Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Posthuman Environs I: Tsupu

flow of sun through glass and onto stone, Geneva
by J J Cohen

Here, as promised, is the first part of the project that I presented in a less writerly form at the Geneva Posthumanisms conference last week. Let me know what you think. Two (shorter) parts to follow.

Sovereign is he who declares the Anthropocene.

Carbon embedded in geological strata is our newest mode of autobiography, the latest means through which we fashion an enduring ode to our dwelling on earth. We have crafted the word “Anthropocene” to name this lithic record of our domination over time and matter, to demarcate an era altered through our bustle. But the term also conveys the human love of making things with rocks and words. We imbue stone and language with meaning, both thereby becoming signifiers in the grandiloquent stories we tell about ourselves. Yet what if neither word nor world is so passive an archive? What if language is an ecological interface, resounding with nonhuman activity? What if rock refuses the stillness of being rendered a recording device, makes its own impress, exerts its own force? Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann write that all matter is storied, “a material mesh of meanings, properties, and processes, in which human and nonhuman players are interlocked in networks that produce undeniable signifying forces,” rich in inhuman agency and ceaselessly productive of narrative. Let’s push this insight farther and wonder: might ecomateriality enter word as well as plot? Might “storied matter” pulse in fundamental units -- nouns, verbs, morphemes? What if the nonhuman implants lingering presences deep within “our” linguistic archives, traces that never become inert? What if language, supposedly the most human of tools, sometimes pulses with environmentality, conveying the force of the more-than-human even as we incise our stories into substances like stone? Might matter be inscribing us, rendering humans the record of a Disanthropocene that unfolds regardless of what epochs we declare?

As far as stories go, the Anthropocene is not all that well plotted. Perilous assumptions attend its formulation. Our melancholic exultation in having become geological derives from imagining the Human as unified and solitary, an incorporeal force powerful enough to imprint foundational matter. To universalize and abstract the human is to reinscribe a historically specific vision that declares itself unbeholden to time and place, to the misery of those who find themselves on the margins of this white, European, masculine entity that will not speak its originary exclusions. Not all humans have ever been allowed to be equally human. As Stacy Alaimo has shown, the Anthropocene narrative of men and rocks neglects the creatures and things obliterated as we herald this epoch of our own production, an era in which the seas are acidifying and becoming desolate. To figure humanity as a disembodied force is to forget the lessons of feminism, posthumanism, and environmental justice, and thereby to fail to consider the heterogeneous, unevenly distributed violence (swift and slow) that climate change engenders. We suppose all things a resource for use, abuse, and transformation -- and thereby blind ourselves to matter’s vibrancy. Yet we remain corporeal beings within a shared world that at every level exceeds us. Offering a counter-narrative to our lonely petric tales, stories that arrive from posthuman environs disperse without disembodying, a change of climate for thinking ecological terms.

Catastrophe’s archive brims with narratives that unfold along timescales far exceeding the familiar, long arcs of impress and translation, generation and grapple. These tales are often glimpsed through etymology, the geology of language. We inherit in the strata of our words histories of composition and companionship that exceed the human, an epochal poesis. Although it will become in English the word “poetry,” poesis in classical Greek is quite simply a making, as when humans build a boat and climb aboard with animal companions to weather a flood. Or when a rock or pig enters water and the sound ripples into a word: swash, slosh, plash. As these sonorous examples suggest, I am especially interesting in following an intensely environmental form of poesis with disanthropocentric force. Literally a “name-making,” onomatopoeia is a movement into language of acoustical vibrations from alien realms. The material world has always imprinted itself upon us, with us, despite us. If we tarry for a moment over longer histories we might recognize they already inhabit us, sometimes as narratives, sometimes in strangely communicative sounds that intermix matter and meaning. Language sometimes carries within its sonority nonhuman presence and force. Onomatopoeia and its allied modes of wordsmithing thrum with an impulse to mimesis, intensification and alliance; desires for capture and companionship; creative acts of environmental apprehension; communication with sound more than signification; an impress from a nonhuman elsewhere. Although typically associated with animal noise, onomatopoeia is also the transport of ecological phenomena like hissing wind, rumbling stone and crackling fire, a veering of language into posthuman environs.

In this project I explore this entering into cognition and speech that opens noisy possibility. I follow some onomatopoeic words that transport beyond a singular Anthropocene, that suggest a path out of its hubris and anthropocentricity without losing sight of the specific violences that unfold along its fraught terrain. These words amplify and convey the elemental and the animal, no matter how imprecisely, no matter how mediated the form in which they arrive. Human collaboration with the nonhuman, onomatopoeia allies affective and material intensities.

My three eco-sonorous terms for posthuman environs are tsupu, woof, and fnorteth.

1. Tsupu (The World is Wide)

Although you are likely never to have heard the lowland Ecuadorian Quichua word tsupu, according to the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn when you learn what the term conveys your reaction should be “a sudden feel for its meaning,” a recognition that its sound materially communicates. So here goes. Tsupu designates “an entity as it makes contact with and then penetrates a body of water.” Tsupu is the sonorous ripple into language of slap and swash, linguistic propulsion of the meeting of water and falling body. Kohn illustrates the word’s signifying ambit with two examples: “a big stone heaved into a pond or the compact mass of a wounded peccary plunging into a river’s pool.” Something slips into water. Tsupu. Does that word feel wet, like spray from a rippled spring, the splash of pig in pond? Does tsupu echo in your ears and cling to your skin? Does it slip into cognition like pebble or peccary into liquid depths?

