Tyrone Williams: “Outsider Ecopoetics: Notes on a Problem”

This essay was presented at the Conference on EcoPoetics, February 22-24, 2013 in Berkeley, California, as part of the panel titled “The Book, Ecopoetic Instrument.”

“All earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book. It terrifies me to think of the qualities (among them genius, certainly) which the author of such a work will have to possess. I am one of the unpossessed. We will let that pass and imagine that it bears no author’s name.” – Mallarmé, The Book as Spiritual Instrument

What would an ecopoetics be without, that is, outside, human language? By language I mean not only the formal qualities and dynamics of written and oral languages but also the semiotics of Braille, sign language, hand gesture, eye contact, facial recognition and the position of one body vis-à-vis another. Would such an ecopoetics even deserve this or any other name? Would such an ecopoetics, no longer confined to a name, a book, a house, a world, or the earth, be, by definition, inscrutable or hermetic precisely to the extent it offered itself as the indefinite extrapolation of the structure of desire or, what comes down to the same thing, the exceeding of every structure of lack? This extrapolated structure of desire, or an excess irreducible to lack, would induce, and depend on, an asymmetrical relationship between expenditure and profit, between generous, if not substantial, investments in a future and an ever diminishing rate of returns. In other words, an ecopoetics worthy of its name would call itself into question indefinitely. Exemplifying the Heideggerean critique of Being, a potentially radical ecopoetics would deem the form of the question that opens this talk as precisely what binds it to the syntax of the present. Conversely, it would recognize in the first word of the third and fourth sentences—“Would”—a more suitable, because provisional, “name” for its conditional orientation to a future. In short, such an ecopoetics would partake of what we, from the perspective of capitalism, have deemed a gift economy, one which spirals away from each preceding giver towards another forthcoming recipient. If an ecopoetics is implied in such an economy, one which is analogous to the structure of desire even as it exceeds its form, it must remain an anonymous donor to an imperiled future; it must erase itself from history if it is to indemnify the future against the claims of the past. For without this gesture toward self-annihilation, which is the erasure of the past and thus of debt, ecopoetics is merely a more robust mode of environmental or, perhaps worse, nature poetry that always circles back to its origins, its creator, a human being, however much that being may be lacerated with guilt, responsibility, shame, etc. In short, both environmental/nature poetics and, in order to gesture toward the origins of this panel, what I will call “outsider” ecopoetics, tether the present to the future. The “drag” effect—anthropocentrism—guarantees that the future remains a determined “house” in which humans dwell and over which they lord. Is it possible to think otherwise, to imagine a future within a speculative horizon of “freedom,” an “outside” for that which has yet to be, and by definition, cannot be, thought? I am well aware that such a strategy, or gamble, carries its own risks. What if the deliberate occlusion of our present ecopoetics will have been the occultation of a “genesis” as seen from some other vantage point of view in the future? In other words, the desire to circumvent anthropocentrism might well entail mystifying the sources of some possible future sentience. In order to avoid anthropocentrism we might well risk self-apotheosis. Since this panel was inspired in part by the writings of Mallarmé, it might not be inappropriate here to invoke his well-known phrase, the throw of the dice, to describe what all attempts to manage or determine the future amount to. The ungrammatical syntax—ending a sentence with a preposition, the grammatical category of another space, another temporality—is a gesture to that risk.

It may be asked why I am insisting that debt, that gratitude, must be wiped from the books if something like an ecopoetics is to orient itself fully toward a future it can never predetermine in advance. Let’s consider this question from two perspectives, the biologic of evolution and the anthropocentric ethos of responsibility. On the one hand, evolution, by which I mean not only changes to animals and plants wrought by mutations but also alterations in the bacteria and mineral kingdoms, implies that our environmental, sustainability and “ethical” actions are delimited by the unpredictability, in the long run, of their effects. On the other hand, our responsibility to the planet, much less to the living and non-living entities that comprise it, is responsibility within the horizons of present existence as we understand it. In short, the theory of evolution and the ethos governing ecological responsibility are in conflict with one another, perhaps not “now” during the epoch of homo sapiens, but possibly at some indeterminate moment in the future. Put another way, our responsibility to a delimited future may also be an act of irresponsibility to an indeterminate future. I want to emphasize right now that this analysis is not a call for paralysis, for doing nothing. We always and only act within the parameters of limited knowledge. Instead I am calling attention to this issue to underscore one fact: anthropocentrism is inescapable within the practice of any poetics, be it environmental or ecological in orientation. In the spirit of this conference I will not push this analysis to its Nietzschean limits when the philosopher suggests that perhaps his life is “only” a prejudice; I take this to mean that perhaps the concept of life is only a delimited perspective, a biocentrism that remains blind to the possibility of modes of non-biological sentience. Rather than pursue that line of thought, I simply want to suggest that the anthropocentrism at the origins of our ecological and aesthetic concerns also means that the book may haunt us even as we migrate to what we perceive as “more” visceral and “more” virtual modes of reading and writing.

