The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven;
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea.
Looking back, see white clouds combining;
Entering the green haze, it becomes nothing.
Seen from the middle peak, the sectioned fields change;
Shadowed and sun-splashed, the many gorges vary.
Looking for human lodging for the night—
Query the woodcutter over the water.
Wang Wei (699–759), “Zhongnan Mountain.” The original poem was composed in the lüshi verse style of the High Tang; the lines were strongly divided into two- and three-syllable feet with an implied caesura, running in couplets linked by rhyme, logic, and enjambment. I’m accessing the original via How to Read Chinese Poetry: a Guided Anthology, ed. by Zong-Qi Cai; my version is informed by his lovely and illuminating commentary.
The poem struck me forcibly a couple of years ago, after a weekend spent on Maine’s Mount Katahdin. In it I found echoes of the work the mountain did on me: the braided vistas merging, the gulfs and drops seducing, the patterns of forest succession merging and disappearing into one another. Wang Wei catches a patterning that is always at work in us and around us, but which a mountain often brings into focus: combination, nothingness, change, and variation. Zong-qi Cai points out that the two middle couplets in fact end in he, wu, bian, and shu—the words for these four concepts, which buttress Chinese Buddhist cosmology.
Our haze on Katahdin was different from Wang Wei’s, however: on an otherwise clear day frenzied by a warm wind„ apparent only once we were high of the mountain shoulder, a brown haze blown up from the cities to the south hung on the horizon.
“If a poet meets an illiterate peasant, they may not be able to say much to each other, but if they both meet a public official, they share the same feeling of suspicion; neither will trust one further than he can throw a grand piano. If they enter a government building, both share the same feeling of apprehension; perhaps they will never get out again. Whatever the cultural differences between them, they both sniff in any official world the smell of an unreality in which persons are treated as statistics. The peasant may play cards in the evening while the poet writes verses, but there is one political principle to which they both subscribe, namely, that among the half dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.”—W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand (via ayjay)—this reminds me of something John Berger says in Pig Earth, his fabular ethnography of rural life in the French Alps. The peasant, he says there, never expects the sum total of mystery in the universe to diminish (I paraphrase)… perhaps another way in which the horizons of peasant and poet fuse.
The good earth, the planet on which we are embarked and making our annual voyage in the unharboured Deep, carries in her bosom every good thing her children need on the way, for refreshment, fuel, science, or action. She has coal in the hold, and all meats in the larder, and overhung with showiest awning.
The progress of art is to equalize all places. Reindeer, caoutchouc, glass windows, anthracite coal, Nott stoves, coffee, and books will give Greenland the air and ease of London. Ice, fruits, baths, refrigerators, linen, will fan the hot forehead of Cuba to the 56th degree.
”—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, December 1, 1832 (when Emerson was 29 years of age). The young transcendentalist offers a striking prefiguration of the “Good Earth” invoked by astronaut Frank Borman in his Christmas Eve, 1968, broadcast from lunar orbit, as well as Hannah Arendt’s cold-war imprecation that “the earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.” And yet now we begin to suspect this view—recognizing that in Emerson’s remarkable litany of substances and things lies another constituency, with its own catalog of claims to make on the planet. Fuel, animals, building materials, refrigerants, are not mere stores for humankind to consume on our existential wanderings, but travelers on journeys of their own, whose indentured servitude to our narrow interests carries ineluctable costs.
“[E]very work of science great enough to be well remembered for a few generations affords some exemplification of the defective state of the art of reasoning of the time when it was written; and each chief step in science has been a lesson in logic. It was so when Lavoisier and his contemporaries took up the study of Chemistry. The old chemist’s maxim had been, “Lege, lege, lege, labora, ora, et relege.” Lavoisier’s method was not to read and pray, but to dream that some long and complicated chemical process would have a certain effect, to put it into practice with dull patience, after its inevitable failure, to dream that with some modification it would have another result, and to end by publishing the last dream as a fact: his way was to carry his mind into his laboratory, and literally to make of his alembics and cucurbits instruments of thought, giving a new conception of reasoning as something which was to be done with one’s eyes open, in manipulating real things instead of words and fancies.”—Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers V:363 (paywalled).
“Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you shall begin by doubting everything, and says that there is only one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were “as easy as lying.” Another proposes that we should begin by observing “the first impressions of sense,” forgetting that our very percepts are the results of cognitive elaboration. But in truth, there is but one state of mind from which you can “set out,” namely, the very state of mind in which you actually find yourself at the time you do “set out” — a state in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you cannot divest yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself? Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubt has nothing to do with any serious business. But do not make believe; if pedantry has not eaten all the reality out of you, recognize, as you must, that there is much that you do not doubt, in the least. Now that which you do not at all doubt, you must and do regard as infallible, absolute truth. Here breaks in Mr. Make Believe: “What! Do you mean to say that one is to believe what is not true, or that what a man does not doubt is ipso facto true?” No, but unless he can make a thing white and black at once, he has to regard what he does not doubt as absolutely true. Now you, per hypothesiu, are that man. “But you tell me there are scores of things I do not doubt. I really cannot persuade myself that there is not some one of them about which I am mistaken.” You are adducing one of your make-believe facts, which, even if it were established, would only go to show that doubt has a limen, that is, is only called into being by a certain finite stimulus. You only puzzle yourself by talking of this metaphysical “truth” and metaphysical “falsity,” that you know nothing about. All you have any dealings with are your doubts and beliefs, with the course of life that forces new beliefs upon you and gives you power to doubt old beliefs. If your terms “truth” and “falsity” are taken in such senses as to be definable in terms of doubt and belief and the course of experience (as for example they would be, if you were to define the “truth” as that to a belief in which belief would tend if it were to tend indefinitely toward absolute fixity), well and good: in that case, you are only talking about doubt and belief. But if by truth and falsity you mean something not definable in terms of doubt and belief in any way, then you are talking of entities of whose existence you can know nothing, and which Ockham’s razor would clean shave off. Your problems would be greatly simplified, if, instead of saying that you want to know the “Truth,” you were simply to say that you want to attain a state of belief unassailable by doubt.”—Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers V:416 (behind paywall).
Just before the show came down this past weekend, I visited the exhibition of John Singer Sargent watercolors at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (which previously showed at the Brooklyn Museum). I know that work pretty well—not expert-well, but well enough, thanks to time I spent at the MFA writing and editing catalogue copy about Sargent’s work. But the gallery devoted to pictures of gardens snuck up on me, leaving me shattered and moved—by Sargent’s struggle with foliage, of all things!
Throughout his work in watercolors, Sargent moved through a kind of careful pictorial impressionism towards abstract gestures; the effects of water especially he allows himself to depict almost semaphorically or pictographically. But the uncanny liveliness of foliage really seems to have thrown him. Trees are shifting, evanescent things, at once enduring and ephemeral, and they seem to have left Sargent productively unsettled. He uses blobs of watercolor straight from the tube to catch eruptions and showers of color amidst foliage, which blurs into indistinctiveness in ways that go beyond the mere suggestion of movement (although they show the influence of turn-of-the-century photography). a collage of drips, washes, and the abraded voids, Sargent’s foliage evokes the hectic career of light passing not only over the surfaces of trees, but into and out of their tissues.
I was struck, too, by how distinct the trees seemed from Sargent’s human figures, who often are rather swaddled by the world, caught up in folds of fabric, textures of buildings, and muscular swellings of soil and turf. Many of his people in watercolors feel squeezed and held in the fist of the world… the trees, by contrast, feel flayed and naked, exposed to light and air, standing forth like bodies without interiors or organs, fragile—and yet entirely unapologetic in their exposure to the world.
“The maelstrom flower blooms
On soft waves round the ship
The flame-petals leap and
The bird[?]-petals skip—
And the nine looking down in their ease through the sea
Think the flower is a friend—and is free—
But a voice from the ocean-bed
Calls to the flower,
And it turns to the
Maelstrom of fate in an hour.”—
"The Maelstrom Flower Blooms," a poem signed jointly by Robert Frost and Vachel Lindsay, from a trove of materials related to the two poets recently donated to Amherst College. Lindsay is largely forgotten today, but in the early twentieth century he was celebrated both for his verse and for the percussive exuberance with which he performed it. As a young man he wandered the Midwest, a premonition of Woody Guthrie’s curatorial troubadour spirit, working the south-spreading harvest, trading rhymes for bread, and catching the country on the cusp of its belated twentieth-century modernity. He’s largely forgotten today, except around his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where he is still taught in the schools (and where my mother curates the house on 5th Street where he lived). The sketch accompanying the poem is rendered in his florid and graven style; and the poem, while signed by both poets, is in Lindsay’s unmistakeable hand.
So my body went on growing, by night, went on pleading & singing to the earth I was born to be woven back into: Love, let me see if I can’t sink my roots deeper into you, your minerals & water, your leaf rot & gold, your telling and un- telling of the oldest tales inscribed on wind-carved…
“The invention of the haze machine also restored a possibility that I felt had vanished at the end of the ’70s when my work was shown in museums. The absence of dust and people casually smoking in the exhibition space made the volumetric dimension of the work—the blade of light—disappear altogether in the sterile galleries of the museum. When these solid-light films were first shown, the smoke emanating from the viewer’s cigarette or the dust kicked up by the viewer’s feet would activate the dimensional aspect of the work, making the viewer a participant. With the advent of this new machine, the original visibility has not only been restored, it has been enhanced. What was once glimpsed in a fragmentary way is now clearly legible across the entire installation.”—Anthony McCall at ArtForum, discussing changes in the effect of his Four Projected Movements (1975/2013) from its first showings in the mid-1970s to its 21-century form. In the transition from ambient smoke to virtual haze, the form the piece takes today seems to offer questions unanticipated at its mid-70s debut.
