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March 19, 2010

Hospitality and the Rat: Irina Aristarkhova on the Art of Kathy High

Writing about web page

Warning: If you have a rat phobia, you might not want to read this entry!

This week, I went to see Irina Aristarkhova (Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Visual Arts at Penn State) giving a talk about “Hosting the Animal: the Aesthetics of Hospitality.” Aristarkhova was discussing the artist Kathy High and the artwork Embracing Animal (you can see her website here ). High created an installation using transgenic rats created for drug experimentation. High explains on her website:

Transgenic rats are different than wild type rats. Transgenic rats are rats that have foreign DNA inserted into their genome. This means one or more genes from a non-rat organism (i.e. human, fish, plant or jellyfish) has been added, through some tricks of modern molecular biology, to every one of a trangenic rat’s cells. Transgenic rats are walking around with non-rat expressible molecules in their bodies, minds and even in the cells that go on to make their children. Sometimes referred to as hybrids, cyborgs or chimeras, transgenic organisms are an interspecies mix of DNA, a targeted collage of two or more organisms. The most important thing to remember is that their alteration is permanent and inheritable. This means that their kids and their grandkids with have the same difference that they do.

To create her installation, High bought a number of transgenic rats and took them into her home. She looked after these rats with painstaking care, as she explains (again on her website):

I bought them to try and make them live as long as possible and to see if they could become healthy given their prior genetic conditioning. I will treat them holistically with alternative medicines such as homeopathy, environmental enrichment, also good food and play! Stress is one of the triggers for their conditions. I know because I, too, have autoimmune problems (in the form of Crohn’s disease and Sarcoidosis). Thus, I identify with the rats and feel as though we are mirroring each other. I feel a great kinship with them. When I see them feeling tired I recognize that kind of exhaustion. I know they need rest in a way that is total. If they ache when being touched, I understand this is from fevers. I also know they do not know how to behave as pets. They are not pets. They are extensions, transformers, transitional combined beings that resonate with us in ways that other animals cannot.

Aristarkhova finds High’s project interesting in relation to the ethics of hospitality espoused by Derrida et al. High does not see the rats as pets but ‘injured guests’ in need of care and she has an affinity with them because of their shared autoimmune problems. Aristarkhova compares High’s installation with The Temple of Rats, Karni Mata and with Jainist beliefs about respecting the life of nature . What seems to be most significant about Kathy High’s work is that in hosting the rat, an animal that has such an intense stigma about it, she pushes the boundaries of how we define hospitality and reformulates what it should include.


Further Reading

Aristarkhova, Irina and Faith Wilding (2009) ‘“My Personal Is Not Political?”: A Dialogue on Art, Feminism and Pedagogy’, Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 5.2. Access available online (accessed 19 March 2010).

High, Kathy (2009) Embracing Animal website. Access available online (accessed 19 March 2009).

November 28, 2006

Jonathan Bate on Poetry as The Song of the Earth

Jonthan Bate

Human beings have always had a powerful will to survive like all other animals. Yet reasoning and speech (posed as Ratio and Oratio_ by the Romans) set them apart and make them human. Animals have languages too, as we have discovered more recently, so what else defines us as human? Bate offers qualities such as justice and liberty and the disciplines of science, philosophy and poetry. Yet it is these aspects of being human that have created a divisive view of nature influenced according to Bate by ‘Baconian empirical science and Cartesian philosophical dualism and which was further developed in Kantian idealism’ (144). Some scientists have challenged this view, such as Lamarck who suggested that all life began with the protazoa. However, while the rights of man were furthered during the Enlightenment, the rights of nature have been ignored.

The relationship between man and nature is a divided one and Bate sees this an inherent part first of Cartesianism and later of the modernist and postmodernist concentration on Oratio. Human beings do not pay so much attention to the external world and philosophical revolutions have severed man from nature.

This divide was a great concern for the Romantics, who saw poetic language as a special means of expression with the potential to reunite man and nature even if they are aware that often this desire is illusory. The ecopoetic is the poiesis of the oikos (home/dwelling place), but Bate wonders whether nature and culture can be brought together so easily. He notes that in writing his theories of evolution, Darwin drew on Malthus’ biological science. Can natural selection the occur in the cultural setting of human beings? Doesn’t the poem survive via a kind of artistic natural selection?

Bate now draws on the poet, Gary Snyder , who compares poetry with a climax ecosystem in which organisms recycle dead biomass. Snyder believes that ‘fruiting’ is the work of the poet and that poetry recycles ‘the richest thoughts and feelings of a community’ (Bate, 247). Snyder uses the metaphor here as a means to understand hidden connections between things, yet his use of metaphor in this way would be frowned upon by some literary critics as mystification. How can one make poetry into an ecosystem when there is a postmodern crisis of representation? Wouldn’t such a tactic be naïve?

Bate now turns to Paul Ricoeur’s essay, ‘Writing as a Problem for Literary Criticism and Philosophical Hermeneutics’ and Bate notes that one should not forget that ‘nature’ is a word not a thing. There is a gap between the presence of the signified and its representation through a signifier. Does this mean that uniting the mind with the external world is impossible? Ricoeur believes that poetic writing is a solution. The problem in most writing for Ricoeur is that it detaches the ‘said’ from the ‘saying’. In speech one can show the object to which one is referring, but in writing one cannot check its meaning. Bate writes: ‘The act of inscription complicates affairs, for it severs the link with the immediate life-world of the speaker’ (249).

