Romantic Circles Blog

The ecological thought, part seventh

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“It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1); “The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she” (3.193); “ ‘There was a ship,’ quoth he” (1.10). Is the ship the Mariner first mentions to the Wedding Guest not his own ship, but her ship, the death ship? It would work in the structure we are elucidating here. The ship is presented in its sheer existence. Something about the terror, the urgency, with which the Mariner collars the Guest, as if the ship were all too present in his mind, causes the Guest to recoil. The Guest catches a glimpse of Life-in-Death in “his glittering eye” (1.13).

Her face, beautiful and eaten away. She lets bacteria feast on her flesh. Lévinas asserts that the ultimate demonstration of our utter responsibility for the other is maternity, which is a condition of allowing the other to eat you, from the inside, the ultimate host-parasite relationship. Life-in-Death is a perverse mother of us all, a leper woman who just comes alongside us on a floating ship, like the Mariner, the figure of the homeless man stopping one of three by the Bridegroom's door. Two indigents: Lévinas argues that the face is always the face of indigence, always evoking a crushing responsibility on our part. Life-in-Death is utterly destitute, wedded to Death. She is a zero-degree conatus, less than a minimal will to live, more like a letting-the-other-feast-on-me.

Indeed, the mother of us all was “mitochondrial Eve,” a bacterium that hid out in protozoan single-celled organisms to survive the global ecological disaster called oxygen. And like DNA, Life-in-Death plays games of chance. And like DNA, and life forms in general, it becomes impossible to tell who is living off of whom. Is she Life-Despite-Death? Like weeds growing up after a bomb explodes? Or Life-as-Death, as tick-tock compulsion to repeat, meiosis? The liveliness of death? The deathliness of life? Coleridge's pithy ballad form makes it wonderfully hard to tell.

If we are to survive the twenty-first century, we ecosocialists will need to revise our ideas of passivity, weakness, the uncanny, vulnerability, and gentleness.

A face that is far from a face of strength and power, far from a face at all. Red lips and free looks, and utter abjection within beauty, abjection as beauty, beauty as abjection. Language breaks down trying to evoke her. She's like the woman sniper at the end of Full Metal Jacket, the horrifying shot of her writhing slowly on the floor whispering “Shoot me...shoot me.” Isn't this why Life-in-Death is frightening? Not because she's some Disney witch queen, but because she isn't. “Her skin was white as leprosy”—isn't it a shudder of compassion we feel here? Of course, it isn't mediated through the usual condescending channels, and thus may feel more like revulsion.

Consider the Abrahamic traditions of caring for indigents and lepers.

The Mariner is an anti-Jesus (not perhaps an Antichrist), weighed down with the Albatross-cross, the weight of “it.” Now he's faced with the frontal horror of it in the flesh, persecuting figures—yet even for these he is still responsible.

In one sense Life-in-Death is an allegorical figure, always not who she appears to be. But in another, can we ignore how vividly, uniquely realized she is? Would an allegorical reading (which would start by calling her “Life-in-Death,” the Mariner's name) begin to tear us away from her collapsing face? Can we coexist with her and not suffer an allegorical-allergic reaction? Can we stay close to her even if our blood “thicks” with “cold”? If we can't stay, isn't our messing about in environmental boats just a boy's game in an ultimately safe, antiseptic, order of the Same? A game of violently bootstrapping ourselves into Being? Into a world that, for all its sublime grandeur, is already paved with the concrete of essence? A place where we could feel at home, comfortable with all our gadgets handy, the golf course down the street, Nature over yonder, animals tolerated, even respected perhaps, sporting around our dwelling?* Where resoluteness in the face of death cocooned us against the vulnerability of life? Where we would finally have sanitized and smoothed over the queerness of the strange stranger, with her uncivilized and unnatural presence, her horrifying gentleness?

Our poem has gone overboard.

*I am quoting Shelley:

No longer now
He slays the beast that sports around his dwelling,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh.

