There’s an argument to be made about how narratives shape our perception of many things. A story can go beyond its stated power and intent through means of being seen with a different perspective, interpreted by a particular process or just by being taken in by different individuals whose context, ideologies, circumstances and propositions are vastly different.
It may be in part, because of these aforementioned variables, that some common ideas about stories and narratives have entered our public consciousness in different styles and idioms. Now, it’s a common occurrence to overhear someone who has some input about their own life and developments mentioned as an “era” or “character arc”, let alone the vast amount of memes and elements of online discourse stating stuff like people having their “Halloween special” whenever said October holiday rolls around, for example.
As we turn this conversation onto the world of digital media, social and cultural dynamics on the web, and the way we perceive and articulate them, there’s an inevitable discussion to be had about the power of constructing and experiencing our very own digital narrative, and the consequences that come with it. Here, the question of how much a narrative can affect us – and how we might affect it, in turn – becomes an essential dilemma to explore through a lens of digital cultures.
Our online identity can, through a certain perspective, be seen as a struggle that encompasses the idea of balancing materiality in an abstract space, while injecting elements endemic to said landscape by means of our communication infrastructure. This proposition is expressed by media theorist Grant Bollmer as such in his book, Theorizing Digital Cultures:
we should think of digital culture as made up of three elements, narratives about technology, material structures that shape communication, and the physical capacities of bodies […] Digital culture is found at the intersection of these three elements.Bollmer (2018: 27)
But before grounding ourselves in a theory-heavy examination of set topic, there’s a bit of groundwork to be laid in terms of an essential concept that will be instrumental in this examination and the specific proposition I intend to argue for in this article: the “story-creature” as it is laid out and explored by weird fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer on his short story, This World is Full of Monsters.
VanderMeer’s work is often charged with an argument of transformation. Through his career as a writer, a common thread is the examination of the relationship between human and nature, often using the ecosystem of a story as a canvas to draw analogies to different struggles and processes such as grief, isolation, wonder, nostalgia and connection.
His most prominent work – at least in a popular culture sense – is the Southern Reach Trilogy, the first book of which has been adapted as the 2018 Sci-Fi horror film Annihilation, by Alex Garland. And while the short story mentioned beforehand isn’t directly connected to the trilogy, is has been stated by VanderMeer to have similar thematic threads, while also being seen as a sort of independent epilogue to the Southern Reach narrative.
While VanderMeer’s text can and has been interpreted in many ways thus far, I’ve yet to encounter an argument that parallels this narrative about biological singularities with the notion of our digital ecosystems, but I find a worthy clue to make an apt comparison in the structure of both: a story-creature is also developed whenever we enter out identity into online spaces, and it is one where the question of symbolism as a stand-in for materiality is essential.
In This World is Full of Monsters (TWFOM for here on for short), we explore the landscape of a changed world after an ambiguous biological anomaly infests the earth and transforms it over an unstated amount of time. Said transformation has an essential factor which inserts itself in the literal mind of the protagonist, one only described as a story-creature after the protagonist realizes it is an entity, originally approached and perceived as a concept that latches onto them, assuming control.
The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. […] By now I knew that the story wasn’t a story at all. It had just made me think it was a story so it could invade my brain.VanderMeer (2017)
After said invasion, the protagonist enters a hundred-year slumber, during which the world is irrevocably transformed. An endless landscape of plant and fungal biomass envelops the tarnished remains of human civilization, while changes in the atmosphere pave the way for new creatures to roam an anomalous territory.
Let’s delve into the meaning of this story-creature for a moment as VanderMeer paints it in his narrative. The mixed concept acts as a sort of stand-in for a critter, one that fools the protagonist (who happens to be a writer) into seeing it as a story so it can invade their body. There is, fundamentally, an allegoric, or probably symbolic aspect to this apparition, not only in a thematic sense but also in a literal embodiment: the material faculties of the creature are combined with the symbolic elements of it been perceived as a story.
Circling back to Bollmer’s theory, as we interweave it with the narrative of TWFOM, we find a rather similar question when talking about digital cultures and the development of our identity in online spaces and media. As mentioned earlier, there’s a balance to be struck when thinking about these phenomena, lest the argument is boiled down to a now outdated and rather stigmatized technological determinism approach.
