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Noticing and/as Listening in Edgelands and Wool

Here is some text composed for a lecture for my current class on “Denatured Reading.” I’m making a transtition between Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2011) and Hugh Howey’s novel Wool (2012).
Because of its subject matter and its project, Edgelands is a book its collaborative authors are unable to finish. The last of its seemingly ad hoc jumble of twenty-eight segments—“chapters” feels like too tidy a word for the various unruly trajectories Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts trace through England’s inter-urban spaces—begins by disavowing closure as something fundamentally at odds with these transitional and unfixed terrains: “So where do the edgelands end? How far can the idea take us?” (261). They offer, in place of any conclusion, only another contingent figure, the abandoned and collapsing pier. Humanity marks the limits of its fraught and absurdly enervated dominion over place by extending its spindly architectures off-shore, although, as Roberts and Farley resignedly note, you still can’t tether the tide (262). As a kind of enactment of this futility, they describe the thrill-seeking art of “tombstoning . . . jumping from height into the sea” as a way of testing our human, mortal and English limits:
Piers are among the most inviting of springboards for a jump, but also the most dangerous, as tides can pull the jumper out to sea quickly, or smash them against the iron legs and supports. It’s common for tombstoners to scream as they fall, as if their captive souls have been reintroduced to the wild, albeit only for a second or two, before they hit the water. (263)
Some jumpers, they tell us, “punch themselves in the face, very hard,” a bleakly comedic reminder of the consequences of anthropocentric hubris. The indifference of the inhuman world—uninhabitable all but briefly—manifests itself in the recalcitrant decrepitude and feral reclamation of whatever people try to make or do. Piers represent a last land-bound effort to rationalize and to master the inhuman world and also offer stages on which to enact our temporary, imaginary release from our mortal limits into wild, animal being. The last passage of the book emerges from a description of their visit to the West Pier at Brighton “just months before it suffers a fatal collapse and a series of fires and is closed,” hinting at the fatal finish in burnt-out rubbish—the deferred but inevitable closure—to which all human endeavor in the edgelands seems to come: but that small apocalypse lies in the future, outside the bounds of their writing. Instead, they focus on the gloomy, birdshit spattered remains of the “Laughterland” arcade in the deserted pavilion at the outer end of the pier; connecting the interloping birds, starlings, etymologically with the “sterling” admission prices “still painted on the wall,” they “notice for the first time,” in the book’s last sentence, that the walls had once been painted “a very watery blue, the colour, in fact, of a starling’s egg” (264). Against the lugubrious and moribund image of decaying carcasses (both birds and architecture), they offer an attentive glimpse of oceanic albumen and of these remains as a promise of rebirth, as hybrid human-animal gestation, as egg. The work of noticing that their prose undertakes, even in passing, wants both to describe and to enact—in the verbal textures of their conversation—what I want to think of as an edgelands poetics.
         That work of noticing seems primarily visual throughout the book, but I want to make a case that it’s as much aural as it is ocular, a honed form of listening both to other human voices and to that world’s often incomprehensible soundscape. In “Wire,” they imagine bundles of taken-down chain-link fence as decommissioned memory coils, holding “recordings” of ambient sounds from the past. In “Masts,” they meditate on the “multiple text messages, wireless e-mails and mobile phone calls cutting through” our bodies if we stand anywhere near transmission towers—which have been located in the edgelands as far as possible from “schools and homes” for fear of the dire, mortal effect all that electromagnetic energy can have on us (133). Still, Farley and Roberts nudge us: “Listen to them whisper as they pass through you. Take on the cares of the world.” They seem to want an impossible acuity, a noticing beyond human capacities; but really, what we’re invited to listen for is exactly that—the limits of our attentiveness, of our ability to care and to feel ourselves implicated in these contact zones, these all-too-inhuman spaces. Finally, it turns out, it’s the starlings who come to provide a tenuously viable model for this poetics of listening. In the book’s penultimate section, “Weather,” Farley and Roberts remark on starlings’ ability to be “keen mimics” of whatever they hear: “They’re the samplers among our avifauna, able to incorporate all manner of human, animal and mechanical sounds into their repertoire, and urban starlings are well know copyists of telephones and doorbells, even dial-up modems” (258-9). In their terms, these starling imitations are moments of absurd comedy, audio witness of a feral reabsorption of human technocracy, but they are also instances, they suggest, of the mutating, fractured archive of human presence, an organic version of the chin-link memory coils that still retains vestigial potential to be decoded, heard, observed, noticed:
Starlings have been observed at abandoned human settlements recreating the noises of former human or mechanical activity: a squeaky water-pump, even though the pump is long seized up, or the rasp of a bandsaw, even though the woodshed is long deserted. Could it be that the starlings that gather here sing a song made from bits of the area’s former soundscape? . . . The area has always been a kind of edgelands, but could it be possible that starlings still carry within their complicated songs some of the sound elements of that former industrial world? Thought of this way, the birds themselves are a kind of information storage system, a winged databank. (259)
The watery blue paint on the walls of the West Pier’s pavilion gestures metaphorically and materially at the starling’s re-populating of waste space not only with their own living murmurations but also with the re-created echoes of human habitation. It’s this sort of lyric performative archive that Farley and Roberts want to sound in their sentences, in their verbal desire paths, their lines.
