Exploring the interaction of poetics and language with the discourse of the Anthropocene (through etymologies of various ecological ages, or notions of the “survival of the fittest” and embodiment), Retallack combines poetry and prose to occasionally suspend the essay genre into a reflective and creative endeavour, attempting to encompass the larger cultural efforts of “poets, scientists, philosophers, visual and performance artists, composers of every kind [who are] working on an interconnected project” of ecopoetics.
This reprinted essay, first published in Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne's edited collection Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field (Iowa UP, 2018), addresses the major themes of – and suggests the possibility of a vital conversation between – two forthcoming ebr gatherings: 'Essayism', edited by Jason Childs and Joseph Tabbi, and 'Natural Media', edited by Lisa Swanstrom and Eric Dean Rasmussen.
Image: Ship of Fools in Flames, c. 1450; possibly Jheronimus Bosch.
Aristotle, de anima, 410b: Discussion on whether all living things, including plants, have Soul: in the so-called Orphic poems, the poet says that Soul is borne along by the winds, and enters from the Whole when the creatures inhale.
-Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers.
Our past isn't catching up with us.
We never left it behind. It's the air we breathe.
I find again and again that I cannot think without poetry.
- Letter from Former Student
a storm is slanted toward the trailer park
no immigrant ripple pith inescapable
the class of all thoughts that can't entertain themselves
upend would-be transcendents lurking here
shine baukna beacon
no ship won't go down in that gesamtkunst stormy sea
bacon sizzles in the non-stick pan
what is mean (or meant) in this who cares to know
one dimension grinds noisily by another in a routine demonstration
proper response: enjoy the friction avoid the collision
beautiful silver fish jumps out of water and explodes in air
transnipple Q: will some of us never be post-Dada
these long days nights are too mean too hot too cold too wet too dry
for too many of us on this planet
The "Anthropocene" enters our vocabulary to denote the time interval during which humans have profoundly altered Earth's biosphere. Coined by chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer, the term has attained wide currency among climate scientists and others concerned with the human impact on the fate of earth's species. A working group of geological stratigraphers is debating whether "Anthropocene" warrants official status as an entirely new epoch and, if so, when it began.1For an update, visit http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/. The Anthroposcene is a word I've coined for the period in which human culture has thrived on Earth "for better and for worse" as defined by humans. The essay form is just one of our cultural inventions. This essay explores poetics, poethics, and epistemology of the Anthropocene.
If the wager that is an essay in the exploratory tradition of that genre can have an ecopoetic microsystem, this one is an experiment in prosimetrum. Twelfth century mongrel term coupling Greek and Latin, prosimetrum refers to a dialogic genre alternating prose and poetry. As I use it, neither form is subordinate to the other. The practice precedes its Medieval label by at least a millennium, and is found in non-European cultures worldwide. But my model is the remarkable Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, philosopher-poet, theologian, musician, orator, and Roman official. In 524 CE, four decades after the fall of Rome to the Ostrogoths, Boethius fell out of favor with King Theodoric. Exiled and imprisoned for dubious charges of treason, execution looming, Boethius composed a lively – mostly grave, sometimes humorous – conversation that begins with an exchange between the frank authority of "Lady Philosophy" and the moral pathos of the "Muses of Poetry."
Philosophy almost immediately commandeers poetry for her own use, imbuing pathos with increasingly reflective wisdom. The translator H.R. James saw the text as "skillfully fitted together like dialogue and chorus in a Greek play."2H.R. James, Preface to The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, trans. H.R. James (London: Elliot Stock, 62, Paternoster Row.), 1897; Project Gutenberg EBook released Dec. 11, 2004, accessed Dec. 1, 2016, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14328/14328-h/14328-h.htm. Every bit of it designed to muster imaginative and intellectual courage and, no doubt, elusive equanimity. It's clear that Boethius needed poetry as much as philosophy (perhaps even more) to engage the deeply felt values of his highly cultured humanity, to sustain a robust life of the mind in extremis. The Consolation of Philosophy, posthumously published, continuously available to date, was revered and enormously influential all over Europe until the eighteenth century when disciplinary divisions were more strictly separating philosophy from theology and other genres. In our own time, the complexities of life may require conversations among disciplines and genres, but academia – and commerce – find them awkward. To read summaries without mention of Boethius's prose/poetic form in encyclopedias of philosophy is sadly instructive of the way poetic imagination is ignored in deference to "philosophical rigor."
