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Towards Day 8 (Mon, Oct. 1): The Resources of Genre

Anne Dalke's picture

(hira's "pastoral")

I. coursekeeping

* weather prediction for noon:  63 degrees, 7 mph winds, 10% chance of precipitation, partly cloudy

* So here's my problem…
I REALLY want class to be outside, but I'm having trouble standing my ground…
I'd like to use my power to coax you through pinch-y situations like last week,
when the rain was threatening (but not coming….); I think there are a number of
lessons we can learn by sitting in the rain and cold, lessons which will serve
some of the (my!) goals in this class… which have to do w/ the relation between "reading the word"
and "reading the world" that the word represents: foregrounding much of what
is usually backgrounded in literary studies, asking what we lose by only seeing the world mediated by the word

But, since we've already agreed that we'll move inside when it gets too cold for some of us…
How about we take turns being responsible for where we will meet (if we move midway, etc.)
--AND each of us writing that week about our decision: what it was like-->
watching the class and the world in which it is operating, inside or out…?
what seems foreground/background/distraction/essential?
how distracted were you/what did you do about it?
(eetong is first, alphabetically, on the classlist: for Wednesday?)

* sign up for a writing conference this week or next

* naming, to conclude?

* Wed's readings: 3 by the great sci-fi writer Ursula LeGuin--> one short story, "Vaster than Empires, and More Slow," and two short essays: one on genre, "Science Fiction and the Future," and one on "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction"--@ the "top level" of our eco-linguistic analysis: the generic...

II. our Thursday evening postings writing about our time out-of-doors:
really nice the way we are conversing w/ one another, entering into each other's texts--
thank you for that! (missing graham, sara.gladwin?)--

Representing: Challenging.
Challenging Representing.
Playing leaving.
Leaving playing.
Quieting minding.
Minding quieting.
Falling loving.
Loving falling.


falling  coloring.
coloring falling.
what is it like to color while falling?
what are the colors of falling?
can we color each falling? our falling?
which are the falling colors?

eetong: being more present through the act of trying to re-present - seems a little paradoxical. But I experience this too, I can narrow my focus, I can try to "see" things more clearly as they are appearing to me. I like participating, action...I notice that when I am trying to have a meaningful conversation with someone I don't know very well, it is much easier to talk if we are doing something else, while talking....Maybe it's the same with my site - I'm not used to having a "conversation," or even just being a "listener" in one half of a conversation, so it's easier to go about it from a different angle.

hira: Branch seems to meld with tree which melds with stems & leaves that come from unexpected corners. It is a welcome "mess", a complicated space, and that complication is something that I am still trying to wrap my head around in my site observation. Or maybe I don't need to do that? Maybe I need to accept the complication and try to learn something from it?

I am not a purist.  I have killed many things.  I am not a Jain.  I walk across the grass with impunity.  I am not even a vegetarian.  I eat some meat, although I try to pay some attention to its history when it walked the earth. Sometimes perhaps to shift my karma, or perhaps in reverence, I carry living things out of my house in jars, cups, or in my hands. But my garden.  This is my garden. Don't I have the right to say who comes in and who can stay?  Do I want to exercise the right of exclusivity in Nature where I say I celebrate diversity?  How hypocritical am I really? At least in some of my desires, I am totally inconsistent.  Can I live with this degree of inconsistency and not call it hypocrisy?  Can I live with my own hypocrisy?

I've also wondered about some of the conundrums that you describe. Is it hypocritical to be a pescitarian? (Do fish feel the pain of being caught?) Is it okay to kill ants if a colony has come into your home? What if they're cockroaches? I think that no one can ever be completely and totally consistent in their beliefs/values and their actions. Life is too malleable and too intricate.

Field Notes. It is leaving....the trees withdraw their support, close/sever ties with the leaves… lack of the connection means gradual death, going out (for some) in a fiery blaze of color – colors that were there under the surface all along, only waiting for enough chloroplasts to die so they could shine through.

Love the "leaving" rheomodic language! ...This made me think of how different leaves are and while we may notice differences between leaves we don't think of the effect for a tree from the form of a leaf (adaptations based on wind, light, carbon dioxide).

There are some still green
While others have turned yellow
Leaves laying grounded.

