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Limits of Porosity?

Simona's picture

When I first entered this class weeks ago, I wrote an essay defining “home” as “self,” not a structure or a contained space, not family or friends. Home, within my own spirit. In some ways, this demonstrates just how porous a mindset I live with—pushing against the confinement of stability and instead reaching for fluidity. Yet in retrospect, I have come to realize just how bounded my view of “self” in fact was. In separating “self” from place and community, I failed to recognize that these crucial aspects of my life, in fact, create self.

“The material that passes through a body also transforms that body,” so described of the trans-corporeal self (Alaimo 3). Self is, in essence, the reflection of past experiences, relationships, and places. Self might not be inherent or fixed, but instead porous and dynamic. Occasionally my dad notices similar characteristics that delineate parallels between all of my aunts and I, hidden genetic connections dotting our identities of self. At least part of my self may stem from birth, but much of it grows throughout life.

This process of growth, fertilized by our porosity, is key to what Morton describes as the ecological thought. The Ecological Thought, he proposes, “is the thinking of interconnectedness” (Morton 7). He posits, “ecology isn’t just about global warming, recycling, and solar power—and also not just to do with everyday relationships between humans and nonhumans. It has to do with love, loss, despair, and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis. It has to do with capitalism and with what might exist after capitalism. It has to do with amazement, open-mindedness, and wonder. It has to do with doubt, confusion, and skepticism. It has to do with concepts of space and time. It has to do with delight, beauty, ugliness, disgust, irony, and pain. It has to do with consciousness and awareness. It has to do with ideology and critique. It has to do with reading and writing. It has to do with race, class, and gender. It has to do with sexuality. It has to do with ideas of self and the weird paradoxes of subjectivity. It has to do with society. It has to do with coexistence” (Morton 2). Fundamentally, Morton believes in the power of true porosity to create an ecological way of life. 

But his radical view of Nature strips away the romance and idealism of “wilderness.” On earth today, our world is so porous that Nature (with a capital N to describe its human construction) doesn’t even exist, and that perhaps it hasn’t existed in a very long time, or even ever. He argues, “wilderness areas are giant, abstract versions of the products hanging in mall windows” (Morton 7). Just as human constructed as the scarf I wear while sitting in a wooden chair in this built library. However, he doesn’t seem to intend a fatalistic approach, preaching that we all must girdle up for our inevitable extinction (though as a geologist I know that will eventually happen, albeit millions of years from now). Instead, we must embrace our porosity to ultimately find interconnectedness. “Ecology equals living minus Nature, plus consciousness” (Morton 19).

This conscious porosity is, as Morton sees it, the key to living harmoniously within the unbounded world. Yet, in Ursula Le Guin’s science-fiction story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow,” a porous worldview is taken a step further to where everything is so interconnected that it breeds fear both within individuals, and within the living ecosystem itself.

In this short story, the character Osden is a crewmember on a mission to explore another world. Other crewmembers are engineers, biologists, doctors, but his unique trait is his porosity. They call him the ship’s “sensor,” he feels the energy from everything around him, people, plants, places. Osden can sense the “otherness” of the human species, especially his crew. “’Isolated,’ said Osden. ‘That’s it! That’s the fear. It isn’t that we’re motile, or destructive. It’s just that we are. We are other. There has never been any other’” (Le Guin 173). The ecosystem in the alternate world is so porous that it is one fluid entity, but the crewmembers, as visitors and as mostly non-porous beings, are isolated from it. The crew is “other,” and this causes fear.

The ecosystem itself also feels a similar fear. “’You’re right,’ Mannon said, almost whispering. ‘It has no peers. No enemies. No relationship with anything but itself. One alone forever’” (Le Guin 173). By existing as one whole interconnecting entity, the ecosystem is “alone forever.” Because of its overwhelming porosity, it becomes the “Other,” it becomes isolated, it becomes separate. And all of this breeds fear within the living ecosystem.

