Sarah Kay (NYU) and François Noudelmann (Paris 8) recently put together a fabulous few days on the Sense of Sound at NYU, of which the full program can be found here (archived PDF version here).
As part of this, I found myself very happily on a panel about nonhuman sounds, alongside my medievalist colleague from Columbia, Eliza Zingesser, my writer and Proustian colleague from NYU, Eugène Nicole, and Rachel Mundy from Rutgers who is doing fabulous research on bird song in and/beyond music.
My contribution was on "Plant Sound." One might ask: why plants? and why plant sound? Almost every time over the past couple of years when I've given a talk based on my "On the Exterranean" project, about "stuff" that is extracted "ex terra," somebody inevitably asks me (productively): "don't plants come of out the ground too? what's the difference?" Each time the question came, its un-stated assumptions and provocations were different, which has usefully nudged me to read a lot of botanical texts, as well as a lot of plant theory (Nealon and such like), to think about precisely how it is different for plants to grow "ex terra" and for other "stuff" to be taken "ex terra." There are, as I'm finding, many many overlaps, and many many differences, making both more interesting. The focus here on "plant sound" was originally a detour--but I'm starting to think that it won't be! How we "access" the plan and it's plant/vegetal life is essential. In any case, 20 minutes in to the video below are some first thoughts on "plant sound."
Happy to have spoken this past week in the "French Seminar Series" at UPenn, invited by two fabulous folks, Nathalie Lacarrière and Hanna Laruelle. It's good to keep talking about the project and to keep getting feedback as I wait for the final readers' reports.
The picture on the poster is incidentally one that I took while visiting Lecorbusier's (now almost dilapidated) Villa Savoye in Poissy, France. There's something about the this view, taken from the roof terrace, whose walls are starting to lose their paint, that seemed in my mind to speak to the idea of taking things "ex terra," of living with things taken "ex terra," all the time while looking on at Terra and terra.
In Au fond des images (2003), Jean-Luc Nancy makes the point that any given landscape (i.e. painted, imagined, etc.) obfuscates the land it represents, such that we no longer see the land, the physical reality of the trees, etc. The same point is what drives the exhibition Animer le paysage (June 20- September 17, 2017) at Paris’s Musée de la chasse et de la nature, in which a team of artist-researchers from Science Po’s SPEAP program (founded by Bruno Latour, run by Frédérique Aït-Touati) experiment with new ways of making phenomenologically available the physical realities of territory in the Belval domaine in the Ardennes. Printed on the wall, as one enters, are words from Latour to make the central claim in terms similar to Nancy’s: whereas “nature” is mostly “that which we look at, behind a window, like a spectacle or a landscape” (c’est ce que l’on contemple, derrière une vitre, comme un spectacle ou comme un paysage), “territory” is something quite different, namely “that on which we place our feet, on which we depend, that which we shake at fear of losing” (ce sur quoi on pose les pieds, ce dont on depend, ce que l’on tremble de perdre). In other words, recasting territory as another kind of landscape, there are two forms of landscape: “the one that we look at frontally, in a detached manner” (celui qu’on regarde en face, de façon détachée) and “the other one in which we find ourselves inserted, and which holds on to us” (celui dans lequel on se trouve inséré et qui vous tient). This central message is brought home by the organizing opposition between (a) the (distanced, detached) view of a “natural” domain that one gets from a small wooden belvedere, i.e. a view of Johan Christian Dahl’s View from Stalheim (1842) (Figure 1- in black and white in the exhibition); and (b) the rest of the exhibition, throughout which other means are tested out for accessing territory.
