[first read Eileen's letter, then read about blogs, then read this]
To pass the time while I was on fellowship leave not writing my book about stone, I assembled a collection of essays for the University of Minnesota Press entitled Prismatic Ecologies: Ecotheory Beyond Green. You can access the table of contents here (though there are two small errors: Lawrence Buell composed a gorgeous foreword, while the inimitable Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann composed its concluding "Onword"). The draft of my own essay is here, and Eileen's is here. The volume will be published in fall 2013.
In the mean time, you might enjoy an advance look at the introduction I composed. It'll yield a good idea of what Prismatic Ecologies is all about.
‘Composition’ … underlines that things have to be put together (Latin componere) while retaining their heterogeneity. Also, it is connected with composure; it has clear roots in art, painting, music, theater, dance, and thus is associated with choreography and scenography; it is not too far from ‘compromise’ and ‘compromising,’ retaining a certain diplomatic and prudential flavor. Speaking of flavor, it carries with it the pungent but ecologically correct smell of ‘compost,’ itself due to the active ‘de-composition’ of many invisible agents. (Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’”)
Prismatic Composition 1: c. 1360-c. 1375
An artist has painted an artist preparing to paint.[i] He sits at his desk, blankness of a white page attending. A world awaits composition – but not ex nihilo. The artist is surrounded by floating bowls of color, each evocative of objects to come: two shades of yellow (one for hair, one for furniture); a brown and verdant mélange for backgrounds and shadows; forest green and orange mixed with crimson for vegetal flourishes; blue tinged violet, a shade for stockings and intricate manuscript borders; a lush red for robes and the outline of a historiated capital. The rainbow of oversized paint vessels holds the tints that the illuminator has actually employed to compose this scene. In a brown study, as the saying goes: the perspective here is not one of detached mastery (since its enmeshed framing emphasizes that “things have to be put together,” it is difficult to find a stable outside to this meditation on composition).[ii] The illustration instead offers an implicative prospect, an extemporal dreaming: possibility through relation, collaborative engagement, emergence within material constraint.[iii]
The mis en scène stresses that color is formative, the substrate as well as conveyor of an intricate world. The white vellum is a collaborative space as well as a substantial thing (skin from a grazing sheep; a blankness that is not infinitely malleable; an object with ample properties and inbuilt constraints). This mundane materiality is also evident in the fact that the artist has mixed his colors from environmental compounds become cultural actants. His artistic alliances are crafted with precise combinations of pulverized minerals, juice pressed from harvested berries, oak gall boiled in water and mixed with powdered egg shells, common ash, rare pollen, acidic urine. His pigments loom in enormous bowls, probably the shells of mussels, harvested from the shore. They are larger than the artist, importunate in their heft. Color is not some intangible quality that arrives belatedly to the composition but a material impress, an agency and partner, a thing made of other things through which worlds arrive.
This medieval illustration of chromatic efficacy is placed within a large letter C. Part of a fourteenth-century encyclopedia entry, the illuminated capital introduces the Latin word COLOR. James le Palmer never finished his impossibly ambitious compilation of knowledge, the Omne Bonum. Composition is exhausting. No matter how variegated the scheme more of the world remains to be gathered. No matter how capacious taxonomy necessarily remains incomplete: you can’t fold the world into an alphabet, or a palette. A white page rests in the middle of COLOR's enclosing C.[iv]
And bright white, as we know, needs only a transparent prism to begin the work of diffraction, renewal and multihued composition.
Prismatic Composition 2: c.2012
Like our medieval illuminator, Dublin artist John Ryan paints color’s compositional agency. His pieces are sculptural, emphasizing the substantiality of hue, a phenomenon too often associated with mere light. Ryan’s installations stress that the artist cannot fully direct raw paint’s flow, thereby granting an elemental purposefulness to art’s material base. Ryan works mainly in luminous monochrome. His sturdy swathes of brushed pigment capture a transmutation from liquid to solid, the congealing of color’s vibrant materiality.[v] His large scale installation “Polyptych,” for example, concatenates lustrous accretions of oil paint, acetate sheets, and screws that fasten the various components into multihued assemblages. The masses of color artfully curved across these transparent sheets are heavy yet radiant, as vivacious as lichens, fungi and epiphytes. Nothing is represented in these assemblages but much comes into being. Color is allowed its dignity, its elemental ability to produce affect and sensation. The room in which these thick hues hang becomes a polychromatic, ecstatic ecology (from οἶκος: a fundamental unit, a household, a collectivizing space, a gathering of people and things). Through lively profusion Ryan's compositions open new ways of apprehending, feeling, imagining, narrating. A biome of hue.
