I’m alive

“the project” isn’t dead. It will remain alive as long as I remain alive. I just have to realize that it will be in complete flux, which involves veering in and out of the project. My belief systems constantly change. Constantly. I just have to learn to accept this! And realize that, whatever happens, I am accreting knowledge and, with any luck, hope.

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Redlands (poem)

Redlands

by Dauphine Sb

*

I do get vertigo. When the oil runs out, we shall go to our cabin on the lake,

and I should be 60 or 70 then. When the oil runs out I will get vertigo

thinking about ways to protect my children—but they will be

thinking about ways to protect me.

We have a deed. Maybe deeds won’t

matter anymore. When I say the oil

“runs out”, it’s a figure of speech. There will

be a little oil left. But most people

will make do without. My children

will bicycle the seven miles into town

for rice and flour and batteries.

We await their return, keeping busy by scuttling

the old speedboat close to the dock. Up to our knees

in the warm water, the baking sun. How swiftly the clouds

clog the sky.

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infidel poetics

“The anonymous lyric, including the riddle and the metrical charm,
appears to have been gradually eclipsed by the emergence of an elite and
self-consciously literary tradition of poetry, but these ancient modes and
forms did not vanish altogether, nor are they absent from the dominant
tradition. Rather, as these poetic models slipped into the shadows, they
became part of a vital and complex vernacular tradition: spells, oaths,
lullabies, and nursery rhymes; yet also curses, toasts, tongue twisters,
namings, recipes, work songs, vendors’ cries, and beggars’ chants; in addition
to counting and alphabet songs, love tokens, spitting words, insults,
and the like. ” —Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance by Daniel Tiffany

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why you shouldn’t read Mary Oliver quite so much: “Singapore”

I see Mary Oliver a lot in pagan/naturalistic religion social media, and even in liturgical settings. With all the literally thousands of poets out there, I wish this were not the case. Her work hits all the right “nature buttons” but scratching beneath the surface I find not only banality but an active insistence on a self-centered perspective, all while being self-congratulatorily self aware as a “nature poet.”

There are a lot of bad Mary Oliver poems, but “Singapore” in on another level, perhaps because of its globalist, airport setting brings in issues of class and race that, well, only amplify the most problematic aspects of Oliver’s work:

Singapore

In Singapore, in the airport, 
a darkness was ripped from my eyes. 
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open. 
A woman knelt there, washing something
     in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach 
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it. 
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings. 
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees. 
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain
     rising and falling. 
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face. 
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and
     neither could win. 
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this? 
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem. 
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
     which is dull enough. 
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
     hubcaps, with a blue rag. 
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing. 
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river. 
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life. 
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop
     and fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen. 
But maybe it will. 
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t. 
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only 
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean 
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth, 
the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean 
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

Stylistically of course, this is the “declarative sentences with line breaks” school of normative American poetics, which is very very hard to do in an interesting way. It’s possible, of course, but the voice here is full of aphorisms and a general blandness. Some people like clarity for its own sake, but clarity has to serve a purpose.

This post from a couple of years ago from Nicholas Liu sums up many of my feelings about the poem very well:

Awfully charitable of Oliver–I’m tired of this “speaker” pretence, to be honest–to accept working class POCs as part of the world. It’s such a comforting construction, too, the working class as “part of the world”, like lichen or wildebeest, loving their simple little lives. With “Singapore”…there’s no need for the middle to upper classes to try (and fail) to reconcile the displeasure they’d feel at doing a cleaner’s work for a cleaner’s pay with our collective gentleperson’s agreement that others should go on doing just that.

I should also add that Mary Oliver is all-too eager to “naturize” a worker on the bottom of the ladder:

She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river. 
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

(Seriously, I know people will think that these lines are profound…but how? This baffles me more than anything else.) What she’s doing here is treating another human being as animal, as river–but (and this is important) not from an animist perspective. Far from it. Because she is the one filling the poem “with trees, and birds.” Her own position is fixed, as observer, writer, and–ultimately–a transient, travelling back to the United States where she can write further poems and win awards.

