Romantic Circles Blog

The carbon-free medium is the carbon-free message

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Hi Everyone,

Click here for an account of a green videoconference I just did for ASLE UK (the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment). Science has just done a piece about it.

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.

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Wilding and Roosting

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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.

--Ashton Nichols

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The ecological thought, part fifth

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Synethiaphobia: that's my Greek invention for “phobia of intimacy,” the basic feeling of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “I fear thee ancient Mariner! / I fear thy skinny hand! (4.224–225). Nothing excites synethiaphobia more than the horrifying vulnerability of Life-in-Death. Coleridge hits the synethiaphobic bullseye in part 3.

Pleasingly, synethiaphobia contains the word ethos, which here implies being-with, ethics at the profoundest level.

The ecological thought is, I claim, anti-synethiaphobic. In Lévinas's language, not “allergic” to the other.

Synethiaphobia constructs boundaries between here and there, between inside and outside. Therefore, a non-synethiophobic (truly ecological) reality would not constitute a “world.” Yikes! For worlds have horizons, and thus a here and a there, an inside and an outside.

From this point of view, a lot of ecological ideology has basically been barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. (For simplicity's sake I'll abbreviate these forms of ideology as “environmentalism,” so be aware that this word has a special usage in my posts from now on.)

Now let's have a think about Life-in-Death, with Judith Butler. Butler makes a case for the beginnings of a queer theory of ecology, because she shows how gender performance produces an inside vs. an outside—and those terms are fundamental for thinking the environment (what's “around” us):

The boundary of the body as well as the distinction between internal and external is established through the ejection and transvaluation of something originally part of identity into a defiling otherness. As Iris Young has suggested in her use of Kristeva to understand sexism, homophobia, and racism, the repudiation of bodies for their sex, sexuality, and/or color is an “expulsion” followed by a “repulsion” that founds and consolidates culturally hegemonic identities along sex/race/sexuality axes of differentiation. Young's appropriation of Kristeva shows how the operation of repulsion can consolidate “identities” founded on the instituting of the “Other” or a set of Others through exclusion and domination. What constitutes through division the “inner” and “outer” worlds of the subject is a border and boundary tenuously sustained for the purposes of social regulation and control. The boundary between the inner and outer is confounded by those excremental passages in which the inner effectively becomes outer, and this excreting function becomes, as it were, the model by which other forms of identity-differentiation are accomplished … For inner and outer worlds to remain utterly distinct, the entire surface of the body would have to achieve an impossible impermeability. This sealing of its surfaces would constitute the seamless boundary of the subject; but this enclosure would invariably be exploded by precisely that excremental filth that it fears.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, in Vincent Leitch, ed., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2001), 2495.

Butler is talking about gender, but she might as well be talking about the environment. If we apply her argument to ecology, we notice two things. First, human society has defined itself by excluding dirt and pollution. In an age of ecological panic and scientifically measurable risk (Ulrich Beck's risk society), we find ourselves unable fully to endorse this exclusion, or even to believe in the world that the exclusion produces. This is literally to do with thinking about where you waste goes (excremental and otherwise).

Secondly, and perhaps even more disturbingly (because we're now talking about ideological fantasy, and its grip on social reality), this exclusion of pollution also goes for our performance/construction of “Nature” itself. Nature is defined as pristine, wild, immediate, pure—and masculine...yes that's right! Nature is not Woman! (More on this soon.)

In order to have subjects and objects, you have to have abjects to vomit, to spit, to excrete. Butler is using Julia Kristeva's psychoanalytic theory of abjection, expounded in Powers of Horror.

Any theory of the environment that claims to subvert the subject–object distinction, if it doesn't address the issue of the abject, will become simply an idealized or “new and improved” brand of Nature, which already excludes the abject.

Therefore, while we “clean up” the planet, theory should be doing precisely the opposite: lingering with defilement and pollution.

This is basically the idea of “dark ecology,” something I explore differently in Chapter 3 of Ecology without Nature.

The ecological thought and queer theory are intimate. It is not that ecological thinking would benefit from an injection of queer theory from the “outside.” It's that, fully and properly, the ecological thought is queer theory: queer ecology.

In turn, queer theory—and queerness, for that matter—is not an ephiphenomenal blip on the most recent page of human cultural history. Nor is it a late addition to 4.5 billion years of evolution. A quick read of The Origin of Species and even more so, The Descent of Man, will convince you that life forms themselves are queer all the way down. Then if you really want to whack-a-mole the idea that humans have genders, but animals just have “sex,” there's no need to read Donna Haraway's work on primates (though it would help). You can pick up a copy of almost anything Richard Dawkins has done. It's probably bad taste in some circles to say you've been reading Richard Dawkins but there you go, I'm a bad taste sort of a guy.

Just describing my summer reading...continental philosophy and hardcore reductionist empiricism! What a combination! Darwin is beautifully written and very easy—he designed the books to be sold in railway stations. If you really want a deconstructive good time, take a look at Dawkins's The Extended Phenotype. It will change your sense of reality. You will no longer be able to hold holistic concepts such as “world” and “ecosystem” and you will come away with a refreshed sense of how life forms are planet Earth and how almost everything you experience is the phenomenal display of the genetic code (you think genes stop at the boundaries of the flesh?).

You want anti-essentialist performativity? Just read Darwin. Then to cap it off, study DNA—if you like, all life forms (phenotypes) are performances of DNA (the genotype). This isn't like phenotext and genotext (Kristeva)—it is phenotext and genotext! Because genotext consists of the social and biological (and Kristeva adds “ecological”) forces that determine the text—which, at a certain level, is DNA itself. This includes the phenomena of sexual display, the engine of sexual selection. Sexual display, as opposed to the “survival of the fittest” (a phrase anxiously inserted into Darwin's text at the behest of Wallace, who wasn't too keen on the idea of non-utilitarian notions of evolution), accounts for a whole lot of why life forms look and act the way they do. There is no good reason for my skin color and reddish facial hair—it's just that a few million years ago, someone thought it was sexy. It's likely that a whole lot of how our reality looks (from houses to Coca Cola bottles) has to do with sexuality (well, duh), which has to do with performativity. No, I'm not citing Freud or Butler. I'm paraphrasing Darwin.

DNA itself is of course a text—in the strong poststructuralist sense. My uncle recently retired from his biochemistry research job. One of his discoveries was about ERV-3. (You can find it in Virology 196 at sciencedirect.com or PubMed if your university has that database). Your DNA contains 98% chimp DNA (we know that), 35% daffodil DNA (Wordsworth eat your heart out), and on and on—but it doesn't stop there. The DNA also contains viral and plasmid insertions so that it's impossible, even at that level, to identify which part of the code is “host” and which part is “parasite” (paging Hillis Miller...). ERV-3, otherwise known as Endogenous Retrovirus 3, does interesting things. For one, it appears to code for a protein that enhances the immunosuppressive properties of the placental barrier. So it appears that you are reading this because a virus in your genes helped your mom's placenta to operate properly. What an amazing mixture of boundaries, insides, outsides, and permeabilities, all the way down...

DNA has no flavor. There is no human-flavored DNA. There is no daffodil-flavored DNA. There is also no male-flavored DNA.

Deconstruction and queer theory have nothing to fear from biology—come on in, the water's lovely!

So I guess what I'm saying is that queerness is installed in reality at the ontic level, at the level of substance. It's not a sheer style of higher primate phenotypes, primates who are at the tip of a tiny arm growing out of one of the spokes on the wheel of life, which is mostly made up of “asexual” bacteria and amoebae. Any claim that nonhumans have “natural” binary sex is editing out about almost every single life form.

So how are we to read Coleridge in light of all this? Or is he just a historical artifact now, interesting in his wrongness? Is there any utopian energy still bound up in the text of The Rime? I believe there is, and that this energy has to do with intimacy, and the fear of intimacy, with other life forms, with life forms as other. (That includes you.) This “other“ is decisively not an object, but a subject—though this word may be inadequate to describe the depths of the “person.”