As I made my observations today I found myself wondering about the scientific classifications of the plants I was seeing. I decided that it would be interesting to be a little more informed about the flowers I was looking at....doing this exercise 1) took me out of “nature” and put me inside in front of my computer and 2) showed me that it’s very difficult to be certain of scientific classifications...This different way of looking at nature (classifying it using technology) might be a metaphor for the traditional classroom. Maybe in order to learn in a more complete, well-rounded way, every class should have some sort of praxis component. Perhaps a “real-world” experience would help us connect more fully with the subject we wish to study. 

There are people in my spot.
I repeat, there are people in my spot.
I had figmented [my spot] in my mind.
Because I was completely surprised by the presence of people at my spot, I can write for nature, from a place of natural....[the pond speaks:] I know chemicals; I am not unsoiled. What does studying a child tell you about its family? Ask the infant; as much as that infant can tell you, I can.

kris: re-(elevated): i feel overwhelming voyerism and turn away in shame, a watcher knowing one is being watched in turn…she is speaking but in her speech is her dance; and her movement is dance is speech….no creatures are winging, or watching. it seems as though i am the only one looking from this level….if such status and priveledge is afforded to those who have a view, why do we not place greater importance on the bird's eye-view…

Srucara: I wonder if I can maybe telepathically send tiny bits of my weightless headache to the tips of their wings so that they could float away alongside them, dissolving into the evening.

mturer: There are so many different species of little creatures scuttling and skipping around on quick legs, coexisting and interacting with each other, that our human idea of “diversity” looks boring by comparison.
What is happening in the tree? Is it spidering? Is it crawling, weaving, or living?…The first impulse of my glitchy human brain was to just leave immediately…nature observation time quickly became spider admiration time…I once heard that the world of small creatures is the cruelest, most violent, and most unforgiving environment on Earth, and that it is often overlooked by us because the spiders and insects do not have the consciousness to feel tormented. I am so large and powerful that I can immerse myself in this environment and feel “calm,”

hira: I really liked the verb you created: spidering...What you say about the scary spider being disinterested in you got me thinking. Here we are, spending time observing nature, while the other organisms in it are almost ignoring us. They are going about their business, that spider might have had "better" things to think about, so it didn't pay attention to you...I also like what you said about the tree not belonging to anyone. Perhaps it belongs to everyone who takes comfort from it?

SarahShaw, So...Far...Away: my perception of nature may differ if I were disabled.  When you have to rely on something man-made such as crutches...does "nature" become more dangerous?  It did for me.  I stayed on the pavement because I was afraid that if I walked on the grass I would be more likely to fall over.  Of course, "nature" could not be escaped.  "nature" had torn holes in the concrete which posed threats ...and of course, Bryn Mawr is a big hill and the inclines are also not good for balance.

hira: As I was looking out at the pond again, I had in mind Gary Snyder's suggestions, to see the wild, the unspoken parts of nature. To concentrate on the grit and the hunger and the survival rather than the peaceful. This was really hard still, but the closest I got was to notice the continuous ripples in the pond. They came very often, and I remember hearing somewhere that if there was a ripple, that meant something in the pond had just been hunted or eaten. Thinking about this, I saw the ripples differently, and started wondering what exactly was going on under those waters. There was a sports game going on to my right ...and the players were cheering on eachother loudly...that lead me to imagine the organisms in the water. Were they also 'shouting,' 'yelling,'did they make enough noise to make the water ripple? What did it sound like under there.

III. we then revised our "modes" (and reflected on the modes of others)--this was very interesting!
but we'll save these to look @ on Wednesday; for now (as promised!), returning to Gary Snyder...

I thought, on Monday, that we "got" Paula Gunn Allen's idea of "open field," or "unified field" perception:
she was challenging the "single-focus perception" that most of us have been refining all our lives by
inviting us to engage in a "tribal" habit of mind that involves treating all factors

  • w/ equilibrium: an even distribution of value among all elements in a field
  • no single element heroes, no villains
  • no "setting," no chorus, no minor characters...
  • foreground slips along from one focal point to another, until all the
    pertinent elements in the ritual conversation have had their say...
  • as the focus of the action shifts, there is no particular "point of view"....

