- Strange Strangers in the Mesh: Maureen F. McHugh’s Uncanny Utopia
The focus of traditional spatial studies tended to be anthropocentric, but contemporary research on space and place extends beyond what Yi-Fu Tuan once termed “human environmental experience” into the realm of the nonhuman.1 Accordingly, the spatial paradigm in such diverse fields as post- and transhumanism and biosemiotics and the philosophical discourse of object-oriented ontology, to name but a few, both transcends and complements the limited perspective of the human subject by allowing us to redefine our relationship with the so-called natural world.2 In the context of ecological studies, the nonhuman dimension of spatiality is closely connected with the concept of the mesh, defined by Timothy Morton as a “flowing, shifting, entangled mess of ambiguous entities” that extends beyond the species boundary.3 Denoting the intrinsic interconnectedness of all forms of existence, the mesh is a “radically open form without center or edge” that makes possible the coexistence of humans and nonhumans as “strange strangers,” whose mutual otherness reminds us of the limitations of our perspective vis-à-vis the natural environment.4 In semiotic terms, the mesh is, then, a generator of meanings that include but are not limited to the domain of anthropocentric semiotics; by acknowledging the existence of the nonhuman, we enter the interrelated reality of the mesh, a biosemiosphere where we need new modes of expression and translation in order to facilitate interspecies communication.5
At the same time, nonhuman spatiality has become a particularly pronounced issue in the era of the Anthropocene, whose impact on the environment (and, by extension, the mesh), it has often been suggested, will inevitably give rise to an apocalypse of [End Page 233] human provenance; for Morton, one of the main prophets of the Anthropocene eschaton, “the end of the world is correlated with the Anthropocene, its global warming and subsequent drastic climate change, whose precise scope remains uncertain while its reality is verified beyond question.”6 By irrevocably transforming the mesh, the Anthropocene “collapses the difference between the human realm and so-called nature,” leading to what Morton identifies as “the collapse of a meaningful and stable background” that validated our sense of superiority over the environment.7
Having unseated us from our privileged position within the global ecosystem, the Anthropocene simultaneously abolishes another anthropocentric concept: the distinction between space and place. “From the standpoint of the genuinely post-modern ecological era,” Morton asserts, “what has collapsed is (the fantasy of empty, smooth) space. . . . Space in this sense has collapsed, and place has emerged in its truly monstrous uncanny dimension, which is to say its nonhuman dimension.”8 What Morton sees as “the revenge of place” is tantamount to the inevitable failure of human efforts to dominate the environment, revealing in the process the inherent uncanniness of what we have come to term “nature.”9 Instead of quasi-utopian representations of spatial dominance, pointedly described by Morton as “your grandfather’s place,” “some organic village,” or “a city-state surrounded by fields,” we face thus the reality of the mesh in its apocalyptic form, effected by the anthropocentric politics of consumption and exploitation.10 Following the disintegration of the anthropocentric construct of nature, the mesh functions here as a signifier of a holistic model of spatiality that transcends the anthropocentric distinction between space and place and, in a semiotic context, between the anthropocentric center and nonhuman periphery, as elaborated by Yuri M. Lotman, the latter having become increasingly significant in the Anthropocene crisis.11
The debacle of the anthropocentric hold upon the biosphere resonates with the acclaimed genre of ecodystopias (or, in a broader context, climate fiction) in which ecological catastrophe is often correlated with all-encompassing social collapse, as in J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital series (2004–7) or Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009). A similar thematic strand appears in After the Apocalypse, a 2011 short story collection by Maureen F. McHugh, which, true to its title, attempts to delineate the spatial and semiotic implications of a certain end effected by a series of...