Romanticism & Ecology
"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" as an Ambient Poem; a Study of a Dialectical Image; with Some Remarks on Coleridge and Wordsworth
Timothy Morton, University of Colorado at Boulder
The spacious ambience of nature when treated with respect, allows physical and emotional freedom; it is an outdoor room essential to thought and untraumatic (that is, relatively unforced) development.
—Geoffrey Hartman, The Fateful Question of Culture, p. 158
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.
Then the traveller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark:
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.
In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.
As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveller in the dark,
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
- Jane Taylor
In his article on the ways in which orientalist visual art disrupts the difference between figure and ground, Nigel Leask employs William Galperin's work on panoramas to show how Romantic orientalist scenes were based upon an "absorptive" aesthetic (Leask 166-7, 169-75).1 I contend that this absorptive aesthetic resides not only in the visual, but also in the other perceptual dimensions; and that it is caught up in, but also goes beyond, orientalism, as recently demonstrated in The Poetics of Spice (Morton, Spice chapter 5). In fact, as I show here, it complicates relationships between orientalist landscape and domestic pastoral, and moreover between the local and the global. I call it ambience, and it turns out that this aesthetic provides a novel way of reading literature with a mind for ecology. This essay contributes to a fresh approach, a playful attempt to open discussion concerning the nature of "green" Romantic poetry. It is incomplete, but it is offered in the hope that it might point out further avenues of study. It forms part of my forthcoming book project, tentatively entitled Ambience: Aesthetics, Private Property and Public Space; a Study in Ecocriticism. To a large extent, the essay continues the line of thought explored in David Simpson's Wordsworth and the Figurings of the Real, especially the final section, "Societies of Figures."
It is lamentably little-known that one of the world's most famous nursery rhymes is a Romantic poem; not only that, but as I will argue in this essay, a special kind of Romantic-ecological poem that I have chosen to call ambient. Furthermore, it is a strong example of a feminine Romantic lineage; though this is a poem by a woman, I hesitate to say that it is "female," especially insofar as one might note similar poetic phenomena in Keats and Shelley, and for that matter Coleridge and Wordsworth. A close analysis of this poem will help to reconceive Romantic ecological poetry, which so far has been notoriously both masculine and male.
As is common in ambient poetry, the poem deconstructs the metaphysical opposition between writing and nature commonly found in Romantic-ecological discourse. It negotiates between the global and the local, terms often placed in too rigid an opposition to one another in Romanticist discourse. By offering a form of "portable localism," a strategic essentialism, the poem traverses the general and the particular. Moreover, its matter is not the physical conquest of an objectified earth, but the sonic and graphic location of the subject in a world. It is about as unmilitaristic as one could imagine, short of evaporating the subject in a haze of nihilism. The poem is a nursery rhyme called "The Star" by Jane Taylor (1783-1824).
I demonstrate that a soft, "feminine" form of ecological awareness is legible even in the poet often established as the lynchpin of masculine Romanticism, William Wordsworth (Fay 80-92, 180-9, 214-26; Ross; Mellor; Morton chapter 5).2 If this is valid, then ambience is truly a dialectical image, in the sense meant by Walter Benjamin: an image that is capable of being read both "with" and "against" the "grain" of dominant ideologies. The dialectical image of ambience will help us to redefine the Romantic period's representation of nature, and it is in this light that I read the Ancient Mariner's encounter with the water snakes.
Why ambient poetry?
One may pose differently the question of the distinction between person and environment: what if people were more like environments? If James Lovelock noted that the weather worked like a person (Lovelock 1-12), why not imagine a person as being like the weather? In other words, perhaps one might deconstruct personhood into ambience, atmosphere, surroundings, dwelling, environment. . . This would provide a more appropriate philosophical view (I am reluctant to say "ontological foundation") for a deep ecology, an ecology that could assume that a politics of the environment must be coterminous with a change in the view of those who exist in/as that environment. A poetry that articulated the person as environment would not invert anthropocentrism into "ecocentrism," it would thoroughly undo the notion of a center.
Is there any poetic evidence for the possibility of this deconstruction of the opposition of personhood and environment in the Romantic period? Jerome McGann's The Poetics of Sensibility, while risking essentialism and a kind of inverted sexism, suggests that there were indeed kinds of poetry in the Romantic period that ignored, for the most part, the masculine drama of subjectivity and objectivity in which traditional Romantic aesthetics has been caught, especially in its transcendental idealist articulations. Women Romantic poets were noted for a more embodied poetics than this, declares McGann (136-49), a poetics that infused the mind and body in a somewhat counter-dualistic fashion. One of the problems of Romantic ecology has been its almost complete lack of attention to women Romantic poets. This lack of attention is a symptom of the ideological frame in which Romantic ecology is caught: an outdoorsy masculinity that resists both intellectuality and femininity.
"The Star" is both indoors and outdoors, taking apart the difference between feminized interior domestic space and masculinized exterior work space; the comforting implication is that what is outside is also inside—the star peeps through the curtain; the discomforting implication is that what is inside is really just a special instance of the outside—that subjectivity itself is a lonely traveler wandering under the stars. "The Star" succeeds in being both intimate and alien, and thus it is not so much rigidly anti-anthropocentric as it is deconstructively deep-ecological. It enacts a non-essentialist awareness of the interdependence of subject and object, perceiver and perceived: an environmental awareness.
Deep ecology proposes that if ecological politics is to succeed, a truly ecological subjectivity needs to be established. It is in this spirit that I offer the notion of ambience for consideration. In teaching classes on literature and ecology, I have noticed that ecological sentiment often entails a lot of guilt, which reinforces subject-object dualism, which is toxic to the environment; and so forth. Guilt, as Slavoj Zizek has observed, reproduces the illusion of a metalinguistic vantage point outside one's world: the confident vulgar poststructuralist cliché that "there is no metalanguage" is asserted from just such a position; and so is the guilt that is only a sniff away from the White Man's Burden (Zizek, Sublime Object 154-5; Tarrying 213-4). I have therefore temporarily given up teaching classes directly about ecology. Instead I have been working with students to explore awareness of space, or better, spaciousness. For in order to have an environment, one must have a space to have it in. And in order to have environmental awareness, one must be aware of space as more than just a vacuum. One must start taking note of, taking care of, one's world.
Domesticity, women's poetry, and public space
Let us consider more closely the notions of space with which the poem works. Jane Taylor's lyrics were published in Rhymes for the Nursery (1806). Alan Richardson has observed that books for children, including nursery rhymes, were luxury objects produced during the birth of a consumer society in eighteenth-century Britain, as charted by McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb (Richardson 154, 165). Though its content is primarily primitivist in its calculated naiveté, "The Star"'s form as a commodity is one of sophisticated luxury, training the child to enjoy consumerism. This notion of luxury is encoded in the poem's diction, however, by the "diamond" simile (4), the kind of figure which Mary Louise Pratt has associated with imperial representation (Pratt 204). The hesitation between luxury and primitivism, between artifice and nature, is a productive (and deconstructive) feature both of this poem and, surprisingly, of Wordsworthian Romanticism, even though that discourse ostensibly runs against the eighteenth-century discourse of luxury (see the argument below on Wordsworth and the Arabian Nights).
Carol Shiner Wilson argues that while Taylor's poetry celebrates the domestic art of needlework in the service of the patriarchy (though not unambiguously), her "correspondence reveals a profound ambivalence towards domesticity" (Wilson 179). Writing and sewing or weaving have been interrelated at least since Sappho. In Taylor's work, these processes are implicated together in complex ways.3 Writing may surpass weaving as a labor of value, or vice versa (179-80). Joel Haefner has shown how poetry evoking Sappho in the Romantic period is situated either in the drawing room or in "A domesticated natural world" (Haefner 270). The superposition of these is what Haefner calls "an intimate public space" (272); one might go so far as to say that the nursery (the putative location of "The Star"), was such a space as this, traversed by children, governesses and parents.
