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Narrating the Mesh: Ecology and the Non-Human in Contemporary Fiction and Oral Storytelling

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - NARMESH (Narrating the Mesh: Ecology and the Non-Human in Contemporary Fiction and Oral Storytelling)

Reporting period: 2021-08-01 to 2022-07-31

The “mesh” is a metaphor introduced by Timothy Morton for the entanglement of human societies and subjectivities and nonhuman phenomena in times of ecological crisis. For Morton and other contemporary theorists, climate change and other environmental disruptions created by industrial activities are a reminder of our enmeshment (that is, our fundamental interdependency) with the nonhuman world. This anthropogenic crisis forces us to reconsider notions of human mastery and disrupts binary distinctions between human agency and a supposedly inert nature. The NARMESH project asked how narrative, in both fiction and everyday conversation, can capture human-nonhuman interrelation and the anxieties that traverse it. Combining narrative theory, ecologically oriented literary criticism, and social science methods from anthropology and psychology, we collected nonhuman-oriented stories, along two routes: first, we surveyed contemporary fiction in English, with particular focus on narratives dealing with the “weirdness” of environmental catastrophe and narratives foregrounding the ethics of scientific work; second, we conducted a series of interviews with climate scientists, climate change deniers, and environmental activists, aiming to elicit their (nonfictional) stories about the climate crisis. In analyzing this large and diverse set of narratives, we charted the ways in which stories can disrupt notions of teleological progress and decenter human mastery, for instance by featuring nonhuman characters or by deploying metaphorical language in ways that challenge anthropocentrism. In a further set of interviews, we also examined how the discussion of nonhuman-oriented narrative can impact people's perception of the natural world and understanding of agency. The result is a series of conceptual tools that enable researchers to discuss with precision the multiple strategies through which stories can bridge the gap between the human world and the climatological and biological processes that underpin the ecological crisis.
Inspired by recent developments in the environmental humanities and “econarratology” (Erin James’s term), the NARMESH team has built on a diverse set of methodologies to explore contemporary narrative’s engagement with human-nonhuman interrelation and its dramatic manifestations in the present moment, particularly climate change. We have collected and analyzed, from a stylistic and narratological perspective, two sets of fictional narratives falling into the genres of “new weird” fiction and “lab literature”: the former foregrounds the strangeness of human-nonhuman enmeshment, whereas the latter offers a critique of scientific work in a more realist setting. In parallel, we have collected nonfictional stories dealing with environmental issues in a series of interviews with scientists, environmental activists, and climate change skeptics. We studied the way in which stories can embed (but also challenge) anthropocentric ideas both at the level of plot and theme and at the level of form. Indeed, the project’s main ambition was to show that formal strategies, in both fictional and nonfictional stories, already engage with and negotiate the “mesh” of human-nonhuman relations. In the project’s final phase, we have turned to narrative audiences and conducted interviews to study how fictional narratives may impact readers’ imagination of the nonhuman world, with particular focus on the ascription of agency to nonhuman entities and processes. This shows how reading fiction can have a significant impact on people’s understanding of human-nonhuman relations, although follow-up work is needed to examine whether this is a long-term impact. In the five years of project, we presented our findings at dozens of international conferences, including the annual conferences of the International Society for the Study of Narrative (ISSN), the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), and the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Our work has appeared in all of the main journals in the fields traversed by NARMESH research, from Environmental Humanities to PMLA and Narrative Inquiry. The team members have published a number of monographs, one edited collection, and one special issue, all with well-respected international publishers and in series that have high visibility in the ecocritical and narratological communities.
The NARMESH project brought together one anthropologist, one psychologist, and four literary scholars with different backgrounds. The cross-fertilization of empirical (ethnographic) methods, anthropological theory, and literary analysis is innovative and has led to a significant expansion of the conceptual framework of narrative theory. Building on narrative and stylistic analysis has enriched the field of ecocriticism (which traditionally foregrounded the thematic dimension of literature) by highlighting the ecological significance of literary form. The field of econarratology has gained momentum, partly thanks to the efforts and international presence of the NARMESH team.