as a result of accumulative textual strategies that increase the experiential relevance of a fictional situation. Moreover, thickening is a multithreaded process: there is no single way for a text to thicken situation models. Instead, thickening depends on resonances and interactions between multiple dimensions of narrative: the vividness of visual and nonvisual imagery, affective investment in the outcomes of a story, the patterning of emotional closeness to and distance from the characters, the semantic depth of a fictional situation and how it maps onto audience members’ interests and past experiences. The closer the coupling of these dimensions, the more somatically resonant and conscious situation models become. Thickening leads from situation models (which are basic and largely unconscious) to the fully conscious experience of immersion: put simply, when the reader’s situation models are sufficiently “thick,” he or she will experience immersion. (The exact threshold of immersion depends on both the individual audience member’s predispositions and contextual factors.) In immersion, various experiential dimensions dynami32  Immersion for Slow Audiences

cally (or rhythmically) come to the fore or become backgrounded as the text manipulates the patterns of audiences’ attention. Because of this manipulation, immersion can present texture-­like complexity for the audience: the situations evoked by the narrative appear rich, vivid, and densely patterned. The upshot of this textural account is a conception of embodied reading that recalls Rose’s discussion of rhythm in Aboriginal dance, with its “multiplicity of possible foregrounds and backgrounds, a multiplicity of flips, a multiplicity of overlapping and intersecting iridescences” (2000, 293). Two things are worth noting before turning to how this model of immersion can accommodate an experience of slowness. First, it is impossible to distinguish between the storyworld and the stylistic choices through which that storyworld is created. Form and content are bound up, because the experienced content of the audience members’ imagination is dependent on patterns that exist on the level of language, style, and narrative form. Individual recipients may, of course, be more or less aware of that dependency; they may even develop the illusion that the narrative discourse (whether it is realized in print, film, or a video game) disappears, and their access to a storyworld is unmediated. But that apparent lack of mediation is, in itself, the result of increasing attentional entanglement between the audience and the form of the text they are engaging with. Second, conceptualizing immersion in terms of “thickening” does away with the dualistic distinction between embodied presence and meaning of a more conceptual nature. This distinction, which we find, for example, in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s (2004) work, is based on the false assumption that concepts and abstract meanings are not deeply bound up with the body. Work in cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology shows that conceptual structure is tied to embodied experience via multiple strands of perceptual sensation and affect.13 The thickening of situation models reveals this imbrication of sensory imagery, affect, and thematic meanings. Slow Patterns and Immersive Experiences As discussed in the introduction, slowness results from the loosening or breakdown of narrative teleology, which ceases to be the main factor sustaining the audience’s attention. We are now in a position to better understand this experience via the metaphors of texture and thick

Immersion for Slow Audiences  33

ening and the language of patterns introduced in the previous sections. Engaging with narrative is a patterned activity, with many strands of attention interacting and jostling for the foreground of the audience’s consciousness. Usually, in engaging with a narrative whose organization is closely tied to the teleology of characters’ beliefs and desires and assuming that the audience member is emotionally invested in this teleology, the overall experience will have a geometrical, linear quality. This means that, while the reader’s awareness may be divided between multiple strands of attention (focusing on stylistic choices, for instance, or the vividness of spatial descriptions, or the emotional complexity of a situation), the progression of plot will occupy the foreground of awareness: How will the story end? Will the main character or characters be able to realize their goals? How will the storyteller resolve the central conflict underlying the plot? Questions such as these will steer the narrative experience, attracting and subsuming other forms of interest we may take in the story. The result is centralized, hierarchical patterning organized around a main strand—­the progression of the telling—­and moving toward a specific outcome. This goal orientation of the narrative experience does allow for the thickening of situation models, but the “thickness” of the model remains at the service of the plot. A spatial description, for example, may create thickness by facilitating the reader’s imagination of—­and sense of presence in—­a place or landscape experienced by a main character. In turn, that thick situation model will offer insight into the character’s broader role in the plot. A passage from Jean Rhys’s late modernist novel Wide Sargasso Sea, originally published in 1966, can illustrate this point. Rhys’s novel is an extension of the storyworld of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; technically, it is a prequel, exploring the life of Bertha Mason in the Caribbean before she moved to England to become the proverbial “madwoman in the attic” of Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall. The plot revolves around the tension, rich in feminist and postcolonial overtones, between Bertha (named Antoinette in Rhys’s novel)—­born in Jamaica, the daughter of white settlers—­and her English-­born husband (who is never named in Rhys’s novel but parallels Brontë’s Mr. Rochester). The latter never feels at home within the lush landscape of the Caribbean. Here is the husband’s account of his arrival at Granbois on the island of Dominica, where the married couple moves into an estate belonging to 34  Immersion for Slow Audiences

Antoinette’s mother: “Soon the road was cobblestoned and we stopped at a flight of stone steps. There was a large screw pine to the left and to the right what looked like an imitation of an English summer house—­four wooden posts and a thatched roof. . . . I looked at the mountains purple against a very blue sky. Perched up on wooden stilts the house seemed to shrink from the forest behind it and crane eagerly out to the distant sea. It was more awkward than ugly, a little sad as if it knew it could not last” (Rhys 1997, 43). Rhys’s passage paints a vivid description of this place, which is shot through with the husband’s sense of alienation. The house, seen from afar, is presented as a mere “imitation” of an English house; not only does it stand out visually against the rather un-­English backdrop of purple mountains and blue sky, but the building is also personified as seeking to separate itself physically from the landscape: it “shrinks” from the forest and edges “eagerly” toward the sea. These metaphors infuse the nonhuman space with psychological qualities that are, clearly, an externalization of the narrator’s responses to surroundings that challenge his (Eurocentric) understanding of natural space and the position of the human within it. The reader’s situation models become thicker as a result of Rhys’s rich evocation of this Caribbean landscape and its emotional significance for the narrator: readers may develop feelings of immersion as they are encouraged by Rhys’s stylistic choices to pay close attention to narrative space, experiencing it as if they were physically present next to the characters. This embodied imagination of space offers a route into the husband’s estrangement, as well as Antoinette’s appreciation of her native land—­two clashing perspectives that emerge through the alternation of sections narrated by Antoinette and her husband. For a reader who is mainly invested in the plot of Wide Sargasso Sea, these vivid descriptions become entangled with curiosity about the outcome of the novel and how the tension between the two main characters will be resolved by the ending. Put otherwise, the pronounced sensory and emotional patterning of readers’ imagination of narrative space is contained within a teleological structure—­teleological because it is oriented toward an endpoint and seeks to establish closure in order to overcome the main characters’ psychological and cultural conflict. By contrast, in a slow reading of Wide Sargasso Sea, teleology is sidelined or even breaks down as a unifying structure. The reader’s attention is free to wander and latch on to aspects of the text that are tangen

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tial to the progression of the plot. While questions of plot may not drop out of the picture completely, they enter into a nonhierarchical relationship with—­for instance, in the case of Wide Sargasso Sea—­the space and symbolic significance of the setting or the exploration of the characters’ mental lives. This makes it possible for a “multiplicity of overlapping and intersecting” patterns (to riff again on Rose 2000, 293) to come into view, because the strands of readers’ attention exist side by side instead of being organized rigidly around the expectation of narrative outcomes.14 A perceived sense of slowness emerges as the narrative experience thickens, emotionally and imaginatively, through the accumulation of attentional patterns that remain isolated from (and in some ways opposed to) the linear path of plot: for example, we may imagine vividly the setting of Rhys’s novel while appreciating the stylistic qualities of the writing and the depth with which it probes tensions in a colonial context. Slowness involves the horizontal coexistence and interplay of these layers of the reader’s experience of the novel—­a stratification fostered by stylistic foregrounding, such as Rhys’s creative metaphors and careful exploration of consciousness, or the other decelerating and thickening narrative strategies that we will examine in the following chapters.15 This understanding of slowness resonates with the account of time consciousness developed by sociologist Michael Flaherty in A Watched Pot: How We Experience Time (1999). Flaherty discusses a widely shared experience of “protracted duration,” in which “it feels as if much more time has elapsed than actually would be measured by a clock or calendar” (1999, 34). Protracted duration correlates with the “stimulus complexity” of a certain situation, or what Flaherty also calls the “volume” of an experience. Protracted duration kicks in either when the stimulus complexity is unusually low (and we find a task dull and uninteresting) or when it is unusually high (and we find a task too demanding). An example of low stimulus complexity is waiting in line at the grocery story: this is a routine situation that poses no challenge, and therefore we experience protracted duration. At the opposite end of the scale, we can also experience protracted duration when faced with a novel situation that places multiple demands on us (for instance, learning to drive a car with a manual transmission). While Flaherty foregrounds high-­ complexity situations that elicit feelings of anxiety or frustration, a sense of protracted duration may also be triggered by situations whose com36  Immersion for Slow Audiences

plexity is experienced in more positive terms. This is the case of slowness in engaging with narrative. Here the volume created by the thickening of situation models is not contained by the goal-­oriented logic of plot; in fact, the stimulus complexity increases as the audience’s attention is spread out across multiple patterns that are experienced simultaneously. This discussion assumes that attention will not break down or be completely diverted to extratextual concerns, of course: audiences are always free to refuse the invitation of slow narrative if they so desire, in which case the decelerating strategies deployed by the text will not lead to the thickening of situation models or to an increase in the volume of experience. On the contrary, we will be in Flaherty’s opposite scenario of protracted duration by way of low stimulus complexity. This kind of “rejected” slowness is, obviously, not an immersive experience consisting of multiple overlapping strands of attention but a much flatter emotional landscape. The experience of immersive slowness has a pronouncedly embodied quality. As the volume of the audience’s attention intensifies without the linear orientation of plot, the embodied texture of the narrative experience comes to the fore. Consider the case of mental imagery—­a well-­k nown aspect of fiction reading that has been discussed extensively by scholars such as Ellen Esrock (1993) and Elaine Scarry (2001). When mental images (for instance, of Rhys’s Dominica) become uncoupled from an exclusive interest in plot progression, their level of detail—­or “granularity,” to use a more technical term—­is likely to increase: readers are put in a position to experience images for their own sake, which will lead them to pay more attention to details (of the text and of their own visualizations) that would tend to fall through the cracks of a more plot-­oriented approach. The same is true for affective responses to a text, which in slow narrative practices will not be absorbed by the linear teleology of suspense, curiosity, and surprise—­the three emotional universals of plot, according to Meir Sternberg (2001)—­but will gather more fine-­grained feelings and nuances (such as nostalgia, longing, despair, elation, and so on). As another example, consider the case of Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel The Road (2006). The basic setup of the novel involves two characters, a man and his son, plodding through a desolate land, scavenging for food while headed for the coast, a place that offers a faint

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hope of safer living. The directionality of the protagonists’ journey creates a straightforward teleological structure, and it is perfectly possible for a reader to frontload the plot progression and invest all attentional resources in the outcome. But this “fast” reading strategy is, arguably, strongly discouraged by the textural qualities of McCarthy’s prose, how the dense metaphors and similes slow down the pace of the reading and cue instead an experience of atmosphere. This is what my analysis of Internet commentaries on The Road (in Caracciolo 2013a) suggests: with plot becoming less central to the narrative experience, readers tend to respond to the text in fully embodied terms, and intensely atmospheric feelings arise. For instance, an online reviewer writes that reading “this book makes you feel cold, you can almost palpate the heat of the fire, you taste the ash falling everywhere, you feel dirty, and hungry” (Dicanio 2007). Commenting on an episode in which the starved protagonists discover a hidden food cache, another reader remarks that he “could taste the peaches, the ham, and the biscuits” (Samuelson 2010). Likewise, the commentaries foreground the desperate, nightmarish qualities of the gray landscape that envelops the protagonists, as if the readers were able to experience this place more intensely because of the apparent pointlessness of the characters’ journey toward the sea. The textural quality of these sensory and affective experiences—­their fabric-­like detail and patterning—­thus becomes much more tangible as the pace of the reading slows down, resulting in a fully immersive, embodied response. The next section turns to Groff’s “Boca Raton” for a more extended illustration of this textural account of slow narrative practices. “The Ocean Lapping Darkly” “Boca Raton” is the story of a single mother whose life starts collapsing under the pressure of severe insomnia and climate change-­related anxieties.16 The proximal cause of the insomnia, as the text spells out, is a visceral experience of animal death and environmental degradation that affects Ange while she is cleaning up a polluted creek with her daughter, Lily: Out of the mud and from under the foliage, Ange had wrested license plates, condoms, popped balloons, Ping-­Pong balls, beer cans—­ the effluvia of disposable lives. Up and down the creek, all the other mothers and their girls were grimly pulling junk out of the weeds. 38  Immersion for Slow Audiences

Then Ange bent down and pushed aside a broad leaf, and there she saw the horror: the downy outlines of what used to be chicks, everything once alive wasted away, the last browned bits tracing a halo around the knots of bright plastic that the poor crazed mother bird had fed her babies. Something flipped over hard inside Ange. (Groff 2018, locs. 11–­18, Kindle) It is remarkable that the narrative opens with what is, in effect, a double image of entanglement reminiscent of Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol, and Katrin Klingan’s (2015) comments on debris in Textures of the Anthropocene. At an abstract level, there is the moral entanglement of human impact on the nonhuman environment: the plastic waste leads to the “wasting away” of the chicks’ nonhuman life. More concretely, the plastic ingested by the birds is described as “knots,” another texture that causes a metaphorical movement within Ange’s body (“something flipped over hard”). Thus, the beginning of the story cues readers’ interest in patterns and their embodied resonances, as if this opening scene served as a blueprint for reading the story as a whole. Patterns abound in the text. Starting at the microlevel, we have several images that put the imagination in a textural mode. Consider this passage: “Then there were the empty hours, until at last Ange trailed out to the porch in her mother’s crocheted afghan to sit under the strange warp of the night, alone with the bats that were only fleeting darknesses in the starless sky” (2018, loc. 27, Kindle). Crochet suggests, of course, interlocking threads, and this entangled pattern in a man-­made artifact is mirrored by the fabric-­like quality of the night sky itself—­the “strange warp of the night.” Later, we read that “the orchard had produced so much fruit, [that] there was always a humming, moving carpet of wasps on the ground” (loc. 39); in an insomnia-­induced hallucination, Ange experiences “strange flashes of the ocean lapping darkly across the carpet of the library” (loc. 213). Throughout the text, these interwoven patterns are brought out by way of creative metaphors and similes that enrich (“thicken”) not just the story but also readers’ imagination thereof. Because of their cumulative salience, these figurative choices serve as an ominous allegory of human-­nonhuman entanglement—­ominous because they hint at how anthropogenic catastrophe takes an increasingly central position in Ange’s mind (as the image of the rising ocean sug

Immersion for Slow Audiences  39

gests). These textural patterns also exist beyond the local level of Groff’s stylistic choices. A rhythmic pattern is established by the diegesis: it is the periodicity of Ange’s insomnia, which divides the story neatly into five sleepless nights, each night creating (in both the protagonist and the reader) an expectation of sleep that keeps being frustrated, thus deepening Ange’s incoherence and despair. As patterns multiply, readers’ imagination of this storyworld—­and of Ange’s psychological condition—­thickens. Concurrently, the teleological orientation of the narrative unravels. The temporality of the story comes loose from the protagonist’s intentions and long-­term goals simply because Ange—­in her state of heightened confusion—­is unable to retain any mental impression other than the ominously rising ocean, the nausea-­ inducing image of the dead chicks, and the desperate need to sleep: “She said slowly [to her friend and colleague Phyllis], what if I can never sleep again?” (2018, loc. 298, Kindle). A slow reading experience ties in closely with the protagonist’s sluggish state of mind. The narrative, rhythmically paced by Ange’s sleepless nights, doesn’t seem to go anywhere or fall into a clear-­cut plot pattern; instead, the ending remains suspended, ambivalent: “As [Ange] walked, either the lights went out together all at once, or the dread that had followed her down here on the run gathered itself thickly there in the street, and the darkness fell across the way out; the darkness sealed the gap” (loc. 367). The sealing of the gap underlies, somewhat ironically, how another kind of sealing—­that of narrative closure—­is denied by the ending; instead, we are left with a sense of dread that suffuses Ange’s experience and potentially the experience of a slow reader as well. A slow reading of the story is receptive to how the visceral vision of human-­nonhuman entanglement of the opening ripples across multiple textual strands: from textural patterns singled out by way of metaphorical language to the overall rhythm of the text and the reader’s affective engagement with the protagonist. Through these multiscalar resonances readers’ situation models can take on a pronounced embodied quality that mirrors and amplifies the protagonist’s own somatic response to climate change. Importantly, the narrative disrupts a geometric understanding of temporality: the openness of the ending, together with the protagonist’s own inability to “think straight,” unsettles a teleological reading; even the seemingly sequential progression of Ange’s sleepless 40  Immersion for Slow Audiences

nights dissolves into a multiplicity of past echoes and future imaginings that undercut linearity. If readerly immersion arises, it is a matter not merely of inhabiting a container-­like storyworld but of becoming variably entangled with its patterns. An experience of slow immersion along these lines does not yield to escapist impulses; on the contrary, it centers on how the story speaks to pressing issues that straddle the divide between fiction and the real world. This slow reading draws in its wake embodied sensations, affective connections, and conceptual meanings; it blurs the boundary between the concrete and the abstract, the human-­scale world and the nonhuman realities of the ocean and the endangered animals, Ange’s (and potentially the reader’s) bodily experience and the seemingly distant threat of climate change. In this way, a slow response to Groff’s narrative illustrates the account of immersion I have developed in this chapter and enacts the transcorporeal, rhythmic understanding of space and time outlined by Neimanis, Walker, and Rose in a theoretical vein. The goal of this first chapter was to recalibrate the experience of narrative immersion so as to align it with what Dipesh Chakrabarty (2014) famously describes as the “collision” of human, biological, and geological histories. Slowness is key to that recalibration: only by decreasing the pace of engaging with narrative—­and by favoring narratives that cue that deceleration—­are we able to confront the “collision” of human subjectivity and nonhuman materialities as more than a mere metaphor or a concept unmoored from embodied experience. The collision, as Crist (2013) points out, is a violent encounter that leads to devastation and degradation not only of nonhuman animals and ecosystems but also, increasingly, of human communities in the developing world. We can fully take in that violence in our imagination by substituting the goal-­driven logic of narrative progression with the increased sense of emotional and sensory texture that is part and parcel of slow narrative experiences. The model of the “slow reader” I developed—­and that will serve as a heuristic tool throughout my close readings in this book—­is based on the patterned coordination of multiple dimensions of narrative engagement. This model differs from standard accounts of immersion in at least three ways. First, it foregrounds patterns that complicate or even disrupt the teleological organization of plot, which becomes backgrounded and

Immersion for Slow Audiences  41

thus allows for other strands of attention to develop and expand into a thick situation model. Second, slow reading resists a static understanding of transportation to storyworlds as a binary, on-­off phenomenon, as well as geometrical metaphors of linearity and containment; instead, it favors the imagination of texture. Third, slow reading is interested in how embodied involvement and more conceptual meanings come together. I do not wish to discount alternative modes of responding to stories, and of course some texts—­including Groff’s “Boca Raton”—­are more likely to elicit slowness than others. This is not a universal account of immersion but a distinctively slow approach that we should strive to foster as we envisage and teach ways of reading that maximize attunement to the nonhuman world. We should also strive to identify narratives that are able to entangle the reader’s attention in this way, as all my case studies in this book can be said to do. As I will make clear in my textual analyses, the imagination of literary or visual form plays a central role in slowness, and so does the intensification of experiential patterns—­two dimensions of narrative that can be jointly disclosed by combining the surface reading of stylistic texture with a phenomenological approach.17 In the next chapter I turn to how phenomenology itself—­in the form of the qualitative properties of consciousness, or “qualia”—­can be negotiated from within the fabric of narrative. We thus move from the analysis of readers’ experiences to the evocation of experience in story. I will focus on two novels that place consciousness face to face with humanity’s fragile involvement in nonhuman processes. One of these case studies is another work by Lauren Groff, Arcadia, a text that explores some of the same anxieties expressed by “Boca Raton” but on a much broader canvas; the other is a 2009 novel by Paul Harding, Tinkers.

42  Immersion for Slow Audiences

2

The Pace and Place of Qualia

In an influential study of American nature writing from Henry David Thoreau to Barry Lopez, Scott Slovic argues that the best nature writers “are constantly probing, traumatizing, thrilling, and soothing their own minds—­and by extension those of their readers—­in quest not only of consciousness itself, but of an understanding of consciousness” (1992, 3). The investigation of consciousness and of the natural world are thus yoked together: through the performance of literary writing, the human mind reaches beyond itself into the seemingly external domain of nature, but nature stops mind in its tracks and encourages it to interrogate its own workings. Thus, far from affording a transcendence of human subjectivity, this kind of nature-­focused writing brings out the philosophical difficulties of positioning the conscious subject vis-­à-­vis the material world. As Slovic and other commentators have shown, the art of nature writing is a slow art based on patient observation and meditation, interweaving narration, introspection, and scientific knowledge in a fundamentally hybrid genre.1 The exploration of consciousness and its possibilities vis-­à-­ vis the natural world falls within this broader epistemological questioning. More prototypically narrative genres such as the novel and the short story are no strangers to this questioning, of course. Modernist fiction, in particular, is a salient example of how narrative can probe the patterning of conscious experience. As Jesse Matz writes, in modernist novels by—­ for instance—­Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner, character takes center stage, becoming “a question of the strange processes of consciousness, the unclear boundaries of the self, the vagaries of human perception” (2004, 45). The two contemporary novels I discuss in this chapter—­Arcadia, by Lauren Groff (2012), and Tinkers, by Paul Harding (2008)—­display a distinctively modernist sensibility that can be traced at the level of their stylistic and narrative strategies. In that respect, Groff’s and Harding’s works demonstrate the continuing relevance of modernist experimentations 43

with novelistic form—­one of Matz’s (2004, 163–­69) suggestions in his discussion of the legacy of literary modernism. On the other hand, Groff’s and Harding’s novels show that the slow, introspective method of nature writing has now become a part of fiction’s repertoire as it engages with the nonhuman world in times of ecological crisis. By confronting the otherness of the creatures and places that we call “natural,” mind is encouraged to attend to its own cognitive and affective operations, a literary strategy that results in the foregrounding of the texture of conscious experience and may foster slow reading. The imagination of texture, as discussed in the previous chapter, is proffered to the reader as a way of experiencing the situations in which the novels’ characters are embedded. Scholars in stylistics and narrative theory have long attempted to identify the devices through which (literary) narrative can capture the qualities of conscious experience. Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (1978) and Geoffrey Leech and Mick Short’s Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose (1981) are still authoritative studies in this area, offering a range of tools to describe the modalities of literature’s rendering of consciousness. These treatments have been followed more recently by work that draws on contemporary cognitive models of the mind to illuminate aspects of the literary evocation of consciousness—­for instance, the socially situated nature of mind (Palmer 2004) and its embodied basis (Bolens 2012). One of the takeaways of these discussions is that literary narrative can present characters’ minds with varying degrees of “granularity”—­to use David Herman’s (2011, 166) terminology—­ depending on the level of detail and particularity with which characters’ mental states are verbally portrayed. For example, we read in Groff’s Arcadia that Bit, the protagonist, “presses his hands to his mouth, and his skin tastes like grass, like dirt” (2012, 80). The gesture of pressing “his hands to his mouth” already implies a certain sensory quality that the reader will understand by drawing on similar tactile experiences.2 The double simile that follows—­“ his skin tastes like grass, like dirt”—­ deepens the granularity of the hands-­to-­mouth experience by combining touch with another proximal sensory modality, taste. This is metaphorical language working in a “phenomenological” mode, as I have argued in past work (Caracciolo 2013b), in that the similes are geared toward the feel of the protagonist’s experience, seeking to render his conscious44  Pace and Place

ness in a richly detailed way. Clearly, the emergence of textural qualities in readers’ narrative engagement requires this high level of granularity in stylistic form. Arcadia and Tinkers evoke textural imagery as they render the patterning of the protagonists’ interactions with the natural world—­interactions that are always mediated, as we will see, by intersubjective thinking of the kind Alan Palmer (2004) explores, as well as by deeply embodied sensations and affects. This literary operation is also an experiment in slow temporality: the ordinary pace of mind-­world interactions is decreased to expose its affective fabric. Plot is not central to the experience of reading these novels, at least not plot in the usual sense of the organization of characters’ choices and actions. Instead, the narrative privileges the irregular plotting of the protagonists’ interiority as they apprehend and renegotiate their lives through memory—­another feature shared with literary modernism. This introspective quality of the novels goes hand in hand with an approach to the natural world that maximizes awareness and mindfulness in the sense of “nonjudgmental attention to present-­ moment experience” (Farb, Anderson, and Segal 2012, 70). The skin that tastes “like grass, like dirt” in Arcadia is a powerful example of how stylistic foregrounding (in this case, via a simile) can slow down and intensify perception by weaving together the human body and the natural world. Yet the two novels also suggest that awareness of nonhuman phenomena is inextricably related to broader patterns of subjectivity, particularly those involving autobiographical memory and the construction of a meaningful life narrative. Put otherwise, there can be no detached, “nonjudgmental attention” to the present moment without a satisfying sense of one’s personal and collective past. Being present to nonhuman materialities thus becomes a question of managing time consciousness through literary strategies—­and this is another way in which the contemporary novel converges with the introspective strand of nature writing discussed by Slovic. Before offering a close reading of Arcadia and Tinkers, I will expand on this link between the texture of consciousness, slow temporality, and memory. Qualia in Time and Narrative Understanding conscious experience is a notoriously thorny problem in the philosophy of mind. David Chalmers (1996) discusses these diffi

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culties under the rubric of the “hard problem of consciousness.” At least since Descartes’s distinction between “res cogitans” and “res extensa,” Western culture has been dominated by a dualistic tendency to separate the intangible domain of mind (res cogitans) from the domain of matter, including our material bodies (res extensa). The perennial question is if, and how, these domains can be unified in a coherent, nondualistic vision of reality. That difficulty is an aspect of what Chalmers calls “the hard problem of consciousness,” but it is not the whole story. In fact, as Chalmers points out, cognitive science has tended to think about mind in causal terms: mental activity is brain activity, and it is aimed at ensuring an organism’s survival through the regulation of behavior. In Chalmers’s words, in this “functionalist” account “a mental state is defined wholly by its causal role: that is, in terms of the kinds of stimulation that tend to produce it, the kind of behavior it tends to produce, and the way it interacts with other mental states” (1996, 14; emphasis in the original). By and large, the functionalist view of mind militates against Cartesian dualism: mind is put on a causal continuum with externally observable events (“behavior”); ultimately, mental processes are grounded in material brain events, challenging strong versions of the mind/ matter dichotomy. But this functionalist solution does not fully address the hard problem of consciousness. Consider the experience of pain, for instance. Functionally speaking, the significance of pain is straightforward: it is a mechanism that signals and, whenever possible, minimizes bodily harm. If I unintentionally touch a hot pot on the stove, my hand withdraws almost immediately: the pain that accompanies this neural reflex ensures that I will think twice before touching the pot again, which in turn prevents further bodily harm through thermal burn. But why is this kind of pain subjectively different from, say, the pain of a skinned knee after falling off a bicycle? It is difficult to explain this qualitative difference in purely functional terms. Indeed, for Chalmers, “the notion of pain is ambiguous between the phenomenal and the psychological concept” (17): the latter reflects the function of pain as a damage-­avoiding mechanism; the former ties in with the rich gamut of subjective qualities that accompany pain. The “hard problem of consciousness” is the challenge of reconciling these perspectives on mental states such as pain. A concept that philosophers tend to invoke when contemplating these difficulties is “qualia” 46  Pace and Place

(see Tye 2009). Qualia are the inherently subjective and private qualities of experience, such as what it is like to smell fresh bread, observe the orange hue of a dramatic sunset, or feel rising anger. While it may be possible to explain these experiences functionally (in terms of the survival value of food, visual perception, and emotional reactions, for instance), such explanations do not account for the rich specificity of the sensations—­qualia—­t hat emerge in these situations. Because of their irreducible particularity, which seems to exceed any contribution they make to the survival of an organism, qualia do not sit well with a purely functionalist approach to mental processes; indeed, philosophers like Daniel Dennett (1991) argue that qualia are merely an epiphenomenon, an illusion deriving from our mastery of concepts and language (they enable us, for instance, to distinguish between the pain of scalding and the pain of abrasion). Yet qualia are so difficult to “explain away” because they are affectively central to our experience as conscious beings: we value certain experiences based on their unique “feel,” whose exact patterning and sensory properties can resist capture in words. Literary narrative has developed sophisticated stylistic tools to work around the seeming ineffability of qualia. Phenomenological metaphors and similes, such as Groff’s “his skin tastes like grass, like dirt,” discussed above, are a clear example of how literary form can evoke the “what it’s like” dimension of subjectivity by creating novel associations between experiences that we normally regard as distinct (in this case, the taste of skin, grass, and dirt).3 Literary narrative also excels at exploring the entanglement of phenomenal consciousness and temporality: metaphors such as the “stream” (W. James 1890), the “onflow” (Pred 2005), and the “texture” (Dretske 2010) of consciousness typically refer to the way in which qualitative properties become entangled with one another, giving rise to a densely layered pattern of subjectivity. It is this temporally situated nature of qualia that is brought to the fore by Groff and Harding as their protagonists attune their consciousness to the nonhuman world; the effect of this attunement is, as my reading will substantiate, to slow down the characters’ experience and potentially the reader’s with it. In two interconnected articles, Stephen Robbins (2004, 2007) argues that many of the philosophical issues surrounding qualia derive from a misguided tendency to abstract conscious experience from its temporal dimension. Researchers discuss the quale of “smelling fresh bread,”

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as I have just done, without factoring in the distinctive temporal profile of this experience and how this temporality is subtly implicated by linguistic references to “smelling fresh bread.” For Robbins, who draws on a Bergsonian understanding of time perception as a “matter-­field,” the “problem of qualia . . . begins by ignoring what I have termed primary memory, also identified as the indivisible or non-­differentiable time-­evolution of the matter-­field, that underlies all events, be it twisting leaves, rotating cubes or heron-­like flies slowly flapping their wings” (2007, 41). The example of the rotating cube is particularly illuminating. The visual quale of a cube is “a function of a scale of time imposed by the dynamics of the brain” (Robbins 2004, 777). Imagine increasing the speed of a rotating cube: “With sufficient increase, it will become a serrated-­edged figure, and at a higher rate, a figure with even more serrations. Finally, it becomes a cylinder surrounded by a fuzzy haze” (777). With this thought experiment, which is based on a real experiment carried out by Robert Shaw and Michael McIntyre (1974), Robbins suggests that the quale of the cube is contingent on a particular temporal pace that accompanies the brain’s encounter with (in this case) a visual stimulus. A form of “primary memory” or “retention,” to use a phenomenological term, is involved in the perception of the cube: if the cube rotates at a certain speed, our consciousness is able to retain its appearance over time, creating the impression of a stable form.4 If we artificially alter the pace of the perceiving subject-­world interaction (for instance, by speeding up the image of the cube), then the qualitative properties of the experience change dramatically: “What is perceived is not a rigid cube in rotation, but a distorted, wobbly object” (Robbins 2004, 776; emphasis in the original). For Robbins, this experience suggests the involvement of time-­based memory in the perception of qualia. The philosophical problems with qualia, Robbins argues, start when the qualitative properties of experience are reified into monolithic concepts (“the smell of fresh bread”), that is, concepts separate from the fabric of our temporally extended interactions with the world. Groff and Harding also explore the phenomenal qualities of experience through the lens of memory. However, the memory they foreground is not the retentional memory embedded in immediate perception (Robbins’s “primary memory”) but long-­term memory as mediated by autobiographical narrative. Psychologists working in the wake of Jerome 48  Pace and Place

Bruner (2003), together with philosophers such as Marya Schechtman (1996), have argued that personal identity is organized by narrative at a fundamental level. This narrative element can come in as an implicit (and narratively structured) sense of one’s biographical trajectory or as a fully worked-­out “life story” (such as we may produce in an autobiography or interview). The concept of “life story schema,” introduced by Susan Bluck and Tilmann Habermas (2000), is useful here: outside of the well-­formed narratives we find in, for instance, autobiographies, the link between personal identity and narrative “is usually manifested in the more partial form of autobiographical reasoning. [In Bluck and Habermas (2000) we] suggested that repeated autobiographical reasoning leads to the construction of a rudimentary knowledge structure in memory that relates to life as a whole, termed life story schema, which in turn is activated and used in autobiographical reasoning” (Habermas 2011, 4; emphasis in the original). The life story schema is the implicit narrative self-­understanding that emerges when someone is invited to talk or think about their own past. The autobiographical temporality accessed via the life story schema enters into a complex tension with the qualitative properties of experience. Sometimes, the unique phenomenal qualities of a moment do not stand out in immediate experience but as they are recollected (and, no doubt, reconfigured) at a temporal remove.5 Such temporal distance lends a remembered moment sensory salience and affective poignancy as a result of its having been embedded in a narrative structure. The qualitative “form” of that memory thus becomes more intense and clear-­cut, as in the case of the image of a rotating cube viewed at the appropriate speed. In other instances, the life story schema tends to distance the subject from qualia, introducing a principle of abstraction (it is a “schema,” after all) that attenuates the qualitative dimension of experience. As a sensory pattern of consciousness is turned into a verbally and conceptually mediated pattern of story, the depth of consciousness is reduced.6 The tension between the intensification and the abstraction of experience emerges with particular clarity in Arcadia and Tinkers. In Arcadia the protagonist is remarkably skillful at retaining the vividness of his remembered past (particularly his childhood); however, his adult life story schema combines this sense of vividness with a more detached attitude, which enables him to live up to personal and collective challenges

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in times of ecological crisis. In Tinkers the linearity of the life story schema breaks down when one of the protagonists, on his deathbed, is unable to make sense of his life through a well-­formed narrative; instead, two symbolic possibilities for creating coherence emerge—­and one of these possibilities, as we will see, is based on heightened attention to the qualitative properties of consciousness. In both novels the focus on consciousness involves a pronounced slowing down of experienced time, prompting readers to adopt a similarly slow-­paced approach to the text. Crucially, this state of nonjudgmental attention is fostered by the characters’ temporally extended interactions with the natural world, which bring out the distinctive sensory patterns, textures, and forms—­in a word, the qualia—­of nonhuman environments. “Pay Attention, He Thinks” “The women in the river, singing. This is Bit’s first memory, although he hadn’t been born when it happened. Still, the road winding through the mountains is clear to him, the rest stop with the yellow flowers that closed under the children’s touch. It was dusk when the Caravan saw the river greening around the bend and stopped there for the night. It was a blue spring evening, and cold” (Groff 2012, 1). These are the first lines of Arcadia’s short prologue. Bit’s “first memory,” it turns out, is a collective one: this is a salient moment in the history of Arcadia, an intentional community in upstate New York; the women’s singing lingers in the memory of the founders of Arcadia, who later handed it down as a narrative. Eventually, their stories reach Bit, who grows up in Arcadia and comes to integrate this instant into his autobiographical self. This episode is surprisingly “clear to him,” as the passage announces, and suffused by colors—­yellow flowers, a “greening” river, the blue of the sky—­ that evoke a sense of affective intensity, even as the exact nature of the affect remains vague. The passing reference to the flowers closing “under the children’s touch” adds to the experiential vividness of that instant by complementing the visual palette of the passage with a tactile sensation. Because touch is by definition a proximal sense, unlike vision, the texture of the flowers pulls Bit (and potentially the reader) into that collective memory: it reduces the distance between the moment of recollection and the recollected experience, much as Groff’s present-­tense account does in narrative terms. In the terminology of Virginia Woolf’s 50  Pace and Place

(1976) modernist poetics, this is a “moment of being”—­an instant of intensified awareness and vitality—­but it is here portrayed as the result of a complex crisscrossing of personal and collective consciousness. This opening scene foreshadows some of the concerns that underlie the novel as a whole: how memory and identity are caught between the individual and the community; how narrative can bridge temporal distances and evoke affective intensities both in and beyond personal experience; how a certain form of attention, mediated by story, can bring out the rich, qualitative fabric of consciousness. Arcadia follows closely—­by way of internal focalization—­the biographical trajectory of Bit, from his childhood and adolescence in the commune to the collapse of Arcadia’s utopian vision (in parts 1 and 2). At the end of part 2, Bit, a timorous teenager, and his family are forced to leave the disintegrating commune; at the beginning of part 3, with a significant gap in the narrative, we find the protagonist in New York City, a father and a professor of photography. A few flashbacks render Bit’s disorientation during the transition from Arcadia’s communitarian and environmental ethos to the aggressive mass culture of the metropolis. After the sudden vanishing of Helle, his wife and another former member of Arcadia, Bit is left alone with his daughter, Grete. In part 4 Bit and Grete decide to move back to Arcadia to assist Hannah, Bit’s mother, as she gradually loses control of her body to als. Bit also develops an affection for Ellis, the doctor who takes care of his mother. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is in the throes of catastrophe, with rising sea levels (an amplification of the ecological anxieties we find in Groff’s “Boca Raton,” discussed in the previous chapter) and a pandemic decimating urban populations. This global catastrophe mirrors the trauma experienced by Bit, decades before, as Arcadia—­a world in itself, with its own laws and logic—­broke apart. Yet in the midst of these dark times, the novel’s last page presents the reader with the following soothing, if deeply melancholic, vision: Peace, [Bit] knows, can be shattered in a million variations: great visions of the end, a rain of ash, a disease on the wind, a blast in the distance, the sun dying like a kerosene lamp clicked off. And in smaller ways: an overheard remark, his daughter’s sour mood, his own body faltering. There’s no use in anticipating the mode. He will wait for the hushed spaces in life, for Ellis’s snore in the dark,

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for Grete’s stealth kiss, for the warm light inside the gallery, his images on the wall broken beyond beauty into blisters and fragments, returning in the eye to beauty again. The voices of women at night on the street, laughing; he has always loved the voices of women. Pay attention, he thinks. Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath. (Groff 2012, 289) For a character who has always lived in the shadow of stronger personalities, the “[Bit] knows” of the first line indicates surprising confidence. The anticipatory belief that peace will be “shattered” does not resolve into crippling anxiety of the kind experienced by Ange in “Boca Raton.” Bit’s waiting for “the hushed spaces in life” is a sign of acceptance of whatever the future may have in store for him. The images on the wall—­Bit’s own photographs—­are fragmented, just as the world is collapsing under the pressure of anthropogenic catastrophe. But “the eye”—­Bit’s eye—­is capable of “returning” beauty to those fragments. The bildungsroman of Arcadia has thus been successful, with the protagonist overcoming his childhood trauma of a crumbling Arcadia to embrace a world that collapses on a much larger canvas—­an acceptance accompanied by appreciation for the aesthetic possibilities of that collapse. Crucial to that transition is the deceleration of attention (“Pay attention, he thinks”), and the target of that attention is the transience of sensation, the “passing breath” of the women laughing on the street. It is certainly no coincidence that this final page evokes the “voices of women,” a clear echo of the “singing women” of the beginning. The resonance suggests continuity in the protagonist’s dedication to qualia, the felt qualities of conscious experience, but the peacefulness of the ending also implies that Bit has found a way to transform the affective vividness of childhood, when seen through the lens of his life story schema, into an empowering sense of “nonjudgmental attention” comparable to mindfulness. I thus turn to work on the psychology and phenomenology of mindfulness to shed light on Bit’s experiential trajectory. In exploring what they call the “phenomenological matrix” of mindfulness, Antoine Lutz and colleagues (2015) distinguish between three “functional dimensions” and four “qualitative dimensions” of mindful experiences. As they explain, the “first three dimensions are ‘primary’ in that they are main targets for all styles of mindfulness training. . . . 52  Pace and Place

The next four are ‘secondary qualities’ in that they describe highly relevant features of experience that are affected by mindfulness practices” (Lutz et al. 2015, 637). The functional dimensions identified by Lutz and colleagues are object-­orientation, dereification, and meta-­awareness: respectively, the focus of consciousness on a certain object; the awareness that this is not a real object but a psychological and affective construct; and the capacity to monitor the dynamics of one’s consciousness, for instance, when “realizing that one’s mind has wandered” (640). The qualitative dimensions of consciousness that tend to be affected by mindful experiences are aperture (the scope or magnitude of what consciousness embraces), clarity (the vividness of an experience), stability (the persistence of an experience over time), and effort (how challenging it is to focus on a certain object). We can use this experiential matrix to compare Bit’s “first memory” as a child with the novel’s final image of the “hushed spaces of life.” Vividness and stability remain constant: the “singing women” of the beginning are bathed in color and affect, as we have seen, both of them heightened by the space of story and communal memory that separates Bit from that fabled moment in the history of Arcadia. Throughout the novel, Bit’s experience is defined by a marked interest in qualia, which Groff’s style renders with skill and precision. Certainly, his childhood memories have the heightened vividness of a world that still strikes him as strange and unfamiliar—­a feeling reminiscent of another modernist masterpiece, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which also begins with the defamiliarizing experiences of childhood.7 Here is, for instance, a passage focusing on Bit’s early experience of winter: “The icicles in the window are shot with such red light of dawn that Bit goes barefoot over the snow to pull one with his hand. Inside again, he licks it down to nothing, eating winter itself, the captured woodsmoke and sleepy hush and aching cleanness of ice. His parents sleep on. All day, the secret icicle sits inside him, his own thing, a blade of cold, and it makes Bit feel brave to think of it” (Groff 2012, 22–­23). The qualia of winter—­woodsmoke and hush and pristine ice—­are concentrated in the icicle, which Bit ingests as if to appropriate the phenomenal essence of this season. A metonymy—­“eating winter itself”—­gets this point across, along with metaphors such as “shot with such red light” and “a blade of cold.”

