A Conversation Between Timothy Morton and Jeff VanderMeer




THE SEEDS OF THIS CONVERSATION were planted when I saw an online announcement for Timothy Morton’s new book, Dark Ecology. Immediately I felt the cover design resonated with the amazing covers of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. When I mentioned this to Tim at an academic conference, he said it was a sort of lovely and weird coincidence because he and Jeff had recently started communicating with each other — appreciating each other’s work, ideas, and aesthetics. 

Soon after, Gerry Canavan and I started collaborating on “Global Weirding,” a special issue of the academic journal Paradoxa, and we agreed that Jeff and Tim would make an engaging and provocative pair to feature in conversation with each other. In many ways, they both have a magical ability to produce extremely edgy and sophisticated work capable of reaching wide audiences well beyond academic and/or genre fiction coteries. Fortunately, they agreed to meet via Skype one morning in the summer of 2016. I opened the conversation by asking them to start with a statement on what they found engaging and illuminating in the other’s work and how they envision their work intersecting, and then I quietly recorded and observed as their friendly, loopy conversation veered around through Beatrix Potter, Surrealism, childhood experiences with tidal pools, fur-shedding cats, and uncanny orange juice.

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TIM MORTON: There’s a very, very strong overall feeling about the work that you do, Jeff. There’s a very dreamlike quality to it, and I like this quality very much. If I was going to use a word to describe it, I’d probably use Freud’s word “displacement.” There’s something around the corner all the time. You can’t quite put your finger on it, and maybe you’ll never be able to put your finger on it. It’s sort of disturbing, tantalizing, dreamlike, and there’s this overall feeling of losing a sense of obvious reference point, whereby the way that you’re dreaming and what you’re dreaming about are sort of weirdly melded together so you can’t tell which is which a little bit.

JEFF VANDERMEER: The interesting thing is I’m very much a writer who is both organic and mechanical. I believe in getting down a draft, which is very influenced by the subconscious, and then peering through it. After I wrote Annihilation, I started seeing reviews that mentioned your work in connection with it; that’s why I picked up Hyperobjects, and the thing that was fascinating to me is that it appealed to both the organic and the mechanical sides. The mechanical side made me understand what I had written better because the very term “hyperobject” kind of encapsulated what was going on organically in Annihilation.

Then, partly because I’m not a philosopher, but also because I’m interested in this subject, the book sent me on another delightful “down the rabbit hole” moment. In part because there were sections where I had to bulwark basic knowledge before I could go forward. And then there are other things that I know are received by my conscious mind, but my subconscious is working on breaking them down and reinventing them for future fiction. I always go through this process in which I have to trust my subconscious first, and I then have to understand what it was that I did, and then my fiction is informed by all of that; your book really helped me with that, which is really important in this context where I’m fairly sure there isn’t going to be a novel I write going forward that doesn’t deal with ecological themes in some way.

TM: Right on. I think we’re both dealing with trying to access internal things that are very hard to put into words. That feeling that I was talking about earlier, it’s really to do with a sort of futural orientation. Something’s coming, but I can’t quite point to it, and I don’t know what it is. That’s why the word “hyperobject” is so interesting, because it’s like finally we’ve all got this word. It happened to me first, right? The word popped in my head before I actually knew fully what it was. I think maybe my process was a little bit similar to yours, and maybe that’s why there’s a bit of synergistic resonance there.

JVM: I like things that are both an anchor and also get me lost at the same time.

TM: Yeah.

JVM: I think that’s a space there. Even as you define hyperobject, it oddly begins to slip away.

TM: Exactly.

JVM: Because it’s both concrete and abstract at the same time, it’s very appealing to me as a fiction writer.

TM: There’s a very similar feeling about Area X, where you’re going into this region which becomes more strange the more you know it, right? It’s like the more you look at something — looking doesn’t necessarily demystify things. I think science isn’t necessarily about stripping the illusion off, but it could be about seeing how things could become even more strange than they were about five minutes ago, if you see what I mean?

