The “Spectrality” of Phytoplankton in John Wedgewood Clarke’s Landfill

In Landfill, poet John Wedgewood Clarke takes the reader on walks along the trekking paths of some of England’s most outstanding areas of natural beauty. One such area is the Greensand Way connecting Surrey and Kent. Clarke, choice picks this location owing to a property of its geological composition: it is made of chalk.

Landscapes formed from chalk, are landscapes composed of coccolith biomicrite, a limestone formed of fossil debris from the cretaceous period. The “bio” refers to the microscopic fossilized phytoplankton called coccolithopores; the “micrite” is a calcium carbonate mud, gluing the fossilized phytoplankton into a material assemblage. When the phytoplankton died, the microscopic calcium carbonate plates that compose their shells sank to the ocean floor to amalgamate into a calcium cement-porridge.  They are the compositional materials. As a result of this our landscapes are an assemblage of dead bodies, or what Tim Morton calls specters. The coccolith we might think of as the spectral aspect of the phytoplankton.

In Humankind Morton explains that ““Specter” could mean “apparition,” but it could also mean “horrifying object,” or it could mean “illusion,” or it could mean “the shadow of a thing.”  (Morton: Humankind, 54-55). The shadowy apparition of our landscape is the shadowy process of the ocean ecosystem which emerged around 146 million years ago. Our landscapes are haunted by the unseen aggregations of massive amounts of death. But it is a productive death, as productive as the life.

The same spectral quality is not so productive in our own case. Or it is, but the spectrality is more disturbing: our rubbish is the material formed to produce a sort of landscape. These landscapes have an undetermined future: until we can be sure the methane doesn’t explode, the land will remain usable only for dumping rubbish. Moreover, rubbish demands ever increasing amounts of energy as a provisionary requirement in order for us to continue consuming. There is this constantly vicious, viscous circle: the ourobouros with its mouth glued to its tail.

This isn’t the only provision that phytoplankton provide, they also photosynthesize, and are therefore a key component in the apparatus that regulates a breathable earth. These may have been one of the most rudimentary forms of life that gave a jolt to the production of oxygen [see Lane, Nick. Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World. Oxford UP, 2002.] In addition, they remain the foundation of a food chain, without them ocean ecosystems would collapse. In short, phytoplankton give their entire being to the emergence of a livable world of exponential complexities, sustain it too, & all without considering it in any apperceptive mode. They have done so for an incredible span of time. All phytoplankton does is propagate itself. They are functional, meaningful components for the regulation of life, without a thought to anything otherwise.

In opposition, we fill landfills with effluvia of ourselves. But not our physical bodies, they fill sacred ground for the convenience of our remembrance. We fill landfills with extensions of ourselves, identifying factors we grew bored of; the leftovers from eating too much; our superfluous snacking habits, their identifying factors smeared into each other; the snipped corners of packaging. We fill the landfill with our n + 1: the extension of ourselves that propagates the capitalist system under which we groan, saturated in what Tristan Garcia calls “an epidemic of things.” (Garcia: Form and Object, 1).

Clarke in drawing the uncanny alignment of two different ways of forming landscapes, makes the anthropic reveal: we are the geological force. Well some of us. The we is applicable to a narrow bandwidth of humanity.

Phytoplankton are a geological force too, or rather a component utilized in a coexistence of things that perturb each other to produce stable conditions for life; but what is the difference? For all their perturbations & sacrifice, vast complexities, not dissimilar in degree, are able to flourish into breathtaking consequence because of phytoplankton’s existence.

Confronted with such a thing—a thing that is part of an ecosystem—how are we to interpret our behavior as the wasteful, polluting, bull-headed, guns blazing, piston-revving, all-consuming, boxed & packaged correlational-nightmare?

Take note of phytoplankton’s brute efficiency. It is staggering. There is no waste. Every aspect of its being is toward some benefit-to something else: oxygen, atmosphere, food source, landscape.

Whereas Human is: breather, polluter, user-&-abuser, self-obsessed, destroyer, potentiality-obsessed, myopic. We benefit ourselves mostly.

We can make the argument that some good eggs exist among us, selfless & futural. Of course. But as a species we have forgotten our ecological position: how to be a regulatory principle rather than an irregular expression of irony. How ironic we are: to lust for life so vehemently.  

Clarke’s insight then, urges us toward a consideration of the impact of phytoplankton & ourselves-as-species. The phytoplankton is a key vehicle in an ecosystem & even in their spectral state they provide landscapes on which we enjoy leisurely walks. We pollute & use & degrade. We too are part of an ecosystem, we infiltrate from the top all the way down. That is the rub.  

The term Anthropocene is embedding itself for what may be the long term discussions of climate forecasters, media opinion-spreaders, academics & public debaters. While the Anthropocene is a problematic term in that it attributes blame to all people when a small percentage have (& are) actually caused our peril. It does have the benefit of causing those of us among who is to blame, to infiltrate from within & explain: “look what we have done…yes! us.”

