“The Posthuman Realist”: An Interview with Steve Tomasula by Marcus Pactor

Steve Tomasula is a literary pioneer of both prose and page design. Those designs transform the vast depth of his cultural and scientific research into uniquely satisfying aesthetic experiences of our historical, present-day, and future worlds. His new novel, Ascension, features research notes, drawings of real and hypothetical creatures, and a variety of online links and videos to describe the scientific and cultural shifts that have transformed us since Darwin proposed the theory of evolution.

Tomasula is the author of four other novels, a story collection, and numerous critical essays. He also edited Conceptualisms, an anthology of a wide range of experimental contemporary art. He currently teaches at the University of Notre Dame. Learn more about his work at stevetomasula.com.

I am grateful to him for his time and generosity.

Marcus Pactor: Ascension (mostly) follows biologists at three critical moments: in the mid-nineteenth century, around the rise of Darwinism; in the mid-80s, when paleontologists and the like were sometimes seen as the “weaker” science, because they couldn’t use the test of repeatability to verify conclusions; and a near-seeming future in which gene-splicing and environmental catastrophe are ubiquitous. The novel also carries readers from continent to continent and from physical to virtual terrain. You seem thereby to have extended the reach of a social novel far beyond its traditional range to a global or maybe extraglobal range. How soon did you realize how much ground you would explore, and how were you able to bind all your ideas and research together and keep your head on straight?

Steve Tomasula: My main interest was in the different things “nature” has meant to people so that was sort of the throughline of the novel. But you’re right, all the permutations and twists and turns, and the multiple meanings that the word has for us, even today, made it really hard to keep any sort of narrative straight. I’ve always thought of writing as a way of thinking. So thinking about these various permutations, I just kept writing, till I sat down one day to start thinking of the novel as a whole. It wasn’t until then that I realized that I had an 800-page manuscript. At the time, I had a contract for the novel that called for a book of about 400 pages, so I spent the next couple of years cutting it back—which was really hard—throwing away years of work. There was a whole medieval chapter, for example, that explored what “nature meant to medievals.” That fell to the cutting-room floor. And I ended up focusing on three watershed moments: the transition from Naturalists who were trying to reconcile what they saw in the geological record with Scripture; the transition from Darwinism and the analog world to a whole-earth, ecological mindset emerging along with a digital and genetic revolution; and our period, the Anthropocene, and whatever will follow.

MP: In the previous question, I parenthesized the word “mostly” because this novel, like almost all your work, offers more than text. Alongside your prose are images; diagrams; links to satellite views of flightpaths and shark-sightings; links to YouTube videos of art films, tsunami wreckage, and overcrowded Japanese wave pools. Can you describe the process by which you conceive of these pages in relation to your prose?

ST: All of my novels draw on the material culture of a time that helps make living in that time period the experience that it is. So I always try to use the materials of a time and place in ways that shape the story, or the characters, maybe in ways they aren’t even aware of just as we can go about our lives unaware of how radically things like cell phones shape our lives, and our relations to others. In my first novel, VAS: An Opera in Flatland, this mainly meant the materials of bodies and body technologies. In The Book of Portraiture, it was the tools of portraiture—from using a pencil, to surveillance, to genetic fingerprinting—all of these tools can be used to make a portrait, but the portraits created will be radically different even if the subject is the same—and using these tools makes us radically different too.

In Ascension, the world of Chapter One is very much a hand-made world: a pre-Darwinian, Republic of Letters, and drawings and paintings. Chapter Two is set in the 1980s, on the cusp of the digital world and the analog world is about to go extinct. Changes like these helps foster a very different sensibility about the world and ourselves. If you see the arc of this progression, it almost seems as if doing the last chapter, set 15 minutes from now, had to be online, given how our world is so marked by interconnectedness, virtual reality, decentralization, heterogeneity, genre (and gene) blurring, surveillance and meta-awareness.

