A Pause for Thought

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Seven Sisters Songline (1994) by Josephine Mick, from the APY region. Photograph: National Museum of Australia

A lot of inspiration has been breathing through me this semester and it’s time I catch this blog up to speed!

I spent the last season exploring the intersection of ecology, philosophy, and music in an independent study with Sam Mickey, an adjunct lecturer in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at CIIS, as well as an adjunct professor in the Theology and Religious Studies department at the University of San Francisco. I proposed the independent study to Sam after taking his FANTASTIC spring course on ecopoetics. My focus in the final essay of ecopoetics was on a philosophical exchange between the transdisciplinary artist Björk and eco-philosopher Timothy Morton for the way their dialogue illuminates the ecological valence of Björk’s work, specifically in her most recent album “Utopia.” I argued that Björk’s music could be thought of as an exemplary form of philosophy from an ecological perspective—philosophy as “ecopoetic spellwork.” What do I mean by “ecopoetic?” Well, in this context, “I refer to any experience, evocation, or consideration of nature’s relational (ecological), semiotic creativity in and through human and nonhuman beings alike—a vast designation!”

This initial exploration ended up being very fruitful for my own philosophical perspective and inquiry around ecological art-making. Aside from my writing, I have not been actively making art since finishing my undergraduate degree in film production. I moved all the way to the Bay Area for the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness (PCC) program at CIIS and the possibility it presented to me for deepening into my questions about the role of art in confronting the ecological crisis. What emerged from my consideration of Björk and Morton was a way of thinking about meaning that respects the continuity between human culture and nature: thinking as a listening, meaning understood musically. Finally my art medium ambivalence finds a resting place, one that extends the affect of art beyond its culturally inscribed scope of influence. Ecologized art in the multimedia form of music, song, dance, and performance echoes the origins of art in religion and resounds with all the efficacy it once took as self-evident. When philosophy is a listening—when ontology is thought through our sense of sound—art recovers its magical, incantatory power. Dimly I held these threads in mind as I began my independent study; with the help of Sam’s feedback and textual suggestions, I would encounter many thinkers whose ideas would help to sound out the music my own thoughts were beginning to attune to. The philosopher David Michael Kleinberg-Levin was one of those thinkers with whom I especially resonated. In what follows I engage with his wonderful text The Listening Self and present singing as a form of art that is particularly amenable to being conceived ecologically and for that reason instructive to artists attempting to re-conceive other mediums ecologically. Preceding my essay is a more general talk I gave on Kleinberg-Levin’s text while at Esalen during PCC’s fall retreat.

Singing Beyond the Human

What kind of art breathes through the artifactual bounds of human culture? All arts, one might say, simply through their material consequences in the webwork of ecology. More pointedly, then, I ask: what kind of art breathes through the artifactual bounds of human culture with an aspiration of reciprocity with the nonhuman world? Singing! Singing, I say! Singing because singing requires foremost that the singer be adept at listening. The song to unfold shall sing a way of being that is simultaneously a listening, an attunement, and a singing—a way of thinking experience ecologically while still maintaining the difference (though porous) between self and other. By extension, the physical practice of singing proves to be particularly suited to instruct an ecological reorientation of the arts, one that is more truly a recovery of indigeneity than the latest innovation in progress.

When I finally committed to singing lessons, I did not anticipate that the biggest challenge to face would be learning how to listen. “Yaaaaaaaaa,” sings my teacher S. in her mixed register. Stalling, I overthink how to match her—imagining the mimesis as a mechanical computation of the mind that I can’t get right. “You don’t trust yourself,” she often reminds me, encouraging me to just let go. Indeed, the ability to relax enough to let the sound resonate inside before trying to harmonize is crucial, but hard to achieve for a body so conditioned by oculocentric thinking. In his text The Listening Self, David Kleinberg-Levin identifies oculocentrism as the visual bias reigning over Western conceptual thought since the Greeks, a tendency informed by what he calls the “ego-logical” structure of subject-object perception. “It is easier,” writes Kleinberg-Levin, “for us to shut our eyes than close our ears. It is easier for us to remain untouched and unmoved by what we see than by what we hear; what we see is kept at a distance, but what we hear penetrates our entire body.”[1] Vision, therefore, is the preferred sense for the egoic will to power, the subject’s dominion over objects. The gaze splits two ways: practically, through the subject’s objectification of all that is not itself in the activity of use, and theoretically, through a totalizing conception of and closure to Being. They go hand-in-hand. Kleinberg-Levin refers to the latter as a

