Sunday, July 29, 2012

Whether the Weather

There is a passage in a recent short story by Lorrie Moore, called “Referential,” that goes like this:
There was a storm looming, and lightning did its quick, purposeful zigzag among the clouds. She did not need such stark illustration that horizons could be shattered, filled with messages and broken codes, yet there it was. A spring snow began to fall with the lightning still cracking .... She knew that the world had not been created to speak just to her, and yet, as for her son, sometimes things did.
This is, I think, a particularly lovely example of something I see again and again, in works of fiction, poetry, even news reports: a moment, a pause, as a person takes in the weather and wonders if it might be meaningful. (Maybe this, even more than if it will rain or snow, is the real “whether” of the weather.) Here, the protagonist is driving home after visiting her mentally ill son at the institution where he lives, and for a moment, like him, she sees “messages” in “things.” (I love that weather, here, is a “thing”—because it is.) The message in the lightning, its “broken code,” tells her that her “horizons” can be “shattered”—and really, is there any clearer illustration of chance, of uncertainty, than the weather? All the same, the message is “broken”: weather is at once clear and inscrutable.

In this moment, the moment of this writing, I’m sitting at my desk, in south St. Louis city, listening to the low rumble of distant thunder, as the first rain we’ve had in weeks falls gently outside my window. It’s been terrible here, weather-wise—sublime, really, which is just another way to say it’s been godawful. We’ve had temperatures above 100 almost every day in July. It hasn’t rained. There haven’t even been clouds, for the most part, until this past week, when they materialized and loomed spectacularly over the city, and brought no rain. Stepping outside in this weather is like walking into a wall. It is hard, a fact. As such, it’s hard to know what to say about it, but we talk about it anyway.

And of course, we talk about global warming. Again, no one is saying this is global warming, but a lot of people, including climate scientists, have allowed that it is a kind of “preview” of global warming. It’s a hell of a preview. I honestly don’t know how we’d manage a string of summers like this one, not to mention a string of winters like the last one, when it snowed, lightly, only two or three times and temperatures rarely fell below freezing.

Wondering if weather is meaningful is not so different from wondering if weather is global warming.

I’m a midwesterner, and I feel a kind of panic when I imagine midwestern winters without snow. I’m not sure what, exactly, would be lost, but it’s something like meaning. There is talk now among those of us who think critically about ecology that despair may be a real and even useful (and perhaps our only) option.

For the moment, I’ll defer to Scott Fitzgerald. I came across this lovely passage in my most recent reading of The Great Gatsby:
When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Speaking of conceptual weather art ... here's my review of ˚ by Stephen Cartwright and Andrew James, at the Luminary Center for the Arts in St. Louis.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What is it with conceptual poetry and weather?

Well, maybe there isn’t that much conceptual weather poetry. But there is some. (As well as some conceptual weather art—more on this soon.)

While making my way through Craig Dworkin and Kenneth “The Weather” Goldsmith’s Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (which I find by turns thrilling and numbing—what makes good conceptual writing?—a simple concept, surely, and a degree of art, accidental or otherwise—not everyone will agree) I came across an excerpt from Gregory Betts’s If Language, exactly the kind of conceptual work I most enjoy. As it happens, the excerpt in Against Expression includes a weather poem. First, though, this is how it works: each of the fifty poems in If Language is a different arrangement of the same 525 letters in a passage from an essay by Steve McCaffery. To give you a sense of what this is like, here is the McCaffery passage:
If Language Writing successfully detaches Language from the historical purpose of summarizing global meaning, replacing the goal of totality with the free polydynamic drive of parts, it nevertheless falls short in addressing the full implications of this break and seems especially to fail in taking full account of the impact of the human subject with the thresholds of linguistic meaning. It is at the critical locus of productive desire that this writing opens itself up to an alternative “libidinal” economy which operates across the precarious boundaries of the symbolic and the biological and has its basis in intensities.
And here is Betts’s weather poem:
Today it will be music degrees of collage with a litter of sun petroleum and solace, hi-fi of sickishness, obliged by a conservative force that, it is hopeful, will fulminate in the social realities of committed principalities. Someone’s parents slip back into an ungracious war front that agitates the alliance and physiognomy of illuminating gases threatening shift. By tonight, at the mausoleum parade, the light scoffing carbuncular air should eroticize its partly visible superobjectivism. Plush gallows hiss. There is a fifty percept chance of fifth and eighth dimensions contrasting that should clear up all things considered.
I am amazed at the virtuosity of Betts’s anagrams. (I should also mention that the blurb for If Language, by the conceptual writer Christian Bök, is an anagram of the McCaffery passage, as well.) To my eye (my ear, my mind) this poem is just, well, perfect. I especially like “hi-fi of sickishness,” “the mausoleum parade,” and “the light scoffing carbuncular air should eroticize its partly visible superobjectivism”—although I can’t say particularly why I like it. It reminds me that every word is an arrangement of letters, every sentence an arrangement of words, and that arrangement itself is meaningful, even when I don’t know exactly what this arrangement of letters and words means. (I’m typing this in Microsoft Word, and I’m kind of tempted to turn on the grammar check, to see what it makes of Betts’s sentences.)