Prismatic Composition 3: c.1700 BCE-c.5700 CE
An intimate of the restless glaciations of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, the Mississippi is an earth artist, but its projects take so long to execute that humans have a difficult time discerning their genius. The river composes with ice, stone, potent flows of water, heterogeneous biosystems, and tumbling sediment. Its current installation curves sinuously across 2,320 miles, extensively terraforms, slowly alters the Gulf of Mexico through delta formation, and constantly extends land into what had been sea. Every millennium or so the Mississippi undergoes avulsion, suddenly emptying itself somewhere else along the coast, leaving fertile bayous in its wake. Humans have attempted frequent domestication of the river. Dams, dikes and levees modify its flow; industrial pollutants darken its currents; its waters are employed as an aqueous highway for the transport of goods. Yet the Mississippi is inassimilable. An incessant flow of objects, animals, elements and forces not reducible to human use value, the powerful river exerts a relentless agency easily readable in its engendered worlds. Its artist’s colors derive from a fluvial spectrum that tends mostly towards deep green, dim blue and murky brown, but with glistening patches of yellow, some infrequent deep reds, and from time to time even violet.
As they compose their worlds the anonymous medieval illuminator, John Ryan and the Mississippi River feature green prominently in their creative palates, but as one hue among many. Green dominates our thinking about ecology like no other, as if the color were the only organic hue, a blazon for nature itself. This verdant link makes a certain amount of sense. Chlorophyll deployed to harvest solar energy renders leaves and grasses green (even if they are also yellow, red, orange, purple, winter brown). The forest is predominantly a Green World. The color is lush, fecund, vigorous. Yet a preponderance of green prevents the eye from noticing that the aerial is as much a part of an ecology as the arboreal -- and that when the heavens viridesce the tint presages tornado, not green peace. No woodland is monochrome (grey of tree bark, yellow penetration of solar spangles, crimson for low hanging berries, beige for humus, black for birds, mushrooms, and snakes). Shadow itself is ecological: the umbra of plants, planets, stones creates ephemeral biosystems where questions of light matter more than specificities of hue.[vi] Green has become our synonym for sustainability, but such a colorful ascription begs the question of exactly what mode of being we are attempting to sustain, and at what environmental cost.[vii]
Green has long been the favored color of eco-criticism.[viii] A green reading offers an environment-minded analysis of literature and culture, and is typically concerned with how nature is represented within a text and how modes of human inhabitance unfold within an imagined natural world. Like queer, feminist and critical race analyses, green readings are inherently presentist and possess an admirably activist bent. Yet green readings have a tendency to reproduce what Bruno Latour calls the Great Bifurcation, a split between Nature and Culture that founds a structurating antinomy even in the face of constituative and intractable hybridities.[ix] Assuming such a split can lead to analyses stressing anthropocentric and detached concepts like stewardship, preservation and prescriptive modes of environmental management.[x] Green analysis often focuses upon the destabilizing encroachment of industrialized society into wild spaces, the restorative and even ecstatic powers of unblemished landscapes, and the companionless dignity of nonhuman creatures. Woodlands, serene waterscapes, sublime vistas, and charismatic megafauna feature prominently. Blending the romantic, the pastoral, and the georgic, green ecologies tend to dwell upon the innate plenitude which nature offers, mourning its commodification and disruption. Such readings demonstrate a quiet faith in the totality envisioned by Deep Ecology, in a world that if left to its primordial solitude would abide in lasting stability.[xi]
But green is also complicated. It’s the hue of simple creatures like algae, and of flora indifferent to the lumbering of mammals, organisms without which largescale aerobic life would be impossible. The green revolution was not without cost: the Great Oxygenation Event, the environmental introduction of oxygen into the atmosphere by photosynthetic creatures 2.4 billion years ago, triggered a mass extinction of anaerobic earth dwellers. This excess of oxygen also enabled thousands of new forms of minerals to flourish. The color is emblematic for the various Green Parties of the US and Europe, some of which offer a traditional humanist politics of conservation, while others embrace ecoanarchism and radically open ended structures for the emergence of new modes of life. Blending blue and yellow in varying proportions, green is a composite color that arrives in a multitude of shades. Many of these variations do not easily fit within my swift description of green criticism. Green modes of interpretation are powerfully attractive in part because they are not easily reduced to a facile program of analysis. The best green criticism is ceaseless in its natality. It does not necessarily know its conclusions in advance, but collaborates with text and world to craft something unpredetermined. Yet the color green too frequently signifies a return, however belatedly, to the verdancy of an unspoiled world, to whatever remnants of a lost paradise might be reclaimed. Classical and medieval myths of a Golden Age have been replaced by dreams of a primordial verdure, the Green Eden in which humans took no more from the land than they needed, and a sustainable mode of earthly inhabitance flourished. A corollary to such thinking renders indigenous peoples possessors of an ecological wisdom otherwise lost, so that native peoples are assumed to be closer to the land. Such reductivism represents contemporaries as living fossils, as if they existed out of time. Indigeneity (an almost impossible category: only Africa has indigenous humans) comes to represent a prehistory in which humans dwelled in a state of enchantment, were child-like in their simplicity, and because of their innocence from technology had not yet become ecologically alienated.[xii] Yet some American Indians run casinos. Australia’s largest native animals were hunted to extinction soon after Aboriginal peoples arrived, a swift disappearance that does not well accord with the assumption that natural equilibrium is the primeval state of hunter-gatherers or early agriculturalists.
