Marco Caracciolo (Gent): Space, Cognition, and Traces of the Human in Postapocalyptic Fiction


Monday, May 29, 2017, 4:00pm



Marco Caracciolo

Ghent University



With the so-called Anthropocene, humanity starts shaping the geological history of the earth. As recent discussions of the Anthropocene have emphasized (Chakrabarty 2014), the collision of human and geological history destabilizes everyday notions of temporality and spatiality by forcing us to think beyond the human scale. This paper looks at how narrative negotiates this challenge to the human scale, with a particular focus on literary novels building on the popular genre of postapocalyptic fiction. Examples of such novels in contemporary English-language fiction include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014).

In temporal terms, the storyworld of these postapocalyptic narratives is organized around an opposition between a time before and a time after the catastrophe. Typically, the narrative is set in the postapocalyptic world, with the preapocalyptic world being only a distant memory or a topic for hearsay and speculation. This paper explores how fiction may use spatial references to evoke this negative image of the world before the catastrophe, and how—in turn—these preapocalyptic visions may evoke another negative image, that of the world without humans. I’ll be investigating how this imaginative dynamic plays out in spatial descriptions—for instance, of an abandoned supermarket in McCarthy’s The Road—that encourage the reader’s immersion but also project a sense of haunting absence or negativity. Crucial to my textual analyses will be psychological and phenomenological research on the workings of the imagination, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s exploration of the link between imagination and nothingness in his seminal The Psychology of Imagination (1940).

The paper thus argues that the distinctive temporal structure of postapocalyptic fiction can become blended with spaces that resist and to some extent deny human presence. This discussion is part of a broader project aiming to understand, through the tools of cognitive literary studies, how narrative may move beyond anthropocentric assumptions.


About Marco Caracciolo

Marco Caracciolo is Assistant Professor of English and Literary Theory at Ghent University in Belgium, where he leads the ERC Starting Grant project “Narrating the Mesh” (NARMESH). Marco’s work explores the phenomenology of narrative, or the structure of the experiences afforded by literary fiction and other narrative media. He is also interested in the dynamics of interpretation and in engaging with characters, especially characters whom we perceive as “strange” or deviant (narrating animals, serial killers, cyborgs). He is the author of three books: The Experientiality of Narrative: An Enactivist Approach (De Gruyter, 2014); Strange Narrators in Contemporary Fiction: Explorations in Readers’ Engagement with Characters (University of Nebraska Press, 2016); and A Passion for Specificity: Confronting Inner Experience in Literature and Science (co-authored with psychologist Russell Hurlburt; Ohio State University Press, 2016).