The reader, of course, is supposed to do cartwheels over Oliver’s compassion and vision. But I call bullshit.

What is perhaps more readily apparent in “Singapore” is nonetheless present in nearly all of her work: an insistence on “the Mary Oliver show, starring Mary Oliver” at all costs, while at the same time deploying poetic strategies to make it seem like this is not the case at all, that she is, at all times, one with nature. I think this is the height of sanctimony, and not the good kind.

Broader thought: what does it mean that she’s so popular? What does it reveal about the assumptions of the communities that love her?

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Return of the 32K year old flower

This is 2 years old but, well, really fucking good:

Living plants have been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died 32,000 years ago, a team of Russian scientists reports. The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of northeastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago.

If this had happened hundreds of years ago, it would have easily fallen under the aegis of a resurrection myth. What interests me most about this (aside from the beautiful flower) is that arctic ground squirrel.

32,000 years ago, this little one* was gathering seeds on the permafrost. The burrow got buried and sealed. The squirrel has been long gone but from those seeds there is new life, with a direct throughline to the middle Paleolithic. Every act is insignificant/significant. Every act is a throwaway/gift.

 

*or reasonable fascimile

 

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slagcraft 1: How to turn your smart-phone into a river

Enough theory for now. Time to get to work.

I’m creating ritual excursions and exercises under the umbrella of something I’m calling “slagcraft.” These are provisional and I might be making tiny changes to them as I go on.

*

How to Turn Your Smartphone into a River

Face towards China, where most of the valuable components of your phone were likely mined, and where the phone was invariably assembled. Place the smartphone in both hands, cradling it. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Feel your breath going into the phone. Think through this phone. What does it mean to you?

Now let these meanings go. Say:

You are glass.

MURMUR.

You are platinum.

“COLDER THAN A ROSE.” (H.D.)

You are gold.

FLOATING.

You are copper.

WELLSPRING.

You are silver.

SWAN SONG.

You are light, bright, and loud.

WE REQUEST DISASSEMBLAGE

Then feel your hands inside a river, feeling the current on your skin. Turn over the phone three times slowly, then set down the phone. Next pick up the cup of water. Say:

 As this has passed from mine to factory to ship, bless the tailings and corrosions. They are our tailings and corrosions, and our blessings. As this river flows from the earth to our hands, may its life run like our lives. And when it empties into the sea of un-use, as we will, may it prove to be without harm and purely put to rest, as we desire for our bodies. “The sea refuses no river.” (Townsend)

Splash water on your hands and rub them together.

Next is the invocation of the rare-earth elements present in the phone. These rare metals are not inherently benign, but it is important to acknowledge their presence in the material world.

Hail, yttrium, prince of synthetic garnets!

Hail, lanthanum, crux of the Prius!

Hail, cerium, spark of cigarette lighters!

Hail, praseodymium of the faux peridot!

Hail, neodymium, the magnet and the incandescence!

Hail, europium, red traveller of the phosphor!

Hail, gadolinium, cryptic salt of dialysis!

Hail, terbium, margrave of sonars!

Hail, dysprosium, chimera of the control rod!

Dry your hands with a towel and pick up the phone again. Close your eyes and acknowledge the elements, and then the river. Say:

In the river of matter, let us be naiad.

So shall we flow in our flaws.

With the camera, take a photo of your face. Keep this photo as a tiny digital relic of this transformation. Repeat:

So shall we flow in our flaws.

The ritual is complete. After the invocations, and throughout your days, if you have any twitchy desire to check it unnecessarily, repeat this invocation quietly to yourself:

River river I shan’t look down

Buttercup, buttercup drift and drown

(Optional: Let the stillness be your friend

Until you come to life again)

When properly transformed into a river, your smartphone can be your constant companion. Take care of it, as you would any river.