frontal ontology, an ontology of entities which, at least in the ideal situation, are held ‘front and centre’: in the most ideal act of beholding, the object is to be held in place directly before the eyes… the metaphysics of vision… tends to overvalue constancy, uniformity, permanence, unity, totality, clarity, and distinctness…the nature of the visionary situation is such that the gaze always inhabits a field of contemporaneously coexisting entities, more or less immediately in continuous view, constant beholding…[and] encourages a metaphysics of presence, a discourse of speculative thinking in which the apparently real panoptical omnipresence is reflected — and not only reflected, but projected the absolute truth.[2]

The frontal ontology sired by oculocentric bias translates into computational learning processes in which “getting it right,” being in accord with absolute truth, serves as the key to winning the prize. My preoccupation with “getting it right” in the process of miming S. short-circuits my capacity to be fully present with the feeling of her resounding voice—closing me off from the vibrancy of Being. Learning to sing, it turns out, necessitates a more receptive orientation to lived experience than oculocentrism allows for. I must instead open myself up to Being, surrendering my egoic compulsion for control to the ecstatic dimension of sound. “Unlike the things that we see,” writes Kleinberg-Levin,

things that endure in the contemporaneous coexistence of spatial entities and belong to the ‘omnipresence’ of space itself, sounds are transitory and impermanent, ever insubstantial, belonging to the realm of temporality: they cannot be grasped, held, possessed…the nature of sound deconstructs the ego’s sense of identity, its sense of itself as a substantial self-grounded subjectivity, enjoying an undisputed certainty in a world under its control.[3]

Learning to sing—learning to listen, to resonate as and with other sounds—opens the possibility of conceptualizing ourselves differently. Explicit in the listening (rather than the seeing) self is its inherence in a web of vibrating relationships, relationships that, taken together, constitute the ecological matrix of Being. In the developmental scheme Kleinberg-Levin traces, the ego-logical structure of subject-object perception is a stage that enables the individual to differentiate itself from others and to survive. Our individual “sense of self,” writes Levin, “is formed through difference: difference in interactions with others, but also difference in interactions with the objective world.”[4] Through the mirroring of others—of the world itself—we come to know ourselves, a process which potentiates a

compelling disclosure of our primordial sociality: a disclosure that enables the ego it has produced to overcome its narcissistic impulses, and that consequently frees it to continue its individuation, beyond socially imposed roles, by taking part in the communicativeness and reciprocities of a social existence.[5]

Implicit in the very possibility of ego construction, then, is its overcoming through the intercorporeal, ecological ground of its existence, what forms the basis of our intersubjectivity. Sociality, as Kleinberg-Levin has it, is primordial—ontological: thus, we always have a sense of our inherence in the ecology of Being, albeit dimly, in a forgotten way. The former is what Kleinberg-Levin refers to as “pre-ontological understanding,” a phase that can only be brought to awareness through incorporation—taking on the body of difference—down the path of individuation. “Paradoxically,” Kleinberg-Levin writes, “the incorporation is a forgetting which makes a belated recollection possible.”[6]

