Interview with Heather Houser

by Jason Tougaw

9780231165143Heather Houser’s book Ecosickness in U.S. Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (Columbia UP 2014) moved and fascinated me. Houser writes about ecology and sickness in fiction by some of the most influential contemporary American writers, including Jan Zita Grover, Marge Piercy, Richard Powers, Leslie Marmon Silko, David Foster Wallace, and David Wojnarowicz. Houser’s writing is lucid and engaging. She does an amazing job of showing how these writers elicit particular feelings—anxiety, wonder, disgust—and motivate readers to environmental consciousness. We read fiction to lose (and find) ourselves in worlds invented by writers. How do those invented worlds help us think about feel? How do they reflect the bewildering thing we call the real world? Can they motivate us to ethical engagement? I’m delighted that Heather Houser agreed to talk about some of these questions with me.

Ecosickness in U.S. Contemporary Fiction is the winner of Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present Book Award for 2015. It will be published in paperback this spring.

Jason
In your book, you describe fiction as “a laboratory for perceptual and affective changes that can catalyze ethical and political projects.” Your focus is works of fiction that tell ecological stories, about forms of illness and suffering that link human bodies with environmental factors that play often mysterious roles in making them sick. I love the way you borrow the word laboratory from science here. A lab is the place where experiments happen, and scientists conduct experiments when they want to learn something about something that remains mysterious. I would love to hear you talk about an example of a work of fiction as a laboratory—one example that really shows what mean.

Heather
Your characterization of the meanings of laboratory precisely matches what I was thinking with this. One of the claims of Ecosickness is that authors depict and deploy emotions like disgust and anxiety in ways that don’t predictably conform to an environmental ethic or politics. So, just as the etiologies of the sicknesses that authors like David Foster Wallace and Leslie Marmon Silko depict aren’t cut-and-dried, the trajectories of emotions are uncertain. Let’s take Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991) as an example. In Ecosickness I run through how this enormous novel’s precise and relentless detailing of the horrors of racism, genocide, and environmental degradation generates anxiety in characters and readers alike. I think of Almanac as a laboratory for anxiety because the outcomes of this emotion are as uncertain as the outcomes of the exploitations and rebellions the book narrates. Will anxiety be politically motivating or will it tip over into paralysis? I find this uncertainty productive for literary analysis for the same reasons I assume it’s productive for authors: it’s not predictive and this encourages the critic to examine aesthetic strategies like plot structure and metaphor as kinds of tools or methods in the experiment with affect. How does, in the case of Almanac, the novel’s sprawling geography and character set influence the production of anxiety? How does a conclusion entitled “Home” calm this disturbing feeling?

safe

Todd Haynes’s film Safe (1995) has become an iconic take on eco-sickness in our time.

Jason
How do you define ecosickness? What’s the origin of the term? I ask because it seems to me that all illness involves relationships between an organism and an environment, but I think you mean something more particular—both conceptually and historically.

Heather
Most illnesses have environmental factors that shape them, even if they don’t cause them. But you’re right that I mean something more particular here. “Ecosickness” refers to the interplays between human bodies and the more-than-human world that manifest materially through dysfunction and conceptually, culturally, and politically through our tropes and narratives. This has an historical dimension because, I argue, innovations in technoscience such as genetic modification and biosphere engineering helped intensify the damages through which the imbrications of body and environment become visible. They have also intensified the affects that attach to transformations to life itself. The term “ecosickness” emerged from conversations with my writing group and mentors as I was writing the dissertation that became the book. I was using “sickness” to capture my meaning but was running up against the fact that this word typically calls up either the human body alone and/or moral judgment. By adding “eco-,” I thought I could retain but augment those associations. Most importantly, I hoped readers would come to think of dysfunction as pervasive and as necessarily engaging numerous systems—biological, social, political, etc.

Jason
I’d imagine many people suffering from various forms of ecosickness have a hard time finding answers about the causes of their symptoms—and that people build communities to help each other find answers, and solace. Are there any particular community groups or projects that stand out to you for the ways they help people cope with the uncertainties you discuss in the book?