As Timothy Morton has pointed out, a preponderance of ecocritical writing is conducted in the shade of “bright green,” a hue that tends to be “affirmative, extraverted and masculine” as well as “sunny, straightforward, ableist, holistic, hearty, and ‘healthy.’’’[xiii] Bright green is also too solitary, a romantic color through which individuals commune with Nature and arrive at personal revelations and solipsistic calm -- as if Nature were an angel or messenger. To obtain such revelatory power the wilderness must be imagined as a purified place to which one travels rather than dwells always within: separate from the human, empty, foundationally pure. Yet as Stephen J. Pyne has detailed, landscapes that arriving Europeans perceived as untouched had been profoundly reconfigured by fire regimes, such as those pre-contact peoples in Australia developed to manage the diverse environments in which they dwelled.[xiv] Lawrence Buell has written compellingly of how ecofeminism and environmental justice -- among many other movements within ecological theory -- can move us beyond the lonely limits of some green ardors towards more communal and collaborative formations.[xv] Yet even a feminist, postcolonial or queer ecocriticism is not necessarily an analysis that moves beyond green.[xvi] Verdant, park-like, and unpopulated, Spaceship Earth (that green, blue and white marble suspended in a cosmic sea of black) offers too bounded, too totalized and too self contained a vision.[xvii] To compose (write, paint, envision, act) ecologically is to inbuild openness, and therefore vulnerability.
It’s not easy being viridescent. Bright green criticism emphasizes balance, the innate, the primal, landscapes with few people, macrosystems, the unrefined. What of the catastrophic, the disruptive, urban ecologies, the eruptive, heterogeneous microclimates, inhumanly vast or tiny scales of being and time, the mixed spaces where the separation of nature and culture are impossible to maintain? Underneath every field stretches an unplumbable cosmos of primordial stone, worms, recent debris, reservoirs of natural and manufactured chemicals, poisonous and fertile muck. In a green Arcadia what do we make of the airplane, graves, gamma rays, bacteria, invasive bamboo accidentally planted as an ornament, inorganic agency, the crater become a lake, the invisibly advancing or receding glacier, relentless lunar pull, electronic realms, prehistoric flora lingering as plastic refuse, lost supercontinents, parasites, inorganic compounds that act like living creatures, species undergoing sudden change? Other colors may be necessary to trace the impress and interspaces created by ecologies that cannot be easily accommodated within the bucolic expanses of green readings, or at least within those that possess a utopian emphasis upon homeostasis, order, and the implicit benevolence of an unexamined force labeled Nature. What of the ocean's violet turbulence, the beige fecundity of excrement, the blue solitude of the wandering iceberg, the mineral excrescence of a grey city, the polychromatic lives of objects that may or may not demonstrate an interest in connecting to human spaces? Nature is not a creature of seclusion and solace, but a concept for repeated interrogation, a term without transparent explanatory force. The essays collected in this volume argue that breaking monochromatic light into a multitude of colors offers a suggestive entryway into nonanthropocentric ecologies, where the oikos is not so much a bounded home as an ever unfinished world.
Ursula K. Heise has demonstrated that, contrary to a belief long cherished in environmental studies, an attachment to the local does not necessarily foster the globalized ethic of care demanded in a transnational age.[xviii] Her notion of eco-cosmopolitanism is useful for broadening critical perspectives, substituting a view from a planet at risk for the boundedness of small citizenships. But a sense of planet will not in the end be capacious enough. Space is as multiple as it is disorderly. Moving beyond the near-to-hand and pastoral (that is, bright green) locales that are focus of much environmental criticism requires emphasizing the cosmos in eco-cosmopolitanism – yet not in the classic sense of a tidy and beautiful whole (Greek kosmos means “order, ornament”). Bruno Latour has coined the “dirty” term kakosmos to describe the tangled, fecund and irregular pluriverse humans inhabit along with lively and agency-filled objects, materials, and forces.[xix] A middle space, unbounded, perturbed, contingent. “Contingency,” observes Michel Serres, “means common tangency,” haptic entanglement of body and world, knotted and multidimensional admixture, so that “knowing things requires one first of all to place oneself between them.”[xx]
Following colors in their materiality as entry into this messy intricacy, the contributors to this volume follow the human and nonhuman actors with which the eco-kakosmopolitan is always in alliance: mysterious forces, object and organisms that do not fully disclose themselves, radiation, black holes, distant arms of the galaxy and event horizons, shit and muck, the ephemeral and the volatile, disability, distillation, capitalism as an ordering system, domestication, alien substances, supernovas, urban sprawls, the undead, lost worlds, networks of travel or sonority, human difference, negativity, depression, the aurora borealis, deep sea dwellers, luminescence for no audience, feedback loops, alien metals, soundscapes, slaughterhouses, environmental justice, chimeras, the vegetal, the indistinct, the solitary, failure, queerness, violence, swamps, an errancy of earth and seas and skies.[xxi] No Green Eden here, but a restless expanse of multihued contaminations, impurities, hybridity, monstrosity, contagion, interruption, hesitation, enmeshment, refraction, unexpected relations, and wonder. A swirl of colors, a torrent, a muddy river.
