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.
“Mommy Mnemosyne. “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?” Mnemosyne, Greek Goddess of Memory, mother of the nine Muses—those spirits who inspire our creative expression. I mantra “Mommy Mnemosyne” as a humble gesture in response to the burning questions I came into the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program with. Questions like “Who am I?” “What does it mean to be human?” And “how am I to live?” Questions that burn with considerable intensity in our moment of planetary madness. Confronting the ecological crisis we face today means facing up to the crisis of human consciousness, too—for both stem from a crisis of story. The basic insight of ecology is that all things exist in relationship; the crises we face today spring largely from a form of human consciousness that experiences itself as separatefrom the nonhuman world. To restore our connection to each other and the nonhuman world, we must tell different stories, stories that are vested on a recognition of relationship in respect of difference—what I call creative remembrance. The muses may inspire the songs of our lives, but it is Mnemosyne from whom they respire and to whom we all must pay tribute. In what follows I attempt my own creativeremembrance as an ethical practice of poetry for re-storying in myself and others a felt participation in the whole of cosmic ecology.
“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”I am sixteen when I hear the preceding lyrics for the first time, lyrics which begin a song titled “Reunited” by the synthpop band Fan Death. As the song goes on, its subject—though uncanny—sweeps over my body like a memory: “This is a coin for the well,” the vocalists sing, “I wish my wrongs were righted, just want be reunited. I had to face (pace) the world and go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Something deep inside me nods with understanding at the message of the song. I can’t explain what it means or how I know it, but that I do feels indisputable, like a memory. A reunion? I’ve got goosebumps! How could this be? The lyrics of “Reunited” resonate—for me—with a universal tenor that renders the song into a form of “poetry” with all the majesty that the Romantic poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley affords the word in his Promethean essay, “A Defense of Poetry.” “Poetry, in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’:and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”And what, Sir Shelley, is it the nature of the imagination to express? Well, as the “principle of synthesis,” Shelley replies, the imagination
has for its objects those forms which are common to universal nature and existence itself…[whereas] reason is the enumeration of things already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.
Imagination for Shelley is therefore the underlying dynamismthat constitutes the perceiver and the perceived. In the same vein, reason—as Shelley has it—is that through which consciousness is able to differentiate itself from its percepts. As the prime expression of imagination, poetry is thus the means of imaginatively apprehending and evoking the underlying relationship that constitutes the “similitudes of things.” From this perspective, the uncanny familiarity that characterized my initial (and present) experience of the song “Reunited” speaks to its status as a poem for its power to evoke the relational rhythm which undulates through the cosmos from the Mother of all things—a creativeremembrance. Mnemosyne (the Greek Goddess of memory) was the mother of the nine muses after all.
Unfortunately, Shelley’s Promethean championship of poetry leads him to elevate what he calls “poetry in a more restricted sense,” or what most conventionally understand poetry to be (i.e. arrangements of human language in meter), above his generalized conception of it. Rather than perpetuate anthropocentric notions of poetry, I depart from Shelley here by leveling metered poetry with poetry in general as poesis, what in Greek originally meant the creationof novelty. Poetry in general naturalizes meaning, bridging the gap between nature and culture. That this is indeed the case is evident in Shelley’s description of human nature, a description that is essentially relational (ecological!):
Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to an ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them . . . 
To be fully human is to adjust oneself as instrument so as to harmonize with “that which strikes” the notes of inspiration. Remarkably, this potential to attune is one that Shelley postulates for all sentient beings, a potential that is vested on the “principle” of imagination as the foundation of relationship. “To be a poet,” writes Shelley “is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.”To be a poet, therefore, is to comport oneself to the larger rhythms of ecological being and rhyme along with them. Human beings, then, are not the only poets, and in light of the ecological crisis we would do well to heed the singing action of earth’s nonhuman denizens. Just as sunflowers follow the light, dancing through life in echoes of their origin, so too might human poeisis strike a chord of remembrance in songs of storied anamnesis. As the vocalists of Fan Death sing, “I had to face the world to go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Mommy Mnemosyne is calling!
Creative remembrance begins with Mnemosyne as memory and ends with the Muses in fresh expressions of poetry. Examples of it may resemble what is conventionally understand as poetry, but put simply, creative remembrance refers to a way of life—the path of beauty. The path is tread by attuning to the beautiful, what Shelley identifies as the “highest pleasure” derived from the partial apprehension of a rhythmic order underlying experience. “Taste” is the faculty through which one might discern and through expression approximate to beauty’s apprehension. “Those in whom it exists in excess,” writes Shelley, “are poets… and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community.”The former describes the process whereby a sensitive individual conveys to others in her social group a felt sense of beauty in the aesthetically ordered cosmos which is then mimicked and circulated, leading to an attunement of the entire group with the cosmic wavelength. Yet, because the rhythm continues to undulate, the remembrance must continually renew its expression—lest it stultify into the dead letter. “Their language,” writes Shelley, speaking of poetry here in the restricted sense, “is vitally metaphorical;”
that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.
Just as Mnemosyne gives birth to the Muses, remembrance of the divine in beauty as its ordered footprint requires an ongoing act of creative retranslation as it transforms through time. Maintaining that relationship for the sake of fresh apprehension is crucial for human social organization and cooperation with the larger nonhuman community of cosmic ecology. As Carl Gustav Jung famously recorded in his mythopoetic work, Liber Novus, “to give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation…The task is to give birth to the old in a new time.”
It has become clear that the apprehension of beauty requires an ongoing practice of sensitivity and translation, but the how of all this remains unclear. How does one practice a life of poetry? “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will.”Rather, as the prime expression of imagination, poetry’s inspiration is more a gift than anything else, for it depends upon the. underlying relationship between the perceiver and perceived. “It [poetry] subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things… strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”“Poetry,” Shelley declares, “defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.”“I had to face (pace) the world,” sing the vocalists, “and go from blind to sighted / For us to be reunited now / I’m seeking a flame that / Will parch out the heavy / Uncharted waters on my heart / And I’m collecting memories / As reward for my melancholy.”“It reproduces,” insists Shelley, “the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”I alternate the lyrics of Fan Death’s “Reunited” with Shelley’s philosophy of poetry to amplify my insistence that the song and its impact on me amounts to an experience of grace afforded by its poetic power to “subdue to union… all irreconcilable things,” what I am here calling creative remembrance. Though I may—as a sentient being—have the capacity to cultivate myself enough to receive this gift, its givenness transcends my agency. “My” being is therefore fundamentally ecstatic. To realize this is to remember who I am, a memory of communion I must constantly renew in the ongoing transformations of time. Mnemosyne keeps her daughters close.
Because creative remembrance as a practice of self-and-world reunion is an art of time, its primary form is story—for how else can a life be recounted and understood? Shelley’s elevation of poetry in a restricted sense leads him to rank it above story, but in my reading his general use of the former renders the hierarchy untenable. Herein lies the reason for my use of the phrase “creative remembrance,” a phrase which I hope conveys the rhythmic integration of whole with part that characterizes poetry as an expression of the imagination. When Shelley insists that “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted,” he speaks to the aforementioned integration, a formal quality that he says is not present in story as “a catalogue of detached facts.”Perhaps the reader will side with me in dismissing Shelley’s devaluation on the premise of experience: good stories do fulfill this function, for what make them goodis typically their universal resonance expressed in a particularity that connects us with the subject despite our differences. Indeed, it is in the province of narrative as drama that Shelley locates the highest expression of imagination in its power to cultivate the moral virtue that lies dormant in all human beings. The stage presents a synthesis of poetic arts and performs life aspoetry:
The tragedies of the Athenian poets are mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become.
