[Soft Skull; 2022]

Elvia Wilk has noticed a weird trend in contemporary art. Landscapes—of myriad geographies, ethologies, and origins—keep rattling humans, keep stirring up human relations. For Wilk, she keeps coming across landscapes as they variously taunt, tempt, and sometime literally devour people. In her recent collection, Death by Landscape, essays that range as argumentative, reflective, and speculative, Wilk traces this story, which she deems weird, as it appears in literature, film, and abstract forms of social contract and performance; the three parts of her collection, “Plants,” “Planets,” and “Bleed,” respectively dividing along these categories. In all cases, Wilk is invested as much in describing the weird landscape that proves capable of jarring agential powers, as the humans whose agencies crumble within these ever more frequent scenes.

So weird are these happenings, Wilk points out, that cultural theorists—including those loosely self-identified as mystics—have seized and developed the word “weird,” in an effort to frame what they are perceiving as complicated landscape-human situations and to account for the consequences and implications of these scenes on both landscapes and humans. Wilk considers what social commentators Mark Fisher names the “eerie,” and Erik Davis suggests is “the weirdo,” but she is mainly invested in how these theories actually become flesh—or land.

In especially the first part of her collection, “Plants,” Wilk both plunges into individual pieces and speaks broadly about many works, from those by Margaret Atwood, Kathe Koja, H.P. Lovecraft, Han Kang, Daisy Hildyard, Jeff VanderMeer, Jenny Hval, Anne Carson, William James, and Omar El Akkad, to illustrate the form and persistence of weird events between landscape and humans. Wilk performs this attention with readable ease, at once demonstrating the reach of the phenomenon that she is tracking, and conveying her ability to grapple with seeming versions on a theme.

While the weird and the weirdo remain the common threads through Wilk’s excursion through these many and varied short stories, novels, autotheories, and essays, her readings one after another start to feel directionless. A notable moment occurs in how she abruptly ends a paragraph by only listing further authors: “Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Italo Calvino, Stanisław Lem, James Tiptree Jr., and many others.” Gathering these writers, Wilk gradually establishes an archive of the weird, but without explicit commentary on how one story challenges any other, or builds off from the previous, or otherwise replicates certain notions, beyond the basic shifts between them, her readings lack framing for what comes next or why, and verge on aimlessness. Especially when she pivots to Medieval literature, which happens often across the entire collection, and which undercuts her emphasis on the currently unfolding nature of the weird she is interested in, this lineup of scenes risks feeling like little more than an annotated bibliography of Wilk’s recent reads, the common theme among them, more than the weird, being Wilk herself as the reader.

This said, Wilk’s chosen case studies often gain import beyond their manifestation of the weird that preoccupies her, when put into conversation with social, cultural, queer, and digital theory. Incorporating ideas from Anne Pollack, Paul B. Preciado, the collective Laboria Cuboniks, Lee Edelman, etc., Wilk adds critical texture to the idea of the weird and the weirdo as she discerns its presence in mainly modern expression of how landscapes and humans interact. Too frequently though, Wilk’s engagement with this arena of theory parallels and exacerbates the feature of her list-like tendency, previously mentioned, the repeated reference to one theorist after another, similarly flattening the rich differences across their works. Wilk is often right to group radical social feminists, as when she writes, “as theorists such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Deirdre English, and Silvia Federici explain…,” but more interesting, and indeed the greater value of theory, is less its plain consensus, and more its interlocking parlay, the dynamism of which nuances and expands rather than merely reinforcing a point. The arrival of the theorists at first helps Wilk structure her study of the weird, before their overpopulation renders them nearly indistinct from one another, and, again, forms little more than a chronicle of Wilk’s own expansive reading.

At times, Wilk makes explicit the landscape, as it were, of her investigation, namely the human-induced climate crisis of modernity’s Anthropocene. Death by landscape, as she sees it appear and reappear in culture and cultural studies, is weird, but also tragic: “We have foretold our own death by our own hands. We keep trying to make it into a good plot with invented characters who might be guilty but it’s just us, the narrators of the story.” Thus emerges the stakes of Wilk’s Death by Landscape. For Wilk, scene after scene, whether in stories or theory, of death by landscape, makes clear the pervasive crisis that climate has become on Earth. Implied in her conclusion, however, is not just that climate anxiety keeps appearing in writing, but that writing cannot seem to sufficiently recognize, manage, mitigate these events. For Wilk, stories make these events known to a degree, but these events complicate traditional story forms. Perhaps this explains Wilk’s relentless references; she at once seeks the story that will finally settle the matter, but, in openly showing the effort of such roving, she demonstrates the limits of that trajectory. In as far as she articulates “our own death by our own hands” this way, however, Wilk also stumbles in her formulation. Relying on the third person pronoun “we,” the writer inadvertently elides the most critical aspect of climate crisis and, in turn, the larger stakes of a project about death by landscape, namely the Anthropocene’s uneven unfolding across race, class, gender, and age. The “we” of “we have foretold,” that is, a “we” who reads writers like James and Edelman, is not always, maybe not even ever, the “our” of “death.”