In fact, just as everything Boethius has valued (aesthetic sensitivity, poetry, justice, his own life) is in danger of being crushed, his genre swerving writing practice generates enough energy to keep his mind in motion. Multiple disciplinary perspectives in polylogue with Boethius's subjective position deflect certainty even when he is most obviously seeking it. He believes in the powers Greek and Roman culture bestows on an educated man; has deep trust in both reason and Christian faith; and, not least, in the ethical force of secularly administered justice.
A good deal of the discourse in early parts of The Consolation reads like a jurisprudential plea of innocence. Later, philosophy turns theological, concentrating on the "problem of evil": how can a just God allow the ruin of an innocent man? What gives this text authentic liveliness is the irresolvable paradoxes in all this. Rather than stilling the emotions with premature conclusions, or relinquishing hope and desire – a Stoical method popular at the time – Boethius is trying to figure things with an ethically courageous Aristotelian approach of heightened intellectual and imaginative activity of soul (one's whole nature) in accordance with virtue (excellence in the use of one's distinctive capacities). For Aristotle, this activity is the good life, is happiness, if it is accompanied by good fortune – sadly not Boethius's case. But it saves the quality of life in the meanwhile, which is where he (and everyone else) actually lives.3See Aristotle's always relevant Nicomachean Ethics. For Boethius, who translated Aristotle into Latin, the virtuous use of his capacities turns out to be the strenuously pleasurable practice of composing verse, the exhilarating practices of philosophical reasoning and theological inquiry.
In early sections of The Consolation, Boethius is playful. He enjoys poking fun, satirizing the Platonic notion that poetry incapacitates minds for serious thought. "Lady Philosophy" rails at the "Muses of poetry": "Who let these whores from the theater come to the bedside of this sick man? . . . They will nourish him only with their sweet poison . . . kill the fruitful harvest of reason . . . They do not liberate the minds of men from disease, but merely accustom them to it."4Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green(New York and London: Macmillan, 1987), 4. I will be drawing all subsequent quotations from this edition. Boethius is undeterred. Throughout his sometimes meditative, sometimes angry and grief-stricken rethinking of the nature of justice, knowledge, truth, and that great test of his Christian faith, the Problem of Evil,5Boethius sums up what is known in Christian theology as The Problem of Evil by quoting the pre-Christian philosopher Epicurus: "If there is a God, why is there evil?" To make sense of an internal contradiction in the definition of God's beneficence and power, Boethius argues his way into an affirmation of "Theodicy" – the vindication of divine goodness despite the presence of evil in the world. poetry is essential. At one point he writes,
But I see that you are weary from listening so long to this difficult and extended discourse and want to be refreshed by poetry. Listen then, and gather your strength for what is to be explained.6Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, 96.
Each genre engages Boethius's considerable erudition and ingenuity in ways the other can't. Neither forestalls the grim outcome, but Boethius's activity of prosimetric composition enables him to engage with the scope of what it means to him to be human. Almost to the end – his execution was brutal.
Has the Problem of Evil transmogrified into the problem of planetary ruin in the Anthropocene? In our post-humanist fantasies the contradictions remain similar: hubristic Anthropos = omnipotent God. If Boethius's imprisonment included the conceptual traps of a contradictory belief system, here is a parallel narrative of our own captivity: The beautiful Enlightenment mind was also a slave owner, a misogynist, an imperialist. The tech wizards and geoengineers who promise to bypass consequences of exploitive planetary ruin appeal to our escapist fantasies but will let us down. Both God and His Anthropos-ex machina have much to answer for but little to say about the virtual reality apocalypse unfolding on our world screens. Ah, but this discourse has turned much too murky. Perhaps we can be refreshed by poetry.
