9.07.2010

Pandora is Gaia: Nature as the Oldest Hypertext

My apologies for being absent for far too long. I hope starting the blog up again can not only get me talking with several folks, but also help with several projects I have going. I need it and hope you will contribute!

I find it interesting that Byron Hawk's work A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity has not been taken up by more mainstream environmental thinkers in English and the humanities. As far as I can research, ISLE hasn't published a review and I am fairly certain a search of works cited in their pages since its publication will produce little to no results. The same could be said of Gregory Ulmer's work in chorography, one of Hawk's influences. Ulmer radically revises notions of place and environment as real forces of invention, a point Hawk takes up in his book on vitalism. Add to this, Thomas Rickert's essays on kairos ("Inventing in the Wild") and khora (in Philosophy and Rhetoric), and we have some well-argued and carefully thought out ways to rethink place, environment, and nature.

Before I detail this a bit more, I have to note that I have fallen prey to the same ideological blinders that may be hindering folks in ecocomposition, ecocriticism, and environmental communication (let's call these and their allies the "eco-humanities"). As Hawk notes, Dobrin and Weisser failed to push the concept of ecology to its limit, keeping to representational notions of discourse and thereby dividing the discursive from the environment, a point I came to in my own chapter in Goggin. But I had to talk with Hawk before getting to this understanding. There is still a premium in the eco-humanities on representation, cultural studies, etc. that serves to maintain the nature-culture binary. My contention is that this has limited scholarship in the eco-humanities because Ulmer, especially, but also Hawk and Rickert have been taken up so readily by folks dealing in technology, hypermedia, video games, and computer interfaces. In other words, many eco-humanities scholars see them as "technological culture" and, perhaps because of their ideological love of "nature" (read as "those things relatively untouched by human culture"), they skip over the important insights offered from their colleagues thinking about (and with) computer technologies.

I won't detail Hawk's vitalism here, having made notes on it in an earlier post, nor will I recount my argument in Goggin's book. Suffice to say that, as Raul Sanchez argues, we have a crisis of representation and one of the foremost areas this crisis affects is thinking about the environment. I think Zizek is right to point out that an environmental discourse founded on representation has all the makings of a new opiate of the masses. But what Ulmer, Hawk, and similar scholars point out is a fairly simple argument that if everything (including nature) is a text we read/ write in non-linear, non-book ways, and that the sum total of the read/ write situation - if what is written/ read is a product of an emplacement, a total environment, if you will, - then this is perfectly applicable to our own scholarly work in the eco-humanities. In short, the world around us, our total environment from cities to prairies, to corn fields, oceans, rivers, and highways are a hypertext with which we interface but must invent ways to navigate trough, following its connections, links, and databases.

I admit that this is awfully close to James Cameron's imaginary world of Pandora, a world that functions as a vast database for memory, culture, and information. But aren't these imagined worlds important because they reveal truths about our own? We certainly don't have the same species or biological morphology that allows us to download memories of our elders, transfer consciousness from one body to another, or meld our neurological pathways with that of companion species. But we can and do interface with our environments, be they technological or not. And the "non-technological" is as linked together, if not more linked together, than any network yet devised by humans. Isn't the astrology-astronomy continuum indicative of how we use the natural world as calculator and computational tool linked to interfaces with planting, hunting, and ceremonial activity? Don't we use landscape as repository for memory, as Simon Schama has argued at length? What, then, is the difference between digital and natural hypertext?

My question, then, is what happens when we view the environment through the lenses articulated by Ulmer, Hawk and others? If we see the environment - built as well as "natural" - don't we get around the questions of ideology posed by William Cronon, the problems of cultural politics pointed out by Bruce Braun, and the (im)possibility of sustainabile development posed by Timothy Luke? We certainly don't "solve" these problems or questions, but wouldn't we understand them in a new way? Wouldn't we be able to reconfigure our interfaces with nature?

To me, this sounds at least worth exploring. Plus, it resonates with the work of Latour, Haraway, Hayles, and some of our foremost thinkers of how we understand and move through our worlds.

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Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..