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Yet the same kind of experiential intensity is found much later in Bit’s life, for example, when he attempts to teach his daughter, Grete, how to notice and savor the qualia of experience: “Over squash ravioli and the tender new vegetables from the farmers’ market, Bit says to Grete: The sharpness of radishes on the middle of the tongue. A hot shower after a cold day. Feeling how strong you are when you squeeze my neck. A spritz of lemon in my water. Grete has stopped eating. She is staring at her father. The taste of an icicle, he says. The feeling of floating in a pond. A chocolate Kiss in its little foil wrapper. He smiles” (Groff 2012, 212). These feelings and sensations are steeped in time and memory, unlike the abstract qualia discussed by philosophers: as readers of Arcadia, we know that because we have seen young Bit taste winter in an icicle. Bit’s ability to experience slowly and vividly and retain such moments in his memory is thus a constant of his life—­a feature of his consciousness that Groff re-­creates through figurative language, as well as through present-­tense narration, which projects immediacy even where we would expect retrospective distance. Yet to return to the comparison between the opening and the ending of the novel, two features of Bit’s phenomenal consciousness seem to have evolved significantly. The first is what Lutz and colleagues call aperture: contrast the narrow focus of the “singing women” experience with the scope of Bit’s awareness in the novel’s ending, which spans from “great visions of the end” to “the passing breath.” The second difference that stands out in the latter passage is meta-­awareness: rather than being single-­mindedly absorbed in the remembered moment, Bit appears to be fully in control of his consciousness, of its vagaries and biases (“There’s no use in anticipating the mode”; “Pay attention, he thinks”). The question, then, is how the novel accounts for this evolution of Bit’s phenomenal awareness, leading to the final experience of mindfulness. There are two crucial factors here: the first is Bit’s passion for photography; the second is how growing up in Arcadia has attuned his attention to the complex formal patterning of the nonhuman world—­a sensibility that contributes, in Bit’s adult years, to his nonjudgmental understanding of the ecological predicament humanity is facing. Early on in the novel, Helle, Bit’s future wife, observes: We’re alike, she says. You [Bit] and me. We notice. What you’re thinking is written all over you. Like, yesterday, at the Photography 54  Pace and Place

Tutorial, you were looking really hard at this trail of ants. I could see you start to imagine yourself as one of them. Thinking about dismembering a grasshopper, how huge it was to your tiny size, how you would drag it underground, and then about the darkness down below, all the trails and little caverns and halls, and then what it smells like, what it’s like to live in full-­body armor. It seems like everybody is so busy that nobody else notices things like that. Except for you. (Groff 2012, 101–­2) Imagining oneself into a nonhuman body—­the ant’s—­is a sign of Bit’s “noticing,” his attention to the forms of consciousness. It is no coincidence that this nonhuman encounter takes place during a photography class. Throughout his life, Bit values photography as an artistic means of decelerating and deepening perception; as a photography professor at a New York college, “his job, as he understands it, is to help his students see: to make them pay attention, slow down and appreciate what they’re doing” (Groff 2012, 176). Even later in his life, back in Arcadia with his dying mother, Bit starts taking pictures of the “sun and wind [pouring] into the sheets on the line. There are bodies in the billowing, forms created and lost in a breath. He takes photo after photo with his ruined film, to hold them there. This is what, long ago, made him fall in love with photography: the paying of attention, the capturing of time” (274). Photography expands the human sensorium, serving as a technological aid in bringing clarity and stability, in Lutz and colleagues’ terminology, to the forms not only of the animate world (the ant) but also of inanimate matter (the drying sheets). Photography makes this phenomenological contribution by slowing down perception, as posited by Viktor Shklovsky’s famous essay on defamiliarization (discussed in the introduction). Groff’s own style operates along similar lines, using narrative and metaphor to pin down qualia that might be lost otherwise. Because of the distance that both photography and literary style imply, Bit does not lose himself in the vividness of his experience, as in the novel’s opening, but retains a degree of control and meta-­awareness. Through photography, Bit’s slow art of “noticing” is thus complemented by stability and aperture (aptly, a metaphor derived from photography in Lutz and colleagues’ discussion). Bit’s dialogue with the nonhuman world further extends the reach of his attention, making genuine mindfulness possible. Early on in the nov

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el, we see him wandering in the woods that surround Arcadia: “For a few breaths he forgets himself in the swim of nature around him. Its rhythm is so different from Bit’s human own, both more nervous and more patient. He sees a bug that is smaller than a period on a page. He sees the sky, bigger than all that’s in his head. An overwhelm from two directions, vast and tiny, together” (Groff 2012, 57). Groff’s account of this experience of losing oneself in the nonhuman world—­and being overwhelmed by it—­foregrounds the deeply embodied dimension of this encounter, with the experienced “rhythm” of Bit’s breathing echoing but also distinguishing itself from the temporality of the forest. Here Groff’s imagination comes close to nature writing operating in a “rhapsodic” mode, whereby a human subject experiences a sense of merging with the land.8 But as Slovic (1992) discusses in Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing, the best kind of nature writing is marked by the tension between identification with nature and detachment from it.9 Thus, as Bit matures and overcomes the grief of leaving Arcadia, his childhood embrace of the nonhuman world develops into a more ambivalent stance. This difference emerges most clearly toward the end of the novel, with an explicit reference to the father of American nature writing: Bit thinks of another man at another pond, long ago; the way Thoreau saw the moon looming over fresh-­plowed fields and knew the earth was worthy to inhabit. Bit is not so sure. Besides, there are no fields here. In what he remembers as the sunflower patch, he finds thirty-­year-­old trees, more enormous than the trees of his youth, greener, casting deeper shadows: all the extra carbon in the air. . . . He laughs, and the forest, which he has missed to his marrow, laughs back at him. He feels everything, the birds swinging on the currents of air, the early ferns uncurling, the creatures hunched somewhere, watching him. (Groff 2012, 243) The rhapsodic embrace of the nonhuman, embodied here by Thoreau’s aestheticized nature, gives way to a more cautious, and complex, attitude as Bit looks back upon his childhood experiences and integrates them into a life story schema. There is still a sense of visceral connection to nature (“he has missed [the forest] to his marrow”), there is still an appreciation for the intensity of nonhuman forms—­an intensity that is interestingly displaced from the character’s childhood to the present moment (“the 56  Pace and Place

trees . . . greener, casting deeper shadows” than “the trees of his youth”). But at the same there is detachment, even amusement, at the thought that that phenomenal vividness may be a by-­product of “all the carbon in the air”—­the otherwise devastating effect of industrial activity. The forest, personified, “laughs back at him,” signaling distance from his individual experience but also from the anxieties raised by climate change, at least insofar as these anxieties have the survival of our own species as their focus. The experience of “feeling everything,” at the end of the passage, ties in with a slow, contemplative mode of consciousness, which marks a sharp departure from the overwhelming sensation of the protagonist’s childhood. It suggests that Bit’s consciousness has reached a degree of aperture, meta-­awareness, and detachment unknown to his childhood self. Valuing the infinitely rich textures of the nonhuman world is instrumental in this psychological process, but so is the ability to strike a balance between closeness to and distance from natural forms. Only in this balance can Bit find the promise of “peace” prefigured by the novel’s ending. Arcadia is a work obsessed with qualia, but the significance of phenomenal experience evolves dramatically in the course of Bit’s life. As the experienced intensity of his childhood acquires mnemonic and narrative depth, it does not lose vividness; the life story schema doesn’t obfuscate phenomenal qualities but amplifies them by slowing them down and by placing them in a broader context. This new aperture of consciousness is made possible partly by the technological medium of photography, partly by a complex relationship with nature, both of them being channeled by Groff’s literary and narrative strategies (such as figurative language with a phenomenological function and present-­tense narrative). A comparison with mindfulness practices helps clarify the distinctiveness of Bit’s vision at the end of the novel and how it enables the protagonist to look with equanimous but sympathetic openness at both “great visions of the end” and the “passing breath.” It is this state of slow and mindful contemplation of the fleeting qualities of experience that the novel aims to foster in readers, and it is through this route that it cultivates a more balanced, if poignant, imagination of ecological catastrophe.10 “A Sort of Afterglow That Remained” In Paul Harding’s Tinkers, catastrophe functions less as a historical horizon—­a potential and increasingly likely consequence of today’s ecolog

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ical crisis—­than as a metaphysical condition that joins humanity with nonhuman things and processes. “Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so,” we read in a central section of the novel; “What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking?” (Harding 2009, 119, 120). The question is raised by Howard as he looks for George, his young son, who has run away from home in a tantrum. Howard’s and George’s are the two parallel lives that the novel paints against the backdrop of a stark New England landscape. The opening scene shows George on his deathbed, where he “began to hallucinate eight days before he died” (7), and continues by alternating episodes from George’s and Howard’s lives. The George sections are mostly ordered chronologically and punctuated by references to his time of death (for example, “ninety-­six hours before he died” [48]), whereas Howard’s life is reconstructed through repeated flashbacks. While not presented chronologically, the Howard sections also lead up to the moment of his death, which is narrated back-­to-­back with George’s own death, at the end of the novel. The trajectories of the two protagonists are thus interwoven in narrative discourse, even as they diverge dramatically at the level of story, with Howard suddenly leaving young George and his mother to start a new life in Philadelphia. We learn that Howard suffered from severe epilepsy, that he had a passion for poetry, and that he worked as a tinker seventy years before George’s death; his illness was a source of constant humiliation at the hands of his wife, shaping his decision to abandon his family. The final episode of the novel depicts, with another flashback, the only encounter between George and Howard after the latter’s disappearance, when Howard drives from Philadelphia to Connecticut to meet his son on Christmas Eve. This awkward reunion is, we are told, the “last thing George Washington Crosby remembered as he died” (190). This narrative pattern is highly nonlinear and creates an impression of slowness, with George’s death, announced in the novel’s very first sentence, being delayed not only by the frequent flashbacks but also by the interpolation of sundry textual materials: sections from what appears to be Howard’s poetic diary (introduced by italicized headings such as Cosmos Borealis, Tempest Borealis, and so on), as well as passages from a fictional eighteenth-­century treatise titled The Reasonable Horologist, by Rev. Kenner Davenport. If, in Groff’s Arcadia, the linear narrative of 58  Pace and Place

Bit’s bildungsroman evokes a well-­defined life story schema, the lives of George and Howard appear disheveled and impervious to both teleology and chronology: “George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at this life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will” (Harding 2009, 18). The form of Harding’s novel, with its many fits and starts, re-­creates this mosaiclike impression but also attempts to create significance, if not definitive narrative order, through the parallelism of father and son. The novel is divided between two opposing responses to the “cataclysm of making and unmaking” (Harding 2009, 120)—­in human terms, the succession of generations embodied here by the two protagonists. The first response is a sustained analogy between human life and the mechanisms of clockwork. This macroanalogy is justified diegetically by George’s passion for clocks and skill as a clock repairman; the analogical strategy thus reflects what Roger Fowler (1977) would call the character’s distinctive “mind style.”11 From this perspective, the “cataclysm” of death is seen as a merely physical event comparable to the release of mechanical energy that occurs in the last element of a timepiece: “At the end of the train is the escapement. This is where the energy generated by the mainspring finally escapes the clock” (Harding 2009, 162), states The Reasonable Horologist. The passage can be interpreted as an allegory of the “escape” of consciousness from a dying body, perhaps in the sense of transcendence (a reading encouraged by The Reasonable Horologist but from which, as we will see, the novel strongly distances itself). Even more strikingly, the reference to the escape mechanism in a clock serves as a self-­reflexive commentary on Harding’s narrative: story itself is a mechanism that generates energy—­for instance, by postponing an outcome seen as inevitable, such as George’s death—­until this accumulated energy is dispersed in the ending. This idea echoes Peter Brooks’s account of narrative dynamics in Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1984), where the motor engine—­another mechanical device—­ illuminates analogically the forces of sexual desire that drive story.12 Related to this mechanical analogy for life is the use of objectifying language and imagery for the human body. When George undergoes ra

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diation treatment for cancer, his legs “[turn] as hard as lumber. . . . When his wife touched his legs at night in bed, through his pajamas, she thought of oak or maple and had to make herself think of something else in order not to imagine going down to his workshop in the basement and getting sandpaper and stain and sanding his legs and staining them with a brush” (Harding 2009, 12–­13). The human body is thus reduced to an inanimate artifact in a clear foreshadowing of the escape of consciousness at the end of life’s mechanism. Also noteworthy is that this objectifying scenario starts with what could be construed as a simile with a phenomenological function (“as hard as lumber”) for George’s loss of control of his legs, but it soon shifts from George’s first-­person perspective on his own body to his wife’s imagination: the protagonist’s conscious experience “escapes” Harding’s style even before it escapes from his body. After all, a mechanism is a device that has been intentionally designed to fulfill a certain function, hence his wife’s impulse to get “sandpaper and stain” to polish George’s legs, as if they were a decorative element. This understanding of the body as an artifact dovetails closely with George’s mind style and emerges periodically throughout the novel; just a few pages before his death we read, for example, that when George “tried to speak, he could only make noises that sounded like a rusted pulley turning over a dry well” (178), with the “rusted pulley,” again, suggesting decay and “unmaking” but also, crucially, human design. Tinkers also toys with the possibility that the design involved in the human body—­and indeed in the universe as a whole—­may be divinely ordained. The mechanical metaphor is, of course, central to the cosmologies elaborated by René Descartes and Isaac Newton, for whom the mechanism of the universe was always regulated by God: “While the law of gravitation governed Newton’s cosmos, the true governor was God, who was never absent from the mind of Newton and his contemporaries” (Kragh 2007, 67). This early modern view of the universe as divine clockwork enters Harding’s novel via The Reasonable Horologist: “Man [squirms] and [frets] on the dusty skin of our earth, ignorant of the purpose of the world, indeed, the cosmos, beyond the fact that there is one, assigned by God and known only to Him, and that . . . only rational faith can soothe the desperate pains and woes of our magnificent and depraved world. It is that simple, dear reader, that logical and elegant” (2009, 180). This is the final quotation from the fictional treatise, 60  Pace and Place

and it appears a few pages from the novel’s ending. While the purpose of the cosmic mechanism—­and of the termination of our own clocklike body—­remains unknown, faith in God offers metaphysical guarantee that there is a purpose: this conclusion, the fictional eighteenth-­century clockmaker’s handbook seeks to convince us, is “rational,” as well as “logical and elegant.” But just as chronology fails to bring order to George’s and Howard’s entangled lives, the universe of Tinkers evidently doesn’t work along “rational” lines. Whether prompted by personal obsession or by religious belief, rigid mechanical analogies cannot illuminate the mystery at the center of Tinkers: “What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking?” (120). The question, as mentioned above, is entertained by Howard, and it is through his life that the novel advances a tentative answer. This answer involves a shift in conceptions of materiality, from a dualistic view of matter as passive mechanism (including human bodies and the universe itself but excluding consciousness) to a monistic imagination of matter as complex pattern (including consciousness itself). This is where the novel dovetails with contemporary ideas growing out of new materialism, particularly Jane Bennett’s (2010) exploration of “vibrant matter,” or the inherent causal efficacy of nonhuman materialities uncoupled from human agency.13 Qualia are central to sketching out this alternative view of matter, and they are evoked through a style that closely recalls Bit’s mindful meditations in Arcadia. For example, the narrator states, in a section focalized by Howard, that the “water was so mineral and hard that it seemed to ring” (Harding 2009, 64), with a phenomenological simile that maps—­synesthetically—­the visual and tactile properties of water onto a high-­pitched sound. In an earlier passage, Howard had imagined “chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps feel only the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk” (25). The “blue vein” simile works against the grain of the objectifying metaphors seen above: instead of deanimating the human body via a mechanical comparison, it turns the inanimate world into a site of organism-­like vitality. Moreover, the references to the “black, silty bottom,” the “stir” of the fish, and “the murk” ask the reader to shift from a visual to a tactile imagination of this underwater environment, bringing them fully into the picture of Howard’s

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consciousness. The passage continues with an imaginary becoming-­fish (“you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin”) that resonates with Bit’s empathetic fascination with ant life in a passage discussed in the previous section. This exploration of qualia is based on Harding’s impressionistic technique, which has the effect of decelerating the reader’s imagination of Howard’s perceptual world. For one of the most striking examples of this style, consider the following passage: “The way the clouds moved, mostly invisible, above the canopy of trees, now revealing the full light of the sun, now obscuring it, now diffusing it, reflecting it . . . all combined to make Howard feel as if he were walking through a kaleidoscope” (Harding 2009, 142–­43). The focus here is, unmistakably, on visual experience, but by diffracting daylight semantically, through the kaleidoscope simile, as well as stylistically, through the accumulation of punctuated clauses, Harding’s style succeeds in channeling the textural quality of vision—­a feat reminiscent of impressionist art.14 In yet another section, we read that the sky “only seemed missing a grain to be wood and the wood only missing a breath of wind to stir it and turn it into sky” (75), where the perceptual confusion is generated not only by the visual merging of wood and sky but also by the projection of tactile and kinetic patterns (grain and wind) that lend a dynamic quality to the solidity of “mere” matter. The imagination that emerges from these and many other Howard-­focused passages in the novel is steeped in the slow appreciation of complex pattern—­an appreciation that Tinkers presents as directly shaped by Howard’s exposure to the natural world during his early years as a traveling salesman in New England. In particular, the novel stages two encounters that play a transformative role in Howard’s sensibilization to natural patterns. The first is with a hermit named Gilbert. Everyone is baffled by the hermit’s ability to survive the ruthless winters of New England without shelter, whereas Howard enjoys the imagination of “some fold in the woods, some seam that only the hermit could sense and slip into, where the frozen forest itself would accept him and he would no longer need fire or wool blankets, but instead flourish wreathed in snow” (Harding 2009, 37). The hermit’s slipping into the embrace of the natural world—­like the fantasy, seen above, of jumping into a hole in the ice—­evokes a feeling of calm acceptance of entanglement with nonhuman materialities. This is not the de62  Pace and Place

bilitating “demotion” of the body into a substance “as hard as lumber” but rather an exhilarating expansion and unraveling of bodily boundaries. Likewise, after a hallucinatory encounter with a Native American in the heart of the forest, Howard is struck by how “the Indian had vanished without sound, without, seemingly, even movement, but, rather, had been reabsorbed back not only into trunk and root, stone and leaf but into light and shadow and season and time itself” (150). Described here is not merely a merger with the natural world but an instance of blending into the very material coordinates (“light and shadow and season and time”) that make consciousness possible and that underlie Harding’s impressionistic descriptions. Through Howard’s exposure to nature, then, the novel advances a notion of materiality whereby the human body participates in nonhuman vitality and is ultimately destined to fuse with it. From this perspective, consciousness is not seen dualistically, as the “escape” of a spiritual substance from a brutally mechanical and deterministic universe. On the contrary, consciousness and the qualia it gives rise to are a direct expression of the complex patterning of materiality itself, a product of kaleidoscopic encounters between light, movement, and matter, including of course the matter of human brains and bodies. Put otherwise, consciousness and the physical world share a material patterning that brings them together. This insight is made possible not only by nonhuman encounters mediated by figures such as the hermit and the Native American but also by the slowing down of attention as it takes in the dynamic structure of consciousness itself. Walking by an old house in ruins—­in itself a symbol of the “unmaking” of the material world—­Howard reflects: The flowers [he] now walked among were the few last heir to that brief local span of disaster and regeneration and he felt close to the sort of secrets he often caught himself wondering about, the revelations of which he only ever realized he had been in the proximity of after he became conscious of that proximity, and that phenomenon, of becoming conscious, was the very thing that whisked him away, so that any bit of insight or gleaning was available only in retrospect, as a sort of afterglow that remained but that was not accessible through words. He thought, But what about through grass and flowers and light and shadow? (Harding 2009, 62)

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The passage stages the dynamics of consciousness in a series of steps: first, there is the becoming aware of the flowers and of their role in a drama of “disaster and regeneration” that embraces the whole universe; then there is Howard’s involvement in a sense of mystery (“the sort of secrets”) bound up with that natural cycle. With the next step, Howard transitions to what Lutz and colleagues call “meta-­awareness”—­the idea that “any bit of insight” into that fundamental mystery is not given in immediate experience but waits at one remove from the present moment, when the subject slows down and develops reflexive awareness of consciousness itself; crucially, this “bit of insight” cannot be accessed “through words.” In the final step of the passage, Howard discovers that the insight can be accessed only by going beyond the subject, by acknowledging the deep continuity between consciousness itself and the nonverbal and nonsymbolic language of the nonhuman world (“grass and flowers”) and its visual patterning (“light and shadow”). A psychological movement that had been initiated by the nonhuman world thus ends where it started, with the texture of grass and flowers. This arc suggests that consciousness is fully constituted by physical pattern—­and that the key to the “secrets” of “disaster and regeneration” cannot be found in a transcendental sphere but in gradually becoming aware of the fundamental connection between human and nonhuman vitality. Note that this does not mean that the mystery of “disaster and regeneration,” the “cataclysm of making and unmaking,” can be illuminated completely, spelled out in the words of rational thought. Howard’s realization remains elusive, an “afterglow” rather than a clear-­cut answer. But the realization has brought him closer to an affective alignment with the “cataclysm” that defines life’s entanglement with the nonhuman world. This emotional state is reminiscent of Bit’s mindful acceptance of whatever “great visions of the end” the future may bring, but Harding’s novel positions this insight in a broader, metaphysical, and cosmic context. The already mentioned Borealis sections bring out the cosmic framing of Howard’s interrogations with particular clarity. Even though the authorship of these sections is never made explicit by the novel, they are taken from a book—­a “dictionary or an encyclopedia of some sort” (Harding 2009, 44)—­t hat could conceivably be Howard’s creation. Perhaps the clearest indication of this origin is that the style of these entries, all preceded by an italicized noun and by the adjective “borealis” (mean64  Pace and Place

ing “northern,” as in “aurora borealis”), closely recalls the narrator’s description of the effect of epilepsy on Howard’s body and mind.15 These sections offer poetic visions of the transcorporeal interconnectedness of human bodies and natural or cosmic elements: “Light skin of sky and cloud and mountain on the still pond. . . . Green drakes blossomed powder dry among the stars, glowing white, out of pods” (45). While most of these sections contain instances of an indeterminate “we,” it is in the last Borealis, at the end of the novel, that the first-­person plural form takes on special significance. This section, titled Homo Borealis, appears after the parallel accounts of Howard’s and George’s final moments and precedes the short narrative of the last time father and son met. Given this positioning of Homo Borealis, we are strongly cued to read the “we” of these paragraphs as a metaphysical embodiment of father and son. Even more striking is that the final sentences of Homo Borealis fuse Howard’s imagination, which, as we have seen, is closely attuned to natural patterns, with George’s clock-­inspired language: “We breached surfaces and caught glimpses of sheer cliffs, columns of flint capped in fir, boreal. We saw beaches of snow and blizzards of sand. . . . When it came time to die, we knew and went to deep yards where we lay down and our bones turned to brass. We were picked over. We were used to fix broken clocks, music boxes; our pelvises were fitted onto pinions, our spines soldered into vast works. Our ribs were fitted as gear teeth and tapped and clicked like tusks. This is how, finally, we were joined” (Harding 2009, 190). The material textures of the natural world are intermingled with clock parts, as if the posthumous “joining” of father and son, via we-­ narrative, prompted a merger between their specific mind styles.16 Yet George’s metaphorical understanding of the human body as a mechanism is literalized here into a metonymic embedding of the human into nonhuman materiality (“our spines soldered into vast works,” and so on). Far from being a mere analogy for the human body or for the divine scheme of the cosmos, the form of the clockwork is thus woven into the fabric of reality, and it brings along traces of the protagonists’ embodied consciousness. Clock parts are no longer understood mechanically but as elements in an open, nonlinear pattern that is mirrored stylistically by the suppleness of Harding’s figurative language (with a term like “gear teeth,” in itself a metaphor, being put on a metaphysical continuum with organic “tusks”).

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This final Borealis section, in other words, offers a symbolic solution to the tension between George’s and Howard’s worldviews, allowing for the diegetic encounter between them to be narrated in the novel’s ending. This suggests that, in Tinkers, the logic of symbol and imagery always precedes and trumps the comforts of narrative order and teleology. As George and Howard lie in their deathbeds, memory presents a welter of impressions that, while steeped in experienced time and affect, seem uncoupled from the possibility of a linear life story schema. This slowing down of progression, with its postponement of the inevitable denouement of death, shapes the novel’s affective impact as it outlines two opposite visions of how consciousness relates to the material world: one (George’s) is dominated by mechanism, the other (Howard’s) by the imagination of pattern. The ending brings these visions together, slowly and uneasily, at the same time as it highlights the centrality of mindful attention in any attempt to work out humanity’s position in a more-­ than-­human cosmos. In analytic philosophy, the phenomenal qualities of experience or “qualia” are famously difficult to integrate into a materialist view of mind, which holds that consciousness emerges from material processes as they are studied by physics and biochemistry. In Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-­Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012), Thomas Nagel develops a penetrating critique of these debates on the relationship between conscious experience and materialism. Another analytic philosopher, Daniel Hutto (2000), has made a persuasive case that the “hard problem of consciousness” derives from a tendency to regard experience as an object and not as an activity, separating it from the temporal flow of our interactions with the world. This temporal flow involves the “matter-­field” of physical reality, as suggested by Robbins (2004, 2007). The problem with qualia is that analytic philosophers tend to work with a restrictive understanding of “matter” as inert and mechanical rather than efficacious and dynamic. If we expand our view of materiality beyond this narrow conception (which is entrenched in the Western world), then the gap between conscious experience and physical entities becomes less significant. This is where new versions of materialism, developed outside of analytic philosophy, can make a significant contribution to discussions on consciousness. William 66  Pace and Place

Connolly already identifies this problem in his commentary on Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: in Connolly’s words, Nagel “uses the word materialism to cover only those research programs that seek to reduce higher processes to more simple, nonideational ones, evincing no awareness in doing so of the versions of ‘new materialism’ and ‘immanent naturalism’ that avoid those very modes of reductionism” (2017, 42). If matter possesses, in Bennett’s (2010) terminology, “thing-­power,” then the perceptual and sensory powers of our own bodies will appear less exceptional in a material world and will require no epistemological reduction to be understood within a (new) materialist framework. Arcadia and Tinkers—­the novels examined in this chapter—­come to this realization by engaging with consciousness head-­on: they use the resources of consciousness evocation in narrative to place qualia within a more-­than-­human world that ripples with complex patterns. This patterning forms a common ground between consciousness and nonhuman materialities, and a particular kind of slow attention is required to bring it out fully. I have conceptualized this attention by drawing on the phenomenology of mindfulness practices, arguing that both novels present this kind of sensibility to pattern as emerging from engagement with the natural world—­the woods of Arcadia or the frozen landscape of Harding’s New England. In this way, the two novels bring a psychological tension typical of nature writing (as discussed by Slovic in Seeking Awareness) into the genre of the novel: they explore, with remarkable formal sophistication, how paying close attention to natural phenomena forces us to reconsider the position of our conscious minds vis-­à-­vis a nonhuman world that is constantly in flux—­a world of impending ecological doom (in Groff’s novel) and metaphysical cataclysm (in Harding’s). As I have also argued, figuring out the place of qualia in material reality via narrative form also involves adopting a particular pace, which resonates with slowness as a category for thinking about the present ecological crisis. Both Arcadia and Tinkers, in different ways, decelerate the progression of narrative through vivid accounts of the protagonists’ responses to nature, accounts in which qualia are located in the affective and experienced time of the protagonists’ lives. The nonlinear dynamics of consciousness are captured through phenomenological language, particularly metaphors and similes and, in Tinkers, through formal choices that disrupt the possibility of chronological telling. In both novels, the re

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sult is an impression of temporal “thickness” as the protagonists look back upon their lives. The textural mode of the imagination, examined in the previous chapter in relation to “slow” reading experiences, thus emerges from within narrative representation itself: the characters’ consciousnesses are shown to be part of a multiplicity of overlapping and intersecting patterns (paraphrasing Rose 2000, 293) that—­crucially—­straddle the culturally constructed divide between the human mind and the physical world. Through slow and mindful experiences, that divide can be broken down or at least shown to be less impenetrable than Western culture, in the wake of philosophers like Descartes, claims it is. The next chapter continues this exploration of how nonhuman materiality can be integrated with narrative form. I will focus on two related formal devices—­the catalog and the list—­and how they can reveal the vitality of the nonhuman world beyond consciousness. Let us not forget that the cosmic Borealis sections in Tinkers are allegedly lifted from a “dictionary or an encyclopedia of some sort” (Harding 2009, 44). Dictionaries and encyclopedias are list-­like in form, of course. The structuration of a list of items, as we will see, can open up possibilities for narrative engagement with the material textures of the nonhuman, generating slowness and, potentially, disclosing new forms of attention in the process.

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3

Ontocatalogs and Nonhuman Materiality

In Fictionalizing Anthropology: Encounters and Fabulations at the Edges of the Human, Stuart McLean puts forward the argument that anthropology should take “its cue from art and literature as much as from the sciences,” understanding itself “less as the study of an objectified humanity than as the open-­ended, performative exploration of alternative possibilities of collective existence—­of new ways of being human and other than human” (2017, x). As McLean highlights, speculation, fabulation, and metaphor already play an important but largely unacknowledged role in anthropological inquiry. McLean suggests that embracing literary modes of thinking and writing can help anthropology redraw the conceptual pathways of (especially post-­Cartesian) Western philosophy and thus contribute to the broader project of questioning the nature/ culture distinction as the West understands it. McLean’s book is situated within a wave of anthropological work that seeks to move the field “beyond ‘the human,’ both as analytic and as bounded object of study,” in the words of another influential thinker in this area, Eduardo Kohn (2007, 3). Particularly relevant in this context is the “ontological turn” advocated by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (1998, 2004), who—­like Kohn—­ engages with Indigenous cosmologies in the Amazon to rethink Western attitudes toward the nonhuman world. For Viveiros de Castro, reality is fractured into multiple ontological “perspectives” that reflect broader assumptions within a culture, as well as ways of relating to nonhuman others—­animals, plants, meteorological phenomena, the geological history of our planet, and so on.1 The science-­infused cosmology of Western modernity is based on an uneasy continuity between nature and human society; humans are part of the natural world through our shared evolutionary history but also remain metaphysically separate from it. Culture is the process whereby humans distance themselves from the state of nature they originally belonged to. Other cosmologies, such as those un 69

derlying traditional Amerindian societies, conceptualize the relationship between humans and nonhumans in radically different terms: for them, far from being a human prerogative, culture is widespread in nature and especially in the animal world. Human and animal ways of life are fundamentally perspectival and reversible: Viveiros de Castro’s favorite example from the Amerindian worldview is that animals “see their food as human food (jaguars see blood as manioc beer, vultures see the maggots in rotting meat as grilled fish, etc.)” (1998, 470). Food, which forms an essential aspect of culture, is thus extended beyond the human domain and linked to species-­specific, embodied propensities that are deeply affective in nature.2 Yet these nonhuman perspectives—­what blood is like to a jaguar, for instance—­are not always self-­evident, often requiring the intervention of a shaman to be fully explicated. Traditional narratives and myth offer a unique window onto the ontological assumptions that make up a culture’s relationship with the nonhuman world—­and it is through a return to myth that, for McLean, literary strategies can enrich the endeavors of anthropologists such as Kohn and Viveiros de Castro.3 Contemporary literature takes up this challenge by engaging in a mythical or quasi-­mythical reshuffling of the nature/culture binary. This kind of literature strongly resonates with Kohn’s suggestion that “attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. The goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it” (2013, 6). Both my case studies in this chapter, The Age of Wire and String (2013) by Ben Marcus and Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (2011) by A. S. Byatt, seek to open the human by revisiting and questioning the cosmological coordinates of Western modernity. Marcus’s book is concerned with an entirely fictional mythology that the narrator seeks to explore and “catalog” in a quasi-­anthropological vein through a radically experimental style where fiction and narrative merge with poetry. Byatt’s work rewrites the Norse myth of the end of the world (Ragnarök) in a way that speaks directly to the crisis of Western culture’s relationship with the nonhuman—­a crisis that has reached a turning point in today’s Anthropocenic predicament. In Ragnarok, the complexly shifting forms of the natural world are contrasted with the relatively rigid shape of myth and, more specifically, with mythical accounts that, by being directed toward the end of the world, display an 70  Ontocatalogs

inherent teleology. The linear and anthropocentric setup of the Western apocalyptic imaginary is thus disrupted by the multiplicity of the nonhuman.4 Both Marcus’s and Byatt’s works demonstrate the overlap of literary strategies and anthropological pursuits—­how anthropology can be “fictionalized,” in McLean’s terminology, while remaining true to the project of unsettling anthropocentric Western ontologies. Stylistically, Marcus’s and Byatt’s works share an interest in the catalog or list as a literary form. The Age of Wire and String is explicitly framed as a “catalog” of a “life project” or “culture” (2013, 16) in the narrator’s preface, while Byatt makes frequent use of enumerations to evoke and celebrate the sheer diversity of nonhuman materiality. Both texts can thus be construed as “ontocatalogs”—­rich inventories that attempt to reconfigure human-­nonhuman relations by challenging standard Western conceptions: primarily, an understanding of the material world as inert and inanimate and of nonhuman animals as cognitive and metaphysically inferior to humans, or “poor in world,” in Martin Heidegger’s (2001, 176) phrase. The concept of ontocatalog includes here both a top-­down attempt to map and taxonomize a phenomenon (in Marcus’s book) and the more local, stylistic device of enumeration (in Byatt’s work). These literary forms enable and enact a destabilization of human/nonhuman binaries. At the same time, the ontocatalog interrupts and fragments the narrativity of these works, generating slowness as readers experience the affective impact of Marcus’s and Byatt’s ontological visions. Lists, Taxonomies, and Vibrant Matter Recent work in stylistics and narrative theory has explored the challenges raised by lists as a literary device (see Von Contzen 2018).5 Robert Belknap was one of the first critics to turn to lists and their literary uses: When we search for information in a utilitarian compilation, such as a phone book, we are satisfied when the contents are arranged according to a sensible principle of organization. The literary list, however, is a structure that is complex in precisely the way that these pragmatic lists must not be. In a literary work, lists and compilations appeal for different reasons. . . . There can be great satisfaction in a reader’s search for order in a list, whether that be due to an appreciation of explicitly patterned artistry, to a delight in unforeseen Ontocatalogs  71

and unexpected combinations made by the writer, or to an invitation to the reader to generate his own sense of meaning. (2000, 38) An everyday list, as Belknap highlights, is a structured text that is meant to facilitate the retrieval of information of a specific kind. Every “utilitarian” list is organized so as to fulfill a pragmatic and context-­ bound function—­naming the guests at a party, remembering the items to be purchased at the grocery store, and so on. Lists thus fulfill a need for information that is both precise (“do not include individuals who are not welcome at the party”) and exhaustive (“include the names of all guests”). Lists and catalogs map reality by applying to it a criterion of pragmatic usefulness—­hence the “abstraction” of lists, the way in which they strip away aspects of the world that are not relevant to a certain situation (for instance, whether the guests would be coming to the party by car or public transit). This kind of structured mapping of the world can easily slide into objectification, because including something or someone in a list is a way of asserting power—­of naming and controlling their identity. This objectifying impulse is at the root of scientific taxonomies such as Carl Linnaeus’s highly influential eighteenth-­century Systema Naturae. Listing and cataloging are defining gestures in modernity’s engagement with the natural world, and both Marcus and Byatt subvert this tendency, as we will see, by using these devices against the grain of the subject/ object binary that shapes Western taxonomies. Indeed, once lists are embedded in a literary work, their complexity increases as their relevance and logic become less clear-­cut. Less constrained by immediate pragmatic needs than they would be in understanding a nonliterary list, readers are invited to look for an organizing principle that is either surprising (Belknap’s “unexpected combinations”) or not spelled out by the writer. Further, lists interrupt narrative progression and destabilize its teleology: they create an island of textuality whose structuring is not tied to the causal-­temporal linkage of narrative but to a looser interest in charting the multiplicity of a (real or fictional) world. If narrative practices tend toward the formal closure of teleology, the literary list remains open—­more items could always be added, more aspects of a situation included, potentially ad infinitum. Through this descriptive openness, catalogs and enumerations slow down the pace of narrative and invite readers to relate to the contents of the list by abstracting 72  Ontocatalogs

from their role in the plot. This tendency is particularly evident in—­but by no means exclusive to—­postmodernist fiction by the likes of Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, in whose works, to quote Jan Alber, “catalogs . . . celebrate variety and plurality by illustrating that individual entities cannot (or perhaps rather should not) be forced into a rigid system of order; the lists in postmodernist fiction thus invite us to adopt a playful or easygoing attitude which closely correlates with the capacity of ‘letting things be’ advocated by Zen masters” (2016, 343). In that sense, lists in postmodernist fiction undermine the demand for systematic and easy-­to-­navigate organization that is at the root of utilitarian catalogs; they suggest that reality eludes exhaustive description, because lists—­no matter how detailed—­will always leave something out. As an example of postmodernist listing, consider a striking enumeration in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). The novel’s narrative is multilayered, but at the center of this elaborate structure we find a mysterious house where a door opens onto a series of vast, mazelike corridors that appear to descend into the depths of the earth. One of the novel’s narrative layers consists in commentary on a video recording of a group of characters exploring this labyrinth. The narrator remarks on the “utter blankness found within [the house]. Nothing there provides a reason to linger. In part because not one object, let alone fixture or other manner of finish work has ever been discovered there” (Danielewski 2000, 119). Here a footnote starts listing, in a text box enclosed by a black border, all the architectural elements that are not present in this mazelike space. The footnote goes on for twenty-­four pages, with the text box appearing on every page and with the even-­numbered pages showing the text of the odd-­numbered ones flipped as if in a mirror (see figure 3). The list begins, “Not only are there no hot-­air registers, return air vents, or radiators, cast iron or other, or cooling systems” (119) and ends with the crossed-­out words “Picture that. In your dreams” (141). A single sentence unfolds between those passages, peppered with trade names and obscure technical terms. The effect is profoundly disorienting, particularly because so much else is happening on each page that the reader has to keep track of, with the main narrative centered on the exploration of the labyrinth, more footnotes, and another list (of famous buildings and architectural styles) flowing on the side, also for several pages. The novel plays with and at the same time necessarily frustrates the possibility of Ontocatalogs  73

a list that includes all architectural elements and styles. The tension between the fantasy of exhaustive description and the intrinsic finiteness of any text generates what Umberto Eco (2009) calls the “vertigo of lists.” However, Danielewski deploys this paradoxical tension with a twist: the vertigo does not evoke what is present in this fictional space and yet cannot be comprehensively enumerated but what is absent. Negating a plenitude of things thus channels the utter barrenness of this underground space.6 On a psychological level, this negative strategy conveys the explorers’ unsuccessful attempts to orient themselves in this labyrinthine space in terms of what they know: references to everyday reality, no matter how meticulous and technically accurate, fall short, and so does the reader’s imagination of this alien place. The final invitation to “Picture that. In your dreams” thus reads like an insurmountable challenge, because—­as the erasure of these words suggests—­no imagination is spacious enough to encompass the specifics of this enumeration, and, a fortiori, no imagination could come to grips with the sheer emptiness of the space that the enumeration conveys. Reality—­and certainly the destabilizing reality of these shifting corridors—­has a way of resisting the human mind: it trips up our attempts to taxonomize and enumerate (and thus, potentially, objectify), because there is so much that falls through the cracks of any given classificatory system. This idea resonates with what Graham Harman (2008) writes in the context of object-­oriented ontology. Like new materialism, object-­oriented ontology seeks to move beyond the standard Western cosmology, which frontloads the human subject and its attempts to understand the world: “Real objects hide; intentional objects [that is, objects as perceived by the human mind] are merely weighed down with trains of sycophantic qualities, covering them like cosmetics and jewels” (Harman 2008, 23). Danielewski’s house hides, too: the “train of qualities” enunciated by the narrator only appears to describe this space, but in fact its rhetorical function is to evoke the impossibility of knowing this space as a “real object.” This is a list functioning in full postmodernist mode. Alber’s comment on how literary lists, with their destabilizing openness, correlate “with the capacity of letting things be” thus takes on new meaning if we consider Danielewski’s use of a negative enumeration to suggest the alienness of the labyrinth: as object-­oriented ontology teaches us, “letting things be” also means respecting the radical otherness of 74  Ontocatalogs

Fig. 3. Unconventional typography in House of Leaves (Danielewski 2000, 120). The square text box shows the mirror image of the beginning of the list (note 144, on the previous page).

the material world without capturing it in an anthropocentric grid (and without reducing it to the active subject / inert object binary that is so central to Western thinking). This discussion shows that, just as lists can be objectifying and bound up with the default Western understanding of the nonhuman, they can also be helpful in reshuffling ontological categories and foregrounding nonhuman materiality. Nor do lists need such disruptive spaces as Danielewski’s labyrinthine house to draw attention to the nonhuman world. For an example of this ontologically productive use of lists in a more mundane context, we can draw on Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), a key contribution to new materialism. In the first chapter, Bennett takes her cue from an autobiographical episode—­ an “onto-­story,” in her terminology—­to convey the vitality of the nonhuman world, the insight that the following chapters of her book develop in a more theoretical vein. It is worth quoting at length from this passage: On a sunny Tuesday morning on 4 June in the grate over the storm drain to the Chesapeake Bay in front of Sam’s Bagels on Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore, there was: one large men’s black plastic work glove one dense mat of oak pollen one unblemished dead rat one white plastic bottle cap one smooth stick of wood Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick. As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing—between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar as it betokened human activity (the workman’s efforts, the litterer’s toss, the rat-­poisoner’s success), and, on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects. (Bennett 2010, 4) Bennett goes on to describe the various affects elicited by this unruly assemblage: disgust at the dead rat, shock at the careless litter, but also strange attraction to what she calls the “singularity” of these quotidian objects. This is the call of materiality, how material objects like these invite discovery and appreciation “in excess of” anthropocentric assump76  Ontocatalogs

tions. Bennett’s onto-­story thus paves the way for a transition from an anthropocentric stance to insight into the efficacy of nonhuman things—­ “thing-­power,” as Bennett calls it.7 This is an onto-­story because it aims to rewrite a Western cosmology that sees the material world as a mere resource to be exploited (and carelessly discarded) by human societies, a view that elides the intrinsic power of nonhuman materiality. Crucially for our purposes, this critique is pursued not merely through the story of Bennett’s reactions to the nonhuman assemblage but via a list that singles out these objects in order to emphasize their fascinating materiality. Equally interesting is that Bennett feels the need to recap the objects she saw on that Tuesday morning in a second, simplified list with commas instead of line breaks, as if reducing these things to bare nouns helped evoke their materiality. This rhetorical strategy is the exact opposite of what Danielewski attempts in House of Leaves: Danielewski conveys barrenness by way of linguistic abundance, Bennett pares down language to evoke nonverbal (and nonhuman) fullness. Why are lists so effective at conveying “thing-­power”? Largely, it is because of the connection they establish between the materiality of the text we are reading and the materiality of the extratextual world. Especially in a literary context, a list is a stylistic form that calls attention to its own textual segmentation via typography, spacing, and punctuation; it is a foregrounded device that slows down the reader’s meaning-­making and deepens interpretation. Through this self-­referential quality, lists can shift the emphasis from questions of semantics to the physical layout and sensory dimension of language. It is precisely the monolithic quality of itemized words that enables Bennett’s second list, “glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick,” to express what she calls the “singularity” of the nonhuman world—­a move certainly prepared by her first list, with its vertical organization and lack of any separating punctuation.8 Potentially, then, lists and catalogs create linkage between the materiality of language and nonhuman thingness, bypassing the dimension of abstract verbal meaning along with its anthropocentric leanings. Both Marcus and Byatt latch on to this potential of lists and catalogs, as we will see in the next sections. Troubled Ontologies and Implicit Narratives Viveiros de Castro, the theorist of the “ontological turn” in anthropology, explicates one of the main differences between Western and Amazonian Ontocatalogs  77

ontologies as follows: “For Amazonian peoples, the original common condition of both humans and animals is not animality but, rather, humanity. The great separation reveals not so much culture distinguishing itself from nature as nature distancing itself from culture: the myths tell how animals lost the qualities inherited or retained by humans. Humans are those who continue as they have always been. Animals are ex-­humans (rather than humans, ex-­animals)” (2004, 465; italics in the original). While the most pressing ontological question for Western culture is how humanity became uncoupled from nature, in Amerindian culture the separation never took place; rather, it is animals who have evolved beyond their original human condition. Viveiros de Castro puts this point pithily in the second italicized portion of the quotation—­“Animals are ex-­humans (rather than humans, ex-­animals)”—­a statement that would not look out of place in Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. The “stories” that make up this “catalog of the life project as prosecuted in the Age of Wire and String and beyond” (Marcus 2013, 16) are constantly engaged in ontological play, redrawing the boundaries of the human subject and blending it with things, animals, and events that we would not normally associate with human beings and bodies. If this is an anthropological exercise, its object of study is entirely fictional; its method, as it so often is in myth, is distinctly dreamlike and freely associative. The result is perplexing and at times utterly unintelligible, and it consistently denies narrative progression through experienced slowness, but there is value—­as I will argue—­in the state of confusion that the text aims to elicit. The ontological play starts right from the book’s first epigraph, attributed to “Emerson”: “Every word was once an animal.” The quotation is manufactured and perhaps inspired by two famous passages from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays “Nature” (“Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance”) and “The Poet” (“Every word was once a poem. Every new relation is a new word” [Emerson 2006, n.p.]). But affirming that “every word was once an animal” involves more than identifying a metaphysical connection between human language and the “material appearance” of the natural world (via the latter’s expression in poetry). Marcus’s “Emerson” epigraph envisions a historical link between our language—­from a Western perspective, the distinguishing feature of humanity, what sets us apart from the natural world—­and the animal 78  Ontocatalogs

kingdom. The implicit plurality of “every word” deconstructs the singularity of “the animal,” a “catch-­a ll concept” that—­as famously noted by Jacques Derrida (2002, 402)—­is the ultimate tool of animals’ linguistic domestication and subjugation. This is the notion of human mastery that Marcus’s epigraph begins to deconstruct. Animals, the quote suggests, have morphed into the words we use to describe reality; perhaps this latent animality explains how words tend to elude our grasp, wiggling out of human control and displaying agency in their own right.9 Yet the epigraph questions the ontological boundary between humans and animals without giving it a stable alternative form. “Every word was once an animal” doesn’t state what words are now, how this history influences the behavior of language after its “separation” (in Viveiros de Castro’s terminology) from animals. The second epigraph—­attributed to “Michael Marcus,” the author’s father and the dedicatee of The Age of Wire and String—­restates this sense of vagueness: “Mathematics is the supreme nostalgia of our time.” Nostalgia is indeterminate and elusive longing; by paradoxically associating it with “mathematics”—­the most exact of languages—­Marcus distances himself from the possibility of accurate, dispassionate cataloging of the world: every word, these epigraphs jointly suggest, is material, affective, and implicated in a nonhuman history that, through its vagueness, remains impervious to human knowledge. Read in this way, the two epigraphs make for a strange preface to a self-­described “catalog.” If lists and taxonomies are the expression of a desire for human-­created order whereby mastery of language warrants mastery of the nonhuman world, Marcus is setting up that objectifying project for failure from the outset. This is already evident from the book’s table of contents. A short preface, titled “Argument,” lays out the terms of Marcus’s catalog: “The Age of Wire and String sets forth to present an array of documents settling within the chief concerns of the society, of any society, of the world and its internal areas” (2013, 17). The rest of the book is divided into eight parts, titled respectively “Sleep,” “God,” “Food,” “The house,” “Animal,” “Weather,” “Persons,” “The society.” These subdivisions don’t reflect any obvious taxonomic criterion or conceptual progression—­if these are the “chief concerns” of a society, the transition from “Sleep” to “God” and then “Food” appears very unusual indeed. The insertion of “Animal” and “Weather” between “The house” and “Persons” also seems out of place, as if in the world that Marcus is about Ontocatalogs  79

