Review of Heather Houser’s Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect

Review of Heather Houser’s Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect

Sharalyn Sanders

In this review of Heather Houser’s Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction, Sharalyn Sanders identifies the hopeful potential for environmental justice via contemporary literature. Finding a solidarity implied between intersectional identities and ecocriticism, Sander’s finds in Houser’s call for “scholarly activism” an antidote to the detachment which threatens to thwart environmental awareness.

Heather Houser’s Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect marks out for analysis the affective dimension within formal elements of literary and extra-literary texts. Establishing a linkage between ecocriticism and social action, Houser explores affect as a means by which scholarly criticism might impel activism. Houser defines “ecosickness fiction” as a genre that promises

to use images and stories to set into motion the messy emotions that can alternately direct our energies toward planetary threats and drive them away from action […] Ecosickness narratives […] trust that it is emotion that can carry us from the micro-scale of the individual to the macro-scale of institutions, nations, and the planet. (223)

In this Houser’s approach resonates with the argument that Lynn Hunt’s makes in her analysis of the epistolary novel in Inventing Human Rights, namely, that affect enables the “psychological identification that leads to empathy” (48). Hunt argues “By its very form…the epistolary novel was able to demonstrate that selfhood depended on qualities of ‘interiority’ (having an inner core)…the epistolary novel showed that all selves were in some sense alike in their possession of interiority” (48). This recognition of interiority enables the formation of human rights because it accords the perception of subjectivity upon all humans. Similarly, Houser uses affect to extend empathy to the “more-than-human” world in order to call for humanist recognition of human responsibilities to the environment without which life itself would not exist. 

Beginning with an analysis of Todd Haynes’ film Safe (1995) and Richard Powers’ novel Gain (1998) in her introduction, Houser argues that such works “revolve around tenacious searches for the lines that will connect environmental toxification to human illness” (2). And yet Houser moves quickly away from works, such as these, which foreground the search for a causal connection between illness and ecological contagion, focusing instead on texts whose formal features produce “engines of affect”  and “involve readers ethically in our collective bodily and environmental future” without letting the search for the source of sickness, nor the closure that a successful search might provide, dominate the narrative or foreclose emotional experience (3). Ecosickness stakes, as its territory, conflicts at the levels of action and non-action, the individual and the collective, and it examines the difficulties of navigating these conflicts at micro- and macro-scales. Following Sianne Ngai’s groundbreaking work in Ugly Feelings (2005), Houser’s study draws forth the “messy” emotions, emotions like anxiety or disgust, in order to leave behind an essentialist view of these feelings as inherently negative or destructive, and to treat them instead as catalysts for engagement or non-engagement with environmental activism.

Within Houser’s frame of sickness, Ecosickness might be read paradoxically, as performing a reparative, or healing, work. It aims to repair the relation between affect and agency in order to remedy what Houser frames as a troubling lack of urgency in humans’ responses to the ongoing crisis in our planetary ecosystem. However, while Houser initially proposes that humans’ flawed responses correlate with a lack of emotional engagement with their environment, she immediately presents this lack as more perceptual than actual. In Houser’s formulation, ecosickness narratives do not seek to instantiate emotion but to activate affect that is present but dormant, or inappropriately directed. Houser offers ecosickness fiction as a heuristic that demonstrates how we might “trust” our emotional liveliness and allow it to carry us from localized to global and planetary action. 

As Houser reads through the “messy” emotions in works by Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Marge Piercy, and Leslie Marmon Silko, among others, her grounding in queer theory allows her to gather the unruly disorder of affect into an organized analytic that complements the more familiar, more normative scholarly analytic that valorizes critical distance. Houser argues that while “distance might have been a valuable instrument, in the critical toolbox in the modern and even early postmodern periods, it is now anesthetizing rather than productive” (130). In this sense, Houser’s argument aligns with Timothy Morton, who makes a similar critique in Ecology without Nature, when he criticizes the use of the “aesthetic as an anesthetic” (10) in contemporary environmental writing. Houser’s nuanced and detailed explication of eco-sickness, as it is experienced, provides a fantastic counter-example of how aesthetic experience can propel, rather than numb, engagement. By employing affect as an analytic, Houser opens questions about how to compose scholarly writing that does not nullify its own analysis, through evacuating its inherent emotional intensity. How can writing that seeks to maintain a critical distance adequately, or accurately, she asks, express or contain engagements with affect? 

While Houser does not discard critical distance, she rightly insists that we “must take methodological inspiration from the literature we analyze and bring different ways of knowing—from scientific experiment to embodied feeling—to bear on each other. Following this procedure, interconnectedness becomes method and not only theme or aspiration” (224). Throughout Ecosickness, Houser (re)incorporates language, which is alternately coded as scientific or affective, in order to undo the false dichotomy between reason and emotion. However, this same methodological move to excavate affect in order to build a “corporeal imagination” poses difficulties for Ecosickness’s theoretical work (144).

