Symposium: Us in Flux
From Self-Reliance to Exposure: Ethics of Connection and Flux in Sarah Pinsker’s “Notice” and Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck”
The related systemic conditions of the climate crisis and the pandemic highlight a subject in flux, inextricable from the planetary circulation of viruses, aerosols, toxins, bodies, and resources. To imagine oneself as bounded, self-sufficient, or distinct from the flows of the material world has become increasingly untenable. Our posthuman times, as Stacy Alaimo insists, call for a critical acknowledgment, an embrace even, of “exposure, or radical openness to one’s environment” (Exposed 13). Arguably, this attention to the mutual suffusion of body and world—a recurring trope in materialist posthumanism and ecological theory—is informed by cybernetics, which already in the work of Wiener pivots on the recognition that “to be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts of the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage” (Wiener 122)—or, in more poetical terms, “[w]e are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water” (96). With reverberations in Alaimo’s emphasis on “trans-corporeality” as the mode by which “the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world” (Bodily Natures 2), Wiener’s cybernetic organism is simply a function of the negentropic organization of metabolic systems. Yet, the implications of this material suffusion are easily generalized for a characterization of the wider relations by which the human is embedded in a planetary network of influences and conditioning environments. In these terms, the late French philosopher Michel Serres—one of the most evocative contemporary navigators of passages between science and the imagination—promotes the ethical task of understanding the relationship between self and world as “a syrrhèse, a confluence not a system, a mobile confluence of fluxes” (Serres and Latour 122). In consequence, recognizing the constitution of the self as such an “assembly of relations” entails a complication of individual responsibility (ibid.). If the material substrate of the self reaches not only beyond skin but also beyond national and geographic boundaries, it seems ethically imperative to acknowledge at least partial accountability for these relations, be they human or nonhuman. Highlighting the reciprocity of such an interchange, Donna Haraway speaks of “response-ability” (12) and “sympoeisis” (33) to describe the formative conditions of a subject in flux—formerly known as the cyborg—that is radically embedded in, reliant on, permeated by, and responsive to the material-semiotic forces of what used to be called “the environment.”
It is against this backdrop that I read Sarah Pinsker’s “Notice” and Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting my Deck” as evocative depictions of what it means to embrace the relationalities between self and world. Arguably, both stories are among the least overtly science-fictional in the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination’s Us in Flux archive. Their settings are mundane and their portrayals of subjectivities in transformation feature no speculative technoscience, aliens, or superhumans. Their estrangements derive simply from an act of opening up to the world that nonetheless communicates an insightful posthumanist critique. By “posthumanist critique” I mean a critical return to and revision of liberal humanist ideas of subjectivity that harken back to the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Strikingly, both stories present a vision of subjectivity in flux that ambivalently talks back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The ambivalent post/humanist legacy of American transcendentalism—stretched thin between the apotheosis of the individual and a theorization of its more-than-human enmeshment—becomes their foil for re-imagining the human relation to nature and society in ways that reject bounded individualism in favor of an ethics of connection and care.
Pinsker’s “Notice” is focalized through Malachi, a 19-year-old member of a closed community that calls itself “Reliance” and mandates severe restrictions on contact with “Outsiders.” Located somewhere in the American heartland, the Reliance, as readers learn, was founded sixty years before the diegetic present with the aim “to create a self-sufficient society away from globalism, commercialism, and celebrity” (Pinsker). Reminiscent of pastoral utopian communities from Brook Farm to B. F. Skinner’s fictional, yet influential Walden Two, its idealization of self-sufficiency and suspicion towards globalized social connections seems inspired by American transcendentalist philosophy. As if to invoke Thoreau as a collective patron saint and reference point, the protagonist is incorrectly referred to as Henry by one of the community’s elders—“Everyone in the Reliance probably blurred together for a Founding Aunt.” Tellingly, the name “Reliance” recalls Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” a founding text in the history of American individualism and, I argue, key for understanding Pinsker’s story as a critique of liberal humanism. “Notice” revolves around the disintegration of a tightly enforced boundary between inside and outside, self and society, that seems to rely less on physical walls than on ideological manipulation and an illusion of containment. Against the prohibition of contact with outsiders, Malachi accepts a box of mail from the postal agent and accidentally spills its contents. This chance event, a boundary-transgression in more than a metaphorical sense, initiates a critical awareness of interconnectedness with the world outside and the limits of self-sufficiency. Among the spilled mail, he discovers an envelope addressed to himself that contains his “Third Notice” to register for “Transformative Service,” a type of conscription for one year of mandatory social and community work—akin to the U.S. Selective Service System—that, if completed, would guarantee him a lifelong basic income and free health insurance. Already this immediate confrontation with the U.S. postal system triggers a moment of cognitive dissonance and estrangement: “He’d never really thought about where mail came from, beyond the abstract of Not Here.” This incipient awareness of an outside, let alone of a potential exchange across the bounds of the Reliance, is exacerbated when he finds out that previous letters had been withheld from him by the community’s head office—tellingly named “the Enlightenment.” For members of the Reliance, exposure to the wider world has been construed as a threat to independence: “Outside is dangerous and . . . un-self-sufficient.”
