Ecopoetics: Terra Firma in an Cyborg World?

Virginia Konchan

 

Ecopoetics: Terra Firma in an Cyborg World?

Poetically man dwells.

—Friedrich Hölderlin

History, as a singular, Western accident, has become “global” without becoming universal, through capital’s
disarticulation of logos within the polis: poetry has weathered this crisis through stages of modernist abstraction,
objectivist materialism, language poetry’s asemic play, lyrical modes of elegy and lament, and, today, conceptual
writing, from Robert Fitterman’s embrace of pop culture, Derek Beaulieu’s catalogue-based texts and “fractal
economies,” and Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing,” based on Andy Warhol’s factory model of production,
which repurposes the detritus of postmodernism through mass media and bodily transcriptions mimetic of capitalist
production (but without the corresponding profit).

Conceptual poet Christian Bök describes language’s market status as a “toy suitable for kids of all ages,” and calls for
a “corrosive poetics” vitriolic enough to dissolve commodified language’s acrylic veneer. [1] Whether language
possesses the tools to deconstruct or transcend its own commodification and real subsumption by capital is a
question conceptualist Vanessa Place answers through what Steven Zultanski calls the “anti-context” of a new
conceptual realism (impossible not to recall the Objectivists’ failed dream of a perfectly, or perfectly essentialized,
language invulnerable to commodification and planned obsolescence by market valuation).

Troubling Place’s assertion that “ontology is facticity,” Zultanski refers to Place’s theory of writing as a medium
wherein “the mute materiality of the world (its stuff-ness) is displayed in all its stupidity.” “Stupidity,” however,
suggests a subordination of matter to mind (itself troubling for implications of ethnocentric speciesism) while Place
refers more to the text’s, and the world it purports to echo, lack of speech and agency, reduction to instrumentalized
use-value, and its anti-teleological, brutalized objecthood: “nothing more than dumb materiality, a mute object that
can serve, like other hunks of stuff, our man-made need for talismans”; “The stuff of conceptualism, the textual thing,
is the most static of objects, inert, inutile. Dead as a doorknob. Its representations are radical mimesis because they
do not represent, just present.” Deeming Place’s aesthetic “realist” (considering her anti-position as a reader in
proximity to the text—“any reading is a good reading”), this “relativist realism” is yet, for Zultanski, a “flimsy ontology
serve[ing] as a crutch for cynical postmodernism.” [2]

Post-pastoral and post-war (i.e. post-industrial) poetry and poetics shares affinities with this radical placelessness,
both of the poem itself and its unmoored speaker, with certain exceptions, such as Lorine Niedecker’s imprecise
canonization as a folk modernist writer. For Niedecker, however, in situ or “place-based poetics” was not a reification
of localism, so much as it was a studied resistance to the faux-objectivism, faux-neutrality, faux-realism, and fauxuniversalism
of bourgeois sentiment, war mongering, corporate scrubbing, and, though toward different ends, the acritical
“vangardism” of the post-avant-garde. “Niedecker’s poem implies that art should avoid the universal if
universality means the complete fungability of value exempted by commodities. Her literary art insists on the
absolute difference made to the meaning of the poem by the relations in which the work is received,” says Peter
Middleton. [3]

To deploy language that can’t conceptually outstrip, outsignify, or outrun its own syntax, through a focus on the local,
domestic, and measurable, or formally, through parataxis or refrain, is to insist on a still-indexical relationship
between the sign and referent, as well as the preserved space (a prior collapsed by all “realisms”), between the
perceiver and the object or subject being perceived. Feigning the perceptual mimesis of a mirror, rather than
admitting to the coded perspective of a photographer, conceptual writing, in theory, while acknowledging matter’s
incontrovertibly (Kant’s ding an sich), rather than treating it as absent referent, eventuality, event, or Agambenian
“potenza,” instead insists on its “deadness” and factitious immanence. This anti-contextual, anti-perspectival sleightof-hand
theory and practice builds upon but doesn’t subvert the legacies of scientific determinism, Cold War and
communist ideology, and New Critical practices, as a rhetoric that makes (perhaps this is the point?) a fetish object of
its own anti-utopic aesthetic.

Ecopoetics, ecoliterature, zoopoetics, cultural ethnography, and other environment literatures on the subject of animal
capital, biopower, and Western industrial practices (imperialist and neo-imperialist) are, however, perhaps capable of
intervening in this aesthetic-politico semiotic collapse, generating as well as critically deconstructing culture.

