Thursday, November 1, 2012

Questions for Sonny Rae Tempest by Maria Damon

What is your background in terms of artistic or mathematical or any kind of formal training?

Unfortunately, I do not have any formal artistic training beyond books that I’ve read. I do, however, have a long history of mathematical training. The Bachelors degrees that I have (Meteorology; Nuclear Engineering Technology) as well as the Naval training that I’ve been through (nuclear reactor chemistry engineer; pilot) focused strongly on math in all aspects. I don’t find that I use this knowledge much in my work, if at all really (at least for now). Actually, the training that has helped most in my work occurred in the computer camps that I attended as a kid. In the early 80s, I was able to experiment with LOGO on the Commodore 64, which in turn gave me the confidence to learn BASIC and to create games at home. Sadly, once I entered high school, this type of creation fell by the wayside, as the guitar became my sole creative outlet. While the chicks dug it, I was an incredibly mediocre guitar player. I promptly stopped playing after graduating. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I moved to Louisville that I began creating works on the computer again. It turns out, those computer camps helped shaped the way I think (in discrete, logical steps) that made it easy to pick up modern computer languages that have evolved from BASIC. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a strong coder. Aside from Assembly language, which I needed to thoroughly teach myself in order to make my Atari game poem triptych Monday, I have a very superficial knowledge of the languages in which I most often work (python, javascript, html). I only know enough to piece together code from online how-to’s, and shape them to suit my needs.

What is the role of amateurism in your practice?

None of the work that I create is intended to make a profit. If I were worried about perfection and marketability, nothing would get finished, and they certainly would not see the light of day. There are very few pieces that I’ve spent considerable time on, enough to call “professional” work, which would Monday (almost 2 solid years of my life devoted to that), and my larger x-stitch pieces (you know firsthand how long that takes). Most of what I create is done so through my Moment Art practice, which came about as a reaction to The Artist’s Way morning pages. I’m sure you’re already familiar with The Artist’s Way, but if not, the morning pages are a method of writing to maintain creative momentum, in the form of stream of consciousness, diary-like writing, to be accomplished each morning. According to the author, these daily exercises are to be kept in a notebook and stored away, never again to see the light of day. I did not like this idea. Instead, I came up with the concept of Moment Art, where one spends a minimal amount of time during each day making something creative, be it art, poetry, or whatever. Once the Moment is finished, it must be released into the world, freely available to all to see. For me, this usually means posting it to some social network, but could very well include sending it as a message in a bottle. The point is to give birth to these works and then set them free into the world, instead of locking them in a drawer. I find this method perfect for those like me who spend most of my waking hours at work, where the time to make elaborate pieces simply does not exist. As a result, much of the work that I create is left unpolished, so that it actually will be seen and enjoyed, instead of sitting somewhere waiting for me to “finish” it properly.

Now don’t get me wrong; I do spend a large portion of each day thinking about one or another creative project. I am fortunate enough to have a job that does not require a lot of brainwork, so while execution time is limited, each piece is usually in a mostly-finished form mentally before I even begin creating it physically. For the UnderAcademy classes, each assignment was conceived and developed over the course of a day-a week on a forklift at a trade show (just an example), and produced at night when I found the time. Would I like to spend more time polishing all these pieces to perfection? Absolutely. Unfortunately, my time is limited and my ideas are numerous (and I’m totally addicted to a sense of accomplishment), so only a select few things receive that time and attention that they deserve. At the moment, this includes a chapbook of poetry, and an upcoming UAC class that I’m excited to have the opportunity to teach.

How did you find your way to Underacademy College? You mentioned that it was through following Chris Funkhouser on Twitter, and that it was his books that in turn drew you to that.  How did you find his books and what area of your own interest does it most overlap with? The historical? The merging of visual, digital and literary/poetic?

It is also through Twitter that I discovered Chris Funkhouser. Somebody (can’t remember who) retweeted his new book New Direction in Digital Poetry, right at the moment when I was delving deeper into the e-lit community, discovering a host of ways to compose poetry/art that I hadn’t before considered. I bought a copy of his first book (Prehistoric Digital Poetry) in order to learn more about what I was doing, and what had already been done in the field of digital poetics (which is what I’m most interested in). I am a huge proponent of learning the history of what I’m doing, so that I not only have a deeper appreciation for what’s being created today, but also to map out methods that have yet to be addressed/created. I am very much interested in trailblazing, so it helps to have a map of the known world at hand.

What is poetry to you?

I’ve tried and tried over the years to address this question, to no avail. The best thing I can say is that poetry is any expression that is made with poetic intent. To me, this can mean a host of things. If you look through all the work I’ve created under the moniker “poetry,” you’ll see an array of completely different projects. These run from traditional text to static paintings to generative code to games, and all exist in a variety of media. Even though I call myself a poet, very little of my work consists of text only.

How do you define your practice(s)? How do you integrate these practices into your daily life (worklife, family life, affective life, spiritual life): do you experience this process as disjunctive or harmonious?

As mentioned, most of what I create is done so through the Moment Art process. This process integrates wonderfully into my work life (keeps my mind occupied when it would otherwise be drooling on itself), and as a result many of my processes are expressions of my feeling toward my work.

Family life can be hectic, especially with five children. We are all a creative tribe, but since a lot of the work I do is at the computer, it can be anti-social and not conducive to quality family time. It is usually late at night after everyone is in bed that I have the chance to truly sit down with my work and move it forward.

As a whole, this process is my spiritual life.

Tell me by way of a biographical sketch how you got started in the kind of creative production you do for your Underacademy College work, your x-stitching, etc., and how you have evolved to the present?

As mentioned, the work I do for UAC is the result of my Moment Art practice. Cross stitching, however, began when I was very young. My mother and grandmother are incredibly crafty people, and raised me to be in a constant state of creation. Among many of the things they did was cross stitch. At the time, I was very much into my Nintendo, and realized that the pixels on the screen translated perfectly to a cross stitch pattern. Instead of making hand-stitched Marios and Zeldas and Metroids for me, my mother taught me how to do it myself. I began with simple sprite stitching, but quickly found that I could make anything that I saw on the computer into a cross stitch pattern (back then, I was hand-drawing images pixel by pixel on an old Tandy 1000 computer, mostly album covers). I was not very interested in traditional cross stitch patterns of cats or farms or samplers, but to a young boy, the idea that I could stitch Mario onto my backpack was the coolest thing ever. Again, though, once I got into high school, the quest for popularity squashed my interested in crafts. It wasn’t until many years later (2006, I believe) that I began spending more and more time with my grandmother and got back into cross stitching as something to keep the hands occupied while chatting. Most of what I stitch still revolves around my love of classic video games, though I have done some portrait work as well, since now, 20-30 years later, modern computers allow for simple one-click conversion of an image into a pattern. I’m not sure how many more 200-colour, 200x200 pixel projects I’ll do in the future; I’ve done a few, and they’ve eaten up months of my life. I have been considering how to use cross stitch poetically since Eric Snodgrass’ Nō Code class at UAC, where I experimented with stitch patterns as a way to represent digital code in a non-digital form. I am very much interested in seeing where this goes.

Do you ever collaborate?  If so, can you describe the process and practice?

I have yet to collaborate on a large project. My experience with collaboration on a creative work has gone no further than 2 painters 1 canvas.

Did you have a “poetics” or an “aesthetics” for your artworks beforehand? Do you have one now? Does it matter? or is there a better question for getting at what satisfies you in a work or how you understand the underlying principles of your endeavors?

I don’t usually begin with a certain aesthetic in mind. For my larger projects, I try to do is to use/create an aesthetic that relevantly matches the theme of my poetic expression. Everything else is usually just a sketch, where the aesthetic is far less important than the message. Most of what I do is play. I enjoy the process of creating my pieces far more than I enjoy the product.

What do you DO with the visual work? where is it kept–the x-stitches, for example? do you give it away? keep it? Is there any “bibliography” of its circulation? What would be some ideal ways of circulating it, if you wanted to do more.  Do you document the items in any way?