Houser’s is a theoretical text, one which makes an urgent and ambitious argument. Arguing from a position in which a corporeal imagination must be constructed or a sense of interconnectedness established, however, risks suggesting that such absences and aporias are perceived or distributed equally across heterogeneous populations. Ecosickness thereby adopts a privileged positionality that presumes a separation from material and collective conditions is possible, though the impossibility of this separation becomes more clear when we consider that these material and collective conditions are experienced asymmetrically across human and “more-than-human” populations (12). Along similar lines, the argument that the humanist subject, which Ecosickness interrogates, requires his or her emotions to be set into motion by a dramatic but unclear catalyst overlooks the emotions of those whose daily lives of precarity are tied directly to the environmental conditions in which they live and work. To be sure, the causal relation between environmental pollutants and ecosickness is something that Houser specifically wishes to exclude from her study, writing in her introduction that she wants to “ask what happens when artists abandon quests for etiology as the driving force of their narratives”(2).

Proceeding from a position that infuses literary ecocriticism and psychoanalysis with queer and feminist theory, Houser’s first chapter introduces the argument that “bodily injury crucially shapes environmental consciousness at the turn of the millennium. Ecosickness fictions that pair plots of human and environmental endangerment deploy affects that encourage or thwart ethical investment in these dangers” (39). Houser’s affective analytic counterposes the anesthetizing effect of critical distance, whose effect is to deemphasize embodied ways of thinking through environmental engagement. But through the very act of reading, we are also distanced from our bodies via the medium of our engagement; materiality is mediated through decisions about typeface, screen-size, sentence structure, as well as by the considerations of genre that Houser identifies. In both instances of distancing, affect has the potential to impel a remembering of corporeality, which brings with it a reminder of our own endangered subjectivity. What Houser reads as apathy, or affective disengagement, might usefully be considered in terms of docile bodies, which Foucault identifies as individuals whose corporeality is disciplined according to the “play of spatial distribution,” the “coding of activities” they perform, the “accumulation of time,” and the “composition of forces” they encounter in the “economy of the disciplinary body,” or the biopolitical (167). 

Houser’s work suggests that it is, precisely, the subject that needs attention, if the relation between affect and agency is to be repaired. Situating the neoliberal, biopolitical subject within Ecosickness’s framework of sickness, Houser’s affective analytic might be deployed to read the flaws built into the “universal” subject as injuries that invite healing, and to ask: which fractures within notions of human subjectivity foreclose individual and collective agency, with regard to urgently necessary environmental change? 

Ecosickness offers a beginning toward identifying segments of the “human” as heterogenous. The Western, humanist subject has been conceived as individual and presumed to be heterosexual, well or able-bodied, white, male, and masculine. Houser’s second chapter, “AIDS Memoirs Out of the City,” queers this model of subjectivity in order to destabilize linkages between the Western, humanist subject and the environment; Houser presents “discord” as an “affect that takes shape when lived experience grates against pre-established expectations” and argues that discord engages a productive suspicion that breaks a “conceptual chain linking nature, health, and beauty” (38-9). 

However, by viewing conceptions of nature as anthropocentric projections of normative, gendered standards of health and beauty, Houser’s analysis reveals the gendered standards of health and beauty that are central to the model of “the human” that is the core of this anthropocentrism. Viewing these standards as limitations, which point to our imperfect ability to engage the “sickness” of the planetary ecosystem, Ecosickness suggests these limitations reveal the “sickness” within the universal human subject. While Houser’s argument is that ecosickness fictions can “legitimate the epistemic, aesthetic, and ethical adjustments that result from the discord of living with sickness in varied environments,” her analysis suggests that embracing epistemological changes, in the ways we value sickness, frees sickness from its pathologized and pathologizing discursive traditions (74). For Houser, the “non-urban AIDS memoirs” contribute to “the end of stable conventions for seeing, representing, and caring for” nature (75). In part, these memoirs operate by conceiving of care as an embrace of altered living conditions, in particular the embrace of corporeal and conceptual limits as indicators that care is called for.

Houser extends the exploration of care in the following chapter, “Richard Powers’s Strange Wonder,” which examines the capacities of wonder to “convert inquiry into care” (78). For Houser, “wonder competes with pessimism” even as wonder in its “extreme form risks paranoia” (116) because, as Powers’s text demonstrates, the cost of environmental engagement can be that it “[acquires] the force of need at the expense of any plans for the self” (114). Houser notes that the impetus for this erasure of self occurs when Powers’s protagonist recognizes that “she must anthropomorphize the environment” in order to exercise her engagement (114). In addition to seeing the paranoiac response as a function of affective engagement, perversely prompted by wonder, Houser’s reading suggests that the vision of humanity, which informs the anthropocentric ventriloquism the protagonist must perform, has no means for considering the subordination of human subjectivity as other than annihilating. The epistemological opening that discord engenders becomes complicated because, as Powers’s text suggests, when the subject “ ‘kindles consciousness,’ he cannot be certain what will end up aflame” (116). Detachment, the object of Houser’s next chapter, seems a reasonable response to paranoid fears of self-erasure.