I must hold multiple registers of focus in tandem during my singing lesson: my breathing, the expansion of my ribcage, lifted vocal folds, a clear mind, and an acute feeling for the sound. More often than not, I stumble in the juggle. My worst habit is doubt, manifested in a complicated relationship to breath. I can’t attend to my breathing without trying to control it, resulting in inhales that are much too large and exhales that pale in comparison. I get lighted-headed and become anxious, dissociating from the moment at hand. “Where are you going? You’re leaving your body again! Why don’t you just tell yourself that you’re aware of your breath? Then all your problems will be solved.” The first few times S. suggests I tell myself something like this I proceed to do it aloud right then, but her smirks gradually make me realize that what she means has more to do with trust than following her command like a parrot. My compulsion to control my breath arises from—I believe—a mistaken, semi-unconscious assumption about my ontology: I, an autonomous ego, am on one side of existence, the world and all its contents (my body included) is on the other. Yet, time and time again I am forced (by the breathing panic) to realize that my breath derives from and depends upon an entire atmosphere that transcends my individuality. This, allied with a nod to the brilliance explicit in my own organism, “involuntarily” breathing myself even when I’m not paying attention! But how can I consciously entrust myself to what is beyond my control?

Coming to conscious awareness of my breath and its implications for the way I conceive my existence is expressive of what Kleinberg-Levin designates as the ontological culmination of Being in humankind: hearkening. Our hearing, so it goes, is a gift that makes a religious claim on us, luring us to deepen our feeling capacity enough to remember who we are. As infants “our hearing may be said to inhere in, and be attuned by, the field of sonorous Being as a whole: the infant lives in a bodily felt inherence in the openness of the sonorous matrix and hears with—and through—the entire body. The infant’s ears are the body as a whole.”[7] Our primordial attunement by and to the undulating, breathing fabric of Being is the dim memory and pre-ontological understanding of wholeness—a gift and a calling. Hearkening is the heeding of the gift, embodied in the kind of holistic listening required for the practice of singing. However, for hearkening to be achieved, our listening must be cultivated beyond just biological development, raising pre-ontological understanding into awareness through its retrieval, what Kleinberg-Levin describes as an appropriation:

a claim (Anspruch) which calls for its proper or appropriate ‘use.’ This ‘use’ is a recollection of Being which retrieves the pre-ontological understanding of Being, the poorly understood relationship with Being always and already implicate in our hearing, and gives back to the primordial Es gibt of Being…the gift of its audibility in the world of our dwelling. When we lend our ears to such a recollection of Being, our listening becomes properly attuned, properly thoughtful: it becomes an ‘authentic hearing’…And this is the achievement of ‘hearkening’.[8]

When I surrender the compulsion to control my breath through the realization that I derive from processes that transcend my individuality, but which ultimately connect me ecstatically to the whole cosmos, I am hearkening. When I bring this awareness into my practice of singing, I am hearkening. If I keep up my practice, I edge closer to the potential of seeing through the subject-object structure of perception and begin to abide in a “guardian awareness” of “just listening,” an interested, yet equanimous

awareness of the intertwining of subject and object: their differential interplay. It is by virtue of the subject’s playful openness to the matrix of sound, the sheer vibrancy of the field as a whole, that this intertwining, this interplay of identity and difference, oneness and twoness, is realized.[9]

Kleinberg-Levin is careful not to reduce the ultimacy of perception to idealistic monism or a complete dualism. Instead, the ontological difference is maintained and can actually be heard as a double-tone “manifesting in, and as, the local dimensions of a figure-ground difference. ‘Just listening’ takes us into the interplay, where the two dimensions of difference can also sound as one.”[10] Easier said than done! “An awakened attention, that’s what you need when you’re here,” says S. in frustration, “and you don’t have it.” “So how to cultivate that…? Meditation?” I ask, hopeful. “I don’t know—what takes you out?” “Takes me out?” “Yeah, what takes you away from your ability to listen and reproduce what you’re hearing?” A long pause elapses. “You have to find that out,” says S., ending our session for the day.

