A lot of inspiration has been breathing through me this semester and it’s time I catch this blog up to speed!
I spent the last season exploring the intersection of ecology, philosophy, and music in an independent study with Sam Mickey, an adjunct lecturer in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at CIIS, as well as an adjunct professor in the Theology and Religious Studies department at the University of San Francisco. I proposed the independent study to Sam after taking his FANTASTIC spring course on ecopoetics. My focus in the final essay of ecopoetics was on a philosophical exchange between the transdisciplinary artist Björk and eco-philosopher Timothy Morton for the way their dialogue illuminates the ecological valence of Björk’s work, specifically in her most recent album “Utopia.” I argued that Björk’s music could be thought of as an exemplary form of philosophy from an ecological perspective—philosophy as “ecopoetic spellwork.” What do I mean by “ecopoetic?” Well, in this context, “I refer to any experience, evocation, or consideration of nature’s relational (ecological), semiotic creativity in and through human and nonhuman beings alike—a vast designation!”
This initial exploration ended up being very fruitful for my own philosophical perspective and inquiry around ecological art-making. Aside from my writing, I have not been actively making art since finishing my undergraduate degree in film production. I moved all the way to the Bay Area for the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness (PCC) program at CIIS and the possibility it presented to me for deepening into my questions about the role of art in confronting the ecological crisis. What emerged from my consideration of Björk and Morton was a way of thinking about meaning that respects the continuity between human culture and nature: thinking as a listening, meaning understood musically. Finally my art medium ambivalence finds a resting place, one that extends the affect of art beyond its culturally inscribed scope of influence. Ecologized art in the multimedia form of music, song, dance, and performance echoes the origins of art in religion and resounds with all the efficacy it once took as self-evident. When philosophy is a listening—when ontology is thought through our sense of sound—art recovers its magical, incantatory power. Dimly I held these threads in mind as I began my independent study; with the help of Sam’s feedback and textual suggestions, I would encounter many thinkers whose ideas would help to sound out the music my own thoughts were beginning to attune to. The philosopher David Michael Kleinberg-Levin was one of those thinkers with whom I especially resonated. In what follows I engage with his wonderful text The Listening Self and present singing as a form of art that is particularly amenable to being conceived ecologically and for that reason instructive to artists attempting to re-conceive other mediums ecologically. Preceding my essay is a more general talk I gave on Kleinberg-Levin’s text while at Esalen during PCC’s fall retreat.
Singing Beyond the Human
What kind of art breathes through the artifactual bounds of human culture? All arts, one might say, simply through their material consequences in the webwork of ecology. More pointedly, then, I ask: what kind of art breathes through the artifactual bounds of human culture with an aspiration of reciprocity with the nonhuman world? Singing! Singing, I say! Singing because singing requires foremost that the singer be adept at listening. The song to unfold shall sing a way of being that is simultaneously a listening, an attunement, and a singing—a way of thinking experience ecologically while still maintaining the difference (though porous) between self and other. By extension, the physical practice of singing proves to be particularly suited to instruct an ecological reorientation of the arts, one that is more truly a recovery of indigeneity than the latest innovation in progress.
When I finally committed to singing lessons, I did not anticipate that the biggest challenge to face would be learning how to listen. “Yaaaaaaaaa,” sings my teacher S. in her mixed register. Stalling, I overthink how to match her—imagining the mimesis as a mechanical computation of the mind that I can’t get right. “You don’t trust yourself,” she often reminds me, encouraging me to just let go. Indeed, the ability to relax enough to let the sound resonate inside before trying to harmonize is crucial, but hard to achieve for a body so conditioned by oculocentric thinking. In his text The Listening Self, David Kleinberg-Levin identifies oculocentrism as the visual bias reigning over Western conceptual thought since the Greeks, a tendency informed by what he calls the “ego-logical” structure of subject-object perception. “It is easier,” writes Kleinberg-Levin, “for us to shut our eyes than close our ears. It is easier for us to remain untouched and unmoved by what we see than by what we hear; what we see is kept at a distance, but what we hear penetrates our entire body.” Vision, therefore, is the preferred sense for the egoic will to power, the subject’s dominion over objects. The gaze splits two ways: practically, through the subject’s objectification of all that is not itself in the activity of use, and theoretically, through a totalizing conception of and closure to Being. They go hand-in-hand. Kleinberg-Levin refers to the latter as a
frontal ontology, an ontology of entities which, at least in the ideal situation, are held ‘front and centre’: in the most ideal act of beholding, the object is to be held in place directly before the eyes… the metaphysics of vision… tends to overvalue constancy, uniformity, permanence, unity, totality, clarity, and distinctness…the nature of the visionary situation is such that the gaze always inhabits a field of contemporaneously coexisting entities, more or less immediately in continuous view, constant beholding…[and] encourages a metaphysics of presence, a discourse of speculative thinking in which the apparently real panoptical omnipresence is reflected — and not only reflected, but projected the absolute truth.
The frontal ontology sired by oculocentric bias translates into computational learning processes in which “getting it right,” being in accord with absolute truth, serves as the key to winning the prize. My preoccupation with “getting it right” in the process of miming S. short-circuits my capacity to be fully present with the feeling of her resounding voice—closing me off from the vibrancy of Being. Learning to sing, it turns out, necessitates a more receptive orientation to lived experience than oculocentrism allows for. I must instead open myself up to Being, surrendering my egoic compulsion for control to the ecstatic dimension of sound. “Unlike the things that we see,” writes Kleinberg-Levin,
things that endure in the contemporaneous coexistence of spatial entities and belong to the ‘omnipresence’ of space itself, sounds are transitory and impermanent, ever insubstantial, belonging to the realm of temporality: they cannot be grasped, held, possessed…the nature of sound deconstructs the ego’s sense of identity, its sense of itself as a substantial self-grounded subjectivity, enjoying an undisputed certainty in a world under its control.
Learning to sing—learning to listen, to resonate as and with other sounds—opens the possibility of conceptualizing ourselves differently. Explicit in the listening (rather than the seeing) self is its inherence in a web of vibrating relationships, relationships that, taken together, constitute the ecological matrix of Being. In the developmental scheme Kleinberg-Levin traces, the ego-logical structure of subject-object perception is a stage that enables the individual to differentiate itself from others and to survive. Our individual “sense of self,” writes Levin, “is formed through difference: difference in interactions with others, but also difference in interactions with the objective world.” Through the mirroring of others—of the world itself—we come to know ourselves, a process which potentiates a
compelling disclosure of our primordial sociality: a disclosure that enables the ego it has produced to overcome its narcissistic impulses, and that consequently frees it to continue its individuation, beyond socially imposed roles, by taking part in the communicativeness and reciprocities of a social existence.
Implicit in the very possibility of ego construction, then, is its overcoming through the intercorporeal, ecological ground of its existence, what forms the basis of our intersubjectivity. Sociality, as Kleinberg-Levin has it, is primordial—ontological: thus, we always have a sense of our inherence in the ecology of Being, albeit dimly, in a forgotten way. The former is what Kleinberg-Levin refers to as “pre-ontological understanding,” a phase that can only be brought to awareness through incorporation—taking on the body of difference—down the path of individuation. “Paradoxically,” Kleinberg-Levin writes, “the incorporation is a forgetting which makes a belated recollection possible.”
