November 2, 2022
Thomas Fink: In Selfie: Poetry, Social Change & Ecological Connection (Palgrave MacMillan, 2022), you aim to provide a linkage between the three terms in the second part of the title as part of the project of re-vising the concept and positionality to serve the most pressing environmental rescue missions. Speaking of “an ecology of mind and society,” you suggest that “a change in the model of identity is urgently required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale.” You argue for awareness of a “combination of shared and unique elements” that “connects humanity with its surroundings, as distinct from the humanist opposition of self/other, inside/outside, subject/object.” In challenging the dominant view of the self in contemporary Western epistemology, you critique how powerful forces try to impose identity markers based on such categories as race and gender on marginalized individuals and groups, and how people perceive their own identities and affiliations and act upon such identifications. You hold that “The interactions of individual, group and surroundings together give us the best chance of seeing the world as it is.”
Every “I,” you assert, is more accurately a “they”: “one person composed of many organisms, roles and group identities…. one person composed of many organisms, identities and roles gagging on complexities and conflicts, and often ignoring them for expediency.” Not only are “90% of our cells… non-human,” but intersectional identity or multiple subject-positions are much more complex than often represented. For example, you list 14 identity markers for yourself, not even mentioning your work in the computer industry, since you retired, and you observe that “taking different roles” induces you to alter [your] view of [your]self toward [your] surroundings, since [you] think and act differently” in different roles. Further, “Clinging to one consistent view in all my roles… seems deadening.” “Evaluation of … identities” is subject to flux and to the realization that “one thing I did wasn’t always better or worse, just different. I was all of them to a greater or lesser extent but focused on one or two while engaged in those activities.”
How would you say this expanded, generative sense of self affects your decisions and actions and those of others you know who have a similar perspective?
James Sherry: We can start with this interview. Your question connects my text that we’re investigating together to this interview, to our shared space. It establishes a set of links (multiple and on multiple levels) between you and me that supports our conversation rather than only thinking that you write to me and then I answer to the world. That’s one way it affects my perspective. I think about who I’m answering and how you are not just an extension of my own intentions. Also based on your questions, I changed some of the text in the book since this discussion is being conducted while I’m still amending the text.
In Selfie, a book largely written by me where others also speak, in addition to citing people in the usual way, I asked four women to write their “resource autobiographies” into the book, creating links between us in yet another way than citation. Not all their autobiographical statements supported the arguments made in the book.
Also, once the book is published, it develops some life of its own. Then I’m trying to connect the text to more people in more roles by crossing disciplinary lines. Publishing and distribution link the book through different kinds of connectors to institutions and other readers and to readers of this exchange who don’t read the book. That in itself demands more work and extends my thoughts into areas that I might not have considered, considered incompletely and made incomplete decisions about.
Thinking along these lines makes some of my steps smaller because more consideration has to be given to each step and its impact. Selfie is a speculative book and, as the Danish proverb says, “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Of was it Yogi Berra?
I’m not sure I actually have succeeded in expanding my sense of myself although I’m trying daily to see the ways I can do that. The changes will be slow and iterative although events like the Covid 19 pandemic push us toward a greater awareness of our strong and multiple connections to each other.
In a practical example that you know about, the Segue Reading Series has for several years been moving in this direction by allowing curators with different ways of reading poetry to schedule the series. Rather than just reflecting my perspective, the Segue Reading Series now includes many curatorial points of view as well as many poetries from their readers. I don’t see this model as an oversimplified pluralism, but as a way to present alternative social models of poetry.
On a personal level, I try to inquire about people’s interests as much as I want to assert my own. When I don’t know, I question rather than posture. This is little more than good manners in daily interactions, but as an editorial strategy it opens the door to environmentalism. The combined entity of investigation and assertion linked together allows you to establish a balance of interaction with me. I hope readers take up the task. I see others coming out tentatively to express themselves and to assert themselves with less inhibition.
Sometimes I have to say something that reduces the other person’s agency like “watch out for the bus” and “would you consider a comma in that line,” but I’m increasingly entertaining conversations that entail responsiveness to clues from others and their situations.
But a conversation between, viewed as only between two people, doesn’t really extend beyond the socio-centric approach and doesn’t validate our connections to our surroundings that I think are so important to slowing climate change. To include our surroundings in our interactions means that we’re also where we are as well as who we are, including place into the discussion. Otherwise, I fear we’re stuck with a set of social binaries in windowless rooms that take away too much of our agency as police take away agency from people of color, technology reduces the scope of individual agency, and climate change itself reduces and repositions human agency. Considering the types of connections creates this Copernican moment for ourselves.
