INC friend, Guy Zimmerman will premiere The Hive Project at this year’s Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Postnatural conference in Notre Dame. Performance: Friday, October 4th, 2:00 – 3:30 pm. Session 5 C. For more about The Hive Project, see right banner.
Below is a comment on Tim Morton’s Realist Magic available on Open Humanities Press, and recently published in paperback. For a review see a previous Environmental Critique post by Rick Elmore, “Adventures in Realist Magic” (6.20.13). (WordPress link functions not cooperating in this endeavor.) I highly recommend the paperback to scholars who want to grasp the material more firmly and really work with it.
Timothy Morton’s critique of modern causality in Realist Magic is in some sense a fulfillment of an unspoken promise in the earlier works. It reveals the fragile “man” behind the curtain of the normal science that underwrites consumer capitalism, and it synthesizes Morton’s aesthetic and ecological investments in a manner that avid readers will find particularly satisfying. While it is commonplace to critique the scientific establishment in the name of ecology, much current criticism fails to grasp the elusiveness of the empirical method as a hyperobject that confounds conventional analyses. Morton’s thesis that causality is aesthetic braves the complexities. It also comes to the rescue of sleeping Beauty and the dwarfed Humanities (to confound and confuse narratives even further).
In this comment I focus on Morton’s stunningly simple inversion of the rhetorical canons. The five canons, often used to describe the writing process, are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. In Realist Magic Morton privileges delivery, arguing that the other canons, as aesthetic moments, follow (in reverse order) from delivery. Indeed, the work performs this thesis, beginning with the opening of Realist Magic and Morton’s sound track of PM Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss. The melancholy 90’s mix sets the tone for the work at hand, attunes us to Morton’s melancholy, and foregrounds relationships between affect and cognition within the context of causality.
Linking the rhetorical canons and causality is not so radical given the dominance of the canons as tools of thought in the pre-modern era, and the likelihood that the empirical method was derived from these rhetorical habits. However the reversal of order and focus on delivery, as opposed to invention, are very—Morton. As I suggest above, the inversion also dovetails with affect theory, if delivery follows sense of audience and sense of audience follows affect (attachment), as outlined, for example, in Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself. I particularly appreciate Morton’s references to sound throughout the text. Sound is an important element of rhetoric (which I think is categorically affective), not only because tone is always constructive of meaning, self, and relationships, but because internalized qualities of rhythm and harmony pervade all rhetorical performances including Morton’s text. This emphasis on sound is performed by the cadences of Morton’s well-known authorial voices, articulated through his prose, and in the echoes of his public and new-media selves. Morton’s recursive style is also punctuated by sharp images, including (my favorite) clown faces crowding the picture frame.
Circling inelegantly back to rhetoric, aesthetic and affective qualities of causality are evident not only in the rhetorical canons, but also in the Classical Stases, which are the stages of an argument or deliberation. The conventional order (stages) of Stases arguments (“stasis” is the singular) are fact, definition, cause and effect, evaluation, and policy/procedure, or what I might here modulate into “practice.” (This is one of many versions of the Stases, btw.) Arguments about causality are crucial to conventional processes of deliberation because they are the presumed basis of value judgments and practical procedures, but they are relevant to the discussion at hand because, as arguments, they have an affective quality. A good deal of contemporary critical and rhetorical theory (not to mention neuroscience) has proposed that cause and effect follow value judgments, which follow practice as habit. To the extent that all of these arguments are aesthetic/affective, not only sound and sight, but various other senses (external and internalized), determine our perceptions of causality. Following Morton, rhetoricians might further explore an inversion of the Stases. We might ask what aesthetically and affectively warrants practice and work back through value, cause and effect (or effect and cause), and definition, to fact.
Such a reverse practice, a rhetrico-hermeneutic moonwalk if you will, could be applied to virtually any socio-cultural situation or text. Ecological restoration, for example, a major concern of the Institute for Nature & Culture which sponsors Environmental Critique, could be encountered as an aesthetic problem, which derives its ethical means and meanings from beauty, writ large.