Spectators are then thrust back into a mundane revivified by poetry’s power of formal integration as creative remembrance, making possible the imaginative reunion of life as “a detached catalogue of facts” with the meaningful life of the whole. The former amounts to life lived as poetry, dancing through time along the path of beauty. Shelley’s emphasis on the dramatic transmission of poetry for moral formation underscores the performativity of a life storied in beauty.
Such a vision of life contrasts sharply with human existence as it is predominantly storied today. Reason, as a derivative of the underlying, relational activity of imagination, has won out in appearance as the more primary faculty for its success in mechanistic science and technological innovation. Reason thinks it’s the realest! To generalize, a Cartesian-Newtonian story of dead matter bifurcated from the exceptional human psyche has reigned supreme over the last few centuries. The consequences are manifold, but told simply, the narrative paints a bleak picture of human subjectivity alienated from a world in which it naïvely makes pretense to a meaningful life:
The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind?
Without imagination, there can be no real self-knowledge of what it means to be human; the underlying relationship between mind and nature has been forgotten. The loss of that relationship ripples out in division after division until we become a species at war with itself; a psyche at war with itself. Yet, in our moment there is hope for remembrance as human civilization comes to gripswith the ecological crisis. In a reversal of human reason’s ascent, decades of scientific evidence pointing to an anthropogenic acceleration of climate change provide a clear corrective to the mainstream story of nature versus culture. Instead, neologisms like Donna Haraway’s “naturecultures” characterize what seems to be an awakening paradigm of creativity and relationship.
Recent discoveries in microbiology and quantum physics reveal a more unpredictable and responsive universe than mainstream science has hitherto been willing to admit. In her article titled “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” Serpil Oppermann relates these discoveries—discoveries which imply the coconstitution of matter and meaning—to the burgeoning field of material ecocriticism. The latter concerns itself with the material-semiotic, or the expressive creativity undulating through matter reconceived as lively.
“Everything in the physical environment,” writes Oppermann, “enacts a complex dynamic between social subjects and material processes not reducible to a subject-object binary. Although the human agency is radically different from material agency, they significantly entail each other in an intersubjective way”Oppermann’s construal of material ecocriticism resonates with Shelley’s poetic philosophy of imagination as the underlying dynamism uniting all things. Indeed, in the shift from bifurcation to a dynamic vision of ecology, relationship becomes fundamental; and “on this fusion of horizons, we find creative materiality encoded in a collective poetryof life.”To declare human life poetry itself amounts to a truism in this paradigm of “vibrant matter,” and so too its expression in story:
With its creative energy, matter emerges in meaningfully articulate forms of becoming that can be interpreted as storied matter…a nonanthropocentric conceptualization of materiality that acknowledges a creative disclosing of processes where materiality projects a lively impetus… For material ecocriticism, the creative becoming is the storied world…filled with narrative agencies that restore the world’s immanent capacity of enchantment and creativity.
Photons perform according to how we measure them; smoke stories the sky with omens of forest fire; bacteria speak to each other in chemical symbols. “This creativity can be interpreted as a form of narrative transmitted through the interchanges of organic and inorganic matter, the continuity of human and nonhuman forces, and the interplay of bodily natures, all forming active composites.”Nature turns out to be a book that we can read and be read in ourselves.
Oppermann identifies the meaningfulness of matter as its claim to “narrative agency,” a concept that troubles bygone dualisms of absurdist human freedom defiant of its otherwise determined universe. “Narrative agency, writes Oppermann, “is the world’s reenchanting property,”
characteristic not only of biological organisms…but also of the most elementary physical units. Different from personification, which attributes human traits to objects or ideas, narrative agency does not purport to enhance human qualities in fictive or material domains; rather, it denotes the vitality, autonomy, agency, and other signs that designate an expressive dimension in nonhuman entities…Therefore, narrative agency can be defined as a nonlinguistic performance of matter manifesting itself often in expressive collectives.
Shakespeare’s famous line, “All the world’s a stage,” no longer makes sense in the paradigm espoused by material ecocriticism.The world is not a static platform upon which human dramas unfold but is instead an active player shaping the story itself. Though there may be some aspects of Shelley’s philosophy to discard (e.g. the anthropocentric elevation of linguistic poetry), his overall scheme already presents a creative world of rhythm that resonates with the concept of narrative agency and instructs human participation in it. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”The song of the world speaks inside me like the phantom sensation of ocean waves I feel after a day at the beach. From the very beginning it is nonhuman nature that inspires and guides the human expression of poetry toward the blossoming of virtue. “Even in the infancy of society,” Shelley continues, human beings “observe a certain order in their words and actions, distinct from that of the objects and the impressions represented by them, all expression being subject to the laws of that from which it proceeds.”Thus, the formation of human culture arises in conversation with agencies of the local ecology which are ultimately continuous with the life of the whole cosmos. It is only once the human reasoning capacity begins to forget its dependence on imagination that the bifurcation of mind and nature can happen. How might we help to undo the separation? “This world of coconstituted beings,” writes Oppermann, “necessitates a different ethical stance, one that implies obligations for the world.”Poetry as I have construed it in this essay is a relational art aimed at evoking and invoking in others an attunement with matter’s aesthetic order (rhythm), what we might also call its underlying narrative power. Therefore, “telling stories and reading the storied world are means of understanding the creative experience that characterizes both humans and nonhuman natures.”The former is a practice of creative remembrance as poetic anamnesis, a recollection of the part we play in the story of cosmic ecology. Because stories of separation have been circulating through human civilization for a while, practicing creative remembrance foremost “means remaking our cultural codes and changing our basic conceptual structures so that we become more sensitive to the radical liveliness of the world.”
I decided to apply to the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program after a harrowing experience in the Amazon jungle three years ago that left me with a felt sense of the ethical stance Opperman invokes. Headfirst, I dive into a two-week Ayahuasca retreat under the spell of messianic inflation. I am on a quest to heal all my wounds andconduct preliminary research for a Fulbright project on ayahuasca tourism that will change the world—neither of which happen. Instead, my hubris is brought down to humus in a humiliating bout of breath that obliterates my buffered self. I’ve never appreciated ego more than during these moments in which I can’t discern voluntary respiration from involuntary, inside from outside, me from we, and so seek to control my experience for fear of death. Hyperventilation, tachycardia, and imminent doom punctuate my life regularly afterwards. I can’t notice my breath without freaking out. Mortality is not something I can forget now. The best medicine for bouts like these is prostration outdoors, my head in the dirt and fingers clutching at the grass. I submit to What is Greater than I and am overwhelmed with gratitude for one more day. The mundane world of even-breath sparkles anew for me. Suffering transfigures my perception of other beings and digs a deeper well for my compassion. The ethical stance Oppermann calls us to—an ethic of interdependence—is one that isn’t always obvious, but is something I have had vivid (and terrifying) apphrension of.
