Saturday, May 21, 2011

Things, ecologies, spectra

by way of entrance
by J J Cohen

GW MEMSI annually sponsors a roundtable on a topic of wide or burgeoning critical interest at each meeting of the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. This year's theme was "Objects, Networks and Materiality" (list of participants here; audio files and subsequent Slapapalooza here). Although I am not an impartial judge, it seemed to me that the session was extraordinarily coherent, lively, and provocative. The audience was terrific. Even though the presenters stuck to their eight minute limits (was it the threat of interpretive dance at minute 9?) and left ample time for discussion, there were many more would-be interlocutors than we could involve. I apologize to all of you who tried desperately to get my attention and received nothing from me. Slap me at the next Kzoo.

Clearly much remains to be said on this year's topic. On the flight home I was thinking aloud about our roundtable for 2012. I was especially intrigued by an emergent theme in discussion, the impress of the objects and phenomena under discussion upon the presentations themselves. I've also been thinking a great deal lately about ecologies in their relation to materialities (for me especially this bears upon my stone project): my hunch is that ecocritical approaches have much to add to this ongoing conversation about things and agency.

So here is my idea, as amplified at an overtired moment of dialogue with Liza Blake and Lowell Duckert when we should have been napping on the plane. I'm quite taken by the work of the early modernist Steve Mentz, whose idea of blue ecocritical studies means foregrounding the ocean in all its nonhuman destructive-creative potential (his website here; his wonderful blog here; my review of his recent thalassology book here; my account of a class in which I taught that book here). Steve argues persuasively that the turbulent seas demand a response different from the approaches framed by green criticism's affirmative spaces, often human-centered environments, and pastoral bent. Lowell's Kzoo paper "The Ice Age is Never Over" made a similar claim about ice. Would this be a white ecocritical approach? (and I say that with hesitation, because the argument was more about velocity than color). Would it be useful to think about a spectrum (or even spectra) of ecocritical approaches in which different materialities and environments are allowed their different impresses upon how they are approached, narrated, composed with? That is, I am wondering if verdant hills, ancient or newly seeded forests, cascades, "timeless" rocks, decay, slime, violent weather, wildfire, feral or domesticated animals don't all create middle spaces where they touch the human interpreter/critic/artist, mutually transformative spaces that demand something more focused and more particular than, say, a capacious green approach to culture and literature?

I don't invoke the spectrum to be prescriptive, or even descriptive.* I mean it to be suggestive, a terminological catalyst to thinking about material specificities within larger ecologies. I know of course that white consists of all colors, black indicates the absence of colors, that within the ROY G BIV of the scientific spectrum not everything will fit. Nor should it, as we learned at the Kzoo taxonomies session: sortings must be open to failure, the new, artistry. Here, though, are some preliminary ideas, helped along by Lowell and Liza:

fire (orange)
animal (red)
water (blue)
field and forest (green)
light (yellow)
dark materials (black)
storm (purple)
built environments (brown)
stone (gray)
ice (white)

I'd also like to leave room for the unexpected: would a queer ecology be pink?

Well, it's an idea -- and, to be honest, I would love to have the time to sit down at this very moment and compose an essay on the topic. I may some day. But for the time being: how does something like this sound for the MEMSI roundtable at Kzoo next year? "Ecologies of Things"? What else would you suggest?

*or hokey. That's what I fear most.


Unknown said...

the ouroboros drew me from Facebook to here. so, as usual, i don't precisely know what to do next.

i am so very taken with this idea, though. i've worked for some years on a nonfiction project articulating the complexities of a trauma, and have had to organize the impossible volumes of material somehow--i chose the five phases in Chinese medicine, as this is partly a medical narrative of a loved one's cancer and we went to a lot of Chinese doctors at one point.

thanks for this. thanks for all of it. i really enjoy the block.

is it significant, do you think, that my verification word is ormadsyc? that sounds like Parseltongue to me.

Anonymous said...

