Unattempted essay: "The Earthly Condition"

[These notes are circa 2014, the crucible of my Hannah Arendt book.]

Arendt 1950s photo.jpg

Arendt as a means of inserting ethics into process ontology, or at least putting ethics into fruitful relation with same.

A renewed theory of the subject. Delusions of Greenness in the Avant-Garde: diminishing the subject is not the means to a green politics. 

Forgiveness and the passage of love. 

David Macaluey, ed. Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology (Guilford Press, 1996), including his own essay, “Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Place: From Earth Alienation to Oikos” (pp. 102-133).

The earth vs. world distinction is from Heidegger, of course, and not original with Arendt; but where H. questions the authenticity of the modern world as it emerges from/enframes the earth, Arendt celebrates the public world and warns against its degradation without, so far as I can tell, much reference to the dangers presented to the world by the “conquest of nature”—a conquest that only fitfully enters politics and is much more the overwhelming program of “the social” and of capitalism.

Arendt in Macauley’s account a theorist of globalization (though he does not use this word) by which the world, in presenting itself for the first time as a totality (first through the discovery of America, later by discovery of the universe), causes distance to disappear. (What is far away appears closest to us in our media feeds, no? While our experience of “the local,” because unmediated, becomes wavery and insubstantial.) 

One Arendtian insight that anticipates Latour, et al, is the political dimension of scientific organization—she points out that the Royal Society’s injunction not to take political stands may be the origin of the ethos of scientific objectivity, while at the same time noting that “where men organize they intend to act and to acquire power” (Human Condition 271 n. 26, my emphasis). “No scientific teamwork is pure science, whether its aim is to act upon society and secure its members a certain position within it or—as was and still is to a large extent the case of organized research in the natural sciences—to act together and in concert in order to conquer nature” (ibid, my emphasis). Interesting that there’s no distinction made here between political power and power over nature—both have their roots in our “age of organisation. Organised thought is the basis of organised action” (this is Arendt quoting Whitehead, The Aims of Education 106-7).

Acting into nature is Arendt’s phrase—and action is always political.

Scientific knowledge comes from action, not contemplation (Arendt 290); we intervene in nature rather than contemplate it. This of course harmonizes with the fundamental 20th century insight of Heisenberg/Bohr. 

In footnote 8, Macauley notes that it is Descartes' “wandering (aberrare)” that “places him securely in the world,” as opposed to anchoring in the earthly (the cogito doubts the earth of the senses and places the thinker into the universe). This resonates with Whitehead’s affirmation that “Modern science has imposed on humanity the necessity for wandering… It is the business of the future to be dangerous” (SMW 207-8).

David Abram, “Merleau-Ponty and the Voice of the Earth,” also in Macauley. A crucial and interesting point from Macaluey’s fn. 10: “we live not on the earth as we are wont to think, but within it, since the earth includes the heavens (or sky and atmosphere) as well as the soil and the sea, a point brought out by the Gaia hypothesis and suggested in Merleau-Ponty’s later writings” (127). This is highly suggestive both in terms of climate disruption and Heidegger’s fourfold.

A cite of Arendt on the “alien” from Origins of Totalitarianism suggests a curious connection between otherness and necessity as that which human beings hate and fear: “the ‘alien’ is ‘a frightening symbol of the fact of difference as such, of individuality as such, and indicates those realms in which men cannot change and cannot act and in which, therefore, he has a distinct tendency to destroy’” (quoted in Macauley 107). 

Alienation may be a bad thing, but is wandering? Is “rootedness” always to be valorized? We are dangerously close to Blut und Boden, no? Something in me always rises up in protest against this ecological argument. Part of me affirms science, affirms space travel, resists “the surly bonds of earth,” etc. Put another way, with Whitehead I wish to affirm adventure. (Another word for action in its inherent unpredictability.)

Macauley asserts that Arendt rejects Heidegger’s mythic earth in favor of earth as “planet,” and points out that the Greek planetes means “to wander” (108). The difficulty here is in recognizing the earth’s alienation without homogenizing it, “failing to provide an alternative conception which accounts for geographic difference and the uniqueness of living in particular places.” (Might this not be a task for poetry? It seems very difficult for philosophers such as Arendt and Whitehead not to homogenize and generalize—in fact, providing fresh generalizations is the entire point of philosophy, according to Whitehead.)

Misread “the infinitization of the universe” as “the infantalization of the universe.”

It’s hard to disagree with Macauley on, for example, the depredations of the automobile, but I dislike the Puritanical tone.