The Reinvention of Truth
it can be startling to hear a sentence begin with we
the place of absence so precisely marked
point of departure for something tragic
and brutal and mistaken many times over never farce
in a bright saturation of urgent green urgent
orange crackup blue and white can anything
be settled by pleasure v reality principle debates
or lack thereof in Greek or Roman or Viennese classicisms
in the monster meadow
all seemed to disappear
in the happy meadow
oh the happy tears ah the spot of red that
snapped the chaos into place
this much can be conjectured at last
that Isaac Newton's world was more
involved with magic than mechanics
could be precisely what made
gravity conceivable to him
I've admired the form of The Consolation for decades but until now never used it, except in interdisciplinary classroom experiments where it is always revelatory. Despite working on every difficult question that interests me by means of poetry, philosophy, essay, and prose-poetic hybrids in a conversational manner, I've tended – except for hybrid forms of prose-poetry – to publish the genres separately. The prosimetric conversation in Boethius's text and other well-known examples (Bashō's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Dante's La Vita Nuova) are most importantly not hybrids. Each genre retains its own identity, its own effective logics. Prosimetrum presents a challenge of reciprocal alterity in its writing and reading poesis that our world could benefit from in other areas. Constructive reciprocal alterity is the opposite of neo-liberal colonialism. True conversation – turning (verse) toward and with (con) one another – is just that. Although what happens on pages is removed in kind and magnitude from what happens across cultures, ethnicities, races, genders, at borders, on city streets, socio-poetic models can affect the pragmatic and visionary imagination. When I recently revisited The Consolation, I saw that, for all its moral and theological gravitas ("For the wicked to overcome the innocent in the sight of God – that is monstrous."7Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, 12. ) Boethius derives hope (if not optimism) from the improbable conversation he constructs between poetry, philosophy, and theology. In less conclusively fatal circumstances, like (one hopes) our current climate crisis, imaginative swerves may lead to new paradigms of the sort that generate constructive optimism.
Jedediah Purdy, in After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene points out that the "American environmental imagination" has undergone major shifts since the colonial period. From providential to romantic to utilitarian views of our landscape, we have recently arrived at an ecological understanding of the environment. But we are foundering in what Purdy sees as the dystopia of the neoliberal Anthropocene. This is both what we have made of our environment, and what it's transformations make of us. Purdy is calling for us "as citizens" to "deliberately and collectively shift our autopoesis, building a different kind of home for ourselves and the living world."8Jedidiah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2015), 279. Purdy, a law professor at Duke University, brings a historical and jurisprudential perspective to his knowledge of literary (though not poetic) contributions to the environmental movement. He suggests that the way we define and treat nature has always been, in certain critical aspects, a legal issue. To not understand that is to remain vulnerable to neoliberal commercial enterprise as it uses, abuses, defines nature for its own purposes. Noting that the poor are already suffering the greatest impact of climate change, Purdy argues that we must make a truly "democratic Anthropocene" whose first principle is equality. As a legal scholar and theorist, Purdy sees this project as one that combines law and politics with heightened attention to the language of values we can no longer simply assume are part of the "nature" of America: "Equality is established through language: by naming it, we place it in the common world of artificial principle where all may see it, call on it, and fight over its meaning . . . where an artificial principle such as equality an acquire reality. . . It is only in this artificial world that autopoetic creatures turn back to examine their own self-replicating orders and change them, deliberately and reflectively."9Ibid., 278. This would have to mean a dauntingly extensive transfiguration of our sense of ourselves in relation to all species, races, genders, ethnicities, classes as they are currently defined within contexts of economic expedience – a movement toward a planetary we that signals collaboration rather than zero sum competition. It's an improbable, therefore necessary, vision. Purdy reminds us that the challenge we face is not a matter of politics and jurisprudence versus humanist and aesthetic revisionings; it is a need to rethink all of the above. And, I must add, it is a matter of the poetics of our conversation with the rest of nature.
How can poetry help? The enormous world archive of poetries since ancient times in every culture has expanded the scope of human explorations and experiments by means of the peculiar logics poets draw from linguistic instincts and intuitions. Those are acts of embodied imagination redolent with evolutionary connectivity – one way to think about poetic investigations proliferating internationally under the sign of "ecopoetics," though not restricted to that label. As forthright discourse is regularly swayed by ingenious rationalization, Homo linquistica (now and then sapient) may not fully recapitulate the multi-tracked neuro-physiological developments of phylogeny – we really can't feel what it is to be a bat – but we are a key part of its future. The most important work of poets is to transgress what appear to be the limits of imagination – to exceed the apathetically probable. Without radically odd wagers on constructive alterities yet to be realized, we may be unable to "exhume the future," as Genre Tallique puts it, from the historical follies of the Anthropocene. In that sense, poets, scientists, philosophers, visual and performance artists, composers of every kind are working on an interconnected project. We can't really know where we are going and that is precisely why we must experientially, experimentally make (poesis) our way by means of considered poethical wagers. "The question has always been," Tallique writes, "do we have enough courage of imagination in history's forlorn medias res to exhume the future from our most ruinous habits of mind?"10Genre Tallique, GLANCES: An Unwritten Book (Washington DC & Red Hook: Pre-post-eros Press, frothcoming).