This is the dialogue that Clarke’s Landfill enters into. It shows us the goings on of immense, immanent processes that have the potential to perturb one another. In short, he shows how consumer affluence directly affects ecosystems. This is tacit in the choice of content in Landfill. We are not shown the landfill in isolation, but in contrast to other landscapes and aggregates of objects, which we find in the form of the life cycles of lugworms on the banks of the Humber river, & their precarious livelihood balanced on the tip of a pH level of 8:

Those white splats on the beach as if a flock                    
of herring-gulls had taken off—lugworm sperm!  

As the tide washes over the sand,
the sea’s higher pH activates the sperm  

which the female smells and pumps down
into her burrow, bathing her eggs.  

This happens on two days in winter each year.
There are four minutes to achieve fertilization.  

If the sea’s pH drops below eight the love songs
of worms over millions of years are silenced,  

the green-gold explosion of plover
at Reads Island an immeasurable blank—     (Clarke: Landfill, 59)       

In no uncertain terms Clarke is positioning us inside a fragility pushed to its limits. The volta jettisoning the reader with an em dash into a scenario of extinction. Consumption encroaches on these limits more and more. Our failure to react threatens to make a reality of the scenario: “This city would be all at sea without them.” (Ibid, 64)

The lugworm, like the phytoplankton, is efficient in its habit. Not only is its life cycle interdependent with the existence of “the city”, but also a much larger ecosystem of species. We must recognize that the most ostensibly ineffective creature or thing contains potentials that are in excess of our expectation.

Works Cited

Clarke, John Wedgewood. Landfill. Valley Press, 2017.

Morton, Tim. Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman Peoples. Verso, 2017.

Garcia, Tristan. Form and Object: A Treatise on Things. Translated by Mark Allan Ohm and Jon Cogburn, Edingburgh UP, 2014.

Lane, Nick. Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World. Oxford UP, 2002.

Dimethyltryptamine

Recently I was provided the opportunity to smoke DMT, one of the most confounding & intense experiences of my life. It is difficult to reconcile the out of body, death-like experience with the simplicity of this ubiquitous compound, found in mammal brains & numerous plants, including acacia. I felt death. On coming out of the “rush” (lasting about 4 minutes) I exploded out into the world, breathing rapidly, feeling as if I had been reborn. The expansive insight & ameliorating aftereffects of the dense, short-lived trip, are very affective. I wept for the fragility of life, I also laughed at the magnitude of life’s beauty & rareness.

I have never written a poem about a drug experience, but this was a different kettle of fish. What the experience confirmed, what I asked the drug to confirm for me, in fact, more accurately to show me, was symbiosis directly. It produced this for me in the form of a dimension formed from a breathing, intelligent, very conscious geometry. A geometry made of the visual data of animals, insects & maybe something else beside. I entered this world of geometry. When I touched the physics of this world directly, it produced fractals of more geometry, which communicated something through the rapidly morphing shapes my geometrically transmogrified (finger?) ability to touch directly, produced. It was like touching the withdrawn qualities phenomenology tells us exist on the dark side of the perceptible world. I was inside the withdrawness of objects. How would I explain to Graham Harman that we can access the thing directly? We live symbiotically, we must—as I keep hammering home—think ecologically. DMT is an ecological experience. We are ecological beings.


Dimethyltryptamine
 
the
smallest hand
follows deep in-breaths
staggering      breath-in aggregate.
whoever breathed this way without a chest?
inexplicably everything. everything inexplicably...
     & we chase our way around each others’ hearts. strangely
formatting scope. the whole sphere breathing out a metaphor. a
withdrawn impact. speaking objects into existence to prod fixatedly
at their amorphous world-defyning properties. co-lapse in the prepuce
:priapus being. diddowill you gnothis. treegore your inner resource: get paly
with plant and fauna. they own the world. they are world. the earth is a plant.
I-earth. I-plant. I-metaphor. I-object. I-thing. I-O. I-do. I-see. I-taste. I
exsponge wet lips cradled in the grammarred weight of historic molecules.
do you gyre at yourself. you diddowill. you must end. you are ending.
I will end so many times & yet the end is only a sur-prise of a depth
we fail to locate in the dawnsing-nightmare numeralled-darkness.
you trip on para-sites parade-eyes in the seat of your summons.
ship stalled winds in the sales waves osmanthus panic-calls
flush flesh & flash in the geometry that is & does
cross thresholds blending boundaries & dawn
splitting & marring the glue of the dark.
what reasons for persons gives
persons to reason
: O

between noisescapesilence

Haven’t written a poem for a while, but this has emerged in the last few weeks. Very much a sensory response manifesting out of my studies into my actual encounters & affiliation with a world of objects, object-sound, object-smell, object-taste.


between noisescapesilence
 
the extractor fan           in the bathroom
  is too loud     its             loudness has be-
    come an agentic                property,  I cannot see it otherwise than
      emerging out                       of brokenness. hearing:seeing.
        it has affected a                     trajectory            revealed a gap
          between it                                & a noisescape of disrepair.
            something has                              taken       a turn
              a hand played                             in anticipation.
                this is volume                          territory. the sound
              has surpassed                        all expectation.
            a broke-drone                       freakishly ornate
          in flakes of                          human skin
       & breath                             & germ.          cracking its knuckles
    as if to read                         the atmosphere
 of grey rooms:                 agencyactormeshworkfreak

Bodies

Another poem written after I returned from Korea. This poem is an attempt to realize poetically, Tim Morton’s replacement term for ‘nature’, the symbiotic real. Morton’s reasons for abandoning the word nature & the (capital N) baggage with it, is owing to the erroneous perception that nature is somewhere, or some state, we need to get back to. For Morton this has never been an opportunity because we are always already in & of nature. You never have nor will you ever escape the symbiotic real, because nature is symbiosis. DNA requires RNA. The very stuff that is the algorithmic life-start in a symbiotic relationship. Take away RNA, DNA doesn’t get the message. Nothing works alone. Everything is reliant on something else.