Taylor admired the public nature of Corrine and Mme de Staël (Wilson 180). For Haefner, Corinne performs in "public and semi-public spaces"—of which a good example would be the salon (Haefner 268). This puts Taylor in contrast with Barbauld and Edgeworth, for whom there is "little tension between domesticity and artistic creation" (Wilson 180). The tension is far from ideologically neutral. Wilson points out that in Cowper's The Task—a paradigm for the sentimental construction of nature in the later eighteenth century—the sofa is the site of "female industry" (165) that the narrator turns from "to the serious business of composing poetry outdoors among real flowers" (168). In "The Star" the narrator is poised between conventional gendered boundaries between inside and outside. Wilson makes the bold statement that "In women's writing, both child and mother-teacher are socially located, a significant contrast to the Maternal Nature in the canonical male poets" (171). But it is the radical ambiguity of this location—reducible perhaps to the threshold, the window frame through which the reader may construe the narrator's view of the star—that is at issue. Writing in the Arcades project about the liminal spaces of Parisian capitalism in the nineteenth century, Walter Benjamin observes that the threshold, in its substantiality (it too fills space), is far more ambiguous a notion than the idea of a boundary (Benjamin 856). "The Star," itself caught in the commodity culture of consumer society, is, pertinently, a meditation on liminality—here and there, near and far, inside and outside.
Taylor's poetry engages in complex ways with the similarities and differences between domestic and public space, and this complexity bears upon her value for ecocriticism. Is the natural world to be construed as an oikos, a dwelling modeled on domestic space, as economic metaphors of household management imply from deism to Haeckel? Recently such domestic figures have underpinned conservative political economy, as Milton Friedman, for Reagan and Thatcher, displaced John Maynard Keynes. What is ignored in the idea of nature as household is what gets expressed as an ideological feature of republicanism, whose relationship with capitalism has often been problematic. This ideological feature is precisely a negotiation between public and private space. It is the fantasy image of the garden or the salon, what Geoffrey Hartman calls an "outdoor room" (see the epigraph). To conceive of nature as oikos irons out this disturbing wrinkle in the metaphysical opposition of inside and outside, on which depend conservative notions of political economy as household management. There is an aesthetic dimension in which the fantasy object of republican thought escapes its capitalist frame. What it gestures towards is collective rather than private space, and yet an introverted space of contemplation and quiet, like Andrew Marvell's garden, rather than of extraverted noise and bustle (Francis Bacon's idol of the marketplace). Taylor's "The Star" poses the question: is it possible to obtain a space that is simultaneously collective and contemplative?
Deconstructing subject-object dualism
What is an ambient poem? My research for The Poetics of Spice has indicated that just as the musician Brian Eno hypothesized in the mid-1970s that there could be an ambient music, one might imagine an ambient poetry, and that moreover this poetry is of special significant in the Romantic period.
The story of ambient music is something like this. Having survived a car accident, Eno lay in bed unable to listen fully to the record player; a fault had made it play at very low volumes, volumes at which the sound content of the LP was minimized to an almost infinitesimally (in)audible degree. Inspired by this, Eno set about recording music deliberately designed to evoke and/or take place in an "atmosphere," space whose quality had become minimally significant, as one would tint a clear glass or introduce a faint perfume into the surrounding air. The traditional Western view of music sets up an opposition between foreground sound and "background" noise—sounds that are precisely not foregrounded, as Jacques Attali has concisely demonstrated. Rather than this, Eno proposed that music deconstruct the opposition between foreground and background, or more precisely, between figure and ground. There are Western precedences for such a deconstruction, for example in the work of the medieval music theorist Johannes Tinctoris (Page 1-31). But the sources of ambient music may more properly be traced to orientalist views of non-European ways of experiencing time and space, which affected European music in its Romantic phase.
David Toop charts the sources for this kind of music as far back as Claude Debussy's visit to the Paris Exposition in 1889, at which he heard the Indonesian Gamelan (Toop 13-22). This was a musical performance whose repetitious structure, improvisational openness and ceremonial properties pointed out a realm of sound entirely different from the teleological, secularized and commodified music heard in nineteenth-century European concert halls. Western discourses, however, have always contained alternative views of what could be done with sound, image and text, views that pertained to figurations of space which employed a more minimal, a more paradoxical, or no notion of dualism between subject and object.
If the tune for "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" is a "folk" tune, it is a paradoxical one: a folk tune with a cosmopolitan reach. The traditional tune associated with "The Star" is "Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman," that appeared without words in a 1761 Paris publication, M. Bouin's Les Amusements d'une Heure et Demy. The tune was adapted by Mozart: Twelve Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, maman" was published 1785 by Christoph Torricella in Aira Variée; according to Fuld, "Beethoven improvised on the theme in his second public concert in Prague in 1798." Fuld states further that "The song came to be sung as ABCDEFG under the title "The Schoolmaster" in 1834." A similar tune has been set to "Baa, Baa Black Sheep," the words for which appeared in print in about 1744 in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book. The tune is also used in the German "Ist das nicht ein Schnitzelbank? [carpenter's bench]" (593-4).4
The form of the tune seems banal in its simplicity. It is an ABBA arch of diatonic (traditionally European, post-medieval) harmony that pivots on an opposition between tonic and dominant (the first and fifth notes of the diatonic scale). This is a minimalist version of classical harmony, the harmony with which Mozart and early Beethoven worked. Reminiscent of a modern orchestra tuning up (playing scales, fourths and fifths), or indeed of a child's first experiments with an instrument—surely this is why it became the tune for ABCDEFG (an "instrument" of language)—it brings to the fore, like so many of the elements of the lyrics of "The Star," the perceptual-aesthetic dimension in which it is performed. In a word, it is ambient.
The Romantic period is often thought to be the moment during which the world became especially story-shaped, and if not entirely teleological, then playing with the notions of ends and beginnings in the ways suggested by the "to be continued" openness of the Romance genre. Naturally, it is evident that the notion of ambience may get caught like a deer in the headlights of a postmodern luxury product, its denial of reified time (the historical destiny of the West) in the name of reified space. This is very much the destiny (pun intended) put upon it by Brian Eno. But if it could be shown that a certain articulation of space (subjective and objective genitive) coexisted with the Romanticizing of time, readers could uncover a whole arena of Romantic experience. Ambience could be shown to resist the reification of space in capitalism. For like all dialectical images, ambience at once fills and overspills the ideological frame intended for it by the social structure in which it emerged. Why? Because ambience is what Jacques Lacan would call a sinthome, a metastasized kernel of inconsistent and meaningless enjoyment to which any linguistic frame would sit loose (Zizek, Looking Awry 132, 135-7; Sublime Object 74-5, 76-9).5 I have modified the view of the sinthome insofar as what Lacan applies to an objectal substance could, in an invagination, apply to surrounding space itself. This involves a topological inversion of figure and ground. Imagine the sinthome (the best image would be an open wound) not as figure but as ground: a potent, non-neutral ground, a giant stain.6
This is why I have chosen to call this essay "a study of a dialectical image." In the work of Walter Benjamin, the images thrown up by capitalism always have some revolutionary potential, if only one knew how to crack them open aright. While it is evocative of the ways in which the world has been covered in flat concrete, shopping malls, vast airports and parking lots, ambience may also provide paradoxical images of a collapse of dualism, disclosing a world where oppositions between human being and nature are erased.
The Romantic period is also often construed as the apogee of the (masculine) ego, that psychic foreground of modernity, articulated against the background of nature, history, being, and so forth. It is moreover the period in which repetition was literally denigrated in favor of a raced sense of temporality. Hegel's racist philosophy took umbrage at what it construed as the repetitive nature of African culture, fearing the collapse of Western "historical" linearity into this repetition (Snead 75).7 It would be disruptive, then, to find evidence in the Romantic period of an entirely other order of aesthetic experience, an order based on repetition and spatiality. This would be of special interest to Romantic ecology. One of the tricky things about using the "big six" male poets (notably Wordsworth, or all of them from a certain Wordsworthian view) as indices of ecological sensibility, is just how much they appear to insist upon the notion that the self is independent of its world. This figure is linked to the capitalist ideology of abstract freedom, as opposed to the democratic notion of inalienable rights, a view that is in excess of the mode of production that produced it.
