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.