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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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The ecological thought, part third

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

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

Greetings all. Thanks so much to Ash Nichols for his comment on my previous, concerning the ways Romantic poetry can get its natural history wrong. I'm going to have to think about this one before I reply to it, so stand by. But I think my paradoxical reading (below) might go some way towards addressing the last couple of remarks—that the traditional reading of the shooting of the albatross has to do with disrupting some kind of natural continuum. Ash very reasonably wonders why this is any worse than, say, shooting a turkey for Thanksgiving.

And thanks to Ron Broglio for his comment on “worlding” and Uexküll, Heidegger's source. It's not surprising to me that Heidegger edits animals out of the worlding club. Only humans can have a world, while animals are “poor in world,” German Weltarm. Like most continental philosophers, he wants to assert that there is a radical discontinuity between humans and animals. In a recent anthology of such writing, I was amazed to find a still-living writer who proudly “rejects” the theory of evolution. This to my mind is like rejecting the three-sidedness of triangles!

The haughtiness with which this rejection is performed is quite extraordinary to one who has spent several months reading all the Darwin he could get his hands on. It's like something out of Gulliver's Travels.

So then, to work...

It struck me that while the sun is personfied as “he” (see “Part Second” below), the Albatross is reified as an “it.” Given the isomorphism between the two phrases (“Out of the sea came he,” 1.26 / “Thorough the fog it came,” 1.64) I don't think we can ignore this. Coleridge does indeed emphasize the inert density of the sheer existence of the life form. This gives “As if it had been a Christian soul” the full weight of its disturbing “As if”-ness.

The “As if” has the force of a fetishistic disavowal: “We knew very well that the Albatross wasn't a human soul, nevertheless, we acted as if it did have one.” Isn't this the beginning of the end for the rather trite conclusion at the end of the poem—that you should love “All things both great and small” (7.615), because God made and loves them? By the late eighteenth century this conclusion was already trite. It sounds like a regression from the extraordinary stance of the sailors, who are willing to “suspend their belief,” their “lifeworld” (a good God made and loves all creatures, in a paternalistic, safe fashion), and treat an “it” as a “soul.”

Far from pantheism, what the sailors achieve in Part 1 is in fact a radical form of non-theistic Christianity, taking seriously the idea that God died on the cross. The death of God and the death of the theistic cultural lifeworld (“To walk together to the kirk, / And all together pray,” 7.605–606—n.b. the Scots dialect, which localizes the sentiment within a certain cultural horizon), with its comforting concentric hierarchies (the “goodly company” of “Old men, and babes, and loving friends...,” 7.604, 7.608), provide far more plausible explanations for why the Wedding Guest leaves the “bridegroom's door” “like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn” (7.621–623), than the editorializing injunction to love “all things” (7.615). The bottom has fallen out of the Wedding Guest's world. Why?

Because the encounters with sentient beings in The Ancient Mariner are not encounters with members of a holistic lifeworld. They are encounters with what I call the strange stranger, the ultimate way of welcoming (other) life forms. More on this as we proceed. But for now let's note a startling conclusion. This is not a pantheist poem at all. In fact, what makes it most “ecological” is what makes it least pantheist. What makes it ecological is its disturbing, relentless intimacy, intimacy with the “it,” with Death and Life-in-Death, with “slimy things” (4.238), and so on.

Maybe the sailors are desperate for help. Maybe they are lonely. Whatever the reason, they greet the Albatross “As if it had been a Christian soul,” half knowing that their response is exorbitant. This greeting is perverse. Ecological ideology has thus far been virile, masculine, heteronormative, ablist and extravert (what else is wrong with it?!). The Ancient Mariner and his crew appear to outline a way of ecological existence that is still in our future. Beyond nature, beyond the lifeworld (“Below the kirk, below the hill,” 1.23), beyond holism, beyond sentimentalism.

Just as the Albatross emerges from the thick, intense “element” of ice and fog, as if the ice and fog had grown a face, so the sailors pick “it” out of the surrounding field of “it”s and “hail it,” welcome it “in God's name” (1.65–66). This is on the way to love at its extreme: out of “all things” in the Universe (7.615), I pick you. It already has something “evil” about it, something disrupting to the cozy lifeworld. Far from being a gesture of pantheist inclusiveness and holism, the welcome radically disturbs the “balance of nature.”

To love another creature is a perverse choice, not a “letting be” or a snuggling together in a predetermined lifeworld. Isn't the message of Frankenstein, which borrows heavily from this poem, to love sentient beings as people even when they aren't people? We are getting into cyborg territory here, and we will have to think about Artificial Intelligence, about treating all “it”s as “you.”

