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Global Contemporary and the Ecological Editorial

Guest Editors: Martin Goodhead and Katie Jones

June’s special issue of Alluvium focuses upon the Global Contemporary in relation to the Ecological.  One way of starting to approach the latter is by the question of relations as such; do we have a relationship ‘to’ or ‘with’ animals and the natural world? Or, perhaps, a relationship with other human and non-human animals ‘within’ the natural world? Indeed, does the phrasing make a difference? This issue of Alluvium is concerned with literature’s mediation of the symptoms and causes of concentrated and systematic environmental degradation. It also explores acts of invention, (re)imagining alternative futures.  ‘The Global Contemporary’ asks: how might ecocriticism practically work to deconstruct the capitalocene and its languages? In what ways might literary representations of the natural world displace an anthropocentric perspective? How do representations of the objectified natural world relate to postcolonial and gendered subjects? How can we conceive of the world in ways that provoke ethical action and desire for positive change? How can a new way of thinking about the world emerge? The critical and creative contributions to this  issue explore these questions in literary and social contexts. While diverse in content, the articles are hopeful, and affirmative in their desire for a future with and among others. 

Image by Ligorano Reese “Dawn of the Anthropocene” used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License.

In ‘Motherhood as Ecological Metaphor’, Marie Hendry reads Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014) and considers images of alien invasion and ecological disaster in relation to motherhood. Hendry explores metaphors of power and motherhood through a particular focus on superhuman capabilities, depictions of woman as protector, and the characters’ relationship to a symbiotic waterworld. The mother’s gestative capabilities constitute a metaphor for the creation or ‘birth’ of a better future. Friendship and communion between the alien and the human subject form a basis for this imagined future, which is alien to ours inasmuch as it would reject the will to dominate the other.

Through its concern with waterworlds and seascapes, Hendry’s essay complements Meilanny Risamasu’s somewhat polemical article ‘Ecolarchy as Missional Leadership “From the Margins”’. Risamasu adopts an ecocentric and anti-colonial perspective by embracing a relational, as opposed to hierarchical, approach to mission. She deconstructs the sexist and racist characterization of Orang Suku Laut people in Malaysia, and suggests that their relationship with nature, which is one of mutual vulnerability, may provide a model for an ecocentric approach to mission. Risamasu’s article holds relevance to literary studies through the epistemological concerns it raises; the ecolarchic / ecocentric structure she proposes for mission could be interpreted as a framework for reading and writing, too. Risamasu’s characterisation of the natural world as “the new poor” constitutes a radical challenge to traditional biblical hermeneutics, but also provides a model for secular subjects to decentre anthropological perspectives.

Arya Aryan’s piece ‘The Traumatised Shaman’ explores the writer as a contemporary medium, both healer and wounded figure in the context of metamodernism. Focusing upon Hilary Mantel’s sci-fi / speculative realist Beyond Black (2005), Aryan observes within Mantel’s alternative-contemporary London edgelands an ecological wasteland of late capitalist detritus, containing marginalised voices as remnants. These are paralleled with the psychic destitution of unchecked interconnectedness constitutive of a hyper-capitalism accompanied by late-postmodernist surveillance or what, citing Jeffrey Nealon, Aryan terms an “economy of globalized control”.  Aryan’s work confronts literary form, seeing in the claims of metamodernism the ability to redeem a ‘spiritually’ and ecologically damaged world through identifying spectral symptoms and causes; by thus examining a text so overtly irrealist and concerned with global networks,  Aryan’s essay also invites a critical dialogue with World Literary Systems. When read through our broader issue, Aryan’s essay also invites consideration of World Literature’s irrealist characteristics within a specifically-ecological context. What concerns the personal suffering of the writer in their immediate social ecology is made comparable with global ecological catastrophe and those real losses sustained by the poor within a climate of unstable complexity around financial-information systems and capital volatility. Within ‘The Traumatised Shaman’, comparisons are made between the “wounded woman writer” and the feminised and wounded natural world through a metaphor of sterility, with the phantasmal post-structuralist ‘written’ and the embodied writer partially reconciled through the figure of the ghost, identifying ethical drive with an emphasis upon voicing need and empirically determined litanies of destruction rather than unequivocal answers.

Image by Karen Roe “Dungeness” used under CC BY 2.0 License.

