You set me free by loving me, by re-membering our mutual majesty in The Rootbed before Time. Mary Wollstonecraft—writer; philosopher; and activist—reminds those of her era, and posterity still today, of our divinely stemming rights to grow in virtue and blossom in truebeauty, no matter our sex. In her revolutionary 18thcentury text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft argues with conviction for the emancipation of women from the life-stunting-life-sentence they are enculturated to perform from birth. The role and nature of love is central to Wollstonecraft’s critique, but its meaning is ambiguous by the varied way she employs the word. In this essay I sift through the guises of love in her words as an effort to make distinctions, thereby amplifying the meaning of true love in its relation to freedom as comportment to the divine.
Wollstonecraft’s entire argument for the emancipation of women derives its force from their status as human beingswith the self-same capacity to develop moral virtue as their male counterparts. In her estimation, culture has nipped this universal, inborn potential of women in the bud: “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”The form of beauty Wollstonecraft references is more a perversion than a semblance of truth, for it renders women “in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”The only form of love such a degraded state would inspire from others is a paltry one—a sister to pity.In exchange for this kind of socialization, Wollstonecraft offers her own ideal:
The most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart…to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason.
The actualization of one’s virtue—whether male or female—lies here in the cultivation of both the animal and divine aspects of our being, what makes us human. In protest to those who would bind her to a fate wholly determined by her body, Wollstonecraft invokes the “immortal soul,”
Not restrained by mechanical laws and struggling to free itself from the shackles of matter, [the soul] contributes to, instead of disturbing, the order of creation, when, co-operating with the Father of spirits, it tries to govern itself by the invariable rule that, in a degree, before which our imagination faints, regulates the universe.
To be continuous with the divine Sublime is to partake in it. The sexes may differ in respect to their physicality, but the capacity for virtue is essential to all human beings and transcends the world. This freedom, once won, enjoins the creature to rhyme with creator in the unfolding of nature’s poetry.
Freedom arises for the individual in measure with the conditions that allow her to actualize it. Culture may determine how fully I can live out my virtue, but it ultimately falls on me to recognize my essence in the mirror. But how? “To love God as the fountain of wisdom, goodness, and power appears to be,” writes Wollstonecraft, “the only worship useful to a being who wishes to acquire either virtue or knowledge.”True freedom, for Wollstonecraft, derives from my reverence for God as creator in my reverence for the majesty of my self as created. True freedom as self-respect, as true love. To love oneself is to will one’s independence “as a being who discharges the duties of its station.”Love of others, in truth, must flow from the same wellspring in which I glimpse my own divinity—the other as free; the other whose dignity I celebrate as my own. True love is thus the keystone of the polis. A just society is one that functions like an organism, enculturating “the tendency of all the parts toward a common centre”—namely, personal virtue.
Wollstonecraft’s caricature of the infantilized woman, curated for weakness, is not a rejection of what is female, but a provocation of her inherent power. Wollstonecraft, the sister of true love, sees through charades, enjoining all souls to reclaim their divinity. I hear you, sister! Yet, I wish to draw out the possibility of true love and intimacy, flowered from a bed of friendship. Wollstonecraft’s account of late 18th century romance in Western Europe reports that, as the necessary “course of nature,” “friendship or indifference inevitably succeeds love.”She defines her use of love in this section as “the common passion, in which chance and sensation take place of choice and reason.”Wavering; obsessive; lusty—love here sounds more like infatuation. Elsewhere she writes again of love “subsiding into friendship, or,” with my emphasis on the “or,” “compassionate tenderness.”The latter is the kind of love I seek to amplify in Wollstonecraft’s words as true love, love as perception of and respect for the divine spark in another, while at once forgiving any faults in their finitude as fellow sufferer in the trials of time. Divinity begets a form of beauty visible in all, while finitude finishes peculiar for the eye of the beholder. Love’s excitation of passion and sexuality may waver but need not be thought contrary to virtue. Wollstonecraft’s goad is more toward maturity and self-possession than repression.Indeed, in the mergence of sexual union a truly intense apprehension of one and another’s divine origin may be had.
To amplify the words of Wollstonecraft, for me, means to illuminate what may already be there. The tragedies of her life tell a story of heartbreak and wishful homecoming in suicide attempts. I do not pretend to know whether her misfortunes rendered her jaded in the end. Rather, I lovingly lift her spirit and my chin in gratitude for the utopic visions she could apprehend. Wollstonecraft’s words remain relevant for a just politics and the human pursuit of a virtuous life, especially in our moment of ecological collapse. Her exclamatory lament over the violence that erupted in the French Revolution could well apply today if her moral ontology extended beyond humans. The front lines of crisis are everywhere, and with her I exclaim,
But, when men once see, clear as the light of heaven,—and I hail the glorious day from afar!—that on the general happiness depends their own, reason will give strength to the fluttering wings of passion and men will ‘do unto others, what they wish they should do unto them.’
By the light of heaven, a vision through love as truth, we might re-see the earthly being in mutual continuity with the divine and let our action follow suit. We might!
Wollstonecraft, Mary, and Deidre Shauna Lynch. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, and Contexts Criticism. New York: Norton, 2009.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism, ed. Desire Shauna Lynch (New York / London,W.W. Norton & Company University Press, 2009), 48.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 12.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 24.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 52.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 50.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 153.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 33.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 35.
Mary Wollstonecraft, from An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution in A Vindication of the Rights of Women: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism, 266.
“Mommy Mnemosyne. “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?” Mnemosyne, Greek Goddess of Memory, mother of the nine Muses—those spirits who inspire our creative expression. I mantra “Mommy Mnemosyne” as a humble gesture in response to the burning questions I came into the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program with. Questions like “Who am I?” “What does it mean to be human?” And “how am I to live?” Questions that burn with considerable intensity in our moment of planetary madness. Confronting the ecological crisis we face today means facing up to the crisis of human consciousness, too—for both stem from a crisis of story. The basic insight of ecology is that all things exist in relationship; the crises we face today spring largely from a form of human consciousness that experiences itself as separatefrom the nonhuman world. To restore our connection to each other and the nonhuman world, we must tell different stories, stories that are vested on a recognition of relationship in respect of difference—what I call creative remembrance. The muses may inspire the songs of our lives, but it is Mnemosyne from whom they respire and to whom we all must pay tribute. In what follows I attempt my own creativeremembrance as an ethical practice of poetry for re-storying in myself and others a felt participation in the whole of cosmic ecology.
“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”I am sixteen when I hear the preceding lyrics for the first time, lyrics which begin a song titled “Reunited” by the synthpop band Fan Death. As the song goes on, its subject—though uncanny—sweeps over my body like a memory: “This is a coin for the well,” the vocalists sing, “I wish my wrongs were righted, just want be reunited. I had to face (pace) the world and go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Something deep inside me nods with understanding at the message of the song. I can’t explain what it means or how I know it, but that I do feels indisputable, like a memory. A reunion? I’ve got goosebumps! How could this be? The lyrics of “Reunited” resonate—for me—with a universal tenor that renders the song into a form of “poetry” with all the majesty that the Romantic poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley affords the word in his Promethean essay, “A Defense of Poetry.” “Poetry, in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’:and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”And what, Sir Shelley, is it the nature of the imagination to express? Well, as the “principle of synthesis,” Shelley replies, the imagination
has for its objects those forms which are common to universal nature and existence itself…[whereas] reason is the enumeration of things already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.
Imagination for Shelley is therefore the underlying dynamismthat constitutes the perceiver and the perceived. In the same vein, reason—as Shelley has it—is that through which consciousness is able to differentiate itself from its percepts. As the prime expression of imagination, poetry is thus the means of imaginatively apprehending and evoking the underlying relationship that constitutes the “similitudes of things.” From this perspective, the uncanny familiarity that characterized my initial (and present) experience of the song “Reunited” speaks to its status as a poem for its power to evoke the relational rhythm which undulates through the cosmos from the Mother of all things—a creativeremembrance. Mnemosyne (the Greek Goddess of memory) was the mother of the nine muses after all.
Unfortunately, Shelley’s Promethean championship of poetry leads him to elevate what he calls “poetry in a more restricted sense,” or what most conventionally understand poetry to be (i.e. arrangements of human language in meter), above his generalized conception of it. Rather than perpetuate anthropocentric notions of poetry, I depart from Shelley here by leveling metered poetry with poetry in general as poesis, what in Greek originally meant the creationof novelty. Poetry in general naturalizes meaning, bridging the gap between nature and culture. That this is indeed the case is evident in Shelley’s description of human nature, a description that is essentially relational (ecological!):
Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to an ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them . . . 
To be fully human is to adjust oneself as instrument so as to harmonize with “that which strikes” the notes of inspiration. Remarkably, this potential to attune is one that Shelley postulates for all sentient beings, a potential that is vested on the “principle” of imagination as the foundation of relationship. “To be a poet,” writes Shelley “is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.”To be a poet, therefore, is to comport oneself to the larger rhythms of ecological being and rhyme along with them. Human beings, then, are not the only poets, and in light of the ecological crisis we would do well to heed the singing action of earth’s nonhuman denizens. Just as sunflowers follow the light, dancing through life in echoes of their origin, so too might human poeisis strike a chord of remembrance in songs of storied anamnesis. As the vocalists of Fan Death sing, “I had to face the world to go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Mommy Mnemosyne is calling!
Creative remembrance begins with Mnemosyne as memory and ends with the Muses in fresh expressions of poetry. Examples of it may resemble what is conventionally understand as poetry, but put simply, creative remembrance refers to a way of life—the path of beauty. The path is tread by attuning to the beautiful, what Shelley identifies as the “highest pleasure” derived from the partial apprehension of a rhythmic order underlying experience. “Taste” is the faculty through which one might discern and through expression approximate to beauty’s apprehension. “Those in whom it exists in excess,” writes Shelley, “are poets… and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community.”The former describes the process whereby a sensitive individual conveys to others in her social group a felt sense of beauty in the aesthetically ordered cosmos which is then mimicked and circulated, leading to an attunement of the entire group with the cosmic wavelength. Yet, because the rhythm continues to undulate, the remembrance must continually renew its expression—lest it stultify into the dead letter. “Their language,” writes Shelley, speaking of poetry here in the restricted sense, “is vitally metaphorical;”
that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.
Just as Mnemosyne gives birth to the Muses, remembrance of the divine in beauty as its ordered footprint requires an ongoing act of creative retranslation as it transforms through time. Maintaining that relationship for the sake of fresh apprehension is crucial for human social organization and cooperation with the larger nonhuman community of cosmic ecology. As Carl Gustav Jung famously recorded in his mythopoetic work, Liber Novus, “to give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation…The task is to give birth to the old in a new time.”
It has become clear that the apprehension of beauty requires an ongoing practice of sensitivity and translation, but the how of all this remains unclear. How does one practice a life of poetry? “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will.”Rather, as the prime expression of imagination, poetry’s inspiration is more a gift than anything else, for it depends upon the. underlying relationship between the perceiver and perceived. “It [poetry] subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things… strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”“Poetry,” Shelley declares, “defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.”“I had to face (pace) the world,” sing the vocalists, “and go from blind to sighted / For us to be reunited now / I’m seeking a flame that / Will parch out the heavy / Uncharted waters on my heart / And I’m collecting memories / As reward for my melancholy.”“It reproduces,” insists Shelley, “the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”I alternate the lyrics of Fan Death’s “Reunited” with Shelley’s philosophy of poetry to amplify my insistence that the song and its impact on me amounts to an experience of grace afforded by its poetic power to “subdue to union… all irreconcilable things,” what I am here calling creative remembrance. Though I may—as a sentient being—have the capacity to cultivate myself enough to receive this gift, its givenness transcends my agency. “My” being is therefore fundamentally ecstatic. To realize this is to remember who I am, a memory of communion I must constantly renew in the ongoing transformations of time. Mnemosyne keeps her daughters close.
Because creative remembrance as a practice of self-and-world reunion is an art of time, its primary form is story—for how else can a life be recounted and understood? Shelley’s elevation of poetry in a restricted sense leads him to rank it above story, but in my reading his general use of the former renders the hierarchy untenable. Herein lies the reason for my use of the phrase “creative remembrance,” a phrase which I hope conveys the rhythmic integration of whole with part that characterizes poetry as an expression of the imagination. When Shelley insists that “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted,” he speaks to the aforementioned integration, a formal quality that he says is not present in story as “a catalogue of detached facts.”Perhaps the reader will side with me in dismissing Shelley’s devaluation on the premise of experience: good stories do fulfill this function, for what make them goodis typically their universal resonance expressed in a particularity that connects us with the subject despite our differences. Indeed, it is in the province of narrative as drama that Shelley locates the highest expression of imagination in its power to cultivate the moral virtue that lies dormant in all human beings. The stage presents a synthesis of poetic arts and performs life aspoetry:
The tragedies of the Athenian poets are mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become.
Spectators are then thrust back into a mundane revivified by poetry’s power of formal integration as creative remembrance, making possible the imaginative reunion of life as “a detached catalogue of facts” with the meaningful life of the whole. The former amounts to life lived as poetry, dancing through time along the path of beauty. Shelley’s emphasis on the dramatic transmission of poetry for moral formation underscores the performativity of a life storied in beauty.
Such a vision of life contrasts sharply with human existence as it is predominantly storied today. Reason, as a derivative of the underlying, relational activity of imagination, has won out in appearance as the more primary faculty for its success in mechanistic science and technological innovation. Reason thinks it’s the realest! To generalize, a Cartesian-Newtonian story of dead matter bifurcated from the exceptional human psyche has reigned supreme over the last few centuries. The consequences are manifold, but told simply, the narrative paints a bleak picture of human subjectivity alienated from a world in which it naïvely makes pretense to a meaningful life:
The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind?
