Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oceanic Sorrow: Elegy for Detroit


This past Friday's symposium at GWU's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute [GW MEMSI] on "Ecological Movement," featuring remarks by myself, Jennifer James, Lowell Duckert, and Stacy Alaimo was stimulating, and at times, moving. Jennifer James urged us to consider how forced labor figures into our environmental theories, especially when we [or others] talk about sustainability, and when so-called sustainable economies are really just capitalism by another name -- sustainable economies, moreover, that operate on a form of denial when it comes to the resources being plundered, depleted, and injured, including humans [such as the persons in American for-profit prisons who are exploited to help manufacture "green" products]. In his remarks, "The Slough of Respond," Lowell called our attention to literary and real swamps, to the idea that the most stagnant waters are the most vibrant ones, and the fact that the "muck" is inseparable from our stories about it: literary swamps, such as the ones invoked in Shakespeare's The Tempest, have the mud and sludge of real swamps "stuck" on the tendrils of their lines and also show us the "sticky collaborations" that are possible between humans and nonhumans. Within these real-literary swampscapes, we experience a particular co-agency and co-movement and co-habitation [which might also be a temporality] which is shaky and quake-like, and we might work harder to get deeper into swamps. In her remarks, Stacy Alaimo very helpfully provided us with an overview of the various trajectories of thought and work [new materialisms, feminist materialisms, science studies, ecocriticism, social critique/activism, theories of corporeality] that led to her own thinking in her book Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, where she argues for a theory of trans-corporeality that is also a theory of ecological movement: in this scenario, the world is not a static background or reservoir, the "human" and the "environment" can no longer be seen as separate, the "bounded" human subject no longer holds and becomes enmeshed with everything else which is also "fleshy" and "agentic," and the material world then becomes "overwrought with agency" and "ever emergent" [Bodily Natures, p. 9]. Having read much of Alaimo's book now, I know that she thinks a lot about what many, following Ulrich Beck, term a "world risk society," and on Friday she asked us to consider the fleshy, multi-agentic, materially enmeshed world as the "site of crisis," where ethics becomes the practice of reckoning with and working through through this risky enmeshment, and we might then also ask ourselves how science, activism, and theory might productively intersect? Now might be the time to decide which theories will really help us in this fraught endeavor, and which may be too "arrested" to do so [for example: can OOO offer us anything beyond a theory of the abject?].

My own contribution to the symposium was a sort of "elegy" for Detroit, which I also hoped would give me something like a blueprint for my contribution to Jeffrey's edited volume, Prismatic Ecologies: Ecotheory Beyond Green, where I am addressing the color "Blue" and attempting to sketch out some sort of blue ecological aesthetic that might help us survive "being blue" together, as well as craft new intimacies in the face of the world's [occasional, and perhaps future] emptiness. Here, then, is the blueprint, as I presented it at GWU on Friday:

Oceanic Sorrow: An Elegy for Detroit 

Eileen A. Joy

for Christine Neufeld

I have a friend in Ypsilanti, Michigan who likes to say, ‘the city of Detroit is depressed; it’s how people are dressing, walking around, the buildings, what they’re talking about, what they’re eating, the streets, the houses.’ The city of Detroit has the blues; the city is feeling it. I like to go to Detroit when I can, with my friend Christine, to feel the city feeling itself. Christine is the one who told me this; she feels the city feeling itself and she wants me to feel it, too. Depression is a collective affair, and when people realize that together, that is also an opportunity. Detroit gets this. Detroit carries itself with a benighted grace and is gathering together in the deserted avenues and empty warehouses of its post-metropolis to stage a gaudy, come-what-may comeback, or is it a parting gesture, or the one-more-time last torch song of the ‘I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar spaces’ genre? Who knows? You can’t predict the future like that, and maybe you shouldn’t even try. Instead of trying to fix Detroit, or diagnose ‘what went wrong,’ maybe we should be trying to get deeper into it, and start feeling it feeling itself. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been or don’t want to go to Detroit, or if you’re not ‘from’ Detroit or have no ‘stakes’ there, no ‘posts’ in the ground, no supposed ‘affiliations.’ I have seen, and felt, Detroit, and it is us.