This ideology of separateness, while revolutionary at times, constantly broaches the possibility of ecological destruction, violence and ignorance. To love and care for nature, in this view, would be to have to find some way to treat it like a person. But if people are attenuated to abstract freedom, what kinds of people are they? And the abstract freedom of personhood is always predicated on a concrete/phenomenal ground. Thus the separation of figure and ground must be maintained for the ideology of personhood to persist. The ecological thinker is thus caught in paradox.
Because this paradox is historically derived, it would be a mistake to confuse the ways in which indigenous cultures treat animals and plants as "people" with an anthropocentrism produced by the idea of abstract freedom. The primitivism of the Romantic view of children suggests that their ontogeny recapitulates cultural phylogeny. The child as shamanic "primitive," is a view that Richardson has shown to be specifically Wordsworthian in its construction of a disempowering "Poetics of Innocence" (Richardson 142-53, esp. 118, 126). It is tempting to condemn lines in "The Star" like "In the dark blue sky you keep, / And often through my curtains peep" (13-14) as nothing but instances of an anthropomorphic and anthropocentric pathetic fallacy. Indeed, the whole poem, whose dominant trope is apostrophe, may be condemned in this way. But there are some reasons to hesitate to do this. What is going on when children are allowed to experience stars as "you" but adults are not? "You" could evoke a political view of nature, despite the observation that the Romantic "indigenizing" of the child is meant to distance them from politics. Moreover, the star's identity is suspended in the sky of the narrator's wondering. If it is anthropomorphic, it is minimally so. In conclusion, is the extent to which literary history condemns anthropomorphism and the pathetic fallacy the extent to which the society in which it exists is imperialist (Hartman 38-9, 67-8; see McGann 76-77)?
Paganism and environment: the question of Wordsworth
Let us turn our attention to a writer whose work attempts in part to disrupt what is defined as a superficial anthropomorphism, in the name of a poetics that would resist commodity culture. Wordsworth's engagement with the ways in which poems could become consumer objects was not entirely happy. "The World is too much with us . . . getting and spending we lay waste our powers": significantly Wordsworth figures an enervating consumerism not as alienating distance but as threatening proximity, its supplementarity pressing on the authentic self. This is therapeutic Romanticism, designed to cure the ills of the Enlightenment and capitalism (notably the consumer side):
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The Winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
(Wordsworth, Poems 7)
However authentically indigenous the narrator wishes to be—and how much can that be given the cosmopolitan language of Classical deities?—the narrator is also invoking a more ornamental (in Wordsworth's mind less indigenous) form of poetry.8 The up-gathered winds "like sleeping flowers" are also the rhetorical flowers of ornamentation that Wordsworth's masculinist poetics holds in abeyance.
There is, however, a suggestion of a fresher poetics in the very phrase "like sleeping flowers." As an invocation of potential energy, the phrase is far from "out of tune" with the natural world. The reader is informed that they are not moved by such phenomena, but surely this is an occupatio, a favorite Romantic trope. We have already been moved by the time we are informed of this. The sleeping flowers are minimally personified, bestowing in their quiet secrecy a stronger appreciation for the ambient world than the trite Triton (surely something of a pun). We will shortly return to Wordsworth's engagement with the aesthetics of the commodity form, but first we shall investigate more closely the salient features of ambient poetics.
Three aspects of ambient poetics
We have established that ambient poetry deconstructs the difference between figure and ground. In the following three sections, an outline is presented of three specific linguistic effects of ambience: minimalism; the lingual voice; and contact as content.1. Minimalism: the oral and the lingual
The element of ambient poetry we have just observed is its concern for minimization (of expression, content or both), which it shares with ambient music. Eno's gramophone was just barely audible. So in the same way ambient poetry makes certain features of reality just perceptible (but nevertheless, they are perceptible). I describe this as minimal signification, and I use Jacques Derrida's notion of the re-mark to delineate this (Derrida, Dissemination 54, 104, 205, 208, 222, 253). The re-mark is that mark that designates a set of marks as such: the mark that differentiates between figure and ground. Zizek explains:
in any series of marks there is always at least one which functions as "empty," "asemic"—that is to say, which re-marks the differential space of the inscription of marks. It is only through the gesture of re-marking that a mark becomes mark, since it is only the re-mark which opens and sustains the place of its inscription . . . (Zizek, For They Know Not What They Do 75)
When Woodstock "speaks" in the Charlie Brown cartoons, the only reason we can ascertain that the little strokes of black are his speech is the speech bubble around them. This is a minimized degree of speech, not a metaphysical zero-degree (a structuralist concept) but an infinitesimal degree. It is thus not correct to agree with the physicist Brian Greene, who designates the letter as the zero degree of language (Greene 141). "Language-ness," the notion that we are in the presence of language, can get along without letters. This is what ambient poetics seeks to convey. The effect this art produces is not unlike the notion of "quantum fluctuation," a ripple in apparently empty space that re-marks it: a minimalist explanation of the origin of the universe (Zizek, Remainder 229-31, Greene 127-9). Taylor's "Twinkle" is an enactment of this linguistic quantum fluctuation; and "Twinkle, twinkle" even more so. "Twinkle" is practically an onomatopoeia of this fluctuation, if that were not a paradoxical concept that suggested a collision of graphic and sonic elements. Let us consider this further.
In the mouth, the explosion of "Twin" and the swallow of "kle" present an illusion of language in a minimal, on-off (digital) state. By "language," however, we would here have to include Lacan's idea of "llanguage, lalangue"—the meaningless fluctuation of tongue-enjoyment (Zizek, Remainder 99-103, 108-9). This meaningless fluctuation is the presence of the Lacanian Real in language. This is the Real observed in the mouth in Lacan's reading of Freud's story of the dream of Irma's injection (Freud, Interpretation 106-20; Lacan 196).9 The illusion of binarism—that "twin" is "1" and "kle" is "0"—is undermined by the inescapably analogue nature of the voice: the mouth and tongue that makes "kle" is there. It is what Cixous would call the "soufflé" (Cixous 93-4). The deliquescent "medium" of the voice (in the sense of breath, tongue, lips, mouth cavity, saliva . . . an inexhaustible list) is then an analogue, in the performance of the word "twinkle," for the ambient atmosphere in which stars do twinkle (see the section below, "Placing 'The Star' "). The medium has become the message, in a paradoxical fusion. Voice in Taylor, then, is not to be thought of as beckoning towards phonocentrism (Derrida, Speech and Phenomena). "Twinkle" indicates how the lingual—my word for the analogue medium, the ambient dimension, of language—betrays the oral. The lingual voice is my translation of Michel Chion's term, the "voix acousmatique," discussed in the following subsection.2. The lingual voice
The infant addressee of "The Star" experiences the mother's voice not as metaphysical presence, but as ambience. How may we account for this theoretically? The second element of ambient poetry is what I have decided to call rendu, after Chion's view of certain kinds of movie in which a special feature of the filmic medium itself is taken as an aspect of its content (Chion 109-11). The making of the medium into a message I take to be a prime condition of ambient poetry.
