Living within Nature’s means: Some further thoughts on the Anthropocene novel

moby_dick_by_mumblingidiot-d36w1qz

One of the more striking images for Moby-Dick that I’ve come across; it seems to be as much about the novel’s ideas about the interaction between humans and Nature as about its central action. Source

As I worked toward a conclusion in my previous post, it occurred to me that some things yet remain to be said about the implications of using Naturalism’s presuppositions about the world and our place in it as a foundation on which to build the Anthropocene novel.  To point the reader toward Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and say “Here is something like a template for what those presuppositions would look like” is to say, in effect, that such novels would be dark indeed.

Well, many of them, yes.  But perhaps not all, or at least all the time.  But because Nature, in these novels, will Matter, such novels’ respective zeitgeists will be situated in such a way that human concerns and hopes and fears cannot but be depicted as direct responses to Nature–whether in accord with or defiance of Nature, no matter, but never independent of it, never with Nature as a passive backdrop or submissive setting, but always with it having an unmistakable bearing on the resolution of the narrative, usually “winning” or at least bending people to its will (whatever those might look like given Nature’s fearsome indifference), and yet itself remaining inscrutable.  In other words: if we’re looking at American literature for examples of what we might call proto-Anthropocene novels, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, canny as they occasionally are, through Natty Bumppo, about what we would now call sustainability, would not be models for Anthropocene novels; they are ultimately about human choices in dialogue with other human choices, but not in dialogue with Nature–at least, that latter dialogue seems not to rise to the level of narrative.  On the other hand, I’d nominate Melville’s Moby-Dick as a fine candidate for an Anthropocene novel (no “proto-” about it, come to think of it): the central activity of the novel, whaling, is an activity which God, speaking out of the whirlwind to Job, taunts Job (and the reader/listener) as something humans are supposed to be incapable of doing (recall that one of the novel’s Extracts is from Job); Ahab sees Nature, as embodied by the whale, as a malevolence he must try to overcome so as to understand his place in the cosmos; in contrast to Ahab, Ishmael’s post-Pequod musings on whale-ness end in the whale’s nature (and Nature itself) remaining inscrutable, as unreadable as those scars on some whales’ outer skin that resembles writing; Nature “wins.”  (And as I write this, I begin to realize there is much, much more to say about Moby-Dick within this context than I can here.)

Anyway.  Below the fold are some fairly knee-jerk, broad-stroke speculations regarding what Anthropocene novels might look like, along with some uninformed musing, combined with heavy reliance on John Berger and a shout-out to Dan Barber, about what an Anthropocene aesthetics arising from Nature might look like.

Continue reading

Summer reading and writing

plaza de las tres culturas2

The memorial at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, commemorating the final defeat of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521.  The last three lines of text read: “It was neither triumph nor defeat; it was the painful birth of the mestizo people that is today’s Mexico.”

Last week was my college’s Finals Week, so now the summer has arrived.  This academically-oriented to-do list for this summer that follows is, as the list progresses down the page, admittedly more aspirational in nature than anything else, seeing as well off even the margins of this particular list lie new-baby-oriented and puttering-around-the-house to-do lists.  But list-make we must.

Continue reading

“Some old compass in the blood”: a rationale for Flint Hills Studies

CottonwoodFalls

The Chase County courthouse, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, the oldest state building in continuous use in Kansas.

This is the version that the curriculum committee and/or the Board of Trustees won’t see, but it will be the truer version:

It has been so long ago now, I no longer remember whether it was my first or second commencement as a member of Butler Community College (then still known as Butler County Community College–something I will return to later).  It was long ago enough, though, that I still felt myself to be a recent arrival here.  Nor was it the moment when I had an epiphany about the value of offering a course or courses on various aspects of this distinct region of the nation; that would come much, much later.  Still, it has stuck with me all this time, and in thinking about it now, it clearly is, indirectly, one of the reasons I think such a program of study would be valuable to offer to our students.

Whoever the commencement speaker was, he began by noting something I’d known since at least junior high school: that we were only a couple of hours to the southwest of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.  I instantly began writing the rest of his address in my head–the version I wanted him to give, at least: I’d been at Butler long enough to know that many of my students thought of themselves as living in the middle of nowhere, and so I became hopeful that, by using his geographical nugget as a kind of metaphor, he’d turn their nihilism on its head: “You’re not in the middle of nowhere–you’re at the center of everything!”