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“River” by Sherwin Bitsui

When we river,
blood fills cracks in bullet shells,
oars become fingers scratching windows into dawn,
and faces are stirred from mounds of mica.
I notice the back isn’t as smooth anymore,
      the river crests at the moment of blinking;
its blood vessels stiffen and spear the drenched coat of flies
collecting outside the jaw.
Night slows here,
      the first breath held back,
clenched like a tight fist in the arroyo under shattered glass.
But we still want to shake the oxygen loose from flypaper,
hack its veins,
divert its course,
      and reveal its broken back,
the illusion of a broken back.
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What is ecology? And why should we care?

I watched this video, showing rather-raw footage of many so-called “trouble spots” around the world, and was struck by how incomplete our notion of ecology often is.

Poaching. Illegal oil fields. Guerilla warfare. People forgotten and cast away. The shock of fraying institutions.

If there is an ecologically based paganism that I’m a part of (and recognizing, absolutely, that an earth-based paganism is only one potential path among many), it has to include these things in its field of vision. Perhaps not as the totality, but as a way to make it a living, breathing praxis.

This too is intently spiritual. It has to be. And embracing animism has to be as well. Any animism concerned solely about connecting to a prelapsarian past is nice, buttoo often I see narratives of comfort when narratives of struggle are needed. I should add that comfort is important–but it’s a matter of timing. Just as it is unhelpful to valorize conflict for its own sake, it’s not helpful to base one’s practice solely on the stuff of the modern world that allows the status quo to remain so: privileges, the hazy guru-dom of a counterculture that has outlived its specific usefulness.

In glorifying a pre-literate consciousness, it’s a mass act of pretending as if jet travel and expensive workshops aren’t implicated in a whole network of semiotics and I = PAT equations.

Now I’m not a primitivist either! I’m not saying, teachers and students shouldn’t fly. What I am saying is: the ideological unpinnings that allow for such a world to exist are part of the problem and have a clear-headed awareness of them has to be the starting point.

This is why I think Lacan’s (and Zizek’s) pointed analysis of ideology is so important, as a way to truly unpack how we live in the world, how our beliefs don’t match our actions, nor the “facts on the ground.”

Our ecological concerns–and this is where, in fact, where the intersections with paganism are so important–also impinge on our subconscious. In fact, it would be rather odd if they didn’t. But the subconscious is also a material process, which is why it’s important to follow the tangled, knotted paths that our subconscious leads us in.

Taking animism seriously means that, not only do rocks, trees, and animals have spiritual presence, but our subconscious does also (and also, iPhones, loaves of bread, cargo containers, factory compounds, and nuclear waste…but that’s another post). There is no dualism between matter and mind, but non-reductively and paradoxically, insisting it’s because everything is matter–and not that everything is inculcated by the mind–becomes a basis for re-enchantment, not disenchantment.

Going back to the original video, the paganism I want to build as an American has to stand in some way with those on “the front lines.”

Our “retreats” can wait.

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Maria Attanasio: Poet of Carnal Consciousness

It Was Mine …

It was mine, in the uncorrupted sphere of Parmenides
the river wave the anonymous hand that in the dream
strokes you: dark symmetry of fire and water
unconscious rustle of neurons.
It was disagreement
the swarmy overflowing in apricot flesh, divided
in the cosmogony of night from the deep flow
of particles exchanges from the blind seeking of electrons
to the synthesis, here, among the merchants and the hungry,
Kafka’s beetle consciousness that dies.

 

-translated by Carla Billitteri

(source)

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Seven Broken Altars (poem)

Seven Broken Altars

by Dauphine Sb

 

1.

People from Ohio have to come

from somewhere.

 

2.

I squirrel my writing away

inside the gardening store.

Supposedly writing is a sign

of the loss of the world.

 

3.

I don’t know

why the relentless achings

of beach-house poets overwhelm

me, their just-so chants

like riptides,

mouths with oceans and stunning salt.

 

3.

I want sea-lions to invade

Brooklyn. I want the sea-lion

queen to say to Brooklyn:

look, let’s be real, the underpinnings

of the banking industry prop up

your desire to overthrow the

banking industry.

 

4.

My job is to write stupid poems

before the professors come

back from the hotel bar in the forest.

 

5.