“So, were we fools living in a dream world during the early days of blogging? I’d be happy to say yes and be done with it. But it’s not that simple. The expectations around engagement, transparency, and immediacy for mainstream writing have changed in part because of blogs. We have changed where we turn for analysis, if not for news. We expect the Web to be easy to post to. We expect conversation. We are more comfortable with informal, personal writing. We get more pissed off when people write in corporate or safely political voices. We want everyone to be human and to be willing to talk with us in public.”—David Weinberger pondering “What Blogging Was.”
“Social media surely change identity performance. For one, it makes the process more explicit. The fate of having to live “onstage,” aware of being an object in others’ eyes rather than a special snowflake of spontaneous, uncalculated bursts of essential essence is more obvious than ever — even perhaps for those already highly conscious of such objectification. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that identity theater is older than Zuckerberg and doesn’t end when you log off. The most obvious problem with grasping at authenticity is that you’ll never catch it, which makes the social media confessional both inevitable as well as its own kind of predictable performance.”—
Nathan Jurgenson at The New Inquiry writing about “The Disconnectionists,” who advocate a kind of technological Atkins diet in the form of device discipline and social-media fasting.
Often, the critique of device dependence in connected life today turns on forms of etiquette that emerge or change in the context of technology. Sherry Turkle is perhaps the best-known and most grounded of such critics—and yet I often find myself wondering whether she gets the moral and psychological import of such social forms precisely backward. “I talk to young people about etiquette when they go out to dinner,” she writes in a recent op-ed, “and they explain to me that when in a group of, say, seven, they make sure that at least three people are ‘heads up’ in the ‘talking’ conversation at any one time.” For Turkle, this is evidence of how “[t]echnology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.” But isn’t this evidence instead of our social malleability and adaptability, our capacity for incorporating devices and signals into new modes of address? And as Jurgenson points out in the quote above, it isn’t as though devices arrived in the midst of a sociable utopia of autonomous persons engaged in exchanges of authenticity—for we humans always have deployed rituals and discursive forms to discipline, mediate, and construct social selves.
On the other hand, I’m reminded of Bruce Sterling’s observations about disconnection, in which device-independence becomes a kind of luxury practice akin to boutique poultry farming and meditation retreats—an indulgence of those who are wealthy enough to afford assistance in human form, or who can avoid those dependencies of work, social, and civic life that increasingly require us to maintain our tech-mediated connectivity. Devices can make us susceptible to surveillance and control in insidious and comprehensive ways. It’s important to remember, however, that such control is not a thing technology does to us out of some inherent hegemonic impulse, but the result of choices we make about its design and use.
Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. Instead of deinstitutionalizing society, the radicals would have done better to advocate reinstitutionalizing it: pushing for political and legal reforms to secure the transparency and decentralization of power they associated with their favorite technology.
One thinker who saw through the naïveté of Illich, the Homebrewers, and the Whole Earthers was the libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. Back in the late sixties, he published a fiery essay called “Towards a Liberatory Technology,” arguing that technology is not an enemy of craftsmanship and personal freedom. Unlike Brand, though, Bookchin never thought that such liberation could occur just by getting more technology into everyone’s hands; the nature of the political community mattered. In his book “The Ecology of Freedom” (1982), he couldn’t hide his frustration with the “access-to-tools” mentality. Bookchin’s critique of the counterculture’s turn to tools parallels Dennett’s critique of the aesthetes’ turn to education eighty years earlier. It didn’t make sense to speak of “convivial tools,” he argued, without taking a close look at the political and social structures in which they were embedded.
”—Evgeny Morozov, taking a turn in the “critic at large” column for The New Yorker. Morozov’s piece considers the Maker movement, and its transformation from late-sixties counterculture to 21st-century post-industrial market force. Morozov questions the political commitments and the supposedly “radical” potential of the Maker movement, influential elements of which enjoy the support of Silicon Valley and DARPA. This latest from Morozov exhibits a healthy willingness to grounding questions in practices and policies—perhaps evincing what the author is gathering from his current doctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard? The kind of “Internet metaphysics” at work in the Maker movement, Morozov writes, “sees ingrained traits of technology where others might see a cascade of decisions made by businessmen and policymakers.”
