Necessary Insularity in the New Weird

It is a principle of evolutionary biology that isolation is a necessary precursor to diversification.

If you have one population, it will evolve as one. Any changes in one individual will either be adopted by the group, or else mellowed out by interbreeding with the group, or the group will kill the individual for being different. Three paths to the same conclusion: homogeneity.

The only alternative is through separation. Either the divergent individual leaves the group, or is expelled. They can then go off and found their own group, which will reflect their mutation in preponderance. A few generations later, you have two distinct groups: speciation.

These are all examples of artificial separation. Sometimes a single group is split in two through no fault of their own. This creates two isolated communities. The mutations in one will be different than the mutations in the other. In time – exposed to differing evolutionary pressures, or just through random mutation – they will branch apart, and speciation will result as well.

The more isolated is one group from the other, the further they will branch. The smaller the groups, the more possibility for inbreeding, and the reinforcing of specific traits. The more their situations differ, the more that selection will produce different results. As a result, the ideal route to speciation is through small, isolated communities in disparate situations. The necessary precursor to diversification is insularity.

There is little insularity in the modern world. The advent of mass transportation has created a single country-wide community. People move, easily and often. They intermingle both in genetics and ideas. The advent of mass communication has moved us towards the apotheosis of cultural homogeneity. “And if ye mingle your affairs with theirs, than they are your brothers” – and if everyone in America starts their morning by looking at the same cat gif, then we as a people are one.

At this juncture, any community which is separated from the global polity, both physically and informationally, is greatly disadvantaged. Insular communities are now atavisms. In the modern world, to be not a part of the world is to be pre-modern.

Some might choose to take on the mantle of atavism, of the premodern, renounce the world. They might do so temporarily – an intentional community, an artist’s retreat – or permanently, in the manner of Mennonites. Others are prevented from joining the greater group by necessities, as of geography. Others are simply so isolated that they have not yet been swept up into the world. They are the places that time forgot.

It is a great interest of modern narrative to explore these insular communities, both the intentional and the natural. This for the simple fact that they are different. Only from such isolation can diversity result. Works of fiction particularly enjoy explorations of the insular, both to showcase what is, and dream of what might be.

A fictional interest in insular communities as a path to exploring human diversification is the basis for an entire modern genre. Fictions which focus on the communities that time forgot, or those which have chosen to forget time, fall under the category of New Weird America.

It is Weird because it is at an angle (though not orthogonal) to the general culture. It is New because it hasn’t been around that long; only with the emergence of a great meta-community can those communities which exist beyond it be defined by their absence, thrown into relief. And it is American, predominately, because this is where it is more likely to occur.

(This latter is a point of some tangential interest. In part it results from geography: America is huge. There are lots of places for pockets of atavism to remain or to be formed. Correlated to this is the matter of population density: it’s harder, in (say) a European country, not to have neighbors. There is also the fact that America is new: some parts of it were settled within only the last few generations, whereas much of Asia (e.g.) has enjoyed continuous population for far longer. There the flood happened long ago, and the waters have long settled; in parts of America the wave has only just broken, and might still be rolling back. Finally there is the matter of wealth and affluence. In rich America, the difference between those who enjoy being part of the greater culture, and those who do not, will be significant. In Africa (for example), the contrast is likely to be less impressive.)

I greatly appreciate the genre of New Weird America. It is different from fantasy (which creates diversity from whole cloth, while suggesting that it all eventually faded into our present) and also from science fiction (which suggests present homogeneity so as to predict the mutations of the future). New Weird America suggests that there is diversity right now, in our world. Moreover, it suggests that more diversity could come about, either if we are not careful, or if we will it. It is a factory of foils, to ourselves and our culture. It allows one to consider what might happen – but also what one might create.

Several works exist within the genre. The most striking examples are The X-Files and True Detective.

The X-Files was a series about detectives who investigate the weird. Sometimes they discovered mutations; sometimes cults; sometimes remnants of the Old World hiding out in the New; sometimes secrets, hidden away from the greater population. These were particularly true of the episodes outside of the series’ greater mytharc, the much-derided “monster-of-the-week” episodes – which, in retrospect, tend to be far more interesting.

Their investigations took them all over North America. Most often they would find themselves in small communities, in the forest or the mountains. Sometimes they would find themselves in the Rust Belt, surrounded by the things of man but as far away from people as in any desert. They would find themselves, in short, in insularities, where they would discover and explore the resultant diversity.

This might have come about in part serendipity. The X-Files was filmed in the Pacific Northwest because it is cheaper to film across the border in Vancouver. It is always cheap to film in the middle of the woods. If you must film in a city, the cheapest places are those that are not used: abandoned and run-down areas, which in America and Canada are most likely to be rusting industrial zones. However, it could not have come about any other way. To have great diversity occur in generic suburbia – right in the middle of the stream of culture – would have been unbelievable, and rightly so.

The baton of the X-Files is now being carried by True Detective. The first season involved an investigation in the deep bayou of Louisiana, which led to the remnants of a cthonic cult. The second season is set in the city of Vinci, California, an enclave within Los Angeles whose existence is dominated by their insularity and their efforts to so remain. The first season was about atavism, whereas the second (though with many elements thereof) is more about how money and power can let one escape the confines of the mainstream culture, building an insularity entirely to suit one’s pleasures.

I am quite excited to see how Season 3 of True Detective will continue this exploration. There has been much talk online about what sort of setting would best suit the next storyline. On the one hand, there are no shortage of backwards places in this country. On the other hand, that is a sort of insularity that the series has already explored – and Nic Pizzolatto does not seem content with letting his seasons become simple monsters-of-the-week.

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~ by davekov on 4 August 2015.

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