Sunday, October 28, 2012

Between Species: Animal-Human Bilingualism


ITM readers: Jeffrey posted about the "Burnable Books" blog earlier, and I wanted to bring your attention to a fun experiment unfolding there: the idea is the use social media to practice talking about our work! (Check out the writeup on the blog and on twitter - use the hashtag #3tweetsmax)

In the spirit of sharing, here's a half-completed essay that I've been working on (as Frankenstorm approaches...)

Sounds of nonhuman things: De voces variae animacium
St Gallen Stiftsbiblothek Codex Sang. 225 p. 132
[Embiggen or flip through the entire manuscript HERE]

Animal Voices:

I'm currently completing an article on medieval animal-sound wordlists (often under the Latin title heading such as voces variae animantium, which translates literally as “the different voices of animate things”) for a forthcoming essay collection. These lists took many forms, but the one thing they have in common is (at the very least) a list of animals with the appropriate Latin verb denoting the sound each one produces.[1] For example, this page above transmits one such list (flip through the entire manuscript HERE – and thanks to Chris Piuma for bringing this link to my attention!); see also a transcription HERE [If you don’t read Latin, the first items on the left column read “Ovis bobat / Canis latrat / Lupus ululat…” which means something like “the sheep bleats / the dog barks / the wolf howls …” etc.] These lists are interesting for many reasons; among other things, they often break open our (modern and Western) ideas of exactly constitutes an “animate” honhuman agent in the first place; for instance, fire and running water among things that make sound.[2] Adding to this complexity, some other Latin wordlists are accompanied by parallel translations of the verbs into other languages. In thinking about these lists, I want to concentrate just on the human/animal interface here, and take these lists seriously as modes of enacting animal-to-human translations.[3] These lists, all their variety and complexity, provide exciting venues for considering a range of medieval language-crossings – movements across species boundaries, and movements across (human) cultures.

If you’ve ever compared animal sounds with someone who speaks another language, it can be surprising to find out that an animal “sounds different” in a different cultural environment – to an English speaker, a dog goes woof woof (or bow wow); to a Chinese speaker this same animal goes 汪汪 (wang wang).[4] Some of the broad similarities among animal sounds across languages could suggest a certain pan-cultural onomatopoeia, inviting us to ask whether there is some universal or deeply ingrained capacity for humans to mimic animal sounds in similar ways. I would take the information on this page with a grain of salt, but assuming most of its entries are more or less correct it does nicely illustrate how even non-related languages can share similar sonic strategies for animal-sound mimicry: cats across human cultures utter something remarkably like meow; snakes invariably use some sort of sibilance (S-sounds); the rooster makes some sort of multisyllabic sound full of voiceless velar stops (i.e. consonant K). (Cross-linguistic research in the field of linguistic anthropology can, at times, support possible points of connection between animal mimicry and sonic features cutting across human languages; for instance, the frequent occurrence of “r” and “g” sounds in frog names across two hundred languages in New Guinea might be a case of a frog-imitating cross-linguistic feature.[5])

These medieval wordlists readily reveal the sheer complexity of this messy zoo-anthro-linguistic soundscape we inhabit. The phrase “lupus ululat” (the wolf howls), for instance, is a formulation that appears in many Latin lists like these, and translating such a statement actually poses a bit of a challenge; in this phrase, the verb actually denotes two things at once – the creature’s action, and a mild imitation of the sound the creature produces. In “lupus ululat,” the assonance of “u” sounds in the verb paired with the noun “lupus” strongly reinforces the aooooo!!! sound. But “ululat” is also employed (elsewhere in other lists) to denote the utterance-and-sound of an owl, so one might say the verb is something like mimetic homonym: the Latin “ululat” splinters into two different the modern English verbs “hoots” (in the case of an owl) or “howls” (in the case of a wolf).

