Vital Materialism

I started reading a book of philosophy called Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett as part of a blog-chain reading group this past week.  The book presents an argument for “vital materialism,” for a recognition of “nonorganic life” or the vitality and agency that assemblages of objects can have.  While the underlying philosophy goes too deep to delve into here (if you’re interested in exploring some of the sources of her argument, see some of my other blog’s entries), the following quote will give some idea of the book’s purpose:

Vital materialists will thus try to linger in those moments during which they find themselves fascinated by objects, taking them as clues to the material vitality that they share with them.  This sense of a strange and incomplete commonality with the out-side may induce vital materialists to treat nonhumans–animals, plants, earth, even artifacts and commodities–more carefully, more strategically, more ecologically. (17-18)

While Bennett is attempting to elevate things to the level of “agentic assemblages” which “are vital players in the world” (4), her desire is for human agents to “take a step toward a more ecological sensibility” (10) by means of better understanding how humans are part of a larger matter-energy flow.  Ultimately, the goal is to move away from anthropocentrism toward cosmocentrism, a goal largely shared by the poetry journal that stands behind this blog.

When I read about lingering in a fascination with objects, I thought of the work that the poets published in Albatross do:  call attention to an awareness of nature that will bring us as a species to a greater sensitivity toward the nonhuman.

Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights

I just found out about this:

All I can think to say is YES, YES, YES, YES, and YES.

This was first presented a year ago and is now being integrated into the forthcoming Copenhagen Treaty currently being drafted for the international climate change negotiations being held this December.  To find out more, explore the Trees Have Rights Too website.

It is encouraging to learn that this kind of environmental activism is happening on the global level.  I also learned today that Obama has chosen someone connected to the pesticide industry to be the chief agricultural negotiator in the office of the US Trade Representative.  These are the guys who wrote to his wife in the summer, urging her to stop misleading the public by encouraging them to grow organic gardens.  Yeah.

There hasn’t been a time when political activism is more necessary than now.  And guess what?  Such activism will make you happy.  So go to it.  Change the world–or some definite part of it–for the better.

Congressional Representation for Nature

The lead article in today’s Boston Globe‘s Ideas section is titled “Sued by the Forest:  Should nature be able to take you to court?”  It tells the story of a New England community–Shapleigh, Maine–that voted in its town meeting,

114-66, to endow all of the town’s natural assets with legal rights: “Natural communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist, flourish and naturally evolve within the Town of Shapleigh.” It further decreed that any town resident had “standing” to seek relief for damages caused to nature – permitting, for example, a lawsuit on behalf of a stream.

This concept of government rights or representation for the environment reminded me of something poet Gary Snyder wrote somewhere.  I went to my shelf looking for Turtle Island but didn’t find it, so I’m stuck with just saying that SOMEWHERE in Snyder’s ouevre is this reference.  The ideas is not new.

I loved it when I first read it, and I love this idea now.

Why not?!  Corporations have the rights and privileges of individuals–it’s called “corporate personhood“–and they have used the Civil Rights Act, for example, to override the democratically determined decision to prevent installation of a cell tower in a small town in Massachusetts.

Yup.  Pretty startling.  So how about “environmental personhood”?

How to Save the World

That’s a dramatic title for a post.  It’s what hooked me into reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael: An Adventure in Mind and Spirit.  The back of the book features the three-line personal ad that begins the story:  “Teacher Seeks Pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person.”  Given its serious subject matter, the book might be one of the top ten most important books on the planet.  The book isn’t so much a “how-to” book on saving the world but tries to point out what underlies our drive to destroy the world, which we’ve been doing steadily since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and which has become more intense and wide-spread since the industrial revolution.

Quinn re-interprets the core stories of Genesis while weaving in anthropological and historical analysis of “primitive” vs. “civilized” societies (or what he renames “Leavers” vs. “Takers”).   For three million years all was well with hunting and gathering until the agricultural revolution.  At this point, the Takers began to break the “law of life,” which fosters life for all:  they began to exterminate competitors, destroy competitors’ food (to make room for their own via agriculture) and deny competitors access to food.  This obsessive need to control our food supply originates in a fear of not being in control of our own destiny, of trusting in higher powers.  In breaking the laws of life, we end up co-opting the role of the gods by deciding who lives and who dies (i.e. the fruit of the tree of knowledge).

In other words, for the Takers the world belongs to man, whereas for the Leavers, man belongs to the world.