We could debate whether or not Coleridge is depicting a world, whose world it is, whether it's coherent, etc. But I don't think these questions are as powerful as the one that still seems to beckon from our own political future. This is the question of how to be-with the other life forms on this Earth.

If the terms of the debate are about whose “world” it is anyway, then I can't get involved, because to do so would be to accept the terms—that we are living within worlds or systems that are bounded by horizons, holistically integrated, etc. Otherwise the poem becomes an interesting relic from an age when those thoughts could still be held without bad faith. Which is okay. Perhaps then I would interpret the poem as a good example of how not to do the ecological thought. But I think the poem speaks to us now, about things we are only just beginning to think.

“The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she” (3.193). An interesting syntactical inversion of “It is an Ancient Mariner” (1.1). While the Mariner's existence precedes his identity (so to speak), here we have the reverse. It is as if the Mariner's fantasy about Life-in-Death impedes her existence. Synethiaphobia gets in the way of intimacy. The Mariner sees her as fantasy realized, as a horrifying creature from his inner space. Woe betide anyone who appears to externalize someone's fantasy. In this mode, love is always mortifying. Life-in-Death is a “Nightmare”—a horse that rides the night. (Another animal motif—a dream-horse, a horse-dream.) She's a Spenserian allegorical figure, a cipher. She appears only to incarnate the Mariner's deepest fears and wishes. Notice the tense change: “Who thicks man's blood with cold” (3.194) The Mariner forgets that he is telling a tale, so “ghastly” is the fantasy that sill seems to stick to him, as intimately as his “skinny hand, so brown” (4.228).

Can we, dare we, read against the grain here, against the overwhelming tide of fantasy and identification? Can we push back through identity to sheer existence? To intimacy with this strangest of strangers?

~TO BE CONTINUED~

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The ecological thought—mission statement

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Hi Everyone.

Very kindly, Ron asked me to post a synopsis of my doings here. Writing it was very helpful.

I'm quite jazzed from having just come out of a theory class where I was teaching Althusser, so you may recognize some things Lacanian in here. But I hope I've made the language fairly obvious.

It was one of those happy classes when you allow yourself to think, hey, this critique thing might just be possible...

If you still want to find out more, go to my blog Ecology without Nature.

Here we go:

The ecological thought—mission statement
Timothy Morton

Think of a Rorschach blot: as well as looking like a cloud or a person, it is just a meaningless stain. Aside from content and form, texts are blobs of others' enjoyment, literally—they are made of ink—and less literally, but still fantasy is a part of reality. Therefore reading is fundamentally coexistence with others. To read a poem is a political act, a nonviolent one. At the very least, there is an appreciation, with no particular reason, of another's enjoyment. I would argue that (at least closely analytical) reading goes beyond mere toleration, towards a more difficult, disturbing, and potentially traumatic encounter with enjoyment—which is always “of the other,” even when it's your own.

Reading a text is a profoundly ecological act, because ecology, at bottom, is coexistence (with others, of course), which implies interdependence. What I call the ecological thought is the thinking of this coexistence and interdependence to the fullest possible extent of which we are capable. If we are going to make it through the next few decades, we will have explored deeply the implications of coexistence.

Some of these implications are highly disturbing to “environmentalist” ideology: that we are not living in a “world”; that there is no Nature; that holism is untenable; that personhood is a form of artificial intelligence; that ecology is queer down to the genomic level, and so on. These highly counterintuitive conclusions are forced on us by the ecological thought itself, which is thinking coexistence, coexistence as thinking.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is about reading as coexistence beyond mere toleration. On many levels, it presents ecological coexistence as a theme. At its most profound, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner forces us to coexist with coexistence itself, with the meaningless distortion of the real. It is a poem whose reading helps us to think the ecological thought. My blogging here is a contribution to this project. I am finishing a book called The Ecological Thought in which I explore these issues in a different way.

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Romantic Natural History

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As Tim Morton and I have noted in our early posts for the new Romantic Circles blog (and as Tim argues so persuasively in Ecology Without Nature), we now need to rethink our uses of the word “nature” and its cognates, perhaps to the point where the very concept vanishes, not because it has “ended” (as Bill McKibben proposed in 1989) but because it now provides only a vague idea that is neither accurate nor useful. Likewise, the replacement of anthropocentrism with ecocentrism in the world we now inhabit becomes a necessity one we accept the fact that Heideggerian “building,” “dwelling,” and “thinking” (Bauen Wohnen Denken, 1951) keep us firmly planted in the nonhuman world even when we speak and write as humans. I prefer to think of us as “roosting” rather than dwelling, an idea I will take up in a subsequent post. But in recent years, these reflections have led me to create a hypertext resource, Romantic Natural History: see

http://users.dickinson.edu/~nicholsa/Romnat/romnat1.htm

We live in a time when the relationship between the human and the nonhuman is undergoing particular pressure. Consider, to choose only the most obvious recent example, our relationship to oil, to all petroleum products, nothing but the remnant refuse of millions of years of pressure on organic materials that were useless for most of human history, but for the sake of which we are now ready to make wars and rumors of wars that could threaten the very existence of Western culture.

At any such time in history—when the relations between the “natural” and the “non-natural” are being stretched to their limits: bang!—the very idea that defines the “human” is as open to debate as the idea of the nonhuman: think cyborgs, think clones, think test-tube babies and cryogenic corpses. Just such a time occurred when Aristotle first catalogued over 500 species of living creatures, including humans; in fact, roughly one quarter of Aristotle's known work refers to zoology. Another such time occurred when Pliny's Naturalis Historia yielded dozens of books ranging through astronomy, geography, human biology, zoology, botany, medical botany, metallurgy, and geology. Pliny claimed that his work drew on 100 earlier authors and included 20,000 “facts” of nature. When, in the next few decades no doubt, the first human brain receives the first transplant of a silicon chip that will control hormone releases, blood pressure, mood, and even the “person-ality,” we will have reached the point where urbanature will have to give way to humanature.

Meanwhile, the vast cultural category that is called “Romantic” now stretches from a pre-Romantic era (1450? 1500?) to post-Romanticism (the afternoon during which I am writing these words) and everything in between. Christopher Columbus was a Romantic, as we can read in his letters and in accounts of his life, but so were Werner Heisenberg and Stephen Jay Gould. E. O. Wilson is a Romantic: “Ask the questions right from the beginning of the freshman class: What is the meaning of sex? Why do we have to die? Why do people grow old? What's the whole point of all this? You've got their attention. You talk about the scientific exploration of these issues and in order to understand them you have to understand something about the whole process of evolution and how the body works.” (see http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge117.html)

From the time of Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook, global exploration introduced the Western world to new species of plants and animals, and even to “new” groups of human beings. Real dragons (the komodo: Varanus komodoensis), sea monsters (giant squid: Architeuthis), and cannibals were all parts of the stories of these expeditions. Many of these creatures were discovered and transported back to Europe and America for exhibition. The Prussian polymath Alexander von Humboldt was the embodiment of such explorations. His ascent of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador was the highest altitude ever reached by a human at the time. He received life-threatening electric shocks while wrestling with electric eels from the Orinoco River in the Amazon basin. He collected bird guano (for manure), and his description of its properties made it one of Europe’s most important fertilizers. He argued that Africa and South America were originally part of the same landmass, long before the theory of plate tectonics, and he virtually invented the science of meteorology.

Many such explorations of the continents and far-flung islands introduced Europe to plants and animals—not to mention human beings—with remarkable shapes and habits. Snakes that could eat goats, spiders as large as a human hand, people who filed their teeth to sharp points: these tales revealed the world of “nature” to be stranger than anyone has imagined. Discoveries were catalogued in exquisite books of natural history and displayed in early zoos and cabinets of curiosities, private precursors to public museums. There was wide variation among all of this flora and fauna, but there were also stunning similarities, even continents away and oceans apart.

