Elvia Wilk on ecosystem fiction
IN THE FIRST MONTHS OF QUARANTINE, my apartment has become my personal ecosystem. The peculiarities of isolated everyday life – the particular hours of sleep, the midnight meals on the fire escape, the ritual of evening Scrabble – seemed quite specific. And yet, with more than half of the world’s population tasked with self-quarantining, these intimate idiosyncrasies were paired with an entirely new common feeling. When we are asked to “flatten the curve” or wear masks on the outside, we are asked to see ourselves both as individuals with agency and as a collective whose influence only exists. ‘en masse. We are asked to see our microcosms as elements that make up a macrocosm. We are made ecosystem.
It is well known that in much of the West, cultural narratives rarely explain or permit ecosystem thinking, with an ecosystem understood as an entangled web of humans and non-humans. History – history, individual life, the future – is constructed according to the figure and the ground, with the (human) figure clearly in front and in the lead. This construction is found everywhere, from political rhetoric to mass media and popular books. The novel is no exception. However, a new fiction deliberately tailored to planetary symbiosis finds ways to portray a complex interconnection without neglecting individual experience or subjectivity.
Even books that generally maintain figure-ground relationships – from literary realism to autofiction to systemic novels – have an incredible capacity to connect the individual and the collective, the visible and the invisible, the micro and the macro. That is, things that seem too small to matter and things that seem too big to capture. I could access the presence of the virus at the level of physical symptoms or indicated as numbers on a graph. But understand it? No, it’s too small and too big at the same time. I can only understand it in terms of history about the world. As Italian author Francisco Pacifico observed last March of the pandemic, “writing the account of this thing feels like each of us is writing a novel.” If reality seems more and more romantic, novels could reciprocally influence reality.
So how should fiction adapt? On the one hand, the present circumstances force us to abandon the position of the human at the top of the pyramid and at the center of the world: the protagonist leading the plot of the story. Zoom In: We are made up of billions of little creatures. Zoom out: we are part of vast climatic, chemical, technical, biospheric ecosystems. By questioning the historical specificity of the category Humanity, we can better recognize its limits: it has always been made up of hierarchies and categories internal and external to the concept, which have been lacking in humans as well as non-humans. The supremacy of species, where access to the Human category becomes a determinant of fundamental rights, perversely reproduces species-specific inequalities via white supremacy, ableism, ageism, classism, etc. Just think of who is most at risk for hospitalization or death from Covid-19, a virus whose emergence in the human population is directly linked to human-induced climate change.
In response to ecosystem upheavals, fiction writers are finding new ways to recast the traditional figure-ground narrative structure where a person acts within the context of the “world.” Ecosystem fiction, conscious and responsible for its own reciprocal exchange with “reality”, confuses or reverses the roles of actor and actor. Recent and well-known examples of such efforts include Jeff VanderMeer in 2014 South scope trilogy, in which a scientist merges with the mysterious alien landscape she is trying to study, or that of Richard Powers Overstory (2018), a story of deforestation told through multiple human encounters with trees. I also think of the work of Helen Phillips, whose body horror novel about time travel The need (2019) defines an ancient paleobotanical fault as a source of identity struggle; or at Tricia Sullivan Occupy me (2016), where bodies contain several universes. Of course, this genre of work is nothing new (although often for a long time relegated to “genre” fiction), with antecedents in Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Italo Calvino, Stanisław Lem, James Tiptree Jr., and so many others whose work is poised to be revived in a post-pandemic setting (mid-pandemic? Forever pandemic?).
The virus was the result of anthropogenic effects on ecosystems; it does not come from outside “us”. Fiction can allow us to seek out the antagonist on the inside rather than conjuring up an enemy on the outside. It can focus on the human experience without reducing the world to the human experience, preserving the irreducible difference of an AI, a storm or a virus. Humans, like everyone else, are going through a species transition due to human-induced climate change. It may seem counterintuitive (or irresponsible!) To suggest decentering the human role in world history given that the people (to be clear: rich whites) caused the disaster, but only a shift in perspective in terms of figure and terrain can adequately portray the interdependence that led the world to this cataclysm, the interdependence that neoliberal capitalism continues to violently deny.
Stories are also part of ecosystems, and they are important because the causal loops between fiction and reality seem to be tightening more and more these days. Financial capitalism, for example, could itself be described as a “speculative fiction” based on a specific type of futurism, in which to project an idea of what is to come. creates the future that makes the prediction plausible. Trend forecasts invent forecast trends; fake news creates real news. In this context, writers might as well consider constructing fictions that at least recognize their potential to intervene in “reality”. These interventions may include the figure / ground inversion, or the breaking down of distinctions between individuality and collectivity by putting the scales together.
I’m not delusional enough to claim that a novel will blow up the value systems, politics, economics, and forms of knowledge that produced the Age of Extinction. Revolution is necessary for this. But on good days, I think fiction – which may not take the form of a novel at all – works, as in: it does some kind of work for change, for better or for worse. Its effects are not linear, one by one, or necessarily calculable, and should not be measured as such. Reverberations are weirder and more frightening than any cause and effect equation can account for. This strangeness is part of the reason why fiction works even in an age when revolution is being suppressed; it’s also why you might not realize that the revolution is already here until you read it in a story.
Elvia Wilk is a writer living in New York City. His novel, oval, was published in 2019 by Soft Skull Press. She is editor-in-chief at E-flux journal and a 2020 Transformations of the Human Fellow at the Berggruen Institute, where fellowship discussions about the changing role of humans in the post-Covid world led to this essay. The conceptual framework of the program is described by Tobias Rees and Anicka Yi in “Teachings of a Virus” and related questions explored by Caroline Jones in “Virions: Thinking Through the Scale of Aggregation”, both published in Art ForumMay / June 2020 issue.