The contrast between the ideals of the Reliance and the vision of a social-welfare state that relies on community work and takes lifelong care of its citizens recapitulates the rhetoric of American conservatism and its affinities with the libertarian legacy of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1841) and Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). The Reliance seems to borrow from Emerson an appeal to individualism that corresponds with a deep distrust of society:
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. (Emerson, “Self-Reliance” 265)
While foundational for American humanism, Emerson’s notion of self-reliance proceeds from a radical rejection of responsibility for and connections to the Not Here:
never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition, with this incredible tenderness for black folks a thousand miles off. […] do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situation. Are they my poor? I tell you, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. (266)
Emblematic of the exclusionary construction of agency that informs early modern formations of the human as a political and ontological category, Emerson’s celebration of the individual via a detachment from the structural (economic and social) conditions that sustain it merits a sharp posthumanist critique. Insofar as it may be inspired by such an Emersonian understanding of self-reliance, the politics of Malachi’s community materialize a social program of “ontological hygiene” that rests on a denial of responsibility for and belonging to anything outside of its boundaries (Graham 11). Against this backdrop, the prospect of signing up for Transformative Service is both unsettling and enticing for Malachi. Considering that “[c]oming together for other people instead of your people didn’t seem like such a bad thing” (Pinsker), he begins to entertain the possibility that the world outside the Reliance may be “something that was the opposite of self-sufficiency, but not dangerous.” Transformative Service implies transformation, a reaching out to the world rather than withdrawing from it, a renunciation of stasis and containment in favor of an engagement in “meal delivery, agriculture, home building, citizen journalism, music for seniors, emergency services, [or] respite camps.” Ultimately, Pinsker’s story offers a utopia that rests on unmasking the illusion of self-reliance. As the mail carrier reminds Malachi on her next visit: “Are you [self-sufficient], though? You wouldn’t get your mail if it wasn’t for me. You fix your own machinery, but do you make the parts? It’s a fantasy of self-sufficiency, kid. Here—take your mail.” If anything, this condensation articulates the central argument of a critically posthumanist critique in times of pandemics, climate crisis, and resource capitalism: everyone is connected to the Not Here, even though the infrastructural conditions of this connection may more often than not be invisible, repressed, unconscious, or denied.
By invoking this opening-up to the world as a departure from (self-)Reliance and the Enlightenment, “Notice” may be read as a commentary on the ambivalent and potentially toxic legacy and reception of transcendentalist elevations of “the individual as a higher and independent power” (Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” 104). While transcendentalist political philosophy has informed civil rights protests and anti-totalitarian activism, it also continues to drive neoliberal agendas of deregulation, a peculiarly American abhorrence of anything remotely “socialist,” and libertarian gun-rights activists who view mask-wearing in times of Covid-19 as an infringement upon their inalienable rights (see Solnit). Ironically, it is precisely the decision of leaving the Reliance—and by extension, the distorted legacy of “self-reliance”—behind that for Pinsker’s protagonist becomes “the first big choice he’d ever made for himself” (Pinsker).