to catalog the link between domesticity and human society came loose. One is reminded of Viveiros de Castro’s contention that in Amerindian culture, with its reversibility of human and nonhuman perspectives, “a muddy waterhole is seen by tapirs as a great ceremonial house” (2004, 471). Domesticity is thus not an exclusively human construct but a relational property that operates across the human/nonhuman distinction. Yet these operations rarely take a logical form in Marcus’s book, largely because of the experimental style he adopts throughout. Amerindian perspectivism, as outlined by Viveiros de Castro, departs from Western categories by appearing to either expand or invert them. An example of expansion is the ascription of personhood to nonhuman animals and spirits, which is made possible by the deictic, relational meaning of the word “human” in Amazonian languages: “Amerindian words which are usually translated as ‘human being’ . . . do not denote humanity as a natural species. They refer rather to the social condition of personhood, and they function (pragmatically when not syntactically) less as nouns than as pronouns” (Viveiros de Castro 1998, 476). Inversion has to do with the basic ontological setup of the Amerindian world, which does not posit—­ as discussed previously—­an original rupture between the human and the natural but treats cultural concepts like domesticity as species-­specific: the tapir, who sees a waterhole as a ceremonial house, will overlook the domesticity of human abodes (hence the inversion).10 Expansion (or, more technically, category extension) and inversion are familiar figures of thought; the result of these conceptual operations may be defamiliarizing, but it remains largely intelligible, as Viveiros de Castro’s discussion of Amazonian cultures demonstrates.11 Marcus also plays with conceptual expansion and inversion throughout The Age of Wire and String. For instance, in a chapter titled “Ethics of Listening When Visiting Areas That Contain Him,” the narrator is seemingly referring to his father’s grave, which should be fertilized periodically with “women’s manure” and “a garment of the father” (Marcus 2013, 41). This ritual, the narrator adds, “reduces the necessity of covering the grave with blankets or other insulations at night, when the one underground is shivering too much to speak” (41). The mention of “the one underground” shivering and speaking signals, of course, the extension of features of living bodies to dead ones. Likewise, the statement that the “road was hot during the day, and hotter at night, when the sun burned it from be80  Ontocatalogs

low” (118) is a clear inversion of expectations surrounding day and night, their respective temperature, and the sun’s position vis-­à-­vis the earth. Yet conceptual expansion and inversion, while frequent, are never deployed consistently by Marcus. As foreshadowed by the two epigraphs, this catalog stubbornly refuses to cohere into an image of “the life project as prosecuted in the Age of Wire and String” (Marcus 2013, 16); instead, the reader is overwhelmed with vague associations that do not fall into any recognizable conceptual pattern. For instance, consider a paragraph-­long chapter from “Sleep,” the first part of the book; the chapter is titled “Air Trance 16”: If the motion of wind were to be slowed, as weather is slowed briefly when an animal is born, we would notice a man building and destroying his own house. If we speak to the man through a dense rain, our speech is menaced by the drowning method, and we appear to him to be people that are angry and shouting. If my father is the man we are looking at, he will shout back at me, protecting the house with his hand, and his voice will blend with whatever weather he has decided to create in the sky between us to form a small, hard animal, which, once inside me, will take slow, measured, strategic bites. The animal’s eating project will produce in others the impression that I am kneeling, lying, or fading in an area of total rain, taking shelter behind my upraised hand. Since they will be standing above me, the people will need to request special powers of vision, which will be immediately granted, in order that I appear in slow, original colors, viewed from any possible perspective, chewing with great care at my own body while the house gets smashed behind me. (Marcus 2013, 27) A series of ontologically counterintuitive links is established from the animal to the human world, from inner states (the titular “trance”) to material changes in reality, from human actions to meteorological phenomena. What underlies this linkage is a puzzling regime of physical causation. Philosophers Barry Smith and Roberto Casati (1994) discuss under the heading of “naive physics” a commonsense understanding of how material things interact in causal terms: how pushing one object can topple another object, for example, or how looking at something cannot by itself cause it to move. Clearly, naive physics does not apply in this Ontocatalogs  81

passage. For instance, we (subjects socialized into Western ontological categories) know that the birth of an animal does not and cannot cause the weather to “slow.” Similarly, slowing the “motion of wind,” assuming that that is possible, does not help us notice anything perceptually, and it certainly doesn’t help us notice how a man can (simultaneously?) “[build] and [destroy] his own house.” Fathers don’t have the power of “creating” weather and forming a “small, hard animal” in the process. Such striking non sequiturs run through the passage, making it impossible for the reader to understand the ontology that is being outlined in terms of simple extensions or inversions of familiar categories. As Peter Vernon puts it, Marcus “blocks the reader’s expectations of logical discourse but, simultaneously, he enables the reader by opening up emotional lines of discourse” (2001, 124). Vernon provides us with an important insight into the affective nature of Marcus’s syntax: the quotation above should be taken not as the description of a factual situation that can be subject to ordinary physical laws but as a stylistic articulation of affective qualities. From this perspective, the speaker’s words register the way in which his embodiment is threatened from the inside (the ingested animal taking “measured, strategic bites”), as well as from the outside, in its domestic extensions (“the house gets smashed”). In fact, the vague but vigorous “menace” to the speaker expressed here captures the experience of ontological distinctions—­between animals and humans, the weather and human subjectivity, inner experience and external happenings—­being slowly but relentlessly undone. Causality breaks down not through being extended or reversed in its usual directionality but because it is deployed in an inconsistent, unpredictable, ontologically disorienting fashion. The most radical aspect of Marcus’s prose is how it deploys incoherence to communicate and make palpable an affective atmosphere. Some of the most spectacular contradictions are to be found in the “Terms” chapters that close each of the book’s parts and whose ostensible aim is to explicate the puzzling terminology found in the other parts. Here “backward wind” is glossed as “forward wind” (Marcus 2013, 136), while “eating” has three distinct meanings, the third of which reads: “Dying. Since the first act of the body is to produce its own demise, eating can be considered an acceleration of this process” (66). Through these constant displacements and clashes of meaning, Marcus positions his catalog as something dif82  Ontocatalogs

ferent from and more radical than a fully worked-­out “counterontology” seeking to offer a substantive alternative to Western thinking. While Viveiros de Castro’s discussion aims to illuminate Amerindian perspectivism, Marcus’s catalog obfuscates so as to induce a particular affective state in the reader—­an experience that H. Porter Abbott discusses extensively in Real Mysteries: Narrative and the Unknowable (2013): the state of not understanding, of being confronted by literature with the limitations of what we can know. In Marcus’s book, this challenge involves the very ontological categories through which we describe reality, which are not simply reshuffled (via inversion and extension, for instance) but captured as they refuse to cooperate and remain stubbornly vague and contradictory. This operation aims at bringing out the slow affect that underlies conceptual disorientation. One of the definitions in “Terms” reads: “Arkansas 9 series—­Organization of musical patterns or tropes that disrupt the flesh of the listener” (Marcus 2013, 170). As noted by Marc Chénetier (1997), this kind of affective disruption is what Marcus’s prose aims to achieve in the reader by blending animals and humans, intentional actions and natural events, animate creatures and inanimate processes such as the weather. The book bills itself as the catalog of a society but derives its affective power from how it pushes the reader into a position of not understanding—­ and in doing so chastises presumptions that we can shift from one ontological system to another without undergoing an experience of slow and disturbing bodily readjustment. From the perspective of Marcus’s experimental prose, Viveiros de Castro’s rendering of Amerindian ontology appears too linear and streamlined, popularized for a Western audience; if we want to truly grasp the breakdown of Western categories, we need to embrace its affective consequences, and Marcus’s “animal” words attempt to evoke the feelings of disorientation and even despair involved in this ontological dialogue. Before we move on to Byatt’s take on the ontocatalog, it is crucial to understand how The Age of Wire and String problematizes narrative in the same way as it troubles language and the ontological distinctions that go with it. Based on the frontispiece, The Age of Wire and String is a collection of “stories by Ben Marcus.” Despite this explicit statement, we do not find a great deal of narrative continuity in the chapters. Of course, the label could just reflect the publisher’s need to place this book within Ontocatalogs  83

a recognizable genre (Chénetier 1997, 80), but there is more to this reference to storytelling than a marketing strategy. A catalog, as discussed above, is a text type that opposes narrative by introducing a principle of top-­down, descriptive organization: it is a snapshot of (relevant features of) a world rather than an account of how the world evolves over time. Yet because of how Marcus’s book fails to live up to the taxonomic ambitions articulated in the narrator’s preface, “Argument,” the text allows a certain degree of narrativity to enter the picture. In “Argument” the narrator attempts to position his inquiry in a scholarly context: “It has . . . been demonstrated by Sernier (and others, although without violence) that the outer gaze alters the inner thing, that by looking at an object we destroy it with our desire, that for accurate vision to occur the thing must be trained to see itself” (Marcus 2013, 16–­17). Besides the striking inversion (“the outer gaze alters the inner thing”) and counterintuitive physics (“by looking at an object we destroy it”), the passage brings to the fore the narrator’s struggles to make sense of this baffling “society.” The fragmentary narrative told by The Age of Wire and String is the drama of a subject facing the collapse of the ontological categories sustaining his reality. This covert narrative highlights the inevitable “violence” involved in endeavors to transcend “the outer gaze” and apprehend—­through the vital medium of language used against the grain of Western ontology—­“the thing” as it sees itself. The catalog, as a form, is what makes this nonhuman materiality of language thinkable, as my discussion of Bennett’s list has suggested; in Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String, it is the failure of the taxonomic impulse and the resulting upsurge in affect that create the conditions for a certain degree of narrativity to emerge. This is, of course, troubled and disrupted narrative, not unlike the “flesh of the listener.” In one of the most sustained narrative sections in the book, a chapter titled “The Weather Killer,” we are confronted with catastrophic visions of an underground society where children “were born without light. When an elder died, the body was pushed into an unused tunnel and the tunnel was sealed. Boys placed scraps of wire in the widows’ mouths and imitated their crying” (Marcus 2013, 121). The dark, claustrophobic quality of this imagery externalizes the narrator’s pain as he contends with ontological concepts that he does not, and cannot, master. Because of the many fits and starts in the book’s narrative 84  Ontocatalogs

and because of the lack of any recognizable progression, the narrator’s pain is presented in slow motion, which decelerates the reader’s experience and makes it even more vicariously painful. “‘To make a long story short’ is not the point here; it is, rather, to make sure a short story can only be read as prolonged and lengthened by what surrounds it,” writes Chénetier (1997, 82). The sluggishness of this encounter between narrative and a list-­like catalog helps drive home the idea that defamiliarizing ontological coordinates is a gradual and productively uncomfortable process. Marcus’s affective syntax offers a form of training in ontological destabilization through the implicit slow narrative of the narrator’s failures at categorizing and taxonomizing an imaginary society. The Shape of Myth A preliminary way of capturing the difference between Marcus’s and Byatt’s ontocatalogs is to say that while Marcus charts the affective consequences of a breakdown in established ontological categories, Byatt envisions a time before the consolidation of these categories. Ragnarok is loosely based on the English translation of Asgard and the Gods, a nineteenth-­century popularization of Norse mythology by a German scholar, Wilhelm Wägner. This source is also central to the book’s frame narrative, which focuses on a “thin child” who reads Asgard and the Gods during a “world war” (Byatt 2011, 3). Unmistakably, this child is an alter ego of the author herself, the war in question is World War II, and the device of the frame narrative allows Byatt to relate her experiences of growing up “in the ordinary paradise of the English countryside” (3), where her family decided to retreat while the Battle of Britain raged on. Embedded within this autobiographical narrative is a literary retelling of Norse cosmology, from the first instants of a pristine world—­with Yggdrasil, “the world-­ash,” nourishing the empty “stone-­ball” of our planet (13)—­to the dramatic end of the world as the last gods die in a gory battle (the titular Ragnarök). In the afterword, titled “Thoughts on Myths,” Byatt explicitly addresses the ecological dimension of this ancient tale: “We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-­in short-­sightedness” (167). There is an obvious parallel to be drawn between Ontocatalogs  85

the collective failures of our species and the flawed, rowdy, and intensely anthropomorphic gods of Norse myth; indeed, many commentators have picked up on the urgency of this book’s inspiration in times of environmental crisis (see, for example, Harrison 2011). Crucially, the ecological relevance spelled out by the afterword is woven into the stylistic texture of Byatt’s style as she appropriates the strange and at times fragmentary subject matter of Norse myth. We are nowhere near the levels of logical inconsistency we have encountered in The Age of Wire and String, but the friction between Norse cosmology and the ontological categories familiar to Byatt’s readers is more than enough to destabilize the conceptual boundary between humans and nonhuman materialities. For instance, the narrator remarks that the stage of Norse mythology is the dead body of a giant, Ymir, whose organs were used by three gods, Odin, Wili, and We, to create space as we know it: “The lakes were made from his sweat, and the trees from his curling hair. Inside the high cavern of his skull, his brains became the rolling clouds” (Byatt 2011, 27). As the narrative progresses, we are periodically reminded that the events of the tale take place within Ymir’s skull, a setup that blurs the dividing line between the inner spaces of the body and the seemingly external material world. Transcorporeality, in Stacy Alaimo’s (2010) terminology (see chapter 1), is built into this mythical cosmology. Humans are rather unexceptional creatures in this narrative: they make occasional appearances, but they never take a leading role; even the gods, while more central than human beings to the pattern of the cosmic plot, are bound to appear caricatural and banal due to the anthropomorphism of their feelings. Byatt’s imagination is focused elsewhere: her stylistic efforts convey the reciprocity on a grand scale that defines the natural world—­which, from this mythical distance, unapologetically excludes the human.12 Take this description of Yggdrasil, for instance: “The tree ate and was eaten, fed and was fed on. Its vast underearth mesh and highway of roots was infested and swathed by threads of fungus, which fed on the roots, wormed their way into the cells themselves and sucked out life” (Byatt 2011, 14). An image of deep, textural interpenetration emerges from these lines, putting pressure on ontological assumptions that see every living being as self-­contained and autonomous; instead, it is the Gestalt—­the interconnectedness of the whole—­that triumphs. The same epiphany of 86  Ontocatalogs

what Timothy Morton (2010) calls “the mesh” (a metaphor echoed by Byatt’s “underearth mesh”) makes its way into the frame narrative as the child realizes that “there were always more [flowers], so many more. It was all one thing, the field, the hedge, the ash tree, the tangled bank, the trodden path, the innumerable forms of life” (2011, 36). The expression “tangled bank” brings to mind the famous “entangled bank” of the final paragraph of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1970, 131), with the “tangle” offering a concrete textural form for a world that is not the result of a single act of creation (as in Christian cosmology), but that animals and plants help cocreate through their deep interconnectedness. Byatt’s narrative delves into the striking background of nonhuman creatures and processes that shape reality as we know it. The stylistic figure of this ontological destabilization (and of the revelation of nonhuman efficacy that may follow from it) is enumeration: the narrator is constantly engaged in listing the myriad creatures that populate the world of Midgard and Asgard, the middle earth and the land of the gods. Writing about Rándrasill, the “sea-­tree” that forms the underwater counterpart of Yggdrasil, the narrator explains that the “tree was grazed by wandering snails and sea-­slugs, rasping up specks of life, animal, vegetable. Filter-­ feeding sponges sucked at the thicket of stipes; sea-­anemones clung to the clinging weed, and opened and closed their fringed, fleshy mouths. Horn-­coated, clawed creatures, shrimp and spiny lobster, brittle-­stars and featherstars supped. Spiny urchin-­balls roamed and chewed” (Byatt 2011, 18). This enumeration establishes a direct connection between two kinds of fascination: a deep interest in the astounding diversity of the natural world—­Edward O. Wilson (1984) would call it “biophilia”—­and the attraction exerted by the patterned variations of words. The alliterative and highly segmented prosody of Byatt’s style draws attention to the sensory qualities of language—­a verbal materiality that is used to reveal another kind of materiality on a much larger scale, the complex patterning of the nonhuman world. The lists of Byatt’s Ragnarok thus challenge notions of the inertness of “mere” matter by letting nonhuman materiality take center stage and shape a verbal utterance through the slow music of sensory associations. Nor are these enumerations only to be found in myth. Also in the frame narrative, we read that the thin child “liked seeing, and learning, and naming things. Daisies. Day’s eyes, she learned with a frisson of plea Ontocatalogs  87

sure. Buttercups, glossy yellow, a lovelier colour than gold, and the ubiquitous dandelions, fiercely yellow with toothed leaves and seedheads finer than wool, their seeds black dots like the tadpoles in the clouds of jelly-­ spheres in the pond” (Byatt 2011, 34). The vitality of the nonhuman world emerges constantly in Byatt’s work, and lists are its stylistic and affective form. But lists, as we know, also reflect a human desire for order—­ for “naming things” and in that way controlling them. The freewheeling quality of Byatt’s lists counters that tendency by slowing down the reading experience and thus inviting readers to let go of the possibility of closure: in Ragnarok, lists arise as if spontaneously in the folds of the narrative, never displaying a clear logic other than the play of verbal associations, never producing closure by adopting an external criterion (as in an alphabetically ordered list); instead, these are inherently “open” lists that encourage us to savor each word in a slow mode. The shapelessness of this enumerative language—­that is, its lack of structural or serial organization—­reflects an attempt to dismantle ontological subdivisions, returning the reader to a childlike state where the boundaries of nonhuman things (and their separation from people) fluctuate. This stylistic potential of formlessness is directly mirrored at the thematic level. The key figure here is Loki, a quintessential trickster, the shape-­shifting god of chaos. Loki’s metamorphoses into a wide array of creatures are vividly rendered by Byatt: Loki, we read, “was slippery. He wrestled Heimdall the herald in the form of a seal. He was a salmon, leaping up a waterfall, or sliding smoothly under the surface” (2011, 43). Through his unstable transformations, Loki appears to be far more attuned than the other Norse gods to the textural richness of the natural world. Loki’s beauty, the narrator explains, “was hard to fix or to see, for he was always glimmering, flickering, melting, mixing, he was the shape of a shapeless flame, he was the eddying thread of needle-­shapes in the shapeless mass of the waterfall” (43). Shapelessness is a frequent motif in Ragnarok, emerging—­often in connection with Loki—­as human-­imposed forms break down or lose their grip on the strange reality of myth. The mesmerizing and volatile configurations of fire and water are a primary manifestation of this formlessness that lies at the heart of the material world’s myriad forms: “Why did the smoke rise smooth and fast in a straight column and then quite suddenly divide into fantastic swirling, more and more turbulent? Why did the water flow smoothly towards the 88  Ontocatalogs

rock, so you could see the fine lines of bubbles smooth in it, or let them run over your shining scales, pink and silver?” (115). Form and formlessness are inextricable, but only if we take form as a dynamic, shifting pattern—­like texture—­rather than the static ontological order that modern Western culture imposes on the world by rigidly distinguishing between agents and things, subjects and nonsubjects.13 Byatt’s style thus aims to foster a pattern-­based imagination of the natural world that resonates with the phenomenological account developed by environmental philosopher David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-­Than-­Human World (1997). Abram—­ like Byatt—­proposes a return to a premodern, magical understanding of the world, whereby “every form one perceives—­from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself—­is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own” (1997, 10; italics in the original). For Abram, the phenomenological method makes it possible to recover these sensory forms that have been papered over by the discourse of the West, particularly through an uncritical adoption of scientific distance and claims to objectivity. Byatt’s mythological vision converges with Abram’s argument through their shared attempts to recover a prescientific mindset and attune the reader’s imagination to the oscillating forms of the natural world: in Byatt’s work, the narrator’s flowing enumerations are the stylistic realization of this deobjectifying project and the slowness of the lists its main experiential channel. Yet there is even more complexity to Ragnarok: the dynamically open forms of the natural world clash with another form that appears far less dynamic and flexible, namely, the narrative form of this myth. Examples of this lack of flexibility can be found on both the local and the global levels. When Frigg, Odin’s wife, wants to make her son Baldur invincible, she sets “out to make every thing on the earth, in the air, in the ocean, swear not to harm Baldur” (Byatt 2011, 83). Frigg thus speaks to all the creatures in existence, extracting a promise that Baldur will not be harmed. This action results in another catalog of nature’s diversity and interrelatedness and in more textural images: “Everything was held together by these agreements [not to kill Baldur]. The surface of the earth was like a great embroidered cloth, or rich tapestry, with an intricately interwoven underside of connected threads” (83). But, inevitably, there is a snag Ontocatalogs  89

in this tapestry, and Loki pulls it to cause Baldur’s downfall: Frigg overlooked the mistletoe, which Loki uses to craft a spear that eventually kills Baldur. When reading about Frigg’s requests, the “thin child knew the promise could not hold. Something, somewhere, must have been missed, must have been forgotten. Stories are ineluctable. . . . The goddess called everything, everything, to promise not to harm her son. Yet the shape of the story means that he must be harmed” (89). The “shape of the story” is here an expression of both the ineluctability of fate and of the formulaic nature of this myth: introducing the possibility of transgression—­in this case, via an apparently invincible character—­calls for its actualization. The “shape” of this story thus jars with the formlessness at the heart of natural forms. Narrative shapes governed by convention and predestination don’t flicker in the same way as Loki’s fire; instead, they tend to be rigid and predictable. The same is true on a global level; we have to remember that Ragnarok is, fundamentally, an apocalyptic narrative: as announced early on, this universe is teleologically directed toward the end of the world.14 This sense of inevitable narrative closure is undercut by the open-­ended proliferation of nonhuman patterns. The implication is not that myth is a necessarily closed form, of course. Mythology can also resist closure whenever its multiple characters, stories, and versions do not fit into a coherent overarching plotline. However, Byatt builds upon a particular kind of myth in Ragnarok, namely, the all-­encompassing myth of the end of the world as it is realized in ancient Norse culture but also, arguably, in Christian eschatology. It is by adopting this restricted perspective on myth that Byatt’s work stages thematically and inscribes in its style a clash between two conceptions of form. On the one hand, there is the openness of the enumeration, which captures the shifting vitality of nature’s material forms; on the other hand, there is the more rigid shape of apocalyptic myth, a shape that is complicit with the Western desire to create ontological order and separate between human or humanlike agents (the characters of the story) and a background of inert natural processes. The enumerations open up this structure from the inside, inverting background and foreground and leaving humans, barely mentioned at all, on the sidelines of a grand vision of entangled natural forms. Yet humans are also present, if under erasure, because their devastating impact on the planet has already impoverished the astounding biodiversity imagined by Byatt’s narrator and 90  Ontocatalogs

threatens to reduce it further, perhaps beyond repair. The formlessness of the list interrupts and challenges the teleology of narrative; it decelerates the pace of reading and draws attention to the materiality of language in its coupling with the vibrant matter of the natural world. The slowness generated by this ontocatalog enables readers to appreciate the scale and stakes of the human impact on the planet. Byatt’s prose is less experimental than Marcus’s, but its effect is equally challenging for Western ontologies. It is no coincidence that the frame narrative features a child. Psychologist Peter Kahn (1999) has studied extensively the development of reasoning about the natural environment in children. Kahn distinguishes between anthropocentric and biocentric approaches to the human impact on the natural world: from an anthropocentric perspective, for instance, pollution is immoral because it harms human beings through medical conditions linked to toxic waste; from a biocentric perspective, pollution is immoral because it decimates nonhuman animals and plants or entire ecosystems. In a series of studies, Kahn raises the question: Which of these two “styles” of reasoning comes first? Do biocentric explanations piggyback on anthropocentric explanation perhaps via an extension of the category of “human” similar to the one underlying Amerindian cosmologies? Or does biocentric reasoning develop first, with a narrowing down to the human occurring only later in development? Surprisingly, Kahn’s research supports a different hypothesis: In ontogeny which comes first, moral considerations for humans (which then is applied to nature) or moral considerations for nature (which then is applied to humans)? Based on the results from this current study, I think the answer is neither. Rather, I think there is a dialectical relationship wherein children’s moral relationships with other humans help establish their moral relationship with nature, and vice-­versa. More technically, unelaborated welfare concerns appear to give way to both human-­oriented and nature-­oriented considerations . . . which then undergo coordinations in development. In turn, one of the central places to look for the development of biocentric reasoning is in these coordinations. (1999, 145) Kahn is suggesting that, in psychological development, both anthropocentric and biocentric styles of reasoning emerge out of “unelabo Ontocatalogs  91

rated welfare concerns,” that is, vague feelings of care that precede the distinction between humans and the natural world. This lack of “elaboration” involves ontological shapelessness, an affective sense of being part of a loose pattern where humanity’s separation from the natural world has not yet started to consolidate. As Byatt’s work shows by taking on a child’s perspective on Norse mythology, this feel for the formless and undifferentiated is crucial to the full appreciation of the diversity of forms presented by the natural world. It is to this childlike state that Ragnarok seeks to return the reader via the tension (in itself formal) between the slow flow of enumeration and the narrative closure and teleological orientation of the Ragnarök myth. In this way, Byatt’s ontocatalog undercuts the Western binaries that have become entrenched in its adult readers’ worldview. I started this chapter by building on McLean’s argument, in Fictionalizing Anthropology, that anthropological research should engage in a closer dialogue with literature. The ontological turn in anthropology—­as theorized, in particular, by Viveiros de Castro—­can help us frame that interdisciplinary encounter in terms that are directly relevant to this book’s goal to explore how experienced slowness in narrative engagements can channel a vision of human-­nonhuman interconnectedness. Anthropologists like Viveiros de Castro question the conceptual coordinates of Western ontology, pushing for a “cosmopolitics” (Stengers 2005) or a “pluriversal politics” (de la Cadena 2010) that takes into account Indigenous ways of dividing up reality and relating to things and processes that are seen as operating beyond the domain of human society. If McLean is right, then literary strategies can make a significant contribution to that debate. But while McLean focuses on the transformative potential of metaphor, I have singled out the catalog—­understood broadly as any list, enumeration, or systematic mapping—­as a site for literary intervention, examining two contemporary fictional works that employ these devices to put pressure on default ontological assumptions in Western culture. As a body of recent literary scholarship suggests, catalogs, lists, and enumerations are ambivalent literary tropes caught between an impulse to taxonomize and thus control an inherently unruly reality, on the one hand, and an interest in embracing this unruliness to sabotage the closure of literary and narrative form, on the other hand. Put otherwise, lists seek 92  Ontocatalogs

order and completeness, but in failing to realize these ideals they can signal radical openness; further, lists attempt to objectify the world through a system of semantic labels, but when the labeling falls short they can evoke a musicality (and sensory materiality) that transcends semantics. These tensions define the use of the catalog and enumerations in my case studies, Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and Byatt’s Ragnarok. Both works are concerned with the ontology of Western modernity, and both succeed in unsettling the conceptual categories that underlie it, Marcus by staging an affect-­laden ontology that remains recalcitrant and disorienting despite the narrator’s repeated attempts at explicating it, and Byatt by evoking, in her retelling of Norse mythology, a childlike imagination of shifting natural forms before conceptual distinctions bend these forms into a rigid anthropocentric order. Marcus’s catalog and Byatt’s enumerations play a central role in these projects, which disrupt the cosmology of Western modernity from the inside, just as Viveiros de Castro’s discussion of Amerindian societies does by adopting a non-­Western vantage point. To reverse McLean’s phrase, my readings of Marcus and Byatt anthropologize fiction by demonstrating the value of literature’s ontological destabilizations—­a value that is, as I have tried to show in the previous pages, conceptual and affective at the same time. In these works, narrative enters into a complex relationship with the ontocatalog. Storytelling is also an ordering principle, but one that privileges a teleological organization as opposed to the descriptive mapping of the list. Marcus and Byatt employ the ontocatalog against the grain of story, opening narrative to the imagination of nonhuman materialities. This concern with materiality slows down the reading experience and disrupts the reader’s emotional investment in the human outcomes of the plot, so that slowness becomes an experiential equivalent to the destabilization of Western categories. Yet narrative doesn’t drop out of the picture entirely: Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String dramatizes a narrator experiencing the loss of ontological grip on reality; Byatt’s Ragnarok centers on a child learning to resonate with the strange formlessness of natural forms. These narrative situations expand the ontological questioning pursued by these works, even as the catalog as a macroform and enumerations as a microform undercut the possibility of narrative closure—­a dynamic tension that creates slowness in the reading experience and cultivates what I called in chapter 1 the imagination of texture. Ontocatalogs  93

4

Narrative, Philosophy, and Essayistic Attractions

In the last chapter we saw how narrative can produce slowness by integrating nonnarrative forms such as the list and the catalog. This chapter turns to another form of disruption: the deceleration brought about by literary experiments that hybridize storytelling with the genre of the essay. In the tradition of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, essayistic writing displays a marked tendency toward tentative and unsystematic thinking. Far from offering the reasoned arguments that are favored by modern analytic philosophy, essays true to the Montaignian approach decline the safety of conclusions; instead, they deploy a meandering style that operates by suggestion and association, not by stringent argumentative logic. To use an old rhetorical term that has been reappraised in a narratological vein by Liesbeth Korthals Altes (2014), the “ethos” of the essayist—­ his or her persona as it emerges from the text in moral and emotional terms—­looms much larger than in other modes of philosophizing. “I am myself the matter of my book,” writes Montaigne (1993, xv) in the note to the reader that prefaces his essays. The form of the essay displays the writer’s deep implication in the questions that he or she sets out to address: thinking, from this essayistic perspective, is inherently subjective and context-­sensitive, a performative gesture that is practiced through writing, not merely a cognitive act that is related, a posteriori, through the medium of written language. This foregrounding of the writer’s subjectivity does create some common ground between the essay and storytelling. In most other respects, however, the two forms pull in opposite directions. As we have seen in the introduction, narrative tends toward teleology and the resolution of human-­centric “instabilities,” to borrow James Phelan’s (2007) terminology; ideally, it moves from an initial state of equilibrium to disequilibrium and back to (a different kind of) equilibrium.1 While, of course, not all narratives can offer satisfying closure, there is at least an expectation 94

that the tensions introduced at the beginning of the story—­the tensions that set the story in motion in the first place—­will be addressed by the ending. As such, the ideal closure of narrative clashes with the inherently open form of the essay. Thus, injecting essayistic writing into narrative (or, conversely, providing the essay with an explicitly narrative framing) can decrease the pace and challenge the teleology that is commonly associated with storytelling. The result is a poetics of fragmentation and hybridity. Fragmentation, because narrative breaks down into “microstories” that challenge the reader’s expectation of an overarching progression and of rewarding closure. Hybridity, because the nature of the text flickers between an essayistic and a narrative mode so as to prompt reflection—­including, as we will see in this chapter, reflection on the ethical dimension of human-­nonhuman relations. We thus move from the domains of awareness (discussed in chapter 2) and ontology (chapter 3) to an ethics of humans’ entanglement with nonhuman materialities—­an ethics, as we will see in the last section of this chapter, remarkably similar to the “ecological existentialism” developed by Deborah Bird Rose in Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (2011) and in other works. Crossovers between narrative and the essay are, of course, neither limited to contemporary literature nor exclusively concerned with ecological issues. One of the earliest—­and certainly one of the most influential—­ texts of the Western philosophical tradition, Plato’s dialogues, already interweaves philosophical pursuits with narratives such as the famous myth of the cave.2 Flash forward to the turn of the twentieth century, and the “novel-­essay” emerges as a genre aspiring to become “the symbolic form of the crisis of modernity,” as Stefano Ercolino (2014, xv) puts it before embarking on a book-­length discussion of that form. It is, in other words, difficult to claim the novelty of narrative-­essayistic encounters as a privileged site for philosophical inquiry, and even the slowness that arises in that hybrid genre certainly has precedents in the modernist writers discussed by Ercolino—­among them, Robert Musil and Marcel Proust. But as the crisis of modernity evolves into today’s climate crisis, essayistic attractions take on new significance for narrative. The essay’s open form reconfigures the anthropocentric setup of narrative via dialogue with discourses—­particularly those of posthumanist philosophy and science—­that challenge notions of human primacy and mastery over the nonhuman world. This formal encounter does not im

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ply that human subjectivity can be completely stripped away from literary or narrative practices, however. As narrative seeks and largely but constructively fails to move beyond the human world, a number of tensions and paradoxes take center stage—­particularly, as we will see later in this chapter, a paralyzing sense of the inescapability of violence in humankind’s entanglement with the nonhuman world. This feeling is what philosopher Cora Diamond (2003) explores under the rubric of the “difficulty of reality” in a piece that fully inscribes itself in the essayistic tradition. A slow temporality marks and augments this intractable difficulty as writers and their various fictional personas confront the inevitability of their impact on planetary realities. Both my examples of narrative’s essayistic ambitions—­The Lives of Animals (1999), by South African writer J. M. Coetzee, and Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010), by American writer Thalia Field—­speak to Diamond’s concept by engaging with human-­animal relations in a world shaped profoundly and traumatically by human activity. That realization of painful human-­nonhuman interconnectedness is channeled by literary strategies that include the blurring of ontological boundaries between fiction and nonfiction (in Coetzee’s novella and also in part in Field’s book), the multiplication of elusive narrative voices and situations (in the latter text), and the explicit foregrounding in both works of philosophical questions (as opposed to answers and systematic arguments). Between Openness and Difficulty Michelle Boulous Walker’s Slow Philosophy: Reading against the Institution (2017) is a manifesto for slowness as a mode of philosophical inquiry that resists the codes of philosophy as an institutionalized machine. For Boulous Walker, the essay as a genre is perfectly suited to practice philosophy in these terms. Embracing the tentative nature of Montaigne’s Essais, a word that literally means “attempts,” Boulous Walker presents the essay as an “open-­ended rumination that meanders in non-­systematic ways—­a meandering thought that . . . pursues paths largely undetermined . . . [and] resists the instituted structure of philosophy’s desire to know” (2017, 56). The unsystematic and searching nature of the Montaignian essay ties in with “openness” as an aesthetic category, one whose form (to borrow from Umberto Eco’s [1989, 7] characterization of the baroque) is “dynamic” and “tends to an indeterminacy of 96  Essayistic Attractions

effect.” Seen in these terms, the essay represents a challenge for philosophy (especially, but not exclusively, in the analytic tradition) as a field invested in streamlined arguments, clear-­cut conclusions, and conceptual precision. Yet Boulous Walker argues that there is tremendous philosophical value in the indirectness and openness of the essay: “The meanderings of the essay, the various detours and pauses it takes, permit the essayist to counter the limited ambitions of interpretation and systematic method, in favour of following the hunches or hints that counterintuitive thought permits” (2017, 70). By staying with these paradoxical “hunches or hints” instead of forcing them into linear arguments, the essayistic form unlocks ways of thinking that are not available to standard (institutional) modes of philosophizing.3 The form of the essay also correlates with a slow way of reading, which breaks with fast and message-­oriented reading strategies.4 To unpack that idea, Boulous Walker draws on the work of a literary scholar already mentioned in chapter 1, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, who develops the concept of “reading for Stimmung” (that is, an impalpable, atmospheric quality that is rich in affect). That approach to literature consists in following “configurations of atmosphere and mood in order to encounter otherness in intense and intimate ways” (Gumbrecht 2012, 12–­13; quoted in Boulous Walker 2017, 70). Reading for atmosphere and mood contrasts sharply with a way of reading narrowly invested in what Gumbrecht calls “meaning,” which he defines in terms of linguistic content, such as what can be expressed in the summary of a work.5 Slowness arises precisely when we do not allow our thinking (or narrative experiences) to be exclusively driven by the teleological payoff of propositional meaning. For Boulous Walker, the essay as a form thus becomes a laboratory for slow reading practices, one where affective qualities come to the fore at the expense of the straightforward meanings philosophy tends to focus on. A brilliant illustration of the value of essayistic meandering is offered by philosopher Cora Diamond in an article titled “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” (2003). I choose Diamond’s work as an example because it engages directly my first narrative-­ essayistic crossover, J. M. Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals. Diamond’s essay has three interlocutors, who return repeatedly in the discussion: the first is the British poet Ted Hughes, from whose

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poem “Six Young Men” Diamond takes her cue in the opening; the second is Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist of Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals—­an Australian novelist invited to deliver a lecture at the fictional Appleton College, where she talks about the violence involved in killing nonhuman animals for food; the third is the philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose ideas, particularly the notion of “deflection,” play a central role in Diamond’s essay. These interlocutors share the appreciation of an elusive phenomenon that Diamond, lifting a phrase from John Updike, calls the “difficulty of reality.” This phenomenon is structurally recalcitrant to definition. Diamond captures it not by way of conceptual explication but by describing two situations in which the difficulty of reality emerges as an affective experience reminiscent of Gumbrecht’s Stimmung. In the first situation, Hughes contemplates a photograph of six young men, brimming with life and anticipation of a future that they will be denied by the Great War (for, as the poet knows, the six men were killed soon after the picture was taken in 1914). The second situation discussed by Diamond is taken from Coetzee’s novel: in her lecture at Appleton College, Costello draws a highly controversial parallel between the killing of animals in the meat industry and the Holocaust and at the same time positions herself as a woman “haunted by the horror of what we do to animals” and also “wounded by this knowledge, this horror, and by the knowledge of how unhaunted others are” (Diamond 2003, 3). The difficulty of reality arises, for Diamond, in these spaces of radical ethical tension and hesitation as the human mind falters and becomes unable to “encompass something which it encounters” (Diamond 2003, 2): the clash between vitality and premature death, the cavalier acceptance of violence on nonhuman creatures as a source of human nourishment. In Diamond’s essay these affective qualities are channeled indirectly by way of dramatized situations, as if concepts and arguments alone were unable to come to grips with the difficulty that the author seeks to explore. Indeed, Diamond remarks that responses to Costello’s speech—­including those contained in Amy Gutmann’s introduction to Coetzee’s novella and in a “reflection” by Peter Singer that follows the text of The Lives of Animals—­have tended to turn Costello’s words into an argument for animal rights. Both Gutmann and Singer—­two influential figures in political theory and moral philosophy, respectively—­adopt 98  Essayistic Attractions

what Boulous Walker would characterize as the default stance of philosophy, with its deep interest in the rational scrutiny of an idea. However, that linear reading of Costello’s views as an argument, Diamond points out, is based on a profound misunderstanding of what the fictional writer is doing as she stands in front of her perplexed audience at Appleton College. Instead, the correct framework for construing Costello’s speech is essayistic, and it is directly reflected in the literary form of Diamond’s own commentary, which jumps, nonlinearly, from Hughes to Coetzee and Cavell and thus frontloads painful questions, not reassuring answers. As Diamond highlights, “Elizabeth Costello says that she does not want to be taken to be joining in the tradition of argumentation. She is letting us see her as what she is. She is someone immensely conscious of the limits of thinking, the limits of understanding, in the face of all that she is painfully aware of” (2003, 7). Turning Costello’s ideas into a contribution to a philosophical debate in the narrow, institutional sense means not taking seriously enough the intractable difficulty she expresses by coming forward as a “wounded animal.” That is the crux of what Cavell, in a piece titled “Knowing and Acknowledging” (1969), describes under the heading of “deflection”: when philosophy brandishes arguments and conclusions in an attempt to explain away an affective and moral predicament, it practices the art of deflection. Thus, for Diamond, “to think of Coetzee’s lectures as contributing to the ‘debate’ on how we treat animals is to fail to see how ‘debate’ as we understand it may have built into it a distancing of ourselves from our sense of our own bodily life and our capacity to respond to and to imagine the bodily life of others” (2003, 9). The essay as a literary form is uniquely able to resonate with this bodily life and with the existential difficulties that can arise within it. To use Cavell’s terminology, there is a significant difference between knowing a moral problem in a conceptual way, in the standard vocabulary of philosophy, and fully acknowledging its emotional and personal significance: the problem does not remain safely external to the fictional lecturer (Costello) or the real writer (Diamond) but implicates them both deeply by foregrounding the vulnerability they share with nonhuman animals (2003, 22).6 This too is an aspect of the openness of the essay: in its circuitous approach to a question, essayistic writing leaves room for the subjectivity of the writer to seep into the object of philosophical

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investigation, inflecting it personally and emotionally. While institutional philosophy seeks to reduce or eliminate these affective resonances, Diamond’s essay attempts to confront them directly in a slow process grounded in concrete situations, not in abstract reasoning. In that respect, because of the affect-­laden and situational nature of essayistic writing, the essay would seem to have a great deal in common with narrative. Unlike narrative, however, the essay in the Montaignian tradition actively resists clear-­cut outcomes, whether we define outcomes in intellectual terms (a philosophical conclusion) or in narrative ones (closure via the resolution of a central conflict or the realization of the protagonist’s goals). Thus, when the essay crosses paths with narrative, a peculiar tension arises: the nonlinearity of essayistic style clashes with the teleology of narrative progression. That clash was already evident in Diamond’s use of situations (Hughes contemplating the image of long-­dead young men, Elizabeth Costello delivering her provocation) that have narrative potential but remain suspended and unresolved. Literary writing can take advantage of this tension between narrativity and the essay by hybridizing the two genres. To put the opposition baldly, the form of narrative tends toward closure, while the form of the essay favors openness. When narrative and the essay are combined, the meandering essay interrupts and disrupts the linear teleology of story, just as story creates a certain quasi-­linear framing for the essay. For the willing and predisposed reader, this interaction can give rise to an experience of slowness. Naturally, this experience presupposes a balance of essayistic and narrative interests in a text, not the mere use of narrative in a context that is predominantly essayistic (or vice versa). In the next sections we will examine two instances of this encounter, starting from Diamond’s own example of the difficulty of reality, Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. “Arguments for Not Eating Snails” The complexity of Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals emerges from the unique relationship it establishes between text and context. J. M. Coetzee was invited to deliver the 1997–­98 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University. Tanner lectures tend to take the form of philosophical discussion and argumentation, in line with what Boulous Walker would call “institutional” philosophy. Coetzee decided to depart from 100  Essayistic Attractions

that model by composing and reading out a fictional narrative in which Elizabeth Costello—­a recurrent character in his works—­arrives at a town named Waltham in order to give a lecture at the local Appleton College on a subject of her choice. Costello’s son, John, teaches physics and astronomy at that college; his wife, Norma, has a PhD in philosophy but had to give up her academic career after moving to Waltham. The tensions in the family are apparent from the moment John picks up his mother at the airport and drives her home: the children are eating in a separate room because Norma refuses to serve them the vegetarian meal that she knows Elizabeth expects. These domestic hostilities form the narrative backdrop to Elizabeth’s lecture, which mirrors Coetzee’s own position as he gives his Tanner lectures; yet, as we will see, the literary device of the lecture within the lecture allows the South African writer to distance himself from the ideas articulated by his fictional counterpart. The narrative framing of the novella also allows Coetzee to stage a number of reactions to Costello’s lectures. Some of these are formal responses offered after Costello’s talks (and are echoed by the four responses to Coetzee’s lectures published in The Lives of Animals in a separate section titled “Reflections”). Other responses are more personal. For example, as John and Norma lie in bed, unable to sleep after a hectic and emotionally taxing day, Norma attacks her mother-­in-­law: “You don’t give public lectures producing pseudophilosophical arguments for not eating snails. You don’t try to turn a private fad into a public taboo” (Coetzee 1999, 67). Norma’s criticism illustrates an institutional logic—­the deflection practiced by professional philosophers as they reframe an experiential difficulty in the objectifying terms of a “debate.” Yet Costello, as Diamond highlights in her reading of Coetzee’s work, had explicitly refused those terms from the outset. Her lecture opens with a reference to Franz Kafka’s short story “Report to an Academy,” where an ape known as Red Peter explains to the members of a learned society how he was able to let go of his animality and embrace humanity. After drawing the incendiary parallel between the Holocaust and the killing of animals for meat, Costello undermines her own argumentative position by emphatically comparing herself to Red Peter: “Red Peter was . . . a branded, marked, wounded animal presenting himself as speaking testimony to a gathering of scholars. I am not a philosopher of mind but an animal exhibiting, yet not exhibiting, to a gathering of scholars, a wound, which I cover up un

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der my clothes but touch on in every word I speak” (Coetzee 1999, 24). This is the key reference to the “wounded animal” Diamond focuses on in her engagement with Costello; it is a self-­deprecating move through which Costello subtly distances herself from institutional philosophy by identifying with a nonhuman animal who mimics human language (just as Costello attempts, and largely fails, to adopt a standard philosophical approach to the question of animal rights). In this way, Costello’s inadequacy comes to the fore in both professional and personal terms, pointing to the vulnerability—­the “wound”—­that will be reiterated countless times as the lecturer shies away from the counterarguments offered by the audience members.7 “She is rambling,” comments Norma (Coetzee 1999, 31); and the lecture is indeed unfocused. It skips from one literary reference to another without any overarching argument or conclusion coming into view. Costello’s words are provocatively open-­ended; by displaying her wound, the lecture implicates the subjectivity of the speaker in a way that is quintessentially Montaignian even as it is sure to raise eyebrows among professional philosophers like Norma. Costello’s language calls for a mode of appreciation that is different from a standard philosophical argument, one that focuses more on the literary and performative style of its delivery and less on its conceptual takeaways. Crucially, much of this effect depends on the collision between two forms in Coetzee’s novella: that of the philosophical lecture, with its scholarly apparatus and demands for clarity and originality, and the narrative setup. Costello’s vulnerability stands out because it is part of a narrative situation—­with the conflict between Norma and Costello and John’s uneasy attempts to mediate between them—­that fleshes out Costello as a (fictional) person, lending concreteness and particularity to the predicament that her words seek to channel. At the same time, the meandering of her thinking seeps into the progression of the narrative framing, which explicitly denies the reader closure. As John drives his mother to the airport, she suddenly bursts into tears, remarking to herself: “This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?” (69; italics in the original). In response to this emotional articulation of the difficulty of reality, John “pulls the car over, switches off the engine, takes his mother in his arms. He inhales the smell of cold cream, of old flesh. ‘There, there,’ he whispers in her ear. ‘There, there. It will soon be over’” (69). As lan102  Essayistic Attractions

guage breaks down, the body—­the locus of the “wound” that unites human and nonhuman animals—­rises to salience, creating a channel of affective communication that serves as a radical alternative to the linguistic and conceptual medium of Costello’s lecture. With this physical gesture and the experienced proximity that results from it, the text of The Lives of Animals is indeed over, but not in a way that can be said to resolve the interpersonal tensions between the protagonists. Norma remains cut off from the final embrace; the resentments brought out by Costello’s visit still linger. Even more importantly, the question Costello asks herself still stands; the wound of her mortality—­hinted at by the woman’s “old flesh”—­is still open and deepens her sense of vulnerability. What Diamond calls “the difficulty of reality” is as recalcitrant as ever, remaining impervious to the teleological orientation of narrative. If resolution is so insistently denied, it is because the open form of Costello’s lecture, couched in essayistic thinking, infuses the frame narrative and challenges expectations that the instabilities introduced at the beginning of the story can be successfully addressed. At the same time, the narrativity of the framing augments the significance of the difficulty probed by Costello’s lectures. The literary device of the lecture within the lecture complicates the reader’s assessment of Costello’s ideas—­and of the book they are embedded in. Costello remarks: “So let me, to prove my goodwill, my credentials, make a gesture in the direction of scholarship and give you my scholarly speculations, backed up with footnotes” (Coetzee 1999, 26). As she utters these words, she “raises and brandishes the text of her lecture in the air” (26), a gesture that blurs the boundary between the reality of the book we are holding in our hands and the fiction of Costello’s lecture by alluding to the footnotes of Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. This disruption of the ontological divide between the fictional world and the physical book—­a metalepsis, in narratological terminology—­gives us pause and encourages us to consider the differences between the two lectures, which are unfolding simultaneously: the fictional one (which is narrated by Coetzee’s book) and the real one (which is mediated by the book).8 The effect of Costello’s metaleptic gesture is, thus, paradoxical: by subtly undermining the separateness of the two lectures, it ends up reaffirming this distinction by drawing attention to the differences between Costello’s embodied performance (in the fictional world) and Coetzee’s more distanced staging of it (in The Lives of Animals).