Without imagination, there can be no real self-knowledge of what it means to be human; the underlying relationship between mind and nature has been forgotten. The loss of that relationship ripples out in division after division until we become a species at war with itself; a psyche at war with itself. Yet, in our moment there is hope for remembrance as human civilization comes to gripswith the ecological crisis. In a reversal of human reason’s ascent, decades of scientific evidence pointing to an anthropogenic acceleration of climate change provide a clear corrective to the mainstream story of nature versus culture. Instead, neologisms like Donna Haraway’s “naturecultures” characterize what seems to be an awakening paradigm of creativity and relationship.
Recent discoveries in microbiology and quantum physics reveal a more unpredictable and responsive universe than mainstream science has hitherto been willing to admit. In her article titled “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” Serpil Oppermann relates these discoveries—discoveries which imply the coconstitution of matter and meaning—to the burgeoning field of material ecocriticism. The latter concerns itself with the material-semiotic, or the expressive creativity undulating through matter reconceived as lively.
“Everything in the physical environment,” writes Oppermann, “enacts a complex dynamic between social subjects and material processes not reducible to a subject-object binary. Although the human agency is radically different from material agency, they significantly entail each other in an intersubjective way”Oppermann’s construal of material ecocriticism resonates with Shelley’s poetic philosophy of imagination as the underlying dynamism uniting all things. Indeed, in the shift from bifurcation to a dynamic vision of ecology, relationship becomes fundamental; and “on this fusion of horizons, we find creative materiality encoded in a collective poetryof life.”To declare human life poetry itself amounts to a truism in this paradigm of “vibrant matter,” and so too its expression in story:
With its creative energy, matter emerges in meaningfully articulate forms of becoming that can be interpreted as storied matter…a nonanthropocentric conceptualization of materiality that acknowledges a creative disclosing of processes where materiality projects a lively impetus… For material ecocriticism, the creative becoming is the storied world…filled with narrative agencies that restore the world’s immanent capacity of enchantment and creativity.
Photons perform according to how we measure them; smoke stories the sky with omens of forest fire; bacteria speak to each other in chemical symbols. “This creativity can be interpreted as a form of narrative transmitted through the interchanges of organic and inorganic matter, the continuity of human and nonhuman forces, and the interplay of bodily natures, all forming active composites.”Nature turns out to be a book that we can read and be read in ourselves.
Oppermann identifies the meaningfulness of matter as its claim to “narrative agency,” a concept that troubles bygone dualisms of absurdist human freedom defiant of its otherwise determined universe. “Narrative agency, writes Oppermann, “is the world’s reenchanting property,”
characteristic not only of biological organisms…but also of the most elementary physical units. Different from personification, which attributes human traits to objects or ideas, narrative agency does not purport to enhance human qualities in fictive or material domains; rather, it denotes the vitality, autonomy, agency, and other signs that designate an expressive dimension in nonhuman entities…Therefore, narrative agency can be defined as a nonlinguistic performance of matter manifesting itself often in expressive collectives.
Shakespeare’s famous line, “All the world’s a stage,” no longer makes sense in the paradigm espoused by material ecocriticism.The world is not a static platform upon which human dramas unfold but is instead an active player shaping the story itself. Though there may be some aspects of Shelley’s philosophy to discard (e.g. the anthropocentric elevation of linguistic poetry), his overall scheme already presents a creative world of rhythm that resonates with the concept of narrative agency and instructs human participation in it. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”The song of the world speaks inside me like the phantom sensation of ocean waves I feel after a day at the beach. From the very beginning it is nonhuman nature that inspires and guides the human expression of poetry toward the blossoming of virtue. “Even in the infancy of society,” Shelley continues, human beings “observe a certain order in their words and actions, distinct from that of the objects and the impressions represented by them, all expression being subject to the laws of that from which it proceeds.”Thus, the formation of human culture arises in conversation with agencies of the local ecology which are ultimately continuous with the life of the whole cosmos. It is only once the human reasoning capacity begins to forget its dependence on imagination that the bifurcation of mind and nature can happen. How might we help to undo the separation? “This world of coconstituted beings,” writes Oppermann, “necessitates a different ethical stance, one that implies obligations for the world.”Poetry as I have construed it in this essay is a relational art aimed at evoking and invoking in others an attunement with matter’s aesthetic order (rhythm), what we might also call its underlying narrative power. Therefore, “telling stories and reading the storied world are means of understanding the creative experience that characterizes both humans and nonhuman natures.”The former is a practice of creative remembrance as poetic anamnesis, a recollection of the part we play in the story of cosmic ecology. Because stories of separation have been circulating through human civilization for a while, practicing creative remembrance foremost “means remaking our cultural codes and changing our basic conceptual structures so that we become more sensitive to the radical liveliness of the world.”
I decided to apply to the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program after a harrowing experience in the Amazon jungle three years ago that left me with a felt sense of the ethical stance Opperman invokes. Headfirst, I dive into a two-week Ayahuasca retreat under the spell of messianic inflation. I am on a quest to heal all my wounds andconduct preliminary research for a Fulbright project on ayahuasca tourism that will change the world—neither of which happen. Instead, my hubris is brought down to humus in a humiliating bout of breath that obliterates my buffered self. I’ve never appreciated ego more than during these moments in which I can’t discern voluntary respiration from involuntary, inside from outside, me from we, and so seek to control my experience for fear of death. Hyperventilation, tachycardia, and imminent doom punctuate my life regularly afterwards. I can’t notice my breath without freaking out. Mortality is not something I can forget now. The best medicine for bouts like these is prostration outdoors, my head in the dirt and fingers clutching at the grass. I submit to What is Greater than I and am overwhelmed with gratitude for one more day. The mundane world of even-breath sparkles anew for me. Suffering transfigures my perception of other beings and digs a deeper well for my compassion. The ethical stance Oppermann calls us to—an ethic of interdependence—is one that isn’t always obvious, but is something I have had vivid (and terrifying) apphrension of.
I leave Peru and arrive in California a bit jaded, disillusioned with the hubbub of psychedelic panaceas. It ain’t all crystals and rainbows and healing anacondas of love and barfing bliss. No, I know better. Despite my cynicism, the breathing trouble eventually calms down into an even rhythm. My studies in PCC help me to contextualize my experience as a spiritual emergence(y?); integration happens gradually as I share my experience with my peers and professors. I begin to reframe my experience as a profound gift, a confrontation with the existential truth of ecological being. To act with myself at the center, conforming the world to my will, no longer feels tenable—for now I am sure that who I am is more than just me. To keep this kind of awareness present is an act of creative remembrance, an ethical disposition that echoes Catherine Keller’s assertions about action in a world post-separation:
What makes action ethical will not then be the imposition of a law or application of a code, however uprightly progressive. It will be the self-implication of the agent in the act itself. The ethical action requires an actualization of ethos as attention to the sociality, human and not human, that constitutes you. Doing unto others what you would want them, under comparable circumstances, to do to you, lacks deontological or legal purity. For in its cultivation it does not deny or master the self’s desire. It widens it.
Creative remembrance is like the Golden Rule, the first lesson Mommy Mnemosyne imparts upon her nine inspired daughters. Remembering the whole in any given moment means remembering that what I do unto you (or anything for that matter), I do unto myself. Karma inheres in the unfolding storybook of matter at every creative juncture of action.
Throughout this essay I refer to creative remembrance as a “performance,” a term which carries over from Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity into Catherine Keller’s gesture toward an ethics of interdependence. “She [Butler] has us question a style of subjectivity,” explains Keller, “repeated as though it is the essential core of a particular subject and thus concealing repetition itself.”Butler’s queer theory originally begins with a challenge to gender essentialism, but eventually zooms out to question the ontological presuppositions of a certain style (story?!) of subjectivity—namely, of self-and-world separation. To remember the whole in our self-conception is an act, an intentional cultivation of a certain style of subjectivity, and simultaneously an ethic of interdependence:
We compose ourselves, nurtured or degraded by our relations, indeed by whole systems, families, groups, and institutions of relations, as best we can. And however well or ill sustained I am by my world, no “I”—albeit perishing—is a mere function of its environment. And, in ways never fully predictable, that social world will be affected—if only in a minor fold, a hidden nuance—by each momentary act of self-composition. Still, from the perspective of any relational thinking, the relationality does not become ethical unless in some way acknowledged. With whatever stylized repetitions we perform ourselves, our sex/genders, our ethnicities and economies and species, we may veil or reveal our interdependence.
Creative remembrance is therefore an ongoing performance of revelation through which we intentionally story our lives in tribute (acknowledgement) to the underlying relationships that constitutes self and other. My battle with breath taught me how destabilizing realizing one’s interdependence with others can be. What we think is private turns out to be public in what may rightly be called an invasion of the self—the self’s undoing. The meshwork of ecological being is stupefying; where do “I” begin and end? “Relation,” writes Keller,
is appearing as a tie or fiber in a network whose edges fade not into a void but into unknowability. To come undone is to come into question—come unknown, “blinded,” even to ourselves. But the nonknowing that at that moment displaces a cozy core of “self” marks not only identity loss but the enlivening glimpse of an alternative. The ties of relation form the potentiality that offers itself as a gift amidst the very losses relations themselves repeatedly inflict.
Exchanging my “cozy core of self” for “nonknowing” is the wound of realization, one which dulls over time into a humility that remembers its roots in the unspeakable. Bearing the burden of mystery is part of the brunt of being fully human in the performance of creative remembrance. But as Keller points out, something is gained in loss, and that is the gift of novelty: “Far from being further dissipated by a widened sociality and paralyzed by its implicate undefinablities,” writes Keller, “the subject mindful of its unknowing minds the world afresh.”Keller’s insistence on the gift of fresh vision resonates with my gratitude for the givenness of life upon. It’s no surprise that so many of the world’s spiritual traditions encourage contemplative practices of breath—for what could be a closer reminder of our interdependence with the life of the whole than our reliance upon oxygen?
To speak of our reliance upon oxygen is to invoke our ancient cyanobacterial ancestors who catalyzed what is called the Great Oxygenation Event over one to three billion years ago. Because of them we are. The existence of homo sapiens today owes itself to more than just cyanobacteria though. Where would humanity be without our historical collaborations with (and exploitations of) horses, corn, penicillin, or conifer trees? These are just a few of the obvious members of the earth community that we’ve evolved alongside with over the centuries, but given that our planet is an entire system of relationships, our livelihoods have in truth always been bound up with species as far away as the opposite end of the globe. Yet, because climate change and the globe itself are hyperobjects—entities so vast we can only conceive of them abstractly—it’s hard to feel any genuine connection to species that seem remote from us. Despite how difficult it may be, an ethics of interdependence demands that we muster enough imagination to try. What is the appropriate response to the growing number of species who are vanishing from the earth forever? Meditating on her grief for marginalized peoples whose rights to personhood have been denied reality by their oppressive culture, Butler describes how collective grief typically “furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”To mourn the lives of human beings whose personhood was stripped in life for defying conventions of gender and sexual expression is to perform an ethics of interdependence in responsibility to the human other. The same goes for nonhuman beings, species we are losing f o r e v e r as a result of a style of subjectivity that only considers their instrumental value. “Why,” asks Keller,
would not the restoration of interdependence widen and enrich both the process of grieving and the sources of survival, comfort, and renewal? Moreover, the singularities of loss are not just human. An ethics of interdependence opens into the lives of untold human populations without then drawing the line at nonhumans. We may grieve them singly or as whole environments; and they also grieve.
There is perhaps no better way of acknowledging our coconstiution with the nonhuman world than to grieve the members who vanish from our planet life daily. There are only two female white rhinos left in the world. What would it mean for us if both were to pass away before having children? Who would we be without birdsong and cricket chirps and fireflies? To grieve is nonhumans is to acknowledge them as our kin, and in so doing, widen the body politic to the body of the Earth.
Once we acknowledge our grief for the world and let the feelings flow, the imperative to act in accordance to an ethic of interdependence becomes obvious. Yet, today we are so mired in systems of non/human oppression and exploitation that conceiving of a way to act for the benefit of all seems impossible—and it is. The guilt may be crippling, leading us to dissociate out of feelings of powerlessness. How do we dismantle a hyperobject like the ecological crisis? In this world of narrative agency from which our meager power to act derives, there are no quick fixes; no clear answers; no hands clean of the another’s suffering. Even so, there is hope—but we must throw out the scripts that would story our lives in separation. In her essay on the same subject, ecocritic Tessa Shewry helps me understand what that means: “To hope,” writes Shewry “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the awareness of a sensibility awake to ecological its enmeshment. I find Shewry’s take a helpful corrective for my personal understanding of hope conditioned by a belief in certainties. Instead of hoping as a clinging to visions of “should-be,” “to hope is to sparkle with potential…to veer away from optimism if the latter implies confidence in achieve a certain goal, assumes the rectitude of that goal, and insists on a future that we could control.”Instead, to hope is to remain painfully present “in an intimate, embodied experience of moving into an unknown future.”Storied this way, hope becomes tantamount to what I have here been calling creative remembrance, the recollection of our ecological embeddedness in the life of the whole—a transfiguration of our lives into poetry. How to create a life in wake of the Anthropocene? “Remember,” whispers the Muse into my ear. Remember: “Mommy Mnemosyne. “MommyMnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?”
Jung, C. G., and Sonu Shamdasani. The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.