JVM: Absolutely. I’m also a big believer in trying to bring the reader or viewer back to understanding that the under-meaning of what they think is mundane is not really that mundane and is also incredibly complex. Just noticing this thing around us, which I can lose sight of — this is of incredible importance when we talk about things like ecology.

TM: Yeah, there’s an extraordinary moment where you get to see somebody drinking a glass of orange juice. I never thought about the uncanniness of that. The funny thing is that just yesterday, I found myself drinking a rather large glass of orange juice and it was from the bottom of the carton so it was ever so slightly funky because it was past the use-by date. It was very thick and goopy and I found myself thinking, “This is sort of like being in the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks: you’ve poured the orange juice and it’s become this kind of viscous substance.” Now I’m stroking my cat and I’m finding that he’s shedding even more than normal and there’s this enormous pile of white hair. What have you done, Jeff? Something’s gone very wrong.

JVM: There is also the issue about the environment around you that, like I said, you don’t recognize. For example, every time I come back to north Florida there’s a sudden jolt because I realize everything is decaying more than normal in places up north. This last time I came back, there was a vine that was actually curled through my car tires and it had gotten up into the engine.

TM: No, no. Wow.

JVM: It’s like you forget that in writing fiction you’re just transcribing reality to some degree.

TM: Yeah.

JVM: I think the thing that I find fascinating too, at least here in north Florida, is that the distinction between inside and outside becomes corrupted, which is a really fascinating thing about Florida. We have this invasion of these little tiny pink geckos that coat the outside of the house now. They get inside the house; you don’t know how. You get insects inside the house no matter what you do, no matter how careful you are. If you really think about it, there’s this porous quality. Our bodies are porous first of all, we have tons of microbes on top of us and whatnot. Then our actual houses are porous in ways that we don’t always want to recognize. I find that also speaks to this whole issue of complexity and how we view the world that I think feeds into hyperobjects, too.

TM: It so does. I love this idea of porosity actually. I’ve tried to argue in the last half year that the worlds we live in, whether we’re humans or cats or possibly even cups of coffee — I’m just referring to the things around me Jeff, I have no other reference point!

JVM: I have a cup of coffee here too which is aiding me right now.

TM: These worlds are actually perforated, which is why we can communicate with each other; and yet there’s this idea that we all live in these totally shrink-wrapped worlds with this very strong inside/outside distinction. It’s obviously ecologically quite toxic, and I think in contemporary philosophy, there’s generally a trend where the distinction between inside and outside has become very thin and very rigid. One way you could think about it would be the difference between what some people call reality, which is your feeling that “it’s real” kind of thing — the experience feels real to me — and the actual real, without the -ity bit, which is the sort of inaccessible quality.

What I love about Area X, for example, is that it does have this porosity. Things can leak through either way and the boundary isn’t thin or rigid. It’s not completely nonexistent, because there are things that we don’t know, and then maybe there are things that we can’t know. We can’t really establish in advance the tightness and impermeability of that boundary unless we’re being very anthropocentric.

JVM: I think that speaks also to what I’m patient with in fiction in general, and interested in fixing in my own fiction these days, and what I’m not. Because it’s the fiction that doesn’t allow for that quality you’re talking about, that wants to keep the boundaries that I don’t respond to. It begins to seem fairly simplistic to me, so it’s almost a texture or a feel of the sentence or paragraph — it’s either embedded there or it isn’t. If it isn’t, no matter how concrete the text, there’s a kind of useless abstract quality to it, as if its receding slowly in slow motion down into a dark well, beyond recovery. This is one reason Lovecraft doesn’t speak to me — his images are inert, without resonance. To some extent it’s an innate quality in a particular writer. But it’s also self-awareness: how do I try to approach the world, how do I receive the world? Because without the right input, the output is a kind of lie.

TM: Totally it is, it gets granular. I’ve been rediscovering this French guy.

JVM: This French guy?

