Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

on 'porosity' and 'latitude'; or, a loving call-out

jo's picture

"God holds the only patent! He is the Engineer Supreme! And He has given up His seeds into the public domain!...Our seeds contain our beliefs. That's why we urge you to continue to save them and propagate them and pass them on to others to do the same, in accordance with God's plan. In this way we chose to praise our Lord and to fulfill His design - of which mankind is just one small part." (Ozeki 302)

* * *

Our class has sort of latched on to this idea of ‘porosity’. It’s become a catchphrase, an exclamation, and a stand-in for many other words on when talking about complex and/or connected things. So I’m calling us out. We’re using porosity in the same way that we’ve resisted using words like ‘nature’ and ‘environment’, in the same way that it is problematic to use words like ‘gentrification’ and ‘radical’ (and still I and many others continue to use them, perhaps out of comfort and habit, perhaps for lack of a better word).  The idea of porosity has brought us a long way, given us new and interesting ways to look at common concepts, AND/BUT there might be areas where it’s holding us back from defining what we really mean. I’m still not sure I completely know what the word means. It could be that I’m the only one, but I don’t think so.

Just checked with Sara to make sure I wasn’t way off on my analysis and we had an illuminating chat. When I asked her what her concept of porosity is, she paused and said, “porosity is… it’s a lot of things… it’s very porous…” we both laughed. This is a perfect example of how our 360 has come to use this enigmatic word. Sara acknowledged that one element of porosity is the “scientific” concept, which, looking back on our early conversations, I remember to be the origin of our use of the word (from this blog post by Levi R. Bryant). This idea that all bodies are physically permeable, and cannot avoid taking on elements and energy from the surrounding environment. We have particularly talked about this from our own perspective as humans in the way we experience our environment. We’re like sponges that soak up ideas and knowledge in the same way that we take toxins in the air and water into our bodies.

Yet in conversations in class and through connections with other readings, it seems we’ve broadened our understanding to say that, since everything is porous and permeable, everything is therefore connected. “We are all one,” we joked at some point. But it’s become less and less a joke and more and more a shared understanding. And to be completely honest, I think it often functions as a cop-out. Seeing everything in the universe as connected erases difference, and takes away some of the anxiety we inherently feel around viewing ourselves as separate from others. And that paints a rosy picture of the world, one that I would claim allows too much latitude.

Of course, with all of the many things we complicate and problematize and speculate and debate about on a daily basis in our class, ignoring the problems in the world is hardly our problem. This is less a critique of our 360 and more of the (human?) tendency to oversimplify. And why wouldn’t we try to simplify things? The world is an overwhelming place. How can we possibly be expected to take in all its complexities at once? Ok, so maybe it’s not even a critique of oversimplification. Maybe what I’m trying to do is investigate the dangers involved in too much latitude and the benefits of having enough latitude.

As a lens through which to explore this, I want to look at All Over Creation, by Ruth Ozeki, and in particular look at the alliance between Lloyd and the Seeds of Resistance. On the one hand, you have a conservative, fundamentalist, creationist farmer. On the other, a grungy group of radical anarchist hippies. The (potential) problem that I see here is that they unite on this common issue, against GMO’s, but (a) they have very different reasons for their beliefs and (b) so many of their core ideologies are at direct odds (granted, this is an assumption based on what I know about the different characters). Is it too far of a leap (too much latitude) for them to work together towards a common goal?

It seems to me that based on this story, Ozeki would claim that achieving common ground on an issue and using that to bring about positive change is what matters, and that other issues are technicalities. The book frames it as a beautiful thing that two such visibly different crowds are able to come together around a mutual concern and really stir things up. And the activist in me totally agrees. How else can we have difficult conversations between two parties with opposing ideologies if we don’t allow latitude? How can we hope to be productive? But there is a part of me that is dissatisfied with this, a part of me that is worried and that wants to accuse the Seeds of being hypocrites. As Geek said at the Idaho Potato Party, is the Fourth of July - Independence Day - and we are assembled here to declare independence from the corporate hegemony that is seeking to gain total control over global food supplies. In the spirit of America, in the spirit of our forefathers and foremothers, who fought for independence from economic slavery and colonialist oppression, in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party, we hereby declare this the Idaho Potato Party! (Ozeki 302)