Ricoeur writes that one cannot tie a written text to its author but nor should one sever it from its author. Good analysis always creates a dialectic between reader and author to create an overlap. Existence in a situation or moment is all that an animal knows, where as human beings have knowledge, history, memory, imagination, so that they can transcend the momentariness of the body. Most writing goes through the motions of reconstructing a reality, another moment in time or space, but while most poetry does not abolish referents, it is not descriptive writing. With reference to Martin Heidegger , Ricoeur suggests that poetry offers not the experience of a person but of a project and an alternative mode of being. If this is the case, then poetry can be ‘imaginary states of nature, imaginary ecosystems, and by reading them, we can start to imagine what it might be like to live differently on the earth’ (Bate, 250-251).

Snyder’s metaphor can be recuperated as symbolic expression and a mechanism for coping in the world. The world for Ricoeur, us a horizon of possibility or a dwelling place, yet Bate notes that it is not a site of reality but of the mind.

If ‘world’ is, as Ricoeur has it, a panoply of possible experiences and imaginings projected through the infinite possibility of writing, then our world, our home, is not earth but language. And if writing is the archetypal place of severance – of alienation – from immediate situatedness, then how can it speak to the condition of ecological belonging? Heidegger replies with the other half of the paradox: there is a special kind of writing called poetry, which has the peculiar power to speak ‘earth’. Poetry is the song of the earth. (251)

Bate turns to Heidegger’s essay, ‘What are Poets for?’, noting how in this work Heidegger elides poets, the earth and problems of technology. He pauses for a moment to consider ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ also by Heidegger. This essay suggest that although technology is often seen as instrumental, this concept of mastering technology does not express its essence. Instrumentalism is based ‘on the ancient idea of causality’ and we are aksed to imagine the making of a silver chalice, which has a material cause (the silver), a formal cause (the chosen shape) and an efficient cause (the silversmith’s work). Usually the silversmith would be thought of as ‘the key cause’, but Heidegger believes the opposite (252).

The primordial meaning – the Being, or, more accurately, the being-there (Dasein) – of the chalice is its chaliceness. Its material, its form and its function are all part of that meaning, whereas the work of the silversmith though instrumental towards it, is deatched from it’ (253). In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates suggests that there are different kinds of poiesis or calling of things into existence. Heidegger describes poiesis as a bringing-forth into presence, yet the craftsman splits poiesis and physis (the principle of growth or change in nature), because poiesis is bringing a concealed thing out of its concealment, as a tree unconceals itself with blossom. Heidegger calls this kind of unconcealing Aletheia (the Greek word for truth). In contrast, technology represents a mode of revealing which is very human and necessary to human life. Technology tends to visualise nature in term of storing its energy. Heidegger sets up a contrast between a hydroelectric plant and a bridge; one harnesses nature and the other coexists with it. Modern technology sees nature only as a reserve to be used for human consumption. Bate notes that in his thinking here Heidegger is influenced by Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s critiques of mass culture and to Marcuse’s theorising of one dimensional man as alienated from nature.

For Heidegger, technological man sees the world in terms of ‘enframing’, a mode of being in which everything is diverted into the system. Heidegger believes that this destroys unconcealed being. Society is dominated by the Styrofoam cup not the silver chalice. This order of being conceals the truth of things and the history of technology represents a loss of wonder and enchantment. After Christianity, nature was only on the level of ‘the created and science brought nature towards commerce and consumption. Man has lost touch with nature, but poetical brings back truth.

Human being must embrace technology to some extent since it is a necessary part of human life, but it need not be all-encompassing. Bate notes that ‘poetry is our way of stepping outside the frame of the momentary wonder of unconcelament’ (258). But why poetry? Bate suggests that language is ‘the house of being’ and the agent of ‘unconcealment’ (258). He adds: ‘By disclosing the being of entities in language, the poet lets them be’ (258).

Heidegger plays on a quote attributed to Holderlin , which states ‘ poetically man dwells on this earth. The quotation in fact came from Waiblinger’s novel Phaeton in which the mad sculptor protagonist is based on Holderlin. In the poem, the poet is taken out of slef to consider the external world and it is clear that human beings are both connected with and dislocated from the earth.

Bate wonders if ‘dwelling’ has a further meaning beyond simply ‘belonging’. Could poetical dwelling suggest a linguistic inhabitancy of a place? But surely one also feels prelinguistically and although poetry is constructed via language, it ‘is not merely language’, but the agent for invoking the essence of situations through what is unsaid, the silent and the white spaces on the page.

Heidegger reveals something about this in his essays, ‘Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry’ and ‘…Poetically Man Dwells’. Here dwelling is being open. Poetic dwelling is a’presencing not a representation, a form of being not of mapping’ (262). This view grows from Heidegger’s analysis of Holderlin, Trakl and Rilke , as well as Paul Celan . For Heidegger, the poem is like a peasant in the Black Forest; it inspires care, grounds and enables one to dwell. Heidegger sets the earth up in stark relief with the world, as representatives of respect for the difference of entities and an instrumental world view.