Our town was squeezed onto a small strip of land on the edge of a deep bay, in an oblong bowl of mountains. To get anywhere, you had to leave by either “the narrows” on one end, or “the pass” on the other. Once outside, the closest approximation of civilization was eight hours away.
Inside this pre-Internet Shangri-La, raised with old comics instead of television, I developed a concept of the outside world which required a lot of recalibrating later. My education at the hands of my cartoon masters was supplemented by months-long summer family road trips, most of which was spent creeping through interminable mountain ranges, as I studied our road atlas, and my comics.
Eventually I escaped my fjord, but a few lessons of my youth have been repeatedly confirmed: topography is important, and there’s no faster way to make an impression than with a cartoon. And by “cartoon” I mean a simplification which exaggerates some details and omits others. You could also say “model,” but I like the connotations of “cartoon”; it retains a transgressive frisson that the word “model” doesn’t have, unless you’re in fashion.
There’s been an upswell of interest in data and its analysis in the last few years, especially by people like myself with little to no formal training, as tools simplify and access gets easier. Data is spilling over the walls of science and business and into the humanities, and journalism, and civics. I think those of us so engaged are abandoning our reliance on voices of authority, and taking up these tools ourselves, and I think that’s good, and important. But at the moment, we seem to be grasping for absolutes, as though part of an empiricist cargo-cult ritual; we crave a number, any number, even if we don’t understand it, so long as it looks precise. And because we have access to very precise-looking data, we feel obliged to represent it precisely.
This obsession with nominal accuracy, and its conflation with realism, completely misses so many interesting ways to comprehend and explore more complex ideas – maybe even in simpler forms, and maybe even more truthfully. I’d like to see what happens if we allow the data to fit to a human scale, while being open and honest about where it comes from, and what happens to it along the way.
”—from “the lay of the land,” a richly ruminative post by visual technologist Peter Richsardon (who tweets as @meetar). Richardson’s post explores the made quality of topographical data and its uncanny relationship with an experience of the land—a connection he explores here not only in prose, but also through a series of propositional, essayistic visualizations. Meetar’s post brings to mind Borges’ famous short piece “On Exactitude in Science,” which imagines a long-ago kingdom whose cartographers produced “a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire”—which ultimately exists only as tattered ruins scattered across the land. In a twist on Borges’s imperial cartography, our own maps and visualizations pile up in toppling profusion—a surfeit of coordinates, an aporia of place.
“Polis had evidently more curiosity respecting the few settlers in those woods than we. If nothing was said, he took it for granted that we wanted to go straight to the next log-hut. Having observed that we came by the log huts at Chesuncook, and the blind Canadian’s at the Mud Pond carry, without stopping to communicate with the inhabitants, he took occasion now to suggest that the usual way was, when you came near a house, to go to it, and tell the inhabitants what you had seen or heard, and then they tell you what they had seen; but we laughed, and said that we had had enough of houses for the present, and had come here partly to avoid them.”—Henry David Thoreau, in The Maine Woods(258), describing the way in which his guide, the Penobscot Indian Joe Polis, preferred to move through the “wilderness” of the Allagash and Penobscot rivers. Already, Thoreau is looking for a wild that is free of human intervention—and yet this wilderness is shot through with networks of human activity and meaning-making. There is something amiss here, a kind of misanthropy, which found its way into the American environmental movement of which Thoreau is retrospectively afforded godfather status. I most recently read The Maine Woods while paddling the Allagash in 2010; running through the active lumber country of central Maine, the river is designated a Wilderness Waterway, and managed as a “viewshed,” which prevents logging within view of the river. When the designation was assigned in the late 60s, the authorities had all traces of human work and habitation along the river—hunting cabins, logging infrastructure, and a couple of farms—razed, a loss of cultural and natural history of a working wilderness now lamented.
You know one of the things about that piece that I think readers might ignore, it ends with a discussion about the death of American cemeteries. Fewer and fewer people are being buried. More and more of my friends now are being cremated and their ashes, I don’t know where their ashes are anymore. They’re somewhere in Idaho, they’re somewhere on Muir Woods in someplace. That revolution, which I think is related to the fact that we don’t want to live on the earth anymore that there is an anxiety about being here, about being in this place at the same time that the cultural left has come up with this idea of green nature. We all have to become green. Well, nature is primarily brown in the world, you know, and the lessons of nature lead to nature, they don’t lead to this perennial spring.
Or to say it another way, you cannot have spring without winter. That this sentimentality about our lives where people are not buried. So a good friend of mine died; he asked two women friends of his to take his ashes, we know not where. And another friend of mine calls up and says, “I’d love to go see. I’d love to pay my respects, I couldn’t come to the funeral, could I go to the cemetery?” I say, well I have no idea where he is. The death of the newspaper is being told in the cemetery, in the fact that we are not writing obituaries, many of my friends have died without obituaries, because it’s no longer a civic event to die — it’s a private event. You understand? And so, you know, that fact that the newspaper was the receptacle not simply of news of our birth, but of our death, that fact is really the reason why an obituary for a newspaper becomes in the last several pages an obituary for a cemetery.
