Echoes of the Future: Apprehensive Aesthetics for a Bygone World, #3–Transformation.

By Otto Paans

***

The essay below, Otto Paans’s “Echoes of the Future: Apprehensive Aesthetics for a Bygone World,” will appear here in serial form, and then be published in full, in a slightly revised version, in Borderless Philosophy 3 (2020).

This is the third installment.

But you can read or download a .pdf of the complete current version of the essay, HERE.

And you can also read more about Otto Paans and his work HERE.

***

TABLE OF CONTENTS

II. Postlude

III. Transformation

IV. Apprehension

***

III. Transformation

The story told in the trilogy is focused on a mysterious area somewhere along an anonymous landscape that is only referred to by its nickname “The Forgotten Coast.” Area X is clearly a matter of concern for the government, as a dedicated organization named Southern Reach is tasked with its investigation.

The first book of the trilogy (Annihilation) is centered around an enigmatic character called “the Biologist” and is a first-person view report of the twelfth expedition that aimed to explore Area X.[i] The book’s tone is somewhat impersonal, as all the other characters are just introduced by means of their function — as such the expedition consists of the Biologist, the Psychologist, the Anthropologist and the Surveyor. In-between the lines, we learn the background story of the Biologist, who describes herself as introvert and self-contained. Her husband — whom we found out later went missing on an earlier expedition — gave her mockingly the nickname “Ghost Bird” because she was distant and elusive to everyone around her. We learn that the Biologist — to her own embarrassment — is oftentimes more concerned with ecosystems and the creatures inhabiting them than with human company. In a revealing passage, she describes what actually moves her:

But fun for me was sneaking off to peer into a tidal pool, to grasp the intricacies of the creatures that lived there. Sustenance was for me tied to ecosystem and habitat, orgasm the sudden realization of the interconnectivity of living things. Observation had always meant more to me than interaction.[ii]

In this short passage, a theme that unfolds its nightmarish depths throughout the story appears for the first time: nature is infinitely interconnected, and we can comprehend its intricacy only obliquely and fleetingly.

In the second book of the trilogy (Authority) a new, enigmatic character named “Control” is introduced. He is tasked with interrogating the members of the twelfth expedition when they turn up in unexpected locations all over the country, without someone having noticed them. The Biologist is held captive in the Southern Reach facility, although it is revealed later on that the real Biologist never left Area X, and that Ghost Bird is a duplicate fashioned by it.

The past of Control is retold in a series of non-chronological fragments. The relations to his co-workers at the Southern Reach facility are strained by his difficult relationship with the co-director (named Grace) and his mother, who works as a high-ranking spy. The third book (Acceptance) focuses on what happened in Area X and introduces former preacher Saul Evans in detail. Evans provides one of the core motifs of the trilogy: a mysterious string of words that could be a sermon. The third book delves into the background of the Psychologist and her relation to Evans, and as it turns out, she becomes caught in the machinations of political power that loom large in the background of the entire story.

If anything, Area X is a presence that forms a trauma for all involved. None of the characters have any idea of its origins, its purpose, how it functions or whether it wants something. Throughout all the books, there is a feverish speculation going on about the very nature of Area X. In the case of one of the scientists (named Whitby) at the Southern Reach facility, his personality itself is almost devoured by it, as the mystery never leaves his mind. Forwarding an explanatory theory involving parallel worlds, he contends:

“And in some of them,” Whitby explained, “we solved the mystery and in some of them the mystery never existed, and there never was an Area X.” This said with a rising intensity. “And we can take comfort in that. Perhaps we could even be content with that.” His face fell as he continued: “If not for a further thought. Some of the universes where we solved the mystery might be separated from us by the thinnest of membranes, the most insignificant of variations. This is something always on my mind. What mundane detail aren’t we seeing, or what things are we doing that lead us away from the answer.”[iii]

Like Silvestrov’s world in need of redemption, Whitby touches a theological theme here. Essentially, he complains “what have we done wrong?” or “what did we miss?”. Redemption is not on the horizon, but the sinner yearns for it. Not coincidentally, the string of words that forms one of the main themes of the trilogy reads: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead…”.

Vandermeer captures masterfully a duality in modernity by touching on this theme. On one hand, Southern Reach employs all kinds of measurements and scientific research methods to isolate and quantify the elusive entity that is Area X. Frustratingly enough, the area resists all attempts at characterization and the mass of data that is gathered becomes soon useless. It opens an abyss that has an existential dimension, forcing human beings to re-evaluate their understanding of their place in the cosmos. On the other hand, the landscape of Area X is described in lavish detail and is often referred to as a “pristine wilderness”. For anyone who ventures in, the overwhelming presence of a landscape that has not been touched for more than 30 years is frightening and fascinating in equal measure. As a world devoid of human influences, Area X has subtly and almost imperceptibly changed what is seen as normal.