I must hold multiple registers of focus in tandem during my singing lesson: my breathing, the expansion of my ribcage, lifted vocal folds, a clear mind, and an acute feeling for the sound. More often than not, I stumble in the juggle. My worst habit is doubt, manifested in a complicated relationship to breath. I can’t attend to my breathing without trying to control it, resulting in inhales that are much too large and exhales that pale in comparison. I get lighted-headed and become anxious, dissociating from the moment at hand. “Where are you going? You’re leaving your body again! Why don’t you just tell yourself that you’re aware of your breath? Then all your problems will be solved.” The first few times S. suggests I tell myself something like this I proceed to do it aloud right then, but her smirks gradually make me realize that what she means has more to do with trust than following her command like a parrot. My compulsion to control my breath arises from—I believe—a mistaken, semi-unconscious assumption about my ontology: I, an autonomous ego, am on one side of existence, the world and all its contents (my body included) is on the other. Yet, time and time again I am forced (by the breathing panic) to realize that my breath derives from and depends upon an entire atmosphere that transcends my individuality. This, allied with a nod to the brilliance explicit in my own organism, “involuntarily” breathing myself even when I’m not paying attention! But how can I consciously entrust myself to what is beyond my control?
Coming to conscious awareness of my breath and its implications for the way I conceive my existence is expressive of what Kleinberg-Levin designates as the ontological culmination of Being in humankind: hearkening. Our hearing, so it goes, is a gift that makes a religious claim on us, luring us to deepen our feeling capacity enough to remember who we are. As infants “our hearing may be said to inhere in, and be attuned by, the field of sonorous Being as a whole: the infant lives in a bodily felt inherence in the openness of the sonorous matrix and hears with—and through—the entire body. The infant’s ears are the body as a whole.” Our primordial attunement by and to the undulating, breathing fabric of Being is the dim memory and pre-ontological understanding of wholeness—a gift and a calling. Hearkening is the heeding of the gift, embodied in the kind of holistic listening required for the practice of singing. However, for hearkening to be achieved, our listening must be cultivated beyond just biological development, raising pre-ontological understanding into awareness through its retrieval, what Kleinberg-Levin describes as an appropriation:
a claim (Anspruch) which calls for its proper or appropriate ‘use.’ This ‘use’ is a recollection of Being which retrieves the pre-ontological understanding of Being, the poorly understood relationship with Being always and already implicate in our hearing, and gives back to the primordial Es gibt of Being…the gift of its audibility in the world of our dwelling. When we lend our ears to such a recollection of Being, our listening becomes properly attuned, properly thoughtful: it becomes an ‘authentic hearing’…And this is the achievement of ‘hearkening’.
When I surrender the compulsion to control my breath through the realization that I derive from processes that transcend my individuality, but which ultimately connect me ecstatically to the whole cosmos, I am hearkening. When I bring this awareness into my practice of singing, I am hearkening. If I keep up my practice, I edge closer to the potential of seeing through the subject-object structure of perception and begin to abide in a “guardian awareness” of “just listening,” an interested, yet equanimous
awareness of the intertwining of subject and object: their differential interplay. It is by virtue of the subject’s playful openness to the matrix of sound, the sheer vibrancy of the field as a whole, that this intertwining, this interplay of identity and difference, oneness and twoness, is realized.
Kleinberg-Levin is careful not to reduce the ultimacy of perception to idealistic monism or a complete dualism. Instead, the ontological difference is maintained and can actually be heard as a double-tone “manifesting in, and as, the local dimensions of a figure-ground difference. ‘Just listening’ takes us into the interplay, where the two dimensions of difference can also sound as one.” Easier said than done! “An awakened attention, that’s what you need when you’re here,” says S. in frustration, “and you don’t have it.” “So how to cultivate that…? Meditation?” I ask, hopeful. “I don’t know—what takes you out?” “Takes me out?” “Yeah, what takes you away from your ability to listen and reproduce what you’re hearing?” A long pause elapses. “You have to find that out,” says S., ending our session for the day.
S.’s question intersects with the question I posed at the beginning of this essay: what kind of art breathes through the artifactual bounds of human culture with an aspiration of reciprocity with the nonhuman world? The bodily form of listening demanded by the discipline of singing carries the potential for me to become sensitive enough to feel my inherence—and affect—in the sonic field of my context. Implied in that sensitivity is my openness to being affected by others—a vulnerability. Indeed, as Kleinberg-Levin understands it, hearkening represents the
greatest opening to Being of which we are capable, it is a mode of perceptiveness that we can achieve only by cultivating our capacity for feeling and restoring the connection between feeling and listening…we need to learn a listening which listens with this bodily felt sense. In other words, we need to cultivate a listening that is deeply rooted in our body’s felt sense of situated being.
Restoring, as Kleinberg-Levin writes, “our body’s felt sense of situated being” is exactly the kind of response necessary to engage the ecological crisis we collectively face. I must become response-able to my local nexus, sensitive enough to discern its needs; aware of the fact that simply by existing, I impact others. Hearkening, Kleinberg-Levin writes,
ultimately calls for a calm, relaxed, well-balanced state, body and mind. The more this state is achieved, the easier it becomes to neutralize the polarizing internationalities of desire, the vectors of attraction and aversion which bind our everyday hearing to the ego-logically constituted structure of subject and object.
The ravenous pace of industrial civilization and the exploitative nature of capitalism tremendously hamper our capacity to slow down long enough to feel, let alone neutralize our anxieties and cravings. Time and safety are privileges most people don’t have; and even when they do, the effects of trauma—so ubiquitous in civilization, especially among the oppressed—prevent individuals from emotionally embracing safety and stillness if and when they become options. Speaking for myself, I consider S.’s question: “what takes you away from your ability to listen and reproduce what you’re hearing?” I answer through the rationale of trauma’s echo: my impulse to control my body and to dissociate were once useful survival strategies, but have now become maladaptive. I have the privilege of safety today and it is incumbent on me to bring my entire psychosomatic being into the present—not just for my own happiness, but to heed the responsibility I have for the welfare of others. If, as Kleinberg-Levin suggests, we can “overcome attendant anxieties and dissolve unnecessary defenses. And as our ego-logical obsessions are given up, a guardian awareness of the ground, the sonorous atmosphere as a whole, slowly beings to grow.”
Hearkening, for Kleinberg-Levin, is not a state of being that is reached with any finality, nor is its proper end in contemplative withdrawal, but figures instead as an ongoing practice of deep listening for the cultivation of a more porous subjectivity, radically bound up with the world and its many sounding inhabitants. “In the final phase of recollecting,” writes Kleinberg-Levin, “we return to the world, carrying within us, like a song, the vibrancy of Being. And to the extent that we can make this song audible to others, we gather them, too, into the vitality of the primordial recollection.” When I practice being a listening self, rather than a defensive ego, my thinking—attuned as it is by the dimensionality of Being—remembers itself as a singing of Being and enjoins a choir of others in the vibrancy of the uni-verse. Taken this way, the physical practice of singing breaks through the artifactual bounds of human culture, vibrating with the nonhuman world, and paves the way for other arts to understand their practices ecologically.
