Genevieve Stebbins and the Philosophical Roots of Somatics

A reigning prejudice today pits embodiment and feeling against thinking as a corrective for centuries of overemphasis on the latter. Apart from the contradiction of intellectually arguing for such a position, the trend of devaluing thought forgets that is it is precisely thinking which grants the observer a conscious self-awareness of the feeling body. Such observation forms a keystone in the burgeoning field of somatics, and yet rarely do we find practitioners engaging in serious metaphysical speculation regarding the conditions which give rise to this power of observation. Ancient thinkers like Plato certainly did not shy away from philosophizing about the transcendental conditions of thought in relation to the body. In fact, popular misinterpretations of Plato present him as the grandfather of body-denigrating dualism. What may be surprising to some is the extent to which the fields of somatics and modern dance were significantly influenced by a modern proponent of Neoplatonic philosophy, someone who sought to realize in everyday life the Romantic ideal of extending nature’s creativity through the conscious human being—namely, the performer, author, philosopher, and teacher, Genevieve Stebbins. With Stebbins the ancient understanding and practice of cultivating the human being as microcosm was translated into a modern context. Traces of this influence are discernible in the work of somatics practitioners and modern dancers that have emerged over the 20th and 21st centuries, but rarely is Stebbins recognized for her contributions. Former performing artist and independent scholar Kelly Jean Mullan has made it her mission to rectify this and conveys here the extent to which Stebbins’ charisma still inspires those today who come into contact with her work:

Stebbins’ name is barely recognized in dance and Somatics history. My hope is that I will be able to generate enough interest in her life and share my extensive research to celebrate the heritage of this incredible woman, so that her story will actually become a part of history and not be forgotten.[1]

I owe what follows largely to Mullan for catalyzing in me a similar reverence for Stebbins and her contributions. Before moving on to talk about more Stebbins, I first specify what I mean when I refer to the field of somatics. In her thesis, “The Art and Science of Somatics: Theory, History, and Scientific Foundations,” Mullan refers to somatics as “the field of western mind-body methods, encompassing ways of working with the body that are therapeutic, educational, artistic, and physically expressive.”[2] A foundational text for the somatics movement—Bone, Breathe, & Gesture—was published in 1995, an anthology put together by the somatic theorist and rolfer, Don Hanlon Johnson. In the introduction Johnson notes the late philosopher Thomas Hanna as he who provided the movement’s namesake, “adding the significant final ‘s’ to distinguish it from the commonly used adjective, ‘somatic.’ ‘Somatic,’ as in psychosomatic has been used to mean the physicalistic body as distinct from the mind or soul of a person… Hanna argued that it was the sacral body, gross and mechanistically conceived, separate from mind and imagination, that dominated Western thought and medicine. In his view, the teachers of embodiment practices were recovering a hidden sense of the wise, imaginative, and creative body, thus creating a ‘Somatics’.”[3] Therapeutic mind-body methods were won independently by many of these practitioners in their confrontation with illness and a mechanized medical paradigm that could not provide the help they needed. “This community,” quoting Johnson, “is best understood within a much broader movement of resistance to the West’s long history of denigrating the value of the human body and the natural environment.”[4] Unfortunately, the insidious mind-body split lived out in western culture sometimes inverts itself in advocates of bodily wisdom as an aversion, or even outright dismissal of philosophical thinking. This is something Johnson recognizes in his introduction and it shows up in the words of the practitioner who appears first in his anthology: Elsa Gindler. “I always advise my students,” wrote Gindler, “to replace my words with their own…in order to avoid getting a knot in their psyche and having to philosophize for hours about what was really meant.”[5] While one can admire Gindler’s emphasis on experience in the learning process and its individualization in the student’s own lexicon, her position inadvertently diminishes the importance of having a consistent, communal framework for understanding the wisdom of the body. This is significant for two reasons: A., because Gindler is often presented as one of—if not the—major founding figures of the somatics movement and so sets the tone for posterity; and B., because her eschewing of theory actually occludes the roots of her own practice—the psycho-physical system of culture developed by Genevieve Stebbins, what she called Harmonic Gymnastics.

Genevieve Stebbins was born in San Francisco in 1857; a performer from a young age, she pursued a career in acting as a young adult and apprenticed to Steele MacKaye who in turn had been a student of the famous French orator, singer, coach, and aesthetic philosopher, Francois Delsarte. Stebbins quickly became an enthusiastic disciple of the Delsarte method, shifting focus from her career as a performer to learn Delsarte’s living philosophy and disseminate to others. Apart from Delsarte and the field of physical culture (the 18th century forerunner somatics), Stebbins drew from a vast array of disciplines including the physical and social sciences of her day, religious metaphysics, Romanticism, esotericism, and the arts in both western and non-western traditions. Delsarte provided a substantial background for Stebbins’ thought and practice, but by the end of her life she had devised a theory and system that was at once unique to her and, as she describes in her book Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics, “the common property of all ages.”[6] Stebbins founded the New York School for Expression at Carnegie Hall in 1893 and taught there until retiring in 1907. During that window Hade Kallmeyer was a disciple of Stebbins and went on to teach Harmonic Gymastics in Germany when she completed her training. According to Kelly Mullan’s research, Elsa Gindler was a student of Kallmeyer’s and “developed her experimental work in part by drawing upon her training in the philosophical and practical basis of Harmonic Gymnastics.”[7] Thanks to Mullan we can now recognize the major role Stebbins played in the emergence of the somatics movement by tracing the lineage that streamed from her and through Kallemeyer to Gindler, Gindler’s students Charlotte Selver and Carola Speads, and beyond through the wide influence the latter figures had on other practitioners over the 20th century. Ruth St. Denis, one of the major pioneers of modern dance, was also inspired by Stebbins after attending one of her Delsarte matinees; in her essay “The Intellectual World of Genevieve Stebbins,” Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter points out the crucial role Stebbins body of work and thought had in catalyzing the “new dance” as represented by figures like St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, and Martha Graham.[8]