A (re) commitment to personal or collective responsibility and the border-limits of the body of difference is the
metadiscursive “ground” on which ecopoetry, a movement that combines capitalist discursivity and awareness of
political economy with elegiac returns to nature and the breath as a formal metrical principle (from Charles Olson’s
1950 manifesto, “Projective Verse,” declaring breath to be the unit of sense in a poem, on): the resulting “biopower”
is fueled by small communities of poets and organizations, such as PennSound, that rescue poetry from its
overdetermination as text in post-conceptual poetry, emphasizing its multi-dimensional ecology as an inextricable
tripartite of image, word, and sound.

Defined by Jonathan Skinner as “house making” (recalling Heidegger’s purposing of poetry as creating spaces for
dwelling) ecopoetry expresses thematically, politically, and formally (on the level of syntax and line) an “ecological
ethics,” according to Forrest Gander, extensive but not reducible to our palimpsestic perceptual experience of the
world: “Compost seems to me no more a model of nature than geometrical symmetry (the housefly’s eye) or strict
mathematical progression (the Fibonacci number sequence).” [4]

The linguistic turn of structuralism and systems theories from Freud to Foucault are conceptual paradigms that
supplant dynamic models of consciousness and social interrelation for superstructures that exclude the base from
representation: aesthetics, nature, animals and unpaid/domestic/migrant labor. Ecocriticism (which examines
cultural production as mediated by one’s relationship to their physical environment) and ethnopoetics (a turn from
modernist experimentation to the practices of ancient and autochthonous cultures) present the postmodern subject
with an alternative to the current junket of postwar technology substituting for the annihilating power of the natural
world: what Christopher Arigo calls the “revised sublime.”

Instead of worshipping the artwork’s devolution into commodification, and the post-human subject into a prosthetic
body whose liberal “self” is produced by market relations, ecopoetry posits an interrelation between urban and
pastoral, techno-capitalist and indigenous practices: a postmodern “ecosystem” populated by humanist and posthumanist
concerns.

Two anthologies frame this outgrowth of work: the ecolanguage reader (2011) and The Arcadia Project: North
American Postmodern Pastoral (2012). As explained in the introductions, ecopoetry and the postmodern pastoral are
an outgrowths of the pastoral and georgic poetry traditions, Romanticism, and Transcendentalism: ecopoetry,
however, is a response to the idealist, bourgeois aporias of these traditions, and positions itself as “anti-pastoral”
whereas the postmodern pastoral repurposes that term (and tradition).

The work of contemporary ecopoets and ecocritics such as those represented in the eco language reader(Brenda
Iijima, Jonathan Skinner, Jed Rasula, Laura Elrick, Jack Collom, Jill Magi, Leslie Scalapino), a collaborative
anthology which maps the ruins of the global ecosystem onto the social, trace the volatilities of the body under global
capitalism (the reproductive, cyborg body, and commodified body), contribute to an elastic corpus of “ecopoetical”
texts, creative and critical, that politicize class, gender, race, and other fraught boundaries between
particularized identities and universal concepts (nation-states and the global economy), as well as the actual
occupied or evacuated sites of body, nature, and world.

These and other ecopoets’ acts of salvage, critique, and integration are required today, to move past the impotences
of writing practices whose conceptual apparatus renders the process of creation, and the poet herself, machinic, as
well as the frozen embattlement, theoretically, over terms that sustain false binaries between “essentialist”
(reductionist or determinist) ethnographic, racial, or gendered self-identifications. Within the ecopoetry movement
itself, the “postmodern pastoral” and “anti-pastoral” movements suggest an internal rift that, however productively,
recaps rather than the lyric/language poetry antimonies.

Joel Kovel defines “ecofeminism” as a resistance to the reduction of nature to inert resources, the privileging of cold
abstraction over what is human, and the “superexploitation of women” (unwaged domestic labor, exploited labor in
the manufacturing, agricultural, and sex industries): while acknowledging its revolutionary potential, Kovel argues
ecofeminism has essentialized women’s closeness to nature and submerged history into nature in the process, a
critique that has kept ecofeminism and other forms of coalitional politics from forms of praxis. [5]

Eco-Language-Poets (like “ecofeminists,” who replace Marxist feminists’ signifier of class determinism for ecology),
because sensitive to the anterior forces (symbolic, sonic) of meaning behind its representation in language, however,
evade accusations of essentialism, a post-post-modern watchword Christine Wertheim describes in
“Essentialism: To Be or Not To Be” as forcing a distinction between particularized identity (historic, gendered, racial,
ethnic) and inconsequence: anti-essentialist theory disconnects subjects from their bodies and history, Wertheim
argues, creating “universal (non-) subjects with no specifiable qualities . . . This subject is not only unstable and
inessential, it is a theoretical fiction.” [6]

Ecotexts’ potential to serve as a means of an embodied class critique that repurposes what Gayatri Spivak calls
global capitalism’s “monocultures of the mind,” hinges on its capacity for self-critique (the “deconstruction” of a
normative subject position found in contemporary cultural theory and Marxist ideology) and identification with the
colorations of one’s personal history, class status, and subject position: this inward turn recalls deep ecology founder
Arne Naess’ call for the “self-realization” of all species.