Perhaps it was surprising to see the Mississippi appear alongside a medieval illuminator and a Dublin painter as the third artist in the chromatic vignettes with which this introductory essay opens. To claim a river can create is perhaps to subscribe to a naïve animism; to believe that rivers compose might be to project human qualities on indifferent things; to call ancient fluvial terraforming a mode of earth art could ascribe desire to matter devoid of will. Yet what is at stake in limiting agency to an origin in human volition – as if we intend much of what we accomplish? The profundity of climate change in the Anthropocene argues against such easy alignment. Causes tend to be known retroactively when they are known at all, traced back through multiple threads of effect, through volatile knots of human and inhuman actors operating in alliance as well as at odds with each other. When Jane Bennett maps the intricacies of the American power grid during a substantial blackout, no single intention – or single actor, or single failing – can be found to trigger the spiral of effects that collapsed a network.[xxii] “Human” is one among a wide many. No observer can even conceptualize this shifting mesh of power lines, generators, engineers, distribution nodes, consumers, conveyors, geographical expanses, appliances, managers, weather, and electrical flow in its entirety: there is no divine or objective perspective upon a web within of such deep relation. Agency is distributed among multifarious relations and not necessarily knowable in advance: actions that unfold along the grid surprise and then confound. This agentism is a form of activism: only in admitting that the inhuman is not ours to control, possesses desires and even will can we apprehend the environment disanthropocentrically, in a teetering mode that renders human centrality a problem rather than a starting point.[xxiii] As Andrew Pickering observes, “instead of seeing dualist detachment and domination as a move, a tactic, a ploy, and a very specific way of living in the flow of becoming, we tend to mistake it for the world itself” (“New Ontologies” 4). The power grid is, like a desert or a pond or a household, itself an open system comprised of biological, inorganic, natural and technological actors, an untidy and dispersive entanglement similar to what Pickering calls a mangle, Bruno Latour a network, Timothy Morton a mesh, Stacy Alaimo trans-corporeality, Tim Ingold a meshwork, Deleuze and Guattari an assemblage Graham Harman (working in a register with far greater emphasis on the integrity of objects, but one in deep sympathy with network theory) the quadruple object, mapped via ontography.[xxiv] Such a web might also be called an environment (from a Middle English noun that means circuit, itself from an Old French verb that means to veer) or an ecosystem (a fragile co-dwelling of organisms, things and elements in relation). These motion-filled metaphors might seem too much like forceful rivers, animated by relentless flow. Yet nonhuman things do not thereby vanish into a swirl of primordial possibility, as if nothing possessed integrity. Instead the human and the nonhuman are granted the ability to forge multiple connections, to sustain (or break) transformative relations, to bring about the new thing, to create, to vanish, to surprise. Even rivers on the move possess their submerged stones, overhanging cliffs, vorticose shallows, lush bayous, obscure thrivings.
