The following piece was delivered as a talk on May 25, 2010 at Ecopoetical Futures: A Panel with Marcella Durand, Brenda Iijima, Ted Mathys & Tyrone Williams at The Poet’s House, New York, New York. It was Brenda who’d encouraged me to think more systematically about the question of poetics vis-a-vis ecology. This was my first public statement on some of my ideas about ecopoetics. I later developed this talk into a paper called :”Outsider Ecopoetics, delivered at the 2012 conference titled “On Poetics,” University of Washington-Bothell. The paper was published online at Omniverse.
Of Etho-, Ethno- and Eco-poetics
An ecopoetics—an ecology of poetics—a poetics of ecology. Such would seem to be the implications of the ecological in relation to poetics and poetry. What might this mean in practice for poets, as praxis for humans? Taking seriously the eco- of these terms—ecology, ecological futures, economics, eco-poetics, and so forth—means taking seriously the shift from a Eurocentric consciousness which read the earth as the Book of Nature (see Tina Darragh on Emerson, for example) to one that understands itself as a tenant—not property owner—dwelling within the House of Language. The metaphysics of the latter, in opposition to the former, invests itself in a theo-philosophical reorientation that has many permutations and names: Renaissance, Enlightenment, modernity, phenomenology, postmodernism, the Great Awakening, the Awakening, and most recently, deep ecology. What they all have in common, to greater and lesser degrees, is the assumption of the interconnectivity of all existence—not just sentient and non-sentient forms of life and non-living beings. Thus, if we take the ecological, to say nothing of eco-poetics, seriously, we cannot exclude disaster or catastrophe, natural or man-made, as integral modes in the total network of both ecological systems and eco-poetics. I take the recent interest in the poetics of failure as one example of this eco-poetics. That this poetics of failure can be traced back to at least the 17th c. metaphysical poets’ concern with human frailty vis-à-vis art, to say nothing of the Romantic fragment and the incomplete magnum opus of modernism, tells us that an eco-poetics can never be properly formulated, that formal experimentation and innovation are only one sector of the ecological/eco-poetics network. In suggesting that there is a place, then, for Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, for example, alongside Nathaniel Tarn, Jerome Rothenberg, Susan Howe, Clayton Eshelman, and Dennis Tedlock, I have been concerned thus far with an ecology of poetics. What then of a poetics of ecology?
This, as they say, is a horse of a different color. The moment we phrase eco-poetics as a poetics of ecology we stand, as it were, “outside” the house of Language, understood as the “world.” In brief, we are reminded that all “poetics” are modes of phenomenological reduction. With poetics per se we enter the arena of competition, argument, debate: which poetics best suits “our” conception of the future. For a concern with the eco- is perforce a concern with the future, be it tomorrow, the next century or in geological ages henceforth. We fight, then, for our conception of what comes next. Thus we move from the ethics of an ecology of poetics to the moralities of sundry poetics of ecology. I want to stress that the difference between an etho-eco-poetics and various moral-eco-poetics is largely a matter of scale. Moreover, an etho-eco-poetics may be too general and too unsettling since it not only affirms all poetics but also affirms a future that does not include any “version” of what we today recognize—perhaps prematurely—as homo sapiens
. This stance also leads us into all kinds of paradoxes and contradictions regarding life and non-life on earth. Specieism, for example, is not simply a position staked out by radical ecologists like Earth First; this “prejudice” describes the “instinct” within or behind, inside or outside, all forms of sentient and non-sentient life. At the same time eco-systems depend upon speceisms counterbalancing one another, operating as a more or less homeostatic network. That “more or less” points to the off-balance tilt of all species toward a future, a future which may or may not include them. These are the evolutionary factors that an etho-eco-poetics—as opposed to a moral-eco-poetics (one could say an ethno- or, more generously, bio-eco-poetics)—takes into account as the very limits of any other ecological framework.
In brief we may not be able to, we may not want to, free ourselves of a more limited, more constrained eco-poetics, for the “ethical can…end up making us irresponsible.”
