I’m hoping blog readers might be willing to post their take on this basic issue haunting ecological criticism: how susceptible is ecocriticism to the critique that it is a nostalgia? Follow up: in what ways might ecocriticism work outside of nostalgia?
Ecomorphism is the antithesis of anthropomorphism. Instead of seeing myself at the center of my world, I can now see my human activity—and yours—in terms of our connectedness to nonhuman life. For centuries the poets have said, “that mourning dove is singing a song as sad as I am sad” or “that cloud looks as happy the way I am happy as it skitters across the sky.” Now we need to reconsider both the tenor and the vehicle of such anthropomorphic metaphors. The vehicle is the subject—humans—from which the characteristic (sadness or happiness) is taken. The tenor is the natural subject (bird or cloud) to which the human characteristic is given. Poets and other imaginative creators should now consider reversing this metaphoric order in the interest of ecocentrism. No longer should we just imagine ants as resembling humans. We now need to point out that humans often act like ants, or birds, or even clouds. A bird does not build a house the way I build a house, but I can roost just the way a bird roosts: ecomorphism.
This difference between anthropomorphism and ecomorphism is subtle but significant. Science has revealed to us that ant-colonies are like human communities, but equally important is the idea that human colonies are like ant colonies. Both are adaptive responses to specific social conditions. Likewise, butterflies do not use mimicry and thereby make themselves disguised the way humans use disguises. Humans use forms mimicry, derived from mimicry in butterflies and other “lower” creatures, to accomplish similar goals. Humans gather and store food the way squirrels do, not vice versa. Humans seek mates like the rest of sexually-selecting nature does. We are more like them than they are like us.
If it ever made sense to describe the nonhuman world as human, it no longer makes sense to talk about the “melancholy mourning dove” or the “anxious anteater”. It now makes much more practical and poetic sense to describe ourselves in relation to the rest of nature than it does to humanize the nonhuman. If we want to keep thinking of ourselves as special—as superior to ants, and wasps, and birds—that is fine, but we should also recognize that we derive directly from, and are thus always linked to, the rest of wild nature. They came first. We arose out of them in the first place. We were not self-generated. Our humanity is deeply intertwined with and invested in all of the creatures that predate us on the evolutionary scale. Our own special status—when it exists—derives directly from our self-interest, nothing more, nothing less, but so does a chimpanzee’s special status.
Ecomorphism sees human activity as dependent upon—and interdependent with—all ecological interactions on earth. At the same time, human activity plays an increasingly important role in all ecological systems. Human fires pump countless tons of airborne waste products into an ecosystem that has always produced its own “destructive” elements: volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. Now, however, the three-pound blob of our human brain is always the self-conscious definer of the problem. Destruction only makes sense from a human point of view. No dinosaur worried about rapid climate change on the planet. No trilobite was troubled by alterations in ocean temperature. Even from our human perspective, the flood that brings death and destruction to the Nile or the Mississippi deltas also brings moisture, and nutrients, and life.
Our brain not only creates the sense of what we have to fear; it also reconnects us to the wider world around us. Ecomorphism emphasizes this need to see ourselves as determined by—while existing within—a world that lies beyond the illusory border of our bodies. The complex fact of consciousness is the condition that allows us to appreciate this central truth about our surroundings. We are a part of every environment we inhabit. There is no absolute separation between a world outside (nature) and a world inside (the mind). Our own self-consciousness—as writers from Shelley and Keats to Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry have reminded us—can give way to forms of unselfconsciousness that allow for fleeting unification between individuals and the wider world. Mystics from every cultural tradition have also known this truth. Such unselfconsciousness may best be described as environmental ambience. Ambience describes the unification of every element in a set of natural circumstances with the conscious mind that perceives those surroundings. In an ambient unity of self and surroundings lies one hope for an ecocentric ecology. As Tim Morton—one of the architects of ecoambience—puts the problem, “Ecology may [now] be without nature. But it is not without us” (205).
In recent years, ecocritics have described the progression from several millennia of Judeo-Christian thinking about the dominion of humans over animals, through Romantic empathy in the writings of authors like Blake, Shelley and Keats, toward our current willingness to emphasize our dependence on, not our dominion over, our natural surroundings. This development began in Genesis 1:28, when “God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Once God told us to subdue the earth, and offered us dominion over creation, humans had to decide how to use their new powers. They often misused them. The history of this misuse is recorded in centuries of environmental degradation, culminating in the ravages of twentieth-century industrialization, and in untold suffering of sentient beings, from captive creatures to more widespread animal cruelty.