Anthropocene" is the first ethically charged name for a geological epoch. Not surprising, since it's the first to designate the ascendency of planet-wide human meddling in things geophysical. Some of that meddling has been beautiful, some tragic; some constructive; some brutally despoiling of human life and (interconnectedly) that of other species. There is much debate about just when the Anthropocene ascendency began. Was it the ancient turn from nomadism to agriculture? Was it the industrial age? Was it the explosive start of the nuclear age? From an eco-humanist point of view, one can say 'all of the above' and more. The problems we now face have emerged with contributions from every aspect of human life on earth. But, in my view, having been affected by living for ten years in the pre-civil rights South, the large-scale Anthroposcenities begin in full force with the geoethical disaster that was plantation agribusiness: deforestations, crop monoculture, and, most horrendously, millions of women, men, and children wrenched into brutal lives and deaths as commodities on the international slave market.
The plantation economy remains a template for the succession of mega-scale ethical/moral compromises that have exploited human and material resources for capitalist wealth accumulation.11For more on environmental as well as human consequences of the plantation economy, see John Bellamy Foster, Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000). Plantations in the U.S. and Euro-American colonies can be seen as prototypes of what are currently being called "sacrifice zones" in the corporate world. A term for lands and waters, communities and populations devastated by the upheaval and contamination that is a matter of course in industrialized and extractive sites. An if-then exercise: If the entire planet is coming to be understood as a sacrifice zone; if there is increasing scientific legitimation of climate apocalypse; if thoughts of colonizing other planets to escape a ruined earth are gaining credence beyond sci-fi literature and films – even if indirectly, even if only in our largely phantom space program – then, what?
The Ventriloquist's Dilemma
Birdsong entered our words and left with
migratory echoes insufficiently dispersed.
We are not designed to perceive most of what
surrounds us or to fully understand the rest.
Maybe it's true nonlinear equations drove the teenager
off the road. The self-propagating slope remains
unhindered in its x-y axis. (It's always difficult to state
these things rigorously.) Sound waves break on the
shore making some feel unwelcome. And too, there's
that conspicuous absence of real metaphor in nature.
Sorry, I think I meant to say there's that conspicuous
absence of real nature in metaphor. Someone will claim
real is a misleading construct. Someone will claim
night flew into a tree. Those five words in a line.
"Anthropocene" is a particularly heartening instance of what we do with words. Stalking its etymological import in dictionaries, one quickly stumbles upon this force-field: ancient Greek anthropos – "man,"given eminent domain as generic "huma" + cene – new, recent. "Recent" highlights planetary changes coincidental with the thriving of Homo sapiens beginning a scant 12,000 or so years ago – period formerly known as "Holocene," made comfy for our species by the retreat of Ice Age glaciers.12The Holocene, if foreshortened by the Anthropocene, will have been by far the briefest geologically defined epoch, coming in duration after the Pleistocene which lasted for 2.6 million years. During that time – our time – the cascade of geological, oceanic, atmospheric transformations became dramatic enough to merit a new linguistic lens. The lens that is etymologically embedded in the word "Anthropocene" has shifted a hitherto limited whole-earth consciousness toward new geometries of attention that reveal the socio-politics of human desire in every ecological system.
The benignly neutral "Holocene" (holo – whole +cene) began rather innocuously before exploding into what might be termed, with some poetic irony, a whole new "shebang" – word Walt Whitman happened to like a lot. The "shebang" – N. Amer. archaic for rough hut or shelter out of which great civilizations would emerge, was fueled by seemingly limitless ingenuity in turn fueled by impatience with rough hut existence. Fast-forward just a bit in geological time and, slap-bang in the middle of current pockets of enormous "affluence" (affluence – fr. Latin, flowing toward), notice the apotheosis of the word "shelter." Formerly, any shield from the elements, even a hat; (shelter – "1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng.. . . a couert, shrowd . . . or shadie place," OED). "Shelter" now straddles two characteristically human interests – inborn need for survival and acquired desire for opulence. "Shelter" in the roaring 1980s in fact entered the lingo of pan-urban, multimillion dollar real-estate. In the same vein as the earlier "cottage" to refer with modesty to one's palatial home; "shelter" magazines contained photo displays of mansions of the otherwise unimaginably affluent. Even as "fuming" (smog-heavy) skies continued to exonerate the pathetic fallacy, the play on humble country house or rough hut amused the mega-wealthy with barely discernable meanness.
