All Systems Go

Agnes Denes, Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space - Map Projections: The Snail, 1978, ink on rag paper with printed Mylar overlay, 24 x 30”.

IN THE FIRST MONTHS OF QUARANTINE, my apartment became my personal ecosystem. The idiosyncrasies of daily life in isolation—the peculiar sleep hours, the midnight meals on the fire escape, the evening Scrabble ritual—felt entirely specific. And yet, with over half of the world’s population instructed to quarantine as well, these intimate idiosyncrasies were twinned with a totally novel feeling-in-common. When we are asked to “flatten the curve” or wear masks outdoors, we are asked to see ourselves as both individuals with agency and a collective whose influence is only made en masse. We are asked to see our microcosms as elements constituting a macrocosm. We are made ecosystemic.

It is well known that in much of the West, cultural narratives rarely account or allow for ecosystemic thinking, with an ecosystem understood as a tangled web of humans and nonhumans alike. Story—history, individual life, the future—is construed according to figure and ground, with the (human) figure clearly in the front and leading the way. This construction is found everywhere from political rhetoric to mass media and popular books. The novel is no exception. However, new fiction deliberately attuned to planetary symbiosis is finding ways to portray complex interconnectedness without disregarding individual experience or subjectivity.

Even books that typically maintain figure-ground relationships—from literary realism to autofiction to the systems novel—possess an incredible ability to connect the individual and the collective, the visible and the invisible, the micro and the macro. That is, the things that seem too small to matter and the things that seem too large to grasp. I might access the presence of the virus on the level of physical symptoms or shown as numbers on a graph. But comprehend it? No, it is too little and too big at the same time. I can only understand it in terms of a story about the world. As Italian author Francisco Pacifico observed last March of the pandemic, “writing the narrative of this thing feels like each of us is writing a novel.” If reality feels increasingly novelistic, novels might reciprocally inflect reality.

So how should fiction adapt? For one, present circumstances require us to relinquish the human’s position at the top of the pyramid and the center of the world: the protagonist leading the plotline of history. Zoom in: we’re composed of trillions of tiny creatures. Zoom out: we’re part of vast climatic, chemical, technical, biospheric ecosystems. By questioning the historical specificity of the category Humanity, one can better acknowledge its limitations: it has always been composed of hierarchies and categories both internal and external to the concept, which have failed humans and nonhumans alike. Species supremacy, where access to the category Human becomes a determinant of basic rights, perversely reproduces species-specific inequities via white supremacy, ableism, ageism, classism, and on and on. Just think about who is most at risk of hospitalization or death from Covid-19, a virus whose emergence in the human population is directly linked to human-led climate change.

Agnes Denes, Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space - Map Projections: The Pyramid (The World from Below), 1978, gouache, metallic ink on vellum and Mylar, 24 x 30”.

In response to ecosystemic upheaval, fiction writers are finding new ways to recast the traditional figure-ground narrative structure where a person acts against the backdrop of “the world.” Ecosystemic fiction, aware of and responsible for its own reciprocal exchange with “reality,” tangles or flips the roles of actor and acted-upon. Recent and well-known examples of such efforts include Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 Southern Reach trilogy, in which a scientist merges with the mysterious alien landscape she attempts to study, or Richard Powers’s Overstory (2018), a tale of deforestation narrated through multiple human encounters with trees. I also think of the work of Helen Phillips, whose body-horror time-travel novel The Need (2019) frames an ancient paleobotanical rift as the source of identity struggle; or Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me (2016), where bodies contain multiple universes. Of course, this kind of work is nothing new (although often long relegated to “genre” fiction), with antecedents in Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Italo Calvino, Stanisław Lem, James Tiptree Jr., and so many others whose work is ready for revivification within a post-pandemic (mid-pandemic? Forever pandemic?) framework.

The virus resulted from anthropogenic effects on ecosystems; it does not come from outside “us.” Fiction can allow us to seek the antagonist within rather than conjure an enemy without. It can focus on human experience without reducing the world to human experience—preserving the irreducible difference of an AI or a storm or a virus. Humans, like everyone else, are going through a species transition due to human-led climate change. It might sound counterintuitive (or irresponsible!) to propose decentering the human role in the story of the world given that people (to be clear: rich white people) have caused the disaster, but only a perspective shift in terms of figure and ground can adequately portray the interconnectedness that has led the world to this cataclysm, the interconnectedness that neoliberal capitalism continues to violently deny.

Stories are part of ecosystems too, and they matter because the causal loops between fiction and reality seem to be getting tighter and tighter these days. Finance capitalism, for example, could be itself described as a “speculative fiction” based on a specific type of futurism, in which projecting an idea of what will happen creates the future that makes the prediction plausible. Trend forecasts invent the trends forecasted; fake news creates real news. In this context, writers might as well consider constructing fictions that at least acknowledge their potential to intervene in “reality.” Those interventions might include figure/ground reversal, or collapsing distinctions between individuality and collectivity by splicing scales together.

I’m not delusional enough to claim that a novel is going to explode the value systems, politics, economics, and forms of knowledge that have produced the extinction era. Revolution is necessary for that. But on good days I do think that fiction—which might not come in the form of a novel at all—works, as in: it performs a type of labor in service of change, for better or for worse. Its effects are not linear, one-to-one, or necessarily calculable, and should not be measured as such. The reverberations are weirder and creepier than any cause-and-effect equation can account for. That weirdness is partially why fiction works even in times when revolution is repressed; it is also why you might not realize that the revolution is already upon you until you read about it in a story.

Elvia Wilk is a writer living in New York. Her novel, Oval, was published in 2019 by Soft Skull Press. She is a contributing editor at e-flux Journal and a 2020 fellow in the Transformations of the Human program at the Berggruen Institute, where fellowship discussions about the changing role of the human in the post-Covid world led to this essay. The conceptual framework of the program is described by Tobias Rees and Anicka Yi in “Teachings of a Virus” and related issues explored by Caroline Jones in “Virions: Thinking Through the Scale of Aggregation,” both published in Artforum’s May/June 2020 issue.