Sunday, November 17, 2013

Parchment, Echo, Nature?, Epochs?, Bristles: Contact Ecologies, 2013

Yes, again.
I return to Brueghel's Tower of Babel after a conference, this time, in the echo-chamber of the upper reaches of the Tower, whence attempted contact with the divine stretches, and where I can position myself to think (all too briefly) on the gathering of speakers and ideas of "Contact Ecologies" at George Washington University (Jeffrey J. Cohen and Haylie Swenson, architects, GM-MEMSI, site). The phrase/idea/concept/ethos of "Contact Ecologies" is an open one, under construction, in the making. Jeffrey's invitation to speak was insistently unaccompanied by a blueprint, so multiple architectures/points of view resulted. (Realize, I may not be able to let go of this metaphor, try as I might). Bruce Holsinger brought us to the wonder of the "parchment inheritance" through the dizzying numbers of animals sacrifices in the production of manuscripts (knowledge, that gesture of turning the page, finding out more). You can start with any number of thousands in any collection, but those quickly escalate to the millions, and so we have a complex "historical ecology of the animal archive." You know it's a good gathering when the first paper makes the audience gasp. Augustine, the Babylonian Talmud, and a letter from the contact ecology of war (Crusades) followed, each articulating a new scale (at one point, the sky itself was all parchment) of this act of materiality and biology, this thinking on parchment. I spoke about the contact ecology of sound, specifically as shaped by the echo, by Echo herself. And Eileen Joy was right to hear my voice change when I reread Ovid's myth: catastrophe, illness, and desire are all in that myth and in how we practice echo and hearing. William IX, Michel Serres, and Timothy Morton amplified her, made me see how far echo could reach, not only in how sound provides contact but in trying to understand how that sound/contact recedes as echo. I couldn't help but end in an object, and it was the Eleanor of Aquitaine vase and I'll be writing more about that (probably at Material Collective) soon. Kellie Robertson fearlessly placed us in the Augustian/Aristotelian nature/ecology fray. Nature is unsustainable. The idea of Nature "never speaks comfortably from her material bodily form," and I quickly became fascinated with the medieval discomfort with Nature. There was no naïve happiness or sure containment of a concept of the natural in the Middle Ages, and that epoch's discomfort continues to provoke ours. Teleology and Theology became intertwined and the modern insurance-industry phrase of "acts of God" takes on an entirely new set of problems for me. Steve Mentz proposed an "ecological theory of historical change" via a journey through the Anthropocene, the Homogenocene, the Thalassocene, and the Naufragocene. In the shipwreck, we grasp for any grounding and historical epochs offer brief respites of certitudes and ground. But "all epochs are false constructs" (though we need them - profound oscillations/waves provoked here). And so to think beyond the theft model (in which history and ecology both are a series of tales of dispossession) to the composture model, in which a rich, loamy intermingling does the work of history. This is where the shipwreck and its era (the Naufragocene) comes in, and our awareness and embrace of it, of learning to swim in (not desperately away) from it. So imagine our eager minds when Timothy Morton greeted us with the hope and horror of bristles. "Things are ungraspable because they bristle," but they are lively as such - they respond, they are resilient, they are multi-scale. Maybe instead of distance from objects (be they the Eleanor of Aquitaine vase or the hyperobject of global warming), we can think less of distance and more of a fraught approach. Fractals help here (in their multiplicity and edges), and so do hedgehogs - the little herisson of Derrida's contemplation of poetry, the retreat/receding/withdrawal of the prickly thing. But also, its frisson (and, in terms of frisson's relation to jouissance, I couldn't help but delight in thinking of OOO becoming o O O!). Children, a flooded basement, The Day call, so three unformed thoughts: TOYS: "Philosophy," said Tim, "should be in the business of making toys, as opposed to setting down laws. We should be creating new things for others to play with, so as to generously enlarge the domain of thought." GENEROSITY marked this gathering: in the initial questions put forth by Jeffrey, in the willingness to Try Things Out (every sense of that phrase), in the companionship and eagerness to broaden the conversation, which had been brilliantly initiated even before we gathered by Eileen Joy's revolutionary call (ok, you can call it a talk, but come on) for the future of publishing. And (of all things!) CRAFTSMANSHIP: the love of a good sentence, the effort of putting it all together, the assemblage of ideas came up over and over again in conversation. Might we be feeling the imprint of our thinking about materiality in the love of a sentence, the physical thrill of an idea?


  1. I love this lucid and thoughtful retelling of a complex and lovely day. I also love your re-reading of OOO as o O O!, and I'm imagining you, the Meg Ryan to Tim's Billy Crystal, discussing materiality in a deli somewhere.

  2. Oh Haylie, that is very very very funny! now I can't say the phrase "discussing materiality in a deli somewhere" without laughing!