The Albatross is the second disturbing “face” in the poem. We've already experienced a rupture of the lifeworld with the presence of the Ancient Mariner himself, who to the Wedding Guest also appears as an “It”: “It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1). This stranger too has the disturbing inertia of sheer existence, what Lévinas calls the “there is.” Lévinas's image of the “there is” is the night: “I pass, like night, from land to land” says the Mariner, a walking poem (7.586). This walking poem, the “saying” of the Mariner, outlives and drastically dominates the Mariner as flesh and blood, “wrenching” him with “agony” (7.577–578) and compelling him to speak it. It is the Mariner who tacks on the trite sentiment that we live in a lifeworld that is not to be disrupted. The “Mariner-poem” speaks a far more disturbing truth. (See David Haney's book on Coleridge and ethics for further discussion; and see Paul Youngquist's review too).

The sailors' welcome was prepared for, “in the offing,” otherwise the Albatross would just have been another phenomenon of the “element.” The sailors, in other words, were already in a position of vulnerability towards the other, already marked by the other's existence. Existence is already coexistence. The Albatross is the Messianic “arrivant,” the absolutely unexpected arrival, the one we can never predict, but whose shadow falls into our world, in the disturbing proximity of all strangers.

In the same way, the “It is” of the ancient Mariner himself (1.1) compels us to imagine his existence prior to the beginning of the poem itself. He's already there, as if some lines were missing: “Who the hell is that? It is an ancient Mariner.” Any attempt to create a cozy world thus edits out this existence, beyond the beginning. Beyond the lifeworld, beyond Being, the ecological thought is intimacy with the strange stranger. (More about them in the next post.)

(When I use “beyond” in the previous paragraph, I mean it in a special sense—not as in “over yonder” in a more hugely encompassing horizon than we can grasp, but “right here,” too close for comfort.)

The Judaeo-Christian reading of this poem is by no means at odds with the most profoundly ecological one. They are the same reading.

Shelley did have it right. Poems are from the future.

Onwards, onwards to line 66!

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The ecological thought, part second

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned, close readers!

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The ecological thought, part second

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned, close readers!

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RC Blog

The ecological thought, part first

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Hi again—back from my Q&A at the ASLE conference in Edinburgh. That was quick wasn't it?! Thanks to videoconferencing I didn't have to move an inch. I made a dvd of my keynote (in front of a “live audience” as they say in sitcoms), then did the Q&A via the cheap new Polycom software on the PC. Less carbon, less bankruptcy, more bang for my buck—effectively I gave the talk twice and received two lots of feedback.

Thanks so much to Greg Garrard, Tom Bristow, Margaret Ferguson, Terry Gifford, and the tech teams (Alastair Taylor, Mike Luthi and Bill Sykes) for making this work.

Okay—ready for some close reading? Here we go:

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

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

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke bright,
Glimmered the white moon-shine.

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?”—With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.59–82)

“Like noises in a swound”! When I was at high school I wasn't sure what this meant, so my friend James (who ended up teaching at McGill) and I decided arbitrarily that for “swound” we would read “underground parking lot.” Another case of urbanature?! In any case, the atmosphere is wonderfully evoked by the “here...there...all around” trope. This is a place of sheer existence, of what Emmanuel Lévinas would have called the “rustling of the there is.” What a world. It reminds me of this one. Today in Davis, CA, we are wearing surgical masks to screen ourselves from the smoke from the pervasive fires (“the smoke is here, the smoke is there...”). Global warming is like this, isn't it? You can't have that neutral, easy conversation about the weather any more—it either trails off into silence, or becomes threateningly poised over the word “global warming,” and as soon as someone mentions that, the conversation is pretty much over. There is no weather any more. There is climate—as Ashton Nichols pointed out, we now have the computing power to map this global phenomenon (you need terabytes of RAM to do it, I gather). But no weather. Coleridge seems to anticipate this by putting his Mariner in the extreme ambience of ice. See Eric Wilson's very interesting book about ice called The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination.

Okay, I'm out. More soon!

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The ecological thought—introductory

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Hi everyone—Tim Morton here. I was asked to start blogging here on ecological issues, and I'm delighted to accept the invitation. I'm actually working on a book right now called The Ecological Thought. It's kind of the prequel to Ecology without Nature. I mean this in a rigorous way—not just the fact that the first book implies a view that I outline more deeply in the second one. I mean that in a rigorous sense, this “ecological thought” weirdly creeps up on you from the future. The best I can compare it to is Shelley's idea of poetry, that it's like a shadow from the future that somehow looms into the world of the present (A Defence of Poetry). Anyway, stay tuned.