Levin, David Michael. The Listening Self: Personal Growth, Social Change, and The Closure of Metaphysics. New York: Routledge Press, 1989.
 David Michael Levin, The Listening Self: Personal Growth, Social Change, and The Closure of Metaphysics. (New York: Routledge, 1989), 32.
Why is The Red Book, red? In the corner of my bedroom, a copy of Carl Gustav Jung’s Liber Novus stretches clear across and over the edges of the small, glass table upon which it rests. The book weighs in at almost about ten pounds and is over 15 inches in length. Its sheer size is enough to turn an eye, but its color is what commands my gaze most of all. Between its covers lie the fantasies Jung recorded during his self-experiments with active imagination. Described as the “central book in his oeuvre,” its contents formed the foundation of the psychological framework he would move on to propound. But with the posthumous publication of Liber Novus, that framework may need recasting. Indeed, the record between red leather may challenge the entire edifice of psychology itself, and perhaps even beyond it. In this essay, I situate myself among those who accept the challenge by considering the figures of Jung’s fantasies as living realities. The figure of my focus does not, however, make an explicit appearance in the pages of Liber Novus, but rather, I gesture toward he who may be luring us to open the book in the first place: Eros, that daimonic heartthrob of legend, pulsing in the color red. What new insights might arise if we were to consider Jung’s work in honor of Eros? How would the daimon inform our practice of active imagination? What light, if any, could he shed on the nature of the imagination in general? On reality itself? For guidance in the inquiry to follow, I heed counsel Jung once received: “To understand a thing is a bridge and a possibility of returning to the path, but to explain a matter is arbitrary, and sometimes even murder. Have you counted the murderers among the scholars?”With Eros, I write for the sake of love, life, and understanding—not murder.
Though this essay does not explicitly advance a metaphysics, it gestures toward one with roots in a claim made by Becca S. Tarnas for the ontological reality of the imagination as “a collective source of participatory knowledge.”Tarnas’ claim arises from her discovery of a deep synchronicity between the works of Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, particularly between their individual Red Books. The latter appear to be separate but coincident records of either man’s journey to the imaginal realm, what Jung may have referred to as the collective unconscious and Tolkien, Faërie. But before deepening into the significance of their parallels, delineating what Jung’s Red Book actually is and why it deserves our attention is in order. In the introduction to its contents, Sonu Shamdasani—the man who for 13 years painstakingly edited and compiled Liber Novus—describes it as “a work of psychology in a literary form.”Commencing in the early twentieth century, Jung’s work on The Red Book arose during a moment of cultural experimentation. “Clear demarcations among literature, art, and psychology had not yet been set;”practitioners of each discipline were inspired by the others. The zeitgeist encouraged an overcoming of conventions, dissolving unanimity around what counted as art, literature, or psychology and what did not. As a result, Jung’s Red Book—with its pages of calligraphic narrative, painted fantasy images, and reflective elaboration—would come to gleam with facets of each.
Jung’s confrontation with the unconsciouswas initiated by a practice of self-experimentation he gradually developed and called active imagination. Prompted by his famous question—“what is my myth?”—Jung developed the practice as a means of engaging the autonomous life beneath the threshold of his awareness, what he had learned to give credence to after paying special attention to the content of his dreams. One motivating aim for his self-analysis was to become a better analyst to his patients: Jung felt he must become conscious of, and thereby gain distance from, his “personal equation,” or the psychological contribution he brought to his practice of psychoanalysis.Notably, Jung was self-described as keeping close allegiance with Immanuel Kant’s transcendental philosophy and the limits it imposed on knowledge.In contrast to more reductive methods modeled by figures like Sigmund Freud, Jung’s ambivalence to Kant’s limits was revealed in his “constructive” analysis exemplified in the practice of active imagination. Through the constructive, Jung sought to engage the “living meaning of [psychic] phenomena…[;] inasmuch as life was essentially new, [Jung thought,] it could not be understood merely retrospectively.”As Shamdasani writes, “Jung differentiated two kinds of thinking…[,] directed thinking and fantasy thinking. The former was verbal and logical, while the latter was passive, associative, and imagistic. The former was exemplified by science and the latter by mythology.”Active imagination for Jung was the art of suspending critical attention to induce and participate with a living stream of images (fantasy). In service to Jung’s archetypally reductive analytic, directed thinking comes in afterward, dissecting the associations fantasy images evoke for the sake of a patient’s psychic wholeness. But inasmuch as he located the archetypes exclusively in the human psyche, Jung remained a dutiful son to Kant’s limits. That is, until his vision of the flood.
The serious momentum of Jung’s self-experimentation began almost a year before the outbreak of WWI, when, “on a train journey to Schaffhausen, Jung experienced a waking vision of Europe being devastated by a catastrophic flood, which was repeated two weeks later, on the same journey… After this experience,” says Shamdasani, “Jung feared that he would go mad. He recalled that he first thought that the images of the vision indicated a revolution.”Jung’s Kantian framework and its agnosticism of any certainty apart from the subject’s projection of a world, held against the prophetic voice of his vision asserting its objective reality, led Jung into a private crisis that would only resolve upon learning of the Great War:
At this moment, Jung considered that his fantasy had depicted not what would happen to him, but to Europe. In other words, that it was a precognition of a collective event…After this realization, he attempted to see whether and to what extent this was true of the other fantasies that he experienced, and to understand the meaning of this correspondence between private fantasies and public events. This effort makes up much of the subject matter of Liber Novus…Thus he took the outbreak of the war as showing him that his fearof going mad was misplaced.
As a result of his direct experience, the limits of Jung’s Kantianism gave way to a deeper subjectivity than he expected, one that placated his fear of insanity by suggesting a very different intimation of reality.
In dialogue with the psychologist James Hillman, Shamdasani compares Liber Novus with the works of artists who were contemporaries of Jung’s like James Joyce and Pablo Picasso; as with the paintings of Picasso or the novels of Joyce, The Red Book resembles a lumen natura, “a form of presentation…sufficient unto itself…[with a] translucency that doesn’t require anything else.”Simply put, the work is a living record of Jung’s experiences with active imagination as an attempt to make sense of what stirred in the collective unconscious. If Jung’s “literary work of psychology” bears so much resemblance to a work of art, why not just call it that? Jung himself was resistant to this idea, but as Shamdasani frames it, perhaps it was merely Jung’s notion of art that disinclined him from treating it as such: “not art for art’s sake,” and so not art, Jung might be thinking, but without fully realizing…[that, in this historical moment,] he’s in the company of people who are revolting against a view of art that has become moribund.”In sync with the zeitgeist and its defiance of conventions, what if Liber Novus were understood as an expression of the early twentieth century “attempt to completely reformulate art as something which could lead to spiritual awakening?”What may differentiate Jung’s work more explicitly from the work of Picasso or Joyce was his insistence on the collective function of interior descent. Rather than revel in the depths, “the real task” for Jung was “to be able to communicate [it] to the contemporary outlook.”“He is not content with finding a solution for himself,” says Shamdasani, “but wants to provide a means of understanding [through his own psychological reflexivity] that would be of therapeutic benefit for others.”Hence, the boon Jung was to offer the collective of his time was not Liber Novus, but the host of concepts he derived from it. After all, it was a science of the soul Jung sought to communicate, an endeavor to which Kant’s limits on knowledge somehow lent confidence.