Detroit isn’t ‘over there’ somewhere, failing and feeling depressed but also perversely thriving in various pocket-zones on its own, except by a concerted act of will that allows you to separate your problems from everyone else’s, your depression from Detroit’s depression, your fortunes from their fortunes. Detroit got fucked by something I like to call a runaway, impersonal, transnational, hyper-capitalized, rhizomatically dispersed, polluting and polluted post-modernity without a ‘sovereign function,’[1] where being an individual, as Zygmunt Bauman has put it, is no longer a choice but a fate. That goes for cities, too. That means, whatever happened to Detroit, happened in Detroit. It’s their problem, even when the causes of their problem are ‘global,’ and we just hope they’ll ‘get help.’

But what I want to say is: Let’s get fated together. Not as an experiment in reckless fatalism or collective abandonment of our hopes, but as the crafting of a more heightened sense of awareness of the ecological co-implication of pretty much everything -- of what, quite literally, has ‘already been spoken’ -- of our shared ‘ecomelancholia’ (to cadge from Jennifer James[2]), of the dark ecological ‘mesh’ in which we are all caught, entangled, benighted, and trans-corporeal together, and in which, as Tim Morton has written, ‘the only way out is down.’[3] Places can be insane, and we might work harder to recognize the state of affairs where it is difficult to tell where the self ends and everything else begins, including cities, and maybe the best thing we can do right now, as the Detroit writer Phreddy Wischusen suggests, is to wonder together
if the rain recognizes itself in the sea as it falls. If it remembers the place from whence it rose. What the sea and the rain feel, one salty, one sweet, about each other as they reconnect. The differences are obvious, yet they are discovering that they are separated only by what they have picked up along the way, not by what is in them[, and so we should look for ourselves] . . . . beyond [our] terrestrial frontiers.[4]
Like the nameless ‘Wanderer’ of the Old English elegy, we might ‘awaken again’ [onwæcneð eft, l. 45] from our dreams and see before ourselves the ‘dark waves’ [fealwe wægas, l. 46] and the ‘fall of frost and snow mingled with hail’ [‘hreosan hrim and snaw hagle gemenged,’ l. 48], but instead of seeing this as the site of one’s ultimate alienation from one’s only ever human ‘comrades,’ who endlessly ‘float away’ from us [‘swimmað eft onweg,’ l. 53], we might bind ourselves to this scene of oceanic winter, this crumbling world, as the only way down together.[5] ‘Fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks,’[6] as Steve Mentz has put it, always remembering at the same time that ‘all is not lost’ if we can keep telling stories to each other as we’re drowning.


I didn’t come here to play the medievalist, but the elegaist. But if that’s a medieval occupation, and if being ‘fated’ is the style of the early Middle Ages (and some think it is), then I’m willing to regress in this moment with you. First I want to say, inspired by Stacy Alaimo, that mental illness is also environmental illness, with ‘environment’ here understood, in Alaimo’s words, as ‘fleshy, emergent, and ultimately inseparable from the stuff of the human.’[7] But unlike some others, I’ve given up on the idea of agency altogether, even one mapped as a transit system across different bodies, human and nonhuman. Nor do I care any longer about the supposedly crucial reflexivity -- self-reflexivity or other Other-reflexivity -- of critique. I want to get decadent now -- literally, to decline -- I’m going to decline myself and see what I hit on the way down in my declension; I want to get lost, but with my eyes wide open. Like the Old English ‘Seafarer,’ but going against the grain of his despair, I want to be ‘behung with icicles’ [bihongen hrimgicelum, l. 17], where I’ll hear nothing but the ‘sea’s sounding’ [hlimman sæ, l. 18].[8]

For now, agency will be something like temporary strategic maneuvers that will be the opposite of depth soundings and even actor-network mappings. These maneuvers will necessitate occasional returns from the bottom to the surface of things to see who or what might be thinking, who or what might be willing to join hands or tentacles or fins on the deck of this wreck, who or what might be willing to get wrecked together -- ‘wreck,’ from the Old English wrecca, wretch and exile, but also, adventurer, also, to be driven, to keep going, even nowhere. We’ll go down, and then we’ll resurface to stage flash events of resistance to the business as usual of everything: literally, here and gone, in a flash. The name of the game will be recombination and the sort of creativity Tim Ingold argues for, where ‘to improvise is to follow the ways of the world, as they unfold, rather than to connect up, in reverse, a series of points already traversed,’[9] and following Deleuze and Guattari, we’ll ‘venture from home [or the bottom] on the thread of a tune.’[10]