This change does not only show itself in extraordinary phenomena, but in a specific kind of presence that is almost ordinary — but not quite. For all the characters involved, the nature of Area X is “out there”, but at the same time it is intensely present. Its elements are entirely natural, but unexpectedly nature itself opens up an existential chasm: those who visit the area behold a world without humanity. Momentarily, humans are afforded a glimpse of an ecosystem that happily persists without them. They are reduced to “just one of the ordinary species”, like rabbits, lizards, thistles, jays, or seagulls:

We also needed to acclimate ourselves to the environment. In the forest near base camp one might encounter black bears or coyotes. You might hear a sudden croak and watch a night heron startle from a tree branch and, distracted, step on a poisonous snake, of which there were at least six varieties. Bogs and swamps hid huge aquatic reptiles, and so we were careful not to wade too deep to collect our water samples.[iv]

Again, this is a theme that is deeply Schopenhauerian. In characteristically hyperbolic terms, Schopenhauer wrote that life was just an attempt to escape oblivion — all suffering is but an antechamber while we await the arrival of the inevitable.[v] In Area X, the inevitable has already happened, and the visitors are witnesses of a world in which they play no role any longer. Instead, as the Biologist remarks “once you see the beauty in desolation it changes you”.[vi]

A related and equally unsettling way in which Area X changes reality is by its very elusiveness. Expedition members who cross the border while going in, return in a mysterious way, their minds blank and without any memory. Fragmentary reports describe mass hallucinations, violence and instances where expedition members saw doppelgangers of themselves. In the novels, people who have visited Area X are described as “changed”, with “empty eyes”. They have changed beyond the constraints of usual human subjectivity. They are not human in the usual sense, and maybe even beyond comprehension for ordinary humans.

This subtle hint is disturbing: humanity has unraveled the principles of evolution but thought itself exempt from it. Notably, humanity has purposively steered and directed evolution, playing lord and master over the substance of nature, creating productive cattle, ornamental flowers and drought-resistant crops. In the Southern Reach trilogy, this position is radically undermined: suddenly, some humans realize that evolution is working on them, and that some of its most fundamental mechanisms still elude us. Our dominion over nature is revoked, and unexpectedly, nature itself changes humans in ways that are incomprehensible to them, that surpass their rational capacity. When Ghost Bird, Control and Grace find themselves stranded in Area X at the end of the trilogy, the following, telling conversation ensues:

“Do you believe me?” Grace said. “I’ve seen strange stars in the sky at night, too. I have seen the rifts in the sky. I have lived here for three years.”

“Then tell me — how can the sun shine, the stars, the moon? If we are not on Earth?”

“That’s not the critical question,” Ghost Bird said. “Not for organisms that are so masterful at camouflage.”

“Then what is?” Control frustrated, trying to take in the enormity of the idea, and Ghost Bird found it painful to watch.

“The critical question,” Grace said, “is what is the purpose of this organism or organisms. And how do we survive.”

“We know its purpose,” Control said. “Which is to kill us, to transform us, to get rid of us. Isn’t that what we try to avoid thinking about? What the Director, you” — pointing at Grace — “and Cheney and all the rest had to keep suppressing? The thought that it just wants to kill us all.”[vii]

Due to the existence of Area X, the idea of human-realized progress is turned upside down. Writing in the beginning of the 19th century, Hegel could confidently assert that Spirit became self-conscious of its historical development. He asserted that “substance became subject”.[viii] In other words: the material building blocks of nature, whether organic compounds, genes, molecules or alleles have conspired to evolve into an organic entity possessing self-consciousness. Therefore, these entities comprehend their own place in the vastness of the universe — their substance becomes the subject of their attention. In Area X, this process is reversed: subjects become substance again. Whatever entity Area X is, it regards humans just as a substance to be transformed and evolved into new lifeforms. This dawning and threatening realization permeates the novels and appears as the inevitable ­– and therefore all the more existentially troubling. Annihilation is literally at the door; the only problem is that it takes its time, leaving humanity cowering in fear. The question that Control asks says it all — what if we are in the process of being transformed beyond what we can imagine?

The story illustrates this point by emphasizing on the frustration of scientists who try to work out rules for the behavior of this alien ecosystem. While the origin of Area X is only hinted at, it is clear that the organism or organisms that created it are in no way comprehensible to humanity. An insurmountable gap between human comprehension and the depths of nature opens up, leaving a traumatic mark throughout the whole book. In fact, the story can be read as a description of humanity’s futile attempts to grasp, comprehend and control the unknown.

The fragmentary nature of Area X visualizes this struggle. Expedition members return without crossing the border checkpoints; a plant that cannot die is retrieved from the area; an amorphous creature with a single arm writes the sermon-like text that surfaces throughout the trilogy on the wall of a spiraling tunnel. Inside the area the weather is different than outside. Time inside and outside the border moves at different speeds. All these phenomena do not add up to form a coherent picture. They are local manifestations of a larger phenomenon that remains hidden. If we put this in Timothy Morton’s terms, we see that Area X is somewhat like a hyperobject.

