Beyond Representation: Deliberate Reading in a Panarchic World

Beyond Representation: Deliberate Reading in a Panarchic World


Laura Dassow Walls explores how ‘deliberative’ reading practices may allow us to weigh the words we hear against the world we cognize - keeping alive the possibility of reading as a moral act.

Stefanie Boese:

Laura Dassow Walls’ call for ‘deliberative’ reading practices echo her earlier critique of E.O. Wilson’s notion of ‘consilience’. Here Walls argues, Wilson’s attempt to forge an alliance between the sciences and the humanities fails because “Wilson writes as a scientist, imbuing every page with the sublime authority that allows him to mangle history without penalty and dismiss his opponents without argument.”

Stefanie Boese:

Bruce Clarke’s review of Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism similarly challenges the Neo Darwinists’ supposed scientific objectivity. Their project can only fail to see beyond the category of the human precisely because the circularity of their argument presupposes that which it seeks to analyze: “the only scientific observers of ‘human nature’ available are themselves human beings.”


The following essay is provisional and preliminary, an attempt to loop together recent work in science studies and literary studies toward moving “beyond representation.” This phrase invokes the title of the MLA session, organized by Henry S. Turner, for which I originally drafted this essay (San Francisco, December 28, 2008); my thanks to Henry for inviting me to join the session, and to Joseph Tabbi for inviting me to develop my thoughts further in this forum.What might lie “beyond” representation, and how could tools and techniques from science studies help students of literature reframe our discipline? Bruno Latour speaks of “facts” as “gatherings,” and the question for literary studies would then be, How do literary texts, which are also “facts” or “objects” in the Latourian sense, “gather” the world rather than “represent” it? I’ll begin by alluding to a demand made by Alexander von Humboldt, speaking of his own representational goals as a writer: a book about nature must evoke the impression of nature itself. That is, a book is less “about” nature, a representation of it, than it “is” nature, a participant in some larger ecology.

To think about this, I offer two models, at apparent extremes. At one extreme, the scientific illustration, which “represents” nature via a mimesis or “copy” of it:

Murex spp. Pen-and-ink drawing, ©Laura Dassow Walls

As a former scientific illustrator, I can testify that the apparent transparency of such images is an illusion concocted by exquisitely hard work. What viewers read as a mirror image is in practice an elaborate “ecology” including the object selected for representation, re-presented within a particular professional context, using a given set of tools whose mastery requires years of training, toward the technological goal of mass reproduction in a field guide, a manual, a scientific journal, a museum publication. The better the work, the more invisible are these multiple mediations: the end goal of the artist is for her subjectivity to disappear entirely in the face of the object. In short, the scientific illustrator knows herself to be in the highly disciplined business of producing reality effects.

At the other extreme, I offer the figure below, which moves us from all object with no context to all context with no object:

Source: The Resilience Alliance,

This figure is a representation of “panarchy,” defined briefly as a nested series of adaptive cycles at different scales that exhibits cross-scale interactions. The name for this linked set of hierarchies draws metaphorically on the Greek god Pan to fuse “an image of unpredictable change” with “cross-scale structures” of complex, emergent, and self-organizing natural and human systems (Walker and Salt 89-90). This attempt to represent what cannot be represented - an entire nested series of ecologies - arises from the practical application of systems theory to ecological systems via complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics. “Panarchy” is a key concept in resilience studies, an interdisciplinary alliance of natural and social scientists who study resilience, or the ability of a system to absorb disturbance without reorganizing itself to a fundamentally different identity. Resilience theorists are interested, for example, in why large inputs to systems can have little effect, while a small input will then tip the entire system over into a fundamentally new “regime.” Dump enough phosphorus into a clear lake, for instance, and no change will be visible for some time - until a point is reached at which even a small additional amount will tip the lake into a fish-killing algal murk. The kicker is that one cannot restore the lake to clarity by simply removing phosphorus; the system has crossed a “threshold” into a new regime, a new structure (Walker and Salt 56-57). Another example of such non-linear systems would be new Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina; yet another would be world capitalism, post-2008. One can imagine resilience theorists have their hands full just now.