We often understand the internet as a placeless, ephemeral ‘thing’, best embodied by the popularity of the ‘cloud’ metaphor to describe data storage. But these beliefs are seriously misguided. In spite of these popular claims about virtuality and ‘clouds’, the above changes are all an effect of the materiality of digital media.Bollmer (2018: 14)
We can see that the material quality of digital environments is often set aside in an argument that might be abstracting itself more than it is necessary. The concept of the story-creature can be used, then, as a theoretical device that is mindful of both the material and the abstract qualities of whenever we engage in online activities, acting as a sort of liminal mediator in that process, and, similarly to the lichenous, savage entity of the novella, one that absorbs parts of its guest (or progenitor) to create a new, reformed articulation of them in a reborn world, driven by different rules and notions.
The divide between digital and material aspects is further driven by a sort of deadzone in the space of media theory, one that often sets theoretical thought and immediate, practical reality aside. As Bollmer puts it, “theory is a way to understand the world and intervene in it” (p.15)
Though in reality, digital culture, everyday interaction, thought and communication is not only being informed by analog life, but is, in turn, providing feedback and contributing to it.
By the half point of the text, the story-creature has not only taken full control of the protagonist’s body, but it has also made an effort in articulating their now shared, amalgam reality by a new set of capacities and possibilities. The former human is now only a vaguely anthropomorphic conglomerate of limbs, different types of living beings, and even new metabolic and sensory devices. One which makes its best effort to adapt onto its new life while it struggles with finding a balance between its internal, clashing identities:
The story-creature had always been there, silent beside me, breathing beneath me, waiting for me to wake to its presence, to understand where I really was. But I would never understand. How could I? I had not understood the story to begin with.VanderMeer (2017)
VanderMeer’s amalgam of a creature is now the centerpiece from which we experience a changed world: its place in TWFOM is not only one of perspective (as the narrator) but also a nexus, a catalyst for the interconnected nature of the landscape that has been infected by this new force. Drawing an analogy to the ways in which our digital identity is assimilated in contemporary environments online, we’re also part of a mixture, one in which our material and essential elements of identity are married into abstract, generalized aspects of the instrumental and ordinary way of being in social media and other websites, where the process of balancing both aspects is an essential everyday struggle.
But even before complete acceptance and assimilation to this new environment, there’s some notable aspects to overcome. One of the most relevant comes in the form of antagonizing our own distorted and biased narratives, a strife that manifests itself in TWFOM in the form of The Brother.
Echoing some of the main elements of Area X’s effect of the Southern Reach Books, and the incredible final sequence of the Annihilation movie, in comes a silhouette that is not only identical to the protagonist of TWFOM, but has apparently replaced its life while the narrator experienced change on its century long hibernation:
The world is full of monsters and this brother forced upon me was one of them. Even though my brother could see I did not want any of what he brought me, he would not relent and I could not escape, found no way to cut the link, cut the wires, cut the bond— whatever it was that had formed between us, and anyway it is true the story-creature grew agitated or upset at my attempts and became even larger and more terrible and this made me cower and beg forgiveness.VanderMeer (2017)
So I suppose I must have wanted to live, even amid this horror.
The Brother, a mirage of a possible life, summoned by the story-creature as a refracted entity. An attempt to make the narrator’s life incarnate while he withers away. An assessment of how the transition between the old and reborn worlds has a residual mimic of whoever crosses the threshold – a figure of symbolism that can be applied to the seesaw between the online and offline world. The narrator accepts this vestigial consequence of his submission to a new way of life, of thought and feel.
This Brother figure could be seen as a missing link in the process of understanding the relationship between the digital and the analog. Bollmer cites Simondon as an essential touchstone when considering the mechanical, a third element in the equation that can help in accepting the convergence of different notions, while also pointing out their factor of difference, which is another way of looking at the breach between digital and analog:
Simondon’s mechanology points us in a direction in which we can look at the similarities between different forms of media, while also acknowledging their differences.Bollmer (2018: 79)
As this fraternal figure is left to die in the ruins of a house basement, this transition advances further. The replacement of a former identity has now led to a consolidated, newly formed and renewed being, which exhibits traits of a story and a creature simultaneously, and has an indexical remnant of all of the processes that assisted its becoming.