Rilke’s Duino Elegies represent respect for difference according to Bate. Rilke gestures not towards a Christian Beyond, but to ‘language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinization of the immanent world’ (263). Rilke’s angel represents ‘the transformation of the visible into the invisible, of erath into consciousness’ (263). The poet or poem is the angel offering an open mode of being and an explosion of the divide between nature and consciousness. In Rilke’s eighth Duino elegy, Bate sees the desire to reconcile naïve and thoughtful modes of being.

Bate notes that Rilek uses ‘America’ as shorthand for the technological and he suggest that in Rilke’s view, the poet ‘must stand in for the ancient Roman lares, those everyday gods who guarded hearth and home’ (264). Bate concludes that poetry will ‘haunt us with the lost feeling of what it might have been like to experience the ‘laral worth’ of house and well’ (265). In Rilke’s ninth Duino elegy, he expresses regret for things that are vanishing. Bate believes that the task of the poet is to sing of such things and on such a mission, it is important not to proceeds ‘with ambitions of conquest and mastery’ (265).

In speaking of man and nature, the poet offers an experiential journey rather than a descriptive one: ‘a poem may be a revelation of dwelling’ (266). Ecopoetics must be pre-political (and Bate recalls here that to be ‘of the polis’ means to be ‘of the city’). For Bate, ecopoetics’ ‘controlling myth’ is ‘pre-political and ‘prehistoric’ (266). So where do Green politics come into this? Shouldn’t literary critics bring a political agenda to their readings as Marxist and feminist critics do? Bate believes on the contrary that rather than setting up an agenda for policy change, critics should be reflecting on the idea of dwelling. But can ecopoetics really be separated from ecopolitics?

It was Bachelard who challenged the term, ‘ancestral’, in The Politics of Space and here he is employed by Bate to consider Heidegger’s reliance on the Black Forest. How do aliens, immigrants, the homeless and those discriminated against fit into Heidegger’s model? Anna Bramwell is cited as a critic who has found links between deep ecology and fascism and Luc Ferry’s essay, ‘Nazi Ecology’ from The New Ecological Order is mentioned. Bate notes that the translation of political ecology into politics is fraught and he thinks that Green politics should not fit into the usual political spectrum. He suggests that a politics of nature is ‘self-contradictory’ (268). Ecopoetics cannot become ecopolitics. Ecopoetics cannot fit into histories, theories or political systems because they are all ‘enframings’. Even a poem can be an enframing according to Bate when it ‘becomes […] a cog in the wheel of a historical or theoretical system’ (268). For Bate, the elision in Heidegger of Nazism and ecopolitics id a mistake which has been outlined by Adorno in Jargon of Authenticity. Ecopoetics must reject ‘enframings’.

Bate turns back to Celan at this point, a poet who knew of Heidegger’s mistake, yet was till fascinated by his notion of ‘dwelling’. In 1967, Celan visited Heidegger and the result was a poem entitled ‘Todtnauberg’. The poem shows the short-sightedness of Heidegger and also expresses a hope for him to be penitent. The description of the environment moves from clarity to darkness. Bate suggests that Celan is homeless and that the only place where he can dwell is in poiesis itself. Heidegger never really renounced his Nazism and made further mistakes in the 1950s such as the comparison of the mechanisation of agriculture to the holocaust. For Celan, the Jew is like the orchid that appears as a symbol in his poem; both orchid and Jew are unique and necessary to the human race. Interestingly, although the poem is based on Heidegger’s folly, Celan speaks the language of dwelling that Heidegger presented to the world. The orchid represents the unconcealment in the poem.

Bate now moves on to consider Edward Thomas and the poem, Home , a piece of analysis which is replicated in his earlier essay, Poetry and Biodiversity . Bate notes that Thomas was writing in a different context to Heidegger, but he still believes that Heidegger’s notion of dwelling is relevant here. In thinking about dwelling, Bate turns to notions of home and he writes: ‘A home is a house in which one does not live but dwells’ (274). Thomas normally writes about roads and the lack of home, but in ‘Home’, it becomes a place of authentic being where the mind and nature, the self and the environment can be reconciled. In the poem, the cottage is not a house, but a dwelling, built by those with an awareness of dwelling, since ‘humans who dwell take only from their own locality; they know that if they uproot, they must also plant’ (275). The sawing at the end of the poem does not represent human consumption but rather oneness, since ‘sawing’ is also a name for the song of the thrush.

Yet Bate has problems with Thomas’ presentation of the man and birds being under one nationality. How can the thrush represent itself as a national subject. Would nature even think in such human terms? Bate prefers the bird song of ‘Adlestrop’ in which ‘the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire […] are heard in a regional circle’ (276). Bate wonders whether ‘nation’ is in fact an appropriation to refer to biological regions rather than the nation state.

Bate links the birdsong and returning labourers in ‘Home’ to a Burkean mode of thinking, noting the immemorial quality of the subjects in Thomas’ poem. Burke argues that government should preserve the constancy of nature in the conduct of the state and he puts his faith in a kind of ‘wise passiveness’ (278). The earth’s decay and rejuvenation are a model for the evolution of government. In this case, nature’s models are reflected by society in the pyramid model of society for example or in the dominancy of patriarchy. However, Burke’s philosophy is also tied up with the transmission of governance and privileges and he endorses the sustenance of a system that maintains the privileges of the rich land-owning class. This is not reflected in nature where eco-systems must be shared.