Here is hawk—the point, the sharpened end of acts unnumbered, mundane negotiations, the amplitude of cause and effect now honed to sundered bone and sated meditation. It is a thing with feathers; yes, and talons, each one a thing unto itself, a claw that strikes a deal with hope, the parliament of acts and hungers fashioning the law. Thus the glimmering world goes at its work making stars and species, apple thickets, prefaces and dice and even saviors, a world replete, and needlessly divine. The hawk meanwhile stands sated by the road plucking rude coinage from a purse of squirrel.
“Porpoises left the land when mammalian brains were still small and primitive. Without the stimulus provided by agile exploring fingers, these great sea mammals have yet taken a divergent road toward intelligence of a high order.…perhaps man has something after all to learn from fellow creatures without the ability to drive a harpoon through living flesh, or poison with strontium the planetary winds.… One is reminded of those watery blue vaults in which.…Herman Melville once saw the sperm whales nurse their young. And as Melville wrote of the sperm whale, so we might now paraphrase his words in speaking of the porpoise.…: his great genius…is declared in his pyramidical silence.… If man had sacrificed his hands for flukes, the moral might run, he would still be a philosopher, but there would have been taken from him the devastating power to wreak his thought upon the body of the world. Instead he would have lived and wandered like the porpoise…forever the lonely and curious observer of unknown wreckage falling through the blue light of eternity. This role would now be a deserved penitence for man.… It is worth at least a wistful thought that the porpoise may some day talk to us.… It would break, perhaps, the long loneliness that has made man a frequent terror and abomination even to himself.”—Loren Eiseley, in an essay for The American Scholar (Vol. 30, No. 1 (Winter, 1960-61), pp. 57-64) entitled “The Long Loneliness: Man and Porpoise: Two Solitary Destinies.” Eiseley came up a few days ago (via Alan Jacobs); here, he is musing on the ramifications of John C. Lilly’s work on dolphin intelligence—a research program with uncanny specifications and long-lived cultural effects. At the nadir of the Cold War, many thinkers sought relief from modern uncertainties in the notion that some friendly alien might offer an answer to humankind’s searching, self-destructive restlessness—a restlessness actively constructed by the Cold-War-era scientific culture that lamented its effects. Eiseley’s fancy of the dolphin as a “lonely and curious observer” who wanders “the blue light of eternity” declaring genius through “his pyramidical silence” is an especially curious construct. We know that the odontocetes, or toothed whales, are anything but lonely, and anything but silent. We know they have signature whistles (reported as “names,” which is both true and entirely misleading); we know they like to get high; we know they can be savage, and savagely mistreated. What we don’t know about them remains as great a mystery as it was in Eiseley’s anxious era, receding into the depths of what he elsewhere called the “nature beyond the nature we know.”
“As grief-stricken humans sometimes do, Dian mourned Digit by avenging his murder. She captured and hogtied Digit’s suspected killers, bound them with barbed wire, whipped them with nettles, injected them with gorilla dung, and cast evil spells she gleaned from African sorcery. Even after receiving an exigent message from her primary funder that she desist, she continued, bent on revenge. She crippled the cattle on which the local communities relied for food, kidnapped a four-year-old child, set a house on fire. Such tactics likely provoked her murder, after which she was finally reunited with Digit, buried beside him with a marker that bore her favorite nickname, “Nyiramachabelli,” which she understood to mean “the old woman who lives alone in the mountains without a man.” In death as in life, she was without a man and beside a gorilla—she couldn’t have made her allegiances more explicit.”—the vengeance of Dian Fossey on the killers of mountain gorilla Digit, as described in “Women Cuddling Animals,” Sasha Archibald’s consideration of the fraught ties forged between women and animals in what might be called acts of public wildness. In addition to Fossey, Archibald also discusses Margaret Howe, who lived with a dolphin in an “experiment” advanced by John C. Lilly; and Ruth Harkness, a New Yorker who famously raised a wild-caught panda in the 1930s. The peg for the piece is Blackfish, the 2013 film about Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by Tilikum, an Orca systematically mistreated for many years at a succession of ocean parks. Brancheau “cannot be blamed for the tortuous circumstances of Tilikum’s capture, for his years of cramped confinement, for his isolation from his social group, for his bullying from other captive orcas,” Archibald concludes. “But perhaps she can be blamed for trusting a business that didn’t love the whales as much as she did.”