I leave Peru and arrive in California a bit jaded, disillusioned with the hubbub of psychedelic panaceas. It ain’t all crystals and rainbows and healing anacondas of love and barfing bliss. No, I know better. Despite my cynicism, the breathing trouble eventually calms down into an even rhythm. My studies in PCC help me to contextualize my experience as a spiritual emergence(y?); integration happens gradually as I share my experience with my peers and professors. I begin to reframe my experience as a profound gift, a confrontation with the existential truth of ecological being. To act with myself at the center, conforming the world to my will, no longer feels tenable—for now I am sure that who I am is more than just me. To keep this kind of awareness present is an act of creative remembrance, an ethical disposition that echoes Catherine Keller’s assertions about action in a world post-separation:
What makes action ethical will not then be the imposition of a law or application of a code, however uprightly progressive. It will be the self-implication of the agent in the act itself. The ethical action requires an actualization of ethos as attention to the sociality, human and not human, that constitutes you. Doing unto others what you would want them, under comparable circumstances, to do to you, lacks deontological or legal purity. For in its cultivation it does not deny or master the self’s desire. It widens it.
Creative remembrance is like the Golden Rule, the first lesson Mommy Mnemosyne imparts upon her nine inspired daughters. Remembering the whole in any given moment means remembering that what I do unto you (or anything for that matter), I do unto myself. Karma inheres in the unfolding storybook of matter at every creative juncture of action.
Throughout this essay I refer to creative remembrance as a “performance,” a term which carries over from Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity into Catherine Keller’s gesture toward an ethics of interdependence. “She [Butler] has us question a style of subjectivity,” explains Keller, “repeated as though it is the essential core of a particular subject and thus concealing repetition itself.”Butler’s queer theory originally begins with a challenge to gender essentialism, but eventually zooms out to question the ontological presuppositions of a certain style (story?!) of subjectivity—namely, of self-and-world separation. To remember the whole in our self-conception is an act, an intentional cultivation of a certain style of subjectivity, and simultaneously an ethic of interdependence:
We compose ourselves, nurtured or degraded by our relations, indeed by whole systems, families, groups, and institutions of relations, as best we can. And however well or ill sustained I am by my world, no “I”—albeit perishing—is a mere function of its environment. And, in ways never fully predictable, that social world will be affected—if only in a minor fold, a hidden nuance—by each momentary act of self-composition. Still, from the perspective of any relational thinking, the relationality does not become ethical unless in some way acknowledged. With whatever stylized repetitions we perform ourselves, our sex/genders, our ethnicities and economies and species, we may veil or reveal our interdependence.
Creative remembrance is therefore an ongoing performance of revelation through which we intentionally story our lives in tribute (acknowledgement) to the underlying relationships that constitutes self and other. My battle with breath taught me how destabilizing realizing one’s interdependence with others can be. What we think is private turns out to be public in what may rightly be called an invasion of the self—the self’s undoing. The meshwork of ecological being is stupefying; where do “I” begin and end? “Relation,” writes Keller,
is appearing as a tie or fiber in a network whose edges fade not into a void but into unknowability. To come undone is to come into question—come unknown, “blinded,” even to ourselves. But the nonknowing that at that moment displaces a cozy core of “self” marks not only identity loss but the enlivening glimpse of an alternative. The ties of relation form the potentiality that offers itself as a gift amidst the very losses relations themselves repeatedly inflict.
Exchanging my “cozy core of self” for “nonknowing” is the wound of realization, one which dulls over time into a humility that remembers its roots in the unspeakable. Bearing the burden of mystery is part of the brunt of being fully human in the performance of creative remembrance. But as Keller points out, something is gained in loss, and that is the gift of novelty: “Far from being further dissipated by a widened sociality and paralyzed by its implicate undefinablities,” writes Keller, “the subject mindful of its unknowing minds the world afresh.”Keller’s insistence on the gift of fresh vision resonates with my gratitude for the givenness of life upon. It’s no surprise that so many of the world’s spiritual traditions encourage contemplative practices of breath—for what could be a closer reminder of our interdependence with the life of the whole than our reliance upon oxygen?
To speak of our reliance upon oxygen is to invoke our ancient cyanobacterial ancestors who catalyzed what is called the Great Oxygenation Event over one to three billion years ago. Because of them we are. The existence of homo sapiens today owes itself to more than just cyanobacteria though. Where would humanity be without our historical collaborations with (and exploitations of) horses, corn, penicillin, or conifer trees? These are just a few of the obvious members of the earth community that we’ve evolved alongside with over the centuries, but given that our planet is an entire system of relationships, our livelihoods have in truth always been bound up with species as far away as the opposite end of the globe. Yet, because climate change and the globe itself are hyperobjects—entities so vast we can only conceive of them abstractly—it’s hard to feel any genuine connection to species that seem remote from us. Despite how difficult it may be, an ethics of interdependence demands that we muster enough imagination to try. What is the appropriate response to the growing number of species who are vanishing from the earth forever? Meditating on her grief for marginalized peoples whose rights to personhood have been denied reality by their oppressive culture, Butler describes how collective grief typically “furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”To mourn the lives of human beings whose personhood was stripped in life for defying conventions of gender and sexual expression is to perform an ethics of interdependence in responsibility to the human other. The same goes for nonhuman beings, species we are losing f o r e v e r as a result of a style of subjectivity that only considers their instrumental value. “Why,” asks Keller,
would not the restoration of interdependence widen and enrich both the process of grieving and the sources of survival, comfort, and renewal? Moreover, the singularities of loss are not just human. An ethics of interdependence opens into the lives of untold human populations without then drawing the line at nonhumans. We may grieve them singly or as whole environments; and they also grieve.
There is perhaps no better way of acknowledging our coconstiution with the nonhuman world than to grieve the members who vanish from our planet life daily. There are only two female white rhinos left in the world. What would it mean for us if both were to pass away before having children? Who would we be without birdsong and cricket chirps and fireflies? To grieve is nonhumans is to acknowledge them as our kin, and in so doing, widen the body politic to the body of the Earth.
Once we acknowledge our grief for the world and let the feelings flow, the imperative to act in accordance to an ethic of interdependence becomes obvious. Yet, today we are so mired in systems of non/human oppression and exploitation that conceiving of a way to act for the benefit of all seems impossible—and it is. The guilt may be crippling, leading us to dissociate out of feelings of powerlessness. How do we dismantle a hyperobject like the ecological crisis? In this world of narrative agency from which our meager power to act derives, there are no quick fixes; no clear answers; no hands clean of the another’s suffering. Even so, there is hope—but we must throw out the scripts that would story our lives in separation. In her essay on the same subject, ecocritic Tessa Shewry helps me understand what that means: “To hope,” writes Shewry “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the awareness of a sensibility awake to ecological its enmeshment. I find Shewry’s take a helpful corrective for my personal understanding of hope conditioned by a belief in certainties. Instead of hoping as a clinging to visions of “should-be,” “to hope is to sparkle with potential…to veer away from optimism if the latter implies confidence in achieve a certain goal, assumes the rectitude of that goal, and insists on a future that we could control.”Instead, to hope is to remain painfully present “in an intimate, embodied experience of moving into an unknown future.”Storied this way, hope becomes tantamount to what I have here been calling creative remembrance, the recollection of our ecological embeddedness in the life of the whole—a transfiguration of our lives into poetry. How to create a life in wake of the Anthropocene? “Remember,” whispers the Muse into my ear. Remember: “Mommy Mnemosyne. “MommyMnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?”