One of the more conventional kinds of rendu is what Chion calls the voix acousmatique, commonly employed as the voice-over: "sounds one hears without seeing their originating cause" (Chion 71-3). This voice is not disembodied but the reverse: a voice without a subject. Far from being the phonocentric locus of the logos, as in certain versions of deconstructive theory, this voice is a disturbingly asignifying element of language, which floats free of its content and form. The existentially horrific (or blissful) presence of the voice that floats without a subject and without speech is remarked upon by Zizek in his analysis of Chion (Zizek, Looking Awry 40, 82, 93, 126-7).10
This lingual voice is present in "The Star" as the singing voice of the carer who sings the lullaby; in the Romantic period indubitably a woman's voice. The voice that floats around the text looking for an object (wondering as it wanders) is the very medium in which the poem, as lullaby, is enacted. This voice is more disturbingly present in Charlotte Smith's great sonnet, "Written in the Churchyard at Middleton in Sussex." The voice that overwhelms that poem finds an object in the raging sea, and this is truly Smith's proclamation of a greatness that is more than conventionally human.3. Contact as content
In ambient poetics, the medium in which communication takes place becomes the message that is communicated. In the terms of the structuralist Roman Jakobson's "Closing Statement," the contact becomes the content in ambient literature (Jakobson 355-6). "The Star" exists in a specific performative context: it is a lullaby. It is thus to some extent an illocutionary statement, a statement designed to perform a direct effect as would a spell, a mantra or the "so be it" of "Amen." The repetition of the repetitious "Twinkle, twinkle" in perhaps an imperative mood at the end of the poem (the mood slips between indicative and imperative) is the conjuration of the world in language, a world that hesitates between subject and object. Moreover, illocutionary statement are strictly context specific. As a non-priest, I cannot say "I now pronounce you man and wife" to a pair of strangers on top of a London bus and have my words mean anything.
The atmosphere in which the message exists—its ambience—is a significant element of its meaning. In fact, its context is its meaning; to use the six-part model of communication proposed by Jakobson, the contact (the medium in which the message takes place) has become the message (Jakobson 350-77). The poem "The Star" is its background: the voice of a nurturer (typically one assumes a mother or nurse) lulling a child in its bedroom. It is worth reflecting for a moment on what a powerful tool Jakobson's six-part model of communication is for describing ambient poetry. Jakobson derived the term "phatic" (for communications that foreground the contact) from Malinowski's work on meaning in "primitive" languages. Recapitulating phylogeny as ontogeny, Jakobson states that the phatic is "the first verbal function acquired by infants; they are prone to communicate before being able to send or receive informative communication" (356).
This is one reason why Lewis Carroll saw fit to parody "The Star" at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party:
Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky.
The phatic quality of the original means that its phonemes and graphemes may be substituted for others, in the best tradition of nonsense verse. Carroll continues: "Here the Dormouse shook itself, and began to sing in its sleep 'Twinkle, twinkle, twinkle, twinkle -' and went on so long that they had to pinch it to make it stop" (99). The Dormouse's minimalist repetition also attests to the phatic dimension of the original poem.
Continuing this line of thought, the actual content of the message itself is designed to soothe its addressee into sleep: to perform an effect on a subject rather than contemplate an object. The content of the message is an overdetermination of the soothing repetitions of the nurturing voice, the sinthomic presence of embodied enjoyment that hovers around the poem.
Stars in my pocket—or is that a pocketful of slime?
"The Star" complicates the relationship between being and technology envisioned by writers such as Heidegger. The twinkling of the star is not just meaningless "noise" in the cybernetic sense: it is minimally significant. Nevertheless, its twinkling is not useful for the traveler. The star's role as a triangulating device or as a time-piece depends upon its inert objectal status. Its reduction to this is what gives the star its significance, what makes it tell the time. In this form, it is a cybernetic device: cybernetic in the precise sense that this word implies guidance, steerage (Greek: kubernetes, governor, helmsman). The universe is "to hand" (in Heidegger's sense) for the traveler; as convenient as a wristwatch. In one way, the entire poem is "handy" in this way, presenting a miniaturized universe. On the other hand, the poem opens the contemplating mind onto nonconceptual vastness. The star's wondrousness is logically prior to its instrumentality.
The Ancient Mariner's stars are already objectified as time-pieces: they are "handy" in Heidegger's terminology (Heidegger 69, 71-4).12 It is only at the point of utter exhaustion that the Mariner gives up the notion of imposing conceptuality onto the real. This imposition has recently been read as falling within the territorializing logic of imperialism. David Simpson has argued that the empty, Antarctic vastness towards which the Mariner voyages is an aesthetic (Romantic) version of the imperialist conquest and objectification of the world (Simpson 155-7). In our time this objectification has reached the limit of life-forms themselves, as the genome is mapped, genes are patented, and rainforests are ransacked for biotechnology, in what the ecofeminist Vandana Shiva describes as a colonization of the "inside" of living organisms. Alan Bewell has recently argued that colonialism and imperialism in the Romantic period produced tremendous anxiety about, fascination for, and desire to dominate the earth's life-forms.
The Mariner's conceptuality is resonant in the sliminess of "a million million slimy things" (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), 4.230); a register picked up again in Sartre's disturbingly phobic Being and Nothingness (601-15).13 The 1817 version's hyperbole is lessened to "a thousand thousand" (4.238). But both instances absorb the gaze into a teeming infinity and collectivity (Sartre: "a sly solidarity," 610). It is at this point, however, that the Mariner experiences some relief from the burden of his guilt: "Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, / They coiled and swam" (271-2; 1817, 279-80) as "The Moving moon went up the sky. / And no where did abide" (255-6; 1817, 263-4)—without such a strong connotation of telling the time. The snakes are still slimy, but they are not to be abjected (and subsequently objectified). Their sliminess is not only the revenge of objectivity ("the revenge of the In-itself," as Sartre puts it, 609), but also an invitation to look more carefully, to wonder. The "things" become "snakes."
I am sucked into a culinary reference here, especially as it pertains to Coleridge's Romantic opposition between poetic hypsilatos (sublimity, power) and gluchotes (sweetness), also caught up in his anti-slavery writing on sugar. Sartre declares that the revenge of the In-itself is threatening to the masculine subject: "the sugary death of the For-itself (like that of a wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns in it" (609). The sugariness of Taylor's poem is an indication of its objectal ambience—an immersive sliminess that threatens to drown the figure in the ground. The Mariner's temporary solution to the problem of his guilt and isolation is an immersion in the aesthetic experience of gluchotes: a sugary sentimentality whose gaze is down, as opposed to the sublime upward gaze of the masculine mountain-climber. This is an entirely unexpected solution given Coleridge's linkage, in the mid-1790s, of sugar with softness, artifice, luxury and cruelty (Morton, "Blood Sugar").
The problem of human beingness, declared Sartre and Lacan, is the problem of what to do with one's slime (one's shit): "The slimy is myself" (Sartre 609). Ultimately, is sliminess not the sacred, the taboo substance of life itself? The question of ecology, ultimately, is also bound up with what to do with pollution, miasma, slime of all kinds: with things that glisten, twinkle and decay. Should radioactive waste created by the nuclear bomb factory at Rocky Flats (about eight miles away from Boulder, Colorado) be swept under the Nevada carpet of an objectified world, a salt deposit that was declared in the 1950s to be safe, but in the 1990s has been found to leak (the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or WIPP); how about the planned destination for spent fuel rods from reactors, Yucca Mountain in New Mexico? What does one do with the leakiness of the world? Deep green notions such as Nuclear Guardianship (as advocated by Joanna Macy and Kathleen Sullivan) suggest that poisonous things, like the plutonium whose "twinkling" release of poisoned light takes tens of thousand of years to cease, should be stored above ground in monitored retrievable storage; moreover, that a culture, indeed a spirituality, would have to grow up around the tending of this abjected substance. This is fitting: spirituality is not an escape from, but a taking care of, the abject. It should, incidentally, be clear that this view of "nature" is radically different both from the New Age and from the standard Cartesian dualism. While in these views, nature is a mysterious harmony or an automatic machine, in this essay's Zizekian view (a synthesis of Schelling and Lacan), nature is the existential life substance (Zizek, Remainder 218-20).