Bate notes that Thoreau sees the owning of property as a dead weight that denies dwelling which is not the same as possession. In poetical dwelling, the emphasis is on the imagination rather than possession. Poetry is rather an ‘opening to the nature of being, a making clear of the nature of dwelling’ which is achieved through ‘a dividing and a destroying’ because we cannot escape Cartesian dualism (280). Writing occurs through the technology of pen and paper and it is always divided from ourselves. The poetic is divided in two ecological senses according to Bate, ‘as it is either (both?) a language (logos) that restores us to our home (oikos) or (and?) a melancholy recognizing that our only home (oikos ) is a language (logos)’ (281). Ultimately though, Bate asks us to discover the poem as ‘not only a making of the self and a making of the world, but also a response to the world and respecting of the earth’ (282).

Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. London: Picador, 2000.

November 10, 2006

Jhan Hochman: Green cultural studies

Green cultural studies: An introductory critique of an emerging discipline
Jhan Hochman. Mosaic : a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. Winnipeg: Mar 1997.Vol. 30, Iss. 1; pg. 81, 16 pgs

‘A satellite topography of the English literary tradition since the Industrial Revolution might show nature as a spiritual-imaginative object in the Romantic climes, as a religious or scientific object in the Victorian domain, and as a symbolic/formal object in the Modern realm’, begins Jhan Hochman’s essay. But what of the current movement, postmodernism? Hochman believes that for postmodernity, nature becomes ‘a politico-cultural object, one which is no longer restricted to literature, “fine” art, and formalist cinema and video, but also has starring roles in commercials, photos, and movies, and is at the centre of heated public debates about “ecocide,” “ecoterrorism,” “ecopornography,” “greenwashing” and “animal rights” ’. Hochman notes that as a result new academic disciplines have developed: ecopsychology, ecological economics ecofeminism, ecosophy, environmetal law, environmental science, environmental history and environmental law. Above all there is ecocriticism, which Hochman describes as ‘a literature-based approach within a still loosely federated but emerging field generally designated as “green cultural studies” ’.

Hochman believes that ecocriticism has ‘affinities’ with cultural studies, because the latter discipline’s ‘prevalent concern has been the impact that texts and social practices have upon ethnicity/color, gender, sexuality, economic class, and age (particularly youth subcultures)’. Ecocriticism, for Hochman, is similar except that it studies ‘worldnature’ or the ‘fifth world’. Hochman notes that this was first recognized by Donna Haraway in her essay, ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’. He also admits a debt to Andrew Ross and his idea of green cultural criticism or studies, which ‘ties green concerns to the politico-ethical core of cultural studies’.

Within this context, therefore, the project of green cultural studies is the examination of nature through words, image, and model for the purpose of foregrounding potential effects representation might have on cultural attitudes and social practices which, in turn, affect nature itself. What this also means, however, is that green cultural studies must be equally cautious of the impact that it -like other forms of representation-can have on nature.

Hochman suggests that there is a need for ‘a much more precise mapping of the emergence of this new discipline’ and he intends to trace the inheritance of green cultural studies through Marxism and the Naturalist traditions of Zola, Norris, and Steinbeck. He also wants to criticise ideas of nature presented by Haraway and Ross and make suggestions for the future.

Hochman begins by turning to Marxism, noting Stuart Hall’s suggestion that the Frankfurt School offered impetus for cultural studies. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno recognized man’s alienation from nature due to ‘Baconian “blind domination” ’. Hochman writes: ‘They thought that if the Enlightenment could be turned against itself, or if culture’s grounding in nature could be recalled, the “truth” of culture might emerge’. For Hochman their assertions are crucial to cultural studies because:
• in their view, ‘culture can be inferred to grow out of, without being determined by, nature’ so it is ‘neither self-generating nor wholly self-perpetuating but is embedded in and dependent upon nature’;
• ‘ “remembrance” of nature propels one toward grounding and critiquing culture and-especially pertinent for cultural studies-toward theorizing ways out of avoidable dominations’;
• and in their argument, ‘the seeds of a poststructuralist blurring of nature and culture are sown’.
Above all there is the recognition that ‘culture has replaced Nature as the realm of the Given and Determining’ and that ‘culture gets confused with nature and make this problem central to their cultural critique’.

Hochman now turns to Jennifer Daryl Slack and Laurie Anne who argue that cultural studies has a dual aspiration, to critique capitalism but also to unknit oppressive cultural formations in a more general manner. Hochman notes that capitalism has a huge and detrimental effect on nature and that ‘the capitalist/communist flattening of worldnature informs and has been informed by artifactual depictions of nature, which flatten it into a two-dimensional backdrop for the human drama’.
In thinking about some of the first cultural studies theorists, Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and E. P. Thompson, Hocman notes that ‘they conceive of workers as the locus of instrumentalism and deculturation, not only by Althusserian Repressive (e.g., police) and Ideological (e.g., schools) State Apparatuses, but additionally by the spread of popular or mass culture’. Hochman traces the study of workers back to Marx and he notices that ‘nature was for him the foundation of culture, of labor-a necessary factor for cultural theorization’. For Marx, natureis dead but it is the foundation for work and study.