To reduce transcendentalist philosophy to the problematic implications of a super-charged individualism, however, would miss the mark and not do justice to its intrinsic ambiguity and simultaneous potential for an ecologically-minded posthumanist mobilization. Paradoxically, when it comes to so-called nature, Emerson and Thoreau’s vision of the relationship between human and world proceeds from a radical immersion, rather than disengagement of the individual. Imagining nature as “floods of life [that] stream around and through us” (“Nature” 190), Emerson, invoking the pervasion of the subject by the material and (materially) divine flows of the universe, in a way anticipates the work of Wiener, Alaimo, and Serres. In her recent study of material suffusion in Thoreau and Whitman, Jane Bennett comes to a similar conclusion, drawing attention to Thoreau’s sensitivity to “natural influences” and a “cross-species current of ‘sympathy’” that conjoins him with the vegetable and animal life at Walden Pond (Bennett 91). In contrast to Pinsker, Kij Johnson’s “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck” invites a bridge to transcendentalism that facilitates rather than curtails connections and openings to the more-than-human world. As if to mobilize the performative dimension of Pinsker’s title, Johnson’s story foregrounds an expansion of “things to notice,” a defamiliarization of divides between inside and outside by which the Not Here becomes familiar. Published during a time of lockdown, vis-à-vis the competing specters of viral infection and social isolation, it chronicles a woman’s deliberate attempt to sharpen her senses for the nonhuman relations outside her window.
Johnson’s story opens with a reference to the work of Georges Perec, a member of the French Oulipo group whose experiments in constrained writing can be understood as programmatic for the protagonist’s endeavor to explore, in almost fractal depth, the limited periphery of her apartment. Her name, Linna, perhaps not coincidentally recalls Linnaeus, the renowned naturalist and founder of modern taxonomy. In equal measures, her attempt at exhausting her deck, “an eight-by-six wooden platform” attached to her room, seems informed by the Linnean Systema Naturae and Thoreau’s notion of “home-cosmography” (“Walden” 341). It starts with an exercise in amateur nomenclature:
5 kinds of trees, I think? I don’t know any names, so I’ll call them
• Spackle-bark trees. Massive, with coarse bark, looks like it’s applied with a palette knife in rough rectangles. Leaves = your basic leaf shape.
• Alligator-bark trees. Smaller trunks, rough bark. The pattern’s shallower, smaller—little irregular squares.
• Some sort of
This beginning of a list ends on an ellipsis when her attention is sidetracked by the appearance of a squirrel, three jays, and a wasp. Reminiscent of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” (“Nature” 193), an instantiation of his idea of the poet as someone “whose eye can integrate all the parts” (192), she is determined to take in everything she sees and record her impressions in a written impromptu catalog. Her perception is less dispersed or distracted than complexified, slowly attuning to the infinite and inhuman scales of ecological variation that shape her surroundings:
Three speeds of wind in the trees. One tree’s highest branches bob while another one is still. There’s microweather up there, patches of wind .001 mph slower than the air right above it, or a 10th of a degree warmer, because it’s over a tree that collects more heat than its neighbors. Maybe? (Johnson)
Like the American amateur naturalists before her—from Thoreau to Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard—she delights in the interchanges between her private space and the vibrant multiplicity on her proverbial doorstep. Similar to Thoreau who “enjoy[s] the friendship of the seasons” (“Walden” 202) and Emerson who recognizes that he is “not alone and unacknowledged” but in the presence of nonhumans who “nod to me, and I to them” (“Nature” 193), Linna realizes that she may be “alone, but she is seldom lonely” (Johnson). The inhabitants of her deck “connect her to the larger world.” Thoreau’s notes on solitude in Walden unmistakably resonate with her experience:
I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. (202-203)
Yet, in distinction to Thoreau, Linna’s growing awareness of a newly found “beneficent society of Nature” does not fall back on a simplistic opposition between nature and culture. Rather, she recognizes that her entanglements with the external world are multiple, bridging divides between physical and nonphysical relations, human and other-than-human kinship:
They aren’t all alive, the people on her friends list: her father, for one. Others she’s never met and never will: a musician who made a song in 1984 that cracks her open, fictional characters in favorite shows. They are not—she looks it up—“a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” But they matter to her. Because of them, she reaches out of herself and into the world. To care is as important as to connect, sometimes. And they aren’t all people. Lil Bit and the curious juvenile cardinal; the squirrels, the blue jays, the dark-eyed juncos and the tufted titmice and the downy woodpeckers; the Japanese hemlock crowding against the railings of her deck, and the deck itself, which has taken on a sort of life of its own under her steady regard. (Johnson)
Comparable to the protagonist’s emancipation in Pinsker’s “Notice,” the limitations of Linna’s place become an occasion to reach “out of herself and into the world,” in what is invoked as an ethics of care and connection. In their shared rejection of bounded individualism in favor of response-ability and empathy, both stories may ultimately be characterized as ecotopian. While Johnson foregrounds that ecological thinking begins with a shift in awareness and a recognition of expanded ecological relations, Pinsker’s near-future U.S. introduces a political system that has normalized the vision of contemporary progressives whose Green New Deal is inextricable from wide-ranging social welfare programs. Overtly environmental measures aside, ecological thinking, as Timothy Morton and many others have pointed out, means “to join the dots and see that everything is connected” (1). In different ways, Pinsker’s and Johnson’s stories impel precisely this recognition: that the more the individual becomes aware of its linkages, dependencies, and abilities to engage, “the more our world opens up” (ibid.).