Keller, Catherine. Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. New York: Colombia University Press, 2015.
Opaine, Dandilion Wind (Fan Death), “Reunited” from “Womb of Dreams,” Toronto: Last Gang Records, 2010.
Oppermann, Serpil. “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency.” In Material Ecocriticism, edited by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino, 21-36. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.
Shakespeare, William, from “As You Like It,” Website. May 6, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf.
Shewry, Teresa. “Hope.” In Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeremy Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, 455-468. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf, 1.
Ibid., emphasis mine.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.
Ibid., my emphasis.
C.G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. (W. W. Norton, 2012), 311.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 17.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 4-5.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 8.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 16.
Serpil Oppermann, “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” in Material Ecocriticism, ed. by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 27.
Oppermann, From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” 34.
Ibid., my emphasis.
William Shakespeare, from “As You Like It,” Website. May 6, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.
Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. (New York: Colombia University Press, 2015), 218.
Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 288.
Teresa Shewry, “Hope,” in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking,ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 455.
Shewry, “Hope,” 464.
Be he more a realist in his cynicism than she with her fingers crossed in hope? Ney, I say! In this essay I champion the moral importance of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue in human beings. The value of fairy-stories for our time of uncertainty figures especially in their facility to condition those reared with them into hopeful creatures. By hope I mean that disposition of humility which admits miraculous possibilities of otherwise—possibilities, perhaps, of eucatastrophe. The latter is a term which the philologist and fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien coined to refer to the happy turn of events at the end of a tale that constitutes a proper fairy-story. Ecological virtue, I suggest, consists in a practice of eucatastrophic thinking and what John Keats’ called negative capability for an attunement to the rhythm of being. Both spring from love as “a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.”In what follows I argue that hope as an openness to the possibility of happy catastrophe is not merely wishful thinking or escapism, but is—in a deeper sense—a loving act of imagination for the welfare of the whole. The moral import of fairy-stories will become clear as a result of my argument, underscoring their importance for human cultures today who seek to engage the ecological crisis motivated by more than just fear.
“To hope,” writes the ecotheorist Tessa Shewry, “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”No matter how clean our footprint is, we cannot escape participating (however indirectly) in the suffering of others—yet still we must act. Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the imagination of one who is awake to their enmeshment in earthly ecology. But alas, hope is not a disposition that is so easy to come by. Fear has a much more familiar face. That this is so is evident in the mainstream discourse on the threats of climate change, or else we are subject to naïve technofix assertions as when manifest destiny extends to Mars. I have heard echoed over and over that it is easier for people today to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of the capitalist machine that is actively destroying it. How could this be? Why are we so wanting in hopeful imaginaries of otherwise? The poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley might answer by pointing to “the extinction of the poetical principle” in popular society.The latter, says Shelley, is “connected with the progress of despotism and superstition,” developments in which human beings are not cultivated for freedom, but pitted against themselves and each other.Consumer choice masquerades as freedom in our time, but is in reality a byproduct of today’s cultural inundation with the manipulative magic of advertisement. Though for different reasons, Shelley’s description of the dark ages in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” bears a resemblance to our time in which human vices, rather than virtues, are encouraged:
Men had become insensible and selfish: their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of the will of others: lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud, characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of creating in form, language, or institution.
The poetical faculty Shelley alludes to requires a higher kind of freedom, one that is inherently ecological—for it locates its agency beyond the narrow confines of the buffered self. “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will… The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.”This higher freedom through which a being participates imaginatively in the life of the whole is what I call here inspired agency. For Shelley, the expression of such agency is poetry in general, and though one might argue that his elevation of poetry in a conventional sense (i.e. language arranged in meter) hints at his personal inflation, his overall philosophy emphasizes humility as the disposition through which poetry inspires. Like the smoldering coal, my receptivity to the swirling winds of ecological being allow them to pass through “me,” fanning the flames of imagination into visions of hopeful alternatives to capitalist catastrophes.
That Shelley, along with others before and after him, could ascend to heights of ego inflation reveals the danger of inspired agency despite its relational underpinnings. Imagination can be wielded for good andevil. It is hope—as I use the term in this essay—through which imagination may rhyme along in good faith with the primary creativity of natura naturans. “In hope,” invoking Shewry again,
we establish, feel, and express a relationship between things of this world (and through this world, the claims of the past) and the future in terms of openness and potential, loosening the hold of imagined futures said to be inevitable already. This is an embodied, unassuming, wordless relationship that is shaped by and at the same time nourishes ideas, or what one hopes for… Establishing a relationship of openness between present and future creates space not only for varied imaginaries of what might come but also for what we do now to enrich the future.
In contrast to the modernist pursuit of certainty and its hegemonies of “should,” Shewry’s construal of hope befits the human of an era like the Anthropocene in which all concepts of human activity must be ecologized. Hope here has much in common with what the poet John Keats sparsely described as “negative capability.” In a letter written to his brothers, Keats describes the latter as the capacity needed for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”Though negative capability may certainly require a willfulsuspension of interpretation, logic, and projection of possible outcomes, it is—as a practice—only half of the equation I insist on in this essay. The other half is in hope as a contemplative act, as eucatastrophic thinking—the caring embrace of what Keats following William Wordsworth called the “burden of Mystery.” To contextualize that burden, I quote at length Keats’ poetic philosophy of life from another letter to fellow poet J. H. Reynolds:
Well—I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery,’To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them.
The Anthropocene is a time of “Mist;” the more we humans realize our enmeshment in the unpredictable feedback loops of earthly ecology, the more we are mystified by the question “what to do about it?” Some answers may be better than others, but none have the privilege of resolute correctness in what Keats calls the Chamber of Maiden-Thought. The latter might be interpreted as the Chamber of sensual experience, through which an individual’s curiosity is awakened and conditioned by the events of life. This Chamber, Keats tells us, has the potential of “convincing one’s nerves” that fear and hopelessness are the most appropriate responses to the sufferings of time—for what purpose can reason make of a world writhing in so much pain? No answer is sufficient. Why should I go on? If the cultivation of ecological virtue is vested on the recognition of relationship as fundamental, then to be virtuous means to realize that “I” am more than just myself. To say this is one thing, but to know it is another: to know oneself as the whole of cosmic ecology is humiliating in the literal sense of “being brought close to earth;” despair bottoms out into compassion for others in what is truly a shared suffering.Ecologized sensibility—if it is true—is necessarily hopeful even as it bears the burden of Mystery because the individual bearing it knows that they are not alone. Hope is the hand we hold as we feel our way through “those dark Passages” of life’s Mansion of Many Apartments. Hope is knowing that we are in this together.
Shelley’s philosophy of poetry is helpful for more than just diagnosing the ills of today. His assertion that corruption is typically keyed with the absence of the “poetical principle” underscores its importance for organizing an ecologically just society. To understand Shelley’s generalized notion of poetry, we must understand what he means by imagination. Shelley designates the latter as that synthetic activity through which we have experience. Imagination is anterior to reason, or the class of mental action which, Shelley writes, “may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another.”Reason is thus figured as the squire of imagination, the deeds of whom are taken back up by the latter “as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.” Imagination, therefore, is that primary creative activity rhyming the world and our experience into being and, at the same time, is that which we participate in when we rhyme along through the poetry of our lives. After all, “poetry,” in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’: and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”The latter point is crucial for understanding my insistence on the import of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue. Poetry, for Shelley, is not apart from the world—rather—it is that through we strive to synchronize with its underlying rhythm. To illustrate this attuning function of poetry, Shelley offers—among others—the example of a child at play:
A child at play by itself will express its delight by its voice and motions; and every inflexion of tone and every gesture will bear exact relation to a corresponding antitype in the pleasurable impressions which awakened it; it will be the reflected image of that impression; and as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away, so the child seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause. In relation to the objects which delight a child these expressions are what poetry is to higher objects.
The “impression” which the child mirrors in play is like the wind strumming through an Aeolian lyre; as actions which aim to prolong “consciousness of the cause,” both examples amount to poetry as expressions which reconcile the individual with the rhythmic life of cosmic imagination.
Whether as language written in meter or a life lived in accordance with earthly rhythms, poetry in general is any expressive activity that performs a reconciliation between the part and the whole—and is, for that reason, ecological (relational). Shelley’s conception provides a way of restoring the bridge between nonhuman nature and human culture, for it is the former which inspires the organization of the latter. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”The closest approximation to that “certain rhythm or order” is what we call beautiful, the experience of which is the highest pleasure, for it is an echo of our origin in divinity. Shelley says those who have the capacity to apprehend the beautiful are poets and have major sway, for their expression “communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community,” allowing the entire group to organize in accord with the beautiful rhythm and in so doing, attune to the song of cosmic ecology.But because cosmic imagination is creative, poetry is never-ending innovation and requires poets to stay on their toes! “If no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized,” Shelley warns us, “language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.”Before the human species began ratiocinating its way into imaginaries of separation, attunement was basic existence. Indeed, as Shelley writes,
in the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.
Human culture has not always storied itself apart from nonhuman nature; the roots of most words hint at this. But today, as in Shelley’s time, the dominant imaginary does not incline its adherents to experience themselves ecologically. Though all human beings may possess the capacity for poetry, today’s poets are those who for some reason or another are primed to feel through the imaginatively wrought boundaries of the buffered self. Thus, for their negative capability, poets are what we desperately need as we muster the courage to confront the unfolding ecological crisis. I am led to agree with Shelley in his dynamite declaration at the end of his essay: “Poets arethe unacknowledged legislators of the world.”What we need are exemplars of inspired agency!
For Shelley, the apotheosis of poetry happens on stage in drama for its multimedia mimesis of life. “The tragedies of Athenian poets,” insists Shelley,
are as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become. The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty, that they distend in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived… Neither the eye nor the mind can see itself, unless reflected upon that which it resembles. The drama, so long as it continues to express poetry, is as a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest rays of human nature and divides and reproduces them from the simplicity of these elementary forms, and touches them with majesty and beauty, and multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it with the power of propagating its like wherever it may fall.
When drama is at its best it presents a concentrated portrayal of human experience, shining with the “brightest rays of human nature” that then penetrate the audience and awaken those self-same qualities already resident within. Drama has the power to catalyze and cultivate human sensibility, shaping it to perform the values it narrates. In spite of his celebration of drama, Shelley disparages the form of story for its supposed disjunction with the whole:
The one [story] is partial and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.
Shelley’s disparagement of story is indeed strange if one accepts my extension of his general notion of poetry to individual life itself when it reconciles with the life of the whole. Is not story the means by which we might narrate our lives in wholeness? Moreover, does not every story have the potential to tell itself in such a way as to convey something universal of human experience?
In his defense of story, J. R. R. Tolkien contrasts wildly with Shelley’s celebration of drama, chiding the latter form’s pretense toward expressing the fantastic, which a feat like the reconciliation of the part with the whole certainly is. In his essay titled “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien introduces a similar philosophy of imagination, one that wonderfully introduces more terminological distinctions than Shelley’s affords. Tolkien’s focus in this essay is on “Fantasy,” or that operation “which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic.”For Tolkien, the “Primary World” is the expression of the Creator’s “Primary Art,” or the unfolding creativity of cosmic imagination. “Sub-creation” characterizes the activity of those who participate in Creation producing “Secondary Worlds,” the achievement of “which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” or “Secondary Belief.”Specifically, Fantasy is the style of sub-creation characterized by “a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression.”As works of Fantasy, fairy-stories work to restore our astonishment in life by presenting universal human experiences (much like in Shelley’s dramatic concentration of life) under the guise of impossible circumstances. In an effort to reconcile Shelley and Tolkien, we might call fairy-stories a fantastic form ofpoetry. Tolkien describes Fantasy’s awe-inducing power as a power of “recovery,” one that resonates with my insistence on restoring the human relationship to nonhuman nature:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.
Drama’s reliance on corporeality (performing bodies, costumes, props, stage sets, etc.) limits its ability to revivify perception. Dramatic attempts at Fantasy often fall flat or appear absurd. In Tolkien’s words, “men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy.”Rather, it is, as Tolkien insists, through words that Fantasy is rendered best, for
fairy-stories deal largely, (or the betters ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover and not her slave.It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
The power of fairy-stories to revivify the mundane, astonishing habitual perception into wide-eyed amazement with the beauty of nature is clearly important for our time. To cultivate ecological virtue we must recover an experience of the mystery and inherent value of the nonhuman world. The reality of such stories has a deeper valence than any nominalist understanding of language could admit. Though he is at times ambiguous, fairy-stories for Tolkien seem to deal with an actual realm—the realm of Faërie—in which denizens like the elves dwell. Fantasy as a capacity granted to the human being by imagination is in this purview inevitable, as are its sub-creations in which important truths about what it means to be human may be taught by the elves alone:
To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician. Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself. That creative desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist, or the malevolent frauds of the magicians… Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.
By “Enchantment” Tolkien refers to the elven craft of sub-creation in which the Secondary World is experienced with “Primary Belief,” a Fantasy so convincing that it is accepted as reality. At their best, elves demonstrate ideal sub-creation for human beings in what Shelley might call poetry, or the celebration of, reconciliation with, and “shared enrichment” of Creation—“partners in making and delight, not slaves.”
Finally we arrive at the end, the moment in which the harrowing events of a fairy-story take a miraculous turn toward a happy resolution—the eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic trope is not one of mere escapism, nor is it inherently childish. “It does not,” writes Tolkien,
deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief… in such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. 
