Romantic Circles Blog

The ecological thought—ecologocentric insert

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Hi again.

School starts soon (quarter system). I returned from the retreats. And I'm finishing an essay called “Ecologocentrism: Unworking Animals,” for SubStance.

All feeble excuses for my not yet posting my final thoughts on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

They're about the sheer “thereness” of existence, its density—what “world” subsumes and half erases. And its relation to intimacy.

I've been getting some excellent feedback on my first draft of The Ecological Thought.

The SubStance essay is a study of Solaris, the incredible science fiction story of a psychologist's encounter with a radically other mind.

It claims that just as Derrida argues that logocentrism underlies Western philosophy's attempt to ground meaning in an essential form, I hold that ecologocentrism underpins most environmentalist philosophy, preventing access to the full scope of interconnectedness.

Thinking, even environmentalist thinking, has set up “Nature” as a reified thing in the distance, “over there,” under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener, preferably in the mountains, in the wild.  This “Nature” accords with Walter Benjamin's proposition about the aura: it is a function of distance.  Benjamin uses an image from “Nature”—or from the picturesque?  But that is my and his point—to describe the aura: “We define the aura . . . as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close [the object] may be.  If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.”

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Romantic Ecomorphism

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Global warming may be the first environmental crisis to affect all life on earth at the same time, in equally dramatic ways. The Romans apparently raised the level of airborne lead-and subsequently the lead level in soil and waterways-because of the amount of lead smelting they practiced. But before global warming, every earlier environmental crisis had an impact on relatively small groups of creatures or species in relatively small geographic areas. Think Love Canal or Three Mile Island. Think even of DDT or PCBs whose threats are widespread but whose Superfund sites are always relatively concentrated. As ecocatastrophic threats have increased in their ranges, so has our sense of our own links to the areas so affected. Out of an ever warmer world we will increasingly find new ways to recognize our dependence on other species and their dependence on us. We are all getting warmer together. The impact of increased global temperature on microorganisms-bacteria, fungi, and viruses-will be directly related to the impact of those same temperatures on humans.

The lure of ecomorphism, of our desire to describe ourselves and our world in ecological terms, is probably at the root of our culture's current preoccupation with aliens. The possibility of life on other planets-whether fossilized unicellular organisms trapped in rocks on Mars or humanoid "Grays," the alien beings that are encountered by so many insomniacs-is a function of our thinking about the ultimate ecosystem. Since the cosmos is our largest natural home, the rules of physics and of ecological balance must reach far beyond earthly limits. Indeed, science now reports that the apparent "laws" of nature actually alter once we cover great enough distances, travel fast enough, or alter our perspective form a binocular humanized vantage point. Those who worry about these matters now suspect that alien life will turn out to be either an invader from far beyond or the potential source of all life on earth. Some serious thinkers are now speculating about what we might call "cosmic ecology," about life as universal in the literal sense, life throughout the entire universe, terrestrial life itself as fundamentally extraterrestrial. Science fiction will become science fact if and when it turns out that earthly life was transplanted here by spores, or some other source, from outer space. Stay tuned, Trekkies.

Our greatest modern fears can be likewise linked to an ecocentrism born of anxiety. What has been so terrifying to recent generations about "the Bomb"-the atomic A-Bomb and the hydrogen H-Bomb-has been our fear that we might have the capacity to destroy ourselves and all life on earth, except perhaps cockroaches, horseshoe crabs, a few sharks, and the bacteria. But what would life have meant after we had destroyed it? Would the end of things make any difference? In a comparable image, if the planet was to be knocked out of its orbit by an asteroid tonight, what difference would that make beyond the difference it would make to humans? What does our life in nature mean? Finally, consider Steven J. Gould's claim that invisible organisms, such as bacteria and viruses, are actually the most successful of all life forms, since they are far more wide-ranging and extensive, in untold masses stretching miles upon miles toward the deep rocky center of the planet, than the total weight of all the mega-fauna. The total of all the life on our planet that is invisible to the human eye may far surpass the visible biotic mass, from every ant to every blue whale, every slime mold to every sequoia. If Gould is right, and he usually was, life on earth looks more like bacteria than it looks like human beings.