This all may seem rather far away from twinkling stars. But the semiotic implications of twinkling are entirely relevant to this discussion. What is disturbing about ambient signification is its minimalism: what is horrifying about slime is that it glistens as well as disrupting the boundary between figure and ground (that is the basis for the subject's self-positing in Sartre). We cannot self-posit; we are embedded in the slimy atmosphere in which stars twinkle. Twinkling and glistening ("being-glossy") are the visual equivalent of muttering or whispering without words. The twinkling star is the objective correlative of the lingual voice.
Taylor's star, like the Mariner's water snakes, is "in the real"; the narrator perceives it as such—which of course goes beyond concept ("How I wonder what you are"). It is so ontologically prior to its being a clock; and temporally prior to this in the singing of the nursery rhyme. And more significantly still it returns to being this, even with a vengeance ("Though I know not what you are"; stronger even than a choric repetition of the first verse). In this Taylor achieves one of the goals of the ambient artist: to reproduce, simulate or "render" the real (in Chion's terminology). Consider "found art": the objet trouvé points out the gaps between what Lacan calls the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. The star is in the poem a hole in the symbolic that limns the Real: about as close to the Real as Lacan allows language to approach. As such it is a miniature version of the Wordsworthian "spot of time," the traumatic disruption forming the piece of grit that makes the pearl of the subject in the oyster of experience. From the point of view of the subject, this trauma is a hole, a tear in the symbolic tissue. But this absence masks a more bizarre kind of presence. The star is also a meaningless twinkling, the matheme for which would be (, the symbol for the phallus and for "woman": what "does not ex-sist" in patriarchal language (see Zizek, Looking Awry 135). It is a sinthome, a meaningless sprout of enjoyment, the inconsistent object around which ideology swirls-is it a timepiece? is it a compass? how is it "for" us? Taylor brilliantly returns the star to its sinthomic presence.
Placing "The Star"
When seen from outer space stars do not twinkle. One can verify this in an age more technologically "advanced" than the Romantic period. In that period , the only way to do this was from the utopian dimension of the Enlightenment—the impossible point of view of space itself, used to good effect in the opening notes to Percy Shelley's Queen Mab. By mentioning the speed of light and implying theoretically vast size of the universe, Shelley establishes a radically nonanthropocentric point of view, in imitation of Milton.14 This is the place to stand from which one might move the earth, as that poem's epigraph from Archimedes states. And still, in the space age, this impossible point of view is a feature of technotopian literature, such as Arthur C. Clarke's novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose guiding trope is a constant othering of the point of view: "seen from this (new, unexpected or impossible) viewpoint, the subject appeared as such and such. . ."
The view, however, of stars from the surface of the earth is quite different, insofar as subtle irregularities in the density, humidity and temperature of the ambient atmosphere affect the way in which a beam of starlight travels through this medium. The irregularities refract the photons, making them dance back and forth. The technical term is "scintillation," connoting minimal signification, the minutest re-marking that makes a wink of a photon. A humid—or human—climate induces twinkling (stars in Antarctica, for instance, do not twinkle). The figure of twinkling is thus evidence of ambience, a paradoxical "ground" for this figure, as the atmosphere is in front of the star.
Atmosphere is itself a consequence of the massiness of the earth; in other words, its gravity. Isaac Newton had made of space a vacuum, and turned matter into objectified solidity, and rendered space and time abstract and separate containers of the universe. Before Einstein, who asserted the radical inextricability of spacetime from the universe itself; and quantum physicists, who showed that there is no such thing as perfectly empty space; Romantic poets, with their figuration of atmosphere, and Romantic philosophers, with their interest in phenomenology, asserted the radical in-ness of reality. This is ultimately a line of thought that leads to Lacan's notion that there is no metalanguage; and Derrida's statement, "Il n'y a pas d'hors texte" (Derrida, Of Grammatology 158).
Glitter, glitter, empty city: Wordsworth and "negative ecology"
The "diamond"-like twinkling of the star in Taylor's poem, however, is a feature not only of physical space but also of ideology. Benjamin observes a very similar twinkling in the phantasmagoric space of the Paris arcades, an "ambiguity of space" created by their "abundance of mirrors": "the whispering of gazes fills the arcades" (Benjamin 877-8). With this in mind, we might helpfully compare "The Star" with Wordsworth's sonnet "Composed upon Westminster Bridge." Wordsworth's time and place markers ("Sept. 2, 1802") are ambient tropes employed later by writers such as Gary Snyder ("Bomb Test"), influenced also by the walking Zen poetry of Basho. They also call to mind the environmental art of contemporary figures such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy (whose work now inhabits the Lake District, Lancashire and Southern Scotland). Could we make a case for Wordsworth as an ambient poet, even though for Keats he was the poet of ego par excellence?
We have seen in a previous section how Wordsworth attempts to flee the realm of commodified objects, only to find himself, like Alice approaching the Looking-Glass House, back where he started. Is this, however, entirely unfruitful? The sonnet on "getting and spending" is in the sequence that includes a highly original contemplation of city life, "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge," one of Wordsworth's strongest examples of ambience. Wordsworth's empty city already has the ambience of transitional spaces such as the airport, the hotel or the bay, spaces for which Brian Eno conceived ambient music. This music's power to disturb such spaces rather than tranquilize them should be noted: when Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports began to be used in Chicago O'Hare's United Tunnel, it was soon withdrawn because of passengers' complaints of heightened anxiety. Wordsworth's sonnet is equally disturbing, and tranquil.
The experience of the empty city is, as Raymond Williams noted, an entirely fresh "structure of feeling," (Williams 151-2, 233-4) and ambient music arose out of this structure: consider the techno music that emerged in the deracinated industrialism of Detroit, or the drum and bass that developed in the emptied spaces of South-East London, spaces inhabited by the black working class. The minimalist aesthetic of Wordsworth's poem resembles strikingly pieces of music such as Goldie's "Inner City Life" (or the significantly named "Still Life") or the quiet speed of Derrick May and LTJ Bukem, poised hauntingly between an enjoyment of deracination and a critique of it. Hartman has noted the minimalism of Lyrical Ballads, yet specifically pits this against industrialism (Hartman 207). But the picture is more complex than that.
Williams observes that Wordsworth's city is that of (republican) civilization, in excess of industry: "before the noise of the working day, and also before the smoke of its later development" (Williams 152). It is the role of what Williams calls "before" that is so subtle. Here is the poem:
Earth has not any thing to shew more fair,
Dull would he be of soul who could not pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
The literally breathtaking enactment of "lie / open" (6-7), where the poem opens to the space of the page itself (a device with which Mallarmé is usually credited for having discovered), is a brilliantly minimal presentation of the sinthomic voice, an open mouth without content. This was noted even by the Wordsworth-phobic F.R. Leavis (Leavis 118). Thus the body emerges in Wordsworth's disembodied poem. Though it is legible in the negative (it is not "in" the words or "on" the page), this is a remarkable phenomenon.
The paratactic list, "Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples" (6), alludes to Milton's Hell, "Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death" (Paradise Lost, 2.620).15 One is tempted to declare that while Milton presents the "rotten world" of slimy, natural death (Lévi-Strauss 1, 142-3, 151-2, 169-70), Wordsworth offers the "burnt world" of supernatural death. But the "lying open" of these liminal spaces to the natural world of "fields" and "sky" (7), and the ghostly presence of the sinthomic voice in the blank space of the page, that has become part of the sonnet, reveals far more of the existential substance of life. This life-in-death is the flip side of what Freud's thinking on Eros ("builder of cities") reveals, in his insight that life yearns towards, in James Strachey's poetic translation, "the quiescence of the inorganic word" (Freud, Beyond 86; Hartman 191).16 This very suggestive phrase is more than what Freud might be suggesting, however: "quiescence" implies something still living, where "inertia" would have brought it to a dead stop; one is reminded of Keats's "quiet breathing" ("A thing of beauty is a joy forever. . ." Endymion 1.5). "Composed upon Westminster Bridge," then, is disturbingly erotic in a similar way: it conveys half-life, undeath, life's infinitesimal degree.