What doesn’t have agency? That is why there is no nature. What we do by thinking a nature outside of us, is establish a series of over-theres. An over-there to dump rubbish so we can consume & feel clean; an over-there for this, for that. But doing something in one place has spillage effects. The rubbish you send to the sacrificial landfill site—land sacrificed to be poisoned—grows into a terraforming or annexing & the chemical leachate from it indicates the over-there isn’t as contained as we think, or rather hope.

Methane gas musters & disperses; the land is packed with decades of consumerism, objects that will be discovered in the geological strata for centuries to come. Each object has a history, had a value that in the blink of an eye (in geological time) is reduced to waste. The plastic we throw took millions of years to become what we throw away. But its life doesn’t stop at our valuation & production of it. No. It then decomposes for hundreds of years. If we could ask a piece of plastic what it desires most, it would probably ask to die.

To be ecological thinkers we must collapse this attitude to thinking nature is something to return to, when nature is the tips of your fingers, the breath, the blood, the face, other faces, faeces, other arms, nonhuman limbs, nonhumans full stop, it is concrete & electrical cabling, steel, plastic (liquid dinosaurs & plant & tree & animal), language, code, pencils, pens, sex toys, newspapers. In short, nature is there when you wake in your home, walk to the shops, walk to a forest (curated by man largely). If you look at a farm & think nature…think again. That agricultural land is no more Nature (I capitalize it to show nature in the traditional definition we commonly assume) than your high street, a warehouse or an anthill. When everything is enmeshed symbiotically an entirely radical thing happens: we think ecologically. Ecology is about relationships shared in a space: man & pigeon, pigeon & lichen, lichen & rain, rain & stone, stone & rubbish, rubbish & pigeon: all are bodies. Now, poem-body.

Bodies
 
The body-protean, an exiled casserole
of organisms, without which we have nothing close
to history. A bloating pocket where a blast
of life informs the cell, & cells conform to life.
The body micro-managed by a filigree
of vital matter sliced like rump-burls
off suffering birch, craft into a stiff bowl
to fill with feed, & nurse the stricken tree.
The aspect ratio of the golden hour
kneading a little dryness in the skin of leaves;
whose rations nourish, who commands
with a longevity, keeping the growth’s demand.
 
This uniformity, offerings of belly & bit
marching loose to twangs of string
in an inviting, unseen land of waves.
The nettled summer, ants the bring
that rigs the bone with this enduring love.
Thus the sponge sops up the wet;
wind clusters in the curtains, aching for an eave. 
Dropped in a current, the siphoned spark lobes
the brain, motions the muscled bone with grab.
The sagittal-arête time romped along
until the biped stood outside the cave
& learned to steal in geometry’s hive.  
 
Though we go templed in the nexus
of the lung & heart, we do not go astray, sick
& sorry. The agriculture underneath the flesh
is just as much an alien as it is a me.
I’d like to know the spark, the soma & the bee. 
A world is hemmed in by a gassy peel.
People take notes on how a little bird glues
twigs to twigs with phlegm & beak;
how ants haul foraged matter to a burrow.
Will we ever be big enough to fill our shoes?
The world outside tomorrow’s window
is an imagining we rehearse. 

Meaninglessness

I think this is one of only a handful of poems I have written since moving to Exeter, to study. Somewhat influenced by Camus, his persuasive Absurdism, which to me has always been a methodology to encourage an acceptance of life as ultimately meaningless; this isn’t something to despair over. It is only meaningless in regards to a sense of teleological purpose. In other words, with the death of God, the spoiler alert is that the cosmos is in free fall of a sort, but that means it falls of its own accord, there is no umbrella parliament of destiny, or influence from omnipotence. There isn’t even a point to being here. So that the old defeating gesture of “what’s the point” really doesn’t have any point to it. Sort of. Meaning exists, but it is found through the peristaltic action-process of absurdism. Put simply, we must digest the absurd, because a meaningless cosmos is absurd. ,

Cosmos comes from the Greek kosmos meaning to ‘arrange’, or ‘order’, but it also has affinities with ‘cosmetic’, which means to ‘beautify’ & even ‘contemplate’. Therefore, the hostile cosmos, is actually something we are a part of & influence, even in a self-reflective mode of choosing to find meaning in meaninglessness. You can’t not be here if you are here & even when you leave life you remain as long as someone remembers you. After that, well you have nothing of a sort, but so what. Unless you squandered your life worrying about meaninglessness (& even if you did) you can’t escape the meaning of having just being here. We take existence for granted, as if it something easily produced, in cosmic abundance. It really isn’t. Stop for a second & think to yourselves how likely a chair is. Think about everything it took for nature, the cosmos to produce a being that could design & produce a chair. That is meaning. Camus connects purpose to acceptance of uncertainty, which provides us with a certainty: that we can cope with life, & enjoy it for the sheer unlikeliness of it, love it for its uncertainty.