Here's a good question for starters: am I an ecocritic? I fancy that what I'm doing is ecological literary criticism, but I'm not sure it's ecocriticism. Already I don't belong on this blog! Ecology without Nature argues that in order to have ecology, you have to give up Nature.

Lots of people don't like this idea. It's like I'm stealing their toy. I recently had an interesting conversation with Donna Haraway about it—of all people she was the very last I would have suspected of worrying about me stealing the Nature toy. But she was.

Her argument was basically about "worlding"—ideas and practices constitute "worlds" not just ideas; people do things in these worlds and create values in them, etc. (You will see if you've read my book that the "worlding" idea itself recursively falls prey to my "hand Nature over" gambit!) I thought of a good answer, but I was too scared to say: "The Nazis had lots of ideas, and those ideas constituted a world. If your argument is valid, we should have allowed the Nazis to have their world and should not have intervened in the Holocaust, etc." Preserving an idea because it makes a world for you isn't that great, I think. (Not even because it's good or even useful, mind you.) I'm sure there was a whole wild world of witch ducking stools too.

Anyway...

I thought this blog would be a good place to do mini close readings that point the way towards the ecological thought—so expect some riffs in search of an album, some organs without bodies. First up: to whom are we speaking when we say "Hello"? (With a little help from Coleridge.)

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Urbanature

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We need a new concept, and we need a new word to describe that concept. The new word we need is “urbanature.” The concept this word describes is the idea that nature and urban life are not as distinct as we have long supposed. Here is why.

Hawks are roosting on skyscrapers near Central Park East and Central Park West. Peregrine falcons are feeding on the Flatiron Building, and owls are nesting throughout Manhattan. Meanwhile, thousands of environmentalists board carbon-gulping airplanes and fly thousands of miles (carrying tons of Gore-Tex) to get “back to nature” in Montana. At the same time, the World Wide Web tells us that Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Over 600 websites say so. But Thoreau did not say, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” He said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” This difference--"wildness," not "wilderness"--makes all the difference.

Urbanature (rhymes with “furniture”) is the idea that all human and nonhuman lives, all animate and inanimate objects on our planet (and no doubt beyond) are linked in a complex web of interconnectedness. We are not out of nature when we stand in the streets of Manhattan any more than we are in nature when we stand above tree-line in the Montana Rockies. When nature-lovers say they long to return to nature, they are making what the philosophers call a category mistake. As Tyler Stalling has recently noted, “There is no ‘real nature’ to which to return. Rather, in the face of burgeoning technologies such as nanotechnology and genetic manipulation, the once defined border between nature and culture is obsolete.”

So far, it is only a handful of artists and designers who have invoked the term “urbanature” to describe this link between city-style and wild-style. Of course, my coinage of "urbanature" has close connections to the lines of Tim Morton's recent argument about the need to get away from the idea of "nature" altogether (*Ecology Without Nature*). Tim is right not just for the subtle and nuanced theoretical reasons he invokes, but also because post-enlightenment "nature" is like a number of eighteenth-century ideas that have been around so long they are in desperate need of cultural critique. Such ideas--imagination, identity, self, consciousness, among many others--are concepts that often seem tired, worn down, enervated, misunderstood and misapplied. That is why a rigorous critique of "nature" is of such significance to Romanticists. We have the texts and the tools needed to undertake just such a project.

The time has clearly come to apply urbanature--or some concept like it--all around us, from the semi-wild edges of the Sahara and the Himalayas to the ecologically-contiguous villages of the European Alps and the Indian subcontinent. Urbanature, as I envision it, also describes the wide suburban sprawls filled with billions upon billions of flowers, trees, squirrels, and raptors, reaching all the way from the Pacific edge of the Americas to the Ural edges of Europe. Our new linking of urban spaces with natural places will likewise need to include captive and semi-captive creatures, from wild animals in zoo cages and pets in high-rise condominiums to plants and animals on sidewalks, roofs, and skyscraper ledges from Bombay to Caracas, from Beijing to Brooklyn.

We are never fully cut off from wild nature by human culture. This is the central aspect of all true ecology. Nothing we can do can ever take us out of nature. There is nowhere for us to go. We are natural beings from the moment we are biologically born until the moment we organically die. Instead of describing the nonhuman world anthropocentrically—in human terms—we now have many good reasons to describe the whole world ecocentrically [eco-: oikos, house]. Our nonhuman, natural house is the same place as our fully human, cultural home.

The globe is now completely mapped and filmed and photographed, down to the last W.M.D. (we hope), down to the smallest street and streambed. With my own computer mouse—and MapQuest or Google Earth on my computer—I can move from Mauritius to Manhattan in a minute, I can spin from the Seychelles to Seattle in a second. I can zoom onto every housetop. I can see almost every car in every parking lot. But this is not a problem. This is not a loss. In fact, my ability to scan the surface of the globe in seconds reminds me that I am linked to every natural object and every quantum of energy that surrounds me.