I have been contemplating this idea myself, following some of my own research and your recent elemental posts.
My doctoral research is on the poetics of water in the narration of medieval intellection and imagination. Interestingly, I find that water itself has many hues of poetics. There is a blue humanities, like that of Steve Mentz's ocean, implying a depth (since it is the depth of the abyss that gives water it's blue hue). Another dynamic, and the one that I see as most important to my work, is the fluid humanities. Be it wine, milk, honey, blood water of an synaesthetic mix of all of them (the fountain-ray of light originating in Pseudo-Dionysius for example) the fluvial and the aqueous, although often married, are not identical. This is a fascinating idea, and one i'd love to ponder further in the future. I think that, in addition to being eco-critically charged, contemplating these ideas has strong implications for intellectual history.


Danica said...

I'm really curious what Lowell Duckert had to say about ice (though I can't say I could comfortably promote anything called a "white ecology", for obvious reasons, I think). Just before beginning my MA, I picked up a copy of Julie Cruikshank's historical/anthropological book _Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, & Social Imagination_, and haven't had a chance to more than glance at it since. In the intro she makes brief but provocative mention of "the destruction of European villages by advancing glaciers during the middle ages" (citing Ladurie) and "terrified sixteenth-century villagers" who "entered glacial caves with swords drawn" and "mounted crosses at the edge of terminal moraines in vain attempts to halt these advances." Cruikshank addresses the moral status of ice in oral histories of the Pacific Northwest, but I think the question—"Do glaciers listen"?—can be a productive one for anyone interested in the potential responsiveness of all supposedly inert matter, even beyond the sometimes eerie movements of glaciers (Advancing! Quaking! Retreating! Oh my!)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

@Lisa: Parseltongue on Rapture Day sounds about right. The image is a door knocker I photographed in San Gimignano last summer, just walking a side street and there it was. It makes me think of invitations to unexpected entrances.

@James: how is it that I have been missing your blog and twitter stream for so long? I've rectified both. I love the idea of a fluid humanities and am eager to hear more. Would you consider a guest post at ITM?

@Danica: First, I want to be clear that the choice of white for ice was mine and not Lowell's. He would insist that ice is not white but like a polar bear's fur is colorless/transparent; it only appears to be white when the sun hits it in a certain way. But I am also not trying to be scientifically precise with the spectrum I am suggesting, attempting to spur creative and critical thinking about things meeting narratives and analysis through an imprecise, messy and inadequate -- but nonetheless useful? -- temporary taxonomy. Or maybe it is a metaphor (that is, a transport device).

You write "I can't say I could comfortably promote anything called a "white ecology", for obvious reasons" -- yet those obvious reasons are exactly why I chose it. I've been deeply inspired by my colleague Jennifer James's work on ecomelancholia, which traces African American post-Civil War relations to landscapes, drawing out the traumatic imprint of slavery upon relations to the wilds. Jennifer has demonstrated that race can't be forgotten as part of ecological thought; it is white's possible racialization that makes me think it appropriate. One of the things I was thinking about when pairing white with ice is that very often narratives of polar exploration are also narratives of cultural contact and colonial encounter: icescapes are seldom devoid of human content, race is often on the line. (And this is me speaking in my own voice, not me summarizing Lowell's work; so far he has not looked all that closely at the aboriginal presence, but he and I have spoken about it from time to time). Anyway, the questions you ask are exactly the ones that fascinate Lowell so I will leave it to him to respond if he wishes.

Steve Mentz said...

I've just thought some thougths on eco-chromatics at my blog ( On the vexed question of whiteness, some engaging stuff in the recent novel *Pym* by Mat Johnson. I too am glad to have found Fluid Imaginings.

Anonymous said...

@Jeffrey Thanks for taking a look! I really appreciate it. I would be happy to develop my ideas and discuss this idea at length.

@Steve Many thanks. I actually have your book on order right now (amazon had better hurry up), and i've been following your blog and the hungry ocean conference. It sounded like a great event.