Progress toward a new view began with an emphasis on pristine nature and natural law during the Enlightenment and the centuries since. This new view can be seen in gendered terms. Monotheistic and patriarchal dominion gave way, by the late eighteenth century, to mostly masculine articulations of Romantic empathy toward animals. Locke and Rousseau, among others, described a pristine natural state out of which we had all emerged. Keats and Shelley praised the birds and the beasts. In the twentieth-century, Romantic empathy merges with environmentalism, from Rachel Carson’s silent spring to Al Gore’s inconvenient truth. This modern ecoempathy has also evolved into what Carol Gilligan calls an “ethic of care.” But an ethic of caring also needs an ethic of sharing. We need to share both the world we did not create—which we call “nature”—and the world we have created—which we call “culture.” The two worlds are really one. From men with dominion, we have become humans who need to recognize our interdependence. From the illusion of arbitrary control we have moved toward an emphasis on symbiosis. In the process, we have reached our current desire to see the biosphere as a continuum of all life and all living process. From Jaweh’s monotheological rod of control, we have made our way through Keats’s anthropomorphic nightingale toward modern versions of ecocentrism and ecofeminism. The romanticist Nandita Batra has described this history as a long—often painful—progression from dominion to empathy to symbiosis (ISLE 3:2 Fall 1996). We might now want to call this sequence progress.
Blake’s point-of-view in his lyric “The Fly,” to choose just one example of ecoromanticism, puts us into an ecomorphic mindset by forcing us to ask, to what—or to whom—might I appear to be a fly?
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me? (ll. 1-8)
Such a dream of contact across the species line is not only the basis of all anthropomorphic thinking but also of all ecomorphism. A fly might be like you or me and, if he is, what might that say about us? Species boundary-crossing is not simply a metaphor; it is a scientific reality in the modern world. All species are connected. They can be metaphorically linked or literally linked. We have hinted at these metaphoric links since Aesop said that the ant was industrious, the fox was sly, and the tortoise patient. Now we know that there are literal links. We share genetic material with chimpanzee and crustaceans. We can transplant animal organs into humans. We can insert human genes into other species. We derive from and depend upon other species in countless ways. Ecoromanticism reminds of us these links from Blake’s fly and Burns’s mouse to Shelley’s skylark and Mary Shelley’s monster.
I’ll be back to think some more ecological thoughts with you anon.
So here we are. We’ve discovered the oozing, slimy core of the poem, an ooze with a face—not a primordial ooze, a naturephilosopher’s Urschleim (what a fantastic word—protoplasm is good too I guess), life-to-be. Instead, this slime is caught between categories of life and death, life-in-death, and it induces a horror deeper than revulsion over matter in the wrong place—Life-in-Death is a person. We are not in the realms of vitalism—which is idealism’s ground zero.
Patricia Yaeger’s excellent essay in the recent issue of PMLA shows how close to ecology contemporary art is, even when ecology is not explicitly its subject matter. Ooze is what contemporary art makes us face. Even when it’s not ecological in content, or in form. It’s ecological in its substance, and in its subject (position). (For more on this, see the Mission Statement a couple of posts back.)
It’s paint-ooze. Sound-ooze (timbre-ooze more precisely). Word-ooze (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and its Quine-esque exploitation of mention not use). Art as pollution. The unformed (Georges Bataille: l’informe).
Piles of “stuff” without frames, or the inverse, empty frames, that both say “I am art.” Or, weirder, “Am I art?” Or “I am not art.” “This is not an artistic sentence” (Public Image Limited did a song called “This Is Not a Love Song”). “This sentence is outside the aesthetic dimension.” “The Night-mare Life-in-Death I am.”
The ooze is “there is…” or “it is….” When we say “It is raining,” what is the “it” that is raining? Lévinas calls it a murmuring or a splashing. The oozing of the there is. Freud: drives are silent. I think of the ichor melting out of the mouth of the little girl in The Exorcist.