In the same sentence, he speaks of declaring “independence from the corporate hegemony” and references “the spirit of America”, two very contradictory statements, since the spirit of America, in my opinion, is largely made up of corporate hegemony. Not only that, he completely ignores colonial reality that those fighting for “independence from economic slavery and colonialist oppression” economically enslaved and colonially oppressed others who had been living on the land they colonized. And who is the lively crowd that eats up his glossed-over hypocrisy?
    Yumi is the only one who names the discomfort of this unlikely alliance: "And then I lost it. I looked at Geek, and then at Lloyd, and then back again. The two of them - the young radical environmentalist and the old fundamentalist farmer - made a ridiculous alliance, and I started to laugh. 'Oh, wow! That's the kind of pro-life bullshit that drove me out of here in the first place!'" (Ozeki 267) But then even she comes around at the end. I like the idea we discussed about Ozeki using her writing as a thought experiment, as a way to tease out controversial concepts and examine her and others’ conflicting views on them, but the way the anti-GMO fight settled out nicely at the end of the book makes it look like a situation of “the good guys win!” which thoroughly uncomplicates all the layers of complexity inherent in this issue of genetic engineering.

So maybe Ozeki allows her characters too much latitude in the ways they connect. In our 360, I see us dealing with latitude and connection in a very different way. The programming working group for our Story Slam has been working to narrow down what this event is, what it means, how to encapsulate it in a few questions and a blurb. I realized recently that in doing so, we are attempting to capture the essence of our 360, and that has proved to be incredibly difficult. In another conversation, Sara and I remarked on how much less defined this 360 feels than our last one (Women in Walled Communities), not that we aren’t talking about specific themes and ideas around Ecoliteracy, but everything is harder to name, and most of the names we have feel inadequate, imprecise or inaccessible to those outside of our classes. The 360 experience has enabled us to ask some seriously open-ended questions and explore a lot of concepts that are almost too complex to explain sometimes. This is fantastic and I know we’re all better off for it, and at the same time, I worry about whether or not (and how) we can convey this to other people (the community and those we want to come to the story slam, for example).

Perhaps this gets to the question of productivity and productive discussions. If we can’t convey everything we’ve learned this semester to others (and I feel certain that we can’t), is that necessarily a bad thing? Even if we couldn’t explain a single thing to anyone outside of our class (which is obviously not true), this experience would be a valuable, dare I say, productive one, because of the ways in which we have grown (ok, I can’t claim anyone else’s growth but my own, but I will assume it). AND why settle for just our own growth when we could expand our ideas to our campus, to the world (recognizing, of course, as I quoted on our field trip to Laurel Hill, that “we’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either.” (from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green).

So I’m not “calling the question” per se. I’m just asking that we as a class consider calling the question once in a while. I realize that the way my argument comes together in this paper is a bit contradictory. I’m claiming that too much latitude has the potential to both oversimplify AND overcomplicate AND that too little latitude can do the same thing. Perhaps in doing this I set us and everyone else up for failure in communication. I do feel a little depressed about the fine line I’ve constructed between too little and too much, and I wonder if perhaps there’s more latitude in between the two than I’ve allowed here (I hope so). But regardless, this analysis does fit into my concept of everything in the world being about balance. Balance and complexity. And porosity. And latitude...

[Note: this paper is written in a somewhat non-essayish format. In part, this has to do with where I am currently as a student. Yes, I could have written a more polished essay, I am capable. But I didn’t want to process my thoughts in that way right now. I want to resist the academic insistence that certain forms are better for communicating ideas than others. And at the same time, I’m curious to what degree that rigidity is helpful in the spreading of thoughts and arguments. Going along with themes I explore in my paper, perhaps by writing in this more flowy, slightly stream-of-consciousness-ish style, I am allowing myself too much latitude, and not as many people will be able to follow or relate to it. I guess y’all will have to let me know. Also note that, considering all the references to class etc, this post would be pretty confusing if read by a non-360 person surfing the web. Interesting how that fits into some of the questions I ask in this paper. Also special thanks to Sara for talking me through much of the middle stage of my writing process and giving me some awesome inspiration!]


Anne Dalke's picture

On beyond porosity


Here are my (fairly extensive!) notes from our talking yesterday: our reflections on the writing you’ve done for this class so far, and our shared sense of what you might do for your final project.

You described the “flow path” of your three papers: In the first, you were drawn to the idea of belonging, and presumed that a “sense of place was necessary”—so you were trying to figure out “why you didn’t have one.” Then--as our readings and discussions began to suggest to you that “not belonging” was actually “ecological”—you “switched” to “grappling with that idea”: contra Morton, you tried out the notion that being “place-based” could be “important for action”; you drew on your experience in the Appalachians to make that point. Your third paper was a “loving call out” to us all to be more careful, and more measured, in our use of the concept “porosity”: you suggested that we were being “too porous” in our “making everything connected,” in taking too much “latitude.” You saw this paper as tying back to your earlier questions about sense of place, about whether we can continue to make connections if we are too well “placed.” 