Betts’s poem is like a weather forecast, right? But how? I’ve struggled to find a way to say this. The same is true of parts of Clark Coolidge’s “Weathers.” There’s a passage that begins, “Partly stone only to see beneath red slips. The fishing particle, on and off, innards of glass. Sun parts hardly, seems to move.” That “partly stone” and “sun parts hardly” suggest something like “partly sunny”—and of course, rain, snow, wind and so on are often “on and off.” Coolidge misstates the weather forecast; Lisa Robertson might say he quotes it wrongly. Betts does this, too: “Today it will be music degrees of collage with a litter of sun petroleum and solace, hi-fi of sickishness, obliged by a conservative force that, it is hopeful, will fulminate in the social realities of committed principalities.” Today it will be 90 degrees with scattered rain and wind, high humidity, relieved by a cold front that, we hope, will mean cooler temperatures over the weekend. Something like that, right?

In part, it’s this—not knowing what, exactly, is familiar and how—that makes the poem uncanny, and beautiful.

(I’m plotting a conceptual weather poem of my own. Stay tuned.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

I have argued in a number of ways that John Ashbery's poetry has something to do with ecology. I'm beginning to think that that something may be objects. Now, Ashbery's poetry is poetry of consciousness, and consciousness is not an object in any conventional sense, but bear with me. Andrew DuBois writes that Ashbery’s “engagement with consciousness … implies engagement with the world and its objects.” And in the introduction to the Norton Lectures, Ashbery compares his preoccupation with “thought processes” to Williams’s “No ideas but in things”—“with the caveat that, for me, ideas are also things.”

Ashbery descends from Gertrude Stein, and in a review of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation he writes, “These austere ‘stanzas’ are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as ‘where,’ ‘which,’ ‘these,’ ‘of,’ ‘not,’ ‘have,’ ‘about,’ and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.” While he doesn’t come right out and say it, he suggests that for Stein, an orange is equivalent to an Albert. Later in the review, he writes that Stein’s poems leave us in “the physical world, that collection of thoughts, flowers, weather, and proper names.” Just as an orange is equivalent to an Albert, thoughts are equivalent to flowers, weather to proper names. All of these are equally real: “it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.” Like others, I take many of Ashbery’s remarks on other artists to reflect on his own art. He concludes, “The poem is a hymn to possibility, a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen.”

Take these lines from Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”:

Something strange is creeping across me. / La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars / Of “I Thought about You” or something mellow from / Amadigi di Gaula for everything—a mint-condition can / Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy / Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile / Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged / Stock—to come clattering through the rainbow trellis / Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland / Fling Terrace.
This is not collage, exactly, although Ashbery owes a debt to Surrealism. However, one element of collage—the collapsing of “high” and “low”—is apparent in many of Ashbery’s poems. Yet this is only one collapse among many, including the collapse of particular and general, foreground and background, inside and outside, and of “I,” “you,” “he” and “she,” “they,” and “it.”