Macauley: “it is surprising how rarely she acknowledges her debt to” Heidegger (110). Not really: he is the philosophical planet whose gravity slingshots her onto her own political path.

Phenomenology and ecology—the combination gets mystical and “deep” pretty quickly. At this stage, I think the conflation of the two is ripe for critique. One of the reasons Arendt interests me is because she asserts the primacy of the world over the earth, while acknowledging the former’s dependence upon the latter. The argument to be extrapolated from Arendt, perhaps, is that the latter is now as dependent on the former—the earth can only be saved by the world, and by becoming part of the world, rather than functioning as the withdrawn ground of the world. This requires that the earth be represented in politics. I suppose I’m back to Latour and his “parliament of things.” (Arendt + Whitehead = Latour?)

Whitehead’s thought is not, after all, earth-bound, in spite of his instinctive sympathy for Wordsworth and Shelley. His ontology is just that: a universal theory of the universe. 

Macauley is beginning to irritate me, but I can get on board with this: “Arendt is aware [of misuses of the term “natural”] and does not seek false homes, roots, or grounds, but attempts to think without the security of firm foundations” (116). Macauley mentions at the start of his essay but does not much mention Arendt’s own history as a displaced person and Jew here.

“Worldlessness” and “world alienation” are of course more central to Arendt’s thought than earth alienation, and much closer to her own historical experience. 

Agriculture as “between earth and world,” the point of transition or metabolism “from the biological cycle to the human artifice” (116). But for Macauley it seems agriculture is a disaster and a violence.

Connection between what Arendt sees as the withdrawal of the stable and permanent human world and the Anthropocene, which puts the human/nonhuman boundary under erasure? The mutual absorption of technology and climate exposes us to the violence inherent in both.

Macaluey criticizes Arendt’s characterization of nature as the realm of necessity and her condoning artifice-as-violence against nature as the means of guaranteeing human freedom. He says she shows no sense of nature as free or spontaneous—“Contrary to Arendt’s claims, nature has been a source of freedom, value, and even objectivity” in the writing of Bookchin, Whitehead, and others (120). It’s true that Arendt’s thought wouldn’t seem to leave much of an opening for anarchism, which is the political movement most friendly to, and which imitates and participates, ecology. 

Macauley: “The rift between necessity and freedom is of the same kind as the stultifying dualism which has been established between, for example, ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ and which has been challenged only rarely with depth and creativity by thinkers in the critical utopian tradition, such as Charles Fourier and Ernst Bloch” (120).

Arendt certainly makes no room for the freedom of the nonhuman or any sense of the nonhuman as a social actor (for sure) or a political actor (potentially). She has too much confidence in the “inexhaustible and indefatigable earth” to recognize that it needs a world, too.

One of Arendt’s broadest claims is that human freedom is always based on domination, either of a class of humans (slaves), or of nature; otherwise one is in the grip of “necessity” and lacks freedom. But is it correct to see ourselves as dominated by nature just because we are in mortal bodies? Macauley says we need to get beyond this dualistic thinking but doesn’t offer a clear direction how.

Arendt: “the world of machines has become a substitute for the real world,” a “pseudo world [that] cannot fulfill the most important task of the human artifice, which is to offer mortals a dwelling place more permanent and more stable than themselves” (152). This begs to be recast in the light of the Internet, which certainly casts an illusion of, if not stability and permanence, a kind of public life largely divorced from politics that can seem more “real” or more significant (as public) than an embodied life felt to be entirely privatized.

The “repetitiveness” of labor—well, what is our Net existence but laborious and repetitive? If one does not participate the “news feed,” one might as well not exist, publicly speaking.

A useful footnote of Macauley’s (75): “in contrast to earlier historical representations of nature, a postmodern view appears to conceive of nature in nonanalogical, informational terms” (italics original). Nature as data, DNA, etc.

Apparently there’s been some work using Arendt to read Gary Snyder.

Arendt would presumably object to ecology as an oikos-discourse—if it were another manifestation of the imperial “social,” an attack on the polis and public. 

What to call those spaces in which both human-human and human-nonhuman contacts are frequent and facilitated? Macauley calls them “areas generally outside or between the oikos and the polis which are neither strictly public nor private, but which often ground, embed, or even enclose the agonistic and cooperative public spaces…. they are already complex and diverse locations which offer us more than ‘raw materials,’ ‘resources,’ or a res publica, even if they are by nature nonpolitical (though the disposition we have toward such places is often very political)” (125).