I’m dwelling on this multivalent sound-action “ululat” as an invitation to think more closely about the relationship between animal vocalization (as ventriloquized via human language) and bilingualism, and to more carefully consider the role that animal sounds themselves actually play as didactic strategy for second-language acquisition. Contemporary social science research is quite interesting in this regard: one study on French contexts reveals that onomatopoeia (including animal mimicry) can play a key role in language instruction.[6] To draw from a different cultural environment, Japanese researchers have suggested that verbs that have onomatopoeic patterns – including ones that imitate animals – may actually facilitate their mastery by schoolchildren.[7]

In a medieval context, this animal-human interface plays a role in language learning as well. In Aelfric's Grammar, for instance, the translation of Latin animal sounds into Old English becomes a pivot point that establishes a shared grammatical feature across languages while also opening an opportunity for creative translation. The text translates a sequence of third-person Latin verbs expressing the actions of nonhuman agents (e.g. Latin pluit becomes rinþ, “it rains”); in the case of animal utterances the inherent sounds of the relevant third-person Latin verbs only haphazardly “carry over” into their Anglo-Saxon verb equivalents. Some of the Latin/Anglo-Saxon pairs read as follows (and, once again, translation into modern English is admittedly tricky): ouis balat / scep blaet = the sheep bleats (says baaa); bos mugit / oxa hlewð = the cow says moo (the ox lows); equus hinnit / hors hnægð = the horse neighs (whinnies, goes hinhnignnnh).[8] What sort of imaginative work are these bilingual animal sounds are performing? Rather than thinking of these pairings as instances of the same animal vocalization replicated divergently in Latin or in the vernacular, I’d like to entertain the possibility that the reader (medieval or modern) is actually invited to process these disparate linguistic units concurrently, approximating in one’s memory to arrive at a zoo-vocalization that can never be transcribed (in any human language or writing system).[9]

Dwelling on these bilingual examples from Aelfric's Grammar allows us to approach the voces variae animantium wordlists in new ways. Rather than thinking of a “one way street” of translation from animal sound to human imitation, I would like to imagine medieval people entertaining the possibility of mutual interspecies exchange or convergence, or uttering two species-marked languages at once. I might suggest that each of these verbal vocalizations – rather than providing inadequate anthro-imitations of animal sounds – are best construed as ambilingual utterances that resonate across species difference.

All of this is just to say that we need not necessarily follow the lead of Priscian and other medieval Latin grammarians by segregating the “inarticulate” animal vox (voice, utterance) from rational human speech that can be set to writing. It's precisely the dynamic interface between species utterances – these near and partial modes of understanding, and the perceived gap between inarticulate sound and proximal modes of (human) articulation – that I find most worth pursuing. [10]

Languages Collide:

These animal-sound wordlists are just one avenue for exploring the contours of inter-species communication. A literary text like Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale offers the fantasy of a “queynte ryng” which (worn on the finger) allows a Tartar princess to understand the “leden” (speech or utterance) of a “faucoun peregryn [o]f fremde land” (peregrine falcon from a foreign land) (435, 428-429).[11] In this text, though, the bird’s “leden” is fully rendered as Middle English discourse, and we actually don’t get any hint of the sounds of bird vocalization through the text. Other literary texts do find ways to more pointedly explore I might call a concurrent trans-species language processing that entails an overt mimicry of bird sounds. In Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale, the god Phoebus teaches his pet bird how to speak (or to imitate human speech – the text is a bit unclear about the distinction).[12] The bird witnesses Phoebus’s wife having an affair with another man, and when the bird reveals the news to Phoebus the bird’s utterance is recorded as “Cokkow, cokkow, cukkow!” (243). This moment is a “joke” on many levels. First of all, in Middle English, this would have registered as a near-pun with the utterance “Cuckold! Cuckold! Cuckold!” Second, the bird conspicuously speaks Middle English here, breaking any fiction that this exchange is happening in ancient Greek or whatever Phoebus would have actually spoken “back in the day” with his bird. Third, the bird could be interpreted as simply “being a bird” at this point in narrative – i.e., the bird is making ordinary avian squawks that accidentally sound as if it is speaking in Middle English. At this moment in the story, Chaucer provides an onomatopoeic transcription of bird vocalization that simultaneously conveys meaning in a human language.