Heather
I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this, but I’m aware of a number of citizen science networks that monitor the environmental conditions that might correlate to lived sickness. There’s often a distance between the institutions and experts that examine the human body and those that research environmental pollutants and other factors. To fill this gap and connect dots–if only for themselves–people become naturalists of the “unnatural” and diarists of their own body’s functioning. With new technologies, citizen science is becoming more quantified and integrated. For example, the Air Quality Egg project provides devices for detecting and reporting on air pollution. Stacy Alaimo, Steven Epstein, and Giovanna di Chiro have all written tellingly of these grassroots ways of establishing environmental and medical expertise and how they hook up with political and social justice fights. The Human Toxome Project is building communities and citizen knowledge of environmental sickness.

Jason
Your question about anxiety—will it motivate or paralyze?—rings true to me. It seems to me this is a feeling most people I know live with every day. Your book’s focus on ecosickness connects so many of the contemporary realities that provoke anxiety: the pollution that’s transforming the earth, economic and social injustice, geopolitical inequities, mortality, the possibility of extinction or apocalypse. The list could go on. You’ve read and thought about these subjects more than most. In your reading, have you come across ideas or actions or suggestions that strike you as antidotes to personal and political paralysis?

Heather
Truthfully, I think enduring antidotes, especially ones that come in the formal of external motivation, are hard to find. Disgust at injustice and antipathy toward inertia are the strongest antidotes for me personally. Ann Cvetkovich’s book Depression: A Public Feeling offers remarkable reflections on both these spurs to involvement, and I’m continually inspired by those like my UT colleagues Robert Jensen and Snehal Shingavi who never fail to organize and speak out. I share her sentiment, voiced there, that there will be days when we throw up our hands and sit it all out. And then there will be days of activation when we see alternatives to the realities you describe and want to do our damnedest–through protest, lobbying, teaching, conversation, writing, meditation—to make those alternatives know. To my mind, the strongest sources of paralysis are perfectionism and fatalism and just doing can stave off both tendencies.

Jason
Can we talk a little more about perfectionism and fatalism? I think you’re absolutely right that both lead to paralysis. Both tendencies seem to involve a yearning for certainty. Perfectionism is a fantasy that we can do something just right, fatalism that it doesn’t matter what we do. In your book, you made a conscious choice to write about works of fiction that don’t offer any clear cause-and-effect explanations for the relationship between sickness and environment. I’m guessing here, but your point about just doing seems related to that decision. You’re writing about works of fiction that seem less about solving problems that living with, through, or beyond them. In other words, doing. I’m curious to hear about how you made the decision to focus on texts that aren’t explicit or definite about environmental causes for sickness. Did you know all along that this was what you wanted to do, or did you realize it some time later in the process of doing your research and writing? What difference does it make when works of fiction don’t represent definite causes for the sicknesses they portray?

Heather
This is a rich question with a number of rabbit trails to follow. Ecosickness initially emerged from a broader interest in representations of disease in 20th-century fiction. I certainly investigated stories in which diseases–or potential diseases–had environmental causes (Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge), but I also found stories in which disease and environmental decline were seemingly running on parallel tracks. I didn’t know quite what to make of this at first but wanted to explore whether there was some feature of the works–representational strategies, ideological investments, historical conditions, etc.–that bends those parallel lines and make them converge at a level other than plot. In doing my readings, I found that the feature that bent the lines was narrative affect, which I define in Ecosickness as emotions attached to formal dimensions of texts that draw conceptual and experiential homologies between somatic and environmental damage. 

Highlighting narratives without definite causes helped me think outside of the “solution” model of ecocriticism and political criticism more general. The upshots for an environmental politics of books like Infinite Jest or North Enough aren’t always tidy or uplifting. If much political criticism of the 80s-00s looked to literature for its subversive potential or ability to resist oppression and exploitation, the criticism of the messy narratives in Ecosickness instead shows the obstacles to more politically assuaging (for some) readings. Looking outside of cause-and-effect models also encouraged attention to formal mechanisms like metaphoric systems (primarily what I call throughout my book medicalization) or how narrative structures and characterization mesh (as in the case of Almanac of the Dead). This allows for a criticism in which formal attentiveness is in the service of eco-political, ethical, and affective interpretation.