Most of my cross stitch pieces are gifted. Otherwise, they’re rolled up and put in a drawer. As I mentioned, it’s the creative process that I appreciate most. My Moments are typically uploaded to whatever social network site I’m currently using. Any of my larger or more serious works are posted on my blog, freely available. There is a limited collection of my work on my website, though I am working on gathering everything for a more “professional” website. If I have spent considerable time on a project, I will write a blog post or a post-mortem about the process, which is as extensive as documentation gets. When a work is finished, I try to make it available as soon as I can, because I will likely begin another piece immediately, and forget about the one just completed. I’m running into the problem now where the more I create, the more daunting a creation of this collective website becomes. I have so many things that need to be moved from my folders into the world.

Under what circumstances do you make your art? (do you even call it “art”? What do you call it?) Late at night? With music on? At the computer? Spread out on the floor of a room in your home?  What prompts a piece: an assignment? a conversation? a nagging feeling that something must be done? a shape, color or word in your mind's eye? A recognition of relationships (numbers to letters or colors)? All at once in one go or over the course of a few weeks, months, etc.? Is there "revision"?

As I said, the bulk of my work is mentally processed while I’m at work, and completed at night while everyone in the house is asleep. I could be at the computer or in my basement studio, generally with either soft music or silence. I find it hard to remain focused on production if there’s anything going on around me.

Anything could prompt a piece, though most times it relates to my family or work. Chances are, I will try to get the idea completed as soon as possible, usually within a day or so. Otherwise, I may sit with an idea for weeks or months before I attempt a go at it, during which I will mentally revise throughout the day, day after day, until I drive myself, and everyone around me, absolutely crazy. There are times where I may go an entire day without speaking, simply because I’m hyper-focused on a certain piece. These are the times when physical revision is minimal, since the work is more or less “completed” before it’s even started. Other times, I may jot down some ideas in my notepad (which I carry everywhere, and at all times), which I can use to fall back on when I’m creatively fallow. In this notepad, there can be a single sentence, pages of the same thought, or lines upon lines of crossed out and rewritten words that later become something more concrete and meaningful. Once a piece is completed and released into the world, there is rarely any further revision. But then there are times, especially when I’m working on longer textual works, that I may go through dozens of printed drafts before I consider the work finished.

Much of your work could be described as translation. Do you understand it as such? What does that mean to you, if anything? What’s the thread of continuity, the “thru-line” in all your work? Is it code and coding? Transposition/translation from one form of systematicity to another?

It’s like a wave riding onto shore. The beach becomes inundated. Things begin to move. The water recedes, and there is a moment when a swath of wetted sand teems with bubbles and mollusks. It is this disturbance of baked beach and brackish water that I find so fascinating, the ephemeral instability caused by hybridization in a holistically stable system.

Code is just a language I use to express a thing that English has no word for.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Thomas Fink: One main premise in Dialogics of Self for the investigation of Indian-Americans’ responses to the great Indian epic The Mahabharata and especially to its televised 1989 refashioning by the Indian filmmaker B.R. Chopra is the epic’s openness to so many different ethical, philosophical, and psychological perspectives, and this makes the participants’ interpretive discussions especially amenable to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of Dialogism. You indicate that “while Ramayana . . . clearly stipulates the “ideal” to be achieved, The Mahabharata is . . . an intricate labyrinth of history of ideas that highlights irony at every point” (107). Does The Mahabharata (prior to Chopra’s version, of course) oppose a monologism in ancient Hindu Indian culture(s), perhaps exemplified by Ramayana, or does it bring out the true dialogism that is always already present in the ancient culture?

Lakshmi Bandlamudi: A very interesting multi-layered question. First, let us talk about the necessary conditions for a dialogue – there must be openness on the part of the individuals, a willingness to engage with competing ethical and philosophical dimensions and even place themselves in the midst of these conflicts, so that they may realize something about themselves in culture and history. Second, the text must be open-ended to invite dialogue and thirdly, cultural conditions must allow for the dialogue to emerge. Self-Consciousness may be very dialogic, but if the text is closed and rigid, the range of possible meanings is limited. Both the self and the text may be open, but if the cultural conditions are unfavorable (as in authoritarian regimes), then, dialogue may not be possible. The title of the book – Dialogics of Self, the Mahabharata and Culture reflects this necessary triadic relationship.

When you are studying Indian-Americans, they are in a unique position (as with any immigrant group) of experiencing the ‘enigma of arrival’ – where all the hidden cultural codes become visible and are forced to question selfhood, their cultural baggage and their histories. This feeling of displacement creates a unique opportunity to enter into a dialogue with different cultures, which could lead to creative understanding of self/culture/history. What was evident in my study was that the vast majority does not respond to this dialogic potential; instead, they either shun what they perceive to be ancient/Indian or romanticize the past and the culture. The expressions ‘back then’ and ‘back there’ are either glorified or vilified making any engagement with a familiar epic monologic.

Now, let us discuss about the text and its history. In general, the hermeneutic tradition in India was never preoccupied with preserving the authenticity and originality of texts, but instead, celebrated the ever-evolving living traditions of epic texts. Furthermore, when these texts are orally transmitted, the storyteller is always preoccupied with many truths – the psychological, social and the dramatic and hence resorts to all sorts of persuasive tactics to beckon the listener. The transition from oral to textual in numerous languages in India adds more layers to this complex phenomenon. Therefore, there is a built-in atavism to any version of the text. The dialogic potential is already present in the various versions of the text. Therefore, the ‘surplus of meanings’ about the text is always floating around in the cultural atmosphere and it is up to the reader to select a few and construct meanings. In the constructive process the ontological and the epistemic choices made by the reader become visible.

The epic Ramayana is Kavya – poem, while The Mahabharata is Itihas – history of ideas. The former preaches about the ideal to be achieved, and hence the Godhead Vishnu incarnates as a human being and sets an example for the subjects to emulate, whereas, The Mahabharata exposes the very process of ‘idealization’ and hence nothing is absolute and final. This does not mean that Ramayana cannot be dialogized, but the scope is greater in The Mahabharata, since the reader is faced with bewildering complexities. While The Ramayana commands devotion, The Mahabharata demands dialogue.

TF: Whereas Draupadi, a major female character in The Mahabharata whom we’ll discuss next, seems to invite dialogue, the male character Karna doesn’t. All of your interviewees—whether their perspective is feminist, patriarchal, or somewhere in between—indicate “unconditional respect, sympathy and admiration” for Karna, the “tragic hero, who has been abandoned by his mother, ostracized by the society, betrayed by teacher and tricked by gods…” (154). Does this result suggest that, even in the very dialogic situation of this epic, consensus is possible? Or, in your view, are all the interpreters missing (or even resisting) the possibility of finding a negative aspect of an otherwise respectable character and blameless victim?

LB: Any encounter with Draupadi – both within the epic text and in the literary history – has enormous potential for dialogue, but this potential is rarely realized because of the tendency to refract her character through the prism of patriarchy. Therefore, more than dialogue, Draupadi invites strong response and controversy. While passions run high in dealing with Draupadi, Karna invites tender sympathy, only because in every important relationship he faces betrayal for no fault of his. Draupadi is a woman of extraordinary beauty with a fiery temperament and so for men she is both the temptation and the terror. And so, when viewed through the patriarchal lens, Draupadi’s pugnacious nature is seen as the root cause of her woes. Interestingly, both Draupadi and Karna seek the battlefield to avenge the insults hurled on them, but Draupadi’s actions are seen as bloodthirsty and vengeful, while Karna is spared of such characterization. Seeking the battlefield is seen as a natural and justified response when a valorous hero is insulted. Whereas, when Draupadi’s asks pointed questions, all the wise men assembled in the court of Hastinapur not only fail to answer her, but questioned her audacity to question and most of my respondents also joined the patriarchal/masculanist chorus. Therefore, Draupadi is a palimpsest and a contradiction bearing all the marks of gendered history. She is the site for affirming and challenging the ideologies of patriarchy. Although Karna is a noble character and has numerous redeeming qualities, he joins hands with evil forces out of sheer loyalty and even instigates and partakes in their nefarious activities, and yet, he doesn’t receive the same degree of condemnation as the heroine. In a dialogic reading, one recognizes the temperament of a character, their unique role in a plot, their past experiences in the story and their situational trappings to give a multi-dimensional and multi-layered interpretation. The characters are located in a broader episteme to reflect on uneasy issues of caste, class and gender in our chequered history.