On the topic of colour, I just remembered some of Umberto Eco's work on the semiotics of colour. I was reminded of this post ( that I read a little while ago. It also occurred to me that the white nature of ice is reminiscent of the opacity of water resulting from turbulence, and laminar flow being almost completely clear. Interesting thoughts indeed...

dan remein said...

how do things impinge on the writer.

i say this too as a way to second in some way julie o's discomfort with the question of how to bring objects to the table, to include their voices or whatever--maybe they don't have voiced. maybe nonhuman objects have edges, colors, degrees kelvin, and that these are cooler in their difference as a way of being in the world from consciousness. the former option to me seems all too representational.

we can ask how the writing can cultivate taking its place within such an ecology.

and can a language of phenomenology, somehow unmoored from any subject, be productive here? that's my hunch.

dan remein said...

I don't invoke the spectrum to be prescriptive, or even descriptive.* I mean it to be suggestive

check, and well-pleased.

Christopher said...

Your post really sparked something for me, Jeffrey. I like you idea of a spectrum of ecologies. This made me think of how the taxonomy almost immediately breaks down, too, in that so many of these elements work together or collide with one another in good and bad ways. I was just hiking here in Ohio and we have had tons of rain, so we had to pick through the sometimes near impassable trails saturated with mud (mud, then an assemblage of earth, water, and human construction [the trail]--(blue, green, brown). The trail was being erased, in a way, with the forest around it (and in the spirit of the taxonomy panel, taxonomies are good at the same time they immediately break down, become something else). This make me think, as well, of the road to is a path that is never completed, in a book that is never completed, as well. It has become something else no matter how much you want to stay on the clearly marked trail, you may have to go around.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, everyone, for these great comments.

Christopher, your experience reminds me of one I had a few months ago hiking the Billy Goat trail along the Potomac. The horrible winter rains had reconfigured everything: the trail wasn't where it used to be, the river one had changed, a "beach" was gone, and all of this evident from new mixtures of materials, contours, elements and colors. Something new was emerging in this mix and it was amazing to behold.

I am thinking as a session title "Animate Ecologies." how does that sound?

Anonymous said...

"colors are the deeds and sufferings of light"

Christopher said...

Animate ecologies sounds great. Ecology is never not moving. And not to foreclose the discussion of the spectrum. What else can we add? What about the invisible spectrum (molecules, DNA, cells)?

dan remein said...

i like it.

my only thing with 'animate' is that I think that ecologies are shaped and shape by forces other than that of, say, life or soul.

wind, say. or gravity, which holds rocks to the earth, makes it possible for my pen to encounter the normal force of the table under the paper and make a mark.

maybe i'm just untrendily still committed to a language of difference from phenomenology?

Karl Steel said...

Dan, I think phenomenology can be reconfigured to recognize that nonhumans encounter other nonhumans as phenomena. The fire has a 'face' for the stone, and it presents a different face for wool, or sunlight. This is basically G Harman, yeah?

Jeffrey, I like that your spectrum recognizes that any given field of analysis is a choice, or a mode of sensation, and that any given choice or mode obscures other choices or modes. There's no claim to totality or to being able to do justice to ecology as a whole; there's no claim that there IS an ecology as a whole; there's a recognition that any system is always a system FOR someone/thing, and that therefore there is no system OF systems.

Incidentally (?) I'm thinking ahead to my 'abyss' article, and thinking of a joke from one of the old men in Errol Morris's documentary Vernon Florida. A fellow was out fishing with a friend and said 'look at all that water!' His friend say, 'yeah, and that's just the top of it!'

That's just the top of it. That top is the barrier between the human world and water. It's what makes the 'ocean' a mass to us. But the ocean comprises many systems, mostly not-blue, inaccessible at various levels to various denizens. Deep sea creatures explode when taken to the surface. Surface creatures would, presumably, collapse. I'm suggesting, then, that to think of the ocean as THE ocean and as BLUE is to continue to think it terrestrially, or, perhaps, from the surface of the depths.

Rob Barrett said...

Totally throwaway comment to capitalize on the fact that the verification word is "tator" (a potato via Edgar Rice Burroughs perchance?):

All this talk of spectra is making this comics reader think about the current run of Green Lantern (in which the Green Lanterns have discovered that their green willpower occupies the center of an emotional ROY G. BIV spectrum.

andrea said...