The notion, promulgated by digital technology, that all problems can be addressed with a sequence of binary relationships fails on two fronts. First, there is a series of non-computable problems like the “halt problem” and the “tiling problem,” and those issues extend to psychological and social processes. From the environmental point of view, solutions to human and ecological problems might never appear as single terms like love or power. Modifying our discussion of single terms rewrites much of human cultural history.
Humanist society often isolates the idea of freedom as a singular value to protect. Noticing this I begin to work through social evolution as a practical matter, how we can change the way we look at our surroundings. I must resist this effort to draw all meaning into myself; we have 200 years of poetry like that.
Instead of freedom by itself, we end up with solutions in ranges and combinations of terms. Selfie explores freedom and resource management for ecosystems, freedom and equality as a social entity and freedom and responsibility for the individual and freedom and comprehensibility for poetry rather than trying to look at freedom by itself. Karen Barad’s book Meeting the Universe Halfway makes a wonderful presentation of this change from single things to linked entities or assemblages in other authors’ texts. These combinations create difficulties for individuals seeking only to improve and protect themselves, a problem where the poetry world continues to struggle.
As we progress toward an environmental way of thinking, solutions to climate problems in probabilistic ranges become more central to our success as individuals, as identified groups, and as a species. Can we develop ways of interacting that allow for multiple acceptable solutions? In some ways we all do that already. I’m suggesting we forefront that in our writing, our social activities, and our ways of treating our surroundings.
Second, binaries ignore the most important part of any interaction of two entities be they people or numbers. These things, people and numbers, don’t exist by themselves alone but through a series of connections within them and between them. Ecology is the relation of organisms with each other and their surroundings; those connections operate within individual entities as well. So, I like to talk about social ecology and individual ecology as much as applying ecology to forests and oceans. Exploration of those connections within/between us will help us escape the narrative that emphasizes only oneself, that bogs down society and poetry today in fetishistic individualism. This is why I started Selfie with a chapter about non-binary gender as one way of addressing environmental problems caused by solving with too few variables that result in uncontrolled pollution of mind, body, society, and surroundings.
Other than myself, readers, like you and some others who are starting to think like this, have partially absorbed ideas and methods in Selfie and partly resist these ideas as an assertion of themselves. The book as an entity suffers from that problem as well although I’ve tried to take steps to reduce the book’s isolation. The social model of the text, that is, what others think about it, remains partially complete. My readers so far partially accept these ideas and partially assert their own formulations.
Fink: In your efforts to locate isomorphisms between environmental attitudes/actions and poetry production, you elucidate damage that limited views of selves (and their products and processes) in relation to groups creates. “Poetic moralists” who embrace the slogan, “’the art is the artist’” ignore “the condition of poetry making, how poetry is influenced by the times, how poetry communities build frameworks where [poems] reside,” etc., and this is just as problematic as those who entirely “separate the poetry from the poet….” What has recently been termed “cancel culture” has limited possibilities of acknowledging the efficacy of aesthetic work and probably derailed opportunities for overall cooperation leading to ecological solutions to our current dilemma. How can various coexisting poetry communities find ways to avoid falling into struggles for dominance (Bloomian filiative and lateral agons) without relinquishing the more salubrious aspects of criticality?
Sherry: Poets will continue to struggle to make their work visible and widely read because there are more poets in more different styles and modes than can easily be assimilated by interested readers. But poets concerned with race and gender in their poetry have an added level of struggle. They are organizing to overcome the effect of privilege on their ability to publish and on their freedom to operate day to day considering the threats to their wellbeing that abound in a divided society. I’m writing this as the demonstrations against the extra-judicial killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman are sweeping the world. So, your question is both timely and important.
From the environmental point of view there is yet another level of repression from evaluative hierarchy and judgements about quality that are based on assumptions that need to be questioned. This is a more difficult problem than the social one, because evaluative hierarchy taken alone drives all these judgements by police, by people in power, by monied interests and by the poetry elites. Evaluative hierarchy cannot disappear. It’s built into our self-image and society through control of children, students, workers, congregations and even oligarchs with divergent interests. Take the conflict between Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos. A binary view of the world might see them as allies in valuing money and power. But evaluative hierarchy must be modified by a more complex taxonomy, non-evaluative hierarchies that include their differing self-interests that build a model of value that exposes the sources of their values and traces its development. These non-evaluative hierarchies operate through ecosystems. The model of ecosystem can be applied to poetry if we can see evaluations as only some of the judgements we make as we read a poem.
