Romantic Circles Blog

The ecological thought—an eco-aesthetic intermezzo

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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 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 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.

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