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This tension between character and author problematizes the reader’s impulse to straightforwardly attribute Costello’s ideas to the South African writer. The metalepsis is thus, essentially, a strategy of literary foregrounding that decelerates reading and interpretation: a slow reading is called for as the lecture flickers between fiction and reality, and the reader is invited to weigh the implications of Costello’s words in the absence of an unambiguous authorial ethos—­a clear stance on the question of animal rights that could guide the interpretation of The Lives of Animals.9 The slipperiness of Coetzee’s book, which is at the same time ontological and intellectual, also means that it invites misreadings such as those discussed by Diamond, which ignore Costello’s warnings that her views should not be taken as an explicit argument. This ambivalence compounds the difficulty articulated by Costello and performs an extension of animal vulnerability to the book’s real author even as that extension remains uneasy and problematic. It is a slow mode of reading, as opposed to reading for the message, that is encouraged in this encounter of narrative framing and the essayistic method of Costello’s talk. The openness of the ending prolongs and enriches this experienced slowness. Jan Wilm uses slowness as a unifying concept to interpret Coetzee’s oeuvre: for Wilm, Coetzee’s “aesthetics of slowness” consists in “a complex oscillation between momentum and stasis, a system of deferring and tarrying” (2016, 2). In The Lives of Animals, this system invites readers to take a step back and contemplate an ethically and emotionally tangled situation without rushing to the conceptual dividends of Coetzee’s narrative. In that sense, Diamond’s reading of the book is exemplary of that slow approach. “Skipping Past the Story-­Part” If The Lives of Animals plays by the conventions of literary realism, Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard tells a story that is experimental not just because of its generic hybridity but also because of its lyric and absurdist qualities. The text opens with an interrogation: “What is it exactly to perform philosophy?” (Field 2010, 1). The question has a time stamp, 8:31, and indeed all the paragraphs in the first and the last chapters of the book—­what I will refer to as the frame narrative—­are similarly tagged; the last section of the book is time-­stamped 3:17 on the following day. This is a “we-­narrative,” in Natalya Bekhta’s terminology: it voices the 104  Essayistic Attractions

collective consciousness of a group of characters and thus cannot be reduced to “an implicit ‘I’ plus ‘somebody’” (2017, 165). Instead, it is the collective as a collective, as a social mind, that takes center stage.10 As the second paragraph, from 8:35, suggests, the narrators have “[arrived] at the food court ready to think” (Field 2010, 1). Apparently, the thinking is in response to a contest organized by the administration of the mall to solve a pigeon infestation problem. The pigeons, an “edge species,” as the narrators call them, just won’t go away, and the narrators sit for hours in the deserted food court, brainstorming about the pigeons without coming to any practical conclusion. That thinking is pursued by way of short and disconnected fragments of text, alternating the mundane (“We check the contest flyer for the exact wording”; “Our stomachs are seriously loud” [5, 11]) and more abstract considerations on urban planning, Darwinian evolution, and a vaguely defined “falling body problem.” That incongruous—­and intrinsically slow-­paced and meandering—­line of thinking becomes a springboard for a far less lighthearted meditation on the difficulty of reality, seen here through the lens of anthropogenic species extinction and the violence exerted by humans on other humans, as well as on the nonhuman world. An intricate patterning of similarity and difference emerges in the frame narrative as the human collective—­the narrating “we”—­is confronted with the pigeons’ nonhuman collective. So many of the pigeons’ behavior routines are strikingly humanlike. As the narrators remark, the pigeons’ “desire for homecoming feels familiar, and might explain why flies are nuisances while pigeons bother us so deeply: reflection over time. Pigeons have been seen hitching rides on subways and buses, knowing which stops to get on and off. They know so many of our tricks” (Field 2010, 14). This observation is echoed by the three photographs on the book’s last page, which display—­in scrambled order—­a pigeon calmly getting off a subway train in Queens. Yet for all the familiarity of these birds, the “pigeon problem” also brings to mind the passenger pigeons that were so brutally exterminated in North America in the course of the nineteenth century. At 14:27 the narrators mention the last wild specimen of this now-­extinct bird, which is said to have “walked up to the rifle of a 14-­year-­old boy in Ohio and [lain] himself down” (13). After ten minutes, the narrators add, conflating passenger pigeons and humans: “We should all lie down in the Smithsonian and skip the rest of the story” (13).

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Ultimately, the narrators’ uneasy “we” appears to mobilize and amplify—­ t hrough confrontation with the pigeons’ nonhuman assemblage—­the difficulty of articulating a species-­level perspective: “If people such as ourselves can change perspective—­to see, as it were, from the point of view of buildings and monuments—­can we think about a whole species like a character?” (Field 2010, 16). This shift to the species level, so seemingly straightforward for scientific discourse on nonhuman animals (such as the extinct passenger pigeon), becomes fraught. A species is not “a character,” a unified agent on the stage of natural evolution. Here the availability of the concept of species tricks us into believing that it is easy to imagine collectivity on a species scale by treating it as a single, coherent entity. But that idea is misguided, as the narrators discover as soon as their reasoning transitions from the nonhuman to the human domain. Dipesh Chakrabarty, the theorist of the “collision” of histories in the Anthropocene (see the introduction), writes: “There could be no phenomenology of us as a species” (2009, 220). Chakrabarty is suggesting that while humanity may be conceivable as a concept, we cannot feel or sense our belonging to a single species. That impossibility becomes a source of anxiety for Field’s narrating collective: if shared human experience is left on the sidelines and our own species is objectified in a scientific fashion, then the thought and perhaps the inevitability of human extinction become painfully concrete; if, on the other hand, phenomenology is granted to nonhuman species such as the passenger pigeon, it becomes impossible to ignore the dramatic and imaginably vast violence of anthropogenic species loss. The collective we of this frame narrative, with its tensions and ambiguities, anchors that philosophical dilemma in a concrete literary form. Equally concrete is the narrators’ inability to turn the essayistic meandering of their thinking into a well-­formed narrative. Their temptation to “lie down in the Smithsonian and skip the rest of the story” (Field 2010, 13) is one of the many metanarrative comments that emerge periodically in Field’s chapter. Already on the first page, the narrators have evoked another instance of someone “lying down”: “Instead of narrative build-­ up, what if we have Icarus crawling right into the water—­wings on, indifferent to flight—­skipping past the story-­part to lie down in the ending?” (1). Narrative sense-­making is constantly cued by Field’s language but also frustrated because of the vagueness and absurdity of the frame 106  Essayistic Attractions

narrative. This gives the telling a peculiarly and poignantly slow quality, reflecting the emptiness of the narrators’ day in this deserted food court. That sense of slowness is deepened if we look beyond the frame narrative at the other seven chapters that make up Bird Lovers, Backyard. Stylistically, these chapters are a collage of quotations and remarks that can be attributed to an authorial narrator or in other instances to a character narrator (not the we-­narrators of the frame). The fragmentary nature of the opening chapter is scaled up to the whole book, with the chapters’ disparate subject matter amplifying the essayistic logic of the we-­narrators’ thinking. The expansion is not just in scope but in emotional register: after the anxious beginning, some of the following chapters are more lighthearted. The third chapter (“This Crime Has a Name”), for instance, draws an ironic parallel between the loneliness of the character narrator, the last specimen of dusky seaside sparrow (another extinct bird species), and the first astronauts on the moon.11 The fifth chapter (“Exposition: He Told Animal Stories”) transitions back to a more serious tone by offering a thorough examination of the life and works of famed Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz. The authorial narrator suggests that Lorenz’s ethological theories were so successful because of his skillful combination of storytelling and anthropomorphic analogy: “Biology seems suddenly condemned, through its use of figuration, to be literary, and somehow the reverse seems equally true” (Field 2010, 71). Yet Lorenz’s theories are also tainted by his Nazi sympathies and deeply problematic views on racial purity and aggression as an instinctual drive. The chapter thus reveals the complicity between scientific observation and totalitarian ideology—­but also, more poignantly in this context, between Lorenz’s political views and the literary qualities of his prose, with its effective storytelling and strategic anthropomorphism.12 These contradictions, which involve Field’s own use of these literary devices, offer another perspective on the difficulty of reality that the book insistently explores. The penultimate chapter (“Discussion Group”) consists of comments posted to an Internet forum devoted to ant infestations in gardens. It contains such humorous remarks as “once the fire ants get hooked on this stuff they can’t live without it. Kind of a fire ant heroin, I guess” (Field 2010, 122), where the anthropomorphism is evidently tongue-­in-­cheek and contrasts with Lorenz’s more earnest use of analogy to model an

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imal behavior. Similarly to the earlier discussion of the “pigeon problem,” this chapter raises the suspicion that this debate might be a sophisticated allegory for humanity as an inherently harmful and unwanted species. At the same time, just as Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals adopts the device of the lecture within the lecture to decelerate and complicate readers’ engagement with Costello’s views, the inclusion of two chapters that comment on a historical figure (Lorenz) and re-­create the factual context of an Internet forum troubles the dividing line between fictional and nonfictional discourse. Far from affirming the ontological separateness of the chapters it contains, the frame narrative that opens and closes the book becomes a permeable border that allows the philosophical questioning to extend into both the traumatic history of the twentieth century and today’s digital media. This too creates slowness, prompting readers to approach a genre as seemingly inconsequential as an Internet forum with a more literary and critical sensibility. The last chapter (“On the Increase of the Habitable Earth”) marks a return to the frame narrative, with the narrators having finally left the food court; they are visiting what appears to be a natural history museum. As they explore the “Hall of Evolution,” which displays dioramas and skeletons of a number of extinct species, the narrators (who are now said to include a group of children) ponder: “If this were a story, we’d just lie here forever, staring up at the ornate ceilings, breathing in and out” (Field 2010, 131). Instead, no such relief of narrative closure is possible in Field’s work. A monstrous baby appears, “[opening] and [closing] his mucus eyes and mouth, waving giant forlorn limbs at the air”; the narrators “step back defeated in [their] own echo of its pain” (131). Perhaps this figure serves as an embodiment of the ecological crisis that pervades Field’s work and that philosopher Dale Jamieson describes as “the largest collective action problem that humanity has ever faced” (2014, 61). To truly face this problem, we would need to develop a species-­wide “we” similar to that of the collective narrators of Field’s first and last chapters. But finding a collective voice on a planetary scale may well prove impossible, at least if we judge by the dithering and inefficacy of Field’s narrators as they try to address the far more elementary “pigeon problem.” “What should we do with [the monstrous baby]?” is the question that concludes the book, and it encapsulate the unsettling ambiguity of Field’s vision of humanity—­ and many other life forms with it—­teetering on the brink of disaster. 108  Essayistic Attractions

With its collage-­like, fragmented nature, Field’s book reads as a radical instance of essayistic meandering. It engages with philosophical issues with the restlessness of a sparrow, fluttering from one problem to another, stirring ethical questions that involve the narrator, the writer, and, implicitly, the reader without coming to clear-­cut conclusions. Slowness is first produced by the extremely vague teleology and stagnant temporality of the frame narrative: Do the narrators solve the “pigeon problem”? Why do they loiter in this vast and anonymous food court all day? The slowness is further enhanced by the chapters, all of which contain a degree of narrativity but disorient the reader through the multiplication of narrators and the elusiveness of the narrative situations. The metanarrative comments hint at the impossibility of narrative, or at least of a satisfying narrative progression and closure, when we turn our attention to anthropogenic species extinction and its ethical quandaries.13 With the final chapter and the narrators’ troubled museum night in the “Hall of Evolution,” the concerns explored essayistically in the course of the book find a material embodiment in the figure of the “grievous baby” (Field 2010, 131), leading to a highly ambivalent, open ending. The increase of the habitable earth referred to by the chapter title may or may not involve human extinction—­our “lying down” in the Smithsonian Institution of the ending. The lure of narrative clashes throughout the book with philosophical pursuits, but neither has the upper hand: instead, in the space where narrative and essayistic forms are hybridized, slowness can emerge and encourage readers to confront, ethically and experientially, the difficulty of humans’ position vis-­à-­v is the natural world in times of ecological crisis. This chapter has focused on two works in which narrative integrates essayistic methods at the same time as it engages with the ethical stakes of human-­nonhuman entanglement. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals centers on a writer who uses her own ethos—­her emotional “wound”—­ to stage the vulnerability that humans share with nonhuman animals, a vulnerability met with tragic indifference as billions of animals are killed every year in the meat industry. This philosophical performance is underpinned by Costello’s refusal to conform to the rules of scholarly argumentation and reinforced as Costello’s words hover in the ontologically unstable space between her narrativized lecture and the real lec

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ture series, which is the text of Coetzee’s novella. Bird Lovers, Backyard confronts the moral consequences of mass extinction caused by human activity, as well as the failure of articulating a shared human perspective that translates, on a planetary level, the social mind of the we-­narrators. The “pigeon problem” foregrounded by the opening turns into a monstrous baby that evokes the urgency and complexity of today’s ecological crisis, as well as the real threat of humanity becoming yet another species “lying down” in the “Hall of Evolution.” The insertion of essayistic writing within a narrative genre (Coetzee’s novella, Field’s frame story) allows these quandaries to emerge with full emotional force: the lack of distinctly linear progression or closure encourages readers to embrace a slow approach that privileges the depth of the questioning, not the conclusiveness of the answers. The encounter between storytelling and the essay is thus shown to be an intellectually fruitful one, where the particularity of narrative amplifies the moral concerns articulated by the Montaignian essay—­mainly by concretizing the situations and emotions where the difficulty of reality emerges—­even as the openness of the essayistic form keeps narrative from “explaining away” those concerns. The slowness produced by the essay’s indirect approach to a problem thus becomes an adequate form to resist linear and self-­centered ways of thinking about the world, opening up the quintessentially human practice of story to nonhuman materialities—­and, more specifically, to the intrinsic difficulty of our entanglement with them. In developing a moral philosophy geared toward the challenges of the Anthropocene, anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose writes: “The complexity of the real world is founded in the transience and flux of life and death” (2011, 47).14 Within this flux, life—­including human life—­cannot be separated from death—­including nonhuman death—­and it is delusional to think that humans or any other life form could ever speak from a position of absolute “moral purity” (142). Instead, we must learn to accept the inevitable violence involved in our shaping of the nonhuman world: “To live in the world, to live in connectivity, is always to be living in proximity to death as well as to life, to cause death as well as to nurture life” (142). Based on this realization, Rose articulates a philosophy of uneasy, fragile connectivity: “The connectivities of life on Earth ensure that we are always called to face ambiguity and to act, to be responsible. To be in relationship is to be vulnerable” (142). The tension between narrative 110  Essayistic Attractions

and essayistic writing is especially apt to convey this philosophy of relational vulnerability, which Rose dubs “ecological existentialism” and which is fully in line with Diamond’s concept of the difficulty of reality (although Rose doesn’t draw that connection herself). The encounter between essayistic meandering and narrative particularity resists closure and suggests fragility and reversibility of form, features that echo the vulnerable connectivity theorized by Rose and explored by works such as Coetzee’s and Field’s. In turn, the ethically fraught entanglement between human characters and the nonhuman is transformed into an experience that readers—­or at least predisposed readers—­can go through as they resonate with the slow pace of this hybrid literary form and with the affect that the slowness engenders.



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5

Textural Patterns in Multimodal Narrative

The difficulty of reality can present itself as a form of resistance or friction that develops as we confront the ethical stakes of a situation, slowing down and complicating our reasoning. As the “friction” metaphor suggests, this difficulty can be described with the textural language of “roughness,” which opposes the ideal “smoothness” of a reality devoid of ethical dilemmas. In this chapter, texture is more than a metaphor, and human societies’ entanglement with the nonhuman world becomes more than a figure of speech. By including graphic features such as illustrations and typographical devices that convey meaning nonverbally, narrative foregrounds texture visually and implicates other sensory modalities as well, particularly touch—­which, as we will see, takes center stage in the experience of texture. A sensory mode of engagement with the texturality of literary narrative offers a privileged route into the entanglement of human subjectivity and nonhuman materiality. In part, this route overlaps with the stylistic strategies of experiential thickening and temporal deceleration we have examined in the course of the previous chapters. In other respects, however, the use of nonverbal or, more technically, “multimodal” devices in print fiction creates unique challenges and opportunities for slow modes of reading. When the readers of Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (2001)—­one of my two case studies in this chapter—­are presented with William Buelow Gould’s nineteenth-­century sketches of fish species found in Tasmania, these real images enter an uneasy relationship with the fictionalized account of Gould’s life that makes up the bulk of Flanagan’s novel. Flanagan’s repeated verbal evocation of the sensory marvels of animal life is reinforced and complicated by the materiality displayed by the reproductions of the sketches, which preface the book. Attempting to pin down the contribution of nonverbal textures to slowness is a discussion worth having at this juncture in the book be112

fore turning to the primarily visual strategies of wordless comics narrative and video games. Texture serves as one of the conceptual cornerstones of this book, operating on three levels. Chapter 1 introduced it as a metaphor affording insight into the multilayered nature of readers’ interactions with literary narrative. Also in chapter 1, and elsewhere, texture hinted at humankind’s interwovenness with “natural” processes that transcend the human scale and yet begin displaying indelible human traces in the Anthropocene. Finally, particularly with the discussion of ontocatalogs in chapter 3, the language of texture has become synonymous with the rich materiality of the nonhuman world. This chapter argues that the productivity of the concept of texture lies precisely in its broad scope: the textural nature of reader-­text interactions echoes broader patterns in human-­nonhuman relations, which in turn reflect the complexity (in the etymological sense of “being braided together”) of ecosystems. This could almost seem like a question of metaphor, and metaphor is indeed an important aspect of thinking about human-­nonhuman entanglement.1 But texture invites us to think beyond metaphor or, rather, to use metaphor heuristically to grasp a connection between human communities and the nonhuman world that is primarily metonymic and not metaphorical. Metaphor works by mapping together conceptual domains that remain separate. In saying “Achilles is a lion,” for instance, we imply that Achilles and lions belong to different ontological spheres—­it is the conceptual distance covered by the comparison (or “cross-­domain mapping”) that defines metaphor.2 Indeed, when we use the word “texture” to talk about, for instance, literary reading, we are mapping together distinct conceptual domains. We begin with the patterning of matter as it is available to touch. Etymologically, “texture” comes from the Latin texere, “to weave”: the texture of a piece of fabric depends on the physical arrangement of its fibers, which points to the technique with which the fabric was created (braiding, knitting, felting, and so on)—­in other words, it points to its material history.3 By extension (and this is already a metaphorical operation), texture denotes the physical properties of an object as perceived primarily through touch and—­in a further step—­through other sensory modalities as well. For example, the crackling background noise of old vinyl records has a certain texture, and so does the patchwork of light and shadow under a lattice window. While neither of these expe

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riences is haptic, the crackling noise or the lattice pattern carries latent tactile qualities, as if it could be experienced through touch. Touch thus remains a key sense in the perception of texture, if only at an imaginative remove.4 Thus, when I talk about the texture of literary narrative, the ground of the metaphor (that is, the analogy that brings together texture in the physical and in the abstract sense [see Richards 1936]) is twofold: on the one hand, we have the multithreaded, multilayered nature of both material textures and textural modes of reading; on the other hand, we have the strong link that is created when threads are woven together or the reader’s attention becomes caught up in a verbal pattern (as outlined in chapter 1). These semantic elements—­multiplicity and linkage—­a lso underlie the two other metaphorical uses of the word “texture” I have introduced so far: human-­nonhuman interconnectedness and the interdependency of elements within an ecosystem. Once this metaphorical connection is established, texture functions in a broader sense as an indication of loose interconnective patterning that is not—­or not yet—­rigid structure. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick puts it, “Texture . . . comprises an array of perceptual data that includes repetition, but whose degree of organization hovers just below the level of shape or structure” (2003, 16). It is in this metaphysical sense that the concept of texture begins working metonymically. While metaphor brings together ideas that are semantically distant, metonymy is based on contiguity in physical and causal terms: “I see new faces in this room” means that some of the audience members are unknown to the speaker, with the face being used—­metonymically—­to suggest the more abstract category of personhood.5 This is a metonymy and not a metaphor because there is a relationship of logical and cultural proximity between having a face and being a person. Texture is a more complicated case: as we have seen, its nonbasic meanings are produced by way of metaphorical leaps, from weaving to material surfaces to more abstract forms of involvement in an object or situation. Yet once the metaphorical meaning is in place, the multithreaded linkage of texture suggests metonymic continuity, not metaphorical discontinuity: it suggests, in other words, that there is a common patterning between human subjectivity and nonhuman materiality that reduces the distance between them instead of assuming it, as metaphor would. Think again about “Achilles is a lion” and

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how implicit in that sentence is the notion that Achilles is, as a matter of fact (as opposed to a matter of metaphor), a human being and not a lion. By contrast, the texture of ecosystemic relations involves causal connectivity, where a single change (for instance, the introduction of a nonnative species) can trigger large-­scale transformations. We have already seen in chapter 1 that in Textures of the Anthropocene, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol, and Katrin Klingan (2015) use the materiality of the debris generated by a tsunami to evoke the Anthropocenic entanglement of human and nonhuman processes. This entanglement is closer to “I see new faces in this room” than to “Achilles is a lion”: it is a relationship of intimate (and of course uneasy and painful) proximity, not of safe metaphorical distance. Likewise, when absorbed in literary narrative, the reader’s attention follows the affective contour of the text and the multiple strands that underlie it in a way that erases clear-­cut distinctions between “the story itself” and its experience.6 It becomes impossible to say where the reader’s consciousness ends and the story begins: the two are caught up—­“ hooked,” as the idiom goes—­in a metonymic embrace that is also distinctively material, the result of a physical reader bringing her embodied attention to bear on a storytelling artifact. Texture starts out as a metaphor, but in the course of its conceptual trajectory it begins denoting a form of linkage that is fully metonymic: it presupposes not distance but patterned continuity, a perspective from which human subjectivity and cultural practices blend with nonhuman materialities. But texture is not an entirely harmonious concept either. Through its loose organization, texture opposes the streamlined nature of structures and hierarchies and questions the possibility of neatly distinguishing one scalar level from another. Similarly to the mindfulness discussed in chapter 2, experiencing texture involves adopting a slow mode of attention that is different from and alternative to the businesslike instrumentality of everyday life. All these challenges of texture will be discussed in detail in the next section. As a further step, I will reconstruct debates on multimodal fiction and explain how the chapter’s case studies—­Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) and Mark Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword (2012)—­fit into this category. Through their multimodal devices and particularly the way in which their illustrations become an integral part of the text diegetically and thematically, Flanagan’s



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and Danielewski’s works launch into a head-­on exploration of texture as a defining feature of slow narrative experiences. Texture: Unsmoothing Scale It would seem reasonable to see the three textures of ecosystemic complexity, human-­nonhuman entanglements, and attentional patterns in reading as related in strictly scalar terms. We start from a grand vision of interdependency in ecosystems governed by the slow-­moving processes of natural evolution, which far precede the rise of Homo sapiens; then, with a shift down in temporal scale, we have humanity’s reliance on nonhuman processes and increasing capacity to influence them; finally, with an even more abrupt scalar leap, we are confronted with individual psychology and the microtemporality of becoming absorbed in a narrative. But texture has a way of problematizing this vertical zooming movement from the macro-­to the microscale. In developing a “scale critique for the Anthropocene,” Derek Woods (2014) argues that part of the challenge raised by climate change lies in realizing that different scales of reality do not fit into the neat linear pattern implicit in visual metaphors such as “zooming in” or “out.”7 This illusion of linearity goes hand in hand with what Woods calls the “smooth-­zoom aesthetics” (2014, 138) embodied by Google Earth, where changing the spatial scale of the representation takes us closer to or farther away from the planet’s surface in an apparently continuous movement. Instead, Woods insists that there are considerable discontinuities between scalar levels, so that—­for instance—­one cannot move linearly from the consumption patterns of a single individual to trends in global temperatures. To understand the rise in global temperatures, one must take into account a staggering number of factors, including, of course, the daily choices of millions of individuals in, especially, industrialized countries. On a scale of millions, whether people drive a car to work or take public transit can make an enormous difference, but this pattern doesn’t translate linearly into the scale of individuals making seemingly inconsequential decisions every day, a discrepancy that creates significant challenges for efforts at mitigating climate change. Woods’s “scale critique” seeks to highlight these scalar discontinuities and leaps and how they shape today’s climate crisis: “Understanding the subject of the Anthropocene means tracing the distribution of agency across scale domains in nonsmooth, nonrepresentational ways” (137). 116  Textural Patterns

The word “nonsmooth” takes us straight into the domain of texture. The illusory continuity of scale critiqued by Woods is, after all, tied to a visual model that treats scalar shifts as the continuous zooming motion of a camera.8 Texture offers a radically different language for thinking about scale. As Sedgwick reminds us, texture exists at multiple scalar levels: if we lie on a lawn, grass has a certain texture, but the same lawn seen from an airplane may have an entirely different texture, as created by the fences and by patches of various colors in the surrounding landscape.9 Texture thus flattens differences between scalar levels: everything has a texture if we pay close attention to its materiality, no matter the physical size of an object and our distance from it. Yet despite this homogenizing effect, texture is an inherently discontinuous and differential concept. Think about the hand movements we perform to identify an object through touch: our movements are extended in time, often repetitive, and involve a number of sensory gaps as we reposition our hands and fingers rhythmically. Even more forcefully, visual or auditory textures are discontinuous because of their perceived distance from touch. The undulating texture of a hilly landscape when seen from above is not something that affords touch, yet it invites touch. It is almost as if we could feel—­in a haptic way—­the sinuous shape of the hills. There is a felt discontinuity between the tactile qualities of the hills and our awareness of their inevitably visual apprehension, just as there are discontinuities between the experience of the lawn while lying on it and the experience of the lawn while flying over it. These discrepancies are closely related to what Woods calls “scale variance,” or how surprising gaps tend to come into view as we move across scalar levels. These discrepancies correspond to the metonymic gap between “faces” and “people” in “I see new faces in this room,” not to the metaphorical distance between “Achilles” and “lion” in “Achilles is a lion.” That texture is a deeply discontinuous experience can also be detected in how my use of the concept stretches from ecosystems to reading practices. Texture works at all these levels, suggesting multithreaded and metonymic linkage in the absence of the rigid structures imposed by visual language (for instance, the structures of containment or vertical hierarchy, both of which—­arguably—­emerge from a visual paradigm). The haptic language of texture thus constitutes a powerful alternative to the primarily visual metaphors that shape experience, including the expe

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rience of human-­nonhuman relations, in a Western context (see Jenks 1995). When readers’ attention becomes entangled with the dynamics of literary narrative, its phenomenological form mirrors broader processes of ecosystemic and human-­nonhuman enmeshment. Thinking about these phenomena as texture helps bring out the deep resonances between them despite vast differences in terms of spatiotemporal scale. In the experience of texture, these differences remain active even as we are faced with the continuity of humans’ entanglement in a text, ecology, and planetary processes beyond the human. This paradoxical coexistence of scale flattening and differential awareness defines the textural imagination as an experience grounded in touch. Of course, nonhaptic experiences—­including visual ones—­can also take on textural qualities when close attention is paid to the rich patterning of sensation, revealing what I discussed as “qualia” in chapter 2. When we impose on vision the rigid structures of representation (maps, hierarchies, models), its multithreaded patterning is lost: conceptual structure occludes the loose qualitative patterning of experience. This tendency can be opposed and the texture of vision recovered through a dialogue with tactile language. This is why Woods’s call for a “nonsmooth” understanding of scalar relations in the Anthropocene necessarily correlates with an interest in “nonrepresentational” practices.10 Texture addresses this need for nonrepresentational language by virtue of its being fundamentally abstract and nonfigurative: it hints at the materiality of an object without attempting or claiming to represent that object.11 In this sense, texture can be discovered in predominantly distal senses such as vision and hearing if we suspend our investment in the representational what of experience and start paying close attention to the how, felt qualities and abstract patterning—­such as a crackling noise or gently undulating hills—­that call for a tactile and proximal mode of appreciation. Flanagan’s and Danielewski’s books explore this possibility by deploying multimodal devices that, while visual, call for a textural and nonrepresentational mode of engagement. The overall effect, as we will see, aligns closely with slow reading practices. Multimodality and Materiality in Fiction Among the narrative scholars who have turned to multimodality in recent times, Wolfgang Hallet (2009) and Alison Gibbons (2011, 2012) offer 118  Textural Patterns

particularly comprehensive accounts. Hallet calls “multimodal” any novel that incorporates “non-­verbal symbolic representations and non-­narrative semiotic modes” (2009, 129). While the multimodal novel is not a recent invention—­an important precedent is Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-­ century Tristram Shandy, as Hallet acknowledges—­the use of multimodal devices has been on the rise in fiction of the last three decades. This trend can be read as a response to the advent of e-­book reading and other digital remediations of the written word: as digital modes of reading become increasingly widespread, authors turn to experimentation with the possibilities of the book form in an attempt to reaffirm its vitality.12 As Hallet’s and Gibbons’s discussions show, these experimentations fall on a broad spectrum. A rather conventional strategy that can support multimodal narration is the inclusion of illustrations. When illustrations are produced without the author’s involvement, the narrative is typically not considered multimodal, since the verbal dimension preexists and can be uncoupled from the visual one. Illustrations are fully multimodal devices only when they are “part of the narrative world, produced by the narrator and directly woven into the narrative discourse by the device of drawing upon them continuously in ekphrastic passages” (Hallet 2009, 133). This, as we will see, is the case in Gould’s Book of Fish and also to some extent in The Fifty Year Sword. Another multimodal technique examined by Hallet is the reproduction of handwriting or faux antique documents, which can be physically enclosed in a book—­for instance, an old postcard and a newspaper in Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams’s novel S. (2013). Maps, graphs, and formal languages (for example, of mathematics or logic) are also multimodal devices, and so are unconventional typographical choices that enrich the text’s verbal meanings. In chapter 3 we have already seen an example of typographical oddities in another novel by Danielewski, House of Leaves, whose text boxes spread over multiple pages and channel the emptiness of the physical space explored by the characters. Typography thus becomes “mimetic”: it underlines and conveys visually what is happening in the storyworld. In the passage we have examined from House of Leaves, Danielewski’s typographical layout works in this way: through what I called negative enumeration, the more words the narrator accumulates in his pages-­long lists, the more the text mimetically re-­creates the magnitude of absence in this fictional space.13

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Complementing Hallet’s discussion, Gibbons points to books that “play with form in a way that both emphasises their materiality and makes readers engage with them in notably physical ways” (2012, 428), such as “tactile fictions,” in her terminology. An intriguing example of tactile fiction is Tree of Codes (2010), by Jonathan Safran Foer, a cutout book based on a novel by Bruno Schulz: rectangular portions of each page have been removed so as to reveal only a few words of the original text and, at the same time, offer glimpses into later pages. While it is debatable whether Tree of Codes is, strictly speaking, a narrative text, its multimodality consists in unpredictable interactions between Schulz’s language and the physical format of the book after Foer’s intervention. The tactility of Foer’s book accentuates the delicate texture and fragility of the cutout pages, as well as “the material side of cultural signification” (Hallet 2009, 146). In Flanagan’s and Danielewski’s works, texture not only is evoked by way of multimodal devices—­though these play a key role—­but hovers between materiality and verbal meaning. Their style and theme create an experience of texture that is modulated in significant ways by illustrations and (in Danielewski’s book) mimetic typography. As discussed by Gibbons (2011, 4), the unconventional nature of these multimodal strategies is a source of stylistic foregrounding, which means that it is likely to give readers pause and prompt them to linger on the interplay of the narrative’s verbal and nonverbal meanings. This pattern of attention will foster a slow mode of reading. “Luminous as the Phosphorescent Marbling” The “book of fish” from which Flanagan’s novel draws its title is a collection of sketches made by Liverpool-­born artist William Buelow Gould. Sentenced to transportation to Australia in 1826, Gould spent the rest of his life—­a lmost thirty years—­in Van Diemen’s Land (present-­day Tasmania). Until 1835 he was a convict at two of Australia’s harshest penal colonies, Macquarie Harbor on Sarah Island and Port Arthur. It was while he was at Macquarie Harbor that Gould, who had dabbled in artistic pursuits in Britain, began painting the “Sketchbook of Fishes,” a collection of watercolors depicting some of Tasmania’s sea life. The watercolors, which entered the unesco Australian Memory of the World Register in 2011, are now on display at the Allport Library and Museum 120  Textural Patterns

of Fine Arts in Hobart. These are the basic facts of Gould’s life as related by the Australian Dictionary of Biography (Allport 1966). In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan turns Gould’s biography into a sophisticated fictional account in which a stark critique of Australia’s colonial history meets surreal and magical realist notes. Gould’s Book of Fish is a novel obsessed with metamorphosis, where objects and identities are always in flux, always on the brink of vanishing or morphing into something else.14 Prefacing the text are twelve reproductions from Gould’s sketches, each fish accompanied by its common name (see figure 4 for an example). These names double as the titles of the twelve chapters that follow, so that the reproductions offer a table of contents of sorts—­a device that establishes a direct connection between the multimodal dimension of the book we are holding in our hands and its textual organization. Each chapter engages with its titular fish, sometimes directly, by relating the story behind Gould’s watercolor, sometimes in more roundabout ways, with the fish being merely mentioned by Gould. In themselves, the images are plain but carefully drawn. A hint of anthropomorphism is present in the facial features and vaguely cartoonish expression of some of the fishes, but overall there is nothing extravagant about these sketches. Gould drew them while at the service of the penal colony’s surgeon, James Scott, who had a keen interest in Tasmania’s natural history, and indeed the watercolors (unlike Flanagan’s fictionalized account of Gould’s life) show a certain scientific distance and restraint. Yet the silent presence of the fishes’ bodies on an otherwise blank page creates a sense of mystery: What are these sketches doing at the beginning of the book, and how are they interwoven with the novelistic plot—­and with Gould’s life? For Hallet, one of the functions of multimodal techniques in contemporary fiction is to “bear witness to the shortcomings of verbal language and narration” (2009, 147). Gould’s Book of Fish inverts this relationship: through their visual appearance, the fishes do “bear witness” to something, as we will see, but the exact nature of their witnessing only comes into focus through Flanagan’s verbal language and narration. Gould’s sketches draw attention to the animals’ physicality but fall short of displaying the full range of their vitality, because the “diaphanous wonder” of their bodies and the “translucence” of their fins (R. Flanagan 2001, 241) can hardly be translated into the static medium of painting. To disclose

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Fig. 4. Two of Gould’s sketches from Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (2001). Images reproduced with permission of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania.

the fishes’ mystery, we need to delve into Flanagan’s novel and engage in a slow reading of the interaction between story and images. The novel starts with a variation on the familiar trope of the found manuscript: a first-­person narrator named Sid Hammet discovers a volume titled Book of Fish in an antique shop in present-­day Hobart. Sid tells us that the book contains, in addition to the well-­k nown fish sketches, an account of Gould’s life penned by Gould himself; it is, as Sid puts it, a “weird record” (R. Flanagan 2001, 17) that doesn’t tally with many of the known historical facts of the convict’s biography. The book’s physical appearance is just as mysterious; this is the novel’s opening paragraph: “My wonder upon discovering the Book of Fish remains with me yet, luminous as the phosphorescent marbling that seized my eyes that strange morning; glittering as those eerie swirls that coloured my mind and enchanted my soul—­which there and then began the process of unravelling my heart and, worse still, my life into the poor, scraggy skein that is the story you are about to read” (1). Texture looms large from the 122  Textural Patterns

very first page of the novel; the “luminous” quality of the narrator’s “wonder,” along with the “glittering . . . swirls” he experiences, emerge from the book’s “phosphorescent marbling”—­a visual pattern that recalls the tactile qualities of stone. The almost psychedelic abstraction and nonfigurative nature of the narrator’s experiences also stimulate the imagination of texture in visual form. Narrative itself is affected: the “story you are about to read” is compared to a “poor, scraggy skein,” an expression in which the tactile “scraggy” (in the sense of rough and untidy) revitalizes the more conventional metaphor “narrative is a thread.” If the narrative told by Flanagan’s novel is a thread, it is a deeply tangled one. The first chapter contains Sid’s frame narrative, set in modern Tasmania; the book’s remaining chapters, narrated by Gould, reproduce the nineteenth-­century manuscript found by Sid. Particularly as Gould’s account begins, we realize that the story is presented in a truly Shandean fashion, with frequent digressions, gaps, and flashbacks whenever Gould introduces essential facts he had previously glossed over. The nonlinearity of the tale calls for a slow, careful reading focusing on the narrator’s chronological manipulations, which translate into the temporal language of narrative the visually elusive qualities of the Book of Fish as described in the first chapter. The book discovered by Sid, we learn, is constantly evolving, its transformations mimicking the “phosphorescent” and thus visually unstable qualities of the cover: “Each time I opened the Book of Fish what amounted to a new chapter miraculously appeared” (R. Flanagan 2001, 28). One page later, the book vanishes on a bar counter, leaving behind only a “large, brackish puddle,” which is quickly mopped up by the barman (30). Sid is in shock: the “enigma” (38) of Gould’s tragic life continues to haunt him, but without the physical object he cannot get to the bottom of that life. He does have access to Gould’s sketches in the Allport Library, but they appear lifeless and painfully incomplete without the accompanying text. To fill this gap, Sid tries to rewrite Gould’s account as best he can. This decision is soon followed by Sid’s abrupt metamorphosis into a weedy seadragon (an Australian fish species related to the seahorse). The character is observing the fish intently in a tank when the transformation begins: “I was falling, tumbling, passing through glass and through water into that seadragon’s eye while that seadragon was passing into me, and then I was looking out at the bedraggled man staring in at me, that man who would, I now had

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the vanity of hoping, finally tell my story” (45). With this metamorphic inversion, which is also an act of distanciation from the human world, the frame narrative ends; Gould’s account begins in the following chapter (presumably as reconstructed by Sid).15 We will find out at the end of the novel that the weedy seadragon is also the fish into which Gould transforms after jumping into the sea to escape arrest. The connection between the book’s two narrators is both symbolic and diegetic: one of the many tangles of the tale told by Flanagan’s novel involves a blurring of Sid’s frame narrative and Gould’s life story—­an instance of so-­ called ontological metalepsis—­with a few lines from the first chapter being spliced, paradoxically, into Gould’s text, supposedly written in the nineteenth century (373).16 The narrators turn out to be a single character existing in two different time periods, with the metamorphosis into a sea creature bringing them together. In a retrospective justification of the tangled and twisted nature of his tale, Gould remarks that “[stories] as written are progressive, sentence must build upon sentence as brick upon brick, yet the beauty of life in its endless mystery is circular” (R. Flanagan 2001, 392). The metaleptic blurring of distinctions between narrative levels is one of the ways in which Flanagan integrates a circular—­and thus intrinsically slow-­paced—­logic into the normally linear and teleological form of storytelling. The circle is the form of mystery, a central concept in Flanagan’s novel. The mysterious “beauty of life” is closely related to the sense of “wonder” articulated by Sid in the book’s opening. Commending the style of Gould’s autobiography, Sid explains, with another reference to the tactile nature of the convict’s vision, that the “author wrote in colours; more precisely, I suspect, he felt in colours” (17). Hence the question, which is at the heart of the mystery probed by Flanagan’s novel: “Did the wonder of colour, I pondered, redeem the horror of his [Gould’s] world?” (17). This horror cannot escape the reader of Gould’s account: the violence of British colonialism is denounced in no uncertain terms, from the murderous treatment of Tasmania’s native inhabitants to the mindless exploitation of the land to the appalling conditions in which convicts like Gould were forced to live and die. Yet somehow, such colonial horrors don’t cancel out beauty and wonder completely: mystery arises from this tension. After his metamorphosis into a weedy seadragon at the end of the novel, Gould reiterates Sid’s question: “Why when all the evidence 124  Textural Patterns

of my life tells me this world smells worse than the old Dane’s bobbing corpse, why is it that I still can’t help believing that the world is good & that without love I am nothing?” (R. Flanagan 2001, 442). The novel doesn’t offer a straightforward answer to that question, but Gould’s reasoning that a fish’s “colouring & surfaces & translucent fins suggest the very reason & riddle of life” (153) puts us on the right path. Flanagan’s response to the “riddle of life” is not aestheticizing. It is not Gould’s art that creates wonder or that redresses the horrors of colonial exploitation. Rather, the sketches (including the sketches that are physically part of Flanagan’s novel) are only a means of thinking about or, perhaps more accurately, of sensing the finely textured nature of the fishes’ bodies. Wonder springs from a slow, thoughtful experience of this texture, which is a seamless expression of the animals’ individuality and vitality. Indeed, if the novel shows how Gould’s consciousness becomes attuned to the fishes’ textural patterning (an attuning akin to the experience of mindfulness I discussed in chapter 2), it also makes clear that the agency in this process does not lie with Gould but with the fish themselves. For all their silence, the fish have a tight grip on Gould’s mind; as he puts it, with a striking inversion of his situation, they are “colonizing” him (R. Flanagan 2001, 241). His final metamorphosis into a weedy seadragon is similarly imposed by the fish, yet another form of imprisonment to which Gould is subjected. His psychological absorption into the patterning of the nonhuman world may bring him closer to the source of “beauty” and “wonder,” but it does not set his mind free, and it doesn’t compensate for the human horrors he witnesses. This is what the novel’s ending suggests, with Gould (now a weedy seadragon in a coral reef) addressing “you divers who have come so far to fathom my mystery” (443). “I am not reconciled to this world” (444), Gould states, implying that the mystery persists and that peace cannot be found even in abandoning the human form. If the novel closes with this note of restlessness, how does it prompt us to look back on the images that opened it? The sketches are artistically modest: they evoke not “wonder” and “beauty” but only, at best, curiosity about this convict’s artistic pursuits. It is Flanagan’s vivid style that breathes life into the sketches, revealing their material history—­how they came about in the tragic circumstances of Gould’s life. This strategy decelerates the reader’s perception of the images and infuses them with