Other literary texts find inventive means to encode intra-species avian communication as well. In John Clanvowe’s The Boke of Cupide, a cuckoo and nightingale engage in an extended debate, and the literary discourses employed by these two different birds are differentially encoded as if through two different human vernaculars – or at least two distinct sociolinguistic registers within a single language (Middle English). Throughout this text, the cuckoo asserts that his language is clear and plain, and his simple English diction conveys this effect; the nightingale – whose sonic performance considered much more sophisticated – utters a “nyse, queynt crie” (strange, unfamiliar cry) that employs obscure forms of French-inflected vocabulary (133). She (the nightingale) utters “Ocy! Ocy!” – a common way of transcribing birdsong in French, enacting a longstanding literary French-language pun on the imperative form of occrire: “Kill! Kill!”[13] The simple (English) cuckoo does not understand what this (French) nightingale-vocalization means, and he requires verbal translation (126-135). In this case, two different types of bird vocalization awkwardly clash across two languages within a single literary text.

Further collision of animal sounds across languages can be enacted through versified animal-sound lists as well. For instance, Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz sets out to teach the reader how to speak French; within this work, a versified list of the sounds of animals in French (“la naturele noise des toutes manere des bestes”) is recorded alongside marginal gloss “cribs” written out in Middle English.[14] Reading across these glosses, one can discern cases when some aspect of onomatopoeia is preserved (“louwe oule” = “wolfe yollez,” 256); in other cases consonant clusters are slightly transmuted (“gruue groule” = “crane crekez,” 250), or the strategies of animal mimicry are transmuted (the French “vache mugist” – with an implicit “moo” sound in the verb – gives way to a repetition of vowels in the English “cow lowes,” 250).

In the bilingual (bird/English) episode in Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale, the inter-linguistic (French/English) translation of birdsong enacted by Clanvowe’s nightingale, and the glosses in a bilingual versified wordlist, animal utterances serve as a disruptive and generative force that tests the very limits of language and mobilizes expanding strategies of (human) vocalization. Rather than conceiving human and nonhuman utterances as operating on separate tracks – or thinking of animal vocalizations by means of analogy to human linguistic utterances – we can entertain a collaborative processing of languages: the human and (with, alongside) the nonhuman.

But Wait...
In concentrating on sonic phenomena as the privileged mode of interaction between species, it may be the case I’m “on the wrong track” (trailing a “red herring,” or “off the scent” perhaps?). As anyone who has pets (or interacts frequently with animals) would know, much inter-species communication is non-verbal and also non-sonic – facial expressions, somatic mimicry, physical contact (aggressive or playful), biting, motion (e.g. pointing, blocking one's path), sniffing (and emitting pheromones), leaving excrement or other internal fluids where one should not, among other modes of interaction.

As a gesture to an inter-species world of interaction beyond the sonic, I’ll just end by suggesting one medieval venue for human mimicry of animals that is enacted through somatic, nonverbal expression. In his fascinating study of the practices and social meanings of silence in medieval monastic communities, Scott Bruce traces the nuanced role of (deliberately minimalist) systems of gestures; since monastic communities were obliged to take a vow of silence, a very rudimentary form of nonverbal communication was permitted – and only in limited contexts – as a substitute for speech.[15] In a discussion of one medieval Latin record of the Cluniac sign lexicon, Bruce notes that the acknowledged (permitted) “sign for a book written by a pagan author involved a gesture that mimicked a dog scratching its ear because, as the author of the sign lexicon explained, people without faith were comparable with dogs” (64).[16] In this suggestive system of codified gestures, those who are “not like us” – those who inhabit an existence across a boundary of religious difference – are equated with animals. While this exclusionary sentiment effectively dehumanizes other people, this compound sign requires a humbling form of embodied mimicry: a human must enact a silent becoming-animal gesture.

I am still sorting out where essay is going, but in the end I hope to get us out of the false dichotomy of meaningless, inarticulate animal sound vs. rational, transcribable human speech. Rather than reifying species difference or even stabilizing one cultural mode for encoding animal sounds, medieval wordlists and literary texts encourage us to think more creatively about inhabiting that blurry and fuzzy communicative zone where anthropocentric and zoocentric worlds meet, shape, and transform one another.