(The Dæmon of the World, 2. )

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textual-biological correspondences

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Reading Derek Ratcliffe’s wonderful ornithological, corvi-cultural study, The Raven, returns me to a closing query of my previous entry: “What sort of animal meaning . . . does [the raven] present in Coleridge’s “The Raven”? Ratcliffe quotes one R. Bosworth Smith:

A bird whose literary history begins with Cain, with Noah, and with Elijah, and

who gave his name to the Midianite chieftain Oreb; whose every action and cry

was observed and noted down, alike by the descendents of Romulus and the ancestors of

Rolf the Ganger; who occurs in every second play of Shakespeare; who forms the subject

of the most eerie poem of Edgar Alan Poe, and enlivens the pages of the Roderick

Random of Smollett, of the Rookwood of Ainsworth, of the Barnaby Rudge of Dickens,

is a bird whose historical and literary pre-eminence is unapproached. (cited Ratcliffe 9)

Indeed the raven has served “to point many a moral and adorn many a tale,” in part because this bird has seemed to many to be “the bird most like ourselves” (D. Kennedy and A.B. Walker, “The Great Transformer”), a prophet, omen-bearer, watcher, and so forth. But how much do these age-old associations and allegorical uses relate to the bird’s own being and behavior, as an animetaphor that is as much an instigator as a product of cultural markings?

Back to Coleridge’s fabulous animal poem. Following the playful forgery-oriented opening, the text describes how,

Underneath an old oak tree

There was of swine a huge company

That grunted as they crunched the mast:

For that was ripe, and fell full fast.

Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high:

One acorn they left, and no more might you spy.

Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly:

He belonged, they did say, to the witch Melancholy!

Ratcliffe points to the raven’s associations with death and darkness, likely owed to its black plumage, vocal mimicry, intelligence, and “sepulchral voice” (10). No surprise, with or without kicking Edgar Alan Poe, that Coleridge’s speaker should pointedly mention the folk associations with “melancholy” and the supernatural. Indeed there’s little here to surprise. A herd of swine feasts on acorns beneath a bountiful oak. When the pigs depart, an opportunistic solitary raven sees an opportunity and visits the now vacated spot in search of remaining spoils. Ravens are of course opportunists, and their diet includes not just carrion but also, on occasion, various seeds and berries, including acorns. So there’s some ornithological verisimilitude afoot here, despite the folklorish associations (from which the narrator distances himself and the bird).

The speaker continues his tale of this lone scavenger:

Blacker was he than blackest jet,

Flew low in the rain, and his feathers not wet.

He picked up the acorn and buried it straight

By the side of a river both deep and great.

Coleridge knows his ravens (better, certainly, than I on this point); ravens do indeed make use of food caching: “Fat, fatty meat, egg, bones, bread, dates and dung are materials which have been seen to be hidden, usually in holes or beneath stones, but sometimes in small excavations dug by the birds themselves” (Ratcliffe 95). And if ever there was a bird likely to recall the location of that cache, it is the raven (see Ratcliffe 251).

Where then did the Raven Go?

He went high and low,

Over hill, over dale, did the black Raven go.

Many Autumns, many Springs

Travelled he with wandering wings:

Many summers, many Winters—

I can't tell half his adventures.

The narrator espies his own perceptual limit: his inability to “tell half” of what the raven has experienced (via its/his anthropomorphized “adventures”). Those “wandering wings” carry the bird beyond any human’s ken. Indeed those wings return a different raven, a descendant of the acorn-cache-maker and unwitting tree planter:

At length he came back, and with him a She
And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree.

Hardly the same raven—whose lifespan would likely not exceed twelve years--and yet to the human fabulist it is that same “he.” It is a species or family line (raven crest) that returns, rather than an individual—eh? (That or a very fast-growing oak!)

But is all this literalism, all this reliance upon and reference to ornithology, beside the point, despite the fact that, up to this line, Coleridge’s animal poem seems to portray its raven subject quite accurately? Do such textual-biological correspondences figure in this text, as one part of its animetaphorical meaning? Or are they beyond it and extraneous to it? Let me close with an inspiring closing statement from Tim Morton’s Ecology without Nature: “Hanging out in the distance may be the surest way of relating to the nonhuman” (205). More to come.

