I want to talk about Isabelle Stengers' notion of an ecology of practices as a tool for thinking and what the implications of this might be for what poetry and poetics can become, that is, for those who write and read and listen to it.
An ecology of practices, as a tool for thinking, is performative. It attempts to address itself to practitioners of a field. “To dream along with” – “in a mode that is not critical, which [does] not remind [practitioners]… of limits inherent to their activity.”
An ecology of practices addresses how practices relate to each other (though clearly they can only partially relate). There are no practices that can be independent of environment.
Practitioners want their work to cohere. Coherence is not necessarily logical, but rather it is eco-logical. Something coheres in relation to its environment.
What poem or book of poems isn’t an attempt to cohere -- to foster its own force.
“An ecology of practices does not have any ambition to describe practices 'as they are’…. It aims at the construction of new… possibilities for them to be present or, in other words, to connect. It thus does not approach practices as they are… but as they may become.”
Stengers argues that: “… practices must not be defended as if they are weak. The problem for each practice is how to foster its own force, to make present what causes practitioners to think and feel and act.”
According to Stengers, “...tools for thinking are… the ones that address and actualize [the] power of the situation, that make it a matter of concern, in other words, make us think and not recognize. …recognition would lead to the question-- why should we take practices seriously [e.g., poetics/poetry] as we know very well that they are in the process of being destroyed by Capitalism? …The ecology of practices is a non-neutral tool as it entails the decisions never to accept Capitalist destruction as freeing the ground for anything but Capitalism itself.”
The challenge is to think: "par le milieu" (with the milieu) which implies becoming through the middle (without grounding definitions or an ideal horizon—in other words, unmapped) and with the surroundings. No theory gives you the power to disentangle something from its particular surroundings.
The ecology of practices as a tool for thinking must be immanent – so to the extent that it’s a critique, it’s an immanent critique. It wants to contrast rather than oppose. In fact it wants to find the stubborn facts and (ala Whitehead) to convert oppositions into contrasts.
An ecology of practices wants to affirm the positive value of attachment – which is what obligates practitioners. So it asks how it is that one belongs, and how that belonging obligates you. Attachments are what you have and hold, &/or what has you or holds you. I think of belonging as what owns you, or what holds or infects you – at the same time that you own, or hold or infect it.
All attachments that build obligations are in some sense affiliations or involvements with other entities (not just human ones).
Obligation may be created from a practitioner’s attachment to a particular definition or concept of what poetry &/or poetics can be or become. This is a polite way of saying that we have attachments to ‘esthetic’ style, the manner of how something is done, and/or ideology.
Stengers says: Attachments are what cause us to think. It’s probably not just pencil and paper, or keyboard and screen that makes us think, but also how I’m infected – with matters of concern.
“Attachments matter and the way that they matter becomes apparent when you do not take them into account… As Latour beautifully showed in Pandora’s Hope, attachment and autonomy rather go together. Attachments are what cause people… to feel and think, to be able or to become able. The problem… may be that some of us… confuse attachments with universal obligations… and feel free... to judge, deconstruct or disqualify what appears to them as illusions or folkloric beliefs and claims.” (EOP, 191)
A first step in an ecology of poetic practice might be to situate the relevance and limits of poetic practice without engaging in destructive critique. In other words, where are the “borders” with other practices and what questions matter – what questions make us think rather than re-cognize?
Stengers is focused on the constructive, on becoming or how things change, rather than the destructive or the deconstructive.
“You never construct in general, [but] always in relation with … a matter of concern.” She doesn't want to construct a general theory, she wants to make proposals to provoke thought but always within a field of practice. That is the immanent part of the critique to remain "within the very field of practices that it is seeking to change.” Thus, she won’t accept claims that separate themselves from the actual practice, the actual becoming.
Constructivism is non-foundationist. That is, truth is a construction – so there is no primacy of truth. She’s against either-or propositions. It’s not the chicken or the egg, that’s a false choice; it is not a choice between objects being prior to relations or vice versa. As Shaviro suggests: “What’s really real can be actual entities and actual occasions—not just the former.” (Shaviro, The Actual Volcano, 284).
Stengers argues for the minor stage (or minor literature) and against the major – because the “major” always appeals to Truth (with a capital ‘T’ – which by history’s lights must lead directly to freedom, as in: “the truth will set you free”). The minor resists this traditional form of “enlightenment” – i.e., this appeal to truth.
Working from examples in the sciences, Stengers is against universalization (i.e., against any world view or model) that would deny the validity of other theories and practices outside its own practice/discipline. Universalization usually denies the validity of all other theories.
She sees innovative scientific propositions as (in part) making fiction – & if the fiction is accepted, it modifies the scientific reality – in a sense it makes history. David Graeber says somewhere – consistent with Latour probably – that if you convince enough people that you are king of France, you are king of France.
Track 4 – Must Be Some Way Outta Here
Stengers is very much with Latour & Whitehead & the Speculative Realists against the bifurcation of the world into two realms: the human (or culture) versus nature. One way to think about this is as a denial of the distinction between how we conventionally think about subject and object. They are, in fact, hopelessly intertwined.