Jung, C. G., and Sonu Shamdasani. The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.
Keller, Catherine. Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. New York: Colombia University Press, 2015.
Opaine, Dandilion Wind (Fan Death), “Reunited” from “Womb of Dreams,” Toronto: Last Gang Records, 2010.
Oppermann, Serpil. “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency.” In Material Ecocriticism, edited by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino, 21-36. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.
Serpil Oppermann, “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” in Material Ecocriticism, ed. by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 27.
Oppermann, From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” 34.
Be he more a realist in his cynicism than she with her fingers crossed in hope? Ney, I say! In this essay I champion the moral importance of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue in human beings. The value of fairy-stories for our time of uncertainty figures especially in their facility to condition those reared with them into hopeful creatures. By hope I mean that disposition of humility which admits miraculous possibilities of otherwise—possibilities, perhaps, of eucatastrophe. The latter is a term which the philologist and fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien coined to refer to the happy turn of events at the end of a tale that constitutes a proper fairy-story. Ecological virtue, I suggest, consists in a practice of eucatastrophic thinking and what John Keats’ called negative capability for an attunement to the rhythm of being. Both spring from love as “a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.”In what follows I argue that hope as an openness to the possibility of happy catastrophe is not merely wishful thinking or escapism, but is—in a deeper sense—a loving act of imagination for the welfare of the whole. The moral import of fairy-stories will become clear as a result of my argument, underscoring their importance for human cultures today who seek to engage the ecological crisis motivated by more than just fear.
“To hope,” writes the ecotheorist Tessa Shewry, “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”No matter how clean our footprint is, we cannot escape participating (however indirectly) in the suffering of others—yet still we must act. Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the imagination of one who is awake to their enmeshment in earthly ecology. But alas, hope is not a disposition that is so easy to come by. Fear has a much more familiar face. That this is so is evident in the mainstream discourse on the threats of climate change, or else we are subject to naïve technofix assertions as when manifest destiny extends to Mars. I have heard echoed over and over that it is easier for people today to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of the capitalist machine that is actively destroying it. How could this be? Why are we so wanting in hopeful imaginaries of otherwise? The poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley might answer by pointing to “the extinction of the poetical principle” in popular society.The latter, says Shelley, is “connected with the progress of despotism and superstition,” developments in which human beings are not cultivated for freedom, but pitted against themselves and each other.Consumer choice masquerades as freedom in our time, but is in reality a byproduct of today’s cultural inundation with the manipulative magic of advertisement. Though for different reasons, Shelley’s description of the dark ages in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” bears a resemblance to our time in which human vices, rather than virtues, are encouraged:
Men had become insensible and selfish: their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of the will of others: lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud, characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of creating in form, language, or institution.
The poetical faculty Shelley alludes to requires a higher kind of freedom, one that is inherently ecological—for it locates its agency beyond the narrow confines of the buffered self. “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will… The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.”This higher freedom through which a being participates imaginatively in the life of the whole is what I call here inspired agency. For Shelley, the expression of such agency is poetry in general, and though one might argue that his elevation of poetry in a conventional sense (i.e. language arranged in meter) hints at his personal inflation, his overall philosophy emphasizes humility as the disposition through which poetry inspires. Like the smoldering coal, my receptivity to the swirling winds of ecological being allow them to pass through “me,” fanning the flames of imagination into visions of hopeful alternatives to capitalist catastrophes.
That Shelley, along with others before and after him, could ascend to heights of ego inflation reveals the danger of inspired agency despite its relational underpinnings. Imagination can be wielded for good andevil. It is hope—as I use the term in this essay—through which imagination may rhyme along in good faith with the primary creativity of natura naturans. “In hope,” invoking Shewry again,
we establish, feel, and express a relationship between things of this world (and through this world, the claims of the past) and the future in terms of openness and potential, loosening the hold of imagined futures said to be inevitable already. This is an embodied, unassuming, wordless relationship that is shaped by and at the same time nourishes ideas, or what one hopes for… Establishing a relationship of openness between present and future creates space not only for varied imaginaries of what might come but also for what we do now to enrich the future.
In contrast to the modernist pursuit of certainty and its hegemonies of “should,” Shewry’s construal of hope befits the human of an era like the Anthropocene in which all concepts of human activity must be ecologized. Hope here has much in common with what the poet John Keats sparsely described as “negative capability.” In a letter written to his brothers, Keats describes the latter as the capacity needed for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”Though negative capability may certainly require a willfulsuspension of interpretation, logic, and projection of possible outcomes, it is—as a practice—only half of the equation I insist on in this essay. The other half is in hope as a contemplative act, as eucatastrophic thinking—the caring embrace of what Keats following William Wordsworth called the “burden of Mystery.” To contextualize that burden, I quote at length Keats’ poetic philosophy of life from another letter to fellow poet J. H. Reynolds:
Well—I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery,’To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them.
The Anthropocene is a time of “Mist;” the more we humans realize our enmeshment in the unpredictable feedback loops of earthly ecology, the more we are mystified by the question “what to do about it?” Some answers may be better than others, but none have the privilege of resolute correctness in what Keats calls the Chamber of Maiden-Thought. The latter might be interpreted as the Chamber of sensual experience, through which an individual’s curiosity is awakened and conditioned by the events of life. This Chamber, Keats tells us, has the potential of “convincing one’s nerves” that fear and hopelessness are the most appropriate responses to the sufferings of time—for what purpose can reason make of a world writhing in so much pain? No answer is sufficient. Why should I go on? If the cultivation of ecological virtue is vested on the recognition of relationship as fundamental, then to be virtuous means to realize that “I” am more than just myself. To say this is one thing, but to know it is another: to know oneself as the whole of cosmic ecology is humiliating in the literal sense of “being brought close to earth;” despair bottoms out into compassion for others in what is truly a shared suffering.Ecologized sensibility—if it is true—is necessarily hopeful even as it bears the burden of Mystery because the individual bearing it knows that they are not alone. Hope is the hand we hold as we feel our way through “those dark Passages” of life’s Mansion of Many Apartments. Hope is knowing that we are in this together.