Building upon the material semiology of Charles Peirce, Kohn argues that “iconic” words like tsupu carry a palpable impress of thing and event. As “sonic images” they re-present what they designate (How Forests Think 30). Like Peirce before him, Kohn discerns a power in onomatopoeia that critics of a poststructuralist bent often deny. Hugh Bredin influentially argued that an onomatopoeic word will inevitably fail to mimic precisely what it signifies. The number of phonemes available within a given language offer formal constraints, and human vocalizations can only approximate natural sounds. Onomatopoeia must therefore be as conventional as any other kind of language. According to Bredin we learn to associate certain words with animal or industrial sounds and only thereafter believe we sense inherent relation. Because “we want language to be onomatopoeic,” he writes, we imagine that we hear within some words sounds that suggest movement, a retroactive positing rather than a recognition deriving from something the word conveys (560). Yet neither Kohn nor Peirce would argue that iconic or onomatopoeic words are not highly mediated. Neither would side with Plato’s Cratylus to argue that language arises through finding the right sound for the right object, as if all words had natural affinities to the things they designate, as if communication could ever be anything but fraught. Kohn insists however that iconic words signify differently from others, forcefully conveying the phenomena for which they stand, bearing resonant traces of the nonhuman world that cannot be wholly eradicated by invoking the arbitrariness of linguistic signification. In Kohn’s example a rock or animal tumbling into water purls into a word that “somehow feels like a pig plunging” (28), capturing as well as conveying the greater than human communicative web within which its action unfolds. A monkey may as easily as a human recognize that this sudden splash signals the nearing of danger or opportunity. Tsupu relays shared worldedness, a forest lost in thought, word and pig as transport devices that disperse signals, receptions and reactions across the wood wide web. Human speakers and auditors are only some of the multifarious nodes in this meaning-making assemblage, this sonorous and material machine for climatic, localized, and communal cognition.

Kohn glosses tsupu as any entity entering water, the movement of rock or pig. Yet only the peccary is part of the sylvan community that he describes. Only the animal participates in how forests think. Stone in his account slips into the river and vanishes, surfacing again only to be excluded from what Kohn calls the “ecology of selves.” Forming a biosemiotic web through which forests become sites of shared cognition, plants and animals possess an animacy that can alter human perspectives and disrupt the equation of being with being human. Rocks possess no such power. A capacious category for Kohn, life in a rain forest includes humans, dogs, jaguars, fish, birds, ghosts, trees: “life thinks; stones don’t” (100). His ecology of selves emerges as and through possibilities barred to stone. In Kohn’s estimation the best inorganic matter can accomplish is to impede, and — despite Jane Bennett’s insistence to the contrary — “resistance is not the same as agency,” nor does materiality in itself confer vitality (92). Yet isn’t recalcitrance a kind of doing? Is it not also perspectival? The rock that to a human is impedimental may be to a tree an essential ally, an anchor to embrace so that a stream does not wash away its trunk. Nor should every scale of being remain implicitly human, so that actors are recognized as such only when they possess a size or tempo easily perceived. Jamie Lorimer has listed as eco-critical challenges to such perspectival bias the idea of supra-organisms (systems where humans and animals form actual parts of larger organisms), the flourishing of the microbiome, and “the mineral foundations of all life and the ways in which the bio and geo are entangled throughout interdependent webs of biochemical exchange.” Within its native temporality the geological is just as restless as the arboreal.

Tsupu is the sound of a rock moving through the world. Stones plunk into water when pulled by gravity, pushed by human hands, discarded by otters, kicked by deer, or propelled by rainwashed landslide. To stone belongs a fleeting archive continually reconstituted, generating knots of matter and mattering. Semiotic materiality functions over varied time scales, arising as easily from the lithic as from porcine motion or human mouth. Rosi Braidotti has argued eloquently for a “post-anthropocentric posthumanism” that attends to the “possible ethics” of a world in which familiar ontologies fail to hold. The project of posthumanism is to attend to animal, water, stone, forest, and world – and not to deny force, thought, agency, emergence or thriving to any of these entities, all of which act, all of which are story-producing. Attentiveness to nonorganic things like rocks, wind, water, and fire is not easy to cultivate. Unlike peccaries or plants, the elements do not necessarily exist within a familiar tempo or easily apprehensible spatiality: too fast, slow, vast, minute. Their pressing upon human feeling, thinking, speaking and narrating, however, remains heavy even when unseen. Tsupu is the plunge of rock into water into language into thought, the coming into story of companionships we deny when we declare the solitary and anthropocentric Anthropocene.

Even as we engrave our presence onto geological strata, ecomateriality has already left resonant traces upon our bodies and our words. Posthuman environs offer a wide world that excludes little. Ecotheorists are fond of pointing out that the oikos in ecology is the Greek word for house. This noisy home swings its doors and windows open, bolt them as we may. A fire blazes and the roof leaks. Its hearth, foundation and lintel are fashioned of stone. A dog wanders in and out, woofing for companionship, barking to announce this human space a shared and co-created territory.

Or perhaps the dog bays at the new risen moon, a story indifferent to feeble human ears.

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