Update: Video for Lannan Symposium now online.
The below are the remarks I delivered to introduce the 2015 Lannan Symposium, "In Nature's Wake: The Art and Politics of Environmental Crisis, on March 24, 2015. " I've cut out my long list of thanks, but information on the people and entities who helped make the symposium happen can be found on the website's sponsors page. Tweets are archived at #innatureswake.
In Nature's Wake
If you are paying attention even slightly you know that the world is dying. Rising seas, mass extinction, ice sheets undercut by their own melt and slipping away forever; superstorms, droughts, ambient chemicals, and accumulations of cast-off plastic whirling in slow eddies every day, perpetually, over areas of ocean larger than Texas. No news cycle can now turn without recounting a “disturbing new record” (last week, about melting polar sea ice); “irreversible processes” (earlier this year, about the same topic); or some other shocking proof of the presentness of the environmental catastrophe that used, always, to be a matter of “future generations,” “your children’s children.” Timescales have compressed; the fresh water remaining in California, my home state, will last one calendar year.
It was 1989 that Bill McKibben’s profoundly influential book, The End of Nature, explained for the first time --in clear, impossible to mistake prose-- that human beings live in an era when nature, conceived as a force or set of systems independent from man, no longer exists. We permeate the world, and our vast transfer of carbon from the ground into the atmosphere over the last two centuries means that now, even the most seemingly remote or “untouched” areas or ecological processes --think of ice sheets, rain forests, permafrost-- are so touched by human activity as to bear our fingerprints in their very chemical structure.
Now, even the most seemingly remote or “untouched” areas or ecological processes are so touched by human activity as to bear our fingerprints in their very chemical structure.
Scientists have recently codified this idea under the label of “The Anthropocene,” the epoch of geological time in which what were once natural processes have been altered fundamentally by man’s activity. Understood as a category outside of human will and activity, nature no longer exists. And without nature, as McKibben writes, “there is nothing but us.”
McKibben’s book came out in 1989, when I was thirteen, and when this year’s Georgetown seniors were still a half decade from being born. This means that the generation sitting in these seats has always lived in nature’s wake. With them today, we all sit at a moment unique in the history of geological time, when humankind and nature have become forever intertwined and the latter has, definitively, lost. In Nature’s Wake is meant to ring that double note: it’s both temporal marker and a kind of requiem, or signal of melancholy. But where melancholia is conceived, in traditional psychoanalysis anyway, to be a state of paralysis or suspended animation-- a flailing period of grief, antithetical to action-- our present crisis demands more.
The word poetry derives from poiesis, an act of making or doing. Taken in its broadest sense to mean human creativity and acts of aesthetic making, poetry names an action that reorganizes the world. What we seek to learn here is what poetry in this wider might do in the face of our ever-worsening environmental crisis. What new conceptions of nature, solidarity, and human agency does this moment require? And what new forms and genres might best make sense of this dramatically revised relationship between us and our “environment”?
In Nature’s Wake is meant to ring that double note: it’s both temporal marker and a kind of requiem, or signal of melancholy.
In one of the Western tradition’s greatest elegies, “Lycidas,” John Milton’s grieving speaker laments the catastrophic loss of his best friend, who has drowned. The speaker grieves, he weeps, he “bewails.” But that is not all. In the final line of the poem, the speaker gets up. “At last he rose,” Milton writes, “to morrow to fresh woods, and Pastures new” (193). The last word of this pastoral lament --this paradigmatic elegy for a lost world and a broken life-- is “new."
The pastures and woods of pastoral may fit uneasily with an age of clearcutting and factory farms. And yet, if we are positioned here to take stock of loss, and squarely to measure a devastation that is real and in many cases irreversible, I don’t think our speakers over the next two days will be comfortable lingering in that loss. In keeping with the Lannan mission, this is a collective and public event, one that connects art and activism and is built on a wager that the climate catastrophe that leaves no one untouched might also bring us, somehow, together. Can we rise from these losses and move, together, toward something new?
McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Anchor, 1989. Print.
Milton, John. "Lycidas." John Milton Reading Room. Web.
Ronda, Margaret. "Mourning and Melancholy in the Anthropocene." 6/10/2013. Post45. Web.
"Scenes from the New American Dustbowl." Matter / Medium 9.21.2014. Web.