Borne on a damaged planet

Two books that do the hard work of thinking through the Anthropocene

by Dylan M. Harris

This essay is both a critical reflection and review of two books: the edited volume, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, from University of Minnesota Press (Tsing et. al. 2017) and Jeff VanderMeer’s (2017) Borne. When read diffractively together, these two texts map onto one another as a simultaneously troubling and inspiring thought experiment about what it means to accept and live with the premise of the apparent Anthropocene. In the shade of this epoch, the politics of scale – of space and time – are up for debate, inviting new forms of thought that, when taken seriously, have drastic implications for the art and practice of existence/survival on this planet.

 When read diffractively together, these two texts map onto one another as a simultaneously troubling and inspiring thought experiment about what it means to accept and live with the premise of the apparent Anthropocene. 

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is divided into two smaller books: Ghosts and Monsters. On Ghosts – ‘The winds of the Anthropocene carry ghosts–the vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present’ (2017: G1). On Monsters–‘Monsters ask us to consider the wonders and terrors of symbiotic entanglement in the Anthropocene’ (2017: M2). These two theoretical mechanisms work together ‘in a dialectical fashion… to unsettle anthropos…from its presumed center stage in the Anthropocene by highlighting the webs of histories and bodies from which all life, including human life, emerges’ (2017: M3). In sum, this work engages with the emergent truth(s) of the Anthropocene, namely that Nature, as something separate from civilization, is dead. In this epoch, every facet of Nature–from plastics and soot in the Earth’s crust to molecular-level species interference–has been implicated in the human regime in some form or another. This is not meant to imply that all humans share the same responsibility for these shifts in the earth system, or that the impacts of these shifts are equally distributed among human and non-human populations. Still, when considering that Nature is and always has been co-produced with civilization (even if some civilizations produce more intensively than others), the implication of humanity in this geologic moment ignites a sense of speculation and wonder that inspires a geologically oriented reconsideration of what constitutes ‘us’ and the world we inhabit.

The approaches taken in this book vary between physical and social sciences to the arts and humanities in an attempt to open up new spaces for intellectual and political praxis between otherwise discreet epistemological traditions. While there is certainly room for critique in this edited volume–especially given the sometimes sporadic and disparate connective threads between the chapters–this book is written in direct response to developments in critical and social theory that have wrestled with the Anthropocene. These theories have done much of the hard work of critiquing, deconstructing, and displaying the inequalities and disparities of this moment. Though imperfect (this book consistently refers to an undifferentiated ‘we,’ for example), this book is one of few that attempts to rearticulate and empiricize our new reality. Moreover, this collection of works pays attention to the stories ‘we’ tell about the Anthropocene: ‘Some kinds of stories help us notice; others get in our way’ (2017: M8). As a piece of speculative fiction, Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne is a story that does both: it helps us notice the implications–the trace impressions–of our actions in the future, and it gets in our way–confronts us–by not allowing us to ignore our place in the Anthropocene’s actualization.

Borne’s central character, Borne, is a symbiont, a creature (monster? weapon? person?) that consumes genetic material. He/she/it represents both a ghost–something that embodies and alters previous and present genetic material–and a monster, in that it also represents an entanglement of salvaged pieces and bodies. Borne is found and raised by Rachel, a scavenger woman, in the ruins of a futuristic city wrecked by catastrophe and lorded over by a giant, venomous flying bear named Mord. While ecological collapse is a peripheral component of Borne’s world, biotech is centered in the book as the culprit for much of the city’s destruction. The city is inhabited and ravaged by botched biotech experiments and human and non-human survivors. However, the book should not be considered necessarily dystopic. While it may appear so to readers sympathetic to the human characters, who are certainly central to the book’s plot, the world of Borne is teeming with new, unexpected life. This is signaled when Borne encounters a poisoned river near Rachel’s home; a river she considers dead and ugly but that also serves as a site of contemplative beauty for Borne. Throughout the book, Borne struggles with its identity–whether it is a thing, a person, a weapon, or a monster. There is hardly any resolution to Borne’s existential crisis, as these framings of its existence stem from a humanistic point of view. Further, Borne is both an individual and a community, a singular being symbiotically imbricated in its surroundings. It is an iterative version of itself, a concocted mesh of genetic material. Though Borne seems to be more or less in control of its being, it is driven by a desire to consume genetic material, which highlights the agentive nature of genes, namely that they are constantly becoming and emergent. In this way, Borne, and the world Borne inhabits and consumes and alters (and is altered by), is representative of much of the work outlined in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.

The breadth of topics covered in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is too wide to cover here. However, there are certain pieces that are especially relevant when read with Borne. With regards to ghosts, Karen Barad uses the silhouettes left behind of human bodies vaporized by the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima to extend her conceptualization of post-humanist performativity. She argues that time itself died in the blast, but that its loss, though indiscernible, is profoundly tangible. In sum, the ‘photographs’ taken by the demoleculuarization of human bodies illustrates the agentive capacity of molecules, highlighting the ways in which the world is inhabited, haunted, represented, and built by forces beyond the human. Similarly, Jens Christian-Svenning’s contribution illustrates the way in which the contemporary global landscape is haunted by trace impression of the past. Entire ecologies are built upon and fundamentally shaped by large-scale extinctions, for example, and these ghosts continue to emerge and build new worlds around us. Though the name Anthropocene centers the human as a species-wide disturbance in the geologic record, it is, as Dorion Sagan discusses in his contribution, one geologic moment of many mapped onto and nested into one another. These ghosts live in the present, contributing to the global ecology of the current world. Further, they haunt the future, of what will come.