Regarding OOO’s emphasis on “object”, one could argue for a similarly flat subject-oriented ontology based on Whitehead’s notion that all objects are also subjects, they have a mental pole, even if it’s relatively dormant. Here’s Shaviro again: “If ontological equality means anything, it means that all entities in the universe, without exception, are sentient or experiential. In other words, where OOO claims that everything is an object, Whitehead rather claims that everything is a subject: “apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness” (PR 167). (PT, #1086)
The notion of Ecology of Practices is in synch with Tim Morton’s definition of ecopoetics as co-existence. In fact, Stengers’ Introductory notes on an Ecology of Practices were written in response to Brian Massumi’s proposition that “a political ecology would be a social technology of belonging, assuming coexistence and co-becoming as the habitat of practices.” [Note that I don’t believe that the term ‘social technology of belonging’ is trying to conjure some argument for Facebook. It can perhaps be understood as an application of belonging for practical use.]
In a political context, for example, Stengers argues for co-existence with the black bloc. Their “so-called violence is nothing compared to that of the cops.” She says that what matters “is not to demand a unifying principle which would be stronger than the divergence, but to learn how to work together not in spite of but through the divergence.” (CP interview)
Divergent poetics can be explained by singular modes of decision. Per Shaviro: “What keeps entities distinct from one another, despite their continual interpenetration, is precisely their disparate manners, or their singular modes of decision and selection. Novelty arises, not from some pre-existing reserve, but from an act of positive decision.” (Shaviro TAV, 287)
Morton argues that: “intimacy is what we need in ecological awareness, not feeling like we're part of something bigger...” If ecopoetics is intimate co-existence with other entities, then I assume Morton would say that such intimacy forms a new entity, or else there would have to be a feeling of being part of something bigger.
Morton emphasizes the poem as an object, an autonomous entity that forces us to coexist with it, if & when we read it. He studiously avoids talk of the present, which he explains away via the interactions of objects.
“...To write poetry is to force the reader [emphasis added] to coexist with fragile phrases, fragile ink, fragile paper: to experience the many physical levels of a poem's architecture... sheer co-existence... This coexistence happens not in some eternal now, or in a now-point, however expansive or constrained. The 'nowness' of a poem, its spaciousness, is the disquieting asymmetry between appearance and essence, past and future.” (Morton, ODOP, 222)
For Morton, it comes down to the rift within objects, their inconsistency with themselves. This is the only way something new appears. He wants to define away any “nowness” through the friction between essence and appearance. For Morton, the presence of a habitat is like a presumed nature that implies a metaphysically "present" boundary, a bifurcation which he wants to reject. “OOO is precisely against metaphysics of presence. Boundaries called ‘present’ or ‘nature’ are always totally arbitrary and metaphysical.” (EWN, 4-23-12)
For Stengers, I don’t think co-existence is an event that happens at a “now-point.” It is an assumption (see Massumi’s proposition above) of what is needed (along with co-becoming) for there to be a habitat of practices.
Co-existence is about sharing an interstice with others. For Stengers, there is no habitat without co-existence and vice versa. It isn’t clear to me that her notion of a habitat is static or metaphysically bounded.
For Morton, the past is appearance, the future is essence. We live in the era of sticky hyperobjects (objects massively distributed in time and space, e.g., global warming). Like Levinas’s ethical turn, there’s no going back once we look into the face of The Hyperobject.
I’m leery of Morton’s attachment to essence, and to his insistence that there is no ecology of the present, no poetics of the present, which perhaps jibes with Buddhist emptiness or nothingness. Somewhere Stengers says that “what the poets call presence is infection.” I think there are actual occasions, not just actual entities; there are occasions or events that happen in “our” presence, that infect actual entities of all kinds.
Track 5 – The Bridge
What does a less anthropocentric poetics look like? Is it a poetry of affinities, a celebration of the democracy of all objects, along the lines of: “Sorry, Tree.” What would a poetry look like that would not privilege (the human realm nor) its own language?
If poetics (as Donato Mancini suggests) is criticism at the site of writing, then I want it to be immanent critique, a critique that makes us think rather than recognize, that induces us to become other than who we are.
For poets and artists, the compulsion (or goal) might be: how to produce objects or poems that cohere in their own ways – that have lives of their own. But this isn’t what activates thinking.
Looking at disputes within contemporary poetics – formal innovation typically trumps expression (though in book sales that’s probably the obverse).
For me, the notion of a poet’s obligation implies a real tension between ethics and aesthetics. Esthetic conscience and ideology seem more relevant to ethics since they stress how complicit we necessarily are, trapped in the circuits of Capital. I want to celebrate aesthetic contact with the outside, without losing sight of how easy it is to turn theory into a conquest. I want to be able to read and write like a loser, not just for victory.
If one takes aesthetics as “a primordial form of relation and interaction,” in effect a first philosophy, then the obligation may be to struggle – to relate and interact, that is, to connect. And not just to words – but to all objects/entities that one meets in the world.
The quandary is how to convert oppositions into contrasts, how to find, as Shaviro suggests, “an aesthetic place for ethics; an immanent place for transcendence.”