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DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE?

A FEMINIST CRITIQUE OF DAVID ABRAM

ANNE ZAVALKOFF

ABSTRACT
This paper draws on Mary Dalys creative, connective use of the written
word to challenge David Abrams central argument in The Spell of the
Sensuous: that alphabetic writing and literacy are primarily responsible
both for dulling human sensory perception and for severing a deep con-
nection between humans and the natural world. It does so by outlining
Abrams central claim, investigating the parallels and important differ-
ences between Abrams and Dalys work, and examining the strategies
for reconnecting with the living world that emerge from Dalys prose.
Ultimately, this paper argues that the ways in which people interact with
all language have a greater impact on their perception of and connec-
tion to the natural world than whether they live in oral or literate com-
munities.

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram argues that alphabetic


writing and literacy are primarily responsible both for dulling human sen-
sory perception and for severing a deep connection between humans and
the living world. While Abram focuses on the negative effects of the curi-
ous perceptual and linguistic transformations made possible by the advent

ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 9(1) 2004 ISSN: 1085-6633


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ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 121
of the formal writing system (Abram 1996, 263), radical feminist Mary
Daly looks to that same formal writing system as a way for humans to
reconnect with their natural surroundings. Although, like Abram, Daly
maintains that a deep human engagement with the natural world has been
severed, she also argues that patriarchy1, not written language, is the pri-
mary cause of this dislocation. While Daly sees the possibility for language
to further human alienation, she also sees an enormously positive poten-
tial in written text and uses this potential to help humans remember their
links to the living environment.
This paper investigates humanitys relationship to/in the natural world
by exploring some of the questions that Dalys argument and her creative,
connective use of language pose for Abram2. How do peoples interactions
with oral and written language both positively and negatively shape their
perceptions of and connections to their environments? To answer this ques-
tion, this paper outlines Abrams claims about how the transition from
oral to literate cultures dampened human sensory perception and frac-
tured a deep human connectedness to the more-than-human. It then traces
the parallels and important differences between Abrams and Dalys argu-
ments about the current Western disengagement from the natural world.
Finally, it examines the strategies which emerge from Dalys understand-
ing and use of language both to investigate the weaknesses of Abrams
argument and to explore how written text can encourage reconnection for
literate people who have lost their engagement with the living world.
However, before proceeding further, I must clarify some of my inten-
tions in drawing on the work of Mary Daly. Although Daly has been a rich
source of inspiration for me, I find some of her politics problematic. A self-
described Radical Feminist philosopher, Daly (1992) often makes broad
claims about the nature of inequality and oppression which, I believe, lack
the subtlety required to speak accurately about these conditions in West-
ern societies and elsewhere. Her tendency to essentialize womens and mens
experiences often overlooks the connections which exist between sexism,
racism, heterosexism, classism, and all other forms of oppression, whereby
these systems are mutually supporting and sustaining.
This disclaimer aside, Dalys writing has many strengths which I will
not ignore as a result of my apprehensions about her essentialist tenden-
cies. Thus, while I do not wish to argue, as does Daly, that patriarchy is the
cause of womens oppression and a Western tendency to be dislocated from
nature, I do believe that her sense of the positive, magical powers of writ-

122 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 9(1) 2004


ten words can offer some interesting insights into the limitations of Abrams
work and the nature of human locatedness.

ABRAMS ARGUMENT
Abram maintains that prior to textual literacy human communities
lived in intimate, reciprocal, communicative relations with the more-than-
human world (1996, 11617). Instead of using their surrounding environ-
ments for strictly human ends, he argues that oral communities generally
respected and valued the natural worlds life, intelligence, and language to
the same extent that they valued those qualities in humans (1523). Ac-
cording to Abram, part of this respect for the living world and all of the
entities within it was rooted in indigenous communities sensory percep-
tions of them. He maintains that these communities perceived their sur-
roundings differently than do literate societies, experiencing their worlds
as actively communicating, sentient beings.
Enacted primarily in song, prayer, and story, among oral peoples lan-
guage functions not simply to dialogue with other humans but also to
converse with the more than human cosmos, to renew reciprocity with
the surrounding powers of earth and sky, to invoke kinship even with
those entities which, to the civilized mind, are utterly insentient and
inert. (7071)
According to Abram, oral cultures deepened perceptions of the pulsing
life around them was not merely visual or auditory, but synaesthetic. As
such, their thick sensory perception involved a concerted activity of all the
bodys senses as they function and flourish together(59). Abram argues
that this intertwining of the senses of individuals in indigenous commu-
nities, and their resulting augmented perceptions, enabled them to develop
reciprocal, participatory relations with their surroundings.
To help flesh out the character of this type of enhanced perception,
Abram draws on the foundational writings of a number of phenomeno-
logists, but particularly on the writings of Merleau-Ponty and his under-
standing of perception and reciprocity. Perception, in Merleau-Pontys
work, is precisely this reciprocity, the ongoing interchange between my
body and the entities that surround it (Abram 1996, 52). As interpreted
by Abram, Merleau-Pontys writing demonstrates that humans are in con-
stant dialogue with the natural world, forever affecting and being affect-
ed by it and all of the entities within it. This reciprocal relationship is not
merely one of conscious, human action and automatic, non-human reac-

ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 123


tion. Rather, the sensuous world perceives and initiates communication,
just as do humans. Both the perceiving being and the perceived are of the
same stuff, . . . in some sense even reversible aspects of a common ani-
mate element, or Flesh, that is at once both sensible and sensitive (Abram
1996, 67).
Abram argues that with the development of the written alphabet came
the gradual dislocation of human communities from their experiential con-
nection to the living, natural world. He maintains that whereas the songs
and stories of oral cultures reinforce humans direct sensory perception of
and participation with the world, phonetic writing limits human percep-
tion so that literate communities eventually come to participate exclusively
in alphabetic writing (7172). According to Abram, the human disloca-
tion from the more-than-human began with the advent of pictography
which enabled humans to communicate with each other without making
direct reference to the natural environment (97).
However, Abram believes that the experiential shift precipitated by
pictography was relatively minor, because the pictographic glyph or char-
acter still referred, implicitly, to the animate phenomenon of which it was
the static image; it was that worldly phenomenon, in turn, that provoked
from us the sound of its name (100). That is, although drawn on a flat,
inanimate surface, the glyph is an illustration of an entity with an exist-
ence beyond the glyph itself. As such, the character naturally guides the
senses beyond itself to the entity as it exists in the living environment. As a
result, Abram maintains that pictography was not as disruptive of the reci-
procity between humans and the natural world as was the next form of
writing to develop: the Hebrew aleph-beth.
According to Abram, the aleph-beth removed human sense perception
one step further from its original deep participation in the world, because
Semitic characters make no direct reference to the living environment. With
the introduction of Hebrew characters, a direct association is established
between the pictorial sign and the vocal gesture, for the first time com-
pletely bypassing the thing pictured (100). Thus, according to Abram,
after the genesis of the aleph-beth, the more-than-human realm was no
longer a necessary part of human communication.
Yet, Abram argues that a close examination of the original characters
of the aleph-beth reveals that they still carried remnants of their connec-
tion to the sensible world. Many letters of this early script were drawn to
resemble the entities to which they referred in the more-than-human field.

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For example, The letter ayin, which also means eye in Hebrew, was
drawn as a simple circle, the picture of an eye (101). As a result, Abram
asserts that although the development of the aleph-beth meant Hebrew
communication was no longer dependent on the sensible world, it was still
not completely removed from sensual experience.
According to Abram, the shift from a human participation with the
world to an exclusive participation in alphabetic writing was finally com-
pleted with the shift from the Semitic aleph-beth to the Greek alphabet
(101). Abram grounds this claim in the observation that, with only minor
adjustments, the Greeks adopted the characters of the Hebrew aleph-beth
as their own (100). Although the written script and names of the Jewish
letters were altered only slightly in their transition to Greek characters, the
effects were profound: the Greek alphabet lost the aleph-beths vestigial
connections to the natural world. While the Semitic name for the letter
was also the name of the sensorial entity commonly imaged by or associated
with the letter, the Greek name had no sensorial reference at all. . . . The
Greek name served only to designate the human-made letter itself(100).
Here, Abram argues that, unlike the Hebrew aleph-beth, the Greek alpha-
bet has no more-than-human, pictorial significance and thus makes no ref-
erence to the living world. Only when the written characters lost all explicit
reference to visible, natural phenomenon did we move into a new order of
participation (132). As a result, as the use of the Greek phonetic language
spread, so did the human dislocation from the natural, living world and
the accompanying impoverishment of human sensorial experience.
In order to make sense of Abrams strong claim that phonetic lan-
guage could precipitate such a drastic perceptual shift, it is necessary to
examine his understanding of the bodily impact of human perception.
According to Abram, the body is a mass of divergent, open circuits/senses
which reach out into the world, converging and commingling in the things
which [it] perceive[s] (125). The very nature of our sensory perception
and experience, this divergence and commingling, draws us into relation
with the entities around us. It is only when our senses meet up with each
other in our experience of another entity that humans experience the
integration of [their own] senses, and thereby experience [their] own unity
and coherence (125). Thus, Abram argues that the human sense of self,
identity, and wholeness is achieved through a sensory engagement with the
world which draws humans into a reciprocal, communicative relation with
other sentient beings.

ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 125


Because of the strong and intimate bond formed between the senses
and the entities with which they engage, the movement from a primary
engagement with the natural world to a primary engagement with pho-
netic text has extreme consequences. According to Abram, when humans
read, our senses are drawn into a synaesthetic encounter with the written
word similar to oral communities reciprocal and participatory encounters
with animals and the natural landscape. The convergence of sight and hear-
ing on the printed page draws us into relation with the written text, where
we suddenly feel ourselves in relation with another expressive power,
another center of experience (129). As a result, in learning to read we
must break the spontaneous participation of our eyes and our ears in the
surrounding terrain in order to recouple those senses upon the flat surface
of the page(131). In other words, whereas the senses of individuals in
oral communities ceaselessly converge in their synaesthetic encounter with
animals, plants, streams, and humans, the sensory experience of individu-
als in literate societies allows them to participate in an exclusively human
discourse. Thus, Abram maintains that our movement from oral to writ-
ten communication has altered not only our communication styles, but
also our very modes of sense perception, so that we no longer understand
ourselves to be in direct relation or communication with a natural, living
world.
Although Abram makes an interesting argument about the nature of
human locatedness and perception, as well as the ways in which they have
been altered by written language, his argument raises many questions. Most
basically, I question whether the severing of a deep human participation in
the natural world is a necessary result of the development of phonetic
writing. Is it the very nature of alphabetic text which disrupts a profound
human connection with nature, or is it the ways in which people interact
with language which are far more problematic? The effect of words, both
in oral and literate communities, is strongly influenced by the ways in which
people relate to them. In fact, as I will explore shortly, this is precisely
Dalys argument: it is how humans interact with all forms of language
which in part shapes their perceptions of their lives and surroundings,
both for better and for worse.

ABRAM & DALY:


PARALLELS AND DIFFERENCES
Mary Dalys work is a particularly interesting lens through which to

126 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 9(1) 2004


examine Abrams writing, because there exist many important parallels
between their arguments, as well as some sharp but revealing differences.
Both authors assert that human beings have the capacity for intense per-
ceptions of and meaningful communications with the natural world. As
outlined above, Abram argues that oral communities had this profound
connection with the more-than-human. Similarly, Daly argues that matri-
archal communities void of masculinist objectification and alienation are
capable of deep participatory perceptions of and substantial communica-
tions with the living world (Daly and Caputi 1987, 63). However, Daly
would probably describe this Biophilic Background Communication (67)
in Wickedary English: the woman/world-oriented language she has been
constructing since The Church and the Second Sex (Daly 1968).
Both authors further assert that Westerners have lost their meaning-
ful, elemental connection to the natural world. For Abram, it is literate
societies that have suffered the dislocating effects of phonetic writing. For
Daly, it is primarily women, animals and the natural world that suffer the
dislocating effects of patriarchy (1987, 76).
However, as alluded to above, Daly no longer uses what she considers
to be the language of patriarchy. She maintains that womens experience
cannot be accurately or Positively described by standard, Websters Dictio-
nary English: a language and associated culture which Daly claims is used
to bind the minds of women living under patriarchy (3). Instead, she uses
her New, Living language to cultivate an alternative space in which Wicked
Websters can freely engage in women/world-identified self-actualization
(Daly 1968, 1978, 1984, 1987, 1992). In this Wickedary English, syntax
and semantics are primarily aligned along the exaggerated, poetic (but
problematically essentialist) lines of the Background and the Foreground.
The literal realm of patriarchy corresponds to the metaphorical world
of the Foreground. For Daly, all things evil, corrupt, and manly fall within
the realm of the Foreground, the place of the dead, the fragmented, the
violent, the ordered, and the artificial. Under these conditions women,
animals, plants and all of the elements are subjected to the tyranny of the
Boring, that is to the drilling, penetrating, invading touches of Boredoms
privileged prickers (1984, 231). The muted perception and dislocation
characteristic of Dalys patriarchy-imprisoned Foreground parallel the state
of phonetic societies as described by Abram.
By contrast, the matriarchal Background briefly described above is the
realm of intense, Elemental experience where all of the entities within the

ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 127


living world communicate. It is the Time/Space where auras of plants,
planets, stars, animals and all Other animate beings connect (1987, 63).
Like the oral communities which Abram describes, Dalys Background is
an Original/Archaic state where human beings hear and respond to the
sentient voices of the living environment.
Also common to the discussions of both Abram and Daly is a concern
with reestablishing Fundamental connections with the more-than-human.
Both believe that deep sensory perceptions lead to a profound engagement
with nature. While Daly does not use Abrams term synaesthetic percep-
tion, it is quite clear that she believes in some type of a heightened sensory
experience. She states: As we become more aware of the range of our
subtle, complex sensory powers we hear Purely Sensory as descriptive
not of limitations but of deep/rich perceptions of be-ing (1984, 80). These
perceptual encounters enhance both the quality of human sensory experi-
ence and humans felt, lived connections to their surroundings. They are
perceptions of deep rootedness, connectedness. In such moments, the fo-
cusing of the perceivers faculties on another participant in Be-ingwhether
this participant be another woman, a cat, a tree, a snake, a river, or the
moonis unclouded and intense (3945).
Growing out of this belief in humans potentially rich, participatory
connection with the natural world is Abrams and Dalys similar convic-
tion that language and meaningful communication are not strictly human
capacities. They maintain that every living entity speaks, but that most
humans have lost their abilities to understand them. As Abram asserts:
Language to [oral cultures] is as much the province of other animals as it
is the domain of humankind (1996, 145). Similarly, Daly declares: Al-
though [animals] Be-Speak very eloquently and in many languages, they
are continually ignored, insulted, and harassed. . . . All Elementals are
unheard in patriarchy. The Earth, the Air, the Fire, and the Water are not
Heard (1987, 51).
While both maintain that communicative abilities are shared by all
entities within the living world, they also both warn against the possibly
life-draining effects of some forms of human language. Abram claims that
phonetic writing is at the root of literate societies failures to participate
fully in nature. In Western civilization, language seems to deny or deaden
life, promoting a massive distrust of sensorial experience (7172). Ac-
cording to Daly, it is the effects of patriarchy which severs both linguistic
and human connections to the cosmos, dulling inspiration and sensory