This list—a can of baking powder, an earring, a cartoon character, “the latest” from an author of historical romances, and a bundle of pornographic photographs—along with the other specifics of the passage—“La Celestina” (the title character in a fifteenth-century Spanish dialogue), “I Thought about You” (a jazz standard), Amadigi di Gaula (an Italian opera by Handel), a “rainbow trellis,” “Pistachio Avenue,” and “Highland Fling Terrace”—add up to something like what has come to be known as a “Latour Litany,” a list evoking the rich diversity of reality (Ian Bogost), including not only objects but people, ideas, and things we might not think of as real, like Daffy Duck. If thoughts, flowers, weather, and proper names are all equally real, then thought, dream, perception—everything we associate with Ashbery’s poetry—are no more (and no less) real than a mint-condition can of Rumford’s Baking Powder or Speedy Gonzales.

In a recent essay, “Here Comes Everything” (a fitting title, perhaps, for a study of Ashbery’s poetry), Tim Morton singles out a passage in Graham Harman’s 1999 talk, “Object Oriented Philosophy”:

But beneath this ceaseless argument, reality is churning. Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball strikes green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.
Morton observes that this passage “revels in dislocation, not location.” Harman’s writing is not “nature writing,” in that it lacks an observing subject. Harman’s is “a world without reference to a subject” (Morton). Such a world appears in Ashbery’s poem “Grand Galop”:
Hugely, spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing / In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against / The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
Many Ashbery poems appear to be about, well, everything. In an interview, Ashbery reflects, “I think I consider the poem as a sort of environment, and one is not obliged to take notice of every aspect of one’s environment—one can’t, in fact.” The difficulty of thinking about all of an Ashbery poem, even a relatively short Ashbery poem, is not unlike the difficulty of thinking about environment, or better, ecology—the difficulty of “thinking everything at once” (Timothy Clark).

Friday, February 4, 2011

This one isn't about weather, just some thoughts on procedural poetry and ecology. Procedural poems are often labeled "projects," as in carefully planned undertakings, like those laid out in Jackson Mac Low's enormously detailed introductions to some of his works. At a panel on "poetry games" at last month's MLA conference in LA, I learned that the poet Dorothea Lasky recently came out against project poetry. Her objection, in a nutshell:
I don't think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and the mind and work from the ground up. That is to say, I think a poet intuits a poem and a scientist conducts a "project." ... The notion of a poetic "project" may actually be very toxic to poetry.
For me this raises the question, are project poems somehow "unnatural"? I'm interested, in part, because I love procedural poetry, at least when it's done well. And, selfishly, I want to work on it, and I work on poetry and ecology, so I wouldn't mind if there was something to say about procedural poetry and ecology. There must be. For one thing, so many poetry projects make use of writing about nature, or environment, or ecology. (For the moment I'll use "nature" because it's vague and suggestive and roomy--unless I mean ecology.) Think of John Cage's "writings through" Henry David Thoreau, or all the material Lisa Robertson "lifts" from natural history, or Kenneth Goldsmith's The Weather. Then there's Tina Darragh and Marcella Durand's recent project Deep eco pré, which takes as one of its sources Michael Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s Future. So is a poem (or performance) made from nature writing a nature poem (or performance)? Or is nature merely incidental to it?

We might call Lasky's poem, a poem that emerges naturally from ground or earth, the "poem-as-flower," as in an "anthology" or collection of flowers. Project poetry we might call the "poem-as-machine": the project poet assembles the poem and sets it going. Procedure denatures poetry. Mac Low used random number series from a book published by the RAND corporation: the poem-as-war-machine. Then there is the (near) absence of the human subject, the lyric "I" that stands at the heart of the poem-as-flower. Project poetry is inhuman.

But the thing is, the poem-as-machine isn't really new. I don't just mean it's a couple of hundred years old, but that every form is a machine for making poems. A sonnet, for instance, is a machine for expressing a single thought: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I wouldn't have an easy time writing a sonnet, but I've been told by several people that once you get use to writing in iambic pentameter, a sonnet will "write itself." John Ashbery compares writing a sestina to riding a bicycle down a hill: your feet don't push the pedals, the pedals push your feet. Even the (primarily) free verse poet (and writer of nature poems) William Carlos Williams calls a poem a "machine made of words." So form does some, maybe even a lot of the work.