         We’re making a transition today, according to the syllabus, from reading Edgelandsto Hugh Howey’s speculative fiction in Wool. While we’re shifting genres and, arguably, prose styles as we move from one book to the other, I want to note in Howey’s opening story a few key connections and articulated joints, chiefly around this poetics of noticing. The world of the silo—or of the siloes, as we’ll find out—juxtaposes a panopticon-like architecture (recall Farley and Roberts’s repeated invocations of panoptic surveillance) that governs and sustains human survival by maintaining clear boundaries between the technologically managed interior of the human space and the poisoned and deadly world of the post-natural outside; the hill we glimpse in the images of the exterior world—through illusions of transparent windows that are actually faulty projections made by data projectors on opaque, curved subterranean walls—marks the physiographic mortal limit of human life, as far as those who have been sent out to clean the lenses of the electronic cameras can possibly walk before their bodies give out. Those boundaries are marked by not only by technological illusion—and everyone in the silo appears to recognize that, while presumably accurate depictions of the outer world, those images are also artificial and contrived, signaled by the wear and breakdown of the image into “dead pixels” here and there—but also false consciousness:
a handful of dead pixels . . . stood stark white against all the brown and gray hues. Shining with ferocious intensity, each pixel . . . was like a square window to some brighter place, a hole the width of a human hair that seemed to beckon toward some better reality. (9)
Sherriff Holston’s wife Allison, digging into corrupted, overwritten, archaic and deleted electronic databases, thinks she has uncovered a conspiracy, on the part of the silo’s IT directorate, to manipulate those images (“Nothing you see is real” [26]), and both she and Holston come to believe they understand why those exiled to their deaths through the silo airlock turn back to clean the lenses—because they want the others to see the outside world as they are certain they now see it: cartoonishly pastoral, a world of natural beauty kept hidden from the silo’s inhabitants in order to keep them inside, their bodies docile, law-abiding and well-governed. This is, of course, a fatal mistake—the visuals of a perfect spring landscape are projected on their helmets’ viewscreens to trick them into cleaning, to fool them into walking out of their own volition. The edge or verge into which they walk is a virtual landscape, an overlay of visual membrane masking the decimation of outlying space – think of their proximity to and distance from the destroyed city on the horizon—with an illusion of manicured garden, a space in which nature never did betray the heart that loved her. Once that membrane—screen or suit—becomes porous or breached, the realization that the planet has become an inherently inhuman twilight zone dawns on Holston as a question both of seeing and being seen: “What would they see, anyone who had chosen to watch?” (39). Reality and illusion collapse into each other. “Holston could see,” but what he sees is exactly what he thought he didn’t.

         Notably, too, what initiates this collapse—which is both a realization or groundtruthing and a reinscription of false consciousness—is a speech-act and a moment of public listening. In this world, you break the law and condemn yourself by asking, publically, to go outside: “I want to go out” (23). This demand is both perlocution and illocution, a command that enacts, as it’s pronounced, its own sentencing. When Allison speaks the fatal words, Holston tries to quiet her, but also knows “it was too late. The others had heard. Everyone had heard. His wife had signed her own death certificate” (24). Noticing, in this space, offers only a warrant for execution. But, as the four posthumous sequels emerge from each other as the novel unfolds, we discover that moments of noticing—hearing voices from the other siloes, decoding messages, understanding what the fragment of computer code Allison uncovered actually does mean—are also key to the unveiling and debunking of the coercive governance of siloed humanity, a vital disillusionment that, unfortunately, both Allison and Holston don’t have enough information to comprehend or to challenge. What their speech-acts do accomplish, however, is to open a crack, to prize apart the fatal flaw in their worn, decrepit hegemony. They begin to make the instability audible, like the small skew we’ll hear in Juliette’s well-oiled and carefully-repaired generator.

Notes Toward a Practice of Denatured Reading

[I presented this text as part of a lecture in the first week of my upper-level undergraduate course on “Denatured Reading,” taking a cue from – among many others – Graham Harman’s claim that “[n]ature is not natural and can never be naturalized.” What kind of writing do such claims ask for?]
I’m looking for a way to frame a set of concerns for this class, to trace some kind of conceptual architecture. By beginning with what must seem like arbitrarily compiling a handful of poems—some from writers on the course syllabus, some not—I haven’t made it too easy to see anything like a focus, and the syllabus itself, revised from an earlier version of the course, still appears to me a bit cobbled and unkempt—heterotopic, perhaps, to borrow a term from the introduction to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, an idea he develops from reading Jorge Luis Borges. Maybe this amorphousness, this assemblage, is appropriate to the course, too, given the unruliness of the subject matter—the decomposition of contemporary concepts of the natural—and its attendant image-pool—flotsam, junkyards, scrapheaps, wastelands, yardsales, edgelands, cyborgs, plastics, stuff. But I still feel like I need to offer you, and myself, some means of holding the material together, some imperative that drives me, and you along with me, through this slice of the contemporary, of the work of those who  live with us, now. I need, I think, to pose a question—and what comes to mind is a question posed a good seventy years ago, but which has a way of lingering, of insinuating itself into our present.
