Monday, April 8, 2013

Thinking the Inhuman

Driving home after the stimulating “Ecologies of the Inhuman” panel hosted by GW MEMSI, I was fortunate enough to have over 6.5 undisturbed hours to reflect, to worry, to chew over and to navigate the tumultuous waves of thought generated by the inspiring papers of my co-presenters and the invigorating Q&A session that followed (as well as the continuing conversations that manifested over dinner and drinks). As I looked out the window and embraced the contours and ecologies of Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, I let my mind wander over and touch the myriad sights in the hope that my material surroundings would agitate and affect my reveries and give focus to the swarm of thoughts buzzing inside my head.

I tried to stop thinking of time and distance, realizing, thanks to Valerie Allen, that these measurements of matter tell me nothing of the things in themselves, but are only human approximations of quotidian qualities better left un-pondered. I wondered instead about the space of a mountain to the mountain itself. How might a mountain perceive its own morphology (metaphorically, of course)? Does a peak sense its base, and how might we investigate that sensation? And how little does a mountain really care (if it would even give a damn) that its slow slouching and vast expanding informs humanity’s very ability to think the slowness of deep time and the vastness of geological heaving?

As we drove through the highways that slash right through these mountain’s peaks, I couldn’t help but wonder how the lithic, the arboreal and the organic beings that constitute such peaks resist and/or desire to being so hewn. What qualities of stone and soil lend themselves to being sliced, how do the curves and crevasses of cut stone, the textures and hardness of igneous and metamorphic rock, of basalt, marble and granite inform our willingness to engage these lithic beings in our ecological thinking? And what of the road, itself a lithic body whose shape is designed by human architects? When does stone stop being stone and become the for-human paved highway? Go ask Anne Harris.

Passing through the cuts in Negro Mountain (yes, that etymology of that nomenclature is as racially problematic as it sounds), I mused over Alfred Siewers presentation as we drove through a veritable graveyard of dead trees, its woodsy corpses still whispering of a once-thriving community of arboreal splendor. These sylvan skeletons communicate the introduction of the invasive Gypsy Moth from Europe, a ravenous insect whose defoliating of various trees and shrubs was likely responsible for this road-side necropolis. Is the Gypsy Moth a Nidhogg, devouring the life-giving and matter-structuring tree Yggdrasill? Humans are surely co-implicated in the spread of the Gyspy Moth, our tourism, industry and even wanderlust (forces responsible for the hewn mountains above) continuing to aggrandize the problem, yet how much more complex is the ecology which weighs down the world-tree?

Of course, so much of this tourism serves for the sake of human desires for recreation. Thanks to Lowell Duckert, I am now more aware of the postures of violence implicit in our modes of relaxation. To recreate is to re-create, to tear down and ravage untouched spaces in order to create (and copy and paste) human ideas of recreational space. As we stopped at a state park for a bit of lunch, parking in a lot in front of picnic tables and swing-sets, I thought about the clear cutting and construction required to create a space for recreation. Yet, is not our continued fascination with our forests what stimulates the compassion of those who work dedicatedly to preserve and repopulate these dying woodlands? Of course, this is a very human model of preservation, and we should avoid the ethical high-ground of always assuming our intervention is necessary; we weep over dead trees but barely bat an eye as we eagerly exterminate millions of moths.

Situated somewhere off the highway in Maryland or West Virginia sat a primitive steel structure simulating Noah’s Ark. An advertisement for a church and an admonition against Christian notions of “sin,” this terrestrial barge got me thinking about Steve Mentz’s shipwrecks and I wondered, at first, how different this planet might look if Noah had been a shit carpenter and if his ark had simply sank. Noah was always already in the midst of such a shipwreck, just as Sodom was always already doomed to its conflagration, just as we are already struggling to stay afloat in the polluted sea of our undoing. Yet, the ark itself would not likely perceive the rending and hewing of its disassembling as the cataclysmic overture we would surely fear it to be (of course, had the myth concluded this way there would be no “we” to ponder this alternative scenario), but merely a morphing and shifting of relations, a carnival game of dancing densities and displacement, and a repositioning of carbon and calcium, watery dissolving and decay.

One sees a great deal of decay and decomposition driving through the Appalachians, and I wondered whether Eileen Joy would find herself at home amidst such a jungle of abandoned post-industrial fissures and breaks being reclaimed by that capital “N” Nature. What kind of violence is this tumbling, crashing, rusting, shifting, breaking, colliding, devouring and entangling of spaces and structures abandoned by humans? Is this the sort of violence that would stimulate Eileen? Do we share in that same affinity? Is it possible to be inspired and enthralled by apocalyptic forces, to revel in the ways we bring about our own destruction, and still maintain an alignment with humanity? Faced with an impending ecological crisis, is it even responsible to preserve a human ethos?

And what of this flux, this interminable flow of material forces that engenders (imaginary) Biblical shipwrecks and the vicissitudes of time? Passing through communities built upon the shores of meandering waterways, I sorted through the debris of thoughts left behind by James Smith’s wonderful discussion of “Fluid,” and worried over the fluid networking of geography and human ingenuity that shaped these odd entanglements of plunging yards, narrow homes, erratic roads and broken piers. The flows of a river might offer fish to feed a population, then flood farms and residences, forcing migration. Do these river dwellers have a natural flexibility, an innate “go with the flow” mindset that enables them to risk residing along uncertain shores, or have the floods themselves fashioned more malleable humans?

Stopping for gas and listening to the whirring and clicking of the fans trying to cool the engine, I realized how little I actually thought about the car itself which was working so dedicatedly to traverse the highways and with which I was so thoroughly embroiled and engaged (I was the guilty Dasein). I know nothing of cars, of the intricacies and mechanics that assemble and relate beneath the hood, but I do know that cars need oil and gasoline, they hunger for petro-carbons, and that our shameful thirst for environmentally destructive fuels does not translate into an automobile-ethos. The parts and pistons that propel the car have an affinity for petroleum-based fluids that lubricate and catalyze their connections. How do we think ecology when the objects of the world do not share in our anthropocentric ethics, the same ethics that are requisite should we wish to continue our co-habitation with all the beings (organic, inorganic, bodied, incorporeal, impossibly vast, unmeasurably tiny) on this planet? I would like to thank Ian Bogost for bringing my mind back to this dilemma.

This gas station at which we had stopped seems to have engendered a small impoverished town, a community whose sole purpose is to facilitate travel and tourism. So that we might drive through the cuts we’ve made in mountains in order to ask the challenging questions of ethics and ecology, these fueling depots and rest stops must be staffed and served by folks as often unnoticed as the homeless ambler that incited Carolyn Dinshaw to think about our “shared vulnerability.” Although their mobile home communities remain hidden miles past the rest stops and gas stations themselves, these homesteads exist and it is our responsibility, even in the event of our recreations, or tourisms or even our shipwrecks, to attend to those who are so deeply entangled with the forces of materiality and often the first to suffer from our carelessness and lack of compassion/understanding of the non-hierarchical connectivity of being.

I hope I have not done a disservice to the brilliant presentations of the folks mentioned above by misrepresenting some of their arguments, but I merely mean to share the questions that manifested in my mind as I sat in the passenger seat of a silver Saturn Aura for almost 7 hours letting wonder happen. I must also express my most sincere gratitude to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen for assembling this creative congregation of eco-critical inquiry and for being the ever-gracious host and a devilishly fun companion.

1 comment:

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