Negotiating the Environmental Abject in “This Topia”
story | Kwok Yingchen, Guest Contributor
photo | John Reid
This year’s Yale-NUS Halloween haunted house, “This Topia”, was an environmentally-themed collaboration between Yale-NUS Artivists, Artslab, and the Student Government. Its unorthodox approach began with an usher quizzing visitors on switching off unused lights the moment they had entered. Huh? One might argue that no matter what a “liberal arts haunted house” seeks to achieve (surely a caricature in the minds of many by the end of the experience), it eminently fails if it doesn’t scare. However, in subverting expectations of the horror genre, “This Topia” makes an important point about how we cope with narratives of ecological threat.
“This Topia” breaks the first rule of haunted houses by drawing attention to its own staged nature. Susan Sontag argues that the discrepancy between the imagined threat of horror and its inability to hurt us—because the specters are just actors—makes the genre deeply funny at some level. From the start, “This Topia” gleefully betrays the potential tackiness of imbuing an environmental message into a haunted house. “We wanted to be scary,” it seems to suggest, “but imparting a clear message of responsible environmental action takes precedence!”
Making my way through the haunted house, I answered a quiz about recycling plastic bottles (remember to rinse it out first, I added for extra credit) then approached a door leading to a smaller, enclosed room. An usher gave the vague instruction of pay your respects, hinting that this was different, and shuttled me in. Inside, a man was chopping a tree, dead leaves strewn across the floor. Three forest spirits, dressed in classic pontianak garb, eyed me cautiously. Help me, they murmured. How can I help you? I cried, before realizing that I was supposed to keep silent. Was I compelled to blurt this out of sympathy? Or did I hope it would reduce my risk of an ‘attack’? No chance – a pontianak behind me abruptly screamed, making me jump. After what seemed like an eternity, I was gladly shuttled back out.
The juxtaposition of the “quiz corridor” and “spectral room” marks two common narratives of climate change. The former represents faith in positive messaging—with green innovation and each of us doing our small parts, we can save the earth. The latter is our obsessive consumption of images of a devastated planet, whether by zombies or weapons of mass destruction, representing fears that we are already too late. Both narratives simultaneously occupy our collective imagination, creating an uneasy contradiction. The former is clearly naïve, but the latter leaves us no hope.
“This Topia” constantly shuttles us between these polar narratives, urging us to understand how they interact. Facing various environmental specters in the smaller rooms, I kept thinking my answering of the quizzes meant I deserved to be spared of their anger. I mean, did my extra credit not count for anything? However, a defining feature of horror is the radical impossibility of negotiating with spectral beings. Julia Kristeva argues that horror epitomizes the “abject,” that which breaks down the boundary between subject and object, self and other. It indicates the presence of a powerful actor outside our neat analytics. We know it is capable of hurting us, and we don’t know how to convince it not to. The pessimistic climate narrative reveals a similar environmental abject. Our planet is terrifyingly silent for the most part, but it hides a sinister grin as the atmospheric carbon concentration reaches a crescendo. When it strikes, we know it won’t care to discriminate between “sympathizers” and “adversaries”.
The danger, if technological optimism proves inadequate to guard us against environmental specters, is that our panic turns us to the last resort of authoritarianism. Think the staple in post-apocalyptic fiction of the hardened protagonist who survives by trusting no one—with disturbing implications for environmental justice. An Atlantic article recently suggested Donald Trump may be the “first demagogue of the Anthropocene”. A great number of dystopian fictions anticipate the political ends of current surges of xenophobia in a climate of global crisis.
The abject is, however, itself a victim of discourse. We stage pontianaks in haunted houses and narratives of planetary devastation to provide catharsis for our fears, but powerful symbolic frameworks mediate these interactions. The traditional haunted house expects us to put up our best emotional defenses, then attempts to run them down. We look for every opportunity to laugh, to be reminded of its staged nature and hence our invulnerability. In contrast, “This Topia” performs that relegation for us. Each “spectral room” leads back to the bathetic “quiz corridor”. The finale has us chanting to pledge ourselves to “unlimited growth and consumption” in a cult-like manner as the environmental specters grieve, but ends with a corporate-style photo-taking session, as if to say weren’t you glad you left them behind? In that moment, I knew I was. Whether they successfully scared us or not, we are offered the last laugh.
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Yet, “This Topia” precisely challenges our dominant mode of emotional engagement with the abject. It invites us experience a fear of intimacy, not of hatred. We can’t humanize pontianaks without erasing their abjection, but we can try to touch them through it, to let them touch us. Don’t laugh, don’t shut the fear out, and maybe you’ll get us a little better, they whispered. How does one sit with a pontianak to sort through the myth-making, to figure out why our cultural imagination unceasingly insists on a relationship of hostility and not shared victimhood? If we wish to move beyond the hopelessness provoked by the environmental abject, the interrogation of the horror genre becomes a relevant question.
In order to communicate intimately with specters, who or what we become in the process may no longer quite seem human based on how we currently envision the term. But maybe that’s what we need, both to comprehend our fraught relationship with our planet, and to find the political will to engage in drastic environmental action that remains democratic and equitable.
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