[1] For an overview of this medieval list tradition, see D. Thomas Benediktson, “Polemius Silvius’ ‘Voces Varie Animacium’ and Related Documents of Animal Sounds.” Mnemosyne LIII, I (2000): 70-79; see also D. Thomas Benediktson, “Cambridge University Library L1 1 14, F. 46r-v: A Late Medieval Natural Scientist at Work.” Neophilologus 86 (2002): 171-177. For an important early study, see Wilhelm Wackernagel, Voces variae animantium. Ein Beitrag zur Naturkunde und zur Geschichte der Sprache (Basel: Bahnmaier, 1869).
[2] Bottom of right hand column: “Ignis crepitat” [fire crackles], “Cursus aquarum murmurat” [running water murmurs].
[3] Although it’s more accurate and nuanced to refer to a distinction between “human and nonhuman animals,” I will simply refer (for the purposes of this venue) to the categories of the “animal” and the “human.” In my usage of these terms I’m more or less trying to follow the lead of Karl Steel, How To Make A Human (Ohio State UP, 2011), 19-20.
[4] It is interesting that this instance of onomatopoeia is polysemic; the “water” radical in the character is an indication of its use in literary contexts to refer to the sound of water (especially when its broad and deep).
[5] Terence E. Hays, “Sound Symbolism, Onomatopoeia, and New Guinea Frog Names.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 4, 2 (1994): 153-174.
[6] Brunet, Jean-Paul. “L’Onomatopee dans la classe de français (Otomatopoeia in the French Class).” Canadian Modern Language Review 45, 1 (October 1988): 139-145.
[7] Imai, Mutsumi, Sotaro Kita, Miho Nagumo, and Hiroyuki Okada. “Sound symbolism facilitates early verb learning.” Cognition 109 (2008): 54-65.
[8] Full passage: “Manega word synd, þe ne magon habban þa twegen forman hadas, ac habbað þonne þriddan: tinnit swegð, pluit rinþ, tonat ðunrað, fulminat hit liht […]. Ealswa be nytenum: canis latrat hunt byreð, lupus ululat wulf ðytt, equus hinnit hors hnaegð, bos mugit oxa hlewð, ouis balat scep bleat, sus grunnit sing runað” [There are many verbs that may not have the first two persons but have the third one: it sounds, it rains, it thunders, it lightens (i.e. lightning strikes) … It is the same way with animals: the dog barks, the dog wolf howls, the horse neighs, the ox lows, the sheep bleats, the pig grunts]. J. Zupitza, Aelfrics Grammatik (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1880), 128-129.
[9] This is a tangent, but for the voces variae animantium as a memory tool, see Carruthers, Book of Memory, 138, 158-160.
[10] At this point let me just note that I’m well aware that there is a rich scholastic discussion how vox is defined, particularly along the lines of human/animal difference; see for instance Karl’s discussion on ITM a few years ago; see for instance Karl’s book at 20 (note 69) and 49 (note 40); see also Eco, Umberto, R. Lambertini, C. Marmo, and A. Tabarroni. “On animal language in the medieval classification of signs.” In On the Medieval Theory of Signs, ed. Umberto Eco and Costantino Marmo (Philadelphia: Johns Benjamins, 1989), 1-41. At this point, though, I'm trying to avoid scholastic taxonomies of vox articulata and vox inarticulata etc. as I feel that “buying into” such vocabulary too soon can constrain how think about these medieval lists and prevent us from imagining what sort of sonic or sensory worlds such lists might seek to inhabit.
[11] The meaning of “leden” is disputed; in the Riverside Chaucer, 3rd Edn (gen. ed. Benson, Oxford UP, 2008) this word is glossed as “language.” The Middle English Dictionary additionally provides a slightly broader meaning of “speech, utterance” (def. 2a) or an additional definition of birdsong or animal noise (def. 3a and 3b). Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor (The Canterbury Tales, Broadview, 2008) capitalize the word “Leden” with this explanation: “The term “Latin” here can be taken to mean ‘foreign language,’ since in the Middle Ages Latin was the universal second language” (232, note 2). In this literary context, of course, this polysemic term could mean all of these things simultaneously.
[12] The narrator states that Phebus “taught it [the crowe] speke as men teche a jay … And countrefete the speche of every man/He koude, whan he sholde telle a tale” (132-135).
[13] V.J. Scattergood, The Complete Works of John Clanvowe (Cambridge: Brewer, 1975), 84n124-135. See also Elizabeth Eva Leach, Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell, 2007), 244; on “oci” as the stylized song of the nightingale in medieval French culture, see 91.
[14] William Rothwell, ed. Walter de Bibbesworth: Le Tretiz (Aberystwyth: The Anglo-Norman Hub, 2009). In the longer version I will also engage with an excellent article by William Sayers, “Animal vocalization and human polyglossia in Walter of Bibbesworth’s thirteenth-century domestic treatise in Anglo-Norman French and Middle English.” Sign Systems Studies 37, 3/4 (2009): 525-541.
[15] Scott G. Bruce, Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition c. 1900-1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
[16] Transcribed in Bruce, footnote 43 (Cluny, no. 73): “Pro signo libri secularis, quem aliquis paganus conposuit, premisso generali signo libri adde, ut aurem cum digito tanga, sicut canis cum peed pruriens solute, quia nec inmerito infidelis tali animanti conparatur” [quoting Signa Loquendi, ed. Jarecki, 134].