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texture, recovering—­in imaginative terms—­the quivering and iridescent quality of the fishes’ body, which Gould’s watercolors can only partially render. In this way, augmented by Flanagan’s words, the sketches become a material record of Gould’s fascination with the aquatic world of fishes. To fully understand the nature of this material record, however, we need to consider the novel’s critical engagement with the images’ intended scientific use. The character who commissions these sketches, the Surgeon, is one of the novel’s main satirical targets. An enthusiastic admirer of Linnaeus, the Surgeon only speaks in fragmented phrases and small caps (a mimetic use of typography seemingly to re-­create his pompous diction); for instance, he declares: “our task—­g reater—­ not interpreting nature for decoration—­s eeking to classify—­t o order nature  .  .  . but man?—­m an’s dominion will be entirely known & knowable, & man’s mastery complete—­h is final empire nature” (R. Flanagan 2001, 148; ellipses added). Through a satirical lens, the passage suggests that the scientific impulse to “classify” and “order” is a means toward affirming human mastery, representing yet another embodiment of the colonial violence of “empire.” A few pages later, Gould contrasts the rigid anthropocentric geometry of Linnaean classification with the vision of the nonhuman world offered by Pliny’s Natural History: “In Pliny’s observations I discovered that man, far from being central in this life, lived in a parlous world beyond his knowledge, . . . a world in which man is lost & less but lost & less amidst the marvelous, the extraordinary, the gorgeously inexplicable wonder of a universe only limited by one’s own imagining of it” (151). The slow perception of the textural wonders of the natural world may not dispel the horrors of human history, as we learn from the novel’s ending, it may not liberate “man” from the burden of his violence, but it is still preferable to be “lost & less” amid Pliny’s premodern marvelous than trapped in the hierarchical systems of modern science.17 These hierarchies are intimately related to the assumption critiqued by Woods that it is possible to move continuously—­that is, linearly—­across scalar levels without encountering gaps and discontinuities. Being “lost & less” means being entangled with a reality that is fundamentally uneven and porous, exhibiting the loose patterning of texture rather than the streamlined structure of representation. Again at the end of the novel, Gould wonders why “we order our lives as ladders while around us 126  Textural Patterns

the earth circles” (396). The earth’s circling is a figure of mystery—­an image tightly linked, in Gould’s imagination, to the elusiveness of fish, how their textural essence resists capture in images and can only be rendered, poorly and indirectly, through the shifting patterns of language. If scientific knowledge is a hopeless and useless “ladder,” Gould advocates a philosophy of marvelous instability where gaps abound and the textures of consciousness and the material world keep fluctuating—­a philosophy that is pursued by Flanagan via the motif of metamorphosis (of Sid and Gould into fish and eventually of Sid into Gould). Embracing instability requires abandoning distance as a core component of the scientific worldview, a point expressed by Gould in an attack on the tradition of landscape painting: “I care not to paint pretend pictures of long views which blur the particular & insult the living, those landscapes . . . that trash the truth as they reach ever upwards into the sky, as though we only know somewhere or somebody from a distance—­that’s the lie of the land while the truth is never far away but up close in the dirt, in the vile details of slime & scale & filth” (R. Flanagan 2001, 107). Landscape painting is premised on experiencing nature from the safe distance that only vision, of all the human senses, affords—­a distance that ties in with Linnaean classificatory systems and that reinforces a sense of human mastery of the nonhuman world. By disparaging landscape painting, Gould is thus suggesting giving up the safe comforts of visual representation, with the conceptual and physical distance that representation brings. Instead, truth can only be discovered “up close”—­that is, in the details of texture—­by infusing vision with the embodied proximity of touch.18 But aren’t Gould’s sketches also a visual representation of fish species, and one complicit with the Surgeon’s flawed scientific practices? At one level, of course, they are. But Gould (and by this I mean primarily Flanagan’s Gould, not the historical figure) succeeds in sabotaging that scientific project from within. Through style and theme, Flanagan’s novel reclaims the texture that is lost in Gould’s images—­the way in which the watercolors fail to do justice to the wonders of the natural world, which are so easily brushed aside by scientific projects invested in visual and hierarchical distance and in the delusionary sense of mastery that such distance entails. By recovering the lost texture of Gould’s sketches, Flanagan deals a blow to a scientific epistemology that puts the human gaze above everything else in the natural world. At the same time,

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the book wouldn’t be complete without the materiality of the images—­a materiality that is in itself unstable and evolves under the reader’s eyes, much like the Book of Fish discovered by Sid. In the interstice between the seemingly plain images and Gould’s tangled narrative, a slow mode of reading can emerge: the reader is sent back and forth between the sketches and the chapters named after them, gradually coming to a granular appreciation of the images’ complex history, which subsumes the traumatic realities of colonialism and marvel at the natural world’s vitality. The paradox of their coexistence is left unsolved, but such discontinuities are—­as I have argued above—­in the nature of texture. “One Such Tiny Stitch” It doesn’t take very long before readers of Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword encounter a gap; in fact, a large number of gaps are present on the dust jacket of the book. The jacket is perforated, subtly but tangibly, as if it had been repeatedly stabbed with a thick needle. This tactile pattern immediately foregrounds texture—­an impression confirmed when we turn the cover and see, on the normally blank flyleaf, an expanse of multicolored threads. The threads are arranged in a seemingly random and nonfigurative pattern, with the exception perhaps of a red patch on the right-­hand page that could recall a bleeding wound. These textures trigger associations with sewing but also, more disturbingly, with bodily harm (especially given the titular “sword”). Indeed, The Fifty Year Sword centers on the quotidian violence of everyday human transactions, staging how easily grief can give way to hatred and hatred to pain inflicted upon oneself and others. The Fifty Year Sword was originally published in the Netherlands by De Bezige Bij, with a very limited print run, in 2005. Here I will be discussing the 2012 reprint by Pantheon Books. The references to sewing in the book’s paratext are justified by the fact that the protagonist of The Fifty Year Sword, as we soon find out, is a seamstress named Chintana. Still recovering from a painful divorce, Chintana receives an invitation to a Halloween party. Hesitatingly, she accepts. At the party, she runs into Belinda Kite, a woman her ex-­husband has had an affair with and who is turning fifty that night. Chintana is upset at this unexpected encounter and considers taking off abruptly. Only meeting five orphans, escorted by a Social Worker (unnamed and capitalized in the book), con128  Textural Patterns

vinces her to stay. A mysterious character, the Story Teller, arrives and starts recounting how he came into possession of the “fifty year sword,” a weapon he is ostensibly carrying in a “long box with angles of black” (Danielewski 2012, 76). His story takes the deeply linear and teleological form of a quest: to find the sword, he explains, he had to embark on an arduous journey that took him through the Valley of Salt, the Forest of Falling Notes, and the Mountain of Manyone Paths. Having overcome these trials, the Story Teller encounters the Man With No Arms, who shows him his extensive sword collection, including such wondrous weapons as the sword that “kills the taste of salt” and the one that “kills the color green” (Danielewski 2012, 172–­74). The Story Teller decides to take the fifty year sword, which kills—­infallibly, assures the Story Teller—­as soon as the victim turns fifty, but not before. When the story is over, the orphans gingerly open the box containing the sword; it appears to have no blade, only a handle. Chintana watches in horror as the Story Teller starts swinging the sword dangerously close to the orphans. At this point Belinda walks in, declares that the Story Teller’s narrative is complete nonsense, and, after seizing the sword’s handle, begins to stab her own body with the invisible blade. The book closes an instant after midnight, with Belinda having just turned fifty, when the party’s guests realize that the Story Teller’s account was no mere fantasy. Under the orphans’ eyes, Belinda’s “fingers slide away and tumble to the ground in a soundless spray of blood” (Danielewski 2012, 276). Here Chintana instinctively jumps to Belinda’s rescue, holding her body to keep it from being torn apart. Yet Chintana “continued to wonder just how long one such tiny stitch of, well you know, could really hold” (282–­84). Because this is the book’s final sentence, the narrative remains suspended, with Belinda facing probable death and only Chintana’s embrace keeping her body in place. The narrator’s stumbling after “stitch of” is emphasized in the original by a line break. The “stitch” metaphor, which mirrors the mind style of Chintana, a seamstress, blends the domains of sewing, surgical suture, and intersubjectivity: the physical contiguity between the two women’s bodies recalls the sewing together of fabric and the suturing of bodily tissue, but it also points to interpersonal rupture and conflict over Chintana’s ex-­husband. The seemingly unobtrusive blank after “stitch of, well you know” thus

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covers an extremely wide semantic gamut, which goes from the material to the psychological via the bodily. The combination of metaphorical language and unusual typographical layout is a classic foregrounding device: its semantic density slows down the reading experience and opposes the linearity of the Story Teller’s quest. Just like Danielewski’s House of Leaves, The Fifty Year Sword is, in essence, a horror story. Along with linguistically foregrounded elements like “stitch of,” it is the multimodal presentation of the story that lends sophistication to what is, in many ways, a stereotypical plot. A first intriguing multimodal strategy is the use of color-­coded quotation marks. As the book’s preface states, the story is told by the five orphans, whose individual voices are represented by colored quotation marks “to delineate their respective and independently conducted interviews” (Danielewski 2012, 10). In practice, however, this device never works as it is supposed to. Part of the reason is that the chosen colors (shades of yellow, orange, and brown) are visually too close to one another to allow for straightforward identification. Equally unusual is that the quotation marks are consistently deployed in quick succession, suggesting that the orphans continue one another’s sentences seamlessly, a feat that would require a rather implausible level of coordination between them. While, typically, quotation marks serve as an indication of voice and thus of personal identity, Danielewski’s device ends up fusing the orphans’ identities and thus highlighting the collective nature of the telling. Even if the orphans never speak in the first-­person plural voice we have encountered in Tinkers (chapter 2) and Bird Lovers, Backyard (chapter 4), the typographical form of the narrative indicates that they are one collective storyteller: instead of separating the children’s personalities as the preface claims, the quotation marks weave them together—­a strategy that hints at the book’s deep interest in the patterns of collectivity. These patterns extend beyond the human, though. Again, a combination of stylistic and multimodal devices suggests as much. At the stylistic level, a battery of similes and metaphors insistently associates the characters with nonhuman animals: the exuberant orphans, for instance, are “beaver busy” and “frenzied as a storm-­startled wood squirrel” (Danielewski 2012, 44); when they see the Story Teller for the first time, they are compared to “five jittery swamp rabbits” and “five knowsomebetter gophers” (68); the other characters are also seen through an ani130  Textural Patterns

malistic lens, albeit less frequently than the orphans, for instance, when Chintana’s unfaithful husband is said to have “flights of green-­backed herons shrieking in his brow” (60). These metaphors and similes create stylistically salient connections between the human world and nonhuman animals, with the effect of extending the reach of the plot well beyond the group of human characters seemingly at its center. Interpersonal tensions—­for instance, between Chintana and Belinda—­and the painful realities of Chintana’s divorce and the children’s parentlessness are thus placed on a much broader canvas. If the book explores, through the orphans’ strangely overlapping voices, the question of collectivity, then the figurative language involving nonhuman animals puts human characters and nonhumans on a continuum. I explained above how the word “texture,” despite its metaphorical roots, suggests a type of connection that is metonymic and not metaphorical in that it evokes physical and causal proximity. Danielewski’s animalistic similes and metaphors work in the same way: through their frequency, they are stylistic strands metonymically expanding the book’s cast of characters and indicating that human lives are always entangled in a more-­than-­human collective. An even more striking reminder of this connectivity is offered by the book’s multimodal devices. Throughout the book, language appears only on the even-­numbered pages: the odd-­numbered ones display drawings produced with a stitching technique for which “Atelier Z” is credited on the book’s last page (for an example of this technique, see figure 5). In some instances, the drawings serve as a direct illustration of the plot, for example, when the children lift the latches on the Story Teller’s box—­ one by one, over twenty pages in total—­and we see five latch-­like patterns move left as we flip the book’s pages. In other cases, as in figure 5, the images bleed into the left-­hand page and interact, more abstractly, with the unconventional typographical layout: in this figure, for example, the swirling patterns evoke, in conjunction with the text, Chintana’s inner turmoil as she attempts to cope with her divorce and can only find a way forward in self-­inflicted violence. The use of this stitching technique deepens the textural qualities of the cover and the multithreaded image on the book’s flyleaf. This multimodal strategy draws attention to the materiality of the book we are holding in our hands, but also—­and more importantly for our purposes—­it decelerates the narrative’s progression by resonating with the multiple references to stitching at the plot

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Fig. 5. Stitching patterns in The Fifty Year Sword (Danielewski 2012). For this figure and the next, grateful acknowledgment is made to Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House llc, and Mark Z. Danielewski for permission to reprint excerpts from The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski. Copyright © 2005, 2012 by Mark Z. Danielewski. Originally published, in slightly different form, in the Netherlands by De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, in 2005.

level: Chintana’s profession, but also the surgical stitching performed by a doctor after Chintana accidentally cuts her own thumb with scissors (an example of her seeking self-­inflicted pain) and, of course, Chintana’s attempt to “stitch” Belinda’s body in place in the last scene of the book. The stitching seeks to seal a fundamental gap or absence by bringing together fabric or skin or people—­even rivals like Chintana and Belinda. Ultimately, stitching is shown to be more than a metaphor operating at different levels and scales of reality: it is a metaphysical gesture that 132  Textural Patterns

flattens human subjectivity, nonhuman animals, and inanimate matter without completely erasing the differences and the gaps between them. Put otherwise, the sense of “community” the book works toward is not simply the human reconciliation between Belinda and Chintana, who, eventually putting aside her dislike for her ex-­husband’s mistress, attempts to keep Belinda alive by holding her body. Rather, the community foregrounded by The Fifty Year Sword is a more-­than-­human one, comprising human characters, the animals brought in by Danielewski’s figurative language, and the materiality displayed by the book’s multimodal devices. If this is the vision of community that the book puts forward, the slow imagination of texture is our means of accessing it. Starting from the punctured dust jacket, the book takes on strongly tactile qualities through the stitched drawings, as well as mimetic typography, an aspect I haven’t highlighted so far. Consider, for example, the scene in which Belinda takes hold of the fifty year sword and swings the invisible blade through her own body (see figure 6): here Danielewski’s sentences and even words burst apart, with drawn slash marks mirroring, simultaneously, the shattering of the text’s materiality and the physical movement of the blade. Ominously, this device hints at the coming apart of Belinda’s body, but, more profoundly, it evokes a sense of disturbing rupture between human subjectivity and nonhuman materiality. Stitching, by contrast, seeks to achieve a metaphysical rapprochement between realities violently torn asunder by the pain and violence of everyday life. The Fifty Year Sword can be read quickly for a book of over 280 pages, thanks to the generous spacing and blank odd-­numbered pages. But that is, of course, only the objective time it takes to traverse the book. Danielewski’s compelling use of multimodal devices calls for an experientially slow approach, one that lingers on the resonances of text and images and thus attempts to move beyond the letter of this self-­described “ghost story” (2012, 10), focusing on its deeper meanings—­particularly its search for community beyond the human. As in Flanagan’s novel, the textural imagination of nonhuman materiality does not sideline or resolve human conflicts, but it places them in a broader perspective, from which we may be able to appreciate the value of stitching as an act of reconciliation that is at the same time material, embodied, and affective. The reconciliation is supported by metaphors and similes but ultimately points to metonymic (that is, causal and material) continuity. This in

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Fig. 6. Mimetic typography in The Fifty Year Sword (Danielewski 2012).

sight into the value of connectedness is the lesson that the book offers to the five orphans: they seem to have taken it up, at least if we judge from their finely interwoven narrative style. The slow reader is given the chance to follow in their multicolored, multithreaded footsteps. Both Flanagan’s and Danielewski’s works contend with the human inevitability of violence—­on a historical scale in Gould’s Book of Fish, which explores one of the darkest pages of British colonialism, on a more intimate level in The Fifty Year Sword, which focuses on everyday intersubjectivity and a character’s emotional struggles as she copes with divorce. It would be simplistic to say that, in these narratives, the imagination of texture serves as a remedy against these all-­too-­human woes. As I argued in this chapter, the experience of texture is intrinsically rife with tensions and gaps, which have their origin in the sensory discontinuities of touch—­the tentative patterns our hands trace as they feel an object—­but 134  Textural Patterns

carry over into textural patterns perceived in other sensory modalities as well. The experience of texture is metonymic: it reveals or creates deep proximity even as it doesn’t paper over discrepancies in scale and quality; on the contrary, it draws attention to these discrepancies and encourages sensory and emotional confrontation with them. By definition shifting and gappy, texture doesn’t have the reassuring stability of structure, which would provide definitive answers to Gould’s and Chintana’s existential predicament. But such stability, both characters come to realize, is illusory: genuine insight, and perhaps consolation, can only be found in the provisional and sensuous knowledge of pattern. Flanagan and Danielewski deploy multimodal devices that, in conjunction with their stylistic strategies, encourage readers to follow the protagonists in embracing this proximal knowledge and experiencing its contradictions: the emergence of texture in stylistic and thematic terms and its visual foregrounding through nonverbal strategies are thus mutually reinforcing. Through these echoes between language, image, and implied touch, Gould’s Book of Fish and The Fifty Year Sword weave the human thread of the plot into a rich fabric of nonhuman processes. They present the human world (including their characters’ emotional lives) as metonymically continuous with a wide range of animals—­Gould’s fish, Danielewski’s animal metaphors and similes—­that serve as a source of vitality and sensory fulfillment. In this way, the two works analyzed in this chapter enact a textural critique of anthropocentric hierarchies and epistemologies predicated on the safe distance of representation. By infusing their visual devices with texture, Flanagan and Danielewski use multimodality against the grain of a Western conception of vision as a rigid and inherently representational sensory mode. As a result, readers are encouraged to engage with these texts in a slow mode, savoring the thickness of verbal and nonverbal language and developing a multithreaded attention that mirrors complexly the tangle of human communities and nonhuman materialities. In this slow approach to Flanagan’s and Danielewski’s works, the multiple meanings of texture converge: the reader’s involvement in a textual artifact, humankind’s capture in nonhuman processes, the rich nonhuman mesh of ecosystems—­all these entangled forms resonate with (and within) the narrative experience of slowness. The next chapter turns to wordless comic books, where visual style can evoke textural patterns in the absence of both language and recognizable human characters.

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6

Visual Narrative and the Narramorphism of Matter

An open question in narrative theory is whether storytelling can be completely uncoupled from linguistic competencies. The prototypical forms of narrative in our culture involve language, whether exclusively (as in traditional, nonmultimodal novels) or in combination with other semiotic modes (particularly visual and auditory cues, as in film or drama). Certainly, it is possible to tell a story without using words (a silent animated film or performance, for instance), but mastery of language may still be required to interpret a series of nonverbal audiovisual stimuli as a narrative. Put otherwise, even if an artifact does not contain overt language, the recipients may still construe it as a narrative by building on concepts such as “character,” “action,” and “situation”—­concepts that may (perhaps) exist in a non-­or prelinguistic form but that, for linguistically competent audiences, will necessarily be bound up with language. To put that thesis baldly, even in the absence of “external” language, narrative meaning-­making could involve linguistic translation or mediation on a cognitive level (for example, through what philosophers call “inner speech”).1 That is an empirical question, of course, and one that—­to my knowledge—­has never been addressed head-­on. But the bottom line should be clear: disentangling language and narrative is tricky, at least if we adopt a broad conception of story as arising in the interaction between an artifact (or a sequence of staged events, in the case of live performance) and a reader or viewer. There are narratives that push their relationship with language to the limit, though. This is the case of the two comic books I will explore in this chapter, Gaïa by Thierry Cheyrol (2017) and L’année de la comète (2019) by Clément Vuillier. Both albums are completely wordless, apart from a few paratextual elements. These comics’ relationship with language is made more complicated by the fact that both center on events occurring above or below the spatiotemporal scale of human experience—­cosmic events 136

such as the appearance of a comet and a cell’s microscopic transactions with its surroundings.2 There is little room for language here, because these happenings unfold in the absence of human or humanlike characters who could carry words into these silent, yet strangely resonant, storyworlds. If narrative has, to quote again Monika Fludernik (1996, 13), a constitutive “anthropomorphic bias,” then these experimental comics question it; in the process, they create a slow rhythmicity that reveals a rich array of nonhuman forms. In a perceptive posthumanist reading of a Chilean graphic novel, Informe Tunguska (Figueroa and Romo 2009), Edward King and Joanna Page argue that “the striking repeated motifs of Informe Tunguska construct the universe as a series of fractal (self-­similar) relationships, which fold together the microscopic and the cosmic, the organic and the inorganic and the human and the non-­human, in ways that emphasize their shared formal attributes” (2017, 163). Gaïa and L’année de la comète adopt a similar formalist aesthetics, but they go one step further: while exploring resonances between the micro-­and the macrocosm in formal terms, they leave the human almost entirely out of the equation, thus proposing a vision that aspires to the nonhuman or ahuman rather than the posthuman. In How Forests Think (2013), to which King and Page’s reading of Informe Tunguska also refers, Eduardo Kohn draws on his fieldwork in the Ecuadorian Amazon to develop an anthropology of form. The central insight of his account is that the human is “only one source of form” (Kohn 2013, 158). By this Kohn means that configurations and patterns abound in the nonhuman world: “Examples of such nonliving emergent forms in the Amazon include . . . the patterned distribution of rivers or the recurrent circular shapes of the whirlpools that sometimes form in them. Each of these nonliving forms is the product of constraints on possibility. Regarding rivers, water doesn’t just flow anywhere in the Amazon. Rather, the distribution of rivers is constrained by a variety of factors, which results in a pattern” (159). These nonhuman patterns intersect complexly with the patterning of human societies, giving rise to macroforms such as the economy of rubber trade in the Amazon. Interestingly, for Kohn (20), these human forms are inextricably linked to the conceptual hierarchies created by language; moving beyond an anthropocentric conception of form thus involves leaving behind language and symbol

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ic systems in general. When we start paying serious attention to these patterned intersections between the human and the nonhuman, we enter the domain of what the previous chapters have called “texture”—­and perceiving texture is a slow exercise, as we know. Cheyrol’s and Vuillier’s wordless narrative art seeks to do just this, even if sporadic traces of the human form remain, especially, in Cheyrol’s work. But there is no doubt that the anthropomorphism of narrative is under enormous pressure here and that the result is deeply thought-­provoking. In my reading, these comics contend with a problem brought out by recent debates in the area of material ecocriticism, where Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann have argued—­influenced by new materialism—­that matter possesses narrative agency. I turn to these debates in the next section. In the following section and before offering close readings of Cheyrol’s and Vuillier’s works, I discuss the genre of wordless comics and why it ties in closely with my account of slowness. Introducing Narramorphism Articulated in a manifesto-­like article in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (Iovino and Oppermann 2012) and later in a coedited collection (Iovino and Oppermann 2014b), Iovino and Oppermann’s “material ecocriticism” takes its cue from the deeply entangled view of human-­nonhuman relations that has emerged repeatedly in this book. The nonhuman world—­understood in the broadest possible terms as an array of physical, chemical, and biological processes—­ enfolds human societies with its materiality and creates possibilities and constraints for our species. From this perspective, which challenges a long-­standing tradition in the Western world of seeing matter as inert and available to human action, agency is not a hallmark of human individuals and cultures, and it isn’t even limited to the domain of living, sentient organisms. On the contrary, agency is constitutively bound up with materiality: in Iovino and Oppermann’s words, it is “a pervasive and inbuilt property of matter, as part and parcel of its generative dynamism” (2014a, 3), and it can be distributed across human subjects and nonhuman entities and processes. Take, for instance, the collapse of the Brumadinho dam in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais in January 2019, which resulted in a mudslide that killed more than 250 people and scattered waste materials from 138  Visual Narrative

metal mining over a vast area.3 Certainly, the moral and legal responsibility for the accident lies with Vale, the mining company that owned the dam and failed to prevent its collapse. But the agency of the collapse, for material ecocritics, crisscrosses the human/nonhuman divide, involving a vast number of nonhuman processes (the physics of the dam and of the wastewater it contained, the configuration of the terrain that allowed the mud to spread in certain directions, and so on), in addition to the rash human decisions and gross inadequacies that determined the disaster. “Agency,” in this extended sense, doesn’t necessarily involve properties like intentionality and sentience (which are intrinsically linked to action in human terms) but denotes a form of autonomous causal efficacy—­“thing-­power,” to quote again Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (see chapter 3). In the collapse of the Brumadinho dam, this efficacy led to the tragic reshaping of human life, as well as to catastrophic consequences for the surrounding ecosystem, through the uncontrolled release of waste from the company’s mining operations. Iovino and Oppermann’s use of the concept of agency bears some similarity to how material agency has been theorized by researchers in cognitive science, particularly Lambros Malafouris (2008, 2013) in the field of cognitive archaeology. Commenting on a potter’s embodied skills as he shapes a lump of clay into a vase, Malafouris argues that agency is not an intrinsic feature of human psychology but an emergent property of the interactions between human subjects and the material world (in Malafouris’s example, the dynamic interactions between the potter, the clay, and the wheel).4 Malafouris is more cautious than Iovino and Oppermann in not uncoupling agency from the human completely; for him, agency is always material in that it arises from physical transactions between a sentient subject and the material world, but it is not inherent in things. Cognitively and culturally, our understanding of agency is deeply indebted to our history as embodied organisms evolving in constant interaction with the physical world, which is the kind of material agency Malafouris has in mind—­an idea endorsed by many “enactivist” philosophers working in the wake of Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch’s The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991). Conceptualizing agency beyond sentient beings, as Iovino and Oppermann propose, involves a double movement: the scope

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of the concept of agency is broadened, while certain associations that come with human agency—­consciousness, subjectivity, intentionality—­ are left out. Whether this operation is helpful or not—­whether it produces conceptual insight or distortion—­largely depends on the rhetorical context in which it is carried out. Seen as a rhetorical move, Iovino and Oppermann’s claim that agency is “a pervasive and inbuilt property of matter” is perhaps a necessary provocation if the goal is to unsettle rigid dichotomies that have shaped Western attitudes toward the nonhuman world. However, Iovino and Oppermann don’t stop there: in addition to tying together agency and materiality, they add a third concept, narrativity, to the mix. This is where the discourse of material ecocriticism becomes even more speculative: if the idea of nonhuman agency can be read loosely, as the causal efficacy of material things and processes, then the ascription of narrativity to inanimate matter poses more of a problem. Because storytelling is a quintessentially human practice, the scope of the concept is inherently narrower and more specific than agency; extending narrative beyond the human thus brings in unique conceptual challenges. Matter, writes Oppermann, “produces stories, evolutionary histories, climate narratives, biological memories, geological narratives, and histories of earth movements, making meaning the necessary complement of matter” (2014, 32). Oppermann continues: “[All] material life experience is implicated in creative expressions contriving a creative ontology. Storied matter, thus, is inseparable from the storied human in existential ways, producing epistemic configurations of life, discourses, texts, and narratives with ethico-­political meanings. In this conjecture, material ecocriticism seeks to analyze meanings and agency disseminated across this storied world, across the stories of material flows, substances, and forces that form a web of entangled relations with the human reality. On this fusion of horizons, we find creative materiality encoded in a collective poetry of life” (34). Essentially, there are two ways of reading these claims about the storied nature of matter, a metonymic and a literal one. The former reading focuses on Oppermann’s statements about the inseparability of “storied matter” and the “storied human”: from this standpoint, materiality is not endowed with mysterious narrative powers, but its transformations are seen as open to and creatively entangled 140  Visual Narrative

with stories told by human communities. This is the metonymic logic of texture as I have discussed it in the previous chapter. In narratives of the Brumadinho dam collapse, for instance, the mudslide “produces stories” only in a metonymic way: it causally affects humans, who then share narratives about the disaster. Those narratives are central to the project of breaking down the complex temporal sequence of the collapse into a series of discrete processes and events, thereby ascribing nonhuman causality and human responsibility.5 In a literal reading of the material ecocritics’ statements, though, matter is a creative force whose agency is inherently narrative at the level of its temporal and causal organization: stories arise from things without metaphorical projection or metonymic extension—­put otherwise, without the intervention of (human or humanlike) subjectivity. Indeed, while the human may be part of the narrative patterns traced by matter, it does not stand at the center of the patterns—­its narrative agency is limited, its creativity is merely derivative, a manifestation of the “collective poetry of life.” Taken at face value, this stronger claim about the narrativity of the nonhuman is frustratingly vague because Iovino and Oppermann never spell out the ways in which matter is storied and how that notion differs from a view of materiality as “vibrant” (in Bennett’s terminology) or causally efficacious (in my terminology). Even more clearly than the discussion of nonhuman agency, this appeal to narrative uses a fundamentally human practice as a touchstone to shed light on the processes of the nonhuman world. Despite Iovino and Oppermann’s programmatic statements, the risk is that of domesticating the nonhuman, turning it into something too familiar and recognizable. The problem here is not just epistemological (how to properly understand the nonhuman), but it is also and perhaps primarily ethical: achieving a just relationship with the nonhuman environment and its inhabitants is likely to involve an acknowledgment of their fundamental otherness, how they cannot and should not be reduced to human categories. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously remarked that if “a lion could talk, we would not understand him” (1988, 233). Similarly, if nonhuman things could “produce stories” by themselves, we might well find them to be unrecognizable as narratives. Again, the value of Iovino and Oppermann’s position is as a provocation aimed at disrupting an understanding of narrative geared exclusive

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ly toward human categories. It is clear that, with that goal in mind, the weaker, metonymic reading of their claims is not radical enough: nonhuman events may initiate a narrative chain only through the mediation of human subjectivity, which would then retain most of the agency in the narrativization. At the same time, the stronger, literal reading lacks intelligibility and potentially falls back on an anthropocentric understanding of matter.6 What I call the “narramorphism” of nonhuman processes is situated between the metonymic and the literal view of the narrativity of matter; the concept capitalizes on the resources of analogy to pursue Iovino and Oppermann’s materialist project. Narramorphism is clearly related to anthropomorphism, the analogical operation of seeing nonhuman things as humanlike in some relevant respects.7 However, while anthropomorphism works by establishing a common ground between nonhumans and human features or activities, narramorphism is a more abstract operation: it involves identifying a structural analogy between the temporal-­causal coherence that underlies human narrative and the patterning of events and processes beyond the human. Thus, the Brumadinho dam disaster is potentially narramorphic in that its sequentiality, with the slow buildup and the final climax (the collapse), recalls the temporal organization of story, which falls into a basic scheme of arousal and resolution.8 The narramorphic interpretation of the disaster is profoundly different from an anthropomorphic one, which would project a human figure—­and possibly feelings and mental states—­onto the events (for instance, by seeing the dam as a giant who desperately attempts to contain the water but eventually collapses under its weight). While this kind of anthropomorphism involves reading the human into the nonhuman, narramorphism focuses on the formal transformations of matter and how they resemble the structural affects of human stories. As a number of narrative theorists have argued, narrative is an inherently affective practice: it offers variations on the basic patterning of arousal and resolution, for instance, through Meir Sternberg’s (2001) emotional universals of suspense, curiosity, and surprise.9 Narramorphic analogy spreads these narrative affects outward, positioning them within the shifting configurations of nonhuman materialities (and the reader’s imagination thereof). Artistic practices can build on and amplify this narramorphic analogy while distancing themselves from anthropocentrism. The foregrounding 142  Visual Narrative

of the narramorphism of matter undermines any sense of the primacy of human subjectivity by telling a quasi story in the absence of anthropomorphic observers—­a situation that Greg Garrard (2012) discusses under the rubric of “disanthropy.” This process is made clear by the two comic books I analyze in the following pages, in which narramorphism is based on visual cues and the inherent rhythmicity of the panels and pages. By bypassing language through their wordlessness, Gaïa and L’année de la comète demonstrate the potential of narramorphism as a heuristic device to explore textural continuities and discontinuities between human stories and nonhuman processes. Slowness, as we will see, plays a central role in this narramorphic dynamic. Wordless Comics and Slow Narrative Comics are a sequential art that combines visual and linguistic cues within a page layout typically divided into individual images known as “panels.” The narrativity of comics has been the subject of extensive debates in comics studies, with key contributions by scholars such as Thierry Groensteen (2007, 2013), Karin Kukkonen (2013), and Kai Mikkonen (2017). The juxtaposition of the panels is a primary site of the emergence of narrativity in comics: if panel 2 follows panel 1 on the page, then panel 2 will be generally thought to depict later events than panel 1 and possibly events that are causally linked to those shown in panel 1. As Mikkonen notes, while not all panels are connected in these terms, “temporal transitions between panels are so common in the medium that they may amount to a kind of default expectation” (2017, 38). Verbal and pictorial representation make a joint contribution to narrative sequentiality: the images suggest change over time pictorially (for instance, by showing various stages of a character performing an action), while the words contained in caption boxes (“Two months later,” “Meanwhile,” and so on) may be used to specify the nature of their temporal-­causal linkage. Nevertheless, throughout the history of the medium, a minor but significant strand of comics has explored the rich possibilities of visual narration in the absence of language. It is to this wordless genre that my two case studies belong. In a two-­part article, Groensteen (2015a, 2015b) reconstructs the evolution of wordless comics, from nineteenth-­century satirical cartoons—­for

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Groensteen, the earliest instance of the genre—­to the present. Remarking on the rising popularity of wordless comics in the twenty-­first century, Groensteen (2015b, n.p.) helpfully distinguishes between seven currents in today’s landscape: satirical, fantastic, farcical (“burlesque” in Groensteen’s French), cartoonish, choreographic, poetic, and noir. Particularly relevant to the analysis of Gaïa and L’année de la comète are Groensteen’s categories of choreographic and poetic wordless comics. In the former mode, comics artists “are less interested in crafting a narrative than in playing with the figures’ position on the page, their diverse shifts and combinations, the rhythm created by their repetition” (n.p.; my translation). In relation to the poetic mode, Groensteen writes: “When the drawing becomes more suggestive than descriptive, more allusive than denotative, wordless graphic narrative can take on a poetic vein” (n.p.; my translation). He adds that, in this poetic mode, formal analogy plays a key role in stringing together disparate images. Choreographic rhythm and formal analogies and resonances are also at the core of Cheyrol’s and Vuillier’s narramorphic exploration of the nonhuman. As I argued in my article “Tell-­Tale Rhythms: Embodiment and Narrative Discourse” (2014a), the affective experience of rhythm is an important—­if often overlooked—­dimension of narrative engagements. The style, plot organization, and other formal features of a story modulate the overall rhythm of the narrative experience in terms of both speed (fast-­paced versus slow-­paced) and emotional qualities: a fast-­ paced narrative can be equally cheerful or feverish, depending on the nature of the events being presented and on the style of their presentation. Rhythm in comics is a particularly complex phenomenon, arising from the interplay of multiple textual microrhythms, such as the visual content of the panels, their size, and their formal arrangement in page layout (see Mikkonen 2017, 54–­55). The words on the page also contribute to the overall rhythmicity of comics by setting a pace—­the pace of reading the text in each panel—­that structures the experience of taking in the images, giving it a strongly linear quality. While, visually, the reader is free to explore the page in whatever order he or she likes, the linearity of the text matches closely both the sequentiality of the narrative and the presentation of the panels (which are typically read, like text, from left to right and from top to bottom in Western comics). The result is that, for Groensteen (2013, 157), the “balloons” or speech bubbles 144  Visual Narrative

“work as an apparatus for generating rhythm.” Perhaps more accurately, the verbal dimension of comics works as an apparatus for generating the primary rhythm, that is, the rhythm that orchestrates the other rhythmic cues contained in the visual style and page layout. Normally, in engaging with conventional verbal comics, the pace of our experience is keyed to the words on the page. Of course, this is no hard-­and-­ fast rule but only a general tendency deriving from the relative stability of the pace of text comprehension compared to the appreciation of the visual features of the page, whose temporality can vary dramatically across readers and reading contexts. Yet comics may work around the rhythmic primacy of the words in various ways. A radical departure from the tendency to prioritize verbal rhythm is constituted by wordless comics, where the absence of dialogue and other linguistic cues forces the reader to find pace-­setting mechanisms elsewhere. The nonverbal rhythms of page layout and visual style come to the fore as the reading experience is uncoupled from language, and even the expectation of linear progression from panel to panel, while certainly still present, becomes attenuated. As pointed out above, linguistic and narrative sequentiality tend to go hand in hand in comics: when the reader’s attention is released from the overt sequence of textuality, it is freer to roam around the page, following the visual forms of comics nonlinearly and noting formal resonances that may pass unobserved in a reading experience dominated by verbal language.10 Moreover, the silent nature of wordless comics increases the reader’s receptivity to how nonvisual forms may be lodged within the visual surface of the comics page. As Barbara Postema puts it, the absence of language “can allow the image to push beyond representing the visual diegesis in some kind of mimetic way: in addition to the visible world, the imagery is expanded to represent other sensations, including sound and its qualities and dynamics” (2016, 206). While Postema focuses on sound, an experience of texture can equally arise in wordless comics, calling for a tactile mode of appreciation in which actual vision and imaginary touch converge. This sense of texture, as we know, correlates closely with a slow reading experience that privileges the thickness of form over the teleology of narrative progression (see chapter 1). For willing and predisposed readers, the attentional freedom afforded by the wordless genre will deepen the experience of slowness. Unhindered by language, we can resonate with

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the diverse formal rhythms arising from the comics page without turning them into a single, dominant rhythmicity. What emerges is a contemplative mode of appreciation that is attuned to the poetic and choreographic qualities of wordless comics (to refer again to Groensteen’s categories) and invites multiple visual traversals of the text. This patterned experience of slowness is central to my case studies’ narramorphic engagement with nonhuman materialities. Beyond Anthropomorphism Thierry Cheyrol’s Gaïa engages with what Iovino and Oppermann call the “collective poetry of life” on a scale that ranges from the microscopic to the cosmic. The panels are entirely wordless apart from seven chapter headings: “Gaia,” “Erebos,” “Cocytus,” “Naissance d’Eros” (Birth of Eros), “Pontos,” “Selene,” and “Okeanos.” Cocytus is one of the rivers surrounding Hades, the underworld, in Greek mythology; these other names are in all probability lifted from Hesiod’s Theogony, where they refer to primordial gods and their descendants. This mythical frame thus positions Gaïa as a comic book concerned with cosmic beginnings and creates an expectation of narrative-­like sequence (given the cultural pervasiveness of origin stories such as the one told in the book of Genesis). But the expectation of narrative continuity breaks down quickly as we engage with Cheyrol’s work: the allusions to Greek myth are not an attempt to straightforwardly adapt into comics Hesiod’s genealogical account. Rather than systematically distinguishing between stages in the generations of gods, as Hesiod does, the headings serve as loose commentary, helping the reader identify significant moments in the nonhuman transformations portrayed by Cheyrol: for instance, “Selene” (the Greek goddess of the moon) precedes the collision between the planet Gaia and a moon-­like satellite. Put otherwise, the labels draw the reader’s attention to events or characters that stand out in the flux of Gaïa, but they do not fall into a clear-­cut narrative progression or organization. We have seen in chapter 3 that A. S. Byatt’s retelling of Norse mythology in Ragnarok contrasts the rigidity of apocalyptic narrative with the shapeless fertility of natural forms. Cheyrol’s haphazard references to Greek mythology also work against the grain of mythological narrative as a source of linear explanation: while the gods and Titans of the Theogony bring in a cosmological frame of reference, the narramorphism 146  Visual Narrative

of Gaïa derives primarily from its formal experimentations, not from the integration of the external framework of myth. Cheyrol’s aesthetic choices reflect an interest in microscopic forms that exist below the threshold of human perception. This is an abstract world of cell-­like structures, globules, membranes, cilia, and radial symmetries—­visual elements that resist a more conventional imagination of organic form, one geared toward human-­scale macroorganisms. These strange shapes are distinctly reminiscent of German zoologist Ernst Haeckel’s visual exploration of nature in the prints that accompany his influential Kunstformen der Natur (1904); Haeckel’s famous depiction of protozoans, cnidarians (such as jellyfish and sea anemones), and fungi appears to have left a particularly deep mark on Cheyrol’s imagination.11 We can trace this influence already on the first page, which displays six panels focusing on the same object, a cell-­like structure that becomes associated in the course of the book with the titular Gaia, the earth (see figure 7). This organism will soon evolve into the work’s nonhuman “protagonist” and is in fact the most frequently recurring visual element in the comic book. The four panels in the first row zoom in on material changes taking place within the cell, with the growth of cilia and the expansion of the central opening. The larger panels in the rows below capture the emergence of circular structures similar to sea anemones (one of Haeckel’s best-­k nown subjects). The magnification effect continues on the second page, where the circular structures are depicted at a close range—­a scale on which they look distinctly like erupting volcanoes. The volcano is the first of many recognizable figures that emerge within the abstract fabric of Cheyrol’s work. These familiar elements, which include eyes and reproductive organs, are inconsistent with the microscopic scale of the abstract transformations that surround them. Cheyrol’s visual analogies between the microscopic and the familiar, human-­scale world contribute to a sense of scalar disorientation: we begin with what looks like a cell, but the comic book gradually problematizes that reading of Gaia—­first through the inclusion of figurative elements that point analogically to the macrocosm, later through Gaia’s apparent evolution into a planetary entity.12 As readers, we are hard-­pressed to find the appropriate scale for understanding these transformations: Are they microscopic or cosmic happenings? If a cell can function as a self-­contained world, perhaps the earth itself can be viewed as a superor

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Fig. 7. The first page of Gaïa (Cheyrol 2017).

ganism, a self-­regulating system, as posited by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis (1974; see also Lovelock 2000) in their seminal “Gaia hypothesis.” But even this reading doesn’t eliminate the scalar ambivalence of Cheyrol’s work. The uncertainty is deepened by what is undoubtedly the most striking irruption of figuration, namely, the use of bodily and particularly sexual imagery. As the transformation of the eyelike Gaia continues, it looks increasingly like a vulva. Sperm cells with a phallic shape are seen wandering through Gaia’s richly patterned interior. A one-­page spread shows a cross section of Gaia with organs vaguely resembling a brain and a heart, along with a fetus that takes on, in the space of a few pages, a distinctly human shape (see figure 8). Parts of the human body are thus interspersed with geometrical forms (à la Haeckel), complicating and enriching the parallel between the cell and the planet. The inscription of the human body into the material fabric of the earth serves as an analogical device—­an analogy within the cell-­planet analogy, if you will—­that evokes the vitality of matter via the visual vocabulary of sexual reproduction. The possibilities of sexual desire are mapped onto the transformations that matter itself goes through as Gaia evolves and interacts with its surroundings. Anthropomorphism is thus used strategically in Cheyrol’s work, as Bennett suggests, but its influence is not long-­lasting.13 This is perhaps most evident in a section of Gaïa in which the human fetus is drawn in a style reminiscent of Gaia’s granulated structure on the first page (see again figure 8); later, it appears to dissolve into an abstract pattern. The human body breaks down into geometrical shapes; eventually, it blends with the abstract materiality of Cheyrol’s other imagined forms. The human body, with its sexual productivity, is thus used as a stepping stone in Cheyrol’s engagement with the nonhuman world. But the human-­nonhuman analogy quickly loses momentum, forcing Cheyrol to discard the human form as the visual scope of the narrative outgrows the scale of a single planet. The second half of the book shows Gaia interacting with astronomical objects. Here anthropomorphic traces disappear almost completely, while the universe is shaken by a series of cataclysms that even affect the layout of the page: in figure 9, the white space between the panels—­ commonly known as the “gutter”—­is incorporated into a detonation. The implication is that these dramatic events in cosmic history cannot be contained by the conventional (and human) form of the comic book page. At

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Fig. 8. Anthropomorphic figuration in Gaïa (Cheyrol 2017).

the same time, the scalar disorientation continues: while the black background of the panel evokes outer space and thus an astronomical scale, many of the geometrical elements recall atomic nuclei and microorganisms. Direct juxtapositions of organic, planetary, and cosmic objects become increasingly frequent toward the end of the comic book, while visual references to the human form disappear. Instead, what prevails is a sense of textural materiality that (as seen in the previous chapter) disrupts and flattens scalar distinctions. Central to this experience of materiality is the formal creativity of Cheyrol’s drawings, which invite readers to imagine and resonate with a gamut of tactile impressions, from the rough surface of the rocks to the velvet black of deep space, from rotund cells to angular lightning bolts. 150  Visual Narrative

Fig. 9. A cosmic explosion extends into the page layout in Gaïa (Cheyrol 2017).