Ventriloquizing a key half-line from Friedrich Hölderlin’s 1801 elegyBrod und Wein,” a disgraced Martin Heidegger asks, in 1946, “und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?”—”and what are poets for in a destitute time?” or “and why poets in [a] paltry time?” Following on the material and cultural desolation of Western Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, Heidegger inclines toward a version of the religiosity of the late and last Romantics, linking Hölderlin to Rainer Maria Rilke’s orphic vestiges, to discover some remainder of a saving grace for humanity, some reason for our collective persistence as a species, some scrap of holiness:
To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.
Theodor Adorno notoriously excoriates this poetical onto-theology as barbaric, consigning the lyric—except, perhaps, that it makes room in these latter days for the voices of suffering—to bathos and redaction. Even if we remain justly suspicious of Heidegger’s cult of Being, it feels too desolate, too hopeless, to abandon altogether the poetic imperative he articulates. At least, it does to me. How can writing, poetic or otherwise, still manage somehow to face the hard fact of our looming destitution, the tenor of our catastrophic times, what Maurice Blanchot names our “disaster”? “We others,” Heidegger continues, by which he seems to me to mean we readers, “must learn to listen to what these poets say.” Poetry, in our time, emerges around the recalibration of attention. We have missed hearing something, have been less than perfect listeners, poor students. Hölderlin’s poetry, though a bit dire and over-serious, presents an imperative to attend to what persists and insists beyond its human limits: “But there would be, and there is, the sole necessity, by thinking our way soberly into what his poetry says, to come to learn what is unspoken.” Poetry, in fits and starts, still gestures sometimes toward a refiguration of the encounter with the non-human world, the obscurity into which those fugitive gods appear to have retreated, and is still impelled by creative effort. Hölderlin’s adjective dürftiger—needy, meager, scanty, sparse, paltry, destitute—has at its root the verb dürfen—can or may—which suggests both capacity and possibility, a trace of this ontological imperative. When I quoted, a little abruptly last class, a line from Isabelle Stengers’s In Catastrophic Times remarking on “the felt necessity of trying to listen to that which insists, obscurely,” it was with an eye (and an ear) toward framing this poetic imperative. Following James Lovelock, Stengers names “that which insists” Gaia, the inhuman earth, and argues that if we mean to resist barbarism (deriving for her more from Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of capitalism than from Adorno), we need to try—notice how qualified her imperative remains—to think creatively and experimentally, and I would say poetically around and with this imperative. Pervasive anxieties these days around climate change, displaced populations, pharmacology, genomic modification and other environmental and biological incursions of human progress have become shared hallmarks of our human condition. Biotechnologies both reactivate and intensify an unease around what feels like an unspoken and unspeakable ontological threat. What poetry, what creative writing, might be for in our times is to broach the question of how to voice what’s unspeakable, to begin, again, to trace the boundaries, the contact zones, the edges, the membranes between humanity and its others, between the made and the given, between the natural and the denatured.
The philosopher Alain Badiou declared in a fairly recent interview that “[i]t must be clearly affirmed that humanity is an animal species that attempts to overcome its animality, a natural set that attempts to denaturalise itself.” Badiou is not only reframing an enlightenment rationalism embedded in myths of human progress—what remains to us today, maybe, of liberal humanism—but also pointing up an irony inherent in deep ecology and human concern with the environment: an untenable separation of the human and the non-human in the guise of the “natural.”  Just yesterday, an article in The Guardian reiterated that human technologies have fundamentally altered the geological record, that we have inscribed ourselves into the planet such that we have ashifted the narrative of the history of being itself, and hardly for the better. The anthropocene has arrived. “The history of life on earth,” Rachel Carson writes in Silent Spring (1962), “has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings,” but those interactions, particularly from the human side of things, have been characterized not so much by reciprocity as by “irrecoverable” contamination. The three poets we have touched on so far address this contamination, directly. Tom Raworth’s “Beautiful Habit” concatenates the fragmented discursive remainders of those contaminants, and attempts to siphon some form of last-ditch, vestigial beauty from them, the leftover possibility of close listening: “it’s us / or rust / listener.” Paul Farley, by contrast, calls the creative intellect’s bluff, shuffling through the greasy, porous surfaces of man-made objects—a deck of cards, a microwave—trying to make contact with the nothingness—the withdrawn guarantees of meaning or of surety—behind his own crafted and crafty words, his tells and his tellings. Kathleen Jamie wants to attend to the “seed-small notes” along a remote shoreline scattered with natural detritus, to begin to listen to what’s left to her brief attention.