It is not even as simple (as straightforwardly complicated) as that, however. The double entendre of "lie / Open" conveys an open secret, an exclusion that has been included—an encryption. What we are seeing is the ghostly substantiality of capital itself, as the potential energy of the city lies dormant in the early morning hours. The capitol becomes capital. The secret of this form is itself, lying open in all the vast emptinesses of modern living. What we have here is negative ecology, like negative theology (see Zizek, Sublime Object 11-16; Bull 144-5).17 Production has ceased, but value is omnipresent. This is clarified in the istic glistening of the buildings, "All bright and glittering in the smokeless air" (8). "Bright and glittering" has an effect similar to "Twinkle, twinkle": we are being made aware of an atmosphere, howsoever minimal and refined ("smokeless"). Figure—the vertical masts and towers—is flattened into ground—fields and sky—through the word "lie." In Taylor, the star's appearance at the window takes it out of the vertical realm.18 Paratactic lists, the sinthomic voice, the liminal presence of atmosphere, horizontality: are we not in the realm of a Romanticism defined as feminine by such writers as Jeffrey Robinson and Jerome McGann (Robinson 66-74)?19 And is this not a striking conclusion to draw concerning Wordsworth?
It is capital, then, that charges modern space with ambience, creating a force field of which nature (the Lake District that Wordsworth offers as a retreat from modernity) is actually an analogue rather than a counter-image. The narrator of the sonnet becomes a minimalist version of what was later called the flâneur, analyzed in Benjamin's reading of Paris, wandering amidst metastasized capital—but the businesses are not even open yet (for an allusion to Wordsworth on the city in Benjamin's writing on Baudelaire, see Benjamin 231, 968; see Morton, Spice 235).20
"The Star," with its portable indigenousness, is a product of the very same historical moment. Furthermore, its ambience is as double-edged as Wordsworth's: revealing a belonging that is also a longing. If "culture" is designed "convert longing into belonging" (Hartman 180), to make space into place, then its products are paradoxical; for they unwind place into space again, belonging into longing. The tables in Redfish, a Boulder restaurant, create ambience: they are so huge that one cannot hold hands across them. Symbols of the proprietor's wealth (and metonymically the diner's), they are also symbols of division and longing. Wordsworth's De Chirico urban emptiness, and Taylor's empty intimate sky, cast the same spell, bestowing the feel of alien nation.
House music: the poetics and politics of wondering
We may conceive of "The Star" as oscillating between speculation and wondering; or to put it in more loaded ideological terms, between French civilisation and German Kultur; surely the Romance and Germanic origins of the two words I have chosen are not accidental (Hartman 211, Eagleton, The Idea of Culture 9). Speculation assumes the ability to jump to the impossible view of the other. Wondering implies radical location in space and time. Speculation may be noted in the view of the sun "When he nothing shines upon" (6); and the focalization through the mind of "the traveller in the dark" (9), and his use of the star to triangulate his position, which implies being able to jump to the view of the other. This is why Rousseau wants to educate Emile by having him get lost in a forest where he will be forced to triangulate to find his way home; a Spartan version of Enlightenment education. Wondering is legible, however, in the gap between knowing and experiencing: "Though I know not what you are, / Twinkle, twinkle, little star" (19-20).
"When he nothing shines upon" is also a slippage between nothing at all, and some (minimally substantial) nothingness; and this second category could either mean "the absence of something" or "the presence of nothing." On the one hand, the line evokes the empiricist/skepticist problem of the tree falling in the forest without an observer. This implies that there cannot be a "world out there," if by that phrase one meant a truly existing (independent, single and lasting) realm of objects. On the other hand, the figure implies that the sun is still shining despite its unseenness. This evokes another kind of ambience, the sort suggested by Lacan in his writing on the symbolic order when he describes the signified as a "presence made of absence" ("une présence faite d' absence," Lacan, "Fonction," 276). The ultimate ghostly presence, in patriarchy, is the phallus. In that case, the reader might wonder whether the star is a feminine counterpart to this absent phallic sun; a dangerous supplement that fatally complicates the whole notion of a tight opposition between presence and absence, subject and object.
"How I wonder" (2) is an exclamation, a self-reflexive remark that draws attention to wondering in itself. Wondering what "you" are posits "me." I cannot introduce Martin Buber's notion of I-thou relationships at this point, as this assumes a metaphysical priority of "thou" in relation to "I." One might more helpfully read "How I wonder" as a minimalist figuration of Romantic subjectivity. One could not assume, however, that this is a form of solipsism: that would be to assert the ontological priority of "I"; and evidently the poem deals not with blank otherness, but with "you." Moreover, the imagined presence of the traveler complicates any sense of "I-it" or "I-thou." Some might object that little children do not want to do philosophy: what is the point, anyway, of squeezing all of these implications out of a nursery rhyme? But to assume that children are not interested in philosophy is to reproduce the anti-intellectual and primitivist Romantic view of childhood.
Heidegger's view of wondering is the reproduction of the attitude of a stupefied peasant (Eagleton, Literary Theory 64), the anti-intellectual enjoyment of place that Nazism installed at the very heart of a murderous rationalism. But in rejecting m, we should not reject introversion as if it could be identified entirely with Heideggerian thought. For it is this introverted contemplation that was precisely what the Nazis condemned "as being an offence against community feeling," as Freud condemned it as "an autoerotic, 'narcissistic' attitude" (Jung 487). This quiet wondering is what Geoffrey Hartman celebrates in the poetry of Wordsworth. Giving the poet too much political power, Hartman cites Wordsworth as the reason England did not have a strong t moment. But to his credit, Hartman's praise of wondering is a significant counterblast to the instrumental reason that dominates bureaucratized intellectuality in the modern academy. Hartman writes:
we [academic intellectuals] are too defensive about the contemplative life. Its otium is not otiose. We should recognize more firmly its achievements and its relation to a certain spaciousness, especially that of a shrinking rural world. Not to heed Wordsworth's understanding of the ecology of mind jeopardizes the bond between nature and mind. The spacious ambience of nature when treated with respect, allows physical and emotional freedom; it is an outdoor room essential to thought and untraumatic (that is, relatively unforced) development.
For Hartman, as objective space collapses, subjective "spaciousness" remains potent. I wonder about the validity of Hartman's use of "room" as safe haven, sanctuary. It would be perilous to obtain a metaphysical distinction between inside and outside from the paradoxical image of an "outdoor room." This notion of the room is too poverty-stricken, attached to an idea of private property (however rooted in a natural outside) that Hartman sees as essential to liberty (Hartman 76-7). This is a basic tenet of republicanism, whose image of liberty is the garden (reduced in modern America to the lawn), as in Andrew Marvell's garden at Nun Appleton. And could not the idea of the outside as room serve to reproduce, howsoever subtly, the Nazi notion of Lebensraum? Even if not, one cannot help thinking of the paucity of the "lounge" or "living room" as a model for a contemplative space—one of the central inadequacies of Brian Eno's view of the role of ambience. Surely common land, or a street corner, in our time a locus of racist arrests (and of Miles Davis's On the Corner, a strongly ambient work)—or Westminster Bridge—are more potent spaces?
Moreover, surely the paradox of inside as outside—a form of Möbius strip—is as traumatic as it is soothing? One function of ambience is to permeate and trouble the inside with the outside. Wordsworth's poems and ambient music (laced with atmospheric samples) are often consumed indoors; it is the opposite of the cozy externality of Auden's "Out on the lawn I lie in bed" (1). It is no surprise that Auden's poem is more blatantly republican than Wordsworth's Westminster Bridge sonnet or "The Star," with its imagery of homoerotic brotherly bonding:
Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening,
Enchanted as the flowers. (13-15)
Auden also employs a striking ecotopian allusion to Isaiah 11, the passage about the lion lying down with the lamb (22-24), in a blend of Judaeo-Christian and republican idyll reminiscent of Shelley (Morton, Shelley chapter 3). This is another version of emotion recollected in tranquillity (Wordsworth, Wordsworth 598). Ambience may therapeutically displace the spontaneous overflow; but it is also what recollects it. If it were too safe and soothing, surely some forms of ambient music, music for bourgeois lounges that is ("high" versions of Muzak), could remind one of what Adorno said of the Nazis' use of Beethoven at Auschwitz to drown the screams (Adorno 365). Tranquillity must recollect the real, then, as all avant garde art from Wordsworth to Rauschenberg tries to incorporate the real. Or as a lullaby, designed to soothe, also opens the child to the lingual and sidereal real.