128 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 9(1) 2004


experience. In the Foreground, words have become mere noises echoing
each other in the fathers flatland (1984, 94). As a result of this verbicide
and the sensory deprivation and the anti-creative imposed passivity of
the State of Boredom . . . nature . . . seem[s] boring (229).
Both Abram and Daly devote a good deal of time to outlining the
potentially negative effects of language, because both understand language
to be magical. Interestingly, in order to underline their understandings of
the potent power of words, both Abram and Daly explore the overlapping
meanings of the word spell. Abram traces its etymological history:
The Old English word spell, which had meant simply to recite a story
or tale, took on the new double meaning: on the one hand, it now
meant to arrange, in the proper order, the written letters that consti-
tute the name of a thing or a person; on the other, it signified a magic
formula or charm. Yet those two meanings were not nearly as distinct
as they have come to seem to us today. . . . To spell, to correctly ar-
range the letters to form a name or a phrase, seemed thus at the same
time to cast a spell, to exert a new and lasting power over the things
spelled. (1996, 39)
Similarly, Daly underlines the conflation of the dual meanings of spell,
highlighting the strong connection between magical and grammatical Spell-
ing. She notes that Spelling goes beyond an ordinary concern with the
order of letters in a word, referring simultaneously to the magical powers
of incantations and charmsthe casting of Spells (1987, 13).
With all of the similarities between Abrams and Dalys thought, the
most fundamental and revealing point of divergence is their attitudes to-
wards the positive potential of written words. Concerned with the grow-
ing dislocation he perceives in literate societies, Abrams discussion con-
centrates on the harmful magical potential of the written word. To learn
to spell was . . . to step under the influence of the written letters ourselves,
to cast a spell upon our own senses. It was to exchange the wild and
multiplicitous magic of an intelligent natural world for the more concen-
trated and refined magic of the written word (133).
In contrast, Daly chooses to highlight the positive potential of written
and oral language, because she argues that written words are only alienat-
ing to the extent that they themselves have been alienated by patriarchy.
Cut off from their Authentic relations to women and the natural world,
Foreground words now perpetuate separation and subjugation when used
uncritically (1987, 183). Imprisoned by patriarchal usage, words . . .

ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 129


become isolated and unimaginative, unable to bond with each other in
creative ways (20). According to Daly, whereas written and oral words
were once part of the connected, living world, patriarchal Foreground words
are now only one of the many entities from which human experience has
been dislocated (3).
By contrast, Background words radiate their Positively Original women/
world-oriented meaning, facilitating engagement and connectivity (102).
Some of them have never been captured/contorted by patriarchy, while
others have already been freed from captivity by Wonderlusty Womens
Ways. Daly maintains that although words can reflect and cause discon-
nectedness, they also hold the power to help humans reconnect. Unlike
Abram, Daly chooses to focus on the positive potential of language, en-
couraging her readers to re-member the connective power of oral and writ-
ten words. [Words] radiate knowledge of an ancient age, and they let us
know that they, the words themselves, are treasures trying to be freed,
vibrations whose auras await our awakening ears (1984, 4).
Abrams and Dalys different understandings both of the causes of
humanitys disengagement from the natural world and of the positive(ly)
magical potential of the written word lead to different forecasts about the
probable futures of literate societies. While Abram maintains that a con-
tinued involvement with phonetic text is likely to further peoples detach-
ment from nature, Daly claims that people must become even more deeply
and critically involved with all words to reverse their disengagement.3 Ac-
cording to Daly, by reconnecting with all words differently, by reestablish-
ing a profound link with their magical, connective powers, people can
facilitate their reconnection to their living surroundings. As she asserts:
Wicked Spellings open the doors to Other Worlds where Wordslike
Other Wild creaturesare alive (1987, 18).