I think of the photographs of Cindy Sherman. There’s one—blast it, I can’t find it online, but you can find it in Rosalind Kraus’s book Cindy Sherman 1975–1993 (New York, Rizzoli, 1993), page 156. It’s a face half-buried in splattered gore, staring out with wild eyes. Or if you want the candy-flavored version, try Pierre et Gilles’ photographs, such as their one of the band Deee-Lite. The band members grin, growing out of roses, their heads sparkling like sugared plastic.
I think of the music of La Monte Young—alas, so hard to find. The Well Tuned Piano is a masterpiece, a worthy successor to The Well Tempered Clavier. It’s about creating sounds by tuning a piano to play exquisitely refined layers of harmonics that seem to reach up and down into infinity. These sounds are literally the potential in the matter out of which pianos are made (wood and string and metal), and the spaces you play them in. That’s what timbre means. After you listen to all five plus hours, you will become aware of the muddy compromise that is the “equal temperament” of modern pianos (and thus of other instruments generally). This comparison may be a little loaded, but it’s like eating an apricot you pick straight off an apricot tree after years of eating ones that have flown on planes to reach your mouth. (Clue: they taste of roses.)
True materialism would discover multiple dimensions of materiality. It would be the love of matter.
Timbre—timber—hyle (Greek: matter, timber). Materialism in music. Rime: frosty encrustation, timbre of frozen water, sugar-coating, making things glitter, glossy. Rime, slime. Life in Death. The marginal gloss. “Blue, glossy green, and velvet black / They coiled and swam” (4.279–280). Colored ink. Like lines of illuminated text. Gloss—the speaking of speaking. Speaking in tongues. “I bit my arm, I sucked the blood, / And cried” (3.160–161).
The ancient Mariner’s world—although we’ve ruled “worlds” in a strict sense out of court—is already this realm of sheer existence, of timbre. A place of glittering eyes and skinny hands, leprosy faces and grinning skulls. This is a world of synethiaphobia and synethiaphilia—phobic fascination and friendly investigation of intimacy. Intimacy with objects and abjects. Proximity to others. Scopo-rhino-oto-taxo-geuma-psyche-philia. “Perversion” as utter passivity in the face of feminized appearance. There’s no good reason to admire those coiling glistening water snakes, floating like shorn Medusa’s hair.
All those organs without bodies: a glittering eye, a skinny hand, looks and locks and skin as white as leprosy, slimy things with slimy legs, serpentine swimming, the curse in a dead man’s eye. It’s not a holistic world. It’s a frothing mass of performances, gestures, behaviors that express certain genetic codes. Performance all the way down (see my earlier post on Judith Butler). A world of gyrating prosthetic limbs. You have to drink your own blood in order to speak. You wear a dead albatross. You use oars and masts, because you can’t swim.
This is not your usual Birkenstock wearing, tree-hugging environmentalism, then. More like tree-licking. Queer ecology.
Recursive commodity fetishism. Life in Death. Fetishism looped back into itself. The glow of the glow of value. A paradoxical judo, tripping up the system with its own energy, not stepping outside it. Irony that doesn’t involve distance. Irony and intimacy. Irony as intimacy. Knowing “knowingness.” A mass produced feudal text that talks about itself. A brand new product, an antiqued commodity, encrusted with metal studs like a medieval Bible or a studded collar. A Gothic object, a Goth ecology. The gloss of gloss—a glossy gloss. Strange strangers. Sparkling slime. Artificial intelligence. (Not an oxymoron, like “military intelligence.”) Romantic irony: a poem that knows it’s a poem. A talking book about a walking book. “To him my tale I teach” (7.590).
Slime: it’s slimy because it’s made of enzymes, little subroutines produced by and productive of DNA sequencing. Primordial slime as a computational process. Amino acids that generate amino acids that act on other amino acids…no outside, all the codes implicit in the chemicals. Watching the water snakes as dreaming: watching the Id machine gyrate. Kris, the psychologist in Solaris, watching the surface of the sentient planet-ocean that “dreams” by sending forth horrifying simulations of the astronauts’ guiltiest secrets. He is watching a giant brain. Electrochemical processes giving rise to words and ideas. “There’s a killer on the road / His brain is squirmin like a toad” (The Doors).