Shelley’s philosophy of poetry is helpful for more than just diagnosing the ills of today. His assertion that corruption is typically keyed with the absence of the “poetical principle” underscores its importance for organizing an ecologically just society. To understand Shelley’s generalized notion of poetry, we must understand what he means by imagination. Shelley designates the latter as that synthetic activity through which we have experience. Imagination is anterior to reason, or the class of mental action which, Shelley writes, “may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another.”Reason is thus figured as the squire of imagination, the deeds of whom are taken back up by the latter “as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.” Imagination, therefore, is that primary creative activity rhyming the world and our experience into being and, at the same time, is that which we participate in when we rhyme along through the poetry of our lives. After all, “poetry,” in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’: and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”The latter point is crucial for understanding my insistence on the import of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue. Poetry, for Shelley, is not apart from the world—rather—it is that through we strive to synchronize with its underlying rhythm. To illustrate this attuning function of poetry, Shelley offers—among others—the example of a child at play:
A child at play by itself will express its delight by its voice and motions; and every inflexion of tone and every gesture will bear exact relation to a corresponding antitype in the pleasurable impressions which awakened it; it will be the reflected image of that impression; and as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away, so the child seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause. In relation to the objects which delight a child these expressions are what poetry is to higher objects.
The “impression” which the child mirrors in play is like the wind strumming through an Aeolian lyre; as actions which aim to prolong “consciousness of the cause,” both examples amount to poetry as expressions which reconcile the individual with the rhythmic life of cosmic imagination.
Whether as language written in meter or a life lived in accordance with earthly rhythms, poetry in general is any expressive activity that performs a reconciliation between the part and the whole—and is, for that reason, ecological (relational). Shelley’s conception provides a way of restoring the bridge between nonhuman nature and human culture, for it is the former which inspires the organization of the latter. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”The closest approximation to that “certain rhythm or order” is what we call beautiful, the experience of which is the highest pleasure, for it is an echo of our origin in divinity. Shelley says those who have the capacity to apprehend the beautiful are poets and have major sway, for their expression “communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community,” allowing the entire group to organize in accord with the beautiful rhythm and in so doing, attune to the song of cosmic ecology.But because cosmic imagination is creative, poetry is never-ending innovation and requires poets to stay on their toes! “If no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized,” Shelley warns us, “language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.”Before the human species began ratiocinating its way into imaginaries of separation, attunement was basic existence. Indeed, as Shelley writes,
in the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.
Human culture has not always storied itself apart from nonhuman nature; the roots of most words hint at this. But today, as in Shelley’s time, the dominant imaginary does not incline its adherents to experience themselves ecologically. Though all human beings may possess the capacity for poetry, today’s poets are those who for some reason or another are primed to feel through the imaginatively wrought boundaries of the buffered self. Thus, for their negative capability, poets are what we desperately need as we muster the courage to confront the unfolding ecological crisis. I am led to agree with Shelley in his dynamite declaration at the end of his essay: “Poets arethe unacknowledged legislators of the world.”What we need are exemplars of inspired agency!
For Shelley, the apotheosis of poetry happens on stage in drama for its multimedia mimesis of life. “The tragedies of Athenian poets,” insists Shelley,
are as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become. The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty, that they distend in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived… Neither the eye nor the mind can see itself, unless reflected upon that which it resembles. The drama, so long as it continues to express poetry, is as a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest rays of human nature and divides and reproduces them from the simplicity of these elementary forms, and touches them with majesty and beauty, and multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it with the power of propagating its like wherever it may fall.
When drama is at its best it presents a concentrated portrayal of human experience, shining with the “brightest rays of human nature” that then penetrate the audience and awaken those self-same qualities already resident within. Drama has the power to catalyze and cultivate human sensibility, shaping it to perform the values it narrates. In spite of his celebration of drama, Shelley disparages the form of story for its supposed disjunction with the whole:
The one [story] is partial and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.
Shelley’s disparagement of story is indeed strange if one accepts my extension of his general notion of poetry to individual life itself when it reconciles with the life of the whole. Is not story the means by which we might narrate our lives in wholeness? Moreover, does not every story have the potential to tell itself in such a way as to convey something universal of human experience?
In his defense of story, J. R. R. Tolkien contrasts wildly with Shelley’s celebration of drama, chiding the latter form’s pretense toward expressing the fantastic, which a feat like the reconciliation of the part with the whole certainly is. In his essay titled “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien introduces a similar philosophy of imagination, one that wonderfully introduces more terminological distinctions than Shelley’s affords. Tolkien’s focus in this essay is on “Fantasy,” or that operation “which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic.”For Tolkien, the “Primary World” is the expression of the Creator’s “Primary Art,” or the unfolding creativity of cosmic imagination. “Sub-creation” characterizes the activity of those who participate in Creation producing “Secondary Worlds,” the achievement of “which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” or “Secondary Belief.”Specifically, Fantasy is the style of sub-creation characterized by “a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression.”As works of Fantasy, fairy-stories work to restore our astonishment in life by presenting universal human experiences (much like in Shelley’s dramatic concentration of life) under the guise of impossible circumstances. In an effort to reconcile Shelley and Tolkien, we might call fairy-stories a fantastic form ofpoetry. Tolkien describes Fantasy’s awe-inducing power as a power of “recovery,” one that resonates with my insistence on restoring the human relationship to nonhuman nature:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.
Drama’s reliance on corporeality (performing bodies, costumes, props, stage sets, etc.) limits its ability to revivify perception. Dramatic attempts at Fantasy often fall flat or appear absurd. In Tolkien’s words, “men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy.”Rather, it is, as Tolkien insists, through words that Fantasy is rendered best, for
fairy-stories deal largely, (or the betters ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover and not her slave.It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
The power of fairy-stories to revivify the mundane, astonishing habitual perception into wide-eyed amazement with the beauty of nature is clearly important for our time. To cultivate ecological virtue we must recover an experience of the mystery and inherent value of the nonhuman world. The reality of such stories has a deeper valence than any nominalist understanding of language could admit. Though he is at times ambiguous, fairy-stories for Tolkien seem to deal with an actual realm—the realm of Faërie—in which denizens like the elves dwell. Fantasy as a capacity granted to the human being by imagination is in this purview inevitable, as are its sub-creations in which important truths about what it means to be human may be taught by the elves alone:
To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician. Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself. That creative desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist, or the malevolent frauds of the magicians… Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.
By “Enchantment” Tolkien refers to the elven craft of sub-creation in which the Secondary World is experienced with “Primary Belief,” a Fantasy so convincing that it is accepted as reality. At their best, elves demonstrate ideal sub-creation for human beings in what Shelley might call poetry, or the celebration of, reconciliation with, and “shared enrichment” of Creation—“partners in making and delight, not slaves.”
Finally we arrive at the end, the moment in which the harrowing events of a fairy-story take a miraculous turn toward a happy resolution—the eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic trope is not one of mere escapism, nor is it inherently childish. “It does not,” writes Tolkien,
deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief… in such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. 
That fateful gleam comes through to pierce our hearts with some uncanny truth that somehow makes the “burden of Mystery” lighter. Spellbound by Secondary Belief, our joy hints that the fantastic eucatastrophe may in some way actually
partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far- off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.
Human sensibility cultivated through a cultural practice of telling fairy-stories might thus be formed to feel through the “dark Passages” of life, candlelit by a hopeful disposition that flickers with eucatastrophic thought. To confront the ecological crisis we must both internalize an identity that exceeds our individuality and indwell a disposition of hope that is itself a loving practice of being ecological. Only when we think eucatastrophically can we muster the courage to press forward in the name of possibilities of otherwise. Rather than a parasite of the earth, let us—raised on heaping plates of fairy-story—be partners with our Creator; let us, as sub-creators, “assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”
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.