Johan Christian Dahl’s View from Stalheim (1842) (Image from here)
As tidy and simple as the notion of “landscape” can be, that of territory here reveals its complexity, its dirtiness, as well as the impossibility of selecting one way of accessing or representing it. I shall not try to summarize the exhibition’s richness. I note only, to give an idea, that as one progresses through Animer le paysage, a collection of verbs serves to delineate some of the ways one might access territory by getting into it, close to it, etc. Thus, the photographer Sylvie Gouraud, drawing on the techniques of farmers and hunters, explores the idea of traquer (to track); Sonia Levy and Alexandra Arènes take up the task of capter (to capture), in order to show how the territory form of landscape is a “heterogeneous assemblage of the different forms of life that inhabit it and of the legal frameworks that construct it” ([un] assemblage hétérogène des differrentes formes de vie qui l’habitent, mais également des institutions de législation qui le construisent); Baptiste Morizot and Estelle Zhong Mengual take up the verb pister (to trail) via an interactive installation in which the museum visitor enters (alone! as per a sign) into a corridor, starts to walk forward on what feels like sand and is then, all of a sudden, surprised by a flashlight, as an animal might be trailed and suddenly shot (by a camera or a gun)—an image (of a trailed animal) then appears, and the visitor is invited thus to identify with, to put him/herself in the place of, that animal; Thierry Boutonnier takes up the terms sillonner (to roam, to criss-cross).
As the new academic year slowly appears on the horizon, there's plenty of good things happening at the SCSC in
Milwaukee. Very happy to be part of these two panels.
Friday, October 27, 10.30am-noon. Room: Lakeshore B 48.
Corpus Naturalis: Biology and Ecology in Renaissance France
Organizer: Robert J. Hudson
Chair: Phillip J. Usher
Les nouvelles et leurs ‘belles pièces d’hommes’ (Des Périers, nouvelle 3 des Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis). Les recueils français de nouvelles du XVIe siècle, une littérature humorale? Boutet Anne, CESR
A Bodily Route to the Ecological Thought in Guillaume du Bartas’s La Sepmaine Stephanie Shiflett, Boston University
Drinking Rhubarb Straight Up: Strong Remedies and Ingested Substances in Montaigne Dorothy Stegman, Ball State University
Saturday October 28, 3.30pm-5pm. Room: Crystal 157.
Reading French Renaissance Texts in the 21st Century
Organizer: Cathy Yandell
Chair: Nora M. Peterson
Reading La Boëtie’s Discours de la servitude volontaire in 2017 Cathy Yandell, Carleton College
Theorizing the Memorial Texts of 16th-Century France David LaGuardia, Dartmouth College
Plant Theory and 16th-Century Botany Phillip Usher, New York University
Very excited that at some point during Spring 2017 I'll be speaking in this EHESS seminar on "La connaissance sensible," more specifically alongside Philippe Quesne.
Drawing on my (currently-being-reworked "On the Exterranean" book) I'll be talking about early modern mining/extraction/mining spirits, to think about the liveliness of that which is underground; Quesne will be offering other takes on the non-inert subterranean via his fabulous "Welcome to Caveland" series at Nanterre, including his play "La nuit des taupes" (The Night of the Moles). This should be a fun and useful dialogue!
Watch this space for the date and time.
Full poster here. (PDF)
Simon Critchley’s series “The Stone” at the New York Times has just published an upbeat and important interview between Natasha Lennard and Carry Wolfe. It’s a sanguine introduction to posthumanism written for a general audience, an important intervention in a public forum as we gear up for the presidential inauguration. But why—why oh why!—did it have to be titled: “Is Humanism Really Humane?” ? Or perhaps I should be asking: why oh why did the piece not take the seeming paradox more seriously, i.e. more literally? Didn’t deconstruction teach us to respond à la lettre? Shouldn't we unpack how the "human" of the various "humanisms" is (not) related to the "human" of the category of the "humane," especially as we live in the age of the anthropos? This I attempt elsewhere (in a forthcoming piece), so for now just a few immediate thoughts. And, before anyone raises this point, it doesn’t matter who chose the title—that’s the title and the interview lives with it. It’s not being pedantic to argue that asking the question "Is Humanism Really Humane?" without unpacking etymologies and word histories—muddies the waters considerably.