It is fascinating to observe that, in the very dawn of science, Bacon, the spokesman for the empirical approach to nature, shared with Shakespeare, the poet, a recognition of the creativeness that adds to nature, and that emerges from nature as “an art which nature makes.” Neither the great scholar nor the great poet had renounced the Kingdome of Fayrie. They had realized what Bergson was later to express so effectively, that life inserts a vast “indétermination into matter.” It is, in a sense, an intrusion from a realm that can never be completely subject to prophetic analysis by science. The novelties of evolution emerge; they cannot be predicted. They haunt, until their arrival, a world of unimaginable possibilities behind the living screen of events, as these last exist to the observer confined to a single point on the time scale.
Oddly enough, much of the confusion that surrounded my phrase, “a nature beyond the nature that we know,” resolves itself into pure semantics. I might have pointed out what must be obvious even to the most dedicated scientific mind: namely, that the nature which we know has been many times reinterpreted in human thinking, and that the hard, substantial matter of the nineteenth century has already vanished into a dark, bodiless void, a web of “events” in space-time. This is a realm, I venture to assert, as weird as any we have tried, in the past, to exorcise by the brave use of seeming solid words. Yet some minds exhibit an almost instinctive hostility toward the mere attempt to wonder, or to ask what lies below that microcosmic world out of which emerge the particles that compose our bodies, and that now take on this wraithlike quality.
Is there something here we fear to face, except when clothed in safely sterilized professional speech? Have we grown reluctant in this age of power to admit mystery and beauty into our thoughts, or to learn where power ceases?
”—Loren Elseley, “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” The American Scholar (1964)
[Michael Pollan] While working on Second Nature, I had this wonderful book called Changes in the Land [by Cronon] to read, which made me realize that I had some false ideas about what was wild and what was not in the New England landscape where I was gardening and making a home. In trying to keep the forest from advancing down the hill, and in trying to bar the woodchucks, the foxes, and the raccoons from the garden, I was missing the fact that my yard was nothing like a wilderness. It had previously been second- or third-growth forest—there was a long history of clearing that land and of the woods coming back. Everything was a garden, and the line I was drawing around my garden was artificial.
[Bill Cronon] And the line had been drawn a long time ago.
[Pollan] Right. That was liberating, to realize that I was in a historical landscape that’s already been trammeled. I think it granted me a larger scope of action, and it made me look at other things historically, too. For example, in the “Bean-Field” chapter of Walden, Thoreau talks about St. John’s wort and these ancient weeds that he declared had more right to be in the garden than his beans, which he was just introducing. Thoreau’s a very good naturalist, but he got some things wrong there. He didn’t realize that St. John’s wort was brought over by the Rosicrucians as a spiritual herb and was just as much an alien as the beans.
Cronon and Pollan are great in this chat. But Pollan’s dig at St. John’s Wort troubles me, as it goes against the grain of their dialogue, betraying a suspicion that after all, life forms entangled with the human are less than wild.
The denomination “weed” is not merely an arbitrary pejorative; it clings to plants that exhibit a unifying congeries of habits and characteristics tying them to human forms of life. The British botanist E. J. Salisbury, who framed the ecological study of weeds, describes this complex symbiosis in the context of deep human history: as “many species of weeds may have evolved during the morainic conditions of the long glacial period,” he observed, “it is not without significance that this was contemporaneous with the later environmental changes that man has brought about upon the earth’s surface…. It is a salutary thought, which students of geographical distribution may be reluctant to concede, that the same efficiency of dispersal may well have characterized also species that are far less tolerant of disturbed conditions … and which therefore do not, by their occurrence, betray the probability that they may owe their wide distribution to human agency.”
Far from finding itself imposed upon from a weedy without, early humans were vectors of weed species now naturalized around the world. “Many of the weeds of cultivated and waste ground have become so widely distributed over the surface of the globe,” Salisbury conjectures, that “their region of origin is often extremely problematical.” Salisbury identifies a number of plants of Southern origin in Britain which, while rare today, likely arrived as the camp followers of domesticated crops. Even prior to the neolithic revolution, the migration of Homo sapiens worldwide may have seen a commensal weedy dispersal of pioneer species following in train. Extending Donna Haraway’s notion of the “companion species,” we might mark these as neighbor species, fellow travelers—the characteristic flora of the Anthropocene, companion species by one or two degrees of separation.
Weeds, invasives—a shadow biome of fellow travelers whose lives have been bound up with our species’ fortwunes in hidden ways. Where does the bright line lie here between the natural and the artificial, the wild and the domestic? Everything is a garden, to paraphrase Pollan—and with wild Homo sapiens about, it’s weeds all the way down.