Porosity itself implies a membrane of some sort, something through which ideas, feelings, and energy can transfer. Osden’s membrane is so porous that he is constantly tormented by the darkness he finds in the world and within his crewmates. Yet as he gives into the fear, he is freed of his membrane, freed of his porosity, and becomes one with the ecosystem, with the Other. “He had taken the fear into himself, and, accepting, had transcended it. He had given up his self to the alien, and unreserved surrender, that left no place for evil. He had learned the love of the Other, and thereby had been given his whole self” (Le Guin 177).

But is that even possible? By existing as humans, we have not just one membrane, but multiple. We have skin, we are bounded in a body, we are bounded by time, by space, by home, we are bounded by our limits of perception, our three cones of vision. Morton argues our minds must not be bounded, our ideas and thoughts and interactions must be fluidly porous. But melding into the void that is the larger world, the “Other” like Osden was able, may be intrinsically impossible (as much of science-fiction writing often is). 

Yet, even these perceived limits of porosity may just be mental. Trans-corporeally, humans may be able to pass through our usual realms of time and space to become one with the world. Osden transcended to this realm by exchanging his porous membrane for complete unity. “Recognition of the trans-corporeality of bodies cultivates a sensibility that both unites the local and global, and that undermines my ability to see nature as just something ‘over there’” (Alaimo 6). But is this often spiritual or religious method of interconnectedness the only (or at least the best) way to reach Morton’s ideal of the ecological thought? Must we all shed our boundaries of time, space, identity, and body, and only subsist with spirit? Is this ultimate porosity? Is this how we will finally coexist in synchronicity with the world? Enlightenment?

In environmental education, one mode of thought is that individuals (especially children) must have some sort of transcendental experience in nature to build a life-long appreciation of the environment (Sobel 10). This approach seems to parallel the values of trans-corporeality and porosity. Perhaps setting up a space and a mindset to encourage these interconnected transcendental experiences is key to shifting the paradigm towards an ecological society. “Ecological thought is a virus that infects all other areas of thinking” (Morton 19). So let’s get infected and interconnected.


Anne Dalke's picture

Identity with the Universe

your last essay found home in self, in the psychological foundations of who you are, wherever you might be. This one begins by querying that presumption, questioning the sharp division you developed, last month, between your “self” and the places and communities which (you now say) created it. But then you take another turn (quite agile here, your intellectual moves!), and query the celebration of porosity that such a claim makes, and which we also find in the work of ecological critics like Timothy Morton, who ask us to acknowledge, and act on, the interconnectedness of all. You also do a very nice job using LeGuin’s short story to illustrate the fear that interconnection breeds, before concluding with the suggestion that spiritual methods** and transcendental experiences might help us appreciate the environment more.

**My husband just shared with me this passage from the writings of the British philosopher and practitioner of Eastern religion, Alan Watts:

In many so-called primitive cultures it is a requirement of tribal initiation to spend a lengthy period alone in the forests or mountains, a period of coming to terms with the solitude and nonhumanity of nature so as to discover who, or what, one really is--a discovery hardly possible while the community is telling you what you are, or ought to be. He may discover, for instance, that loneliness is the masked fear of an unknown which is himself, and that the alien-looking aspect of nature is a projection upon the forests of his fear of stepping outside habitual and conditioned patterns of feeling. There is much evidence to show that for anyone who passes through the barrier of loneliness, the sense of individual isolation bursts, almost by dint of its own intensity, into the "all-feeling" of identity with the universe. One may pooh-pooh this as "nature mysticism" or "pantheism," but it should be obvious that a feeling of this kind corresponds better with a universe of mutually interdependent processes and relations than with a universe of distinct, blocklike entities.

And yet, and yet…there’s a funny glitch in the midst of all of this—not just the pull back @ the very end, where “appreciation” (rather than something grander: like activism) is the surprising conclusion--but also, earlier, when you observe that “melding into the void…may be intrinsically impossible.” I’d like you to pause longer on that qualification, think more about what the fear so acutely rendered in LeGuin’s tale might signal, what we might give up when we give ourselves over to/refuse to see any distinction between ourselves and the medium that supports and surrounds us. What happens, say, to activism (is it even possible?) if we are not acting “on” or “towards” something separate from ourselves?

I’m wondering if you’d like to think about this question, in next month’s writing, in relation to All Over Creation, where the activists also have an Eastern spiritual practice….?