What interests me here is how intrinsic language is to the way Resilience Alliance theorists represent their work, from the way they have created a clever pun linking “panic,” “hierarchy,” and “anarchy,” to their self-conscious mode of addressing systems and communities as having “memory” (in which past successes are stabilized and conserved) or being in “revolt” (in which a destabilized system invents, experiments, and tests). We don’t have the world on one side and language on the other, with reference establishing a correspondence between two incommensurable entities - I am now paraphrasing Bruno Latour - rather, we have what Latour calls a “political ecology” in which there are “propositions” that insist on being part of the “collective” (Politics 84). Latour’s example is instructive: imagine partaking of a transversal wine tasting, that is, a tasting that samples the same kind of wine from a succession of years. As you taste vintage after vintage, the procedure allows your nose and palate to register “subtler and subtler distinctions that strike you more and more forcibly.” You might then move to the laboratory, where the distinctions are registered not on your palate but on graph paper or the computer screen; but this move doesn’t prove that reality is objective, or that it is socially constructed, but rather that, through a variety of instruments, distinctions are multiplied until “realities abound.” In short, “reality grows to precisely the same extent as the work done to become sensitive to differences.” The dividing line no longer passes between object and subject but between “propositions capable of triggering arrangements that are sensitive to the smallest differences, and those that remain obtuse in the face of the greatest differences.” Language, then, is not “cut off from the pluriverse; it is one of the material arrangements through which we ‘charge’ the pluriverse in the collective” (84-85).

To recur to my opening example, Latour’s passage reminds me again of my labor as a scientific illustrator, in which I sought to become an instrument that would faithfully register the most delicate of differences among specimens and species; the debate then might center, as it often does in the field of scientific illustration, between the virtues of the camera and those of the artist, since the camera registers difference with exquisite sensitivity but without discrimination, whereas the artist can use knowledge and judgment to interpret the object, to filter out the accidental from the essential. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison emphasize, the discipline of today’s scientific illustrator can arise only after the ideal of mechanical objectivity, of the artist as camera, had been tried and found wanting: “Interpolation, highlighting, abstraction - all were subtle interventions needed to elicit meaning from the object or process, and to convey that meaning - to teach expertise - through the representation” (348). But the debate continues: even today, a survey of field guides to American birds will reveal that some trumpet the accuracy and realism of photographic technology, while others celebrate the skilled eye and discerning craft of the illustrator’s art.

How can literary studies become more sensitive to natural difference, “grow” rather than suppress material “reality”? The model and exemplar who continues to draw me back to this question, to thinking about how language can be loaded with the real, is Henry David Thoreau. This is most obviously because of his own life-long “transversal tastings” of nature, in which he developed a procedure of walking, field observation, sampling, recording, and amplification that anticipated the discipline of ecology. (I think we still don’t fully realize what that means; that is, what distinguishes Thoreau’s procedure from that of, say, his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose notebooks show a similar “transversal tasting” but who used the results to craft short stories and romances rather than nonfiction.) It is revealing that Thoreau’s written records recently allowed a scientific team, led by Charles G. Willis of Harvard University, to determine that 27% of the species Thoreau identified in Concord are no longer to be seen there, with another 36% in such steep decline that they, too, will soon disappear. We not only are obtuse in the face of differences; we are actively destroying differences. Is literature obtuse in this way? Thoreau thought so, and sought to repair the damage by linking precision in language and acuteness of perception with an ethical and moral stance toward the natural and social worlds.

