We map our way with only the bearing of surrounding life itself borderless uncontrolled by the surface of our
—Ed Roberson, “Eclogue”
This excerpt from Roberson‟s serial poem City Eclogue suggests our ultimate context is “surrounding life,” and that to navigate this surround is a complex task because it is both “borderless” and “uncontrolled” by us. A map that indicates “only the bearing//of surrounding life” would demand we dispense with the compass rose and cardinal directions; such a map would also demand we dispense with the expedient navigation we‟ve become accustomed to. In asking us to imagine what such a map might be like and how it might shape our travels, I mean to ask if it is possible to create a linguistic event—a text or poem—that does not put human activity, alone, at the center of itself. I mean to ask what it means to take such care with our language, what it means for our language to care for the phenomenal world in which we are embedded: what does it mean for our language to care for the flora, fauna, rocks, and other biological and geological materials we treat as Others and upon which we wreak great violence? I mean to ask what it means for our language to care for “surrounding life,” but not to take care of it. And I mean to ask us to hear the duality of the phrase to take care of, which can mean both caretaking and killing, and either way implies the kind of hierarchy that underwrites both environmental stewardship and the century of accelerated ecocide we‟ve entered. I mean, as Joan Retallack suggests in “What is Experimental Poetry and Why Do We Need It?,” that an ecopoethics of care entails finding “new ways of being among one and others in the world via poetic forms” (40). I mean that each of us is, as Brenda Hillman writes in “Economics in Washington,” “a citizen of matter and beyond,” but also that we live alongside non-human companions as citizens in the nation gathered in matter (53). And though the “surrounding life” of our non-human companions is a thing we cannot know in its totality, and though its ultimate structures constantly escape
scientists, philosophers, poets, and lawmakers alike, we dangerously proceed with science, thought, poetry, and policy as though our ignorance does not matter. I mean to ask, along with Retallack, “How can the unalike know one another if „know‟ means to encounter and experience one another well?” (42) I mean that, because of the anthropocentric presumptions of hierarchy latent in our cultural heritage, Homo sapiens, our language, and the surrounding life form a triad whose parts are in unusually fantastic tension. Though the roots of anthropocentrism are as old as Western culture itself, as detailed by Peter Coates in his study Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times, such anthropocentrism is the precondition for our turning “the surrounding life” into Nature, and the turn to Nature is in fact the precondition for the environmental crisis we find ourselves in. By Nature I mean a rhetorical figure from which we have exempted ourselves and that we have used, as Timothy Morton points out in The Ecological Thought, to create and sustain fictions of “hierarchy, authority, harmony, purity, neutrality, and mystery” (3). Our rhetoric of Nature has made possible endless figuration as well as endless violence and it is this relational paradox that concerns me, as conflict between the aesthetic and the political underwrites the intellectual tradition that has lead from environmental writing to ecopoetics. Consider this passage from Emerson‟s essay “Nature”: Whoever considers the final cause of the world will discern a multitude of uses that enter as parts into the result. They all admit of being thrown into one of the following classes: Commodity; Beauty; Language; and Discipline. (25) It matters that Emerson lists Commodity as prime among the world‟s purposes, and Beauty second, and that these lead both to Language and to Disciplinary thought. A sometimes fanatical evangelist of Nature‟s servitude to Homo Sapiens, Emerson makes explicit how Commodity and Beauty are linked by their use value; he really believes that Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but also the process and the result. All the parts work incessantly into each other‟s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and
thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man. (ibid) If during this era of chronic drought, wildfire, and melting ice caps it seems outrageously cynical to think the very wind sows seed “for the profit of man,” I‟d like to suggest that Emerson‟s imagining of “the endless circulations of divine charity” also functions as metonymy for a larger tropological problem within the rhetoric of Nature that underwrites the intellectual heritage of environmentalism. I mean that work by feminist ecocritics as various as Carolyn Merchant, Val Plumwood and Rebecca Solnit suggest that Emerson, by positing Nature‟s prime function as an endless reproductive circuit whose fruits (as capital or future citizen) fall rightfully into the hands of man, demonstrates the analogical link between the political fate of Nature as commodity and that of women‟s reproductive health within our sociocultural imaginary. I mean that anthropocentrism is also always already phallogocentrism, which suggests that a deep-seated misogyny is also one of the cultural preconditions for the emergence of the rhetorical trope of Nature, and that, as Plumwood writes in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, One of the most common forms of denial of women and nature is what I will term backgrounding, their treatment as providing the background to a dominant, foreground sphere of recognised achievement or causation. This backgrounding of women and nature is deeply embedded in the rationality of the economic system and in the structures of contemporary society…What is involved in the backgrounding of nature is the denial of dependence on biospheric processes, and a view of humans as apart, outside of nature, which is treated as a limitless provider without needs of its own. (21) I mean that misogyny is also a precondition for our current environmental crisis, and though I will return to Plumwood‟s important notion of our “denial of dependence on biospheric processes,” I would first like to suggest that the strong analogical link between women and Nature, backgrounded though it may be, allows another equally insidious rhetorical trope to emerge: the designation of all forms of queer sexuality and gender as unnatural. If our cultural imaginary posits Nature as endlessly cyclical and reproductive and analogically links women to Nature through their shared capacity for reproduction and their ability to secure for Homo sapiens a future, we can see how and why our culture came to figure queers as non-reproductive and thus unnatural, perpetually existing in a rhetorical state that borders upon a form of abjection and a temporality that has no future.