LESSONS FROM DALYS CONNECTIVE


USE OF LANGUAGE
According to Daly, words have the potential to help women re-estab-
lish Elemental connections, because they have the potential to function
both as Labryses and Muses. As Labryses, words function as double-edged
swords with multiple and contradictory meanings which, when juxtaposed,
can be used to rejuvenate a words positive potential (1984, 25). For ex-
ample, by comparing the different forms of the word element, people
may be reminded of its positive, Elemental connections which are often

130 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 9(1) 2004


masked by an elementary reversal. As described by Daly, an elementary
thing is characterized by artificiality, lack of depth, aura and intercon-
nectedness with living be-ing (1987, 73), while an Elemental entity is
fundamental and earthy and characterized by stark simplicity, natural-
ness or unrestrained . . . vigour (72). When words become swords in this
way, the meaning and function of words within patriarchy are illuminated.
When wielded by Wicked Women, Labryses create the potential for re-
membering Biophilic Background words/worlds.
As Muses, words act as springboards, inspiring creativity within
women. Etymologically related to the Greek word mnasthai (to remem-
ber), Musing (s)words Inspire women to Re-member, that is, to recon-
struct and make whole again the knowledge of the Background (1984,
301). They help women dis-cover New/Archaic woman/world-identified
meaning. Daly argues that because Labryses and Muses force women to
confront the implicit and often contradictory assumptions held within lan-
guage, they make women Hear words in a New semantic context. For
Daly, reconnecting with both script and speech is an essential part of nam-
ing/reclaiming an engagement with the living world.
But how exactly do words act as Labryses and Muses, awakening in
humans their ancient ties to the natural world? What are the strategies
which Daly recommends for unleashing the positive, connective power of
written and oral language? Playing on the idea that language has magical
effects, Daly uses metaphors involving witches and witchcraft to describe
the transformative power of women wielding words. She claims that Es-
sential to invoking the connective potential of words are the Essential Ele-
ments of conjuring witch-crafty magic: Spelling, Pronouncing, and Gram-
mar.
According to Daly, Brewsters can Spell in any one of three ways. First,
Charmers can change the spelling of words. It is transforming the physi-
cal form of a word in order to convey Super Natural meanings that have
been masked by mans mysteries (1987, 14). This Irregular Spelling forces
a second look at the multiplicity of meanings embedded in the regular use
of words. For example, a Muse might maintain that mainstream entertain-
ment is a-musing rather than amusing. Here, the added dash highlights
that so-called entertainment, which is supposed to inspire, might actually
destroy peoples muses and imaginations (184). Through Irregular Capi-
talization and Spelling such as this, Brewsters en-courage an active reading
of their texts, enabling people to critically examine the assumptions im-

ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 131


plicit in their words/worlds. Dashes/slashes also Conjure New meanings
for words, making it possible to name/reclaim them.
The second Way to release the transformative powers of Spelling is to
change the context in which words are written/spoken (15). Weaving
around rhythmically, breaking set, we alter the environment in which a
word is Heard, thereby releasing its powers of incantation. When the con-
text is thus transformed the material form of a word need not always be
changed (16). This aspect of Spelling is perhaps most akin to the strategy
of reclaiming language. By employing in a positive context words which
are commonly used pejoratively, Brewsters can begin to change their mean-
ings. For example, when used today, the label old maid commonly con-
notes a pitiful woman of little sexual appeal who could not find a man to
marry her. However, for Daly, to be an Old Maid is to be someone who
steadfastly resisted imprisonment in the Comatose State of matrimony
(150). In Dalys context, Old Maids become rebels, survivors. Also, while
a positively revolting woman may truly disgust you, Dalys Positively Re-
volting woman revolts in positive/productive ways against patriarchal op-
pression (156). Dalys second Spelling strategy demonstrates that changing
a words context can free it from the ties which bind its magical powers.
Brewsters can also unleash the charms of words by Spelling through
Spinning-Off. Spinning-Off involves Hearing words in a Gyn/Ecological
context and Weaving around these, sometimes combining parts of words
and phrases of a heretofore unknown character (17). In other words, by
cooperating with the cues/clues embedded in words, by creatively combin-
ing old words in Archaic Ways, New meanings can be formed. Dalys cre-
ation of the phrase Straying Power exemplifies this process of Spinning-Off.
A play on the phrase staying power, women with Straying Power have
the stamina to stray/stay off the tracks of traditions that betray women
and nature (169). Any number of strategies can be used to Spin-Off El-
emental words, including: building rhythms; twining rhymes; adding allit-
erations; and, chasing through the dictionary or catching the thread of a
word and following it (for example, by checking out synonyms, looking
up words contained in the definition, following clues in the etymology, or
simply lighting upon another word on the page. This process of Spin-
ning-Off, along with tricks/treats of changing the spelling and context of
words, are Essential to the Spelling of Witches/Words. In these three Ways,
Daly maintains that Brewsters can break the blinding binds of patriarchal
words, Conjuring Biophilic meaning for their words/worlds.