Specifically, there is a strong, bi-directional connection between the work of the poet Will Alexander and many of the experimental poets using surrealism and language writing. His connection to black political poets like Baraka is important but his early publication in Sulfur allies him strongly with surrealism and his Roof Book The Combustion Cycle allies him with language writing and my own attention to environmentalism. Through environmental connections, we recognize each other. Important black writers like Erica Hunt and Nathaniel Mackey also extend their attention beyond race. Still other important black writers like Claudia Rankine focus on race in her book, Citizen. Yet even there, she explores lots of other themes. And these are just a few living black poets. From the environmental point of view, I’d like people to read more fully what poets are saying rather than simplify them to alliances to existing groups, to memorable phrases, and to single lines of thought. Poetry’s ability to present multiple meanings connects to multiple ecosystems of thought.
Those poets, if you will, in power, even the modest power of the poetry world, are being asked to think beyond their own poetic strategy and also consider the effect of their work on individuals, the social body, and the effect of visible power in terms of publication and availability of resources to pursue their careers. The resignation in June 2021 of the heads of the Poetry Foundation show how that is a current concern, not an ideal and future target. Different poets and critics questioning those in power have different points of view:
Some want to assure that poetry is not used heedlessly for nefarious purposes even when the damage is unconsciously or semi-consciously inflicted. Some want to use pointing out abuses of power as a platform for their work and as the theme that their work addresses. Most of the aspiring writers I know simply want an equal opportunity to publish and give readings. The critique of power gives them additional leverage to counter the effects of power that suppresses. Language writing used a related critique to gain ascendency in the 70s. Today’s critique extends beyond poetry to individual behavior rather than poetry alone. How the poet’s behavior impacts the value of their poetry to readers and to society in general needs to be addressed.
To deal with this environmentally rather than only as social change means emphasizing the connections between them. For me, environmentalism includes my awareness of my responsibility to diverse populations of poets. Academic poets’ evaluative practices have gradually opened to pressure from other working poets. More people are now part of academies as a result of the work of Language writers. The myths of Romanticism about the infallibility of artists put poets in jeopardy as much as those myths help us to realize the destruction wrought by war, poverty, disease, and the failure of the moral model of “mercy, pity, peace” to provide a true alternative. As Hannah Weiner said, “There is no perfect attitude.”
The inventive spark of poetry should not be under-estimated, but at the same time it’s just one part of an environmental model. Human society cannot redirect its efforts toward ecological balance without addressing inequality on the social scale. Any one point of view is just that: one. It might have an important influence but looking at it alone misrepresents how change occurs:
1. Poetry communities strive against each other produce new writing as in the use of common speech by Smart, Eliot, and Hardy. 2. Poetry communities finding affiliations with past writing produce new writing such as the development of metaphysical poetry described in Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. These affiliations are even more clearly drawn in Anton Webern’s book The Path to the New Music. 3. Poetry communities looking around at what is new and different about their situation as individuals, as a group, and in their surroundings produce new writing: Sappho, Chaucer, Donne, Blake, Mallarme, Stein and Grenier all changed poetry. 4. Moreover poetry changes through all three ways together. This is because change in poetry as in biology occurs in parts and pieces through altering one component (sometimes more), like introducing common speech that influences other components such as themes that common speech channels effectively. Biologists call the change divergence while poets call it new, innovative, avant garde, and experimental. Of course, not all changes are good for poetry, lasting, or even effective, but these are the ways change occurs. The critique of white power in the poetry world and in the behavior of poets changes poetry.
Language writing in San Francisco owes a lot to NY School use of common speech. Rather than personal relationships and experience, the tropism toward politics was significant in how Armantrout, Silliman, Perelman, and Robinson used common speech. All four certainly benefitted from the changes already implemented by the NY School poets. Language writing in NY owed less to NY School that to other avant garde tendencies so that partial and component-driven change in poetry shows up within the group often talked about together as Language writing. We might discuss this issue more.
What you term “salubrious aspects of criticality” I often see as individuals asserting themselves against others with taste as the arbiter (mask) of personal difference that Selfie describes as originating with protecting and asserting one’s body and identity. These evaluations of other poetry are far less interesting and important to me as ecopoetics than the ways in which poetry connects to other poetry, to other writing, to other arts, to social engagement, and to the biosphere. What appears to me cordial, clear, and elucidating about criticality is not its negative evaluations but rather extension of one by alternative several, by restructuring, by rethinking a prior point of view. We see this function outside poetry in the various perspectives on evolution that developed during and after Darwin and in the Webern book I mentioned earlier.
