Image source: https://xkcd.com/1259/
Mellon Sawyer seminar Graduate Associate Analeah Rosen muses on the politics of ecologically situated literature and possibilities for engaging the environment in non-extractive modes.
The process of establishing boundaries – whether in conceptual frameworks, or in works of art – is a political gesture. In literary works, the writer's choice of who (or what) is able to communicate, have agency, and take up space on the page, is a concern that has been taken up by post-colonial and feminist scholars. An ecological intervention, I argue, that follows this tradition of post-colonial/feminist discourse, is one that asks writers, and by extension readers, to expand the boundaries of who is able to speak and have presence on the page. It is a move that is attentive to the already present commingling, difference, and interdependence between all Earth species. Two theorists, Juri Lotman and Donna Haraway, respectively conceive of “semiospheres” and “sympoiesis”– spheres of knowledge and language that they argue do not only belong to humans. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Zoe Todd put this into praxis by making kin with perhaps some of the most difficult substances; stone and oil, respectively. Making interventions similar to Cohen and Todd's within literary texts might produce new languages and narrative structures that are not only in dialogue with the changing climate, but also open up possibilities for readers to envision engaging with the environment in non-extractive, destructive modes.
One of the more interesting theories Lotman puts forth in his “On the Semiosphere,” is to expand the notion of what falls under the umbrella of semiotics. For Lotman, the space of signs, and by extension texts and language, operate within organic-mechanical systems, semiospheres, that are described as behaving analogously to biospheres. The signs contained within are interdependent and co-created, which leads to an active devaluing of the primacy of language and text within the semiosphere. The chattering of birds, satellite signals, the movement of leaves in autumn – for Lotman, these all inhabit the semiosphere. And we humans find ourselves in dialogue with these myriad forces in pre-lingual modes, translating them into language only after encountering them. “In this way, we might say, that dialogue precedes language and gives birth to it.” In Lotman's universe of porous semiospheres, he asks us to inhabit and be attentive to a world that is always in communication with itself.
To begin probing this question of how to be in dialogue with such a chatty world, Haraway's sympoieses is generative start. Translated in her Staying with the Trouble as “making-with,” Haraway stresses that humans, and earthlings at large, are never operating independently. For Haraway, sympoieses encompasses a radical collaboration between all species in both material and metaphoric ways. “Critters do not precede their relatings; they make each other through semiotic material involution, out of the beings of previous such entanglements.” These entanglements, by and large, consist of eating one another, interpenetration, symbiotic relations, and cooperation/competition. What is particularly important in Haraway's work is the move away from centering the human as the only agentic actor. For Lotman, when other-than-human animals or non-organic articulations (like birds, or satellite signals) are mentioned, they are always mentioned as being interpreted by a human or cultures of humans. However, it is hard to argue against the transmission of semiotic materials between non-human actors, like the bee and orchid, for instance. Orchids are famous for mirroring the female genitals of the insects that pollinate them. The male insects are drawn to the color and shape, and even the pheromones that the orchid mimics, thus ensuring pollination. There is a clear cross-species communication enacted through translation that is happening here. Haraway goes on to describe artist xkcd's imagining of what might happen when the bee responsible for pollinating a particular orchid dies off. “The cartoon does something very special... it does not say the flower is exactly like the extinct insect's genitals. Instead, the flower collects up the presence of the bee aslant, in desire and mortality.” The orchid then, becomes memorial to the dead, continuing to produce signs even when its main interlocutor has become extinct. The politics of writing ecologically situated literature is exactly this: speaking toward absences, de-centering the human, observing and recording the agencies of others.
In Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, the task of ecological thinking becomes how to read and talk to the most inhuman of all elements: rock. Culturally understood as impenetrable, immovable, infinite, Cohen seeks to engage the parts of the planet that are simultaneously charismatic and non-verbal. He writes, speaking of Greek philosopher Empedocles and the project of Stone at large: “To take his theory of elemental restlessness seriously is to apprehend that the world is not centered around the human – not indifferent, not misanthropic, but disanthropocentric, making stories centered on the human wobble, their trajectories veer.” Like Haraway who asks readers to think and care about the kinds of stories that tell stories, Cohen asks his readers to think as and alongside mountains. “Our documentary bias is for worlds conveyed through words. Yet the earth possesses numerous recording devices, repositories for nonlinguistic inscription, an indigenous but hard lithic poetics.” Think of petrified tree rings bearing imprints of ancient pollen, glacial footprints, amber-captured insects. The world is talking, recording, listening in ways that complicate our relationship to meaning-making, symbolic resonance, and poetic capabilities.
Zoe Todd, an anthropologist working with fish and oil though indigenous legal frameworks, takes up the challenge of making “odd-kin” with perhaps the most maligned organic substance: oil. Writing after the Husky Energy Inc. spill in North Saskatchewan River in 2016, where 200,000 liters of oil and diluents streamed through cities and creeks, forcing many residents to enact emergency drinking water procedures, Todd examines the life-cycle of fossil fuels and the historically mediated relationship people living in amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta) have to this substance that for centuries, lay nestled underground. Todd is attempting to move away from solely understanding “oil and oil-progeny as contaminants, or pollutants, and the oil itself as imbued with messy human politics, which extract it from the ground and flood pipeline arteries across the entire continent.” Oil comes from fossils, which Todd imagines as re-animated in the dinosaurs, plants, and animals that flourished millions of years ago in amiskwaciwâskahikan. Further, the oil itself “rested beneath the loamy soil and clay of what is now Alberta for eons.” Dene people have used the bituminous tar to patch and water-proof canoes. Oil, in and of itself, Todd argues, is not violent or dangerous. Instead, she refocuses agency onto modes of petro-capitalist extraction and production. The growing dependency on this fuel, the presence of it as a contaminant in rivers that flow out into the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans – this she condemns as violent. And while the central question of her article – can one make kin with petrochemicals? – is unanswered, she is staying with the trouble. She writes, “it is a difficult philosophic and political negotiation for me to make, for I have, throughout my entire life, seen oil solely in its weaponized form.” This is a mode of being enmeshed within the semiosphere/sympoises – that is being attentive and tending to the various relationships. Leroy Little Bear, quoted in Todd's article, reminds us that, “We as humans live in a very narrow spectrum of ideal conditions. Those ideal conditions have to be there for us to exist. That's why it's very important to talk about ecology, the relationship.” Literature, if anything, is an examination of relationships and entanglements. It is incumbent upon the producers of these works to begin making the theoretical and political leaps to re-focus agency, re-distribute space on the page, and actively tend to the relationships between, and co-created worlds of, humans and more-than-humans.