Therefore, to your question on the possibility of consensus even in a very dialogic situation, the answer is of course yes. Remember centripetal and centrifugal forces are inherent in a dialogue and hence voices do adhere. For that matter it wouldn’t be a dialogue if it were a collection of disparate and disconnected opinions. There must be points of convergence and divergence in a healthy dialogue.

TF: Perhaps you were constrained by your position as researcher/facilitator from entering the dialogue on Draupadi as much more than a questioner. What “multi-dimensional and multi-layered interpretation” of Draupadi would you like to provide that you might not have been able to present in the book?

LB: In the long literary history of India, Draupadi remains unparalleled in personifying womanhood in its wholesomeness and uniqueness, with all its glory, horror, retaliation and resilience. Her complex and contradictory nature makes her versatile and she has stirred the imagination of many writers. She is an excellent literary device to write commentaries on nation, gender, caste and class. During the freedom struggle, a Tamil nationalist poet, Subramania Bharati wrote a classic piece based on the attempted public disrobing of Draupadi titled Panchali Sabadam – the Vow of Draupadi. In the very public humiliation of Draupadi, the poet saw the tribulations of Mother India, whose body has been invaded and stripped of dignity, while the rulers and enforcers of law and justice were either complicit or silent, and her custodians remained pathetically helpless. Bharati mobilized the nation to wake up and retaliate and gain inspiration from Draupadi who relied on her inner strength and strong convictions. In this piece the poet justifies Draupadi’s anger and the Nation’s rage over colonial rule and even deems it necessary to overcome self-pity and degeneration. In my view, any encounter with Draupadi is like entering a hall of mirrors, where we see ourselves seeing ourselves. Infinity is the reality in the play of mirrors – and in the reflecting reflections we see both the mirror and the subject – Draupadi and womanhood, inseparable in our journey from the immediate present to the remote past.

In one of the cantos in The Mahabharata, Draupadi herself presents the most persuasive argument on the ethical-philosophical dimensions of anger. She vociferously argues for the ‘ethic of rage and retaliation’ in response to Yudhishtir’s ‘ethic of restraint and forgiveness’ and I read the Feminist Manifesto in this debate/dialogue.

I am fascinated with Draupadi’s character, because long before women’s liberation philosophies were recorded, she loudly proclaimed that “Personal is Political” and hence challenged the kingdom about the legality of the transaction when she was pawned in the game of dice. In the court of Hastinapur nobody questioned when she was staked and nobody answered when she questioned, For that matter her question – did her husband lose himself before staking her or after – is a brilliant legal maneuver, because if the husband lost himself and if she is considered his possession, then she is lost along with him. But if the wife is an independent entity, how is the transaction valid if she was never consulted? This question remains unanswered to this day. Instead history has been clever, for it has been after all –‘his-story’ and not ‘her-story’ and so it has conveniently masked its inability to answer her question, by questioning her audacity to question and ascribing her character with subterranean and complex evaluations. She is both a victim of patriarchy and an irritant for patriarchy. I think to answer her question we need to go back to her – fight a good fight – and to use my earlier metaphor, when we enter the hall of mirrors, we see our reflection along with hers, and so we come in full circle – from Draupadi to Draupadi and between these two intervals we may discover new terms for gender relations.

TF: Did Draupadi feel that “rage and retaliation” was a strategic stage that would eventually allow women to gain equality with men in her society or a strategy for ongoing resistance in a never-ending conflict? (Separatism is a third option, but I don’t surmise that she would find this ideology satisfactory.) And which “new terms for gender relations” may we discover between the directional prepositions involving Draupadi?

LB: The epic The Mahabharata is about conflicts on many levels, and hence gender is not the only issue and therefore we could say that her legal maneuvering was a brilliant form of resistance and retaliation in a never-ending conflict. Now, how her strategy has been interpreted is an interesting issue and it says more about our contemporary conflicts than about the ancient past. As Gayatri Spivak has noted, I see Draupadi as an active ‘shuttle’ between the past and present and in this bi-directional movement we are constantly redefining gender relations. In our cultural life the nature of conflicts in class, caste, gender etc., are never static and the strategies shift and hence the shuttle does not necessarily explain everything about the gendered phenomena, but at best explains how and why the culture has produced some of these phenomena.

TF: From Bakhtin you derive (and in your assessment of the participants apply) the concept of seven kinds of selves: the Traveler, Biographer, “Clan” self, Seeker, Scriptural Self, Gendered Self, and Dialogic Self (92-3). You notice intriguing dialogic conflicts: “Interestingly, all the seekers are men, who insist on rational, scientific knowledge which they claim to be universal, and the gendered selves, who are all women, vociferously contest these claims,” which they say are held by “men with vested interests” (101). You speak of “the Traveler’s engagement” with the text as a “search for ‘authenticity’” (245) that, like the Seeker’s quest, is dehistoricized. The “rationalist” Seeker is after the replacement of ignorance by “Truth” (93), while the Traveler wants to enjoy and be moved by “fleeting impressions of the world” that s/he regards as “neutral” and “realistic” (92). I wonder, in a dialogic space involving The Mahabharata or not, whether transformations often occur. Might a Traveler ever get weary of the relative superficiality of his/her experience and “convert” to the seeker’s position or encounter an intense sense of gendered power relations and veer in the Gendered Self direction? Might a seeker ever reach such a mighty impasse that s/he experiences the limits of rationality and heads toward the Dialogic Self’s path? And can a Gendered Self, while retaining gender as a crucial category of experience/analysis, become fully dialogic in the sense that she acknowledges not only conceptions of gender change due to historical circumstances, as most influenced by recent feminist theory do, but also other categories that are vital and that, at times, may take precedence over gender?

LB: A very interesting and an important question. Transformations do occur in the interpretive act, either due to the pull of their reading partner or the plot. The movement towards dialogism was greatest in Plot III, where an attempt is made to disrobe Draupadi in public. The plot pulled the reader in multiple directions and hence it was difficult for them to exert complete authority over the text and determine its meanings. The dissonance was palpable in this plot, whereas the other plots involved more of affirmation and repudiation. Interestingly, the neutral, detached world of traveler was relatively more amenable to making entry into the dialogical world, than the absolute world of the biographer with a clear demarcation between right and wrong. Ideological idealism was far more obstinate than ideological realism. The objective/rational world of the seeker was slightly more malleable than the strict moralist world of the biographer. What was the influence of the reading partner? My study demonstrated that the dialogical readers were able to draw only few wavering subjects into a dialogue, whereas monologic readers were more successful in silencing the multiple voices of dialogic readers. Therefore, what is clear is that the monologic impulses are very strong. It is interesting to note that 50% of my subjects engaged in strict ‘Direct Unmediated Discourse,’ in reading all the plots, and only 8% were dialogic in all the plots and the rest occasionally moved towards multi-voiced reading depending on the plot. While the Scriptural, Gendered and Dialogic selves were interested in spreading layers of meaning, the single-voiced readers were busy scraping layer after layer only to negate other possible meanings or actually run away from the text or affirm their interpretive stance. The dialogic reader happily wanders in the semiosphere of the text and its immediate and remote surroundings only to discover a host of dormant meanings. That is why I am arguing that dialogic consciousness is rare and is a developmental achievement; it requires effort, courage and confidence in self to question our assumptions and transform.

The seeker is a classic Hegelian/Piagetian subject who is more interested in extracting a unified philosophical truth in the story. To them, the theatrical element of the story is just surface noise. For most part, they engaged in “uni-directional discourse” where extra-textual materials were used only to substantiate their already formed worldview. Remember, the seeker firmly believes that there is a deep down stable rational truth/philosophy in the text and it can be uncovered with objective methods. Hence their entry into the ‘vari-directional multi-voiced discourse’ is rare.

The gendered self is inherently dialogic to begin with, whether they retain gender as a central category of experience or not. In fact they seem fully capable of de-centering gender and treat it as one of the many stratifying factors in cultural life. For instance, when Draupadi dismisses the candidacy of Karna, the gendered selves are aware of the privileged position that the heroine enjoys at that moment. So you are quite right, at times other categories of class and caste may take precedence over gender.

