Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Uncanny Relation: Modes for Ecological Art

Alastor (Moody)

Timothy Morton has been very usefully tracking two major possibilities for ecological art over at his blog Ecology without Nature: the relational or constructivist versus "object-oriented ecological art." He goes into more depth on this division in a new essay, "The Dark Ecology of Elegy," which you can download and read from a link available here. In a move I find fascinating for its literary-historical depth, he aligns the constructivist mode of eco-art, which is fundamentally an art of cognitive mapping, with Wordsworth; the other mode, which confronts and tarries with the uncanniness of objects in their absolute otherness from us, seems to be aligned with Keats and Shelley at their strangest and most hallucinatory (as demonstrated by his rather brilliant reading of Shelley's "Alastor" as an inverted Wordsworth poem). He presents the choice starkly: "Here's the deal: do you want a detailed advertorial, a network dense with relations? Or do you need a shocking encounter with an alien entity, opaque yet vivid, illusory yet real, already there?"

In American poetry, the Wordsworthian mode manifests in the field poetics that begins with Whitman; gets developed with wildly differing ideological orientations by Pound, Williams, and the Objectivists; is newly theorized for the postwar era by Charles Olson; and manifests today in the work of what we might broadly term the empirical postmodernists. Kristin Prevallet's 2003 manifesto, "Writing Is Never By Itself Alone: Six Mini-Essays on Relational Poetics," is a touchstone document for this branch of ecopoetics, dedicated explicitly to "the pursuit of rationality" in an increasingly irrational age.

The postmodern mode of Shelleyan excess or the Keatsian uncanny has not to my knowledge been fully theorized within an ecological context; but certainly the "necropastoral" for which Joyelle McSweeney has become a forceful advocate is one of its strongest contemporary manifestations. If asked to find a lineage for this writing in American poetry (yes, I realize how provincial I'm being, but that is my area of expertise), I would pick out Emily Dickinson (as so often the great foil and other for her contemporary Whitman), Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Alice Notley. (You will notice this second lineage is more heavily weighted toward femininity and queerness, which is probably not accidental; I would also emphasize the importance of Rimbaud and Baudelaire.) The revelatory encounter with uncanny objects, bodies, and drives dominates this poetry, which is much harder to reduce to a program or politics than the relational mode; this is no doubt the core of its strength and necessity, in Morton's view.

It's much easier therefore to understand how the poets in the first group might be understood as ecopoets: the first group is obsessed with the objective and universal, with seeing even the poetic subject as just one more point in the force field free of what Olson calls "the lyrical interference of the ego." The second group's strangeness and capacity for critique derives from what its return to the Cartesian divide between subject and object (what the Shelleyan conceptualists Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman might be referring to with their cute new term, "the sobject"), which renders both positions strange and (in a literal sense inverting what Heidegger means by "dwelling") unsettling to each other.

My wish, as when presented with any dichotomy, is to dialecticize these poles and to ask whether Morton isn't being hasty when he disparages the Wordsworthian collage-mode as "database art," "viewed from a height and posted to teach you something you already know." Partly this is because I don't believe that most of us "already know" how dire the ecological situation has become; I think most us, I would even include myself, are climate change deniers in the sense that we have not adjusted our comportment in any meaningful way to suggest that climate change has become an Event in the Badiouan sense, something marked as true by our fidelity to it, a fidelity which must be lived on an almost pre-cognitive level.

That's why I return to the mark of the uncanny in Prevallet's mini-essays. While most of these essays are on the subject of poetics, the first one takes the form of a paranoid rant against "the age of the engineered apocalypse," which in the face of the sheer irrationalism of Bush's American flirts explicitly with conspiracy theory, so that Prevallet all but comes out as a 9/11 "truther." Prevallet's rhetorical and passional excesses in the first mini-essay are not easily subdued by her declaration of fidelity to investigative relational poetics in the second: "Instead of buying gas masks and digging underground shelters (or moving to Canada), I turn my rage and confusion towards poetry, the unacknowledged legislation of worlds unacknowledged, to reveal both systems of knowing (content) and structures of ideology (form)."

Prevallet's swerve toward and then away from conspiracy theory marks her, as does the little "Defence of Poetry" allusion, as a secret Shelleyan (himself a secret Wordsworthian, as Morton hyposthesizes in his article). Conspiracy theory, after all, is a mode of cognition nearly identical to that of a Wordsworthian, relational poetics concerned primarily with connecting the dots and teaching its adherents what they already know (just as the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate will only deepen the certainty of the most hardcore of the so-called "birthers"). It's only in its conclusions (conclusions which are never concluded but which always restart the obsessive retracing of the conspiracy's contours) that conspiracy theory differs: it offers not relation but revelation, with all of the religious and apocalyptic overtones that that word brings to bear.

Conspiracy theory, while formally identical to the practice of field poetics, is therefore more truly aligned with the Shelleyan uncanny than what I'd like to reterm the Wordsworthian rational sublime. The systems "revealed" by conspiracy theory are not purely relational but themselves become uncanny objects of fascination. An uncanny poetics of relation, therefore, does not somehow rise above conspiracy theory by its claims of greater rationality; instead it offers what Morton, writing about "Alastor," calls "a noir ecology, in which we admit to the contingency of our desire rather than chastening it into invisibility" ("Dark Ecology" 268).

In a film noir there is always an investigator or detective who is "wised up," who "knows the score," but who then discovers in the process of his investigation his own profound implication in the evil that he has uncovered, an evil whose hold on him goes far deeper than whatever rational choices he has made. There is no explaining away the evil and no justice is possible in the ordinary ethical sense; the detective's ethics stand with (or against) his ultimate prototype, Oedipus, in choosing to live with his new, unbearable knowledge.

So I am not so much disagreeing with Morton as wishing to refine his conclusions and to determine possibilities for a noir ecopoetics, which does not sacrifice or abandon the relational-rational, but uses collage poetics to bring the uncanny and excessive "evil" of nature/the body/the drives into consciousness and then beyond consciousness. Otherwise I fear that the shock of the uncanny is doomed to become just another aesthetic effect, a delicacy for the strong-of-stomach and the connoisseur. There has to a be a role for the rational, even a humbled and supplemented rationality, in a poetics that is nonetheless not instrumental but re-opens the foreclosed world.

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