But tracing Thoreau’s moral ecology is an essay unto itself, so let me turn to the more familiar work, Walden, and merely remark on Thoreau’s insistence on using his key word “deliberate” four times in the space of a few pages:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (65)

“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.” (69)

“With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike.” (71)

“Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” (72)

When I teach Walden I make sure to drill my students in the three-way pun Thoreau makes here between the Latin roots for book, as in library (libr-); for liberty (liber, free); and for weighing in the scales of justice, like Libra (libra, balance). Thus “living deliberately,” for Thoreau, means something like living with the freedom to read and weigh the totality of one’s actions and experience. What interests me now is how he demonstrates, in Walden and elsewhere, “deliberation” as a way to move around within a panarchic universe, in which one must think through the interlinkages among different scale levels: an individual life, a life lived within and in relation to friends and family, to community, to bioregion, to nation, to the planet. Thus in “Economy,” the first chapter in Walden, he challenges his reader to connect their particular and individual consumer choices with the emerging global capitalist economy of America. Perhaps best known is the linkage he makes, in “Civil Disobedience,” between small-scale individual actions and the large-scale political state. When the civil State asks you to carry out its dirty work by propagating injustice to others, you should revolt by simply withdrawing your consent - “not give it practically [your] support.” Thoreau’s theory is that synchronized revolt at the individual level can cascade up the scale levels to produce systemic change. Famously, his theory worked for Mahatma Gandhi in India, and for Martin Luther King in the United States.

The profound moral content of this “deliberative” form of living and reading returns me to a remark by Derrida on deliberation as the “trial of the undecidable.” Why does one need to live “deliberately”? Why not just live, freely, sporting in the currents of whatever political/natural system one finds oneself inhabiting? Because, as Derrida puts it, the supposedly “free play” of the undecidability of language has been overstated; instead, undecidability “opens the field of decision” in “the space that exceeds the calculable program that would destroy all responsibility by transforming it into a programmable effect of determinate causes. There can be no moral or political responsibility without this trial and this passage by way of the undecidable” (115-16). Deliberation, then, is this trial of the undecidable, the excess, that which exceeds “representation” but that therefore requires one to take on the moral and political responsibility of living deliberately. As I found myself saying to my students last spring, to my surprise, Reading is a moral act.

The deliberate reader interrupts, slows down, the quick current that would speed us all into becoming cooperative agents of the larger forces of the panarchy we inhabit. It takes freedom to slow down, and time, care, thought, a recursive imagination, to weigh one’s perceptions and choices. Deliberate reading means weighing the words one hears, against themselves, against the world, against the words of others. This puts us back in the realm of the literary, where words are not transport mechanisms that work the better as they “represent” more efficiently, but opaque presences in themselves, requiring attention and reflection for what they do on, and off, the page. Why our haste, asks Thoreau? Can we not slow ourselves to ask what it is we are so busy doing? Are we so sure of our purposes that we can ignore where they might be taking us? Isabelle Stengers points to Giles Deleuze’s “idiot,” “the one who always slows the others down, who resists the consensual way in which the situation is presented and in which emergencies mobilize thought or action.” The idiot does not want to assert his own answer, for he truly does not know the answer; nor does he want to monkeywrench the proceedings of deliberation to a standstill. “We know, knowledge there is, but the idiot demands that we slow down, that we don’t consider ourselves authorized to believe we possess the meaning of what we know” (994, 996). Her “cosmopolitical proposal” is that politics proceed by constructing its “legitimate reasons ‘in the presence of’ that which remains deaf to this legitimacy.” Her example points to literature: Melville’s figure of Bartleby, the scrivener (or writer) who “would prefer not to.” This figure, Thoreauvian civil resistance taken to the end point of nihilism, reveals the narrator’s inability to conceive of any social game other than the one that Bartleby, the idiot, disrupts (996).

Derrida points to the excess involved in any decision; Stengers gives a name to the excess that points provocatively to literature. In an economy of words, the problem is that in any political settlement, the nonhuman participants, famously, do not “speak.” Their interests are voiced only by human agents, who may or may not bring “legitimate reasons” to the presence of the assembly. In his examination of “deliberative democracy” (as against “economic democracy,” in which only paying stakeholders attain a voice), John O’Neill ends by arguing that “the virtue of deliberative democracy may lie not in claims that it resolves conflicts but in its tendency to reveal them.” In opening up “space for contesting claims,” deliberative democracy can make hidden conflicts explicit and silenced voices heard. Is this not the specialty of literature? Could we imagine a new role, as “humanists,” to reach beyond the human, to articulate the presence and voice of nonhumans, and so slow down the swift currents that drive us to be cooperative agents of economic and political scale levels so far beyond our control? Once enslaved Africans, Indians, women, children, the poor, the “masses,” were all silenced as nonhumans, until literary writers and scholars found ways to make their differences “real,” to bring their speech to the ears of the assembly. Is it only scientists like Charles Willis and his team who bear this responsibility today? Can literary writers, scholars, and teachers keep deliberative reading alive as a practice in our culture, help the nonhuman become real, help us hear the voices of those who cannot speak?