For sure, Wolfe—who has thought and written a lot about humanism and posthumanism—opens the interview by acknowledging that “the subject of ‘humanism’ itself is a vast one,” that there are “many different varieties of it,” and that posthumanism “doesn’t mean ‘anti-humanism.’” Despite this plurality, despite the quotation marks that Wolfe himself puts around “humanism,” and despite the pledge that there is nothing “anti” about the “post,” Wolfe nonetheless proceeds to talk of the “sketches of the ‘human,’ ‘the animal’ or ‘nature’ that we get from the humanist tradition.” The emphasis is mine: he says “the humanist tradition.” This is a problem.
Where did the “the” come from? Where did the plurality go? Where did the quotation marks go? Later in the interview, Wolfe writes: “Humanism provides an important cultural inheritance and legacy, no doubt, but…”; and he talks of how “…the humanist philosophical tradition considered…” If there are multiple traditions of humanism, and if posthumanism is not anti-humanism, then what exactly are “the humanist tradition” and “humanism” within the bounds of this interview? Wolfe never says. He leaves this to Lennard, who defines humanism as “the hierarchical distinguishing between human and nonhuman animals based on a certain notion of ‘knowledge’ or ‘intelligence.’” And Wolfe, in his response, neither disagrees nor nuances.
Wolfe’s definition of posthumanism is, unlike his (half-disavowed) rejection of (which?) humanism, generous and cogent: “You find hints of [posthumanism] in anything that fundamentally decenters the human in relation to the world in which we find ourselves, whether we’re talking about other forms of life, the environment, technology or something else.” He continues as follows: “Perhaps more importantly, you find it in the realization that when you don’t allow the concept of the ‘human’ to do your heavy philosophical lifting, you are forced to come up with much more robust and complex accounts of whatever it is you’re talking about.” I could not agree more. As an early modernist, a scholar of the variety of humanism that Wolfe calls “Renaissance humanism,” I embrace that definition of posthumanism—it’s an essential anti-anthropocentric mode of inquiry—and I assert that one indeed finds “hints” of it in many places, including everywhere in early modern humanism, that moment before Latourian modernity untied the Gordian knot that we now collectively attempt to re-tie. Countless MLA papers this year made this point beyond all doubt--I think of Katie Chenoweth, Hassan Melehy, Vin Nardizzi, Karl Steel, and countless others.
As Kenneth Gouwens has pointed out in his fabulous “What Posthumanism Isn’t” piece in Joseph Campana and Scott Maisano’s book Renaissance Posthumanism, the humanism that Wolfe rejects is a very recent—historically and geographically situated—variety. It has nothing to do with early modern humanism, nor with 19th-century German reflections on the term. He doesn't say it does--but neither does he define humanism in any other more rigorous manner (in his book, he starts with Wikipedia). Wolfe's humanism is--shows Gouwens-- most clearly that of the “Humanist Manifesto” published in 1933, signed by thirty-four intellectuals including John Dewey (see Gouwens, p. 44). We would do well to remember that and either to be more precise about which humanism’s “humane-ness” we’re asking about, or else to change questions and ponder for example whether anthropocentrism is humane--at least that's a precise question. My only point here is that, as Latour has written recently, “the humanities have a problem with the word ‘human’” (“Life Among Conceptual Characters,” p. 474). To be continued...
*Thank you to Danielle Zuckerman, who knows a thing or two about the Anthropocene, for first bringing the New York Times piece to my attention.
Trump selects Rex Tillerson (Exxon); and scientists make an archive of Global Warming Data for fear it might disappear
In the 350.org email update, Jamie Henn writes: “Yesterday Donald Trump did what I thought was unthinkable, and officially nominated ExxonMobil's CEO Rex Tillerson to be the next US Secretary of State” (December 14, 2016). On Fox News (see below), it’s asked “why he’s an excellent choice” and Robert Charles is happy to explain: Tillerson is “not a Johnny-come-lately-diplomat” and a “brilliant out-of-the-box choice.” Not a word about all that Exxon has done to knowingly screw up the planet and pretend it knew nothing (see http://exxonknew.org/). MSNBC’s reporting was a bit more balanced, indeed pointing out that Tillerson denies the science of global warming—still on MSNBC Richard Branson says he “hopes” that Tillerson’s “not a climate denier” and that, once he’s no longer at Exxon, he might be able to “do something” about global warming…….. Meanwhile, as Brady Davis writes in the Washington Post, some have less hope: “Scientists are frantically copying U.S. climate data, fearing it might vanish under Trump.” I write this after a day at the British Library, reading 500 year-old books about the planet-- and here I am this evening, reading about how scientists now genuinely fear losing data about the current and future state of our planet.