Project poems make explicit what is always true, that writing is enmeshed with other writing. In a broad sense, this is what Jed Rasula means by the "compost library." So I'm not convinced that producing poetry according to chance inspiration as opposed to chance operation is any closer to the earth. I'm thinking here of Tim Morton's recent piece in the Oxford Literary Review, in which he remarks, "All the way down to the sub-DNA level, evolution is a set of algorithmic processes. That is the disturbing thing about 'animals'--they are vegetables." The poem-as-machine is an algorithm. (And in fact so are flowers.) "Our prejudice about vegetables is that they're beings that only do one thing--grow." This is Lasky's prejudice about project poems, too. Of the poem-as-machine, Morton reflects,
The poem seems strangely self-aware. Is it artificially intelligent? Are we? Is sentience this recursive algorithmic process? Maybe meaning and even "intention" are in the eye of the beholder. Whether they are pro-AI or anti, science and philosophy claim that consciousness is intentional. What if intentionality were an effect of performance? What if it was "over there," in language itself, not "in here," inside me, my most precious possession?
The poem-as-machine seems to say that "intention" (for Lasky, intuition) is "over there," in language. This is what makes it, not natural perhaps, but ecological.

That it is "toxic" makes it ecological, too. As Tyrone Williams remarks in an interview in Brenda Iijima's )((eco(lang)(uage(reader)),
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 little comfort to those on the losing side of 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.
It is, admittedly, a problematic comparison, but by taking the side of poetry as we know it, I think we take a stand against a form of poetry we would never recognize as such. And I want poetry to keep changing, or evolving, even (perhaps especially) if what emerges is "toxic" to the poem-as-flower.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The deadline for proposals for a literature and environment conference is approaching, and I've noticed that many of the calls for papers, nearly all of them in fact, have to do with environmental justice. I submitted a proposal to a panel that I'm very excited about, but I had to admit that the novel I'd like to talk about doesn't have much to say about environmental justice. It has a heck of a lot to say about how we imagine climate change, and I wonder, should we ask it, or any imaginative writing, to do more than that? I don't mean to let imaginative writing off the hook. If it's got something to say about environmental justice--especially something that cannot easily be said otherwise--it should say it. But I do think we're getting ahead of ourselves if we expect all environmental literature to be environmentalist literature, or environmental justice literature. I think it's more than enough to ask of literature that it help us to think about environment. Because it's not easy to think about. And literature, maybe especially poetry, is good at helping us to think about difficult things. This is the kind of argument I make in my dissertation, about John Ashbery's poetry: that his expression is out of scale (unlike, say, "save the rain forests") and as such, it provides a form for ecological expression, or expression for an ecology of mind. Gregory Bateson suggests that an ecology of mind is a precondition for environmentalism, for caring for the survival of the circuit of ideas of which we are a part--but ecology of mind is not, in itself, environmentalist. This is basic. This is the problem for environmentalism, as anyone who has taken part in, or simply witnessed a conversation between someone who believes in global warming and someone who doesn't, can attest. The problem is not, fundamentally, what to do about environmental crisis, but how to understand environment at all. And a lot of bad environmentalism comes out of misunderstanding environment.