To recognize the importance of Stebbins in the emergence of both modern dance and somatics is at the same time to reveal that a philosophical perspective undergirds them. Obscured upstream from Gindler and those after her now appears a figure whose thought has been variously described as an aesthetic translation of scholasticism and “Swedenborg geometrized,” Francois Delsarte (1811-1871). Unfortunately, Delsarte died before publishing any explication of the applied metaphysics he painstakingly cultivated for over 35 years; Stebbins sought to make up for this loss. In one of her first publications, Delsarte System of Dramatic Expression, she precedes her interpretation of Delsarte’s work and a series of exercises with a hitherto unpublished manuscript of a speech he gave to the Philotechnic Society of Paris. Delsarte’s central concern in this speech is to define art apart from its application—to elucidate the very essence of art. Such a definition, he claims, has never been ventured and is only accessible to those “pure of heart.” True art arises from the human soul as mediator between the eternal and the time-bound; true art brings to the soul salvific tidings from its divine origin. Though sparse, there are moments in Delsarte’s speech in which his personality shines through and conveys a life of many sufferings. For example, contemporary somatics practitioners might be surprised to know that a major historical influence on their field described the body as hideous “vestment of rags,” a statement that reflects both his personal trials as well as the more general piety of his practical philosophy.[9] For him, to love the body for its own sake was tantamount to loving art for art’s sake, both being variants of idolatry. True art raises the human being and the world up into the ideal; true art is, as Delsarte says, “divine in its principles, divine in its essence, divine in its action, divine in its end… the essential principles of which…[are] the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.”[10] A rhythmic relationship between the divine and the human is effected through art whereby art “emanates from His divine perfections,” thereby endowing us with the very idea of them, which in turn realizes in the individual human being, her community, and the world at large, virtues which correspond to divine perfections.[11] Delsarte contrasts his understanding of art with what he saw as its pretense all around him in 19th century Paris. While acknowledging the talent and skill exhibited by so-called artists, Delsarte dismisses all schools of art as only so in name and not practice; pedagogical instruction in these institutions, says Delsarte, “proceeds only from an instinct badly defined and arbitrarily interpreted:” “all the law rests upon the opinion of the master; all the science dwells in a confused mass of prescriptions and examples that no principle comes to support.”[12] He goes on to describe the state of art in his time as one of bondage to the more enlightened tradition of antiquity, the vagaries of personal taste embodied by vain “masters,” and the atheist charade of naturalism. “What,” asks Delsarte of the influential Beaux Arts school, “is their systematic entity and their community of belief?”[13] Because this “school” lacks a unifying principle, he concludes, it is more apt to refer to it as a mere “heterogenous assembly.”[14] His critique of the arts applied equally to the sciences of his day, both of which produce only specialists:

They form there [the schools], if you will have it so, painters, sculptors, musicians; but they form no artists. I would say of science what I say of art, if my subject permitted me. I see men who treat of all sciences except the science. I see mathematicians, anatomists, chemists, physicians, etc., but I see no savant.[15]

Delsarte’s critique of disciplinary specialization and the corresponding absence of a metaphysical perspective that could unite them in mutual understanding—and, by implication, morally ground them—reflects the extent to which he was a man before (and after!) his time. Only today has the need to recover a holistic or transdisciplinary understanding of the human being and the world become widely recognized. “In art,” insists Delsarte, “one must love something besides art if one would know how to love art.”[16] This “something besides art” is its “sovereign principle,” that which is communicated to us by the beatific appearance it bodies forth for the soul—the grandeur of the Creator. Just as the scientist does not love the telescope for itself, but for the insight it conveys concerning the Wisdom of God in nature, so must one love art, not for itself, but as “the telescope of a supernatural world.”[17] Just as the sovereign principle expresses itself in a trichotmoy (the Good, the True, and the Beautiful), so must the foundational instruction for all art be threefold. No school in the truest sense of the word will arise until, says Delsarte, “music, eloquence, and plastic art, these three co-necessary bases of art, are taught unitedly as they are together united to the constituent essences of our being.”[18] Delsarte’s triune foundation for the instruction of art reflects the triune metaphysics which underlies the constitution of the human being. “Man,” says Delsarte, “made in the image of God, manifestly carries in his inner being as in his body, the august imprint of his triple causality.”[19] Stebbins later contextualizes Delsarte’s ontological trichotomy in world history by drawing out the same theme as it has been expressed by different cultures throughout the ages. She also equates Delsarte’s Christian understanding of the trinity with Emmanuel Swedenborg’s, defined as that which consists in love, wisdom, and power:

Love, being the origin and parent of all existence, is called Father; wisdom, which is the form of love, is named the Son, and the only begotten; while the divine power, consisting in the perfect union of love and wisdom, going forth in creative energy and life-imparting influence, is the Holy Spirit.[20]

Delsarte describes the relationship constitutive of the trinity as a “harmonic consubstantiality” and deems it the sovereign criterion for all matters of examination in science; art, he says, “is the generalization and application of it.”[21] Said otherwise, true science proceeds from a consciously held metaphysics of the trinity which serves as a hermeneutic light for interpreting the creativity of nature; art is the harnessing and extension of this creativity in like manner as the Creator. Both serve to elevate the human being in her aspiration for wisdom and her expressive extension of divine creativity. The harmonic consubstantiality of the trinity capitulates itself in the transdisciplinary reunion of science, art, and religion—a reunion Delsarte captures beautifully when he piously observes how “art and prayer so confound themselves in one ineffable unity that I cannot separate the two things.”[22] Just as the Holy Spirit unites the Father as love and the Son as wisdom, so does the power of imagination unite the inner human being with her external form and the rest of nature’s body. In lineage with figures like Plato and Thomas Aquinas, Delsarte’s trinitarianism exemplifies a metaphysics of participation by affirming a real relationship between the heights of divine transcendence and the sensual depths of created immanence. As Delsarte himself says,

This manner of looking at man shows us the role of his two natures in all their manifestations. To each spiritual function responds a function of the body. To each grand function of the body corresponds a spiritual act. Thus we can at the same time study separately that which is of the spirit and that which is of the body; thus from the concurrence of these two powers in the same person, results the intimate fusion of art and science, which, though each one is born of a different source, nevertheless ally, interpenetrate and reciprocally prove each other.[23]

The 35 years Delsarte devoted to the realization of true art consisted largely in his empirical study of outward human expressions and the inner soul-soul states corresponding to them—a science of correspondences. After Delsarte’s address Stebbins begins to unpack his metaphysically dense aesthetics into its practical application. Of the address itself she writes,

I advise you to read it; but beware of too much reading on the subject. You may then content yourself with the brain’s knowledge; and what we are aiming for is unconscious cerebration, not conscious. The first is only acquired by a patient practice of the technique, as a singer studies her scales.[24]

By emphasizing unconscious cerebration over brain knowledge Stebbins conveys the extent to which learning Delsarte’s method, as transmitted by her, effects a total transformation of the human being through a transdisciplinary form of training. Even still, metaphysical understanding is crucial for developing confidence in the espoused method. To inculcate this, Stebbins enjoins the reader as her pupil to consider an example:

Look with me at this aster. Do you realize that the purple star is as much the result of its ‘superior principle’ as you or I am of ours? The spirit [or sovereign principle] in a plant is its power of gathering from the earth and the air dead matter, and shaping it to its chosen form. The flower is the sign, the end, the creature, that the spirit makes. You see, then, dear pupil, two things to observe. One the life-power and energy; the other, the form proceeding therefrom, and most perfectly adapted to bring them into outward manifestation. What we produce is merely the form of what exists in our minds. Every stroke of the artist’s brush is made within ere it glows on the canvas. In the actor, every accent, every inflection, every gesture, is but the outer reverberation of the still small voice within. The idea, as separate from the object, exists prior to the object itself; and the outward work is but the material form, the effect of the spiritual idea or spiritual form.[25]

Stebbins makes clear the primacy and antecedence of spirit in the genesis of what appears to the senses. She also makes clear how human consciousness participates in spiritual creativity through the power of imagination, that which serves as the medium for the realization of art—“the outer reverberation of the still small voice within.”