We’ll agree with the Seafarer (and Tim Morton) that this is already a ‘dead life, loaned on the land’ [‘deade lif, / læne on londe,’ ll. 65-66]. We’ll set ourselves to the task of tuning things and being attuned, feeling ourselves forward and along, and this will require singing, and this is a blue song, by the way: ocean-blue and ice-blue, blue like Billie Holiday’s strange fruit with its ‘scent of magnolia’ and its ‘blood at the root,’ blue like valium, because we want to cultivate historical forgetting, because we still want to feel good even when we feel bad. We’ll work (following Ingold again, who is following Lefebvre) to ‘texturize’ these feelings and our feeling entanglements which are always being pushed forward by forces we can’t control, and by ‘texturize’ we mean to keep writing, just as the world itself is writing on us and we on it -- with ‘writing’ here understood ‘not as a verbal composition, but as a tissue of lines.’[11] We need new aesthetic, but always temporary, alliances, radical acts of inter-subjective and matrixial co-poeisis (which will also mean: co-emergence),[12] of interlinearity (getting between the lines), so that the entanglements can get . . . weirder and more strange, which is to say, more beautiful. By ‘writing,’ we also mean ‘writing,’ like this, with no intention of making sense, but rather, of making sentience.            

But, I was talking about Detroit and how places can be insane and how depression is really trans-corporeal, which means it could also be a style of collectivity, if only we could agree to ‘bear up’ together, which is to say, to allow ourselves to get and be carried away, and to carry others away with us, to carry their sadness, to recognize one’s responsibility for everyone else’s sadness, everyone else’s fuck-up-ness, everyone else’s plight, which is to say their danger,[13] which is also our danger.

[1] On the idea that there can be no functioning legal order (even a democracy) without a sovereign authority or sovereign function who has the capability to suspend the law in certain ‘emergencies,’ see Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (1985; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). I find myself increasingly wondering if we have entered a post-sovereign era (where sovereigns still exist -- here and there -- but have less and less ability to affect a modernity that has literally ‘run away’ from them). On this point, see Michael Dillon, Deconstructing International Politics (London: Routledge, 2011).
[2] Jennifer James, ‘Ecomelancholia: Slavery, War, and Black Ecological Imaginings,’ in Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephanie LeMenager, Teresa Shewry, and Ken Hiltner (New York: Routledge, 2011), 163-78.
[3] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 59.
[4] Phreddy Wischusen, [estuaries] (Detroit: [sic], 2012), 16.
[5] All citations of the Old English poem ‘Wanderer’ are from T.P. Dunning and A.J. Bliss, eds., The Wanderer (London: Methuen, 1969), by line numbers. All translations are mine.
[6] Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (London: Continuum, 2009), 98.
[7] Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2010), 140.
[8] Citations of the Old English poem ‘Seafarer’ are from George Philip Krapp and Elliott V.K. Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), by line number. Translations are mine.
[9] Tim Ingold, ‘Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials’ [unpublished paper], April 2008: 17.
[10] Gilles Deleuze and Féliz Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004), 244.
[11] Ingold, ‘Bringing Things to Life,’ 19. See also Tim Ingold, ‘When ANT Meets SPIDER: Social Theory for Arthropods,’ in Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentic Approach, ed. Carl Knappett and Lambros Malafouris (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2008), 209-15, and Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
[12] On the idea of matrixial borderspaces and co-poiesis, see Bracha Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
[13] The word ‘plight’ is cognate with the Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, and Middle Low German ‘plicht,’ meaning ‘care’ or ‘responsibility’ or ‘guilt,’ and also denoting ‘community’ and ‘obligation.’ It is related to the Old English ‘pleoh’ (‘danger,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘risk’) and ‘pleon’ (‘to risk the loss of,’ ‘expose to danger’), and also the Middle Dutch ‘plegen’ (‘to carry out,’ ‘to be in the habit of doing’). In invoking ‘plight’ here in my concluding paragraph, I mean to put into play all of these senses, as well as the associated Latin ‘pliter’ (from which we get ‘plait’): ‘to fold,’ ‘to pleat.’