That fateful gleam comes through to pierce our hearts with some uncanny truth that somehow makes the “burden of Mystery” lighter. Spellbound by Secondary Belief, our joy hints that the fantastic eucatastrophe may in some way actually
partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far- off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.
Human sensibility cultivated through a cultural practice of telling fairy-stories might thus be formed to feel through the “dark Passages” of life, candlelit by a hopeful disposition that flickers with eucatastrophic thought. To confront the ecological crisis we must both internalize an identity that exceeds our individuality and indwell a disposition of hope that is itself a loving practice of being ecological. Only when we think eucatastrophically can we muster the courage to press forward in the name of possibilities of otherwise. Rather than a parasite of the earth, let us—raised on heaping plates of fairy-story—be partners with our Creator; let us, as sub-creators, “assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”
Keats, John, from “Selections from Keats’s Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters.
Morton, Timothy.“Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford
Handbook of Ecocriticism, 291–304. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf.
Shewry, Teresa. “Hope.” In Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeremy Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, 455-468. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017.
Tolkien, J. R. R., “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf, 6.
Teresa Shewry, “Hope,” in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 455.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 11.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 17.
Shewry, “Hope,” 458.
John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.
John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.
Timothy Morton, “Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford
Handbook of Ecocriticism (Oxford UP, 2014), 291–304. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 1.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.
 Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 20, my emphasis.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 8.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 5.
J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf, 6.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 5.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 9.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 7.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,”10.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 8.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 13-14.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 14.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 15.
This piece was written for a course I took during the fall titled, “A Brief History of Western Thought.” For my midterm assignment I chose to write a manifesto inspired by the life of Lady Anne Conway and her single, yet comprehensive text—The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.
Manifesto of Pain
“At the end of my suffering there was a door,”and through that door—I declare—is the meaning and worth of our pain. Please, hear me out—for I believe the salvation of our planet depends on it. Smoke fills the San Francisco skyline on a day I expected to be clear and warm. It isn’t until after I begin to feel inflamed and light-headed that I discover what I mistook for a surprise cloud cover is actually the echo of a wildfire screaming through Chico less than 200 miles north. The question, “what’s wrong with me?” is answered as air pollution that invades every respiring creature around. “My” pain zooms out and becomes ecological, becomes our pain. The question reframes: “what’s wrong with us?” 17thcentury philosopher-heroine Lady Anne Conway offers an answer and means of transmutation by indwelling the question itself. Holding her hand, I extend mine to yours so that together we may lean in and gain clarity through compassion.
It is fitting that Rene Descartes, the boogeyman of Western thought, be supplanted by one of his first major critics. Pulling back the tide of modernity, we invoke the voice of the late, great Lady Anne Conway as the siren to usher in an enchanted world view, synthesizing the old with the new. In her singular, yet comprehensive text, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Conway persuades us to consider a story of body and mind that “out-narrates”such Cartesian plot twists as the hard problem and the gulf between the divine and the worldly. We hold that Conway’s perspective has more semblance with lived experience and we base that belief in pain. As a woman, it is no surprise that Conway would figure in as one of the most persuasive opponents of Cartesianism. Menses does not permit as easy a dissociation of mind from body that men may fall subject to. That Conway suffered from an incapacitating and incurable headache condition only amplified her insightful rebuttal. “If one should say that dead matter has metaphysical truth and goodness, to the extent that every being is true and good,” Conway asks, “what is truth or goodness? For, if it [dead matter] shares nothing of the communicable attributes of God, it will not be true or good, and consequently, will be an utter fiction.”Our declaration inspires from her ontology, a story of a cosmos created by and soaked with the vitality of a living God.
Guided by Conway, we “proceed securely in the middle way of truth concerning the nature of substance,”between the dualism of Descartes and the monism of Spinoza. In her innovation, there are three forms of being: the singular, self-subsistent and immutable infinity of God; the metaxic being of the Messiah, between the immutable and mutable; and the mutable being of Creation. God’s personality includes traits that can and can’t be spoken:
The incommunicable [traits or attributes] are that God is a being subsisting by himself, independent, immutable, absolutely infinite, and most perfect. The communicable attributes are that God is spirit, light, life, that he is good, holy, just, wise, etc. Among these communicable attributes there are none which are not alive and life itself.
Descartes’ dead matter becomes a fiction in Conway’s ontology, “for what attributes or perfections,” she demands to know, “can be assigned to dead matter which are analogous to those in God?”None, we declare. Her world-story makes sense of the perceived dualism of body and soul by recognizing them as different shades along the spectrum of Creation as living Spirit, made in the image of a living God.
With the “hard problem” dismissed as mere fancy, we are freed up to concern ourselves with realproblems: ouch, something hurts; my head, it aches from the wildfire echo suffusing the sky I breathe—what of pain? How could the goodness of God subject me to suffering? Conway, like Christ, is an exemplar of how we fellow sufferers ought to hold our woe. Being mutable, the body of Creation is subject to change; time; decay. As self-subsistent being, God’s infinity holds hercaptive and powerless over our direct salvation, for God can have no real relations. But within each creature is an original shard of perfection, that sliver of broken mirror in my foot goading me toward something more. Besieged by headaches, Conway intensely strove to make sense of and transmute her own suffering. For her, freedom from pain lies in redemption through God’s love, a love that flows simply from the logic of Creation, “for he [God] gave existence, life, and motion to everything and he therefore loves everything and is unable to not love everything.”The drive to cease pain is the “divine law and instinct with which he [God] has endowed all rational creatures so that they will love him.”If we understand goodness, loving God is no strife, for goodness is Conway’s principle reason for love and God is its paragon. Being images of God herself, it is no wonder that God loves us, as love also inspires from similarity. But, one might ask, how is it possible that God could break through perfection to make love real?
As Creation, we know God’s love most intimately through each other. Love between us follows the logic of similarity; though “we include many individuals gathered into subordinate species and distinguished from each other modally,” difference is not essential for us, because
God has made all tribes and troops from one blood…so that they would love one another and would be bound by the same sympathy and would help one another. Thus God has implanted a certain universal sympathy and mutual love into his creatures so that they are members of one body…for whom there is one common Father, namely, God in Christ or the word incarnate…[and] one mother, that unique substance or entity from which all things have come forth.”
Our love for each other is the commonsense of our fundamental unity as one Creation; it awakens us to our origin in God’s goodness, moving us to participate in the immutable through the metaxy of Christ—the first Creature. As the first, Christ the Messiah is the most perfect of all Creatures and can only tend toward greater goodness. For Conway, Christ is the etheric substance joining infinity with time “like a most powerful and efficacious balm, through which all things are preserved from decline and death[;]…in assuming flesh and blood, he sanctified nature so that he could sanctify everything.”
Through Christ the woes of chronic time may be sanctified by the brilliant light of eternity. In Conway’s spectrum of being, sin and suffering are transfigured into ataxia, “or disorderly direction of motion;” in this case, motion away from the goodness of God.My pain is not a final judgement, rather, it is what spells my karmic inheritance in the undulating matrix of matter. The question is less about identity and more about action. In Conway’s example, just as the helmsman steering the ship “is neither author nor cause of the wind; but the wind blowing, he makes either good or bad use of it,” so too are we response-able for recognizing woe as blessing in disguise.Our pain is the key to Heaven on Earth, for, because “torment stimulates the life or spirit existing in everything which suffers…[,] it irrefutably follows that it [the Creature] must return toward the good, and the greater its suffering, the sooner its return and restoration.”
There is a telos in Conway’s story and its motor is pain. Through our response to suffering, Conway declares, “creatures may have the opportunity to attain, through their own efforts, ever greater perfection as instruments of divine wisdom, goodness, and power, which operate in them and with them. For in this the creatures enjoy greater pleasure.”Four hundred years after Conway’s treatise, we find ourselves in the midst of immense Creaturely pain. The threat to Earth’s achievement of complex life forms steepens the longer the human species remains dissociated from feeling the planet. Rather than point fingers at philosophical boogeymen or, on the other hand, pronounce that our species’ rite of passage necessitates the current devastation for realization, we must first open ourselves up to feel the suffering that is in no shortage within and “outside” human civilization. We must feelworld-pain. Hand in hand with Conway, I declare that—until we fully indwell our pain—a vision of divinized otherwise will not come. Will you join me in taking a deep breath of our polluted sky? Is there meaning in the marked brilliance of a wildfire sunrise? The wild iris answers: “at the end of my suffering there was a door. Hear me out: that which you call death, I remember.”
Conway, Anne. Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Edited by Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Corse, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Glück, Louise. “The Wild Iris.” PoemHunter.com, https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-wild-iris/. Accessed on 9 Nov. 2018.
Quote from Jacob Sherman in class on November 9th, 2018.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, ed. Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Crose (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 46.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 31.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 45.
We use the feminine pronoun in reference to God in order to offset the masculine default in hopes of underscoring the utter androgyny and queerness of such a being.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 47.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 31.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 27.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 58.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 43.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 66.
Glück, “The Wild Iris.”
I wrote this essay during the summertime as an expression of the personal reading I’d been doing at the time. I intended to reconcile what I’d learned about the ancient approach to philosophy as praxis with the more speculative gesture toward re-enchantment I’ve entertained. How can I make re-enchantment real for myself? How am I to live? This essay first outlines what kind of ontology might make that possible. Towards its end I begin developing a basic comportment of re-enchantment, one that emphasizes aesthetic appreciation. This is, of course, an ongoing inquiry for me.
I had the chance to present these ideas more than once, with the first talk taking place at Burning Man and the second at PCC’s retreat to Bishop’s Ranch at the end of September. I’m grateful for these opportunities, for they especially help me to integrate (perform) the vision I hope to one day more fully indwell.
I’ve included the video of the latter talk below and the essay itself below it.
The Fourth Wall Has Broken
How to translate these feelings to you?
I’ll warm up the light temperature, choose a faster shutter speed (this will be slowed-down in post), close down the aperture and keep the light sensitivity low;
I don’t want noise in the image.
Prime my focus on a subject set apart by a glowing outline, backlighting
Hitting my mark, I improvise with the script, speaking to the camera, breaking the fourth wall—the wall with which performers construct a fiction for themselves and their audience: This is the vision I manually construct for you, and in calling attention to it, I call attention to your own perception, your own potential to reconstruct a world-image for living. We are, like the machine modeled after our vision, a lens of the world realizing itself. We needn’t see byway of automatism, autofocusing and adjusting according to preset values dictated by our inheritance. “Performing Re-enchantment” is a style of crafting, not theimage of reality, but animage—one among others. Re-enchantment is an image that makes room for other stories, other enchantments. It allows for stories to resonate, but it also makes itself vulnerable to discord. Re-enchantment is an ecological reality, tentatively woven between perspectives in discord, resolution, and resonance. It depends upon a “we” for its composition. It is not an image of solipsism. Against the despot of the absolute and disembodied objectivity, it celebrates the part’s etheric complicity with the larger whole of undulating magic. Even still, it champions the part’s potential for self-creation and calls it to action.
Performing re-enchantment is a way of collapsing the divide constructed between my inside and my outside. It is the practice of tying myself back with the world. Through sense, I fall in love with the world as my own body. It is the way that I make my partial perspective a “truth,” a scaffolding of belief. Performing re-enchantment is my wakefulness to the art of perception. Perception becomes the primary medium, like the manual relationship of camera to world, for stylizing my participation and efficacy in the continuous medium of the ether, the cosmic imagination dreaming all into being.
Performing re-enchantment is grounded in the groundlessness of an aesthetic ontology. Following Matthew Segall in his dissertation, “The Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” I think thinking as a special form of feeling. An aesthetic ontology therefore bounds knowledge to the cosmically sensate. As Segall has it, thought has no privileged access outside of space-time, rather,
when we try to peer beyond the cosmos outside us, or plumb the depths of the psyche within us, we find only more appearances, an infinite ingression of appearances. When the understanding tries to reflectively grasp the infinity of aesthesis, it slips into an infinite regression. It fails to find an original ground or fundamental reason for the ongoing aesthetic genesis of the Universe. Only the creative imagination can intuit the meaning of the infinite aesthetic ingression of Beauty’s appearances.
Like the camera, the eye of the imagination is bound to thisworld—to others—and cannot create a pure image of what the world is really like. Rather, as waking dreams ourselves, we are lured toward instantiations of Beauty for “truth,” those mysterious, living symbols of intelligibility that confound mechanistic reductionism. For German idealist philosopher Fredrich W. J. Schelling, the order apparent in the bodily synchrony of organisms and human art bespeaks the larger etheric undulation of universal organism. But rather than declare this ontology absolutely, Schelling more modestly postulatesthe ether as “the first principle of the universal dualism of nature.”I draw attention to the word “postulates” because, as Keith R. Peterson explains,
the discussion of the “postulate” in Schelling is meant to emphasize the deliberate collapse of theoretical into practical philosophy, or the mediation of all theory by practice, typical of the post-Kantian tradition. This is critical with reference to Schelling’s philosophy of nature, because unless it is seen as an attempt to reground science itself in the soil of practical philosophy, it will be (and has been) viewed at best as merely another narrative, myth, or story about nature.
Schelling’s replanting of theoretical philosophy back in the dirt of the practical from which it arose effectively restores mind to body, soul to world—the relationship par excellence of dipolarity. It is a move that leads Segall to classify Schelling as a descendental philosopher, implying the genetic and this-worldliness of his epistemic approach. In contrast to the eminent transcendental philosopher himself—Immanuel Kant—Schelling accepted that the critical turn in philosophy ultimately reveals the human mind’s codependence with a world for the birth of knowledge. This is what leads Schelling to postulate his notion of “original forces”—or the expanding and contracting dipolarity of universal organism—“not as absolute explanation, but [as] limit concepts” which allow the explanation of “all phenomenon empirically, that is, from the reciprocity of diverse matters.”With the theoretical returned to actual experience, philosophy can no longer be understood as a neutral activity, rather, to philosophize is to act.