Quinn ends with an insightful observation, one that can be viewed in conservative reactions to environmentalist critique of our culture of consumption:

people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty.  They need more than a vision of doom.  They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them. (243-44)

This new (or, rather, old–i.e. Leaver) vision of the destiny of humankind involves humans being the first to reach sentience and therefore the first to learn that we have a choice:  thwart the gods and die or be Father to all future species evolving to sentience after us.  In this story, “Man’s place is to be the first without being the last.  Man’s place is to figure out how it’s possible to do that–and then to make some room for all the rest who are capable of becoming what he’s become” (243).

So Quinn strikes at the mythic roots of our war with nature and tries to re-orient our species by providing the key to breaking out of our captivity to “a civilizational system that compels us to go on destroying the world in order to live” (25).  My hope is that the Albatross contributes in some small way to the change of consciousness that Quinn’s book points toward.

The Poetry of Science

I’m reading a book titled Into the Cool:  Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, about the role that (the second law of) thermodynamics plays in the origins, formation and maintenance of life.  One chapter opens with an extensive quote by E.O. Wilson, a quote worth reproducing in whole:

Still, scientific theories are a product of imagination–informed imagination. They reach beyond their grasp to predict the existence of previously unsuspected phenomena. They generate hypotheses, disciplined guesses about unexplored topics whose parameters the theories help to define. The best theories generate the most fruitful hypotheses, which translate cleanly into questions that can be answered by observation and experiment. Theories and their progeny hypotheses compete for the available data, which comprise the limiting resource in the ecology of scientific knowledge. The survivors in this tumultuous environment are the Darwinian victors, welcomed into the canon, settling in our minds, guiding us to further exploration of physical reality, more surprises.  And yes, more poetry.

When I first read this, I thought it was a concise and accurate summary of Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  I like the way that it suggests that the winning theories end up as “memes” in our minds, and from there become available for further imaginative leaps of “informed imagination”–which Wilson summarizes as poetry.

Of course, as a poetry blog, I am focused on the idea of science as a source of poetry.  I have always found it to be so–going back to my undergraduate studies, when intro courses in astronomy and geology were quickly translated into metaphors of a self in transition.  Much of my own recent poetry integrates references to various sciences and grows directly out of considerations of science, such as my Snowman and Fireman poem sequences.

I am tempted to go through all 19 issues of Albatross and find the poems that would serve as examples of my point, but then it occurs to me that I should leave that up to you.  Suffice it to say that science informs poetry best when it grows out of an intimate knowledge with current theories, when these theories naturally lead to metaphors that help us go beyond ourselves and frame our experience in the broadest of terms.

Chapbook Contest Winner Announced

I just posted the winner of the 2008 Anabiosis Press Chapbook Contest:  William Keener’s Gold Leaf on Granite.  The poem I chose as the example for the announcement page is one titled “Take This Page,” a poem that embodies the awareness of energy flow, of “emergy” (embodied energy), that my concept of energonomics (the main focus of another blog of mine, which this post echoes for the most part) tries to express.  I will post the poem in its entirety:

Take This Page

Look past
the distraction of words,
our endless procession
of letters.

In the presence of white,
touch the page itself,
this rectangle,
this empty room,

a place for meditation,
if we ignore
the black scuff marks
on its ivory floor.

Let natural light
reflect the textures
of felted fibers,
cotton and flax,

egg shell, bread dough,
wool and bone,
the pressed shirt,
the linen shroud,

smooth, uncreased,
a sheet of paper deep
as any world we enter
through a book.

With the whorls
of our fingertips
we can read beneath
the watermarks,

between the laid lines,
faint patterns
left by the mesh
where pale pulp dried,

the cellulose in its slurry,
the wood chips, sawdust,
splinters, bark,
the cambium, the core

of a tree giving ground,
a legion of trees, a forest,
the billion leaves
they gird on every year,

their green machinery,
the sugars in the sap,
oxygen, carbon, lignin,
every molecule made

with heat, the photons
charging through space
from the flares of our sun,
its fiery hydrogen

burned into this room,
written into this page,
this book,
this volume of light.

This is a powerful poem for many reasons.  I especially like the syntactic build-up at the end of the poem:  you can feel the energy building as you are swept along by the syntax, as the poet leads us from the page that we are reading to the pulp of the page and through it to the very photons flowing from the sun that made possible the life of the tree which we have translated into “this book/this volume of light.”  The poem is wonderful insofar as it introduces and embodies all of these complex scientific concepts without burdening the reader with jargon or complicated language.  It brings us to an awareness of our basis in energy–it reminds us that we are beings of energy, that all, ultimately, is energy.