In addition to all of this life, neither amateur naturalists nor dedicated scientists could ignore fossil evidence that flooded into view by the middle of the eighteenth century. Geological hammers were uncovering an earth that was constantly changing. At the same time, scientists like Richard Owen were describing reptiles as big as dragons that had lived on earth for millions of years, millions of years ago: the dinosaurs (“terrible lizards”). Some natural theologians were so upset by this picture of the past that they argued that God had hidden fossils deep in the earth to test the faithful. Other fundamentalists claimed that tyrannosaurus rex and stegosaurus were the remnants of antediluvian creatures that did not make it onto Noah’s ark.

Then, around 1811, a 12-year-old girl, walking on a cliff-side English beach, uncovered ancient bones of gigantic dimensions. Mary Anning had been literally struck by lightning—her nurse had died—when she was barely a year old. Now she struck figurative lightning into the scientific world by finding the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur, a gigantic “fish-lizard” that had roamed the Mesozoic seas for tens of millions of years. Her brother had found the skull a year earlier. You can still see Mary Anning’s dinosaur hanging on the wall of the Natural History Museum in London. The confusion created by such geological discoveries was not just religious, however. The way people thought about their own world was changing. That sturdy mountain over there that once seemed such an image of permanence? It will not last forever. That mighty river yonder that has flowed here for all time? Wrong. As Charles Lyell had shown, it was not flowing in this valley five million years ago, and it might not be here a million years from now.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the gorilla was the Loch Ness monster or the yeti, a mythical creature existing only in the local legends of several central African tribes. Then in 1847, an American missionary doctor—appropriately named Thomas Savage— described a creature he called Troglodytes gorilla. “Troglodytes” means caveman; “gorilla” was the name of a “tribe of hairy women” encountered by Hanno, the famous Carthaginian explorer of the fifth century BCE. But Savage had apparently seen only a few skeletons. The first gorilla hunter and collector was Paul du Chaillu, a larger-than-life Frenchman who killed and collected specimens until he was almost killed in several dramatic encounters with the local human population. Du Chaillu was also the first person to confirm the existence of the group of people known as “pygmies.”

Physical similarities between apes and humans were as unsettling as they were hard to explain. The orangutan was called Homo sylvestris—“man of the woods”—well into the nineteenth century. As early as 1800, visitors to La Specola (the observatory) museum in Florence had been able to gaze upon a perfectly preserved chimpanzee. From up close, his hand looks just like a human hand (he is still there today), his tongue looks like a human tongue, and his eyes—though glass—gaze out with a strange sense of recognition. This is most likely the ape that Byron gazed upon when he visited the museum. By the late eighteenth century, public zoos began exhibiting living specimens of these exotic creatures. No human, I venture to say, whether fundamentalist or atheist, can look upon a living or stuffed great ape without an unnerving, or exciting, sense of recognition. These creatures must be our kin. Meanwhile, theorists from Grandfather Erasmus Darwin to Grandson Charles Darwin were hinting at evolutionary explanations that linked humans directly to all of these monkeys and apes by way of common ancestors. Maybe our ancestors had swung through the trees? Maybe we have been “roosting” on earth for a long, long time. For a timeline of some of these developments, please see

http://users.dickinson.edu/~nicholsa/Romnat/timeline.htm

I am serious when I say, in the manifesto for the Romantic Natural History hypertext resource, that “the project seeks to be inclusive, as well as evaluative, and welcomes contributions. In this sense, the site will remain--like creation itself--permanently ‘under construction’.” I welcome your suggestions, your contributions and, especially, your corrections.

--Ashton Nichols

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The ecological thought—a ghastly fugue

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Hi, hey, hulloo, hello, and hail...

Kurt Fosso's recent posting got me thinking about the gloss of the Rime. There may be several ways of reading Coleridge's frequent glosses and frames. There's the possibility of a sort of “naive-sophisticated” frame—maybe we should call it Level 1—where the frame says, in effect, “What you are about to read is made up.” (This may be Mike Wiley's hypothesis about the raven poem—hi Mike!) Then there's a Level 2 frame, which uses the effect of Level 1 in a paradoxical way, to disinhibit the reader: “Don't worry, this is just a fiction.” Then I guess there's Level 3, where Levels 1 and 2 are used to create an “impossible” subject position that combines utter literalness and aesthetic distance. Level 3 frames are popular in horror movies, where the director or other spokesperson says “Warning! This is going to be horrific,” and then it is. This seems to combine Level 2 and Level 1 frames. Something like Level 2 (if not 3) happens in “Kubla Khan” when STC says “Don't worry, this isn't really a poem, just a psychological curiosity, a sort of brain scan.” Weave a circle round the poem thrice, as it were...

Question: are animals and irony always on opposite poles? Wouldn't this reproduce the human–nonhuman boundary? Animals = authenticity, irony = humanity...?

I'm not sure exactly how the gloss works yet regarding our ecological theme, but I have some ideas, thanks to Kurt, which I'll try to post.

On the subject of animal-poems, animal-as-poem, etc., there's Ted Hughes's “The Thought-Fox,” which makes a big deal of this metaphor. Heideggerian readers can knock themselves out on line 1: “I imagine this midnight moment's forest.”

I started another blog dealing with philosophical, scientific, political, and aesthetic issues on ecology. It's called Ecology without Nature. All comers welcome. It features a link to a talk I gave recently on cognition and poetry (and their environmental implications).

As I thought about where we are with this reading of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I started to think about the poem's use of the word “ghastly.”

Here's our dictionary again:

OED “ghastly,” a. 1. a. In early use: Causing terror, terrible (obs.). In mod. use (cf. 2): Suggestive of the kind of horror evoked by the sight of death or carnage; horrible, frightful, shocking.
b. colloq. Said hyperbolically of persons or things objectionable on various grounds: Shocking, ‘frightful’.
2. a. (Influenced by GHOST: cf. quot. 1711.) Like a spectre, or a dead body; death-like, pale, wan. Of light: Lurid.
b. of a smile, a grin. [Hello, I say to myself...]
c. said of immaterial things.
3. Full of fear, inspired by fear. Obs.

If ecology doesn't speak about ghosts, it loses a crucial dimension of reality. The psychic dimension is not an optional component.

If at bottom the ecological thought is the (traumatic) encounter with the strange stranger, then ecology is uncanny all the way down. This intuition is confirmed by a brief study of Freud's essay “The Uncanny,” in which he makes potent references to experiences of being in an environment—lost in winding streets, lost in a forest. (Robert Smith eat your heart out.)

Where Coleridge's poem reaches its most “supernatural,” in its excess over the natural, is precisely where we find the ecological. Recursively, the Mariner talks of his telling:

“Oh shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!”
The Hermit crossed his brow.
“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say—
What manner of man art thou?”

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 7.574–590)

It is precisely when the Mariner talks of his uncanny compulsion to repeat that we glimpse the ecological dimension of his tale's very form. This form comes again and again, like a viral code. Isn't that the disturbing thing about nature—that it keeps on going, and going, and going, like the Energizer Bunny?

Yet what we habitually call “nature” seems to be sandwiched between a bottom level that is pure automatic self-replication (the genome); and a top level that is also curiously repetitive—the psychic. It is as if when we speak of “nature” we edit out these viral levels. Both levels are “ghastly,” since this word names both flesh and immaterial things. This ghastliness is both alive and dead at once—I'm tempted to say undead. A “ghastly” light is lurid—death-colored and wan, or glowing with too much life.

The tale itself is a “selfish meme” that takes over the poor body of the Mariner. Isn't that the minimum definition of a psyche—an alien force that possesses us, makes us do its bidding? Isn't the psyche itself a kind of partial object that takes the body over and dominates it?

And isn't this the truth of the “selfish gene,” too—that life forms and their environments (which they co-create and co-sustain) are basically vehicles for gene propagation? So from the gene's and from the psyche's points of view, we are the same—we are zombies, living dead.

So the tale, portrayed here as a kind of vomit that grips the Mariner from the inside until he ejects it—or even as viral DNA whose vector is the Mariner's speech—marvelously combines both genomic and “memetic” levels.

This would be true of the title of the tale itself. “Rime” is rhyme, and hoar-frost (OED, “rime,” n1.1, n.2.a.). Like rime, viruses are basically gigantic, monstrous crystals. The moon in the sky in part 4 “bemocked the sultry main / Like April hoar-frost spread” (4.267–268). It is as if, like a crystal, the viral structure appears to repeat at different levels of the text.