On the simplest level Realist Magic reminds us that causes are infinitely complex and our instrumental understanding of them is always an interpretation. The book is full of rhetorical magic performed, as Morton advises, right before our eyes. While the old alchemists strived to turn dross into gold, Morton merely vanishes matter, and thus the usual “substance” of both capital and science. He does not dissolve the real into the ideal however. Rather he separates the real from the material, redirecting our attention to affect, the limitations that science places on our affective experience, and the capacity of art to reveal and realign our priorities.
Image titles, artists, and sources in the order they appear:
Installation 1 by Gregory Euclide:
Field of Flowers by David Friedman:
Self-portrait with Masks by James Ensor:
The Big Bang by David Friedman:
by Liam Heneghan
More than any at other conferences I have attended, participants in the annual Mars Society meeting, which was held this year in Boulder, Colorado (August 2013) — their 16th such meeting, my first — like to nod their agreement. In contrast, attendees at the meetings I more regularly visit concerning the ecological fate of the planet signal their comprehension with aghast motionlessness. When Robert Zubrin, director of the (currently Earth-bound) Mars Society, announced in Boulder this summer, that Mars is our future, the audience nodded. Rather, I should say, we nodded.
Not only is a manned mission to Mars technically feasible with existing, or almost-existing, technology but Zubrin insists that it is desirable for us to go to Mars sooner rather than later. Zubrin was reasserting an argument that he has been making for some time. In The Case for Mars — The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must (1996) he set out his blueprint for Mars Direct, a plan for manned missions to Mars that would pave the way for colonization and would be both cost-effective and possible with current technology.
Why should we go to Mars? There are economic arguments in favor of us doing so, Zubrin claims. Certain elements, such as deuterium used in nuclear reactors, are hyper-available elements on Mars could be profitably used on Earth. Additionally, rare metals: platinum, gold and silver, can be
recovered from Mars and returned to Earth. The economic arguments are important to the case for Mars, but central to Zubrin’s argument, is what exploration of Mars says about us as a species. We should go because we can; it’s who we are. According to Zubrin “virtually every element of significant interest to industry is known to exist on the Red Planet”. Of all the planets in our solar system Mars has by far the greatest potential for self-sufficiency. The resources on Mars will cater for both initial colonists and for the subsequent expansion of a civilization on the Red Planet. For example, subsurface accumulation of water can provide supplies to explorers. Moreover, the colonization of Mars “reaffirms the pionee
ring character of our society.” Drawing parallels to Roald Amundsen’s successfully traversing the wilderness of Canada’s Northwest Passage in 1903, an expedition which adopted a “live off the land” strategy, Zubrin appeals to a pioneering grit and esprit in forging his plans for Mars. Summarizing his reasons for colonizing Mars, Zubrin wrote, “For our generation and many to follow Mars is the New World”. Considering that as of the 9th September 2013 more than 200,000 have applied for a one-way settlement mission to Mars over at the Mars One website, it would seem that Zubrin’s assessment is confirmed.
Rennie and Brett Sparks
I’ve been a big fan of the band The Handsome Family for over 15 years. This summer I had the chance to finally hear them play live. They were touring to support their new album, Wilderness. It was a show that stirred the imagination: bottomless holes, phantasmagoric encounters, and incalculable fates were sung about with warmth, humor, and intimacy. I wanted more! So I emailed them asking if they would be willing to be interviewed for Environmental Critique.
Who are The Handsome Family? They’re the married songwriting duo, Rennie and Brett Sparks. Rennie writes the lyrics, adds backing vocals, and plays a variety of stringed instruments. Brett writes the music, sings, and plays guitars. A visit to their website is highly recommended to find out more and to hear some of their songs: http://handsomefamily.com/.
Rennie spoke on behalf of both in what follows. (I’m RH; she’s RS.)
RH: Your music is filled with images and tales of animals and other natural beings. Why is it obvious to you that nonhumans are such an important part of our world? Why do you suppose this isn’t obvious to most musicians and writers?