Meaninglessness
 
Out in the sticks, you can hear leaf-drop,
the stink of cells, the footsteps of neurons.
Below the window,
                                New Bridge Street,
the noise of snarling traffic, light aircraft,
the sinewy peal of sirens, pell-mell
of concentric, criss-cross-snippets of people-talk,
church bell tintinnabulation
—all welcome in my ears; telling world
in its negotiation with itself. 
 
The ugly beauty of us,
I shamelessly love
: reading a thermometer
is not like dithering.
 
Stars dim, most nights the close light lamping the street
curtains the stars entirely—still, their locomotion
—stranded in the dark periphery, elasticated
—still, they locomote here, for nobody to see.
When the feet that we put wrong culminate
they’ll batter down the dark,
to anoint our bleached skulls with elder shine.
Ourselves, for what we commit to
: a python swallowing sheep.

Human Flourishing

The title is misleading, sarcastic. This poem is a response to a talk by some guy called Alex Epstein, who started something called The Human Flourishing Project. Alex believes nonrenewable energy sources are the reason for human flourishing. The rise in population (which he seems to think good because that means humanity is flourishing), health, leisure, convenience, etcetera. In short, Alex thinks we should use more of them. He has evidence. Woah! Really Alex?

I have made Alex seem very stupid, however, the most worrying part of Alex’s existence is that he isn’t stupid. He does not speak emphatically, he is measured, diplomatic & seems to make a cogent point. I find this more difficult to digest than a ranting dinosaur like Trump. You know whether you hate or love a man like Trump, he’s obvious is so many ways. Men like Alex worry me in the same way men like Larry Page concern me. Anyway, I got a poem out of Alex. Beware the sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Human Flourishing
 
Too…such goodness from the bindweed
fumes of amor fati, flourishing in/exhaled.
No one to say to, nor with, & yet
we cannot not say, nor write
with no place to write in, or about.
This will happen at the end of time
with only silence for unnerving amity.
 
Mobile boys mark stuttered patterns
in the sound-lines of air. They inherit
a neural mastery over the insignificant.
The vital, new immortals condense
& swarm biblically; seize; climb
immortal landfills growing wild as they grow tame
under motile digits alive with current.
 
The world melts in a dance of dye.
The pollen snouted bee in lazy meadows,
hysterical verbiage turns dead matters
quick… ‘Quickly, hear the woodland sigh.’
Clusters of midges in a hug of light,
& bracken fronds, their bitter
scent wafting on winded, angry ratios.
 
Blind-catharsis, stamping barcodes
on the underside of leaves, on animal noise.
Our most unlovely heavens scapegoated
for glass & steel & smoke. These antsy, twitchy noses.
Who loves their hunch that promise
falls in code, & futures the restless destiny
of light-fingered, binary patterns?
 
Once-and-for-all, the perfect virtual
   
               dive unmatched
 
                             in its proliferating go.
 
 

Motif Lately

This is a motifational poem. The motif motifates the writer, spurring associations to render the poem into a unity, if only a superficial, galvanizing unity. But where would anything be without either motifation or superficilaity? Nature made man & man makes superficial motifations. It’s endless.

The motif for me is occasioned by a form of activity reactive to anything, funded motifationally by the capacity to draw congruous & incongruous subject matter into abstract (or otherwise) assemblages.

I suppose this is merely another explanation of a poem. But it is mine. & it has its own terminology.

I have punned mercilessly. Forgive me.

Motif Lately
 
The bloated bleating, cross-wired metonym.
A chasm, chiasmus;—this stainless steel fork
& knife for splitting pictures of a body.
Folds & creases in zoom, gorges—the eyeball,
scrupulous, dilated pupils: Earth from space, cocooned
in the milk of gods—a lukewarm swab to rim the eyes,
crusty rheum scooped out; the thankless trees,
become themselves, their own nomenclature.
 
Wind-woke-humming, haywire machinery
: I woke sleeping last night, unbuttoning a floor
of cotton, descended; perhaps I wanted…
to unzip my bed & shimmy in metaphorically.
I woke proper, switched on the lamp to find
my bed sheets sprawled across the room
me, shaken from the struggle in my dream,
from the substrata leaking out before dawn.
 
Sun worship even as the arid stiffening
of soil prevents crow & magpie.
This chip on our shoulder, filled for now
with clods of animal fat—crud of the land,
the faeces of subjugated cattle plugging holes
in us even as it shreds holes in the sky, land, water.
Innocence, brand panic—everything
you thought pure, spoiled ganglion.
 
