MLA Seattle 2020

Panel: Botanophilia, Botanophobia

Abstract: “A biologist’s nightmare”: Fungal Consciousness and the New Weird

Fungi are unusual organisms. Because they are fundamentally dependent upon intra-actions with other creatures, mycologists have struggled to determine their ontological status, and to pin down a “complete” taxonomy of fungal forms. We might say that a fungus, as such, does not exist at all: its existence cannot precede the intricate set of symbiotic relations it both shapes and is dependent upon. They exist in a state of relation-to, and thus always in a state of opportunistic, precarious becoming.

The kinds of ontological slippages modeled in the fungal world have long been fodder for fiction writers—specifically in the mode of weird horror—precisely because of the cognitive short-circuiting that occurs when attempting to comprehend the seemingly basic question of what, exactly, a fungus is. Weird fiction, as a genre that is itself resistant to comprehensive attempts at cataloguing and categorizing, has taken an interest in these kinds of questions. While fungi, for early writers of the weird, like William Hope Hodgson and H. P. Lovecraft, was often a thing to “dread,” I will argue that several key texts operating in the contemporary landscape of the New Weird genre—Caitlin Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland  and Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty­—frame fungal modes of being as generative, even as reparative, in contending with ongoing mutations in the human relationship to the more-than-human world.

This paper will explore these representations of fungi, suggesting that they have been used to develop a unique ecological heuristic by these New Weird writers. Kiernan and Whiteley bring questions of the scientific and the spiritual closer together through the figure of the fungus, theorizing an ecological consciousness premised on apophatic knowledge—that which is unknowable, unspeakable, unnameable—as a tool to renegotiate the human relationship to the more-than-human world.

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