Thus, perhaps surprisingly, a major tributary of the somatics movement flowed from a trinitarian metaphysics and its practical application of the esoteric principle of correspondence. In one of her final publications, The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training, Stebbins characteristically situates her work in a long lineage of practitioners:

The principle of correspondence, thoroughly understood, is the key that unlocks many doors, physical and spiritual. It was first formulated in the grand old Valley of the Nile, as the axiom of both science and religion; as it is above, so it is below — as on the earth, so in the sky — as within, so without. Art could not speak if there were no instinctive comprehension of the language of expression.[26]

If Delsarte’s Christian terminology seemed to obscure the cosmos, Stebbins general explication of the principle of correspondence makes plain that what applies to the human being as microcosm equally applies to the visible macrocosm. The inner life of human beings is coordinated with the inner life of the cosmos as a whole, a perspective that interpretations of the new physics may have brought back into view, but which otherwise conflicts with the materialist world conception still reigning over many imaginations today. That Stebbins passed this on to her pupils is evident in a statement Charlotte Selver made about her own work and the influence her teacher had on it:

One can learn not to restrict one’s view; to feel oneself as a member of this planet we all live on. It’s important that people learn to stop circling around themselves and instead to become open to the world and active. When I started to study with Elsa Gindler, I was very deeply impressed by her including the whole cosmos in her work.[27]

Selver’s statement conveys the unique capacity human beings have to creatively participate in the cosmic reciprocity of within and without. Nonhuman animals, apart from those domesticated by humans, do not err from the cosmic coordinations of life. Human beings can, and have, but may also reattune to the cosmic dance and, with wisdom gained from overcoming alienation, extend its creativity further. Stebbins’ system works to effect such a metanoia and begins by addressing the way our habits shape the quality of our lives. According to Stebbins, any emotional and/or physical expressions I take on (willingly or not) build the picture of my overall personality. Informed by the principle of correspondence, I may have more agency than I realized to transform the melancholia I believe defines my personality; if the sadness I feel inwardly expresses itself as a frown across my face, perhaps venturing a smile more often—contrived as it might feel—will eventually create a corresponding shift within my soul. Stebbins also emphasizes the reciprocity between soul states and rates of respiration. If one is often beset with anxiety, as many of us are today, its correspondence in shallow breathing can effect detriment to one’s overall psycho-physical health. Because Stebbins’ system of psycho-physical culture brings intention to the dynamic of correspondence through the use of imagination and physical movement, it is intrinsically therapeutic and militates against the legacy of Cartesian dualism:

Recognizing the interdependence of mind and body, and the great power of habit, let us learn this beautiful philosophy — training the body easily to express a beautiful soul, or vice versa, training the body to right normal expression — that through reflex action a sickly spirit may grow into uprightness.[28]

The power Stebbins conveys for this beautiful philosophy to the grant individual increased agency in matters of wellbeing anticipates the resistance future somatics practitioners would pose to an overly mechanized medical establishment. Physicians of the latter have much to offer us, yet we should not cede all authority to them, but should instead build toward a culture that promotes individual training in the art and science of somatic awareness. The training Stebbins references consists in Delsarte’s “three co-necessary bases of art” and beyond, first in a phase of pure physical exercise to develop the body (plastic art) and singing exercises (music) to develop the voice before advancing to practices of graceful movement, eloquent recitation (eloquence), intellectual learning, and the cultivation of noble states of soul. Paradoxically, the effort required for meeting the demands of Stebbins’ regimen is directed toward an end that exceeds individual agency in grace. As Delsarte expressed earlier, art becomes indistinguishable from prayer when raised to its highest potential. “The imagination,” writes Stebbins, 

the ruling and divine power, is never governed. The rest of man is but an instrument on which that plays, a canvas on which that harmoniously, if the strings be true, the canvas white and smooth; wildly, if one be broken, the other stained. Thus, you see, while work must be done, the instrument perfected, art is only valuable as it expresses goodness and greatness in the soul.[29]

In recognizing the ultimate subservience of individual effort to transcendent grace for achievement the of living art—the virtuous life—Stebbins and Delsarte are in good company with spiritual practitioners the world over. For Stebbins, the imitation of Greek statuary was of particular importance for attaining a vital understanding of the highest of human ideals: “The Greek gods,” writes Stebbins, 

are not expressions of individual mind but of universal ideas. They were carved to embody those splendid abstract laws of the universe—form, power, balance, rhythm, repose—in one word, beauty. In the statutes we see represented the emotions of the gods. The practice of them gives ease, dignity, and calm, removing agitation.[30]

Imitating such forms garners the pupil’s momentum toward the overall goal of Stebbins’ system: to merge life with art, what she called the “great art,” “the art of being able to always express the true self, to elevate the soul to its highest aspirations, and the mind to its best thought.”[31] Thus, as was the case for Delsarte, Stebbins enjoins her pupils to undergo a rigorous training of body, mind, and soul and so attune themselves to the beautiful—a moment once reached when one may cast off all rules in coincidence with life divine. This great art of human life consists in becoming an instrument for that which is highest:

through our training we make the ground flexible for tender rootlets as we aim to make the clay of which we are made plastic to the inner emotion, revelatory of the soul. The music of the spheres might be echoing in the brain of some inspired master; but without an instrument how could he convey its wondrous vibrations to his fellow souls?[32]

Stebbins emphasis on approximating the classical perfections both within and without could be interpreted as an ableist promotion of spiritual bypassing. Is the system of psycho-physical culture really applicable to everyone, or just those of a “normal” constitution? And moreover, does this so-called “ideal” physicality render what is not considered ideal—disease for example—morally inferior? Finally, is the cultivation of noble states of soul not just a dissociation from the psychological wounding we have yet to address? Stebbins anticipates such questions and responds by pointing to the primacy of the moral soul:

Bodily condition, disease, has its expression; mental conditions, efforts of the mind, vacuity or indifference, their expression. Moral defect or obliquity is indelibly stamped, and to the trained eye can never be confounded with physical weakness per se.[33]

At the end of the day what counts most is the state of soul characterized by divinely inspired aspiration—a state of soul that shows itself clearly in the renewed wonder and gratitude of those who, faced with a terminal illness, wake up in grace to the glories of the most mundane features of existence. Stebbins intellectual appreciation of the marriage between the infinite the finite reflects the fusion of Neoplatonic philosophy and Christianity she has inherited. Just as the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ sanctified the flesh with the spirit, the temporal with the eternal, so does Stebbins’ metaphysical foundation allow for a reappreciation of the finite body (from the perspective of spirit) in contradistinction to the machinic corpse of the materialist medical imaginary. Philosophically speaking, the field of somatics could not emerge if we did not participate in something which exceeds the time and space conditions of our bodily existence. If we were just material, mechanical bodies—consciousness a mere epiphenomenon—we could not even think about or become aware of our bodies. Because somatics entails the vantage point of the observer in consciousness it methodologically affirms—when philosophically consistent—that we participate in something that transcends the given. Awakening to the transcendent presence of the observer within is the therapeutic potential of Stebbins system of psycho-physical culture; only then can we truly value our bodies, our individualities. This is the immanent possibility Stebbins and the somatics practitioners influenced by her offer people of the modern west—the sublimation of materialism’s skin-encapsulated ego by our inwardly illuminated, irreducibly unique individuality—our “I.” Martha Graham, one of the 20th century’s most famous artists of modern dance (a field that, as I mentioned before, was majorly influenced by Stebbins) sums this up beautifully in her famous encouragement to Agnes de Mille: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”[34] 

Recovering the legacy of Genevieve Stebbins not only paints a fuller picture of somatics and modern dance history, but also further clears a path for moderns alternative to the nihilistic descent of materialism. Like the Romantic philosophers and poets before her, Stebbins philosophically integrates the apparent world of nature with the world of spirit in a way that celebrates the expressive particular, the irreducibly individual. Without the remove of spirit implied by such rigorous thought, such metaphysical speculation, we could not consistently affirm the value of our bodies, for we would be completely identified with them. Just as, in Delsarte’s words, “one must love something besides art if one would know how to love art,” so must one love something besides the body if one would know how to love the body rightly. That something besides the body is the divine, that which gives us to be and by whose light we may recognize the gift of life, of our bodies, of the world itself. As performers, Delsarte and Stebbins translated Romantic metaphysics into an applied aesthetics that streams down to us now in the field of somatics, offering contemporary individuals a renewal of meaning through life lived as an art—the great art—our bodies, instruments of the spirit, temporary shrines, dwelling places for our everlasting divine.  And “physical life,” declares Stebbins, “is simply one of the soul’s educational courses in the infinite university of existence.”[35].