Rainbow and Arrow
A natural phenomenon as simple as a rainbow, sudden child of a pluvial prism, illustrates well how ensnarled relations among human actors and inhuman actants may be. This ethereal spectrum shimmers when a tumble of raindrops refracts and reflects daylight back to an observer at an angle of 42 degrees. For the sun’s white brilliance to separate into its constituent colors, its rays must arrive from directly behind the perceiver. The source of a rainbow’s luminosity therefore cannot be glimpsed at the same time as the rainbow itself. A rainbow must also be constantly renewed to remain visible. Once the mist or showers stop, the bow is gone. The rainbow that we glimpse one moment is the gift of different water than that of the previous moment. But these ethereal bands of color are even more complicated. Like the horizon, rainbows are perspectival and therefore exist in no particular location. Since the angle of ocular perception cannot precisely coincide for any two onlookers, to stand in a slightly different place yields a different arc. As Giovanni Battista Vico proved long ago, each eye of the same observer beholds a divergent rainbow, a fact that can be proven by closing one at a time, causing the bow to “jump.” As Phil Fisher has observed, because the rainbow is an optical effect that depends upon a specific kind of visual apparatus to come into being, “without observers, there are no rainbows.”[xxv] The celestial band of hues shimmers through a particular biology without which it cannot exist. A rainbow forms when the organic and the inorganic, eye and sunlight, matter and energy are brought into a sudden relation that changes the quality of light itself. The rainbow exists as an object, but an interstitial one, at a meeting place of relations and materiality. A rainbow is an alliance: solar gleam, errant cloud, waterdrops in motion, captivated human, changed world. We could diagram the conditions necessary to observe a rainbow, placing the human in the middle, the sun directly behind and a plummet of refracting raindrops above. Yet this totality is impossible as a lived perspective. When we see the rainbow we are enmeshed within refracted light from an obscured source. The arc of radiant colors is a medial thing, a co-creation. Its polychromatic curve arrives through optical and biological intimacy with color, through a prismatic impress that engenders ecological composition. We behold the rainbow by living with its cloudbursts and sunlight, by attuning ourselves to our dwelling within a particular environmental space. The result of finding ourselves in the company of this rare object is wonder, an aesthetic experience essential to thought (cognition begins when we are struck by a thing that has called attention to itself).[xxvi] Its contingency or mutuality (which also might be called a composition in Bruno Latour’s sense, a placing together that retains difference) renders the pluvial prism no less real.
“Iris” is therefore the Greek and Latin word for rainbow; a noun designating the colored ring in the human eye; and the name of a messenger who connects heaven and earth, human and nonhuman realms. Intimates of the elements as well as objects in abiding human relation, rainbows hint at the complexities that dwell both within and beyond green ecologies. Following the path of the arc’s rain as it cascades to the earth and feeds a small stream, we may find ourselves propelled along creeks to bourns, tributaries, headwaters, all the way to the torrential roll of the Mississippi. A traditional ecocritical reading of this mightiest of American rivers would likely focus upon the what might be called the “River as It Was,” a Green Mississippi that comprises a small Gaia, a bounded and balanced system existing in placid indifference to the human world. Indigenous peoples may have fished along its banks or coursed its restless waters in small boats, but this is the river before industry arrives -- before anyone thought to dam its flow, harness its force, or redirect its course. An Edenic space, a waterway of innate plenitude, the Green Mississippi runs outside of cataclysm or imbalance, runs outside of history. Such a river never existed. Its waters perpetually erode the earth, reshaping the kaleidoscope of biomes that cluster along its long path. The massive amounts of silt it moves downstream have altered the Gulf profoundly.
The Mississippi can be a languid flow, abounding in aesthetic power and serene plenty. But the river is also place of danger: drought, flood, scouring force, hazardous currents, catastrophic changes of course. This perilous waterway is similar to what Steve Mentz has called a blue ecology.[xxvii] Mentz employs the term to designate an environmental cultural studies focused upon the ocean. “The sea is not our home,” he writes, and when we venture upon its waves we face extinction, a “bitter ecology of salt” (18).[xxviii] Yet his marinal insights are also true of some fresh and brackish waters. Though they differ in scale and dynamism and do not therefore necessarily convey the same hazards, and are typically small, shallow and local spaces against the ocean’s universalism, vastness and profundity, no water offers a safe or permanent habitation to terrestrial creatures. The Blue Mississippi (or Old Blue as the river is sometimes called) is an aqueous surge that cannot be our home. We are earthbound creatures. Submergence is our demise, the ruin of those who think ecology’s oikos is anthropocentric, that its inhuman force may be domesticated into lasting or comfortable shelter. Water is a deep and alien world, filled with animals we might harvest but only at peril. A river, like the ocean, can swallow. It’s no Eden.
Pollution, silt and swift force ensure that the roiled depths of the Mississippi are murky. This swift moving flow is too powerful to gain a secure epistemological foothold within: it keeps knocking foundations loose, keeps disturbing what we know. The Muddy Mississippi is the brown river, a place of interstices, mixing, hybridity, autonomy, cogency. The closer to the sea it flows the more impure it becomes, culminating as an estuary that combines salt water with fresh and everything with mud. Estuary comes from the Latin word aestus, a boiling, a tide. It’s etymologically related to the words for summer (aestas) and building (aedes, and thereby “edify”): time and tide and composition. Estuaries are places of precarious existence (not every organism can adapt to brackish flow). They are also stone producing factories. Much of our terrestrial lithic inheritance derives from alluvial deposits that have been enfolded into landmasses as the continents drift the seas. The Brown Mississippi transports us into geological time frames, transports us into a temporal scale so vast that the agency of the river becomes palpable as it terraforms two thousand of miles of land, scattering sediment into the Gulf of Mexico and giving birth to future bedrock. Within this fluvial time scale, the desires of the river also become more evident: “the Mississippi wants to move” (Pickering, “New Ontologies” 6). Engineers and city planners have long battled the river, erecting artificial levees atop the natural embankments of riparian New Orleans. The strategy has never worked. The river keeps rising, so that the walls of the levees loom so high that cargo ships now pass overhead relative to the city streets. The desire of the Muddy Mississippi is to pour into the Atchafalaya river and surge into the Gulf a few hundred miles west of its current delta. A long history of the river demonstrates that such shifts in its course are inevitable. Yet because a change in the Mississippi’s flow would mean that New Orleans would lose its fresh water supply (and thereby the shipping and industrial production that sustain the city), a prolonged battle has been waged against the current’s agency. Instead of living with the muddy river, those dwelling in New Orleans have attempted its domestication. The river continues to rise and to eat away at its constraining levees, sometimes with disastrous results.[xxix] As Hurricane Katrina well illustrated, those who pay the highest price (loss of home, loss of livelihood, loss of life) when such domination fails are those who are civilly disempowered, minorities and the poor. The Muddy Mississippi demands attention to inhuman time scales, but its flow is not oblivious to environmental justice as well.