Morton’s concept of hyperobjects is timely, as it provides us with conceptual tools to think about the truly global scale of things. One characteristic of hyperobjects is their non-locality.[ix] We are used to thinking in space and time, but the fact that a hyperobject is non-local proves to be a puzzling phenomenon. A good example is global warming: we experience it as higher temperatures, reports of increasingly frequent superstorms, shifts in the distribution of plant species, or the unfortunate appearance of a new type of mosquito that did not invade bedrooms twenty years ago. All these signs are local manifestations of a global set of interlocking phenomena. Area X eludes comprehension by manifesting itself in a non-local way — it cannot be grasped as a single, geographically circumscribed entity.

Second, hyperobjects create temporal undulation. If we contemplate the vastness of the universe, or the fact that we are literally stardust, the number of hours that it would take to travel to Mars, the lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise, or the fact that the plastics we use are remnants of decomposed ferns from the Devonian period, time itself disintegrates under the weight of the past. And in considering phenomena like global warming, time appears to morph into something unfamiliar under the weight of the future as well:

There is a time that is beyond predictability, timing, or any ethical or political calculation. There is an elsewhere elsewhere. There is a place that is “nowhere” and yet real: not a Neoplatonic beyond, but a real entity in the real universe. We should then entertain the possibility that hyperobjects allows us to see that there is something futural about objects as such.[x]

All these features apply to Area X. It defies prediction or calculation; it is too close yet far off; it is present but not of this world; and above all, it is ominously futural — it points to a future that we would like to avoid but that we cannot stop.

Like a glacier that implacably and continuously carves its passage through the landscape, Area X works away at the edge of our reality. Imperceptibly, it metamorphoses the world around it. Bit by bit, the world changes, by “something peering through what we think as reality”.[xi] No sudden change takes place, but a creeping mutation emanating from nature itself changes reality beyond our grasp. The metamorphosis of a new and utterly alien reality is underway in plain sight.

In this regard, the Southern Reach trilogy shares its thematic content with Ulrich Beck’s notion of the Metamorphosis of the World.[xii] Earlier theorists had characterized modern life as the experience of a reality that becomes more fleeting by the day. Karl Marx famously coined the phrase that “all that is solid melts into air”, and Marshall Berman gave his study of modernity the same title.[xiii] Likewise, Zygmunt Bauman spoke of a “liquid modernity”, a world where long-standing securities like a career, basic insurance and societal norms become increasingly fluid, creating a sense of bewilderment and loss in people craving such reassurances.[xiv]

In Beck’s words: “Metamorphosis implies a much more radical transformation in which the certainties of modern society and something quite new is emerging.”[xv] Beck’s contribution is that he noticed that modern life became not liquid overnight. If anything, modern life perpetually re-invents itself, changing the coordinates of normality. It does so in a gradual manner, and often the change is only felt afterwards through its effects. Like a hyperobject, metamorphoses like global warming or the increasing digitalization of our identities are felt afterwards through their effects. They form a world of existential echoes that replace each exclamation mark with a question mark. In the Southern Reach trilogy, the metamorphosis is dramatized through the presence of Area X. However, the existential issues that are pressing for the characters are relevant for humanity as a whole.

NOTES

[ii] Vandermeer 2014: 72.

[iii] Vandermeer 2014: 250.

[iv] Vandermeer 2014: 4.

[v] Schopenhauer 1969: 314–315.

[vi] Vandermeer 2014: 4.

[vii] Vandermeer 2014: 489.

[viii] Hegel 1977: 21–22 (§37).

[ix] Morton 2013: 38–54.

[x] Morton 2013: 67.

[xi] Vandermeer 2014: 488.

[xii] Beck 2016

[xiii] Berman 2010.

[xiv] Bauman 2007.

[xv] Beck 2016: 3.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beck, U., The Metamorphosis of the World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016).

Berman, M., All That is Solid Melts into Air. The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 2010).

Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology of Spirit, transl. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).

Kant, I., Critique of the Power of Judgment, transl. P. Guyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Kant, I., Critique of Pure Reason, transl. P. Guyer and A.W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Morton, T., Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

Schmelz, P., Silvestrov and the Echoes of Music History, The Journal of Musicology 31.2 (2014): 231–271.

Schopenhauer, A., The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, transl. E.F.J. Payne (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1969).

Scott, J.C., Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1998).

Serinus, J.V., The North American premiere of a Silvestrov symphony that might give you wings, The Seattle Times, 7 April 2016. Available at: <https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/classical-music/the-north-american-premiere-of-a-silvestrov-symphony-that-might-give-you-wings/>.

Spuybroek, L., Ages of Beauty: Revisiting Hartshorne’s Diagram of Aesthetic Values, in: Brouwer, J., Mulder, A., and Spuybroek, L. (eds.) Vital Beauty. Reclaiming Aesthetics in the Tangle of Technology and Nature (Rotterdam: V2_Publishing/NAi Publishers, 2012): 32–63.

Strugatsky, A. and Strugatsky, B., Roadside Picnic, transl. O. Bormashenko (London: Gollancz/Orion Publishing, 2012).

Vandermeer, J. Area X. The Southern Reach Trilogy (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

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