WORKS CITED

Johnson, Don Hanlon. “Introduction,” in Bone, Breath and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1995.

Mille, Agnes de. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. NYC: Penguin Random House, 1992.

Mullan, Kelly. “Harmonic Gymnastics and Somatics: A Genealogy of Ideas.” Currents: Journal of the Body-Mind Centering Association, (2016).

Mullan, Kelly, “The Art and Science of Somatics: Theory, History and Scientific Foundations” (2012). MALS Final Projects, 1995-2019. 89. 

https://creativematter.skidmore.edu/mals_stu_schol/89

Mullan, Kelly. “Somatics herstories: Tracing Elsa Gindler’s educational antecedents Hade Kallmeyer and Genevieve Stebbins.” Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices 9 (2017): 159-178.

Mullan, Kelly. “Somatics: Investigating the common ground of western body–mind disciplines.” Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy: An International Journal for Theory, Research and Practice. 9 (2014) 10.1080/17432979.2014.946092.

Ruyter, Nancy Lee Chalfa. “The Intellectual World of Genevieve Stebbins.” Dance Chronicle, 11(3) (1988): 381-387.

Stebbins, Genevieve. Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics: A Complete System of Psychical, Aesthetic, and Physical Culture (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1892. http://www.archive.org/details/DynamicBreathin-gAndHarmonicGymnastics

Stebbins, Genevieve. Delsarte System of Expression (2nd ed.)New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1887. https://archive.org/details/delsartesystemof00steb

Stebbins, Genevieve. The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training. New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1913.  https://archive.org/details/genevievestebbin00steb/page/n4/mode/2up


[1] Kelly Mullan, “Somatics herstories: Tracing Elsa Gindler’s educational antecedents Hade Kallmeyer and Genevieve Stebbins.” (Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices 9, (2017) 159-178), 174.

[2] Mullan, Kelly, “The Art and Science of Somatics: Theory, History and Scientific Foundations” (2012). MALS Final Projects, 1995-2019. 89. https://creativematter.skidmore.edu/mals_stu_schol/89, 4.

[3] Don Hanlon Johnson, “Introduction,” in Bone, Breath and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment, (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1995), xv.

[4] Johnson, xvi.

[5] Elsa Gindler, “Gymnastik for People Whose Lives Are Full of Activity.” Bone, Breath & Gesture: Practices of Embodiment, edited by Don Johnson, North Atlantic Books, 1995, pp. 5–14, 6.

[6] Genevieve Stebbins, Harmonic Gymnastics and Dynamic Breathing: A Complete System of Psychical, Aesthetic, and Physical Culture (2nd ed.). (New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1892). http://www.archive.org/details/DynamicBreathin-gAndHarmonicGymnastics, 19.

[7] Mullan, “Somatics herstories”, 160.

[8] Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter, “The Intellectual World of Genevieve Stebbins.” Dance Chronicle, 11(3) (1988): 381-387, 393.

[9] Francois Delsarte, “Address of Francois Delsarte before the Philotechnic Society of Paris” in Delsarte System of Expression by Genevieve Stebbins (New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1891). https://archive.org/details/delsartesystemof00steb, xviii.

[10] Delsarte, xx.

[11] Delsarte, xx.

[12] Delsarte, xxxi, xxxii.

[13] Delsarte, xxix.

[14] Delsarte, xxx.

[15] Delsarte, xxx.

[16] Delsarte, xxv.

[17] Delsarte, xxv.

[18] Delsarte, xxxi.

[19] Delsarte, lvi.

[20] Stebbins, 33.

[21] Delsarte, liv.

[22] Delsarte, xix. 

[23] Delsarte, lvii.

[24] Stebbins, 18.

[25] Delsarte, 59-60.

[26] Genevieve Stebbins, The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training. (New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1913). https://archive.org/details/genevievestebbin00steb/page/n4/mode/2up, 11.

[27] John Schick, “Interview with Charlotte Selver.” Bone, Breath & Gesture: Practices of Embodiment, edited by Don Johnson, North Atlantic Books, 1995, pp. 17–22, 19.

[28] Stebbins, The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training, 14.

[29] Stebbins, Delsarte System of Expression, 78.

[30] Stebbins, The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training, 138.

[31] Ibid., 27.

[32] Ibid., 60.

[33] Ibid., 11.

[34] Agnes de Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, (NYC: Penguin Random House, 1992), 264.

[35] Stebbins, Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics, (my emphasis) 23.

A Pause for Thought

2000
Seven Sisters Songline (1994) by Josephine Mick, from the APY region. Photograph: National Museum of Australia

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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7] 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’.[8]

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.[9]

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.”[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]

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.”[13]

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.”[14] 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.

 

NOTES

Levin, David Michael. The Listening Self: Personal Growth, Social Change, and The Closure of Metaphysics. New York: Routledge Press, 1989.

[1] David Michael Levin, The Listening Self: Personal Growth, Social Change, and The Closure of Metaphysics. (New York: Routledge, 1989), 32.

[2] Levin, 32.

[3] Levin, 34.

[4] Levin, 155.

[5] Levin, 157.

[6] Levin, 75.

[7] Levin, 45.

[8] Levin, 207.

[9] Levin, 288.

[10] Levin, 235.

[11] Levin, 219.

[12] Levin, 233.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Levin, 75.

 

Evangelium in a Crashing Tower

the-shores-of-fairy.jpg
The Shores of Faery, 1915 by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973).
From The Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.”

 
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.”[1]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.”[2]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.[3]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.[4]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.[5]

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.”[6]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.[7]

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.”[8]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.[9]

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.[10]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.”[11]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.”[12]  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.”[13]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.[14]

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.”[15]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.[16]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.”[17]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.[18]

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.”[19]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.[20]

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.[21]

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.”[22]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.”[23]Specifically, Fantasy is the style of  sub-creation characterized by “a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression.”[24]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.[25]

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.”[26]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.[27]

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.[28]

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. [29]

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.[30]

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.”[31]

NOTES

Keats, John, from “Selections from Keats’s Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters.

Morton, Timothy.“Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford

Handbook of Ecocriticism, 291–304. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf.

Shewry, Teresa. “Hope.” In Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeremy Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, 455-468. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017.

Tolkien, J. R. R., “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf

[1]Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf, 6.

[2]Teresa Shewry, “Hope,” in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 455.