If the ghost of the book inhabits outsider ecopoetics, it is because the problematic concept of the outsider artist vis-à-vis modern and postmodern aesthetics has served to not only historicize, and thus validate, the art world but also the realm of politics insofar as the political outsider stands in apposition—not opposition—to the well-connected insider. That the art world’s rehabilitation of the “outsider” in the 20th century occurred more or less around the same time as politicians began running for office as outsiders to established blocs of power is not coincidental. The political fallout from the Vietnam War and Watergate on the one hand, the sense of exhausted possibilities after abstract expressionism and Pop Art and their sundry spin-offs on the other, led to a renewed interest in anti-establishment figures in both the political and cultural spheres. In the most general sense, then, the outsider is a countercultural figure in every sphere of human activity. The outsider is, in all cases, the poison and remedy for whatever ails a particular institution, custom or tradition. Absorbing the outsider—usually under the rubric of sacrifice—guarantees, for a little longer, the life of the institution, custom or tradition in question. It goes without saying that in the literary sector of culture, the book is a formidable, if no longer hegemonic, site of recuperation. In this context, outsider ecopoetics must be understood as a necessary, if necessarily compromised, response to the perception of exhausted possibilities after environmentalism in general and nature poetry or poetics in particular. Nonetheless, that exhaustion, like the book, dogs ecopoetics as the remainder of a particular mode of anthropo- and bio-centrism. Before I briefly summarize the histories of these problems, I want to quickly, perhaps too quickly, dismiss the gesture toward virtual poetics, another mode of poetics that can be understood as outside, even as it retains its ties to, the book.

As we might recall, some early, and somewhat naïve, champions of the various modes of e-poetics (vispo, hypertext, etc.) construed its freedom from the paper industry as ecological progress. Of course, criticism of this perspective was immediate, and not just from luddites; the delivery systems for e-poetry—metals, plastics and liquids more toxic than carbon- and fossil-based technologies (paper, ink, etc.)—mean that we can summarize e-poetics as a movement out of the (paper) book and into the (metallic/plastic) book regardless of its virtual iterations and modes. Inasmuch as ecopoetics has been formulated on this panel as a movement toward earth- and body-works, as a radical possibility for both the dislocation and relocation of languages, it is much more ecologically responsible—in the short term—than any e-poetics. To put it simply, and more broadly, any poetics that retains the privatizing functions long associated with the novel (see below) and thus the modern “individual” will always be less ecologically responsible than those poetics that dispense with the individually owned page or screen. Just as public libraries, movie houses and public transportation systems are more ecologically responsible than privately owned book collections, television sets and automobiles, so too an ecopoetics vis-à-vis traditional environmental/nature poetics, but only if it is constituted as the site of a commons, as a collective enterprise from production to distribution. That is, in or outside the book, individual “works” of art cannot be as ecologically responsible as collaborative ones. In that sense, then, and contrary to the above, a collaboration of environmental/nature poets is more ecologically responsible in the short term than an individually authored book of ecopoetics. However, in the long term, and to the extent it marks a movement away from the anthropocentrism that undergirds environmentalist/nature poetics, ecopoetics will have always been less self-regarding and thus more ecologically responsible.