132 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 9(1) 2004


These three Spelling strategies pose questions for Abrams claims about
the distancing/deadening effects of phonetic text. While Abram argues that
phonetic writings excessive emphasis on sight draws human perception
into an exclusive relation with text, Dalys Spelling uses sight to locate
humans in the more-than-textual and the more-than-human. The dynamic
nature of Spelling does not let humans take text for granted as an isolated,
fixed authority. Spelling forces literate people beyond the alphabetic word
in their struggle to understand its multiple meanings. This critical engage-
ment makes possible a change in the ways that people perceive written
words/worlds. Dalys interactive, web-like development of textual mean-
ing challenges Abrams claim that the written word is at the root of literate
communities dislocation. In fact, each of Dalys Spelling strategies offers
its own way for humans to reconnect with language and their living sur-
roundings, if humans choose to use these strategies in connective ways.
The first type of Spelling, which plays with the material form of words,
underlines that written text need not be as fixed and removed from nature
as Abram presents it. Abram argues that prior to the Greek introduction
of visible vowels to its alphabet, the invisible vowels common to tradi-
tional Hebrew allowed Hebraic written text to remain somewhat dynamic
and only partially removed from nature. Without specific vowel markings,
most configurations of Hebrew consonants could allow for many possible
interpretations. In order to read a text written in traditional Hebrew, one
had to infer the appropriate vowel sounds from the consonantal context
(Abram 1996, 241). When compared to this fluidity of Hebrew, Abram
argues that the more straightforward meanings conferred by the visible
vowels of Greek and English make these languages static and disengaged.
With the addition of written vowelswith the filling of those gaps or
pores in the early alphabethuman language became a largely self-refer-
ential system closed off from the larger world that once engendered it
(257).
However, Dalys dynamic use of written text throws into question
Abrams assertion that written text, particularly Greek and English text with
visible vowels, fixes meaning. Daly repeatedly uses written words as Mus-
ing mnemonic devices, allowing them to remind her of other connected
words/worlds. Her imagination and interaction with her environment is
enhanced, not quelled, by phonetic text. Moreover, Dalys playfulness with
Spelling requires readers to dynamically engage with her text in order to
dis-cover its many relations to other words and the surrounding world. In

ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 133


fact, these aspects of her writing style sound oddly similar to Abrams
claims about ancient Hebrew text: The willful engagement with the text
that was necessitated by the absence of vowels lent a deeply interactive or
interpretive character to the Jewish communitys understanding of its most
sacred teachings (243). The living nature of Dalys words and the fre-
quent links which they inspire demonstrate that even words with visible
vowels need only become fixed in meaning and disconnected from nature
if humans view them as fixed/finished. A playful attitude towards Spelling
and alphabetic writing in general can counteract Abrams fears about the
dead/deadening nature of written text.
It should, however, be noted that, even without Playful Spelling, it is
not entirely clear that the introduction of vowels prohibits an interpretive
and interactive engagement with written text. Abram himself argues that
even though the words of most Hebrew texts are now written with fixed,
visible vowels, Jews still treat them highly interpretively.
The reader . . . must actively respond to the Torah, must bring his own
individual creativity into dialogue with the teachings in order to re-
veal new and unsuspected nuances. The Jewish people must enter into
dialogue with the received teachings of their ancestors, questioning
them, struggling with them. (244)

According to Abram, the great challenge set to Jewish scholars is the con-
tinual discovering of varied ways of interpreting the same text, precisely to
reveal its complexity and dynamism. Each person who engages with Jew-
ish teachings in this way must struggle to make them relevant to her own
interactions in/with the world (245). This requirement to enter into an
active engagement with text results from the Jewish understanding of text
both as living and as highly relevant to every unique, yet similar, sphere of
lived experience. Just as Abram argues that it is the culture of oral commu-
nities which enables their interactions with language to be connected to
the more-than-human, it is the culture of Hebrew communities which en-
ables their interactions with text to be connected to the more-than-human.
Thus, it seems that if people orient themselves towards written words both
as the first type of Spelling invites and as Abram argues many Jews still do,
all forms of phonetic writing have the potential to be alive and connected
to a world beyond text, beyond humans.
Dalys second type of Spelling also highlights the nature of human
locatedness and the fundamental limitations of Abrams discussion of the