Here Aryan’s piece enters into conversation with Daniel Gerke’s  Fisherian (haunted) materialism and commitment to empirical practices as forms of ‘exorcism’, with those un-dead ‘voices from the depths of consciousness suppressed in the contemporary world’ constituting common response to specific ecological conditions (green, wasteland and otherwise) of late capitalist modernity. The essay also communes with the ghostly poetry and techno-bardic qualities of Rhys Trimble’s poem; the tension of embodied invention and the irrealist power of fictiveness rendered especially clearly through woman in relation to nature has parallels with Beth Capo’s piece. Furthermore, the piece’s emphasis upon writing as a form of raising spirit in order to heal it invites ecomystical readings as well as a reading alongside Meilanny Rismasu’s Ecolarchy, with both forms offering a social-spiritual-creative ‘exorcism’ of that inhumane ideological spirit of hypercapitalism inhabiting global circuits.

Daniel Gerke’s essay ‘Exorcising the Dead Future’ looks at post-catastrophic social arrangements within Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) and Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road as ways of ‘refus[ing] to capitulate to the image of reality which reality itself provides you’,in Mark Fisher’s terms (2009). Engaging with Robinson, notably the subject of significant critical attention by Fredric Jameson in the field of Utopian studies (2005), Gerke’s essay forms part of a critical constellation around literature, utopia, and the natural. Taking up Fisher’s analysis of Capitalist Realism, Gerke’s piece speaks to a diagnosis of how imaginaries are foreclosed; yet such ‘realism’ encounters in the environment a repressed or elided necessity for wholescale action and empirical attention. Fisher’s final work increasingly pointed to reclaiming the language of utopianism. Yet, as Gerke’s work notes, it also offered a commitment to empirical judgment, however radical, rather than ‘dreamwork realism’, to analysing causes and thus to a futurological humanism after poststructuralism and refusing pessimistic Capitalist ‘no-time’ of  virtual proliferation and the ideological Same. Like Andy Hageman’s article, it is grounded within historical materialism and futurology, seeking toevade the bipolar extremes which characterise much speculative writing in/on the Anthropocene’; like Aryan’s reading of Mantel and Hageman’s characterisation of Chinese generations, circuits of subjective desire can be activated by the writer as system-builder and, in this case, by the collective, without effacing the suffering or theoretical ambivalence.

Andy Hageman’s ‘Infrastructural Futures in Chinese Science Fiction’ examinesChinese Sci Fi in relation to infrastructure networks, with particular reference to Liu Cixin’s “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” (2004) and Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” (2012) . Hageman’s piece examines the appearance of large-scale systems- consisting of material and political projects emanating from distinctly Chinese conditions in contradistinction to Western ones. The piece is in dialogue with Li Minqi, where the Chinese system’s model of decision-making is in contrast to what Minqi’s systems theory articulates as that ‘institutional structure of the capitalist world- economy, by which Environmental problems represent social costs that are not taken into account by capitalists’ private calculations. Hageman’s article takes up Ecology, following Infastructural Criticism, as fashioned by, as well as responding to, urban-rural architecture and planning, arguing that ‘infrastructures tell us about aspirations, anticipations, and imaginations of the future”, including ‘to what ends, and according to what values’ underpin policy consent and content alike’. Such failures, whether externalities or unforeseen shocks, illuminate aporias within the ideological edifice, whether or not these correspond to the unreflective, undialectical abstractions of capital discussed earlier here. Following Hageman’s elucidation of what within the text seem productive tensions between high capitalist development and communist state planning, one may read emergent capitalist-driven environmental externalities against the state action of the ‘commons’ Slavoj Zizek argues for as a necessity for addressing environmental catastrophe.Hageman follows several of the pieces in looking at  analogous ‘infrastructures’ of and from thought within literary texts, in this case speculative realism as a form of  ‘science fiction’, in which the ‘future’ can be read as marked by  asynchronic  ‘Traces’, after Fredric Jameson (2005), of past as source, object and model of history whose Chinese contextual particularities Hageman identifies within the text’s fabric. Through calling attention to infrastructural objects and narrative framing grounded in an eco-grounded and historicised materialism Hageman makes  a case for the novel’s exploration of ‘resilience in the face of crises and catastrophes’. This includes a granular or empirical account; literature’s function for envisioning feasible futures is reconciled with empirical observation traversing “all of the bewildering and frenetic systems and structures and flows that confound human abilities to achieve Jameson’s ‘cognitive mapping’”. Finally, the contradictions which remain are peculiar to those within China’s system as well as world development, where such literary ‘social analysis, without an obvious outlet to channel revolutionary energies, becomes, for Hageman, the ‘necessary aesthetic’ of ‘Anthropocene fiction’.

Image by Rennett Stowe “Coastal Preservation” used under CC BY 2.0 License.