It’s so easy to mock the provisional

government of sea lions but

do we really have any

other alternatives?

I mean viable ones.

 

6.

open the hunting lodge of the heart

tell me how to read my life

read the intestines

of the season

make use of me

devotion is not enough

devotion is never enough

 

7.

I bought this hyacinth

from the supermarket.

It gets cold from the

Baffin Island gales

on the other side

of the window.

I water it.

It waters me back.

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Making Peace with the Polar Vortex

Winter has my city in its death grip. It’s hard to feel life.

It’s hard to feel my hands.

I’ve been through many, many bad winters, but as I feel the wind ice-burn through me, or check and see that the temps are going to be, shall we say, suboptimal for a good long while, the prevailing feeling I have is one of dread. No light at the end of the tunnel (or light so faint that it’s not going to matter).

So like many things in my life, I have to look for the light in Less Obvious Sources.

Calling these winds Arctic isn’t just a metaphor. The jet streams brought the cold air south, and indeed for awhile the northern U.S. was one of the coldest places on earth. These are the same gusts as above Baffin Island. Caught in its grip, yesterday I was walking back to my car from work and realized: I have to live with this. These winds are just winds.

And I felt less cold. Could I even feel grateful for this bitterness? As the wind gusts outside as I write this, I am certainly grateful for a warm house, something that I never want to take for granted. But even though everything seems dead, and slowing, and the people around me have their patience tested with this weather, seeing this weather as having its own life has helped me come to terms with it, to know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed by it, by an awe-inspiring brutal power.

And so I wait, not quite ready to hole up completely. Willing to walk with the crystalline sky-and-sun, the desert of snow around me.

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The Panick Cave (poem)

The Panick Cave

by Dauphine Sb

Kind heart, why have you left me,

where have you gone?

Like the cinders of the offer

you are gone.

The snow builds up

in the empty tomb.

I have become a signal.

I tuck my kids into bed.

I don’t cry in front of

them; in fact there are no

tears, heart, at all.

Now all I have left is

pinpricking in the atria area,

which could be the early

warnings of a panic attack–

is there a pamphlet I

could consult? Don’t leave me.

When I went through the gauntlet

the last last time

I admitted myself to

the emergency room.

Hooked to a blood pressure machine

pythoning my arm,

staring up at a fluorescent ceiling.

Not myself. Who was I then?

Who was I then to you?

Have you been planning a

prison break this whole time?

Last night I had a dream of you.

You were lodged within me and

we stood on a trail that led

through a forest burned out by

wildfire. You warned me not to

go on.

The consequences

would be terrible.

The clouds went

by. I

touched my chest,

certain even in the dream that

I had already misplaced you.

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Jack Spicer: Trickster Poet

Any fool can get into an ocean
But it takes a Goddess
To get out of one.
What’s true of oceans is true, of course,
Of labyrinths and poems. When you start swimming
Through riptide of rhythms and the metaphor’s seaweed
You need to be a good swimmer or a born Goddess
To get back out of them
Look at the sea otters bobbing wildly
Out in the middle of the poem
They look so eager and peaceful playing out there where the
    water hardly moves
You might get out through all the waves and rocks
Into the middle of the poem to touch them
But when you’ve tried the blessed water long
Enough to want to start backward
That’s when the fun starts
Unless you’re a poet or an otter or something supernatural
You’ll drown, dear. You’ll drown
Any Greek can get you into a labyrinth
But it takes a hero to get out of one
What’s true of labyrinths is true of course
Of love and memory. When you start remembering.
Jack Spicer (1925-1965)
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Materializations

A particularly revealing example of the animistic effects of an allegedly naturalizing epistemology can be seen in the wonderworlds of mirror neurons that connect humans and other primates through networks of empathy. This is not to say that mirror neurons are not real; on the contrary, they are the focus of studies and ever more experiments at the top neuroscience laboratories around the world, and have been analyzed in thousands of publications. Mirror neurons are the latest result in a sequence of investigations that once began under the imperative to debunk speculative and spiritualistic entities by means of dissolving them into strictly natural, material processes—perception, feeling, reasoning, decision-making, and memorizing, once understood as results of neurophysiological processing.

