- Sallow Earth Theory
The Hollow Earth fictions of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, from Casanova’s Icosaméron to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, were at some level grappling with a world made strange by new sciences like volcanology, paleontology, and geochemistry. The ground beneath our feet was revealed as a weird repository of secrets and unfathomable energies. The fictions of the late-20th and early-21st centuries, from Silko’s Almanac of the Dead to Powers’ The Echo Maker, similarly register the impact of a new and uncanny understanding, an ecological consciousness revealing the world as a weird system of dependencies between organic and inorganic matter. The Earth in these later fictions is not hollow, but sallow—toxified not only by industrial effluvia, but household aerosols and cosmetics: wholly quotidian micro-disasters and chemical exposures. The point of these fictions—what Heather Houser calls “ecosickness narratives” in her timely study—is to rally us to a heightened awareness of our ineluctable relation to the environment and the consequent dangers of its contamination, to reveal the profound permeation of the individual human life within the grand scheme of Nature, to “show that it is impossible to approach somatic and ecological injury as isolated phenomena” (2014, 224). To that end, ecosickness narratives are particularly invested in the articulation of affects that can mobilize and motivate us to action, that can “ferry us from awareness to an obligation to respond” (24). The horizon of Houser’s analyses is therefore broadly ethical; it is there, in some loosely defined sense of activism, that ecology and affect converge.
Because she remains focused on literary objects (fiction and memoir both), Houser cannot quite call on the full political immediacy of the term activism in the way that, say, Rob Nixon can in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011) or Priscilla Wald in Contagious (2008). Though also written by literary scholars and concerned, in part, with literary objects, these books have an almost journalistic urgency, referencing the latest WHO reports and epidemiological stats. What for Houser’s book might be seen as a symptom of weakness—a call-to-arms issued from the faculty lounge—is actually a strength: her prioritization of affect and its role in ecological consciousness [End Page 513] commends anew the importance of literature. That importance is central to Columbia University Press’s “Literature Now” series, of which Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction is the second offering. The remit of the series is to examine “contemporary literature and the way we understand its meaning”; for most of the titles thus far, the “way we understand” has been geopolitical and/or biopolitical. Though Houser’s contribution focuses only on U.S. fiction, its argument is pitched at those levels.
Each chapter addresses an affective modality of ecosickness fiction—discord, wonder, disgust, and anxiety—in each instance rerouting standard readings of literary texts and their interpretive situations. Three of those four modalities qualify as “ugly feelings,” and in some ways, Houser’s book follows a similar tack to Sianne Ngai’s, examining affects as they “[mediate] between the aesthetic and the political in a nontrivial way” (Ngai 2005, 3). For Houser, affects mediate between “planet and body” in a nontrivial way, drawing them into a “shared sphere of concern” (2014, 27). Thus, for the writers she examines, “the real work of fiction lies in reconfiguring perceptions of [planet and body] through new metaphors, tropes, stories, and emotions” (222)—an aesthetic project with a geopolitical and ecological aim. Such a project can’t help but court ambiguity, and in this sense Houser chooses a slightly different direction from earlier, more straightforwardly polemical works, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989), that also connect affect and environment. Her interest in the texts at hand is precisely in their ambiguity, not in some indexical relation to ecojustice narratives; she approaches her texts as “sandboxes for ideas of agency rather than fixed treatises on it” (18); she is consequently...