If I provisionally retain the term ecopoetics for that which has, however tenuous, some relation to the book, another human creation, it is because a poetics per se demands the book or, more precisely, the structure of the book, which is also a structure of desire. For the book is not a tome of plenitude. On the contrary, the book is vacuous; it encapsulates lack, however much it veils itself in images and/or words that only trained readers can decipher. To a certain extent, this is another way of glossing Barthes: we only reread. I refer, of course, to what I consider to be his finest achievement, S/Z, a book which foregrounds the process of cannibalism that enables any book to be written, recited, or interpreted. In this context we should never forget that the book was born at the crossroads of the aesthetic—as both “literature” and “art”—and religious modes of making sense of human existence. No book, no matter how irreverent, no matter how “radical,” can completely shed itself of this legacy. None of this is new, of course, which is why artists have been trying to get “out” of the book—the art book, the academic book, the religious book, the literary book, etc.—for several hundred years. Because of its aesthetic-religious, that is, philosophical networks, feedbacks and entanglements, the book has been both revered, usually as a political or religious document, and condemned, usually as a secular pretension to or rival of theological knowledge. The book, then, is dangerous; it is, to use a religious metaphor, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that laymen—as opposed to priests and philosophers—are too limited (morally, intellectually, etc.) to grasp. Of course this perspective is, within the West, modern—that is, relatively new. For the medievalists, for example, the Book of Nature is the concordance to the Book of God, decipherable primarily to the priesthood; insofar as both are suffused with the spirit of divinity there is, literally, nothing outside the text. There is, in this world, for the human subject, knowledge, but its relationship to faith is analogous to that which defines the relationship between the natural world and revealed word. Knowledge, as an object of inquiry or speculation, as an object exterior to the human subject, is thus, strictly speaking, secular. And once the book became a repository for the secular and aesthetic, challenging the hegemony of theological and philosophical thought, it rose—to paraphrase Ian Watts—to vie with painting on a canvas and performing music according to a score as the crown of human achievement.

However, even as poets, painters and composers began to challenge the constraints of the book, the canvas and the score, others—say, the first and second generation descendants of slaves forbidden to read and immigrants from non-English-speaking countries—were doing their best to get into the book. Three to four generations later, in the context of urbanization, black pride and ghettoization, in the context of a cultural nationalism that challenged the core philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, only those who wanted to talk or act “white” were into books. I summarize this all too familiar history simply to suggest that the problem with the book, like the problem with the folio or scroll, perhaps has less to do with the book as a vehicle for capturing texts than the implications and uses of that instrument within a given culture at a given moment. Nonetheless, the question of the “fit” between the book and ecopoetics remains. In brief, does the book do ecopoetics a disservice?

In asking this question, or any of its variants, we sometimes suppose that ecosystems exist “out there” prior to any mode of epistemology, e.g., poetics. And what is perceived as out there is also often, if not always, perceived as pre-existing, prior to our arrival on the planet. But if “we” are indeed water, are indeed dirt, are indeed matter, then there is no objective out there in relation to the totality of ecosystems on this planet. This insight, in fact, is a link between environmentalism and ecology; both recognize and seek to remind us that we are always implicated in the ecosystems that we think of as exterior “objects” subject to our analyses. Given this point, it follows that everything we create, however useful or destructive, is perforce part of, and therefore influences, alters, all ecosystems. If the preservation of life on earth as it is, as we believe or hope it will be, is the driving force behind environmentalism and ecological activism, then anthropocentrism is a necessary projection of spatial ecosystems onto the temporal plane. And since systems are necessarily bounded, and therefore spatially (if not temporally) finite, environmentalism and ecologism are, at bottom, a recasting of ourselves as stewards or, from a secular perspective, lords of the earth. Of course, there is another conclusion one could draw from the same analysis, as the radical “ecoterrorists” Earth First! have, one that has consistently shown up in popular fiction, film and, yes, in books: humans are a plague upon the earth, a virulent virus that must be neutralized if the planet is to survive.

