Sunday, March 30, 2014

Elemental Ecocriticism: draft introduction

by J J Cohen

Greetings from a snowy DC, where March was in like a lion and also out like a lion. I don't mean "out" in a queer sense because that would dignify the snow of the moment with an interestingness that it does not in fact possess.

You'll remember from a post about a year ago that Lowell Duckert and I are hard at work to the follow-up to the postmedieval issue on Ecomateriality. Elemental Ecocriticism will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in fall 2015. The table of contents is wonderful, with essays by Anne Harris, Steve Mentz, Valerie Allen, Sharon O'Dair, Chris Barrett, Julian Yates and Karl Steel (and the two of us). Three response essays are gathered in a section that gives a nod to Empedocles through its title of "Love and Strife." They have been composed by Stacy Alaimo, Tim Morton and Cary Wolfe. Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino composed an astonishing afterword.

As you might guess, Lowell and I are very excited about this project. We share our draft of a portion of the introduction with you below. Let is know what you think.

Principles of the Elements

The elements are never easy.

A chain of helices rotate in a pond, chemical corkscrews from a nearby paper mill. Industrial aerators churn water and air through fire’s force, forging vibrant rounds, a poisonous beauty. Photographed from the sky, this congregation of volutes resemble a surgical cross-section, neurons in an intimacy of memory-making, or jellyfish wandering a depleted sea. Meanwhile a patch of plastic larger than Texas spins in the Pacific, swirling saltwater, sea life, and the disowned detritus of human industry into choked cacophony. A convolution of air and water spins above the Atlantic, its satellite image rendering the spiral of destruction a miniature Milky Way, formed of drenching winds not blazing stars. The hurricane arrives through the marine transport machine of the North Atlantic Gyre, a conveyer belt of currents that whirls Saharan storms against American coasts. Funny (maybe it is?) that the popular film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) predicted the end of the world would arrive in the eye of an erratic vortex whose cryogenic gaze instantly, lethally stills. Yet as photographer J. Henry Fair suggests in his lush book of the same name, catastrophe’s playthings are never frozen in place. Environmental violence might be slow, but it is never still. We compose this introduction in the midst of what has been called the Winter of the Polar Vortex (2013-14). We have been snowed into Washington DC because of this restless arctic chill, brief reprieve from relentless global warming. The “hairy ball theorem” of algebraic topology holds that at any given moment at least one vortex is spinning in the earth’s atmosphere, even if we cannot know precisely where that spiral spins. Funny (maybe it is?) that the polar vortex -- earth’s most persistent cyclone, enormous in its scale -- is only one such presence. We write to you, confident (maybe we are?) that tomorrows will arrive. The day after tomorrow is always already today, a material intimacy that has been there all along. To evade Scylla, daughter of a poisoned spring, is to hazard the whirlpools of Charybdis, the rocky straits of catastrophic engulfment. Lethal and alluring, toxic and lyrical, force of cohesion and strife, a vortex is elemental: ubiquitous, generative, matter for a transhistorical ecopoetics, origin for words and worlds.
And so philosophy. The cosmologist, physicist and poet Empedocles (ca. 495–435 BCE) argued that all matter consists of four elements in shifting combination: earth, air, fire, water. Held together by chains of love [philia], pulled apart through endemic strife [neikos], these primal “roots” [rhizōmata] are enduring and unstill. Empedocles wondered why the cosmos is not some immobile sphere (the triumph of love, seeking to bind and to fix), nor a chaos of the unconjoined (strife’s striving), but an impure expanse of “more or less,” of ardently connective matter, rhizomatic proliferations and fecund-destructive breaks. This disharmonious simultaneity is a love-strife that includes the human without centering itself around so small a figure. Elemental matter is inherently creative, experimental: it engenders ephemeral things that wander for a while, seeking other things to embrace. Sometimes these productions arise with no hope of futurity. Empedocles imagines arms seeking shoulders, eyes in search of foreheads, misfit burgeonings of tragic beauty and ambulatory desire. Sometimes these elemental creations engender new lives, newly admixed forms, queer ecologies of unnatural flourishing: “creatures compounded partly of male, partly of the nature of female, and fitted with shadowy parts.” Charles Darwin observed of nature’s biological generativity that “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Empedocles went farther, insisting that the elements themselves are productive, heedless of the partitionings that will in future days dismiss the inorganic as inert. Love fastens what strife divides. The Greek philosopher posited that through the push-pull of elemental philia and neikos the cosmos begins to whirl, assuming through this restless movement the form of a vortex. Dense earth and weighty water sink, air and fire rise, and all matter spirals, a gyre of renewal and catastrophe.
For millennia Empedocles’s theory of the elements offered a mode of thinking about materiality that conveyed how difference underlays all substance, how nature loves entanglement, how entropy promises universal ruin as well as unceasing regeneration. Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Ovid, Boethius, Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare (among many others) ensured that the Empedoclean elements were passed along, a spur to cosmology, ecological awareness, narrative, art. Outgrown as a science, replaced by atomism and particle physics, elemental theory has now been left to that repository where superseded knowledges molder. Yet with subatomic and cosmic scales have arrived an estrangement from materiality and intense ecological crisis rather than greater worldly intimacy, an ethic of nonhuman care, or the ability to acknowledge that the cataclysms which assail us are largely of our own making. In returning to earth, air, fire and water as apprehensible environmental agents, we are not arguing for the uncritical embrace of outmoded epistemologies. Ecological Ecocriticism is not a project of nostalgia, not a wistful retreat from present day concerns. We seek rather in this volume to stage an inventive contemporary re-encounter with historical frames that powerfully foreground the