Today we have an entire school of thought dedicated to Jung’s personal interpretation of the figures he met in active imagination. Figures like the Wise Old Man, Anima, Puer, Puella, Shadow, and Eros have become household terms for many, an advent that, at its best enchants our experience with the universality of archetypes, and at its worst, reduces Psyche to a system of reified concepts. But with the publication of Liber Novus almost fifty years after Jung’s death, we are granted the opportunity to form our own judgements about his recorded confrontation with the collective unconscious. Within Jung’s Red Book, says Shamdasani to Hillman, “you can see the making of his psychology…something quite radical, which reformulates how you understand the man’s work.”Further on in their dialogue Hillman speculates that
the justification for all the other [subsequent] works…[is in] his attempt to understand, rather than just translate it [his experience] into a concept… He has to again and again break into descriptions by saying these are “only.” He cuts them down and puts them forward. He distrusts them. But still that’s what we’re left with… Maybe we have to rethink that question of the language…—anima, animus, shadow, self, process of individuation—and discard thatlanguage, but not altogether a language that is already available in the arts.
Critical of Jung’s conceptual language, Hillman prefers the “rich articulation of experience”in literary art for understanding human nature. “The only axiomatic basis I have,” says Hillman, “is that we are lived by powers that we pretend to understand… They’re our mysteries, they’re our figures, they are occasions of invasion and they are our lives, or at least determine our lives in strong ways.”Therefore, story, because it expresses and concretizes those powers in figures we can relate to, is—for Hillman—an exemplary vehicle for human wisdom. Differentiation from and relationship to those figures becomes a restorative practice for psychological maturity: “the interwovenness between the figures per se, in themselves, is part of the learning, the practice of the image, seeing how they work with each other, what they build, how they influence.”But, accustomed as I am to the binary of fiction and nonfiction—of real versus made-up—how can I accept the reality of fantasy images and their worth for understanding?
Though it may not have been readily embraced by the “medico-scientific” paradigm of Jung’s time, the release of Liber Novus resonated strongly with the spirit of the 21stcentury on its “quest for [the] validation of inner experience[;]… The public isn’t being taken by his ideas as they’ve [historically] been portrayed, says Shamdasani, “but by his actual intense engagement with his own figures.”The zeitgeist after TheRed Book is, perhaps, more open to rethinking the demarcations set in the 20thcentury between literature, psychology, and art. Taking up that challenge, Becca S. Tarnas follows Hillman in his emphasis on story, but without devaluing Jung’s conceptual language entirely. “If we take our fantasy visions and shape them into art,” asks Tarnas, “is that in itself not an hermeneutics, a way of understanding and interpreting what we’ve encountered?”Such an hermeneutics would depart sharply from the positivistic, scientistic charade of knowledge-making touted as truly “objective.” But as Jung himself discovered, the limits of what the human psyche can know through itself bottom out the deeper we go. Therefore, active imagination, Tarnas suggests, may be thought of as
a co-creative enaction between the human organ of the imagination and the non-determined archetypal power of the collective unconscious…the living imaginal reality that is co-created is neither fully objective nor subjective, but rather enactive and participatory, existing as a realm in-between: the middle realm that Plato called the metaxy and that Corbin called the mundus imaginalis, the world of imagination.
Concepts in this purview may be treated more as symbolic instruments for the practical use of thought, but how can we allow the life of fantasy to speak on its own behalf in works of art? What affords such works the status of lumen natura amidst the subjective vagaries of today’s vacuous relativism?
This realm in-between Tarnas posits is what she refers to as the imaginal realm, a level of reality that I—thinking with Tarnas—referenced earlier as a possible analog of Jung’s collective unconscious. The term “imaginal” itself is one sourced to the philosopher Henry Corbin; in contrast to the fanciful use of the word “imaginary,” “imaginal” refers to an actual world, one “that is not simply made up or invented, but rather discovered through imagining perception or active imagination.”Like the sensible world, the realm of imagination is peopled with places and creatures of all kinds; it is a world, Corbin reports, “possessing extension and dimensions, figures and colors…[that are] the object of imagining perception or of the ‘psycho-spiritual senses’…[; a fully] objective and real world with equivalents for everything existing in the sensible world without being perceptible by the senses.”If we are to quip, “just where is this imaginal realm? Show and tell if what you say is real!” Corbin answers by assuring us that here
everything happens contrary to the evidence of ordinary consciousness, which remains oriented within our space. For henceforth the where, the place, is located in the soul; the corporal substance resides in the spiritual substance; the soul surrounds and carries the body. As a result, one cannot say where the spiritual place is located.
Soul, therefore, is that through which imagining perception has a world. Because the imaginal realm—as medium—“makes it possible for all the universes to symbolize with each other…[it] provides the foundation for a rigorous analogical knowledge permitting us to evade the dilemma of current rationalism, which gives us only a choice between the two banal dualistic terms of either ‘matter’ or ‘mind.’”Through the imaginal realm, archetypal powers may achieve union with the sensible world, expressing themselves in and through various facets of instantiated particulars. As a result, psychology, art, and literature may converge in storytelling as valid means of knowing and teaching.
But on what grounds is this claim made? In her dissertation, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien,” Tarnas stories her discovery of the deep synchronicity between the two works. Upon paging through Jung’s, Tarnas recognized an uncanny resemblance to the form and content of Tolkien’s Red Book of Westmarch, a title that refers—not to any specific book published by the literary artist—but to the entirety of his Middle-earth legendarium, the magnum opus of which Tarnas identifies as The Lord of the Rings. Similar themes and figures appear in both works, as do many illustrations of remarkable resemblance. Perhaps most compelling is the coincidence in timing of their commencement in the years leading up to WWI, between 1911 and 1913 to be exact. It was then that Jung’s Red Book period and Tolkien’s work in the Book of Ishness—a collection of drawings he called “Ishnesses, which were symbolic and abstract images arising directly from the imagination…[sharing] in common a raw emotionality evoked by their bold colors, strange shapes, and obscure yet weighty titles”—began.The latter formed the basis for many elements portrayed in Tolkien’s legendarium including narrative scenes, themes, characters, and more. Stylistically, they resonate strongly with Jung’s understanding of active imagination as the concretization of a psychological state in image, leading Tarnas to speculate that Tolkien may have also been undergoing similar visionary experiences as Jung was. After scrupulously comparing their lives and work, Tarnas was led to “posit that the striking parallels between Jung’s and Tolkien’s respective Red Books—as well as certain profound similarities in their interpretations of these materials—offer evidence that these works emerged from a shared ontological source enacted by the participatory imagination.”The host of synchronicities between both works suggest mutual, yet individual, enactions—or co-creative activations—of a supersensible ground pervaded with meaning. “From my perspective,” says Tarnas
the human imagination is participating in a spiritual power that is both non-determinate…and archetypally patterned. Yet these archetypes are not only the psychological concepts that Jung described throughout his career. They are the great archetypal powers that structure our world, giving pattern to the sensible, imaginal, and spiritual domains alike.
