Romantic Circles Blog

The ecological thought, part second

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At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.63–66)

Hi again. So here we have the fateful bird, emerging from the ice and fog, from the intense, oppressive atmosphere of sheer existence. Lévinas calls this “the element.” One is immersed in it.

The ice and fog already imply coexistence of some kind. Beyond the sort of “world” that Heidegger is after, I think. Something less “handy,” less to do with a horizon of meaning (you can't see through all that fog in any case). The ecological thought tries to think “below” Heidegger. Heidegger is where more ecological criticism bottoms out. He's the favorite of Deep Ecology because of this. We must engage with Heidegger rather than flee, otherwise we leave things like “world“ intact—things that I claim are part of the problem. Have a read of what Slavoj Zizek says:

“what we need is an ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on” (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 445 (in a chapter on nature, in a section called “Ecology against Nature”).

The idea of being immersed in a “lifeworld” is an ideological obstacle to thinking ecologically, which is, I claim, at its most fundamental level, a radical intimacy with other beings. I discuss this in Ecology without Nature.

So here comes the Albatross, “Thorough” the fog—right the way through it, to here, to this side, as it were. Up close and personal. It does not come from some beyond “outside” the fog. It comes from within the fog. It comes from within existence itself.

Infinity it not “over there” in some beyond. It is right here, even in the fog itself. It's one of those entities we are becoming more and more familiar with as part of the humiliation of ecology, the humiliation that brings us closer to the Earth (and literally earth). Marx, Freud, and Darwin all humiliate human beings by decentering their place. The fog stands for what I call “material infinity”—things that are profoundly hard to grasp that are on this side of reality.

In many ways, abstract infinity is easier than say 4.5 billion (the age of the Earth in years). Try to visualize 4.5 billion of anything. Life on Earth presents us with this “very large finitude.” Now put a face on life forms. Assume that they are subjects, people like you and me (or at least, bad imitations of them, like you and me). This is infinity on this side of reality. Abstract void is easier to handle than the void of another person.

This is the Albatross, the face of the fog, existence as a person (beyond “personification”), approaching us in our vulnerability. “Thorough the fog it came”—like “Out of the sea came he” (Coleridge's description of the sun). Suddenly it's there, still an “it” in the grammar, but also a “he” or a “she”—a person. There's no in-between moment when the Alabtross is far away, then kind of close, then... (This will affect our reading of another figure emerging from the distance, the Death Ship of Part 3).

Coleridge is great for thinking the scary environment of now. This environment is nothing other than life forms themselves.

Stay tuned, close readers!

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1 Comment

Ash Nichols

Ash Nichols (nicholsa@dickinson.edu) left this comment, which I foolishly deleted, not understanding perfectly how the software works:

Tim: There is one problem here of a material “nature.” Birds, especially pelagic birds like albatrosses, rely almost entirely on sight for all of their existence. Therefore, birds almost never fly in a fog. This is not quite the same a Keats mistaking Cortez for Balboa (?), since his point remains the same whoever was doing the looking from Darien. In the case of Coleridge’s great bird of good omen or ill omen, the very possibility of experiencing an albatross flying out of the fog is a naturalistic impossibility, or at least so unlikely as to be mistaken. The problem with so much Romantic natural history is that the “Romantic” overwhelms the “natural history” to the point at which the conclusion to be drawn–even if an imaginative or philosophical conclusion–is rendered much less powerful by virtue of its im-possibility. If Blake says that a tiger represents fearful symmetry, then we can draw potentially useful conclusions from his subsequent speculation about a creator. In the case of Coleridge’s famous albatross, however, since the material bird is unlikely to have been where he was placed by the poet–and almost impossible to hit with a bow-and-arrow–the subsequent worries about curses and the costs of humanity’s disconnection with “nature” seems all the more suspect. Killing an albatross is ultimately no more a disconnection from nature than killing a turkey for Thanksgiving so, vegetarian debates aside, the standard interpretation of Coleridge’s poem seems severely weakened by this simple fact about the bird’s eyesight.

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