(Here’s the final scene from Solaris. Watch the wafting fronds and the boiling sentient ocean. Kris has decided to descend to the surface of the planet and live out his life communicating via the planet’s simulations, which in the novel are called Phi-Creatures. Rather wonderfully, Phi (Φ) is the Lacanian symbol for the object in its existential density. I have an essay on this movie and ecology coming out in SubStance, probably some time later this year.)
“Nature loving” is supposedly chaste (impossible formula! like courtly love, or Neoplatonic love), and is thus slave to masculine heteronormativity, a performance that erases the trace of performance. “Leave no trace” was an environmentalist movement about picking up after you when you go hiking—but there’s another dimension to this injunction. Masculinity performs no-performance, erasing its trace. If you look like you are “acting” masculine, you aren’t. Masculine is Natural. Natural is masculine.
(In my recent project The Ecological Thought I’ve often capitalized Nature to return to it some kind of trace, some distinctive mark.)
Organicism: an artistic form in which form fits content like an invisible glove, leaving no trace. Most environmentalisms—including modern systems theories—are organicist. World fits mind and mind fits world (as Wordsowrth asserted). Blake: “You shall not bring me down to believe such fitting & fitted … & please your lordship.” His marginal gloss on Wordsworth’s The Excursion (the Prospectus to The Recluse).
Organicism must therefore partake of environmentalist chastity. A performance of no-performance. Un-perversion. A desire that erases its trace as soon as it appears. Desire as erasure, erasure-desire. The curtain rises on a pregiven world, always greater than the sum of its parts (holism). But slime is not organic: it’s a computational process. Things only look like they fit, because we are not perceiving them on an evolutionary or geological time scale. If you move a Sphex wasp away from the hole she is inspecting (as a suitable storage place for the caterpillar she has caught), she will perform the same behavior, meaninglessly, at the next hole. Nature looks natural because it keeps going, and going, and going…like the undead! And because we keep on looking away, keeping our distance, framing it, sizing it up.
Blake heard the voice of authority in organicism. We must articulate a nonauthoritarian ecology. Authoritarian organicism gains its power through a naturalizing of sexual difference. Nature is unmarked (“leave no trace”). It is established by exclusion, then exclusion of exclusion. We must retrace it to the end, return the gloss, the slime, the rime, to the book of Nature. Ecology must unthink “ecologocentrism.”
Perhaps we could give ecologocentrism the slip by saying that Nature is beyond concept. Beyond concept, Nature is. Wordless Nature. But no. Thus a negative theology of the environment must always fall prey, finally, to the deadly logos it wishes to transcend. Thinking you can escape metaphysics by outlining a hyperessential being beyond being only repeats the problem. Nature is not unnatural. A negative theology of the environment is the ultimate chastity—it refuses even to name the non-name, refuses even to non-name it.
Vegetarianism—how could I bash it? I started my career researching it, and eating it! But it’s interesting, the linguistic fallout from vegetarianism. All that meat, all those mangled bodies. The subject position from which vegetarian arguments are made is too often fascinated carnivorous carno-phobia. Violent non-violence.
Shelley’s vegetarianism was certainly this: abstaining from meat, yes, and also from un-fair-traded spices, indeed. Yet the obsession with obsession; the equation of madness with crime, crime with disease; longing for a society without a symptom—for a society without people, in effect. A society without a trace. A death-driven obsession that Shelley himself brilliantly dissects in Alastor, the hardest poem I’ve ever read, with all its contradictory messages and levels.
“Leave no trace” as a translation of “Let it be.” Heidegger in his hide: the stupefied, plangent hush of his prose tells of a huntsman waiting for Being, with a gun or binoculars. Even if the gun is only the gun of the fascinated gaze. The “meditative” quiet of the forest where you can hear the “sharp, subtle sounds of animals jumping forth…and [you] can shoot at them.” Let it be! Pull! Bang! What a fantastic sight! Shhh, quiet, I’m trying to kill this rabbit. Quietly, meditatively, I insert my knife gently and smoothly into its neck, mindfully and meditatively I slit its throat…In the rabbit’s blood I can smell the quiet of the fields, the “toilsome tread” of the paws on their daily round, the search for something to nibble…this rabbit corpse is a moving environmental poem, like a pair of old shoes in a Van Gogh painting…mmm…
If in the process of being “ecological” we only extend our phobias of psychic, sexual and social intimacy, then we will have paid a terrible price. We will have created a cleaner, easy-wipe version of the reality that got us into this mess in the first place. There will still be pollution. It will accumulate based on the injunction to leave no trace. There will be normals and pathologicals. Efficiently functioning phobia.