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

If you live in or near DC ...

by J J Cohen

... then you would be crazy to miss the GW MEMSI symposium "Corpus" this Friday at 3 PM. The event will be moderated by Gil Harris and the speakers include:

Zeb Tortorici: "Surgeons, Medical Examinations, and Criminalized Sexuality in New Spain"
Zeb Tortorici is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literature, NYU. He recently co-edited, with Martha Few, Centering Animals in Latin American History (2013) and has published essays in Ethnohistory, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, History Compass, and Death and Dying in Colonial Spanish America. He is currently co-editing a special issue of Radical History Review on the topic of "Queering Archives," and is working on a book manuscript on desire, colonialism, and the "sins against nature" in New Spain.

Henry S. Turner: "Universitas: On Corporations"
Henry S. Turner, an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Rutgers University, has authored two books: Shakespeare’s Double Helix (2008) and The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts 1580-1630 (2006). He is the editor of The Culture of Capital: Property, Cities, and Knowledge in Early Modern England (2002). Turner is the recipient of the ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship and is spending the 2012-2013 academic year at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Marcy Norton: "Shape-shifting: Permeable Bodies in Native South America"
Marcy Norton is an Associate Professor of History at The George Washington University. Her most recent work focuses on human-animal relationships. She is the author of Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (2008).

Lara Farina: "The Disaggregate Body: Some Problems and Promise”
Lara Farina, an Associate Professor in the Department of English at West Virginia University, is currently working on a book project about the sense of touch in medieval culture. She is the author of Erotic Discourses and Early English Religious Writing (2006). Farina co-edited (with Holly Dugan) a special issue of Postmedieval entitled, The Intimate Senses: Taste, Touch, and Smell (Winter 2012). Her other research interests include medieval piety and histories of gender and sexuality.

The symposium takes place from 3-5 PM on Friday, October 26, in Academic Center Room 771 (801 22nd St NW, Foggy Bottom Metro stop). There will be a reception after this event at which a drunken Eileen Joy is anticipated to hurl small chunks of cheese.

Other MEMSI events for your calendar:

Tuesday November 13
Dennis Kennedy
World renowned scholar and director Dennis Kennedy (Trinity College Dublin) will be giving a talk on "The culture of the spectator." 