The last panel of the comic book portrays one final instance of a recognizable organic form but in vegetal and not human terms: it is a shoot emerging from the ground, with atomic nucleus–­like shapes and helical galaxies well visible in the background. This humble plant is thus put on a continuum with physical and astronomical forces, suggesting that the rise of familiar life on Earth/Gaia involves a grand history of cosmic transformations and dramas—­t he kind of history that the comic book has staged through Cheyrol’s formal experiments. The birth of organismic life is not an isolated event but the result of what cosmologists would call the “fine-­tuning” of the universe—­a unique conjunction of general physical laws and local conditions (see Swinburne 2003). A sentence on the blank page facing the final panel—­the only other instance of language in the book, along with the chapter headings—­reads “Ceci n’est pas une fin” (This is not an ending), suggesting that the cosmic history continues beyond the provisional but meaningful endpoint of the emergence of vegetal life on Earth. The human may (or may not) be part of this future history, but its presence is—­at best—­only implied. If anthropomorphism was, initially, a strategic device involved in channeling the rich vitality of matter via a parallel with sexual desire and reproduction, then the comic book’s sustained engagement with the material

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forms of the nonhuman world has put the reader in a position to imagine the productivity of matter without anthropomorphism. Both scalar disorientation and the abstraction of visual form are important steps in distancing the audience from the comforts of the human world, decelerating their engagement and approximating an experience of dynamic materiality independent of human categories. If Gaïa succeeds in this imaginative project, it is because the blatant anthropomorphism of the reproductive analogies turns into a more sophisticated strategy of narramorphism. A nonhuman entity—­Gaia—­is cast in the role of protagonist of this cosmic history, a process that recalls the linguistic device of nominalization. In nominalization, a noun (“the evaporation of water”) encapsulates a temporal process (“water evaporates”).14 Likewise, in Cheyrol’s comic book, the name Gaia denotes a long and intricate series of material transformations in the earth system. These radical changes are arranged in a temporal and causal pattern that resembles the organization of human narrative. A sense of rhythmicity develops as abstract forms and patterns succeed one another, replacing more familiar forms and interacting with the materiality of Cheyrol’s style and panel grid. This rhythm is patterned in visual and tactile terms, as we have seen, but also affectively, with the resulting arc feeding into the narramorphism of Cheyrol’s work: we have the slow crescendo of Gaia’s development in the beginning, the dramatic cataclysms of the middle, and a peaceful but open ending that foreshadows more transformations to come. The suggestion of a narrative-­like shape thus unifies Cheyrol’s rich formal imagery, serving as an affective macroform that can stage more localized changes and clashes in the material elements of the cosmos. Crucially, the question whether narrative is inherent in the cosmic matter Cheyrol plays with becomes irrelevant; narramorphism is an emergent feature of the imagination as it hovers between the artist, the reader, and the formal qualities of Gaïa. The imagination is here put in a slow, textural mode, because the near-­ absence of language foregrounds the formal nature of this engagement with materiality: we are encouraged to reread the book, taking in visual resonances beyond a mere sequentiality of cause and effect; the narramorphic shape of the evocation of Gaia becomes increasingly distinct as we take our time and learn to appreciate Cheyrol’s stylistic operation. The little text we are confronted with—­t he mythical references and the 152  Visual Narrative

final sentence—­only marks vague moments in a slow temporality that fuses the micro-­and the macrocosm. Ambivalent Ancestrality If Gaïa combines anthropomorphic figuration, organic shapes, and geometrical forms, L’année de la comète (The year of the comet) is stylistically more homogeneous. Vuillier favors richly detailed two-­page spreads, with only a small fraction of the pages being divided into panels. The drawings are characterized by clear-­cut contours and intricate surfaces—­a style reminiscent of Hokusai’s famous prints such as Thirty-­Six Views of Mount Fuji and The Great Wave off Kanagawa. There are no purely abstract geometrical shapes here, but Vuillier’s evocation of various kinds of formal arrangements—­the fiery tail of the comet, the elastic surface of the sea, patterns of cloud, mountain ranges, and stars—­is so meticulous that it clearly exceeds the needs of figuration, instead bringing out a strong sense of formal rhythmicity and fascination with materiality. Text is completely absent, and so is the human figure: the only life forms in this album are vegetal ones (a lush forest). The setting is split between an Earth-­like planet and outer space, which is being traversed by the titular comet. While the comic book’s title strongly implies that the comet flies by the planet, the two are never shown in the same image: the planet is never visible in the pages tracking the comet’s progress, and neither is the comet in the pages or panels depicting what happens on the planet’s surface. Instead, views of the comet are juxtaposed to views of the planet, typically, with the two facing each other (as in figure 10). Throughout the book, the comet is shown moving across the expanse of the starry sky, changing course (possibly, away from the planet), and then disappearing on the two final pages. Meanwhile, on the surface of the planet dramatic transformations occur: mountains collapse, a gigantic thunderstorm gains impetus, the ocean rises dramatically. The land that remains, covered with tropical vegetation, is torn apart by explosions that form patterns of fire and matter remarkably similar to the comet’s tail—­a resemblance that Vuillier highlights by placing six panels depicting the conflagrations side by side with an impressively detailed close-­up of the comet (see figure 11). The reader is left in the dark as to whether this planet is indeed the earth and whether these events precede the advent of life or perhaps

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Fig. 10. The comet and scenes from the planet side by side in L’année de la comète (Vuillier 2019).

follow its decline and extinction. However, an epigraph on the book’s back cover provides a key; it reads: “Paysages grandioses des âges disparus! Nul regard humain ne vous a contemplés, nulle oreille n’a compris vos harmonies . . .” (Grand landscapes of vanished ages! No human gaze has observed you, no ear has grasped your harmonies . . .). The quotation comes from a popular science book by French astronomer Camille Flammarion, Le monde avant la création de l’homme (1886), where these lines serve as a caption to a print depicting a prehistoric forest. Clearly, the scientific imagination of what contemporary French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux calls “ancestrality” inspired the highly textured landscapes of Vuillier’s L’année de la comète. For Meillassoux, “ancestral” refers to “any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species—­or even anterior to every recognized form of life on earth” (2008, 10). The possibility of knowing ancestrality through scientific models plays a major role in Meillassoux’s philosophical opposition to Kantian correlationism, the doctrine that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (5). Meillassoux argues that the imag154  Visual Narrative

Fig. 11. Conflagrations on the planet (on the left-­hand page) and details from the comet’s tail (on the right-­hand page) juxtaposed in L’année de la comète (Vuillier 2019).

ination of the ancestral world, which far predates the human mind, allows us to accomplish a feat that philosophers working in Kant’s wake have long considered impossible: uncoupling thinking (subjectivity) from being (matter) and thus confronting materiality outside of its relationship with a cognizing subject. Vuillier’s comic book makes a sustained attempt at turning this philosophical argument into a visual experience: it projects a world without human or humanlike subjectivity, a world where—­unlike what happens in Gaïa—­anthropomorphism has been eliminated completely and the forms of mineral and vegetal existence have free rein.15 The comet is the undisputed nonhuman protagonist of L’année de la comète. The title itself implies it; visually, it is consistently presented as a well-­delineated (if nonanthropomorphic) figure against a vast and empty background of miniature stars. This figure-­ground relationship suggests autonomous identity, while the final “gesture” of turning away, on the book’s penultimate page, indicates deliberateness and agency. More ambivalent is the status of the planet: Could it be a character in its own right, perhaps with a planet-­organism analogy similar to the one at work

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in Gaïa? No such analogy seems possible here, because organisms are by definition self-­contained, whereas the scenes set on the planet’s surface give a stark impression of fragmentation. Visually, this impression is reinforced by the repeated use of a grid layout for the planet, while the comet is consistently shown in full-­page or two-­page spreads. If the planet can be construed as character-­like, it is only in the sense of a shapeless entity suspended between the vastly different patterns and textures of sea, land, and vegetal life; this heterogeneity hints at the material productivity of shapelessness, an idea we have already encountered in discussing Byatt’s Ragnarok. The totality of the planet is thus a first gap in the fabric of Vuillier’s work: we expect to be able to visualize and understand the planet as a single astronomical body, but that expectation is repeatedly defied.16 If the comet is a stable form, then the planet is a radically unstable one; the visual exuberance of Vuillier’s ancestral landscapes attempts to channel that instability. As seen above, Gaïa is a work of scalar disorientation; L’année de la comète favors what Derek Woods (2014, 133) calls “scale variance”—­the gaps and discontinuities involved in moving across scales so that phenomena at a certain scale (for instance, climate change) cannot be completely predicted on the basis of events taking place on a different scale (for instance, my driving a car to work every day). There is, of course, a causal relationship between these scales, but it is not a linear or deterministic one. In the case of Vuillier’s L’année de la comète, the variance is between the astronomical framework of the comet and the planetary one; more precisely, we are confronted with the impossibility of understanding the planet’s history on a scale that is commensurable with the astronomical one. The “gap” is here made legible by the fact that the comet and the planet are never shown in a spatial (and thus scalar) relation to each other: the complete image of the comet is merely juxtaposed to disparate images from the planet’s surface. This scalar discontinuity builds on and amplifies the highly fragmented nature of Vuillier’s vision of the planet. These gaps are further compounded by the ambivalence that surrounds the nonhuman encounter staged by L’année de la comète. Flammarion, the author of the epigraph and a noted astronomer at the turn of the twentieth century, made alarming comments on the 1910 passage near the earth of Halley’s Comet: “Prof. Flammarion is of the opinion that the cyanogen [in the comet] would 156  Visual Narrative

impregnate the [earth’s] atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet,” reads an article on the cover of the February 8, 1910, edition of the New York Times.17 L’année de la comète lingers over a related kind of uncertainty by interspersing the images of the comet with the dramatic transformations that are unsettling the planet: Does the comet “impregnate the atmosphere” and cause the catastrophic events shown by Vuillier’s drawings, as Flammarion predicted for Halley, or is the comet a mere observer of processes beyond its sphere of influence, as turned out to be the case in 1910? Are the striking visual analogies between the patterns in the comet’s tail and the explosions on the planet (see again figure 11) a matter of coincidence or the manifestation of an underlying cosmic force? Ultimately, is the choreography of planet and comet as staged by the comic book one of temporal simultaneity, causality, or mere visual analogy? These questions underlie the book’s interest in textures and patterns; even the ending—­with the comet flying away—­does not resolve them. The ambivalence that these questions generate is, together with the inclusion of nonhuman characters, the most important narramorphic feature of the comic book. Narrative, as we know from theorists like Wolfgang Iser (1978) and Sternberg (2001), is an inherently “gappy” form: it derives its affective power from the omission of information, which gives rise to the distinctive emotional contour of suspense, curiosity, and surprise (in Sternberg’s terminology). While suspense is prospective (that is, directed at a future outcome that is not yet known), curiosity is retrospective (directed at past events that were explicitly omitted by the teller), and surprise is elicited by an unmarked gap in the past, which (when revealed and filled in) forces a reinterpretation of the story. The wordlessness of Vuillier’s work, along with the scale variance implied by the comet-­planet juxtapositions, contributes to a sense of indeterminacy that resonates with the book’s central mystery and creates a narramorphic setup: What is the exact nature of the cosmic encounter between the comet and the planet? We do not and cannot know, and considering the question decelerates our experience by inviting us to hover between suspense (as we read and hope that the nonhuman encounter will be specified) and curiosity (as we look back upon the enduring mystery of that encounter after the comet’s departure and the album’s ending). The parallel between the comet and the planet, which is encoded in the formal qual

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ities of Vuillier’s visual style, takes on a slow temporal dynamic that is distinctly narramorphic: first the desire to know if the connection between the two celestial bodies is causal or merely analogical, then the frustration of not knowing. This “egregious gap,” in H. Porter Abbott’s (2013) terminology, chastises our thirst for knowledge, including the knowledge of the earth’s ancestral past that Meillassoux theorizes about.18 Vuillier’s work, as I argued above, seeks to translate Meillassoux’s ideas into the purely visual sequentiality of wordless comics. At the same time, Vuillier demonstrates how the philosophical project of envisioning the world without humans—­or materiality detached from a perceiving subject—­is riddled with the textural tensions and discontinuities that come from the erasure of the human figure and of the subjectivity that accompanies it.19 If we push thought beyond its limits, we may succeed in visualizing materiality without anthropomorphizing it, as Vuillier does by orchestrating a narramorphic encounter between two nonhuman entities; however, a number of gaps and indeterminacies are likely to enter the picture, reflecting the strain being placed on our imagination. These indeterminacies should be embraced in attempting to move beyond human subjectivity, a precarious process nourished rather than undermined by awareness of the limits of our meaning-­making, for it is only in passing and obliquely that we may be able to glimpse the world without us.20 Vuillier’s work lays out this constitutive indeterminacy in a narramorphic scheme, with the creation of a mystery and the expectation of a resolution, which is eventually flouted by the ending. The result is a slow narrative marked by fascination with textures and patterns as they evolve over time. Vuillier demonstrates that wordless comics, experienced in a slow mode, are an ideal medium to contemplate the ambivalence of our imagination of ancestrality. As the medium of comics sidelines the human form (including the form of human language), the paradoxes of scale come into view: abandoning the familiar world of human interaction involves a disorienting spatiality (which, in Gaïa, blends the microscopic and the astronomic), as well as numerous leaps and discontinuities in moving from the terrestrial to the cosmic (in L’année de la comète). Both kinds of scalar disruption are implicated in the narramorphism of the two comics I have examined in 158  Visual Narrative

this chapter. Gaïa follows a familiar narrative arc of gradual buildup of tension and final resolution: at first the human is placed, incongruously, within scales of reality where it does not belong—­a microorganism that merges seamlessly with its cosmic surroundings. The comic book addresses this incongruity by staging a series of catastrophic events in which all residual traces of anthropomorphism are erased, paving the way for a peaceful—­if open—­ending that foregrounds the emergence of a nonhuman life form (a plant). In L’année de la comète, the exact nature of the encounter between two nonhuman characters remains ambiguous throughout; this ambiguity—­underscored by multiple scalar gaps—­ drives the reader’s suspense and curiosity and thus lends narramorphic qualities to the visual sequence. This kind of narramorphism in wordless comic books serves as a probe to envision the efficacy of matter, its capacity to shape the world (and itself) in ways that give the lie to its connotations of dull passivity. Narramorphism is based on the structural analogy between the organization of human narrative and the patterning of nonhuman materialities. It doesn’t involve ascribing narrativity to matter, as Iovino and Oppermann suggest (at least on a strong reading of their claims); instead, it acknowledges how the complex transformations of matter can resemble the affective dynamic of narrative and become metonymically entangled with it. The common ground between materiality and narrativity is their marked tendency toward formal arrangements, which can be experienced in sensory and affective terms. Narramorphism thus reflects a deep kind of formalism, a fascination with the shapes of the nonhuman world that is brought out by phenomenologically inspired ecophilosophers such as David Abram (1997).21 As we know from the introduction, appreciating form requires slowing down perception, and the comic books by Cheyrol and Vuillier are powerful examples of this deceleration: through the work of visual style and by uncoupling comics from the directedness and steady pace of verbal language, they ask the reader to pay careful attention to a vast number of textures and patterns. The sophisticated visual form of these silent comics deepens their narramorphism and helps Cheyrol and Vuillier avoid the pitfalls of anthropomorphizing uses of language (for instance, personifying metaphors): the nonhuman protagonists of the two comic books—­Gaia, the comet, the planet—­are not forced into a human grid but respectfully probed in

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their rich nonverbal materiality. This narramorphic approach to the nonhuman seeks to do justice to its strangeness and irreducibility to human parameters; crucially, it is sensitive to aspects of nonhuman materiality that cannot be represented directly but only contemplated through the slowness-­inducing gaps and breakdowns of our textural imagination.

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7

Radical Environmental Storytelling in Video Games

I have argued in chapter 4 that the meandering form of the essay can be cross-­fertilized with narrative to explore philosophical issues in a slow mode. As a metaphor, “meandering” conveys the nonlinearity and digressive tendencies of essayistic thinking. With this chapter, I turn to a more literal (if technologically mediated) form of meandering: players wandering through the worlds constructed by video games. As players explore these vast spaces, they piece together a narrative on the basis of cues scattered in the environment.1 This is what game scholars discuss under the heading of “environmental storytelling.” I will focus on a specific use of this technique in which the narrative cues are distributed in a highly nonlinear way, thus emphasizing the interconnectedness of nonhuman space and story. The wandering afforded by games that employ this radical form of environmental storytelling can feel as directionless as the argumentative form of the Montaignian essay; these games can also involve an equally diluted temporality: long, meditative stretches spent traveling between locations. Henry Jenkins (2004) was the first game scholar to theorize about environmental storytelling in an influential book chapter. The inspiration for the concept comes from an article by Don Carson (2000), a designer of games and theme parks. For Carson, a pillar of the design philosophy of amusement parks is that the “story element is infused into the physical space a guest walks or rides through. It is the physical space that does much of the work of conveying the story the designers are trying to tell” (2000, n.p.; quoted in Jenkins 2004, 123). Extrapolating from Carson’s discussion, Jenkins argues that game designers are more “narrative architects” than “storytellers” in the traditional sense (129): the most effective game narratives are not straightforwardly told but conveyed by way of features of the environment (for instance, a broken window) and artifacts such as cassette tapes or handwritten notes. By encountering 161

these cues and connecting the dots between them, the player is given the chance to gradually work out a narrative. The stories thus inferred by players are what Jenkins (126–­28) calls “embedded narratives.” In BioShock (Levine 2007), for instance, players learn about the disaster that befell an underwater city while making their way through its various locations. BioShock is a classic example of how environmental storytelling can enhance the experience of playing a mainstream first-­person shooter: the resulting narrative is both fairly linear and an accompaniment to the main challenges of so-­called gameplay—­surviving a number of fights of increasing difficulty, solving the puzzles that keep players from accessing certain areas, and so on.2 The narrative of the underwater city’s collapse, evoked by way of physical props, deepens the gameplay by making its challenges more emotionally and ethically significant. In this way, games like BioShock generate a productive tension between the intrinsic emotional interests of the plot and the “ludic” values of gameplay (such as the ability to defeat a monster or find the key that opens a locked door). I refer to this combination of environmental storytelling and gameplay challenges as a “productive tension” because while individual players may value either of these dimensions differently, for all or most players they will prove mutually reinforcing. For example, the narrative desire to know more about the underwater city will motivate the players to locate a missing key; conversely, the challenge of finding the key will feed into their emotional investment in the plot.3 Narrative and gameplay (and especially, in a first-­person shooter like BioShock, the combat) are distinct dimensions of the experience, but they are brought together by strategies of environmental storytelling. The games I concentrate on in this chapter are narrative-­focused in that storytelling takes center stage in the player’s experience: the challenge of the game is not external to its narrative dimension but arises seamlessly from the player’s desire to advance the story. Put otherwise, the only ludic goal of the player’s exploration of the game world is to unlock the narratives it contains; the gameplay cannot be meaningfully abstracted from the games’ narrativity. In my first case study, Submerged (Uppercut Games 2015), the player is asked to explore a flooded city and find items belonging to two categories: supply crates, which directly contribute to the progression of the two protagonists’ story, and books, which shed light on the city’s backstory. This mechanic is an instance of envi162  Radical Storytelling

ronmental storytelling in that it establishes a close link between engaging with game space (mostly by navigating the city and climbing its high-­ rise buildings) and becoming acquainted with the stories that populate this deserted city. Other than locating these narrative props, the game poses no real challenge: the character controlled by the player—­the “avatar,” in game terminology—­cannot die by falling from a building, for instance, and the city is equally devoid of dangers. Similarly, in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (Dim Bulb Games and Serenity Forge 2018), a game set in the United States during the Great Depression, the player controls a wandering storyteller: the game’s goal is to roam from one location to another, collecting stories from firsthand experience.4 The protagonist then shares these anecdotes in order to advance the game’s main story lines, which run in parallel as the avatar encounters sixteen fully fleshed-­out characters (who also keep moving around in game space). “Story lines” is more than a metaphor here: each story emerges from the player’s physical movement as he or she traverses the game world and interacts with the game’s characters and situations. Yet the plural form of “story lines” is key: both games question the linearity of environmental storytelling as it is deployed by more conventional games like BioShock. This is what makes the use of this narrative technique in Submerged and Where the Water particularly radical: there is a clear progression and rationale to the distribution of narrative cues in BioShock, which leads to a coherent plot; by contrast, Submerged and Where the Water present narrative elements in a fragmented and almost randomized way, reflecting the players’ freedom to traverse the game world in whatever direction they prefer. The freedom of movement is responsible for another kind of freedom: it uncouples the games’ narrativity from the teleology of games like BioShock, where both the backstory and the player’s gameplay goals are revealed in a sequential way. As we know from the previous chapters, slowness emerges from looseness of teleological orientation, and my two case studies are highly sophisticated experiments in slow narrative within the interactive medium of video games. Because in Submerged and Where the Water the players’ wandering has no intrinsic objective other than reconstructing a mosaic of intersecting stories, they are put in a position to savor these narratives in a slow mode. In this kind of radical environmental storytelling, the philosophical value of slowness

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lies in the highly integrated image of human-­nonhuman relations it offers, with the nonhuman space becoming an integral part of the narrated action. To flesh out this point, I will draw on discussions in the field of narrative theory and environmental philosophy that address the spatial embedding of story—­an idea that clashes with the modern Western conception of space as a static container of things but that looms large in Indigenous storytelling traditions. Games like Submerged and Where the Water, through their openness and slow progression, re-­create this embedding through the interactive medium of video games. Before turning to a close reading of the two games, I will also contextualize them vis-­à-­vis recent debates in game studies on the genre of so-­called walking simulators, which will help my readers (and especially those unfamiliar with video games) understand the originality of the storytelling technique adopted by Submerged and Where the Water. From Containment to Entanglement In a comprehensive entry on space in The Living Handbook of Narratology, Marie-­Laure Ryan takes her cue from “our intuitive sense of space as the universal container of things” (2014, para. 4). Ryan is perhaps the narratologist who has devoted most attention to the intersection of space and narrative over the years, leading up to a book coauthored with two geographers, Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative: Where Narrative Theory and Geography Meet (Ryan, Foote, and Azaryahu 2016). The understanding of space as a “universal container of things” is one of the threads that run through Ryan’s thinking about space: just as real space is container-­ like, so are the imaginary spaces created by narrative (storyworlds, in the parlance of narrative theory) containers for characters, objects, and, of course, the events and actions that make up the plot. Specifying this idea of containment, Ryan, Kenneth Foote, and Maoz Azaryahu (2016, 18–­23) distinguish between two cognitive schemata for understanding space in narrative, which are at the same time two metaphors for organizing spatial experience: the container and the network. The former describes the hierarchical relationship between various spatial “layers” in narrative, from the microlevel (the individual locations in which the story takes place) to the macrolevel (the storyworld of a given narrative): essentially, the storyworld serves as a container for both plot locations and the various places that are merely mentioned by the text. The net164  Radical Storytelling

work, on the other hand, exists on a more conceptual level and mirrors the characters’ real or imagined movements as they visit (or consider or imagine visiting) a certain location or cross paths with another character: “The movements that connect the sites of a narrative network are not only physical but mental; a character ‘thinking’ of a place can make this place a significant part of the story, even if it is not physically accessible to the characters” (21). It seems clear, however, that Ryan’s treatment of narrative space favors the neat hierarchy of containment over the distributed logic of the network: a container-­like space serves as a condition of possibility for the characters’ movement; ultimately, the network formed by the characters’ thoughts and actions presupposes the container schema and remains subordinate to it. As I have already pointed out in chapter 1, however, metaphors of containment have significant limitations. An account of experienced space inspired by Maurice Merleau-­Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (2002) challenges the seemingly straightforward idea that space is “the universal container of things” (Ryan 2014, para. 4). This phenomenological perspective goes hand in hand with ecological psychology (J. J. Gibson 1986) and a recent strand of enactivist philosophy (Noë 2004), two movements that argue that organisms are always embedded in an environment that is effectively cocreated by the organism’s perceptual systems: for instance, a door handle stands out in a human’s apprehension of a room, but it is unlikely to be a central feature of a dog’s perception of the same space, because handles are designed by humans for human use.5 Thus, spatiality arises from our embodied interactions with our physical surroundings not as a backdrop, something that preexists these interactions, but as an ongoing process of dynamic, exploratory engagement. The container-­like stability of space is an illusion: containment only enters the picture when we acquire relatively advanced conceptual skills, partly through the result of exposure to cultural conceptions of space (which, in the West, do tend to present space as an empty “container of things”).6 Phenomenologically speaking, space is not an objective structure but a bundle of embodied interactions we can (or cannot) have with our surroundings. To return to Ryan’s dichotomy, the network-­like understanding of space as defined by the embodied subject’s potential actions and movements precedes a more conceptual perspective on space as a container. Merleau-­Ponty puts this point as follows: “For us to be

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able to conceive space [objectively], it is in the first place necessary that we should have been thrust into it by our body, and that it should have provided us with the first model of those transpositions, equivalents and identifications which make space into an objective system and allow our experience to be one of objects, opening out on an ‘in itself’” (2002, 126). Put more simply, for space to be conceivable as an “objective system” of containment, we must first be familiar with the potential actions that link us indissolubly to our spatial surroundings. Likewise, in narratives, seeing storyworlds as containers implies abstracting from the dynamic of characters’ (and, vicariously, readers’) engagement with these spaces.7 These ideas do not disqualify Ryan’s container-­based approach, which has undeniable value for the analysis of narrative; rather, the phenomenological conception of spatiality can act as a complement to Ryan’s model, foregrounding aspects of (narrative) space that would be lost if we embraced, as she does, the primacy of the container metaphor. One of these aspects, as already hinted in chapter 1 via Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker’s (2014) work, is the inevitable dualism of containment. When something contains something else, it remains dualistically separate from it. Containment is thus fundamentally different from embedding: if something is contained in something else, it can be removed without changing the nature of the container; embedding, by contrast, is a much deeper relationship of mutual entanglement. Applied to readers’ subjectivity, the container model sidelines the way in which readers’ attention becomes entangled with multiple textual patterns (see again chapter 1). Applied to narrative in its relationship with space, this dualistic view of containment implies that stories are a layer that can be detached from a place and transported to another place. This idea seems perfectly sensible in a world where stories are, prototypically, inscribed in technological media (a book, a dvd, a Netflix account) that can be easily moved from one place to another. Our experience of engaging with these technologically mediated stories may be contained—­and, to some extent, influenced—­by a certain physical context. However, the relationship between narrative and place is not constitutive but merely accidental: the former remains external to and separable from the latter. There are exceptions, of course; some stories can leave a mark on our imagination of place. For instance, when I first traveled to Washington, dc, after playing Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios 2008), a video game set in a posta166  Radical Storytelling

pocalyptic dc, I was struck by how my perception of landmarks such as the National Mall and the subway system had been shaped by the game’s aesthetics. Narrative experiences can certainly contribute to what human geographers call “sense of place” (Foote and Azaryahu 2009), which refers to how a particular location is subjectively experienced through the accretion of personal and cultural meanings. Considering the influence of story on sense of place goes some way toward challenging the containment model: stories are not merely contained in an objectively preexisting space, but they help create place by infusing spatiality with a wide gamut of experiential meanings. To the modern Western mind, this mutual entanglement of place and story is a rare occurrence, a phenomenon exemplified by certain stories in certain circumstances for certain individuals. In traditional cultures, however, this entanglement is the norm: because in these cultures narrative is mostly an oral performance and cannot be objectified—­and thus separated from place—­through technological devices, story is defined by its embedding in place, and place in turn is defined by the stories that can be told within and about it. David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous (already discussed in chapter 3) presents a highly comprehensive treatment of this embedding in non-­Western oral cultures. Discussing Apache culture, Abram argues that the “ancestral wisdom of the community resides, as it were, in the stories, but the stories—­and even the ancestors themselves—­reside in the land” (1997, 160). Anthropologist Keith Basso, quoted by Abram, adds that nothing “is considered more basic to the effective telling of a Western Apache ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ . . . than identifying the geographical locations at which events in the story unfold” (1992, 154). Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the inextricability of land and narrative in Indigenous cultures is offered by the Dreamtime stories of Australian Aboriginals. These are creation stories set in a mythical time in which the relationship between humans, animals, and the landscape of the Australian continent was taking shape through the actions of ancestral figures. In the introduction to The Speaking Land, a collection of traditional stories transcribed after extensive fieldwork with Aboriginal communities across Australia, anthropologists Ronald Berndt and Catherine Berndt write: “Mythic or Dreaming people in human or animal or other form moved across the countryside. In so doing they

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left signs of themselves or their spiritual presence at particular places. Many of them ‘made themselves’ or ‘turned themselves’ into an aspect of the physical environment and thus imbued it with social relevance. The whole land is full of signs: a land humanized so that it could be used and read by Aborigines who were/are intimately familiar with it” (1989, 6). Narrative plays a central role in making these “signs” legible. Dreamtime stories form something like a network in Ryan’s sense: their characters traverse the continent in multiple directions, intersecting with visible elements of the landscape and leaving a deep mark on the places they walk through. The vast space of the Australian continent is no objective container or passive backdrop for these ancestral events; on the contrary, the land shapes and at the same time is actively shaped by the narratives. The Ancestors’ storied wandering through the land creates a system of imaginative “tracks” that doubles as an effective means of navigating physical space. As Glenn Morrison explains, songs “were sung at each named site celebrating the Ancestors’ deeds, and importantly, by being sung in the correct order, the songs mapped the location and nature of each site” (2017, 13). By reciting a narrative from memory, an Aboriginal person is thus able to go from one point in space to another, using the landmarks referenced in the story as a guide. These tracks have inspired the title and subject matter of Bruce Chatwin’s travelogue The Songlines (1987).8 In one of the most memorable episodes of Chatwin’s book, an Aboriginal man nicknamed Limpy is guiding the writer and his friend Arkady as they drive through Cycad Valley, “a place of immense importance on [Limpy’s] Songline” (1987, 292). That songline follows the travels of Limpy’s ancestor, the Native Cat or Tjilpa; Limpy uses the story of Tjilpa’s life to skillfully navigate this immense territory: “‘Tjilpa Man go that way,’ said Limpy, pointing south” (293). When the car arrives at the confluence of two creeks, Limpy suddenly looks bewildered: “His eyes rolled wildly over the rocks, the cliffs, the palms, the water. His lips moved at the speed of a ventriloquist’s and, through them, came a rustle: the sound of wind through branches. Arkady knew at once what was happening. Limpy had learnt his Native Cat couplets for walking pace, at four miles an hour, and we were travelling at twenty-­five” (293). Arkady slows down the car, and Limpy can finally find his bearings, because the pace of the narratives he is silently reciting matches the speed of the car. This is a perhaps sensational but 168  Radical Storytelling

effective example of the rhythmic integration of land and narrative—­ how in oral cultures the rhythmic patterning of narrative mirrors the form of the land. This rhythmicity derives from both stylistic choices (at the level of prosody) and the sequentiality of characters’ movements through space. Importantly, the setting of the narrative does not merely mirror real space but flows seamlessly into it by shaping the cultural understanding of one’s surroundings. For this reason, there is no clear-­cut distinction between traditional stories and maps in Aboriginal cultures; songlines such as Tjilpa’s double as maps because they are cocreated by narrative and by the landscape. To return to Abram’s discussion, place is perceived as “an active participant in those [narrative] occurrences. . . . [By] virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there” (1997, 162). The idea that place has autonomous agency is an aspect of what Aboriginal culture describes as “Country.” A collaborative article by Sarah Wright and colleagues (2012) sheds light on this complex concept. For the authors’ Aboriginal informant and coauthor, Laklak Burarrwanga, Country “is alive with story, Law, power and kinship relations that join not only people to each other but link people, ancestors, place, animals, rocks, plants, stories and songs within land and sea” (Wright et al. 2012, 54). Noteworthy in this passage is how story bridges the human and the nonhuman, existing in what is (from a Western perspective) an interstitial space between human society, ecological phenomena, and the physical features of the Australian continent. The traditional stories of Dreamtime help us perceive the “depth” of Country, how a rich history of human-­nonhuman connectivity is nestled within it.9 This Indigenous perspective on space constitutes a radical version of what Jenkins calls environmental storytelling in the context of game studies: story springs from the collaborative action of human (or humanlike) characters and the nonhuman environment. Far from being either contained by an actual place or a container of fictional places, narrative is enmeshed with spatiality: place and narrative cannot be meaningfully uncoupled. Chatwin’s anecdote also demonstrates how the rhythmic patterning of story is responsible for its grounding in the forms of the landscape and how decelerating movement—­by forcing a car to drive at a walking pace, for instance—­can highlight this grounding. The two

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case studies I will focus on display that entanglement of place, narrative, and movement in the medium of digital storytelling; in doing so, they channel a powerfully integrative view of human-­nonhuman relations. Walking Away from Ludic Challenges The consensus in the field of game studies is that the unifying feature of games is their focus on challenges to be overcome by the player through strategic decision-­making. These challenges represent what I called in the introduction to this chapter the “ludic interests” of gaming and offer a certain kind of affective reward. One of the fathers of game studies, Espen Aarseth, coined the term “ergodicity” in Cybertext to distinguish the interactions afforded by games from the interactivity of traditional, linear media. Surely, the reader of a novel is in some sense of the word “interacting” with the text, but ergodic systems like games require “nontrivial effort” (Aarseth 1997, 1) on the part of the player. “Nontrivial” captures the actual (as opposed to interpretive) difficulty of finding a solution to a puzzle or the combination of moves that can kill a monster—­in short, the challenge of “beating” the game. Of course, games pose various degrees of challenge. Some present a steep learning curve: their complex mechanics require hours and hours of focused play to be mastered. Other games are much more forgiving and set a very low bar for nontrivial effort. Games belonging to the loose genre of “walking simulators” fall into the latter category. In fact, these games are so “easy” that players in the hardcore gaming community tend to see them as nongames: the term “walking simulators” originated in this context as a dismissive label but was later embraced by advocates of the genre. “I think what some folks are getting at when they employ walking simulator as a category is that it’s a game largely without mechanical challenge,” writes an Internet commentator (Venerable Monk quoted in Gerardi 2017). In an insightful chapter, Melissa Kagen explains these debates in light of larger shifts in the culture and industry of gaming: “As gaming grows increasingly mainstream, the previously stable identity of ‘hardcore gamer’ (read: male and nerdy) finds itself attacked from all sides” (2017, 276). Excluding walking simulators from the domain of gaming on account of their lack of challenge is a widespread response to these changes in the hardcore community: implicitly, policing the label “games” affirms a creatively and ideologically conservative conception of gaming linked 170  Radical Storytelling

to classic genres such as first-­person shooters, Civilization-­t ype simulations, and online role-­playing games. As Kagen points out, these genres traditionally cater to a specific audience (“male and nerdy” and largely white) that has so far dominated gaming culture. Walking simulators, narrative-­focused games, and art games in general threaten the dominance of hardcore gaming: they are produced for a different and more diverse audience that values creative experimentation with the medium, as well as a depth of engagement with themes of societal relevance. Astrid Ensslin (2014) introduces the concept of “literary gaming” to discuss some of these games, Kagen (2017) prefers “anti-­ games,” while many game critics distinguish between aaa titles (with large budgets and, typically, more conventional gameplay) and experimental “indie” games. The overlap between these labels is partial, but they all denote games that seek to extend, question, and even dethrone hardcore gaming. This is the cultural context in which walking simulators and narrative-­focused games, including my case studies, Submerged and Where the Water, are located. How can we define narrative-­focused games? I have already mentioned that video game narrative participates in a sort of tug-­of-­war with the ludic challenges of gameplay—­the mechanical elements that call for Aarseth’s “nontrivial effort.” Ryan writes that “games are an art of compromise between narrative and gameplay” (2006, 198). When that balance between ludic and narrative interests tilts in favor of the latter, we have what I call a narrative-­focused game: the challenges offered by the game will then appear geared toward and subordinate to its narrative dimension. To be sure, this is an experiential process that depends on both the possibilities programmed into a certain game and individual players’ tendencies. Abstract games like Tetris will offer very little in the way of narrativity, no matter who the player is. Other games, for example, The Walking Dead (Telltale Games 2012), play almost like interactive films and are thus “narrative-­focused” in a strong sense. Most games, however, are positioned somewhere between these poles and offer the player more leeway in attaching value to the gameplay, the plot, or a combination of the two. These games can be played in a narrative-­focused mode, but they also allow for experiences in which narrativity is largely sidelined. The already mentioned BioShock is an example of this mixed category. Walking simulators need not be narrative-­focused games in the strong

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sense. At the core, a walking simulator is a game in which the player explores an environment that offers little ludic resistance: it is impossible to lose or “die,” and the puzzles—­if present—­mostly involve going from one place to another to collect certain items. Zones by Connor Sherlock (2018), an independent designer known for his atmospheric walking simulators, is an example of this walking mechanic at its simplest: the game is divided into two “acts” and five separate “zones” that players can explore at their leisure; each zone has a distinctive style of landscape, with electronic music to match the mood. “Witch of Agnesi,” for instance, builds on a limited color palette (mostly black and purple) and places players in the midst of a sprawling forest. The exploration is unimpeded, inviting players to immerse themselves in these vast and abstract environments, but other than wandering and taking in the striking art and level design, there is nothing to “do” in this game world. In Kagen’s words, walking simulators “can bring a player to a Zen-­like state of simplicity and awareness, making her more attuned to the physical act of walking by watching an avatar perform it, precisely because she lacks another distracting focus” (2017, 283). By affording wondrous immersion in space and emotional atmosphere, Zones calls for a contemplative mode of experience where narrative plays no role: we are exploring for the sake of exploration, without any clear goal. The landscapes we engage with remain devoid of traces and marks from which players could infer a story—­ in short, they make no use of environmental storytelling. Other walking simulators put the same basic mechanic at the service of narrative. Dear Esther (The Chinese Room 2012) is a highly influential art game that grew out of a research project led by Dan Pinchbeck at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. Like Zones, Dear Esther asks the player to roam through striking scenery, but here the environmental storytelling is explicit: scattered throughout this island in the Hebrides archipelago are a number of objects pointing to someone’s death in a car accident. For example, walking along a cliff, we stumble upon a candlelit display of photographs showing a car crash; a defibrillator and surgical instruments can be found nearby. The voice-­over monologue (another feature that distinguishes Dear Esther from Zones) associates these items with the death of the narrator’s wife, the titular Esther. Walking through this landscape becomes a symbolic means of experiencing the narrator’s grief as he comes to terms with the loss of his wife.10 Another 172  Radical Storytelling

critically acclaimed walking simulator, Firewatch (Campo Santo 2016), casts the player as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest, with a mystery slowly enfolding the protagonist and driving his movements across the game world. Firewatch deploys environmental storytelling along the lines of Dear Esther, though the story it tells is less overtly poetic and more influenced by established genres such as the thriller and detective fiction. In both games, and indeed in most other games that tend to be categorized as walking simulators, narrative interests such as suspense, curiosity, and surprise (Meir Sternberg’s emotional universals of story, discussed in the previous chapter) remain central to players’ experience: they fuel the player’s explorative activity and justify it on the basis of the protagonist’s circumstances and motivations (such as learning more about Esther and her death or solving the central mystery of Firewatch). In other words, Dear Esther and Firewatch are variations on a quest narrative in which the protagonists’ wandering matches closely and supports their personal goals. The two games I will discuss in the following sections have a great deal in common with these popular narrative-­focused walking simulators, but they tend to go much further in experimenting with the genre’s signature combination of locomotion and narrative. In Submerged and Where the Water, story is decentralized: a second story line (in Submerged) and a large collection of stories (in Where the Water) complicate the protagonists’ quest and serve as the main engine for the player’s interactions with the game world. This structure creates slowness by disrupting the teleology of plot that defines walking simulators like Dear Esther and (especially) Firewatch. This experienced slowness has the potential to highlight the intimate connection between story and space and therefore—­ by extension—­humans and nonhuman landscapes, thus approximating the environmentally embedded storytelling of oral cultures. Narrative and the City In the novel The Drowned World (1962), British writer J. G. Ballard offered a highly prescient vision of a flooded metropolis where, due to global warming and rising sea levels, the streets have turned into canals and the water laps around the upper floors of abandoned buildings. Submerged turns Ballard’s imagination into a game environment. Walking simulator is a partial misnomer here, because the game involves very little

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Fig. 12. (above) Getting around the city in Submerged (Uppercut Games 2015). Fig. 13. (below) Climbing buildings in Submerged (Uppercut Games 2015).

walking: most of the traveling is done either by sailing around the city in a motor boat (see figure 12) or by climbing buildings (see figure 13). The player controls a young woman named Miku, who arrives in the submerged city accompanied by Taku, her brother. Taku is seriously ill, and on a superficial level the game involves using the boat and Miku’s climbing skills to find medication in supply crates spread throughout the game world, especially on top of high-­rise buildings. Miku cannot fall off the buildings, drown, or otherwise die, and Taku’s 174  Radical Storytelling

condition remains stable no matter how long the player waits before retrieving the crates, so we are free to set our own pace in exploring the game world. Climbing is the game’s only challenge, in that finding the right way up the facade of the buildings is not always straightforward, especially if the player wants to discover all of the hidden books (which have an important narrative function, as I will discuss in a moment). Visually, the game offers a particularly compelling experience, with the day-­night cycle and changing weather conditions creating stunning vistas of the flooded city. Submerged takes place in an anonymous metropolis, but many of the city’s main sights are inspired by iconic real-­world structures such as the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge. When the player discovers these locations, they are recorded in the “Landmarks” section of the in-­game journal, where they receive names such as “the Net to the Sky” (for the tower) and “the Silver Pass” (for the bridge). Language is scarce in the game: we only hear the protagonist speak when she states her next goal after collecting medical supplies for Taku. The journal is divided into titled sections (“Our story,” “The city’s story,” “Creatures,” and “Landmarks”); however, these sections make minimal use of language. Presented as a series of pictograms, they only contain a few words in an invented—­ but easily decodable—­a lphabet.11 These pictograms are responsible for delivering the game’s two story lines, “Our story” and “The city’s story.” Through these pictograms, we find out that Taku and Miku were living on a platform in the middle of the ocean until their mother lost her life in a fishing accident. Their father started drinking, turned abusive, and accidentally hurt Taku when he stepped in to protect his sister. The two then decided to take the boat and run away, which is how they ended up in the submerged city. The city’s story (see figure 14) has clear environmental overtones: it shows society thriving and humans multiplying until a series of catastrophic storms (evoked by the repetition of tiles with the sun turning gray and a mass of clouds hanging over the city) causes sea levels to rise and the subsequent collapse of civilization. Only a few people survive, like Taku and Miku. Meanwhile, in the depths of the ocean a new life form (in green in the original) emerges, spreads throughout the submerged city, and even infects the survivors, as suggested by the leafy anthropomorphic beings in figure 14.

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Fig. 14. The last eight tiles of “The city’s story” in Submerged (Uppercut Games 2015).

