Friday, March 16, 2012

Surviving Elemental Relations

Yesterday I drove 142 miles to attend the JNT Dialogue at Eastern Michigan University, at which Eileen Joy, Jeffrey Cohen and Timothy Morton planned to speak on non-human ecologies. Although the subject itself is interesting enough to make the drive well worth the cost (in gas), my primary motivation was the opportunity to meet, face-to-face, three scholars who have not only constructed the foundation of the academic work I plan to pursue in graduate school, but who have also inspired me personally and, in the case of Jeffrey, in an almost mentor-like capacity. And while I would love to wax on about how marvelous, warm, inspirational, welcoming and downright fucking funny they are, I must forge ahead and talk about the most surprising guest to show up at the Non-Human Ecologies Dialogue: an F3 tornado.

Barely five minutes into Jeffrey’s talk about the agency of elemental forces and the paradoxical role of fire as a composer and destroyer of narratives the session was interrupted by news of a tornado warning and instructions to evacuate the room and seek shelter in stair wells or the auditorium in the center of the building. Flustered and dumbfounded, many of the group, myself included, wandered around directionless until eventually making our way to the auditorium, viscerally red and womb-like in its humidity, never quite certain what to make of the storm; and even with news reports airing on the auditorium’s film screen, it was never truly possible to ascertain just what type of threat we were facing. After nearly an hour-and-a-half of sitting in this sweltering uncertainty, we were finally permitted to return to the third-floor room and finish the Dialogue.

During and after the chaos of the storm, many remarks were made along the lines of, “talk about elemental relations, we’re having them right now!” It was difficult to ignore the overwhelming sense of the uncanny. As Jeffrey and Timothy gave abbreviated versions of their planned talks (Timothy, with permission from the audience, only abbreviating his breaths and the pauses between words in order to deliver the entire content of his paper with remarkable speed), both couldn’t help but acknowledge how frequently their papers made reference to storms and tornadoes. After about 20 minutes, both speakers finished, a lively Q&A followed, snacks were served and, by this point, the tornado was merely memory. However, during the Q&A, one question stood out for me above the others, primarily because the person who proffered it must have somehow remained oblivious to the events that had transpired over the past two hours. His concern, loosely paraphrased, was how an object-oriented ontology is relevant to more practical matters affecting social bodies constructed entirely of human members, how thinking about the agency of non-human objects has any real bearing on human politics and human ethics. Apparently he wasn’t present during the tornado.

From a staunchly anthropocentric perspective, the tornado was a jarring and unwelcome event that interrupted the human trajectory of the evening, an out-there distraction from the more pressing concerns of the entirely human social-body collected in room 310A that had gathered to discuss elemental relations. While its agency was apparent, the tornado's relationality to the social body was as an outsider, an intruder. And Jeffrey and Timothy both averred that anthropocentrism is inescapable; just as a plastic bottle cannot escape its plasticbottlecentric perspective, a human cannot ever really stop participating in the world from the subject position of a human. However, by increasing awareness of the roles of non-human bodies within social networks, humans can mediate their anthropocentric perspective and welcome more equitable relationships with non-human objects. Thus, from a more moderate and object-oriented vista, the tornado is perceived as an (uninvited) actor introducing its own vibrant materiality into the social body, affecting and altering that body but not necessarily interrupting any perceived trajectories. If we can think the tornado as vibrant matter, a wandering vagrant that enters into social networks with other human and non-human bodies (albeit more brutishly and vigorously than some other objects might), we can appreciate that we were treated to a first-hand narrative related by the very elements Jeffrey, Eileen and Timothy were giving voice to in their discussions.

While I am aware that the delay imposed upon the Dialogue by the precautionary measures the university staff employed during the storm was justifiably frustrating for the speakers (as well as the students eager to get their credit for attendance and jettison the talk as quickly as they could), by accepting the natural state of anarchy in which all objects operate, I was able to focus instead on the types of relationships that formed because of the presence of the storm, not in spite of it. As the members from social body 310A packed into the auditorium, it merged with other social bodies, a collection of young poets, a children’s program, a study group, and became a temporary zone for establishing relationships that would not have likely occurred without the presence of the storm. Huddled together, anxious and uncertain in that steamy, garishly red sauna, some of the children merged with a study group to play a game of duck-duck-goose on the stage, the poets temporarily had an entire auditorium as an audience for some improvisation, and nearly everyone was using this time to call family, text friends and tweet about the excitement. The uncertainty and impatience shared by every member of that temporary social body was as tangible as the sweat dripping down all our faces, an almost physical anxiety irreducible to the individual persons filling that auditorium, an anxiety that belonged to the social body as a whole, an anxiety that would not have manifested had we all not collected in such heat amidst such a storm of uncertainty in such a red, red room.

And in such a state of heightened emotion, in a room full of so much material vibrancy you could literally see it steaming off the bodies of humans like a noisome odor (and there was plenty of that too), new bonds of friendship were forged and sealed with sweat as personal “bubbles” were burst and we all became closer and warmer in fear of, what, exactly? I drove those 142 miles primarily for the opportunity to meet Jeffrey Cohen and Eileen Joy, hoping for little more than a handshake and a chance to put a face with a name. Instead, in that state of anarchy (that only seems so anarchic until we realize that it is just the natural state of all objects) I was able to set the foundations of what I hope will become lasting friendships with Jeffrey and Eileen. When humans are no longer capable of ignoring the state of anarchy, their appearances begin to drop and that rift between essence and appearance begins to rise to the surface; and what occurs when you see someone’s ‘rift’ is much like what occurs when you see someone’s naked body: a certain threshold of familiarity and honesty is established and the moment is unforgettable and likely to remain a thick stew from which to siphon good memories and, hopefully, laughs. Therefore, I have nothing but gratitude for the unexpected, uncanny, tempestuous arrival of that strange tornado on that strange evening in that too red room.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

What a great account: the F3 becomes the Strange Stranger, the guest who had to arrive ...

I think Tim gave his intended talk; he just read it VERY quickly.

Eileen Joy said...

What a delightful and witty recap, and in the theoretical spirit of the JNT dialogue as well; I can see you'll do quite well at Kalamazoo. Also, Jeffrey wants his thong back.

Timothy Morton said...

This really is very very well done Alan.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Keep the thong, Alan. It was Eileen's. She was saving it as a special reward for herself when she slims down and hits goal weight.

She won't need it.