Urbanature includes the biggest of big pictures: birds on buildings, fish in fishponds, chemists making medicines, mountaineers climbing mountains, every dolphin and domestic dog, every gust of solar wind and every galaxy. To be “natural” originally meant, “to have been born”: natura—“birth” and also “essence,” as in “the nature of the problem.” The human-made is no less natural because it has been shaped, no less born or essential because it has been fashioned by human hands. The bird makes a nest, and her nest is no less natural than the bird herself. Human hands make a house, and the house--or even the skyscraper--is no less natural than the human hands that shaped it.

We now know that we share genetic material with chimpanzees and crustaceans. We can transplant animal organs into humans. We can insert our human genes into other species. We are genetically related to, and dependent upon, countless species in countless ways: gorillas, whales, dogs, fishes, foxgloves, fungi. Where would we be without penicillium, that invisible fungus spore that flew through Alexander Fleming’s window in his London laboratory in 1928 and led to penicillin, a drug that has saved tens of millions of lives? Was Fleming operating in wild nature or in urban culture when he came upon that fungus? He was functioning in both. A "purely" natural object (the airborne penicillium) landed on a "purely" cultural production (a Petri dish smeared with agar) and the result was penicillin, a natural product of human culture that has changed life on our planet forever.

Urban culture and wild nature come to much the same thing. Urbanature.

--Ashton Nichols

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Thematic Blogging at RC

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I'm pleased to announce an ongoing series of guest bloggers for Romantic Circles web log. RC has asked scholars to write about thematic issues in Romanticism and post their musings on the RC blog for three to four months. We're beginning the thematic thread with issues of Ecocriticism. This theme will run from July through October. Guest bloggers for Ecocriticism will be Kurt Fosso, Timothy Morton, and Ashton Nichols. In the future, we will invite other scholars with other thematic issues of interest to contemporary scholarship.
The blog allows readers to comment on the posts. So, we hope readers will weigh in on the guest bloggers' entries and advance the conversation. --Ron Broglio

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Physical proximity to nature

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“What are men to rocks and mountains!” Elizabeth Bennet’s exclamation belies an important romantic-era question about the relationship between human beings and the natural world. It is a question Onno Oerlemans explores in Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature, which finds the romantic “impulse to ‘know’” the natural world of rocks and mountains to result in a key dilemma, in so much as that world proves incapable of being resolved into distinct, categorizeable objects (195). Physical proximity to nature often reveals the observer’s epistemological distance from nature. Unlike the work of various other “green” critics (one thinks especially of Bate and McKusick), Oerlemans’s book indeed unearths an antipathetic nature--akin to Hartman’s and Weiskel’s negative sublime. For Oerlemans, romantic writings evince “a nostalgia for the material world we know we are somehow a part of but yet [find ourselves] estranged from” (22). Hence, Wordsworth’s poems repeatedly reveal the inherent “indifference, hostility, and inimicalness of material reality” (35), while his and Dorothy Wordsworth’s travel writings foreground the “inability of language to penetrate or reproduce the materiality of the physical world” (185). Similarly, Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and his dietary essays demonstrate how “doubt about our human mastery of nature reveals to us our dependence upon it [nature] and the need for a new temperance” (119). Indeed, for Oerlemans these intimations of nature’s otherness, of its resistance to conceptual containment, “ought to inspire”—to result in—“awe and respect” (29).

But can moments of awe, produced by intuiting nature’s indeterminate otherness, provide or at least promise to provide the ground for a more respectful human relationship to nature? Can sublime awe trump (or stand apart from) entrenched ideologies of capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism--ideologies arguably rooted in notions and depictions of landscape? Oerlemans would appear to think so, finding in Wordsworth “a complex sympathy that at once recognizes a deep-rooted commonality between humans and animals, and a respect for the individuality and even incomprehensibility of non-human consciousness” (95). But one wonders, especially given the historian Lynn Hunt’s arguments about the development of universal human rights: as initiated by eighteenth-century and later readers’ imaginative sympathy for literary depictions of Others (e.g., Richardson’s Pamela). Might similar sorts of connections have been, and still be, necessary for humans to extend respect and rights to the realm of nature? Or can awe, inspired by sublime conceptual disjunctions and semiotic limits, also inspire respect and even (ecological) concern? Extending the old question about whether poems really make anything “happen,” can (and did) the “material sublime” play a part in guiding and improving our relationship to nature? What are poems to rocks, trees, and mountains?

-- Kurt Fosso

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