So I’ve tried to bring these into the story, not just by describing them, but by linking to video, for example, or big data projects like the shark-tracking site you mention: not that the novel goes into shark tracking; it’s just that living in a world where sharks (and lots of large mammals, including humans) are tracked shapes us. A world where the squirrels in your yard are more wild than the elephants in Africa is a different place than one where “nature” is left to its own dynamics. I try to use things like these data bases like words, or images, to imply these larger associations.

MP: I don’t know of anything like Ascension’s third chapter, which can be read either online or as part of the physical book. The two versions share the same text but not all the images and links. What led to this multi-media approach? Do you favor one or the other?

ST: Yeah, I was torn between having Chapter Three solely online or including it in the print book. The text is the same, as you point out. But in the online version the text is more integrated with the online world. For example, instead of words, one of the epigrams of the chapter is a live view of earth from space. In the book it’s a link with a QR code, so a reader would have to use their phone or type the URL into a computer, but online it’s just a mouse click. In the book, a drawing of a glacier from the 1800s is juxtaposed with a contemporary photo. Online, a slider can be used to transition from one to the other to show how much it’s melted, which again, makes the image, and its presentation more seamless with the narrative. And also, I think, implies more about the world outside the book, just as a medieval book handwritten on sheep skin with ink derived from berries evokes its time and place. I hope the same is true about the first two chapters and the time periods that they are set in, also.

MP: Many of the pages feature disturbing yet beautiful images and assortments of images. I’m thinking now of the online “Meadow at Work” page with its eyeless cat, glowing rats, and aforementioned overcrowded Japanese wave pool. Can you describe the way you conceive of these pages, collaborate to build these pages, and relate their images to your prose?

ST: For the most part, I run across these images, or ideas for them, while reading about whatever subject I’m writing about—either in terms of an essay I might be writing, or a work of short fiction (I like short fiction as a way to try out ideas). Some of them just shout out, “Use me! I’m part of the story!” Or even better, “You can’t tell this story without me!” For example, in my novel VAS, there’s an image from a manual on how to measure skull volume as a way to measure intelligence. That just seemed to be a part of the narrative I couldn’t leave out, especially when it’s juxtaposed with a computer scan sheet, an artifact from the days of using a computer to measure IQ. Together they form a story about our views of intelligence. I try to not use images as illustrations (though I sometimes break this rule). I ask, will damage be done to the narrative if the image isn’t used. If the answer’s “no,” then I tend to not use it. Those 19th century watercolors of birds and insects in Chapter One of Ascension seemed really important given that at the time—a time when Natural History was Natural Philosophy—that kind of reverential sense of wonder they inspired was part of the science of the day. An intimation or sense of presence, or fleeting feeling was part of “knowledge.” The division between art and science wasn’t as hard as it is today. It wasn’t important to use those particular images, but it did seem important to include one that would intimate the feelings that the art/scientific illustrations of the time were supposed to evoke. Likewise, the cat you referred to: it carries the gene of a tropical fish that would make it glow green when exposed to blue light. I couldn’t use the actual image I had. (Researchers who work with animals are always worried about how animal rights groups will use their work.) So I just took a picture of a regular cat and colorized it the same way. I often appropriate, edit, recreate, or tweak images, depending on what I’m hoping they’ll do for the narrative.

MP: This novel, like much of your other work, casts science as something like a genre of literature, with scientists constantly generating new stories to explain and resolve the problems of existence as well as to make money. How ambivalent or maybe skeptical are you of scientists’ claims to objective knowledge? Do you feel at all ambivalent toward or skeptical of the truth offered by any branch or theory of contemporary science?