Meanwhile, etymologies steer us toward a poetics of truth via natural, and naturalized, selection of everyday usage. Words in dictionaries, as J.L. Austin pointed out, are catalogs of what we care about. Austin writes, "our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connexions they have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations." He goes on to characterize these words as having passed the "test of the survival of the fittest."13J.L. Austin, "A Plea for Excuses," in Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 130. While there are many more distinctions than are found in dictionaries and, while women have contributed to usage as well as men, this observation of language development as an "embodied" part of natural selection is enormously significant. The constantly changing feedback loops of usage give us hints about why. The OED and its equivalents in every language rival the book of Genesis and its equivalent in every culture as ceaselessly fertile creation myth of human consciousness.
There are however feedback loops affecting language and consciousness that will always exceed an OED's historical account of usage as well as the book-bound logic that gave us the "pathetic fallacy." Nature (uncomplicatedly defined as mountains, meadows, trees and sheep, seas and skies . . . the whole shebang of our biosphere) has come to reflect our moods, whims, aspirations, desires – their material consequences – all too well. A phrase like "the leaden evening sky" used by a nineteenth century writer – even one, like Thomas Hardy, aware of industrial pollution – to express foreboding as a romantic mirroring of human emotions in natural phenomena did in fact register the interpermeability of human consciousness, culture, and the rest of nature as we understand it in the twenty-first century. The difference is that, rather than reading the sky's "mood" as spiritual augury, we now think first about the toxic particles suspended in it. In both cases it is an act of the symbolic imagination that makes connections between experiences and ideas, theories and observations in the sciences as well as the arts. Since skies darkened by smog are literally "leaden," the prose of the Clean Air Act can strike us as more urgently relevant than that of the romantic novelist. It may be, but as Gertrude Stein argued and enacted in her poetic essay Composition as Explanation it is by means of our poetics that we simultaneously discover and compose the times in which we live.14Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein: Selections, ed. Joan Retallack (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 215-26.
None Too Soon
Located in memories without precedent, fine stock of syllables
not yet squandered in pliant affirmation. Don't be scared. The
more non-existent of the gods are the only ones counting your
blunders. Hard to forget what's never been known for sure.
Yearning minds conjure thoughts bound to deform the
musculature of the most determined smile.The only
worthwhile thought experiment of which I'm currently aware
is to construct a logical space-time bracket in which all of us
– animal, mineral, vegetable – are sometimes dreaming.
The semiotics of "Anthropocene" is most importantly, and alarmingly, recognition that nature and human culture are not only inextricable but – to the extent that human desire is estranged from its natural habitats – are in an inherently agonistic intrarelationship. This can be parsed as a conceptual matter – the agon playing out among linguistically engineered perspectives and values: idealism v pragmatism; "truth" v truth; ethics v politics. But life and death stakes are not pacified by abstract nouns. John Dewey, in "Art as Experience," puts it frankly: "If the gap between organism and environment is too wide, the creature dies."15John Dewey, "Art as Experience," in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925 -1953, Vol. 10: 1934, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 19-20. Dies from consequences of inattention. And we can add with current perspective, the dying creatures can take other creatures, and the environmental equilibrium with them. Dewey's aesthetics is deeply ecological, asserting the connection of heightened sensory attention (focus of all the arts, linking them to survival) to life and death matters we have in common with every living being in our shared material world. Heightened, focused sensation also happens to be a source of pleasure for our species. So what goes wrong?
Thinking about the role of art in the Anthropocene from Dewey's point of view is to realize how important it is to create geometries of attention that reconnect us with the material correlates of our sensorium. That is most delightfully manifest in the visual and auditory, spoken and sung relation to language so vibrant in children. Does Dewey (unlike D.W. Winnicott in Playing and Reality.16For a compelling defense of play as essential to creativity – in contrast to the life of compliance – see D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Tavistock-Methuen, 1984). ) forget about the serious pleasures of children's play? Or is he perhaps reflecting a less joyfully exploratory childhood common in his time? Either way, his essays and books on educational reform inspired and mentored many "hands-on" experiential pedagogies, mostly in K-12 settings but including the structure of Black Mountain College where Dewey was mentor to its founder and served on the Board of Trustees.
