Thursday, April 30, 2009

To begin, in an interview shortly before the publication of Three Poems (1972), Ashbery describes his decision to write three long prose poems (totaling over one hundred pages) thus: "the poetic form would be dissolved, in solution, and therefore create a much more--I hate to say environmental because it's a bad word--but more of a surrounding thing like the way one's consciousness is surrounded by one’s thoughts." Frequently cited, rarely is this (really quite curious) statement interrogated. (Is one's consciousness surrounded by one's thoughts?) But what interests me most here is Ashbery's hesitation over "environmental." (This is an instance of paralipsis, an offering in the guise of denial.) Why is it a "bad word"?

Consider that by 1970, when Ashbery was beginning work on Three Poems, "environmental" was ideologically marked. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962; eight years later, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, and Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, deep ecology, the Endangered Species Act, and James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis soon followed. Ashbery may express a distaste for such developments when he calls "environmental" a "bad word"; but I suspect that this designation has more to do with its being "marked" than with the beliefs and politics it entails. "Environmental" is a "bad word" for Ashbery in 1971 in the sense that "terrorism" is a "bad word" after September 11, 2001. It is overdetermined; it induces a constellation of association that overwhelms any simple denotative power the word might possess. One could argue that developments in environmentalism, and especially ecocriticism, have since marked even "surrounding," rendering it too a "bad word" But at the time of the interview, "surrounding" struck Ashbery as a good enough word for the effect of his long prose poems; and he implies, in exchanging the bad word for the good, that "surrounding" in this case means "environmental"--minus the ideological mark.

"Environmental" before environmentalism describes rooms as well as "natural spaces." As a synonym for "surrounding," environment denotes the space in which you find yourself and the air circulating around you, not to mention the sounds and smells, the light, other people, animals and things, even, arguably, your thoughts, sensations, utterances, and so on.

I mean here to suggest that trying to think "environment" beyond (before and/or after) environmentalism is useful and maybe even necessary to thinking the dimensions of the "environmental crisis," dimensions that, as a recent New York Times Magazine article argues, prove stubbornly unthinkable.

Here lies my attraction to weather, as well. "Weather," I believe, is not quite yet a "bad word." It's getting there. Depending who you talk to, that timeless pleasantry, "Nice day," may invite a reply along the lines of, "Yep. Global warming." But the fact that weather's relation to other things--climate, pollution, global warming--is still largely undefined means that it opens space for inquiry into environment's undecidability.

Don DeLillo's White Noise is by far the best work on weather's uncertain relations that I have read.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.