I’m not impressed with his trite dismissal of Arendt’s cosmopolitan values.

Arendt speaks of "the essential worldly futility of the life process" (131), meaning that labor/life cannot create a world, but also seeming to suggest that values cannot emerge from labor or life. Value is presumably connected to appearing (as in the value of the person) and requires a world in which to manifest itself--registering aesthetically.

Clearly, Arendt deplores utilitarianism and is nostalgic for a Greek ethic of excellence (arête) achieved through action.

"World" for Arendt seems to be the monkey wrench in process, halting or slowing the cycle of labor and consumption. I must see what Whitehead has to say about endurance and duration to see whether he agrees, or if for him world-building is part of the universal process but on the scale of human societies. 

The world for Arendt is the shelter of life but is in essence its opposite: the world's "very permanence stands in direct contrast to life" (135).

The processual in Arendt appears in her commitment to the uncertainties of politics and also of thinking--a commitment to perplexity and a renunciation of the comforts of ideology.

Rob Halpern on Oppen. And Bob Baker. 

Object Oriented OlsoN!

The tension between process ontology and ethics is mirrored by the tension between objectivist and symbolist poetics. The one bring us closer to the world, but at the expense of ethical stance and motive action. The other puts the human mind at the center and so suffers from a precipitous loss of reality.

My intuition that Blake's "Human Form Divine" and Arendt's freedom of "men" are not as anthropocentric as they appear, but are openings into a "human universe" whereby the nonhuman discloses itself as meaningful and "human.”

Arendt and Whitehead are united in their fundamental pluralism.

Put another way, the task is to recover worldliness (“the recovery of the public world”) through a poetics that reveals the complex interactions of human and earthly processes; a sense of freedom that is not opposed to necessity but collaborates with and modifies necessity.

Man needs humility, but much more than this he needs to act. Without supporting his action by delusion; he must act in full knowledge of the Copernican revolution (the ecological thought) which paradoxically, by decentering the human, makes the human more necessary than ever. To collaborate with the vitality of the nonhuman and to influence it in pluralistic directions (an “earth ethic,” to extend Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic”).

The margin of the margin. My interest in pastoral began with my fascination with the persistence of this marginal mode within the marginal art of poetry.

Centrality of Arendt in tension with the projectivist or objectivist relinquishing of the “Man of Power.” What is the politics of “achievement”? There’s a degree of Heidegger’s Gelassenheit here, and an ecological stance. But Arendt is certainly for pluralism in the political sphere, which might be viewed as a proto-political ecology.

Literary politics and public politics—Alcalay argues they are intermingled. The comportment of poets who choose to publish with small presses or who circulate letters rather than publish essays is in his view more meaningful and can have greater impact than those who work within existing outlets. His example: an essay on Israel that he could have published in the NY Times but instead sent as a letter to Creeley. (Where is that letter now? In from the warring factions maybe?)

History of the earth/human—>process—>becoming

Blake human history.png


and hope
are indistinguishable
on a physiological


anxiety and hope
are indistinguishable on
a physiological level

that was a bus

and hope
are indistinguishable on
a physiological level

that’s what I said

anxiety and hope are
indistinguishable on
a physiological level

that’s my song

Baroque Nation

Poetry is nation-building by other means, a shadow government that arises wherever a people is denied access to its own institutions, cut off from its own powers, its very language de-authorized. Yeats and his compatriots in Ireland before (and perhaps even more crucially, after) independence; Akhmatova in the Soviet Union quietly defying Stalin; the vast and complex tradition of poetry and anti-poetry in Latin America that has led to the murder and disappearance of poets who dared to represent the people against the power of the state. In this country poetry on the page hasn't often played this role, but rap and spoken word has. Chuck D called rap "CNN for black people" and an album like Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly lives up beautifully and painfully to this charge. Look at the cover, in which one of the most marginal and vulnerable groups in America--young black men--have taken over the White House lawn with fistfuls of Franklins, while a John Roberts-type lies cartoonishly KO'ed in the foreground and the White House--whose black occupant just owned his "anger translator" in front of the largely white audience that can't or won't hear that anger, that reduces the burning of Baltimore to the action of "thugs" and not the predictable response to the slow violence that has been grinding Baltimore's poor black population down for the past fifty years. 