The city’s story explains how the drowned world we are exploring came to be, including the mysterious (but silent and harmless) creatures, known as Remnants, that Miku encounters during her travels. These Remnants, we realize, are a posthuman species created by the green organism’s slow takeover of the human form—­a seemingly irreversible process that Miku herself undergoes as she collects the crates. The familiar space of the city, made even more recognizable by buildings reminiscent of real-­world landmarks, is fundamentally reshaped by the intervention of a mysterious (but benign) nonhuman force. Human identity and the quintessentially human trait of language are erased: the Remnants are silent and anonymous, and they form a collective agency that watches over the submerged city and (as highlighted by a short cutscene after the retrieval of each crate) the protagonist’s actions. Perhaps the Remnants’ silent stewardship of the city serves as a model for the player’s own contemplative exploration of the game world: once all the crates are collected and Taku is saved, the player can continue playing as Miku in a free exploration mode whose only goal is to appreciate aesthetically this unsettling but visually sublime world without humans. A special “postcard mode” even allows the player to take screenshots without the interface cluttering up the images, thus highlighting the game’s investment in purely aesthetic engagement—­a distinctive feature of walking simulators. Much like the comic books discussed in the previous chapter, the game embraces wordlessness to amplify the emotional and imaginative 176  Radical Storytelling

impact of the city’s shifting landscape after humans have ceded control to the green force displayed by the pictograms. This vision warns against anthropogenic catastrophe but also cushions, through its aesthetic appeal and the meditative pace of the exploration, the emotional associations of a postapocalyptic world. The cartoonish pictograms contribute to this soothing quality of the experience by creating distance between the traumatic events of Miku’s and Taku’s lives and their narrative figuration in Miku’s journal. Even more conducive to contemplative distance, however, is the game’s unique approach to environmental storytelling. While collecting the crates reveals Miku and Taku’s backstory in a sequential way, the city’s story is not uncovered linearly. The game world is strewn with books, most of them in the same labyrinthine buildings as the supply crates. But while the supply crates are always on the roof and thus relatively easy to locate by climbing to the top of each building, the books tend to be hidden away in areas accessible only through secondary climbing routes. The player, or at least the player interested in learning more about the city’s story, is thus invited to search each location thoroughly in order to identify pathways that may lead to the books. This mechanic will create a strong sense of physical immersion in the city’s space, because the player has to know (and climb) every nook and cranny of the urban landscape in order to locate all of the books. The search for the books increases the player’s embeddedness in the city and the chances of his or her encountering striking vistas that will encourage aesthetic appreciation. Finding each book reveals one of the tiles shown on “The city’s story” page of the journal, but the spatial distribution of the books doesn’t follow any overt logic: in the same location, the player may find books for one of the first pictograms and for one of the last. Put otherwise, as game time advances, the protagonists’ story and backstory are revealed linearly, but the mosaic of the city’s story fills up in a quasi-­random way: the player is forced to collect as many books as possible in order to have a complete picture, and she can do so only by deepening her physical connection with the landscape through focused exploration. At first sight, this highly nonlinear and distributed form of environmental storytelling may seem contrived. As discussed above, environmental storytelling is based on physical marks and traces pointing to a past event. In games like Dear Esther, the items scattered throughout

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the game world have an indexical function (they evoke Esther’s death), but they also take on a symbolic function as soon as the player realizes that the game world mirrors the narrator’s state of mind, particularly his grief. This strategy creates a direct link between physical space and events located in the character’s past. The connection is experienced in personal terms: it centers on the protagonist’s mental states and on his coming to terms with his wife’s tragic death. In Submerged, by contrast, the randomness of the distribution of the books, together with the journal’s role in mediating between the game world and the story of the city, uncouples this level of the narrative from the protagonist’s quest to save her brother; indeed, in a very literal sense, collecting all the books delays the protagonist’s mission. On the one hand, as we have seen, the process of locating the books hones Miku’s embodied engagement with the city, creating immersion and “thickening” (in the sense of chapter 1) the player’s understanding of this storied place. On the other hand, the haphazard order in which the city’s past is revealed introduces an abstract principle of organization that effectively detaches the player’s experience of the submerged city from a human perspective by disrupting any presumption of teleology or linearity in the narrative of the city’s collapse. The marked arbitrariness of this process of reconstructing what happened to the city mirrors the way in which the nonhuman events that are being recovered through the player’s actions—­namely, the rise of sea levels and the green force gradually taking over the planet—­resist human agency and intentionality. The familiar environment of the city is thus transformed into an alien space endowed with visual grandeur and metaphysical autonomy. This landscape doesn’t need the human to be sublime: this is the biocentric conclusion advanced by the final tile of the city’s story in the journal (figure 14), which shows a green city delicately poised on the planet’s perfectly blue and round marble, an image of self-­reliant equilibrium. The avatar’s physical immersion in space—­realized through the interactivity of the video game medium—­meets a sense of emotional distance from the human. The abstract mechanics of revealing the tiles is instrumental in this decentering of the human setup of the protagonist’s quest, because the randomness with which the city’s story emerges channels the slow causality involved in a phenomenon like climate change, whose effects are in themselves unpredictable and distributed across large spatiotem178  Radical Storytelling

poral scales.12 Miku’s teleologically driven quest does not drop out of the picture completely but is upstaged by the desire to find out more about the city’s past. In terms of the time spent locating the books, the nonhuman landscape and its shifting variations of weather and lighting become the true protagonists of Submerged. Human and nonhuman agency intermingle in the game world of Submerged just as they intermingle in Indigenous mythology. Fundamental to this effect are the fragmentation and randomization of the city’s story, whose mosaiclike unfolding disrupts the linearity of human agency and teleology and decelerates the player’s experience, encouraging a contemplative mode of engagement with the game. The decentralized form of environmental storytelling practiced by Submerged is made possible by the integration of two distinct layers of the player’s experience: the exploration of the game world and the visual information presented by the journal. For players who are willing to perform this integration, the city’s story slowly comes alive, like Dreamtime mythology, in their wandering through the flooded landscape; this nonhuman story becomes embedded in the physical features of this place—­and in the protagonist’s embodied interactions with them. The centrality of the human gives way to a biocentric worldview, a conceptual transition facilitated by the aestheticized qualities of the city’s landscape. Enhanced by the gradually unfolding narrative, the sublimity of the city calls for a distinctively slow mode of appreciation. Spreading Stories If the narratives of Submerged emerge almost entirely wordlessly, Where the Water doesn’t shy away from language; it is a “literary” game in Ensslin’s sense (2014, 2) because it makes ample and deliberate use of strong writing and strategies of linguistic foregrounding to immerse the player into the game world. The creator, Johnnemann Nordhagen, assembled a team of talented writers—­many of them well-­k nown figures in the indie gaming community, such as Cara Ellison, Leigh Alexander, and Duncan Fyfe—­to write the dialogue for the game’s sixteen main characters. Through this collective effort, each of these characters speaks in a distinctive voice, offering an experience comparable to reading “an anthology of short stories,” in the developers’ own words (quoted in O’Connor 2017). Bringing together these tales is the American set

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ting and a focus on the gritty realities and daily struggles of the Great Depression. The American Dream, often referenced, remains perennially out of reach, yet it is the affective engine of the game world. In the introduction, the player is addressed by a character known as Dire Wolf: “Your deepest desires? Your greatest wish? Heaven? Big Rock Candy Mountain, El Dorado, the Promised Land, that place just over the ridge where they all say that the water tastes just like the sweetest wine?” This longing for utopia is what motivates the characters’ (including the avatar’s) constant wandering through the game world. The game begins at the card table, with the player’s avatar being defeated by Dire Wolf. “You owe me your labor,” he remarks. Dire Wolf continues: [You] see, this land is built on stories. It’s one big story, this country, woven of many small ones. Few of the small ones are strictly true, and the big story is mostly a lie. All the stories and songs and myths and legends start somewhere . . . with a seed. As they’re told and re-­told and passed around, they grow and change to become the stories we know. To pay your debt to me, you’ll be carrying stories. Finding the seeds, first, and then spreading them. Telling them onwards so they can begin gaining strength. This is no light task—­stories are heavy. Most of the stories you’ll find will be small seeds. They might be true, but they’ll grow wild and unbelievable with the telling. The more important stories are the true ones—­the ones people will tell you about their own lives. These often get lost in the weaves of the big story. The more stories you can find and tell, the more you can weave that truth into the big story. Tarnish a bit, perhaps, but isn’t a dingy and battered truth better than a shining lie? (Dim Bulb Games and Serenity Forge 2018; ellipsis in the original) The game stays remarkably close to Dire Wolf’s articulation of the role of story in creating and reinforcing the myth of the American Dream. Where the Water is not just a narrative-­focused game, it is a game that directly thematizes and implements in its mechanics the embeddedness of narrative in the physical and social landscape of the United States. The game world resembles a map of North America, with roads, cities, and state borders drawn across the landscape. The avatar is a vagrant carrying 180  Radical Storytelling

Fig. 15. The main screen of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (Dim Bulb Games and Serenity Forge 2018), with the avatar (the player-­controlled character) facing Boston.

a stereotypical bindle (see figure 15); the skeletal appearance comes from one of Dire Wolf’s tarot cards, where the fool is depicted as a skeleton. The stories encountered in this game world fall into two categories. The “small stories” Dire Wolf talks about are inspired by events witnessed by the player while searching the locations marked by a special icon in the game world. These may start as somewhat puzzling or intriguing stories based on real experience, but they gradually evolve into emotionally compelling tall tales as the player shares them during her peregrinations. For instance, the avatar arrives at what the game describes as a “creepy mill” and decides to leave: nothing much happened there, but the atmosphere was unsettling. The avatar tells that story and later hears from someone else a variation on the same story (as the game promptly informs us) in which the “creepy mill” has become “a haunted mill operated by ghosts”; a further iteration of the same tale turns on a “miller who grinds travelers to death.” Through this simple device, the game captures the instability of narrative, how individual stories evolve with each telling and also how they adapt to the context in which they are shared. In standard game terminology, these retellings would be “upgraded” versions of the original story because they are more effective at capturing the attention and earning the trust of the sixteen main characters.

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Fig. 16. Quinn, one of the sixteen main characters of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (Dim Bulb Games and Serenity Forge 2018).

There are over two hundred small stories in the game, and they can be collected at multiple sites throughout the game world: they are delivered in text boxes superimposed upon the game world, typically in just a few lines. Apart from a handful of stories near the player’s start location in Maine, these stories are—­like the books in Submerged—­randomly distributed across each of the regions on the map. The sixteen main characters are also scattered throughout the United States; after each encounter with the player they move to a new location, forcing the player to follow them in order to learn their full “true story” (in Dire Wolf’s language). During these encounters, we leave the game world and are presented with an artistic rendering of our interlocutor; figure 16, for example, shows Quinn, a young vagabond. The interactions with the sixteen characters unfold in a series of turns. At each turn, our interlocutor requests a story matching their mood, which can fall into one of the following categories: humorous, hopeful, tragic, terrifying, and adventurous.13 Players have to draw on one of the “small stories” collected while exploring the landscape to satisfy their interlocutor. If the story fits the mood, then the avatar gains the character’s confidence and is one step closer to learning his or her true story. Essentially, then, the small stories are used as an in-­game currency to advance these interactions and thus the story lines centering on the 182  Radical Storytelling

main characters. After four successful encounters, the player completes the story line and is offered insight into the character’s life experience in a final moment of intimacy and genuine sharing of his or her struggles. Authenticity, as Dire Wolf states, is rare in this world divided between a plethora of tall tales and the “big”—­but illusionary—­story of the American Dream. Through this interest in experiential authenticity and in the sociopolitical forces that shaped the Great Depression, the game participates in what Peter Boxall calls a “twenty-­first-­century historical mood,” which starts from “an ethical refusal of the postmodern tendency to find the political power of historical fiction in its denial of the reality of history” (2013, 79). Instead, by centering on affect (via the characters’ moods), the game seeks to render how “historical violence . . . acts on the body in unmediated, non-­contingent, irreversible ways” (79)—­an insistence that defines the contemporary, “post-­postmodernist” moment.14 In Where the Water, the mechanics of mood are complicated by the deep ambivalence of the small stories we collect across the United States. The game has a way of categorizing these stories thematically by assigning each of them to a tarot card. But this categorization does not make explicit the story’s mood. Sometimes we can work it out by remembering the context in which we encountered a tale, but in most cases the original story was too short and sketchy to reveal a clear mood. The player has to resort to guesswork and try out the story to see how the other character responds: even if the tale turns out not to match the character’s mood, his or her reaction will often give away the story’s emotional tone. This ambivalence serves a double function in the game: it is the main source of ludic challenge because it forces the player to keep track of the “discovered” moods, and it greatly enriches the game world’s narrativity in that the stories we come across are not just abundant but thick with affective meanings that can spin out of the player’s control. The American landscape of Where the Water is awash with stories and pervaded by their affect, pointing to and channeling the forces of race, class, and gender that shaped living during the Great Depression. The characters we encounter belong to a vast socially and ethnically diverse cast, from a Native American woman to a Black railway worker, from a white poet to a Mexican migrant. The game associates these characters with specific locales: some can only be encountered in the South, for instance, or in the Midwest or on the

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West Coast. The sociocultural diversity and geographical distribution of the story lines create a highly inclusive tapestry of narratives. Together with the small stories scattered throughout the continent and evolving from one retelling to another, this setup makes for particularly deep environmental storytelling. The device central to the game’s narrativity is, of course, our wandering through the map of the United States, where we can collect small stories, listen to their retellings, and follow the main characters. Other than the continent’s geography, there are very few constraints on the vagrant’s movements: we start in New England, but we can decide to head west or south straight away. The roads and railways connecting cities enable fast travel (either by hitchhiking or by buying a train ticket), but it is equally possible to ignore them and keep to the countryside. While walking, we can use the game’s “whistle” function to speed up the avatar’s movement if we succeed in synchronizing the whistling to the game’s music (which is specific to each geographical region). This suggestive concept brings to mind Chatwin’s anecdote about stories in Aboriginal Australia: an oral narrative implies a certain tempo, which should be maintained if it is to provide accurate orientation along a songline. Where the Water uses the “lines” traced by the avatar’s movements to draw a similar connection between music and the stories we are spreading all over the United States. However, while the game offers tools to speed up the spreading of stories, their unfolding remains persistently gradual and slow. This deceleration is a result of the sheer multiplication of story lines in the game: even if we focus on one character’s story line and decide to complete it before turning to another character (which was my initial strategy while playing the game), we still have to collect plenty of small stories to have four successful rounds of interaction with that character. As we follow him or her across the landscape, we are likely to run into other main characters or other small stories, which will inevitably distract us from our initial goal and thus disrupt the teleology of our game experience. If this is “an anthology of short stories,” to quote again the developers, it is a remarkably nonlinear one: appreciating it involves tuning our game experience to the unhurried pace of the game’s narrativity—­ and of its main instrument, the avatar’s walking. Try as we might to take the game step by step (pun intended), throughout most of it we 184  Radical Storytelling

will find ourselves juggling simultaneously various strands of narrative, each with its own distinctive (but initially vague) emotional qualities. This complexity can prove overwhelming, but if it is approached in a slow mode, then it can create a highly immersive sense of entanglement not just with a physical place but also with the aspirations and struggles of its inhabitants. Like Submerged, Where the Water constructs a network of spatially embedded stories, but while the former game distributes—­in a quasi-­ random way—­a single story (the city’s), the latter paints on a much larger canvas. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of environmental storytelling in Where the Water is its scale, which conveys a comprehensive and historically thick account of an era through the proliferation of story lines. If Submerged has to resort to the abstract mediation of the journal and its mosaic of visual narrative to evoke the more-­t han-­human temporality of planetary processes, abstraction comes in two forms in Where the Water. On the one hand, there is the anonymity of the traveler we are controlling, a sort of Great Depression Everyman who embodies (skeletally, of course) collective longings and affects as the American Dream—­the place where “the water tastes like wine”—­remains stubbornly out of reach. On the other hand, there is the abstraction implicit in the maplike features of the game world. Because of this design choice, the game directly blends the avatar’s movements across space with the more abstract network of narrative itself as it bounces from one location to another, evolving in the process. Our travels are as nonlinear as the narratives we encounter, because we are constantly forced to retrace our footsteps to chase after the main characters. This double nonlinearity greatly deepens the game’s environmental storytelling, binding together—­like oral stories in Indigenous cultures—­place and story in a deeply textured way. In this narrative network, the land and the socioeconomic forces that pervade it display a form of nonhuman agency that eclipses the human agency of the characters we interact with—­a ll marginal figures whose lives fail to shape history and are instead completely determined by it. The landscape is far more than a container of stories; rather, it is a networked site that enables affective encounters through the configurations of geography and the randomization of stories. The space of the North American continent serves as a seventeenth character that the player has

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to get to know, slowly and intimately, in order to unlock the human stories and their fluctuating moods. One of our interlocutors, Quinn, states this point explicitly: “Trampin’ like I do makes me realize the land is another kind of companion; s’always with ya” (see figure 16). As a narrative strategy, environmental storytelling is unique to the game medium and can offer emotionally impactful experiences. The spatial distribution of narrative cues can enhance the player’s involvement in the ludic values of gameplay by forging a direct connection between the space of interactivity and the plot of the game (a connection that is loosened by storytelling techniques that take interactivity away from the player, such as cinematic cutscenes and the inclusion of lengthy text). Environmental storytelling is so effective in games like BioShock because it blends seamlessly with the more ludic interactions the player can have; for instance, combat can take place in the same arena as narrative-­advancing cues.15 But while all instances of environmental storytelling create linkage between place and story, not all of them will afford an experience of slowness or foreground the embedding of narrative in a world shaped by forces beyond human subjectivity and agency. What makes Submerged and Where the Water stand out? In other words, what makes their environmental storytelling radical? At one level, as I have argued, the narrative method adopted by these games is radical because they place narrative front and center in the game world and in the player’s experience. In Where the Water, there really is no way around narrative: collecting and spreading stories is the game’s only goal, with narrative also serving as currency in the crucial gameplay mechanics of finding stories that fit with each character’s requests. It is technically possible to ignore the narrative dimension of Submerged and play it just for the challenge of finding all the crates and books, but this approach will lead to an extremely shallow and repetitive experience: the game’s real focus is on the fragments of story that the crates and (especially) the books give access to. Narrative will thus tend to gravitate toward the center of the player’s experience of both games. The other key element I have highlighted in my close readings is that both games deploy environmental storytelling in a highly nonlinear mode: the narrative doesn’t follow players sequentially as they traverse the game world (as in mainstream titles like BioShock but also in walking simulators like 186  Radical Storytelling

Firewatch); rather, narratives—­in the plural—­emerge gradually from the player’s undirected exploration of an open world. This nonlinear quality enhances and focuses the spatial distribution of narrativity, paving the way for the more radical features of the games: their slow, meditative pace and the insight they afford into how stories, despite being told by a human agent, are profoundly impacted by the nonhuman forces that inhere within physical space (the temporality of the flood in Submerged, the vast and varied landscape of the United States in Where the Water). Through their innovative take on environmental storytelling, both games re-­create, in the medium of the video game, the intimate relation between narrative and place that is distinctive of oral storytelling traditions. I do not mean this idea in the sense of an explicit intention on the game developers’ part to imitate non-­Western ways of thinking about storytelling through their game design. This would be a problematic appropriation of an oral tradition long forgotten in the West. In Western modernity, technological devices—­from writing to print and of course now computers—­have made it possible to extricate story from place, considering the latter as a mere container of narrative experiences that are separable from the immediate situation (and whose point is to transport us elsewhere, to a storyworld autonomous from the real world). Rather than claiming a direct relationship between oral narrative in contexts like Aboriginal Australia and the radical environmental storytelling of my two case studies, I have drawn attention to the striking structural parallel between them in terms of how story is delivered and how it springs slowly and complexly from physical space. The spatial circulation of narratives in Submerged and Where the Water can help us rethink the relationship between human societies and nonhuman space along more integrated and sustainable lines. Not without a certain irony, the advanced technological medium of the video game is thus employed to question an anthropocentric understanding of space that is both quintessentially Western and intimately bound up with technology. This idea is most salient, perhaps, in Submerged, with its environmentalist cautionary tale and its decentering of the human via the aesthetically resonant imagination of an abandoned city. But even Where the Water, with its experientially thick exploration of living during the Great Depression, trades in affects that bind the human characters to the nonhuman landscape: the game challenges the dominant Western logic

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of space as an empty container for economic resources available for human extraction and exploitation (a logic arguably at the economic roots of the Great Depression itself). In both games, this critique of anthropocentric ideology is enabled by the slow pace that comes with moving through an intensely storied place.

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Coda Slow Retreat

During the covid-­19 pandemic, the word “slowness” has taken on new significance. With many locked at home for weeks or even months and the rhythms of social and professional life upended by the pandemic, the experience of temporality in the developed world has changed dramatically. At least for those of us whose lives were only indirectly affected by the virus through lockdowns and various restrictions on movement, time seemed to slow down to a crawl: one felt caught between an uncertain future and an eerily uneventful, even tedious present. Despite appearances, this kind of sluggish temporality is profoundly different from the slowness I have theorized about in this book. A common experience reported during the early stages of the pandemic was an inability to focus. This also meant, for many, that reading anything longer than a social media post or a newspaper article proved impossible. “For people who are used to self-­soothing with a favorite novel, the inability to read is a loss,” writes journalist Constance Grady (2020) about the pandemic. The reason, of course, is that uncertainty and anxiety dramatically reduce our attention span. Because of that breakdown of attention, the slowness we have experienced during the pandemic is almost the polar opposite of the slowness I have discussed in this book. While the temporality of the outbreak decelerates time by fragmenting it, slow narrative stretches and deepens our attention, enabling us to perceive a multiplicity of patterns. I have written elsewhere (Caracciolo 2022) about uncertainty as a fundamental dimension of climate change discourse and how narrative may provide audiences with intellectual and affective tools to embrace uncertainty instead of dreading it. The uncertainty brought into view by the pandemic has a great deal in common with the way in which climate change destabilizes our capacity to project ourselves into a personal and collective future—­although, arguably, the threat posed by climate change 189

is far graver in the long term. Faced with these existential challenges, it is easy to lose faith in the linear metanarratives (to use again Jean-­François Lyotard’s [1984, xxiv] terminology) of economic growth and technological innovation. The splintering of attention experienced during the pandemic is a symptom of the collapse of such metanarratives, which have long allowed us to look at the future with confidence. By contrast, seen as the thickening of attention, slowness can afford us emotional distance from our anxieties. In this effect lies, as I have argued in this book, the value of formally sophisticated narrative vis-­à-­vis the ecological crisis. That power of narrative to shape experience has gone largely unacknowledged in discussions on literature and the ecological crisis. So-­ called climate fiction (or cli-­fi) has been hailed, especially in the popular media, as part of a solution to humanity’s environmental woes, but that argument has typically been framed in terms of narrative conveying information or raising awareness of the scientific consensus on climate change. In an interview with npr, climatologist Judith Curry remarked, “Scientists and other people are trying to get their message across about various aspects of the climate change issue. . . . And it seems like fiction is an untapped way of doing this—­a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness [of readers who may not be aware of the science]” (Evancie 2013). Curry’s “smuggling” metaphor reflects an instrumental way of thinking about stories as Trojan horses carrying an environmentalist message, one that can potentially get past the audience’s ideological defenses. In that way, it is believed that story can make a decisive contribution to contemporary climate change debates by influencing readers’ attitudes directly through a form of “narrative persuasion.”1 Ecocritic Matthew Schneider-­Mayerson (2018) has even tried to evaluate this claim empirically, with mixed results pointing to nonlinear interactions between readers’ prior beliefs and their responses to climate fiction. If readers are already on board with the idea of climate change, then their concern may be deepened by the vividness and emotional impact of fictional narrative; but if their existing view is that human communities are not threatened by the changing climate, then fiction will not be able to sway them. The account of slowness I have developed here seeks to resist the idea that fiction is a handy device for the delivery of prepackaged messages. My thinking is in line with Joshua Landy’s (2012) argument about 190  Coda

literature—­“ formative fictions,” in his terminology—­as providing a form of training. The influence of literature is far slower and more roundabout than the language of “getting messages across” and “smuggling scientific knowledge” would suggest. For Landy, protracted exposure to literary fiction affords experiential knowledge, a set of tools for acknowledging and coping with the ethical and existential dilemmas of everyday life. While fiction may not be able to resolve these dilemmas, it can provide insight, perspective, and even the comfort that comes with the acceptance of the inherent difficulty of reality, to quote again Cora Diamond (2003). This kind of training is, inevitably, a slow and nonlinear process. It has no endpoint and no instrumental goal. This training, while undoubtedly more arduous and time-­consuming than the conveying of scientific facts about humanity’s influence on the climate, is valuable in its own way. What can we learn from stories exactly? As this book has shown, slowness is not a matter of measurable time but a mode of attention that focuses on and reveals the deeply multithreaded nature of reality. Refining the capacity to closely read the intricate “surface” of a narrative in the sense theorized by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus (2009) thus serves as a laboratory for perceiving this multithreadedness in an inherently complex and unstable world.2 When we start reading in a slow mode, we discover that patterns—­in the sense of causal connections, conceptual configurations, and sensory shapes—­bring together the world of human interactions and nonhuman animals, landscapes, and the history of the earth system. Developing an imagination of this shared texture challenges the standard ontology of the West, with its notions of human mastery and exceptionality. This exercise of the imagination involves acquiring an understanding of nonhuman materiality and its quasi-­agential powers; it involves questioning the anthropocentric assumptions that underlie Western societies and their conventional (meta)narratives. Via the imagination of pattern, innovative narrative practices can enter a dialogue with the ontologies of Indigenous cultures, as chapter 7 has argued. Narrative can break dualistic barriers by fostering a slow appreciation of texture—­a multifaceted concept that, in this book, denotes both the complexities of consciousness (including the reader’s consciousness when in a slow mode) and the sheer plurality of entangled forms in the earth’s ecosystems. I have examined a range of strategies through which story can bring texture to the fore, starting from the evocation of char Coda  191

acters’ mental lives to hybrid literary forms involving catalogs, essayistic writing, and multimodal devices. I have also looked at how slowness can arise in the purely visual medium of wordless comics and in the interactive medium of video games. This discussion is not and was not meant to be exhaustive: a number of decelerating devices and entire genres or media have been left out. Instead, the contribution I sought to make is a conceptual one: Viktor Shklovsky’s formalist insights into art and the slowing down of perception are absolutely relevant today. The importance of deceleration as we face climate change cannot be overstated; in the West, forced economic “degrowth” may well be what climate change has in store for us. From that viewpoint, the downturn caused by the covid-­19 pandemic may just mark the beginning of a long-­ term contraction of the global economy. Through being invested in the now of experience and not in a clear-­cut future of outcomes and dividends, slowness can help manage the inevitable uncertainty of living in an era marked by radically shifting human-­nonhuman relations. Of the narratives examined in this book, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is perhaps the best example of how the intensification of consciousness—­the result of the artistic training of sensibility through photography—­a llows Bit, the protagonist, to come to terms with societal collapse. Bit’s final rediscovery of Arcadia, minus the illusions of his youth, recalls what social scientists today are referring to as “managed retreat”—­a controlled relocation to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis (Hino, Field, and Mach 2017). While scientists focus, reasonably enough, on the material and societal aspects of managed retreat, Groff’s novel suggests that retreat is above all a state of mind, an ability to withdraw from the thick of the action, savoring distance and deep awareness of pattern beyond the self. Yet the distance of retreat should not be confused with the hierarchical distance of scientific representation. According to the conventional understanding of scientific work, human cognition remains separate from the seemingly insensate world it studies—­and imposes its anthropocentric order on nonhuman matter (see Potter 2009). This practice of representation, which is bound up with visual metaphors in a Western context, must give way to the loose tactility of texture—­a sense of being deeply and constitutively enmeshed with the processes of ecosystems, the climate, and the geological history of our planet. Texture, as we have seen, refers to an experience of the nonhuman world that weds metonym192  Coda

ic contiguity with keen awareness of discontinuities, for instance, those involved in moving across scalar levels. Within texture, the distance of retreat can thus paradoxically coexist with the proximity of affective entanglement. Only a slow mode of consciousness can welcome such ambiguities, hesitations, and gaps, which are in the same breath epistemological and ethical. As the discussion of the difficulty of reality in chapter 4 has suggested, slowness cannot provide answers, only a closer grasp of the moral urgency and depth of a question, but that, in many if not most instances, is a premise to effective problem-­solving. We need to retreat from linear and teleological thinking—­if only temporarily—­in order to develop appreciation of the complexity and nonlinearity of human-­ nonhuman relations in the Anthropocene. That detached yet entangled attention to the world is the kind of hands-­on knowledge that slowness as a narrative practice and experience can provide.

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Notes

Introduction 1. Thus, Jason Moore (2017) refers to the current geological epoch as the “Capitalocene” to stress the economic origins of the climate crisis. See also Wolfe (2010) and Braidotti (2013) on the collapse of the liberal human subject in the face of nonhuman phenomena. 2. On the distinction between matter and materiality, see Latour (2017, 208). In this book, I will not take up the distinction systematically, because the word “matter” has the advantage of being more concrete and readily intelligible than “materiality.” However, when I talk about matter, I mean matter as seen from the perspective of materiality—­dynamic and efficacious rather than passive. 3. Highly influential critiques of standard Anthropocene discourse have been offered by Crist (2013) and Malm (2018). For insightful discussion of the Anthropocene concept and its relevance to contemporary literature, see also Vermeulen (2020). 4. I discuss the term “story-­driven experience” at length in Caracciolo (2014a). 5. On the centrality of theory of mind to narrative practices, see Zunshine (2006). 6. For discussion of this function of narrative in intersubjectivity, see Scalise Sugiyama (2001), who writes from the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology, as well as Herman (2003) and Mar and Oatley (2008). 7. In Ecocriticism on the Edge (2015, 18–­20), Timothy Clark raises a similar objection against the faith in the power of cultural artifacts expressed by many ecocritics. 8. In a more recent translation of Shklovsky’s essay, the idea of deceleration emerges more indirectly: “By ‘enstranging’ [sic] objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious’” (1991, 6). Indeed, Shklovsky does not use the Russian word for “slow” in the original (thanks go to Ivan Delazari for confirming this), but slowness is still implied by the process of prolonging perception and making it “laborious.” 195

For more on the difficulties of translating the concept of ostraneniye, see Berlina (2015). 9. I build here on Ridvan Askin’s astute reading of Shklovsky’s essay: “From a posthumanist perspective, what is interesting in this conception of literature is that Shklovsky presents literature as the very human means of going beyond the human” (2016, 172). 10. See Enda Duffy’s (2009) wide-­ranging discussion of the modernist obsession with speed. 11. I explore this possibility in more detail in Caracciolo (2022). On the psychological impact of climate change, see a review article by Palinkas and Wong (2019). 12. In addition to Lutz Koepnick’s (2014) work, which I will discuss in detail, see Flanagan (2008), Jaffe (2014), and Luca and Jorge (2016). 13. Contemplation is a centerpiece of Lutz Koepnick’s more recent The Long Take: for Koepnick, “slow cinema stresses the thickness of time so as to cater to contemplative modes of viewing film” (2017, 56). 14. See also a special issue and a volume edited by James and Eric Morel (2018, 2020), both of which collect essays at the intersection of narrative theory and ecocriticism. 15. Irving builds on the scalar account of narrativity formulated by Herman (2009). 16. According to Meir Sternberg’s (2001) well-­known model, suspense, curiosity, and surprise are the emotional interests that define narrative experiences. 17. For further discussion of Hume’s account, see also Baetens and Hume (2006). 18. My first book, The Experientiality of Narrative (2014a), lays the groundwork for a phenomenological approach along these lines. Anežka Kuzmičová (2012) and Mark Bruhn (2015) are two other scholars with phenomenological leanings who are currently active in the field of cognitive literary studies. 19. For further discussion of this phenomenological method and its applicability, see Caracciolo (2014a, 11–­15). 20. For a demonstration of this algorithmic reader that is directly relevant to my discussion of plot and affective patterns, see the study by Reagan et al. (2016). 1. Immersion for Slow Audiences 1. See also Karin Kukkonen’s (2014) discussion of the “embodied reader” and her account of plot (Kukkonen 2020). Kukkonen’s prediction-­based model 196  Notes to Pages 10–24

of reading ties in with my interest in rhythm and multiple dimensions of narrative experiences. 2. See Richard Walsh’s (2017) critique of the world metaphor. I expand on my own position, taking into account some of Walsh’s objections, in Caracciolo (2019c). 3. This close integration of space and time in literary narrative is one of the takeaways of Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1981) influential theory of the chronotope. 4. Here and throughout the book, I do not draw a sharp distinction between emotional responses and affect: both fall on an affective continuum, although affects are more diffuse and more straightforwardly embodied and can be more easily shared interpersonally. I thus subscribe to Ruth Leys’s (2011) critique of affect theory. 5. This analogy between the texture of reading and texture as a figure of human-­nonhuman entanglement will be developed in more detail in chapter 5. 6. I’ll have more to say about enumerations and how they can bring out nonhuman materiality in chapter 3. 7. See Werner Wolf ’s account of the “aesthetic illusion,” a term largely interchangeable with “immersion”: “It is this transparency which permits the recipient’s attention to focus, in a relatively ‘easy reception,’ on the story rather than on the discourse. Of course, ‘transparency’ does not imply an ‘absence’ of discourse (an impossibility anyway)” (2004, 340). 8. See also Merja Polvinen’s (2016) effective critique of this dualistic conception of immersion. Polvinen’s account of immersive experiences has provided key inspiration for my discussion in this chapter. 9. “The spatial metaphors that we have historically used to frame our bodies are unable to fully account for the co-­creative relationship between bodies, whether bodies of climate, water, soil, or bones” (Neimanis and Walker 2014, 569–­70). 10. See Gould (1987) on the opposition between linear and circular time and how it underlies conceptions of geological history in the Western world. 11. Vittorio Gallese and Michele Guerra (2012) discuss film experience in similar terms, highlighting the role of embodied simulation in immersing viewers in filmic situations and connecting them to characters’ goals and actions. 12. See Caracciolo (2018a, 2018b). 13. This is one of the key insights of cognitive linguistics in the wake of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s (1980) work. For discussion of perceptual schemata, see Rohrer (2007); for more on concepts and emotional experience, see Kövecses (2000).

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14. One of the ramifications of this idea is that, in rereading a text or rewatching a film, the audience’s familiarity with the plot makes slowness more likely because the emotional investment in the outcome of the story will be less significant; thus, more attention will be available for other aspects of the text. 15. N. Katherine Hayles (2007) distinguishes between the “deep attention” of traditional novel reading and the “hyper attention” that is called for by digital media through their focus on multimodality and multitasking. Plainly, the slow mode of engagement I’m theorizing here bears a close resemblance to Hayles’s deep attention, but slowness does not exclude simultaneous awareness of parallel patterns (a form of multitasking), and it can be elicited by both digital and analog media (as we’ll see in chapter 7). 16. “Boca Raton” was published electronically as part of a series of Amazon-­ sponsored short stories devoted to climate change (the “Warmer” collection). 17. For more on surface reading, see Best and Marcus (2009). 2. Pace and Place 1. For example, Jacqueline Johnson Cason argues that with its “intense mixture of personal narrative or self-­reflection and extensive scientific scrutiny, nature writing becomes problematic to itself and begins to question the epistemological ramifications of both autobiography and impersonal science” (1991, 15). 2. This is consistent with what I said in the previous chapter about the psycholinguistics of reading. For a fuller discussion of how readers’ past experiential traces are activated in interacting with textual features, see Zwaan (2004) and Caracciolo (2014a, chap. 2). 3. See also Herman (2009, 143–­53) on qualia and the “what it’s like” dimension of narrative. 4. For more on retention and Edmund Husserl’s account of time consciousness, see Gallagher and Zahavi (2008, 76–­78). 5. See Daniel Schacter’s (1996, 29) influential argument that memory is always based on an act of “imaginative reconstruction” of a past episode, not on its “slavish reproduction.” 6. This trade-­off between phenomenal consciousness and narrative-­based memory is an aspect of the more general tension I’ve discussed in past work (Caracciolo 2014a, 204) between the “expressive” and the “abstractive” function of storytelling. While capturing an event or action in verbal form necessarily involves a level of conceptual abstraction that shaves off the sensory texture of that event or action (abstractive function), narrative, and especially 198  Notes to Pages 36–49

literary narrative, has developed stylistic devices to recover that sensory texture by channeling qualia (expressive function). Any given instance of storytelling has to negotiate a middle way between abstraction and expression. 7. See Caracciolo (2012, 206) for the qualia-­focused analysis of one of such passages in Joyce’s Portrait. 8. See Caracciolo and Lambert (2019) for a discussion of narratives where the human body “unravels” vis-­à-­vis the nonhuman landscape. 9. “The facile sense of harmony, even identity, with one’s surroundings (a condition often ascribed to rhapsodic nature writing) would fail to produce self-­awareness of any depth or vividness. . . . Most nature writers, from Thoreau to the present, walk a fine line (or, more accurately, vacillate) between rhapsody and detachment, between aesthetic celebration and scientific explanation” (Slovic 1992, 4). 10. See also Caracciolo (2022), where I examine how contemporary fiction may cultivate this acceptance of ecological instability in audiences. 11. For more on mind style and figurative language, see a seminal contribution by Semino and Swindlehurst (1996). Yanna Popova writes about how metaphor may make “specific contributions to the causal structuring of a story” (2015, 113). 12. See Brooks: “In the motors and engines I have glanced at, including Eros as motor and motor as erotic, we find representations of the dynamics of the narrative text, connecting beginning and end across the middle and making of that middle—­what we read through—­a field of force” (1984, 47). 13. This new materialist approach and Bennett’s work in particular will be discussed more extensively in the next chapter. 14. John Peters (2001) offers a book-­length discussion of literary impressionism with a focus on Joseph Conrad. 15. See, for instance, the following passage: “Howard, by accident of birth, tasted the raw stuff of the cosmos” (Harding 2009, 47). 16. For more on we-­narrative and the narratological challenges it raises, see Bekhta (2017, 2020). See also my analysis of Tinkers in Caracciolo (2020b) for a more sustained discussion of the first-­person plural form in the novel. I will return to we-­narrative in my reading of Bird Lovers, Backyard in chapter 4. 3. Ontocatalogs 1. In these discussions, the terms “ontology” and “cosmology” are mostly used interchangeably to express the basic conceptual infrastructure that underlies a culture’s understanding of reality and its constituent parts. For an introduction to the ontological turn, see Heywood (2017).

Notes to Pages 53–69  199

2. See Viveiros de Castro’s account of the body: “What I call ‘body’ is not a synonym for distinctive substance or fixed shape; body is in this sense an assemblage of affects or ways of being that constitute a habitus” (2004, 475). 3. Myth “can be considered as a site where Culture dreams the capacity of Nature to differ from itself,” writes Stuart McLean (2017, 87). 4. Of course, in the West but also and perhaps especially in the non-­Western world, many traditional mythologies are radically nonlinear in their organization. We will encounter a highly decentralized mythological system in chapter 7 with my discussion of songlines in the culture of Aboriginal Australians. It is no coincidence that in Ragnarok Byatt chooses to focus on (and disrupt) a very specific form of mythological thinking, one that is almost by definition linear through its orientation toward the end of the world. 5. According to Monika Fludernik’s definition, a list is “a structural schema of enumeration in which particular items (e.g., attributes, objects or people, processes, actions) are arranged in a series” (2016, 309). 6. I discuss negative strategies like Danielewski’s enumeration of what is not in the house in Caracciolo (2021, chap. 3). I will return to the mimetic use of typography, which is a distinguishing feature of Danielewski’s fiction, in chapter 5. 7. See Bennett: “Thing-­power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-­made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience” (2010, xvi). 8. Also relevant in this context is Pieter Vermeulen’s concept of “litany,” which he sees as “a key stylistic feature in Anthropocene writing” (2020, 4). 9. See also Vernon’s comment on the epigraph: Marcus builds on “an idea of the autonomy of language possibly derived from Wittgenstein and Heidegger where language speaks, or more accurately, language ‘dances’” (2001, 119). 10. See again Viveiros de Castro: “Our [Western] cosmology postulates a physical continuity and a metaphysical discontinuity between humans and animals. . . . Conversely, Amerindians postulate metaphysical continuity and physical discontinuity. The metaphysical continuity results in animism; the physical discontinuity (between the beings of the cosmos), in perspectivism” (2004, 475). 11. “Category extension” has been offered as a linguistic explanation for the operation of metaphorical language; see Glucksberg (2008). 12. See, for instance, this passage about Frigg, who asks every creature to refrain from harming her son Baldur (an episode discussed in more detail 200  Notes to Pages 70–86

below). There “is no record of [her] having asked humans. . . . Maybe they were always helpless when faced with the gods. Maybe they did not count or were in some other story. They were not woven into the gloss and glitter, the relief and shadows of the tapestry” (Byatt 2011, 89). 13. This understanding of form as open and malleable resonates with the account of affective intensities as “shimmer” offered by Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth (2010). “Shimmer”—­a concept that Gregg and Seigworth lift from Barthes (2005)—­is a powerful visual metaphor for formal instability. 14. For more on the shape of narrative, its cognitive underpinnings, and how story can open up its form to scientific insights into human-­nonhuman connectedness, see Caracciolo (2019a, 2021). 4. Essayistic Attractions 1. The metaphors “equilibrium” and “disequilibrium” come from Todorov (1968). See also David Herman’s (2009, chap. 5) account of “worldmaking” and “world disruption” as fundamental dimensions of narrative. 2. For more on the narrativity of Plato’s dialogues, see Saxonhouse (2009). 3. Michelle Boulous Walker’s discussion thus implies that literary genre represents a cognitive mode in its own right: thought, including philosophical inquiry, is not just embedded in a particular literary form but made possible by that form (in this case, the essay). The idea that textual forms afford novel modes of thinking ties in with recent discussions on the mind’s extension into the material world; see Clark (2010) and, for an application to the processes of literary creativity, Bernini (2014). 4. Joshua Landy (2012) discusses the shortcomings of reading for the message and why literary scholarship should steer clear of it. I will return to Landy’s work in the coda. 5. As stated in chapter 1, Gumbrecht’s narrow equation of meaning with propositional content raises questions in that it overlooks the bodily foundations of meaning-­making. Nevertheless, Gumbrecht’s critique of meaning in the sense of a conceptual message embedded in a linguistic utterance converges with my (and Boulous Walker’s) interest in slow modes of philosophizing and practicing narrative. 6. Also relevant here is John Gibson’s (2007) use of Cavell’s (1969) distinction between knowing and acknowledging to shed light on the forms of knowledge that literary fiction can provide—­the situated, affective awareness of Cavell’s “acknowledging.” 7. Engaging with both Coetzee’s novella and Diamond’s commentary, Anat Pick (2011) discusses vulnerability as a central concept in understanding

Notes to Pages 89–102  201

human-­animal relations and their literary representation. Adeline Johns-­ Putra (2019, 45) also focuses on shared vulnerability across the human-­ nonhuman divide in articulating an ethics of climate change fiction. 8. For more on metalepsis, see Jeff Thoss’s (2015) comprehensive treatment, as well as Pier (2010). 9. See also Korthals Altes (2014) on ethos and its role in literary interpretation. 10. In addition to Bekhta, several narrative scholars have examined the possibilities of collective narration (see Alders and Von Contzen 2015). Alan Palmer’s (2010) exploration of intermental thinking is particularly relevant here. 11. See this quotation attributed to “Alan Bean, Apollo 12”: “When you land on the moon and you stop and get out, nobody’s out there . . . and that’s a weird feeling. It’s a weird feeling to be two people and that’s it” (Field 2010, 39). 12. On “strategic anthropomorphism” and its value in literary engagements with the nonhuman, see Iovino (2015) and the discussion in chapter 6. 13. This impossibility reflects the broader challenge of narrativizing the processes of natural selection, whose scale and lack of teleology and recognizable agents (on an individual or a species level) resist narrative meaning-­ making. See Abbott (2003). 14. It is worth noting that the “philosophy” critiqued by Coetzee (via Costello) and Field is largely analytic philosophy. The questions raised by these works resonate with the posthuman ethics developed by theorists such as Rose (2011), Braidotti (2013), and Wolfe (2010), whose sources are mostly continental rather than analytic. 5. Textural Patterns 1. See Caracciolo (2021, chaps. 6–­7). 2. George Lakoff and Mark Turner discuss “Achilles is a lion” in More Than Cool Reason (1989, 195). For more on metaphor as a “cross-­domain mapping,” see Lakoff and Johnson (1980). 3. Timothy Morton’s discussion of ecological enmeshment also invokes tactile language: “‘Mesh’ can mean the holes in a network and threading between them. It suggests both hardness and delicacy. It has uses in biology, mathematics, and engineering and in weaving and computing—­think stockings and graphic design, metals and fabrics” (2010, 28). 4. Building on an essay by Renu Bora (1997), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick also talks about texture’s “definitional grounding with reference to the sense of touch” (2003, 15).