Oppressed subjects in the working class were the first objects of study, before race, gender and age were used as categories of a multiplicity of oppressions. The pattern was that of a small group commodifying and exploiting a larger one, who according to Hochman were associated ‘with adjectives of “brute-ishness,” “brute-ality,” “coarseness,” “wildness,” “innocence,” “ignorance,” or verbs of “massing,” “spreading,” and “swarming,” words indicating a need for surveillance, control, and checking’. Yet Hochman suggests that cultural studies misses the fact that the characterization of the ‘subaltern’ is similar to the way in which nature is represented. In fact, Hochman suggests that oppressed groups are associated with nature: ‘living “close to nature” as abject poverty; nature as punishing mother goddess or innocent child; youth as wild or nature as the past or immaturity of culture’.

Hochman quotes Hannah Arendt who writes on the ‘negative uses of nature’ and ‘white racist psychology’. Arendt suggests that whites were so disquieted by Africans because they lived as a part of nature and nature was a kind of master. Hochman goies further and suggests that ‘any entity associated with nature stands to lose rights to ethical culture’. Oppressed groups are only allowed into culture because they are a resource. Hochman is adamant that nature should be included in cultural studies as it and pother oppressed groups are forced into abjection in a similar manner. Hochman writes that ‘green cultural studies has the potential to rediscover a nature that is still essentialized as mere matter-a continuum from dead to not fully “present”-and reconfigure it as essential, a fifth world that matters’.

There are obstacles however: the Left’s suspicion of environmentalism’s whiteness and the disappearance in some postmodernisms (i.e., cultural studies) of nature as conceptual and linguistic referent. Just as identity is eliminated for repressed groups like African-Americans, postmodernism shows ‘the tendency suddenly to conjure up a utopian oneness or singular nature and culture’. We cannot reconcile ourselves with nature’s otherness so easily.
Leftist critics dislike the green movement ‘on the basis of its whiteness and its “privileging” of nonhuman victims’. Yet Hochman sees worse dangers in the use of ‘nature in cultural studies because:
• ‘the terms “natural,” “naturalness,” and “naturalized” tend to be synonyms for “reified” and “essentialized,” ’ ;
• and ‘worldnature […] becomes the kind of nature opposed to a culture over-optimistically referred to as “nurture” ’.
Hochman thinks that this emerges from Zola’s Naturalism and that of Steinbeck and Norris. For Hochman, the protagonist of such novels ‘is reduced to both laboratory animal and abject beast’ while ‘only culture is posited as the cure’.

Andrew Ross apparently feels that ‘environmentalism, like Nature, is a politics of restriction’ and he criticizes the green movement for its negativity. Hochman rebuts this point by suggesting that a similar statement could be made about identity politics, but that this would seem ridiculous. Ross suggests ‘a democratization of cultural affluence’ that does not reconcile human beings ‘with an ever-exterminated worldnature’.

The blurring of culture/nature in postmodernism is detrimental to ideas of nature: ‘a worldnature conceived as culturally constructed is a lookingglass nature, a nature that is sensorially abstract, but cognitively or significantly concrete’. Hochman wants to promote ‘an ontological world nature’, not as a ‘knowable referent’. A cultural construction of nature must be a fashioning not a bringing into existence. ‘Environment’ should not only refer to ‘human health or livelihood’.

Hochman dislikes the blurring of nature and technology by writers like Haraway who he sees as a ‘problematic advocate of nature’. Hochman criticises her argument that everything is part of nature, including technology. For Hochman such a statement is ripe for exploitation by ‘developers, scientists, and technophiles who argue that they and their products are part of nature’

Alexander Wilson, however, is a critic admired by Hochman, because while Wilson breaks down borders, he does not find nature and culture to be one and the same thing. However, he dislikes Wilson’s ‘notion that humans can “restore” nature to “health” ’comparing it to ‘ideologies of ethnic “purity,” “health,” and “cleanliness” applied to the “improvement” of human populations’. Hochman believes that nature restoration is ‘highly problematic’ and that we would be better served by retreating so that ‘plants, animals and land can restore themselves and benefit from more observation and protection than manipulation’.

Hochman now begins to consider the debate surrounding the silenced voice of nature. He notes Haraway’s annoyance at such debates which remind her of pro-life demands for the silent voice of the foetus to be heard. Hochman states: ‘Environmentalists and animal-rights advocates might be better characterized as representing jaguars or speaking, as Ross says, in the name of jaguars; for this, as I see it, means speaking for the survival and the continued well-being of the jaguar, which, with or without a jaguar’s sanction, is less problematic than not representing them at all’. But what about the people who live along side the jaguar in the same environment? Yet the argument that ‘preservation of nature usually involves callousness toward people’ is not so dissimilar to conservative arguments ‘that attention to the rights of women, people of color, gays and lesbians will turn white heterosexual men into the Other’.