While we strive to make production less toxic, less dangerous, less deadly, thinking needs to slow down and become entangled in its own slime.
“It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1); “The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she” (3.193); “ ‘There was a ship,’ quoth he” (1.10). Is the ship the Mariner first mentions to the Wedding Guest not his own ship, but her ship, the death ship? It would work in the structure we are elucidating here. The ship is presented in its sheer existence. Something about the terror, the urgency, with which the Mariner collars the Guest, as if the ship were all too present in his mind, causes the Guest to recoil. The Guest catches a glimpse of Life-in-Death in “his glittering eye” (1.13).
Her face, beautiful and eaten away. She lets bacteria feast on her flesh. Lévinas asserts that the ultimate demonstration of our utter responsibility for the other is maternity, which is a condition of allowing the other to eat you, from the inside, the ultimate host-parasite relationship. Life-in-Death is a perverse mother of us all, a leper woman who just comes alongside us on a floating ship, like the Mariner, the figure of the homeless man stopping one of three by the Bridegroom’s door. Two indigents: Lévinas argues that the face is always the face of indigence, always evoking a crushing responsibility on our part. Life-in-Death is utterly destitute, wedded to Death. She is a zero-degree conatus, less than a minimal will to live, more like a letting-the-other-feast-on-me.
Indeed, the mother of us all was “mitochondrial Eve,” a bacterium that hid out in protozoan single-celled organisms to survive the global ecological disaster called oxygen. And like DNA, Life-in-Death plays games of chance. And like DNA, and life forms in general, it becomes impossible to tell who is living off of whom. Is she Life-Despite-Death? Like weeds growing up after a bomb explodes? Or Life-as-Death, as tick-tock compulsion to repeat, meiosis? The liveliness of death? The deathliness of life? Coleridge’s pithy ballad form makes it wonderfully hard to tell.
If we are to survive the twenty-first century, we ecosocialists will need to revise our ideas of passivity, weakness, the uncanny, vulnerability, and gentleness.
A face that is far from a face of strength and power, far from a face at all. Red lips and free looks, and utter abjection within beauty, abjection as beauty, beauty as abjection. Language breaks down trying to evoke her. She’s like the woman sniper at the end of Full Metal Jacket, the horrifying shot of her writhing slowly on the floor whispering “Shoot me…shoot me.” Isn’t this why Life-in-Death is frightening? Not because she’s some Disney witch queen, but because she isn’t. “Her skin was white as leprosy”—isn’t it a shudder of compassion we feel here? Of course, it isn’t mediated through the usual condescending channels, and thus may feel more like revulsion.
Consider the Abrahamic traditions of caring for indigents and lepers.
The Mariner is an anti-Jesus (not perhaps an Antichrist), weighed down with the Albatross-cross, the weight of “it.” Now he’s faced with the frontal horror of it in the flesh, persecuting figures—yet even for these he is still responsible.
In one sense Life-in-Death is an allegorical figure, always not who she appears to be. But in another, can we ignore how vividly, uniquely realized she is? Would an allegorical reading (which would start by calling her “Life-in-Death,” the Mariner’s name) begin to tear us away from her collapsing face? Can we coexist with her and not suffer an allegorical-allergic reaction? Can we stay close to her even if our blood “thicks” with “cold”? If we can’t stay, isn’t our messing about in environmental boats just a boy’s game in an ultimately safe, antiseptic, order of the Same? A game of violently bootstrapping ourselves into Being? Into a world that, for all its sublime grandeur, is already paved with the concrete of essence? A place where we could feel at home, comfortable with all our gadgets handy, the golf course down the street, Nature over yonder, animals tolerated, even respected perhaps, sporting around our dwelling?* Where resoluteness in the face of death cocooned us against the vulnerability of life? Where we would finally have sanitized and smoothed over the queerness of the strange stranger, with her uncivilized and unnatural presence, her horrifying gentleness?
Our poem has gone overboard.
