Wednesday, 22 June 2016

George Ttoouli says, “Because: No.” (Or, Why Ecopoetics?) (3/5)

GT does go on some, doesn't he? He's still responding to John Shoptaw's essay...

Yes, some poetry is more rewarding, according to personal tastes. Some poems offer a better sense than others, of the key challenges we face today as a species: climate, culture, ecology, the whole sociopolitical shebang. I disagree with the fundamental principle that says the 'better' poems require a whole new category, marked 'ecopoetry,' to distinguish them from earlier, now-redundant 'nature poetry.' Shoptaw is building a wall and I want to know why he wants to keep a certain kind of poetry out: cui bono? All of it says something about our relationship to the planet, even one of Fred Seidel's love poems to a motorcycle.

Time and again I've found the motivation for grounding new genre categories in literature, as with any technological advance, serves to stake out market territory and gain power and profit (or both, as today's cultural norm has it). G&P co-editor ST has often bemoaned my reaction to markets and commercialism as a knee-jerk analysis. So I'll not go too far into a speculative rant about Shoptaw's motives, biases; there is a fundamental problem in the imbroglio of capital and intellect, humanism and pornography, which I feel should be tackled head on in articles that descend into the quaggy depths of taxonomising.

Instead I'll focus on the structural problem Shoptaw raises in attempting to define a genre. Let's ask again: What is ecopoetry? Shoptaw states: “an ecopoem needs to be environmental and it needs to be environmentalist”.

Where I come from, 'enviromental' is olde worlde ecologic, theoretically unpicked for its Cartesian separation of nature and culture, human and animal, inside and outside. Recent critics, such as Timothy Morton (Ecology without Nature), have quite substantially argued against the idea of a separation between nature and us: there is no standpoint, no imaginary position 'outside' of nature, from which we can objectively view and understand what nature is. DonnaHaraway calls what we live in 'naturecultures', to demonstrate the yin-yang mess of our own posthuman statuses.

We are not pure humans: we are bacteria-carrying, symbiotic messes, both dwellers and dwellings, always cohabitants in shared space. We can't hold up an 'environment' like an imaginary truth, to study it objectively, from afar. Throw Bill McKibben's The End of Nature into the mix, and you realise the idea of a pristine, wild nature is also a fantasy; the anthropocene is here, and it is both us, and is killing us, which is also a kind of slow motion suicide leap into a burning lake of oil.[2]

There is no spot on the planet untouched by the atmospheric changes caused by human activity; even if you want to argue the insignificance of these changes in some geographies, you have to accept that nature and culture (by which term, too often, we interpret an exclusively human culture) are utterly, inextricably imbricated, in a messy, mutual process of co-production. Just as the 'natural' existence of certain resources might drive human activity to follow, or focus on, particular geographical locations on the planet, allow for a variety of settlements and situations to arise in 'human cultures', so too we have chosen to remake the places we dwell in according to our own visions, landscaping lawns and putting in infrastructures for the transportation of food, energy and labour. (I'm drawing on Jason W. Moore's work; see for example Capitalism in the Web of Life, which distils his work into one handy book-for-the-uninitiated.)

At this point, a brief pause: I'm ranting about research I've done, time invested and possibly you know it all already. John Shoptaw probably knows all this already; but, maybe not, maybe this is a helpful reading list, a way of thinking how, when you next go to mow the lawn, or water a flower pot, you might think how natural selection of certain grasses, certain prettier flowers over others we might call weeds, is a human process. We are natural selectors. (Think: Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, or his TED talk on what the lawn wants.)

Ask yourself: did you write that poem about that nightingale singing because there's something (the muse!) in you that decided that was what you needed, or did the nightingale learn to sing just like that to mess with your head? If we could translate the nightingale's song, wouldn't it really just be unspooling a tickertape of pornography about how big its sexual organs are and, Come get some, luvvrrrbrrrrds!

I'd completely side with Shoptaw on his disagreement with Morton's reading of Bernstein's poem. Bernstein's piece is just having a larf, as they say, and that's OK. No amount of excessive critical analysis can do away with the fact that it's an amuse bouche, so why spend so much energy on this, rather than one of Bernstein's more substantial offerings?

But let's not devalue Morton's right to choose to display his ecocritical perspective where he so wishes. That in itself is the point: you can read a depth of relevant, ecological thinking, into just about anything, and why not? Morton's attention to how a material space is constructed by the poem demonstrates a particularly expansive (ha-ha!) capacity for ecopoetics. Shoptaw's rejection of this in favour of taxonomising ecopoems suggests critical closure, an attempt to control discourse.

Instead of Morton, let's draw on some recent thinking in material ecocriticism (see Iovino and Oppermann's edited book of that title). Naturecultures can (should!) be thought of as collections of imbricated spectra and relations. Note the plural: there's more than one way to gut a (canoe)fish, or read/write ('wread' sayeth Jed Rasula in This Compost [3]) about the world.

We might separate between things that are more man-made than not, we might attempt to invent a language for the non-human, or extra-human (see, e.g. Les Murray's 'Bats Ultrasound' which captures a piece of bat-prayer in recorded ultrasound, really an attempt to empathise within the language of bats). But you ignore the natural elements informing even the most man-made built environment at your own risk, as much as vice versa, particularly in the fraught realms of current ecological destruction. That cobweb in the corner of the room might be holding the building up.


Srsly, you've read this far, just tune in again tomorrow.


[2] Reading this book gave me nightmares. I once failed to remember the title, some months after reading it because I had repressed it, so overwhelmingly depressing it was. And I read the revised edition, where, in the intervening space of 20 years, humanity had done nothing to slow down carbon emissions or fossil fuel dependency – in fact had increased usage exponentially – and McKibben noted the irrational failure of our species to curb its oil addiction. Hence, now, I feel the metaphor is apt: a slow-motion suicide leap; inevitable now. Get used to hopelessness, there's only planning for collapse left to us. (Also, have you changed the oil in your car recently?)

[3] This one's a little more esoteric. I treat it as poetry, of sorts, something to be enjoyed for its language, for its play, as much as the ideas it infers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bit of an episode 6 this-pause, deferral, parentheses, further reading, go for a smoke, but that's OK, that's OK. 4/5 will be a cracker.