After yesterday’s post about Trump, Ebell, and the question of education in the Anthropocene, it is somehow fitting that today I advance a few witness’s notes about children leaning about ecosystems.
Thursday November 10, 2016, while in Nantes for other reasons, I quickly visited the Jardin des plantes opposite the train station and happened upon Claude Ponti’s exhibition of strange things made of plants, “Le Jardin Kadupo,” such as the “Pontanpo,” a plant pot made of plant pots, showing “the life of pots” and the “Dormanron”! As well as the trees and plants with their Linnaean signs, there was thus also this throwing-up-in-the-air of that specifically modern attempt to classify and give order. And through the garden walked several groups of young children, out for a one-day mini-version of what the French call “une classe verte,” i.e. a class of hands-on exploration of the world of plants and minerals and suchlike. Each child had a little bag in which s/he collected leaves for future drying and placement into a herbarium—but what was just so fabulous was that, as they indeed learned to identify leaves and thus trees, to give order to what they were seeing, Ponti’s exhibition was also offering resistance, saying “No, there is no order!” Both parts of the lesson are so valuable—they feed each other.
This afternoon (Saturday Nov 12, 2016)—as the only non-accompanied adult in the theater!—I saw L’île aux vers de terre (Worm Island) by Cécile Fraysse of Compagnie AMK (Aérostat Marionettes Kiosque), again at Nanterre Amandiers as part of Philippe Quense’s “Welcome to Caveland.” It’s not a play “about” an ecosystem; it simply “is” an ecosystem into which the audience is invited. There’s a rocky-mossy island, on which live a young girl and her grandmother—and a lot of earthworms; and there’s thunder and lightening; and… but none of that captures it really. The program presents it (well) as follows: “Two puppeteers dressed in camouflage [and indeed they are! they look like big mossy mounds], a singing guitarist dressed as a seal, and strange pink earthworms that are both docile and worrying, busy in their work of hollowing out the insides of the scenery, all accompany the adventures of Nanouk and her grandmother. Within a lightscape that changes with the seasons, submerged within textiles and foliage, the island which gives its name to the play is an organism that breathes and crackles, a living compost-ground [un terreau vivant] shot through with tunnels and passages, secret jurisdictions as old as the world. The young spectators, to whom mini-telescopes have been given [little plastic tubes!], are invited to deliver their gaze unto this fictional and very real [plastique] matter. Through scalar games and purely bodily sensations, Cécile Fraysse questions our relationship to the world” (my translation; French here). I won’t spoil the story, but it’s not a particularly happy play or story, not an ecosystem that is miraculously saved, nor for that matter heinously destroyed by some big Anonymous Industry—no, it’s an ecosystem, with ups and downs and losses and gains and with humans and nonhumans assembling themselves, co-evolving; it’s an ecosystem in which no one is master.
P.S. Check out AKM’s other plays for young audiences: Iceberg; Gingko Parrot; and the others; check out their Youtube channel, and their blog; oh, and go see L’Île aux vers de terre if you’re in Paris, it’s on in various places through April 2017 (see here).
In other words: as I leave France (again), it’s with this memory of children learning about ecosystems, a very anti-Trump, anti-Ebell kind of thing to do.
aEach time I’ve gone to write an email since Donald Trump became President Elect this week, during the night of November 8-9, 2016, it’s been hard to know how to start. Do I acknowledge the election and express… something? No less hard here. What is clear is that making even incremental progress on global warming and all it brings will now be much more difficult is clear.