[illustrate this w/ some ambiguous figures]

IV. but it seemed to me that we really didn't "get"/give Gary Snyder his due.
he was challenging the canon of older forms of "harmonious, middlebrow" nature writing
w/ a claim that not only the natural world, but the forms we have for representing it--
consciousness, mind, imagination and language--are fundamentally wild:
"insatiable, irrational, moldy, cruel, parasitic, cannibalistic, fermentative, decaying"...
the world is fundamentally unpredictable, and so are our minds ("we can't guess our next thought")

and though language has its limits ("The menu is not the meal"),
if we can let ourselves play w/ its possibilities, it can help us see
Ordinary Good Writing = well-weeded garden; but
Really Good Writing = more diverse and unpredictable; it roams and dreams.

Gary Snyder's own poems may not be the best example of this
(deeply infused w/ Buddhist sensibility: a disciplined balance);
in fact, the best example is probably not a poem @ all, but
something more like a primal scream-->
direct, emotional, unmediated expression
(Whitman, maybe? or Ginsberg's "Howl"?)

here's something small that nibbles @ this:
e.e. cummings, "since feeling is first"

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

V. for today, we're moving up another level of abstraction, to questions of genre
(and perhaps to the presumption that literary forms can "contain"/represent what is...?)
I asked you to read
Joseph Meeker's 1972 essay, "The Comic Mode" and
Steve Mentz's 2011 piece on "Shakespeare, Ecological Crisis, and the Resources of Genre"
(were you able to access that one?)

They share the presumptions that
* "familiar narrative habits contain stumbling blocks for environmental thinking," that
* "literary representations are useful because not real, and
* if we are aware of their artificiality, we can change the shape of the stories we tell, which
* can help us to change our behavior (=save ourselves/the planet?).

Let's count to 4/break into groups of 3 to see what we got/what else we might get from this material.
The big question is what difference genre might make,
if we are thinking ecology? If we are writing ecologically?

Some (smaller) guiding questions:
What do you know about the genres of tragedy and comedy?
How do you understand each one, and their relation to each other?
(Do you buy Meeker's sharp contrast? See more of a continuum?
Helpful quote: "comedy is tragedy plus time"!)

Which genre/"literary kind" seems more hopeful, as we think/act/
write about the future of the environment, and ourselves in it?
What kinds of stories seem more helpful, in getting
ourselves and others to act/live differently?

* Nan's engineer friend re: the fault of the end-user: I think the dominant issue is the overall lack of sufficient incentives for people and businesses to conserve power….ultimately power is pretty cheap...and "dirty" power is still cheaper than "clean" power.

How to incentivize? Using what sort of language? What sorts of stories move you most?
Those of doom and gloom? Those of joyful harmony? Those of edgy un-ease?

Return to the large group to discuss:
(Mentz:) "Global warming is essentially a literary problem...
the current crisis requires narratives of ecological rupture."

"A shared narrative may instigate action; we need to supplement the
pastoral with a wider range of stories, new choices of generic forms."

(Meeker:) "The proud visions affirmed by literary tragedy have...led to ecological catastrophe."
"Humility ..., the essential message of comedy, is necessary for the survival of our species...."

Cf. these several narratives:
"The environment is intelligible and harmonious." (pastoral?)
"Nature is inhospitable, hostile and indifferent." (tragedy?)
"Natural systems are not stable (there is no equilibrium or homeostasis):
"wherever we seek to find constancy we discover change." (comedy?)
Do we need a "tragic refusal of all sentimental fantasies about nature"?
A comic wit that plays with multiple possibilities? Or...?

What genre have you been writing in...?
And have you seen your classmates using?
On Thursday, we'll listen again to some of these....

VI. Reading Notes

Konrad Lorenz, Forward:
The tragic view of life, embodied in the hero of the Greek tragedy, is based on the deep conviction that man has no part of nature, that he is not subject to natural law but, quite on the contrary, moral laws to which his behavior must unconditionally conform. The fundamental theme of all literary tragedy is given by the conflict between moral and natural laws. In the attempt to conform to nature, be it only in the forgiveable endeavor to survive, the tragic hero cannot avoid breaking moral laws and so incurring a guilt which...must be expiated....