The problem, then, is this: how can plants, animals, and elements, even disparaged people, gain decent, equal treatment, within and outside cultural studies? The recourse to the argument that “we’re all connected, people to people and people to nature,” is of too limited appeal for the following reason: mother and fetus [sic] can be disconnected; people’s bodies are increasingly disconnected from each other; animals (even those with emotions and intelligence) are routinely sacrificed; plants (even those with value when alive) are cut down without a second thought.

Hochman turns to Deleuze and Guattari and their notion of “becoming-in-the-world”.

Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of movement is their strength: first, their advocacy of “becoming-other” along a “plane of consistency” (an improvement over “imitation” or “identification”); and second, their move from the plane of consistency-where no impervious boundaries exist between nature and culture, animal and human, that plane of temporary and strategic becomings-to a “plane of organization,” that realm of subjects and individuals, of temporary and strategic fixities.

If green cultural studies is to be an effective politico-cultural tool in the service of nature and culture, it will need to study not only how to “become” nature, how to attempt a merging with the real or imagined subjectivity of a plant, animal, or mineral, of air, water, earth and fire; it will also need to pull back and grant these beings and entities unromanticized difference, an autonomy apart from humans, a kind of privacy and regard heretofore granted almost exclusively only to those considered human. Nature and culture cannot be willed together by glibly naturalizing culture, by culture simplistically proclaiming itself part of nature, or by stupidly making worldnature into an appendage of culture, worldnature into a culturally constructed product. Any substantial (reciprocal) merging of nature and culture will take generations of internal cultural struggle. Green cultural studies and human culture would do well to ensure that plants and animals are granted separateness, independence, and liberation (an apartness distinct from excusing and advocating separation because of superiority) before mucking about too much with forced fusions and coalescences. Otherwise it is nature who/that will suffer most by this shotgun marriage with culture(s) made monstrous by thousands of years of naturalized atrocities against plants, animals, and elements.

Jonathan Bate on ‘Poetry and Biodiversity’

Writing about web page

Jonathan Bate

At the beginning of the essay, Bate quotes Edward O. Wilson, who describes an ‘ultimate irony of organic evolution’ being the fact that ‘in the instant of achieving self-understanding through the mind of man, life has doomed its most beautiful creations’. In the late twentieth century, Bate notes that man is unique in being aware of evolution and having the ability to alter its course. Human beings have moved from understanding nature to setting themselves apart from nature to actively reshaping nature. Because human beings understand the idea of ecosystems, they also have the ability to destroy them.

Biologists have moved from studying species to environments in order to understand biodiversity and the opportunistic species that maintain systems, the so-called keystone species. Returning to Wilson and his study, The Diversity of Life , Bate outlines Wilson’s argument as focussing on the beauty and necessity of biodiversity. From studies like these, there emerges the idea of the bioregion in which common ecosystems are bound together, and Bate wonders whether we could think bioregionally?

One way forward might be simply to try to understand a place: ‘Wilson yokes the scientific to the aesthetic and recognizes that poets are also there to help us understand the place, to come to know the earth’ (55). Bate turns now to Heidegger’s essay, ‘What are Poets For?’, noting his attack on technology and his demand for dwelling in the land. Bate notes that the term ‘dwelling’, is used in later Heidegger works to describe an authentic form of being ‘set against […] the false ontologies of Cartesian dualism and subjective idealism’ (55). Heidegger demands being ‘open to being’ including ‘a presencing not a representation, a from of being not a mapping’ (55).

In thinking about dwelling, Bate turns to notions of home and eh writes: ‘A home is a house in which one does not live but dwells’ (56). Bate now analyses Edward Thomas’ poem ‘Home’: In the poem, Bate sees that ‘humans who dwell take only from their own bioregion; they know that if they uproot, they must also plant’ (58).

So the poetic is divided in two ecological senses according to Bate, ‘as it is either (both?) a language ( logos ) that restores us to our home ( oikos ) or (and?) a melancholy recognizing that our only home ( oikos ) is a language ( logos )’ (59).

Yet there are problems with ‘deep’ Green thinking and Heidegger’s ‘dwelling’ , such as its alliance with fascism via Social Darwinism and other darker facets of ecological thought. In response to such doubts, Bate wonders if there could be other systems for dwelling?

One path could be Burkean conservatism and its focus on the inheritance of the past. Btae links the birdsong and returning labourers in ‘Home’ to this way of thinking. In both cases, true wisdom is a wise passiveness and openness to being. However, unlike Heidegger, Burke moves from the order of nature to the ideal order of the state. Bate believes that Burke is right to take his cues from the pattern of nature, but that he comes to the wrong conclusions. Communities survive and organisms survive, but ownership does not come into dwelling. For the poet, home should have an imaginative not a legal interest. It was Burke’s opposite number, Rousseau, who noted that modern civilisation occurred when human beings ceased to live in the economy of nature.

How would nature dictate a constitutional system? Are nature and the nation state compatible? Bate notes that literary study often works within national boundaries, yet modernism was a movement in poetry that revolved around notions of the cosmopolitan. Capitalism may have had more of an influence on the ‘free floating modernist’ than we realise according to Bate (63). Bate wonders whether Bunting is excluded from the modernist canon precisely because he is a bioregional poet and he refers to Bunting’s poem, ‘Briggflats’. (You can access the poem at Literature Online if you sign in with your Athens password here: ). Bate compares the imagery of Anglo-Celtic metalwork to poetic art and to the ‘weaving of the material universe’ (64). Like Wilson, Bunting celebrates diversity, but he is not so interested in ‘scientific description’ (64). Rather, he is dwelling and listening ‘to hear the music of the shuttle’ (64).