Of course, that address, whatever its eventual theme was, wasn’t the one I’d hoped for.  As I think back on that day, however, I am more and more persuaded, for various reasons, that our students need to hear something like the address I had imagined, and for this reason: We equip our students pretty well for the task of making their chosen way in world; however, though it’s true most of our graduates stick around here, I’m not sure that what we do actually gives them a reason (apart from family or work) to stay.  (Much) more existentially, many of my students also lack a sense of place, by which I mean “a sense of at least being from somewhere, if not a sense of connectedness to where they happen to be living now.”  I think that coursework whose subject is the Flint Hills would give them a context and intellectual tools that would help them find what William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth describes as “some old compass in the blood”–and if not for the Flint Hills, then for whatever place in which they happen to find themselves.

I think that such courses would also provide my college with a version of that compass.

Continue reading

“The earth is round, like an orange”: Some notes on Marti and the Neo-Baroque, with an assist from Garcia Marquez

Sliced Osage Oranges (Maclura) Isolated on White

Curiously, this is the first result that appeared when I conducted an image search at DuckDuckGo for “The earth is round, like an orange.”  As Kansans and other South Central U.S. people know, this is the fruit of the Osage orange tree, which goes by several other names depending on the region you find yourself in.  The fruit is inedible, but the Indians in what is now Arkansas used its wood to make bows, and the first white settlers here planted rows of these trees to serve as windbreaks and fencelines.  It seems strangely appropriate to me that a search for an image to accompany a post on the neo-Baroque in the New World would turn up this, an image of an indigenous plant whose surface is about as Baroque as you can get.  Image found here.

Early in Gabriel García Márquez’s magnificent novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), we find José Arcadio Buendía immersed in his studies and neglecting the domestic affairs of his household, much like Don Quixote at the beginning of his own novel. However, while José Arcadio is not studying books of knight errantry but instruments of navigation and Portuguese maps, the effect his studying has on him is a remarkably similar one:

Suddenly, without warning, his feverish activity was interrupted and replaced by a kind of fascination. He spent several days as if he were bewitched, softly repeating to himself a string of fearful conjectures without giving credit to his own understanding. Finally, one Tuesday in December, at lunchtime, all at once he released the weight of his torment. [. . .]

“The earth is round, like an orange.”

Úrsula [his wife] lost her patience. “If you have to go crazy, please go crazy all by yourself!” she shouted. “But don’t try to put your gypsy ideas into the heads of the children.” (14)

In a novel filled with Baroque moments (in the Foucauldian sense of “[s]imilitude [no longer being] the form of knowledge but rather the occasion of error, the danger to which one exposes oneself when one does not examine the obscure region of confusions” (The Order of Things, 51; see a (much) fuller discussion here), this is merely one of those moments.  But for the purposes of this post, not to mention my larger study, it is also a crucial one: as I argue in the post I linked to in the previous sentence, the Baroque begins with Columbus’s claims on his third voyage that the planet is in fact shaped far differently from its assumed shape so as to make his encounters with the landmass of South America square with then-accepted descriptions of the world.  Indeed, when José Arcadio demonstrates to the men in his village of Macondo, “with theories that none of them could understand, the possibility of returning to where one had set out by consistently sailing east” (14), he becomes a kind of Latin American Columbus, one who looks to the east this time as the source of knowledge,  as well as an analogue of Don Quixote.

But what prompts this post is García Márquez’s novel’s extraordinary opening sentence and how it positions the reader relative to the events it refers to: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (11).  This sentence not only simultaneously presents to us the future and the past of this man; it also, we perceive, grants us equal footing with its omniscient narrator relative to the narrative’s place and time, from which we also are privileged to survey the whole, or any one segment, of that place and time, and often, as with that first sentence, looking forward and back in time.  The world of García Márquez’s novel is not our own; we can observe it at our leisure and as we wish.  This ability we as readers have to survey the whole of this narrative at once de-centers, Baroque-like, its author’s authority: José Arcadio’s realization that the world is orange-shaped is madness within his world, but we in ours recognize it as wisdom.  (And to be sure, the very opposite kinds of recognitions occur just as frequently throughout the novel as well.)  Thus, the reader becomes more fully a participant in meaning-making in this fluid, dynamic narrative space, joining in the activity of pointing and naming objects in this still-new world (11).