[3]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 11.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 17.

[7]Shewry, “Hope,” 458.

[8]John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters

[9]John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters

[10]Timothy Morton, “Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford

Handbook of Ecocriticism (Oxford UP, 2014), 291–304. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf

[11]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 1.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.

[16]Ibid.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]  Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 20, my emphasis.

[20]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 8.

[21]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 5.

[22]J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf, 6.

[23]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 5.

[24]Ibid.

[25]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 9.

[26]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 7.

[27]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,”10.

[28]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 8.

[29]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 13-14.

[30]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 14.

[31]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 15.

Performing Re-enchantment

Dear Friends,

I wrote this essay during the summertime as an expression of the personal reading I’d been doing at the time. I intended to reconcile what I’d learned about the ancient approach to philosophy as praxis with the more speculative gesture toward re-enchantment I’ve entertained. How can I make re-enchantment real for myself? How am I to live? This essay first outlines what kind of ontology might make that possible. Towards its end I begin developing a basic comportment of re-enchantment, one that emphasizes aesthetic appreciation. This is, of course, an ongoing inquiry for me.

I had the chance to present these ideas more than once, with the first talk taking place at Burning Man and the second at PCC’s retreat to Bishop’s Ranch at the end of September. I’m grateful for these opportunities, for they especially help me to integrate (perform) the vision I hope to one day more fully indwell.

I’ve included the video of the latter talk below and the essay itself below it.

Performing Re-enchantment:
The Fourth Wall Has Broken

How    to translate these feelings to you?

I’ll warm up the light temperature, choose a faster shutter speed (this will be slowed-down in post), close down the aperture and keep the light sensitivity low;
I don’t want noise in the image.

Prime my focus on a subject set apart by a glowing outline, backlighting
Yours Truly,

Action!

Hitting my mark, I improvise with the script, speaking to the camera, breaking the fourth wall—the wall with which performers construct a fiction for themselves and their audience: This is the vision I manually construct for you, and in calling attention to it, I call attention to your own perception, your own potential to reconstruct a world-image for living. We are, like the machine modeled after our vision, a lens of the world realizing itself. We needn’t see byway of automatism, autofocusing and adjusting according to preset values dictated by our inheritance. “Performing Re-enchantment” is a style of crafting, not theimage of reality, but animage—one among others. Re-enchantment is an image that makes room for other stories, other enchantments. It allows for stories to resonate, but it also makes itself vulnerable to discord. Re-enchantment is an ecological reality, tentatively woven between perspectives in discord, resolution, and resonance. It depends upon a “we” for its composition. It is not an image of solipsism. Against the despot of the absolute and disembodied objectivity, it celebrates the part’s etheric complicity with the larger whole of undulating magic. Even still, it champions the part’s potential for self-creation and calls it to action.

Performing re-enchantment is a way of collapsing the divide constructed between my inside and my outside. It is the practice of tying myself back with the world. Through sense, I fall in love with the world as my own body. It is the way that I make my partial perspective a “truth,” a scaffolding of belief. Performing re-enchantment is my wakefulness to the art of perception. Perception becomes the primary medium, like the manual relationship of camera to world, for stylizing my participation and efficacy in the continuous medium of the ether, the cosmic imagination dreaming all into being.

Performing re-enchantment is grounded in the groundlessness of an aesthetic ontology. Following Matthew Segall in his dissertation, “The Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” I think thinking as a special form of feeling. An aesthetic ontology therefore bounds knowledge to the cosmically sensate. As Segall has it, thought has no privileged access outside of space-time, rather,

when we try to peer beyond the cosmos outside us, or plumb the depths of the psyche within us, we find only more appearances, an infinite ingression of appearances. When the understanding tries to reflectively grasp the infinity of aesthesis, it slips into an infinite regression. It fails to find an original ground or fundamental reason for the ongoing aesthetic genesis of the Universe. Only the creative imagination can intuit the meaning of the infinite aesthetic ingression of Beauty’s appearances.[1]

Like the camera, the eye of the imagination is bound to thisworld—to others—and cannot create a pure image of what the world is really like. Rather, as waking dreams ourselves, we are lured toward instantiations of Beauty for “truth,” those mysterious, living symbols of intelligibility that confound mechanistic reductionism. For German idealist philosopher Fredrich W. J. Schelling, the order apparent in the bodily synchrony of organisms and human art bespeaks the larger etheric undulation of universal organism. But rather than declare this ontology absolutely, Schelling more modestly postulatesthe ether as “the first principle of the universal dualism of nature.”[2]I draw attention to the word “postulates” because, as Keith R. Peterson explains,

the discussion of the “postulate” in Schelling is meant to emphasize the deliberate collapse of theoretical into practical philosophy, or the mediation of all theory by practice, typical of the post-Kantian tradition. This is critical with reference to Schelling’s philosophy of nature, because unless it is seen as an attempt to reground science itself in the soil of practical philosophy, it will be (and has been) viewed at best as merely another narrative, myth, or story about nature.[3]

Schelling’s replanting of theoretical philosophy back in the dirt of the practical from which it arose effectively restores mind to body, soul to world—the relationship par excellence of dipolarity. It is a move that leads Segall to classify Schelling as a descendental philosopher, implying the genetic and this-worldliness of his epistemic approach.  In contrast to the eminent transcendental philosopher himself—Immanuel Kant—Schelling accepted that the critical turn in philosophy ultimately reveals the human mind’s codependence with a world for the birth of knowledge. This is what leads Schelling to postulate his notion of “original forces”—or the expanding and contracting dipolarity of universal organism—“not as absolute explanation, but [as] limit concepts” which allow the explanation of “all phenomenon empirically, that is, from the reciprocity of diverse matters.”[4]With the theoretical returned to actual experience, philosophy can no longer be understood as a neutral activity, rather, to philosophize is to act.

The dipolar dynamism of Schelling’s universal organism finds an analog in the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s concept of creativity. But the similarities go deeper; as Segall writes, “the [descendental] philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead can evidently be understood to orbit around a common intuition, namely that the conceptual division opposing objective reality to subjective ideality can be healed only through an aesthetic act of creative imagination.”[5] Despite their affirmation of creative philosophy, neither Schelling nor Whitehead would support a vacuous relativity where any story goes. Rather, the very structure of story—with its organs of (at least) teller and listener, time and space—calls for the coincidence of perspective and world. For Schelling, Peterson explains, this means that “nature philosophy is not merely another “representation” of a nature to which human beings maintain only a distant and instrumental relation,” bug is rather intrinsic to human experience and thus “the first postulate of philosophy must express the dynamic synthesis of self and world…as an ontological unity from which both terms are derived.”[6] All logos is therefore genetic logos. Unlike Kant, who, to save science from belief and freedom from mechanism, stamps the human subject with exclusive rights to the codex of knowledge, Schelling maintains that the latter relies upon an agreement. That agreement is the unity-in-dipolarity animating the larger dynamism of Schelling’s universal organism. “[To Schelling] self and world,” Peterson tells us, “are of one substance, and we will continue to misunderstand ourselves and undervalue the natural world unless this ontological identity is expressed philosophically.”[7] This is the gist of the term re-enchantment as I use it here, an image for seeing the world and its composition of perceiving creatures as continuous.

