- Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect by Heather Houser
Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect presents forms of sickness as powerful cultural expressions working to incite environmental consciousness. Rather than harp on the sick landscape as a result of humanity’s technological progress, or interpret the sick body or social atmosphere as a self-induced and deserved state metaphorical of the destruction mankind has worked on the planet, Heather Houser ultimately presents sickness as a constructive power, a condition able to stimulate social reorganization, create new identity formations, and inspire ethical environmental thought and action. In her introductory discussion of ecosickness, a term she coins to describe worldwide health damages inflicted by industrialization, Houser takes pains to clearly distinguish her use of sickness from its standard synonyms of disease and illness. Using Arthur Kleinman’s and Julia Epstein’s individual definitions of the above terms, Houser specifies disease as a biological agent diagnosed and therapeutically responded to by medical professionals, while the term illness is attributed to a generic disorder that is widely understood and may, at times, be imagined (11). In contrast, within the parameters of her investigation, Houser uniquely defines sickness as a relational state that “links up the biomedical, environmental, social, and ethicopolitical” (11), a connection between the human and the “more-than-human” (30), and a linking of soma and planetary space.
A careful setup of affect and ecosickness, chapter 1 overviews the vulnerability of biological life as a site for technological interventions that change the very concept of life. Capturing these new conceptions through affect, the narratives examined in Ecosickness each reveal “how emotion rather than empiricism alone powerfully, if not always predictably, conducts individuals from information to awareness and ethics” (7). The subsequent chapters urge readers to find new ways of “valuing endangered bodies and spaces” through narrative affect (81), each focusing on a specific emotion or feeling that portrays or reimagines sickness in a way that both produces dilemmas of representation and reworks normative perceptions of soma and space in terms of identity and environment.
Chapter 2 investigates the use of discord as affect in two HIV/AIDS memoirs: David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991) and Jan Zita Grover’s North Enough: AIDS and Other Clear-Cuts (1997). Defined as the interruption of balance, (natural, emotional, and bodily) discord is portrayed as a powerful instigator of social change, urging the disposal of normative sexual and environmental politics. An extraction of both readers and characters [End Page 539] from a Heideggerian world picture, discord defamiliarizes, an effect additionally drawn on in the next chapter’s examination of wonder. A counterbalance to mankind’s hubris, wonder at the mysteries of the natural world provokes the curiosity that energizes medical and scientific inquiry, without which mankind would have never been driven to scientific discovery (77). Examined through Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations (1991) and The Echo Maker (2006), wonder counters feelings of apathy toward the natural world, its inherent curiosity a molding of environmental consciousness. Similar to discord, then, the experience of wonder defamiliarizes and displaces normative thought, renewing perceptions of soma and space.
The affects focused on in chapters 4 and 5 also react against apathetic feelings of detachment toward the self and the natural in order to render the subject agential. In fact, the narratives examined in both chapters ask the same question: “how can aesthetic forms produce affects that enhance an audience’s awareness of ‘hopeless’ social and material conditions?” (122). Labeling apathy as endemic to contemporary US culture, “an epiphenomenon of psychological and social decay” (123), Houser identifies it as an environmental problem since, quite simply, apathy leads to the neglect of the human and the more-than-human. In chapter 4, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) depicts ecosickness through disgust. A reaction to excessive indulgence, disgust—despite its production of an “ugly aesthetic” (124)—becomes a conduit to new environmental thought, dissolving psychological states that classify the human body and the environment as...