A dog, elegant, long limbed cross-bred
Jack of Spades, tail buoying it hind, to lick
our wounds sterile—why else would man
make best pals of them? Everything to our advantage…
Sensitivity isn’t…sensible—it can kill!
You wind up with a heart in your esophagus
gasping for explanations to yourself; brain
weeping through the left hand’s arthritic fingers;
 
kidneys squeezed in the right for stress relief,
dreaming your body oiled & bound, arranged
like half a withered oak in a granite sarcophagus.
Who doesn’t want to break linearity & learn
what will happen one moment, the next
& even further; to plot life with stiff upper lips
like a rudder to pilot tides pleached with moonlight
only to wish for a U-turn after hindsight?
 
Orpheus, past cozying to his discriminate self,
wanted nothing more than to be a bachelor
: couldn’t he feel Eurydice’s soft flesh
pressed to the tips of his fingers, his palm?
Why could he not trust touch, hear
her footsteps, the patterned eagerness
to leave Hades in her heaving breaths
—O the exaggerated drama of farewell?
 
The unflattering rigors of happiness
—the banality, pursuit all compensated
at a later date by someone else, out of sight
& mind, nameless : timeless—otherness without
much to lose, we assume all things but time.
The following night a wind barged in & blew
the starred curtains flat against the ceiling;
I rummaged folds for buttons, a zip
 
but nothing…
 
 
 

Morning on & on

Been rummaging—again—through the poems I wrote on my return to England. Found this one, with a refrain, a repetition, & repetition is very much puncturing the days without mercy.

I don’t recall the exact details of my disposition at the time of writing this. Poems tend to fall into a constellation of activity, a particularly industrious period, with poems of variable timbre & matter emerging in succession, like a beaded lineage of lotus flowers from a dirty pond.

I detect sadness. I was looking for work, full of guilt, worry, in need of friendships. I haven’t changed much, I am still needy for the company of others. I’ve never been like this, maybe I am getting old & want ease.

I find despite my faffing with poems, they tend to coagulate together into a sort of opaque, abstract narrative held in a hug of time all their own—imbricate with each other—in which I was & never will be again. They are suspended frame by frame attachments to a gossamer moment, unaware of its origins once it ventures into peripheries. We must think of our poems as agentic, eventually. I give my poems ‘response-ability’ to borrow Donna J. Haraway’s term. They affect, they are effected. There is nothing in this world that is not processual. No thing in its most stunning inertia is ever perfectly still. Active is everything. This is not New Age thinking, this is onto-ecological thinking. Nothing pauses, ever. It is impossible. A poem never stops moving, even in a dark cupboard in a world where language is lost. Poems are themselves in the instant we deracinate them from their unfinished status plonking them into the paths of readers, for we must have readers. Even the dust will read them in its dusty way, as will the sunlight, time itself, the empty air, the insects that crawl their inky facades, the surveillance capitalist’s machine intelligence.  


Morning on & on
 
If day, each day, & dawdling through hour on hour
should never pass beyond morning,
what effect on the business of the lungs,
the circadian pulse, light to never expand nor contract, 
umber light, oaten love;
the mercurial wetness of eye & lawn
 
morning on & on?
 
The will of morning-sense must change.
To learn to live in a mode of dew
would be to never say farewell to fluency,
or throb;—to ignore the candid pale
of punishing decline, in the occasion come of breathing
this circular oxygen, until we cannot
 
—morning on & on.
 
The palinode on its way, where crucial fictions
do handstands, draining their pockets of pearls & dew.
Magpie & squirrel, arrived to cozen them,
haemoglobin rushing into their head & hands;
fazed by turning, they’re snaffled
of dewy pearls from under their noses
 
: morning on & on.

Close Reading of Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Gun Island’ (2019)

           My close reading, examines the chapter ‘High Water’ from Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2019). In this chapter, Deen and Cinta are in Venice. They visit the gentrified Punta della Dogana (Customs House Point), which Cinta remembers was a ‘dilapidated old place’[1] when she was a child. It has become ‘like every other building in the city…an art gallery.’[2] Cinta’s memory emphasizes not only an economic pattern built on culture, but furthermore, that the memory of Venice is emphasized through various aesthetic forms.

          Inside the gallery, Cinta and Deen encounter an interactive artwork, positioned ‘at the far end of the gallery’[3], galvanizing Cinta’s memory, and in addition, establishing her cultural affiliation with her hometown Venice. The artwork is titled ‘Il mostro di Punta della Dogana – The Monster of Customs House Point.’[4] The monster, Cinta explains is a centuries long legend, with sightings being reported up until the 1930s. Cinta believes it to be a giant squid, and the composition of the artwork references this, with its ‘long tentacle-like forms.’[5]

          I will read the events and meaning of the chapter in alignment with Timothy Morton’s ideas, namely ‘interobjectivity,’ and its inclusion in the function and meaning of the ‘hyperobject.’ In addition, I want to connect this with Ghosh’s own thoughts on the role of nonhumans in Gun Island and by extension, the current ecological and political problems caused by climate breakdown, which Ghosh expounds on in The Great Derangement (2016). To do this, I will include Donna J. Haraway’s ideas on ‘Terrapolis’ and the ‘Chthulucene’, which I will show are synonymous with Morton’s ideas, as they attempt to realize ecological awareness and the role of nonhumans. Morton, Haraway & Ghosh, share political, ecological and ontological concerns, and their ideas inform and collaborate fluidly with each other.