The album itself is angrily, emphatically, gloriously baroque: excessive, combinatory, enfolding layer upon layer of black musical history in every groove, talking back to it, culminating in a quasi-imaginary interview between Lamar and his hero Tupac. And it meats the Yeatsian standard for poetry: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Lamar's album has hit me hard, as few albums do, because of that dialogic, self-confronting quality that I associate with the strongest lyric poetry, going back at least as far as the English Metaphysicals--that is to say, poets of the Baroque period as it expressed itself in England: Herbert, Marvell, Donne. It rewards re-listening. I'm listening to it right now.

The Baroque is in the air. Eight years ago I wrote a little essay called "Notes Toward the Postmodern Baroque" in which I explored the Baroque's art-historical origins as a kind of propaganda effort of the Counter-Reformation that, by its excess, tends to subvert the very ideology that sponsors it, the ideology that the art is supposed to legitimate. I go on to say that, now that the legitimation function has been detached from poetry, we have gone beyond a Habermasian "legitimation crisis" into a crisis of legitimation itself. Here's the central paragraph:

Today we are living through another legitimation crisis, or to speak more accurately, a crisis of legitimation. The right-wing reaction to the liberation movements of the 1960s has pulsed like a shockwave through our society, opening an unprecedented rift between politics and culture that continues to widen. As Andrew Joron has remarked, “Here in America... ‘culture’ has been reduced to a simple play of intensities, to the simultaneously brutal and sentimental pulsions of mass media. Any ‘legitimation function’ would be superfluous: the American machine, with its proudly exposed components of Accumulation and Repression, has no need for such a carapace” (Fathom 18). Increasingly, it seems that the forces of capitalism no longer even need the carapace of politics, let alone culture.  For confirmation of this we need only glance at the Riefenstahlian spectacle of George W. Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, which the speed of events transformed almost overnight into a dialectical image of the man’s hubris and haplessness. And yet the war machine marches on unfazed, sustained as it is by a subtly self-distributed myth of accumulation and enclosure that retains all the mystification of myth while discarding its traditional forms. 

Look at that album cover again: a "riot" or should I say a mattering of black male bodies (#BlackLivesMatter) almost obscuring the symbol of legitimate democratic government, a symbol (and a government) that has been badly undermined by relentless racist opposition to its lawfully elected occupant, Barack Obama. It's a dialectical image, representing the greatest fears of white supremacists but also calling into question the adequacy of our existing institutions when confronted with the structural violence and rapacity of our society. Can poetry--written poetry, poetry on the page--ever top this? Should it even try?

Last year, Steve Burt wrote a review-essay in Boston Review called "Nearly Baroque," which was then critiqued by various posters on the Montevidayo blog, partly for its provincialism (Lucas de Lima takes Burt to task for participating in "the dislocating flows of neoliberal global capital and its digitalized erosion of nationhood and national literature") and partly for his vaguely Protestant emphasis on the values of rigor and restraint (Johannes Göransson asks bluntly, "Is the 'Baroque' Tasteless?"). The constellation of neo-Baroque poets invoked by the Montevidayans is certainly more diverse and cosmopolitan than the American-only list of poets that Burt treats in his essay, and I think they are also right to question how Burt's "nearly baroque" evades the role of kitsch and camp in this poetry. But I do love how he applies the label "femme" to this poetry in remarking its ornamental qualities, its celebration of artifice, and some of the poets he mentions, especially Geoffrey Nutter and Robyn Schiff, are among my favorites working today. Probably the last paragraph of his piece is most relevant to what I'm trying to feel out here, and I'm going to go ahead and quote it:

I have been trying to recommend these poets: I admire them very much. Yet I have also been laying out, almost despite myself, a way to read them skeptically, as symptoms of a literary culture that has lasted too long, stayed too late. Engagé readers might say that the nearly Baroque celebrates, and invites us to critique, a kind of last-gasp, absurdist humanism. We value what has no immediate use in order to avoid becoming machine parts, or illustrations for radical arguments, or pawns for something larger, whether it is existing institutions or a notional revolution. And we must keep moving, keep making discoveries, as the scenes and lines and similes of the nearly Baroque poem keep moving, because if we stop we will see how bad—how intellectually untenable, how selfish, or how pointless—our position really is. The same suspicious readers might say that these nearly Baroque poems bring to the surface questions about all elite or non-commercial or extravagant art: Is it a waste? What does it waste? Can it ever get away from the violence required, if not to produce it, then to produce the society—yours and mine—prepared to enjoy it? The rococo is the art of an ancien régime: it may be that the nearly Baroque poetry of our own day calls our regime ancien as well. It does not pretend to predict what could replace it.