The agenda still holds, but the tools to pursue it have become so powerful that they allow sophisticated questions to be addressed. Within the framework of the modern, naturalizing epistemology, these experiments no longer “reduce” speculative stuff to the hard facts of action potentials, gene expression, and causality; instead, they increasingly constitute aspects of social interactions as “real,” as experimentally detected and objectively verified items. Materializations were once the results of séances and strange encounters with ghostly powers, and photography was mobilized to document these instances typically in the form of milky and plasmalike substances protruding somewhere from the “medium.” One hundred years later, today’s high-tech machines detect the results of social interactions as amorphous color blobs in the active brains of the participants. (source)

Fields, layerings, blobs. Data mappings. Flowing systems. Does this gesture toward a kind of ‘cognitive animism’, where even the representations of our thoughts meld and merge into the color bands of other forms of swarming matter?

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What I still need to work on: the agalma

Tons and tons of things of course. But further reflection on my Lacan and Neopaganism post has left me with more questions than answers. Which I am taking as a good sign.

The main issue with the sketch I presented has to do with neopaganism itself, and its own paradigms, of which there are many. So is this Lacanian “flowchart” a rough schematic for a more macro-level process that can be improvised upon and retooled by others to fit into their own practices, or a more granulated description of a particular type of neopaganism?

I am leaning toward the latter, but nonetheless I want to test these Lacanian symbolic relationships against main currents of thoughts in neopaganism (in all of its incarnations).

John Halstead’s post here on three “centers” of neopaganism might be a good place to start.

earth-centered paganism (“those Paganisms [among others] concerned primarily with ecology, those more local forms of Paganism that I would call ‘backyard Paganism’…and many forms of (neo-)animism which view humans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-human community of beings.”): the encounter with the Real brings the human being into a deprivileged realtionship beyond nature, a kind of re-sacralization beyond the sacred. But upon further reflection this isn’t the only way in which the Real can be encountered.

Self-centered paganism (“includes Jungian Neopaganism, many forms of Wicca and feminist witchcraft, and more ceremonial or esoteric forms of Paganism…Authenticity is determined by one’s relationship with one’s Self, with that larger sense of Self which extends beyond the boundaries of one’s ego and one’s individual person.”): Lacanian thought seriously complicates any notion of a fixed Self, but taking the idea of Self as “many conceptions of personhood”, there is a lot of resonance here. One thing that could be built upon further here is the phenomenology of paganism–how our senses interact with and process information around us into constructing that self. However, one other aspect of this that doesn’t align with Lacan is idea of “personal development.” Lacanians, I think, would lean toward see the idea of personal growth as itself an ideological construction and a Big Other. I also think this is necessary, in order to avoid New Age obscurantism.

(This mini-essayic answer, however, provides some tantalizing cross-currents between Jung and Lacan. I had no idea that Lacan had studied under Jung briefly! And I do think that Jung himself is under-utilized in Continental Philosophy.)

diety-centered paganism (“includes many forms of polytheistic worship, many Reconstructionist or Revivalist forms of Paganism, including those which are closer to Heathenry, and those which borrow techniques (i.e., aspecting) from African-diasporic religions.”): because of a lack of belief in actual gods, I at first considered this a dead end. However, when one does take materialism into account, an intriguing possibility opens up that had escaped me previously: The Lacanian Real has almost avataristic properties when it bleeds into the Imaginary and the Symbolic Order. Could this be the nigh-incomprehensible god lurking behind the curtain? Such a personification might be considered wrong-headeded, or even obscene, from a clinical Lacanian perspective. But, here, we are not clinicians.

When I had my dream that has begun this entire search of mine, it was indeed with a persona, a being of some sort in my thought-space. And so…I can’t discount this entirely, even if it would be from a standpoint that traditional practitioners would consider quite bastardized.