Locked in the prison house of language, dwelling in the logos not the oikos , we know only the text not the land. Unless, that is, we could come to understand that every piece of land is itself a text with its own syntax and signifying potential. Or one should say: come to understand once again, as our ancestors did . For the idea that the earth itself is a text is a very old one.

Finally, Bate turns to the great ecological poet, Les Murray, whose antipodean voice making incursions into the English canon imposes the notion of biodiversity. Bate refers to ‘Holiday Song Cycle’ which expresses amazement and wonder at the mosquito. For Bate, Murray combines ‘biological accuracy with a joyfulness that glories in all creation’ (67). Murray is a creator and a re-creator who, like the aborigines, prefers to keep the land the way it was and is.

In ‘Thinking About Aboriginal Land Rights, I Visit the Farm I Will Not Inherit’, Murray makes notions of property unravel by the native grass and pollination on the wind. The poet is disinherited by nature but this leads to a deeper understanding of and kinship with nature, a relation that belonged to his ancestors. Bate writes: ‘He becomes the farm’s dreaming’ (68).

The poem sings it back to life until at dusk he returns it to the earth. Whether the dreaming will emerge again thousands of years in the future will depend on whether the bush is humming with undersound or silent with extinction. The task of the poet, I suggest is to show the next few generations that they have the power to determine which it will be. (69)

Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism, and Literature. Ed. by Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammell. London and New York: Zed Books, 1998. 53-70.

Deborah Slicer on ‘The Body as Bioregion’

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Deborah Slicer

In this essay Slicer wonders which representation was first used to represent the other: the violation of women’s bodies or the rape of the land? According to Slicer, both are sometimes viewed as a resource, as property, as a guarded secret. Barrenness in women and in nature is often thought of in terms of wasted production.

Slicer refers to Patricia Williams whose research into commerce law showed ‘multiple categories of oppression’ (110) Williams found a contract of sale for her great great grandmother who was a slave. On investigating the story further, Williams discovered that her ancestor had been forced to bear her white master’s children, who were later encouraged to believe that they owed their lives and livelihood to their father. Williams recognises the institutional coercion that views women, especially those of non-European origin, as passive matter.

Slicer quotes Emily Martin who has studied the language of western reproduction. According to Martin, in some cases, the uterus is equal to a machine, while the body is simply a product. It is economically, socially disadvantaged women who are coerced into work as reproductive labourers.

Susan Bordo also notes that women of non-European origin who are pregnant and poor are legally mere bodies. Similarly, the land ‘does not, cannot , own itself’ (111). People continue to think of minor subjects as chattel and deny eco-systems subjecthood. In both cases, there is a desire to extract resources.

Slicer sees the body as a bioregion. Slicer does not mean that the body is identical with a geographical place, because to do so ‘denies others their subjectivity, the coyote her otherness’ and ‘risks mistaking his or her own desires for the desires of others’ (112).

However, the body is significant:

To be “home” is first to inhabit one’s own body. We are each as body, a biological ecosystem as complex, efficient and as fragile as the Brooks Range, the Everglades, a native prairie. (113)

Slicer refers to Wendall Berry who notices similar characteristics in the treatment of bodies and the treatment of the earth, especially when it involves contempt for bodies. For Slicer, this kind of contempt is bad, because she sees bodies as holy. This does not mean ‘reducing women to essential bodies, to nature, as distinct from culture, or as distinct from any other of the binary categories – reason or the transcendental’ (113).

Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and the Environment. Ed. Michael P. Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Daniel Patterson and Scott Slovic. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1998. 107-116.

November 09, 2006

Annette Kolodny on ‘Unearthing Herstory: An Introduction’

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In this essay, Kolodny is interested in fantasies of a natural maternal realm that dominate green campaigns. The fantasy is that of ‘harmony between man and nature absed on an experience of the land as essentially feminine—that is, not simply land as mother, but the land as a woman, the total female principle of gratification—enclosing the individual in an environment of receptivity, repose and painless and integral satisfaction’ (171).

Kolodny turns to accounts of explorers in the Americas such as that of Arthur Barlowe of 1584. In such accounts the Indian women stand as emblem for the hospitality of the land. The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1614 was an objective correlative for the claiming of virgin land according to Kolodny.

Universal mythic wishes are expressed in the New World landscape figured as a maternal garden, but Kolodny hastens to add, this paradise was real, even if it did not always live up to expectations. America is mythologized as a site of maternal ease and a throwback to a lost state of innocence. Kolodny is fascinated by how the inhabitants of America were ‘experiencing those fantasies as the pattern of one’s daily activity’ (173). But in sixteenth and seventeenth century, was the fantasy a dream or real? Kolodny notes that in order to create a habitable environment, the settlers either had to rape the landscape to create an urban centre or reject that course for ‘easeful regression’ (174). Either way, the land was despoiled.