Burt's argument for--and here, against--the "nearly Baroque" or "almost rococo" hinges on a conception of this elaborate and ornamental poetry as a conquest of the useless that paradoxically evades poetry's uselessness, or any notions of the useful, so we won't discover "how bad... our position really is." I'm not sure that's an adequate description of either Schiff's or Nutter's poetry: Schiff is not only formally inventive but concerned with the deep histories of objects in an at-least Benjaminian way, while the elegiac qualities of the Nutter poem that Burt quotes, "Purple Martin," are to my ear sharply and self-accusingly ironic, and smartly engaged with both the liberatory and fascist dimensions of Heidegger's philosophy.

But this may matter less than Burt's incisive question about "the violence required, if not to produce [this poetry], then to produce the society--yours and mine--prepared to enjoy it?" There is, first of all, a kind of violence done in postmodern Baroque poetry (I prefer this term, as hackneyed as it is, to Burt's overcute coinages "nearly Baroque" or "Baroque Baroque"), directed at the anti-eloquent plain speaking English that dogs and cats can read that in its hegemony over our culture wipes out nuance, difference, and the sites in which either historical memory or the genuinely new are most likely to emerge. That violence can be directed inside the poem, at the lyric self itself, as in the work of Finnish poet Tytti Heikkinen that Burt discusses in a more recent review-essay, "Poems About Poems," or in the work of poets associated with the Gurlesque--the violent femmes of the postmodern Baroque. It might also be a prophylactic violence, the both-ways violence Burt describes in the same essay when discussing Daniel Borzutzky's The Book of Interfering Bodies. But more disturbing is the implication that our enjoyment of the postmodern Baroque is an enjoyment of the very structural violence that this poetry seeks to take refuge from. The unappetizing alternatives appear to be a Baroque that renders violence spectacular and consumable (Caravaggio-style) or a Baroque conditioned by the violence it conceals and evades.

Discussing Borzutzky's work Burt soberly remarks that "We may want poetry to do what it cannot do, to perform a magic in which we no longer believe or a political efficacy that no longer makes sense," before going on to remark that in his poems, "we are brought up short and discover that poetry is the despised Other of more consequential textual forms such as the PowerPoint slideshow." More consequential, not more legitimate--PowerPoint is the language of power (I am reminded of articles in the New York Times a few years back about how the limitations of PowerPoint as a medium may have led to some of the costlier decisions made by the American military--I imagine each and every proposed drone strike is PowerPointed, so as to pre-empt every consideration of what might otherwise escape such euphemisms as "civilian casualties"). It seems to me that culture is not, in the end, separable from its legitimation function--for how else except through culture do we come to recognize or critique our own values?--and the crisis is indeed centered on the assumption that our institutions can somehow run on autopilot, no matter how obstructed (on the legislative level), or detached from everyday life (as in the farce of our presidential politics, parodied by non-events like Hillary Clinton's Chipotle visit), or deeply structured by repression (how can we "reform" the police when their actions merely express the consequences of the white majority's refusal to recognize the humanity of dark-skinned people?).

In its excesses the postmodern Baroque can theatricalize poetry's abjection, and help us to recognize our own abjection--as citizens, as marginalized bodies. It can also, in spite of everything, make a place for beauty--not a resigned, detached, or decadent beauty but a complex beauty that never says or celebrates anything without putting that thing, and the self's relation to it, into question. It is the other of power, but not of politics, because politics happens when people organize--on any level, including the level of language--and direct that organization--call it Blake's organized innocence--against the hollowness of power. If revealing the nakedness of the emperor does not, in this historical moment, diminish one whit the emperor's control of the war machine--and that is a terrifying and deeply uncomfortable truth--it is nevertheless necessary to the imagination of alternatives. Including, most simply and radically, the imagination of alternative relations to our own selves, as more complex, more thoughtful, more diverse, more perverse, more impoverished, and more capable of forging connections than we might otherwise ever have realized.

A much-bandied quote of the moment is Martin Luther King Jr.'s "A riot is the language of the unheard." We condemn riots for their violence, especially their violence to property, and yet a riot--or an uprising--has the potential, the barest potential to be heard (as opposed to processed as spectacle, which is what the mainstream networks have been busily doing, putting the riot's historical rootedness on mute). And that capacity to be heard is rooted in excess, in moments of beauty as in the image above, as well as in the more distasteful and horrifying moments that are inseparable from the beauty. The postmodern Baroque, in poetry and out of it, has the capacity for making these connections, rendering them legible, if not legitimate.