ST: Your question reminds me of others who have basically said that yes, science is a genre of literature. Or call it a genre of narrative, if the word “literature” has too much associative baggage. Which isn’t to demean, or diminish it. I like having modern medicine and knowing about gravitational waves as much as anyone. Today, the scientific method is sort of the axis around which so much of our lives—and sense of self—rotates. So call it a literature of constraint: the constraints placed on an experiment are what generates the story told. I’m thinking specifically of works like Thomas Khun’s seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he lays out how scientific data isn’t something “discovered” so much as it’s something that’s “collected with difficulty.” An example of his that has always stuck with me is the fact that the challenge in getting people to accept the heliocentric system wasn’t so much in asking them to look through a telescope as it was in asking them to make a semantic shift. For millennium, the word “earth” meant fixed, unmovable position. Then Galileo came along and asked people to throw away thousands of years of thinking that the sun “rose” and “set” and replace it with what?—a new story. You see a version of this playing out every time there’s a paradigm shift, be it Darwin and “creation,” or Einstein and “relativity.” It’s this linguistic component of science that’s often overlooked, even as obvious as it is in, for example, a speculative narrative about black holes, or genetic cures. As Bruno Latour asks, Is the hole in the ozone layer nature or culture? It probably shows in my writing how much I’ve been influenced by people like Foucault, or Barad. I’m particularly taken with Barad who, at least in my reading, reads quantum physics as if it’s a genre of literature, and cultural realism through the lens of science, thinking of them both as ontologically entangled. It’s not that an instrument measures something, it’s that the instrument is entangled with the material world and in this way brings forth a measurement.  Seen this way, it’s easy to see the role of culture, or biases or assumptions. While working on a short story (“The Risk-Taking Gene as Expressed by Some Asian Subjects”) I was reading a lot of studies that were looking for a genetic basis for behavior. One was looking for a gene for “anger” and I remember thinking how naïve it seemed to ignore the linguistic component. I mean, I could probably think of 20 different definitions of “anger” but, for the sake of objectivity, the study was pretending like “anger” was one thing. And controlled by a single gene. If you have a 19th century culture, you’ll have 19th century science; if you have a racist culture, you’ll have racist science. So will a culture with any kind of blinders on (and name one which doesn’t have its own peculiar blinders). A few years ago I had the chance to talk with Bruno Latour, and he was sort of lamenting the irony of being taken up by creationists, and anti-vaxxers. That is, just because science is a narrative, doesn’t mean you can make anything up. Its constraints might be different from those of a plot-driven novel, but in the end, it is a very human creation.

MP: In your introduction to Conceptualisms, you write that conceptual literature “takes its own medium as part of its subject matter.” Your particular medium includes the internet, obviously one of the most significant technological advances of our time. Yet the novel’s action casts grave suspicion on the worth and efficacy of such advances. How do you resolve that tension, or do you call it something other than a tension?

ST: On one hand, technology is neutral. Imagine the different uses the same technology, say genetic engineering, would be put to in a Nazi or capitalist society. But on the other hand, there is no such thing as neutral technology since any technology—be it electricity, genetic engineering, or even the invention of fire—shapes the world profoundly, just by its very existence. (Kind of ironic how the biggest threat to democracy turns out to be not the nuclear missiles during the Cold War, but the Internet and conspiracy theorists.) So yes, I guess you’d have to say there’s a tension there. And I don’t see how it’s ever resolved, unless you live like the Amish. This is why I have a group in my novel, the Neo-Amish, who forsake any technology after 1995, the year when everyone’s desktop computer began to link up into what would become the Internet. I guess this is my little nod to thinking that there is no way to resolve this paradox, other than taking measures like trying to freeze time at a certain technological moment. I’m not unsympathetic to such a view, for something is gained as well as lost with each “advance.” I’m reminded of Thoreau here on the importance of balancing human life with technological progress less we create an “improved means to an unimproved end.”

MP: I can see how particular works of conceptual art can thrill audiences and how the overarching idea of conceptual art can not only thrill but liberate artists of all stripes to try new approaches to their work. But do you see the influence of any particular piece or pieces of conceptual art (I’m thinking right now, for whatever reason, about Tom Phillips’ A Humument or J.R. Carpenter’s “The Gathering Cloud”) on your fiction? How would you describe that particular influence? Have you seen any pieces of conceptual art since the publication of Conceptualisms that are worthy of note?