S.’s question intersects with the question I posed at the beginning of this essay: what kind of art breathes through the artifactual bounds of human culture with an aspiration of reciprocity with the nonhuman world? The bodily form of listening demanded by the discipline of singing carries the potential for me to become sensitive enough to feel my inherence—and affect—in the sonic field of my context. Implied in that sensitivity is my openness to being affected by others—a vulnerability. Indeed, as Kleinberg-Levin understands it, hearkening represents the

greatest opening to Being of which we are capable, it is a mode of perceptiveness that we can achieve only by cultivating our capacity for feeling and restoring the connection between feeling and listening…we need to learn a listening which listens with this bodily felt sense. In other words, we need to cultivate a listening that is deeply rooted in our body’s felt sense of situated being.[11]

Restoring, as Kleinberg-Levin writes, “our body’s felt sense of situated being” is exactly the kind of response necessary to engage the ecological crisis we collectively face. I must become response-able to my local nexus, sensitive enough to discern its needs; aware of the fact that simply by existing, I impact others. Hearkening, Kleinberg-Levin writes,

ultimately calls for a calm, relaxed, well-balanced state, body and mind. The more this state is achieved, the easier it becomes to neutralize the polarizing internationalities of desire, the vectors of attraction and aversion which bind our everyday hearing to the ego-logically constituted structure of subject and object.[12]

The ravenous pace of industrial civilization and the exploitative nature of capitalism tremendously hamper our capacity to slow down long enough to feel, let alone neutralize our anxieties and cravings. Time and safety are privileges most people don’t have; and even when they do, the effects of trauma—so ubiquitous in civilization, especially among the oppressed—prevent individuals from emotionally embracing safety and stillness if and when they become options. Speaking for myself, I consider S.’s question: “what takes you away from your ability to listen and reproduce what you’re hearing?” I answer through the rationale of trauma’s echo: my impulse to control my body and to dissociate were once useful survival strategies, but have now become maladaptive. I have the privilege of safety today and it is incumbent on me to bring my entire psychosomatic being into the present—not just for my own happiness, but to heed the responsibility I have for the welfare of others. If, as Kleinberg-Levin suggests, we can “overcome attendant anxieties and dissolve unnecessary defenses. And as our ego-logical obsessions are given up, a guardian awareness of the ground, the sonorous atmosphere as a whole, slowly beings to grow.”[13]

Hearkening, for Kleinberg-Levin, is not a state of being that is reached with any finality, nor is its proper end in contemplative withdrawal, but figures instead as an ongoing practice of deep listening for the cultivation of a more porous subjectivity, radically bound up with the world and its many sounding inhabitants. “In the final phase of recollecting,” writes Kleinberg-Levin, “we return to the world, carrying within us, like a song, the vibrancy of Being. And to the extent that we can make this song audible to others, we gather them, too, into the vitality of the primordial recollection.”[14] When I practice being a listening self, rather than a defensive ego, my thinking—attuned as it is by the dimensionality of Being—remembers itself as a singing of Being and enjoins a choir of others in the vibrancy of the uni-verse.  Taken this way, the physical practice of singing breaks through the artifactual bounds of human culture, vibrating with the nonhuman world, and paves the way for other arts to understand their practices ecologically.

 

NOTES

Levin, David Michael. The Listening Self: Personal Growth, Social Change, and The Closure of Metaphysics. New York: Routledge Press, 1989.

[1] David Michael Levin, The Listening Self: Personal Growth, Social Change, and The Closure of Metaphysics. (New York: Routledge, 1989), 32.

[2] Levin, 32.

[3] Levin, 34.

[4] Levin, 155.

[5] Levin, 157.

[6] Levin, 75.

[7] Levin, 45.

[8] Levin, 207.

[9] Levin, 288.

[10] Levin, 235.

[11] Levin, 219.

[12] Levin, 233.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Levin, 75.