At first glance, José Martí’s best-known essay, “Our America” (1891), seems to place us in a similar position relative to Latin America (the “Our” of the title) as the speaker in its first paragraph regards the region as a blissful Macondo-like village unaware of the political and cosmic forces that could destroy it.  At one point, Martí writes that the nations of Latin America “arise and salute one another.  ‘What are we like?’ they ask, and begin telling each other what they are like” (294).  However, the penultimate sentence of the following passage, the essay’s first paragraph, signals to the reader that Martí’s voice in this essay will not be an epic but a prophetic one.[1]:

The prideful villager thinks his hometown contains the whole world, and as long as he can stay on as mayor or humiliate the rival who stole his sweetheart or watch his nest egg accumulating in its strongbox he believes the universe to be in good order, unaware of the giants in seven-league boots who can crush him underfoot or the battling comets in the heavens that go through the air devouring the sleeping worlds.  Whatever is left of that sleepy hometown in America must awaken.  These are not times for going to bed in a sleeping cap, but rather, like Juan de Castellanos’s men, with our weapons for a pillow, weapons of the mind, which vanquish all others.  Trenches of ideas are worth more than trenches of stone.  (288)

Continue reading

Mid-semester updates: Several varieties of Domestic Issue

Flint Hills

An ariel shot of an annual springtime event: the intentionally-set range fires in the Kansas Flint Hills, which burn off dead grass from the previous season to encourage new growth, and which cause that new growth to set its roots ever deeper in the soil . . . and which causes them city folks in Kansas City to complain about air quality for a few weeks.  Via Kansas Livestock Association.

Spring Break has arrived for us, and so I have a chance to post some brief comments on some things that I’ve been engaged in/preoccupied by since my last post, back at the beginning of the semester:

Reading.  For the book project, I have been reading and thinking about certain writings of the 19th-century Cuban nationalist José Martí, both his well-known essay “Our America” and writings he produced about his experiences while living in New York, in exile from his native Cuba.  What is noteworthy about Martí’s rhetoric in “Our America” is that he simultaneously distinguishes Latin America (the “Our” of the title) from the United States and describes a politics for Latin America that does not yet exist.  In Foucauldian terms, in the essay Latin America becomes something like a heterotopia-in-formation, a space whose political grammar, at least, has yet to come into being.  Seeing as Martí wrote this essay while in New York, his subject position as exile relative to the space that is his subject makes for an interesting dynamic to consider within my book project’s larger subject of the New World as a heterotopic space.  It seems to me as well that Martí’s writings serve as both precursors and exemplars of the cultural work of writers in Latin America, who occupy a space that Brazilian cultural theorist Silviano Santiago calls o entre-lugar, “the space-between” the cultural hegemonies of Europe and the United States.  So anyway, some of this will be finding its way to that part of the Cabeza de Vaca/Last of the Mohicans chapter in which I discuss other writers’ various attempts to produce, as I put it there, “a language” through which they can more authentically convey the lived experience of this hemisphere’s new peoples.

Interdisciplinary course(s) on the Flint Hills.  I recently learned that a long-time colleague of mine in our college’s biology department has wanted to develop a course called something like “A Natural History of the Flint Hills.”  This caught my attention because, off and on for the past couple of years, I have wondered about the possibility of and interest in some sort of interdisciplinary course, or maybe even discipline-specific offerings, on various aspects of this distinctive region.  The college’s main campus is in El Dorado, on the western edge of this place, and we even have a couple of branch campuses in towns in the hills themselves; yet, we offer nothing along the lines of what we have in mind.  Though I’m pretty sure it’s not the case, it seems as though our orientation is toward equipping students so that they can leave from here rather than equipping them to give them reasons to stay–an issue of no little concern for a part of the state whose growth is projected to be more or less flat for the next couple of decades.  So anyway, last week I dropped by my colleague’s office to ask him about his interest in maybe doing something together, and as soon as we realized we’d both read William Least Heat-Moon’s  PrairyErth, we knew we’d be good fellow travellers on this adventure.  The plan right now, such as it is, is to identify other colleagues who might be interested in working with us on this, and see about creating some space in the academic calendar for spitballin’ sessions on how to incorporate a course/several courses into our offerings, ideas for how to facilitate off-site study, etc. You may also see some writing appear here on this general subject in the months ahead.

Wish us luck.  We think we can persuade our colleagues and administration that this is something that can help us add another dimension to how community colleges can serve their regions.

Baby coming.  Finally, that most domestic–and the most issue-y–of domestic issues is that my wife and I will be welcoming a baby boy into the world three days from now, on March 21st.  This new life is a blessing for us in more ways than the usual ones associated with babies, and so we are excited to welcome him into our lives and to see what new course(s) his life will set ours upon.  Waiting on his arrival, especially during these last couple of weeks as my wife has begun to experience the occasional contraction, has also been an enormous if happy distraction from what I’m supposed to be doing; so having him here will be a more concrete and thus more manageable distraction.  I think.  Since I’ll be taking a leave of absence from teaching for the two weeks following Spring Break, I’ll have ample opportunity to find out just how mistaken I am.