It‟s this kind of figuration that has enabled politicians to claim AIDS to be either a form of divine punishment or an instance of Nature correcting its mistakes; it‟s also the kind of figuration that has enabled environmentalists to cling to fatally tainted notions of purity, neutrality, and beauty. As Timothy Morton writes in his essay “Queer Ecology,” By repressing the abject, environmentalisms—I am not denoting particular movements but suggesting affinities with, say, heterosexism or racism—claiming to subvert or reconcile the subject-object manifold only produce a new and improved brand of Nature. (274) Unlike Morton, however, I don‟t believe “ecology is queer theory and queer theory is ecology” (281), though of course I believe the disciplines can use each other as correctives, by which I mean I could now take this talk in any number of directions. Embedded in the trajectory I‟ve laid out are discourses on the heteronormativity of much environmental writing and activism as well as the implicit heterosexism of our collective emphasis on futurity; following these discourses, I could also propose a valediction of some form queer ecology, an embrace of categories of negativity, or a salvo concerning Lee Edelman‟s claim in No Future that Truth, like queerness, irreducibly linked to the “aberrant or atypical,” to what chafes against “normalization,” finds its value not in a good susceptible to generalization, but only in the stubborn particularity that voids every notion of good. The embrace of queer negativity, then, can have no justification if justification requires it to reinforce some positive social value; its value, instead, resides in its challenge to value as defined by the social, and thus in its radical challenge to the very value of the social itself. (6) Edelman has created controversy because he‟s challenged our collective faith in the potential good of human activity and sociopolitical systems, and in this he‟s a lot like the mid-century poet Robinson Jeffers, odd bedfellows though they may be. Edelman has issued his challenge to heteronormative and assimilationist gay social values via queer theory while Jeffers issued his challenge to anthropocentrism via poetry, both literary genres that have allowed their rhetorical violence to enter social discourse through highly specialized forms of language that largely shield society from the authors‟ deep desire to do damage. In the case of Edelman‟s antisocial turn, we witness a strategy of critical reversal, a negation of our culture‟s fetishistic investment in the rhetorical figure of the
Child. With great sadistic relish, the following passage famously challenges the Child‟s metonymic representation of our collective future: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we‟re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop. (29) In the case of Jeffers‟ “Inhumanism,” we witness a strategy of uncritical reversal, which inverts our culture‟s a priori valuations of human and non-human life without too much problematizing of that stance: “I‟d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” he famously writes in “Hurt Hawks” (165). Why? Because of “civilization and the other evils” it engenders, Jeffers writes elsewhere, “misery and riches…and squalid savagery/Mass war” (399). Where Edelman rages against a collective heterosexist rhetoric that does damage to queer political life, Jeffers‟ critique of anthropocentrism stems from existential and moral disappointment, and centers on the fact that human society has invented morality and the capacity for evil actions whereas as non-human life is structured by imperatives unbounded and uncontrolled by human morals and thus can do no evil. And though I deeply sympathize with both Edelman and Jeffers in their righteous antisocial anger, and believe that the figure of Nature functions a lot like the figure of the Child in policing the political lives of queers, I mean to hold close to feminist ambivalence about language and rhetoric and their power to do violence, especially when deployed by men in service of their own agendas of political critique. I mean I would rather suggest that “the surrounding life” remains the best “radical challenge to the very value of the social itself” because it cannot be essentialized and in its ontological strangeness remains unknowable in totality, indeed persisting as the strange stranger that Morton suggests it is, something that everywhere surrounds our language but cannot quite enter it. I mean I want to end with a valediction of the “stubborn particularity” we find only in the Real and only in attention to the strange strangers with whom we reside there, and though Edelman and Jeffers warn against making such particularities into allegories of positive social value, I want to suggest, in tandem with Elizabeth Grosz in Becoming Undone, that a valediction of the stubborn biological particularities we encounter in the present tense is a resistance of the normalization done in the name of Nature and persists as an embrace of the value of differentiation:
Difference is not the union of the two sexes, the overcoming of race and other difference through the creation or production of a universal term by which they can be equalized or neutralized, but the generation of ever-more variation, differentiation, and difference. Difference generates further difference because difference makes inherent the force of duration (becoming and unbecoming) in all things, in all acts of differentiation, and in all things differentiated. (47) Grosz‟s hijacking of Darwinian evolutionary principles in the interest of a proliferation of social difference allows for temporality to be less about the heterosexual reproduction of Homo sapiens and more about duration in its largest sense, futurity less of a single horizon imbued with one universal value dependent on women‟s reproductivity, and more of a proliferation of various forms of life in various states of becoming and coming undone and with different relationships