So my takeaway between these differing traditions and Lacan? It’s a mixed bag, with intriguing possibilities but no clear through-lines that point to one paradigm solely over another. If I had to choose one (and actually, I don’t!), I am most drawn toward Lacan as an animistic foil, while leaving the idea of a “soul” in abeyance. But indeed this is only a starting point.

The other main issue has to do with other thinkers from Continental Philosophy, and how they interrelate. Deleuze, in particular, which I am keen to dive into more in regards to flow, striation, and bodies without organs. Perhaps it’s a matter of sketching out how (to take an example) a Deleuzian animism might work out, or rather the tentpoles to the tent, rather than attempting to create a summa theologica synthesizing many, many different thinkers. Which would be impossible anyway, for me! I don’t necessarily think that building a loose system on Lacan makes a loose system built on Deleuze “false”, or vice versa, but nonetheless I don’t want to rely on a false sense of relativism either. However you look at it, it’s a huge undertaking.

In researching for this post, I found this passage:

In the seminar of 1960-1, Lacan articulates the objet petit a with the term agalma (a Greek term meaning glory, an ornament, an offering to the gods, or a little statue of a god) which he extracts from Plato’s Symposium. Just as the agalma is a precious object hidden inside a relatively worthless box, so the objet petit a is the object of desire which we seek in the other. (source)

In this work of mine, what is my agalma? I realize it is in many ways a fool’s errand, driven by my own desire to square circles and circle squares, to develop practice on the fly, and to simultaneously really think things through and not to overthink things. I often feel out of my depth, but that is countervailed by the disenchantment I see all around me. Perhaps escape is its own form of the sublime. And dwelling in this new space and actually invoking paganism gives me a strength to carry on with this field work, all while trying to be a “good guest” in communities that are not quite my own, though with the hopes that that will change.

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Leonie Adams: Post-Metaphysical Poet

Thought’s End

I’d watched the hills drink the last colour of light,
All shapes grow bright and wane on the pale air,
Till down the traitorous east there came the night
And swept the circle of my seeing bare;
Its intimate beauty like a wanton’s veil
Tore from the void as from an empty face.
I felt at being’s rim all being fail,
And my one body pitted against space.
O heart more frightened than a wild bird’s wings
Beating at green, now is no fiery mark
Left on the quiet nothingness of things.
Be self no more against the flooding dark;
There thousandwise, sown in that cloudy blot,
Stars that are worlds look out and see you not.

by Leonie Adams (1899-1988)

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Lorine Niedecker: Wilderness Poet

Wilderness

You are the man
You are my other country
and I find it hard going

You are the prickly pear
You are the sudden violent storm

the torrent to raise the river
to float the wounded doe

from the book “Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works” edited by Jenny Penberthy, published by the University of California Press, 2002

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So, Lacan. I’m going to be talking about a lot of Lacan via Zizek so you’re going to have to accept him as an interpellator (interloper?) of sorts. But at least he’s a fun one. (And keep in mind I’m going to be leaving a lot on the cutting room floor; if you want any further readings for these two thinkers, drop me a line or a comment and I’d be happy to send some your way.) Why I think it’s absolutely essential to begin with these two is to assess the problem at hand: “the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values.”

Particularly at the intersection of ecology, the human body, and orthopraxy. Why do we do this in the first place? I chased God for a long long time. I even thought I had found a way to square the circle with a humanist, rational Christianity based on both ethical injunctions and a patient mysticism. And I still think that’s possible for some. But for me it requires a kind of incarnational logic of the birth, death, and resurrection of a God based on a theory of atonement (even if the theory of atonement is a really cool, non-fundamentalist one). That is to say–how much can you whittle away? What are you left with?

So I’ve moved on from that faith story (with a surprising amount of acceptance and peace). I’m starting another. And yet I fully expect to be haunted by the ashes and embers, where I had sat by the fire for so long. I powder my face with them. I put a handful in a little bag.