Literary art, therefore, consists in the imaginative engagement of universal powers through the vessel of the author’s particular subjectivity. An hermeneutic worth heeding indeed!
Tarnas’ investigation of the synchronicities between Tolkien’s and Jung’s respective works is fascinating, but I here I have chosen to narrow my focus on Jung’s for its explicit mention of the figure I invoke. This is not to say that this figure does not appear under different guises in Tolkien’s work; I would argue the contrary. That essay remains to be written though. Who is this “he,” I reference? Much as he does throughout Liber Novus, the daimon seems to have faded already into the background of this essay. Who is this “he,” I reference? Much as he does throughout Liber Novus, the daimon seems to have faded already into the background of this essay. In Appendix B of the facsimile Shamdasani composed, Jung comments on the reddish light illuminating the household of two central characters in the Red Book, saying that its tint points to Eros. Reflecting on the significance of this seemingly paltry mention catalyzed an inquiry in Tarnas that was the springboard for this essay:
I couldn’t help but wonder, is this perhaps part of why the Red Book is red? It’s a story of learning to integrate Eros, to come into relationship with Eros. Thus, is the color red of the book in honor of Eros?
Why is The Red Book, red? Perhaps the color is a lumen natura of the loving daimon himself; Eros, instantiated as a portal to the imaginal realm. Indeed, a deeper look into the actual practice of inducing and participating in fantasies reveals—in Jung’s and Tolkien’s practices—a basic diplomacy when engaging with the figures who present themselves. Before speculating on the way invoking Eros might inflect our understanding of active imagination, its time to pay him homage. Eros, move center stage—you have the spotlight. Just who are you? “Love,” says Eros, “in your hearts, you know all the rest.” With less majesty, we are told by a voice in Appendix C of Jung’s Red Book that Eros is “only a daimon.”In the more cerebral commentary of Appendix B, Jung describes him as “desire, longing, force, exuberance, pleasure, suffering…dissolution and movement.”“While it does not emit a bright light [as the color red],” Jung writes, “Eros at least provides an opportunity to recognize something, perhaps even by inducing a situation in which man recognize something, provided Logos assists him.”Jung’s reference to Eros as an “it” is something I consider a vestige of his positivistic tendency to collapse the figures of the imaginal realm into concepts or principles. Departing for a moment from how he appears in Jung’s work, I look back further in time to his representation in the dialogue Plato dedicated to him—The Symposium. In the culminating moment of an oratory contest honoring the daimon of Love, Socrates storytells a teaching he learnt during an encounter with the priestess Diotima: “He is a great spirit,” she tells him, from a class of beings who
interpret and carry messages from humans to gods and from gods to humans. They convey prayers and sacrifices from humans, and commands and gifts in return for sacrifices from gods. Being intermediate between the two, they fill the gap between them, and enable the universe to form an interconnected whole…Gods do not make direct contact with humans; they communicate and converse with humans (whether awake or asleep) entirely through the medium of spirits…There are many spirits, of very different types, and one of them is Love.
As Love, Eros is fundamentally in-between, lacking what he desires. And what must the object of that desire be? Why, the Good and the True of course, for how could one love ugliness and falsity? But the achievement of the desired object never quite satisfies Love’s unrest, for as Diotima reveals, Love’s true aim is “to have the good forever.”Only once the beatific vision of True Beauty is realized will Love’s desire be realized and, therefore, understood:
‘Like someone using a staircase, he [the lover] should go from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from practices to beautiful forms of learning. From forms of learning, he should end up at that form of learning from which is of nothing other than that beauty itself, so that he can complete the process of learning what beauty really is…’ So what should we imagine it would be like,’ she said, ‘if someone could see beauty itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not cluttered up with human flesh and colours and a great mass of mortal rubbish, but if he could catch sight of divine beauty itself, in its single form?’
Diotima’s conclusion is that the beatific vision would result in the living of a virtuous life, one that detaches from the finite beauties of the phenomenal world and reproduces ideas that point to the beatific vision. She also emphasizes using the “right part” of ourselves in order to behold the divine form of beauty, what we might call the Logos, or as Jung defined the spirit in Appendix B, “an independent principle of form that means understanding, insight, foresight, legislation, and wisdom.”The sage, therefore, is the one who abides in Logos alone, reflecting on the perfection of divine forms. It is easy to interpret this narrative as rendering our living lovers as mere rungs on the ladder up to capital T—Truth. Fortunately, though, The Symposium does not end with Diotima’s counsel, rather, it is with Socrates’ lover Alcibiades that we leave off. By unveiling Socrates as Eros himself, Alcibiades excuses mortals from mimicking the partial divinity of spirits. Instead, the phenomenal—and imaginal—figures of our loving attachments may maintain their integrity, preserved by the connection Eros makes between the archetypes and their instantiations in particular people and things. We are not spirits; we are not Gods.
Differentiating from the figures confronted in the unconscious was one of Jung’s primary aims in the practice of active imagination. Ideally, the practice would consist in a rhythmic “alteration of creation and understanding… The unconscious contents want first of all to be seen clearly, which can only be done by giving them shape, and to be judged only when everything they have to say is tangibly present.”Jung’s Red Bookis one such outcome of that rhythm, an expression of what he called the “transcendent function,” or the uniting of conscious and unconscious to form a third through aesthetic and psychologically reflexive expression. Despite his conceptual register in the passage above, Jung’s use of the verb “want” and reference to the unconscious contents as “they” reveal a living quality underlying what he speaks about in the abstract. This same inconsistency repeats in Jung’s response to a letter he received from a Mr. O about his dream of the literary figure Beatrice:
Beatrice, as an anima figure is most certainly a personification; that means, a personal being created in this shape by the unconscious… Treat her as a person, if you like as a patient or a goddess, but above all treat her as something that does exist… It is a very good method to treat the anima as if she were a patient whose secret you ought to get at.
Jung’s advice here about relating to such figures is of the instrumental kind. Indeed, as he writes elsewhere, “by objectifying them, the danger of their inundating consciousness is averted and their positive effect is made accessible.”Jung’s treatment of the Anima figure is peculiar, for as I mentioned earlier, it was in his very differentiation from the voice who proclaimed the objectivity of the flood vision—a figure he eventually refers to as Philemon—that Jung could think himself sane again. “The overall theme of the book,” writes Shamdasani, “is how Jung regains his soul and overcomes the contemporary malaise of spiritual alienation.”But how can Jung possess his soul while at the same time affording her the autonomy and respect she demands? In protest to this, Hillman calls Jung out for what he calls the “personalistic fallacy,” or the mistaken ownership over figures of the unconscious. Rather, “what he reestablished,” says Hillman, “was that the psyche is a living world of imagination and that any person can descend to that world. That’s your truth, that’s what you are, that’s what your soul is. You’re in search of your soul, and your soul is imagination.”Might then the overall theme of The Red Book better be described as the loving restoration of Soul to her majesty?