What comes next is an odyssey of our protagonist through the rest of the changed world. One in which its form, initially perceived as anomalous and profane (as the writer struggles with fading memories of a religious lifestyle) becomes ever more adept and comfortable. A being that encompasses and experiences itself by the narrative of its own creation and influence.
Our existence in online spaces can be equated to said state of being. As the creature trudges through swamplands with floating landmasses and diluted coastlines, the online identity of someone is consolidated through different commonplace rules, figures of speech, and discourse strategies in a digital medium. New organs, adaptations and appendages appear as so do notions of interfacing with certain websites, functioning in a particular community or sticking to a certain posture. Our newfound sense of belonging in an ecosystem – digital or biological – is complete.
The last step of this voyage takes the form of an individual accepting its place in a greater narrative and world. The story-creature is now on the way to embrace an ecosystem where everyone has been through the aforementioned transformation to find a sense of direction. TWFOM’s narrator enters a small biological barge that takes him on a journey with the certainty of an endpoint, yet its form still remains unknowable.
The barge, referred to as Dead-Shell, progressively merges with the narrator until they begin feeling as parts of a whole. An entire ecosystem assimilated in singular entities that together give weight to the idea of a mechanical element at play. And in the cracks between this unity, the indexicality of the former selves that comprise the conglomerate start to bleed out:
He communicated to me that the world had been remade against my image and that my form, even much reduced, was the rebellion of the old world against the new, and that this made no sense because the new world embraced the old; that my very presence made the old world manifest, no matter the form, so why was the form important? Why did I hold onto the form?VanderMeer (2017)
This final resistance to change, this holding onto the form as the story puts it, can also be seen as a residual of the material element in the digital. An inescapable spare from the process of being integrated. Said perspective completes the digital identity of an individual and grants them their capacity to surround and construct their existence with narratives. A fulfilled story-creature that is launched onto a new, complete world.
I did not think I would ever be human again, but I would see things no one of my species had ever seen, and with that thought I began to cry from some excess of emotion that could not go elsewhere.VanderMeer (2017)
I began to cry as if I meant to swell the sea and drown the earth… and yet even my tears were purposeful, and repurposed by the story-creature. For my tears encapsulated a chronicle of my story, of this story, and every tear that met the ocean’s surface contained all of this tale and every tear shed by every cocooned single-eye to all sides told their tales too, that they might not be forgotten, and might be sheltered and expressed indeed by the sea and the earth itself.
VanderMeer’s work is often the subject of many interpretations; this short story alone has been thought of as an allegory for climate change, queer identity, horror rhetoric and so on. In the end, it is a piece as compelling at face value as it is for a deeper reading of it; a writer pondering the activity of writing itself, through stories coming alive that articulate something beyond them. Our digital existence could very well be defined by this peculiar story-creature duality, a monster that looms on the edge of a tenebrous metamorphosis that in the end becomes an essential part of our next step interacting beyond what we know. A thought that might be scary, but is essential to embrace on the cusp of a new, different ecosystem.
Bollmer, G. 2018. Theorizing Digital Cultures. United Kingdom: SAGE Publications Ltd. First Ed. Oct. 25th 2018. (pp. 10-81).
Garland, A. (Dir.). 2018. Annihilation (Film). Paramount Pictures – Skydance Media. 115 mins.
Simondon, G. 1992. The Genesis of the Individual. In J. Crary and S. Kwinter, Eds., Incorporations. New York: Zone Books, (pp. 297–319). (Cited in Bollmer).
VanderMeer, J. 2017. This World is Full of Monsters (Short Story). New York: Tor Books – Macmillan Publishing.
Emilio Dijard García is an anomalous critter with a human silhouette based in Mexico City, currently majoring in Communication Sciences, researching speculative fiction and digital media. They’re part of the operations staff at the Digital Cultures Centre in Chapultepec, Mexico, and dream of meeting any kind of cryptid sometime, be it fleshy, digital or otherwise.
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