Anonymous said...

ej, is there a role for public mourning here? do we need new rites as well as new rights?

Jim Pacheco said...

And don't miss Heidegger's marvelous excursus on "blue", sorry but I can't locate it specifically at the moment.

Steve Mentz said...

I'm in for the icicles and the sea-sounds, Eileen. I also like that etymology of wreck, which I hadn't known. Wrecking is wandering and adventure, hence Northrop Fyre's great old joke that, in Greek romance, shipwreck is the standard means of transportation. How else to get yourself where you didn't know you needed to go?

Eileen Joy said...

And Steve, remember, too, that the first stories were are about being lost at sea, then getting shipwrecked, then having one's adventures, then getting back home ... over the sea ["Apollonius of Tyre," anyone?].

Anonymous said...

Steve Mentz said...

Eileen -- Apollonius, despite its Latin text, is for me an honorary member of the Greek romance club, and I wrote a book arguing in favor of paying more attention to that cluster of shipwreck/wandering/recovery stories. My favorite is Heliodorus, but it's hard not to love Achilles Tatius too.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

A question that I had at the symposium and didn't have time to ask concerns the tension between your statement:

"Detroit got fucked by something I like to call a runaway, impersonal, transnational, hyper-capitalized, rhizomatically dispersed, polluting and polluted post-modernity without a ‘sovereign function,’"

and your repeated return to an idea of working or crafting within a space to texturize it, so that "agency will be something like temporary strategic maneuvers" that might move up from the bottom rather than downwards as as horizontal connection. How does such agency actually work? That is, if Detroit got fucked by impersonal forces -- passive voice, the forces did it -- then how do we move from such an object position (of suffering, of victimhood) to an agentic one? I am thinking also of Jennifer James invoking Capitalism as an actor in her paper, as in "It sustains itself on imprisoned labor" -- capitalism as an IT accomplishes a lot, all by itself, like maybe screw over Detroit, but isn't there also a reductiveness and an abdication of responsibility within such a personification?

I am obviously having a hard time articulating this query because the question of agency is such a tangled one, but what it comes down to is if we are to follow your (inspirational!!) injunction "to recognize one’s responsibility for everyone else’s sadness, everyone else’s fuck-up-ness, everyone else’s plight," then how does one "work" and "craft" a responsiveness that is not simply mournful, but also catalytic?

My inclination is to think that such work has to include seeing in Detroit not only a lost or dead or a fucked over space but an alternately surviving ecology. That is, I think, what you begin to do in your opening paragraph, though in the end it is hard to say what lineaments its life in or after blue takes.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: thanks for your comments and questions; I do, indeed, see Detroit as an "alternately surviving ecology"--that is one reason why I quoted Detroit writer Phreddy Wischusen, whose chapbook I picked up at MOCAD [Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit] when I was there 2 weeks ago. It has to be admitted, I really believe, that Detroit was "beset," as it were, by impersonal forces [meaning, literally, a trans-capitalism that outsources everything, for example, and that is always moving manufacturing elsewhere, and else where again, without asking the workers of Detroit if that was okay, or not], BUT: Detroit also inspires me because you can see, here and there, all these people *doing* things in the abandoned and "wrecked" spaces, like starting new galleries and artist collectives and alt-cult bookstores and guerrilla public art installations, and the like. So, when I referred to temporary strategic maneuvers, I was thinking of those very things happening right now in Detroit.

So, I think *some* mourning [collective] is necessary, and then there are also catalytic [but always temporary] encounters in which some things might *happen*. But I was also trying to draw our attention to the always-enmeshed nature of depression--that the depression of cities, or of persons, is never solitary or singular, because everything and everyone is a part of everything; we should feel, more often, how the world "sticks" to us, to cadge from Lowell's thinking on muddy swamps, if that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

may also want to consider the gravity of a situation, the pull of objects, the heaviness of being bound up in relations, of being grounded.