Some years ago Kate Hayles offered another way into this “excess” in her theory of “constrained constructivism” that would make representation “a dynamic process rather than a static mirroring” (29). In her version, representation gives our concepts form and content, while the constraints of the physical world “delineate ranges of possibility within which representations are viable,” in an “interplay” that is neither free play nor determinative (33-34). Hayles deploys the semiotic square to open the space within language, offering an escape from the “prison house” binary of true/false: namely, the lower left of the square, the double negative, that gestures “toward that which cannot be spoken,” and hence “opens onto the flux that cannot be represented in itself.” As she continues, “Our interactions with the flux are always richer and more ambiguous than language can represent” (37-38). We are, again, beyond representation, but now we are facing somewhat unknown and even alien to our modes of processing the world, not smugly extending representation to the nonhuman (out of our human, liberal generosity), but challenged by the flux of that which cannot be represented, decided, predicted.

Where, then, do we find ourselves? I think we have now arrived at what Thoreau calls the “wild,” the scandal that undergirds and undoes all our attempts to order and stake out our perceived and conceptualized universe: “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure,” he writes. “Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard.” As he adds, even more provocatively for those thinking of language: “The Spaniards have a good term to express this wild and dusky knowledge, - Gramática parda, tawny grammar, - a kind of mother-wit derived from that same leopard to which I have referred” (273, 281-82). Is “tawny grammar” the grammar of the idiot? Emerson ends his essay “History” with a similarly wild moment: “Hear the rats in the wall, see the lizard on the fence, the fungus under foot, the lichen on the log. What do I know sympathetically, morally, of either of these worlds of life? As old as the Caucasian man, - perhaps older, - these creatures have kept their counsel beside him, and there is no record of any word or sign that has passed from one to the other…. What does Rome know of rat and lizard?” (256). In Malta, in the privacy of his notebooks, Samuel Taylor Coleridge seems to have asked a similar question when confronted with a very actual lizard:

Lizard green with bright gold spots all over - firmness of its stand-like feet, where the Life of the threddy Toes makes them both seem & be so firm, so solid - yet so very, very supple/ one pretty fellow, whom I had fascinated by stopping & gazing at him as he lay in a <thick> network of Sun & Shade … turned his Head to me, depressed it, & looked up half-watching; half-imploring, at length taking advantage of a brisk breeze that made all the Network dance & Toss, & darted off as if an Angel of Nature had spoken in the Breeze - Off! I’ll take care, he shall not hurt you…. (34)

The eyes of the animal other, half-watching, half-imploring, neither human nor nonhuman, neither object nor subject, the idiot/aporia that would, if we slowed down to pay attention, trouble us, as does the breeze makes all the Network dance and toss, and tremble.

These various invocations of the wild, what Thoreau figures as that feral leopard-mother, the loving predator, the protective warrior, the cimiter-fact whose sweet edge divides us as the sun glimmers off both its surfaces (70), strike me as acknowledgements of panarchy. In those moments, we discover that there are alien worlds alongside us, woven into our lives but keeping their own counsel. Human command and control is a palace of order built on the sands of chaos, and as we have discovered, no one is in control - the Wizard of Oz really is only a lost man behind a curtain: the hurricane strikes, the space shuttle disintegrates, the twin towers collapse, the climate starts to shift, the global economy melts down, and one feels oneself embedded in, overwhelmed by, scale levels beyond one’s conceiving. One then realizes that facts are, as Latour reiterates, gatherings that require the whole earth and the heavens to hold them in place; and the role for language is no longer “representation” of a reality “out there,” but propositions that articulate the linkages we experience, deliberations in a panarchic world.