Dewey's education theory is closely linked to his aesthetics. In Art as Experience, he points out that we are the sole species that attempts to get by without being 'fully alive' to our surroundings. Surroundings that of course include the materiality of language that children enjoy so much in nursery rhymes, alphabet books, and the visual hijinks and songs of Sesame Street. Dewey points out that, unlike other animals, the human is prone to abstraction and estrangement – a tendency to preoccupation celebrated in the nineteenth century as a sign of the richly distracted inner life of the romantic male genius. (Distracted women were targets of psychopathological diagnoses unless their distractions had to do with child and household management, i.e., those appropriate to the role of wives and mothers.) However construed, we humans of every gender are often out of our senses, rarely use them to the utmost of our capacities. Dewey puts it this way:
To grasp the sources of the esthetic experience it is , therefore, necessary to have recourse to animal life . . . The live animal is fully present, all there, in all of its actions . . . All senses are equally on the qui vive. As you watch, you see motion merging into sense and sense into motion—constituting that animal grace so hard for man to rival . . . The dog is never pedantic nor academic.17Dewey, "Art as Experience," 24.
To be pedantic, and academic (in the pejorative sense of that word) is to have lost at least one of our most vital senses – humor; to have lost, as Winnicott put it, the ability to enjoy the play of those who haven't heard of games – games of the sort that have nothing to do with embodied pleasures, imaginative escapades. Winnicott advocates the life-long necessity of the kind of play that explores and invents ways to converse with the material reality that is our world. Play for Winnicott is a vital form of poesis, though he never names it as such. Both Winnicott and Dewey think of imaginative play as importantly distinct from the passivity and inwardness of fantasy and dream states. In a chapter called "The Challenge to Philosophy," Dewey says this:
The theory that art is play is akin to the dream theory of art. But it goes one step nearer the actuality of esthetic experience by recognizing the necessity of action, of doing something. Children are often said to make-believe when they play. But children at play are at least engaged in actions that give their imagery an outward manifestation; in their play, idea and act are completely fused.18Ibid., 281, 283.
What the admittedly marvelous dog – model of freedom from pedantic crabbedness, along with elephants, pigs, rabbits, mice, spiders, flies, and everything else save us humans – might do with language has been beguilingly explored in children's literature, but with more anthropomorphizing than alternatives to human modes of being. Anthropomorphizing in the Anthropocene sounds like an amusing redundancy. In truth, it seems most often to foster feelings of connectedness to other species (good thing) while by-passing radical curiosity and respect for their alterity (dangerous thing). At the same time, Homo linguistica – sometimes sapient – has for millennia been developing a sensually intelligent poetics with which we have (consciously and unconsciously) explored forms of sensual intelligence in the extra-linguistic world. (Onomatopoeia and rhythmic structures are only the most obvious examples.) An intuitive collaboration of visual and sonic semiotics with cognitive apperception may be what is most significantly meant by the poetic imagination. But can it meet the challenge of being in meaningful conversation with the scientific, mathematical, philosophical, socio-political in a time of cascading environmental change?
The Magic Rule of 9
Your sonic suit will never be a perfect fit. You'll learn to
get by. Just don't assume all art is all about victory over
death all the time. Not to say the meantime isn't as good
a time as any to enjoy not being dead. In the swell of
many a meantime, many have diverted themselves with
great success. Hence civilizations' discontents and
greatest hits. Take for instance the magic rule of nine.
That the sums of all numbers within the sums of all
multiplicands of 9, up to and including 9, equal 9:
1x9=9, 9=9; 2x9=18, 1+8=9; 3x9=27, 2+7=9; etc.
This is numerically melodious (bird sings in tree) to the
species that longs for more to it than a first glance affords.
Someone will say, If you really think this is magic you
don't properly understand the decimal system (bird
falls out of tree).Who among us doesn't long for magic.
Who among us truly understands the decimal system.
Whether the agon of what has been heroically called "Man and Nature" continues to the death knell of millions more species, including our own, is partly a matter of chance – reliably significant factor in complex dynamic systems like earth's biosphere; partly a matter of our choices. What we call "choice" is actually the pattern of wagers we sometimes initiate, but are always participating in witting or not. Whatever else we think we're doing, our careless or considered presence is at any moment setting off countless "butterfly effects." Indeterminacy has to do with the fact that consequences always outdistance intentions. Which is another way of saying that no matter how constructive one wants to be there is a cluelessness and risk constant. Despite evolutionarily fine-tuned neural apparatus, now augmented by regular A.I. upgrades, we are clumsier, more benighted creatures than we imagine ourselves to be.
Fierce Love Story
To start with a taxonomic impediment and yet go on.
Looking always for news of another kind. Great
saturated patches of color stall in their rumble toward
the horizon. Squeeze-tube dearth overflows with
biblical pornography. No greater love, they had said.