Kurt Fosso

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The ecological thought, part sixth

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In Ecology without Nature I argued that it was the very idea of Nature itself that posed an obstacle to ecological thinking and praxis. Nature has recently received various upgrades, for example in the form of ecophenomenology, which insists that we are embedded (like Iraq War reporters) in a lifeworld. This language comes from Heidegger.

If the ecological thought is to tunnel back behind Heidegger, it must encounter the thinking of Emmanuel Lévinas.

Lévinas argues that below Being, beyond essence, closer than breathing, is the proximity of the really other other, the strange stranger in the language of The Ecological Thought. Unnameable as such, yet still palpable as an excess or “lapse” within the ontological order of things, is “the face,” Lévinas's word for the strange stranger as we encounter her, or him, or it. Our very being is both subtended and interrupted by the face of the other, who stands destitute before us and before whom we too are destitute. Sadder and wiser.

In Otherwise than Being, Lévinas declares that the face is “the collapse of phenomenality,” in that it is “too weak” and “less than a phenomenon” (88). The face of the neighbor causes “the human” to “shudder” (87). The asymmetrical contact between us and the face causes us to revert “from grasping to being grasped, like in the ambiguity of a kiss” (80). More passive than inertia, this contact is “an inversion of the conatus [Spinoza's word for the will to live] of esse” (75). It is “not an extrapolation of the finite, or the invisible taken to be behind the visible” (154). It is on this side, “a hither side of the here” (180). This would be an encounter that did not take place within a lifeworld. A non-holistic reality where my obligation subverts the creation of worlds, with their insides and outsides, their included and excluded. Where identity was not—where personhood and phenomenality were less than you expected.

Is this not the shuddering of the Wedding Guest before the Mariner?

But is it not also the shuddering of the Mariner before Life-in-Death, a face consumed with leprosy?

And might it contain an encounter with the sheer existence existing things—“a thousand thousand slimy things” as the Mariner says (4.238)? This existence, which includes the Mariner's own “liv[ing] on” (4.238). Might this ecological “element” in which we are immersed also be visible in the disturbed and disturbing face of the other? And is the ecological thought therefore a coexistence with coexistence itself (and with coexistents, as it were)? Lévinas grants this possibility when he asserts that the “absurd” there is (his phrase for sheer existence) can be “a modality of being-for-the-other” (164). In fact, you need the “weight” of this existence for alterity to go beyond essence (164). Lévinas himself opens the possibility that the there is with its incessant “splashing” (140) might be the face itself, as if the face were glimpsed obliquely, that nothing truly separates background from foreground, just a “strange distortion” (Shelley).

Something like this happens in The Triumph of Life, when in an Arcimboldo moment, a root twists into the face of Rousseau. And it happens in Frankenstein, when a creature made of pieces of animals and human corpses rises up to embrace its terrified maker.

Isn't this the horror of Life-in-Death? The gentleness and ambiguity of her threat to essence? Her existence is ambiguity in all its fullness. She does nothing, really. She merely appears; she casts dice; she speaks, and whistles. Her face rots away. She floats on the sea, space of nomads, pirates, traders, gamblers, not tied to the State, beyond the law. She is as passive as the Mariner. It is finally her passivity that disturbs. We behold her; we are beholden to her.

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The ecological thought—close reading, an endangered species

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Hi everyone.

You may be wondering what I'm going to do with these posts. Well—I decided before I started that I was going to experiment with this new medium by posting some close reading. And that I was going to write things that wouldn't be in any of my forthcoming books or essays.

So this is where you get it...

Close reading is itself an endangered species, as presses close their doors to books on literature. (UC press doesn't do it at all any more, for instance; and try getting a book on poetry or theory out there, esp. in the UK.) Close reading's environment is dying.

I think blogging provides an excellent habitat for close reading.

I was wondering how my assumption was working—my assumption that the blog medium itself, and the RC site in particular, would provide the necessary context for these organs without bodies...

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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 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?


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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

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

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

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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