Annotated Bibliography:

Bellanca, Mary Ellen. Daybooks of Discovery: Nature Diaries in Britain, 1770-1870. Charlottesville and London: U of Virginia P, 2007. Notebooks and “nature diaries” become modes of restoring the mediations that create the chain from nature to culture. For an example see:

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Coleridge’s Responses, Volume III: Coleridge on Nature and Vision, ed. Samantha Harvey. London and New York: Continuum, 2008. Not included in Ballanca, above, but revealing the aporias in Coleridge’s thought as he stabilized the relationship between object and subject. For which see:

Daston, Lorraine and Peter Galison, Objectivity. New York: Zone Books, 2007. Objectivity has a history, and as these historians of science show, our modern terms “objective” and “subjective” trace inexorably back to Coleridge, and it was during Thoreau’s lifetime that the personas of the “subjective” artist vs. the “objective” scientist were polarized in relationship to each other.

Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1998. Derrida’s project remains foundational for all attempts to move beyond representation’s binary oppositions, but his acute and sustained attention to the opacity of language itself has made his work inaccessible to all but the devout few; translation projects are urgently needed. (See also Stengers; Latour.)

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “History.” Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983. 235-56. All of history is read as the human mind write large, until the very end, when the essay creates its own aporia in this surprising turn to the nonhuman: Emerson as the agent of deconstruction.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Business of Reflection: Hawthorne in His Notebooks. Ed. Robert Milder and Randall Fuller. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2009. How does the literary writer construct his subjectivity via mediations with the “object” world?

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Constrained Constructivism: Locating Scientific Inquiry in the Theater of Representation.” Realism and Representation: Essays on the Problem of Realism in Relation to Science, Literature, and Culture. Ed. George Levine. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1993. 27-43. An influential work, published as the science wars were heating up, suggesting how to open up the binary of true/false representations, and hence escaping the “prison house” of language, yet without falling into the trap of constructivism.

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 2004 (30.2): 225-48. This important article, which explores “facts” as “gatherings,” has been subsumed into the longer work:

—-. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004. For green criticism to exist, “nature” as the defining opposite of “culture” must cease to exist; there are not two sets of questions, one set for nature and another for culture, but one set of concerns to all collectives. What would green criticism look like without the “sword of Damocles” that is “nature”?

O’Neill, John. “Who Speaks for Nature?” How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 261-77. Addresses the role of nature in a deliberative democracy, given that nature cannot speak for itself - at least not in a way humans can understand, and vice versa: “We are not partners in a dialogue” (261).

Resilience Alliance., accessed 24 July 2009. This informative website includes clear and graphic representations, in words and images, of key concepts in “resilience thinking,” together with case studies and an extensive bibliography. The site is sponsored by the Resilience Alliance, “a multidisciplinary research group that explores the dynamics of complex systems.”

Stengers, Isabelle. “The Cosmopolitical Proposal.” Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. 994-1003. A key essay for establishing Stengers’ use of the term “cosmopolitics.” Most of her important work on this topic remains to be translated into English.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” and Other Writings. Ed. William Rossi. New York: Norton, 2008. One model for deliberate reading in a panarchic world.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. Historical memory is not recorded but constructed; history, too, is caught up in the poetics beyond representation.

Walker, Brian and David Salt. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2006. A popular, teachable casebook for a growing, interdisciplinary movement in the sciences.

Willis, Charles G., Brad Ruhfel, Richard B. Primack, Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, and Charles C. Davis. “Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau’s woods are driven by climate change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105.44 (November 4, 2008), 17029-33. A team of scientists demonstrates how to articulate the voice of nature, in collaboration with the phenological charts of one of America’s canonical literary writers. In a panarchic universe, the highly disciplinary studies carried on by scientists and by literary scholars need not silence each other but instead can amplify each other’s concerns.