Whether we designate its emergence as before or simultaneous, a Cosmopoetics is essential to the development of a true Cosmopolitics. A politics without a poetics—I imagine—would be a schizoid performance; truly split. Regardless of the rhetoric, I (and I extend this to an invitational “we”) typically know a genuine performance when I feel it. Truth (however contingent) is much more than the neutral enumeration of facts. This is Bruno Latour’s call to arms! We are at war! The bounty? A conceptual framework:
Instead of a difference in principle between the world of facts and the world of values…we see that we have to become accustomed to a continuous linkage of actions that begin with facts that are extended into a warning and that pointtoward decisions…This claim of descriptive neutrality made it possible to forget that one never plunges into description expect in order to act, and that, before looking into what must be done, we must be impelled to action by a particular type of utterance that touches our hearts in order to set us in motion — yes, to move us (49).
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of Latour’s critics disparaged his writing as hyperbolic; to such statements I would say: you missed the point. And what is the point? The needle that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s finger, the needle that sent she and the rest of the Kingdom to sleep! The point is the historical severance of Nature from Human Culture, Fact from Value. But “from now on,” Latour resounds throughout Facing Gaia(in an electrifying mission of italics and exclamation points), “if you speak of any part of the Earth to humans…we all find ourselves in the same boat — or rather on the same bus” (48). What does this mean? This means the claim to neutrality is null: there is no view from nowhere. And so, to combat the climate skeptics, the climate scientist must be—simultaneously—poet (or join ranks with one) and honestly fuse the pathos of her/his knowledge with its description. As Latour echoes Haraway, scientists must become response-able. They must aesthetize themselves.
But if there is no longer a neutral point of view from which to derive the laws of Nature, what happens to objectivity? That we find ourselves in a moment of collective dissonance—wherein facts are held against “alternative facts” and the word “natural” blurs into head scratching as we shop for groceries—indicates the need for a redefining of objectivity: “objectivity,” Latour tells us (in footnote 14 on page 47), “is neither a state of the world nor a state of mind; it is the result of a well-maintained public life.” Implicit in his understanding of objectivity is a process-relational metaphysics. Facts are facts because the measurements from which they derive stand firmer than other statements against objections arising from their community of origin. Knowledge, as Matt described per an aesthetic ontology, consists of appearances all the way down. There is no final, gleaming jewel of Truth at the core of the Universe that we are to extract and possess! Rather, in a Pluriverse, “Truth” is always contingent; partial; situated. Moreover, it is multi-faceted, necessitating (until, perhaps, a more synthetic means of communicating arises) constant translation across the different streams of knowing (e.g. poetic, religious, etc.).
In the quest to realize a Cosmopoetics, the central question one must ask—I think—is: what does it feel like? The profuseness of my post this module expresses the freedom I have progressively grown into over the course of this semester as we make our process-relational descent. What does it feel like to live into a process-relational metaphysics? For me, this means no longer being so stressed out when I read philosophy, or when I go about learning anything for that matter. Released from the illusion of objective Truth as Neutral, I can trust that my partial perspective is enough, that Knowledge is not something I am to conclusively uncover and possess (and maintain, in competition against other perspectives). Rather than fear exposing my thinking to others, I can look forward to and genuinely engage with others, knowing that my partial perspective is always informed by the metamorphic field and enriched by entangling with the perspectives of others. I have nothing to hide, nothing to lose, for everything I am is forged in relationship anyhow! Each of us possesses a unique vantage point, a unique jewel never to be repeated. We are all little bubbles of seafoam, sparking forth to shine out a never-to-be-repeated perspective. What a gift to be in philosophical dialogue! To be in community in general!
What does it feel like? It feels like much more than I wish to take any more of your precious time describing. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, Latour’s suspenseful (and hilarious) prose had the aestheticizing effect he calls us ourselves to create. Suffice it to say that I feel mobilized, broken of the spell of Providence. If Gaia is sensitive, fragile, “touchy,” we must take care. I have begun to see the World (I still like the word Nature, especially if we extend Culture to all other forms of actual occasions) with new eyes. Enjoined back with “the family of things,” I feel like Aurora awakened, wiping away slumber crust, like when, in “Sleeping Beauty, all the servants in the palace, until then passive and inert, awoke from their sleep, yawning and began to move frenetically about — the dwarves and the clock, the trees in the garden and also the knobs on the doors. The humblest accessories henceforth play a role, as if there were no more distinctions between the main characters and the extras” (93).
Latour’s comparison of re-enchantment, of realizing the animation of the World (and, consequently, a partial de-animation of the ratiocentric human identity) with Sleeping Beauty was especially profound for me; it was the fairytale I connected most intimately with during a period of self-discovery and artistic transmutation. In 2016 I underwent a rite of passage in the process of making my capstone film, Areté Already, a project I consider to be the most mature example of my creative life and thought thus far. Through it I sought to ritualistically enact a movement from disenchantment to re-enchantment. My life has never been the same since. Eventually I will write more about it.
I spent the last weekend alone, saturated with Latour’s ideas, and went to Point Reyes where I had experiences that contributed more to the question, “what does it feel like?” Below you will find a video wherein I express those feelings as I recorded them in my journal during my time there.
Latour, B. (2017). Facing Gaia. Medford: Polity Press.
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?
Though I maintain a healthy amount of suspicion, I tend toward an hermeneutics of faith and quickly fall in love with the ideas that saturate my life. How Forests Thinkis described as an anthropological work, but Eduardo Kohn’s radical thinking evades categorization. Because Kohn bypasses epistemological barriers—enjoining others in the ontological turn—one might consider this a work of speculative (yet grounded) philosophy. I would go further, though, and as you will discover if you have the time to read (or listen) to my words, and call it a work of art. Reading it, for me, was an experience. I intend for this website to be a home for ideas—those “qualities entertained as objects in conceptual activity [that] are of the nature of catalytic agents—”that build toward a re-enchanted worldview. Kohn’s ideas reintroduce our thinking to the world from which it came—a world of images—and invite us to recognize how the world may indeed be thinking through us.
Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human is an estrangement and a homecoming. As the subtitle reads, Kohn seeks to take anthropology—and his readers—beyond the human. But why should the study of what makes humans human concern anything more than us? Kohn’s answer, as with the entire book, is practical: “how other beings see us matters.” Immediately we recoil. An epistemic law has been broken. How can we presume to know anything about how another (nonhuman) being sees us? Kohn might simply say, “for our own survival.” To those of us living in cities or suburbs—even rural America—this answer might seem exotic. But to human beings who live on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest—like the Runa of Ávila, the subjects of Kohn’s ethnographic meditation—our speculative question is vital. It is a matter of life and death: those who sleep face-up are recognized by the jaguar as fellow selves, while those who sleep face-down risk being seen as her object of prey. This dilemma is how Kohn introduces his “analytic beyond the human.” Our ecological crisis is forcing us to make ontological assumptions that burst our sociocultural and historically-contingent bubble. Until now “our social theory…[, which]…conflates representation with language,”[i] has bound our thoughts within a complex whole. This so-called complex whole is the axiom of human culture, understood by many proponents of the linguistic turn to be resolutely closed—all our knowledge encaged by a matrix of exclusively human-wrought meaning. But upon considering the jaguar’s perspective, we release our thoughts into a wild flock.