The River that Is: the brown Mississippi, with its murk, lithic factory of an estuary, strong currents, peril and geological temporality. What of the River to Be? An ecosystem is an oikosystem, a dwelling system. Is there a wider way to conceptualize ecology, one that embraces the harmonies of green, the dangers of blue, and the difficult admixtures of brown, but recognizes that there is not sufficient dwelling space in any of these hues? Green loves nature left to itself; blue traces spaces inimical to home-building, brown leaves some cities dry, others inundated, nothing much affirmed. A more prospective palette emerges when these colors are allowed contiguity and contingency, joining them to others. The colors of the prism are manifold, nebulous, less easy to divide than we think. Indigo dwells between blue and violet because Isaac Newton liked the color of an imported dye. The human eye perceives a limited spectrum; some animals behold more than we can. Every hue, real or imagined, bodes a world.
A rainbow promises. The skyborne arc is a biblical sign of covenant, of God’s pledge not to flood the entirety of the world again. Despite this assurance, though, its curve threatens. The bow or arcus in the sky is named after a martial weapon, that which grows tight to let fly the deadly arrow. Sometimes the rainbow is a symbol of harmony, and yet it is also provisional, perspectival, fleeting, messy. It’s also a little embarrassing. We associate rainbows with the juvenile. Color is often denigrated this way, to attenuate its power. Bright tone, like the wonder it inspires, is relegated to children. Rainbows have therefore become trippy, a symbol of queer alliance, of non-normative occupation of space. By refracting light into manifold colors and gathering those hues and their observers into a temporary community, rainbows have diverse material effects.
And they also remain themselves. Though they appear in the heavens rainbows are indifferent to allegory. No arc in the sky can portend safety, can promise futurity. The deluge will arrive. Clouds do what clouds do, light’s relentless agency and energy persist whether observed or not, forces and objects among other forces and objects, entering into all kinds of relations with each other, unconcerned with us. I write these lines by hand in the wake of a derecho, the arc-shaped spawn of anthropogenic climate change that cut a destructive swathe from Chicago through West Virginia to Washington DC in the summer of 2012. Our house lost power for a week. Many less fortunate people lost their dwellings, even their lives. A meteorological sympathy we have inbuilt in our technology rendered the radar representation of the derecho’s spearhead an enormous rainbow that moved swiftly across the continent, smashing trees as it relentlessly coursed.
Yet the rainbow is also a partner. It requires our eyes. With it we compose. An object in perpetual motion, the rainbow is ephemeral, but perceived because it touches, excites, compels. The rainbow is what we behold when we realize we live in the thickness of things, in a world where the sun and the rain and our eyes and our skin and our desires are part of a system without a totality, without an outside. A rainbow’s arc is a dispersal of color, but its curve is made possible only through a gathering of the elements. Love, desire, agency, human and non-human alliances: as Empedocles wrote long ago, reflecting upon how the world came to be composed, the binding of the elements, of the primal materiality of the cosmos, is philia.[xxx]
There is no over the rainbow. The arc recedes as we draw close. Or, better, the rainbow is at once intimate and distinct, a partner in composition as well as an energetic object that retains its integrity, inexhaustibility, mystery. Because I cannot speak this ecological vision any better, I close with Derek Jarman’s meditation from Chroma, the book of poetry and color that he composed while dying, as gift and as future. Chroma is itself a prism, gathering the world beneath its radiant colors, from White and Shadow through Rose, Blue, and Isaac Newton to Iridescence and Translucence. The rainbow Jarman envisions as the volume draws to its end, as his life draws to its end, is elemental. It bridges like and unlike, culture and nature, promise and indifference, human and inhuman, oil and water: Who has not gazed in wonder at the snaky shimmer of petrol patterns on a puddle, thrown a stone into them and watched the colours emerge out of the ripples, or marvelled at the bright rainbow arcing momentarily in the burst of sunlight against the dark storm clouds?[xxxi]
And the binding of the elements is love.