TF: Using Giambattista Vico and Hayden White, you indicate how four master tropes are situated in discourse and how “the transition from one rhetorical trope to another… or the stagnation at one trope, signifies human and cultural consciousness” (33). Chez Vico, “the transition from a primal metaphorical world to a metonymic world leads to from a theocratic to an aristocratic world,” whereas “the movement from metonymy to synecdoche… represents the transition from aristocratic to democratic worldview, where wholes are constructed from parts” (255), and then, “as one moves from the world of heroes to the world of humans,… “individuals”—I take it, within democracy—“recognize their power and their limitations and, thus irony” (256) becomes the major trope.

I agree that irony is a vital trope for the realization of dialogism, especially in its connection with “parodistic discourse” and “hidden polemic” within “double-voiced discourse.” In American literary criticism in the seventies and eighties, one can look at dialogues among Stanley Fish, Wayne Booth, and others who tease out the distinctions between stable and unstable irony. For Booth, the former is readable as an attitude in opposition to a particular literal perspective, whereas the position or attitude of the latter cannot be located. Fish sees the binary stable/unstable as comparable to decidable/undecidable, but he argues that “all ironies are stable, even those that point in multiple directions, in that the shape they have (or don’t have) will follow from in-place interpretive assumptions; and all ironies are unstable, even those that are sharply pointed, in that they are the product of interpretive assumptions, and not the properties of texts” (Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies, Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1989: 568). Do you agree with Booth that stable and unstable irony can be distinguished or with Fish that it is all up to interpretive communities and conventions? In other words, would it be useful to perceive the irony you’re talking about vis-à-vis Vico and White as unstable or stable?

You point out the danger of synecdoche lucidly. But I would problematize the implicit devaluation of metonymy. This trope, when its constituent parts are both held in mind and one is not repressed, indicates relationality, interdependence, a non-hierarchical understanding of contiguity, and hence the possibility of a historically situated understanding that could exist in concert with dialogism. What do you think about this?

LB: Not having studied in any great detail, the works of Booth or Fish and in particular the distinction between stable and unstable ironies that they make, it would be difficult to make any intelligent connection with Vico or White. However, based on the explanation you have given, I would think that unstable irony would be closer to Vico’s explanation of the trope. In Vico’s exposition, ironic speech presupposes awareness that any interpretation could entail some amount of feigning or lying or masking and therefore you need a dint of self-reflection as a cover to establish veridicality of one’s position. It demands meta-interpretation. That is why I have argued that unlike monologic reading that is so keen on self-affirmation, the dialogic approach leads to self-realization – an awareness of the limitation of your interpretations – leaving a loophole for other interpretations to emerge, and thus keeping everything unfinalized and open-ended.

I think your point about metonymy is well taken. I agree that it could lead to dialogicality and I would stress ‘could,’ because not all readers move from metonymy to other tropes. I am not suggesting that movement of these tropes is necessarily sequential. If anything the discourse moves in zigzags and coils. When the movement stops with metonymy, then there is a danger of making simple-minded causal relations. I think you said it quite well that all the elements of metonymy create the possibility of a historically situated understanding.

TF: “A dialogic consciousness,” you write, “seems brave enough to explore every nook and corner of the semiosphere, which is the gathering ground for many disparate texts and distant spheres” (253). In this “journey,” “these spaces become ‘tools’ for reactivating the text” (254). Freshman expository writing (Composition) is a large part of what I teach, and you teach psychology, in which, I imagine, students also have to write papers supporting a specific thesis. To what degree would or could a dialogic pedagogy reconfigure expository structure into something that either allows the notion of a thesis to be much more capacious or is not thesis-driven? And how would such a dialogic advance in teaching methodology provide safeguards against the risk of chaotically thrown together, meandering essays?

LB: Sadly what we see in our classroom, despite creating an atmosphere for dialogue is the chaotic grouping of texts and ideas without achieving any kind of metamorphosis. This trend was evident even in my study, where readers would invoke many texts and draw comparisons, but fail to use the extra-textual materials as tools to return to the original text and open up other dormant meanings. For instance, while discussing the dice game plot where Draupadi is vociferously challenging the kingdom, the readers may invoke Anita Hill’s testimony and this was common. They would engage in a parallel discussion in an unconsummated fashion. Rarely would they get to another level of drawing converging and diverging points between these two characters. If they did that, they might have discovered something about the contemporaneity of the ancient text – in other words, recognize that Draupadi may belong to the mythical past, but the past she belonged to still remains with us. Despite my prodding, many of my respondents, like our students, fail to make the dialogic connection. I think that is what we struggle with in our classrooms, and hence, left with random grouping of references and texts without the central thesis. Even to engage in a good dialogue, there has to be some anchoring, so that there is unity in diversity. Surely, dialogue is murky and meandering, but there is method to this madness! I notice that in my developmental psychology class, students grasp F:Piaget with relative ease – it is a linear theory of development with neat stages, whereas the non-linearity of Vygotsky is a challenge, because it demands connecting disparate elements – that is, enter into a dialogue.

I wonder if we can directly teach dialogicality; after all it is not a technique or a concept with identifiable features, and the best one can do is to create a condition for a dialogue and make every effort to pull the student into the dialogic space with a hope that they push themselves too. I am curious about your take on this.

TF: Yes, we can create a space for dialogue, and we can help students organize the contours of their thinking without sacrificing dialogism. I have been very gratified when a student tells me that s/he has strong arguments for two opposing sides and is having trouble formulating a thesis or wonders whether any thesis will do justice to the complexity of the issue. We talk about the possibility of “weighing” the two sides and provisionally coming up with a qualified preference for one side, or else acknowledging a current impasse (undecidability without further data) as the thesis, or else achieving a synthesis that is not a “reconciliation of opposites” or paradox but a compromise formation that takes the best aspects of the two sides, shaves off the weaker aspects, and entails generalization that may go in an unexpected direction.

In the Platonic dialogues, the gadfly Socrates always wins. (Of course, the reader might engage in an ironic reframing of the philosopher’s bullying mode of questioning.) It would be exciting to allow some essays to take a (literally and non-Socratically) dialogic form, where there are ultimately two theses and not necessarily a winner, even as the two speakers acknowledge each other’s strong points. There’s no referee or judge.

Is monologism in its most extreme forms a kind of psychopathology? What modes of psychotherapy and/or psychoanalysis are most dialogic? Are the most dialogic most efficacious?

LB: I agree that non-Socratic dialogue would validate each thinker the ‘truth value’ in their own right – as Bakhtin would say, Dostoevsky created characters who were philosophers in their own right – often taking a diametrically opposite view from the author. It is this kind of dialogic form in The Mahabharata that is appealing to me – there are no phantom ethics, but only ethical validity at a given place at a given moment.

One of the topics that I am often preoccupied with is the connection between monologism and psychopathology. Long ago I presented my work to a group of very culturally oriented psychiatrists and psychologists and they made a very interesting observation about my various categories of self. Gingerly, they said that very often the dialogic character arrives at their clinic feeling thoroughly exasperated by the rigid world, feeling like misfits. Whereas, the monologic character might drive a reasonably healthy individual into therapy, making them believe that they need to sort out their emotions. The dialogic character operating in an ever-ambiguous world might become susceptible to that kind of labeling, while monologism masquerades itself as firm, decisive and by extension healthy. This kind of struggle was evident in my study; often the traveler would shout, “get to the point” or “don’t be so emotional” at the meandering dialogic reader, whereas for the latter there are too many points and emotions are one of the basis for interpretation. This disturbing trend is something we witness in our cultural and political life in particular, where volume of the voice drowns the nuanced voice. The dialogic self has greater penchant for self-interrogation, thus leaving the door open for attack, while the world of monologic reader is heavily fortified.

About the modes of psychotherapy that are most dialogic, I think first, we need to re-examine how we define human pathos. Think about the play – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and I think we have gotten worse in attaching pathos where there isn’t one and we offer pills as the remedy, making drug companies rich. Therefore, as J. Krishnamurthy, a philosopher from India said, it is not a mark of great mental health to conform to a sick society.

TF: Those who say, “Don’t be so emotional” themselves are being emotional, and the dialogic reader as an interpreter, I suspect, tends to be less in the thrall of emotions that are hostile to particular points of view. Openness and irony contribute to skepticism about situations in which emotion and, in fact, bullying overrides thoughtful reflection. And perhaps the dialogic thinker can be sensitive to the “get to the point” attitude—which can be understandable in terms of norms of attention spans—by verbally foregrounding process in advance of and during elaboration.