Such are the consequences of an outside conceived as excluding the human subject. However, with the recent invocations of systemic—as opposed to discrete—“problems” in the natural world, that is, with the shift from environmentalism to ecology, it is tempting to forget that the concern with the totality of a system—as opposed to its particulars—remains dependent on a conception of the outside even when it locates the human subject within, if not centered at, the sphere. Thus environmental poetics and ecopoetics, for example, share this premise even if the latter is often conceived of as an implicit critique of the naiveté of the former. Thus the book is conceived of here as an obstacle to be overcome so that the poet may engage more directly with potential referents—that is, with the elements that constitute the natural world. In this context the senses of touch, smell, and hearing are elevated over and above the visual, and the visual is redirected to the “outside”—that is, outside the book. Here, the experiential stands in for the visceral, the sensible, the body’s unmediated encounter with the things themselves. Implicit in this move is the promise of immediacy, or at worst, less “interference,” a movement toward a less temporalized, less spatialized, encounter with that which words—written or oral—can only gesture toward. Briefly put, the sensible appears to be more desirable and more reliable than the intellectual as concerns knowledge of the thing one encounters.

Yet there is, as we all know, an “outside” made from, born of, subjectivity. This is the only sense in which we might understand ecopoetics as perhaps best served by being outside the book, still the kingdom of modern subjectivity par excellence despite the advent of social media. But as modern philosophy and Facebook have taught us, the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity is fraught with epistemological, to say nothing of political and cultural, problems. We can certainly envision a return to writing on rocks, to reading rivulets and weather-beaten cliff sides as writings of the natural world, but these phenomena are indecipherable prior to their translation by a human subject, a subject inconceivable without the book. It may be the case that a new mode of human subjectivity, or a subjectivity independent of the human altogether, awaits us in the future. It may be that the seeds of such subjectivity have already been planted. Certainly the experience of “reading” a Smithson or Goldsworthy earth- or water-work is different than reading books but one experience is neither “less mediated” nor “more ecologically responsible” than the other. Most important, visceral experiences—touching, hearing, smelling, etc—cannot be communicated to third parties without the midwifery or middleman of language. This means that even if a new subjectivity displaces the old subjectivity of the book, it cannot, today, make it itself known since our language is both the origin and destiny of the book.

Of course, if one were to conceive of ecopoetics as including the book et al, the book complemented by what it is not, the book as an element within an intertexual ecosystem, one would gesture toward a more performative mode of reading or interpretation, but such a performance, while important as a differential relation to the process of engagement and interpretation, would be no more or less “holistic” than simply reading at a desk or dancing and reciting poetry in a field. In all cases the senses and modes of cognition would be engaged, though, to be fair, to varying degrees. That variance is why there is epistemological value in, for example, somatic exercises and constraints—pulling one’s hair, binding one arm behind one’s back, sitting on the edge of a bed, walking in a park, etc.—to jumpstart the creative process.

Still, however much an ecopoetics that is, in fact, ecodancing, or ecotheater, or eco-sculpture, uses of the body different from sitting, standing, pacing, or lying in bed, it cannot eradicate the finitude that is set in place the moment a non-linguistic “experience” is translated into language. This finitude, a condition of any language, is precisely what the book, like the folio or the scroll, mimics. Thus, to the extent we imagine the book as the exemplar of finitude we mistake effects for causes. For the finitude of the book also mimics the finitude of the human body. And more, for the concept of finitude is, finally, inextricable not only from the book but also from the body, by which I mean not only a human body but also all other bodies (e.g., a body of water, a heavenly body, etc.). The body, finite by definition, is also what the book mimics, and what is outside the book, attempts to exceed. This means a rethinking of the concept of the body, to say nothing of the book. For in the end a resistance against the biocentrism of the body as such, against the anthropocentrism of the book as such, might offer glimpses into an ecopoetics no longer at the apogee of its orbit about a center. Imagine, if we can, an ecopoetics untethered from the earth, a body no longer bounded by the concept of a globe or sphere. Imagine a body adrift from embodiment, a book, like love, unblurbed…like love, unblurbed…like love, unblurbed…like love, unblurbed…


tyronewilliamsmd[1]Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of five books of poetry, c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002), On Spec (Omnidawn Publishing, 2008), The Hero Project of the Century (The Backwaters Press, 2009), Adventures of Pi (Dos Madres Press, 2011) and Howell (Atelos Books, 2011). He is also the author of several chapbooks, including a prose eulogy, Pink Tie (Hooke Press, 2011). His website is at home.earthlink.net/~suspend.