Sit back and watch in awe as one sophisticated critter
eviscerates another on a color-coded screen. Much too
bright or not enough to be convincing descriptions of
nature. For the disillusioned, there are these three things:
1. sonorous cowboys hitch up primate dungarees
2. to restore the consolation of silence will remain
the role of objects
3. four little girls, along with fragile creatures of many
other kinds, will wander in and out of this color field
just beyond our grasp
Given the charge that the term Anthropocene implies – opening new territory beyond scientific and ethical neutrality – what kinds of poethical wagers are worth making? Or, is the question a different one: does our planetary emergency demand rhetoric more than poetry? Persuasion more than acts of playful investigation? Might not the crux be to convince the we who live in opulence, the we who live reasonably above subsistence level to rethink the difference between need and desire; to review what the privileged must give up for the survival of a thriving multi-species habitat on earth? Much of the language of an environmental movement under threat of climate catastrophe has been rhetorical rather than poetic, relying on ancient Greek and Roman modes of persuasion – ethos, logos, pathos. Hoping to argue our species out of self-centered, shortsighted tendencies. All the while, the extent to which nature and culture are inextricable is reflected in a largely unexamined, but habitually enacted, conflation of need and desire in almost everything we do. Directly to the point of our habits, our ethos under pressure of an accusatory Anthropocene is what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus, our "present past" as it becomes "embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history"19Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 56. In this situation of human behavior, naturalized and reified as history, the future can be nothing other than the probable. So much for Hegel's romanticized future as "absolute possibility."20Ibid., 53.Bourdieu writes this in The Logic of Practice,
The most improbable practices are . . . excluded, as unthinkable, by a kind of immediate submission to order that inclines agents to make a virtue of necessity, that is, to refuse what is anyway denied and to will the inevitable . . . The habitus, a product of history, produces individual and collective practices – more history – in accordance with the schemes generated by history. 21Ibid., 54.
Poetry, I'd like to suggest, is the linguistic laboratory and playground of the improbable. Suppose, a poet might parry, after reading Bourdieu very carefully, the most improbably significant practices (and their consequences) materialize only on the edges of discernment. Unthinkable because unseen in the lenses of current categories. Silent, in John Cage's sense, not because there is nothing present but because it is unnoticed. Once noticed, via swerves in geometries of attention brought on by accident or speculative design – aesthetic devices, thought experiments, paradigm shifts – the revelation must endure (and improbably survive) a period of unintelligibility, even scorn. If it does survive, it is because it is probed and argued with and celebrated with logics, thought processes, imaginative perspectives that are critically divergent from the official thought of the habitus. There can be nothing instant about this process. It is appreciated for the most part retrospectively. But, it is enjoyed from the outset – from merest glimmer to clear realization. The source of pleasure and exhilaration for those who create generative conditions that change improbability to possibility is in the act, in the poesis. And that, in the broadest of terms, is the work of experimental poethics.
The Long And Short Of It Thought Experiment
Feed long and short-beaked pigeons the same food
same food. Exercise long and short-legged quadrupeds
in the same same manner. Expose long and short-haired
sheep to the same climate climate. Direct every time-
line toward the same same set of nesting horizons.
How long can the we and the they go on this way?
One step takes longer than anyone thought possible
and is still hovering in the air. Its shadow is swelling
with prophesy and indecision. Earth is growing hotter
and colder, wetter and dryer. All the animals are on the
move. Although the heart of the cruelty continues to
elude our metrics, let any long or short life-span equal
exactly the same function of x divided by the violence
of zero. The math is adding up to an old geometry
of the tragic spectrum — more the terror, less the pity.
Must that be the long and short of it?