If our very subjectivity, like a skipping rock rippling across a pond, is continuous with the world and has affect—makes waves—then accepting this makes all the difference. It means that the images we have of ourselves and the world matter. Schelling’s commitment to creating an image that honors the relationship between self and world has special relevance for the contemporary moment in its crisis of belief. Threatened by the specters of “alternative facts,” climate science skepticism, and the rise of charismatic demagogues, the main character in the crisis of belief is the King, objectivity. The controversy? An unveiling—an image has surfaced of objectivity caught in intimacy with the world. Its reputation stained, objectivity can no longer pretend to be above and beyond the commons. Society scrambles—who to believe? Who holds the image of Truth?

During a time when primary and secondary qualities collapse, artists—those spellcasters of the sensual—have much to contribute to the re-visioning of objectivity. Writing in her 1968 compendium of theory, The Novel of the Future, literary artist Anaïs Nin suggests that “the only objectivity we can reach is achieved, first of all, by an examination of our self as lens, as camera, as recorder, as mirror. Only once we know its idiosyncrasies, its areas of prejudice or blindness can we proceed to relate with others.”[8] In Nin’s vision, the transfiguration of objectivity makes it something to be achieved, a goal that inextricably includes others. For the practice of science, philosopher-witch Isabelle Stengers defines objectivity as “the creation of a situation enabling what the scientists question to put their questions at risk, to make the difference between relevant questions and unilaterally imposed ones.”[9] The notion of objectivity as achieved and relational repeats. Stengers continues, saying “objectivity thus depends on a very particular creative art, and a very selective one, because it means that what is addressed must successfully be enrolled as a “partner” in a very unusual tangled relation.”[10]In Stengers view, the practice of science resembles an artful dialogue. Scientists translate back and forth with other cosmopolites, whether they be subatomic particles or the Earth’s undulating ocean, and between them something new is born. Knowledge, but a tentative, metaphoric kind that never ceases uncurling question marks. Facts that are living, evolving, dying. Objectivity reborn as a living, breathing lovechild. Why should the stories we tell be sensitive to this newborn creative, intersubjective objectivity? The threat of ecological collapse signaled by climate change, mass extinction of species, and the displacement of human beings already suffering from symptomatic natural disasters has made the interdependence of Earth systems explicit. Lines between “me” and “we” blur. Philosophers of science like Stengers take their cue, re-storying theory and practice in lieu of radical interconnectivity.

Stengers is especially inspired by the rhizomatic thinking of Deleuze and Guattari in their revelation of the assemblage,or the larger networks we as individuals are always already a part and formed by. One of her exemplary human models in the purview of the assemblage is the practitioner of magic—the witch:

What the witches challenge us to accept is the possibility of giving up criteria that claim to transcend assemblages, and that reinforce, again and again, the epic of critical reason. What they cultivate, as part of their craft (it is a part of any craft), is an art of immanent attention, an empirical art about what is good or toxic—an art which our addiction to the truth has too often despised as superstition.

Aesthetic ontology is resident in the word “witchcraft” as a subversive practice of recreation. What we, whether artists, scientists, or philosophers, are to learn from the witches is how, foremost, “to be compromised by magic.”[11]This comes from an essay by Stengers titled “Reclaiming Animism,” in which she reclaims the former term along with magic to revise our basic sense of intentionality. As a prescient example, Stengers describes writing “as an experience of metamorphic transformation. It makes ones feel that ideas are not the author’s, that they demand some kind of cerebral—that is—bodily contortion that defeats any preformed intention.”[12]Writing is no longer a rendering of the ideas that are mine, not an expression of only mycreativity, but is rather the expression of powers feeling through the unique nexus point of “me.” The same goes with reading and interpretation; what counts now as objective truth is much more fragile, more precious—a diplomatic achievement between a particular group in peer review, a “we” that includes nonhumans.

Rather than craft understanding with concept-images like Deleuze and Guattari’s “assemblage,” Stengers prefers the reclamation of the word “magic” from its trivialized status as mere metaphor, for it has protected our human intentionality from “the experience of an agency that does not belong to us even if it includes us, but an “us” as it is lured into feeling.”[13]Instead of pretending that there indefinitely exists some means of explaining away the experience of being moved by something, Stengers proposes we “forfeit this protection in order to relieve ourselves of the sad, monotonous little critical or reflexive voice whispering that we should not accept being mystified.”[14]The impulse of reason to reduce and reveal is recast as a powerful, inherited craft of magic animating human perception, hypnotizing its subjects with images that separate soul and world. Art, philosophy, science, history—all practices of sense-making, recast and reclaimed as magical arts of participation in the universal dreaming.

Etymologically, enchantment roots back to the Latin incantare, to in­­-sing. Feeling “back” through space-time, the word carries a translation of bewitchment, a means of singing a rhythm-image to sway others into dancing along. A certain song called disenchantment has prevailed over much of human perception, one that translates an image of soul as human-exclusive-meaning-seeker ina world that is ultimately meaningless. It is what allows for the capitalist delusion of unlimited Earthly resources and the myopic destruction of life systems. It atrophies feeling, is anesthetic. Re-enchantment is a song that rouses its hearer to sensation, like the epiphanic touch of art. It is a style of phenomenology, or “a reflexive awareness of perception.”[15]

Images of re-enchantment recast the self-evidence of ordinary “perception” into “a disciplined, stylized and creative expression of the world…[a] reflexive, situated, engaged expression of the truth of being within being.”[16]A camera on manual with special attention given to the aesthetic arrangement of the image. “Aesthetics,” Anaïs Nin says, “was [originally] an expression of man’s need to be in love with his world.”[17]Living is an artistic practice all its own and for Nin, the artist’s role in society is thus essential. As image maker (whether sonic, pictoral, or sculptural) the artist’s role is to shake up the habitual by shocking others into a renewal of perception—what Nin takes as the basic function of art. The artists of a given culture are therefore “responsible for our image of the world, and our relation to others.”[18]But not just any image goes, rather, the exemplary artist is a poetic one who aspires to make us fall in love with the world via Beautiful images. This achievement requires a level of insight and self-discipline that is a function of an artist’s own self-examination. “The artist,” Nin says, “is aware of his self. He is aware that it is more than his self, that it is at once his guniea pig for experiments, his potential tool, his instrument, his camera, to be nourished, his medium.”[19]

Though disenchantment has reigned over the modern period, robbing world of soul, perceiving (unselfconsciously) as a self over and against the world is perhaps basic animal instinct.Indeed, Hadot confirms that even philosophers of antiquity suspected this, for then too it was understood that “we must separate ourselves from the world qua world in order to live our daily life…[and thus] must separate ourselves from the “everyday” world in order to rediscover the world qua world.”[20]There is thus an older image to reclaim, one dreamed by the cosmic imagination before becoming lucid of itself, before the invention of the cell membrane. To break through the fourth wall, we must become aware of our perceptual palette. What colors do we unconsciously paint the world with? Translating her own insight into the waking dream, Nin describes how

we carefully observe and watch the happenings of the entire world without realizing they are projections of our inner selves. What we are watching outside is a representation, a projection of our inner world into the universal. There is no distinction… It seems to me that such a view is far more reassuring than that of considering the world as completely insane, absurd, or else ourselves insane or meaningless…You can only dispel the nightmare by awareness that it is our personal nightmare, projected on a multiscreen cinerama.[21]