Lewis and Clark as “peculiarly American” writers

I’ve been gearing up to get some writing done now that the semester has ended, and while reviewing work on Cabeza de Vaca I’d written back in the summer, I found myself recalling some writing and thinking I’d done about the journals of Lewis and Clark from a long time ago.  Specifically, I have found myself thinking how the Journals participate in a kind of writing produced in this hemisphere from the very earliest days of the Encounter, writing initially resulting from Europeans’ completely-unanticipated encounter with the material fact of the land, flora, fauna, and peoples (not only indigenous peoples but also, within a few generations, the bewildering variety of peoples of mixed race) of this hemisphere–a manner of writing, by the way, that persists into our own times.  This is an idea I keep returning to in my work; no doubt that will continue to be the case.

lewis-and-clark-journal-feb-24-1806-euchalon-candlefish

A page from Meriwether Lewis’s journal for February 24, 1806.  The fish is a eulachon, or candlefish.

Way back when I was still at the University of Mobile, I once tried to teach an abridged version of the Journals as part of a course on the themes of nature and wilderness in 19th-century American writing.  At the time, I was struck by a dramatic shift in the rhetorical style of the entries: while the expedition is moving across the Plains (which, relatively speaking, was familiar territory for the expedition, even if only indirectly via the French), the entries have a staccato, just-the-facts-ma’am style to them.  However, almost immediately upon entering the Rockies–land which no white man had yet seen–the language switches to a much more narrative style: the prose becomes, in effect, another map of the journey, another record of the expedition’s movement through space and time that had not been so necessary while they were still on the already-mapped Great Plains.  In addition, the Journals have several pages like the one you see here: drawings of animals and plants and topographical features compete for space on the page with language describing it.  It is as though Lewis and Clark felt that even the material reality of the various specimens the expedition collected and sent back to Thomas Jefferson, along with language used to describe them, did not suffice to convey the experience of these items.  Frank Bergon, in his introduction to the edition I taught that class from, captures the style of the Journals well when it makes that stylistic shift:

Conventional rhetoric and cultural assumptions also break down as the facts of the actual country, animals, and native peoples of the West give shape to new forms of perception.  Language itself has to be altered to describe a new country and its native inhabitants; words coined and twisted and adapted to the occasion in the journals produced the addition of more than one thousand new words to the American language.  In gradually abandoning attempts to present their experience through conventional aesthetic forms and expressions, the explorers seem to let the wonder of the country and its incredible wildlife speak more and more through plain fact and events.  (xviii)

Continue reading

A Post-election Anecdote

(Note to Facebook friends: below the fold is something I posted on FB yesterday that you may or may not have already seen.)

When I started this blog, I’d hoped to keep its content strictly academic and pedagogical in nature.  As everyone who teaches knows, however, events in the world outside often make themselves become the stuff of what goes on inside.  Our recent elections have become just such an event in my classes, and I’m certain in yours as well.  I thought I’d share with you something that happened between me and a student as we talked about her final paper for the semester, and how the usual spaces between class work and the world outside, between teacher and student, became blurred in a completely unanticipated way.  What I describe below is a version of precisely the set of ideas I want this blog’s title, Domestic Issue, to evoke in the reader.

Continue reading

Columbus, Foucault, and the New World as Keplerian Baroque Space

Mid-summer progress report:

I’ve been engaged in some reading and rereading in anticipation of getting started on the third chapter of the book project, which will chiefly consist of readings of Cabeza de Vaca as he presents himself in Castaways and Cooper’s Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie.  I have also been editing the preface, the Columbus chapter, and the Faulkner and Amado chapter with the goals of trying to tighten up the writing.  Finally and most significantly, in the Columbus chapter I’ve incorporated an argument about the Baroque that you’ll see in this post.