(Actually, “rime” n.3 is Old English for number, or reckoning. We are dealing with iteration, with mathematical structures—crystals and rhymes, and viruses. And thus with the possibility of iterations that don't stop—with infinity. See the Infinite Interlude.)

A “ghastly” tale indeed (7.584), a tale of animated bodies, a “ghastly crew” (5.340). These are not souls that consist of some ethereal substance from beyond “this side” of reality. Instead, we witness souls as ghasts, as specters—as a disturbing distortion of this side itself. The “Christian soul” which the sailors perversely impute to the Albatross is the second of these “ghasts”—the first being the Mariner himself.

Wordsworth criticized the poem for having a wholly passive protagonist. Yet it is this very passivity that shows us the zero degree of ecological being, which is irreducibly a being-with. And a bisection of living tissue by these monstrous, replicating hosts—genome and psyche.

The ghastly intimate, yet external—extimate—quality of the tale appears in the face of Life-in-Death, “that woman” from the “spectre-bark” (3.189, 3.202). She emerges from a distance, not out of a beyond, for she exists on this side of reality. That's what's so disturbing about her. As the Mariner watches the “speck” of the “spectre” ship growing ever closer, it's like looking down a microscope at an “animalcule” that gets ever bigger as the magnification increases; peering with irresistible fascination at a squirming life form, its cilia wafting “Like restless gossameres” (3.184). The death ship is already within the Mariner's field of vision. It does not appear out of nowhere, but is simply there when the Mariner looks westwards. There like he is: “It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1).

On one level, then, the “spectre” ship and its crew are the gaze of science, looking back at us from the point of view of the object of science itself. This code becomes very explicit in Frankenstein. It's not the content, but the authoritarian coldness, of scientific discourse, which the ecological thought must melt. Life-in-Death “thicks man's blood with cold” (3.194).

Life in Death

Life-in-Death is not a figure of horrifying power, but of horrifying vulnerability. She is both psyche, pure appearance—red lips, yellow locks and all—and infected flesh—“Her skin was white as leprosy” (3.192)—naturally we expect skin as white as snow, or something. She is an animated doll, and fantasy realized in the external realm, a nightmare. It would not be hard to dismiss her as a misogynistic cartoon of Phallic Woman.

Yet this dismissal would miss her vulnerability, her passivity (yes, her cartoon-like, puppet-like appearance), which is precisely what is so disturbing about her. After all, she is casting dice for the souls of the crew, which implies that she might lose. Life-in-Death is a bacterial Cinderella, and isn't Cinderella's passivity also what disturbs?Like the Mariner himself, then, whom the Wedding Guest starts to dread with his “skinny hand” and deathly appearance (4.224–227).

Life-in-Death is a being from our inner space, yet also from external, extra-psychic space. It is as if the poem is daring us to eject her, to vomit at the sight of her. She is no petrifying Medusa.

Life-in-Death's very face appears eaten away by disease. Not that we know for sure that the face is indeed diseased. Very skillfully, and economically, Coleridge superimposes pure feminine appearance (“As white as”) and the self-replicating, asexual subroutines of deadly infection (“As white as leprosy”). Above all, Life-in-Death is a face, a face in all its terrifying carnality. This is the face of undead life, of life as undead. The face of a psyche, and the face of viral replication. Not a cute Disney “animal” face. A strange stranger face.

What a gift this face is for the ecological thought!

Can we possibly listen to this face, talk with it, coexist with it? In a softer key, part 4 encourages us to think about lingering with disgusting beings. Can we linger here, at the palpitating heart of the nightmare?

What we need to examine is the pornographic “cold” with which Life-in-Death “thicks man's blood” (3.194)—it is precisely the reaction of the masculine subject to this exposed, vulnerable being that is the problem. This is a poem about phobia and intimacy, intimacy-phobia.

The ecological thought consists in a progressive coming to terms with abjection, disgust and grief. And with the zero degree of life as monstrous, random replication.

In fact, rather wonderfully, the theoretical framework of the ecological thought replicates the “top” and “bottom” levels of “life”—the viral and the psychic. It's a strange brew of life sciences and Lévinas, Dawkins and Derrida.

With its witches' oils (part 2) and its water snakes (part 4), the Rime approaches, then backs away from, the frontal horror of Life-in-Death. Let's linger with her face some more, in the next installment. For the encounter with the strange stranger is exactly this encounter with a nightmarish, inconsistent, incomplete being that gives the lie to metaphysical terms such as “organism,” “life form,” “mind,” and “person.”

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Animals in poetry

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Tim Morton’s blog entries on Coleridge’s Rime have me thinking about animals and representation. Does an animal depiction in a fable or allegory retain some trace of its animal referent-sign’s animality? Or, put differently, can animals be used in such a way that their animal nature is eradicated and they become fable as such? Can their materiality, that sublime ‘other side’ of the metaphorical equation, be supplanted by cultural reference—reference toward a human moral, political dispute, event, and so on? What then of Akira Lippit’s intriguing Freudian notion of “animetaphor”:

The animal world opens up behind the dreamwork, establishing a kind of originary
topography shared by human beings and animals. . . . [E]very dreamer carries the trace of animality. . . . [Moreover, o]ne might posit provisionally that the animal functions not only as an exemplary metaphor but, within the scope of rhetorical language, as a kind of originary metaphor. One finds a fantastic transversality at work between the animal and the metaphor—the animal is already a metaphor, the metaphor an animal. (1112-13)

All the more reason to question whether fabulous animals, the animals of fable, ballad, parable, and axiom, are non-animal or only incidentally this or that species or genus. One doesn’t want to confuse representation with reality, to be sure. But we also want to be careful about too quickly determining just what that “reality” or referent is or can be, perhaps especially when the metaphor or other figure being used is an animal. Can such a figure ever be univocal?

Take, for instance (and even as an instance sine qua non and ne plus ultra), Coleridge’s “The Raven,” a poem I plan to write on at some length later—and to blog about briefly and provisionally here and now.

In “Coleridge's ‘The Raven’ and the Forging of Radicalism,” Michael Wiley sagely argues that Coleridge faux-Spenserian fable “comments upon the workings of literary forgery,” inspired in large part by the contemporary forgery of the Shakespeare Papers. (Wiley also points out that Coleridge rather explicitly associates his Rime with the Chatterton and Macpherson forgeries). According to Wiley,
“The Raven,” with the letter to the editor intact—and with Coleridge's name again absent in the Morning Post publication—tells a metatextual joke, though in service of a serious seditious point. The text says of itself: this is a forgery, which speaks dangerously about present political and social issues in the guise of speaking about the Spenserian past, and which treats language and authors in the ways that actual forgeries do. (808-9)
Wiley concludes that Coleridge’s fable demonstrates the manner in which authors and readers could be in on the joke—a clear joke—and that a poem that ostensibly claims to be about the Spenserian past “nonetheless might be about the late-eighteenth-century present—that the displacement, while protecting the writer, would fool no one” (809).

It’s worth quoting the poem in its entirety, so we can all be on the same page. First the curiously animal-related letter to the editor that preface the poem in the Morning Post:

Sir,
I am not absolutely certain that the following Poem was written by EDMUND
SPENSER, and found by an angler, buried in a fishing-box—
“Under the foot of Mole, that mountain hoar,
“Mid the green alders, by the Mulla's shore.”
But a learned Antiquarian of my acquaintance has given it as his opinion, that it resembles SPENSER's minor Poems as nearly as Vortigern and Rowena the Tragedies of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. (quoted in Wiley, 803)
The relevance to current forgeries, and to the shared “joke,” seems clear given the mention of the Shakespeare Papers (Vortigern and Rowena) and the sly, antiquarian-informed suggestion of the text being by Spenser—or rather, as much resembling that bard’s “minor Poems” as Vortigern resembles any of Shakespeare’s tragedies. But why the provenance of an angler’s “fishing-box”? Why situate the poem there, amid the hooks and other equipment used to lure and catch not readers (as such) but fish? Certainly we might now see the poem itself as a bit of fishing, with its barbs and hooks clearly evident. But is this site related not just to fishers of men (so to speak) but to those animals, especially given the text’s own focus, or seeming focus, on a pair of English birds rather than bards?