TM: Jean-François Lyotard. He’s got this thing where he’s basically saying something similar, he calls it figure versus discourse. Discourse is like how we think things are meaningful, and figure is, I don’t know, kind of physical in a very expanded sense — qualities of words and sentences and whatever kind of leaks through all the time. The boundary there is very spongy. And it is on a sentence level. You have to let sentences do that. Otherwise, what’s the point? From a certain point of view, in my line of work, why would I want to write about something that I already think I totally know?

JVM: It’s quite fascinating because there’s also a further translation process going on. I mention this because it’s interesting aesthetically that Alex Garland, on the movie of Annihilation, is trying visually to translate that same kind of ambiguity at the sentence level into visual terms.

In some ways, the film will be more surreal visually than the novel. And in talking about hyperobjects and trying to anchor something or nail something down, the film has this challenge that’s very much about the physicality of the settings conveying the ecological message even more than the script, the dialogue. One fascinating thing the filmmakers told me is that getting depth perception onto the screen in North Florida was impossible. The camera, no matter what they did, registered a flat wall of vegetation, because it’s all so dense and overwhelming — that, in fact, Area X was already there in a sense, subverting and contaminating the camera lens. So they filmed it in English marshes, in part because they had to find an artificial way to recreate the vastness of plant empires in North Florida by taking a place that was sparser and dressing it up with Spanish moss and various layers. The result is spectacularly Floridian, but I love that Florida itself actively resisted being interpreted as itself. Somehow, that thought is in the back of my head for future Southern Reach material, in combination with the idea of the resistance of hyperobjects to be cataloged.

TM: Yeah, totally.

I sort of feel like a lot of the issues we have today in contemporary politics and so on have to do with not just awareness of globalization, but with actual planetary awareness and how disturbing that is, and how maybe if you’re an artist — I’m looking to my left, and there’s the most gigantic pile of fur from this cat. I’m expecting it to be spelling out some kind of cryptic sentence. I’ve never seen such a large pile of fur. We are talking about the master shedder of the whole universe here. When you talk about inside/outside, I do think about cats, because I recently decided that where I live at least, outside isn’t outside, it’s sort of Iraq for cats.

This idea that there is a definite outside as opposed to the inside is almost something that I wanted my cat to prove to me, despite the fact that I know intellectually that this distinction is extremely tenuous, if not very violent. It’s odd as well because cats kind of showed up on the boundary of agricultural civilization. They were there to eat the rats that ate the corn in the house that Jack built, if you see what I mean. Somehow they’ve got this weird, ambiguous status: we didn’t invite them, but somehow they’re helping us to clean up our world. No wonder we feel a bit disturbed by them, even if they don’t shed great mountains of fur, which this cat is now playing with like a sort of toy …

JVM: There’s a big 20 pound one who keeps me honest, kind of a Maine Coon type, but he always does this, staring off to spaces that seem blank, reminding me that there might be something there.

TM: These Maine Coon characters are so dense that they almost have a gravitational pull. There was one Maine Coon that I used to have in Oxford, and he would regularly come through the door, not with little birds and stuff but with rabbits.

JVM: One of ours used to stalk the neighborhood Chihuahua, so that was —

TM: Oh my giddy aunt.

JVM: I wanted to say something about the globalization thing, because I think that there’s another kind of contamination, not a good kind, with regard to ecological issues: I feel like the world wants to merely commodify all of this. It seems especially deadly on this particular subject. It would be fine if it was some innocuous thing like cats, maybe. I always feel, even when I talk about this stuff online, I’m conscious of the fact that I could be kind of commodifying and mainstreaming something that shouldn’t be commodified in this particular way; I think other people feel this way, too. You see authors who I think begin to become bourgeois in the way they talk about their own books, even if their own books are much stranger. Sometimes that’s the only message that readers get. How you talk about your books, how you have to simplify them — it doesn’t even address the topic.

TM: I know; it’s super ambiguous. I like to argue that there are sort of ecological, experiential, phenomenological, ecological chemicals in consumerism. That’s like the last place anybody who’s into ecology thinks they should be looking, right? Into the experience of reaching for a Coke bottle. Because Coca-Cola has hypnotized you, cue the sinister music, to reach out for that bottle. The thing is, though, that the way we think about commodities is kind of old school. It’s this idea that we get to impose our will on stuff, and that’s intrinsically a little bit evil.