The heart of Chapter One, “The Open Whole,” is Kohn’s restoration of meaning to the world. The human capacity for symbolic thought may be unique, but it is not ex nihilo. The semiotic philosophy of the “weird” Charles Peirce figures largely in Kohn’s work. Kohn says, though, that his approach is not one of merely applying Peirce to the forest, but one more of “allowing the forest to think through [him (Kohn), while]…also using Peirce’s framework.”[ii] Kohn borrows his working “agnostic definition” of the word sign from Peirce’s: “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.”[iii] Human language includes indices, icons, and symbols, the last of which as Kohn has it, are slightly more removed from the natural world. Shooting up from the root system of icon and the stem support of index, symbols “refer to their object indirectly by virtue of the ways in which they relate systemically to other such symbols. Symbols involve convention.” As far as we know, humans are the exclusive users of symbols, but flowers don’t bloom from nowhere. To the extent that symbols rely on other forms of communication, signs can be seen to extend beyond symbolic language. Therefore, what we as humans can know and the range of beings we might commune with opens up.
The significance of asking how the jaguar sees us implies that we might grant the jaguar selfhood. And indeed, this is in line with Kohn’s definition of life as being “constitutively semiotic. That is, life is, through and through, the product of sign processes.”[iv] To Kohn, all life-forms represent the world in some way(s); life’s tendency to represent has a reciprocal effect of producing a perspective, that which observes the representation. The marriage of life and representation “allows us to situate distinctively human ways of being in the world as both emergent from and in continuity with a broader living semiotic realm.”[v] This is Kohn’s move to provincialize language as one unique way of making meaning among many along the landscape of the cosmos.
The predominant view in the social sciences is that we can only understand something by relating it to other things that make up a complex—but self-referentially closed—whole of meaning. This approach is the very reason for Kohn’s provincializing of language, for it shows how our thinking as human beings has been “colonized” by symbolic thought. Words can only mean something in relation to other words. And likewise, “we can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language.”[vi] But now, after the linguistic turn, we swerve again, this time “away from the internal analysis of social conventions and institutions towards the interactions of humans with (and between) animals, plants, physical processes, artifacts, images, and other forms of being.”[vii] Thus the Runian “word,” or sound image, “tsupu.” Similar to how we understand onomatopoeia, “words” that are really only translations of sounds into language (e.g. meeeeeow!), “tsupu” is an icon that refers “to an entity as it makes contact with and then penetrates a body of water.”[viii] Upon hearing this definition, Kohn says that people often “experience a sudden feel for its meaning.”[ix] This recognition across languages (the Runa speak Quichuan) punctures the closed whole of our colonized way of thinking and lets slip a sound of the world. Just like “meow,” the meaning of “tsupu” is not reliant on its relationship to other words for meaning.
By paying attention to certain instances, customs, or ways of knowing among the Runa, Kohn distills amplified generals of our shared world throughout the book. “Tsupu” is an example and so is the animistic orientation of the Runa (animistic, i.e., “the attribution of enchantment,” the capacity to make and interpret meaning, to “other-than-human loci”[x]). In Chapter Two, “The Living Thought,” Kohn explains the centrality of the animistic perspective to the Runa and its relevance for us:
People in Ávila, if they are to successfully penetrate the relational logics that create, connect, and sustain the beings of the forest, must in some way recognize this basic animacy. Runa animism, then, is a way of attending to living thoughts in the world that amplifies and reveals important properties of lives and thoughts…Paying attention to these engagements with the living thoughts of the world can help us think anthropology differently. It can help us imagine a set of conceptual tools we can use to attend to the ways in which our lives are shaped by how we live in a world that extends beyond the human.[xi]
Animism is not a romantic or even chosen approach to living for the Runa. It is necessary for survival. The importance of anticipating how a jaguar might respond to our behavior reveals the inherent futurity of semiosis—selves represent to continue living. “Aboutness,” writes Kohn, “—representation, intention, and purpose in their most basic forms—is an intrinsic structuring feature of living dynamics in the biological world.”[xii] The evolutionary process itself is driven by semiosis wherein selfhood extends to entire biological lineages and representation encompasses the process of adaptation. Biology thinks its way into the future. Relationality takes on a new meaning in this purview in that the “logic that structures relations among selves is the same as that which structures relations among signs.”[xiii] This is one way of understanding what Kohn means when he asserts that forests think. Living selves are the thoughts in the mind of a forest.
Chapter Three, “Soul Blindness,” discusses the relativity of identity among the ecology of selves that makes up a forest. As modeled by our relationship with the jaguar, the line between self and other is blurry at best. Self and object are co-constitutive. Kohn writes, “before living thoughts emerged on this earth nothing ever came to stand in relationship to a self as an object or as another. Objects, like selves, are also effects of semiosis.”[xiv] For Kohn, the soul is an intersubjective effect that emerges from communication between selves. To remain a self, one “must recognize the soul-stuff of the other souled selves that inhabit the cosmos.”[xv] In contrast, soul blindness refers to the loss of such a capacity. For the hunter, being able to distinguish prey from the larger environment is contingent on seeing the creature as a self. Simply put, “our lives depend on our abilities to believe in and act on the provisional guesses we make about the motivations of other selves.”[xvi] It is a tragic and dissonant fact that selves must consume other selves in order to live, and this dissonance is captured in the conversion of a self into an object. “To eat them as food,” Kohn writes, they must become “dead meat.”[xvii] Although most of us reared in industrial society are far removed from the production of our food, English names for animal products (i.e. pork, beef, veal) reflect the same necessity of abstracting from the selfhood of the once living creature now unrecognizable on our plates. Whether one is subject or object, essential to this chapter is Kohn’s point that “what kind of being one comes to be is the product of how one sees as well as how one is seen by other kinds of beings.”[xviii] What the Runa amplify for Kohn is the potential for an anthropology beyond the human to utilize a “self-reflexive defamiliarization” of natures rather than cultures; by “stepping out of our bodies and into those of other beings…we see a different world from the subjective, I, point of view of another kind of embodiment. We are able, for a moment to live in a different nature.”[xix] In wake of the Anthropocene, imagining into the selfhood of the world’s dwindling biosphere is of obvious importance.