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!
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.

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.

At length he came back, and with him a She
And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree.
They built them a nest in the topmost bough,
And young ones they had, and were happy enow.
But soon came a Woodman in leathern guise,
His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes.
He'd an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke,
But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven's own oak.
His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
And their mother did die of a broken heart.

The boughs from the trunk the woodman did sever;
And they floated it down on the course of the river.
They sawed it in planks, and its bark they did strip,
And with this tree and others they made a good ship.
The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship would withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush'd in fast;
Round and round flew the Raven, and cawed to the blast.
He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls--
See! see! o'er the topmast the mad water rolls!

Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,

And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank'd him again and again for this treat:

They had taken his all, and REVENGE IT WAS SWEET!

What a finale! Wiley hears Spenserian echoes in the opening description of the oak, and an obvious Burkean ring to the swine (Burke’s “swinish multitude”). Thereby, the oak becomes a symbol of Britain, its navy, its monarchy (witness Charles II’s Order of the Royal Oak). Yet, as Wiley confesses, the poem’s other signs, animal as well as human, “are less definitely attributed,” including the curious reference to a “fox,” deciphered by Carl Woodring as a direct political allusion to Charles James Fox. Hence, Wiley focuses instead upon the raven’s “general, public role” in political fables of the century, from “Tale of the Raven and the Blackbird” (1715) to the “Raven's Proclamation” (1746).

But while the raven, like the bulldog and the oak, had a “public role”—as indeed did exotic animals like the tiger (see here Ashton Nichols’s “An Empire of Exotic Nature” )—what about the raven as an animal deserving of or exceeding such casting and acting? What in the bird’s perceived ‘nature’ (and its natural history) makes it more or less suitable for such satire or fable? And what sort of animal, animetaphorical meaning, if one can put matters that way, does this bird present in Coleridge’s poem, akin (distantly akin, twice removed) to the albatross in the contemporary Rime? Here’s a bird with an attitude, at least! Does the raven of this poem mean only what Wiley, Woodring, and other readers have astutely discovered in terms of the era’s politics? Would we err in seeing this poem’s avian figure as in any way a relative of the poet’s albatross or nightingale? In my next blog I’ll try to explore this question, hopefully with some help from kind readers and fellow bloggers.

Notes:

Akira Mizuta Lippit, “Magnetic Animal: Derrida, Wildlife, Animetaphor,” MLN 113 (1998): 1111-25. See also Lippit’s Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000).

Michael Wiley, “Coleridge's ‘The Raven’ and the Forging of Radicalism,” SEL 43 (2003) 799-813.

Ashton Nichols, “An Empire of Exotic Nature: Blake’s Botanic and Zoomorphic Imagery,” The Reception of Blake in the Orient, ed. Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki (New York: Continuum, 2006), 121-33. Blake’s visionary distrust of the natural (seemingly external) world did not prevent him from “celebrat[ing] its physical beauty, its sensuous details and its crucial role in our awareness of our human place in the cosmos” (132).

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The ecological thought, part fourth

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We hailed it in God's name.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.66)

We made it! And, as you probably guessed, we're going to look at the various significances of “hailing,” not to mention “in God's name.” This means getting busy with Heidegger and Lévinas.

Note that the Albatross is still an “it.” (See my previous posts for analysis.)

On the shelf above my computer a printout from the Oxford English Dictionary has been sitting since February 2005. It's a printout concerning the word “Hello.” Yes, I've been meaning to think this through for three and a half years! Thank you, Romantic Circles!

Here's the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: “An exclamation to call attention; also expressing some degree of surprise, as on meeting any one unexpectedly.”

The dictionary continues:

A. as int. a. Also as a greeting. [Earliest citation 1883. Earliest citations are given in brackets below.]

b. Used as an answer to a telephone call. [1892]

B. as n. [1897]

Hence hello v., to shout hello!” [1895]

Things have changed somewhat in the new online edition. For a start, citations have been pushed back to around the time of the second version of our poem! The sense of “hello” as a greeting was emerging while Coleridge was refashioning The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

A. int.

1. Used as a greeting. Also in extended use. [1827]

2. Used to attract attention. [1833] [In the Althusserian sense: as when a police officer in an British comedy says “Allo, allo, allo! What's all this then?”] [“Hi” has something of this resonance]

3. Used to express surprise or to register an unexpected turn of events. [1838]

4. Used to answer a telephone call. [1877]

5. colloq. (orig. U.S.). Used to imply (sometimes disbelievingly or sarcastically) that the person addressed is not paying attention, has not understood something, or has said something nonsensical or foolish. [1985] [Let's call this one the Californian hello]

B. n. An utterance of “hello”; a greeting. [1854]

Notice how the definitions are assigned discrete numbers (five of them), as if the new dictionary were giving up on trying to explore the meaning of the word deeply. The telephone-answering “hello” is now sense A.4. rather than sense A.b. The sense that was given a place at the top of the hierarchy in the second edition (“An exclamation to call attention...”) is now assigned position A.2., and the dictionary gives no overall sense. Notice also the frequent “Used to”s—it's as if the dictionary is backing off defining words.

Is this a function of our neighbor-(in)tolerant, postmodern-totalitarian world? I would like to see whether these features—replacing metaphorical hierarchy with metonymic lists, giving up on an “umbrella” definition at the top of a hierarchy, and referring to English as if it were spoken by some exotic subject of anthropological research (all the “used to”s)—are widespread in the new dictionary. Isn't this seeming backing-away from hierarchy, from saying what you think, urgently recursive in the case of “hello,” the very word we insert so casually into every interaction to welcome, to start communicating, to hail the other?

Don't we lose the richness of the second edition's definition—this is no lament for a lost presence, but in a way, for a lost absence, for a lost sense of the unexpected: An exclamation to call attention; also expressing some degree of surprise, as on meeting any one unexpectedly.” The very phrasing here enacts the surprise it's describing. There's the pause that turns out to be a slightly negative “moreover“; a tentative approach to the existence of an other; the final encounter with “any one.”

We shall shortly find these issues key to the ecological thought that emerges like a viral code in the lines we are interpreting.

I would like to restore to this most tritely well known part of Coleridge's masterpiece the full weight, the gravitational field, of the profound ambivalence that marks the seemingly casual appearance of the Albatross. I believe that if we don't account for this gravitational density, we won't be reading the poem ecologically. It would be far too easy to claim either that the bird stands for Nature, or for Supernature. This is the black hole of the poem. The Mariner just shoots the Albatross, for no stated reason. No meaning escapes from this part. We need to respect the black holiness if we're going read it properly. So to work.

Hel-lo! It looks like “hello” is bound up with the history of telephonics. Strangely, though, it seems telephonic before telephones, as it were. If you express surprise “on meeting any one unexpectedly,” it's as if you are not yet talking with them, but are signaling that talking may or may not happen. It's a word that brings into language the proximity of an other.

It's a phatic utterance, in the language of the structuralist Roman Jakobson. It draws attention to the medium in which the message is transmitted. When you use it sarcastically, in the Californian manner, it's as if you are pointing out some imaginary communications breakdown. I visualize someone knocking on a glass helmet, or holding a telephone away from one's mouth and shouting “Hel-lo!”

(Phatic messages are the essence of what I call ambient poetics, which is the cornerstone of Ecology without Nature. All messages are environmental, because they encode their medium into their form. All art is, to this extent, ecological. Ecology will soon become a term like race, gender, and class, with which it is inextricably entwined in any case—a term you look for even when the supposed content of a text is not environmental per se.)

“Hello” is an etymological variant of “hallo,” which derives from “hollo” (the word in our poem), “hullo,” “hillo,” and “holla.”

Here are the definitions for the oldest variant, “hollo.”