What about the other idea, which is that, as I think to myself, “Where do I want to go today?” (in my Bill Gatesian freedom that I think I have) the Coke bottle is kind of seducing me. It’s got that Alice in Wonderland “Eat me, Drink me” feeling about it. Part of the commodity world is a little bit of a weird, distorted kind of echo from a world where we — and I say we provocatively meaning us lot, called humans as opposed to bunny rabbits or whatever — sort of decided that things that aren’t us also have the same kind of status or maybe even some kind of agency or maybe even some kind of something like, I don’t know what to say, consciousness, sentience. Or maybe we don’t have it! Who knows which way we want to go on that kind of thing.

My point is that the experience of consumerism has got this slightly weird futuristic aspect to it along with this not-so-great aspect. The trouble is we keep on deleting the really interesting bit, and then we keep trying to sort of hear it again. Think about a novel. It’s a product that somebody wants to buy in a store, but this particular product is like on the kind of top level, the VIP lounge of consumerism, where you’re basically thinking about experience itself as a consumer thing, right?

I’m writing this book for Penguin right now, and I’m writing it for somebody who doesn’t care at all about ecology and doesn’t know why she should be caring. Visualizing this woman, she’s walking through the Frankfurt Airport, and she sees my book in the bookstore, and she thinks, “Oh, do you know what? I won’t buy those dumplings. I think I’m going to buy Tim’s book instead. Because why? Because I want to go on a journey. But why do I want to go on a journey? I don’t know. In fact, I don’t even know why I should care. Why should I care?” I’m trying not to delete that feeling, because part of the trouble with a lot of ecological writing in my neck of the woods is that it’s very, very, very preachy and it’s preaching to the same people, it’s preaching to the choir.

How do you talk to people without doing that, even without stealth doing that? That’s my challenge.

It’s coming out of this idea that if my book is actually a consumer product, in a way that’s more sophisticated than what I used to do with my cut-and-dry academic books. Those books are based on authority, which is more like a medieval vibe. It’s sort of like, “I, the Pope, have rubber stamped TM’s sentence because it contains all the correct citations of all the other authority-people that have also been rubber stamped and so therefore, if you don’t agree with him, then I’m going to torture you until you do” kind of thing. It’s like none of that is the point, with a product. It’s more about seducing you rather than threatening to kill you if you don’t believe it. Right?

JVM: On the fiction side, I have been happy about the fact that the books have led to me being able to talk more directly, almost in a nonfictional sense, about this stuff. I go back and forth on whether a work of fiction can actually do things; it can observe, but can it convince? Also, if you try too hard to convince, then you get to the point where you become didactic, which I never, ever want to do in my fiction. I think you lose all ambiguity, and you become kind of shrill and shouty.

I like how you say there’s also this kind of entry point for readers that has to do with how the book is packaged. In some sense, the content of the book becomes inseparable from the way it’s presented to the audience. That’s interesting. I still don’t know if most people read the Southern Reach and think, “Oh, this was an interesting story about a strange zone,” and they misinterpret it, or if it makes them think more about the environment. What I find interesting is how many people put aside the idea of it being firsthand experience and want to find some echo or mimic in some other work of fiction rather than being willing to accept that, well, 90 percent of it comes from me going out into the world and seeing small, southern towns. I don’t quite know why that is but …

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This is an edited excerpt from a larger conversation that can be found in Paradoxa 28 (2016), a special issue on “Global Weirding” that explores intersections between climate change phenomena and weird fiction. Kind thanks to Jeff and Ann VanderMeer for underwriting the initial transcription of this conversation, and thanks as well to the contributors and Paradoxa editors for their permission to publish the excerpt here.

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Andrew Hageman is assistant professor of English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he researches and teaches the intersections of ecology and techno-culture in literature, film, and the arts.


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