Congratulations to William Keener for having the clarity of mind and simplicity of insight to recognize and capture these truths in a truly beautiful way.

“The New Natural Selection”

I read an essay in a book titled Teilhard in the 21st Century:  The Emerging Spirit of Earth, and thought that a blog entry here would make sense.  I didn’t start this blog with the intention of writing about books or spiritual matters, but given the relevance of this essay to what Albatross is all about, I think it’s appropriate.

I’ve been attracted to the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin since first hearing about him at a conference I attended as a young college student probably 25 years ago.  It was a Jean Houston conference, and she mentioned her friendship with Teilhard as a youth and his great knowledge of geology.  Later, in my exploration and development of energonomics, a glocal concept of “energy management,” I picked up his books titled Human Energy and Activation of Human Energy and read about his concept of the noosphere, the emergent consciousness of the earth into which humankind is evolving.  I also recognized direct and indirect allusions to his thought in the work of Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence (esp. his concept of the “noolithic” period which we are entering) as well as the poetry of radical Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal, especially the amazing 500-page epic Cosmic Canticle as well as a parody/revision of St. John’s Apocalypse (in his Apocalypse and Other Poems).  The closing lines of “Apocalypse” capture Teilhard’s vision perfectly:

And in the Earth’s biology I saw a new Evolution
It was as though a New Planet had appeared in space
For death and hell were cast into the sea of nuclear fire
and neither were there peoples as before
but I saw rather a new species freshly evolved
a species not made up of individuals
but rather one sole organism
made up of men in place of cells
and all biologists were mightily amazed
But men were free and in their union were one Person–
not a Machine–
and the sociologists were equally astounded
Such men as had no part in this new species
were but as fossils
The Organism enclosed the whole roundness of the planet
round as a cell (but planetary in dimensions)
and the Cell was garlanded as a Bride awaiting the Bridegroom
and the Earth rejoiced
(as when, dividing, the first cell was wedded)
And there was a New Canticle
and all other inhabited planets heard the Earth singing
and it was a love-song

I was struck by the parallel to Brian Swimme’s essay, which speaks of a “new natural selection,” an evolution into “our role as human earthlings”, as the “evolutionary unfoldment brought into the conscious mode”:

“The full context of the human must include the cosmic and planetary dimension of life and being.  Humans are, as Teilhard celebrated, the conscious mode of co-evolution.”

In presenting three principles of natural selection for humankind to follow, Swimme writes a beautiful paragraph about the need to revere all of nature.  It’s worth quoting in full:

Scientific investigation has revealed that every individual organism, every mineral, every ecological community possesses within itself a significant story in relation to the whole emergence of life on Earth.  Each existent being or community of beings can be considered a voice that speaks from thirteen billion years of cosmic development.  We are only just now understanding  how to listen to the voice that speaks in these systems of life and being. Only in the last few decades have we been able to listen to the story of the universe’s origin that is contained in the radiant energy that bathes the Earth.  Each wave of these photons brings even more information from the earliest moments of the universe.  Then, too, it is only in the last few years that we have been able to listen to the story contained in the continents of their journey through the transformations of the Earth. And only now are we able to hear the story of the prokaryotes and their symbiotic fashioning to create the eukaryotic cells some one and a half billion years ago. Only in the last few years have we realized that all the nuclei even of our own skin must be considered fossils from the ancient origins of the symmetry breaks in the heart of the primordial fireball. In these and many other examples we are beginning to appreciate the way in which every existent being is the whole universe’s story told from a particular viewpoint and history. We must, therefore, hope that future humans recognize and respect this great truth, this great mystery of history’s presence within each being. A voice that is lost means knowledge and information lost for all time, a story that will never be recaptured. We must move into the future with a deep reverence for all beings and the story that each is able to tell.

I can’t mention Swimme without making a plug for his incredible book The Universe Is A Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story.  This book puts all of life–but especially our individual lives–into the perspective of a 15-billion year cosmic evolutionary process, “a larger perspective by which to evaluate our activities, a perspective that included stars, planets, and all other life forms” (72).  It is a shift “to a biocentric and cosmocentric orientation where the universe and the Earth are the fundamental referents” rather than the anthropocentric/egocentric orientation that we are beginning to shed.

This book, I believe, is one of the most important on the planet, as is the idea that we as a species are evolving into our new larger role “as a dimension of the emergent universe” (18).