We also talked about a particular idea you floated towards the end of this paper: that our 360 was too “porous,” “allowing too much latitude”: Did this have to do with the themes we chose? (you contrasted “porosity” and “latitude,” for instance, with the ideas of “voice, silence, vision” which directed discussion in Women in Walled Communities). And/or did it have to do with the philosophical inclinations of the individuals who were enrolled in these classes: more abstract and speculative this semester, more grounded and sociological the last time ‘round?

You were worried that this last paper, in its looser, more “porous” construction (certainly appropriate to the subject!) might “fail to communicate.” But Sara (who admittedly may not have been your best reader, because already imbricated in the text!) suggested that it worked well as a “representation of a dialogue within the self”—and we both liked that interpretation.

You had three fine proposals for the paper due this weekend. One possibility (which we rejected, as being too large, and likely to lack conclusion, and so be frustrating to write…) was the important topic we “should have” but didn’t get to in The Hungry Tide: the question of how to adjudicate between humanism and environmentalism (aphorisnt will write about this, so be sure to check out her paper when it is posted; her postulate @ this point is that we really can’t do environmental justice without attending to social justice…).

The second very rich possibility would be to return to the question of what it means to be “place-based”: to what degree might this allow you to look more fully @ social and class structures? How might the scholars of “place” whose work we read earlier—especially hooks and Morton--read Ghosh’s “place-based” novel? What might the representation of place in The Hungry Tide “say back” to the ideas hooks and Morton previously developed? What’s exciting to me about this proposal is that it “loops back” to where you started, but “@ a different level”—it would be interesting to see how these ideas look to you now. I also like that it would work “in both directions”—let hooks and Morton read Ghosh, but then also use Ghosh to “re-read” hooks and Morton.

The third topic you suggested is exciting for the totally opposite reason: not because it re-visits an old idea @ a new level, but because it’s utterly unlike anything we/you’ve yet touched on, and would let you do the sort of “close reading” so common in English classes, which you haven’t done very much of in college. In this project you would attend to the use of clothing in Ghosh’s novel, which has a rather astonishing range of functions: from covering the body to saving lives, from metaphor of the geography to liberation from it. Is the range of way people (Piya, Kanai, Fokir) use clothing as indicative of their position in the world as their use of language is, I wonder….? I had offered to hook you up to some of the interesting work being done in “material and textile studies” now, and wrote to Clare Mullaney, a BMC grad who is now studying English and textiles @ Penn, for suggestions. I haven’t heard back from her (and I realize that time is running out!), but will send you an e-mail with some of the things Clare herself is in the midst of writing, as a way of “teasing you” into some of the possibilities of this sort of orientation towards things.

Can’t wait to see which way you jump—and then where you go with that!



sara.gladwin's picture

"porosity" is not necessarily sameness...

I wanted to let you know that I definitely felt like I followed your paper, though of course, I was there while you were writing so I may have a different understanding.

And I also really enjoyed the “back and forth” nature of your paper. Isn’t that what a dialogue is? There is so much emphasis on taking a stance and we keep asking the question of whether or not dialogue is possible between two beings with two opposing views, but what about whether or not dialogue is even possible with ourselves? The back and forth, conflicted conversation that you have here is so representative of how we can encompass a multiplicity of identities and ideas… It seems to be the very definition of what I have to come to believe is porosity…


As I talked about with Jo while she was writing her paper, I think it would be useful for us to pause and question our understanding of porosity. I think there is a way in which we have begun to use porosity that could unintentionally conflate the concept with “sameness.” However, returning to the root ideas behind porosity remind us that interconnectedness is not necessarily sameness. To form a connection presupposes that there are two different entities that the connection is being formed between, so that the entire basis of porosity is not to make two things become synonymous but rather to recognize that similarities exist alongside differences. If you were to picture a Venn Diagram- the overlapping space in the middle would represent the porosity between the two spaces which are not touching- the spaces representing particularities, uniqueness. Porosity is not the things themselves but rather the spaces which link them. Your paper is indeed porous in the sense that it is different from any of our conversations of porosity, and yet, it still overlaps and interlinks with the ideas that our 360 has encounter so far… which is why I have connected this paper to another response I made to a post of Agatha’s here….


And finally- “a loving call out” – I love this terminology… Something that this paper has reminded me of is the importance of “naming the discomfort” or alternatively the importance of “a loving call out” and what this can do for a group in created spaces for more open dialogue.