Friday January 25

Symposium on Digital Humanities (details to be announced shortly)

Friday April 5
Inhuman Ecologies

Friday, October 19, 2012

Radical Hope: Stanford's Center for Medieval & Early Modern Studies Reports on BABEL and its Biennial Conference


A lovely piece, written by Michael Ursell [UC Santa Cruz], about the BABEL Working Group and its biennial conference, on Stanford University's weblog for its Center for Medieval And Early Modern Studies, in which Jeffrey Cohen is quoted as saying, "if it ain't broke, break it" -- a suggestion he made in Boston a few weeks ago as one of BABEL's "core values" -- and I am quoted as saying, "We have a right to fail. And the humanities should be savoring and cultivating our right to fail. Failure is an important process of the work done in the sciences, and it should also have that status in the humanities. It’s what we do: ‘we FAIL in here.’" [Check it: FUMBLR]

Radical Hope for Medieval and Early Modern Studies

And in which I also confess a scholarly crime, committed at the Kalamazoo Congress in 2007.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Environ, Body, Object, Veer

by J J Cohen

[Read KARL first. And go to his talk if you are in NYC!]

I mapped my cartographic description using Voyant
After eighteen months of not teaching, I return to the classroom in January. And I'm really looking forward to it. My description of my graduate seminar is due, as is my book order ... so I thought I'd share the little blurb I cobbled together with you. It's so crammed with primary and secondary texts that I know I will need to scale back rather than add, but of course I'll compile a bibliography for further reading. So, what would you have added?

English 6220 (Topics/Medvl&EarlyMod Studies)
Environ, Body, Object, Veer

This cartographic seminar follows the lines of possibility that might be generated when the words environ, body, object and veer are simultaneously nouns (surroundings; corpus; impedimental thing [from the Latin “to throw in the way of”]; abrupt directional shift or change of vector) and verbs (to circuit inward; to materialize an abstraction; to protest or differ; to fly off course). Some of the problems we will unpack through these four keywords include: what does it mean to possess life? What worlds commence in medieval texts when the nonhuman exerts its sidelong agency? Is anthropocentricity an inevitable circumscription to thought? How does travel (in space, in time, in scale) open vistas that might otherwise remain unperceived? Are medieval and contemporary one or several temporalities?

We will create a confluence of contemporary theory (disability studies; queer theory; the new materialism; object oriented ontology; ecocriticism) and medieval English, Latin and French texts to map (environ, body, object and veer) possibilities for both. Among the medieval texts we will read: Beowulf, Chaucer (The House of Fame, General Prologue, The Pardoner’s Tale, The Franklin’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Squire’s Tale); Geoffrey of Monmouth (History of the Kings of Britain), The Book of John Mandeville, Song of Roland, Saint Erkenwald, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl. Among the works of contemporary theory we may discuss (in entirety or selections): Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology; Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, eds. Sex and Disability; Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality; Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering and Queer Affect; Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon Is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time; Tim Ingold, Being Alive; Will Stockton, Playing Dirty; Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Forest Talk next Thursday at NYU - Karl on Biopolitics


Of course read Jeffrey's ecology essay, and then continue adding to our list of new blogs, and then contribute to FUMBLR, and then congratulate and marvel at Eileen and what's coming next for Punctum and BABEL. And while you're at the Punctum site, get your hands on What is Philosophy?, ideally, I'd say, by buying a copy. I think it's going to be great.

And then come to my talk, if you can, next Thursday night (18 Oct 2012) at NYU, where I'll continue my longstanding investigations into the Medieval English forest (posts from the summer here and here; a post from 2006 (!) here). Come especially to see what Sarah Kay, my respondent, does with my ideas.

I'm doing something a bit different this time. Since I submitted my object-oriented version of my forest ramblings to Ozone, I'm now able to talk about something else, and to do it not for Eileen and Levi but for Randy Schiff and Joey Taylor and their exciting, coalescing forest anthology. My trick: inspired by speculative realism and the fundamentally ecological mindset of much nonliterary scholarship on the medieval forest, I'm proposing a switch from a sovereignty model of thinking the forest to a biopolitical model. Blame Jeffrey, who last June said something to me about Foucault. Since then, I've obligingly read Society Must be Defended, most of Security, Territory, Population, have The Birth of Biopolitics in the queue, and I've wrestled with Roberto Esposito's Bíos. And Cary Wolfe has kindly sent me the text of his posthuman take on biopolitics, coming out with U of Chicago P this December. It's going to be an important book.