The modern atheist thinks he knows that God is dead; what he doesn’t know is that, unconsciously, he continues to believe in God. What characterizes modernity is no longer the standard figure of the believer who secretly harbors intimate doubts about his belief and engages in transgressive fantasies; today, we have, on the contrary, a subject who presents himself as a tolerant hedonist dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, and whose unconscious is the site of prohibitions: what is repressed are not illicit desires or pleasures, but prohibitions themselves…

Think of the situation known to most of us from our youth: the unfortunate child who, on Sunday afternoon, has to visit his grandmother instead of being allowed to play with friends. The old-fashioned authoritarian father’s message to the reluctant boy would have been: “I don’t care how you feel. Just do your duty, go to grandmother and behave there properly!” In this case, the child’s predicament is not bad at all: although forced to do something he clearly doesn’t want to, he will retain his inner freedom and the ability to (later) rebel against the paternal authority. Much more tricky would have been the message of a “postmodern” non-authoritarian father: “You know how much your grandmother loves you! But, nonetheless, I do not want to force you to visit her – go there only if you really want to!” Every child who is not stupid (and as a rule they are definitely not stupid) will immediately recognize the trap of this permissive attitude: beneath the appearance of a free choice there is an even more oppressive demand than the one formulated by the traditional authoritarian father, namely an implicit injunction not only to visit the grandmother, but to do it voluntarily, out of the child’s own free will. Such a false free choice is the obscene superego injunction: it deprives the child even of his inner freedom, ordering him not only what to do, but what to want to do. (source)

(I keep reading this quote and thinking of the Wiccan Rede.) Sometimes permissiveness is paralyzing. And yet, we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube–attempting to re-assert a dominant logic of a ‘father figure’ is, as has been argued before, a recipe for fundamentalism. We can’t reconstruct the past like that.

And yet this is a major intractable problem. The ideological command “You must enjoy yourself!” is insidious because it doesn’t reveal itself as ideology (as an “unknown known”), and so we are left with a capitalist culture of unending consumption. In the last twenty years, capitalism has been as more and more “normative”, part of the air we breathe.

What does this have to do with neopaganism then? Now there are groups like the Dark Mountain Project that are taking a somewhat pessimistic/catastrophic view, seeing the collapse of civilization as inevitable. But neopaganism takes a different tack, and this approach has to do with what neopagans believe; or rather, not believe.

(It still feels awkward to say ‘we’. I’m aware of that. Bear with me.)

What these ideological structures allow is to have someone–or something–believe on our behalf. This is what Lacan calls the symbolic order–also known as the Big Other. This is “anonymous authoritative power and/or knowledge (whether that of God, Nature, History, Society, State, Party, Science…)” (source) Peter Rollins, who uses Lacan and Zizek to unpack Christianity, has this to say about belief:

take the example of buying cheap clothes from a department store. Regardless of what I say, if I don’t ask some basic questions about where the clothes come from I believe in sweatshops. Or at best I believe in ignorance, in not asking questions and in the virtue of being an uncritical consumer. Again these beliefs are not ones I will admit to myself (bring to my mind) but rather they are beliefs I enact as a result of my basic desires (arising from my heart).

Our actions are what we believe. The Big Other’s power is a fiction, but Lacan once claimed that “truth has the structure of a fiction”. And the Big Other has intractable power.

But this is where orthopraxy comes in. Neopaganism builds a practice from the “ground up”, where the focus is on what is done. There are, of course, beliefs even here; the idea isn’t to completely rid oneself of beliefs but rather, through ritualized, here-and-now practice, it keeps the focus on aligning what one beliefs with what one actually does. In fact, the immanence of fellow-feeling or the sacred within a ritualized setting–is precisely when one is able to achieve that loss of the Big Other. Even if it’s temporary. It’s hard work, and not a panacea; but by practicing, a neopagan can have an encounter, however unsettling, with what’s behind the symbolic order: The Real.