How does the tide of sleep recede— from eyelash, fingernail, hollow of knee? Does it puddle and skin like a drying drop of paint, Or contract like a finger from a flame? Where does it go when wakefulness resumes the bright and banging habit of the world? Awakening is easy, and easily misplaced; what hasn’t lost its slumbering ways, gone lidless and electric (the fishtank’s urinary tintinnabulation, a change-ringing empty and irrevocable)? Sleep is the rarer, intimate and vast: falling leaves and a flower for moonless night.
For example, if I know that in America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead, and we don’t want any cheese that is alive, then I have to put that up front. I have to say this cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped up in plastic. I know that plastic is a body bag. You can put it in the fridge. I know the fridge is the morgue; that’s where you put the dead bodies. And so once you know that, this is the way you market cheese in America.
I started working with a French company in America, and they were trying to sell French cheese to the Americans. And they didn’t understand, because in France the cheese is alive, which means that you can buy it young, mature or old, and that’s why you have to read the age of the cheese when you go to buy the cheese. So you smell, you touch, you poke. If you need cheese for today, you want to buy a mature cheese. If you want cheese for next week, you buy a young cheese. And when you buy young cheese for next week, you go home, [but] you never put the cheese in the refrigerator, because you don’t put your cat in the refrigerator. It’s the same; it’s alive. We are very afraid of getting sick with cheese. By the way, more French people die eating cheese than Americans die. But the priority is different; the logic of emotion is different. The French like the taste before safety. Americans want safety before the taste.
“It is not easy in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals—full though it may be of beauty. We feel a rubicon has been passed between striking with a hand weapon as men used to do and loosing poison from the sky as we do ourselves. We doubt the decency of our own inventions, and are certainly in terror of their possibilities. That our culture has accelerated every line of advance into the territory of physical science is well appreciated—but not so well understood are the unforeseen, subsidiary effects of this achievement. We stroke cats, pluck flowers, tie ribands, assist at the manual acts of religion, make some kind of love, write poems, paint pictures, are generally at one with that creaturely world inherited from our remote beginnings…. We who are of the same world of sense with hairy ass and furry wolf and who presume to other and more radiant affinities, are finding it difficult, as yet, to recognise these creatures of chemical effusions as true extrusions of ourselves, that we may feel for them a true native affection, which alone can make them magical for us. It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old—candle-light, fire-light, Cups, Wands, and Swords, to choose at random.”—From the Preface to In Parenthesis (1937), by poet and artist David Jones (1895-1974). Thanks to @andreshax for pointing me in the direction of this singular and arresting work.
A commonly-expressed sentiment, expressed in uncommonly delightful form. But is it true? Is the trail lost? And if so, is are there traces, scents worth sniffing out and following? That’s the question we Savage Readers will be asking.
With the news that Claude Lévi-Strauss died three days ago at the age of 100, I’ve been following a minor detail down the rabbit hole of translation and primitive categories. As is often remarked, the title of Lévi-Strauss’s most famous book, The Savage Mind, is a bit funny in the original French: La Pensée Sauvage, which also may be translated as “The Wild Pansy.” We might chalk this up to the fuzziness of cognates in translation, but there is more at work. As Lévi-Strauss knew, there is an traditional, likely ancient folk association between pansies and thought. After Hamlet’s driven Ophelia away, she appears before Laertes mumbling strains from an old ballad (Act IV, Scene 5):
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”
It’s said that Lévi-Strauss in fact suggested using the phrase “Pansies for Thoughts” as the title for his book in English. Shakespeare’s plays are dotted with such evocations of the folk wisdom of flowers, which have been held up as proof of the Bard’s humble origins; a Francis Bacon or an Earl of Oxford might have known the classical names of plants, but the peasants’ categories would have been beyond his mien. The meanings of flowers are documented at great length in Victorian “floriographies,” or flower languages, which elaborate the passions, attributes, and states of mind symbolized by dozens of varieties of wild and cultivated trees, shrubs, and herbs. The Ash Tree represents Grandeur, or Prudence; the Bee Orchis, Industry; the Chickweed, Rendezvous. One could compose a message to one’s beloved in the form of a bouquet—although by the time the dear one would have decoded the terms, the posie would have withered away. The floriographies all include a flower that arouses the curiosity of someone looking into traces of reading and writing throughout the culture: a flower called the Abecedary, symbolizing Volubility. The (far more common) non-floral use of the word abecedary is in connection with alphabets written out or printed and illustrated for children, a usage which dates back to the Middle Ages, and covers alphabets reproduced on hornbooks and school slates and carved into headstones. The floral meaning of abecedary isn’t documented by the Oxford English Dictionary, even though it’s in alI the floriography volumes—at least the ones I’ve checked thus far in Google Books, including the most famous one illustrated by Kate Greenaway (published in 1885; alas Kate made no illustration of the abecedary flower). The fullest explanation appears in The Language of Flowers (1835):
Volubility, Abecedary. This plant is a native of the island of Fernalus; when you chew its head, or roots, the tongue feels a stimulating sensation, that gives it a singular fluency. This plant is employed in looseing children’s tongues, whence comes its name abecedary, or children’s grass.