Jung has run-ins with multiple female figures who he identifies as “his” soul. Especially in the figure of Salome, Jung is entreated to love “his” soul, but initially rejects her. In consideration of the soul’s preoccupation with love and recognition, Tarnas follows Hillman in concluding that perhaps “only when Jung can feel love for these figures is he able to acknowledge the reality of the persons of the imaginal realm.”In doing so, the loving respect due to Soul may encourage her to present herself differently.Echoing Hillman’s sentiment that psychology after The Red Book has to be based on the fantasy image, Tarnas insists that what this “entails is integrating the imaginal depths into one’s sense of self. And it entails recognizing oneself as part of an infinite, enchanted, archetypal whole.”How might Soul appear to us once that move of the imagination has been achieved? “Who has the power,” Tarnas asks,
to allow one to transcend the imaginal realm and the primary realm and to see them as a unified whole? She is soul, she is Anima… [but] the Queen of Faërie is more than the Anima or the personified soul of the individual. She is the Soul of the World, the Anima Mundi in all her glory.
Again, our daimon Eros has faded into the background of this inquiry, but perhaps now we might better understand that tendency of his. Interestingly, though Psyche may be she through whom we have our lives, it seems as though Eros—our patron saint of Love—is indispensable for recognizing her majesty. Just as Jung has difficulty completely differentiating from Psyche, I posit that he does not fully differentiate from Eros either. In what follows I elaborate this claim by considering multiple passages from Chapter XXI “The Magician” of the second portion of Liber Novus, “Liber Secundus.”
As was said earlier, the figure Salome appears throughout the tale as one of Psyche’s primary guises. After her multiple attempts to draw love from him, Jung realizes that he does care for her, though a love he describes as “somewhat.” Lukewarm. “Incidentally,” says the imaginal Jung, “the care I afforded her, was literally,” pressed out of me, rather than something I gave freely and intentionally.”In this scene Salome enjoins Jung once again, saying, “I will carry all your thoughts in my heart. I will kiss the words that you speak to me. I will pick roses for you each day and all my thoughts will wait upon you and surround you.”Jung’s response is one of gratitude, but Salome is not satisfied and persists. Jung struggles against her lure as if in principle:
I: “You are like the serpent that coiled around me and pressed out my blood.” / Your sweet words wind around me and I stand like someone crucified.”
Sal:“Why still crucified?”
I:“Don’t you see that unrelenting necessity has flung me onto the cross? It is impossibility that lames me.”
Sal: “Don’t you want to break through necessity? Is what you call a necessity really one?”
What is the necessity that crucifies Jung? Could it be a notion of Eros that does not fairly mediate heavenly and earthly love? The use of colored text throughout the many dialogues is exemplified by the passage above, distinguishing the various characters when enjoined in expression. Jung almost always appears as a red “I,” while the many guises of Psyche appear in blue. The reader will no doubt have noticed by now my use of color when representing the name of Eros; this is no mere decoration, for his color is what initiated the entire phenomenological study of this essay. Considering Jung’s statement that his newfound love for Salome was something he felt “pressed” out of him, I am led to wonder about the color of his “I.” Is the love that keeps knocking on his door, really his? Jung’s reason for refusing Salome is for her poverty—“I long for the joy of men, for their fullness and freedom and not their neediness,” says he.But is Psyche not she through whom we may realize our ultimate unity with the whole?
Earlier on in their relationship, Jung was repulsed by the eroticism he attributed to Salome. After learning to accept that in her, he finds he can accept it in himself and realizes a desire to love his own self. “But she wants to be with me,” writes Jung, puzzled, and asks, “How, then, should I also have love for myself?” Working this out, Jung writes
Love, I believe, belongs to others. But my love wants to be with me. I dread it. May the power of my thinking push it from me, into the world, into things, into men. For something should join men together, something should be a bridge. It is the most difficult temptation, if even my love wants me!
Jung cannot understand how he might reconcile what seems like the sacrifice of loving himself if he were to love Salome, too. Psyche, having at this point taken on her serpentine form, reminds Jung that, “as has been said, you are allowed to make demands of yourself.”Rather than think it over, Jung wonders what he must do. “I have a feeling,” says Jung, “that I must soar over my own head.”Psyche then transfigures herself into a bird and soars overhead for him, returning with a royal crown of gold found “on a street in the immeasurable space of Heaven.”The crown, says the Bird, has “lettering incised within; what does it say? ‘Love never ends.’ A gift from Heaven.”For Jung, this is a riddle, but for the Bird there is nothing to else to say: a lumen natura, “it truly speaks for itself.”Salome’s return finds Jung hanging “high on the summit of the tree of life,” beyond her reach. Upon learning that Jung has the crown in his possession, Salome becomes ecstatic, celebrating his luck. “The crown—you are to be crowned!” she exclaims, “what blessedness for me and you!”But still, Jung thinks it an incomprehensible riddle. “Hang until you understand,”says Salome cruelly.
Hanging there alone, Jung senses his weariness, “weary not only of hanging,” he says, “but of struggling after the immeasurable.”Here again I am reminded of Diotima’s speech about Eros and the world-denying interpretation it can make possible. Could we imagine a way to think love that preserves the intrinsic worth of the phenomenal and the divine? But in this moment Jung finds recourse to thought, for what else can he do as he hangs there? “Is it really true,” he asks, “shall love never end? If this was a blessed message to them, what is it for me?” His answer comes from a Raven who suddenly perches nearby: “That depends entirely on the notion,” says the Raven:
I: “Why does it depend entirely on the notion?
Raven: “On your notion of love and the other.”
I: “I know, unlucky old bird, you mean heavenly and earthly love. Heavenly love would be utterly beautiful, but we are men, and, precisely because we are men, I’ve set my mind on being a complete and full-fledged man.”
In Jung’s response to the Raven I interpret a notion of love that does not heed the reality of Psyche—that is, the reality of Imagination as the metaxic bond between divinity and phenomenal things. Nor does he fully heed her livingness, her personhood; they are one and the same. Jung’s notion of love, as I interpret it, is not one of capital L—Love, a differentiated daimon named Eros—rather, it is a finite thing, with little to go around. Perhaps, alternatively, he could have considered more keenly the meaning love had for the imaginal figures. Later on, after the Raven has departed, the Bird returns to tell Jung that, “if you love the earth, you are hanged; if you love the sky, you hover.”But still, Jung is hung up on the crown:
I:“And the crown? Solve, the riddle of the crown for me!”
B: “The crown and serpent are opposites, and are one. Did you not see the serpent that crowned the head of the crucified?
I: “What, I don’t understand you.
B: “What words did the crown bring you? ‘Love never ends’—that is the mystery of the crown and the serpent.”
I: “But Salome? What should happen to Salome?”
B: “You see, Salome is what you are. Fly, and she will grow wings.”
Jung’s conversation with the Bird lead to conclude that Jung must release his grip on the heavens strive downward. Weary of necessity and struggle for the immeasurable, he gives his attention exclusively to an earthly form of love, for, as he says, “we are men.” But, so the Bird tells, the words inscribed on the inside of the crown and their meaning are said to unify the serpentine and skyward: “Love never ends,” a meaning that finds reality in Psyche, binding together the infinite and finite in her marriage to Eros. Jung’s elaboration on love following this event renders it unsuitable for life; love, “the inescapable mother of life.” “I speak,” writes Jung, “against the mother who bore me, I separate myself from the bearing womb. I speak no more for the sake of love, but for the sake of life.” His words become even harsher as he goes on: “A man,” says Jung
Needs his mother until his life has developed. Then he separates from her. And so life needs love until it has developed, then it will cut loose from it. The separation of the child from the mother is difficult.