*I am quoting Shelley:
No longer now
He slays the beast that sports around his dwelling,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh.
(The Dæmon of the World, 2. )
Reading Derek Ratcliffe’s wonderful ornithological, corvi-cultural study, The Raven, returns me to a closing query of my previous entry: “What sort of animal meaning . . . does [the raven] present in Coleridge’s “The Raven”? Ratcliffe quotes one R. Bosworth Smith:
A bird whose literary history begins with Cain, with Noah, and with Elijah, and
who gave his name to the Midianite chieftain Oreb; whose every action and cry
was observed and noted down, alike by the descendents of Romulus and the ancestors of
Rolf the Ganger; who occurs in every second play of Shakespeare; who forms the subject
of the most eerie poem of Edgar Alan Poe, and enlivens the pages of the Roderick
Random of Smollett, of the Rookwood of Ainsworth, of the Barnaby Rudge of Dickens,
is a bird whose historical and literary pre-eminence is unapproached. (cited Ratcliffe 9)
Indeed the raven has served “to point many a moral and adorn many a tale,” in part because this bird has seemed to many to be “the bird most like ourselves” (D. Kennedy and A.B. Walker, “The Great Transformer”), a prophet, omen-bearer, watcher, and so forth. But how much do these age-old associations and allegorical uses relate to the bird’s own being and behavior, as an animetaphor that is as much an instigator as a product of cultural markings?
Back to Coleridge’s fabulous animal poem. Following the playful forgery-oriented opening, the text describes how,
Underneath an old oak tree
There was of swine a huge company
That grunted as they crunched the mast:
For that was ripe, and fell full fast.
Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high:
One acorn they left, and no more might you spy.
Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly:
He belonged, they did say, to the witch Melancholy!
Ratcliffe points to the raven’s associations with death and darkness, likely owed to its black plumage, vocal mimicry, intelligence, and “sepulchral voice” (10). No surprise, with or without kicking Edgar Alan Poe, that Coleridge’s speaker should pointedly mention the folk associations with “melancholy” and the supernatural. Indeed there’s little here to surprise. A herd of swine feasts on acorns beneath a bountiful oak. When the pigs depart, an opportunistic solitary raven sees an opportunity and visits the now vacated spot in search of remaining spoils. Ravens are of course opportunists, and their diet includes not just carrion but also, on occasion, various seeds and berries, including acorns. So there’s some ornithological verisimilitude afoot here, despite the folklorish associations (from which the narrator distances himself and the bird).
The speaker continues his tale of this lone scavenger:
Blacker was he than blackest jet,
Flew low in the rain, and his feathers not wet.
He picked up the acorn and buried it straight
By the side of a river both deep and great.
Coleridge knows his ravens (better, certainly, than I on this point); ravens do indeed make use of food caching: “Fat, fatty meat, egg, bones, bread, dates and dung are materials which have been seen to be hidden, usually in holes or beneath stones, but sometimes in small excavations dug by the birds themselves” (Ratcliffe 95). And if ever there was a bird likely to recall the location of that cache, it is the raven (see Ratcliffe 251).
Where then did the Raven Go?
He went high and low,
Over hill, over dale, did the black Raven go.
Many Autumns, many Springs
Travelled he with wandering wings:
Many summers, many Winters—
I can’t tell half his adventures.
The narrator espies his own perceptual limit: his inability to “tell half” of what the raven has experienced (via its/his anthropomorphized “adventures”). Those “wandering wings” carry the bird beyond any human’s ken. Indeed those wings return a different raven, a descendant of the acorn-cache-maker and unwitting tree planter:
At length he came back, and with him a She
And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree.
Hardly the same raven—whose lifespan would likely not exceed twelve years–and yet to the human fabulist it is that same “he.” It is a species or family line (raven crest) that returns, rather than an individual—eh? (That or a very fast-growing oak!)
But is all this literalism, all this reliance upon and reference to ornithology, beside the point, despite the fact that, up to this line, Coleridge’s animal poem seems to portray its raven subject quite accurately? Do such textual-biological correspondences figure in this text, as one part of its animetaphorical meaning? Or are they beyond it and extraneous to it? Let me close with an inspiring closing statement from Tim Morton’s Ecology without Nature: “Hanging out in the distance may be the surest way of relating to the nonhuman” (205). More to come.