 

Minding Manners; Matters of Attunement

In the last two modules of Process and Difference in the Pluriverse we focused on Timothy Morton’s Humankind (2017) and Anne Fairchild Pomeroy’s Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectic, and the Critique of Capitalism (2004). During the time that lapsed between them I traveled north of San Francisco to Bell Valley Retreat Center in Mendocino Valley where the 5-day immersive course called “Nature and Eros” was held. The latter was/is co-taught by PCC professor and evolutionary cosmologist, Brian Swimme, along with Kerry Brady, founder of Ecology of Awakening. It was a wonderful context in which to deepen into the ideas we’ve been exploring this semester in Process and Difference, for “Nature and Eros” was posed by our guides as an invitation to let go of our conditioning in the techno-industrial sphere of expectation and ceaseless productivity.

Many people complain about the lack of immediate contact with fellow students and teachers in the online learning format. This is sound, but it is certainly possible to connect with others despite the disjuncture in space-time. We miss the subtext and subtly of presence, but in return we are gifted time to curate more rigorous reflections on the content we entangle with together. To curate, and to absorb the wonderful musing of others. The philosophical tenor of Process and Difference—at once emancipatory and implicating—was one that intrinsically honored each individual perspective in the class and encouraged us to feel like, together, we were all creating something as we entangled our thinking-feeling on the discussion board. Of course, I’m speaking for myself, and though I think my point about the philosophical tenor is true, it is equally true that this particular group made the class what it was.

I’m waxing on this because in the text below you will multiple times run across a certain Julie, a peer of my mine from the course whose insights had such an impact on my thinking. I encourage you to check out her website, Sacred Futures, and tangle yourself in the magical ideas she so inspired me with this semester.

Part I

Morton’s writing is electric with mischief and I always love thinking-with tricksters. But—having grown out of shock for shock’s sake—I appreciate mischief more (when the stakes are high) if it’s done with care. Like Julie, I critique Morton for his carelessness. His nonchalant use of the word “consumerism” (at least in the reading we’ve been assigned so far!) is like saying “BOO!” in a really scary way! I can imagine how some sensitive, well-meaning readers might drop Humankind and take off running from such a spooky prospect, such a ghoulish book. Therein, though (in the shimmering, in the flapping of the pages as the wind reads, rushing through it), whispers an alternative way to understand what he means.

Reading Pomeroy in between the two Morton selections led me to ask myself, “What kind of economic model would allow us to treat “objects” (e.g. goods, products, matter in general) concretely?” That is, with reverence—recognizing their spectral quality. Pomeroy is more concerned with misplaced concreteness as it relates to human creativity. She expresses her anthropocentrism clearly when she criticizes capitalism’s misplaced concreteness: “because all ontological being is both physical and conceptual, this [abstracting physical iteration from creative conceptuality in the dialectic sweep] is an abstraction even on the level of ‘things.’ Granted it is not as misplaced an abstraction as it is for the human being.” (Pomeroy, 157)

If we agree to release the correlationist copyright, to turn up the volume on the correlatee such that its appearance has some measure of command over us, and if we accept—in some fashion—Morton’s ontological flattening, then something of the sacred returns to what has hitherto been disparaged as “mere matter.” The problem with Pomeory’s ecological Marxism is that it exceptionalizes the metabolism of species-being human. Marxism can’t fully acknowledge ecology because doing so necessarily means trouble: all symbionts hover between help and harm. Morton wants to stay with the trouble and so he rightly affirms consumerism as the specter of ecology. Why? Because implicit in consumerism is the reality of humankind’s metabolism. This is why he describes rejection of consumerism as “acceptance-in-denial,” for if we are living, we are no doubt consuming, metabolizing Nature as we continue to become. (Morton, 69)

Our well-intentioned reader is, perhaps, hit with dissonance. Here is where my critique comes in: why not use another word?! Page 66 could have been an early (perhaps he overturns it later?) opportunity for Morton to re-name or re-frame consumerism (similar to Haraway with response-ability/responsibility) in a way that directly (rather than obliquely) connects it with our metabolic complicity and the ambiguity that enshrouds it! Those of us who have wandered down the rabbit-hole of “ethical consumption,” hoping we might eventually figure out the most just way to eat, might say “amen” to Morton when he declares that “we are caught in hypocrisy. We can’t get compassion exactly right. Being nice to bunny rabbits means not being nice to bunny rabbit predators.” (Morton, 69) Despite my balking, maybe Morton’s ambiguity about our ambiguous economic existence (organizing according to enjoyment) is part of his method of making sure we get it. I’m happy to hang on throughout the rest of his book for that, but somebody else might not have that kind of faith!

