“Mommy Mnemosyne”

“Mommy Mnemosyne. “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?” Mnemosyne, Greek Goddess of Memory, mother of the nine Muses—those spirits who inspire our creative expression. I mantra “Mommy Mnemosyne” as a humble gesture in response to the burning questions I came into the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program with. Questions like “Who am I?” “What does it mean to be human?” And “how am I to live?” Questions that burn with considerable intensity in our moment of planetary madness. Confronting the ecological crisis we face today means facing up to the crisis of human consciousness, too—for both stem from a crisis of story. The basic insight of ecology is that all things exist in relationship; the crises we face today spring largely from a form of human consciousness that experiences itself as separatefrom the nonhuman world. To restore our connection to each other and the nonhuman world, we must tell different stories, stories that are vested on a recognition of relationship in respect of difference—what I call creative remembrance. The muses may inspire the songs of our lives, but it is Mnemosyne from whom they respire and to whom we all must pay tribute.  In what follows I attempt my own creativeremembrance as an ethical practice of poetry for re-storying in myself and others a felt participation in the whole of cosmic ecology.

“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”[1]I am sixteen when I hear the preceding lyrics for the first time, lyrics which begin a song titled “Reunited” by the synthpop band Fan Death. As the song goes on, its subject—though uncanny—sweeps over my body like a memory: “This is a coin for the well,” the vocalists sing, “I wish my wrongs were righted, just want be reunited. I had to face (pace) the world and go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Something deep inside me nods with understanding at the message of the song. I can’t explain what it means or how I know it, but that I do feels indisputable, like a memory. A reunion? I’ve got goosebumps! How could this be? The lyrics of “Reunited” resonate—for me—with a universal tenor that renders the song into a form of “poetry” with all the majesty that the Romantic poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley affords the word in his Promethean essay, “A Defense of Poetry.” “Poetry, in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’:and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”[2]And what, Sir Shelley, is it the nature of the imagination to express? Well, as the “principle of synthesis,” Shelley replies, the imagination

has for its objects those forms which are common to universal nature and existence itself…[whereas] reason is the enumeration of things already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.[3]

Imagination for Shelley is therefore the underlying dynamismthat constitutes the perceiver and the perceived. In the same vein, reason—as Shelley has it—is that through which consciousness is able to differentiate itself from its percepts. As the prime expression of imagination, poetry is thus the means of imaginatively apprehending and evoking the underlying relationship that constitutes the “similitudes of things.” From this perspective, the uncanny familiarity that characterized my initial (and present) experience of the song “Reunited” speaks to its status as a poem for its power to evoke the relational rhythm which undulates through the cosmos from the Mother of all things—a creativeremembrance. Mnemosyne (the Greek Goddess of memory) was the mother of the nine muses after all.

Unfortunately, Shelley’s Promethean championship of poetry leads him to elevate what he calls “poetry in a more restricted sense,” or what most conventionally understand poetry to be (i.e. arrangements of human language in meter), above his generalized conception of it. Rather than perpetuate anthropocentric notions of poetry, I depart from Shelley here by leveling metered poetry with poetry in general as poesis, what in Greek originally meant the creationof novelty. Poetry in general naturalizes meaning, bridging the gap between nature and culture. That this is indeed the case is evident in Shelley’s description of human nature, a description that is essentially relational (ecological!):

Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to an ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them . . . [4]

To be fully human is to adjust oneself as instrument so as to harmonize with “that which strikes” the notes of inspiration. Remarkably, this potential to attune is one that Shelley postulates for all sentient beings, a potential that is vested on the “principle” of imagination as the foundation of relationship. “To be a poet,” writes Shelley “is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.”[5]To be a poet, therefore, is to comport oneself to the larger rhythms of ecological being and rhyme along with them. Human beings, then, are not the only poets, and in light of the ecological crisis we would do well to heed the singing action of earth’s nonhuman denizens. Just as sunflowers follow the light, dancing through life in echoes of their origin, so too might human poeisis strike a chord of remembrance in songs of storied anamnesis. As the vocalists of Fan Death sing, “I had to face the world to go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Mommy Mnemosyne is calling!

Creative remembrance begins with Mnemosyne as memory and ends with the Muses in fresh expressions of poetry. Examples of it may resemble what is conventionally understand as poetry, but put simply, creative remembrance refers to a way of life—the path of beauty. The path is tread by attuning to the beautiful, what Shelley identifies as the “highest pleasure” derived from the partial apprehension of a rhythmic order underlying experience. “Taste” is the faculty through which one might discern and through expression approximate to beauty’s apprehension. “Those in whom it exists in excess,” writes Shelley, “are poets… and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community.”[6]The former describes the process whereby a sensitive individual conveys to others in her social group a felt sense of beauty in the aesthetically ordered cosmos which is then mimicked and circulated, leading to an attunement of the entire group with the cosmic wavelength. Yet, because the rhythm continues to undulate, the remembrance must continually renew its expression—lest it stultify into the dead letter. “Their language,” writes Shelley, speaking of poetry here in the restricted sense, “is vitally metaphorical;”

that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.[7]

Just as Mnemosyne gives birth to the Muses, remembrance of the divine in beauty as its ordered footprint requires an ongoing act of creative retranslation as it transforms through time. Maintaining that relationship for the sake of fresh apprehension is crucial for human social organization and cooperation with the larger nonhuman community of cosmic ecology. As Carl Gustav Jung famously recorded in his mythopoetic work, Liber Novus, “to give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation…The task is to give birth to the old in a new time.”[8]

It has become clear that the apprehension of beauty requires an ongoing practice of sensitivity and translation, but the how of all this remains unclear. How does one practice a life of poetry? “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will.”[9]Rather, as the prime expression of imagination, poetry’s inspiration is more a gift than anything else, for it depends upon the.  underlying relationship between the perceiver and perceived. “It [poetry] subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things… strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”[10]“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”[11]“Poetry,” Shelley declares, “defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.”[12]“I had to face (pace) the world,” sing the vocalists, “and go from blind to sighted / For us to be reunited now / I’m seeking a flame that / Will parch out the heavy / Uncharted waters on my heart / And I’m collecting memories / As reward for my melancholy.”[13]“It reproduces,” insists Shelley, “the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”[14]I alternate the lyrics of Fan Death’s “Reunited” with Shelley’s philosophy of poetry to amplify my insistence that the song and its impact on me amounts to an experience of grace afforded by its poetic power to “subdue to union… all irreconcilable things,” what I am here calling creative remembrance. Though I may—as a sentient being—have the capacity to cultivate myself enough to receive this gift, its givenness transcends my agency. “My” being is therefore fundamentally ecstatic. To realize this is to remember who I am, a memory of communion I must constantly renew in the ongoing transformations of time. Mnemosyne keeps her daughters close.

Because creative remembrance as a practice of self-and-world reunion is an art of time, its primary form is story—for how else can a life be recounted and understood? Shelley’s elevation of poetry in a restricted sense leads him to rank it above story, but in my reading his general use of the former renders the hierarchy untenable. Herein lies the reason for my use of the phrase “creative remembrance,” a phrase which I hope conveys the rhythmic integration of whole with part that characterizes poetry as an expression of the imagination. When Shelley insists that “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted,” he speaks to the aforementioned integration, a formal quality that he says is not present in story as “a catalogue of detached facts.”[15]Perhaps the reader will side with me in dismissing Shelley’s devaluation on the premise of experience: good stories do fulfill this function, for what make them goodis typically their universal resonance expressed in a particularity that connects us with the subject despite our differences. Indeed, it is in the province of narrative as drama that Shelley locates the highest expression of imagination in its power to cultivate the moral virtue that lies dormant in all human beings. The stage presents a synthesis of poetic arts and performs life aspoetry:

The tragedies of the Athenian poets are mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become.[16]

Spectators are then thrust back into a mundane revivified by poetry’s power of formal integration as creative remembrance, making possible the imaginative reunion of life as “a detached catalogue of facts” with the meaningful life of the whole. The former amounts to life lived as poetry, dancing through time along the path of beauty. Shelley’s emphasis on the dramatic transmission of poetry for moral formation underscores the performativity of a life storied in beauty.

