|Dust Storm in Rolla, Kansas 05/06/35
Elemental Ecocriticism is almost upon us. If you can, be in Tuscaloosa April 26 and 27th to see many of the participants in postmedieval's "ecomaterialism" special issue try out a new element or two. In this case, our non-medieval, non-early modern scholar will be the fabulous Cary Wolfe instead of the fabulous Jane Bennett.
I've been working on spontaneous generation (here and here), ultimately with an eye towards thinking life outside paternity and the transmission of information; towards troubling modern scholar's (or scholars') assertions that modern conceptions of life's origin most certainly have nothing to do with spontaneous generation (au contraire!); and towards continuing to worry at what a verminous conception of life, and uncharismatic microfauna, does to critical animal theory.
To get there, I had to think first about earth and air and what happens before they arrive. So: for those of you who can't wait, or who can't be in Alabama, here's my introduction.
Part I. Substance ↔ Earth ↔ Air
I'm told we received our marching orders for Elemental Ecocriticism like this: Sharon O'Dair wrote the four elements on four slips of paper, placed these in Jane Bennett's empty burrito bowl, and then, withdrawing them first individually and then in groups of two, distributed them randomly—so I'm told—to our various participants in various combinations. You've just heard Lowell Duckert on Earth; I have earth and air.
I'll wobble about some possibilities before settling into my argument's groove, to avoid the pretense that these combinations must have gone only one way. So with my combination, and with yours, whatever your element or group of elements, because even Lowell and the others who have just the one element are themselves here because of combinations.
Marius's twelfth-century treatise on the elements tells us that a singular substance, occupying place and having quantity, preexists the elements. The elements are themselves symptoms of the original substance subjected to degrees of motion, qualities that can be witnessed only through their operation on this original substance. All of us are here representing our particular elements because of these operations, or, to put it another way, all of us were already together, prior to the excitement of our particular qualities, sharing the same original oneness.
“Earth may be changed into water,” Marius writes, “water into air, and air into fire, and the other way around, nevertheless substance will always remain exactly the same.” You can take the preexistence and persistence of substance as evidence of a foundational interconnectness, the cliché of ecology, or, to recall Žižek, as a fascist dream of community without remainder; you might take this substance as Ben Woodard does in his Slime Dynamics, not as “an ideal form” nor “as a kind of perfect totality of the cosmos” but as an “obscurity, as the fundamentally unstable beginning of all processes and entities of the universe,” “corrupted or degenerate instead of being transcendent” in that its existence at all “sets in motion the engine of spatiotemporality”; or you can take it as the student does in Marius's treatise, as a point of confusion.
Heat, we're told, is the result of motion, and cold of its absence. If the fundamental substance preexists motion, then, suggests the student, it would have been cold, and thus have had a quality. Although the student doesn't say this explicitly, he's really suggesting that the so-called fundamental substance would have been earth or earthlike.
Not so says the master, for coldness is motion too; while heat is motion away from the center, coldness is motion towards it. And earth, he explains, “always tend[s] towards the center from every direction.” Now, this doesn't mean that cold earth lies at the still point of the spinning universe, because—and this is hugely important—this still point is beyond all imagining or representation, “nothing but a certain indivisible geometrical point,” perceivable only in thought. It is necessary to the operations of matter, while being theoretically but never practically available.
The student accepts the answer and stops probing. I hope you're like me, not willing to let that alone. The master dodges earthiness by refusing to locate or populate the ultimate center; or, more interestingly, he's letting things be, without the pretension that things will divulge themselves fully. In this exchange, I still think we must have an implication of the earth as being at the origin of things; as being the foundational substance in its tendency towards stability; and as it moves away from us or withdraws from our understanding; and also as what provides the opportunity for things to emerge once they are set into some kind of mobile relation towards this cold, dry matter.
You see where I'm going with this, towards Heidegger's earth, which is, to quote Bruce Foltz's classic summation, “what bears and gives rise to what comes to light only by remaining intrinsically dark itself.” The student's being required to save things, “not so much in the sense of 'rescue' but rather of freeing something into 'its own presencing,'” and here I quote Kate Rigby's “On the (Im)possibility of Ecopoiesis.” We hear how earth refuses to relinquish itself fully when we challenge it to give up its meaning; how “ground” no longer should be understood as logos or rational basis, but rather as “what lies in the depths, for example, the bottom of the sea, the bottom of the valley, the bottom of the heart” (219); we hear how earth settles back into itself after being excited by motion through time and space, and how it's drawn out into other uses, as air, water, fire, or other combinations, without ever losing itself or being exhausted. It is only be remembering this persistence that we can break with anthropology (133 [warning: pdf]), and with what Heidegger calls a “final delusion,” that “man everywhere and always encounters only himself.”
And that's earth, which satisfies half my charge. To invoke Irigaray, like Heidegger, I've forgotten, or nearly forgotten air. By remembering air, we can escape the darkness of earth's gravity; we can have levity. Or we can open ourselves up to a less solid obscurity. If we start with air, we free ourselves from the idea that we tread on top the surface of unfathomable things, and therefore from phrases like Graham Harman's “unfathomed depths” or “volcanic core.” Air is all around us, eluding any notion of surface versus depth. Air is in us, and we in it, as it, not earth, fire, or water, is the only element in which we can live. Without more air than earth, there could be no clearing that could make thought possible (Irigaray 40, 96). “No other element,” Irigaray tells us, is “is in this way space prior to all localization, and a substratum both immobile and mobile, permanent and flowing” (8). It is the element whose shifting and invisible existence we might mistake for an absence, and whose continual, necessary presence means it should never be understood as an origin.
Through the air, Irigaray observes, the “outside enters [us] limitlessly.” From such observations, Levinas observes how air is a donation that preexists cognition or intention, or the distinction between spiritual and corporeal; it is what we share with others through our incarnational being here, and it is what reminds us that our condition of being here together is also a condition of shared vulnerability. For, as Irigaray writes, were there a “gap, breach, spacing, or distancing” between us and air, some kind of “as such” relation, we would die (84). There's no thought, no being, no life, without air.
Which leads me to my paper's second part.