As with any project, some pragmatic things also motivated my choice of narratives that aren’t invested in rooting out causes or drawing vectors between cause and effect. That was to build on rather than reduplicate some of the excellent scholarship on environmental health culture and history that appeared as I was conceiving the project. I’m thinking here of magnificent titles by Stacy Alaimo—Bodily Natures–and Linda Nash—Inescapable Ecologies. While both studies are explicit about the impossibility of pinpointing etiologies in environmental health matters, the kinds of texts and phenomena they examine raise an expectation for that discovery even if they don’t satisfy it.

Jason
Let’s talk another feeling—wonder. You discuss wonder in novels by Richard Powers, including The Echo Maker. I should tell you that I’m a huge fan of the cranes in that novel, which you write about. When I first read your gorgeous interpretations of the cranes, I thought, “Oh, shit, I’ve been scooped.” Then I realized that there’s plenty of room for your reading and mine, and that yours will only help me make mine stronger. Anyway, you discuss wonder in some surprising and complex ways—not simply as a great feeling that helps us cope or hope. Can you give readers of the blog a preview of your take on how wonder works in our emotional and literary lives?

Heather
Wonder is just everywhere in environmental writing. I’m encountering it over and over as I work on my current project (called, for now, “Environmental Art and the Infowhelm”) for which I’m reading classical natural history and “the new natural history” of the past 30 years. In studying Powers’s The Echo Maker for Ecosickness I found that, for as much as wonder motivates the science-curious characters and science-driven plot and, in fact, is the essence of inquiry, it also shares features with projection and paranoia. Showing how wonder can slide into these relations, Power’s story of neurological damage and habitat destruction also shows that even feelings like wonder that seem productive for environmental care can have other outcomes.  I want to continue thinking about the trajectories of wonder, especially as it arises from curiosity in my current project, but there I’ll be focusing especially on its effects on ways of attending to and knowing the more-than human.

Jason
So we have something to look forward to. I, for one, am excited to read anything you write—but especially if it’s about wonder and curiosity. I imagine we’ll all be thinking about all things more-than-human in the near future. I’d imagine you teach some fascinating courses. I’d love to hear about how your teaching relates to your writing about eco-sickness and about the cultural work of feelings in general. 

Heather
I taught a course called “Imagining Contamination” in which we discussed Todd Haynes’s film Safe (1995). The idea for the course was to think about medical, environmental, cultural, and social contaminants and how one type can become the others. Safe is a particularly challenging film to watch and to teach, not least because it is deliberately irritating–the soundtrack, the color palette and lighting, some characters’ seeming vacuity. Viewers can easily become polarized about the status of the protagonist, Carol White’s (Julianne Moore), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Some students readily fell into the “it’s all in her head; she’s hysterical” interpretation and read Carol’s disease as Haynes’s indictment of suburban domesticity and consumerism. Others considered features of the film such as mise-en-scène that suggested environmental causes to the symptoms Carol develops that ultimately lead her to leave her family and San Fernando Valley home to live in the desert with others affected by MCS. Safe to me is a laboratory for thinking and feeling because of its unpredictability. Haynes’s aesthetic strategies combined with his refusal to preach—to be avowedly and identifiably environmentalist—set in motion the experiment in which my students participated. Without denying the validity of their divergent responses, I tried to steer them to think about how even what’s “in our heads” has a reality, not only because the feelings it produces in the so-called hysterical person are embodied and experienced but also in that toxicity–actual and perceived–has sociocultural origins. In any case, Safe might be the work I’ve taught that most makes students feel experimented upon precisely because they are so uneasy in the act of viewing and in their ensuing interpretations. It gets at one of the points with which I conclude Ecosickness: “Uncertainty about the outcomes of affect makes it hazardous terrain, for the artist and for the critic.” And for the teacher and student.

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