In Ecology without Nature I argued that it was the very idea of Nature itself that posed an obstacle to ecological thinking and praxis. Nature has recently received various upgrades, for example in the form of ecophenomenology, which insists that we are embedded (like Iraq War reporters) in a lifeworld. This language comes from Heidegger.
If the ecological thought is to tunnel back behind Heidegger, it must encounter the thinking of Emmanuel Lévinas.
Lévinas argues that below Being, beyond essence, closer than breathing, is the proximity of the really other other, the strange stranger in the language of The Ecological Thought. Unnameable as such, yet still palpable as an excess or “lapse” within the ontological order of things, is “the face,” Lévinas’s word for the strange stranger as we encounter her, or him, or it. Our very being is both subtended and interrupted by the face of the other, who stands destitute before us and before whom we too are destitute. Sadder and wiser.
In Otherwise than Being, Lévinas declares that the face is “the collapse of phenomenality,” in that it is “too weak” and “less than a phenomenon” (88). The face of the neighbor causes “the human” to “shudder” (87). The asymmetrical contact between us and the face causes us to revert “from grasping to being grasped, like in the ambiguity of a kiss” (80). More passive than inertia, this contact is “an inversion of the conatus [Spinoza's word for the will to live] of esse” (75). It is “not an extrapolation of the finite, or the invisible taken to be behind the visible” (154). It is on this side, “a hither side of the here” (180). This would be an encounter that did not take place within a lifeworld. A non-holistic reality where my obligation subverts the creation of worlds, with their insides and outsides, their included and excluded. Where identity was not—where personhood and phenomenality were less than you expected.
Is this not the shuddering of the Wedding Guest before the Mariner?
But is it not also the shuddering of the Mariner before Life-in-Death, a face consumed with leprosy?
And might it contain an encounter with the sheer existence existing things—“a thousand thousand slimy things” as the Mariner says (4.238)? This existence, which includes the Mariner’s own “liv[ing] on” (4.238). Might this ecological “element” in which we are immersed also be visible in the disturbed and disturbing face of the other? And is the ecological thought therefore a coexistence with coexistence itself (and with coexistents, as it were)? Lévinas grants this possibility when he asserts that the “absurd” there is (his phrase for sheer existence) can be “a modality of being-for-the-other” (164). In fact, you need the “weight” of this existence for alterity to go beyond essence (164). Lévinas himself opens the possibility that the there is with its incessant “splashing” (140) might be the face itself, as if the face were glimpsed obliquely, that nothing truly separates background from foreground, just a “strange distortion” (Shelley).
Something like this happens in The Triumph of Life, when in an Arcimboldo moment, a root twists into the face of Rousseau. And it happens in Frankenstein, when a creature made of pieces of animals and human corpses rises up to embrace its terrified maker.
Isn’t this the horror of Life-in-Death? The gentleness and ambiguity of her threat to essence? Her existence is ambiguity in all its fullness. She does nothing, really. She merely appears; she casts dice; she speaks, and whistles. Her face rots away. She floats on the sea, space of nomads, pirates, traders, gamblers, not tied to the State, beyond the law. She is as passive as the Mariner. It is finally her passivity that disturbs. We behold her; we are beholden to her.
You may be wondering what I’m going to do with these posts. Well—I decided before I started that I was going to experiment with this new medium by posting some close reading. And that I was going to write things that wouldn’t be in any of my forthcoming books or essays.
So this is where you get it…
Close reading is itself an endangered species, as presses close their doors to books on literature. (UC press doesn’t do it at all any more, for instance; and try getting a book on poetry or theory out there, esp. in the UK.) Close reading’s environment is dying.
I think blogging provides an excellent habitat for close reading.
I was wondering how my assumption was working—my assumption that the blog medium itself, and the RC site in particular, would provide the necessary context for these organs without bodies…
It seems so obvious that in the future we will need to reconfigure conferencing so that their dates overlap! That way keynote speakers can be shared by videoconference without wasting carbon.
Polycom is a pretty neat, cheap application on the new pcs that supports excellent videoconferencing (better than Skype).
Advantages: saving money, carbon; getting 1+n lots of feedback for the price of one; no jet lag.
