Romantic Circles Blog

The ecological thought, part second

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned, close readers!

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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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Poets on Poets: Patrick Phillips, Ross Gay, and Philip Metres

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Romantic Circles is pleased to announce the latest edition of its Poets on Poets archive and podcast. This quarterly edition contains audio and text files of readings by three contemporary poets: Patrick Phillips reading Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal" and from The Prelude XII; Ross Gay reading from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; and Philip Metres reading Shelley's "Ozymandias" and from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. As always, the readings are available as free MP3 downloads from the Website:

http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/poets/toc.html

--or as a podcast using our RSS feed or via iTunes. (See instructions on the Web page).

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NCSA Emerging Scholars Award

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The work of emerging scholars represents the promise and long-term future of interdisciplinary scholarship in 19th-century studies. In recognition of the excellent publications of this constituency of emerging scholars, the Nineteenth Century Studies Association (NCSA) announces the creation of the Emerging Scholars Award.

This award recognizes an outstanding article or essay published within five years of the author's doctorate. Entries can be from any discipline focusing on any aspect of the long 19th century (the French Revolution to World War I), must be published in English or be accompanied by an English translation, and must be by a single author.

The winner will receive $500 to be presented at the following annual meeting of the NCSA. Prize recipients need not be members of the NCSA, but are encouraged to attend the conference to receive the award.
Eligibility
Entrants must be within five years of having received a doctorate or other terminal professional degree, and must have less than seven years of experience either in an academic career, or as a post-terminal-degree independent scholar or practicing professional.

Articles published in any scholarly journals, including on-line journals, or in edited volumes of essays are eligible.

Articles submitted to the NCSA Article Prize are ineligible for the Emerging Scholars Award.

Only articles physically published between September 1, 2006 and August 31, 2007 (even if the citation date of the journal is different) are eligible for the 2008 Emerging Scholar Award.

Submission Process
An article can be submitted by an author or by the publisher or editor of a journal or essay collection.

In any given year, an applicant may submit more than one article for this award.

The winning article will be selected by a committee representing diverse disciplines.

Send three off-prints or photocopies to: Professor Maria K. Bachman, Department of English, Coastal Carolina University, Conway, SC 29528-6054; e-mail mbachman@coastal.edu

DEADLINE: Postmarked November 2, 2007.

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CEA Conference panel: The Diodati Circle

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College English Association National Conference
March 27-29, 2008
St. Louis, Missouri

We invite papers on the Diodati Circle for the 39th annual meeting of the CEA.

The famous summer of 1816 witnessed the interaction of two of the most famous poets of the early nineteenth century, one increasingly more celebrated author, and one relative unknown. In the case of the two latter figures, Mary Godwin (later Shelley) and John Polidori, most of the critical attention they have traditionally received has focused on their connections to the two former individuals, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Nevertheless, in the years immediately following the Genevan summer, Mary Shelley and John Polidori produced the two most enduring literary creations to arise from the ghost story contest. Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein and his creature have never gone out of print, while Polidori's aristocratic vampire Lord Ruthven altered the way in which vampires would be portrayed by later writers, culminating in the appearance of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Papers are invited for a panel that will focus on the various literary interactions among the members of the Diodati circle, including not only the Shelleys, Byron, and Polidori, but also Claire Clairmont, Mary's step-sister. Although biographical considerations are difficult to avoid, participants are encouraged to focus on the intertextual connections among the different figures, hopefully discussing both better known and lesser known works.

Proposals should be submitted via the online database at

http://english.ttu.edu/cea/conftool

by November 1st, 2007.

When you submit your proposal, you may use a pull-down menu to indicate your topic. Indicate at that pull-down menu that your submission should be directed to L. Adam Mekler, chair of the Diodati Circle panel.

You may contact Dr. Mekler with any questions at lmekler@jewel.morgan.edu,
but submissions can not be received at that email address.

Individuals without access to computers will need to send hard copy proposals to the following address via US mail by October 15th:

Marina Favila
CEA Program Chair
English Department
James Madison University
MSC 1801
Harrisonburg, VA 22807

To preserve time for discussion, CEA limits presentations to 15 minutes.

All presenters must become members of the College English Association by January 1, 2008. For membership information, contact Joe Pestino at
jpestin5@naz.edu

For more information about CEA, the general conference theme, or other special sessions, please consult the CEA website:

http://www2.widener.edu/~cea/

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