To mitigate the loss of species occurring in our time we must sensitize ourselves to the needs of those nonhuman others we are so inextricably tied to. Chapter Four, “Trans-Species Pidgins,” explores the Runa-forest relationship for glimmers of that possibility. To develop an ethic of care “that does not simply project human qualities everywhere,” Kohn writes, “we must situate morality ontologically.”[xx] We may simplify our problem by understanding the human capacity for morals in relation to symbolic reference: “It [symbolic reference] requires the ability to momentarily distance ourselves from the world and our actions in it to reflect on our possible modes of future conduct.”[xxi] Morality, then, is emergent, and its roots are in value. All livings beings participate in value by discerning good from bad. Sensitizing ourselves to the needs of nonhumans “forces us to think beyond our moral worlds in ways that can help us imagine and realize better worlds.”[xxii] That the Quichuan word runa is equivalent to the English word person is a clue as to how. “Runa,” Kohn explains, “is used as a sort of pronominal marker of the subject position—for all selves see themselves as persons.”[xxiii] Here again is the distinction of natures versus cultures. Rather than attempt in vain to enter another closed whole (culture), the Runa model a way of slipping in and out of other bodies, becoming-with other natures. This is the opposite extreme of soul blindness. Both come with a cost; the former, a loss of our humanity, the latter, the solipsism of “monadic isolation.” Consider the Runian phrase runa-puma. If runa means person, then runa-puma refers to a person-jaguar, or person-predator. Our experience of meeting the eyes of a jaguar makes us into “beings who can see themselves being seen by jaguars as fellow predators, and who also sometimes see other humans the way jaguars do, as prey.”[xxiv] Implicit in this example is the importance either way of walking a middle path—if we identify completely as runa-puma, we may end up cannibals, but if we shirk the gaze of a jaguar, we may end up her meal.
In our struggle to communicate with other beings, we must grapple with the constraints of their unique semiotic modalities.[xxv] Chapter Five, “Form’s Effortless Efficacy,” builds on our wish to make contact by exploring “how certain configurations of constraint on possibility emerge and…the particular manner in which such configurations propagate in the world in ways that result in a sort of pattern.”[xxvi] This is what Kohn calls form. The decolonization of our thoughts extends to the status of form and challenges us to rethink what we might otherwise assume as something we humans make up. Kohn’s perspective is an anti-nominalist one, after all. Riverine networks of the Amazon are a prime example of this kind of immanent patterning in their “self-similarity across scale,” with their creeks and streams as fractal echoes of a basic form. Thus, navigating a river system is one way of being inside of and harnessing the “effortless efficacy” of form. Another is hunting. Kohn explains:
Because of the high species diversity and the local rarity of species and the lack of any one fruiting season, the fruits that animals eat are highly dispersed…This means that at any given time there will exist a different geometrical constellation of fruiting resources that attracts animals…that predators are, in turn, attracted to this concentration of animals further amplifies the pattern of distribution of life across the forest landscape. This results in a particular pattern of potential game meat…[xxvii]
Rather than expend energy and time hunting animals directly, Ávila hunters allow the formal patterning of the forest to think through them and follow it to those constellations of fruiting trees and game meat. Kohn’s understanding of form as something one is “inside,” “quite different from the push-and-pull logic we usually associate with the physical effort needed to do something,” is wonderfully evocative of concepts like wu wei (non-action) from the Daoist tradition.[xxviii] Kohn’s ethnographic artistry abounds in examples (e.g. dreaming, rubber-trapping, shamanic empowerment) of form that I enthusiastically encourage readers to discover for themselves.
Chapter Six, “The Living Future (and the Imponderable Weight of the Dead),” considers how an anthropology beyond the human might understand the paradox of life—its inherent futurity and mandate of death. The semiotic nature of life has representation concerned with survival; in Kohn’s words, “we all always have one foot (or paw) in the future,” but as he goes on to say, “this living future…cannot be understood without further reflecting on the special links that life has to all the dead that make life possible. It is in this sense that the living forest is also one that is haunted.”[xxix] What the Runa amplify for Kohn about the continuity of life is tied up with their relationship to the forest’s emergent spirit realm, the afterlife. The earlier translation of runa as person was a hint that it does not refer specifically to an ethnic group (ours and Kohn’s use of it as a proper noun is for the sake of communication). In fact, the Runa of Ávila don’t even identify themselves that way or any other. For them, runa has a much more general meaning:
“Runa” more accurately marks a relational subject position in a cosmic ecology of selves in which all beings see themselves as persons. “Runa” here is the self, in continuity of form. All beings are, from their points of view, in a sense “Runa,” because this is how they would experience themselves when saying “I.”[xxx]
“Death for the self,” then, as Kohn puts it, “is ineffable, for the self is simply a continuation of life. The self is a general…it is the experience of the death of others by the living that is so hard to bear, because it is what is palpable.”[xxxi] Kohn’s assertion that the self continues may seem strange to us, but as that reciprocal effect of life’s tendency to represent the world, self as defined by Kohn transcends any reductionist ontology that would terminate it at bodily death. When we stop to ponder our own deaths and arrive only at mystery we might nod our heads—how else could we be but in being? With the problem of death aside, I now turn to that ethereal future realm and how one’s relationship to it in the present determines one’s survival.
Like navigating a river, our relationship to the living future is participatory. In Kohn’s view, the spirit realm the Runa interact with is a co-creative emergence of Amazonia’s various denizens. Yet, while it is collaborative, it is also heavily saturated with the “all too human.” It’s formal logic, then, comes to reflect all of the forest’s historical (i.e. colonial) influence “and thus permits and constrains, who and how an I can be, at the same time that it provides the vessel for continuity—the survival—of that I.”[xxxii] For the Runa, “who have long lived in a world where whites…have stood in manifest dominance over them,” this often means becoming white.[xxxiii] Oswaldo, one of Kohn’s ethnographic subjects, gives an example as he recounts a dream for us in which appeared a “’menacing[, white] policeman’” whose “’shirt was covered with clippings from a haircut.’”[xxxiv] For Oswaldo, this dream—an intimation of the future—was initially interpreted as a bad sign, for he had understood the white policeman to be his own predator. But as things would have it, Oswaldo ended up occupying the position of the predator when he successfully killed a peccary in the forest later on. Kohn elaborates further,
That Oswaldo at a certain moment in the forest can—perhaps must—be a white policeman, involves the particular and sometimes disjointed and even painful ways in which some aspect of his future self reaches back to affect him from the realm of the masters…The spirit realm that emerges, as a product of a whole host of relations that cross species lines and temporal epochs, is then a zone of continuity and possibility: Oswaldo’s survival depends on his ability to access it.” [xxxv]
Aside from challenging our understanding of both positionality and causality, what the Runa amplify for us once again is the extent to which our selfhood—our survival—is bound up with the way others see us. There is much more to this chapter and to the spirit realm of the forest than can be dwelt on here, and so again, I encourage the reader to dive into Kohn’s artistry.
How Forests Think, a seminal work ten years in the making, naturally ends with an epilogue titled, “Beyond.” Kohn’s central aim was to think like a forest, that is, in images, and in doing so, make us over—take us beyond our “doubt-ridden human housing.”[xxxvi] Indeed, even in this review, we taste the bidden fruit of Eden and in some way re-member what it’s like to see nonhuman selves seeing us. Yet, paradoxically, we bite the apple and gain a more refined understanding of what it means to be human. It is all necessary, as Kohn heroically explains, for “if ‘we’ are to survive the Anthropocene—this indeterminate epoch of ours in which the world beyond the human is being increasingly made-over by the all-too-human—we will have to actively cultivate these ways of thinking with and like forests.”[xxxvii] Sadly, what is lost in the review of this artful book is the phantasmagoria of images—“be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic”[xxxviii]—that make it. And once more—rather than goad—I lovingly wish that you, the reader, find a copy in your hands one day, so that you might join in on its gift to posterity—our, hopefully, living future.