The Real has a very specific function in Lacan; it’s not an arena of pure transcendence, of seeing behind some Platonic or Matrix-like veil. A metaphor that Zizek used in one of his lectures was to consider a chess game. The rules of the game stand in for the symbolic order/Big Other: the realm of laws and superstructures. The actual chess pieces themselves (and the names attached to them) stand in for the Imaginary. This is the realm of surface appearances. Are the chess pieces made of wood or steel? Are they rendered realistically or as different sizes of stones? And, to go deeper, the fact that the chess piece that can only move in straight lines is called a Rook is also part of the Imaginary. (Keep in mind that the Imaginary and the Symbolic are deeply intertwined;  though one could play chess without any board at all on a computer, it’s the reason why chess programs on computers continue to replicate actual boards.) The Imaginary acts as “the mediator between internal and external worlds.” (source) And it’s what we are consciously aware of.

(OK, we’re finally getting to The Real. Lacan is complicated, if you couldn’t guess that before.)

To continue this chessboard analogy, the act of two friends getting together and having a game of chess would constitute the Real. This event could not happen without the Symbolic (the rules) and the Imaginary (the pieces), and yet with only those two we are left with a lifeless simulacrum. The Real is beyond the Big Other and, yes, beyond ideology.

There’s only one catch, however, and it’s a big one:

As far as humans are concerned, however, “the real is impossible,” as Lacan was fond of saying. It is impossible in so far as we cannot express it in language because the very entrance into language marks our irrevocable separation from the real. Still, the real continues to exert its influence throughout our adult lives since it is the rock against which all our fantasies and linguistic structures ultimately fail. The real for example continues to erupt whenever we are made to acknowledge the materiality of our existence, an acknowledgement that is usually perceived as traumatic (since it threatens our very “reality”)

The Real is impossible, yes, but that doesn’t mean it has no affect on us, when it is apprehended and approached. “the Real is intrinsically elusive”:

Throughout the 1960s and up through the end of Lacan’s teachings, the Real takes on an ever increasing number of aspects and connotations. It becomes both a transcendence troubling and thwarting Imaginary-Symbolic reality and its language from without as well as an immanence perturbing and subverting reality/language from within. It comes to be associated with libidinal negativities…material meaninglessness both linguistic and non-linguistic, contingent traumatic events, unbearable bodily intensities, anxiety, and death. (source)

This is even beyond a Romantic sublime, which (I would argue; others might disagree) posits the human being as the center of his or her linguistic universe–momentarily stupified but eager to recount one’s transformation by the sublime event. No, the Real is animated. It bites back. (And keep in mind that the Real can even impinge on relying on Nature as a Big Other.)

Though this hypothesis of mine is very tenuous, what I propose is that these encounters of the Real through ritual and poesis, however fractured and fleeting, relate strongly to an blurring of the human-nature divide. Rather than re-sacralizing Nature (which is, after all, an ideological construct), traces of the Real serve to paradoxically desacralize the human. We find ourselves precisely by finding that we have no fixed selves in the face of the Real. And so we find ourselves giving up even “the sacred” as a means of control.

We become fauna in an ecology of shadows.

And we really have to work ourselves up to it.

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the lives of matter

A fascinating article here called “A New Thermodynamics Theory of the Origin of Life”:

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

What makes this ceaselessly fascinating is the interconnection between life and non-life:

Scientists have already observed self-replication in nonliving systems. According to new research led by Philip Marcus of the University of California, Berkeley, and reported in Physical Review Letters in August, vortices in turbulent fluids spontaneously replicate themselves by drawing energy from shear in the surrounding fluid. And in a paper appearing online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Michael Brenner, a professor of applied mathematics and physics at Harvard, and his collaborators present theoretical models and simulations of microstructures that self-replicate. These clusters of specially coated microspheres dissipate energy by roping nearby spheres into forming identical clusters. “This connects very much to what Jeremy is saying,” Brenner said.

I don’t want to anthropomorphize this at all, but rather just sit as I write this in stunned awe. But I do think this points towards a reason why storms, flowers, dewdrops, and curtains of snow passing over a field do “come alive” in our language, why we as a species reach towards that.

Perhaps it’s not such a great leap at all.

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a blueprint

So I’m going to lay down here some goals for this blog–or rather the conditions for a…movement? association?…that I want to foster. However organically that might happen.

Continue reading

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