- The Weird, the Ontological, and the Normal
Scholarship on the emerging genre of the New Weird has been closely entwined with what has been called the ontological turn in the humanities. Under the subcategories of speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and new materialism—which have different valences, but can be usefully grouped—the ontological turn emphasizes the limits of human cognition in accessing non- or inhuman entities. The New Weird, whose prominent practitioners are China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, tends to feature murky landscapes, hybrid creatures, and a general decentering of human subjectivity. The genre, then, is well suited to the scholarly concerns of the ontological turn, in terms of nonhuman consciousness, the problem of scale, and the ways that literature reproduces and calls attention to human frameworks that obscure the material world. And philosophers of the ontological turn like Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Eugene Thacker cite H. P. Lovecraft, asserting that the original weird writer’s cosmic indifference dovetails with their concerns about inaccessible materiality.
As much as the ontological turn has provided new avenues of inquiry across a range of fields and has seemed especially appropriate in addressing issues of climate change, it has been critiqued for evading or erasing the social contradictions of the human world. At its worst, scholars of the ontological turn may fetishize a primitivist world that obscures the normalizing categories that developed under colonialism and capitalism. That is, by positing a vast, unknowable material realm, in which humans participate minimally, the ontological turn obscures historical hierarchies relating to race, poverty, and gender, even as [End Page 347] climate change intensifies the pain caused by such hierarchies. In a keystone article, Jordy Rosenberg contends that what sells itself as a new ontology is at core a figural logic, a set of fictions that ideologically blot out the antagonisms of capitalism and colonialism. Using the molecular as a framework to read the ontological turn, Rosenberg contends that such theories “grasp biology as a kind of sheer queerness (or, aleatoriness) that enshrines a primitive/brink temporal logic while appearing nonnormative and in some fundamental way resistant to the demands of capitalism’s logics of time, discipline, and subject-formation.” Along different but no less critical lines, Julian Murphet points to what he describes as the deadly seriousness of the ontological turn: its unwillingness to examine—mock, in Murphet’s framework—its own linguistic foundations (658). By extension, celebratory accounts of the New Weird risk engaging the same issues.
Benjamin J. Robertson’s None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer (2018) arrives at the crux of debates about the ontological turn and goes some way toward resolving the problems that Rosenberg and Murphet pose. His subject is well chosen: VanderMeer’s 2014 Southern Reach trilogy was a literary sensation, in part because readers responded to its portrayal of a mysterious, environment-altering Area X as being well suited to concerns about climate change. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, David Tompkins figured VanderMeer as the successor to Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson, as a writer keenly attuned to the ecological issues of his moment. Not only was Annihilation (2014, the first volume) reviewed in the New Yorker—rare for a genre writer—but it was quickly optioned as a film, directed by the acclaimed Alex Garland and released in 2018. Film rights for Borne (2017), VanderMeer’s next novel, were optioned even before the novel’s release. VanderMeer is, in short, the moment’s most popular New Weird writer, and perhaps second only to Margaret Atwood as the moment’s most popular science fiction writer. None of this means that VanderMeer’s work is dumbed-down: like Atwood, Octavia Butler, and others, VanderMeer presents challenging questions to his readers, particularly about nonhuman agency. All of this takes shape amidst renewed academic interest in genre fiction, heightened by Amitav Ghosh’s suggestion, in The Great Derangement (2016), that much literary fiction seems ill-equipped to address the vast scale of climate change. VanderMeer emerged, then, at exactly the...