A flower that gives a singular fluency: that’s one for my garden, to bloom between the poppies and the morning glories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to exist. It’s as though in a Structuralist move the Victorian floriographers had identified the need for a Volubility flower, a necessary node in the paradigm of the flowers pertaining to the quality of comprehensive and compulsive loquacity, which they answered with a postulated blossom named (naturally enough) for the alphabet.
Memes are things that go viral, right? And their native habitat is the web, right?
Yes, and no. Yes if we sheer away some of the fleece these terms have grown in the age of the internet. Because while memetics has gained popular currency in the age of LOLcats and rickrolling, it’s worth remembering that Richard Dawkins’ coinage (in The Selfish Gene, 1976) predates the full investiture of networked computing in the culture.
I’ve always been suspicious of memetics. It’s an intuitively attractive concept—and yet the meme as a functional unit is notoriously difficult to define and impossible to measure. And the concept seems too tidily fit to contemporary life as well. It’s harder to imagine memes at work in premodern or early modern cultures. But I’m realizing that it’s not a problem with memes, really, but how I see them.
If you want to track memes into the wilderness of deep history, I’d suggest taking historian Daniel Lord Smail as your guide. In his book On Deep History and the Brain, Smail explores an emerging synthesis between history and the third culture sciences like cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Smail’s perspective allows for emergent patterns and something like natural selection in cultural life without giving up on individual agency and intention.
Watch Smail braving the wilds of the alleys and courts of early modern Marseille as he tracks a simple meme, the street address. Previously, people had located themselves in urban space by making reference to landmarks, topographical features, and infrastructure (“near the bridge of the street of the Change”), or by naming the neighborhood or artisanal quarter in which they were resident (“the Cobblery” or “Bookbinder’s Row”). Street addresses seem to emerge as property transactions increased in number and importance over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries. It’s the notaries, semi-public officials who preside over property transactions, who are using them. What’s the notary’s attraction to the street address? Historians have often interpreted the rise of such features by employing a kind of conspiracy theory: in this case, notaries seek to increase their hegemony over time and space by imposing a gridlike system, cold and arbitrary, on the vernacular structure of the urban landscape. And our historical explanations are full of such conspiracies, in which classes “articulate their worldviews” or “assert themselves” by erecting some new social or cultural structure by which to overthrow the old.
The trouble with conspiracy theories like these is that rarely does anyone, let alone an entire class, know what the “next thing” will actually look like. We operate on a much more intimate and immediate scale than that in daily life. According to Smail, who has patiently sifted through thousands of property sale records in European archives, there is no evidence that anyone consciously imagined the power of street addresses to increase their power in social life. But those immediate, off-the-cuff choices are the stuff of history—for they’re precisely where memes live and die. With the notaries, Smail explains, conversations about urban space were important to their livelihood.
[T]hough buyers and sellers might have this conversation several times over their lives, notaries engaged in these conversations dozens, if not hundreds, of times per year. Categories emerged naturally in this conversational field, and the notary, steward of these conversations, naturally had the greatest influence over the field’s evolution…. In these circumstances, it’s easy to appreciate how a very slight and unacknowledged preference on the part of the notaries would gradually fix it in the conversational field. One can posit an evolving form that promotes the political goals of the notaries without having to attribute any purpose or intention to the notaries themselves (my emphasis).
Of course there is intention and purpose in the system, Smail allows, but it’s personal, limited in space and time, not a case of grand, scheming ideological structure. What’s in this for me? Well, it’s a handy and inspiring way to think about the rise of writing in general, and of specific letterforms, as memes facing selection pressures that change with dips and explosions in media, genres, and social and cultural forms. So there’s a retrospective use, helping to understand the existence of stuff like serifs and dotted i’s thrive while eths and thorns and a host of scribal abbreviations die out. And prospectively, it help enrich my sense of the future of reading and writing—mostly by reminding me that it will be decided by no business plan or venture capitalist, but by all of us getting in there, using and breaking the new tools, and making new things and experiences with them.
print on demand ii: reverse engineering the pictorial webster's
Feast your eyes on some bibliomachy: John Carrera of the Quercus Press in Waltham, Massachusetts—and a host of friends—build a fresh edition of the classic Webster’s Pictorial Dictionary. It’s moving to watch the book embodied in this way—and staggering to realize that these crafts, exhibited here by artisans of such painstakingly high caliber, once were practiced at industrial scale.