Our final piece comes from Rhys Trimble, a shamanic plurilingual poet who playfully explores linguistic failures through cut-up and free verse forms. His poem ‘Sham[an] Songbird’, included in this special issue of Alluvium, echoes concerns that reverberate throughout his work: Welsh language and identity in relation to English, processual poetics, and ecopoetics. ‘Sham[an] Songbird’ draws on Dylan Thomas’s ‘Prologue’ (1952); the short lines are inspired by the Welsh cywydd form, and some other Welsh patterning, like cymeriad, are also used in the poem. The ecopoetic aspect manifests itself in the sign play, sense of foreboding, and a world in extremis: ‘interrealmic bleed to edge’; ‘freckled warnings’; ‘burnt and desired’; ‘wren over/ caste & container flot/ jet wicks effluvium/ worming & axeline is foxles’. The sign-shifting play simultaneously troubles pastoral idealism of nature and fetishization of the “wild” through libidinizing language: ‘ID_illick’ / idyllic / id ill / idyll lick / id ill lick. Notably, the poem forgoes the lyrical “I” and evades an anthropocentric position; ‘soul without anima’ is a particularly evocative phrase in this regard. The expression appears to allude to eighteenth-century debates over whether or not animals possess souls, while ‘anima’, from the Latin animalis / ‘to have breath’ and the etymological root of animal, seems to critique the constructed human / animal distinction.

One way of approaching Trimble’s ecopoetics might be through Timothy Clark’s notion of ‘emergence’ explored in Ecocriticism on the Edge (2015). Clark views the anthropocene as “a threshold concept”:  the ‘newly recognized agent of humanity as a geological force is something indiscernible in any of the individuals or even large groups of which it is composed’ (15). The crux of Clark’s argument is that shifts must occur not only in language, but in forms in order elicit radical response: still-dominant conventions of plotting, characterization and setting in the novel need to be openly acknowledged as pervaded by an anthropocentric delusion’ (191). Arguably, Trimble’s radical breaks and subversions of form embody this emergent style.

The poem merges technology and the ‘natural’ as hybrid in line with Jane Bennett’s vibrant matter (2009); dissonance is thus electro-organic as well as echoing the phenomenological otherness of the world.  Within Trimble’s verse that Other against which technology has been situated seems ontologically, as well as epistemologically, blurred. Yet at a textual level it stages that dispute between’ Steven Vogel (1996) and Simon Hailwood (2015) on alienation within nature and whether nature itself exists beyond reified categories and labour constructions. Ultimately subjectivity present here is readable as a poststructuralist version of bardic  Wordsworthian channelling which brings it into communion with ‘shaman’ Aryan’s  ‘shaman’ but also with the broader ethico-political and creative projects behind the texts surveyed here and the concerns of their critical interlocutors alike.

Cite This Article

Martin Goodhead and Katie Jones. “Global Contemporary and the Ecological Editorial”. Alluvium, 7.3 (2019): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.3.04

About the Guest Editors

Martin Goodhead is a PhD Candidate in English Literature at Keele, Co-editor of Alluvium’s  Special Issue on ‘The Global Contemporary’ (June 2019) and lead organiser of the recent Placing Class in The Contemporary Conference. He researches upon Representations of contemporary working-class subjectivity within  contemporary British Literature (post 2000). This includes history and literary form in reference to Hauntology and World Literature; places, urban and rural; labour and political imaginaries, including Acid Politics; creative acts of memory; and ‘community animation’. He is also Editor-in-Chief for Keele’s Under Construction HUMSS Journal, member of the Keele Geopoetics collective Dawdlers and runs peer-workshops and research forums, including  Social  Hauntings (October 2017), Graduate Research Forum (2017/18) and  Keele’s HUMSS Work in Progress.

Katie Jones is a recent PhD graduate with research interests in the history of psychoanalysis, critical theory, and life writing. Her PhD research, Improper Subjects: Confession, Shame, and Femininity, focuses on ‘confession’ as a narrative trope in semi-autobiographical fictions by twentieth- and twenty-first-century English- and German-language women writers. She has articles or reviews published or forthcoming in the Modern Language Review and gender forum.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter, Wilmington: Duke University Press 2009.

Clark, Timothy. Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept. London, New York: Bloomsbury 2015.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? London: Zero Books 2009.

Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, London:  Zero Books 2014.

Hailwood, Simon. Alienation and Nature in Environmental Philosophy, 2015.

Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future, New York: Verso 2005

Vogel, Steven. Life in Moving Fluids, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1995.

Warwick, WReC, Sharae Deckard, Nicholas Lawrence, Neil Lazarus, Upamanyu Pablo, and Graeme- Macdonald. Combined and Uneven Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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