I cannot imagine an eco-poetics without the contemporary work of some of my colleagues, work that has approached this problem from the point of view of both sentient and non-sentient phenomena. Underlying these concerns has been an emphasis on homeostasis, equilibrium and stability. But exactly what these terms might mean on a global and epochal level has been analyzed from at least two different positions, both of which center on the “natural.” On the one hand the work of Rob Halpern and Brenda Iijima, for example, investigates and implicitly calls into question, however unwittingly, the very concept of the “natural.” Though still mounted as critiques of the various modes of human encounters and interactions with the environment, which is to say, with conceptions of an “inside” and “outside,” their work lays out in detail the shifting evolution of the world as we know it, one whose outcome cannot be predicted except in terms of loss: extinction, mutation, climate change and disease. On the other hand the work of Tina Darragh and Marcella Durand, for example, emphasizes the abdication of human responsibility in relation to a given “nature,” explicitly recognizing the disproportionate effects humans have on the environment in relation to other life forms’ effects on their “outsides.” These eco-poetics resonate with my own concerns at the level of form inasmuch as they imply that disjunctive, polytonal and polygonal strategies de-center the human ego without ceding human responsibilities. Still, the recent poetics theater of Rodrigo Toscano, one whose mobility and interchangeable “parts” (actors and actresses) does not in the least veil Toscano’s claim as director, offers a more robust challenge to the limitations of a bio- or ethno-eco-poetics without disappearing into the black hole of a etho-eco-poetics. In its formal incorporation of the local as chance, the provisional as limit, and, most important, the motivated gesture as one of the membranes between the animal and human Roscano’s work stages the etho-ethno-eco-poetics historical drama, echoes the formal strategies of a poet we might not immediately think of in terms of any mode of eco-poetics—David Antin. What Antin has in common with Toscano is the insistence on responding to and working with locality while at the same time acknowledging that, however improvisational his “talk” poems, Antin is still, in the end, the one talking. Toscano’s panoply of actors is, in the end, directed. Avoiding the implicit anthropomorphism of any poetics that would speak in the language of or for any non-human being, sentient or not, Antin, like Toscano, fully acknowledges the limits of ego- and ec-centic poetics as well as all ecological positions. Although we can always agree with Halpern, in relation to, for example, Enron, British Petroleum, or FEMA, “No force of nature did this,” there are meteorological and terrestrial forces that, while not independent of the forms of life on earth, nonetheless retain, shall we say, their own relative agencies.
The relative interdependence of forces—to put it this way marks the limits of what we know and do not know without falling back into the theological traps of stewardship or hurtling forth with blinders on, propelled by the arrogance of an overweening scientism. How indeed to imagine, much less direct, ecological futures? And yet, how can we not?
 Poets can, poets may, “have an eco-ethical role” to play, a role no less and no more important than that of any conscientious citizen of the world. The level of engagement with critical issues confronting the earth and its inhabitants will obviously entail the absorption of lexicons from industries and institutions deemed hostile or, at best, indifferent to the effects of their products on terrestrial life. Having said that, I will insist that the introduction of synthetic compounds into the environment is, on some levels, structurally analogous to the ongoing development of life per se. That is, the development we call evolution is itself marked by disruptions, hostile encroachments, viral flare ups, and catastrophic events (volcano eruptions, floods, etc.). That these are natural—as opposed to synthetic—events is probably of little comfort to those on the losing side of this history. I understand the crucial difference—that we have some say so over synthetic or manmade events—and this difference must continue to be upheld as an ethical duty to the living and the lives we imagine extending beyond our own. But I think it is imperative to recall what this may mean: that in taking the side of life “as we know it,” we may be taking a stand against a form of life we would never recognize as such. On the abstract level of life, this may still be an easy choice to make, but at more concrete levels things get a lot thornier. Let me invoke Alice Walker and her infamous campaign against ritual clitorectomies in the name of justice and freedom of choice. Or the protest against industrial development in the “third world” in the name of cleaner water and air and the end of exploiting child labor. The problem is that there is no clear line between these concrete matters that may make taking sides complicated and the more abstract ones that may make taking sides relatively easy.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, p. 61.
Anthropomorphism is inescapable the moment one believes one is communicating with an other (human or animal).Obviously the separation of the moral and ethical as philosophical categories is largely heuristic; in practice we know that the ethical cannot be objectively determined and that it functions as an idealization or projection of the moral. And vice versa. To be blunt, there is no engagement or disengagement that is not judgmental. The moral baggage is always clinging to an ethical stance. This is not to say, however, that some ethical or moral positions are not more conducive to biological survival—individually and collectively—than others. But as we know, biological survival is no t always or primarily the most important value in a given context. Hence the debates over abortion, euthanasia, warfare, etc. One could make a case for the inevitable anthropomorphic gesture that is initiated at the moment one speaks of “other animals” in terms of “act,” in terms of “communication,” etc., by noting that “human” “communication” also presupposes an anthropomorphism that is not, has never been, by definition, universally ascribed to other, only apparent humans. Even if anthropology attempts to reconceptualize its anthropomorphic matrix on the terra firma of scientific rigor, it does so, as Donna Haraway demonstrates, by incorporating—not expelling—its founding prejudice. It is on this basis, this necessary prejudice, that miscommunication and misunderstanding are possible. This relationship between the work of anthropology and anthropomorphism converts the human/animal dichotomy into the human/animal dyad, a fundamental inter-(intra-?) relationship that respects the otherness of the non-human animal (my qualifications concerning the word human still standing…) by reducing otherness to a mirror (“they” are just like us) or lamp (studying “them” enlightens us), and my allusion to M.H. Abrams’ important study of Romanticism is deliberate. As one of the dominant animal species currently above ground (unlike moles, say, or the remains of the dinosaurs), we get to name this epoch the reign of homo sapiens, but since we cannot say anything about the historical memory of other animals (we can only “test” their abilities to “recall” according to our understanding of memory, history, time, etc.), many of which live, on average, much longer than human beings, we cannot conceptualize their conceptualizations of era, epoch, time, etc. None of this bars, much less forbids, interspecies communication as it actually exists, as we might wish for it to be, and so on. For most Americans, learning to communicate with their pet dogs is not only easier than learning Urdu, it is easier than learning how to read poems (contemporary or not) written in English, or deciphering the multilayered meanings of a rap lyric. That relative ease should give us pause regarding interspecies communication.