Disadvantages: you don’t get to visit the luxurious resorts at which literature conferences are so often held : ) And it may take you a little time to get up to speed with your audiences (no face to face chats in bars, etc.)—I found this highly workable, actually.
Tim’s reflections on Coleridge’s mariner keep reminding me of Thoreau’s willful essay “Walking”: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil-to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” We need precisely such a model of “wildness,” a sentiment Thoreau echoed often throughout his writings. The word he emphasized was not “wilderness.” He never said, “In wilderness in the preservation of the world,” as more than 600 mistaken web-pages claim he did. His quotation was “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” Thoreau’s “wildness” is not only, or even primarily, about wild places. His “wildness” is also about a state of mind. Thoreau tells us again and again that we not only need wilderness retreats; we need to “wild” minds. We need to “wild” not only external places, but internal spaces. We need “wildness” as a verb, as in, “I hope I will be able to wild my mind during this ecocentric year of roosting.” There may be wildness in all wilderness, but wilderness is never a prerequisite for wildness. This lesson is even more important for our technocentric twenty-first century than it was for Thoreau’s industrializing nineteenth century.
We need to wild our minds, but we need to wild them carefully. We do not need to burn thousands of gallons of jet fuel to get to wilderness retreats in the sequoias of California or the mountains of Wyoming. There are powerful ironies in our current position. Many of us, as good environmentalists, leave our urban homes and expend thousands of dollars and billions of calories in an effort, as we say, to get back to nature. But how silly. Where are we going? What are we leaving behind? We need to keep out wild minds with us every minute of every day, whether we are walking through untrammeled wilderness or riding our four-wheel drive vehicles down crowded streets and concrete highways.
Do not get me wrong. I include myself in this critique, and while I am calling for wild minds, I also call loudly for the preservation of wild places. We still need to save wilderness spaces with an absolute sense of the distinction between human activity and nonhuman activity that has nothing to do with us. Just as important as our set-aside spaces, however, is the wild sense I want to call “roosting.” When birds roost they have a direct and powerful impact on the trees they choose for roosting. They build nests in branches, gather food from the leaves and stems around them, and leave their limey waste products to fertilize the ground beneath them. As much as we need hands-off, wheels-off wilderness, we need hybrid places and mixed-use spaces, human landscapes ecocentrically re-imagined and redefined. Humans are always in nature and nature pervades every last human space. A new sense of internal and external balance can now emerge out of our use of the prefix “eco”-ecocentric, ecomorphic, ecotecture-and our feeling for our widest echome: a unified dwelling place that includes human habitations and also the nonhuman habitations all around us.
We are never cut off from nature by our human world at all. This is a central aspect of all true ecology. We are always within and among natural processes which we did not create and which we cannot control, for good and for ill. The good part of this equation is easy: ocean sunsets, autumn hillsides, nesting swallows, fields of wild flowers. But the “ill” side of nature is no less natural: harsh climate, violent weather, wild animals, poisonous plants, disease-causing organisms, toxic chemicals. Illnesses, allergies, and injuries: all are fully natural, so is nature good for us, or bad? This is precisely the question and distinction we need to move beyond. Nothing we can do can take us out of nature. There is nowhere for us to go. From inorganic elements assembled in the watery world of the womb, we move out to grow and flourish until we die and return to the inorganic elements that shaped us. We are wild things. Just because we have tamed aspects of wild nature, it does not follow that we have lost the wild mind within.
Alexander Graham Bell, to extend Thoreau’s point about such “wildness,” invented the telephone because his mother and sister were deaf. Bell had no particular interest in voice communication per se; rather, he wanted to solve a precise problem in the natural world. His family members were born with ears that did not work. His vested interest was in helping those whose ears were naturally weak. He sought a human solution to a natural problem. His own brand of wildness was directed at one aspect of nature, at the anatomy of the human ear that had left his family deaf. Nature, as the Romantics always knew, is full of all sorts of just such wild terrors-deafness, disease, drought, hurricanes, volcanoes, bacteria, viruses-that affect us. Such “negative” nature has a direct and constant impact on every aspect of our lives, no matter how high the skyscraper we inhabit, no matter how wide the concrete jungle that encloses us. So work to wild your mind and find ways to roost lightly on the earth. Coleridge would approve.