Campos, Liliane and Pierre-Louis Patoine (eds), Life, Re-Scaled: The Biological Imagination in 21st-Century Literature and Performance

Liliane Campos and Pierre-Louis Patoine (eds.), Life, Re-Scaled: The Biological Imagination in 21st-Century Literature and Performance (Open Book Publishers, 2022) xvi + 402. £31.41 Hb. £22.91 Pb. ISBN: 978-1-80064-750-3

We live in a world whose multiscalar entanglements can no longer be ignored: the climate crisis is more conspicuous than ever, while our agency and indeed what we consider our beings and selves are intricately woven into a web of relationships with microorganisms. Our scale, then, is the meso-scale, the human scale which has not been very much surpassed over the last centuries. What this book puts to the fore is that it is only one of many scales, and not by any means a more important one. Literature and performance have traditionally focused on the human scale, tailoring, for example, the realist novel to a human lifetime and the stage dimensions to a limited number of human bodies. As this volume shows, the early twenty-first century has already seen many ways in which literature and performance engage with those various scales, from Paul Hamann-Rose’s analysis of ‘molecular landscapes’ to the planetary scale of pandemic narratives in Rishi Goyal’s, Kristin M. Ferebee’s and Pieter Vermeulen’s chapters. Poetry (Sophie Laniel-Musitelli), comics (Jason Tougaw, Susan M. Squier) and stage performance (Kirsten E. Shepherd Barr and Hannah Simpson, Eliane Beaufils) share the difficult but immensely fruitful task of representing the infinitely small, the planetary, both and beyond.

Weaving together life, science, scale, representation, and aesthetics, this book fills an important gap. Anna Tsing’s article on nonscalability applied to living beings and Bruno Latour’s advocacy for visual art that does not espouse the optical rules of telescopic lenses have paved the way for such an important volume. The collection Scale in Literature and Culture edited by Michael Tavel Clarke and David Wittenberg in which Latour’s work is published, figures as a significant predecessor, but Campos and Patoine’s focus on life, as well as the number of genres and cultural productions studied pays a broader, and more consistently materialist, tribute to the complexity of processes at stake when zooming in or out in the representation of life.

Section 1, ‘Invisible Scales,’ investigates how imaginative works inspired by developmental biology, mycology, and microbiology connect the minute, unseen scales of life to broader environmental concerns. This section highlights the interplay between the microscopic world and ecological questions, offering new perspectives on how we understand and engage with our environment. Section 2, ‘Neuro-medical Imaging and Diagnosis,’ explores how contemporary narratives incorporate and respond to advancements in neurobiological science. It delves into the ways in which neuro-medical imaging and diagnostic techniques influence storytelling and our understanding of the human mind and its complexities. Section 3, ‘Pandemic Imaginaries’ examines the impact of pandemic scenarios on narratives of daily life, spanning urban, regional, and continental scales. It challenges readers to reconsider demographic ideologies and positivist ontologies that have historically dominated modern, colonial, extractivist, and racist worldviews. Finally, Section 4, ‘Ecological Scales’, addresses the daunting representational challenges posed by climate change and the global ecological crisis. This section discusses innovative strategies for depicting the spatial and temporal scales of animal, plant, and microbial life alongside geophysical phenomena. It underscores the need for new performance and narrative approaches to effectively convey the complexities of planetary ecological issues.

The beautifully problematized introduction does not leave any area uncovered, ranging from the political to the ethical and aesthetic implications of thinking the living and scale together. Crucially, it emphasizes the epistemological approach that binds these elements together. It offers pleasingly diachronic insights such as the fortune of the image of the web, from the spider to the web and back again more recently to biology, ‘when the now familiar world of computers and internet connectivity helps us to imagine strange biology’ (10). The introduction tackles both important tendencies whose stakes are clarified (the importance of zooming in as ‘a partial turning away from a Modern episteme predicated on a distanced view, supposed to guarantee objectivity and universality’, 10) and deeply original interrogations such as the distrust for machine analogies and for the concept of ecosystem as expressed by Vinciane Despret and inflecting Ben De Bruyn’s analysis of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13.

While much scholarship is published every year on culture’s necessary turn away from anthropocentrism, the de-centering is rarely as radical as in some of the productions analysed in Life, Re-Scaled. From a focus on fungi engendering Jeff VanderMeer’s mycoaesthetics (Derek Woods) to the monologues of forest and sand in Edgarund Allan’s Beaming Sahara (Eliane Beaufils), little of what really matters at planetary scale is left out of this endeavour.

One of the great merits of this collection is its attention not only to the shifts in scale but to their inherent difficulty. A particularly enlightening example is Kristin M. Ferebee’s reference to the impossibility of representing oil as a thing in itself, lost as it is in a network of scales, representations, and potentialities (208-213). Similarly, the multi-scalar perspective of the collection necessarily foregrounds causality in a new and challenging way, since linear causation is no longer possible in such a complex world of interwoven phenomena. Sophie Laniel Musitelli’s minute unwrapping of intersecting causations involving genetics and the environment in the development of living beings as they appear in Gillian Clarke’s poetry makes the matter particularly clear.

The variety of genres spanned in the study does not hinder the emergence of new categorizations which are transversal and will undoubtedly provide a helpful reading grid to future scholars. The molecular sublime and the molecular grotesque as established by Paul Hamann-Rose in poetry, fiction and popular science may apply to theatrical performances or film; Pascale Antolin’s definition of the neuronovel and Ben De Bruyn’s vision of multi-track narratives would be useful tools to read poetry’s attempts to come to terms with neural imagery and our pluriverse. Similarly, the emphasis on recent coinages such as ecostoicism (De Bruyn, quoting Caren Irr) might be extremely effective in describing common behaviours.

Many of the chapters do not focus only on what literature and performance do to emphasize questions of scales but also on what they do not do – or say. In this respect, and as a great example of the political implications of scale selection in story-telling, Pieter Vermeulen’s strong contribution is a case in point. When reviewing pandemic and post-catastrophe fiction and Emily Saint John Mandel’s Station Eleven in particular, Vermeulen draws attention to the almost unspoken and unproblematised mass-death necessary to the ‘cosy catastrophe’ mode in which the few survivors’ story unfolds. Finally, one of the assets of the collection lies in the way some of its chapters view the circulation between scales as a parallel to the circulation between the literary imagination and popular scientific (Paul Hamann-Rose, Derek Woods) or pseudo-scientific (Pieter Vermeulen) discourse: it is far from unidirectional.

Perhaps more of those works centring on how the contemporary literary and artistic imagination’s grasp on life, scales, and their intersection infuses scientific discourse would prove a useful complement to this volume; other uncovered areas include a classification of the shifts in scales in literature and performance, since those shifts may not follow the same rules or have the same ethical and affective implications; and, finally, a postcolonial take on Life, Re-Scaled would be welcome as it may lay further emphasis on the political aspects of those scale-shifts. Such research would benefit from a strong base in the form of this extensive and compelling volume.

Sarah Bouttier, Institut Polytechnique de Paris / Sorbonne Nouvelle