The landscape of Borne is similarly haunted by ghosts. Borne’s city is pockmarked by the extended failures of capitalist development: toxic rivers, burnt-out buildings, creeping desertification. These landmarks frame the plot of Borne much in the same way the collective story of the Anthropocene is framed by eerily similar ghosts. Like the molecules that make loss tangible in Barad’s work, there is an emergent world of possibilities lurking in the background of Borne. While the landscape itself is ghostly in the novel, the character Borne is also phantasmagoric. It is a specter that looms outside of human control, despite Rachel’s best efforts. As it consumes more genetic material, it is simultaneously haunted and haunting. It is haunted by the genes it is forced to ingest, as they develop and alter Borne’s biophysical structure. And, it is haunting, as Borne grows it becomes increasingly unknowable and uncanny. Further, as a piece of biotech–as an experiment of late-stage capitalist development–Borne represents a loss of control in this world, haunting this present reality from a speculative future, which resonates with Tsing et. al.’s (2017) notion that the Anthropocene can be understood as a future that looks back on the present. This monstrous future, however, is also framed by the monstrosity of the present, which is another tack taken by Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.

Speculative fiction provides an alternative world in which it is possible to envision monstrosity.

If ‘Monsters are bodied tumbled into bodies’ (Tsing et. al., 2017: M10), Scott F. Gilbert’s chapter in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet highlights that life itself is monstrous. He uses the term holobiont–‘an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts’ (2017: M73)–to engage with developments in biology that troubles the concept of an individual. He uses a cow as an example. A cow is unable to survive on its own, as it is unable to digest its food. Instead, ‘It is the population of gut symbionts that digests the grass and makes the cow possible’ (2017: M73). Even human birth would be impossible without symbionts. Gilbert’s chapter highlights one thing: all life is symbiotic, dependent upon complex relationships for survival. Extinction, however, has become a trademark of the apparent Anthropocene. As species disappear, so do their microbial legacies, as Margaret McFall-Ngai writes in her chapter. This creates a vacuum in which symbiotic survival becomes questionable. There is no analogue for lost species and lost microbial universes. However, as species disappear, these symbiotic entanglements are amplified outside of microbial worlds. As Peter Funch shows in his chapter about the intertwined lives of horseshoe crabs and red knot birds, loss affects global ecologies. Horseshoe crabs and red knot birds are mutually dependent upon one another for their collective survival. In an era of mass extinctions, this realization raises the question of how to do entangled conservation, and, when doing conservation, what is at stake. It is here, at the edge of loss, that this book’s dialectical schematic of ghosts and monsters come together. What trace impressions of loss will influence the future? Further, what does it mean to live in a time and place where these changes are taking place?

Speculation becomes a powerful tool when thinking through these questions, and speculative fiction provides an alternative world in which it is possible to envision monstrosity. The monstrous implications of the Anthropocene are centered in Borne. Borne’s existence is sustained and mediated by symbiotic relationships. In this sense, Borne represents an ideal monster (a body tumbled into bodies), a case study in what Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet seeks to outline. Yet, Borne is not the only monster in the novel. The human characters in the novel are also holobionts, using variations of biotech–from intravenous medicine to external traps–for survival. These complex relationships play out through the books plot as Rachel encounters other human-esque characters. Finally, the backdrop of the novel is scattered with monsters, symbiotic creatures living and dying in the ruins of the city. Flying bears, bioengineered fish, and disappearing foxes are among these monsters. However, these creatures exist and survive through complex relationships with one another and the landscape. Like microscopic symbionts discussed in McFall-Ngai’s work, or the speculative loss discussed in Funch’s work, the monsters in Borne allow its readers to envision and imagine a monstrous world haunted by the Anthropocene.

As this moment continues to unfold at multiple spatial and temporal scales it is critical to remain grounded in the shifting sands of empirical reality while also continuing to think and imagine about what reality may, can, and will look like in the future.

But, what is the Anthropocene? When did it start? Are we in it or entering it? What do we call it? Whose fault is it? As a concept, what does it ‘do’? What sort of politics or ideas does it enable or disable? The answer to these questions have been pushing thought and work on the Anthropocene for decades, despite its more or less recent rise to fame in the social sciences. While Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is a foray into answering these questions with empirical and experimental work, these questions remain largely unanswered. Partly because some of them are unanswerable, and partly because there remains much thought work to be done. Speculative fiction, like Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, puts in the thought work. It gives readers something to grapple, to do the hard work of thinking and imagining the full political, ethical, and moral implications of a geologic humanity. What does it mean to be human? Who is considered human? The questions continue. In sum, these pieces work well together, and are both important works in the context of the apparent Anthropocene. As this moment continues to unfold at multiple spatial and temporal scales it is critical to remain grounded in the shifting sands of empirical reality while also continuing to think and imagine about what reality may, can, and will look like in the future.

Dylan M. Harris is a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. He studies the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about climate change and comes up with his own stories from time to time.

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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