What you say about our political life is so true. Kerry was branded as a “flip-flopper” rather than a dialogic thinker, and Bush’s monologism was considered admirable, though by 2004, people were thinking less monologically about Iraq, and so Bush squeaked by. Somehow, in 2008, Obama’s dialogism relative to McCain’s monologism won out, as the former was viewed as more sympathetic and “cool” than the latter, and Bush was blamed for the tanking economy. This year, with respect to monologism/dialogism, I wonder whether the electorate will behave as it did, marginally, in 2004, or in 2008.

Regarding the Krishnamurthy quote, I would say that there’s a condition of heteroglossia in our society: there is a good deal of conformity to exclusively money- and status-centered striving, and yet many people are pursuing deeper desires in a self-directed and/or communitarian way, and still others are trying to synthesize divergent aims, perhaps with some success. And this diversity is probably reflected in the panorama of psychotherapies.

As a scholar of Dialogism, what post- Mahabharata project might lie ahead for you?

LB: I agree with your point that there is equal measure of conformity and creativity in our culture. In the former one marches to the drums of culture, pursuing money and status to enter into a Faustian bargain, while the latter pursues deeper meaningful desires that are in tune with their inner rhythms. Perhaps that is what makes life bearable.

I am at present working on a manuscript – Difference, Dialogue and Development: A Bakhtinian World – in which I am trying to look for images of developing subject in his collected works, to explore significance of his theory for developmental psychology. The basic argument is the reality of differences in the world necessitates dialogue, which in turn leads to development.

I will also be convening an All India Bakhtin Conference in August 2013 in India to explore the dialogic potential in the culture. Interestingly, if Mikhail Bakhtin’s works stand under the banner of plurality, open-endedness and diversity of languages and social speech types, the cultural, philosophical and literary histories of India may very well be brought under the same banner. A polyglottic culture with an amazing assortment of dialects, religions and customs would then seem to be an ideal soil for the growth of Bakhtin’s ideas. It may very well be the case that long before the principles of dialogism took shape in the western world, these ideas, although not labeled as such, were an integral part of the intellectual tradition in India. However, like most places the monologic impulses have taken over, and hopefully in the conference we will explore ways of recovering the dialogicality.
It is a rare privilege to respond to someone who asks thoughtful open-ended questions and so THANK YOU for opening up a sustained dialogue…

TF: Thank YOU, Lakshmi. I have learned a great deal.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Basil King and Thomas Fink: Exchange on Basil King's Learning to Draw/A History. Ed. Daniel Staniforth. Cheltenham, UK: Skylight Press, 2011.

Thomas Fink: I want to begin in a very general area and get to specifics a bit later. Whether in prose or, less often, in verse, Learning to Draw presents numerous stories about historical figures in the arts, about political and social trends, and about you as an artist and individual who left his native London to live in the U.S. The subtitle “A History” is important here: whether or not you consider your book a long poem, this massive accumulation of narratives bears comparison in scope and cultural emphases to the “poem including history” that Ezra Pound was trying to make cohere in The Cantos, and that Charles Olson, your professor at Black Mountain College in the fifties, was working to achieve in The Maximus Poems. The diverse stories keep coming back to a group of particular themes or motifs, but between each story, there’s often a big jump. I cannot envision the whole as either a single large story or a set of tightly interlocking narratives. Yet I am reminded of what Judith Halden-Sullivan in The Topology of Being: The Poetics of Charles Olson writes about her subject: “Olson is less interested in readers identifying the particular facts that fill his poems than in their discovering a pattern of connections in his work that shows something larger than discrete bits of information” (23). I also think about Paul Bove’s assertion in Destructive Poetics: Heidegger and Modern American Poetry, which depends in part on Olson’s exhortations about perceptual movement and process in “Projective Verse” that “Pound and Olson do not hope to see the whole world laid out spatially on a map seen from above,” but “rather,. . . try to regain the older method of map-making which grows directly out of motion, dis-covery, and encountering the unknown. Pound calls this process of charting a coast line, periplum” (267).

How then, do you regard your map, periplum, flexible overall procedure or design, or poetics for this project—especially regarding the possible relationships among narrative elements? Am I right to see a connection with Olson’s (major) “push,” as Sherman Paul has it? And how does Daniel Staniforth, your editor, enter into all of this?

Basil King: I have no map when I start. When I paint I have a figure or a group of figures in mind – or writing I start with one or two people from real life, history usually, not my personal life. As I start other people will come to my mind. But first, whether in painting or writing, I have to place them. Am I going to talk in terms of biography or some insights I have about them?

As this progresses, I begin to know more. I begin to see a bit more clearly.

I’m travelling down a road, yes. Very often on the most familiar route, I’ll see something I never saw before. And that prods me on to the next thing. I do like Pound’s idea of a map but it isn’t particularly useful to me. Too many things come into my head, I see too many things all at once. But I have learned over the years to find space for the things I think about. I suppose that’s why there are jumps.

Often I find a phrase or a few lines of poetry that I repeat because this literally helps me begin again from there. And I’m sure it helps the reader because the repeats give a reader time to take it in, to breathe.

The sections or pieces are not in a preordained sequence – I didn’t write them that way and I had the feeling that one could start or stop almost anywhere. In fact several readers have told me they read this book that way.

I like that. It feels democratic. Daniel Staniforth asked me if I wanted to publish Learning To Draw/A History. And it was wonderful to be asked. I was comfortable with Daniel’s sensibility and felt very confident that he would do justice to the manuscript so I decided to ask him to organize the sections into book form. I told him only that “Across and Back” had to be the first piece.

It could be done another way. And another time it might be.

Fink: Why did “Across and Back” have to be first?

King: Because ‘across and back’ is what I do. From Europe to America, from the cave to the present. This section also contains a nice introduction to H.D. who is muse. D.H. Lawrence has always been very important to me, as well – and there it is: America. Europe. I don’t mention my father’s statement to me about Lawrence in Learning to Draw, but I have it in mirage—he said, “Read Lawrence. He’s an anti-Semite but he’s a great writer.” That was a great lesson to me and has helped me to stay open.

Fink: One motif that often seems to orient you is “Get rich. Be rich. Get rich. Be rich” (15). Why is that one important to you—as psychopolitical critique?

King: Yes, I often use it instead of “Pause” as a break between sections. I don’t think of it as a political statement. I think of it as a way to declare a central theme of capitalism, a motif that repeats itself in American life…from the outside, from the inside.

Fink: OK, I understand. For readers who aren’t yet acquainted with this book, however, I would advise them to pay special attention to the representation of the political in two sections near the end of the book, “Twin Towers,” which addresses the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath, and “Basil’s Arc,” which includes a sharp critique of militarism in all its forms.

Would you say that this book is a long poem, a hybrid of several genres, or something else?

King: This best way I can think of answering this is to cite a note I received from Nathaniel Tarn: he said that he thought I had found a way for an artist to write his autobiography.

Fink: I might add that it’s an aesthetic/intellectual autobiography by an artist who is also a poet. The “Across and Back” section is challenging because sometimes I think you’re giving an actual account of a historical event—for example, the meeting between H.D. and D.H. (Lawrence)—and then you segue into something like the account of the war hero, and it seems to be fictitious or the narrative gets scrambled to the point where it couldn’t be “a history.” This kind of segue happens repeatedly in that section. For example, Freud appears to proposition H.D. It didn’t happen. What kind of guidance can you give your readers about what you might like them to make of the movement from historical reportage and interpretation to out-and-out fiction?

King: Your definition of the book is fine by me.

As for my switches between ‘fact’ ‘invention’ and outright ‘fantasy’ – I don’t want to provide clues. I happen to think that way. Somehow I think about how Pieter Brueghel, Gruenwald, and Bosch treated actual events and fictions and fantasied them, way before the coming of Surrealism. I also take a lot from Rimbaud’s instructions on disarranging our senses.

I should also add that more than one piece has taken me over a year to complete. I don’t always know the final destination.
The ‘war hero’ came to me because H.D. and D.H. really did meet just as war was declared in 1914. So I was thinking about people who have been in combat. I just know they come out with thoughts that are not always real. That passage has a great deal of reality I believe. Just not the same kind of fact.

That kind of mix-up is important to me, bringing disparate things together.