Such a vision of life contrasts sharply with human existence as it is predominantly storied today. Reason, as a derivative of the underlying, relational activity of imagination, has won out in appearance as the more primary faculty for its success in mechanistic science and technological innovation. Reason thinks it’s the realest! To generalize, a Cartesian-Newtonian story of dead matter bifurcated from the exceptional human psyche has reigned supreme over the last few centuries. The consequences are manifold, but told simply, the narrative paints a bleak picture of human subjectivity alienated from a world in which it naïvely makes pretense to a meaningful life:

The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind?[17]

Without imagination, there can be no real self-knowledge of what it means to be human; the underlying relationship between mind and nature has been forgotten. The loss of that relationship ripples out in division after division until we become a species at war with itself; a psyche at war with itself. Yet, in our moment there is hope for remembrance as human civilization comes to gripswith the ecological crisis. In a reversal of human reason’s ascent, decades of scientific evidence pointing to an anthropogenic acceleration of climate change provide a clear corrective to the mainstream story of nature versus culture. Instead, neologisms like Donna Haraway’s “naturecultures” characterize what seems to be an awakening paradigm of creativity and relationship.[18]

Recent discoveries in microbiology and quantum physics reveal a more unpredictable and responsive universe than mainstream science has hitherto been willing to admit. In her article titled “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” Serpil Oppermann relates these discoveries—discoveries which imply the coconstitution of matter and meaning—to the burgeoning field of material ecocriticism. The latter concerns itself with the material-semiotic, or the expressive creativity undulating through matter reconceived as lively.
“Everything in the physical environment,” writes Oppermann, “enacts a complex dynamic between social subjects and material processes not reducible to a subject-object binary. Although the human agency is radically different from material agency, they significantly entail each other in an intersubjective way”[19]Oppermann’s construal of material ecocriticism resonates with Shelley’s poetic philosophy of imagination as the underlying dynamism uniting all things. Indeed, in the shift from bifurcation to a dynamic vision of ecology, relationship becomes fundamental; and “on this fusion of horizons, we find creative materiality encoded in a collective poetryof life.”[20]To declare human life poetry itself amounts to a truism in this paradigm of “vibrant matter,” and so too its expression in story:

With its creative energy, matter emerges in meaningfully articulate forms of becoming that can be interpreted as storied matter…a nonanthropocentric conceptualization of materiality that acknowledges a creative disclosing of processes where materiality projects a lively impetus… For material ecocriticism, the creative becoming is the storied world…filled with narrative agencies that restore the world’s immanent capacity of enchantment and creativity.[21]

Photons perform according to how we measure them; smoke stories the sky with omens of forest fire; bacteria speak to each other in chemical symbols. “This creativity can be interpreted as a form of narrative transmitted through the interchanges of organic and inorganic matter, the continuity of human and nonhuman forces, and the interplay of bodily natures, all forming active composites.”[22]Nature turns out to be a book that we can read and be read in ourselves.

Oppermann identifies the meaningfulness of matter as its claim to “narrative agency,” a concept that troubles bygone dualisms of absurdist human freedom defiant of its otherwise determined universe. “Narrative agency, writes Oppermann, “is the world’s reenchanting property,”

characteristic not only of biological organisms…but also of the most elementary physical units. Different from personification, which attributes human traits to objects or ideas, narrative agency does not purport to enhance human qualities in fictive or material domains; rather, it denotes the vitality, autonomy, agency, and other signs that designate an expressive dimension in nonhuman entities…Therefore, narrative agency can be defined as a nonlinguistic performance of matter manifesting itself often in expressive collectives.[23]

Shakespeare’s famous line, “All the world’s a stage,” no longer makes sense in the paradigm espoused by material ecocriticism.[24]The world is not a static platform upon which human dramas unfold but is instead an active player shaping the story itself. Though there may be some aspects of Shelley’s philosophy to discard (e.g. the anthropocentric elevation of linguistic poetry), his overall scheme already presents a creative world of rhythm that resonates with the concept of narrative agency and instructs human participation in it. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”[25]The song of the world speaks inside me like the phantom sensation of ocean waves I feel after a day at the beach. From the very beginning it is nonhuman nature that inspires and guides the human expression of poetry toward the blossoming of virtue. “Even in the infancy of society,” Shelley continues, human beings “observe a certain order in their words and actions, distinct from that of the objects and the impressions represented by them, all expression being subject to the laws of that from which it proceeds.”[26]Thus, the formation of human culture arises in conversation with agencies of the local ecology which are ultimately continuous with the life of the whole cosmos. It is only once the human reasoning capacity begins to forget its dependence on imagination that the bifurcation of mind and nature can happen.  How might we help to undo the separation? “This world of coconstituted beings,” writes Oppermann, “necessitates a different ethical stance, one that implies obligations for the world.”[27]Poetry as I have construed it in this essay is a relational art aimed at evoking and invoking in others an attunement with matter’s aesthetic order (rhythm), what we might also call its underlying narrative power. Therefore, “telling stories and reading the storied world are means of understanding the creative experience that characterizes both humans and nonhuman natures.”[28]The former is a practice of creative remembrance as poetic anamnesis, a recollection of the part we play in the story of cosmic ecology. Because stories of separation have been circulating through human civilization for a while, practicing creative remembrance foremost “means remaking our cultural codes and changing our basic conceptual structures so that we become more sensitive to the radical liveliness of the world.”[29]

I decided to apply to the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program after a harrowing experience in the Amazon jungle three years ago that left me with a felt sense of the ethical stance Opperman invokes. Headfirst, I dive into a two-week Ayahuasca retreat under the spell of messianic inflation. I am on a quest to heal all my wounds andconduct preliminary research for a Fulbright project on ayahuasca tourism that will change the world—neither of which happen. Instead, my hubris is brought down to humus in a humiliating bout of breath that obliterates my buffered self. I’ve never appreciated ego more than during these moments in which I can’t discern voluntary respiration from involuntary, inside from outside, me from we, and so seek to control my experience for fear of death. Hyperventilation, tachycardia, and imminent doom punctuate my life regularly afterwards. I can’t notice my breath without freaking out. Mortality is not something I can forget now. The best medicine for bouts like these is prostration outdoors, my head in the dirt and fingers clutching at the grass. I submit to What is Greater than I and am overwhelmed with gratitude for one more day. The mundane world of even-breath sparkles anew for me. Suffering transfigures my perception of other beings and digs a deeper well for my compassion. The ethical stance Oppermann calls us to—an ethic of interdependence—is one that isn’t always obvious, but is something I have had vivid (and terrifying) apphrension of.

I leave Peru and arrive in California a bit jaded, disillusioned with the hubbub of psychedelic panaceas. It ain’t all crystals and rainbows and healing anacondas of love and barfing bliss. No, I know better. Despite my cynicism, the breathing trouble eventually calms down into an even rhythm. My studies in PCC help me to contextualize my experience as a spiritual emergence(y?); integration happens gradually as I share my experience with my peers and professors. I begin to reframe my experience as a profound gift, a confrontation with the existential truth of ecological being. To act with myself at the center, conforming the world to my will, no longer feels tenable—for now I am sure that who I am is more than just me. To keep this kind of awareness present is an act of creative remembrance, an ethical disposition that echoes Catherine Keller’s assertions about action in a world post-separation:

What makes action ethical will not then be the imposition of a law or application of a code, however uprightly progressive. It will be the self-implication of the agent in the act itself. The ethical action requires an actualization of ethos as attention to the sociality, human and not human, that constitutes you. Doing unto others what you would want them, under comparable circumstances, to do to you, lacks deontological or legal purity. For in its cultivation it does not deny or master the self’s desire. It widens it.[30]

Creative remembrance is like the Golden Rule, the first lesson Mommy Mnemosyne imparts upon her nine inspired daughters. Remembering the whole in any given moment means remembering that what I do unto you (or anything for that matter), I do unto myself. Karma inheres in the unfolding storybook of matter at every creative juncture of action.

Throughout this essay I refer to creative remembrance as a “performance,” a term which carries over from Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity into Catherine Keller’s gesture toward an ethics of interdependence. “She [Butler] has us question a style of subjectivity,” explains Keller, “repeated as though it is the essential core of a particular subject and thus concealing repetition itself.”[31]Butler’s queer theory originally begins with a challenge to gender essentialism, but eventually zooms out to question the ontological presuppositions of a certain style (story?!) of subjectivity—namely, of self-and-world separation. To remember the whole in our self-conception is an act, an intentional cultivation of a certain style of subjectivity, and simultaneously an ethic of interdependence:

We compose ourselves, nurtured or degraded by our relations, indeed by whole systems, families, groups, and institutions of relations, as best we can. And however well or ill sustained I am by my world, no “I”—albeit perishing—is a mere function of its environment. And, in ways never fully predictable, that social world will be affected—if only in a minor fold, a hidden nuance—by each momentary act of self-composition. Still, from the perspective of any relational thinking, the relationality does not become ethical unless in some way acknowledged. With whatever stylized repetitions we perform ourselves, our sex/genders, our ethnicities and economies and species, we may veil or reveal our interdependence.[32]