If the ecopoetry movement is to create deliberative spaces for new social and political praxes, it must first “selfrealize”
as a form of praxis, and undergo its own institutional critique. The neoliberal soft sell of aestheticization as a
means of establishing personhood within the “neither/nor” flux of postmodernity’s memes (plurality, multiplicity), is the
context in which this critique is formed, and the ecolanguage reader, according to Patrick James Dunagan, raises key
questions regarding the political dimensions of the ecopoetics movement: “To what ends are writings
directed? Whose priority is being served? Importantly, to whom are you being, or encompassing others to be,
subservient?” Naming the “spectacle of cultural loss” and seeking constructive alternatives are different tasks,
Duncan concludes, arguing that while ecopoetics may not offer solutions, it contributes to a “visceral awareness” that
transcends counterfactual argument. [7] In the recuperation of the body politic as a “third space” of mediation beyond
the Marxist dialectic, ecopoetry serves as a “necessary adjunct to the overall critique of both late capitalism and
fundamentalist Marxism,” Tyrone Williams affirms. [8]

For poet Juliana Spahr, in her latest collection Well Then There Now, this self-critique entails a journey into class
consciousness within a post-class world (“I am trying to write something about being a child of a certain moment, of a
certain class, working class, and then an adult of a different moment, of a different class, middle class”). Fraught
gestures of solidarity with women from other countries inflects Well Then There Now (“It makes me more nervous to
put sentences about myself next to sentences about women from other places”), a text that, along withThis
Connection of Everybody with Lungs (linking 9/11 to socio-political colonialization), “thinks” through globalization,
specifically the oppression of women (“I was trying to think about the role of the US government in forcing reduced
tariff barriers on numerous countries . . . I was trying to think about women shelling shrimp in Honduras . . . I was
trying to think about women sewing garments in Liberia”) through a focalization on her own past in Chillicothe, Ohio
(“even as Chillicothe and I both benefit from the economic incentives that Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 war on poverty
allocates to Appalachia, even as I take these incentives and I leave town and benefit from globalization in numerous
ways.”) [9]

The spirit of inquiry, rather than propositional statement, is the epistemological mode of Well Then There Now, along
with other eco-sensitive texts wedding self-critique to socio-political analysis (Hoa Nguyen’s As Long as Trees Last,
Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire).

Textual deferral as practiced by the structuralists as a form of “doubling” (the simulacrum added to and destroying the
trace of the original) is potentially constructive, opening the text to an interval of breath, or spacing. Yet, the
deconstructionist jettisoning (along with master narratives and other attempts to represent history) of origins, the
proper name, and literal meaning has given way to a discursive framework wherein “difference” is exchanged for nonvariance
on the level of sexuality, gender, race, and class, and the mark of (and space
between) arché andtelos (origin and end), has been effaced. A similar “break” occurred in 1934, when Benjamin
heralded the age of the author as producer in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a manifesto
arguing for the rapprochement between technological progress and radical Marxist politics. It was only by the text’s
“rescuing” of the image from its vulnerability to propaganda (akin to the ecopoets’ “rescuing” of nature from
capitalism) could the “revolutionary use value” of both the text and the image be realized.

Along with ecoliterature, ecocinema is a cinematic means of representing ecological plights and environmental justice
in films such as Erin Brockovitch. It Starts With a Whisper and Backbone of the World present indigenous world
views that resist binaries between living/non-living, biotic/abiotic, organic/inorganic, reminding the viewer of the
cosmology of interrelatedness and the root of the word “eco” (home).

The Green Revolution of the late 1960s brought about agricultural self-sufficiency in many developing economies and
increased dependency in others; but, as the urban landscape of America underwent rapid gentrification, the middle
class began to disappear, and wage-labor capitalism under world globalization created disproportionate wealth and
goods distribution worldwide. Fast forward forty years: the “climate” of ecopoetry today, is bleak. According to the
UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, global grain reserves are dangerously low due to drought, spelling an
impending food crisis for millions, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada to the United States is proceeding
without impediment (NASA’s top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, has warned that if the Canadian tar sands are
fully exploited, “it is ‘game over’ for Earth’s climate”), and little governmental regulation regarding coal, offshore oil
drilling, and hydro-fracturing for natural gas is forecasted nor oversight on fossil fuel extraction, the main culprit of
climate change. [10]

Ecopoets challenge the reflexivities of environmental catastrophe and consumer capitalism by rematerializing the
body of language, making it resistant to the “mining” of bodies for cultural and economic capital. “Never to be
owned. Never to be/ had,” says Spahr: “had” implying other-possession as well as being duped. A sustained
argument against the false syncretism and collapsed distinctions between private and public, simulated and real,
ecopoets are building up a foundational habitus for the necessary au-delà to aporetic, post-structuralist criticism
through an analysis of language and Foucaultian power formations, reclamation of economic context (class
consciousness), and the genealogical, national, and mythological “narratives,” however constructivist, of each
individual’s “post-historical” history.