A. int. A call to excite attention, also a shout of encouragement or exultation. [1588]

B. n. A shout of hollo! a loud shout; esp. a cry in hunting [1598] [c.f. “hey,” as in The Tempest, when Prospero and Ariel pretend to be commanding hunting dogs—“Hey Mountain, hey!” IV.1]

[“Hi” coincides with this:

?c1475

Hunt. Hare

136

Thei cryed, ‘Hy, hy!’ all at ones ‘Kyll! kyll! for kockes bownes!’

1747

Gentl. Mag.

39

Hold, hold, 'tis a double; hark hey! bowler hye! If a thousand gainsay it, a thousand shall lye.

1847

ALB. SMITH

Chr. Tadpole

xxx. (1879) 267

‘Hi!’ cried the brigand, giving the mule a bang with the butt-end of his musket. ‘Hi!’

1886

FENN

This Man's Wife

II.

ii,

It was not a thrilling word..it was only a summons{em}an arrest. Hi!

1894

{emem}

In Alpine Valley

I. 47

Here, hi! have a cigar?

1897

Daily News

2 Oct. 3/3

A good lunch, and then hi! for the Crystal Palace.]

Hmm, hunting...hel-lo.

It is indeed in sense B. that the dictionary cites our poem:

1598

TOFTE

Alba

(1880) 79 But when th' acquainted Hollow he doth heare..He leaues his flight, and backward turnes againe.

1670

Caveat to Conventiclers

4 He was no sooner seated, but he gave a lowd Hollow through the Air.

1697

tr.

C'tess D'Aunoy's Trav.

(1706) 9 They set forth lowder Hollows than before, and wished me a good Journey.

1798

COLERIDGE

Anc. Mar.

I. xviii, The Albatross...every day for food or play, Came to the Marinere's hollo!

1823

BYRON

Age of Bronze

xiii, The hounds will gather to their huntsman's hollo.

So the conventional way to read the passage on the Albatross would be to see a progressive degradation in communication. First the bird is “hailed...in God's name”; then it “came to the Mariners' hollo,” like a hunting dog; then, like a hunted bird, it's shot. It goes from lofty, almost angelic being to hunted animal in the space of a few verses. We descend from hail, to hello, to hi! Or even to oi [1936]!

It would be very easy, in this reading, to conclude that the telephonic hello had turned us away from Being, had turned us all into hunting dogs. Too easy perhaps.

Even the “hunting dog” sense of “hollo” has its ambivalence, between a call to play, and a call to return to the master. Unless play were always a simulation of hunting. Surely the bird comes “for food or play,” not to retrieve other dead birds! It is no hawk. In a sense the sailors themselves are playing, pretending that the bird is a kind of hawk. A pet. Like pretending that a rather ungainly golden retriever were a wolf. Of course the Albatross is “wild,” not “domestic.” But it's not hawk-wild, not majestic-wild. It's ungainly, it's disturbingly wild. It's “abject-wild” (more of this in a moment). Its hugeness is wonderfully captured in Mervyn Peake's illustration of the Albatross hung about the Mariner's neck at the end of Part 2.

Peake's Albatross

Now it seems as if there is a hesitation within the word “hello” itself, a hesitation that addresses (welcomes?) the matter at hand. For you can say “hello” and be speaking to yourself—“hello, how curious...”—as if the expression of wonder at an unexpected encounter (with an other) provoked a self-reflexive version of the Californian “hel-lo”—perhaps a less sarcastic, more gentle version. As if the strange stranger (because that's what we're talking about) provoked a self-reflection that was decidedly not a closed loop, but an opening. Or, better, as if the self-reflection noticed that an opening was already there, as if one had cut oneself and one was looking at the wound. “Hello” is the sound of someone noticing a wound. A gentle wound, perhaps, just a “lapse in being” as Lévinas puts it. Curiouser and curiouser (Alice in Wonderland style).

Then there is the tentative “hello?” that someone utters in a dark room when they are not sure whether anyone is there or not. It's like the echolocation of a bat or the sonar of a dolphin. This can also be a test of the medium of transmission itself, like a “ping” command to a url when you're not sure your internet is working. This hello says “I am here” and “This is here,” at once. Interesting, therefore, that Jakobson suggested that bird cries were phatic in this sense. When a parrot parrots a human word, it's not saying that word, it's saying hello. There's a wonderful ambivalence just within this hello, as if it meant “Is this a medium? Or not?” “Is this thing on?” (The saying of which might activate the realm of meaning, might indeed magically “switch it on” as it were). This is an illocutionary hello that does something in the saying of it, in its very ambivalence. “Is this on?” becomes “This is on!”

This hello, too, has its ambivalence. It appears to begin communication (that's what Jakobson says the phatic function is for—to demarcate communication from non-communication). It's a minimal mark, a sort of on switch. But doesn't the on switch imply the existence of an electrical circuit, a house, a shared existence, a being together? The existence of at least one (more) person? As if the darkness itself of the dark room, the Lévinasian “night” of sheer existence, were already populated, were already a communicative field, an electrical circuit. There is already information-space. Space is already warped by language. The “third” is already in the other, waiting in the darkness, even when there's no-one.

This (co)existence subtends and subverts easy communication, with its inside–outside system. “Hello” implies a pre-existing boundary between information and noise. An unspeakable coexistence.

And there is the “hello!” that summons, like a hunting dog, the other.

When you say hello on the phone, are you saying it in the first, second, or third sense? What kind of mixture?

When you “hail” something “in God's name,” are you welcoming a predictable stranger into an already well established domain? Is the bird an ambassador from God's domain, as it were, or are the sailors ambassadors for God, welcoming a foreigner to their “far countree”? The ecological irony here would be that the sailors are definitely in the albatross's world, a hostile ecosystem. This welcome “in God's name” would then be a colonial greeting to someone who already lived there. The bird should beware, in that case. It is already dead.

Is the hailing therefore already a kind of hunting-dog hulloo? Summoning a predictable object or tool (living or inanimate, already dead) to a predictable place? As when a car mechanic you called on your cellphone arrives on the deserted highway? “Hello! Thank God you're here!” (Again, I find Coleridge's poem weirdly predictive.)

For Heidegger poetry is a hailing (Heil—we can't but help hear the resonances, hel-lo!). This hailing appears to take place in, and/or to establish, a medium, a world. There is a sheen of otherness, a shimmering of the veil as he puts it, in the theater of the Same. The curtain swishes back (hello) to reveal a world.

Now hailing positively implies a lifeworld. A Norse one at that. Like “life” and “world” themselves, “hail” has an Old English root. To salute, to wish welcome, to “hail” is a metonymy of the noun “hail,” which means a mixture of “Health, safety, welfare. In northern ME. taking the place of the native Eng. hele, HEAL” (OED, “hail,” n2.1). The origin of the word is Old Norse, “heill health, prosperity, good luck” (OED). “Heal” or “hele” is an amalgam of health, good fortune, spiritual well-being—there's an integrated world, a horizon of meaning, a mind-body manifold that ecophenomenologists can only dream of.

Perhaps the lifeworld already had some tatters in it by the time “hail” acquired its nautical sense [1546], the sense we still use when we hail a taxi (v2.3, 4 and 4b—the latter being the one we use when we ask “where do you hail from?”). Now we're beginning to pick up a telephonic register—a calling or summoning from afar.

(Irony: when Heidegger says that poetry makes the absence of things present, brings the farness of things near, is he not thus distorting hele and hail and heal-thiness towards its modern, telephonic sense? Take a look at Avital Ronell's incredible The Telephone Book.)

Perhaps, however formal the hello tries to be, however much the ambassadors have prepared the party to receive their guest, there is always the trace of a radical uncertainty, effaced in the pomp and circumstance of welcome, and all the more visible in its effacement. Thus “in God's name” strives to efface this uncertainty, to underwrite the encounter with God's name (I can't help thinking of the welcome to Munchkin Land in The Wizard of Oz!). It interpellates the Albatross into a theistic symbolic order, and thus functions like the police officer's “Allo, allo, allo!”—an expression of predictable surprise, of a crime caught in the gaze of the law. Something fishy is going on in the ice.