Like the artist, the philosopher has been translated as a “stranger to the given.” Inspired by Pierre Hadot’s translations of ancient Greek philosophy, Adam Robbert describes philosophy as a practice and performance of perceptual reconfiguration, a wayof“enacting a shift in the phenomenological display, re-inscribing it with a new arrangement of meaning and significance.”[22]The so-called “side view” or praxis view of philosophy implies askēsis, or the practice of constructing a relationship to oneself by differentiating “oneself from the repetitions of the past, making explicit what were previously orderings in action and perception.”[23]The road to re-inscription is lifelong, for the self-duplication of askēsis implies a move away from pedagogy to psychagogy, what Ed Cohen—following Michel Foucault—describes as an “ontology of the present.”[24]Similar to aesthetic ontology, pychagogy concerns the soul with questions immediate to perception. The double within me is Socrates resurrected, leading me to the “true life” through a dialectic that ends only in death. I am my own lantern. Truth-telling becomes a craft that requires de-cision from the realm of possibilities. It means differentiating ourselves from the self-evidence of ordinary perception, turning the dial on our cameras from automatic to manual. Like witches, philosophers craft with magic, but cast spells foremost over themselves. They perform their spells and, like artist’s and their images, inspire others to fellow-feeling by their very being. They manually adjust themselves as cameras and are the living images they capture. I am before the camera, speaking to you, breaking the fourth wall.

Re-enchantment is the performance of a certain song that stories an image of reconciliation, an image that is—as Hadot would translate it—essentially philosophical: “in all schools [of classical Greece] – with the exception of Skepticism – philosophy was held to be an exercise consisting in learning to regard both society and the individuals who comprise it from the point of view of universality.”[25]Hadot does not attempt to interpret classical Greek philosophy for systematic consistency, but instead focuses on the practical nature of its discourse:

discourse was not systematic because it wanted to provide a total, systematic explanation of the whole of reality. Rather, it was systematic in order that it might provide the mind with a small number of principles, tightly linked together, which derived greater persuasive force and mnemonic effectiveness precisely from such systemization.[26]

For Hadot, ancient philosophers treated discourse as one exercise among others in soteriological spiritual practice. Aesthetics were therefore given special attention. Especially for the initiate, discourse may act as the guardian of the threshold, snowballing into a reciprocal causality where practice and discourse blur into one. This is the essence of virtue epistemology, a way of knowing that honors “noncognitive accessibility conditions for what remains genuinely cognitive insights.”[27]Indeed, as Segall outlines in his dissertation, bridging Kant’s centuries-wide chasm between soul and world requires an imaginative act—what, for those reared by a world-image of dualism, may feel like a leap of faith. For the sake of more interesting propositions, for the soul of the world, I release my grasp on capital T-truth, leap, and freefall into the bottomless rabbit hole of aesthetic ontology. The only way beyond the correlation is through it. Casting a spell of symbolic reference, Whitehead’s space-time synthesizing mode of perception which can either maintain orcreatively disrupt perceptual habits “in favor of alternative imaginations in the flow of etheric space-time,”[28]Segall conjures a voluntary organ called the etheric imagination:

Only with etheric imagination can the process philosopher intuit the formative forces flowing through the natural world beneath or withinits outward sensory surfaces. Such an imaginative thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the etheric forces of Natura naturans, the inner dimension of Nature that is always in dynamic tension, sloughing off external Nature (Natura naturarata) like a snake shedding its skin.[29]

Etheric imagination is a particular form of symbolic reference, a particular configuration of the manual settings on my camera. But this is where camera metaphor breaks down, for in this ontology there are no fixed and final settings for perception to exhaust.

Reclaiming philosophy as a magical art, I recreate from my inheritance a book of spells for reconciliation. I call my craft “Performing Re-enchantment.” Turning round with the latest wave of ritual, characterized by its overcoming of “the putative duality between constructive and realist approaches,” I align my praxis with Jacob Sherman’s suggestion that we begin to think with, rather than about, ritual.[30]My metaphorical comparison of the camera to human perception breaks down, but its true limitation lies in the imagination of the human perceiver. It is the enchantment I perform which determines my interpretation, and here the notion of performance takes the stage, for its cameo has everything to do with the possibility of otherwise. The aesthetic ontology I freefall through does not permit any finality of self-image. The mystery of me only shines forth through my Beauty, the divinity of we hidden in plain sight. “Performance,” says João Florêncio, “is the way in which all bodies, human and nonhuman, play themselves to one another whilst always holding something back, like some bearer of divine secrets.”[31]“All the world’s a stage,” says Shakespeare. We are on stage performing, translating across the undulating space-time ether of perceivers. Florêncio moves through the correlation, and with the logic of objected-oriented ontology, affirms the always-withdrawn aspect of a being-thing. Like Nin, Florêncio connects art with the renewal of perception and extends the possibility beyond its province to the everyday. To call attention to performance is to hyperbolize it, and in doing so, foreground that“the being of a performing body is always more than—and therefore, never exhausted by—any of the phenomenal bodies or roles it might perform at any given instance.”[32]A being’s mystery shines out to us, disrupting our preconceptions and plunging us into its depth of possibility, its participation in the whispering of Beauty. Both Florêncio and Segall consider this way of aesthetically responding to have import for a politics that represents more than just the sanctity of human beings. “Beauty,” Segall says,

points the soul to the profound erotic current hidden in the life of all things. They [Schelling and Whitehead] saw that imagination, the generative matrix and communis sensusof the animate universe, helps to remind the individual soul of the immanent divine Eros holding all things together in Goodness. The ancients knew this Eros as a function of the anima mundi, the world-soul. The practical imagination that grasps Beauty as an expression of the Good allows the self to place itself in the position—body and soul—of others, and indeed of all others, that is, of the All.A redeemed imagination can empathically identify with any ensouled part of the universe and also with the soul of the whole universe. It does so through the power of Love.[33]

To hyperbolize performance is to perform performativity. It is the declaration of divine imagination reclaimed; a re-enchanted, active storytelling of otherwise. I am before the camera, speaking to younow, breaking the fourth wall, beholding you in all your strange Beauty.

Though the term “Anthropocene” speaks loudly of the human, it is paradoxically a time when I, as human being, am privy to scientific evidence which shows just how much my organism is comprised and constituted by nonhumans. Tracing the 20thcentury’s progressive externalization of psychopathology from intra and interpersonal origin, to larger social forces of culture, and, finally, to the ecological or cosmic, James Hillman senses a re-visioning of subjectivity. “The world,” he tells us, “because of its breakdown, is entering a new mode of consciousness: by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality.”[34]Like the cry of a wound seeking tenderness, ecological collapse is understood by Hillman to be a cry of the world soul, the anima mundi. His way of pointing to the world soul also reveals the practicable way to meet it. “Let us imagine,” begins Hillman,

the anima mundi as that particular soul-spark, that seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form. The anima mundi indicates the animated possibilities presented by each event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image—in short, its availability to imagination, presence as a psychic reality.