202  Notes to Pages 103–114

5. For a discussion of metonymy, see Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 36) and Bredin (1984). 6. I borrow the term “affective contour” from Kimmel (2009). 7. See also Timothy Clark’s (2015, chap. 4) related discussion of “scale framing.” 8. In contrast to touch and texture, the visual world tends to present a gap-­free image. Even the so-­called blind spot in our retinas—­a physical discontinuity—­is filled in by the brain: we become aware of it phenomenologically only in highly artificial visual situations (such as the blind spot test). For discussion and demonstration of the blind spot, see Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1991, 323–­24). 9. In Sedgwick’s words, “Although texture has everything to do with scale, there is no one physical scale that intrinsically is the scale of texture. As your plane circles over an airport, texture is what a whole acre of trees can provide” (2003, 16). 10. Emily Potter (2009) also develops an effective critique of representation in climate change discourse. 11. See Bora: “Texture can even be read as synonymous with materiality itself, inasmuch as I am arguing that a kind of inevitable tactility or human agency, in performance or in labor, is crucial to any definition of what it means for something to occupy physical space” (1997, 101). 12. In Hallet’s words, “In the age of digitalization and immaterial electronic signs, the multimodal novel reinstalls the physicality and materiality of semiotic practices” (2009, 146). 13. Torsa Ghosal (2019) discusses novels that make such use of typography under the heading of “typographical fictions.” 14. See Gymnich and Segao Costa (2006) for a thoughtful reading of the metamorphosis motif in Flanagan’s novel. 15. This inversion is closely reminiscent of a short story by Julio Cortázar, “Axolotl,” in which the narrator metamorphoses into an axolotl (an aquatic salamander) seen in a tank at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. For more on Cortázar’s story, see Bernaerts et al. (2014, 77–­79). 16. More on ontological metalepsis in Pier (2010). See also my discussion of metalepsis in the previous chapter. 17. In another passage, the narrator compares scientific classification to “cogs within crushing cogs, & me & all the fish being pulped to a mass meal in between their grinding teeth of taxa & systemae” (R. Flanagan 2001, 186). 18. Similarly, Laura White (2012) reads Flanagan’s first novel, Death of a River Guide, in light of Mary Louise Pratt’s (1992) concept of “imperial eyes,”



Notes to Pages 114–127  203

arguing that Flanagan replaces “the narrative eye with a feeling body immersed in a co-­constitutive relationship with the river” (2012, 273). 6. Visual Narrative 1. On inner speech, see McCarthy-­Jones and Fernyhough (2011). 2. I have written extensively about narrative’s engagement with this cosmic scale in Caracciolo (2020a). 3. I would like to thank Delzi Laranjeira for bringing this catastrophic event to my attention during her visiting period at Ghent University. 4. As Malafouris puts it, “While agency and intentionality may not be properties of things, they are not properties of humans either: they are the properties of material engagement, that is, of the grey zone where brain, body and culture conflate” (2008, 22). 5. For more on the role of storytelling in sequencing events and working out causality, see Herman (2003). 6. See also Caracciolo (2021, chap. 7) on the limits of metaphorical appropriation of the nonhuman world, including anthropomorphic appropriation. 7. It is important to acknowledge, with Bennett (2010), that anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism are conceptually and practically divergent: the former can be used against the grain of the latter as a heuristic device to imagine the powers of materiality. See Bennett: “We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism—­the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature—­to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world” (2010, xvi). 8. See Velleman: “The cadence that makes for a story is that of the arousal and resolution of affect” (2003, 13). 9. For more on the affective basis of narrative practices, see Tan (1996) and Hogan (2011). I discuss the affective form of narrative in relation to human-­ nonhuman entanglement in Caracciolo (2021, introduction). 10. In Thierry Groensteen’s (2007) terminology, this process can be described as the “general arthrology” of symbolic or thematic echoes from panel to panel eclipsing the “restricted arthrology” of narrative sequence. 11. For a sample of prints from Haeckel’s work, see https://​www​.theguardian​ .com​/books​/gallery​/2017​/nov​/01​/ernst​-haeckel​-the​-art​-of​-evolution​-in​ -pictures. For more on the influence of Haeckel’s art and philosophy on contemporary ecological thinking, see Egerton (2013). 12. The concept of scale is central to recent discussions on the nonhuman and the Anthropocene. My reading of Cheyrol’s book is inspired by Derek Woods’s (2014) “scale critique,” examined in the previous chapter, as well as by Timothy Clark’s (2015) account of “scale effects.” 204  Notes to Pages 136–147

13. It should be noted that the strategic use of anthropomorphism is also part of the repertoire of material ecocriticism; see Iovino (2015). 14. For more on nominalization and nonhuman characters in narrative, see Caracciolo (2021, chap. 4). 15. The possibility of imagining “the world without us” has been reappraised recently by Alan Weisman (2007) in a book-­length thought experiment on what would happen after the sudden vanishing of humankind. 16. Compare what Clark, in the context of a discussion of scale, says about the impossibility of grasping humanity as a whole: “Its modes of appearance as a totality are only in graphs, statistics and computer projections and modelling—­of co2 emissions, population figures, waste generation, proportion of the Earth’s land surface used and so on. It cannot be pictured adequately in some sensuous image” (2015, 73). 17. My source for the New York Times quotation is Strauss (2009). The title of Vuillier’s album may be inspired by a song composed by Italian French singer Nino Ferrer, also titled “L’année de la comète,” which gives voice to apocalyptic feelings similar to those expressed by Flammarion in his comment on the Halley comet. 18. For H. Porter Abbott, egregious gaps “are the gaps that we cannot fill but that, at the same time, require filling in order to complete the narrative” (2013, 112). 19. Greg Garrard (2012) examines these tensions in specifically ethical terms in an insightful article on “disanthropy,” or the imagination of the world without human beings. 20. For a convergent argument, see Askin (2021). 21. This idea is the premise of Caracciolo (2021); see in particular the introduction. I have already discussed Abram’s work in my reading of Byatt’s Ragnarok in chapter 3, and I will return to it in the following chapter. 7. Radical Storytelling 1. For more on digression and the aesthetic of boredom in walking simulators, see Kagen (2017, 282). I will come back to Kagen’s discussion of walking simulators later in this chapter. 2. Game theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define gameplay as “the formalized interaction that occurs when players follow the rules of a game and experience its system through play” (2004, 303). In a nutshell, gameplay refers to the interactive mechanics of the game and is typically distinguished from features of a game that preexist the player’s choices, such as the setting (“game world”). 3. The assumption behind all this is that, in Marie-­Laure Ryan’s words, video games “allow a combination of strategic action and [narrative] make-­

Notes to Pages 149–162  205

believe within the same environment” (2006, 203). I expand on the tension between narrative and ludic values in video games in Caracciolo (2015), where I also offer an overview of the debate between so-­called ludological and narratological positions in the early days of game studies (see Frasca 2003). 4. From now on I will use the short title Where the Water. 5. Shaun Gallagher (2009) discusses the common ground between Merleau-­ Ponty’s phenomenology, Gibson’s ecological psychology, and contemporary trends in embodied cognitive science, including enactivism. See also Easterlin (2018) for an effective application of ecological theories of cognition to narrative space. 6. This understanding of space as an empty container is deeply bound up with the scientific views that shaped Western modernity. Compare Margaret Wertheim on Galileo’s conception of space: “Galileo was able to abstract out of the world around him the seemingly essential features for a rigorous new physics. . . . In his new world picture ‘psychical space’ became at last synonymous with Euclidean space, a vast featureless three-­ dimensional void. . . . Everything else—­all the rich sensual qualities such as colors, smells, tastes, and sounds—­were now to be regarded as just secondary” (2000, 117; emphasis in the original). These “sensual qualities” are, of course, central to the phenomenological understanding of space. In The Fate of Place (2013), Edward Casey offers a compelling account of the shift from phenomenological place to “objective” space in modern Western philosophy. 7. For a fuller argument along these lines, see Caracciolo (2019c). 8. Ideologically, The Songlines is a controversial text: Chatwin, a celebrity travel writer, has been seen as appropriating Aboriginal culture to cement his authorial persona. Nevertheless, Chatwin’s work contains a suggestive articulation of the storied nature of the Australian continent. For more on Chatwin’s ambivalent position vis-­à-­vis postcolonial issues, see Clarke (2009). 9. In discussing Native American myth, Theresa Smith and Jill Fiore lay out a similar conception of space as intimately bound up with stories crisscrossing the human-­nonhuman distinction: “Attuned to immanence, cyclical time, and a compelling sense of place, American Indian myths tell stories of people, human and otherwise, who do not travel toward eventual meaning but who dwell in and move through an inherently meaningful arena” (2010, 59). 10. See also Caracciolo (2019b) for more on Dear Esther and the philosophical implications of its environmental storytelling. 206  Notes to Pages 163–175

11. The alphabet has been decoded by Shawns (2015). 12. For more on nonlinearity and how narrative can employ it to decenter the human, see Caracciolo (2021, chap. 1). 13. See this website for a comprehensive description of these moods: https://​ wherethewatertasteslikewine​.gamepedia​.com​/Stories. 14. On this return of affect and social engagement in contemporary fiction, see also McLaughlin (2004) and Armstrong (2014). 15. For more on video game space and gameplay, see Nitsche’s (2008) treatment. Coda 1. Melanie Green and Timothy Brock (2000) offer a seminal discussion of how transportation in stories (that is, immersion and emotional involvement) leads to persuasion. 2. Along similar lines, legal scholar Jens Kersten (2013) calls for a new “political anthropology” centered on the enjoyment of complexity, which he sees as a defining feature of our Anthropocenic predicament.



Notes to Pages 179–191  207

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References  227

Index

Page numbers in italics indicate figures. Aarseth, Espen, 170–­7 1 Abbott, H. Porter: Real Mysteries, 83, 158 Aboriginal Australia, 22, 30, 167–­69, 184, 187, 200n4. See also Australia; Indigenous peoples Abram, David: The Spell of the Sensuous, 89, 159, 167, 169 Abrams, J. J.: S., 119 aesthetics: formalist, 137; of landscape painting, 127; modernist, 12; of slow cinema, 13; of slow literature, 104; and slowness, 10; smooth-­ zoom, 116; of video games, 167. See also art; vision agency, 1, 3; animal, 79; deliberateness and, 155; distribution of agency across scale domains, 116; human, 61, 139–­42, 185–­86; and intentionality, 204n4; material, 139–­41; narrative, 141; nonhuman, 4, 7, 16, 125, 139–­41, 185; of place, 169; rational, 3; scope of the concept of, 140. See also autonomy; intentionality; subjectivity aisthesis (embodied sensation), 10 Alaimo, Stacy, 29, 86 Alber, Jan, 73–­74 Alexander, Leigh, 179

allegory: and “escape” of consciousness from a dying body, 59; of humanity as harmful and unwanted species, 108; of human-­nonhuman entanglement, 39 American Dream, 180, 183, 185 Amerindians. See Indigenous peoples amusement parks, 161 analogy: formal, 144; human-­ nonhuman, 149; narramorphic, 142, 157–­58; planet-­organism, 155–­ 56; structural, 142; visual, 147, 157 ancestrality, 154; imagination of, 158 Anthropocene era, 4–­6, 116; and the concept of scale, 204n12; discourse of the, 195n3; and entanglement of human societies and nonhuman materialities, 17, 23, 106, 113; moral philosophy and the challenges of the, 110. See also climate crisis anthropocentrism, 5, 8, 16, 143, 204n7; assumptions of, 21, 191; and biocentrism, 91–­92; critique of, 187–­88; retreat from, 22; strategic, 107. See also anthropomorphism anthropology, 20, 167; and literature, 69–­7 1, 92; ontological turn in, 77, 92, 199n1; political, 207n2

229

anthropomorphism, 21, 121, 204n7; of analogy, 107; elimination of, 155; of the gods of Norse myth, 86; narramorphism and, 21, 142–­43, 152; of narrative, 5, 8, 107, 137–­ 38; strategic, 149, 151–­52, 202n12, 205n13. See also anthropocentrism; narramorphism art: comics as a sequential, 143; formalist account of, 10; impressionist, 62; narrative as, 27, 138; of nature writing, 43; of photography, 55; of video, 12. See also aesthetics; media; photography; video games Askin, Ridvan, 196n9 astronomy, 21 audience: attention of the, 24, 28, 37; consciousness of the, 34; familiarity with the plot of the, 198n14; slow, 24; texture of the attention of the, 24–­29 Australia, 120–­21, 168–­69, 206n8. See also Aboriginal Australia Australian Dictionary of Biography, 121 autonomy: of agency, 16, 139, 169; of identity, 155; of living beings, 86; metaphysical, 178. See also agency Azaryahu, Maoz: Narrating Space/ Spatializing Narrative, 164 Bakhtin, Mikhail, 197n3 Ballard, J. G.: The Drowned World, 173 Barthelme, Donald, 73 Basso, Keith, 167 Bekhta, Natalya, 104 Belknap, Robert, 71–­72 Bennett, Jane, 4, 61, 67; Vibrant Matter, 76–­77, 139, 141

230  Index

Berndt, Catherine: The Speaking Land, 167–­68 Berndt, Ronald: The Speaking Land, 167–­68 Best, Stephen, 15, 191 bildungsroman, 52, 59 biochemistry, 66 biodiversity, 90–­91 biology, 23, 107 BioShock (video game), 162–­63, 171, 186 Bluck, Susan, 49 body: design of the human, 60; harm to the, 46; as inanimate artifact, 60; and material fabric of the earth, 149; and the nonhuman landscape, 199n8; salience as language breaks down of the, 102–­3; slowness as affect inscribed in the, 27; unraveling of the boundaries of the, 63;. See also embodiment Boulous Walker, Michelle: Slow Philosophy, 96–­99, 201n3 Boxall, Peter, 183 Brazil, 138–­39 Brontë, Charlotte: Jane Eyre, 34 Brooks, Peter: Reading for the Plot, 59 Bruner, Jerome, 48–­49 Burarrwanga, Laklak, 169 Burroughs, William, 15 Byatt, A. S.: Ragnarok, 20, 70–­72, 83–­ 93, 146, 156, 200n4 capitalism: history of, 4; industrial activity in, 23 Carson, Don, 161 Casati, Roberto, 81 Casey, Edward: The Fate of Place, 206n6

Cason, Jacqueline Johnson, 198n1 causation: breaking down of, 82, 141; narrative, 72; of nonhuman materialities uncoupled from human agency, 61; physical, 81; sequentiality of, 152, 204n5. See also slow causality Cavell, Stanley, 98; “Knowing and Acknowledging,” 99, 201n6 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, 4, 41, 106 Chalmers, David, 45–­46 Chatwin, Bruce: The Songlines, 168–­ 69, 184, 206n8 Chénetier, Marc, 83–­85 Cheyrol, Thierry: Gaïa, 21, 136–­38, 143–­47, 148, 149–­53, 150, 151, 156–­59 children, 91–­92 Choi, Tina Young, 5 Christianity, 87; eschatology of, 90 cinema. See film Civilization (video game), 171 Clark, Timothy, 195n7, 203n7, 205n16 climate, 23; and carbon dioxide emissions, 23. See also climate crisis climate crisis, 3–­9, 41, 54, 189–­90; anxieties raised by, 57; complexity of, 20; economic origins of, 195n1; and mitigation policies, 19; and “narrative persuasion,” 190; nonlinearity of, 19; public perception of, 13, 18–­19; somatic response to, 40. See also Anthropocene era; climate; ecology; environment climate fiction, 190. See also contemporary fiction closure, 17, 40; lack of, 110; narrative, 90, 94–­95; of literary and narrative form, 92; and teleology, 72, 94–­95. See also narrative

Coetzee, J. M.: The Lives of Animals, 20, 96–­104, 108–­10 cognitive linguistics, 33, 197n13. See also mind cognitive science, 46, 139; embodied, 206n5. See also mind Cohn, Dorrit: Transparent Minds, 44 collectivity, 106, 131; patterns of, 130 colonialism, 21; traumatic realities of, 128 comics, 113, 135–­60, 176; choreographic, 144–­45; experimental, 137; poetic wordless, 144–­45; and slow narrative, 143–­46; verbal dimension of, 145. See also media Connolly, William, 67 Conrad, Joseph, 199n14 consciousness, 140; of the audience, 34; collective, 51; dynamics of, 63–­64; exploration of, 36, 43; hard problem of, 46, 66; materialist view of, 66; metaphors of, 47; and nonhuman materialities, 67, 125; nonlinear dynamics of, 67; personal, 51; phenomenal, 54, 198n6; and the physical world, 63, 66; qualitative properties of, 20, 50, 53; sensory pattern of, 49; slow mode of, 57, 193; texture and, 20; time and, 36, 198n4; understanding of, 43. See also mind; phenomenology contemporary fiction: ecological instability in, 199n10; multimodal devices of, 21, 121, 130, 133, 135; the novel in, 45; postmodernist strategies in, 73. See also climate fiction; literature; novel Coover, Robert, 73 correlationism, 154

Index  231

cosmology: on the birth of organismic life, 151; of Indigenous peoples, 69–­70, 200n10; ontology and, 199n1; Western, 74, 77, 93, 200n10 COVID-­19 pandemic, 189, 192 Crist, Eileen, 23, 27, 29, 41 Crutzen, Paul, 4 Curry, Judith, 190 dance, 30, 33; of language, 200n9 Danielewski, Mark: The Fifty Year Sword, 21, 115, 118–­19, 128–­35; House of Leaves, 73–­74, 75, 76–­77, 119–­20, 130; mimetic typography of, 134, 200n6; stitching patterns of, 132 Dannenberg, Hilary: Coincidence and Counterfactuality, 25 Darwin, Charles: On the Origin of Species, 87 Dear Esther (video game), 172–­73, 177–­78 death: animal, 38; “cataclysm” of, 59; escape of consciousness in, 60; life and, 110; nonhuman, 110; postponement of, 66; vitality and premature, 98 Dennett, Daniel, 47 Derrida, Jacques, 79 Descartes, René, 46, 60, 68 desire, 16, 34; for order, 88, 90 Diamond, Cora, 20, 96–­101, 191; “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” 97–­104, 111 Dorst, Doug: S., 119 dualism: Cartesian, 46; of matter, 61; in Western culture, 46 Eco, Umberto, 19, 74, 96

232  Index

ecocriticism, 7, 32, 190, 195n7; material, 21, 138–­41, 205n13; and narrative, 13; narrative theory and, 196n14; perspective of, 25 ecology: crisis of, 6, 12, 18–­22, 44, 57–­ 58, 67, 109–­10, 190; instability of, 199n10; linkages of, 10–­11; literature and, 190. See also climate crisis; environment Eliot, George, 5 Ellison, Cara, 179 The Embodied Mind (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch), 139 embodied simulation, 32 embodiment: metaphysical view of, 31; transcorporeal, 30. See also body Emerson, Ralph Waldo: “Nature,” 78; “The Poet,” 78 Ensslin, Astrid, 171 environment: anthropogenic disturbances to the, 29, 39; crisis of the, 86; degradation of the, 6, 38–­39, 41; and environmental storytelling, 161–­88; relationship with the, 141. See also climate crisis; ecology; extinction; pollution environmental storytelling, 161–­88; nonlinearity of, 186–­87; philosophical implications of, 206n10. See also narrative; video games Ercolino, Stefano, 95 ergodicity, 170 Esrock, Ellen, 37 essay, 94–­111; Montaignian, 94, 96, 100, 102, 110, 161; and narrative, 100; nonlinearity of, 100, 161. See also literature

ethics: of anthropogenic species extinction, 109; of climate change fiction, 202n7; dilemmas of, 191; and the nonhuman, 20–­21, 141; posthuman, 202n14; and slow narrative, 22. See also philosophy experience: affective, 98; felt qualities of conscious, 52; of film, 197n11; immersive, 33–­38, 41; inner, 82; of narrative, 17, 25, 31, 167, 190; phenomenal qualities of, 48–­49, 57, 66; qualia of, 54, 57, 66; rhythm of narrative, 14–­15, 27, 33, 40, 137, 143–­ 46, 152, 169; shared human, 106; of slowness, 10–­11, 14–­24, 27, 33, 37, 68, 173, 186; spatiotemporal scale of human, 136; story-­driven, 195n4; of temporality, 189; of texture, 135, 145; of video games, 184, 186; visual, 62, 155. See also consciousness; qualia; sensation extinction, 21; inevitability of human, 106; of species, 23, 105–­10. See also environment Fallout 3 (video game), 166–­67 Faulkner, William, 43 Felski, Rita, 15 Ferrer, Nino, 205n17 Field, Thalia: Bird Lovers, Backyard, 20–­21, 96, 104–­10 Fifth Assessment Report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), 18 film, 12–­13, 27; aesthetics of slow, 13, 196n13; experience of, 197n11; interactive, 171. See also media Firewatch (video game), 173, 186–­87

Flaherty, Michael: A Watched Pot, 36–­37 Flammarion, Camille, 156–­57, 205n17; Le monde avant la création de l’homme, 154 Flanagan, Richard: Gould’s Book of Fish, 21, 112, 115, 118–­28, 122, 134–­35 Fludernik, Monika, 7, 137, 200n5 Foer, Jonathan Safran: Tree of Codes, 120 Foote, Kenneth: Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative, 164 formalism, 159; Russian, 10 fossil fuels, 4 Fowler, Roger, 59 Frammartino, Michelangelo, 1, 4–­6, 8, 13 Fyfe, Duncan, 179 Gaia hypothesis, 149 Gallagher, Shaun, 206n5 game studies, 164, 169–­70, 205n2, 206n3. See also video games Garrard, Greg, 143, 205n19 Geertz, Clifford, 31 Genette, Gérard: Narrative Discourse, 14 geology, 5–­6, 8, 23, 41, 69, 140 Gerrig, Richard, 25 Ghosal, Torsa, 203n13 Gibbons, Alison, 118–­20 Gibson, John, 201n6 global economy, 192 God, 60–­61 Gould, Stephen Jay, 197n10 Gould, William Buelow, 120–­21 Grady, Constance, 189 Gregg, Melissa, 201n13 Groensteen, Thierry, 143–­45, 204n10

Index  233

Groff, Lauren: Arcadia, 20, 42–­45, 47–­ 58, 61, 67, 192; “Boca Raton,” 20, 24, 31, 38–­42, 51–­52, 198n16 Grusin, Richard, 3 Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich, 33, 97–­98, 201n5 Gutmann, Amy, 98 Habermas, Tilmann, 49 Haeckel, Ernst: Kunstformen der Natur, 147, 149 Hallet, Wolfgang, 118–­21 Harding, Paul: Tinkers, 20, 42–­50, 57–­68, 199n16 Harman, Graham, 74 Hayles, N. Katherine, 198n15 Heidegger, Martin, 71 Heise, Ursula, 6–­7, 11 Herman, David, 44, 198n3, 201n1 Herzog, Werner, 12 Hesiod: Theogony, 146 history: biological, 41; climatological, 5, 8; cosmic, 149, 151–­52; cultural, 3; evolutionary, 4, 69, 140; geological, 5–­6, 8, 41, 69, 140, 192, 197n10; human, 4, 7, 41; planetary, 4, 156; of the twentieth century, 108 Hokusai: The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 153; Thirty-­Six Views of Mount Fuji, 153 Honoré, Carl, 11 Hughes, Ted: “Six Young Men,” 97–­98 human geography, 167 human-­nonhuman relations, 1–­8, 30, 41, 62–­63, 91–­92, 112–­18, 135–­ 41, 192; conceptual boundaries of, 86, 88; difficulty of, 110–­11; ethical dimension of, 95, 109, 111; experience of, 117–­18; integrative view of,

234  Index

170; nonlinearity of, 193; ominous allegory of, 39; painful, 96; reimagining of, 16, 71; texture and, 24, 27–­30, 40, 89, 113; violence in, 96. See also interdependency Hume, Kathryn, 14–­15 Husserl, Edmund, 198n4 Hutto, Daniel, 66 identity: autonomous, 155; human, 176; memory and, 51; personal, 49 ideology: conservative, 170; critique of anthropocentric, 187–­88; totalitarian, 107 imagery: formal, 152; imagination in a textural mode and, 39, 145; logic of symbol and, 66; mental, 37; objectifying language and, 59; and ontological concepts, 84. See also language; representation imagination: deceleration of, 62; of ecological catastrophe, 57; embodied spatial, 35; environmental, 27; experienced content of, 33; of matter as complex pattern, 61, 89; narramorphism as emergent feature of, 152; of nonhuman materialities, 20, 93, 191; textural mode of, 42–­ 44, 68, 93, 123, 133, 160; thickening of, 40. See also mind Indigenous peoples, 83, 92–­93; cosmologies of, 69–­70, 91; cultures of, 22, 70, 78–­80, 191; land and narrative in the cultures of, 167–­69; mythology of, 179; oral stories of, 185; perspective on space of, 169. See also Aboriginal Australia Informe Tunguska (Figueroa and Romo), 137

intentionality, 74, 139–­40; agency and, 178, 204n4. See also agency interdependency, 1, 28; in ecosystems, 116. See also human-­nonhuman relations Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (journal), 138 Internet, 107–­8. See also media interpretation: deceleration of, 104; ethos and literary, 202n9; and systematic method, 97; and unconventional narrative strategies, 24. See also meaning; narrative Iovino, Serenella, 138–­42, 146, 159 Irving, Dan: “Eighteen Hours of Salmon,” 13–­14 Iser, Wolfgang, 19, 157 James, Erin, 13, 196n14; The Storyworld Accord, 26–­27 Jamieson, Dale, 108 Japan, 28 Jenkins, Henry, 161–­62, 169 Joyce, James: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 53, 199n7 Kafka, Franz: “Report to an Academy,” 101 Kagen, Melissa, 170–­72, 205n1 Kahn, Peter, 91–­92 Kant, Immanuel, 154–­55 Kersten, Jens, 207n2 King, Edward, 137 Klingan, Katrin: “MUD,” 39 knowledge: experiential, 191; from literary fiction, 201n6; scientific, 127 Koepnick, Lutz: The Long Take, 196n13; On Slowness, 12

Kohn, Eduardo, 20, 69–­70; How Forests Think, 137 Korthals Altes, Liesbeth, 94 Kuiken, Don, 10 Kukkonen, Karin, 19, 143, 196n1 Kuzmičová, Anežka, 25 Landy, Joshua, 22, 191, 201n4 language: anthropomorphizing uses of, 159; autonomy of, 200n9; comprehension of, 10; conceptual hierarchies created by, 137; enumerative, 88; erasure of verbal, 13, 21, 102–­3, 176; everyday standards of, 24; figurative, 54, 57, 65, 131, 133, 199n11; materiality of, 91; metaphorical, 40, 130; mimicry by animals of human, 102; and narrative, 136; natural patterns and, 65–­67; nonverbal, 64, 135; ontological distinctions of, 83; phenomenological, 67; scientific, 27, 29, 106; sensory qualities of, 77, 87; shifting patterns of, 127; verbal, 121, 135, 145, 159; in video games, 175; visual, 117; written, 94. See also imagery; metaphor; metonymy Leckie, Barbara, 5 Leech, Geoffrey: Style in Fiction, 44 Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, 27 Leys, Ruth, 197n4 linearity: and containment, 42; disruption of, 178; of environmental storytelling, 163; limits of, 19; of media, 170; of metanarratives, 190; of metaphors, 116; of narrative, 3, 8, 18, 58, 163; and teleology, 8, 16, 19, 34, 37, 100, 179; of temporality, 40–­41; of time, 5, 17, 30. See also nonlinearity; teleology; time

Index  235

Linnaeus, Carl, 126; Systema Naturae, 72 literary realism, 104. See also literature literary theory, 19; cognitive, 196n18. See also literature literature: anthropology and, 69–­7 1, 92; cognitive approaches to, 32; and ecology, 190; experiential values and, 15; modernist, 45, 53; and nature writing, 43, 45, 56, 67; ontological destabilizations of, 93; slowness in, 13. See also contemporary fiction; ecocriticism; essay; literary realism; literary theory; narrative; novel; poetics; postmodernist fiction Lopez, Barry, 43 Lorenz, Konrad, 107–­8 Lovelock, James, 149 Lutz, Antoine, 52–­53, 55, 64 Lyell, Charles, 5 Lyotard, Jean-­François, 18, 190 Malafouris, Lambros, 139 Marcus, Ben: The Age of Wire and String, 20, 70–­72, 78–­86, 93, 200n9 Marcus, Sharon, 15, 191 Margulis, Lynn, 149 materialism: analogy and, 142; conscious experience and, 66; new, 4, 61, 66–­67, 74, 76, 199n13; as view of mind, 66 materiality: conceptions of, 61, 66; of images, 128; of language, 87, 91; matter and, 195n2; nonverbal, 160; notion of, 63, 77; sense of textural, 150, 203n11; and verbal meaning, 120. See also nonhuman materiality

236  Index

mathematics, 79 Matz, Jesse, 43–­44 McCarthy, Cormac: The Road, 37–­38 McIntyre, Michael, 48 McLean, Stuart: Fictionalizing Anthropology, 69–­7 1, 92–­93 meaning(s), 201n5; experiential, 167; embodied presence and, 33; ethico-­ political, 140; of texture, 24; as propositional content, 201n5. See also interpretation; narrative media: analog, 198n15; digital, 108, 198n15; linearity of, 170; narrative, 24; nonverbal, 20; popular, 190; technological, 166; traditional, 170. See also art; comics; film; Internet; photography; social media; television; video games Meillassoux, Quentin, 154–­55, 158 memory: autobiographical, 45; biological, 140; communal, 53; and “imaginative reconstruction,” 198n5; and mental lives of characters, 17, 66; narrative-­based, 198n6; time-­based, 48–­49. See also experience; mind Merleau-­Ponty, Maurice: Phenomenology of Perception, 165–­66 metalepsis, 103–­4, 202n8; ontological, 124, 203n16 metamorphosis, 88, 121, 123–­27, 203n14 metaphor, 41, 114–­15, 130–­31, 141, 199n11; as category extension, 200n11; of consciousness, 47; creative, 36, 39; as cross-­domain mapping, 202n2; linearity of, 116; objectifying, 61; phenomenological, 47; and simile, 67, 130–­31, 133; spatial,

29–­30, 164–­65, 197n9; texture and, 31, 33, 112–­35; of thickening, 33–­34; transformative potential of, 92; visual, 117, 192. See also language metonymy, 113–­14, 117, 131–­35, 141–­42, 159, 193. See also language Miall, David, 10 Mikkonen, Kai, 143 mind: functionalist view of, 46–­47; materialist view of, 66; theory of, 7, 195n5. See also cognitive linguistics; cognitive science; consciousness; imagination; memory mindfulness, 20, 52–­55, 66; phenomenology of, 52–­54, 67; practices of, 57 modernism, 44; literary, 45, 53; poetics of, 51; speed and, 196n10 modernity, 3; crisis of, 95; cult of speed of, 11; Western, 5, 69–­70, 93, 187, 206n6. See also technology Montaigne, Michel de, 94, 96, 102 Moore, Jason, 195n1 Morrison, Glenn, 168 Morton, Timothy, 5, 87, 202n3 Mukařovský, Jan, 10 multimodality, 21; textural patterns of, 112–­35. See also narrative Musil, Robert, 95 myth: ancient, 7; apocalyptic, 90; culture and, 20, 200n3; formulaic nature of, 90; Greek, 146; Indigenous, 179, 206n9; narrative form of, 89, 92, 200n4; Norse, 70, 85–­90, 92–­93, 146; shape of, 85–­92; strange reality of, 88–­89; traditional, 70, 200n4. See also narrative Nagel, Thomas: Mind and Cosmos, 66–­67

narramorphism, 21, 138–­43, 157–­ 60; and anthropomorphism, 21, 142–­43, 152; as feature of the imagination, 152; of matter, 143; of nonhuman processes, 142. See also anthropomorphism; narrative narrative: acceleration of, 15; affective dimension of, 15, 17, 159; anthropomorphism of, 5, 8, 107, 137–­38; apocalyptic, 90, 146; autobiographical, 85; circular logic in, 124; climate, 140; consciousness evocation in, 67; deceleration of, 3–­8, 12–­13, 20, 23, 36, 41, 67, 84–­85, 131, 184; ecocritical relevance of, 13; embodied texture of, 37, 88–­89; essay and, 100; experience of, 17, 31, 167, 190; and gameplay, 161–­88; geological, 140; illustrations and, 119; immersive engagement with, 24–­33, 41, 185, 197n7; instability of, 181; language and, 136; linear, 3, 8, 18, 58, 163; locomotion and, 173; multiple layers of, 11; nonlinear, 58–­59, 110, 123, 177, 185, 207n12; ontology and, 77; oral, 184–­85, 187; personal identity and, 49; phenomenological approach to, 15; rhythmic patterning of, 14–­15, 27, 33, 40, 137, 143–­46, 152, 169; sequentiality of, 143, 145; slowness of, 3–­9, 12–­27, 36–­37, 41, 58, 72, 85, 109, 116, 135, 158, 163, 193; space and, 164–­65; speed of, 15; teleology of, 5, 8, 13–­19, 66, 91, 94, 100, 103, 145; textural patterns in multimodal, 112–­35; thickening of the experience of, 36; transportation to a world of, 26; typographical form of, 130; unconventional strategies

Index  237

narrative (cont.) of, 24, 140; verbal, 21; visual, 21, 136–­60, 185. See also closure; contemporary fiction; environmental storytelling; interpretation; literature; meaning; multimodality; myth; narramorphism; narrative theory; narrativity; plot; reading; representation; slowness; texture narrative theory, 13, 25–­29, 142; containment metaphor in, 25–­30; and ecocriticism, 196n14; and environmental philosophy, 164; structuralist, 14; stylistics and, 71. See also narrative narrativity: agency, materiality, and, 140–­42, 159; of comics, 143; degree of, 109; of matter, 142; of the nonhuman, 141; scalar account of, 14, 196n15; spatial distribution of, 187; tension between the essay and, 100–­103; of video games, 184, 187; visual, 143; weak, 14. See also narrative narratology. See narrative theory naturalism, 67 Neimanis, Astrida: “Weathering,” 29–­ 30, 32, 41, 166 Nell, Victor, 25 new materialism. See materialism Newton, Isaac, 60 Nixon, Rob, 6–­7 nominalization, 152, 205n14 nonhuman, 3–­4, 193; complex patterning of the, 87–­90; human mastery of the, 127; landscape of the, 199n8; material textures of the, 65, 87–­90; story bridges the human and the, 169; vitality of the,

238  Index

88; world of the, 16–­18, 42, 56–­57, 64–­65, 76. See also nonhuman materiality nonhuman materiality: consciousness and, 67; diversity of, 71; and human society, 23; imagination of, 20, 93, 191; metonymic embedding of the human into, 65; narramorphic engagement with, 146–­60; narrative form and, 68, 110, 159; ontocatalogs and, 69–­93; subjectivity and, 5, 11, 29, 41, 45, 82, 114, 133. See also materiality; nonhuman nonlinearity: of environmental storytelling, 186–­87; of essay, 100, 161; and figurative language, 65; of human-­nonhuman relations, 193; of narrative, 58–­59, 110, 123, 177, 185, 207n12; of the visual form of comics, 145. See also linearity Nordhagen, Johnnemann, 179 novel: affective impact of the, 66; first-­person plural form in the, 199n16; graphic, 137; modernist, 43; multimodal, 119; postapocalyptic, 37; psychological tension typical of nature writing in the, 67; traditional, 136; typographical, 203n13. See also contemporary fiction; literature; postmodernist fiction ontocatalogs, 69–­93 ontology: Amazonian, 77–­78; and cosmology, 199n1; of material life experience, 140; and narrative, 77; Western, 77–­78, 92–­93. See also philosophy Oppermann, Serpil, 138–­42, 146, 159

Page, Joanna, 137 pain, 46 Palmer, Alan, 45, 202n10 Peters, John, 199n14 Petrini, Carlo, 11 Phelan, James, 94 phenomenology, 42, 48, 206n5; conception of space of, 165–­66; and ecophilosophy, 159; of figurative language, 57; of humanity as a species, 106; method of, 89; of mindfulness, 52–­54, 67; of nonhuman species, 106. See also consciousness; experience; philosophy philosophy: analytic, 66, 94, 97, 202n14; continental, 202n14; enactivist, 165; environmental, 23, 27, 89, 164; institutional, 100–­102; of mind, 45, 101; moral, 98, 110; posthumanist, 95; slowness in, 96; Western, 69. See also ethics; ontology; phenomenology photography, 12, 55, 57, 105, 192; aerial, 12; and literary style, 55. See also art; media physics, 66; naïve, 81 Pick, Anat, 201n7 Pinchbeck, Dan, 172 Plato, 95, 201n2 Pliny: Natural History, 126 plot: desire or goal of the, 16, 37; emotional investment in the, 162; irregularity of, 45; progression of the, 34–­37; teleological organization of the, 41; tension in the, 34; three emotional universals of, 37. See also narrative

poetics: of fragmentation and hybridity, 95; of literary reading, 27; modernist, 51. See also literature political theory, 98 pollution, 23; and morality, 91; toxic, 29. See also environment Polvinen, Merja, 197n8 Popova, Yanna, 199n11 Postema, Barbara, 145 postmodernism, 7, 183 postmodernist fiction, 15, 73–­74. See also literature; novel present: temporal plurality of the, 12; as unsettling, 7. See also temporality Proust, Marcel, 95 psycholinguistics, 24, 31; of reading, 198n2 psychology, 20; cognitive, 33; ecological, 165, 206n5; evolutionary, 195n6; human, 139; of mindfulness, 52 qualia, 20, 42–­68, 118, 198n3; of experience, 54, 57; exploration of, 62; ineffability of, 47; in material reality, 67; problem of, 48, 66–­67; temporal dimension of, 47–­48. See also consciousness; experience Le quattro volte (film), 1–­5, 2, 8–­9, 13–­14, 16 Radvansky, Gabriel A., 31 reading: cognitive poetics of literary, 27; deceleration of, 91, 104, 108; disorienting, 109; embodied models of, 19; posthumanist, 137; prediction-­based model of, 196n1; psycholinguistic work on, 24, 198n2; slowness of, 35, 40–­44, 68,

Index  239

reading (cont.) 91, 97, 104, 110, 128, 133–­35, 145; surface, 15; texture in literary, 113. See also narrative reality: destabilization of, 74; different levels of, 132; difficulty of, 20, 98, 103–­7, 111–­12; “matter-­field” of physical, 66; nonbinary encounter with, 24; ontological categories in the description of, 83; taxonomization of, 92 Reed, Ishmael, 15 representation: in climate change discourse, 203n10; narrative, 68; of other sensations, 145; pictorial, 143; practices of modernity of, 6; scientific, 192; structures of, 118; verbal, 143; visual, 127. See also imagery; narrative Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea, 34–­36 Robbins, Stephen, 47–­48, 66 Rosch, Eleanor, 139 Rose, Deborah Bird, 30–­33, 41, 110–­11; Wild Dog Dreaming, 95 Rosol, Christoph: “MUD,” 39 Ryan, Marie-­Laure, 25, 205n3; Avatars of Story, 171; The Living Handbook of Narratology, 164; Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative, 164–­68; Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory, 16 Salen, Katie, 205n2 Scarry, Elaine, 37 Schacter, Daniel, 198n5 Schechtman, Marya, 49 Schneider-­Mayerson, Matthew, 190 Schulz, Bruno, 120

240  Index

science: hierarchical systems of modern, 126; models of, 154; neutrality of the discourse of, 23; observation of, 107; popular, 154; Western, 7. See also technology Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, 114, 117, 202n4 Seigworth, Gregory, 201n13 sensation: different kinds of, 145; sensory forms and, 89; transience of, 52. See also experience; sound; touch; vision Sepahvand, Ashkan: “MUD,” 39 sexuality, 149, 151 Shaw, Robert, 48 Sherlock, Connor, 172 Shklovsky, Viktor: “Art as Technique,” 9–­11, 55, 192, 195n8, 196n9 Short, Mick: Style in Fiction, 44 Singer, Peter, 98 situation models: embodied quality of, 40; and reading experience, 32; thickening of, 24, 31–­34, 37 Slovic, Scott, 43, 45; Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing, 56, 67 slow causality, 5; of climate change, 178. See also causation; slowness “slow food” movement, 11 slowness: ecological significance of, 30, 67; experience of, 10–­11, 14–­24, 27, 33, 37, 68, 173, 186; generation of, 71; imagination of literary or visual form in, 42; as modality of attention, 11, 16, 24, 198n15; of narrative, 3–­9, 12–­27, 36–­37, 41, 58, 72, 85, 109, 116, 135, 158, 163, 193; nonlinearity and, 58; nonverbal textures to, 112; philosophical value of, 163–­64; of reading, 35, 40–­44, 68, 91, 97, 104,

110, 128, 133–­35, 145; reductive understanding of, 12; and rich interconnectivity, 5; of textual devices, 17; time-­based experience of, 22. See also narrative; slow causality Smith, Barry, 81 social media, 189. See also media sound, 145. See also sensation space: anthropocentric understanding of, 187; as container, 164–­66, 187–­88, 206n6; Eurocentric understanding of natural, 35; Galileo’s conception of, 206n6; and narrative, 22, 35, 164–­65; nonhuman, 35; phenomenological conception of, 165–­66; transcorporeal understanding of, 41; Western conception of, 164–­65. See also time Sternberg, Meir, 37, 142, 157, 173, 196n16 Sterne, Laurence: Tristram Shandy, 119 Stockwell, Peter, 27–­28 subjectivity, 43, 140–­43; human, 155, 158, 186; and narrative practices, 96, 142; and nonhuman materialities, 5, 11, 29, 41, 45, 82, 114, 133, 142; of the reader, 166; of the writer, 94, 99–­100. See also agency; consciousness Submerged (video game), 22, 162–­64, 171–­79, 174, 176, 182, 185–­87 Tasmania, 120–­24; colonial violence in, 124; natural history of, 121 technology, 3, 11, 18, 167, 187, 190; of media, 166; of video games, 161, 187. See also modernity; science teleology: closure and, 72; critique of teleological conceptions of narrative,

5, 13–­19, 33; destabilization of, 72; disruption of, 178, 184–­85; limits of, 19; linearity and, 8, 16, 19, 34, 37, 100, 179; of narrative, 5, 8, 13–­19, 66, 91, 94, 100, 103, 145; vague, 109. See also linearity television, 13–­14, 17; slow, 14. See also media temporality: autobiographical, 49; experience of, 189; geometric understanding of, 40–­41; meditative, 161; phenomenal consciousness and, 47; slow, 45, 96, 109, 153, 158. See also present; time Tetris (video game), 171 texture, 113, 192–­93; of the audience’s attention, 24–­29; and containment, 24, 30; experience of, 135, 145; form as dynamic pattern like, 89; and human-­nonhuman relations, 24, 27–­30, 40, 89, 113, 197n5; of the imagination, 42–­44, 68, 93, 123, 133, 160; of literary narrative, 114; and metaphor, 112–­35; metonymic logic of, 141; in multimodal narrative, 112–­35; of reading, 197n5; as synonymous with materiality, 203n11. See also narrative Textures of the Anthropocene (Klingan, Sepahvand, Rosol, and Scherer), 28, 39, 115 Thompson, Evan, 139 Thoreau, Henry David, 43, 199n9 time: circular, 197n10; deep, 5; discourse, 14; embodied, 30; linear, 5, 17, 30, 197n10; slowing down of experienced, 50; story, 14; thickness of, 30–­31, 196n13; transcorporeal understanding of, 41. See also linearity; space; temporality

Index  241

Tolkien, J. R. R.: The Lord of the Rings, 25 touch, 113–­14, 117, 145, 150. See also sensation transcorporeality, 32, 41, 86 United States, 180–­84, 187 Updike, John, 98 Varela, Francisco, 139 Vermeulen, Pieter, 200n8 Vernon, Peter, 82, 200n9 Victorian literature, 5 video games, 22, 113, 161–­88; experience of, 184, 186; experimental, 171; hardcore, 170–­7 1; indie, 179; interactivity of, 170, 186; literary, 171; terminology of, 181; as walking simulators, 170–­76, 186–­87, 205n1. See also art; environmental storytelling; game studies; media violence: anthropogenic, 23, 105–­6; of colonialism, 124, 126; of the encounter of human subjectivity and nonhuman materialities, 41, 96, 110; historical, 183; quotidian, 128, 133; self-­inflicted, 131; slow, 6 vision: blind spot in, 203n8; nondualistic, 46; as representational sensory mode, 135; textural quality of, 62; and touch, 50, 127; Western

242  Index

conception of, 135. See also aesthetics; sensation Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo, 69–­70, 77–­80, 83, 92–­93, 200n2 Vuillier, Clément: L’année de la comète, 21, 136–­38, 143–­44, 153–­59, 154, 155 Wägner, Wilhelm: Asgard and the Gods, 85 Walker, Rachel Loewen: “Weathering,” 29–­30, 32, 41, 166 The Walking Dead (video game), 171 Walsh, Richard, 197n2 Weik von Mossner, Alexa, 13, 32 Weisman, Alan, 205n15 Wertheim, Margaret, 206n6 Wesely, Michael, 12 Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (video game), 22, 163–­64, 171, 173, 179–­87, 181, 182 Wilm, Jan, 104 Wilson, Edward O., 87 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 141 Wolf, Werner, 197n7 Woods, Derek, 116–­17, 156 Woolf, Virginia, 43, 50–­51 Wright, Sarah, 169 Zimmerman, Eric, 205n2 Zones (video game), 172 Zwaan, Rolf, 31

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