GT yammering about John Shoptaw's essay, this time with his D&G hat on. No, the other D&G...
Another example of the problems in Shoptaw's taxonomic approach emerges in his reading of Brent Cunningham's 'Bird & Forest.' He criticises the echoes in Cunningham's line about how the bird “doesn't think, but uses the machine of instinct buried in its flesh, a device wrapped in an assembly.”
For Shoptaw, the word “machine” invokes Descartes' description of animals as “mere animated automatons, devoid of thought or emotion.” So the essay argues against an anthropocentric stance in Cunningham's poem, which “soars above vulgar reality into postmodern pastiche.” Initially I'm in agreement with Shoptaw's stance, which takes against Descartes, and, thereby indirectly, the hierarchical, anthropocentric divisions between animal and human.
But can 'Bird & Forest' be both postmodern pastiche and grounded in early modern philosophy, without demonstrating some criticality about Descartes? (No, obvs.) The line about the bird as 'machine' and 'assembly' should trigger the nervous tic of anyone who's read Deleuze and Guattari. Shoptaw has overlooked the contemporary philosophical vocabulary referenced by Cunningham's piece, which is very likely a better channel for reading the line.
Taken through D&G's philosophical readings of material experience, their refutation of binary, or Cartesian, logic, their postmodern approach to reading all 'nature' not as a series of discrete boxes, but as a continuous series of processual becomings and imbrications (plateaus, planes of immanence, assemblages, machines, and so on), Cunningham's poem evokes a very different sense of the bird and the forest in those lines. That's a long sentence, I know, but I prefer to condense D&G into near-meaningless sound bites because it gets funny reactions from D&G scholars.
My reading of the poem through D&G, and critique of taxonomic philosophical approaches, bears out if you return to the extract from 'Bird & Forest' included in The Arcadia Project. It's a far more complex work than the two lines Shoptaw quotes. Those two lines are even taken from two separate sections in a poem with several parts, the last several of which are all notes to the first two (called, respectively, PRINCIPLE OF THE FOREST and PRINCIPLE OF THE BIRD). As the poem offers in Note 10:
I began by writing anything, in any order, as awkwardly as it could be, at any time. And I discovered, as I wanted to, a method. Not a perfected one, but one day…................Language doesn't become strange by torturing it. It becomes strange by giving it a task too simple to complete. Look at the poor thing, pressed by the illogics of being, trying to fly between some clearing and other.
Cunningham's poem addresses at least some of the philosophical methodologies underpinning how to read nature, by which we describe something as 'bird' and another thing as 'thought.' Through D&G, or (perhaps more accessibly) recent material ecocriticism, eco-thinkers have begun to consider not just the material qualities of language – the subjectile qualities of pen, paper, ink, the toxicity of production processes, the energy that goes into making a book – but also the material qualities of thought: the neurons that fire off in delight when you see a bird flying through branches and the contrast of light and shadow in a forest; the way we have constructed a series of material, natural-based metaphors for flights of fancy and trains of thinking, or twittering for social interactions, to ground the line from matter to mental processes. What about the ideological frames through which we relate to the world? Material processes drive thought, what happens when we think of thought as matter?
Underpinning 'Bird & Forest' is an interrogation of rational philosophical processes, a challenge to the idea of an axiomatic, human-centric, non-messy, dematerialised understanding of the real world and how we relate to it. How self and world co-produce each other, even as we pretend otherwise. How this pretence filters out into ecological damage.
Perhaps the poem isn't explicit enough for Shoptaw's argument; perhaps it allows me to reach a similar point of ecological thinking as that allowed by Juliana Spahr's poem, but by other means, because of my particular training, thinking, development; because of my ecopoetics. Perhaps, more importantly, the taxonomic approach ignores the structural environmental politics because it does not require the reader elevate to the level of current ecological thinking necessitated by climate change, instead bogging itself down in mere content, subject matter, themes.
Last part tomorrow, you're a trooper!
Last part tomorrow, you're a trooper!