[i] The image I’m discussing is from the Omne Bonum of James le Palmer, now held in the British Library and catalogued as Royal 6 E VI f. 329. The electronic record for the manuscript may be found here.
[ii] See Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 471-90, at 473.
[iii] In thinking about a perspective of mastery versus a surrender to transformative relation I have in mind Andrew Pickering’s paradigmatic reading of de Koonig and Mondrian in “New Ontologies,” The Mangle in Practice: Science, Society, and Becoming, ed. Andrew Pickering and Keith Guzik (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008) 1-14, as well as the two strangely convergent, anxious terms for domination and management in Simon C. Estok, Ecocriticism and Shakespeare: Reading Ecophobia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and David Batchelor, Chromophobia (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).
[iv] James’s multitude of entries for “A” run the gamut from absolutio (absolution), acutus sapor (intense flavor) and advocatus (lawyer) to adulterium (adultery), agere (to act), alea (dice) and aqua (water). B is nearly as copious in its gathering of natural and social terms, C and D even more expansive. Yet by the time the encyclopedist arrives at letter N, his energy has flagged. A single entry per letter henceforth appears. James le Palmer’s encyclopedia is thoroughly examined by Lucy Freeman Dandler in Omne Bonum: A Fourteenth-Century Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (London: Harbey Miller, 1996-99), 2 vols.
[v] “Vibrant” or “vital” materiality is Jane Bennett’s useful entryway into the agency of matter in her book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). See also the copious work being conducted under the descriptor of the “new materialism,” such as New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010) and Material Feminisms, ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008). I would like to thank Michael O’Rourke for introducing me to John Ryan, and the artist himself for sharing his work with me and discussing its aims.
[vi] For an ecological phenomenology of shadow see David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Vintage Books, 2010) 13-24.
[vii] Most scholarship on sustainability either takes it for granted as a self-evident goal or critiques it as a mode for living with minimal change of habit. For a sophisticated re-reading of its key concepts (including energy, expenditure, and excess), see Allan Stoekl, Baitaille’s Peak: Energy, Religion and Postsustainability (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), as well as the essays published in the PMLA “Sustainability” cluster (vol. 127 : 558-606).
[viii] A selective overview of the field and survey of some early key texts may be found in The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, ed. Laurence Coupe (London: Routledge, 2000). It would be difficult to instigate such a volume in the Eighteenth Century today, since ecocritical modes have been profoundly influential in the early modern and (increasingly) medieval periods. Some scholars distinguish between ecocriticism as literature-focused and green cultural studies as more capacious in its analytical scope (e.g., Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals and the Environment [London: Routledge, 2010] 24), but that distinction seldom holds in scholarly practice, which tends inherently to the interdisciplinary.
[ix] Latour argues against the factual neutrality of science as much as he does the self-evidence of nature. In addition to his “Compositionist Manifesto” (already cited), see also “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004) 225-248; We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); and especially Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), where Latour describes the death of Pan and argues that “ecology dissolves nature’s contours and redistributes its agents” (21). See also Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour, “Morality or Moralism?: An Exercise in Sensitization,” trans. Patrick Camiller, Common Knowledge 16.2 (2010): 311–30. For a seminal example of a green criticism that at once complicates the color by critically revaluating Romanticism’s “ever green” language and yet remains wholly invested in a self-evident and keenly demarcated Nature, see Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge, 1991).
[x] Greg Garrard calls it “anthropocentric managerialism” and points out that its too easy indictment tends to privilege intuition and “modern reconstructions of … ‘primal’ religions” over science; see Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2010) 23. Cf. Lynn White, Jr., who aligns a tendency towards the domination of nature with Christianity and finds an alternative in Francis of Assisi (“The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967) 1203-7, reprinted in The Ecocriticicism Reader, ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm [Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996] 3-14). A balanced emphasis on science and indigenous practices as postcolonial, mediated and local ways of knowing may be found in Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005); yet like all of the work so far cited, Cruikshank’s is almost unremitting in its anthropocentricity. For a bracing examination of what the world would look like from a disanthropocentric point of view, see Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). Bogost’s work is allied with the movement known as Object Oriented Ontology. Heavily indebted to the philosophy of Levi Bryant, Graham Harman, and Tim Morton, its influence is evident throughout this introduction as well as the volume as a whole.
[xi] Most famously this totality becomes James Lovelock’s Gaia, the earth considered as a single organism. “Deep ecology” itself is associated with the work of Gary Snyder and Arne Naess. Within such totalized models, disequilibrium-prone humans can easily become not a part of the system but a virus or cancer (leading to a call for their eradication so that Mother Earth can recover). The gendering of the planet as feminine, moreover, can also play into its exploitation, as Val Plumwood and Carolyn Merchant have argued. For a good overview of the strengths and weaknesses of green approaches in the encounter with historically diverse literature that stresses unease rather than balance, see Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), especially 1-19.