Along with governmental and citizen efforts toward green consumerism, and against corporate exploitations of natural
resources and environmental treaties, eco-literature articulates visions of sustainability and a discourse of value
centered not on the reification or erasure of the individual, nor the elixirs of post-structuralism (the death of the author;
hyper-textuality) but, rather, a return to “wildness”: the individual and body politics’ organicity, rhythms, and voice.

In this, ecoliterature doesn’t just replicate the profit-driven logic of the market (deregulated accumulation and
overconsumption) but follows instead the libidinal flows of the inhabited body, not as “dead matter,” but as a sentient
ecosystem (like the planet, and animal life) of its own (the word “propre” in French denoting property, good form or
manners, and self-possession): not as a “thing” to be objectified, rationed, mastered, or killed, but as a source of
refuge, intersubjective reference, and basis for the work self/other/world interrogation.

From Brenda Iijima’s “If Not Metamorphic?”:

“Who      is         tangent               to          whom.

And when. In the field? If I were you?                             In a

history? If you were                                               the occupied?

Contracts? Billions trillions?                              More than life . . .

Oil, water, air? Lucky humans? Do

you need these before I take them (you).” [11]

Poetry’s evolution beyond autocratic, technical manipulations and capitalist commodification is an act of rebellion,
refiguring the body and its environs. However conceived, anti-capitalist literature resists reactionary outcroppings of
xenophilia, misogyny, and indifference to the suffering of animals, women, and other ontological and class-positioned
“others” amid expanding, post-humanist definitions of “alien” and “human.” Post-colonialist writings about animal
capital (fueling, along with unpaid labor, Western capitalist practices since industrialism), use the “metaphor of meat”
literally, to indicate the body of an oppressed subject. Moving beyond figurative language to lived praxis in
contemporary theory, ecoliterature and ecocriticsm are necessary addendums to post-pastoral, post-colonial, postempire
poetics, creating dialogic spaces for the recognition of and gradual emancipation from exploitations stemming
from Western ideologies. Rather than reinstituting forms of hegemonic oppression through socio-critical elitisms,
ecoliterature responds to, rather than declaring dead-on-arrival (or simply inconsequent), a textual and actual “other”
to the occupied territories and subjects of a globalized world, existing within, or perhaps arising from, history’s
hollows, fissures, and gaps.

From Jill Magi’s Slot:

So as to remember the ruin

leave a space in the new house undone— [12]


[1] Christian Bök , “Virtually Nontoxic,” http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bok/virtually.html
[2] Steven Zultanski, “Short statement in five parts on “Statement of Facts”: A review of Vanessa Place’s “Statement
of Facts,” Jacket2, October 16, 2012.
[3] Peter Middleton, “Lorine Niedecker’s ‘Folk Base’ and Her Challenge to the American Avant-Garde,” The
Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, eds. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain (Tuscaloosa: The
University of Alabama Press, 1999), pg. 183-185.
[4] Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, Eds., Forrest Gander and John Kinsella (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press,
2011), p. 2.
[5] Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature (New York: Zed Books, 2002), p.176.
[6] Christine Wertheim, “Essentialism: To Be or Not To Be,” Femnaissance (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2010),
xii.
[7] Patrick James Dunagan, “Continual Critique: After the After of Ecology,” The Critical
Flame. Web. http://criticalflame.org/nonfiction/0111_dunagan.htm
[8] Tyrone Williams, the ecolanguage reader, Brenda Iijima, Ed. (Callicoon: Nightboat Books, 2010), p. 148.
[9] Juliana Spahr, Well Then There Now (Jaffrey: A Black Sparrow Book, 2011), p. 144-153.
[10] “Six Global Issues The Foreign Policy Debates Won’t Touch,” ed. Peter Certo. Foreign Policy in Focus, October
16, 2012. Web. http://www.fpif.org/articles/six_global_issues_the_debates_wont_touch
[11] Brenda Iijima, If Not Metamorphic (Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2010), p. 11.
[12] Jill Magi, Slot (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Press, 2011), p. 83.

 

 

 

 

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The New Yorker, the Believer, Sixth Finch, and The New Republic, and her criticism in Boston Review, Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. The co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Chicago.

poetryBarzakh Mag