Isomorphism suggests that individual people, things, and ecological processes possess both similarities and differences. Society and poetry change by degrees where problems are perceived through laws against child labor and prejudicial behavior that suppresses publication of poets of color. That takes effort and sometimes society and poets resort to violence to gain attention and tactical ends. We evolve in parts not all at once. The fallacy of revolutionary change is demonstrated by the results of all the political revolutions to date. The successful ones evolved into other forms of governance as in China. We need to see how similarities and the differences affect each other through ecological networks.
What can criticism do that is productive? What does criticism do that simply reinforces and flatters people’s preexisting assumptions? In Selfie I present a non-evaluative hierarchy where relationships are primary and traffic between the levels of the hierarchy are explored. I’d suggest that this kind of critical analysis is more useful, although not as flattering to the reader, than hierarchies of comparatives—good, better, best. Evaluative hierarchy reinforces existing power structures or tears them down. Addressing climate change on the other hand requires attention to Vico’s and Bloom’s relational models. Readers might also look at critics who deal with economic, social, and environmental relationships like Walter Benjamin and Franco Moretti, not merely the aesthetics of Bloom. Isolating aesthetic frames leads to fixed power structures, misrepresentation, and unpleasant surprises that cancel culture points to. Bloom does not exist by himself as the idea of filiation itself suggests.
To think environmentally about error and misreading is to accept that ecological processes are not efficient, but rather use a minimal amount of energy to function. Processes in our habitats are inefficient, full of error, contradictory, yet our bodies (also inefficient) continue to function, at least for a while. Trees and humans grow in spite of their contradictions, multiple goals, and identities. There is no fully “autonomous self” in the environmental model. People do not thrive alone as most have noticed during Covid 19 although you and I had time to write this exchange.
The perception of autonomy occurs similarly to how we see the color white as a colorless translucence when in physics we know it as containing all the colors of the spectrum. And we know also and differently it in the whale and the racial stereotype. We can operate with those errors of perception of autonomy and whiteness as we saw in the Lake of the Ozarks gathering over Memorial Day 2020, but to address climate change we need to see those things as partial, inclusive, and their ontology as determined by connection to others. Vico’s idea of repetition is itself repeated in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, and I’m repeating it again but it sounds different now. Interaction is vital, it makes us feel whole, but we’re not really whole as in unitary and separate, but rather whole as linked, affiliated, and reconstituting ourselves continually as we connect and reconnect.
Fink: As a poet and publisher, you were deeply involved with the emergence of Language Poetry in the seventies and eighties.
First, Here’s one of your most powerful remarks about Language Poetry: “In language writing the poets individuate one from another through writing techniques. Voices and language may be appropriated and rhetorical as identity fragments.” You label “avant-gardist as language writing” as “individualist” “social being” with the “view of nature” as “skill-controlled cornucopia”: “reassurance from group poetry and critical sources that you are in control of your style and expecting success from individual skills.” The two exemplars given here are Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian.
For me, “autobiographical” collage-effects of Hejinian’s My Life and its sequels undermine individualism, providing evidence of how the “organismic binary” falsely separates “inside” (self) from “outside” (world). In these texts, the social realm and the environment are often posited as constituting her experience. Hejinian constantly doubts the validity of her perceptions/language and indicates that her skill is never enough to control the poem. She does not evince confidence in her inquiries’ long-term successes. For Hejinian, the process of interpretation of herself and/in the world is always subject to failure and limitation.
While you distinguish between early Bernstein’s belief in a unitary self and the one who, “by the end of the 90s,” understood the multiplicity of the self, you claim that he “uses the self to question the value of the group rather than emphasizing the connections between selves.” Yes, he worries about how “the security of the group threatens to suppress the individual’s ability to develop new ideas by limiting the number of identity layers that the individual can use for poetry or link to the world.” However, his poetics features resistance to particular group formations. When he utilizes others’ poetic texts as examples of fertile possibilities, he points to “connections between selves” and offers a partial map of his aesthetic surroundings that valorizes groups that do not have the limiting effects of “Official Verse Culture.” His poems tend to parody coercions of different kinds of groups, yet he often gestures toward community building.