[xii] Drawing on the work of Shepard Krech III (The Ecological Indian: Myth and History[New York: W. W. Norton, 1999]), Lawrence Buell aptly labels this figure “the paradigmatic ‘ecological Indian,’ the model minority sage of green wisdom” and the “eco-sensitive indigene”: The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and the Literary Imagination (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) 23-24.
[xiii] The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) 16. Morton’s idea of a “dark ecology,” with its uncertainties, implicatedness, and refusal to offer a metaposition, has much resonance throughout this volume.
[xiv] Pyne makes this point repeatedly throughout the series of volumes he has dubbed the “Cycle of Fire,” but see especially Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (New York: Henry Holt, 1991). Stephanie Trigg and I have followed this fiery line more closely in our essay “Fire,” postmedieval 4 (2013), forthcoming.
[xv] See Buell’s magisterial The Future of Environmental Criticism 97-127. For an inspirational enacting of this envisioned future, as well as a meditation upon some alternatives, see Serpil Oppermann, Ufuk Özdağ, Nevin Özkan and Scott Slovic, eds., The Future of Ecocriticism: New Horizons (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011).
[xvi] Compare, for example, the otherwise excellent collection of essays Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics and Desire, ed. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2010), with its recurring oppositions between sex and nature, nature and environment, the natural world and the human constitution of that world (e.g, “Introduction” 5), to the thoroughgoing posthumanism of Queering the Non/Human, ed. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008).
[xvii] For a short history of the contradictory meanings of the image of the earth as viewed from space see Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism 160-62.
[xviii] Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). For an explication of eco-cosmopolitanism see especially 57-67. Heise stresses the human-nonhuman alliances upon which this sense is built at 157-59.
[xix] See Politics of Nature 99, “Compositionist Manifesto” 481.
[xx] Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (I), trans. Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley (London: Continuum, 2008) 80
[xxi] This list in part details the contents of this collection of essays, but also foregrounds some of the critical approaches that many of the essays have in common – especially those critical modes that have been labeled the new materialisms and object oriented ontology.
[xxii] See Bennett’s discussion of assemblages, distributed agency, thing-power and a massive blackout in Vibrant Matter 23-38; compare what she writes about something so obviously animated (electricity) to the life she finds even in the crystals that compose metal, 52-61. Although his approach is very different, for a detailed consideration of life as non-self evident and not reducible to biology see Eugene Thacker, After Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
[xxiii] The ethics of this objectal agency are explored in the collection Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen (New York: Oliphaunt / punctum books, 2012).
[xxiv] See Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); The Ecological Thought; Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (London: Routledge, 2011); Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), as well as the inspirational essays assembled in Deleuze|Guattari and Ecology, ed. Bernd Herzogenrath (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (Alresford: Zero Books, 2011). Examples of this kind of dispersive intimacy could be multiplied across material, bodily and network theory, but these are some articulations that have aided me in this project.
[xxv] Rainbows are in this way a phenomenon that marks a relation between eye and landscape, a meeting place rather than an autonomous thing. Fisher therefore writes that “On an uninhabited planet there would continue to be sun and rain, stars and snow, but there would be no rainbow and no horizon.” See Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998) 37 and 122-23.
[xxvi] Phil Fisher writes, “Rare objects … elicit from us an activity … the activity is, of course intellectual … Wonder begins with something imposed on us for thought” (Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences 40).
[xxvii] At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (London: Continuum, 2009). Against a landlocked green perspective, a blue ecology conveys what Mentz calls the “real taste of ocean … a sharp tang of nonhuman immensity” (1) that wrenches us violently from our “landed perspectives” (3).
[xxviii] Cf. “the ocean is no place to live … Long ago we crawled out of the water. We can’t go back” (96). The closing section of the book (“Toward a Blue Cultural Studies”) is as beautiful as it is compelling. See also Dan Brayton, Shakespeare’s Ocean: An Ecocritical Exploration (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), who writes of green’s terrestrial bias and writes of “chlorophilia – an inability to look beyond the imagery of the land and its leafy green oak. Green is indeed a vital color, but it is not nature’s only shade.” (37).
[xxix] This account of the Mississippi’s flow and the war of the engineers to constrain it is based upon Andre Pickering, “New Ontologies” 5-13 and John McPhee, “Atchafalya: The Control of Nature,” The New Yorker (Feb. 23 1987) http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1987/02/23/1987_02_23_039_TNY_CARDS_000347146?currentPage=all.
[xxx] An excellent and easily accessible introduction to the work of Empedocles (including the surviving Greek fragments and an English translation) may be found at http://classicpersuasion.org/pw/empedocles/