RS: Maybe a better question is: how did humans manage to forget they were living things on a planet of living things? We have a real blindness for our own connection to the rest of this world. That being said, I believe if you asked the ants who was running things on this planet they wouldn’t hesitate to say, “The ants!” Maybe all species are born blind to the needs and fears of the rest and our task is to perceive the connections?
RH: What’s the difference between living in Chicago vs. Albuquerque in terms of inspiration from, or awareness of, the nonhuman world? Do you think big urban areas are places of hope or despair in this regard?
RS: Chicago taught me to look carefully for wildlife. There is great wonder in observing the pigeons cooing under the overpass or the rats scuttling along the edge of buildings at dusk. For many years in Chicago I noticed the big downtown buildings were growing kale in their little squares of garden at building entrances. Strange that for so long no one thought of kale as food. It was an ornamental that grew in cold weather! Chicago was all about noticing the little things for me, but Albuquerque is all about expansive views. It is just as bewildering to learn to see the great expanse of the desert sky and understand a little of how big our universe is. The ability to see for many miles in all directions is a great gift and reminds you of the presence of the infinite in all finite things. Big urban areas are neither hopeful nor despairing, I think. They await an eye to look at them and a heart to decide.
RH: Your music seems to help you stay in a productive relationship with the troubling aspects of existence – mystery, loss, decay, mortality. When did you realize it had this power as therapy?
RS: Writing songs, or making any art for that matter, is always about finding a beautiful balance between opposing forces. It teaches you that light needs dark, soaring notes need deep tones. Life wouldn’t feel precious if it never ended. Beauty would not feel miraculous if we didn’t see chaos and decay.
RH: Would you like to be immortal, like nature is? (Okay, in about 4 billion years the earth will be swallowed by the sun. Nearly immortal, then…)
RS: When the earth explodes the matter that makes it up will merely change form, but will not disappear. That means we’re all going to be outer space travelers eventually! I don’t think we can have any concept of immortality. We are creatures trapped in time and space, always pushed from past to present to future. There seems to be nothing in our universe that is not subject to this change except, maybe the singularity at the center of a black hole. Maybe that’s the only true immortal in our universe and nothing in our universe can even approach it without being utterly destroyed.
RH: If you could become a different animal, what would you become and why?
RS: Golden retriever! They always seem to be living in utter joy over the smallest pleasures!
RH: Can we expect a song featuring a golden retriever on the next record?
RS: I’ve been trying to write that song for a long, long time. There are so many ‘good doggie’ songs out there like Old Shep, it’s deep waters to tread.
RH: I’d like to focus a bit on your new album, Wilderness. As a concept, “wilderness” has become problematic. Some say we need to retain an idea of the wild in order to keep ourselves humble, others say this idea reinforces the harmful separation between humans and the natural world. What say you?
RS: I say we need to remind ourselves that we are part of a huge web of life on this planet so, yeah, the idea of wilderness is really a sad one. I always remember William Bradford as he sailed into Plymouth Harbor for the first time and was so dismayed to see the ‘hideous’ wilderness before him. They got their axes swinging pronto. That being said I think there is something really soothing in contemplating vast multitudes. The vastness of herds and hives and forests, the group soul of the termite. We can learn a lot from the termite. We may not be all that different.
RH: The album cover art is mesmerizing. Why did you decide to depict the animals who share the song titles in the form of a mandala? Does the mandala symbol have special meaning to you? The glow worm surrounds a black hole at the center of the mandala. For me, the parallel musical image is in the song “Glow Worm,” when Brett sings,
Tightly in my fist I held that glowing worm
Deep down in the hollows I held the center of the world.
Do you see this couplet as the spiritual/emotional center of the album, to mirror what the cover art suggests?
RS: Bingo. How nice that you were thinking as I was thinking. Yes, mandalas are very important to me. I love the idea of artwork designed to pull you inward to infinite space. The best kind of wilderness, I think. I used to have recurring dreams about visiting the center of the earth. It would probably not be good to spot the little light there and grab it in your fist. What not to do at the center of the earth! Yet how many of us could resist at least touching with our little finger and inadvertently turning out the light of the world.