As for Freud propositioning H.D. – wouldn’t H.D. have loved it!

Fink: After a prose passage on Walt Whitman and the Civil War and the racial situation during early Reconstruction, you break into a highly evocative free-verse strophe on the painting process that seems a statement of poetics:

We paint from memory
But experience gives
Us our background
Background: the sum of
One’s experience re-invented
And made conspicuous
Brings the disparate together (79)

Why might that statement be coming after the Whitman/Reconstruction passage? And does the strophe, which, I think, gives “re-invention” some degree of priority over “memory,” help us understand not only your process of painting but your intentions? Also, what tends to motivate the decision to use lines of verse rather than prose, or vice-versa?

King: The process immediately after the Civil War, Reconstruction, was redoing something. Reinventing a society that would work differently. That would be better for everybody. What came to my mind next was how I begin a painting. I don’t think about reinventing society but I do think about reinventing what I already know. That means working with my memory. Reinvention has to start with memory.

It’s not a question of priority…memory is the raw material reinvention works with.

I switch into poetry as a means of letting people follow how my thought has changed. When my thoughts are changing, I don’t think prose. I hope it’s clear that the language itself changes. It becomes a poetic statement.

Fink: Yes, that does seem clear.

You are frequently interested in linking artistic achievement with both courage and, I think, angry resistance to a society that lacks an egalitarian sociopolitical ethos: “Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock were kicked out of high school for printing a subversive magazine. Not all but some angry young men become killers and a few grow up to become artists. There are always angry young men that are willing to face death daily” (47). This passage can be found in “Quartet,” the section on Nathaniel Tarn, Jacob Lawrence, J.G. Johnson, and Robert Frank, four figures linked by their ability to use “different instruments to find a way to migrate to something that is not theirs “a resource that documents possibility” (32). Of course, migration and anger against the anti-Semitism that you encountered while growing up (and which is the subject of various narratives in the book) are important to your own autobiography. It appears, then, that artistic production (or “reinvention”) derives from both memory of personal experience—oppressive more often than not—and “resources” or material outside the constraints of the self that permit the “migration” to more satisfactory aesthetic and political possibilities. Anger, then, is a fuel for such migration. What in my conjecture about your views am I getting right, and what am I leaving out or overgeneralizing about or just plain getting wrong?

King: Most of your statement is fine. I pause when I get to “Anger, then, is a fuel for such migration.” Yes, it is but not all the time. If I were to rely on anger only I would have to leave out too much. I wouldn’t be using my whole self. I’d deny other people, and history, mine and all that is in back of us.

Fink: Because of its associative leaps, one of the most challenging sections in the book is “Dictation,” in which you move from a consideration of Saul Steinberg to Franz Kafka (briefly) to Diane Arbus and then to another photographer, Jerry Shore. Interspersed are some autobiographical narratives. What impels you to put these figures together?

King: All four of them are cosmopolitan Jews who had a very personal twist on reality.

I think I am just about finished with a new piece I’ve been working since last spring. Twelve =
This one has six popular singers, a boxer, a movie star, two writers and two politicians… And the painting continues downstairs; it’s tiring and rewarding all at the same time.

Fink: Twelve characters are a lot to juggle in one composition: congratulations!

Fink: Being a student at Black Mountain College was a crucial point of your development as a painter/poet. In “Windows,” you write:

In class Olson was a marvel holding a little piece of chalk in his large hand he’d turn his eyes. Would Ahab get the better of him and would he never see Gloucester again. . . . Olson wanted information that pertained. Process became a passion a declaration of intent that never wavered. He pursued those of us who were in class for information and by so doing he taught us how to use windows. (129)

Then, in “The Real Thing Has Four Parts,” you put forth the idea attributed to Willem de Kooning, the professor (in your fantasy) of Holbein the Younger, that “Black Mountain College is a community where everyone learns,” as notions like “the faculty their discipline will humble you,” “Black Mountain welcomed those who were willing to leave home, meet strangers and learn to draw,” and “Black Mountain was a democracy no tests, card markings, lights out” (163). In a subsequent verse section, you add, “Voices never heard before/ Gave themselves/ Permission to speak/ And speak they did” (164).

I assume that you, Baz, were “in class for information”: how did Olson “pursue” you? How did he teach you “to use windows”? And how did “the faculty’s discipline humble you”? De Kooning’s—especially? Also, did you need Black Mountain’s “permission to speak,” or were you “speaking” already?

King: The summer he was there was three or four years before my time . I met deKooning in New York--because of the Black Mountain connection. What Olson taught me was that you had to look outside, outside of yourself, outside the window, to find information that you needed. That didn't mean that you shouldn't look inside yourself or use your own intuition but that couldn't be the only source.

I came to Black Mountain when I was only 16; I had never known mature artists, I'd never seen how hard they work. Olson was writing “Maximus” at the time. Volpe was composing. Merce was working his dances out. I think the same can be said of Cage. At the same time, there was a truly democratic environment there. The differences between the faculty and the students were minimized. Everyone worked and people mined each others work regardless of where they were in terms of age or maturity. Pretty much everyone pursued everyone. It could get pretty combative. If you didn't work, you couldn't stay there. It was famous. People came and sometimes three days later they were gone.

I didn't need Black Mountain's permission to speak, I needed it to find my own voice. Black Mountain taught me that I needed to find my own voice.

Fink: Learning to Draw includes generalizations about artists that can be deemed part of an unorthodox art criticism or, sometimes, art history. Here are sentences from “The Trusting Child”: “Matisse wasn’t the first artist to stick his fingers in the paint and like honey he rearranged and made his own colour wheel. Black became a noun a predator an intuitive device that could be placed in any room on anyone’s face an eye a space is asked to take its clothes off” (110). When you say that Matisse created “his own colour wheel,” do you mean that he ignored the usual arrangement of complementaries, analogous harmonies, triadic harmonies, etc. and put colours together in unprecedented ways, or something else? And did he literally paint with his fingers, or are you speaking about a particular development of textures—i.e. scumbling? I have always been struck by Matisse’s powerful use of black outlining and solid black elements; I sense how it can seem “predatory,” according to old associations of the word, but in what way is “black” “a noun”? And how does “a space” have “clothes” that black can induce it to “take. . . off”?

King: Let me say first, when Matisse was a young man he took his paintings to Renoir, whom he greatly admired. Renoir looked at them for a long time and then said, "I could never use black that way."

Yes, Matisse exaggerated his colors and very rarely is anything a prime color. As for fingers, artists have been sticking them in the paint since the cave. Titian did it in old age and you can see his prints in the paint. I believe Matisse did it ... certainly a lot of moderns, like Soutine or deKooning let it be obvious. I think earlier, fingers were used but without leaving a trace.

As for other changes, as elsewhere, I really believe the surreal knocks....

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Interview with Timothy Morton

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Timothy Morton: Shelley says something quite beautiful about poetry, which is that it's the root and blossom of human knowing. I’d like to turn that upside down for a moment and wonder whether that image is possible because rooting and blossoming are themselves a kind of poetry. A flower is a plant's poem about sex; a flower is a bee's poem about precious food. I mean this quite literally, which is to say, poetically, though in a greatly expanded sense. Bees and flowers have coevolved over millions and millions of years into what we might call an interobjective system. Causality itself—how a flower attracts a bee in order to have sex—is poetic in this sense, in other words, as I'm arguing these days in various places, the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension.

When one hears the question, “Where does poetry begin?” one is prone to visualize things chugging along in their way, and poetry somehow arising out of the chugging, or being sprinkled along the surface of the chugging like sparks flying out of a complex grinding mechanism. But contemporary physics—going back now to 1900—tells us that the aesthetic dimension is not some kind of optional fireworks that happen if you're lucky and happen to have (human) ears, eyes and so on. Poetry is the blood of causality. A fruit fly smells not by inhaling some volatile chemical, but by detecting the quantum signature of a molecule: its shape, which is transmitted nonlocally to receptors in the fly's olfactory system. Shape, which Aristotle calls morphē, just is what Aristotle thinks as the essence of a thing. This ice cream, right here, this one in my hand—its essence is its form, not an idea in my head or in some transcendental ice cream parlor of the beyond. Somehow we have forgotten how important form is. Form got flushed out of the modern way of thinking about things as pure extension and nothing else—maybe with some accidental candy sprinkles here and there—machinating away in the void.