But must the relationship of son and mother be one that ends with separation? And are there not other ways to conceive of Love? In the very last paragraph of Sonu Shamadasani’s facimile edition, Liber Novus ends with someone else claiming motherhood over Jung:
I, your soul, am your mother, who tenderly and frightfully surrounds you, your nourisher and corrupter… I am your body, your shadow, your effectiveness in this world, your manifestation in the world of Gods, your effulgence, your breath, your odor, your magical force. You should call me if you want to live with men, but the one God if you want to rise above the human world to the divine and eternal solitude of the star.
Whether she reveals herself as Mother, Maiden, Crone, or Goddess, her declaration makes clear that she is worthy of love and respect. Love, Eros, I say, is the striving behind the “I;” its scarlet color, another lumen natura. Jung’s struggle to understand the unifying meaning of the words “love never ends” reveals how our notions of the daimon determine our experience of the world. If, as Diotima might insist, love’s true nature is held as divine, we may find ourselves crucified by necessity and cut off from others. On the other hand, if love is in short supply—earthbound—upside down we shall go! Embracing the between of these opposing directions in the meaning of “love never ends” takes Imagination. And indeed, it is She, Psyche, through whom Eros achieves his rhythmic momentum!
The degradation of Imagination into the merely “imaginary” destroys the metaxic bond that Eros as Psyche’s courtier makes possible. The meaning of their marriage not only suggests an ethic for encountering beings of the imaginal realm, but an ethic for the sensible world too. Meaning and value are not simply nominal, but are conveyed from the divine through Imagination: the ecology of our planet is therefore saturated with holy worth. All our claims to coherent knowledge depend on Psyche, for Imagination is what grounds our knowing in a shared world. What could be a proper expression of gratitude for these weighty gifts? As Tarnas writes,
She asks those who tread the pathways of her realm to give her a gift in return: the gift of remembrance. Please record your experience. Whether it is in song or tale, in painting or poetry, or in the quiet memories that you share with a loved one.
Thanks to Jung, we know a method for making contact, but through her courtier, we have learned the proper virtue through which to approach it. Why is The Red Book, red? “Open your heart,” he says, and you shall understand.
Corbin, Henry. Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal. Pdf. Golgonooza Press, 1976.
Plato.The Symposium of Plato. Edited by Gill, Christopher. England: Penguin Books, 1999
Hillman, James, and Sonu Shamdasani. Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book.New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Jung, Carl G., and Joan Chodorow. Jung on Active Imagination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997.
Jung, C. G., and Sonu Shamdasani. The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.
Tarnas, S. Becca. “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien” diss. 2018.
C.G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. (W. W. Norton, 2012), 95.
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.
Performing Re-enchantment: 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.
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.
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.
The following is a recording of a talk I gave during PCC’s retreat to Bishop Ranch last week. Below that you’ll find the transcript!
The ideas I’m sharing today are not my own, but at the same time it’s true that I am here filtering them through the convergent point that is my unique perspective. In particular, I want to acknowledge a discussion that took place last Thursday at CIIS between Sam Mickey, Sean Kelly, Julie Morley, and Matt Segall during PAR’s first panel discussion, for it is especially informing what I share with you now.
One of the things I love most about PCC—and which seems to be true of ESR as well—is the variety of people who are attracted to it. Many ages; miles; languages; talents; and aspirations gather here. And for me, at least, there is a taste of homecoming about our community—something common that brings us together. I think that commonality is a shared intention, a notion I think I recognize in the words “re-imagine the human species as a mutually-enhancing member of the Earth community,” words that appear on PCC’s webpage. Put another way, we here are dedicated to multi-species flourishing on planet Earth, a deeper kinship with the other creatures we enmesh with. What would it take for that dream to become reality? Latent in our dream, I think I see the image of a cosmopolitics—a politics I’ll define in this context as one purged of human exceptionalism and in which nonhumans are extended representation.
You’d think that more people might be concerned by the sirens set off by climate scientists, but as the alt right movement has shown us, so-called neutral facts and figures aren’t always enough to move the human heart. How else might we make our appeal? As Sean Kelly and my cohort have taught me so well this year, we must do many things—anything less at this point would be a missed opportunity. I came to CIIS driven by the conviction that an appeal to feeling was the most potent and pragmatic appeal to make in a culture so anesthetized to the reality of our ecological interdependence. To me, art-making was the primary route to feeling, the key for change to be realized. Shortly after beginning my journey through PCC I was quickly purged of that dogmatism. It was just my means to meet the injunction to have a solution, a capital T truth to rest in. Deep down, I don’t think I ever believed it. But I do still think that feeling is primary (and not apart from thinking).
That specter called Utopia lures me forth—I so badly want a cosmopolitics. My imagination, thick with visions of creaturely diplomats; fungal-human-housing collaborations; a silk road of food forests weaving through boundaryless country.
Close your eyes a moment.
I can almost feel it.
We might try, but not everyone has the time or privilege to humor such things. This semester I’ve been entangled with thinkers, ideas, fellow students and teachers, wandering—feeling blindly through the dark—grasping for metaphors that stick, words we can hold on to in this time of radical change. The work of realizing a cosmopolitics is the reworking of what it means to be human after descending from the pedestal of Modernism. We must ask—what does it feel like? And for that we need an aesthetic—a cosmopoetics.
One of the repercussions of bifurcation—the separation of mind from matter, culture from nature, etc.—is that we (and this “we” is an invitational one) have largely become anaesthetized to the effects our lifestyles have on the fragile Earth system. Of course, not all of the human species fits into this category of alienation. Peoples who live closer and pay better attention to the land have been speaking out for centuries. Bruno Latour thinks that part of the problem is our tendency to think in terms of Wholes (capital W) and parts (lowercase p), where parts are subsumed by a Whole that is thought to be greater than those parts. Thinking with these terms results in a premature unification “of what first needs to be composed.” The Earth as Globe—as Sphere—we assume, has always been this way. Mama Gaia will take care of us if we just shape up. But it was not until the development of technologies sensitive enough to detect things like carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the salinity of our seas, and the poverty of our soils that we began to piece together the delicate connections that keep our Earth system thriving in a dynamic state of disequilibrium. Though I do not deny the possibility of intuiting the Whole as concrete—say, the embodied soul of Earth as Gaia—I do think that it is the fragile connections delineated by climate science that allow us the most accessible semblance of that whole. Pragmatically speaking, it is about time that the parts take precedence over that mysterious Whole, so that we—privileged enough to recognize what is at stake—can begin to better attune ourselves and others to its fragility rather than taking it for granted. Only when we feel what’s at stake will we be driven to the kind of transformations that are necessary for our urgent times.
But how? How do we feel more into deeply what’s at stake?