I'm attracted to the implicit synaesthesia of these categories. I find it intriguing that I don't necessarily share the chromatic associations (even as I accept them as the starting point they are meant to be): the very best ice (to me and in my mind's eye) is emerald green or turquoise; snow is blue and opal (again, in my eye)and I'm having a hard time seeing animals as red - blood and animated, yes, of course, but my first pick would be brown (I'm surrounded by white-tailed deer and tabby cats, here). But I find myself wondering if there aren't maybe two synaesthetic actions(?) at work? Do the words themselves not carry colour, too? A real storm is blue-grey to me(with a shot of 'end of the world sulfur'), but the word storm definitely is purple.

Danica said...

Jeffrey, thanks for your thoughtful response. Looks like the whiteness of glaciers and the north is "just the top of it" (as Karl's fisherman might have it), and in this case, productive.
It's advantageous, then, that white can be figured, by turns, as both opaque and comprising all colours at once.

Funny (for me) that the conversation turns to synesthesia, since my childhood introduction to the concept came from the very song you cite as "hokey." I guess sometimes we have to start with the hokey, in order to have something to work from.

andrea said...

I'm sorry if I lowered the tone. :) I was thinking partly about the way synaesthesia is increasingly verifiable objectively, and yet so distinctly idiosyncratic. Because, since Jeffrey asked about things' impress upon us, and (I think)Steve Mentz pointed out that water isn't actually blue, it struck me that when we look at blue water (ocean, lake or river) we're actually seeing sky (or algae). So the impress on us is not necessarily made by the thing itself but by the colouring it takes on (protectively or transparently). The transformative spaces are perhaps also in between the colours things are (whatever those might be, because even if we could see them, we might not know their names) and the colours we think them.

In another respect, I was also wondering about how a synaesthesia of ecologies/materialities might engage with memory and cognition generally. (And then my head went off into the colours of bodily humours - that humans were understood to be mainly one colour or another - and then alchemy and then Sir Gareth's rainbow armour - but I don't think that's useful here.)

Steve Mentz said...

I'm with you most of the way down, Karl, though I wonder if the struggle involved in thinking "the" ocean and its plural taxonomies might be less a problem of "terrestrial" thinking than just of thinking as such, which requires error, generalization, misrepresentation, etc, to move forward. Which may be just to say that we can't escape from such nets, and maybe don't really want to.

dan remein said...

there's a recognition that any system is always a system FOR someone/thing

now there's a nice continental philosophy moment karl, in a speculative mode. yes, you're totally right re: Harman.

this is also exactly why i like spectrum here insofar as it helps wedge us towards more nonrepresentational critical poetics. such an ecology isn't registered that way, as this discussion about BLUE suggests. how do you register ocean in terms of color? well, at which depth in what spot, at what temperature?

i keep thinking about icelandic sagas throughout this discussion. of dropping the high seat of the house overboard when nearing land and seeing where it lands to decide where to build the homestead--all the questions of eco/oikos/colonizing/forces(currents etc.) coming together.

but here again, i wonder if there is any room for the nonliving anymore. i think a spectrum as ways of registering ecologies is nice because it can still think living/non-living even if their differences is constantly disarticulated--the poles can still _play_. the 'current' moves, is animate, but may not be an organism. organisms may move it, move in it, and interface with it. writing can allowitself to be interfaced into such an ecology, a la Lowell's ideas about icy writing and the like. Its not a giving voice to the ice, but a taking a place within the spectrum of the wake or sway of the glacial path.

Allan Mitchell said...

The discussion so far, to my mind, justifies the upcoming session on "Animate Objects and Ecologies" at the New Chaucer Society Congress, 2012. I'm still seeking proposals by June 1st. It would be good to talk there about what counts as "animated," maybe along the lines of Dan's spectrum of living and nonliving; about metaphors (are they ever just metaphors?) of generation and vivification of rock or metals; about personified Anima; about the absorption of everything into the "anima mundi" of the Platonists... what else besides?