A while back, I wrote in this post about Foucault’s reticence as to the causes of the shifts in ideas about language and space that are his subjects in, respectively, The Order of Things and “Of Other Spaces.”  For Foucault, the Baroque is the aesthetic of those shifts, but he seems deeply suspicious of it, if not actively dismissive of it: in it, “[s]imilitude is no longer the form of knowledge but rather the occasion of error, the danger to which one exposes oneself when one does not examine the obscure region of confusions” (The Order of Things, 51).  Anyway, while in that earlier post I name the Encounter as the cause of those shifts Foucault describes, in the excerpt below I develop that more fully with an assist from Cuban novelist and theorist Severo Sarduy’s essay “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler” (found in Baroque New Worlds, one of the titles I mentioned here).  I think this excerpt is pretty self-contained; just in case, though, “Carpentier” refers to Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s essay “Problemática de la actual novela latinoamericana, and “Benítez-Rojo” refers to Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s book The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective.

I am hopeful that someone out there in the Interwebs who knows more than I do about Foucault and/or Sarduy will bump into this and leave a comment.  Thanks in advance.

______________________________

mappemonde_mercator

Mappamonde, Gerard Mercator, 1587.  Via.

[The] dynamism inherent in this New World Baroque as described by Carpentier gives us some insight into his response to his argument that this hemisphere’s lack of a style conveys well the truths of this region.  Moreover, other writers and critics likewise, in their own ways, either name the dilemma(s) New World writers encounter, or name it/them and then propose ways of framing New World experience similar to Carpentier’s own solution and his rationale for it.  That solution lies not so much in postmodernism’s lack of a center and distrust of Grand Narratives but, rather, in the Baroque’s honoring of dynamism, its lack of fixedness, which creates a space within which the interactions of cultures and the land provide a common ground for this hemisphere’s writers.

Continue reading

Proving What the Books Say Is True: Don Quixote as Columbus in Foucault’s The Order of Things

Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things is at least as remarkable, to me, for what it does not say in its opening chapters as for what it does say.  As its readers know, its second and third chapters (“The Prose of the World” and “Representing”) describe the dramatic shift in Europeans’ understanding of language’s relationship to the world that occurred between the 16th and 17th centuries: a shift from a time when “[t]he truth of all these marks–whether they are woven into nature itself or whether they exist in lines on parchment and in libraries–is everywhere the same: coeval with the institution of God” (34) to a time when, with the important exception of literary language, “the arrangement of signs was to become binary, since it was to be defined, with Port-Royal, as the connection of a significant and a signified” (42).  However, Foucault offers no explanation for why this shift occurred.  He does indirectly give a name to the time during which it occurred–the Baroque (he devotes a single, rather dismissive paragraph on p. 51 to a description of its attributes)–and identifies Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the Baroque’s avatar, but he has nothing more to say on the matter.

In his early speech (which later became an article) “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” Foucault names Galileo’s confirmation of Copernicus’s heliocentric model for what we now call the solar system as the cause for the intellectual shift from medieval to Renaissance understandings of space.  Thus, we know that Foucault is more than capable of identifying significant events whose consequences reverberate through time and culture.  Yet in The Order of Things, he does not.

I do not pretend to know why Foucault is silent on the cause for this profound shift in Western thought, but I can tell you what I think he should have said that cause was: Columbus’s arrivals in the Americas. There’s nothing like a culture’s encountering two enormous landmasses completely unaccounted for by the Bible to thoroughly shake that culture’s previously-unquestioned assumption that language is “coeval with the institution of God.”  However, perhaps Foucault does mention the Americas-as-cause indirectly, through a bit of projection.  In the preface to The Order of Things, he mentions the ficciones of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as an inspiration for his idea of heterotopias, and several of the examples of heterotopias he provides in “Of Other Spaces” are from the Americas.  To some extent, then, Foucault thinks of the Americas and at least some of its cultural products as disruptive in comparison to European conceptions of space and language.  Meanwhile, in the sub-chapter on Don Quixote in “Representing,” Foucault could not have provides us, through his discussion of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, a better description both of how Columbus understood the space through which he sailed and how his understanding looks to us today.

Continue reading

Early-summer reading

Baroque New Worlds

The cover for Baroque New Worlds.

Despite the radio silence here at the blog since my last post (apologies for the mixed (technologies) metaphor there), I have been doing some final editing and emendation of already-written chapters, soliciting colleagues to have a look at said chapters, and (as this post’s title indicates) getting some reading done.  Now that the semester is done and I am done with doctors’ appointments and have returned from a visit with my daughters and my mother, I am about ready to settle into working on the next chapter, which uses as its starting point Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his eight-year (1528-1536) journey across Texas and northern Mexico and will lead to a discussion of texts that, in various ways, use, modify, and otherwise play with language so as to better convey the experience of living in this hemisphere.  Before I get to that, though, I have some minor additions to make to the earlier chapters, for which I have two books to blame (and be grateful).

Continue reading