Bourdieu developed the notion of habitus while studying the Kabyle, ethnic Berbers in Northern Algeria, but quickly saw it equally applicable to European society. Can it be scaled up further to throw light on global culture? Despite overwhelming odds for the uneasy equilibrium that perpetuates habitus, Bourdieu tosses this in: "Without violence, art, or argument, [habitus] tends to exclude all extravagances (not for the likes of us), that is, all the behaviours that would be negatively sanctioned because they are incompatible with the objective conditions."22Ibid., 56. Objective conditions are everything that has prior legitimation in the official thought rationalizing the nature of the habitus – what comes to be thought of as the objective conditions of nature and culture. (Circular reasoning is essential in maintaining habitus.) I reject violence as a means of resisting habitus. At this point, it could only be seriously defended as agent of progress by a pre-post-historical Marxist, whose critiques might be invaluable, but solutions quixotic. Thinking in terms of necessary "extravagances ," what about a tool kit designed to encourage poethical wagers? Assuming the importance of conceptual shifts and swerves, curiosity, the courage of gravitas and humor, collaborative exploration, conversational play respecting reciprocal alterity, what might such a tool kit require? What might surprisingly (improbably) contribute to pedagogies that stimulate life-long imaginative vitality of mind, practices of reading, writing, creating that engage/invent multiple logics, multiple geometries of attention? In other words, commitments to transformative acts of poesis.23For more on Epicurus, poethics, and the swerve, see "Essay as Wager" and "The Poethical Wager," in Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
The Problem of Evil: Projectile Legacies
The Problem of Evil is a theological puzzle:
How can an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-
benevolent God allow injustice to thrive,
allow the innocent to suffer?
Solution: The moral compass of an
Anthropomorphic god will never
exceed that of its creators.
Dick said, Look, look.
Look up, up, up.
Jane said, Run, run.
Run, Keisha, Jabhar, Jaun, Miguela, Ashraf, Intesar,
Run. Run, said Jabhar, run and see.
Keisha said, Look, look.
Look over there.
Run, shouted Ashraf, run away.
Run, cried Intesar, run.
off-kilter glances glance off
shooting gallery silhouettes
already riddled with holes
the body of Christ is riddled with holes
the body of Christ has no thing but holes
the body of Christ is darkest matter
the body of Christ is the mystery of the
darkest matter blasted into starry nights
Look, cried Miguela, see.
See shiny yellow police tape
replace the horizon in our romantic
landscape at the end of the block.
See the empty cracks, said Juan, the cracks
where Chicory and Lamb's Quarters used to grow.
See, they said in unison, see those ancient clouds
drifting by, most delicately formed. See how
beautiful they are, how pink and puffy they are
scattering star dust on that prison roof, on
the border fences, the walls, the occupied territories,
the blood stained sidewalks, the plantation heritage sites.
Soon the children and all the pets went home.
Boys and girls and dogs and cats. Rabbits and
hens and chickens and one little yellow duck.
They all went home.
The angle of attention is the
most beautiful act of free will.
If there is a God than which nothing greater
can be conceived that tragedy is inconceivable.
Note: Some of the language in this poem is borrowed from THE NEW Fun with Dick and Jane.24William S. Gray, et al., THE NEW Fun with Dick and Jane (Chicago and New York: Scott, Foresman & Company, 1956).
According to researchers who study chaotic patterns in nature and culture, history, like weather, is a complex dynamic system of order and disorder best characterized by the phrase "pattern-bounded indeterminacy." It is chaotic in the sense defined by twentieth century computer assisted sciences of complexity. This means that historical development has a sensitive dependence on initial conditions – what is widely called the "butterfly effect." What history has been, what it "foretells" – cannot be a closed case. Its phenomenal and textual dynamism derives from the fact that it is constantly subject to modification, reinterpretation – physically as well as textually. How we continually reinterpret, how we contradict and transgress our own interpretations, how we act on all of that in concert with the unerring reliability of chance – will have as much or more to do with what happens in the future than most of what historians, economists, sociologists, political scientists, and pundits predict (the probable), except insofar as their predictions provide important material for reinterpretation – reinvention. Here is where the inertia of the pedantic and academic can cause harm. By prohibiting an extravagant play of intellect and imagination in creative conversation with the urgent matters of one's time, the timidly fearful pedagogies that create docile bodies and minds can make language stall in its etymologically rich capacities for reinvention.
The Reinvention of Truth
Acknowledging the gap between reality and representation makes it hard to limn differences among realities and representations. Such difficulties can lead to epistemological despair. This is where poetry comes in.
- Dita Fröller, New Old World Marvels25Dita Fröller, New Old World Marvels (Washington DC & Red Hook: Pre-post-eros Press, forthcoming).
noft there ere rein invent iono trut
the world is full and doesn't ask for more
I'd like to know better than to claim
a song of songs or the illumination
of things by human minds
a late 19th century author wrote
Niagara Falls is nature committing suicide
yes/no the quest for a statuesque naturalism
goes far beyond even that far beyond
the German Alpine film
or soundtracks with too many violins
rapturous as women continue to succumb
know what I mean?
neither a saffron anecdote nor a whispered truth
the didactic impulse can be violent and not so brief
less what it teaches than what it makes you want