Creative remembrance is therefore an ongoing performance of revelation through which we intentionally story our lives in tribute (acknowledgement) to the underlying relationships that constitutes self and other. My battle with breath taught me how destabilizing realizing one’s interdependence with others can be. What we think is private turns out to be public in what may rightly be called an invasion of the self—the self’s undoing. The meshwork of ecological being is stupefying; where do “I” begin and end? “Relation,” writes Keller,

is appearing as a tie or fiber in a network whose edges fade not into a void but into unknowability. To come undone is to come into question—come unknown, “blinded,” even to ourselves. But the nonknowing that at that moment displaces a cozy core of “self” marks not only identity loss but the enlivening glimpse of an alternative. The ties of relation form the potentiality that offers itself as a gift amidst the very losses relations themselves repeatedly inflict.[33]

Exchanging my “cozy core of self” for “nonknowing” is the wound of realization, one which dulls over time into a humility that remembers its roots in the unspeakable. Bearing the burden of mystery is part of the brunt of being fully human in the performance of creative remembrance. But as Keller points out, something is gained in loss, and that is the gift of novelty: “Far from being further dissipated by a widened sociality and paralyzed by its implicate undefinablities,” writes Keller, “the subject mindful of its unknowing minds the world afresh.”[34]Keller’s insistence on the gift of fresh vision resonates with my gratitude for the givenness of life upon. It’s no surprise that so many of the world’s spiritual traditions encourage contemplative practices of breath—for what could be a closer reminder of our interdependence with the life of the whole than our reliance upon oxygen?

To speak of our reliance upon oxygen is to invoke our ancient cyanobacterial ancestors who catalyzed what is called the Great Oxygenation Event over one to three billion years ago. Because of them we are. The existence of homo sapiens today owes itself to more than just cyanobacteria though. Where would humanity be without our historical collaborations with (and exploitations of) horses, corn, penicillin, or conifer trees? These are just a few of the obvious members of the earth community that we’ve evolved alongside with over the centuries, but given that our planet is an entire system of relationships, our livelihoods have in truth always been bound up with species as far away as the opposite end of the globe. Yet, because climate change and the globe itself are hyperobjects—entities so vast we can only conceive of them abstractly—it’s hard to feel any genuine connection to species that seem remote from us. Despite how difficult it may be, an ethics of interdependence demands that we muster enough imagination to try. What is the appropriate response to the growing number of species who are vanishing from the earth forever? Meditating on her grief for marginalized peoples whose rights to personhood have been denied reality by their oppressive culture, Butler describes how collective grief typically “furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”[35]To mourn the lives of human beings whose personhood was stripped in life for defying conventions of gender and sexual expression is to perform an ethics of interdependence in responsibility to the human other. The same goes for nonhuman beings, species we are losing f o r e v e r as a result of a style of subjectivity that only considers their instrumental value. “Why,” asks Keller,

would not the restoration of interdependence widen and enrich both the process of grieving and the sources of survival, comfort, and renewal? Moreover, the singularities of loss are not just human. An ethics of interdependence opens into the lives of untold human populations without then drawing the line at nonhumans. We may grieve them singly or as whole environments; and they also grieve.[36]

There is perhaps no better way of acknowledging our coconstiution with the nonhuman world than to grieve the members who vanish from our planet life daily. There are only two female white rhinos left in the world. What would it mean for us if both were to pass away before having children? Who would we be without birdsong and cricket chirps and fireflies? To grieve is nonhumans is to acknowledge them as our kin, and in so doing, widen the body politic to the body of the Earth.

Once we acknowledge our grief for the world and let the feelings flow, the imperative to act in accordance to an ethic of interdependence becomes obvious. Yet, today we are so mired in systems of non/human oppression and exploitation that conceiving of a way to act for the benefit of all seems impossible—and it is. The guilt may be crippling, leading us to dissociate out of feelings of powerlessness. How do we dismantle a hyperobject like the ecological crisis? In this world of narrative agency from which our meager power to act derives, there are no quick fixes; no clear answers; no hands clean of the another’s suffering. Even so, there is hope—but we must throw out the scripts that would story our lives in separation. In her essay on the same subject, ecocritic Tessa Shewry helps me understand what that means: “To hope,” writes Shewry “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”[37]Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the awareness of a sensibility awake to ecological its enmeshment. I find Shewry’s take a helpful corrective for my personal understanding of hope conditioned by a belief in certainties. Instead of hoping as a clinging to visions of “should-be,” “to hope is to sparkle with potential…to veer away from optimism if the latter implies confidence in achieve a certain goal, assumes the rectitude of that goal, and insists on a future that we could control.”[38]Instead, to hope is to remain painfully present “in an intimate, embodied experience of moving into an unknown future.”[39]Storied this way, hope becomes tantamount to what I have here been calling creative remembrance, the recollection of our ecological embeddedness in the life of the whole—a transfiguration of our lives into poetry. How to create a life in wake of the Anthropocene? “Remember,” whispers the Muse into my ear. Remember: “Mommy Mnemosyne. “MommyMnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?”

NOTES

Jung, C. G., and Sonu Shamdasani. The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.

Keller, Catherine. Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. New York: Colombia University Press, 2015.

Opaine, Dandilion Wind (Fan Death), “Reunited” from “Womb of Dreams,” Toronto: Last Gang Records, 2010.

Oppermann, Serpil. “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency.” In Material Ecocriticism, edited by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino, 21-36. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Shakespeare, William, from “As You Like It,” Website. May 6, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf.

Shewry, Teresa. “Hope.” In Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeremy Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, 455-468. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017.

[1]Dandilion Wind Opaine (Fan Death) lyrics, “Reunited” from “Womb of Dreams,” (Toronto: Last Gang Records, 2010).

[2]Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf, 1.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid., emphasis mine.

[5]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid., my emphasis.

[8]C.G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. (W. W. Norton, 2012), 311.

[9]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 17.

[10]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.

[11]Dandilion Wind Opaine (Fan Death) lyrics, “Reunited,” “Womb of Dreams.”

[12]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.

[13]Dandilion Wind Opaine (Fan Death) lyrics, “Reunited,” “Womb of Dreams.”

[14]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.

[15]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 4-5.

[16]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 8.

[17]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 16.

[18]Serpil Oppermann, “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” in Material Ecocriticism, ed. by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 27.

[19]Oppermann, From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” 34.

[20]Ibid., my emphasis.

[21]Oppermann, 29.

[22]Oppermann, 21.

[23]Oppermann, 29-30.

[24]William Shakespeare, from “As You Like It,” Website. May 6, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage.

[25]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.

[26]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.

[27]Oppermann, 35.

[28]Oppermann, 30.

[29]Opperman, 35.

[30]Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. (New York: Colombia University Press, 2015), 218.

[31]Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 288.

[32]Keller, 226.

[33]Keller, 228.

[34]Keller, 231.

[35]Keller, 224.

[36]Keller, 235.

[37]Teresa Shewry, “Hope,” in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking,ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 455.

[38]Shewry, “Hope,” 464.

[39]Ibid.

Evangelium in a Crashing Tower

the-shores-of-fairy.jpg
The Shores of Faery, 1915 by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973).
From The Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.”

 
Be he more a realist in his cynicism than she with her fingers crossed in hope? Ney, I say! In this essay I champion the moral importance of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue in human beings. The value of fairy-stories for our time of uncertainty figures especially in their facility to condition those reared with them into hopeful creatures. By hope I mean that disposition of humility which admits miraculous possibilities of otherwise—possibilities, perhaps, of eucatastrophe. The latter is a term which the philologist and fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien coined to refer to the happy turn of events at the end of a tale that constitutes a proper fairy-story. Ecological virtue, I suggest, consists in a practice of eucatastrophic thinking and what John Keats’ called negative capability for an attunement to the rhythm of being. Both spring from love as “a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.”[1]In what follows I argue that hope as an openness to the possibility of happy catastrophe is not merely wishful thinking or escapism, but is—in a deeper sense—a loving act of imagination for the welfare of the whole. The moral import of fairy-stories will become clear as a result of my argument, underscoring their importance for human cultures today who seek to engage the ecological crisis motivated by more than just fear.