So, here's an excerpt from my talk, taken from somewhere, appropriately enough, in its middle:

For the sake of those of you who know biopolitics well, I apologize for the summary [that just happened], and I also need to pause to emphasize how much biopolitical thinking I won’t be using tonight. You might recall that Foucault arrives at a discussion of biopolitics in the last of his 1975-76 Collège de France lectures, but only after developing an argument about race war and counterhistory; through this, he follows the development of racism and the solidification of state fantasy of defending itself against racial degeneracy. It would be tendentious to discover an analogue to this racism in the medieval English forest, although it might be turned up, incidentally, in fourteenth-century Burgundy, in the Roman de Perceforest’s primeval Britain, polluted by an atavistic, sylvan, and sexually rapacious clan that must be wiped out so that the lineage of Arthur can take root. It would likely be just as tendentious to discover Roberto Esposito’s immunitary paradigm in the medieval forest, how the defense of the political body turns into a simultaneously murderous and natalist thanatopolitics, although, even here, we might look to the luparii, the forest’s professional wolf hunters, and the forest system’s particular hatred for scavengers, animal and otherwise (Duceppe-Lamarre).

Other analogues may be turned up somewhat less tendentiously, perhaps by considering the fostering of deer, how nurse-cows were provided for orphaned fawns, or by considering the protection of deer during the “fence moth” and the rut, while the deer were fawning (Birrell). Here we see an attention to natal management familiar from biopolitics, just as we see familiar efforts to manage mortality, in this case, in the provision of shelter, additional forage, and the exclusion of non-cervid livestock from the forest during the winter. What makes these acts particularly biopolitical is that they’re not charitable distribution, the paradigmatic act of a merciful sovereign, but rather acts of an apparently selfless concern with a group’s wellbeing that aims to maintain or increase the size of a healthy population.

Two more analogues. First, I take the seemingly excessive attention to classifying the size of harts’ antlers in the Anglo-Norman and Middle English versions of William Twiti’s Art of Hunting not just as natural science, nor just as the promulgation of expert knowledge, nor even as the work of a crank, a “long and unnecessarily repetitive account” as a recent editor complains, but as sylvan book-keeping and cervid normalization. Knowing a hart’s number of points may be useful for measuring the health of the herd, for bragging about the size of the catch, but only so much so. As in any surveillance society, managing cervid life meant collecting more information and proliferating more classifications than could ever possibly be useful, except, that is, as a technique of extending knowledge/power.

Second, when kings asked that scores of deer be harvested from their preserves to furnish a feast or a military expedition, as in the Middle English Richard Couer de Lion, their foresters must have had at least an imprecise idea of the various forests’ cervid populations; likewise when, for example, Philip Okeover complained in 1448 that John Cokeyne killed 120 deer in his park and "lafte in seid parke but 5 dere alyve"; early fourteenth-century records of the Forest of Pickering required that keepers count both living deer and those that had died of disease, and one early sixteenth-century document distinguishes among the various kinds of diseases, including wyppys, garget, and the rotte (Birrell again). Having these numbers and facts on hand is just an aspect of husbandry, and husbandry, as I’ve been hinting, is the scandalous foundation of a biopolitical analysis that has tended to be committed to defending human particularity.

It isn’t necessary tonight to list any more analogues, at least not at this point. Let me just stress that thinkers in biopolitics should look to forest husbandry, in particular, because of its thorough and precocious intermingling of sovereignty and life management. When Foucault states that “man is to population what the subject of right was to the sovereign,” or Esposito explains that biopolitics aims not only at “obedience but also at the welfare of the governed,”they might have said that biopolitics treats humans like livestock, or, more particularly, like the sovereign’s livestock, which is to say, like venison.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Ecology's Rainbow

by J J Cohen

[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.

Ecology’s Rainbow

‘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 οκος: 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.

Green Criticism
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.

Bright Green
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]

Multihued Agency
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.

My gratitude to Lowell Duckert for his companionship in thinking through this introduction.
[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 [2012]: 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)
[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
[xxxi] From “Iridescence” in Derek Jarman, Chroma: A Book of Color (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).