But this mechanistic view is no longer congruent even with science. Things don't carry on “in” time and space, like cogs in a clock. Time and space emerge from things themselves: planet Earth emits a gigantic spacetime vortex that has now been empirically detected using incredibly accurate gyroscopes, so that my watch runs faster in a plane than on the ground. The region “in front of” things is inhabited by time, space, causality—it is the aesthetic dimension, it just is how things appear, their form, morphē.

So we coexist in an all-encompassing bath of poetry. The kind that humans like about red roses and so on is just a tiny region of this colossal space of possibility.

Another way to hear the question might be, “How can we account for the beginning of a thing, if causality just is poetry?” What does beginning mean? As poets and students of poetry we have a considerable leg up on this problem. This is the phenomenon of aperture. How does a poem begin? Aristotle argues that plays have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I used to think this was a daft waste of space. I mean, all you have to do is look at the first page, and the last page, then divide the total number of pages by two to get the middle, right? Wrong—what Aristotle means is that things have a feeling of beginning, a feeling of being in the middle (which I call development), and a feeling of ending (closure). Beginning, middle and end are aesthetic—so we can use them to talk about causality, since we have established that causality is aesthetic.

A poem begins when, all of a sudden, we have no idea what is happening. Some kind of rift has opened up in the midst of what appeared to be a smooth surface, like the blank of a page. Charles Bernstein's short poem is exemplary in this regard:


Where is the poem? When has it started? What counts as the poem in this sentence, if anything? All this uncertainty crashes into the blank space. It's like the beginning of a story. Who is the main character? What counts as an action or as a significant action? What is happening? Is this studio the focus of the entire novel, or is it adjacent to the main scene? And so on. Not having any well-defined coordinates is the mark of beginning. Realist narrators do this brilliantly with the use of the definite article. You could spend hours studying the first word of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The studio ...” Which one? Evidently we are already there—but where is that? Something is already happening. This is the feeling of beginning. Something is underway, but we don't know exactly what. That feeling of a lack of coordinates is because there exists a rift between how things appear and how things are: and since we can't know how things are, especially since we've only just begun to read the story, there is a shifty feeling of paradox. The trouble with lying is, how can you tell whether someone is lying or not? Is there, or is there not, a difference between what is being said and the truth? This feeling, in all its poignancy, is the feeling of aperture.

I submit that when a thing begins, a rift is opened in reality, a rift between essence and appearance. I mean these two words precisely but not quite in the received sense. The essence of a thing is its withdrawn darkness, its intrinsic unknowability—I am what is now called an object-oriented ontologist because, like Graham Harman, Ian Bogost and Levi Bryant, I hold this darkness to be true of all real things whatsoever: old ladies sitting in a tea room, cups of tea, grains of sugar, stainless steel spoons and the core of the Sun. The appearance of a thing is its aesthetic form (morphē), which is part of a thing whether or not that thing is being experienced or used by something else. For a thing to exist is for there to be a rift between how a thing appears and what it is. A really existing thing, then, is a living paradox, rather like the Cretan who says “All Cretans are liars.” A teaspoon is a liar. The Sun's plasma core is a liar. We can't tell where the rift is. The rift is not “in” a certain part of space or time. It's like looking at a mask: is there something, someone, behind it? It's like looking at someone's eyes: are they windows of the soul, or just opaque blobs of jelly? The rift is real precisely to the extent that it can't be located.

Again, as poets and students of poetry we have an advantage, because we deal with shifting, seductive lies all the time. We have a high tolerance for things saying one thing and meaning another. Think about a poem. It's just some words waiting to be read. You don't know what it means—yet. This not-yet quality is what the poem plays with. The definition of a good poem is one whose inner rift has not yet collapsed. It is “timeless” because it has not yet been exhausted. Its essence is its future. We can't locate the essence anywhere: what we have is appearance, just these words, this lineation, this rhyme, these images, that rhythm. We have form: form is the past.

Crash! Suddenly my hand is filled with splinters of glass. What happened? My son must have dropped the light bulb he was trying to throw in the trash, onto the smooth concrete floor of the garage. There are at once these new beings in the world, these shards of crushed glass in my hand. There is a new rift, a rift that can only be experienced backwards, with 20–20 hindsight (or less, but never with foresight).

So to answer the question more directly, poetry begins for me when there is a fresh ripple of uncertainty in things that marks the inception of a new entity. I can never identify the “moment at which” the beginning lies, because time itself is part of the appearance of things, not the essence, and since time emerges from objects, and there are new objects, these glass splinters, there is a host of fresh temporalities that fail to correspond to the ones with which I've grown accustomed.

We find this difficult to accept, but only because of the ubiquity of affiliations we humans have made with quartz crystals and their peculiar oscillations, which force us into the totally calculated Busby Berkeley musical called modern life. So despite what Einstein tells us, and poetry, and now object-oriented ontology, we think that time is still a hard Perspex container in which everything has a defined place, like cogs suspended in a paperweight.

One consequence of this way of thinking is that beginnings don't just happen for me, or for humans, or even for sentient beings. They happen for trashcans and garage floors. If all that is required is the opening of a rift between essence and appearance, then the smooth concrete floor of my garage also undergoes a beginning when its surface tinkles with the tiny percussion of glass shards. I'm not strictly saying that my garage floor is alive, but that in most ways, how I experience a breaking light bulb is on par with a concrete slab. I find this to be a very elegant and efficient way of thinking, since I'm not required anymore to draw or police distinctions between human and nonhuman, or between sentient and insentient, or alive and inanimate. If that makes me sound like an Aboriginal Australian, that's not so bad.

TB: The idea that “nature isn’t natural” didn’t originate with you or Graham Harman. Gertrude Stein said the same thing decades ago in her novel Ida. You, however, have fleshed the idea out to astonishing effects in Ecology Without Nature.

What I especially value about EWN are the ways in which you braid literary, philosophical, artistic and ecological thinking. ( The ways in which you upbraid each category of thought, too.)

I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about how you have come to understand “the environment.”

Timothy Morton
: Your question follows “naturally” (haha) from the first one, I think. This is because when we talk about Nature (I'm going to write it in capitals to make it obvious we're talking about a construct), we are talking about a set of things that evoke it. Implied in this notion of a set of things is the fact that the set has to have an outside, things that are not Natural or unnatural in some sense, or supernatural, preternatural, and so on. Nature is shorthand for a set of things whose boundaries are policed. Nature is a line drawn around a group of affiliated things—a more or less loosely bundled interobjective system, that is, a set of appearances. Appearances, not essences—even when these things are seemingly real and palpable and urgent.

That book, Ecology without Nature, got me into some trouble, because it was easy to say “Oh, he's a postmodern nihilist, he doesn't think anything real exists,” or something like that. No: it's precisely because I do think that real things exist that I'm not willing to use the concept Nature. I am for coral and bunny rabbits and polar bears, but against Nature. Why?

Well, let's try an experiment. Make up a list of things that are Natural: trees, bunnies, coral, ants, mountains, ocean. Evidently the list is incomplete. Let's try another one: trees, bunnies, coral, ants, mountains, ocean, humans, toxic waste, plutonium. Now we are stretching Nature to breaking point but the list is still incomplete. Something must be left out for this list to be a list.

What is the deep reason for this? Nature is Nature-for. It's someone's or something's Nature. Nature is normative, because Nature is based on appearances, which just are appearances-for. You decide on a set of relationships and take those to be more real or more proper than others. Nature is a question of taste. You think that bread and marmalade go together naturally, not bread and peanut butter. Peanut butter is an illegal immigrant into the world of bread and marmalade, which must be policed from invasion by unnatural things such as raspberry jam and Nutella. You have said nothing deep about marmalade or bread by calling them Natural. You have only decided that this relationship is the true religion.

Nature is held to be real, but I argue that it's the greatest fiction. We intellectuals constantly love to accuse each other of being too intellectual: we should go outside and smell Nature, stop being so narcissistic and weird and feminine. In part my motivation has been to stick up for this narcissistic, weird, femininity. I think the world right now could do with a lot more human gentleness, weakness, lameness, hypocrisy—these are now quite well worked out categories in my new book project!