“To hope,” writes the ecotheorist Tessa Shewry, “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”[2]No matter how clean our footprint is, we cannot escape participating (however indirectly) in the suffering of others—yet still we must act. Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the imagination of one who is awake to their enmeshment in earthly ecology. But alas, hope is not a disposition that is so easy to come by. Fear has a much more familiar face. That this is so is evident in the mainstream discourse on the threats of climate change, or else we are subject to naïve technofix assertions as when manifest destiny extends to Mars. I have heard echoed over and over that it is easier for people today to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of the capitalist machine that is actively destroying it. How could this be? Why are we so wanting in hopeful imaginaries of otherwise? The poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley might answer by pointing to “the extinction of the poetical principle” in popular society.[3]The latter, says Shelley, is “connected with the progress of despotism and superstition,” developments in which human beings are not cultivated for freedom, but pitted against themselves and each other.[4]Consumer choice masquerades as freedom in our time, but is in reality a byproduct of today’s cultural inundation with the manipulative magic of advertisement. Though for different reasons, Shelley’s description of the dark ages in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” bears a resemblance to our time in which human vices, rather than virtues, are encouraged:

Men had become insensible and selfish: their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of the will of others: lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud, characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of creating in form, language, or institution.[5]

The poetical faculty Shelley alludes to requires a higher kind of freedom, one that is inherently ecological—for it locates its agency beyond the narrow confines of the buffered self. “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will… The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.”[6]This higher freedom through which a being participates imaginatively in the life of the whole is what I call here inspired agency. For Shelley, the expression of such agency is poetry in general, and though one might argue that his elevation of poetry in a conventional sense (i.e. language arranged in meter) hints at his personal inflation, his overall philosophy emphasizes humility as the disposition through which poetry inspires. Like the smoldering coal, my receptivity to the swirling winds of ecological being allow them to pass through “me,” fanning the flames of imagination into visions of hopeful alternatives to capitalist catastrophes.

That Shelley, along with others before and after him, could ascend to heights of ego inflation reveals the danger of inspired agency despite its relational underpinnings. Imagination can be wielded for good andevil. It is hope—as I use the term in this essay—through which imagination may rhyme along in good faith with the primary creativity of natura naturans. “In hope,” invoking Shewry again,

we establish, feel, and express a relationship between things of this world (and through this world, the claims of the past) and the future in terms of openness and potential, loosening the hold of imagined futures said to be inevitable already. This is an embodied, unassuming, wordless relationship that is shaped by and at the same time nourishes ideas, or what one hopes for… Establishing a relationship of openness between present and future creates space not only for varied imaginaries of what might come but also for what we do now to enrich the future.[7]

In contrast to the modernist pursuit of certainty and its hegemonies of “should,” Shewry’s construal of hope befits the human of an era like the Anthropocene in which all concepts of human activity must be ecologized. Hope here has much in common with what the poet John Keats sparsely described as “negative capability.” In a letter written to his brothers, Keats describes the latter as the capacity needed for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”[8]Though negative capability may certainly require a willfulsuspension of interpretation, logic, and projection of possible outcomes, it is—as a practice—only half of the equation I insist on in this essay. The other half is in hope as a contemplative act, as eucatastrophic thinking—the caring embrace of what Keats following William Wordsworth called the “burden of Mystery.” To contextualize that burden, I quote at length Keats’ poetic philosophy of life from another letter to fellow poet J. H. Reynolds:

Well—I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil.  We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery,’To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages.  Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them.[9]

The Anthropocene is a time of “Mist;” the more we humans realize our enmeshment in the unpredictable feedback loops of earthly ecology, the more we are mystified by the question “what to do about it?” Some answers may be better than others, but none have the privilege of resolute correctness in what Keats calls the Chamber of Maiden-Thought. The latter might be interpreted as the Chamber of sensual experience, through which an individual’s curiosity is awakened and conditioned by the events of life. This Chamber, Keats tells us, has the potential of “convincing one’s nerves” that fear and hopelessness are the most appropriate responses to the sufferings of time—for what purpose can reason make of a world writhing in so much pain? No answer is sufficient. Why should I go on? If the cultivation of ecological virtue is vested on the recognition of relationship as fundamental, then to be virtuous means to realize that “I” am more than just myself. To say this is one thing, but to know it is another: to know oneself as the whole of cosmic ecology is humiliating in the literal sense of “being brought close to earth;” despair bottoms out into compassion for others in what is truly a shared suffering.[10]Ecologized sensibility—if it is true—is necessarily hopeful even as it bears the burden of Mystery because the individual bearing it knows that they are not alone. Hope is the hand we hold as we feel our way through “those dark Passages” of life’s Mansion of Many Apartments. Hope is knowing that we are in this together.

Shelley’s philosophy of poetry is helpful for more than just diagnosing the ills of today. His assertion that corruption is typically keyed with the absence of the “poetical principle” underscores its importance for organizing an ecologically just society. To understand Shelley’s generalized notion of poetry, we must understand what he means by imagination. Shelley designates the latter as that synthetic activity through which we have experience. Imagination is anterior to reason, or the class of mental action which, Shelley writes, “may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another.”[11]Reason is thus figured as the squire of imagination, the deeds of whom are taken back up by the latter “as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.”[12]  Imagination, therefore, is that primary creative activity rhyming the world and our experience into being and, at the same time, is that which we participate in when we rhyme along through the poetry of our lives. After all, “poetry,” in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’: and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”[13]The latter point is crucial for understanding my insistence on the import of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue. Poetry, for Shelley, is not apart from the world—rather—it is that through we strive to synchronize with its underlying rhythm. To illustrate this attuning function of poetry, Shelley offers—among others—the example of a child at play:

A child at play by itself will express its delight by its voice and motions; and every inflexion of tone and every gesture will bear exact relation to a corresponding antitype in the pleasurable impressions which awakened it; it will be the reflected image of that impression; and as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away, so the child seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause. In relation to the objects which delight a child these expressions are what poetry is to higher objects.[14]

The “impression” which the child mirrors in play is like the wind strumming through an Aeolian lyre; as actions which aim to prolong “consciousness of the cause,” both examples amount to poetry as expressions which reconcile the individual with the rhythmic life of cosmic imagination.

Whether as language written in meter or a life lived in accordance with earthly rhythms, poetry in general is any expressive activity that performs a reconciliation between the part and the whole—and is, for that reason, ecological (relational). Shelley’s conception provides a way of restoring the bridge between nonhuman nature and human culture, for it is the former which inspires the organization of the latter. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”[15]The closest approximation to that “certain rhythm or order” is what we call beautiful, the experience of which is the highest pleasure, for it is an echo of our origin in divinity. Shelley says those who have the capacity to apprehend the beautiful are poets and have major sway, for their expression “communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community,” allowing the entire group to organize in accord with the beautiful rhythm and in so doing, attune to the song of cosmic ecology.[16]But because cosmic imagination is creative, poetry is never-ending innovation and requires poets to stay on their toes! “If no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized,” Shelley warns us, “language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.”[17]Before the human species began ratiocinating its way into imaginaries of separation, attunement was basic existence. Indeed, as Shelley writes,

in the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.[18]

Human culture has not always storied itself apart from nonhuman nature; the roots of most words hint at this. But today, as in Shelley’s time, the dominant imaginary does not incline its adherents to experience themselves ecologically. Though all human beings may possess the capacity for poetry, today’s poets are those who for some reason or another are primed to feel through the imaginatively wrought boundaries of the buffered self. Thus, for their negative capability, poets are what we desperately need as we muster the courage to confront the unfolding ecological crisis. I am led to agree with Shelley in his dynamite declaration at the end of his essay: “Poets arethe unacknowledged legislators of the world.”[19]What we need are exemplars of inspired agency!

For Shelley, the apotheosis of poetry happens on stage in drama for its multimedia mimesis of life. “The tragedies of Athenian poets,” insists Shelley,

are as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become. The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty, that they distend in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived… Neither the eye nor the mind can see itself, unless reflected upon that which it resembles. The drama, so long as it continues to express poetry, is as a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest rays of human nature and divides and reproduces them from the simplicity of these elementary forms, and touches them with majesty and beauty, and multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it with the power of propagating its like wherever it may fall.[20]

When drama is at its best it presents a concentrated portrayal of human experience, shining with the “brightest rays of human nature” that then penetrate the audience and awaken those self-same qualities already resident within. Drama has the power to catalyze and cultivate human sensibility, shaping it to perform the values it narrates. In spite of his celebration of drama, Shelley disparages the form of story for its supposed disjunction with the whole:

The one [story] is partial and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.[21]

Shelley’s disparagement of story is indeed strange if one accepts my extension of his general notion of poetry to individual life itself when it reconciles with the life of the whole. Is not story the means by which we might narrate our lives in wholeness? Moreover, does not every story have the potential to tell itself in such a way as to convey something universal of human experience?