Detachment, however, does not propel activism. In a shift from the examination of individual subjectivity, to an examination of spatial and structural cues, Houser turns in her fourth chapter to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in order to argue that “Wallace…approaches a sick world that is out of joint through disgust. In this way, the novel reconceives this affect as a relation that balances detachment from the world with excessive attachment to the self and accessories to solipsism” (153). Houser opposes excess as a counter to the problem of detachment, which she identifies as the “affliction…endemic to the contemporary U.S.” (155). In an almost performative way, Houser promotes the turn from detachment in the final sentence of this chapter: “Developing new energy solutions and combating versions of experialism to protect environmental and bodily health are fool’s errands so long as we do not swerve away from the detachment that fuels contemporary U.S. consumption and exploitation” (166). 

Beginning with this chapter’s consideration of disgust, Houser’s own affective investment increasingly inhabits the scholarly language in Ecosickness’s second half, which I read as Houser’s strategy to keep an affective grounding in Ecosickness’s analysis of the macro-scale factors influencing environmental change. The focus of her fifth chapter, in particular, i.e., “The Anxiety of Intervention in Leslie Marmon Silko and Marge Piercy,” exhibits Houser’s own anxiety. As Houser argues, Silko’s novel removes the environmental revolution from beyond the constraints of human subjectivity or agency; it is the planet that will restore its own balance. For Houser, the anxiety in Silko’s Almanac “creates a totalizing picture of catastrophe, of scorched lands and bodies bleeding into each other…” (201). While Houser finds that the other fictions generate “ameliorative” affects, Houser finds that “Almanac’s revolutionary historiography is inconsistent and ultimately cinches human potential to effect change” (209). This poses  conflict for Houser, who quite convincingly situates environmental deterioration within a biopolitical frame: “Biopower in Alamanac is a race- and class-based privilege that capitalizes on the increasing malleability and vulnerability of life itself and on the commodification of bodily materials” (193). For Houser, such human-made institutions require human responses to dismantle. While this is a necessary component of environmental change, there is an entanglement between biopower and “life itself” that does not sit easily with Houser’s analysis of Silko’s novel when one considers Ecosickness in dialog with a larger cultural discourse about biotechnology, ethics, and neoliberalist economy. In Life As Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era, Melinda Cooper identifies a “distinctly neoliberal anti-environmentalism,” which relies on the idea that “life itself—life in its biospheric and even cosmic dimensions—will ultimately overcome all limits to growth” (42). Cooper examines the possibilities of life’s continued survival on earth, within a neoliberal capitalism that has exhausted its resources and is borrowing against a future that will not come. Neoliberal capitalism relies upon limitless growth, which contributes to and accelerates the “ecological crisis and the threat it poses not only to human existence but to the biosphere itself” (40). Cooper’s point that “What is neo about neoliberalism is its tendency to couple the idea of the self-organizing economy with the necessity for continual crisis” provides a useful framework to extend Houser’s use of “sickness” (44). The combination of sickness with the “crisis” of the environment risks legitimizing the neoliberal biopolitic by creating a surplus, non-able form of life. 

Houser argues that Silko’s novel, which grants planetary agency that supersedes human agency, intimates “that there are no conditions under which we should intervene in life itself” (195). That Silko’s apocalyptic narrative vitiates Houser’s call to action brings into relief a faultline Houser straddles throughout Ecosickness: the faultline of privilege. 

Houser’s conclusion goes the furthest distance, of all the chapters, toward opening a discussion of Ecosickness’s privileged positionality and the limits it imposes upon Houser’s scholarly work. “How Does It Feel?” begins with Houser’s personal stake in Ecosickness’s work: “My days start like those of many news-hungry ‘internauts,’ with a peek at the headlines that Google Reader aggregates…So how does the ‘environment’ feel on this morning? At an impasse, impossible, maybe even hopeless” (216-18). But feelings, even—and perhaps especially—feelings of sadness and despair do crucial work because they save us from the twin evils of detachment and apathy. At the core of Houser’s work is an aim to repair the scholarly understanding of the humanist subject as a subject whose agency includes the capacity to feel and, as a result, to hope. 

Houser’s own dissatisfaction with the impact scholarly work can make is situated within a framework in which there is no evidence of poverty, or lack of access to information. In fact, Houser’s final appeal identifies Ecosickness’s audience as critics, theorists and teachers, rather than those precarious subjects that might be addressed within a framework more engaged with questions of environmental justice. Houser ultimately argues, “Contemporary fiction is the point of departure for…Ecosickness because, while inspiring massive action against systemic harms will require much more than literature and literary analysis can accomplish, fiction extends an invitation to read its stories out into the world. It opens channels to the talk between policy and psychology, aesthetics and activism, education and ethics, and data and doxa that positive interventions in pervasive sickness demand” (228). Ecosickness’s call for scholarly activism is, then, a call for a return of a particular affect to scholarly work. If, as Houser suggests, fighting detachment should be our primary objective in raising environmental consciousness, then criticism that lacks the courage to hope is also a fool’s errand.

Works Cited

Cooper, Melinda. Life As Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2008.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Allan Sheridan. New York: Random House, Inc., 1977.

Hunt, Lynn. Inventing Human Rights: A History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007.