In my research, I've noticed that a lot of writers, writers who are otherwise very careful and exact, will use the phrase "like the weather" as if we can all agree that the weather is this or that. Once you start to notice this, I swear you'll start to wonder if you, or they, or anyone knows what the weather is. I was struck by this recently when I read Gertrude Stein's poem "Bon Marche Weather," from 1911. From conversation about the weather ("Very pleasant weather we are having. Very pleasant weather I am having. Very nice weather everybody is having. Very nice weather you are having.") the poem proceeds to conversation about "eating" and "travelling" and eventually "buying": "There are a very great many things everybody is buying. There are a very great many things you are buying ...." The editor's note in the volume I was reading remarks that Stein thinks that shopping is like the weather, but declines to explain how, exactly, shopping is like the weather. Maybe it is like the weather (I'm not convinced) but what strikes me as more interesting is how Stein's writing is like the weather (Kenneth Goldsmith would say it is) or better, how Stein's writing makes us wonder what the weather is like. And this wondering itself may be like the weather, because weather has a lot to do with wondering, and with not understanding, especially when it comes to climate change. The weather makes us wonder, "What is going on?" Not long ago I happened upon an odd and delightful entry in my Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, titled "Vagueness":
It seems obvious that there are vague ways of speaking and vague ways of thinking--saying that the weather is hot, for example. Common sense also has it that there is vagueness in the external world (although this is not the usual view in philosophy). Intuitively, clouds, for example, do not have sharp spatiotemporal boundaries. But the thesis that vagueness is real has spawned a number of deeply perplexing paradoxes and problems. There is not general agreement among philosophers about how to understand vagueness.
What strikes me, of course, is the presence of not one but two weather examples in this brief paragraph. We speak vaguely about the weather, and we intuit that the weather itself is vague. And while it does seem unlikely that there is vagueness in the external world, we would be right, really, to say that clouds do not have sharp spatiotemporal boundaries. Clouds have fractal edges, or edges that cannot be brought into focus. And as James Gleick points out in Chaos, clouds are scaling phenomena: "Their characteristic irregularity ... changes not at all as they are observed on different scales. That is why air travelers lose all perspective on how far away a cloud is. ... [A] cloud twenty feet away can be indistinguishable from [one] two thousand feet away." And chaos reveals that our understanding of weather is necessarily inexact. We cannot predict the weather because we cannot know what the weather is right now.

All of this is just to say that we mustn't get ahead of ourselves when it comes to weather and environment. That we might not know what they are does not mean we're helpless. Understanding our not knowing might, in fact, be a precondition for environmental justice.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Matter Happens

There’s some fascinating critical work being done right now on matter and materiality, much of it resonant with ecology (rock, water, waste, pollution), and with weather, which, at least since Lucretius, is a matter of matter. The latest is Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: Bennett adopts Bruno Latour’s term “actant” to designate any thing which “by virtue of its particular location in an assemblage and the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time, makes the difference, makes things happen, becomes the decisive force catalyzing an event.” Her example is a Gunpowder Residue Sampler, which she calls an “object/witness” in a homicide trial; she cites an older legal example as well, the “deodand.” Bennett departs from relatively straightforward instances like these to argue that what she calls “vibrant matter” behaves as actant in other, less obvious ways. She describes the assemblage (after Deleuze and Guattari) involved in the massive blackout that struck Canada and the United States in August of 2003:

To the vital materialist, the electrical grid is better understood as a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood—to name just some of the actants.
She notes that, assemblages being what they are—“uneven topographies,” “non-totalizable sum[s]”—no person, organization, object, or event may be held solely responsible for the blackout, an admission that resonates with last week’s Congressional hearings on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an event (materially) resembling the blackout in a number of ways. British Petroleum’s various attempts to stem the spill have in turn been frustrated by material conditions a mile below the surface of the ocean, as well as the chemical properties of oil, water, concrete, etc. The event is riddled with unknowns, from the cause of the initial explosion to the volume of the spill, and as with the blackout, “no one” is to blame amid an assemblage of human, organizational, economic, legal, and material loci. One is reminded, as well, of Hurricane Katrina, an event that comes to seem less and less a “natural” disaster as it recedes into the past. The thing is, weather is not a thing, and indeed Bennett notes early in her study that one problem with the “thing” is its “latent individualism,” whereas “vibrant matter,” the actant, “never really acts alone.” Not only is weather not “individual” (even singular events like hurricanes—with names like “Katrina” and “Ivan”—cannot properly be called individuals) but it is not material in the manner of rock or metal. Weather is “matter-flow” or “matter-movement,” Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, or as Michel Serres writes (after Lucretius), weather is matter’s turbulence. We are more used to granting weather the role of actant. Weather happens, precipitating all manner of events: abundance and scarcity, flood, drought, fire, and killing frost. Which may be another way of saying that “matter happens”—but this is not Donald Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens.” On the contrary, for Bennett, granting that matter can act is a matter of ethics. So while it is essential to discern the historical and economic undercurrents of those horrific days in New Orleans in September of 2005, we would be wise not to forget that hurricanes are weather events, or better, assemblages of weather (or matter), history, economics, psychology, and infrastructure, to name only a few.