In his defense of story, J. R. R. Tolkien contrasts wildly with Shelley’s celebration of drama, chiding the latter form’s pretense toward expressing the fantastic, which a feat like the reconciliation of the part with the whole certainly is. In his essay titled “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien introduces a similar philosophy of imagination, one that wonderfully introduces more terminological distinctions than Shelley’s affords. Tolkien’s focus in this essay is on “Fantasy,” or that operation “which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic.”[22]For Tolkien, the “Primary World” is the expression of the Creator’s “Primary Art,” or the unfolding creativity of cosmic imagination. “Sub-creation” characterizes the activity of those who participate in Creation producing “Secondary Worlds,” the achievement of “which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” or “Secondary Belief.”[23]Specifically, Fantasy is the style of  sub-creation characterized by “a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression.”[24]As works of Fantasy, fairy-stories work to restore our astonishment in life by presenting universal human experiences (much like in Shelley’s dramatic concentration of life) under the guise of impossible circumstances. In an effort to reconcile Shelley and Tolkien, we might call fairy-stories a fantastic form ofpoetry. Tolkien describes Fantasy’s awe-inducing power as a power of “recovery,” one that resonates with my insistence on restoring the human relationship to nonhuman nature:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.[25]

Drama’s reliance on corporeality (performing bodies, costumes, props, stage sets, etc.) limits its ability to revivify perception. Dramatic attempts at Fantasy often fall flat or appear absurd. In Tolkien’s words, “men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy.”[26]Rather, it is, as Tolkien insists, through words that Fantasy is rendered best, for

fairy-stories deal largely, (or the betters ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover and not her slave.It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.[27]

The power of fairy-stories to revivify the mundane, astonishing habitual perception into wide-eyed amazement with the beauty of nature is clearly important for our time. To cultivate ecological virtue we must recover an experience of the mystery and inherent value of the nonhuman world. The reality of such stories has a deeper valence than any nominalist understanding of language could admit. Though he is at times ambiguous, fairy-stories for Tolkien seem to deal with an actual realm—the realm of Faërie—in which denizens like the elves dwell. Fantasy as a capacity granted to the human being by imagination is in this purview inevitable, as are its sub-creations in which important truths about what it means to be human may be taught by the elves alone:

To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician. Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself. That creative desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist, or the malevolent frauds of the magicians… Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.[28]

By “Enchantment” Tolkien refers to the elven craft of sub-creation in which the Secondary World is experienced with “Primary Belief,” a Fantasy so convincing that it is accepted as reality. At their best, elves demonstrate ideal sub-creation for human beings in what Shelley might call poetry, or the celebration of, reconciliation with, and “shared enrichment” of Creation—“partners in making and delight, not slaves.”

Finally we arrive at the end, the moment in which the harrowing events of a fairy-story take a miraculous turn toward a happy resolution—the eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic trope is not one of mere escapism, nor is it inherently childish. “It does not,” writes Tolkien,

deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief… in such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. [29]

That fateful gleam comes through to pierce our hearts with some uncanny truth that somehow makes the “burden of Mystery” lighter. Spellbound by Secondary Belief, our joy hints that the fantastic eucatastrophe may in some way actually

partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far- off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.[30]

Human sensibility cultivated through a cultural practice of telling fairy-stories might thus be formed to feel through the “dark Passages” of life, candlelit by a hopeful disposition that flickers with eucatastrophic thought. To confront the ecological crisis we must both internalize an identity that exceeds our individuality and indwell a disposition of hope that is itself a loving practice of being ecological. Only when we think eucatastrophically can we muster the courage to press forward in the name of possibilities of otherwise. Rather than a parasite of the earth, let us—raised on heaping plates of fairy-story—be partners with our Creator; let us, as sub-creators, “assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”[31]

NOTES

Keats, John, from “Selections from Keats’s Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters.

Morton, Timothy.“Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford

Handbook of Ecocriticism, 291–304. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf.

Shewry, Teresa. “Hope.” In Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeremy Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, 455-468. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017.

Tolkien, J. R. R., “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf

[1]Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf, 6.

[2]Teresa Shewry, “Hope,” in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 455.

[3]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 11.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 17.

[7]Shewry, “Hope,” 458.

[8]John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters

[9]John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters

[10]Timothy Morton, “Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford

Handbook of Ecocriticism (Oxford UP, 2014), 291–304. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf

[11]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 1.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.

[16]Ibid.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]  Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 20, my emphasis.

[20]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 8.

[21]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 5.

[22]J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf, 6.

[23]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 5.

[24]Ibid.

[25]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 9.

[26]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 7.

[27]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,”10.

[28]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 8.

[29]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 13-14.

[30]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 14.

[31]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 15.

Why Bother with Metaphysics?

This Thursday (5/3/18) I participated in a panel with my peers Emily Wright and William Dowling. The panel arose out of the course we’re currently in, titled Religious Metaphysics After Modernity, instructed by Professor Jake Sherman, and was part of the PCC roundtable series that Aaron Weiss and Adam Robbert have been organizing—a series I plan to absorb into the PCC Forum once its up and going next fall!

We covered a wide gamut—discussing topics ranging from recent work in neuroscience (e.g. microphenomenology) to storytelling and performative cosmology. I hope those of you reading find our musing and discussion stimulating. I’ve included a transcript of my talk below the video in case anyone is interested in reading it. It’s been challenging, but a joy to participate in speaking events like the last two without much preparation. I plan to continue that, to ease my way into a more spontaneous form of poetic-philosophizing.


“Why Bother with Metaphysics?”


Disclaimer: The “we” I speak with is an invitational one. If you feel as though my remarks don’t apply to you, then they don’t—my intention is not to swallow you up.

 

So, Why bother with metaphysics?

 

Before I answer, let me first situate myself: I write to you now from the Robert Heyns Reading Room at University of California, Berkeley. If look up from where I type, I see gilded ceiling—a long expanse of bronze ornament stretches out, deepening my thoughts. Roving-my-head-round, I see a series of nametags emblazoned at the meeting place between wall and roof. The first I compute,

 

Descartes,

then there’s Kant across the way,

Voltaire,

and Goethe… among other Giants of the Western Story.

 

Why bother with metaphysics?

Things just are the way they are. All the work has been done, just look up! The nametags—as large as I am—say it all! Let’s be gracious to our forebears—their Discoveries—some more than others, have built the foundation of the house through which we window-gaze upon the World.

I for one am not an undutiful Son!

Thank you, dear Forebears.

 

So why metaphysics? Well, what if things could be otherwise?

True, I do feel a bit drafty. I don’t know that I can ignore the cracks in the floorboard much longer. And yes, the word Discoveries I used earlier was sort of triggering. Decisions sounds a bit more apt. What if things could be otherwise…?

It compels me to admit something…

I’ve lied to you all. I’m not actually writing this from Robert Heyns Reading Room. I’m really in the historic North Reading Room, across the hall. On my way to the bathroom I passed Robert’s Room and was spellbound by its ceiling, more elaborate than in the North. Then I noticed Descartes’ nametag and a lightbulb went off:

A way to begin this talk!
But I didn’t want to sit in Robert’s room, the light wasn’t bright enough.

No need, I thought to myself, they’ll never know the difference!

And then, another lightbulb went off:

Why bother with metaphysics? Well, what if things could be otherwise?

So far I’ve got two stories running. I’m either writing to you from Robert Heyns Reading Room, or I’m writing to you from North Reading Room. Which one is more real? Does it matter? I think it does, and I promise you the latter is the Real one—though you won’t ever know for sure. So just go with it for now!

Two stories so far—stirring two different sets of associations, shaping and reshaping each individual future of you who listen, even—perhaps—for those of you tuning me out—the vibrations of my voice still acting upon your eardrums. Maybe the futural differences are negligible, but who really knows?

UCB_33_rf
The historic North Reading Room, taken from lib.berkley.edu.

 

What does this have to do with metaphysics, though?

In a very simple way, the differences matter, because the difference could mean a different future, a different story. So far, my storytelling has been concerned with choice and behavior at the level of conscious awareness. Though, no doubt, stories always reach deeper. The deeper we go, the thicker the entrenchment of story. What we know before we know we know—those overarching narratives stubbornly looping on and on.

 

It is at this level—the deep unconscious, keeper of Cosmologies—that Story derives its force,

The Rootbed of the “Why bother:”

 

I am possessed by certain assumptions about myself and the World:

I am a subject set against the World as Object. I am a Princess locked forever in a Tower. I am lonely, and my loneliness leads me to question this Story.  I rebel against my forebears, yet eventually I realize that only because of them have I been led to ask such questions:
Thank you, dear forebears.
Perhaps there’s no bridging Kant’s transcendental divide—that gap between my experience and things-in-themselves—perhaps we are bound to Quentin Meillassoux’s correlationism, the life-sentence of only being able to speculate from our unique perspectives. But maybe, following Timothy Morton, we ought to consider how unique to human beings that gap truly is. Have we rushed to copyright something that is and always was part of the commons? Or are we porous, pervious, perforated bags of water like Morton has it? It has been three hundred and eighty-one years since Descartes published his “Discourse on Method.” Though it pre-existed US copyright laws, I imagine the gap has long since entered the Public Domain. So can we ease up on our skepticism about experience and the experience of other beings?