The antithesis of man and nature as polar opposites not only leads to the unavoidable doom of the human hero, but also to that of nature. "The proud visions affirmed by literary tragedy have ... led to ecological catastrophe"'s spiritual elevation above his natural environment....also leads to the exclusive concentration of all his moral obligations of his fellow human beings; no moral or ethical limitations are imposed upon humanity in regard to the ruthless exploitation of all non-human nature...Dr. Meeker's central idea is that the comic mode of behavior is a genuine affirmation of instinctive patterns necessary for biological survival....Humility before the earth and its processes, the essential message of comedy, is necessary for the survival of our species....

Chapter One: An Introduction to Literary Ecology
the creation of literature...should be examined carefully and honestly to discover its influence upon human behavior and the natural enviornment ....Is it an activity which adapts us better to the world or one which estranges us from it?...does literature contribute more to our survival than it does to our extinction?....The origins of enviromental crisis lie deep in human cultural traditions....The cultural images describing what we might be have helped us to become what we are: however the human mind imagines the world, that is how the world tends to become...

The profound insight @ the heart of the science of ecology is that nature is indivisible....Comparative literture is to the humanities what ecology is to the natural sciences...unintelligible apart from its total context....The study of process and relationship is an interdiscipoinary technique common to ecology and comparative literature.... Literature, like science, has as often contributed to the destruction or degradation of biological environments...the studies which follow are an attempt to identify some adaptive ... postures in the literary traditions of human culture...which offer the prospect of a human future in closer agreement with the processes of nature...

Chapter Two: The Comic Mode....
Prerequisite to tragedy is the belief that the universe cares about the lives of human beings...the welfare of all creation somehow depends upon what humans do....More appropriate to our time are the relatively modest assumptions made by the comic spirit. Man is a part of nature and subject ot all natural limitations and flaws....All beliefs are provisional, subject to change...

Warfare is the basic metaphor of tragedy...comic stratgy, on the other hand, sees life as a game...comedy is the art of accomomodationa nd reconciliation...the lesson of comedy is humility and endurance..survival depends upon man's abiiltiy to change accept limitiations...


early modern narratives emphasize proto-ecological values like interdependence, unanticipated consequences, and the limits of human ambition; the Elizabethean World Picture is analogous to the Gaia hypothesis
Shakespearean self-consciousness about literary invention can help renovate narratives about human beings and the natural world: his plays model a mutable system for coming to terms w/ change and catastrophe; their dramatic structures can help shape future conversations about remediation and stability
key task of ecocriticism has been critiquing trad'l Western myths re: nature
dissatisfied with nature as external, static source of purity, alterity
"post-equilibrium shift" in the ecological sciences--> "the new ecology"
argues that natural systems are not stable (no equilibirum or homeostasis)
"Wherever we seek to find constancy we discover change"
can use change in narrative culture to respond to this image of disruption in nature
cf. opposed fantasies of nature in comic As You Like It and tragic King Lear:
each recognizes blindness of primary stance, and offers alternative in inventive next-generation figure
Bill McKibben argues that current crisis requires narratives of ecological rupture
("global warming is essentially a literary problem")
a shared narrative may instigate action; need to supplement the pastoral with a wider range of stories,
new choices of generic forms (Shakespeare's were classical models of comedy and tragedy;
he imitated and mixed multiple competing genres, recognizing that all narrative structures change
the abiding fantasy of comedy is reconciliation; cf. darker stories of tragedy
Shakespeare's ability to shift between tragic agony and comic resilience, distant from both,
can help re-frame familiar stories in an unfamiliar world: meta-narratives are practical but fungible tools
cf. green world of Arden w/ counter-image of storm scenes in King Lear,
which resist human attempts to construct survivable narratives: nature is inhospitable
Joseph Meeker proposed comedy as fundamental ecological genre; his "play ethic" not limited to
comedy, but exemplified in ecological exchange of Shakespeare's polygeneric drama:
continuum between intelligible, harmonious environment and indifferent, hostile one
cf. complimentary generic differences of Bruno Latour's Politics of Nature
and Timothy Morton's Ecology without Nature:
both skepticial re: progressive narratives re: "nature," but
Latour's comic wit, energy advocates radically pluralistic politics,
while tragic clarity of Morton puts aesthetics @ center of political eco-debates
Latour: ecological crises are "revolts of means": w/ every entity treated as an end,
the sphere of social debate radically expands all public institutions
cf. Morton's tragic refusal of sentimental fantasies of nature
literary representations useful because not real, and self-aware re: own artificiality
familiar narrative habits contain stumbling blocks for env'l thinking