          The conversation between Deen and Cinta, and the legend expressed throughout, are intersubjective moments of Venice’s history. However, the denouement of the chapter, urges us to expand the scope to what Timothy Morton calls ‘interobjectivity.’ Morton explains that ‘form is memory’, therefore, ‘there is no difference between causality and aesthetic appearance.’[6] It is easy to connect the causal and aesthetic in this chapter: the ‘aesthetic’ is the legend itself, causally influenced by Venice’s history. The resulting artworks and galleries, are aesthetic results of the form of memory. The interobjective telling of history is literary in form, which spills into an object, an artwork representing and referencing the legendary monster.

          Connecting Morton’s ‘hyperobject’ offers depth: ‘Hyperobjects provide great examples of interobjectivity—namely, the way in which nothing is ever experienced directly, but only as mediated through other entities in some shared sensual space.’ The hyperobject, put very simply ‘refer[s] to things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.’[7] Venice itself is an interobjective assemblage, a hyperobject. We cannot see Venice in its entirety, because that entirety is inaccessible. This does not make Venice any less a thing because it is an inaccessible entirety, or entity. In the same way, we do not encounter the actual il mostro, nor the reports of people throughout history, through the artwork in the gallery; nor do we actually relive Cinta’s childhood because she can remember the dilapidated customs house. This does not make them any less real as what they are. They are summaries, aestheticized, very much objects in their own right that encounter other objects to construct history, which is the hyperobject. Histories are an assemblage of anecdote, legend, report, construction, destruction, material, thinking, acting, and encountering. Or what Morton calls ‘footprints of hyperobjects’:

    These footprints are signs of causality, and of here is both subjective and objective genitive. Causality and the aesthetic, the realm of signs and significance and sensation, are one and the same. Hyperobjects are so big that they compel us toward this counterintuitive view. Interobjectivity eliminates the difference between cause and sign.[8] 

Aligning the ‘subjective and objective genitive’ can be accomplished because interobjectivity, includes nonhumans in its impressions, in its footsteps of causality and aesthetics. Moreover, intersubjectivity—interactions between conscious beings—is not disentangled from interobjectivity. The difference is, that in an interobjective ecology, nonhumans and humans interact, as well as, importantly, nonhumans and nonsentient beings. Interactions aren’t reserved for humans with humans. This is suggestive throughout Ghosh’s Gun Island.

          What else is a city, or a person’s life, other than the interconnection of things? Ghosh understands this markedly, especially as we know that he is familiar with the hyperobject, telling us so in The Great Derangement: ‘We have entered, as Timothy Morton says, the age of hyperobjects, which are defined in part by their stickiness.’[9] This ‘stickiness’ is synonymous with Morton’s ‘viscosity’: ‘Hyperobjects are here, right here in my social and experiential space.’[10] This propinquity of hyperobjects is the reason they cannot be seen in their entirety, as Morton explains, ‘there is nothing to “get back to,” since the problem is not that things are truly distant, but that they are in our face—they are our faces.’[11] If we replace ‘face’ with ‘city’ we connect this propinquity to the habitation of people in the hyperobject ‘city’. Furthermore, human encounters with nonhumans, causally collaborate to produce aesthetic legends inside a hyperobject, spilling though the mesh-like structure of the hyperobject into ecological and political consideration. Things come out the woodwork literally and figuratively, in doing so, they reveal the ecological breakdown taking place. This is how Gun Island functions as a warning.

          I want to return to Il mostro. The ‘tentacle-like form’ is redolent of Donna J. Haraway’s ‘tentacular ones’ entangled with fiction, essential if we want to ‘tell the story of the Chthulucene.’[12] The Chthulucene is Haraway’s replacement term for the Anthropocene. Anthropocene doesn’t seem to be reactionary enough to the necessary presence of nonhumans and how, neither humans nor nonhumans, as Haraway emphatically explains, ‘nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.’[13] ‘The chthonic ones’, live in the Chthulucene, chosen for its Greek etymology, meaning ‘of, in, or, under the earth and seas.’[14] These are the il mostro of Gun Island, which live in the memory of the people and city, devour the wooden infrastructure of Venice, as well as the inside of trees in the mountains of Oregon.[15]  

          Haraway’s Chthulucene is realized within a fictional space, called Terrapolis. Etymologically, she combines terra, or earth, with polis, the city. Terrapolis encourages an intimate space to exist between humans and nonhumans, between earth and city. The opportunity to distance each other, through habitation in radically different ecologies, is dissembled and reassembled as an inevitable, shared ecology. Gun Island could be read as an example of the aesthetic space, the poiesis of Terrapolis. The novel is a poietic world, designed to express multi-species interconnection, as is Terrapolis. Haraway explains:

    Terrapolis is a fictional integral equation, a speculative fabulation. Terrapolis is n-dimensional niche space for multi-species becoming-with. Terrapolis is open, worldly, indeterminate, and polytemporal. Terrapolis is a chimera of materials, languages, histories.[16] 

By ‘speculative fabulation’ I take Haraway to mean a fiction that confounds expectations by fusing the everyday and familiar, with the fantastical, mythic and nightmarish. Ghosh’s Gun Island is a speculative fabulation.  