Hartman continues: "To curtail [contemplation] adds to the damage done to the culture of civil society by the totalizing and controlling demands of political religions" (Hartman 158). I suggest instead that the real problem is aggressive conceptual mind; including the mind that condemns politics because of a certain concept of nature. This aggressive mind also includes contemplative idealism of a certain kind, the kind that asserts ego in its highest form as the nation-state. This kind of contemplation is to be distinguished from the more open, and more quiet, and more troubling introverted contemplation that Hartman describes. Might there be a way of inhabiting a place that did not entail murder and destruction? It might be wise to find one, lest the White Man's Burden is all the most powerful on this earth have either to accept or reject. And it might be wise not to do this in a New Age invasion of "Eastern" philosophy. In fact, it would be good to discover it in the very cultures from which the toxic thought has emerged that the world is objectified stuff, and that the subject is absolutely free abstraction (see Jung 490-1).
Hartman's "outdoor room" is precariously poised between the republican idea of freedom in ownership of land—that seems so sober, so calm—and the fantasy of the indoor garden visited by Aladdin in the Arabian Nights. Wordsworth himself was keen to naturalize this tale in The Prelude 5 (Richardson 122-24). A door that opens into a further inside that is also an outside—this is none other than the mise-en-abîme of the literary text, against which Wordsworth tries to struggle, manfully: "Up! up!. . and quit your books" ("The Tables Turned," 3). Coleridge's dream of the Arab in The Prelude 5 is Wordsworth's own complication of inside and outside, as the apocalyptic "fleet waters" provide an ambient music that wakes the dreamer up to the reality of the encroaching waves (5.136).
In the tale of Aladdin, instead of the text of nature, we have the text as nature (as fantastic garden of jewels). Likewise Taylor's "like a diamond" makes of nature a fantastic luxury item, handy as jeweled fruit in an interior garden. It recurs in James Joyce's Ulysses: "The heaventree of stars, hung with humid nightblue fruit" (Joyce 573). The fantasy of the "outdoor room," by contrast, attempts to avoid the luxurious squandering evoked in Aladdin's jewel garden. It is something of a republican image—only this is a paradoxical republic of introversion, with no people around. Hartman, in his attempt to address the issue of Wordsworthian ecology, and his reluctance to fall back on images that would evoke Kultur, has to plump for something that is not fully open to its secret: the secret of femininity (auto , luxury, writing, expenditure).
The outdoor room appears to be the antinomy of the "garden room" in the Arabian Nights, insofar as the former is natural, while the latter is a figure of artifice and luxury (and fitted into the eighteenth century English discourse of luxury). In Wordsworth and the Figurings of the Real, David Simpson has shown the extent to which Wordsworth wished to guard against luxury in his figuring of a fragile republic in the Lake District. The asymmetry between republicanism and luxury, two of the great discouses of the long eighteenth century, is poignant: they are implicated in one another, but also exclude one another. This has, moreover, proved a real stumbling block for a progressive ecology that does not fall back upon royalist motifs of natural hierarchy and benevolent stewardship; one recalls here Simpson's arguments about the authoritarianism of the category of the "natural" (xvii). If we examine Wordsworth closely, however, we find that luxury and republicanism are harder to keep apart than he might consciously have wished. But really, these images resemble each other intricately in Wordsworth's own writing. If, in The Prelude 5, the Arabian Nights are like The Prelude (the oral transmission of an organic lineage, 520-1), then the reverse holds true: The Prelude must resemble the Arabian Nights. The rather empty outside of the "outdoor room" is nothing but a masculinized version of the feminized luxury garden, the interior of jewel trees and autoerotic lamps.
On the one hand, Hartman, like Wordsworth most of the time, is warding off femininity. On the other, surely what Hartman is also trying to ward off is Heidegger's notion of Dasein, the philosophical basis for a dangerously localist politics of Volk. But if being out in nature is also being in a room of jewels, then the difference between artifice and nature on which the localism of Dasein is predicated is deconstructed. There is, in the unfortunate phrasing of the Vietnam War, "no there there." Dasein is a heffalump, a phallic ghost, presence made of absence, or rather from the graphic traces of that absence in the world. Winnie the Pooh and his frightened friend Piglet circle a tree in the Hundred-Acre Wood they call home (an accidentally Heideggerian location). The footprints of absence, formed by the subject's anxious self-circling (literally "wondering what you are"), ignore the substance around which the circles are made, the very world-stuff of which Dasein is only the ized reflection. This world-stuff is between two things. If one wants to be an essentialist, it is the scintillating horror/bliss of existential angst, that which the late Merleau-Ponty calls the flesh, inseparable from the world of perception. But it is also the trace of writing as it were in an analog medium, the medium of the world itself, which is also a palimpsest of traces. It is a longing for presence rather than a belonging to presence: différance.21
Dasein is a peculiarly anthropocentric and anxious form of being: it is specifically human being (as opposed to star being, or cloud being). One of Heidegger's figures for it is of a telephone call from an anxious mother to an absent but anxious child—a child somewhat older than the audience for "The Star" (Ronell 27-8).22 Heidegger's view of technology, then, is of an external prosthesis, a dangerous supplement of authentic beingness. But what if technology were exemplified by a lullaby? In Taylor's poem, the star exceeds human being just as it is caught in it; it is a timepiece and a stile for the traveler; but it is also a wondrous phenomenon, something that opens the mind towards it in itself. What is striking about "The Star" is not so much is evocation of being-thereness, as its portability: this is a lullaby that creates, enacts, conjures being-there no matter where it is sung. It is a refrain that creates territory (Deleuze and Guattari 310-50). But it is also a song that opens territory, relaxes being-thereness, out into space. Being here is as portable as a song, which is more than can be said for a national anthem. "The Star" thus broaches a non-essentialist form of indigenousness. In Jakobson's outline of the six-part model of communication, talking birds are said to share just one of the model's functions: the phatic (foregrounding the contact; Jakobson 356). We are back at the exploration of minimalist language—the "speech" of Charlie Brown's friend Woodstock the bird. The phatic is then the point at which language opens human being to the natural world (which, for shamanic cultures, is simply a larger assemblage of "people"). Future ecocritical work will thus have to take the phatic dimension of language into account.23
"The Star" proposes—more, it enacts—the fact that human beings are radically "in" time and space—indeed, unreified spacetime—in the same sense as one might be "in" love. The grown-up word for this inhabiting is undoubtedly history. But if history becomes destiny, it is segregated from spatiality and forced to wander with the White Man's Burden. And if spatiality becomes culture in its most reified sense, the Nazi sense of Kultur, then time is effaced and apocalyptic genocide beckons. It would be ridiculous, and ridiculously hard, to make of "The Star" a fantasy kernel for t or imperial ideology. Its presentation of glittering spacetime exceeds the ideological frames in which it could be captured. In the future it will be less dangerous to think a deep-ecological poetics through this kind of feminine Romantic writing than it has been to think it through Heidegger, whose fatal mistake was to reify environment, that which could not (even on his own terms) be so solidified. Dangerously necessary, for otherwise ecology is hamstrung by the notions of subject and object in the name of which the earth is being destroyed.