This deep ambivalence serves in part to undo the work of “As if it had been a Christian soul.” It is as if the sailors can't tell, or don't want to tell, whether the bird is metaphorically or literally an emissary from God, or actually is God, emerging through the fog. To “hail it in God's name” in this sense might be to think of it as God itself, or himself, or herself, God in person, as person: to ascribe the name of God to the Albatross itself.

For there is yet another hello—the abject hello, the hello we say when we see someone who's already there, whom we do not like, or who does not like us. “Oh, it's you.” Isn't there something like this in the first line, “It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1)? He never gave us a chance to say hello. He was already there. Even though we don't technically like or dislike him yet, his presence disgusts and disturbs us. Surely this is not the hello the sailors want to be heard when they greet the Albatross. But perhaps it haunts their hello all the same.

The abject hello is the underside of reverence, the dark, ugly side of hailing. It is what hailing tries to excrete, to maintain its reverent authority.

When we greet the strange stranger, we are embarrassed by the fact that she, he, or it is already there. In the most intimate possible sense, for our existence is coexistence. There is already less of us to go around, and less of the strange stranger. The strange stranger from the first is not an integrated being greeting another integrated being in a more or less well established medium. “Hello” will always contain a trace of an awkardness, even hostility (Derrida: “hostipitality”), which it will struggle to edit out. The smooth, easy-wipe “hello” of a computerized telephone answering system or customer service contains the echo of this awkwardness in its very smoothness.

The sailors' joy and relief (if that is what is implied in their hailing) has an exorbitant element within it. Perhaps it is this excess enjoyment that ends up getting the bird killed. It eats their biscuit worms, shares their world, seems to guide them through the ice. Perhaps their unbearable dependency on it is precisely what provokes the shooting. Or, aware of their humiliation (the bird sees it, even plays along with it), they kill what they welcomed with such relief. We will never know.

There is perhaps an isomorphic backward glance at the end of part 2, when the “death-fires danced at night” in a sickening reel (“About, about, in reel and rout”), and the bird is hung from the ancient Mariner's neck, another humiliation. It could be read as a phantasmagorical increase of the play and fantasy that seemed innocent in the sailors' play with the Albatross. It gets even worse in Part 3, of course, when Death and Life-in-Death are playing for possession of the crew (“casting dice”).

One of the ways in which Nature shuns ecology is in its rejection of the queer Trickster.

The Albatross appears to have come from a beyond, but who knows? Do the sailors know? Is there not some vaguely hidden recognition that the appearance of the bird and the sailors' joy closes off the beyond forever? That the Albatross hails not from a beyond that gives meaning to a world bounded by a horizon, but appears abruptly on this side of a radically incomplete Universe, too close for comfort?

Isn't this how the utterly trite meaning of the Albatross, a karmic weight around your neck, a weight that is detachable from the poem, even, as if this part of the poem were itself the Albatross of the poem—isn't this how the trite meaning captures something profoundly true? That what we are witnessing here is gravity—matter itself, pulling us, pinning us to this side of reality? The horror of fog and mist is that it abolishes the background. Suddenly everything is foreground. The lifeworld goes up in smoke. The apocalyptic curtain is drawn around the beyond. The Albatross comes out from behind the curtain of mist, from out of its endless folds—we have no idea how far it's traveled (or not).

Isn't this anti-Wagner art, where you get to see the curtain wafting around, where you get to see that it hides not a world, not a horizon or a beyond, but a horrifying nothingness in its folds? This is the meaningless contingency in the face of which the sailors desperately try to rig up some kind of superstitious meaning in Part 2.

We are witnessing demystification, yes, but not so that we can see the workings underneath—another kind of apocalypse, and thus another kind of mystery. We are demystified, but there also takes place an “infinitization,” a disturbing appearance of infinity on this side of things. It just “cross[es]” the ship's path, “At length.” No fuss, no bother really—just a reminder that we're still alive.

How do we live in this world, on this side of reality, which is ecological coexistence, so easy to negate with apocalypticism, which now itself takes ecological forms? So easy to imagine the death of humanity, mass extinction—ha, that'll teach those Cartesians! They'll be laughing on the other side of their face when they're dead! Is this why we are writing ecological criticism? To increase our Schadenfreude? Aren't we just like the sailors, humiliated when our dreams (of Nature) are disturbed, wishing not for a genuine coexistence with other beings, but for a return to sleep, to green dreams?

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Emerson

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Emerson and Infinity

While I am working to process Tim's reflections on infinity, a topic in which all Romanticists should take an interest (since the Romantics so often did), I thought I would post a blog-o-sphere version--itself an infinite space!--of an introduction I have recently written for a new series of print-on-demand volumes being produced by a small publishing house near Baltimore. Emerson's thinking is shot through with reflections, direct and indirect, on infinite time, infinite space, and especially infinite possibility. The goal of this new series is to produce inexpensive versions of nineteenth-century editions of the "American Romantics" under the combined rubric of "Optimistic America" and the Brook Farm Revival Series. One interesting aspect of these books, published by G. W. Zouck publishing in Beckleysville, Maryland, is that the publisher will forward a percentage of the profits to a charity that continues in the spirit of the original author. For the essays of the young Emerson, already in production, profits will be sent to Doctors Without Borders and for the Walden edition, to be produced later this year, a donation will go to the Walden Woods Project. So here are some reflections (reproduced with permission) on why Emerson, even at his thorniest and most unreadable, remains crucial for Romanticists--and others--as we enter our strange new century.

Emerson for a New Era

Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the greatest thinkers America has produced. The decades from the 1830s through the 1860s saw a flowering of Emersonian ideas that helped shape new ways of thinking and produce writings whose powerful currents can still be felt today. Emerson’s optimism and his emphasis on the value of the individual are among his greatest and most abiding gifts to our culture. Thomas Jefferson had told us that all men were created equal and had promised us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it was left to Emerson to argue that women, African Americans and Native Americans shared the same rights as rich white men in nineteenth-century America. He showed us that freedom of thought was as important as any other kind of freedom, and he taught us that true happiness could come from surprisingly simple sources: our thoughts, our friends, a book, the sunshine. Emerson offered us belief in a divinity that resides in every human breast and a description of our material environment that links us all to the wider world.

Too liberal for the liberal Unitarians of Massachusetts, Emerson resigned from his ministry early in adulthood and never returned to any denomination. He spent the rest of his life on a spiritual quest, seeking truths that would be true at all times in all places, truths that could be understood by any person with an open mind and a generous heart. Emerson placed few limits on the powers of our new nation or on the diverse individuals who contributed to its democracy. “Self-Reliance” was not merely the title of one of his most influential essays; it was also a concept that summed up a complete philosophy of life. Just as each soul was part of the “soul” of the universe, so each American was part of the wider body politic. Likewise, the Emersonian idea of a godlike “over-Soul” allowed a wide range of believers, and even nonbelievers, to participate in new forms of religious, and secular, free thinking.

He broke with traditional systems of his time—dogmatic religion, strict educational rules, and narrow-minded two-party politics—in order to suggest that life presented limitless possibilities. He defined old words in new ways to explain his unrelenting optimism about “nature,” “self-reliance,” “the poet,” or the realm of “transcendental” ideas. For him, words like these encouraged each conscience to override the dictates of traditional rituals and social practices. A personal “inner voice” was Emerson’s guide to such intuitive knowledge, as it had been for Socrates. This voice came from a divine spark in all of us, our connection to the infinite Over-Soul; as a result, “A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the divine Soul which also inspires all men.”

Emerson sought to stake a prophetic claim for American culture. By 1836, Emerson came to be associated with a loosely organized circle of intellectuals, reformers, and writers who united themselves under the term “Transcendentalism.” He preferred the term “Idealism.” The essential point was that this innate spark of divinity resided in each individual and could be accessed by a transcendent self. The individual soul could thus be identified with the Over-Soul, the world soul, or perhaps even “God” in its ability to grant us true freedom: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”

More than any other figure, Emerson came to be seen as the father of Transcendentalism in America. Though many other thinkers contributed to the movement, it was Emerson’s lectures and published essays that gave form to this sometimes-amorphous range of ideas. In the process of finding his own brand of religion, Emerson had developed a set of philosophical ideals for others to follow. He eventually came to preach a gospel of almost secular salvation. The Transcendental Club, which he helped to form, was a gathering of individuals who were generally suspicious of all organized religions. Indeed, they were skeptical of organizations of any kind.

