Sunday, July 29, 2012

Re Portlandiabus

Scholar stone at the Chinese Gardens
When I became stranded in Chicago and found myself spending the night in a hotel with a woman from Portland I'd just met who is a Paleolithic baker who un-schools her children, I knew that I would love the city.  That my occasion for being there was to attend the New Chaucer Society gathering and to reconnect with old friends guaranteed it.  A more intentional and well-lived city you will seldom find.  I witnessed slow, quiet conversations between police officers and homeless Gothic-punk teens, free public transportation downtown, an interconnected food culture of small purveyors and fresh everything, and a setting - with Mount Hood watching over it all, and Mount Saint Helen gazing from afar - that takes your breath away.  While we were gathered in our meeting rooms, reading papers, being pushed and warmed by ideas, an enormous block of stone 330' at its base was pushing itself up (being pushed?) from the crater of Mount Saint Helen's.  The rock formation, known ichthyic-morphically as a fin, juts straight up at over 300'. It grows (and here I ask you to read slowly) at a rate of 4.6'(1.4 meters) a day.  So while we met and spoke and thought, a stone formation understood as the part of a fish that provides movement propelled itself into the world another 18'.  That is definitely my kind of conference.  Now, it won't last forever, neither the fin nor the conference.  The fin will eventually collapse in on itself (gravity, structure, the limits of miracles), but in doing so will be rebuilding the summit of Mount Saint Helen's that was exploded when the volcano erupted in 1980.  I could pursue the metaphor about academic ideas striving forth and collapsing and rebuilding into massive structures, but... actually, why not?  There is a dynamism there, an insistence and a power, that I see in both ideas and stones.  And as a great lithic sympathizer, when I dub something stony, it is by no means an insult. It is always an invitation to consider the material.

An impossible rose at the Rose Gardens
And this consideration of the material was very much the tenor and condition of the conference.  The role/place/effect of interpretation, the presence of human and what has been dubbed non-human, the locus of animation.  It is always a wonder to me to hear the English of Chaucer and Chaucer's day come alive in the tell-tale quotes that scholars isolate to make the points of their papers.  It's a beautiful, lyrical sound and unfurls richly upon the tongue - a very material thing.  But what happens to the liveliness of the text, what this liveliness might mean and how it might be used to mean something in our time was more contested than I've seen in past conferences.  This is a very good thing indeed - it means that something is at stake, that there is movement and tension.  Does a text only mean something to its human interlocutors?  What if we get away from the obligations of meaning that we have carved out for our own human importance, and think instead of articulation?  And yes, I'm thinking of articulation in the botanical sense of the term: as an "internode," the space between two joints in a plant. (Here's a nice picture, and here's a pithy (I can't stop!) explanation). Might a text articulate an ocean instead of give it meaning or mimesis?  Might the ocean articulate itself through a text? Jonathan Hsy, Steve Mentz, and James Smith opened up the possibilities of the ocean (cavernous though they may be) for me and an entire rapt audience on this.  The panel on "Animate Objects and Ecologies" that Allan Mitchell organized, and that I tremulously/happily was on, laid out texts, containers, straws, glass, and colors to witness animation, to struggle with articulation between the nodes of one thing and another, even more than between the nodes of human and non-human. Things happen (in every sense of the phrase) when you start to wonder about straws left in books, badger hairs for brushes to paint stained glass, colors that are things, and texts that are so permeated with perforated contained that they become oceanic. Other discussions became fraught over the issue of agency - a reluctance, both ethical and professional, to displace (some understood dismiss) the human.  But, and I don't think I'm just trying to be comforting here, object oriented ontology doesn't seek to dismiss the human - it's human primacy that it seeks to question and, yes, definitely displace. In doing so, it allows for an entirely new alignment of human and other agency in, to my mind, a more vibrant world.  A more ethical one, too.  If you want to see where/how this could take you, what this all might be, how this might change the way Things Are, read about celestial nourishment with Eileen Joy, read about prismatic ecologies with Jeffrey Cohen. Glorious.

Tree/stone configuration on the way to Tamawanas Falls
And then there are settings in which human primacy is such a laughable vanity that I almost feel protective of our fragile, devastating humanity.  The Columbia Gorge leads you away from Portland and if you keep going you can eventually circle Mount Hood and find yourself hiking up towards the Tamawanas Falls.  The ground is steady and dusty - it's more compacted volanic ash than dirt (in fact I think that it is compacted volanic ash) and the path that's been carved out gives itself easily (here) to wild formations of tree roots and stones.  The nature I thought I knew disappears.  It helped to read Brian Doyle's marvelous marvelous book, Mink River before coming here, it helped to remember other ecosystems unfolded in Ann Patchett's State of Wonder - but nothing really prepared me for the Falls themselves.

Tamawanas Falls
Ok - that's not entirely true.  This is exactly how I imagined the boy-meets-dragon scene in How To Train Your Dragon.  There's an entirely different ecosystem around the falls: the water hits so hard when it comes down that it sprays an entire 80' semi-circle with a fine mist - this in addition to the river that throws itself lustily through the rocks.  And so: vibrant green, and small birds that make their nests behind the falls, and unexpected meadows.  And all this with beautiful, generous friends who took me out and about and in and out of thickets and thoughts with tremendous good will and sharp wit and the brilliance of an Indian food feast at the end of the day.  Wonders untold laid in wait - and now to make good on them all.


  1. Wonderful reflection on the conference; thanks for posting this.

  2. What thoughtful reflections on your experiences. I loved reading this.

  3. I am going to allow you to complete my lithic book for me, Anne, OK? The fin of the volcano indeed ...

    Wonderful retrospect ... and wonderful to see you in Oregon as well!

  4. Loved this reflection, Anne, especially the way you've integrated the lines of our collective literary and theoretical inquiries with the features of the landscapes that became our temporary home this past week! So glad to have met you in Portland!

  5. thank you, fellow travelers/revelers - Portland is already slipping from the lithic to the mythic!