          Ghosh constructs a novel, where legends emerge into something observable by the characters. Cinta and Deen, after the gallery, go in search of the monster out at the Fondamente Nove, where her uncle Ruggiero would go to catch squid and cuttlefish. Fondamente Nove, the narrator explains, ‘remains to this day one of the least frequented parts of the city.’[17] This peripheral space, is ideal for the emergence of creatures. The artwork Il mostro di Punta della Dogana, was also located in a peripheral space. The monster, the tentacular one they search for, mutates, into the chthonic ones. Cinta tells Deen, ‘I will show you a different kind of monster, much more dangerous.’[18] Cinta asks Deen to shine his cellphone’s flashlight on the piling, which functions similarly to Cinta’s uncle’s lantern, which he ‘hung over the water…so the creatures would come floating up to the light, needing only to be scooped up with a net.’[19] The darkness of the pier is a permeable boundary of dramatic tension, between expectation and the emergence into the light of a destructive ‘dangerous’ or ‘chthonic’ creature, which can only be captured with the use of a tool, the flashlight. Ghosh articulates the monster’s emergence as follows:

    Turning my own flashlight beam on the piling I saw that the surface of the indentation was pitted with holes, like the inside of a book that has been attacked by termites. Then suddenly Irealized that there was something alive inside the piling, not just one but many; they were wriggling, moving.[20]

The metaphor at work here, of the book attacked by termites, expands the event, through the agency of the aesthetic. The book is devoured, perhaps even the one we are reading, as are the pilings, and Venice.  Nonhumans in aggregation and collaboration with each other, are unleashed on the world of the reader.  For this to work, the city must be a thing, a hyperobject, ‘becoming-with’ (in Haraway’s phrasing) other objects, to form ecologies: ‘Ontologically heterogeneous partners become who and what they are in relational material-semiotic worlding. Natures, cultures, subjects, and objects do not preexist their intertwined worldings.’[21] There is no alterity of things, but instead, recognition of multispecies agency to affect ‘worldings’, synonymous with ecologies, except ‘worldings’ include the activities of nonhumans. The book becomes an ecological vehicle to show us ecological problems. It mimics, or rather it re-presents a world with the purpose of revealing a problem. In the process it becomes a habitat and ultimately open to being destroyed.

          Cinta explains that the creature she pries out of the piling, which is part of a pier, which is part of the infrastructure of the city itself, is ‘a ship worm’ which ‘are invading Venice, with the warming of the lagoon’s water. They eat up the wood from the inside in huge quantities. It has become a big problem because Venice is built on wooden pilings. They are literally eating the foundations of the city.’ The damage the ship worms are causing, becomes an event which happens to Deen and Cinta. This event is one of the causal ‘footprints of hyperobjects’, which are never the directly encountered hyperobject itself, but an interobjective encounter. Ghosh, in this event, is drawing our attention to an ecological problem, a problem caused by global warming. The warming of the lagoons, is an effect, non-local to Venice. The workers of Bangladeshi origin who we encounter in Part II Venice, are refugees from a place profoundly impacted by global warming. Their presence marks the continuity of global warming from one location, to another. The impacts differ aesthetically, however the cause is the same: global warming. The hyperobject as we know, forbids us from discerning the totality, we are able to witness only temporal manifestations, at various scales. Ghosh gives us imminent access, via the resulting collapse of the pier, to the impact of a process, which global warming causes to humans and nonhumans. Tacit in this local manifestation is the implication that this is a broader ecological problem. Nonhumans are the agents, acting discreetly, until they rupture the fluidity of the human, everyday. This is what Ghosh suggests, in a more simplified form when he says: ‘Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive?’[22] Returning to this, Ghosh later states this is, ‘one of the uncanniest effects of the Anthropocene, this renewed awareness of the elements of agency and consciousness that humans share with many other beings, and even perhaps the planet itself.’[23]    

          The word ‘uncanny’ is used by Morton, when he talks about the conjunction of human and nonhumans: ‘We are made of nonhuman and nonsentient and nonliving entities. It’s not a cozy situation: it’s a spooky, uncanny situation…We find ourselves in…the uncanny valley.’[24]

Just as Cinta and Deen, slip on the swarming worms into the rising lagoon, sinking literally and figuratively into the ramifications of interobjective encounters within the hyperobject. Morton, regarding the space of the uncanny valley, explains: ‘Everything in your world starts to slip [my italics] into the uncanny valley, whose sides are infinite and slick.’[25] The hyperobject enables us to ‘slip’ between scales, moving from the zoomed-out ecological scale of climate-disruption processes, to telescoping into singular events, such as Cinta and Deen slipping into the lagoon, or the migration of displaced people. 

          The Bangladeshi migrant Bilal, one of those displaced by climate change in the novel, witnesses in part this temporal event of global warming, which is connected to the cause of his being there. Bilal is squatting in an abandoned building on the Fondamente Nove and comes to Deen and Cinta’s rescue. There is something uncanny about this. The happenstance of Bilal’s immiseration, which places him at the right place, at the right time, is indicative of the interobjective, viscous properties of the hyperobject to bring humans and nonhumans into alignment. In this alignment we can trace heterogeneous events and objects through the hyperobject.