Wilk’s pivot from the landscape as Earth in the collection’s first section to the landscape as the universe in the collection’s second section “Planets,” can read equally as an attempt to emphasize the catastrophic potential of the climate crisis on established forms of life, as a fleeing of the complicated scene of Earth itself and its peoples. Here, Wilk transitions from discussions on literature to discussions on film, as she explores the aspect of death by landscape as is might appear in Elysium, District 9, and Melancholia. Her summary of the last, further, marks a transition in the voice of the collection, from a distant muser, to an occasional first person with singular stakes in these studies and in the larger material functions of these studies in the world — and the universe: “When I first saw Melancholia in 2011 I was depressed and looking for reasons not to be,” and later in the pandemic lockdown, “by the time I rewatched the movie in 2020 I had no more illusions of progress nor pride in my own resilience.” To a certain extent, the project of Death by Landscape, as it reads like a version of academic inquiry, does not really beg the question of who the author here is, but Wilk’s sudden decision to incorporate select reflections on her mental health in relation to planetary fallout shows her effort to engage an ethics in this discussion by personalizing the experience and the fear of events otherwise seemingly bent on de-personalization, de-humanization. While she never explicitly accounts for her shift from literature to film, the introduction of the first person here provocatively suggests film’s distinct capacity to concretize the drama and the results of individuals and space as they merge, in the phenomena Wilk continues calling death by landscape. 

By including herself in this project, and rather intimately so, Wilk stokes a readerly desire to know more. But these personalized moments prove inexplicably brief. Even when Wilk turns, in the final section “Bleed,” to describe her foray into the world of Live-Action-Replay (LARP), when landscape takes on yet another signification, as socially agreed upon fantasy, Wilk unbudgingly frames the experience as investigative, herself, less participant and more researcher. Less engaged with citation and proclamation, this section stretches out, and “Bleed,” the technical term in the LARP world, for interference between replay and real life, poses the most abstract formulation of Wilk’s notion of death by landscape. To be fair, neither death nor landscape in Wilk’s study have always meant fully literal situations, but “Bleed” puts this feature of Wilk’s project into stark relief as death, here, means, abstractly, “to merge,” and landscape takes on a capacious identity inclusive of virtually anything at all, from ecological fields and warehouses to well-considered and delusional fantasies. On the one hand, the brief presence and then subsequent dissolution of Wilk from notable viewer of Melancholia to investigator of LARP stages the very death by landscape that she has been tracing. On the other hand, it gets the reader invested enough to stick around only to get stuck in a system as the very moment it starts to crumble—to be wrapped up in pages as they bleed, but to still have to deal with a book in hand.

Wilk’s “Epilogue” speaks to this dimension of Death by Landscape, bringing it back to her by way of an associative exposé of how she spent her time during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. She describes losing track of days, losing count of her exercise repetitions, losing a sense of purpose in writing; her brain, her body, her memories tangle up; she herself, and the surroundings of the moment, become virtually indistinct. This is her death by landscape, and more than weird, it is plain awful, a conclusion that can get lost in her frequent discussion of death by landscape’s thrilling potential of unity. This moment, however, is also disconcerting. Wilk’s decision to ruminate on her death by landscape in her Brooklyn apartment is conspicuously uneven with the larger landscape of the scene, namely Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens around the corner, where the epicenter of the pandemic raged for months and to where very real people rushed, through the very real landscape of very really difficult city infrastructure to get to a very real hospital and die very real deaths. With perhaps too little self-awareness, Wilk says at one point: “day 50-something or 60-something of lockdown in Brooklyn. I wake up and look at Instagram. I hardly notice the sound of constant sirens outside anymore.”

Early on in her collection, Wilk notes the longstanding tradition, of the West, to understand land and landscape as “passive,” “inert,” “natural.” “But here,” she writes, regarding the notion of death by landscape, “the sudden absence of a human actor occasions a sudden presence,” of land, landscape, and a dynamic interchange between, within, among plants, planets, surroundings broadly. Pitching death by landscape as she discerns it, as oppositional to “Western literary forms,” Wilk pursues another method of being a human, of engaging the Earth, and of producing another output, in this engagement, that is not climate crisis. It is surprising then, that she sticks primarily to Western literary, artistic, theoretical, and political productions, albeit one weird thread through these productions. This narrow approach enables Wilk to keep “death” in her formula of death by landscape largely abstract, immaterial, metaphoric; the poetic death of the West is often louder than the material deaths the West constitutively wields. This approach further forecloses the multiple, ongoing, and very live ways in which land and landscape are approached, understood, and stewarded by peoples who are truly outside of, and often against, the West, its imperial policies and its colonial practices, its hand in the climate crisis, namely Indigenous, First Nations, Pacific Islander, and Global South communities and networks.

What disjointedness prevails between Wilk’s interest in the status of the human within a shifting material Earth—and universe—and her chosen, primarily Western, interlocutors, would be less shocking if she did not herself emphasize the urgency of the climate crisis, of socio-political unevenness the world over, and of the various but broadly increasing challenges of day to day living amidst as much. At the same time, any mention of death as a metaphor—after so many murders and so many lost—or any mention of land—perhaps the singular most valuable asset in the history of the West and its self-production—as a means to talk about virtual reality, together suggest how death by landscape, more than an affirmative instance of nonhuman energies, might in fact be one of regrettable resignation by humans towards fellow humans.

Katrina Dzyak is a PhD Candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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