Our own era is not only afraid that aliens or nuclear bombs or bacteria will beat us in the end. We currently fear ecotastrophies of many kinds: ozone holes and global climate change, scourging influenzas and viral pandemics. Most likely of all these fears is a fear that is also a form of optimism: artificial life-not like Frankenstein's monstrous wretch-but rather intelligent computers, A.I. (artificial intelligence) in robots, androgynous androids dreaming of electric sheep. Computers will soon know more than we know. Silicone implants will soon supplant our memories and enhance our sex lives. Scariest of all of these scenarios is the most likely, since it is already underway: genetic manipulation of the heredity of peaches, drosophila, and pigs, not to mention genetic and reproductive manipulation of our mothers and fathers, the eggs and sperm and genes that make you into you and me into me. Nonhuman genes implanted into human fetuses, fecund fertility clinics, sperm banks and amniocentesis: in all such cases we see wild reproductive nature transformed in our bedrooms and bio-labs and cities, yet another version of urbanature.

We can now describe the important details of human biology in terms of our connection to dust mites and deer ticks, maggots and mushrooms, flowering trees and fiddlehead ferns, white-tailed deer and bowhead whales. Unlike those early Romantic naturalists-Erasmus Darwin, William Bartram, Gilbert White-we are now interested not only in the large visible creatures around us, mega-fauna, but in a wide panoply of nonhuman events: the sun-cycle and wind-cycle, the rain and gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, plant reproduction, animal population balance, the food supply, the big picture, the whole environmental enchilada. These wide-ranging concerns point toward another major paradigm shift in our new century, toward a new ethic that is not just about preserving wild spaces and wild places.

The new ethic needs to see skyscrapers, superhighways, jumbo-jets, and genetic research labs as parts of our "new" nature, no less natural because they were crafted by members of the human species. The skyscraper is made of sand (for glass), bauxite (for aluminum), and iron (for steel). The jet burns fossil-fuels or bio-fuels and flies on aerodynamic principles. Natural laws and natural materials allow us to create and to control every skyscraper and every jet, so how are the skyscraper and the jet unnatural? Our new nature will not be the mysterious nature that our ancestors once feared (wolves and thunder and winter) nor will it be the nature that the Romantics taught us to love (nightingales and daffodils and springtime). Out of ecomorphism comes another new idea, urbanature. As I have written elsewhere, urbanature is the essential version of all nature that keeps us closer to each other and closer to organic, as well as inorganic, matter.

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Little fly

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Okay--I'm on this silent retreat and I shouldn't even be writing this, but what the hey.

So I'm sitting in the meditation hall today and this small house fly lands on my hand. It puts its little proboscis down onto me. I can feel it going a little into my flesh. Yuck. And ouch! So after a few seconds I wave it off.

Of course everything I've said about the neighbor comes flooding into my mind. Not to mention Ash's post on Blake's fly. And lo, my thoughtless hand has indeed brushed it away...

So luckily this fly doesn't take no for an answer and back it comes. Same procedure. Ouch! This time I just let her or him get on with it. Suck away, fly. I mean after all I'm in a Buddhist retreat for goodness' sakes.

So then this fly just rests on my hand for about ten minutes, washing her or his little head with those front legs. I frightened her or him off when I rubbed my nose with my other hand.

Just a little interspecies contact for you.

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“Let it be”

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I'm posting a miniaturized critique of Heidegger on my other blog, Ecology without Nature. I also posted recently on wind farms, and solar power.

Meanwhile, there's a very groovy discussion of nostalgia going on on the comments page of a very recent post by Ron Broglio. Thank you Ron. Very valuable stuff.

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Question up for comments: Ecology and Nostalgia

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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?

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Ecomorphism and Ecoromanticism

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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?

Little 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.

--Ashton Nichols

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T e co ogi al th ght—g e f sh g

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I'm in Crestone, in way southern Colorado, on a retreat. Just appreciation with no reason. Wilding my mind (thanks Ash!).

I'll be back to think some more ecological thoughts with you anon.

Happy trails!

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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 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.

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The ecological thought, part seventh

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“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. )

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textual-biological correspondences

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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.

Kurt Fosso

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