          What Ghosh may be suggesting, is a challenge to the notion that nonhumans can’t have or create worlds. The ship worm’s habitat inside the wood of the pier, is an ecology, within the ecology of the book, which exists because it replicates a reality aesthetically, to show a reality to itself. This is because, as Morton tells us, ‘Worlds are perforated and permeable, which is why we can share them.’[26] The concept of a world is not singularly reserved for the human inhabited world. Morton explains further that, ‘human worlds are no different in value from nonhuman ones, and also that non-sentient nonhuman lifeforms (as far as we know) and non-life (and also by implication the non-sentient and non-living parts of humans) also have worlds.’[27] In this way humans form what Morton calls ‘solidarity’[28], even and especially between the host and the parasite. The host and parasite may change, but solidarity remains. Between the city pier and the ship worm, a world emerges, a world which shatters the human world. Regardless of negative impacts, it is still a form of solidarity.

          Ghosh, in The Great Derangement asks: ‘What is the place of the nonhuman in the modern novel?’[29] He answers that question here in this event in Gun Island. By extension, as the novel exists outside itself, within a hyperobject, it also asks the question to the reader, now part of it, ‘what is the place of the nonhuman in the Anthropocene?’ Its place cannot be assigned to it. It will take its place according to its own agency, in part, or so it will seem. Because as we have established, the hyperobject forbids us from seeing the entirety. So it will evade us, and it will be the continuing task of the ecologically aware author, to show us some aspect of it, or at least how to access methods for seeing aspects of it.

Bibliography

Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (Great Britain: John Murray, 2019)

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016)

Timothy Morton, ‘Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.’ Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 19.2 (2011), p. 163-190. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/431001

Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London & New York: Verso Books, 2017)

Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects : Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)


[1] Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (Great Britain: John Murray, 2019), p. 245

[2] Ghosh, Gun Island, p. 245

[3] Ibid., p. 245

[4] Ibid., p. 246

[5] Ibid., p. 246

[6] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects :Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 91

[7] Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 1

[8] Ibid., p. 88

[9] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 62

[10] Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 27

[11] Ibid., 28

[12] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chtulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016), p.31

[13] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p. 31

[14] Ibid., p. 53

[15] Ghosh, Gun Island, p. 119

[16] Ibid., p. 11

[17] Ghosh, Gun Island, p. 247

[18] Ibid., 250

[19] Ibid., 247

[20] Ibid., 250

[21] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, pp. 32-33

[22] Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 3

[23] Ibid., p. 63

[24] Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 130

[25] Ibid., pp. 131-132

[26] Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London & New York: Verso Books, 2017), p. 14

[27] Morton, Humankind, p. 14

[28] Ibid., p. 14

[29] Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 66

Future

I was browsing through the 30 or so poems I wrote—& agonized over the quality of—on my return to England & this one feels cogent to the circumstances we currently find ourselves groaning under. I have been writing about access to futures through the lens of queer theory and ecology. They share a common problem: both are concerned with closing a certain gap. This is the gap between the inside and the outside, or here and there. This manifests as alterity in queer theory. In ecology, as the erroneous perception that there is an ‘away’. Both these errors contribute to unstable futures. Because we fail to address difference we fail to be properly ecological, that is, properly understanding the symbiotic relationship we have with environments & the things that populate them sentient or not.

There is an ecological strata, a material turn in the matter of the poem. This was the nascent turn toward the object in my poems, which came at a time I was flooding (after a long absence) myself with theory. I think that comes through, in a necessarily aesthetic way…this is poetry after all. But I think it shows that theory functions in an aesthetic form. I appreciate that an appraisal of aestheticized theory is perhaps a heavily subjective niche. Nonetheless, as I find theory aesthetically pleasing, I may as well gaff about with it, as the ontological ruminations it produces are interesting if a little opaque. That’s poetry all over, right?

Future


‘Save us! Save us! Betray us.’
The lithium in our batteries sucked through its carbon cap,
the light turned on us lanced.
 
Making transparency with bone; too unreal to butter us
up with soft entrailed work of the word-a-day-world.
 
We have glow-sticks instead of fireflies.
Cans of meat in gravy, breakfast in a can.
‘Save us! Save…Betrayal us.’
 
The bus moored, train, stranded. Little by little.
Damn our water. England too ancient to last out
the courage of an angry climate: one long whip of a gale;
one long yawn of the weather, once more than infrastructure can stomach.
Fold up & hope the tetrapods hold.
 
The church in armbands, submarines reach it.
The weather is no respecter of traditions.
The weather, no admirer of culture.
The climate emerges evil, scapegoat, pest
we can’t live with, nor live without;
like oxygen, radical, free, everywhere—poison.
 
Colossi beard cloudy horizons, speaking, loud speaking.
I don’t want to see them,—there flooding peripherals, beached & glum
ready to hold sad talks with allegories of themselves.
We will not get to have our say, there’ll be no anagogic fluid
in which we’ll set[tle] the score of sinew & cell.