 

Meanwhile, Our World is heating up, unraveling and revealing the taken for granted connections of our stable Holocene—that quaint period of periodicity, reified into cyclical cosmology and calendar, coming to an end. Incomes the Anthropocene, a concept which signals the time whereof the thumbprint of human activity stamps itself boldly across and deeply into the planet. We have become a geologic force. Yet, paradoxically, “the Anthropocene,” Timothy Morton tells us, is at the same time

one of the first truly anti-anthropocentric concepts because via thinking the Anthropocene, we get to see the concept of “species” as it really is—species as a subscendent hyperobject, brittle and inconsistent…The Anthropocene is the moment at which species become thinkable in a non-metaphysical way, such that humankind cannot rigidly exclude nonhumans. The human becomes smaller than the sum of its (human, bacterial microbiome, prosthetic) parts. Humankind is, as I said before, intrinsically disabled without hope of a “healthy” (explosive) wholeness.[1]

Subscendence is Morton’s favorite form of holism, what he calls implosive holism. In contrast to explosive holism, the perspective which hoists the transcendent Whole over the less than parts, implosive holism has it the other way around—the parts are many and they make up the fragile whole. Both are equally real, but the latter is wholly dependent upon its parts, or partial connections, for existence. Morton is in league with other thinkers like Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour who claim that taking the ecological crisis means challenging metaphysical assumptions, assumptions like explosive holism which undercut the significant role connections play in constituting the whole. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is often misattributed this kind of scheme, wherein Gaia is thought to be a soul-like self-organizing system maintaining planetary disequilibrium, our benevolent Earth-Mother keeping house. As Latour explains, a closer reading of Lovelock reveals that what Gaia refers to “is only the name proposed for all the intermingled and unpredictable consequences of the agents, each of which is pursuing its own interest by manipulating its own environment.”[2] Morton won’t even touch the term Gaia, and instead refers to the relying-on of the biosphere as the “symbiotic real” “in which entities are related in a non-total ragged way.”[3]  “Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something,” Donna Haraway tells us.[4]  She’ll call this, among other names, Ongoingness, that tangling mess of sympoeisis, or becoming-with, that makes up Earth systems.

Each of these tricksters defies the ontic separation between mind and world because the ecological crisis makes it a political matter. Together they wait on the other side of the gap, taunting us to make the leap. And with their own neologisms, each trickster urges us to consciously practice re-linking with our creaturely fellows—each of us, partial connections, participating in the constitution of the biosphere. For Haraway it is about cultivating response-ability; Morton calls it attunement, and Latour wants us reflexively looping and re-looping forever, treating the Whole we seek as Sisyphus does his boulder. We are to aesthetisize ourselves; to realize a Cosmopoetics of ecological belonging. The story of a transcendent Whole, taken for granted, is stale and outworn. Metaphysical systems tell stories, and vice versa. Because of this, Haraway admonishes us to realize that “it matters which stories tell stories as a practice of caring and thinking.”[5] Given that human life and the capacity to spin stories derives in the first place from ecological being, it’s not a far stretch to say that—though we can tell many—some stories are better told than others. Some hit closer to home.

The problem of transcendence is one of the reasons metaphysics has been rejected. Like my disclaimer at the beginning suggested, employing Wholes like the term “we” has historically swallowed important differences, sacrificed to the totalizing project of what William Desmond calls determinative curiosity.

Determinative curiosity though, is an orphan,

lost and very insecure.

 

It has forgotten its home and throws tantrums for absolute certainty,

It believes that to be is to be intelligible.

 

But curiosity is not born in a vacuum—rather, in a totally opposite manner—curiosity first derives from what Desmond calls original astonishment.

 

Its home is in wonder and to wonder it will always return.
Astonishment – when we are overcome, possessed by Excess. Patience with wonder.

Perplexity – “troubled mindfulness…” What could this indefiniteness mean?[6]

Curiosity – the movement to overcome the trouble through intelligibility and definition.

 

“Why is it important to distinguish these three?” Desmond asks “Because in the main we have tended to think of the process of mindfulness, whether philosophical or scientific, in terms of the third possibility,” reducing the astonishment and perplexity as merely hurdles in the process of determinative curiosity.[7]

 

Brought home to itself, curiosity, what we might also call Reason, realizes that not everything may be intelligible. This is important for our metaphysical struggle to think the Whole. Implosive holism may be a helpful critique for providential laziness. We keep living business as usual as if Gaia or Mother Nature will clean up our mess.

 

But I think there is something about the call of our trickster to re-sensitize ourselves to what we might still call Nature (or Gaia, or the Symbiotic Real, or Ongoingness) that still whispers of a more majestic Whole, a holy kind of Whole.
Morton is not down with transcendence, but his neologism “hyperobject” – an entity massively distributed in time and space like the Symbiotic Real or Global warming – is something we might call transcendent if we rethink how its conventionally understood.

 

What if we thought transcendence, as Jake puts it, “as the superlative mode of immanence?”

Transcendence understood this way is something we actually experience, what generates our experience of astonishment. Desmond links it with the hyperbolic or overdeterminate nature of Being itself – the sheer excess that catches us up in wonder.

 

Awe then becomes a way back to a Whole, a route for us to tread as we re-sensitize ourselves to our ecological becoming-with other creatures. Rooted back, curiosity realizes that not everything can be circumscribed by concepts. “The Whole,” Raimon Pannikar tells us, “is not the sum total of substantial selves, is not an object, and thus is impervious to any episteme that aims at objective knowledge. Furthermore, it is not the proper field of any exclusive ontology, that is, of any approach to Being exclusively by means of logos. Our attempt requires also the pneuma, the spirit, love, not as a second fiddle playing to the echoes of reason, but as a loving knowledge…”[8] (17)

 

The call to aesthetisize ourselves to our involvement with the partial connections that make up our biosphere is a call to re-member the Whole in a more playful way. It is a call back to metaphysics, revived and fleshy.
The language we use to tell the story matters – and some words won’t do. Totalizing concepts of the Whole must give way to more playful, symbolic expressions – images that approach the whole, yet are humbly understood as our best sketches of the inexpressible.

 

Cosmopoetics can then be understood as the effort to take philosophical language playfully serious, an effort to create aesthetic rituals of thought resonant enough to make doing metaphysics tantamount to passing through a conceptual birth canal.

 

Why bother with metaphysics?
Because some stories are better told than others. The Princess agrees,
Let me out of this Tower!

 

[1] Timothy Moton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London, Verso, 2017), 113.

[2] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climactic Regime (Medford, Polity, 2017), 142.

[3] Morton, Humankind, 1.

[4] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, (Durham, Duke University, 2017), 31.

[5]  Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 37.

[6] William Desmond, “Being, Determination, and Dialectic: On the Sources of Metaphysical Thinking.” The Review of Metaphysics, 48, no. 4 (1995): 731-69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20129761.

[7] Desmond, “Being, Determination, and Dialectic: On the Sources of Metaphysical Thinking,”  738.

[8] Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being: The Unbroken Trinity, (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2013), 17.

(Header image titled “Song of Songs V” by Marc Chagall)

Techno-artistry and Entanglement

In module IV of Process and Difference in the Pluriverse, a course at CIIS being instructed this spring by Matthew Segall, we explored works by Anne Fairchild Pomeroy (Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectics, and the Critque of Capitalism) and William E. Connolly (Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming). In this video I muse about “techno-artistic” applications of the scientific and philosophical insights which point to our ontological entangledness. How might we better feel into the reality of our radical hanging together?

 

Joanna Macy’s “Milling” exercise from “The Work that Reconnects” workshop (the entire workshop is an example itself) along with Marina Ambravoić’s performance “The Artist is Present” are wonderful examples of “Subjectication.”

I ended up taking longer than I expected (of course) and didn’t have time to suggest some more examples of tangible techno-artistic experiments. Here are some ideas below:

Entangled hikes (hiking with a storyteller/naturalist), collabrative futuretelling (Haraway and her The Camille Stories), dramatized enactments (like Ghandi’s salt stunt, but specifically tailored to entanglement, poetry, personifying micro-modes within us (archetypal astrology).

I’m especially interested in creating some kind of collaborative-poetic-performance experiences that could be repeated (though always unique to the context) and which might be wonderful vehicles of transformation at demonstrations and other large events. Storytelling a bumpy, fragile cosmology of perspectives somehow… Anyone want to riff on this with me?