At the last Bioneers conference I sat through an astrological sermon with astro-poet Caroline Casey. As one might expect, she story-told our ecological moment in lieu of the planetary dance, but there was one thing she said that especially stuck with me. It rang in my ears (a tinny sound) as I took in Morton’s avowal of consumerism: “Animism is about manners.” Manners imply a code, a system of cosmic ethics. Revolving around what, though? I liked Haraway’s use of the Navajo word “hózó,” or “right relations,” an aim so general that it needs a process-relational context to give it shape. I’m heartened by what Julie mentions in her post about Morton’s tricky way of inspiring care on behalf of our common home. It’s something one can feel in Morton’s literary effort, I think, if it’s attended to with care. But that takes some effort! Perhaps a little more effort than it would have taken him to re-contextualize consumerism apart from the pathological form it takes in the Capitalist-Rat-Race?! Who knows! Maybe I’m way off!

Part II

Monday I returned home from the PCC retreat course (this time held at Bell Valley) led by Brian Swimme and Kerry Brady titled “Nature and Eros.” That “Nature” and “Eros” appear as two distinct ideas was protested by one of my peers as an arbitrary separation. Does Nature not imply Eros? To some it may, but that entirely depends upon who is thinking Nature and their associative context for the word. We can understand the separation as a practical way of communicating to those of us who, though we may endeavor to reach beyond a world view of severance, nonetheless remain constrained by it.

Thus, Morton’s neologism, “The Symbiotic Real,” that undulating, excess of spectrality we vibrate-with. Though I may have re-thought the concept of Nature in a way that more or less resembles Morton’s concept, Promethean neologisms like his help to push bifurcated associations to the periphery. Who knows, maybe his term will even replace “Nature” one day! I find his style of eco-philosophy refreshing. Sensitive and sardonic at once, I think-feel him relating from a place of real insight, the only place wherefrom truly practical wisdom can flow.

Take his notion of Ecoclaustrophobia—the paranoid flipside of Sunny Interconnection—and its truism: “All tactics are hypocritical,” from which he derives the necessity for communism(s) as opposed to a universal communism that would reign over all beings. “Something is always missing from the ethical and political ecological jigsaw,” he tells us, “which means that there can be no top-level political form to rule them all” (Morton, 163). Another great example is Morton’s reframing of violence as “micro-violence(s)” and his re-locating of its causal character, formerly a quality of the indifferent whole (Mother Nature, or The Universe Machine), to the “fragile contingent.” Solidarity means nonhumans always impinge on us, and vice versa.. “Ecological awareness means that in any political grouping something is necessarily excluded,” something is unknown, eaten, stomped upon—“there is a fundamental fragility and inconsistency about any set of political beings.” Solidarity post-severance—“the structural position of wishing it could encompass more [beings]”— is tantamount to feeling compassion (Morton, 179).

But how do we get there?

What must we do?

Refreshingly sardonic and sensitive, Morton also makes things confusingly simple. I say confusing because our engrained ways of being make thinking solidarity so expensive! So much energy, so much mental toil spent in the effort to heal the trauma of severance! But subscendence thinking refuses allegiance to explosive Overlords, even down to our introjected General.

So what must we do? We must queer our action!

Morton’s treatment of authenticity reminded me of Module 8 when I expressed my thoughts about it. “Authenticity,” I mused, “must have more to do with at least witnessing (if not honoring) impulse, inclination—how desire speaks itself through “my” participation in rhizomatic entangling.” Authenticity, for Morton, is not an Easy Think Substance, it is, rather—and for all things—“futurality, a not-yet quality that resides in front” of things (Morton, 132). It is that spectral shimmering of which we all partake.

