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

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - NARMESH (Narrating the Mesh: Ecology and the Non-Human in Contemporary Fiction and Oral Storytelling)

Reporting period: 2018-08-01 to 2020-01-31

According to philosopher Dale Jamieson, climate change caused by industrial activities is “the largest collective action problem that humanity has ever faced.” What makes climate change so difficult to address effectively is its abstract nature and its distribution across vast spatio-temporal scales: specific effects of climate change may be experienced, sometimes dramatically, but their underlying causes, such as the melting of polar ice or an increase in global temperatures, tend to elude everyday perception.

As studies in, for example, science communication have indicated, narrative is a powerful means of translating abstract information into concrete, hands-on knowledge. Hence, storytelling can play an important role in making climate change tangible and demonstrating its impact on everyday life. The NARMESH project focuses on how this process of narrative translation from the abstract to the concrete can take place; it aims to identify the ways in which narrative, in various genres and contexts, captures the enmeshment of human societies and nonhuman phenomena in times of ecological crisis. Further, the project seeks to explore specific instances of narrative engagement with climate change, through a case study-based approach. We concentrate on both contemporary fiction dealing with the climate crisis and on oral stories collected in interviews with climate scientists, climate change deniers, and environmental activists. The goal is mainly descriptive: we aim to develop 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.
The NARMESH team is exploring fictional stories in three genres: catastrophic fiction (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), “lab lit” or fiction that focuses on scientists’ personal lives (e.g. Richard Powers’s Orfeo), and climate change fiction, which directly thematizes climate change (e.g. Ian McEwan’s Solar). The analysis of these novels is yielding important insights into how literary storytelling can, through metaphor and plot strategies that elicit emotions, channel the embeddedness of human societies in a more-than-human world. This work has already resulted in a number of publications on contemporary fiction and science, as well as the ecological significance of contemporary narrative in the “new weird” mode (including work by Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville).

At the same time, the team has been busy collecting and analyzing narratives in conversation with three groups that occupy a central position in current debates on the ecological crisis: climate scientists, environmental activists, and climate change deniers. These interviews focus on narratives of personal experience and how they also engage with the climate crisis. Adopting a literary methodology to analyze these stories has already brought out startling continuities but also discontinuities with the literary novels, particularly in terms of (1) metaphorical language and (2) affective or emotional meanings that emerge in discussing the nonhuman world. For instance, the scientists’ stories are rich in metaphors but relatively low in affect, whereas the climate change deniers’ stories deploy few metaphors but remain surprisingly sensitive to ecological issues at the local level (such as water pollution, etc.). The activists are the most internally diverse group, but also the most explicit and articulate in ascribing affective value to the nonhuman world.
The NARMESH project brings together one anthropologist and three literary scholars with different backgrounds. The cross-fertilization of empirical (ethnographic) methods, anthropological theory, and literary analysis is innovative and has already enriched the conceptual framework of narrative theory. The field of “econarratology” (a term coined by Erin James) is gaining momentum, partly thanks to the efforts and international presence of the NARMESH team. By the end of the project, we hope to systematize the knowledge obtained and begin thinking about the effectiveness of narrative strategies in changing people’s attitudes towards the ecological crisis.