From such dilemmas, what Kolodny calls an American pastoral vocabulary emerges. This is ‘a yearning to know and to respond to the landscape as feminine’ which Kolodny describes as the American ‘pastoral impulse’ (175). Kolodny finally adds that for the settlers this way of seeing the land was essential due to ‘the threatening, alien, and potentially emasculating terror of the unknown’ (176).

The Ecocriticism Reader . Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1996. 170-181.

Christopher Manes on 'Nature and Silence'

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Christopher Manes

At the beginning of this essay, Manes quotes a Tuscaroa Indian: ‘the uncounted voices of nature are dumb’ (qtd. in Han Peter Duerr, Dreamtime , 90). Manes responds by stating: ‘Nature is silent in our culture (and in literate societies generally) in the sense that the status of being a speaking subject is jealously guarded as an exclusively human prerogative’ (15).

Manes notes that in animistic cultures nature is usually inspirited:

animals, plants and even “inert” entities such as stones and rivers are perceived as being articulate and at times intelligible subjects, able to communicate and interact with humans for good or ill. In addition to human language, there is also the language of birds, the wind, earthworms, wolves and waterfalls – a world of autonomous speakers whose intents (especially for hunter-gatherer peoples) one ignores at one’s peril’ (15).

Manes refers to Foucault and his theory of social power being controlled by privileged speakers who are taken seriously ‘as opposed to the discourse of “meaningless” and often silenced speakers such as women, minorities, children, prisoners, and the insane’ (16). Manes believes that we need ‘a viable environmental ethics to confront the silence of nature’, because ‘within this vast eerie silence that surrounds our garrulous human subjectivity […] an ethics of exploitation regarding nature has taken shape’ (16).

Manes turns to deep ecology and its ‘link between listening to the non-human world (i.e. treating it as a silenced subject) and reversing the environmentally destructive practices modern society pursues’ (16). (See Duerr, Dreamtime, 92). Yet Manes notes that John Dryzek rejects this idea suggesting that it has overtones of ‘latent totalitarianism’ (16). (See Dryzek, ‘Green Reason’, Environmental Ethics, 12(1990): 200). Instead, with reference to Habermas, Dryzek apparently invests in a rational communication with the nonhuman. Bookchin is also mentioned as a theorist that sees reason as having its own ratio and ecology. (See The Ecology of Freedom).

But Manes asks, what about the origins of the silence in nature? He wants to elude the dichotomy of rational and irrational rather ‘taking silence itself […] as a cue for recovering a language appropriate to an environmental ethics’ (17). How did nature move from being an entity invested with animism to a thing of symbolism only?

Manes recalls Heidegger’s comment that language both conceals and reveal. (See An Introduction to Metaphysics, 93-206). Manes believes that our idiom along with our belief in the intellect, reason and progress have created silences. For Manes, there is now a need for ‘a new language free from the directionalities of humanism, a language that incorporates a decentered, postmoderm, post-humanist perspective’ (!7).

Manes quotes Mircea Eliade on shamanism, when she suggests that by learning animal or bird languages, one can discover the secrets of nature. Animism involves the following beliefs:
• ‘all the phenomenal world is alive in the sense of being inspirited – including humans cultural artefacts and natural entities, both biological and inert’ (17-18);
• and ‘the nonhuman world […] is filled with articulate subjects, able to communicate with humans’ (18).

Manes wonders if in the modern world it is machines that are invested with animism. He notes though that some primal groups have no world for ‘wilderness’ and that the civilising impulse is not essential to all humans. So what caused it? Manes has two answers: literacy and Christian exegesis.

Manes quotes Jacky Goody who believes that the alphabet brought the ability to think in abstracts. (See The Domestication of the Savage Mind, 37). Manes notes that ‘epistemological inference’ is supposed to be impossible in oral cultures in which language is simply ‘evanescent utterances’.

Manes also quotes David Abram who suggests that our relation to texts is animistic. Subjectivity is equal with the written word and texts represent the human and are outside nature.

Christian exegesis explores beyond the literal to discover a moral truth and then a divine purpose. Manes notes that in the twelfth century, Hugh of St Victor used the phrase, ‘the book of nature’. Nature is configured as clues to a deeper meaning. The eagle, for example, represents St. John and his apocalyptic vision in Christian symbology. It is not autonomous.

In the Middle Ages, nature often represented the ‘glory and orderliness of God’ (20). The ‘dumb beasts’ had a place in the hierarchy in which homo sapiens featured as the highest of ‘lower life forms’. Darwin offered the challenge that human beings were no more important than other species in the nineteenth century, yet evolution is still thought of in terms of a scala naturae .

Ecology encourages a sense of the biosphere: ‘As hominids we dwell at the outermost fringe of important ecological processes such as photosynthesis and the conversion of biomass into usable nutrients’ (24).

Bill Dervall in Deep Ecology suggests that ‘deep ecology involves learning a new language’ (24). Manes wonders if we could draw on ‘the ontological egalitarianism of native American or other primal cultures, with their attentiveness to place and local processes’ (25). Manes concludes that his essay is not an attack on reason itself, but an expression of ‘the need to dismantle a particular historical use of reason, a use that produced a certain kind of human subjects [?] that only speaks soliloquies in a world of irrational silences’ (25).

The Ecocriticism Reader . Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1996. 15-29.


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