The reason I began this post with “Nature and Eros” relates to authenticity and queered action directly: “Do what you feel” we were instructed (in so many words). Indeed, we did have a loose schedule, but the disclaimer at the beginning of the course was that we needn’t comply with it. Our primary task was to queer the action/inaction binary by becoming aware of how, as Morton describes during his kundalini references, “this energy [i.e. what is bifurcated as the the binary of in (mind) against out (body/world)] appears to be moving, all by itself” (Morton, 184). This was SO hard for me! For so many of us there! Miles away from city-milling, the hustle still hollering in our minds, the General shouting “Should this, should that, SHOULD SHOULD SHOULD!”

Stop shoulding me, Mr. General.

Shut UP, mr. general!

But as Morton tells us, “one doesn’t act awareness, it happens to one. It seems to have its own kind of existence, form its own side. It is not something you manufacture.” Awareness is like the phantom feeling we’re left with after a day frolicking with ocean waves. Like that somatic echo of back and forth, “awareness oscillates or undulates or vibrates all by itself, neither doing or feeling exclusively, neither active or passive” (186). Timothy Morton the Mermaid. Multi-scalar consideration reveals that seemingly static objects like rocks—all things—exhibit “a ground state…of shimmering without mechanical input” (Morton, 187). Brian Swimme might designate this as an expression of the cosmological power he calls “Radiance.” All things radiate their existence as light, coming into resonance in certain ways, reverberating with each other in communion.

To enter into resonance is to realize compassion; to behold the being who impinges on us in all its numinosity; to be inspired toward “kindness.” How do we get there? Along with Morton, Matt tells us in his lecture that consciousness doesn’t have to do. We’re already in the space-time cave of aesthetic causality. Just let go. As Rilke says in his poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,”

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Let go! Allow! Notice what arises! As in Julie’s Poetic Dimension—play!

How confusing! But, ah, what a relief…like waking up from the Nightmare of Reality (as the General would have it), and instead, waking back into another Dream, the Dream so many of us remember nostalgically as the promise of childhood. If indeed “philosophy requires a new theory of action…to help us slip out from underneath physically massive beings such as global warming and neoliberalism,” simply blinking open our Child’s Eyes to the fragility of certain Subscendent wholes might restore that early understanding of magic (Morton, 188). Of the world-shaping power of fictions—now you see me, now you don’t!

But to really get anything “done,” the letting go comes first—so that we may feel, as we become attuned, solidarity in all its treacherous and blissful ambivalence. Let us open to our erotic undulating in the larger undulation that is the Symbiotic Real. Nature-and-Eros.

Björk is sharing Dreams of Humankind’s spectral potential for enjoying maximized pleasure among other specters in the Symbiotic Real. Notice how in the video the typical delineations of animal//plants/machine/land/human/etc. are strangely enmeshed. A utopic vision of mucus membrane blissing-together.

But like Morton, Björk knows that the Symbiotic Real means pleasure and suffering. The next song on her album (Utopia) reflects, as I interpret it, the sobering affirmation of both and all the woes of history that we face post-Severing. “Body Memory” is about getting real, even as we Dream up possible futures:

“First snow of winter
I’m walking hills and valleys
Adore this mystical fog
This fucking mist
These cliffs are just showing off
Then the body memory kicks in
I mime my home mountains
The moss that I’m made of
I redeem myself

I’ve been wrestling with my fate
Do I accept this ending?
Will I accept my death
Or struggle claustrophobic?
Fought like a wolverine
With my destiny
Refused to accept what was meant to be
Then the body memory kicks in
And trust the unknown
Unfathomable imagination
Surrender to future”

Bibliography:

Morton, T. (2016). All Objects Are Deviant Feminism and Ecological Intimacy. In K. Behar (Ed.), Object-Oriented Feminism (pp. 65-81). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pomeroy, A. F. (2004). Marx and Whitehead Process, Dialectics, and the Critique of Capitalism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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)