to futurity. I mean I am making my own figurative analogy between Edelman‟s “stubborn particularity” and Grosz‟s durational differentiation because both of them attempt to resist the rhetoric of a anthropocentric universality that is often implicitly misogynist, heterosexist, and homophobic, and I am in turn linking them to acts of attention that immerse us in the deeply interdependent weave of being that feminist phenomenologist Gail Weiss in Body Images calls “intercorporeality”: The ground for this ethics is not a categorical imperative, nor is it the transcendence of consciousness as an annihilating activity that refuses too close an identification with any given action, relationship, or situation; rather it is an embodied ethics grounded in the dynamic bodily imperatives that emerge out of our own intercorporeal exchanges and which in turn transform our own body images, investing them and reinvesting them with moral significance. (158) I mean to suggest that the antisocial turn of recent queer theory could in fact be a turn toward something besides ourselves, toward bodies that indeed challenge the normalized boundaries of the social; rather than the difference normally constituted by human bodies designated Other by society and nation, however, the difference toward which we turn might in fact be the bodies of the flora, fauna and rocks, the strange strangers that surround us wherever we turn. And by “we,” I don‟t mean to reify dualist systems by implying that queers and women should carry the burden of representing the body with which they are always already associated, but to ask everyone interested in ecology and environmental justice to pay attention to and value experiences of human/non-human intercorporeality.
I mean that such an ecopoethical turn might end the “denial of dependence on biospheric processes” that Plumwood diagnoses as an essential element in the backgrounding of both women and nature in our sociopolitical realms, and that such a turn might create the embodied ethical transformations and moral significance that Weiss suggests stems from intercorporeal exchanges; such a turn might also enable queers who have felt alienated from “the surrounding life” by virtue of their abjection from Nature an opportunity to encounter and recognize their own dependence upon biospheric processes and to begin to extend community and care outward. I don’t mean to suggest an encounter that becomes an allegory through which Homo sapiens reifies its identity in relation to a non-human Other that acts as mere mirror in which Man gazes upon Himself; I don‟t mean to suggest an encounter that recapitulates the imperialism of naming or scientific categorization, though meaningful forms of attention might include these gestures; I also don‟t mean to suggest such an encounter alone might constitute an effective form of environmental salvation. I do mean the immense pressure we put upon our rhetoric and activism is both noble and insane because I‟m not sure what local good can be done against widespread environmental destruction sanctioned by our most basic symbolic systems; along with Jack Collom, I‟m also suspicious of our anthropocentric emphasis on “saving” or “taking care of” the environment through the imposition of more rhetoric, more law, more metaphor from which totality again escapes, our vision of “the surrounding life” always too small, our knowledge incomplete. “Save the act of saving,” Collom writes in “Things-to-save”: …the practice of saving, the habit of saving, the repetition but also save the resistance to saving in the sense that something saved is imprisoned in a vault, under lock and key… I mean we shouldn‟t give up rhetoric or activism or care, but we probably have to save saving from itself, from becoming just another extension of our anthropocentrism. The bad thing about ecopoetry is that it is language, and therefore susceptible to figuration and to philosophical abstraction and to recuperating other forms of hierarchical ordering that can create and enforce social norms. The good that comes of ecopoetry is that its language is resistant to “saving” meaning “under lock and key”; it is language often aware of its own materiality and its participation in intellectual and cultural traditions that have been destructive of social freedoms, ecosystems, and species alike.
The good of ecopoetry lies in how its content often privileges a proliferation of lived difference, intercorporeal consciousness, and criticality; at the same time its ecopoethical forms demand of readers the immersion in the present tense that intercorpoerality and care both require; together its content and forms ask us to remain attentive to linguistic meaning‟s residence in duration and in relation to the surrounding life without which we would have no bearings at all.
Works Cited Coates, Peter. Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Print. Collom, Jack. Second Nature. Berkeley, Boulder, and Brooklyn: Instance Press, 2012. Print. Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1957. Print. Grosz, Elizabeth. Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics and Art. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print. Hillman, Brenda. “Economics in Washington.” Practical Water. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2009. Print. Jeffers, Robinson. “Hurt Hawks” and “Still the Mind Smiles.” The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Ed. Tim Hunt. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. Print. Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print. _____________. Ecology without Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print. _____________. “Queer Ecology.” PMLA, 125.2 (2010): 273-282. Print. Retallack, Joan. “What is Experimental Poetry & Why Do We Need It?” Jacket 32 (April 2007): n. pag. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.
Roberson, Ed. “Eclogue.” City Eclogue. Berkeley: Atelos, 2006. Print. Weiss, Gail. Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.