The dipolar dynamism of Schelling’s universal organism finds an analog in the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s concept of creativity. But the similarities go deeper; as Segall writes, “the [descendental] philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead can evidently be understood to orbit around a common intuition, namely that the conceptual division opposing objective reality to subjective ideality can be healed only through an aesthetic act of creative imagination.” Despite their affirmation of creative philosophy, neither Schelling nor Whitehead would support a vacuous relativity where any story goes. Rather, the very structure of story—with its organs of (at least) teller and listener, time and space—calls for the coincidence of perspective and world. For Schelling, Peterson explains, this means that “nature philosophy is not merely another “representation” of a nature to which human beings maintain only a distant and instrumental relation,” bug is rather intrinsic to human experience and thus “the first postulate of philosophy must express the dynamic synthesis of self and world…as an ontological unity from which both terms are derived.” All logos is therefore genetic logos. Unlike Kant, who, to save science from belief and freedom from mechanism, stamps the human subject with exclusive rights to the codex of knowledge, Schelling maintains that the latter relies upon an agreement. That agreement is the unity-in-dipolarity animating the larger dynamism of Schelling’s universal organism. “[To Schelling] self and world,” Peterson tells us, “are of one substance, and we will continue to misunderstand ourselves and undervalue the natural world unless this ontological identity is expressed philosophically.” This is the gist of the term re-enchantment as I use it here, an image for seeing the world and its composition of perceiving creatures as continuous.
If our very subjectivity, like a skipping rock rippling across a pond, is continuous with the world and has affect—makes waves—then accepting this makes all the difference. It means that the images we have of ourselves and the world matter. Schelling’s commitment to creating an image that honors the relationship between self and world has special relevance for the contemporary moment in its crisis of belief. Threatened by the specters of “alternative facts,” climate science skepticism, and the rise of charismatic demagogues, the main character in the crisis of belief is the King, objectivity. The controversy? An unveiling—an image has surfaced of objectivity caught in intimacy with the world. Its reputation stained, objectivity can no longer pretend to be above and beyond the commons. Society scrambles—who to believe? Who holds the image of Truth?
During a time when primary and secondary qualities collapse, artists—those spellcasters of the sensual—have much to contribute to the re-visioning of objectivity. Writing in her 1968 compendium of theory, The Novel of the Future, literary artist Anaïs Nin suggests that “the only objectivity we can reach is achieved, first of all, by an examination of our self as lens, as camera, as recorder, as mirror. Only once we know its idiosyncrasies, its areas of prejudice or blindness can we proceed to relate with others.” In Nin’s vision, the transfiguration of objectivity makes it something to be achieved, a goal that inextricably includes others. For the practice of science, philosopher-witch Isabelle Stengers defines objectivity as “the creation of a situation enabling what the scientists question to put their questions at risk, to make the difference between relevant questions and unilaterally imposed ones.” The notion of objectivity as achieved and relational repeats. Stengers continues, saying “objectivity thus depends on a very particular creative art, and a very selective one, because it means that what is addressed must successfully be enrolled as a “partner” in a very unusual tangled relation.”In Stengers view, the practice of science resembles an artful dialogue. Scientists translate back and forth with other cosmopolites, whether they be subatomic particles or the Earth’s undulating ocean, and between them something new is born. Knowledge, but a tentative, metaphoric kind that never ceases uncurling question marks. Facts that are living, evolving, dying. Objectivity reborn as a living, breathing lovechild. Why should the stories we tell be sensitive to this newborn creative, intersubjective objectivity? The threat of ecological collapse signaled by climate change, mass extinction of species, and the displacement of human beings already suffering from symptomatic natural disasters has made the interdependence of Earth systems explicit. Lines between “me” and “we” blur. Philosophers of science like Stengers take their cue, re-storying theory and practice in lieu of radical interconnectivity.
Stengers is especially inspired by the rhizomatic thinking of Deleuze and Guattari in their revelation of the assemblage,or the larger networks we as individuals are always already a part and formed by. One of her exemplary human models in the purview of the assemblage is the practitioner of magic—the witch:
What the witches challenge us to accept is the possibility of giving up criteria that claim to transcend assemblages, and that reinforce, again and again, the epic of critical reason. What they cultivate, as part of their craft (it is a part of any craft), is an art of immanent attention, an empirical art about what is good or toxic—an art which our addiction to the truth has too often despised as superstition.
Aesthetic ontology is resident in the word “witchcraft” as a subversive practice of recreation. What we, whether artists, scientists, or philosophers, are to learn from the witches is how, foremost, “to be compromised by magic.”This comes from an essay by Stengers titled “Reclaiming Animism,” in which she reclaims the former term along with magic to revise our basic sense of intentionality. As a prescient example, Stengers describes writing “as an experience of metamorphic transformation. It makes ones feel that ideas are not the author’s, that they demand some kind of cerebral—that is—bodily contortion that defeats any preformed intention.”Writing is no longer a rendering of the ideas that are mine, not an expression of only mycreativity, but is rather the expression of powers feeling through the unique nexus point of “me.” The same goes with reading and interpretation; what counts now as objective truth is much more fragile, more precious—a diplomatic achievement between a particular group in peer review, a “we” that includes nonhumans.
Rather than craft understanding with concept-images like Deleuze and Guattari’s “assemblage,” Stengers prefers the reclamation of the word “magic” from its trivialized status as mere metaphor, for it has protected our human intentionality from “the experience of an agency that does not belong to us even if it includes us, but an “us” as it is lured into feeling.”Instead of pretending that there indefinitely exists some means of explaining away the experience of being moved by something, Stengers proposes we “forfeit this protection in order to relieve ourselves of the sad, monotonous little critical or reflexive voice whispering that we should not accept being mystified.”The impulse of reason to reduce and reveal is recast as a powerful, inherited craft of magic animating human perception, hypnotizing its subjects with images that separate soul and world. Art, philosophy, science, history—all practices of sense-making, recast and reclaimed as magical arts of participation in the universal dreaming.
Etymologically, enchantment roots back to the Latin incantare, to in-sing. Feeling “back” through space-time, the word carries a translation of bewitchment, a means of singing a rhythm-image to sway others into dancing along. A certain song called disenchantment has prevailed over much of human perception, one that translates an image of soul as human-exclusive-meaning-seeker ina world that is ultimately meaningless. It is what allows for the capitalist delusion of unlimited Earthly resources and the myopic destruction of life systems. It atrophies feeling, is anesthetic. Re-enchantment is a song that rouses its hearer to sensation, like the epiphanic touch of art. It is a style of phenomenology, or “a reflexive awareness of perception.”
Images of re-enchantment recast the self-evidence of ordinary “perception” into “a disciplined, stylized and creative expression of the world…[a] reflexive, situated, engaged expression of the truth of being within being.”A camera on manual with special attention given to the aesthetic arrangement of the image. “Aesthetics,” Anaïs Nin says, “was [originally] an expression of man’s need to be in love with his world.”Living is an artistic practice all its own and for Nin, the artist’s role in society is thus essential. As image maker (whether sonic, pictoral, or sculptural) the artist’s role is to shake up the habitual by shocking others into a renewal of perception—what Nin takes as the basic function of art. The artists of a given culture are therefore “responsible for our image of the world, and our relation to others.”But not just any image goes, rather, the exemplary artist is a poetic one who aspires to make us fall in love with the world via Beautiful images. This achievement requires a level of insight and self-discipline that is a function of an artist’s own self-examination. “The artist,” Nin says, “is aware of his self. He is aware that it is more than his self, that it is at once his guniea pig for experiments, his potential tool, his instrument, his camera, to be nourished, his medium.”
Though disenchantment has reigned over the modern period, robbing world of soul, perceiving (unselfconsciously) as a self over and against the world is perhaps basic animal instinct.Indeed, Hadot confirms that even philosophers of antiquity suspected this, for then too it was understood that “we must separate ourselves from the world qua world in order to live our daily life…[and thus] must separate ourselves from the “everyday” world in order to rediscover the world qua world.”There is thus an older image to reclaim, one dreamed by the cosmic imagination before becoming lucid of itself, before the invention of the cell membrane. To break through the fourth wall, we must become aware of our perceptual palette. What colors do we unconsciously paint the world with? Translating her own insight into the waking dream, Nin describes how
we carefully observe and watch the happenings of the entire world without realizing they are projections of our inner selves. What we are watching outside is a representation, a projection of our inner world into the universal. There is no distinction… It seems to me that such a view is far more reassuring than that of considering the world as completely insane, absurd, or else ourselves insane or meaningless…You can only dispel the nightmare by awareness that it is our personal nightmare, projected on a multiscreen cinerama.
Like the artist, the philosopher has been translated as a “stranger to the given.” Inspired by Pierre Hadot’s translations of ancient Greek philosophy, Adam Robbert describes philosophy as a practice and performance of perceptual reconfiguration, a wayof“enacting a shift in the phenomenological display, re-inscribing it with a new arrangement of meaning and significance.”The so-called “side view” or praxis view of philosophy implies askēsis, or the practice of constructing a relationship to oneself by differentiating “oneself from the repetitions of the past, making explicit what were previously orderings in action and perception.”The road to re-inscription is lifelong, for the self-duplication of askēsis implies a move away from pedagogy to psychagogy, what Ed Cohen—following Michel Foucault—describes as an “ontology of the present.”Similar to aesthetic ontology, pychagogy concerns the soul with questions immediate to perception. The double within me is Socrates resurrected, leading me to the “true life” through a dialectic that ends only in death. I am my own lantern. Truth-telling becomes a craft that requires de-cision from the realm of possibilities. It means differentiating ourselves from the self-evidence of ordinary perception, turning the dial on our cameras from automatic to manual. Like witches, philosophers craft with magic, but cast spells foremost over themselves. They perform their spells and, like artist’s and their images, inspire others to fellow-feeling by their very being. They manually adjust themselves as cameras and are the living images they capture. I am before the camera, speaking to you, breaking the fourth wall.
Re-enchantment is the performance of a certain song that stories an image of reconciliation, an image that is—as Hadot would translate it—essentially philosophical: “in all schools [of classical Greece] – with the exception of Skepticism – philosophy was held to be an exercise consisting in learning to regard both society and the individuals who comprise it from the point of view of universality.”Hadot does not attempt to interpret classical Greek philosophy for systematic consistency, but instead focuses on the practical nature of its discourse:
discourse was not systematic because it wanted to provide a total, systematic explanation of the whole of reality. Rather, it was systematic in order that it might provide the mind with a small number of principles, tightly linked together, which derived greater persuasive force and mnemonic effectiveness precisely from such systemization.
For Hadot, ancient philosophers treated discourse as one exercise among others in soteriological spiritual practice. Aesthetics were therefore given special attention. Especially for the initiate, discourse may act as the guardian of the threshold, snowballing into a reciprocal causality where practice and discourse blur into one. This is the essence of virtue epistemology, a way of knowing that honors “noncognitive accessibility conditions for what remains genuinely cognitive insights.”Indeed, as Segall outlines in his dissertation, bridging Kant’s centuries-wide chasm between soul and world requires an imaginative act—what, for those reared by a world-image of dualism, may feel like a leap of faith. For the sake of more interesting propositions, for the soul of the world, I release my grasp on capital T-truth, leap, and freefall into the bottomless rabbit hole of aesthetic ontology. The only way beyond the correlation is through it. Casting a spell of symbolic reference, Whitehead’s space-time synthesizing mode of perception which can either maintain orcreatively disrupt perceptual habits “in favor of alternative imaginations in the flow of etheric space-time,”Segall conjures a voluntary organ called the etheric imagination:
Only with etheric imagination can the process philosopher intuit the formative forces flowing through the natural world beneath or withinits outward sensory surfaces. Such an imaginative thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the etheric forces of Natura naturans, the inner dimension of Nature that is always in dynamic tension, sloughing off external Nature (Natura naturarata) like a snake shedding its skin.
Etheric imagination is a particular form of symbolic reference, a particular configuration of the manual settings on my camera. But this is where camera metaphor breaks down, for in this ontology there are no fixed and final settings for perception to exhaust.
Reclaiming philosophy as a magical art, I recreate from my inheritance a book of spells for reconciliation. I call my craft “Performing Re-enchantment.” Turning round with the latest wave of ritual, characterized by its overcoming of “the putative duality between constructive and realist approaches,” I align my praxis with Jacob Sherman’s suggestion that we begin to think with, rather than about, ritual.My metaphorical comparison of the camera to human perception breaks down, but its true limitation lies in the imagination of the human perceiver. It is the enchantment I perform which determines my interpretation, and here the notion of performance takes the stage, for its cameo has everything to do with the possibility of otherwise. The aesthetic ontology I freefall through does not permit any finality of self-image. The mystery of me only shines forth through my Beauty, the divinity of we hidden in plain sight. “Performance,” says João Florêncio, “is the way in which all bodies, human and nonhuman, play themselves to one another whilst always holding something back, like some bearer of divine secrets.”“All the world’s a stage,” says Shakespeare. We are on stage performing, translating across the undulating space-time ether of perceivers. Florêncio moves through the correlation, and with the logic of objected-oriented ontology, affirms the always-withdrawn aspect of a being-thing. Like Nin, Florêncio connects art with the renewal of perception and extends the possibility beyond its province to the everyday. To call attention to performance is to hyperbolize it, and in doing so, foreground that“the being of a performing body is always more than—and therefore, never exhausted by—any of the phenomenal bodies or roles it might perform at any given instance.”A being’s mystery shines out to us, disrupting our preconceptions and plunging us into its depth of possibility, its participation in the whispering of Beauty. Both Florêncio and Segall consider this way of aesthetically responding to have import for a politics that represents more than just the sanctity of human beings. “Beauty,” Segall says,
points the soul to the profound erotic current hidden in the life of all things. They [Schelling and Whitehead] saw that imagination, the generative matrix and communis sensusof the animate universe, helps to remind the individual soul of the immanent divine Eros holding all things together in Goodness. The ancients knew this Eros as a function of the anima mundi, the world-soul. The practical imagination that grasps Beauty as an expression of the Good allows the self to place itself in the position—body and soul—of others, and indeed of all others, that is, of the All.A redeemed imagination can empathically identify with any ensouled part of the universe and also with the soul of the whole universe. It does so through the power of Love.