Much love,

Ashton

a Reverie (a Review)

Though I maintain a healthy amount of suspicion, I tend toward an hermeneutics of faith and quickly fall in love with the ideas that saturate my life. How Forests Think is described as an anthropological work, but Eduardo Kohn’s radical thinking evades categorization. Because Kohn bypasses epistemological barriers—enjoining others in the ontological turn—one might consider this a work of speculative (yet grounded) philosophy. I would go further, though, and as you will discover if you have the time to read (or listen) to my words, and call it a work of art. Reading it, for me, was an experience. I intend for this website to be a home for ideas—those “qualities entertained as objects in conceptual activity [that] are of the nature of catalytic agents—”that build toward a re-enchanted worldview. Kohn’s ideas reintroduce our thinking to the world from which it came—a world of images—and invite us to recognize how the world may indeed be thinking through us.

Kohn_-image_480_300_90_s_c1
Photo by Kohn (one of the many that makeup his book).

Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human is an estrangement and a homecoming. As the subtitle reads, Kohn seeks to take anthropology—and his readers—beyond the human. But why should the study of what makes humans human concern anything more than us? Kohn’s answer, as with the entire book, is practical: “how other beings see us matters.” Immediately we recoil. An epistemic law has been broken. How can we presume to know anything about how another (nonhuman) being sees us? Kohn might simply say, “for our own survival.” To those of us living in cities or suburbs—even rural America—this answer might seem exotic. But to human beings who live on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest—like the Runa of Ávila, the subjects of Kohn’s ethnographic meditation—our speculative question is vital. It is a matter of life and death: those who sleep face-up are recognized by the jaguar as fellow selves, while those who sleep face-down risk being seen as her object of prey. This dilemma is how Kohn introduces his “analytic beyond the human.” Our ecological crisis is forcing us to make ontological assumptions that burst our sociocultural and historically-contingent bubble. Until now “our social theory…[, which]…conflates representation with language,”[i] has bound our thoughts within a complex whole. This so-called complex whole is the axiom of human culture, understood by many proponents of the linguistic turn to be resolutely closed—all our knowledge encaged by a matrix of exclusively human-wrought meaning. But upon considering the jaguar’s perspective, we release our thoughts into a wild flock.

The heart of Chapter One, “The Open Whole,” is Kohn’s restoration of meaning to the world. The human capacity for symbolic thought may be unique, but it is not ex nihilo. The semiotic philosophy of the “weird” Charles Peirce figures largely in Kohn’s work. Kohn says, though, that his approach is not one of merely applying Peirce to the forest, but one more of “allowing the forest to think through [him (Kohn), while]…also using Peirce’s framework.”[ii] Kohn borrows his working “agnostic definition” of the word sign from Peirce’s: “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.”[iii] Human language includes indices, icons, and symbols, the last of which as Kohn has it, are slightly more removed from the natural world. Shooting up from the root system of icon and the stem support of index, symbols “refer to their object indirectly by virtue of the ways in which they relate systemically to other such symbols. Symbols involve convention.”[1] As far as we know, humans are the exclusive users of symbols, but flowers don’t bloom from nowhere. To the extent that symbols rely on other forms of communication, signs can be seen to extend beyond symbolic language. Therefore, what we as humans can know and the range of beings we might commune with opens up.

The significance of asking how the jaguar sees us implies that we might grant the jaguar selfhood. And indeed, this is in line with Kohn’s definition of life as being “constitutively semiotic. That is, life is, through and through, the product of sign processes.”[iv] To Kohn, all life-forms represent the world in some way(s); life’s tendency to represent has a reciprocal effect of producing a perspective, that which observes the representation. The marriage of life and representation “allows us to situate distinctively human ways of being in the world as both emergent from and in continuity with a broader living semiotic realm.”[v] This is Kohn’s move to provincialize language as one unique way of making meaning among many along the landscape of the cosmos.

The predominant view in the social sciences is that we can only understand something by relating it to other things that make up a complex—but self-referentially closed—whole of meaning­. This approach is the very reason for Kohn’s provincializing of language, for it shows how our thinking as human beings has been “colonized” by symbolic thought. Words can only mean something in relation to other words. And likewise, “we can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language.”[vi] But now, after the linguistic turn, we swerve again, this time “away from the internal analysis of social conventions and institutions towards the interactions of humans with (and between) animals, plants, physical processes, artifacts, images, and other forms of being.”[vii] Thus the Runian “word,” or sound image, “tsupu.” Similar to how we understand onomatopoeia, “words” that are really only translations of sounds into language (e.g. meeeeeow!), “tsupu” is an icon that refers “to an entity as it makes contact with and then penetrates a body of water.”[viii] Upon hearing this definition, Kohn says that people often “experience a sudden feel for its meaning.”[ix] This recognition across languages (the Runa speak Quichuan) punctures the closed whole of our colonized way of thinking and lets slip a sound of the world. Just like “meow,” the meaning of “tsupu” is not reliant on its relationship to other words for meaning.

By paying attention to certain instances, customs, or ways of knowing among the Runa, Kohn distills amplified generals of our shared world throughout the book. “Tsupu” is an example and so is the animistic orientation of the Runa (animistic, i.e., “the attribution of enchantment,” the capacity to make and interpret meaning, to “other-than-human loci”[x]). In Chapter Two, “The Living Thought,” Kohn explains the centrality of the animistic perspective to the Runa and its relevance for us:

People in Ávila, if they are to successfully penetrate the relational logics that create, connect, and sustain the beings of the forest, must in some way recognize this basic animacy. Runa animism, then, is a way of attending to living thoughts in the world that amplifies and reveals important properties of lives and thoughts…Paying attention to these engagements with the living thoughts of the world can help us think anthropology differently. It can help us imagine a set of conceptual tools we can use to attend to the ways in which our lives are shaped by how we live in a world that extends beyond the human.[xi]

Animism is not a romantic or even chosen approach to living for the Runa. It is necessary for survival. The importance of anticipating how a jaguar might respond to our behavior reveals the inherent futurity of semiosis—selves represent to continue living. “Aboutness,” writes Kohn, “—representation, intention, and purpose in their most basic forms—is an intrinsic structuring feature of living dynamics in the biological world.”[xii] The evolutionary process itself is driven by semiosis wherein selfhood extends to entire biological lineages and representation encompasses the process of adaptation. Biology thinks its way into the future. Relationality takes on a new meaning in this purview in that the “logic that structures relations among selves is the same as that which structures relations among signs.”[xiii] This is one way of understanding what Kohn means when he asserts that forests think. Living selves are the thoughts in the mind of a forest.

Chapter Three, “Soul Blindness,” discusses the relativity of identity among the ecology of selves that makes up a forest. As modeled by our relationship with the jaguar, the line between self and other is blurry at best. Self and object are co-constitutive. Kohn writes, “before living thoughts emerged on this earth nothing ever came to stand in relationship to a self as an object or as another. Objects, like selves, are also effects of semiosis.”[xiv] For Kohn, the soul is an intersubjective effect that emerges from communication between selves. To remain a self, one “must recognize the soul-stuff of the other souled selves that inhabit the cosmos.”[xv] In contrast, soul blindness refers to the loss of such a capacity. For the hunter, being able to distinguish prey from the larger environment is contingent on seeing the creature as a self. Simply put, “our lives depend on our abilities to believe in and act on the provisional guesses we make about the motivations of other selves.”[xvi] It is a tragic and dissonant fact that selves must consume other selves in order to live, and this dissonance is captured in the conversion of a self into an object. “To eat them as food,” Kohn writes, they must become “dead meat.”[xvii] Although most of us reared in industrial society are far removed from the production of our food, English names for animal products (i.e. pork, beef, veal) reflect the same necessity of abstracting from the selfhood of the once living creature now unrecognizable on our plates. Whether one is subject or object, essential to this chapter is Kohn’s point that “what kind of being one comes to be is the product of how one sees as well as how one is seen by other kinds of beings.”[xviii] What the Runa amplify for Kohn is the potential for an anthropology beyond the human to utilize a “self-reflexive defamiliarization” of natures rather than cultures; by “stepping out of our bodies and into those of other beings…we see a different world from the subjective, I, point of view of another kind of embodiment. We are able, for a moment to live in a different nature.”[xix] In wake of the Anthropocene, imagining into the selfhood of the world’s dwindling biosphere is of obvious importance.