RH: In the songs “Caterpillars,” “Woodpecker,” and “Gulls” you describe humans transmuting into other animals. Is this a way of imagining what it would be like to be other-than-human?
RS: Maybe it’s just a reminder that our bodies are always changing shape. Also who doesn’t wonder how wonderfully strange it would be to cocoon yourself and then emerge into a totally new life. Rebirth is a grand fantasy.
RH: Have you spent time in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Mary Sweeney’s hometown in “Woodpecker?” I went to college there and I think Mary might have been my anthropology professor.
RS: I stopped at Taco Bell there once in a snow storm. That was the extent of my ground research. Mostly that song was inspired by reading, “Wisconsin Death Trip” and also by a series of windshield smashing I witnessed one morning in Chicago on the way to work. These two boys were just running down the street smashing all the windshields with bricks. The street was crowded with people, but we all just stood there in shock. The noise was beautiful, but the sight was very disturbing.
RH: Any final thoughts about how academics and artists might be able to work together more (or better)?
RS: Maybe we can plan a sailing trip to the center of the world. I know a spot we can start from.
Traditional empirical inquiries into the human psyche have generally assumed that if a critical mass of human beings have the same psychological characteristics then these features represent essential qualities of human beings—human nature. This assumption has abided through the emergence of neuroscience, and the study of typical neurological functions and responses.
However neuroscience has also discovered the fact of neuroplasticity. While scientist once assumed that the adult brain was set, they now know that it is subject to change and responsive to environmental influences. If the human mind is responsive to environmental influences, and if those influences are ubiquitous but different for different cultures, then we may have the conditions for a monumental error. What may seem to be essentially true for all human beings at all times, may only be a reflection of a dominant culture and/or its cultural perspective. Thus there may be very little “human nature” that is not shaped by culture. The selfishness and thoughtlessness characteristic of consumer-capitalism, for example, may be largely or even strictly cultural. Comparative studies of different cultures over time and space could show this to be true—they may already have.
If this is the case, is it possible to shape the human mind and brain—“human nature”—en masse through cultural means? This has certainly been accomplished in pernicious ways by 20th century dictatorships, is this also the case in consumerist-media dominated democracies? How can a democracy change its course under such circumstances?
My recent research into imagining the future in the context of urban planning and ecological restoration suggests that Westerners are indeed self-absorbed and short-sighted with regard to the environment. The research was supported by hard psychological and neuroscientific data. Thus, I have argued that environmentalists should appeal to these given values instead of trying to remake the general public in their own image.
Last night, however, after working for days on an unrelated neuroscience article, I realized that neuroplasticity calls the idea of “human nature” into question. “Human nature” may be only what it is at this point in time, and with the current speed of cultural change, it may be subject to swift and radical alteration. If environmental consciousness is not in our “nature,” perhaps we should change our “nature.”
P.S. EC Co-Editor, Liam Heneghan proposed that plasticity (the ability to change) may be more or less “essential.” I agree that change may be a constant, with the caveat that rate of change changes (per a recent discussion with Reuven Feuerstein).
P.P.S. Last night I had a dream about the following idea of exponential error. I dreamt that I was reading a neurological formula in one of William James’s standard psychology texts. (I have read them, though they are so comprehensive I don’t recall this particular detail.) The formula was for exponential errors in the psyche. It showed how a small error related to a popular topic could replicate in the human mind, through the non-linear mechanics of association, and, through cultural means, in a human population. (I might also have seen the idea in Korzybski, a highly eccentric polymath, trending toward monomania, who developed an elaborate thesis of “general semantics.”) Perhaps in our current political and cultural climate, we can hold onto hope that what is true for errors, if this indeed be true, is also be true for new scientific knowledge and humanistic insights related to our all to obvious and all too often ignored ecological imperatives.
Image by Kathryn Finter: http://illuminations.ca/letter-H.html