To hyperbolize performance is to perform performativity. It is the declaration of divine imagination reclaimed; a re-enchanted, active storytelling of otherwise. I am before the camera, speaking to younow, breaking the fourth wall, beholding you in all your strange Beauty.
Though the term “Anthropocene” speaks loudly of the human, it is paradoxically a time when I, as human being, am privy to scientific evidence which shows just how much my organism is comprised and constituted by nonhumans. Tracing the 20thcentury’s progressive externalization of psychopathology from intra and interpersonal origin, to larger social forces of culture, and, finally, to the ecological or cosmic, James Hillman senses a re-visioning of subjectivity. “The world,” he tells us, “because of its breakdown, is entering a new mode of consciousness: by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality.”Like the cry of a wound seeking tenderness, ecological collapse is understood by Hillman to be a cry of the world soul, the anima mundi. His way of pointing to the world soul also reveals the practicable way to meet it. “Let us imagine,” begins Hillman,
the anima mundi as that particular soul-spark, that seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form. The anima mundi indicates the animated possibilities presented by each event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image—in short, its availability to imagination, presence as a psychic reality.
Like Segall, Hillman prescribes the recuperation of imagination as the communis sensus, or common sense:
Lodged in and around the heart,” the communis sensus unites sensation and imagination in the act of aisthesis—the Greek term for perception. Perception for the Greeks was tantamount to “breathing in or the taking in of the world, the gasp, “aha,” the “uh” of the breath in wonder, shock, amazement, an aesthetic response to the image (eidolon) presented.
Aisthesis, the initial, sensual astonishment that precedes the process of creating knowledge. Performing re-enchantment requires one to either be or become aesthetisized—sensitized through the movement of Love: in order to “grasp the Greek account of perception,” writes Hillman, “psychology must already, as did Psyche in Apuleius’s tale, stand in the temple of Aphrodite, recognizing that each thing smiles, has allure, calls forth aisthesis.”The proliferation of consumer options and the cheapening of production has led to a devaluation of cultural things that equals the devaluation of the larger ecological community. Sensual valuation as a common good is exploited for the sake of addictive spending. Otherwise, it is mostly atrophied. But, if consciousness advances “by means of pathologized revelations through the Underworld of anxiety,” as Hillman suggests, we have a lead. For, as he continues, “our ecological fears announce that things are where the soul now claims psychological attention.”
So far, the spells of my praxis for “Performing Re-enchantment” include reclaiming the organ-muscle (the heart) of etheric imagination and exercising it through aisthesisto meet the soul of the world in every incarnate thing—conceptual and physical. It involves the invocation of Aphrodite for the capacity to aesthetically respond—to see Beauty and sense soul. “Beauty,” Hillman explains, “is simply the manifestation, the display of phenomena, the appearance of the anima mundi…Beauty is an epistemological necessity; aisthesis is how we know the world. And Aphrodite is the lure, the nudity of things as they show themselves to the sensuous imagination.”The training regimen for shifting my “phenomenological display” hinges on crafting well in the sensual world: “the cognitive task will shift from the understanding of meaning to a sensitization to particulars, the appreciation of the inherent intelligibility given in the qualitative patterns of events.”My spell book is therefore written with a precision that honors particularity. For the soul of the world, I usher in a personal revolution of adverbs and adjectives to succeed the “ascetic puritanism” of my inheritance as an American academic. We are simply balancing primary qualities with the lushness of the “secondary.” Rhetoric returns—rising over the hill—a flower-bearing hero.
Practices of expansion and contraction complement my sensual apprehension of soul in thing and world. I thank my ancestors as models for these spells, and, following Hadot’s assertion that “each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths,” feel emboldened to recast them anew.Like Goethe and the ancients before him, I magic in myself a delimitation to the present and become “aware of the inner richness of the present, and of the totality contained within the instant…[I] swell to fill the dimensions of the world.”I experience what Raimon Panikkar calls “tempiternity,” like Schelling’s restricted infinity within which all the moments of particularity Beautifully whisper their participation in the eternal. This moment, an Epicurean gift! Oh, Aphrodite, pray I meet it well! Value is restored to all matter and I am not so lonely without other humans around. Rather, this is intimacy recast, a spell to break the curse of anesthesia for more than my personal salvation, because “my” salvation is now the world’s. Delimiting the present—contracting and expanding—means to be ever-always “held in an enduring intimate conversation with matter.”
My last spell is especially for you—my song. I sing it in the polis, intending for the vibrations to translate an enchantment for a cosmopolis. It is a poetry of physics for awakening to “the very fact that we are perceiving the world, and that the world is that which we perceive.”As a performer of re-enchantment, I sing the whole cosmos as my body, streaming through the nexus point of “me” as feelings that create an image—what I call “my” experience. Taking care of “me” means taking care of we—you. Re-enchantment is my de-cision, but my performance is foremost one of psychagogy—a provocation to life lived otherwise. “What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.”The fourth wall has broken.
Cohen, E. “Live Thinking, or the Psychagogy of Michel Foucault.” Differences 25, no. 2 (2014): 1-32. doi:10.1215/10407391-2773418.
Davis, Duane. “The Art of Perception.” In Merleau-Ponty and the Art of Perception, edited by Duane Davis, 3-53. State University of New York Press, 2016.
Nin, Anaïs. The Novel of the Future. Durham: Duke University Press, 1968.
Florêncio, João. “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age.” Performance Philosophy 1 (2015). http://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/14.
Hadot, Pierre, and Arnold Ira. Davidson. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
Hillman, James, and James Hillman. The Thought of the Heart ; And, the Soul of the World. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 2014.
Robbert, Adam. “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy.” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 13, no. 1 (2017). http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/583/973.
Schelling, F. W. J. “On the World Soul (Extract).” Edited by Robin Mackay. Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI. England: Urbanomic January 2010): 66-95.
Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Von, and Keith R. Peterson. First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.
Segall, Matthew T. “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” PhD diss. California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/26027974.
Sherman, Jacob. “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?” International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 79, no. 3 (2018): 341-47. doi:10.1080/21692327.2018.1474323.
Stengers, Isabelle. “Reclaiming Animism.” e-flux # 36. July 2012. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 150th Anniversery ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” PhD diss., (San Francisco: CIIS, 2016), retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/26027974, 77.
Friedrich W. J. Schelling, “On the World Soul (Extract),” Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, (Urbanomic, England, 2010), 85.
Friedrich W. J. Schelling, trans. Keith R. Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2004), xiv-xv.
Schelling, “On the World Soul (Extract)”, 79. My emphasis.
Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 26.
Schelling & Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, xv.
Anaïs Nin, The Novel of the Future(Durham, Duke University Press, 1968), 36.
Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux #36 (July 2012), retrieved from https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/.
Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism.”
Duane Davis, “The Art of Perception,” in Merleau-Ponty and the Art of Perception, ed. Duane Davis (New York: State University of New York Press, 2016), 7.
Davis, “The Art of Perception,” 10.
Nin, The Novel of the Future, 197.
Nin,The Novel of the Future, 192.
Nin, The Novel of the Future,37.
Pierre Hadot, trans. By Arnold Ira. Davison, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Oxford, Blackwell, 1995), 258.
Nin, The Novel of the Future,30.
Robbert, “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy,” 9.
Adam Robbert, “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy,” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Volume 13, no. 1 (2017), 5.
Ed Cohen, “Live Thinking, or the Psychagogy of Michel Foucault,” in Differences, vol. 25, no. 2 (2014), 18.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault,242.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault,267.
Jacob Sherman, “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?,” inInternational Journal of Philosophy and Theology, vol. 79, no. 3 (2018), 5.
Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 230.
Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 18.
Sherman, “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?,” 5.
João Florêncio, “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age,” in Performance Philosophy, vol. 1 (2015), retrieved from http://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/14.
Florêncio, “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age.”
Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 55.
James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And, the Soul of the World(Woodstock, Spring Publications, 2014), 97.
Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World,107.
Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 109.
Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 111.
The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 113.
The Thought of the Heart;And the Soul of the World, 112.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 108.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 232.
Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; and the Soul of the World, 122.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 253.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York, Penguin Books, 2005), 14.
This module’s exercise had us direct attention to a particular region of our body with an awareness inspired by the writings of Elsa Gindler and Charlotte Selver, pioneers in the field of somatics.
I’ve seen images of myself, moving and still, that make me cringe. Why are my shoulders slumped forward like that? Re-membering those images, I sink into present-tense and recognize them in my current posture—my shoulders dumped slightly forward as if I am something less than. I straighten up, pulling my shoulders back and lift my head up a little higher. I’ve done this many times throughout my life and each time I feel a hint of pretension. Until I learned of transforming habit and the malleability of character, I took this posture to be inauthentic to me. And yet, I admired it in others. Admiration, stained with a bit of resentment. I wipe that resentment away to break the habit. Pulling my shoulders back takes a weight off the center of my spine. It feels like a posture I could hold for a long time—durable. Lurching forward pinches the center of my shoulder blades. Sometimes I feel a crunchy pop between them when I straighten back out, especially if I hold it for too long. It’s not sustainable. My breathing is shallower here; inhalations can’t reach the bottom of my belly. Each breath in requires the heaving upward of my weight, onto my spine. Exhales are exasperated—an adjective I better understand now. They escape my lips like air released by a cetacean blowhole. When I straighten up, I don’t notice my breath unless I intend to. I feel more like a tree—quietly (and humbly) respirating. Like a tree, but with the reflex of a vigilant dragonfly. “Healthy tension?” I think I need more conscious feelings of this to nod yes. Repeat, repeat.
This semester I’m in a class called “The Body: Experienced, Conceptualized, and Verbalized” with Dr. Don Hanlon Johnson of the Somatic Psychology program at CIIS. Each week we’ve been assigned short essay-exercises related to our readings that are intended help us verbalize experience “in fresh language close to the flesh.”
The first exercise had us verbalize our sensual experience in relation to a particular place:
The blue light from the screen I rest my eyes upon taxes them—they feel heavy. I’d like to close them, tuck them into bed for a nap. But I can’t take a nap today. I stop, close my eyes, and drift back to a memory. The time and space is high noon in June of 2018, walking down a sidewalk in Little Rock, Arkansas. I’m near the Arkansas River; the air is thick with moisture, its temperature seething with the heat of full sun. Today’s high is another record broken and the humidity must be 100%. I love it. I am home—“my” body knows it. It’s the first time I’m aware of knowing home without conceptual interference, a deep knowing that my intellectualism needn’t challenge.
Typing this, I realize I’ve begun to hunch forward—I’m onto to something. Smiling, I feel the warmth from that moment now. It rivals the AC running ridiculously high on the 4th floor of CIIS where I sit typing under fluorescent light. “Why is it always so cold in here?” I often complain. I have to wear a jacket indoors while at work, a fact that feels annoyingly out of step with the so-called integral mission of the university. Feeling the chill in my poorly circulated fingers, I decide to close my eyes and drift back again to that hot summer day back home.
I’m walking to the Root Café to meet a friend for lunch. My sweat doesn’t evaporate, rather, it glistens in little drops that cascade together and collect in the creases of my skin. I stop to pull my shirt off and let the sun kiss my skin. This is what I’ve been looking forward to since planning my trip back from the Bay Area. The thick heat of an Arkansas summer. When I was a teenager, taught not to sweat, I hated the summer atmosphere. Sauna-like, it kept my adolescent pit stains growing. I know better know. This is health, this response of my body. The moisture, opening my pores, makes me feel more continuous with my ecology. Cut grass, ants, squirrels, and the fellow on the street—we’re all swimming in this, together. My heart feels light. I am so happy—I holler it as loud and as deeply as I can, “I am SO happy!” If only it felt like this in Berkeley, I think to myself. And then I remember that record breaking highs continue to spike everywhere. To me, it’s bittersweet to think that, one day, I could feel this on the soil of the new place I’ve begun to call home—a place where my head and heart agree, but where “my” body has yet to catch up. Arkansas—this summer—is still home. When will California be? I wonder to myself. A quiet answer comes as “Time.” My thinking spins out trying to decide whether or not that’s wishful thinking or a deeper intelligence. I decide to wait and see.