What ends Nature, once and for all? Quite simply, ecological awareness. What we know is that we live inside a gigantic entity called biosphere, which envelops another gigantic entity called Earth. Weaving in and out of this pair of beings is another being, called climate, which is a high dimensional beast we can only glimpse in patches, like when it rains or snows or when there is a drought. Scientific instruments now make these gigantic beings visible to us humans. Indigenous cultures have had pretty good names for gigantic beings that wrap around us like this: Yggdrasil, the Rainbow Serpent. Nature is not one of these names. Nature is a small island of Western human normativity in a gigantic ocean of strangeness. Now we know the gigantic ocean in which bunny rabbits and clouds have their being, drawing lines around certain appearances of things and fencing them off and policing them becomes impossible.

In short: Nature seems huge and valuable and real, but in fact it's a meager human reflection of an appearance of a small selection of beings.

Of course this doesn't mean we shouldn't struggle against the Keystone XL pipeline or against nuclear missile silos or shrinking icecaps. What it means is that we need a new reason to do so. Using Nature as the reason is like using a slightly broken Christmas ornament to fight a huge well-equipped army: this antique looking, but really quite modern, Western consumerist product. What we need to use instead is the idea of coexistence, which is much easier, because it's based on fact.

The term environment is an upgrade of Nature, sort of Nature 2.0. But it suffers from the same bugs. We might admit that nonhumans also have environments, or worlds, or what have you. But do we really want to go around saving things because they have worlds? The Nazis had a world, for sure. There was a world of witch ducking in the Middle Ages. However we broaden the category of world or environment to include nonhumans and perhaps even nonsentient beings, it isn't enough. This is fundamentally because world and environment are appearances. They are worlds-of, environments-for. It's like arguments for preserving the humanities because they are meaningful-for certain beings. “Oh please, preserve these candy sprinkles, they are so delicious and make the boring cupcake of science taste really good, for a moment.”

Rather than deciding in advance what counts as meaningful, or genuine, we simply need to notice that we coexist inextricably with other beings. All that Nature speak leaves most of modernity intact.

I was speaking with this biologist who works in the Everglades, Joel Trexler. He knows ways to restore the Everglades to certain kinds of appearance: how they looked in the 1950s, how they appeared 500 years ago, and so on. Preserving Nature in this way becomes a form of art restoration. It has nothing to do with coexisting with actual beings. It's just about taste. Of course, Nature-speak advertises itself as anti-taste, which is the ultimate aesthetic sophistication, like eating sushi: “This is pure, raw, realness.”

Environment and world are more up to date, 3D, surround-sound versions of Nature. That's even a term that some environmentalism uses: “the surround.” What is being preserved when this kind of world is preserved? Just a virtual experience-for some (human) being. It's virtual reality. The trouble is, this virtual reality is structuring the real. Think about a National Park: you go there to experience “away,” you drive to it in your SUV which is like watching a widescreen movie of Nature, on a comfy traveling sofa. Even when you are two inches away from Nature, you are distant from actual beings with whom you coexist. Nature is like looking at something through the wrong end of a telescope.

One thing that attracts me very much about object-oriented ontology is that we're arguing that we are not inside a total virtual simulation. There is a reality, but this reality is shifting and weird and elusive. The illusion quality of things is evidence of their reality. It's a very nice philosophical somersault. Nature is one of these ideas that was built up around the time philosophy decided that all it could talk about was human access to things, not things in themselves. It's very hard to convince people about Nature, though, because Nature is taken to be hard and real and wet and aggressively rugged. Gaia is going to punish you if you continue to burn plastic, and so on. But even there, with that idea of the revenge of Gaia, we are trying to watch our own funeral on some virtual TV set in the future after we have become extinct. There is a kind of vicarious thrill in that, which I see in some forms of speculative realism too. It's not really realism, I claim. It's sadistic thrills: watching yourself being wiped out from some impossible outside point of view. It's like watching a cartoon of Tom getting flattened into a pancake by Jerry or whatever.

What we have to do, instead of beating ourselves up over and over again with the frying pan of Nature, is disarm this sadism that seems to be tangled up with modernity, including modern aesthetics or ways of seeing and appreciating things. This involves a nonviolent practice of accepting that we already coexist with other beings. This has nothing to do with being in some special game park called Nature or world or environment, or even with abstract concepts such as species. It has to do with this actual polar bear, let's call him Frank. Frank is about to drown because his ice is melting. What are you going to do? Teach him to swim? Have him over to your place? Feed him? It becomes a political problem. Nonhumans are already on “this” side of social, philosophical and psychic space. Our job is to notice that, again and again, and get used to it.

TB: Politics, ideology need to be explicitly addressed. Don’t you think?

Global capitalism operates on the principle of the never ending expansion of markets, coupled with the homogenization of culture(s). Doesn’t this create special problems for ecological thinking?

Timothy Morton: Perhaps there is a very succinct way to answer this, which follows somewhat from what I've said already. It's this: simply that Nature just is this “homogenization” performed by capitalism. Nature is never this actual bunny rabbit, this actual cloud, this plutonium pellet.

I'm not even sure I believe in ideology any more. It seems too easy to condemn people for thinking there is no ideology—to say that this belief is the very quintessence of ideology. I believe in confusion and ignorance and I also believe in unconscious motivations and patterns. And I think that many of these patterns are produced in interactions between humans and non-humans, so that they're not strictly just ideas in (human) heads. My friend Levi Bryant likes to give the example of rice, a labor-intensive crop that necessitated the emergence of strict social hierarchies in China and elsewhere.

In another sense, I think our conversation is already addressing politics since politics just is how we coexist together, how we organize our enjoyment together.

I just read a very interesting argument about the economy, that is, the human circulation of goods and services and money and debt. We are currently heading towards some kind of productivity ceiling that can't be sustained by this planet. It will happen within the next forty-eight years. What we do about that goes beyond politics as usual. It must be to do with realizing that nonhumans are already on “this” side of social space. Ideology theory is born in an age when nonhumans are relegated to “that” side, “over yonder,” otherwise known as Nature. Ideology theory might be exactly the wrong instrument to get us from A to B. A being the collision course with the finitude of Earth.

TB: A final question. Near the end of Ecology without Nature you write: “Ecological politics has a noir form. We start by thinking that we can ‘save’ something called ‘the world’ ‘over there,’ but end up realizing that we ourselves are implicated. This is the solution to beautiful soul syndrome: reframing our field of activity as one for which we ourselves are formally responsible, even guilty.” Would you expand on this?

Timothy Morton: What I love about noir type movies such as Hitchcock's Vertigo or David Lynch's Twin Peaks series is that it turns out that the good guy, the detective, is implicated. Why? It shows that there is no outside, nowhere to jump, nowhere that is sanitized and safe and free of things. Freedom must be sought, struggled for, within the ecological mesh in which we find ourselves implicated—implicated means “folded into.”

Environmentalist language takes one of two forms, quite commonly. Sometimes you can find them combined in the same prose, like an emulsion—they are opposites but if you mix them together violently they form a sort of environmentalist vinaigrette.

The first form affirms that there is somewhere to stand outside reality—poor pathetic humans are judged from an outside point of view, we salivate over the revenge of Gaia (James Lovelock) and so on. We look on ourselves from the far future, as if we were watching a video of our own funeral. Of course you can do this in narrative but you can't do it in real life. What is particularly galling is that this exquisite artifice is said to be on the side of Nature, speaking for the trees like the Lorax.

The second form asserts that yes, we are immersed in ecological reality. But it takes delight in this, it is happy and sunny and beautiful. The immersion language is correct but the affect is wrong. It is not particularly joyful that I am infinitely responsible for the beings that coexist with me, for the simple, formal reason that I can understand this sentence. It isn't particularly good news that mercury is coursing through my blood or that we have created plutonium. It's also not so great that I am a product of evolution whose two outstanding human contributions, from that point of view, are sweating profusely and throwing things. I mean, I'm immersed in nonhumans to the extent that 35% of my genome is also daffodil DNA. Great—am I supposed to be happy about that? My brain is a kluge of sorta kinda functional adaptations to problems for sponges, ichthyosaurs and voles. Great—that makes me feel nice…

So I think the primordial ecological awareness affect is the kind of Marlowe the detective, hardboiled melancholia: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge…” (from “Red Wind”).