To draw a sphere, one must first draw a circle, a loop—like the feedback loops we are sensing through climate science technologies. To quote Latour (and this is a long one), “we have to slip into, envelop ourselves within, a large number of loops, so that, gradually, step by step, knowledge of the place in which we live and the requirements of our atmospheric condition can gain greater pertinence…But we all have to learn this for ourselves, anew each time. And it has nothing to do with being a human-in-Nature or a human-on-the-Globe. It is rather a slow fusion of cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic virtues thanks to which the loops are made more and more visible. After each passage through a loop, we become more sensitive and more reactive to the fragile envelopes we inhabit.”
Latour calls for us to “aesthetisize” ourselves “in the old sense [of the word as a]…capacity to “perceive” and to be “concerned” – in other words, a capacity to make oneself sensitive that precedes all distinctions among the instruments of science, politics, art and religion.” Donna Haraway calls this becoming “response-able.”
I’m inspired by the perspective of the late performance artist, teacher, political activist, and general shapeshifter, Joseph Beuys who conceived of social sculpture, an art that defies regular boundaries and encompasses everyday life. We might call this aesthetic activism. Each of us, an artist, a partial-maker, in the weaving of our social nexus that is ultimately the whole of cosmic history. The term co-creator might ring a bell. But what the ecological crisis has signaled—if we are so bold to face it—is the extent to which a swollen human hubris has absorbed so much agency that it has deanimated the rest of the world. Anthropogenic climate change pulls the plug as what was once an inert background—the “environment”—springs to life and acts back. As Isabelle Stengers says, “Gaia is touchy!”
The monoliths of our Understanding give out, closing the chasm between Subject and Object. What was once Other is in me and now I can only ask—
“Who am I?” According to Lynn Margulis, mostly bacteria.
It’s important to accept that by understanding, we mean translation, and by concept, we mean metaphor. How we interpret reality is a fiction among fictions. Our time is one where changing the story becomes a matter of life or death. Some stories are better told than others.
The figure of a feedback loop implies repetition; habit; ritual. A process-relational perspective shifts the emphasis from what is, to what is happening. Things are understood according to what they do, how they perform. Human identity becomes on ongoing creative act—what defines us can change. It reminds me of Aristotle’s virtue theory. In that schema (and here I am simplifying it) to become virtuous, one must act virtuous until the loop becomes habit, second-nature.
Like our guiding ideal of cosmopolitics, Latour tells us that once upon a time, “it took many decades to agree that the definition of democracy as the will of a sovereign people corresponds, even vaguely, to a reality, and it was necessary to start with a fiction.” Nation-states were once on par with the prospect of nonhuman political representation we dream of today. In general, the ritual of political representation is never more than a poetic gesture, but some poets hit closer to home than others. That there is a world we make together, I have no doubt, but consensus in a process-relational cosmos is a constant work in progress.
In May of 2015, Bruno Latour collaborated with students and faculty from the school of political arts at Sciences Po in Paris to create a simulation of the approaching Paris Climate Agreements, but in this scenario the United Nations were accompanied by representatives of nonhuman interests. Together, they called their performance the “Theater of Negotiations.” Unlike the historical fuss made over agreeing to fall under One Nation, Latour observed that the performers had no issue imagining into the role of Forest or Ocean representative, “I very much enjoyed observing that the negotiations were never impeded by that sort of objection.” Latour tells us, “rather,” The tireless president Jennifer Ching addressed “Lands” or “Amazonia” just as politely and straightforwardly as she addressed “Canada” or “Europe.” The “Theater of Negotiations might seem like a silly, fruitless exercise in imagination, but only to those who forsake the imaginative basis for the politic farce we take for granted today. On the contrary, a seminal stunt like this—if looped through enough—could establish itself as a ritual with as much mythic force as the United Nations has.
For an example of response-ablitiy in the sciences—biological fieldwork specifically—Donna Haraway attunes us to the epistemological position of ethologist Thelma Rowell—what the latter calls her “virtue of politeness.” Rather than assume “that beings have pre-established natures and abilities that are simply put into play in an encounter,” “politeness,” Haraway tells us, “does the energetic work of holding open the possibility that surprises are in store, that something interesting is about to happen, but only if one cultivates the virtue of letting those ones who visit intra-actively shape what occurs. They are not who/what we expected to visit, and we are not who/what were anticipated either. Visiting is a subject- and object-making dance, and the choreographer is a trickster.” Haraway goes on to describe an enchanting situation between an ornithologist and a group of Arabian babblers “who defied orthodox accounts of what birds should be doing, even as the scientists also acted off-script scientifically.”
Sym fiction / science fiction / speculative fiction — these, in different ways, refer to a practice of storytelling as a model of conscious art-making, what we might call with Beuys, social sculpture. In our time of collapse, invoking Haraway again, “we need to write stories and live lives for flourishing and abundance.” This kind of fiction would be “committed to strengthening ways to propose near futures, possible futures, and implausible real nows” so that we can begin “cultivating the capacity to re-imagine wealth, learn practical healing rather than wholeness, and stitch together improbable collaborations without worrying overmuch about conventional ontological kinds.” This is what Haraway means by her slogan “Staying with the Trouble.” We have to rebuild from the ruins we find ourselves in. Future-telling, the telling of futures we dream of, brings those futures closer into view. I’m aware that professor Elizabeth Allison has written something like this. I am also in the midst of a project, writing the journey of a protagonist whose consciousness is as industrial as mine is, but who lives in a future where human norms have become made over by the radical reorientation we are just beginning to face. My intention in writing this is to re-work in the process—as much as I can—my own assumptions, in hopes that—once finished—it might serve the same end for others when they read it.
Though the examples I gave might conveniently be categorized—political, scientific, artistic—each of them honors the originating force of imagination, has a common ground in the crowning of metaphor. Each is an attempt to modify the collective aesthetic, to shape our social sculpture. Closing the gap between Nature and Culture means letting go of capital T, engaging us in an ongoing practice of translation as we feel our ways through worlds. It has always been hard for me to define what makes something a work of art beyond the basic “rightness” I feel in its gesture. But that there is sometimes that feeling of “rightness,” and even more, that sometimes I might find resonance with another about that “rightness” goes to show, as Haraway echoes, “it matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.” Because some stories are better told than others.
 Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2017), 139-140.
Joanna Macy’s “Milling” exercise from “The Work that Reconnects” workshop (the entire workshop is an example itself) along with Marina Ambravoić’s performance “The Artist is Present” are wonderful examples of “Subjectication.”
I ended up taking longer than I expected (of course) and didn’t have time to suggest some more examples of tangible techno-artistic experiments. Here are some ideas below:
Entangled hikes (hiking with a storyteller/naturalist), collabrative futuretelling (Haraway and her The Camille Stories), dramatized enactments (like Ghandi’s salt stunt, but specifically tailored to entanglement, poetry, personifying micro-modes within us (archetypal astrology).
I’m especially interested in creating some kind of collaborative-poetic-performance experiences that could be repeated (though always unique to the context) and which might be wonderful vehicles of transformation at demonstrations and other large events. Storytelling a bumpy, fragile cosmology of perspectives somehow… Anyone want to riff on this with me?