The following is my reflection from “Nature and Eros,” a course offered in the Spring time by the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness graduate program at CIIS. So that you have context, I have provided the course description below:
Nature and Eros
Instructors: Brian Swimme and co-facilitators Kerry Brady & Brock Dolman Description of Course:
This course is an engagement in holistic education, founded in the evolutionary philosophy of Brian Swimme, the integral wisdom of Kerry Brady and the ecological science of Brock Dolman. During the industrial era, education was understood primarily as the transfer of knowledge and information from teacher to student. The widely assumed worldview of the industrial era regarded nature as something out there, something inferior to the human, something that humans learned about in their classrooms. But in the new evolutionary cosmology, nature is understood as both our primary matrix and our primary teacher. Nature is the source of existence as well as an ongoing wellspring of wisdom for what it means to be human. This five-day intensive retreat employs conceptual, emotional, experiential, and intuitive learning processes in order to embrace nature as the multidimensional matrix, not only of our bodies, minds, and souls, but of our civilization as well.
Nature-and-Eros: Undulating in the Undulation
The first night of Nature and Eros was a test:
As the speaking bowl moves around the circle Council, the mood of our group undulates from heavy to light and back again. Landing with J1 we are inspired to giggle as she recounts her story of Losing, of Loss, and being Lost. Before leaving for the retreat J1 loses her bag, the keeper of her whole life—cell phone, keys, credit cards… What will she do when she returns? At this note the mood takes a dip—the circle-round sharing her fear, our mutual fear of Uncertainty. Losing her bag, like she’s lost her car once; like her bicycles—lost to Bay-Area-bike-thieves; even herself, often turning-round to realize she doesn’t know where she is. As I await my turn to speak in the Council circle, I fight off a barrage of rehearsal language. How offensive to my sensitive persona! I know most everyone present is fighting the same battle, but our mutual suffering isn’t enough to keep me from cursing myself. How selfish I am for being swept up by thoughts, thinking so loud it puts my comrades on mute! All we need do is air out where we’re at; what we’ve arrived with; how we are. Why does that warrant a plan? Why am I so incapable of letting go? Suddenly, the speaking bowl lands in the hands of S next to me. The woman next to her, M, prompts her with the question,
“Do you know how beautiful you are?”
Alas, if only that question had been directed at me! All my thoughts would have been obliterated in a reaction of tears—real authenticity. That would be the correct response. But because I so identify with tragedy, S’ response absorbs me and I forgot about my story. She and I are similar, I realize, as she tells her own—a frequency close to mine.
And then it’s my turn. I didn’t think it would, but my heart
Will she ask me the same question?
Does she feel our fellow-feeling already?
But she doesn’t—doesn’t ask me the same question.
Instead, she asks me the question we were instructed to ask if we couldn’t think of anything else:
“What is in your heart?”
A beautiful question no matter the circumstance, but a move that catches me off guard. I was expecting to play my part—my script at the ready. Alas. Our eyes slowly break contact and I turn toward the middle of the circle—heart still pounding—and behold the small wooden bowl in my hands. I thumb over a raised, circular part, like a pregnant belly, and think of my mother. I feel the fullness of her love set against the current estrangement I feel from her, a mist of uncertainty and suspicion hanging over my life. Whatever performance I had in mind dies and instead upwells a volcanic force that erupts from my being as tears, trembling, and words that are heaving with the impossible weight of loneliness:
Eyes closed, I buckle over. I can’t bear to look at anyone. Not out of embarrassment, but something more like… Isolation. I pass the bowl to Mary-Ann next to me. Meeting her eyes, I ask her a question I mean for myself,
“What are you missing?”
Reflecting on that moment today, I write to you, dear reader, from a place of surrender. I’ve put my reflection off, let it marinate, until smoke started to rise and I smelled the burning. The taste is charred; I’ve lapsed into the same habits of doubt as usual: how will I muster the creativity to complete this assignment? How will I find the right answer to the single question? Am I even capable of capturing the significance of those five days?
Though I felt somewhat annoyed with the persistence of my planning mind during our first circle Council, the honesty I tapped into became an anchor for my return. I sank back down there today for the sake of a “performance,” what I prefer to think of as a “presencing,” or an embodied “re-presentation” of the shift in cosmological orientation I so badly want to stick.
What did that consist of?
First off, it was grounded by the anchor I mentioned, by the release of plans and the sinking into a moment. A death. If Creativity is the primordial force of the cosmos, worrying about how I will produce enough of it to churn out this reflection is completely unfounded—an error at the ontological level. It was never mine anyway. And so I let go of that self who feared my typing this, trusting that the stupefyingly “perfect” rate the cosmos expands at—a rate which allows galaxies, life, and flowers to blossom—might mean something for my reflective efforts, too.
That kind of trust figures into my life later on the evening of our first night. Compared to the sweltering, screaming Amazon Rainforest and its hint of jaguar, Bell Valley seems a safe new addition to my stories of travel. The name even sounds quaint. But with my tent pitched furthest away than anyone else’s—a gold star spot I secured at the end of a needlessly strenuous quest up the mountain—the walk back home after first Council proves spookier than I expected. A mob of wild boar hollering echoes through the land, through my being, raising my hairs on end. The haunting of their presence is accompanied by a growl I’d heard in the brush hours earlier, a large animal by the sound of it, and angry too—angry at my intrusion, I felt. Instead of irrationalizing my fear, I embrace the possibility of somehow being killed by the creatures of the valley. I trudge on, marveling above at the net of jewels I hadn’t seen shine so brightly for at least a year. I accept the mystery of cosmic unfolding and whatever role it might have in store for me next—even if that were to be a victim of wild boar mob mentality. Indeed, the creative advance of our collective story may transcend my immediate wishes as an individual. Better to let go and feel the flow.
The ecstasy of release I felt made all the more acute a lesson I learned uncomfortably throughout the night as I tossed and turned: stop “shoulding!” The should I was saddled with was my stubborn decision to camp far away from everyone, even when my gut said otherwise. Ironically, I pitched my tent directly over a patch of holes tusked up by a mob of boars and spent the night as if on a slide, my body painfully conforming to a lumpy incline. I should be getting 8 hours of sleep, I scolded myself as I woke each hour. Tomorrow is going to be miserable, I prepared myself.
“Stop shoulding, Ashton!” Listen to B and K, echoing the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn when they reject the industrial 6-8 hours of productive sleep for a productive workday. No need to pathologize sleeplessness and seamlessness between waking and dream. Consider this:
The liminal which makes you feel so anxious and vulnerable may be just what “you” need.
I bark this at myself, but then I realize that’s the wrong tone. Soften, sweet thing, you are a result of the 14 billion year long artistry after all! Carbon life-form, oh, you diamond you! This is the place where I “presenced” from earlier today, the place I write from now. It is a confidence, slowly flowering, in my response to the moment and its endless possibilities—the breathing back and forth of possibility and actuality. It is the annihilation of “just me,” in the light of relationality all the way down.
Sleepless, socially over-stimulated, and a bit disillusioned with my current incapacity to live-into big ideas, I cut (but am I really cutting?) into B’s lecture, asking:
“What do you mean when you use the word “consciousness?”
—Was I curt? I wonder to myself, I hope that didn’t seem rude… My overly-sunny persona too tired to keep up—what I can see now as a gift of that momentary exhaustion—
“I mean Consciousness here as that with which the Universe presents itself to us.”
But it doesn’t land, the gears (an appropriate metaphor for this context) of my mind Caught, catching,
until Greased up,
After B brings Ancestral Light
(in a manner of speaking)
BACK into the room.
“Cup your hands,”
he asks of us. And in the light reflected back from my unique skin
that patchwork of infinite pixels,
I behold the Photons from the Beginning:
Here, Now. Epiphany Glows Over Me,
Impregnating the moment with a fullness of possibility,
I push my body to the back of Yurt where Sunlight pours through and let it pool in my cupped
hands. What a holy gift. I sit there, Glowed Over
taking-in what it means…
then M asks,
“But what are Space and Time if the photons from the beginning are here?”
What a holy question, I wonder to myself, Glowing over by a Whisper:
In so many words, B offers his humble speculation,
“Time is the Creativity of the Universe and Space, the relationship between Creations.”
Stunned by the Revelation of this lecture (ceremony?),
I hollow out a place in my belly and my brain for the Glowing Awe Feeling so it might move through again next time. Next time (with my fingers crossed)
So that it might Move-In with me,
have a place to stay—
“You are always welcome on my couch—No!
You can have my bed!”
Photons from the Beginning!
…in another Moment, another Undulation, of Space-Time:
“I’m thinking about the world-shaping power of concepts,” I write in my journal
as I take-in the myriad beings stretching out before me—what we’ve called “the landscape.” And then I think of the Ancestral Photons that are present now… The magic story of this moment as the Whole of Space-Time… Magic. A translucent thread dangles from my fingers, fluttering, glimmering in the Sunshine-Wind. “But what if it isn’t so?” The loop re-looping, the voice re-turning, and then I realize that I’ve forfeited my right to choose—I am indeed living by a story (a loop) regardless of how skeptical I might seem. I still loop back to somewhere… somewhere, something like mechanism. Dualism. Of course, Doubt will always remain (that well-meaning friend), but I’ve been flakey. Perhaps it’s time to commit.
But commit to what? A Story told from concepts that haven’t the flesh of Symbol won’t gather anyone around the fire, much less my own comportment.
Commit to what?
I’m thinking now
like the ever-present Photons, making space in ourselves for that Glowing Awe,
the space made from and for moments that came before. That’s where the Story spins from.
That’s what I’ll commit to…
…that space still open in another Moment, another Undulation, of Space-Time:
I journal-write, “our lecture on the process-relational worldview just ended…and I’ve never felt it more alive inside of me. Never such a potent feeling of that:”
In the subtle plane/moment of enfolding / prehension / re-membering each out-breath of existence, all together and unique at once, despite how convincing our cognitive apparatus might make separation out to be. That stubborn reduction valve! And yet, what a gift! The gift of incarnation, making Matter dance together. J2 and I, radiating across the yurt from each other—for each other—undulating in The Undulation. M and her tree consort too. Everything bundled into that abysmal root-ball of soils squirming with ancestor and fertile somedays.
That “lecture,” or “ceremony,” a word I think better characterizes the holiness of our circle round, ended with my heart blissing open. Never had I experienced such a visceral explanation of quantum entanglement—a Quantum Sermon. My lighthouse worry of,
“He loves me,
he loves me not,”
Dissolved in the epiphany of “always re-making We:”
My miles away Lover,
And my long-gone Father—
a-part of Me.
What is loneliness, but ignorance?
Licking alive, the Fire ceremony begins. Our esteemed Guest dances with so much grace and Power, Proudly
It flickers, taunting us to our turns. Not far in—about three turns so far—I feel a tug in my belly. Is this the call? Is this an indication of my call to undulate in the Undulation?
Eros? Is that…
“But it’s so soon!” I think to myself,
my “should” mentality expressing its confusion.
“Something this significant can’t possibly happen so soon, can it?!”
I wait another beat. My stomach turns, tugs, pulling me toward the flickering. I know this feeling, one that mobilizes my entire physicality, and re-member moments when I didn’t honor it. Moments when I didn’t speak up, when I didn’t act, didn’t make eye contact…
Those moments felt like a failure, disrespect—of myself.
But Eros is persistent! Eros is calling!
And so I get up—I answer the phone—and greet the Fire formally. Raising my hands up slightly to meet the eyes of my comrades, and reveal my dad’s high school homerun Baseball
to Gasps—our circle’s undulating suddenly shot up in
the Baseball I brought, what I knew immediately to feed our ceremonial Phoenix Fire,
was daddy outside of me.
Re-membering him, John Scott Arnoldy awakens in my body
deepening my voice, anointing me with posture, with strength and holy Worth,
Value as sheer existence:
Baseball melting, melting down…
Through tears and sputtering I wade through my Fire offering to laughter and joy. Witnessing and being witnessed exorcises so much for our entire clan.
Breathe out: screams from one pair of lungs echo across Space-Time, storying anew the Undulation.
Breathe in: regardless of our individual self-evaluations, each of us brought to burn what was right for that moment.
The transparency of some burned what was not present to be burnt for others. This, for me, is the significance of a relational world view—like the village dream—each member reflects and inflects the group. The dreamer’s dream is mine too, the dreaming Undulation inflected by and from another perspective, another umwelt.
Gazing into the Fire, I feel a tug and know it’s time to go home—back to my tent. Step by step with the rhythm of the night, moonlight creatures singing, I wonder—
What will my life be like after this?
That Baseball… I clutched it as if being held by strong arms against the jungle screaming, so close my ears ringing, hot jungle breathe breathing goosebumps down my neck. What if I need it again? The presence of my father stayed vigilant in that ball, protecting me even after I left the jungle. But then I remember what K told me when I sat aside with her, sharing the stories that spun out my relationship with the ball and the panic-stricken two years trailing behind me:
“One foot in the past, another foot in the present,” she told me. “If you keep two in the past, it will continue you to overcome you. Two feet in the future and you’re spiritual bypassing.”
So I lift one foot out of the past and mindfully bring it to the wet grass beneath me, anchoring it there with more mindfulness than most of my steps enjoy. I touch my heart and tell myself…Ourself,
“It’ll be okay. I’m here.”
Another memory comes to mind, one from my first Wander. After struggling with my goal-directedness, I eventually settle down onto a spot in a clearing near a fallen tree and did nothing. I neglected to stop here on my way to the pond (my goal), despite how enticing the Sun’s spotlight made it seem. Disappointed with myself for not letting go, I pull out my journal and ponder my feelings. “Sitting with the lichen,”
and a fallen tree covered in other composters, I wonder about how I might die well; what separating from an old understanding of family means. I turn to my left and see what appears to be two organisms, one feasting on the other. But no, it is only “one”—a verb—the shell of a former time, a new beat of the rhythm having just emerged, perishing… Its wings are like a newborn baby, innocently soft and full of promise. I let the pale green thing climb aboard my finger and bring it closer to my eyes. It reminds me of the locusts from back home. Perhaps it is one. A drop of moisture glistens under one of its wings—residue from the chrysalis? It looks like a teardrop.