activity of the material world, the limits of anthropocentricity, and the embeddedness of narrative-making to ethics. We seek an elemental environmentality that realizes in the imaginative and critical works of the past a rich archive for thinking ecology differently in the present. We believe that an attentiveness to material agency is a powerful aid to activism, and that supposedly outdated articulations of material activity and the fraught human-nonhuman collaborations they convey can propel environmental justice. The less human the collective, the more humane it becomes -- and by “less human” we do not mean “The World Without Us,” but a disanthropocentric re-envisioning of the biomes and cosmopolities within which we dwell. Empedocles might not have had a periodic table full of elements, a serene sequence of atomic numbers that begins with hydrogen and terminates (for the time being) at scarce ununoctium, but in his quadrapartite sorting of worldly substance he realized well materiality’s rebuke to anthropocentrism.
How did we forget that matter is not a lifeless reservoir of resources for human use, but an actant in its own right? How did we cease to know that earth, air, fire and water move, rebel, ally, crush, desire, destroy more easily than reduce themselves into tractable commodities? We cannot see the trees for the deforestation. Environmental historians have well documented the human toll upon ecologies, so that oaks and pine become compliant timber, fire becomes extractable coal, air is transformed into a carbon offset, rivers potable water expressed as a mathematical quantity. At its most extreme this relentless objectification transforms even humans into expendable resources: miners who can be discarded once they develop black lung, or minority communities that can be tallied, televised and toured after a hurricane obliterates their homes. To the discourse of cultural materialism we should add an ecomaterialism that conjoins environmental health and justice. There is no out- to which things are sourced; it is always a wherein, with whom, wherefore. As essential as traditional environmental history has been for understanding anthropogenic planetary effects, the only room such models typically leave for the agency of forests, streams, weather, and mountains is their “pressing back” in the form of cataclysm. To think that the world is ours to spoil or save are two expressions of the same hubris. When did “economy” become a story of domestic commodities and not the oikos of the open house? When did use value become identity? No space exists within this polarized, innately gendered model (mater to matter) for the apprehension of the cross-ontological alliances through which ecosystems thrive, change, create, commingle, compose.
Through active and recurring forgetting, the apprehension of material vibrancy evident in elemental theory have been suppressed for mechanistic models that serve a destructive resourcism and lead to environmental devastation. To counteract the flattening force of our collective amnesia, we need more and better models of inhuman vitality, an environmental agentism. Call it re-activism, where the “re-” is not a simple repetition of a previous form, but a renewal of non/human ethical enmeshment, a transhistorical call to attention, in which lessons from the past are reactivated for better futures. History offers a storehouse of imaginings in which nature is understood as active force, unlooked-for partner, offering an archive of irremediable precarities. In the form of fragile unities, something keeps rising (from rīsen, “to make a foray, awake, get out of bed”): raising awareness, urging activism. The past is never really past. As an inheritance from philosophies we no longer study we continue to speak of the elements, but now as that which we protect ourselves against: from their harshness, especially in an uncertain climate, from their capriciousness, from their peril. But what if the elements are more than a threat? In the wake of tsunamis, earthquakes, and superstorms, we know all too well elemental discord, battle, strife (the meanings of neikos). In the face of ruin, what invitations do the elements extend? What of Empedoclean philia: binding, love? Can materialities long surpassed precipitate new modes of ecological engagement? Can the four elements assist in imagining a world that is post-sustainable and int/er/ra/catastrophic? Can they open portals to spaces that pulse with inhuman life? Can they restore vivacity to substances (mud, water, earth, air), chemical processes (fire) and natural phenomena (earthquakes, floods, landslides) over which we have imposed an imagined ecological sovereignty? Is there potential in the impossible, in the purely imaginary, in the abandoned and the unreal (ether, phlogiston, the sea above the clouds)? Can the elements invite contemporary thinkers not to some lost Eden or Golden Age (no simpler time has ever existed, no age without its complex convolutions, spirals of possibility and time) but to a reinvigorated, future-laden mode of ecomaterial inquiry?
Elemental Ecocriticism embraces the challenges, paradoxes and productive anachronism inherent to thinking in elemental, non-reductive terms, to thinking within the spirals of entanglement that the elements in their motion form. The project of this book is to elaborate a truly material ecocriticism that is at once disanthropocentric and apprehensible, estranging and yet intimate. Because they are smaller than gods and larger than atoms, earth, air, fire and water -- alone and in their promiscuous combinations -- function within a humanly knowable scale while offering a summons to nonhuman realms. The structure of this introduction is therefore vorticular, to trace errant elemental paths. Plato believed that each of the primordial substances possesses a distinctive shape: tetrahedron, icosahedron, octahedron, cube. What happens, though, when still geometric forms tumble into activity, when we companion their whirl?

We offer eleven interlocking principles to guide inquiry when this invitation is accepted, some rules of thumb for hitching a ride with this restless foursome as partners in world-making.

[Then follows 11 Principles for the elements, which are still a little too drafty]


Steve Mentz said...

Love those vortices! Also this rousing call-to-arms: "disanthropocentric and apprehensible, estranging and yet intimate." I wonder about the tension between the vorticular and the sensual, between things that are constantly turning from us and are also available to be touched, felt, engaged. Might we love the elements more now that they are, at least in terms of contemporary science, lost to us?

Serenella Iovino said...

"Nature loves a vortex." You saw that, and I believe you.