There’s Trump’s tweet from November 6, 2012, which makes his position clear.
And there’s the fact that Trump has selected Myron Ebell to lead the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), id est Myron Ebell who chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition that takes aim at “global warming alarmism,” id est Myron Ebell the original global warming skeptic, id est Myron Ebell who on Fox News (see here) tries to twist reality, who on Fox News (see below) is against Maryland’s “Environmental Literacy” requirement—“That’s not really education, it’s propaganda.” That pretty much clinches the main point for me, as an educator and as a scholar engaged in thinking about the Anthropocene—let’s put it clearly, Ebell (and Trump who now puts him in this new role vis-à-vis the EPA) are COMPLETELY AGAINST EDUCATION ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING AND THE ANTHROPOCENE.
And then there are, of course, Trump’s specific plans. Naomi Klein (who also criticized the positions of HRC), has studied what Trump’s arrival will likely mean for global warming, in a piece in the Nation: “Donald Trump’s Presidency Could Literally Mean the End of Their World. Island nations like Kiribati will disappear if Trump goes forward with his energy plans.” As Klein summarizes, among Trump’s immediate plans are: (1) remove any obstacles to the creation of the Keystone XL pipeline; (2) list restrictions on fossil-fuel production; (3) cancel “billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs.” This would mean that Kiribati and other low-lying islands may simply not survive. Trump’s “America First Energy Plan” is here (archived here as PDF from November 11, 2016—you never know what will disappear!).
As I probably don’t need to tell the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump, the election of Trump should make us afraid: the posting of racist signs above water fountains, a planned KKK rally in North Carolina, widespread reports of harassment, are just some of the reasons to be afraid. It can feel mighty hard to even have a thought for global warming when so many (non-white, not-male, LGBTQ, non-Christian [which includes Atheists], not-etc.) people are indeed facing immediate threat. But it’s all connected: as Naomi Klein points out in the piece referenced above, and as the Pope did in his “Laudato Si” encyclical, and as the climate justice movement has been reminding us for a long time, the consequences of Trump’s views on global warming will not affect everyone equally: rich white men of a certain age like Trump will be okay; others won’t. Racism and sexism and hate are at the heart of global warming. Which is to say, simply, that—now more than ever—we have to look around us AND (like Anaxagoras) take a step back and look away from the city to think about our planet in the infinite void. We must do one and the other.
Recommended viewing on Trump and his "stewardship" of the planet: the film “You've been trumped.”
For the second time this week, I ended up on my back in a dark room alongside a bunch of strangers doing the same. This time, it was one part of the exhibition Le Grand orchestre des animaux at the Fondation Cartier. The crux of the exhibition was thus this largely dark room, an echo chamber for the animal sound recordings of Bernie Krause, what he calls biophony (“the creature chorus of natural sound”). The experience is pretty damn gripping. In addition to the sound, there are visuals that materialize that sound in another form. The left wall is a kind of giant oscilloscope marking in long bars and real time the frequencies of different animals in the recording (each recording belongs to a different location); the front and right walls are an EKG-like recording instrument that keeps a trace of what the left wall measures. You’re surrounded in animal sound as sound, as flickering frequency bars, and as a ticker-tape-life recording that wraps around. The animals here are the active agents. As they come and go, they leave a sonic footprint on the walls, which both serves to identify them, but in a more direct way than through sight. You can hear many animals at once, and yet still hear them all individually at the same time. And there is none of that almost automatic distracting anthropomorphizing that all too easily hits us when we look at an animal. Some great sound for thought.
Project THE HUMANIST anthropocene
is a thought archive and workspace of Phillip John Usher (NYU) at the crossroads of early modern humanism and the problems and insights of the Anthropocene. Main Research Page.
ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment)
Environmental Humanities (journal)
Resilience (A Journal of the Environmental Humanities)
All text and images quoted from other sources used according to fair use. If I have used one of your images and you would like me to remove it, please email me.