Good Grief—what so many of us came with, leave with—what everything carries, consciously or un. Together we moved some of it, opened-up space, creating pathways for Awe to move in… J1 even got Lost on our first solo Wander—a story that had us all howling-round. Lost in Wonder, and then found…
Lost again eventually—that is for certain.
During our last Council, some things came full circle. The bag J1 lost reappeared, a miraculous moment to crown the last of our 5-day Undulation. As the bowl made its way to me, I had some distracting thoughts arise, but I didn’t fight them in the same way. Arising, falling away—attuning back to the current Soul modifying our group Undulation with story. When M, next to me, ends her share and turns my way, she asks,
“Will you accept the nourishment you deserve?”
Oh! My heart wrenches even now—the memory swelling my tear
I soften, blink my eyes and meet her’s with a
“Thank you,” and an
“I love you…”
The bowl is with me now, and rather than keep my eyes closed, I rove my head-round and look—see—into each pair of eyes, each Undulation in the Larger Undulation of our Council-round.
“The first night, I could not look into your eyes. I could not even open mine,”
“But now, I can—and I want to.”
… I leave off,
still a little Lost…
But not isolated.
What will my life be like after this?
I wonder as I pack my things,
as we head back to the city bustle.
Aside from some vague anxiety, nothing in particular arises. Just space, more room. And yet, in that room there are recent memories, still warm with the afterglow of Awe. Memories I can commit from. The closure around my loop—still running—doesn’t feel as final. There’s a porousness, a something of
Photons from the Beginning…
One foot in the past,
And the other…
In the last two modules of Process and Difference in the Pluriverse we focused on Timothy Morton’s Humankind (2017) and Anne Fairchild Pomeroy’s Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectic, and the Critique of Capitalism (2004). During the time that lapsed between them I traveled north of San Francisco to Bell Valley Retreat Center in Mendocino Valley where the 5-day immersive course called “Nature and Eros” was held. The latter was/is co-taught by PCC professor and evolutionary cosmologist, Brian Swimme, along with Kerry Brady, founder of Ecology of Awakening. It was a wonderful context in which to deepen into the ideas we’ve been exploring this semester in Process and Difference, for “Nature and Eros” was posed by our guides as an invitation to let go of our conditioning in the techno-industrial sphere of expectation and ceaseless productivity.
Many people complain about the lack of immediate contact with fellow students and teachers in the online learning format. This is sound, but it is certainly possible to connect with others despite the disjuncture in space-time. We miss the subtext and subtly of presence, but in return we are gifted time to curate more rigorous reflections on the content we entangle with together. To curate, and to absorb the wonderful musing of others. The philosophical tenor of Process and Difference—at once emancipatory and implicating—was one that intrinsically honored each individual perspective in the class and encouraged us to feel like, together, we were all creating something as we entangled our thinking-feeling on the discussion board. Of course, I’m speaking for myself, and though I think my point about the philosophical tenor is true, it is equally true that this particular group made the class what it was.
I’m waxing on this because in the text below you will multiple times run across a certain Julie, a peer of my mine from the course whose insights had such an impact on my thinking. I encourage you to check out her website, Sacred Futures, and tangle yourself in the magical ideas she so inspired me with this semester.
Morton’s writing is electric with mischief and I always love thinking-with tricksters. But—having grown out of shock for shock’s sake—I appreciate mischief more (when the stakes are high) if it’s done with care. Like Julie, I critique Morton for his carelessness. His nonchalant use of the word “consumerism” (at least in the reading we’ve been assigned so far!) is like saying “BOO!” in a really scary way! I can imagine how some sensitive, well-meaning readers might drop Humankind and take off running from such a spooky prospect, such a ghoulish book. Therein, though (in the shimmering, in the flapping of the pages as the wind reads, rushing through it), whispers an alternative way to understand what he means.
Reading Pomeroy in between the two Morton selections led me to ask myself, “What kind of economic model would allow us to treat “objects” (e.g. goods, products, matter in general) concretely?” That is, with reverence—recognizing their spectral quality. Pomeroy is more concerned with misplaced concreteness as it relates to human creativity. She expresses her anthropocentrism clearly when she criticizes capitalism’s misplaced concreteness: “because all ontological being is both physical and conceptual, this [abstracting physical iteration from creative conceptuality in the dialectic sweep] is an abstraction even on the level of ‘things.’ Granted it is not as misplaced an abstraction as it is for the human being.” (Pomeroy, 157)
If we agree to release the correlationist copyright, to turn up the volume on the correlatee such that its appearance has some measure of command over us, and if we accept—in some fashion—Morton’s ontological flattening, then something of the sacred returns to what has hitherto been disparaged as “mere matter.” The problem with Pomeory’s ecological Marxism is that it exceptionalizes the metabolism of species-being human. Marxism can’t fully acknowledge ecology because doing so necessarily means trouble: all symbionts hover between help and harm. Morton wants to stay with the trouble and so he rightly affirms consumerism as the specter of ecology. Why? Because implicit in consumerism is the reality of humankind’s metabolism. This is why he describes rejection of consumerism as “acceptance-in-denial,” for if we are living, we are no doubt consuming, metabolizing Nature as we continue to become. (Morton, 69)
Our well-intentioned reader is, perhaps, hit with dissonance. Here is where my critique comes in: why not use another word?! Page 66 could have been an early (perhaps he overturns it later?) opportunity for Morton to re-name or re-frame consumerism (similar to Haraway with response-ability/responsibility) in a way that directly (rather than obliquely) connects it with our metabolic complicity and the ambiguity that enshrouds it! Those of us who have wandered down the rabbit-hole of “ethical consumption,” hoping we might eventually figure out the most just way to eat, might say “amen” to Morton when he declares that “we are caught in hypocrisy. We can’t get compassion exactly right. Being nice to bunny rabbits means not being nice to bunny rabbit predators.” (Morton, 69) Despite my balking, maybe Morton’s ambiguity about our ambiguous economic existence (organizing according to enjoyment) is part of his method of making sure we get it. I’m happy to hang on throughout the rest of his book for that, but somebody else might not have that kind of faith!
At the last Bioneers conference I sat through an astrological sermon with astro-poet Caroline Casey. As one might expect, she story-told our ecological moment in lieu of the planetary dance, but there was one thing she said that especially stuck with me. It rang in my ears (a tinny sound) as I took in Morton’s avowal of consumerism: “Animism is about manners.” Manners imply a code, a system of cosmic ethics. Revolving around what, though? I liked Haraway’s use of the Navajo word “hózó,” or “right relations,” an aim so general that it needs a process-relational context to give it shape. I’m heartened by what Julie mentions in her post about Morton’s tricky way of inspiring care on behalf of our common home. It’s something one can feel in Morton’s literary effort, I think, if it’s attended to with care. But that takes some effort! Perhaps a little more effort than it would have taken him to re-contextualize consumerism apart from the pathological form it takes in the Capitalist-Rat-Race?! Who knows! Maybe I’m way off!
Monday I returned home from the PCC retreat course (this time held at Bell Valley) led by Brian Swimme and Kerry Brady titled “Nature and Eros.” That “Nature” and “Eros” appear as two distinct ideas was protested by one of my peers as an arbitrary separation. Does Nature not imply Eros? To some it may, but that entirely depends upon who is thinking Nature and their associative context for the word. We can understand the separation as a practical way of communicating to those of us who, though we may endeavor to reach beyond a world view of severance, nonetheless remain constrained by it.
Thus, Morton’s neologism, “The Symbiotic Real,” that undulating, excess of spectrality we vibrate-with. Though I may have re-thought the concept of Nature in a way that more or less resembles Morton’s concept, Promethean neologisms like his help to push bifurcated associations to the periphery. Who knows, maybe his term will even replace “Nature” one day! I find his style of eco-philosophy refreshing. Sensitive and sardonic at once, I think-feel him relating from a place of real insight, the only place wherefrom truly practical wisdom can flow.
Take his notion of Ecoclaustrophobia—the paranoid flipside of Sunny Interconnection—and its truism: “All tactics are hypocritical,” from which he derives the necessity for communism(s) as opposed to a universal communism that would reign over all beings. “Something is always missing from the ethical and political ecological jigsaw,” he tells us, “which means that there can be no top-level political form to rule them all” (Morton, 163). Another great example is Morton’s reframing of violence as “micro-violence(s)” and his re-locating of its causal character, formerly a quality of the indifferent whole (Mother Nature, or The Universe Machine), to the “fragile contingent.” Solidarity means nonhumans always impinge on us, and vice versa.. “Ecological awareness means that in any political grouping something is necessarily excluded,” something is unknown, eaten, stomped upon—“there is a fundamental fragility and inconsistency about any set of political beings.” Solidarity post-severance—“the structural position of wishing it could encompass more [beings]”— is tantamount to feeling compassion (Morton, 179).
But how do we get there?
What must we do?
Refreshingly sardonic and sensitive, Morton also makes things confusingly simple. I say confusing because our engrained ways of being make thinking solidarity so expensive! So much energy, so much mental toil spent in the effort to heal the trauma of severance! But subscendence thinking refuses allegiance to explosive Overlords, even down to our introjected General.
So what must we do? We must queer our action!
Morton’s treatment of authenticity reminded me of Module 8 when I expressed my thoughts about it. “Authenticity,” I mused, “must have more to do with at least witnessing (if not honoring) impulse, inclination—how desire speaks itself through “my” participation in rhizomatic entangling.” Authenticity, for Morton, is not an Easy Think Substance, it is, rather—and for all things—“futurality, a not-yet quality that resides in front” of things (Morton, 132). It is that spectral shimmering of which we all partake.
The reason I began this post with “Nature and Eros” relates to authenticity and queered action directly: “Do what you feel” we were instructed (in so many words). Indeed, we did have a loose schedule, but the disclaimer at the beginning of the course was that we needn’t comply with it. Our primary task was to queer the action/inaction binary by becoming aware of how, as Morton describes during his kundalini references, “this energy [i.e. what is bifurcated as the the binary of in (mind) against out (body/world)] appears to be moving, all by itself” (Morton, 184). This was SO hard for me! For so many of us there! Miles away from city-milling, the hustle still hollering in our minds, the General shouting “Should this, should that, SHOULD SHOULD SHOULD!”
Stop shoulding me, Mr. General.
Shut UP, mr. general!
But as Morton tells us, “one doesn’t act awareness, it happens to one. It seems to have its own kind of existence, form its own side. It is not something you manufacture.” Awareness is like the phantom feeling we’re left with after a day frolicking with ocean waves. Like that somatic echo of back and forth, “awareness oscillates or undulates or vibrates all by itself, neither doing or feeling exclusively, neither active or passive” (186). Timothy Morton the Mermaid. Multi-scalar consideration reveals that seemingly static objects like rocks—all things—exhibit “a ground state…of shimmering without mechanical input” (Morton, 187). Brian Swimme might designate this as an expression of the cosmological power he calls “Radiance.” All things radiate their existence as light, coming into resonance in certain ways, reverberating with each other in communion.
To enter into resonance is to realize compassion; to behold the being who impinges on us in all its numinosity; to be inspired toward “kindness.” How do we get there? Along with Morton, Matt tells us in his lecture that consciousness doesn’t have to do. We’re already in the space-time cave of aesthetic causality. Just let go. As Rilke says in his poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,”
“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”
Let go! Allow! Notice what arises! As in Julie’s Poetic Dimension—play!
How confusing! But, ah, what a relief…like waking up from the Nightmare of Reality (as the General would have it), and instead, waking back into another Dream, the Dream so many of us remember nostalgically as the promise of childhood. If indeed “philosophy requires a new theory of action…to help us slip out from underneath physically massive beings such as global warming and neoliberalism,” simply blinking open our Child’s Eyes to the fragility of certain Subscendent wholes might restore that early understanding of magic (Morton, 188). Of the world-shaping power of fictions—now you see me, now you don’t!
But to really get anything “done,” the letting go comes first—so that we may feel, as we become attuned, solidarity in all its treacherous and blissful ambivalence. Let us open to our erotic undulating in the larger undulation that is the Symbiotic Real. Nature-and-Eros.
Björk is sharing Dreams of Humankind’s spectral potential for enjoying maximized pleasure among other specters in the Symbiotic Real. Notice how in the video the typical delineations of animal//plants/machine/land/human/etc. are strangely enmeshed. A utopic vision of mucus membrane blissing-together.
But like Morton, Björk knows that the Symbiotic Real means pleasure and suffering. The next song on her album (Utopia) reflects, as I interpret it, the sobering affirmation of both and all the woes of history that we face post-Severing. “Body Memory” is about getting real, even as we Dream up possible futures:
“First snow of winter
I’m walking hills and valleys
Adore this mystical fog
This fucking mist
These cliffs are just showing off
Then the body memory kicks in
I mime my home mountains
The moss that I’m made of
I redeem myself
I’ve been wrestling with my fate
Do I accept this ending?
Will I accept my death
Or struggle claustrophobic?
Fought like a wolverine
With my destiny
Refused to accept what was meant to be
Then the body memory kicks in
And trust the unknown
Surrender to future”
Morton, T. (2016). All Objects Are Deviant Feminism and Ecological Intimacy. In K. Behar (Ed.), Object-Oriented Feminism (pp. 65-81). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pomeroy, A. F. (2004). Marx and Whitehead Process, Dialectics, and the Critique of Capitalism. Albany: State University of New York Press.