Like Segall, Hillman prescribes the recuperation of imagination as the communis sensus, or common sense:

Lodged in and around the heart,” the communis sensus unites sensation and imagination in the act of aisthesis—the Greek term for perception. Perception for the Greeks was tantamount to “breathing in or the taking in of the world, the gasp, “aha,” the “uh” of the breath in wonder, shock, amazement, an aesthetic response to the image (eidolon) presented.[35]

Aisthesis, the initial, sensual astonishment that precedes the process of creating knowledge. Performing re-enchantment requires one to either be or become aesthetisized—sensitized through the movement of Love: in order to “grasp the Greek account of perception,” writes Hillman, “psychology must already, as did Psyche in Apuleius’s tale, stand in the temple of Aphrodite, recognizing that each thing smiles, has allure, calls forth aisthesis.[36]The proliferation of consumer options and the cheapening of production has led to a devaluation of cultural things that equals the devaluation of the larger ecological community. Sensual valuation as a common good is exploited for the sake of addictive spending. Otherwise, it is mostly atrophied. But, if consciousness advances “by means of pathologized revelations through the Underworld of anxiety,” as Hillman suggests, we have a lead. For, as he continues, “our ecological fears announce that things are where the soul now claims psychological attention.”[37]

So far, the spells of my praxis for “Performing Re-enchantment” include reclaiming the organ-muscle (the heart) of etheric imagination and exercising it through aisthesisto meet the soul of the world in every incarnate thing—conceptual and physical. It involves the invocation of Aphrodite for the capacity to aesthetically respond—to see Beauty and sense soul. “Beauty,” Hillman explains, “is simply the manifestation, the display of phenomena, the appearance of the anima mundi…Beauty is an epistemological necessity; aisthesis is how we know the world. And Aphrodite is the lure, the nudity of things as they show themselves to the sensuous imagination.”[38]The training regimen for shifting my “phenomenological display” hinges on crafting well in the sensual world: “the cognitive task will shift from the understanding of meaning to a sensitization to particulars, the appreciation of the inherent intelligibility given in the qualitative patterns of events.”[39]My spell book is therefore written with a precision that honors particularity. For the soul of the world, I usher in a personal revolution of adverbs and adjectives to succeed the “ascetic puritanism” of my inheritance as an American academic. We are simply balancing primary qualities with the lushness of the “secondary.” Rhetoric returns—rising over the hill—a flower-bearing hero.

Practices of expansion and contraction complement my sensual apprehension of soul in thing and world. I thank my ancestors as models for these spells, and, following Hadot’s assertion that “each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths,” feel emboldened to recast them anew.[40]Like Goethe and the ancients before him, I magic in myself a delimitation to the present and become “aware of the inner richness of the present, and of the totality contained within the instant…[I] swell to fill the dimensions of the world.”[41]I experience what Raimon Panikkar calls “tempiternity,” like Schelling’s restricted infinity within which all the moments of particularity Beautifully whisper their participation in the eternal. This moment, an Epicurean gift! Oh, Aphrodite, pray I meet it well! Value is restored to all matter and I am not so lonely without other humans around. Rather, this is intimacy recast, a spell to break the curse of anesthesia for more than my personal salvation, because “my” salvation is now the world’s. Delimiting the present—contracting and expanding—means to be ever-always “held in an enduring intimate conversation with matter.”[42]

My last spell is especially for you—my song. I sing it in the polis, intending for the vibrations to translate an enchantment for a cosmopolis. It is a poetry of physics for awakening to “the very fact that we are perceiving the world, and that the world is that which we perceive.”[43]As a performer of re-enchantment, I sing the whole cosmos as my body, streaming through the nexus point of “me” as feelings that create an image—what I call “my” experience. Taking care of “me” means taking care of we—you. Re-enchantment is my de-cision, but my performance is foremost one of psychagogy—a provocation to life lived otherwise. “What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.”[44]The fourth wall has broken.

NOTES

Cohen, E. “Live Thinking, or the Psychagogy of Michel Foucault.” Differences 25, no. 2 (2014): 1-32. doi:10.1215/10407391-2773418.

Davis, Duane. “The Art of Perception.” In Merleau-Ponty and the Art of Perception, edited by Duane Davis, 3-53. State University of New York Press, 2016.

Nin, Anaïs. The Novel of the Future. Durham: Duke University Press, 1968.

Florêncio, João. “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age.” Performance Philosophy 1 (2015). http://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/14.

Hadot, Pierre, and Arnold Ira. Davidson. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Hillman, James, and James Hillman. The Thought of the Heart ; And, the Soul of the World. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 2014.

Robbert, Adam. “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy.” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 13, no. 1 (2017). http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/583/973.

Schelling, F. W. J. “On the World Soul (Extract).” Edited by Robin Mackay. Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI. England: Urbanomic January 2010): 66-95.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Von, and Keith R. Peterson. First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Segall, Matthew T. “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” PhD diss. California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/26027974.

Sherman, Jacob. “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?” International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 79, no. 3 (2018): 341-47. doi:10.1080/21692327.2018.1474323.

Stengers, Isabelle. “Reclaiming Animism.” e-flux # 36. July 2012. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 150th Anniversery ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

[1]Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” PhD diss., (San Francisco: CIIS, 2016), retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/26027974, 77.

[2]Friedrich W. J. Schelling, On the World Soul (Extract),” Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, (Urbanomic, England, 2010), 85.

[3]Friedrich W. J. Schelling, trans. Keith R. Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2004), xiv-xv.

[4]Schelling, “On the World Soul (Extract)”, 79. My emphasis.

[5]Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 26.

[6]Schelling & Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, xv.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Anaïs Nin, The Novel of the Future(Durham, Duke University Press, 1968), 36.

[9]Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux #36 (July 2012), retrieved from https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/.

[10]Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism.”

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Duane Davis, “The Art of Perception,” in Merleau-Ponty and the Art of Perception, ed. Duane Davis (New York: State University of New York Press, 2016), 7.

[16]Davis, “The Art of Perception,” 10.

[17]Nin, The Novel of the Future, 197.

[18]Nin,The Novel of the Future, 192.

[19]Nin, The Novel of the Future,37.

[20]Pierre Hadot, trans. By Arnold Ira. Davison, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Oxford, Blackwell, 1995), 258.

[21]Nin, The Novel of the Future,30.

[22]Robbert, “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy,” 9.

[23]Adam Robbert, “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy,” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Volume 13, no. 1 (2017), 5.

[24]Ed Cohen, “Live Thinking, or the Psychagogy of Michel Foucault,” in Differences, vol. 25, no. 2 (2014), 18.

[25]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault,242.

[26]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault,267.

[27]Jacob Sherman, “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?,” inInternational Journal of Philosophy and Theology, vol. 79, no. 3 (2018), 5.

[28]Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 230.

[29]Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 18.

[30]Sherman, “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?,” 5.

[31]João Florêncio, “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age,” in Performance Philosophy, vol. 1 (2015), retrieved from http://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/14.

[32]Florêncio, “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age.”

[33]Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 55.

[34]James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And, the Soul of the World(Woodstock, Spring Publications, 2014), 97.

[35]Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World,107.

[36]Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 109.

[37]Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 111.

[38]The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 113.

[39]The Thought of the Heart;And the Soul of the World, 112.

[40]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 108.

[41]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 232.

[42]Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; and the Soul of the World, 122.

[43]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 253.

[44]Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York, Penguin Books, 2005), 14.