ST: Oh yeah, but first I’d point out that I use the term conceptual in the plural. As in visual art, there are a lot of “concepts” driving art in lots of different ways. For some reason, in literature, the term is most often thought of as appropriation, but I’d like us to think of the term in much more expansive and varied ways, with the works themselves falling along a kind of spectrum of how “conceptual” they are. At one end, there are the formulaic novels; at the other end are works where the concept driving the work is overt, maybe the first thing you notice, even if it might not be understandable at first (think here of the first audiences of cubism). In literature, this would be works like Christian Bök’s “Xenotext Experiment” which uses biology to generate poems. Or R. Henry Nigl’s shout art, in which he duplicates shouts that he’d heard in the street. From this perspective, Shakespeare can be thought of as an experimental writer as he was breaking the rules of theater at the time, and introducing new forms, such as the soliloquy. In my own case, I was really influenced by postmodern authors like Robert Coover, Charles Bernstein, William Gass, Carol Maso—mainly because their attention to language, and the way they would foreground the fact that what was being read was a construction of language, with all the biases and assumptions at play in any human created thing. I hope I’m still being influenced by authors like Patrik Ouředník, Stacey Levine, W.G. Sebald …. Lance Olsen always works with the form of the novel in really interesting ways. Several poets, whose longer works I read as novels: Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, Louise Glück …. Really the list is long.

Probably the most impressive recent piece of what I’d call conceptual writing is the movie that Graham Rawle is making out of his amazing Woman’s World. If you know this collage novel, you’ll see how a movie version of it seems impossible. Kyle Booten has a pretty cool piece of electronic lit, “To Pray Without Ceasing,” which crawls Twitter accounts for tweets from people who need something (a vacation, money, a friend), and generates a prayer tailored to that person’s request. I really wish I’d known about Joanna Ruocco’s novel Dan earlier. László Krasznahorkai is an amazing, what I’d call, conceptual writer, that I wish I’d included in the anthology. I would have loved to include something from Olga Tokarczuk, especially her more experimental work.

MP: My previous questions have obscured the existence of your novel’s characters. Yet so much of the novel’s action involves those characters’ essential and maybe contradictory desires for privacy and for historical significance. How do you connect these (seemingly) traditionally developed characters with their pasts and arcs to the novel’s ultramodern conceptual thrust?

ST: There’s a poem chiseled into stone in the Egyptian Room at the Field Museum in Chicago. The poem was written by a father, hoping his kids would be healthy, would have a good life. One of my own daughters had just been born, and I remember standing before this poem, and thinking how I could empathize with its author, writing 5,000 years ago about the same hopes and fears I had for my kids. There was something human that transcended time and space. And yet, it would be sort of absurd for me to express these sentiments by carving them into a pyramid. Well maybe not absurd, but it would mean something different. As sociologist Peter Berger once said, We’re not just ancient Egyptians in airplanes. The form of the poem, or any kind of communication, is also part of the poem—we don’t expect poems to rhyme, as people did before Whitman, for example, and I think that part of any art form, be it music, visual art or writing, is to find a form that speaks to its moment.  That’s basically what Shakespeare did, inventing the soliloquy—a form to express a character’s inner thoughts—during the Renaissance when the notion of the individual, and individual privacy was emerging. As Ronald Sukenick once wrote, he’d read these traditional novels with linear plots of cause and effect, and they didn’t seem to have anything to do with life as he experienced it. And my guess is that most authors or artists or musicians who come up with other forms through which to “speak” or represent their world think something similar, even if they haven’t articulated it for themselves. Isn’t that why art has a history? Why a modernist novel, painting, or building looks different from a postmodern novel, painting, or building? A critic once described the stories in my collection Once Human as “posthuman realism,” and I liked that. Thought it really captured it.

Marcus Pactor is the author of Begat Who Begat Who Begat (Astrophil Press) and Vs. Death Noises (Subito Press). The latter book won the 2011 Subito Press Prize for Fiction. His story “Megaberry Crunch” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021. His work has most recently appeared in Always Crashing and 3:AM Magazine. He lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida.

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