134 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 9(1) 2004


relationship between written communication and human perception. Abram
considers only half of the dynamic: he looks at the effects of written text
on human perception and understanding, but neglects the ways in which
human perception and understanding can also affect language. This over-
sight is curious given his argument that humans deep relationship with
text replaces their deep relationship with the living world. If the human
relation with the living world is reciprocal, as Abram argues that it is,
humans new relationship with text should be reciprocal as well. Human
connectedness and experience should influence the development of lan-
guage just as much as the development of language influences human con-
nectedness and experience. However, Abrams discussion overlooks the
agency of humans and the effects which they have on text.
In changing the context in which words are understood, Dalys second
Spelling demonstrates that literate people can consciously interact with
language in ways that enhance their engagement with the living world.
Those who Spell might stop using words which connect people with na-
ture to describe objects which also distance them from it. For example,
Daly criticizes the proliferation of terms such as plant, used to describe a
nuclear facility, and bug, used to describe an electronic listening device
(1987, 240). The use of such positively valued words to describe violent
and destructive objects creates a context where these artificial objects can
be more readily, if unconsciously, accepted as positive.
Dalys Spelling en-courages people to search out those instances where
words which describe living, valued entities are also used to refer to life-
draining objects. Unearthing such deadening duplications would permit a
reclamation of those positively valued entities and humans connection to
them. In this way, changing the context in which words are written/read
can unleash their positive powers. If people enter into the reciprocal rela-
tionship between language and human understanding, they can cultivate
world-identified literate communities. Unfortunately, Abram considers only
the ways in which text affects humans and not also the ways in which
humans affect text.
Dalys final type of Spelling, similar to her first, speaks to Abrams fear
that phonetic text inevitably limits human engagement with the world. Far
from ending human participation and creativity, the word combinations
produced by Spinning-off necessitate an active engagement with written
words and peoples assumptions about the world.
In fact, Abram might approve of some of the many new word pairs

ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 135


found in Dalys written work. Already Spun-Off are: the Elementally con-
nected good/natural; the alliterating word/world; and the rhyming surviv-
ing/thriving. In combining these words, Daly follow[s] the cues of words,
cooperating with them in the Weaving together of a Biophilic context/
atmosphere (Daly 1987, 16). Such Spinning-Off demonstrates the dy-
namic possibilities in written language, highlighting its capacity to be used
in Elemental and connective ways. Instead of being an isolated finishing
point, language can act as a springboard to vibrant, participatory under-
standing and experience. However, humans must decide to thoughtfully
interact with language in ways that facilitate a reconnection with nature.
Just as Daly has chosen to Spin-Off primarily women-identified words and
contexts, those searching to enhance human locatedness can Spin-Off pri-
marily world-identified words and cultures.
Not only do the various types of Spelling enliven written text and
create connections between humans and their environments, so does the
act of Pronouncing. Related to the Spelling of Brewsters, and Essential to
the Wicked Ways of Witches/Words, Pronouncing is the Elemental Sound-
ing of the spoken letters of the alphabet (36). Just as the incantations of
mythical witches are chanted aloud, the Word-Spells of Witches can in-
voke change when Spelled Out Loud. Dalys Pronouncing pays tribute to
the oral traditions praised by Abram by emphasizing the Awakening Ele-
ments of rhythm and rhyme.
However, it is important to note that although Daly recognizes the
potential connective power of oral communication, she does not claim
that verbal communication, in and of itself, is magical. Rather, it is the
way that words are spoken/written which infuses them with life or leaves
them dead. Pronouncing is rhythmic, emitting powerful vibrations. Un-
like the flat, dummy speech of daddyland, which is petrifying, Be-Speak-
ing/Pronouncing is Electric/Electrifying, evoking changes (37). According
to Daly, it is not the very fact of speaking that creates Elemental connec-
tions, just as it is not the very fact of writing words down that severs them.
Dalys Pronouncing is about lyricism in language, both written and oral.
Spelling Out Loud is a reminder that the attitudes people bring to their
words/worlds play a large part in constructing them as life-affirming or
life-denying, as connective or dislocating.
It is further important to note that Daly makes no strict distinctions
between speaking and writing. In fact, at times, she has an incredibly broad
understanding of what it is to write.

136 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 9(1) 2004


The Cosmic Writer is any Lusty woman who speaks the Words of her
own be-ing. This speaking takes many forms, including printed books,
pots, paintings, consciousness raising sessions, work in battered
womens shelters. . . . Each womans focus is a matter of circumstances,
necessities, tastes and talents. The point is that all these Spirations are
books of Lusty Lives. (1984, 120)
For Daly, it is not important how women reconnect with themselves, words
and nature. What is Essential is re-membering: naming/reclaiming words,
experiences and Integrity of Be-ing. Given Dalys broad understanding of
the ways in which humans can dis-cover their connectedness, it could be
argued that Abrams thinking has itself been victim to the same dislocation
and compartmentalization to which he suggests Western perception has
been subject. As Dalys broad conception of what it is to write suggests, a
more holistic understanding of the multiple ways in which humans inter-
act with written words may be an important step both towards altering
sensory experience and towards re-establishing Elemental connections with
the more-than-human.
Grammar is the last major connective strategy to which Daly extends
her Be-Witching metaphorical references to witchcraft. She notes that the
word grammar is the etymological twin of glamour, which at one time
meant a magic spell: bewitchment (1987, 23). According to Daly, the
transformative power of Grammar/Glamour has been muted by the patri-
archal use/abuse of it. Not only does overly ordered patriarchal grammar
fail to convey the Ways of Words, it actively works to conceal those Ways
(28). However, the Grammar/Glamour of Witches can counteract dead/
deadly grammar. As Daly Muses:
Rhymes, alliterations, alteration of senses
all aid in the breaking of fatherlands fences.
Thus, liberation is the work of Wicked Grammar,
which is our basic instrument, out Witches Hammer. (24)
In stressing the importance of rhythmic, rhyming Grammar, Daly makes
a critique of standard, patriarchal text similar to Abrams critique of al-
phabetic literacy. Just as Abram claims that the rhythmic, bodily modes
of oral communication and experience are absent from phonetic writing,
Daly claims that the rhythmic, bodily modes of Background communica-
tion and experience are absent from patriarchal prose. Her Glamourous
Grammar writes the corporal, connected nature of rhythm and rhyme back
into the English language. By inventing imaginative images and sensuous

ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 137


stories in the tradition of incantation and oral cultures, Daly demonstrates
that written words can effectively link human perception to the natural
world.
The connective strategies which emerge from Dalys understanding
and use of language offer serious challenge to Abrams claims about the
dislocating effects of phonetic text. Dalys Spelling, Pronouncing and Gram-
mar demonstrate that humans can affect language just as much as lan-
guage can affect humans. How people interact with words has a greater
impact on their perception of and connection to the natural world than
whether they live in oral or literate communities.
Using Dalys strategies, we Dis-cover connections, not only among
words, but among the realities which they Name (29). The use of Poetic,
Imaginative, Biophilic words invites humans to actively engage with words
multiple, overlapping meanings. This engagement enables people to con-
sciously alter the structure, meaning and effects of words, making possible
the use of language to develop deeper connections to the living world.
Written text can help cultivate in literate communities many of the aspects
of oral cultures which Abram maintains that phonetic writing has destroyed.
By stirring emotions and engaging humans in a very bodily way, expres-
sive living language can inspire people to transform their outlook and as-
sumptions, transforming human ways of perceiving and interacting with
the natural world.
Mary Dalys work rather successfully, although unintentionally, an-
swers the challenge which David Abram poses at the end of The Spell of
the Sensuous:
There can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning
away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the writ-
ten word, with all of its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing lan-
guage back into the land. Our craft is of releasing the budded, earthly
intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the
things themselves. . . . It is the practice of spinning stories that have
the rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales
that want to be told, again and again. (1996, 273)
Daly re-energizes the written word, revealing its dynamic potential to en-
list human creativity and imagination, while simultaneously helping humans
reconnect with the living world. If Daly can be successful in constructing
an animate woman/world-identified written language, then others can surely
craft a similarly dynamic and more inclusive world-identified alphabetic

138 ETHICS & THE ENVIRONMENT, 9(1) 2004


language. The extent to which Daly is successful in her project raises some
serious challenges to Abrams central thesis that phonetic writing has al-
tered human sensory experience to the point where literate communities
are incapable of engaging intensely with anything but written text. Dalys
creative use of written language demonstrates that the ways in which hu-
mans interact with both the oral and the written forms of language have
larger impacts on their effects than the mere fact of communication taking
place in oral or literate communities, in verbal or written form.

NOTES
1. When not using her own Wickedary English, Daly frequently uses the term
patriarchy to refer to the widespread oppression of women by men. I believe
this use of the term draws excessive attention to a type of oppression which is
based solely in gender, assuming there is such a relation, thus ignoring the
interdependency of oppressions. As a result, while it would be nearly impos-
sible to discuss Dalys work without referencing her use of the term patriar-
chy, it should be noted that I am not particularly comfortable with the term as
used by Daly.
2. In this paper, I will not engage with the body of criticism that maintains that
Abrams work in The Spell of the Sensuous is problematically romanticized
and colonialist. Indeed, Abrams arguments may be fairly critiqued for my-
thologizing and universalizing the experiences of many diverse oral cultures.
However, my desire here is to demonstrate that even when Abrams central
conceptions are assented to in full, the soundness of his arguments are still
open to question.
3. An important note: while Abram cautions that a continued involvement with
print is likely to further human dislocation, he recognizes that literate societies
cannot, and should not, simply abandon the written word.

REFERENCES
Abram, David. 1996. Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Random House.
Daly, Mary. 1968. The Church and the Second Sex. New York: Harper and Row.
. 1973. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Womens Libera-
tion. Boston: Beacon Press.
. 1978. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon
Press.
. 1984. Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy. New York: HarperCollins.
. 1992. Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage. New York: HarperCollins.
Daly, Mary., and Jane Caputi. 1987. Websters First Intergalactic Wickedary of the
English Language. Boston: Beacon Press.

ANNE ZAVALKOFF DIS/LOCATED IN NATURE? 139