In The Fateful Question of Culture, Hartman warns against what Wallace Stevens called a "cure of the ground"—a "back to nature" or "back to basics" approach that we often associate with ecological poetics and politics (Hartman 27). In concluding this essay, let us consider how ecology and ecopoetics may be articulated. What is most subversive about both "The Star" and Wordsworth's "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" is not their return to a ground, to nature: not what one might traditionally understand as the anti-supplemental characteristics of Romantic poetry. What is subversive is their presentation of surplus enjoyment, that confuses the difference between figure and ground, and opens the possibility of ecological awareness. In Taylor, this is the surplus of the sinthomic voice. In Wordsworth, it is the surplus of a surplus: the secret enjoyment of secret surplus value (capital). In addition, by reversing belonging into longing, fulfillment into unfulfillment, these poems counteract the territorial aggression that turns space into place. As I demonstrate in the final chapter of The Poetics of Spice, the orientation of poetry in the Romantic period towards rather than away from surplus has a potentially liberating ecological effect. In order to celebrate nature without risking turning it into private property (the outdoor room) or to Dasein, ecocriticism must embrace the culturally feminine aspects of space in all their meaningless surplus inconsistency. In Coleridge's terms, this would be jump into the subject—dissolving stickiness of aesthetic glutchotes. Perhaps "The Star" will become the nonnational nonanthem of this kind of ecological awareness.
I would like to thank James McKusick for encouraging me to write this, and Thomas Riis (Music, the University of Colorado at Boulder) for his help.
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A good example of one of the very many sites on ambient music.
2 One of the most suggestive formulations is Elizabeth Fay's: "If William's picturesque belongs to the valley and bower, the sacred grove is where he situates the meeting of the picturesque and the beautiful with the sublime, a meeting that transmutes the feminine into the transcendent and brings the masculine sublimity of mountains home to pasture" (184).
4 "You may also find it interesting that Shinichi Suzuki advocates Mozart's Variations on 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' as the first piece a child should learn in the Suzuki Method of musical training, which he theorizes as a form of language acquisition" (Nota bene from Melissa Sites, text editor of 'Romanticism and Ecology,' to the author).
5 In general, the seventh chapter of Looking Awry is a sustained analysis of the rhetoric and politics of the sinthome. The term is a pun on the St. Thomas, who had to insert his fingers into the gaping wound in the side of the risen Christ, who had returned to convince Thomas of His reality. For Lacan, the sinthome is neither symptom nor fantasy but "the point marking the dimension of 'what is in the subject more than himself' and what he therefore 'loves more than himself'" (Zizek, Looking Awry 132)
6 This would square well with the vaginal connotations of the sinthome, in patriarchy a wound that is also a space. See Zizek's discussion of Ridley Scott's film Alien (Sublime Object 79). It also squares with Lacan's view of subjecthood as a hole in the real caused by the removal of a "little bit" of it, that nevertheless results in the framing of reality (see Jacques-Alain Miller's explanation in Zizek, Looking Awry 94-5).
8 The allusion is to Spenser's Colin Clouts Come Home Again, 281-83, 245-48—"pleasant lea"; "Triton blowing loud his wreathed borne"; "coming from the sea" alludes to Paradise Lost iii.603-604, "call up unbound / In various shapes old Proteus from the sea" (Wordsworth, Poems 411).
10 In particular, consider the following: "Insofar as it is not anchored to a specific source, localized in a specific place, the voix acousmatique functions as a threat that lurks everywhere . . . its free-floating presence is the all-pervasive presence of a nonsubjectivized object, i.e., of a voice-object without support in a subject serving as its source. It is in this way that déacousmatisation [the linkage of an acousmatic voice with a subject] equals subjectivization" (Zizek, Looking Awry 127).
13 Sartre's view of woman/sex as a "hole" (613-4) is relevant to the earlier discussion of space as invaginated sinthome (see note 5). For parallels between Romantic and existential disgust, see Denise Gigante, "After Taste: The Aesthetics of Romantic Eating."
15 This is something of an evocation of the hellish ambience of the city, as noted in Benjamin's study of nineteenth-century representations of Paris (10). Benjamin was fond of Percy Shelley's Peter Bell the Third in this regard (370, 449-50).
17 For Marx, "classical political economy is interested only in contents concealed behind the commodity-form, which is why it cannot explain the true secret, not the secret behind the form but the secret of this form itself" (Zizek, Sublime Object 15). Malcolm Bull's very suggestive subversion of Nietzsche offers a view of "totalized" society that contains all those species that Nietzsche would categorize as "subhuman." Wordsworthian negative ecology would not, for Bull, be negative enough: it is far from philistine and thus subject to Nietzsche's nihilistic valuation of value itself.
18 Rosalind Krauss has recently argued that this kind of "horizontality" is a feature of abstract expressionist visual art (Bois and Krauss 93-103). Evidently Wordsworth was very interested in such effects in the literature of an earlier moment of the avant-garde; compare the way in which the narrator in "Tintern Abbey" wishes to connect the landscape with "the quiet of the sky" (8) in a view that first, unlike the picturesque is radically "inside" its own frame, and secondly undoes the difference between horizontal and vertical that Krauss names as establishing a difference between human and animal, and is caught up in the commodity ism of paintings themselves (hung vertically in galleries).
19 Robinson declares of the lines "This City now doth like a garment wear / The beauty of the morning": "Essentially Thomsonian, the line (and poem) personifies the city in order to allow variety to be absorbed by the beautifying feminizing unifying perspective of the composed and composing meditation" (100).
20 Convolute J on Baudelaire (231): "From the eighth section of Baudelaire's 'Salon de 1859.' There one finds, apropos of Meryon, this phrase: 'the profound and complex charm of a capital city which has grown old and worn in the glories and tribulations of life.' A little further on: 'I have rarely seen the natural solemnity of an immense city more poetically reproduced. Those majestic accumulations of stone; those spires "whose fingers point to heaven"; those obelisks of industry, spewing forth their conglomerations of smoke against the firmament; those prodigies of scaffolding 'round buildings under repair, applying their openwork architecture, so paradoxically beautiful, upon architecture's solid body; that tumultuous sky, charged with anger and spite; those limitless perspectives, only increased by the thought of all the drama they contain;—he forgot not one of the complex elements which go to make up the painful and glorious décor of civilization . . . . But a cruel demon has touched M. Meryon's brain . . . . And from that moment we have never ceased waiting anxiously for some consoling news of this singular naval officer who in one short day turned into a mighty artist, and who bade farewell to the ocean's solemn adventures in order to paint the gloomy majesty of this most disquieting of capitals.' Cited in Gustave Geoffroy, Charles Meryon (Paris, 1926), pp. 125-126. Note 10 : 'The phrase "those spires 'whose fingers point to heaven'" (montrant du doigt le ciel), translates a line from Wordsworth's poem 'The Excursion' (book 6, line 19), itself a citation from Coleridge." Surely the antecedent of this figure is "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" (968), but it is more radical than the vertical fingers, indicating not a world of life-forms but a transcendental, theistic realm.
21 In the second chapter of The Fateful Question of Culture, Hartman very eloquently establishes what for him is the necessarily phantom nature of this longing—its embodiment, for Hartman, would precipitate disaster. But to make this phantom transcendent would in a sense be to locate it. This is quite the opposite of what we are trying to establish: the figuration of "here" without location.
22 Readers intrigued by Ronell's linkage of technology and schizophrenia in the figure of distant speech (in this essay, acousmatic speech), may be interested to know that researchers at the University of Colorado have recently discovered a receptor in the hypothalamus (in the brain) that is sensitive to the difference between foreground and background noise. When this receptor malfunctions, people are unable to distinguish between foreground (meaningful) sound (for example, speech) and ambient sound; hence the schizophrenic phenomenon of hearing voices in radiators, car engines, animals. . .
23 When exploring the radically new environment of the space and moon, the first words between the American astronauts and Houston were phatic: "You can go ahead with the TV now, we're standing by . . . ." This explains the popularity in contemporary ambient electronic music of samples from radio talk shows ("Hello, you're on the air"), scanned telephone conversations and other phatic phenomena.