To mitigate the loss of species occurring in our time we must sensitize ourselves to the needs of those nonhuman others we are so inextricably tied to. Chapter Four, “Trans-Species Pidgins,” explores the Runa-forest relationship for glimmers of that possibility. To develop an ethic of care “that does not simply project human qualities everywhere,” Kohn writes, “we must situate morality ontologically.”[xx] We may simplify our problem by understanding the human capacity for morals in relation to symbolic reference: “It [symbolic reference] requires the ability to momentarily distance ourselves from the world and our actions in it to reflect on our possible modes of future conduct.”[xxi] Morality, then, is emergent, and its roots are in value. All livings beings participate in value by discerning good from bad. Sensitizing ourselves to the needs of nonhumans “forces us to think beyond our moral worlds in ways that can help us imagine and realize better worlds.”[xxii] That the Quichuan word runa is equivalent to the English word person is a clue as to how. “Runa,” Kohn explains, “is used as a sort of pronominal marker of the subject position—for all selves see themselves as persons.”[xxiii] Here again is the distinction of natures versus cultures. Rather than attempt in vain to enter another closed whole (culture), the Runa model a way of slipping in and out of other bodies, becoming-with other natures. This is the opposite extreme of soul blindness. Both come with a cost; the former, a loss of our humanity, the latter, the solipsism of “monadic isolation.” Consider the Runian phrase runa-puma. If runa means person, then runa-puma refers to a person-jaguar, or person-predator. Our experience of meeting the eyes of a jaguar makes us into “beings who can see themselves being seen by jaguars as fellow predators, and who also sometimes see other humans the way jaguars do, as prey.”[xxiv] Implicit in this example is the importance either way of walking a middle path—if we identify completely as runa-puma, we may end up cannibals, but if we shirk the gaze of a jaguar, we may end up her meal.

In our struggle to communicate with other beings, we must grapple with the constraints of their unique semiotic modalities.[xxv] Chapter Five, “Form’s Effortless Efficacy,” builds on our wish to make contact by exploring “how certain configurations of constraint on possibility emerge and…the particular manner in which such configurations propagate in the world in ways that result in a sort of pattern.”[xxvi] This is what Kohn calls form. The decolonization of our thoughts extends to the status of form and challenges us to rethink what we might otherwise assume as something we humans make up. Kohn’s perspective is an anti-nominalist one, after all. Riverine networks of the Amazon are a prime example of this kind of immanent patterning in their “self-similarity across scale,” with their creeks and streams as fractal echoes of a basic form. Thus, navigating a river system is one way of being inside of and harnessing the “effortless efficacy” of form. Another is hunting. Kohn explains:

Because of the high species diversity and the local rarity of species and the lack of any one fruiting season, the fruits that animals eat are highly dispersed…This means that at any given time there will exist a different geometrical constellation of fruiting resources that attracts animals…that predators are, in turn, attracted to this concentration of animals further amplifies the pattern of distribution of life across the forest landscape. This results in a particular pattern of potential game meat…[xxvii]

Rather than expend energy and time hunting animals directly, Ávila hunters allow the formal patterning of the forest to think through them and follow it to those constellations of fruiting trees and game meat. Kohn’s understanding of form as something one is “inside,” “quite different from the push-and-pull logic we usually associate with the physical effort needed to do something,” is wonderfully evocative of concepts like wu wei (non-action) from the Daoist tradition.[xxviii] Kohn’s ethnographic artistry abounds in examples (e.g. dreaming, rubber-trapping, shamanic empowerment) of form that I enthusiastically encourage readers to discover for themselves.

Chapter Six, “The Living Future (and the Imponderable Weight of the Dead),” considers how an anthropology beyond the human might understand the paradox of life—its inherent futurity and mandate of death. The semiotic nature of life has representation concerned with survival; in Kohn’s words, “we all always have one foot (or paw) in the future,” but as he goes on to say, “this living future…cannot be understood without further reflecting on the special links that life has to all the dead that make life possible. It is in this sense that the living forest is also one that is haunted.”[xxix] What the Runa amplify for Kohn about the continuity of life is tied up with their relationship to the forest’s emergent spirit realm, the afterlife. The earlier translation of runa as person was a hint that it does not refer specifically to an ethnic group (ours and Kohn’s use of it as a proper noun is for the sake of communication). In fact, the Runa of Ávila don’t even identify themselves that way or any other. For them, runa has a much more general meaning:

“Runa” more accurately marks a relational subject position in a cosmic ecology of selves in which all beings see themselves as persons. “Runa” here is the self, in continuity of form. All beings are, from their points of view, in a sense “Runa,” because this is how they would experience themselves when saying “I.”[xxx]

“Death for the self,” then, as Kohn puts it, “is ineffable, for the self is simply a continuation of life. The self is a general…it is the experience of the death of others by the living that is so hard to bear, because it is what is palpable.”[xxxi] Kohn’s assertion that the self continues may seem strange to us, but as that reciprocal effect of life’s tendency to represent the world, self as defined by Kohn transcends any reductionist ontology that would terminate it at bodily death. When we stop to ponder our own deaths and arrive only at mystery we might nod our heads—how else could we be but in being? With the problem of death aside, I now turn to that ethereal future realm and how one’s relationship to it in the present determines one’s survival.

Like navigating a river, our relationship to the living future is participatory. In Kohn’s view, the spirit realm the Runa interact with is a co-creative emergence of Amazonia’s various denizens. Yet, while it is collaborative, it is also heavily saturated with the “all too human.” It’s formal logic, then, comes to reflect all of the forest’s historical (i.e. colonial) influence “and thus permits and constrains, who and how an I can be, at the same time that it provides the vessel for continuity—the survival—of that I.”[xxxii] For the Runa, “who have long lived in a world where whites…have stood in manifest dominance over them,” this often means becoming white.[xxxiii] Oswaldo, one of Kohn’s ethnographic subjects, gives an example as he recounts a dream for us in which appeared a “’menacing[, white] policeman’” whose “’shirt was covered with clippings from a haircut.’”[xxxiv] For Oswaldo, this dream—an intimation of the future—was initially interpreted as a bad sign, for he had understood the white policeman to be his own predator. But as things would have it, Oswaldo ended up occupying the position of the predator when he successfully killed a peccary in the forest later on. Kohn elaborates further,

That Oswaldo at a certain moment in the forest can—perhaps must—be a white policeman, involves the particular and sometimes disjointed and even painful ways in which some aspect of his future self reaches back to affect him from the realm of the masters…The spirit realm that emerges, as a product of a whole host of relations that cross species lines and temporal epochs, is then a zone of continuity and possibility: Oswaldo’s survival depends on his ability to access it.” [xxxv]

Aside from challenging our understanding of both positionality and causality, what the Runa amplify for us once again is the extent to which our selfhood—our survival—is bound up with the way others see us. There is much more to this chapter and to the spirit realm of the forest than can be dwelt on here, and so again, I encourage the reader to dive into Kohn’s artistry.

How Forests Think, a seminal work ten years in the making, naturally ends with an epilogue titled, “Beyond.” Kohn’s central aim was to think like a forest, that is, in images, and in doing so, make us over—take us beyond our “doubt-ridden human housing.”[xxxvi] Indeed, even in this review, we taste the bidden fruit of Eden and in some way re-member what it’s like to see nonhuman selves seeing us. Yet, paradoxically, we bite the apple and gain a more refined understanding of what it means to be human. It is all necessary, as Kohn heroically explains, for “if ‘we’ are to survive the Anthropocene—this indeterminate epoch of ours in which the world beyond the human is being increasingly made-over by the all-too-human—we will have to actively cultivate these ways of thinking with and like forests.”[xxxvii] Sadly, what is lost in the review of this artful book is the phantasmagoria of images—“be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic”[xxxviii]—that make it. And once more—rather than goad—I lovingly wish that you, the reader, find a copy in your hands one day, so that you might join in on its gift to posterity—our, hopefully, living future.

 

[i] Kohn, How Forests Think, 8.

[ii] Kohn being interviewed by Marshall Poe in New Books in Latin American Studies.

[iii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 29.

[iv]  Kohn, How Forests Think, 9.

[v] Kohn, How Forests Think, 16.

[vi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 20.

[vii] Phillipe Descola, “All Too Human (still),” 268.

[viii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 27.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Kohn, How Forests Think, 72.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 73-74.

[xiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 83.

[xiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 104.

[xv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 111.

[xvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 118.

[xvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 119.

[xviii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 120.

[xix] Kohn, How Forests Think, 126.

[xx] Kohn, How Forests Think, 133.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 134.

[xxiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 139.

[xxiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 2.

[xxv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 148.

[xxvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 156.

[xxvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 163.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Kohn, How Forests Think, 194.

[xxx] Kohn, How Forests Think, 200.

[xxxi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 211.

[xxxii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 213.

[xxxiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 192.

[xxxiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 191.

[xxxv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 200.

[xxxvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 228.

[xxxvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 227.

[xxxviii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 222.

 

Bibliography

Descola, Phillipe. “All too human (still) A comment on Eduardo Kohn’s How forests think.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 2 (2014): 267–273, http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.015

 

Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: An Antrhopology Beyond the Human. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.

 

Eduardo Kohn, interview with Marshall Poe, New Books in Latin American Studies, podcast audio, February 9th, 2014, https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/new-books-in-latin-american-studies/id425192236?mt=2