In this sense, both stories metabolize the core meaning of understanding ourselves in flux—namely, to resist attempts to close the system, and to become cognizant and affectively aware of its material enmeshments and modes of interpermeation—for good or for ill. By employing Emerson and Thoreau as implicit intertextual foils, they point to the interrelated histories of humanism, ecology, and posthumanism and remind us that their relationships are complex and themselves in flux. While transcendentalist notions of self-reliance fundamentally inform the ideological infrastructure of toxic transhumanism—the overextension of the liberal humanist subject to compensate for the intrinsic deficiency of what Arnold Gehlen has famously described “man’s ‘world-openness’” (Gehlen 24)—, its alignment of human and nature, in so far as it is able to shed its naive romanticism, offers productive ways to imagine ecotopian futures grounded in more-than-human empathy and ethics of trans-corporeal affection. Mediating these oppositions, Pinsker and Johnson rehabilitate exposure and flux not as vulnerability, but as a vision of opening oneself up to the world and welcoming rather than denying one’s relations.
Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Indiana University Press, 2010.
—–. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Bennett, Jane. Influx and Efflux: Writing up with Walt Whitman. Duke University Press, 2020.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature .” Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman, Signet Classic, 1965, pp. 190–228.
—–. “Self-Reliance .” Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman, Signet Classic, 1965, pp. 262–85.
Gehlen, Arnold. Man, His Nature and Place in the World. Columbia University Press, 1988.
Graham, Elaine. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. Manchester University Press, 2002.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.
Johnson, Kij. “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck.” Us in Flux: Center for Science and the Imagination, https://csi.asu.edu/story/kij-johnson-uif/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2012.
Pinsker, Sarah. “Notice.” Us in Flux: Center for Science and the Imagination, https://csi.asu.edu/projects/usinflux/sarah-pinsker-uif/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.
Serres, Michel, and Bruno Latour. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Translated by Roxanne Lapidus, University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Solnit, Rebecca. “Masculinity As Radical Selfishness: Rebecca Solnit on the Maskless Men of the Pandemic.” Literary Hub, 29 May 2020, https://lithub.com/masculinity-as-radical-selfishness-rebecca-solnit-on-the-maskless-men-of-the-pandemic/.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” Walden and Other Writings, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, Bantam Books, 1962, pp. 85–104.
—. “Walden.” Walden and Other Writings, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, Bantam Books, 1962, pp. 105–351.
Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954.
Moritz Ingwersen is currently an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Konstanz, Germany, and will begin a position as Professor of North American Literature and Future Studies at Dresden University of Technology in March 2021. He holds an MA in English and Physics from the University of Cologne and a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from Trent University, Ontario. His research engages intersections among speculative fiction, science and technology studies, and the environmental humanities. Aside from a monograph entitled Neal Stephenson’s Archaeology of Cyberculture: Science Fiction as Science Studiesforthcoming with Liverpool University Press, his publications include articles on Michel Serres, J. G. Ballard, N. K. Jemisin, and Indigenous Petrofiction. He is the co-editor of Culture-Theory-Disability: Encounters between Cultural Studies and Disability Studies (2017) and a forthcoming special issue on elemental ecocriticism.