Emerson’s idea of America influenced essential ideas in others: Henry David Thoreau’s vigorous naturalism and his commitment to civil disobedience, Walt Whitman’s self-conscious and first-person “I,” Margaret Fuller’s early brand of feminism, George Ripley’s utopian experiment in rural and communal living, and Bronson Alcott’s student-centered view of educational theory and practice. Emerson also saw the imaginative artist as a kind of prophet. He says that poets—we would now say "creative writers"—have a crucial role in culture as the makers of newly minted meanings. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and their successors down to the present day would all in different and, sometimes contentious, ways agree.

Emerson’s own words became a central aspect of his legacy. In his manifesto “Nature,” he described his own moment of epiphany: “Standing on the bare ground, —my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, —all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” In the same essay, he notes that each of us needs to be similarly remade, “So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.” he concludes by claiming that this idealistic enterprise has a practical result: “Build, therefore, your own world.” In “The Over-Soul,” he is even more theologically controversial, “Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul. The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God.”

Emerson was one of those titanic figures in intellectual history whose thoughts were adopted almost immediately. His theological speculations, for example, lie behind a whole range of modern ideas about the dangers of extremism. People of differing religious, spiritual and ethical traditions might live together, accept one another’s differences, and even learn from one another. He preached against the truth of miracles. If we need miracles, we can find them within and around ourselves every day. The sun comes up each morning on schedule; the rain falls to fill the oceans and nourish the world; the life force pushes blades of grass through the sidewalk and brings new beings into existence; your hand opens and closes: these are all Emersonian miracles. What about truths contained in other great world religions? They are all in play for Emerson: the wisdom of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the truths of the Jains, the Sufis, and the Zoroastrians. Emerson knew all these forms of belief well. He helped to introduce them to an often-skeptical American public. He sought a very modern goal, how to be spiritual without being religious.

Thoreau was Emerson’s first, and perhaps foremost, disciple. Emerson gave Thoreau a series of touchstones on which to build his own, more practical, philosophy. Thoreau built his one-room cabin at Walden Pond on land owned by Emerson. Likewise Whitman, our most American of poets, fashioned himself directly out of Emerson’s description of the “poet.” Whitman became the spokesperson of a democratic people, a seer of all things who imposed no restrictions on the worlds he described: the smallest details of everyday objects around us, the lives of ordinary people, the beauties of the human body, and the often closeted truths about our sexuality. Emily Dickinson may not have ever had a public presence, but her cryptic poems sharply reflect the concerns of her Emersonian neighbors up the road in Concord and Boston. Oliver Wendell Holmes went so far as to claim that Emerson was the author of “our intellectual declaration of Independence.” More recently, Lawrence Buell sees Emerson as a founder of one unique strain in American thought, “the environmental imagination.” Emerson’s essays continue to influence a series of authors who link the nature essay to personal memoir: Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, David Quammen, and Bill McKibben.

We need Emerson now more than ever. We need his optimism, his idealism, his belief in the individual, and his confidence that all of us can fulfill our varied potentials. When Thoreau says,” the sun is but a morning star,” he is expressing pure Emersonian optimism. When Gandhi challenges us to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” he is adapting a central ideal of Emerson. When Martin Luther King says that he has an optimistic dream of racial equality (in the midst of an admittedly racist nightmare), he is drawing on Emerson’s idea that one single human mind is often where the world starts to change, for the better. Emerson does not offer us self-help. He offers us self-knowledge and with self-knowledge, as even Socrates taught, can come much wider knowledge of the world.

Read Emerson's essays and feel the surging energy that swelled around Concord and Boston starting in the 1830s. This set of ideas, about self-reliance and love, about compensation and friendship, can help us today toward a future that is ours to shape. If, as Emerson believed, our world is “the best throw of the dice of nature that has yet been, or that is yet possible,” then it is also true that we should “require the impossible of the Future.” For Emerson, and for those of us who still dare to call ourselves optimists, an impossible future is possible. We should all get busy.

--Ashton Nichols

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The ecological thought—an infinite interlude

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Cantor set

I've been writing a bit about infinity, so I thought it might be good to take a step aside and look at this some more.

Imagine a line. Now remove the middle third. You have two shorter lines with an equal-sized space between them. Now remove the middle thirds of the two lines you have left. Keep going!

You are creating something like a Cantor set. It was discovered by the brilliant mathematician Georg Cantor in the 1880s. Cantor got into a lot of trouble for his thoughts on infinity. But his discoveries laid the foundations for set theory, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and Alan Turing's thinking on Artificial Intelligence.

If you think about it, the Cantor set contains an infinite number of points. Yet it also contains an infinite number of no-points! It appears to contain two different infinities. Does this make it weirdly larger than an infinity of points alone?

Talk about holding infinity in the palm of your hand. A two-dimensional version is known as Cantor dust: infinite dust, and infinite no-dust. If you make a three-dimensional version, you will produce something like a Menger sponge, a fractal object with infinity spaces and infinity points. You can't squeeze a Menger sponge. But there's something there all the same.

Menger sponge

The strange stranger I referred to in the last posting is like the Menger sponge. Somehow, we have discovered infinity on this side of phenomena.

Who or what is a strange stranger? The category includes, but is not limited to, “animals,” “nonhmans,” and “humans.” In The Ecological Thought I refrain from using the word “animals” (unless in quotation marks). “Nonhumans” strictly refers to the set of those entities who are not Homo sapiens.

Now behold this Menger-sponge-like strange stranger, Astrophyton darwinium:

Astrophyton darwinium

O happy living thing! What a wonderful drawing by Ernst Haeckel, the man who gave us the word “ecology.”

Alain Badiou refers to his Lacanian “set theory” as “pre-Cantorian.” (See Kenneth Reinhard's essay in The Neighbor.) Now I'm not convinced you can actually have pre-Cantorian set theory—this would be like having pre-Newtonian gravitational theory (strike one against Badiou!). But you can have a non-Cantorian set theory. This has to do with whether or not you accept Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis, a project that ended up driving him insane. The Continuum Hypothesis states that there is no set whose size is strictly between the set of integers (1, 2, 3...) and the set of real numbers (rational numbers—integers and fractions—plus irrational ones like pi). As far as I know (I'm no mathematician) the issue is open right now. I'd like to know more about this, and I'd like to know why Badiou and Lacan appear hostile to Cantor.

Intuitively, I find Cantor's view of infinity (nay, infinities) very satisfying. Since I am by no means a mathematician I can't explain this properly. Still, I believe that the kind of infinity to which Lévinas refers when he writes of the other (autrui)—my strange stranger—is not “beyond” this side of reality, if by “beyond” we mean an outside. An outside would imply an inside—and this would imply a metaphysical system. Inside–outside distinctions are the basic ingredients of metaphysics.

I find the idea of an ontologically incomplete Universe where there is no neat holistic nesting of parts in wholes very satisfying, though at present I lack the precise language in which to articulate this idea.

Rigorous materialism must take seriously the seemingly theological idea that infinity is on this side of reality. I believe that work on infinity will counteract the Heideggerian tendency in ecological discourse. Since I hold that we cannot avoid a form of fascism unless we circumvent Heidegger, I also believe that this work is of the utmost political significance.

Burying our heads in the vulgar materialist sand, or the utilitarian environmentalist sand, won't do.

In general, we humanities scholars need some remedial math and science lessons. I'm dismayed that I have nothing but vague intuition to go on in suspecting Kenneth Reinhard's essay (noted above) of Badiou hagiography—mostly the preponderance of “According to Badiou”s in it.

I would love it if a kind Romanticist would help me. Paging Arkady Plotnitsky...

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