You write of Language poets “rewriting” their experience: “Denying the school appears as a later expression of the organismic binary, careerism, ignoring the material connections to the group, asserting the individual set of connections holding the person together.” “Careerism” can induce one to “deny” poetic origins in a realm where “the organismic binary” determines “success.” But what version of “the school” are particular poets denying? Accounts in The Grand Piano frequently seem to try to exercise autobiographical memory very self-consciously to reconstruct “material connections to the group” and also to contest interpretations of the group that they consider inaccurate or reductive. Perhaps they also reflect changes in their thinking over the years that do not conform to concepts that many in the “school” used to share.
Have I inadvertently distorted or overlooked important aspects of your retrospective reading of Language poetry, Hejinian, and Bernstein? And where do you find my interpretation problematic?
Sherry: If your question implies that most language poets touch all five categories of the matrix presented in the chapter “Environmental Identities,” I’d say yes, you’re right. Language writing focuses on a cornucopia of writing resources and techniques as meaning. Individual writers in the group emphasize different ways of using those techniques as individualists.
In a more general way, I read your question as asking if an environmental view of a poet and a poetry group refers to the whole writer as a unit, everything the writer writes and the entire group including their personal behavior. The environmental modeldemonstrates that people are not only whole entities, but also composites connected both within themselves and between individuals. The model calls attention to that condition of multiple identity. Each human cell and each person operate as a group that we perceive as an entity. They are defined as entities by name, but they are in fact also group formations. And groups evolve similarly to individuals. This many to many relationship emphasizes the connectors between components of individuals and groups. Therefore, I hesitate to apply judgements made about a component, especially value judgements, to the individual as a whole: his poetry is bad so he’s bad.
This multi-modal identity operates for language writers in the way they read texts as fragmented into multiple styles, genres, ways of thinking, and uses. As you read further in the environmental model, you notice that identity changes with role, that is, I feel differently about myself when I’m at my desk than when I’m at the grocery store. My role affects resource availability as well. I think about resources differently when I’m walking in the woods or perusing a restaurant menu than when I’m on line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
In the environmental model, I extend that variability to the individual poet who appears in parts as writer, psychological self, social being, and a dozen other identities at least as you noticed that I listed about myself. Even the writer-identity has different parts: exploring a theme, writing toward a particular identity as a writer, building a career by choosing where to submit their work, taking a political position, manipulating language to emphasize the point or to simultaneously make a contrary point. And often one operates more than one of those partial identities at any given moment. Those different modes of identity can be separated, each having a different perspective, as much as they can be labeled Frank or Laura.
To each individual their self does not appear very stable as an entity, changing with each poem they allow to escape and then project into their surroundings. I, for example, as a publisher/editor/producer/writer appear to have more stability in the world than my own dynamic picture of myself changing moment to moment. Selves also change with the body, by interaction with others and the surroundings. So, this environmental multiplicity undermines your question’s assumptions that we can identify Lyn Hejinian by one book’s narrator and that alternative views invalidate each other rather than layering into a complex self. More importantly what part of the person are you identifying in your question? My Life has many obfuscations and postures that I feel you may read too much at face value, identifying it with the writer as a whole rather than the subject position of the narrator.
Fink: Yes, I don’t ever want to assume that Hejinian herself is speaking in that or any other poem.
Sherry: Perhaps I can clarify that I see Hejinian as a person, as a writer, and in her writing. Oh, and she’s also a friend named Lyn and a colleague of several decades. So many Hejinians to me. Individual writing practices (individuation within the group as opposed to between groups) for language writers appear as the different techniques that each poet uses to present and perform their meanings, a kind of democratic politics of writing within the group. Between groups—language writers, Black Mountain, NY School, etc.—language writing generally differentiates itself by the way it uses technique as a political strategy, not so much voice, style, or theme. And I fear this distinction within the group and between groups gets lost in such discussions that work with relations between parts and wholes.
Each writer’s specificity also gets lost in talking about language writing as a school, so some of the writers want to avoid being identified with the group while others, like in The Grand Piano collaboration as you point out, accentuate the group as part of their identity. Both the group and each individual take multiple roles in the 10×10 grid. The connections between the poets were constructed when we all discussed, in writing and in person, using different technical devices to establish a politics of technique.
That didn’t prevent Hejinian from writing about herself. It did encourage her to write about fixed and certain identity as a problem. Hejinian separates herself from other writers within the language group by her autobiographical form. Within that form she makes it clear that agency is a conundrum in that the individual is built in fragments and cannot be embraced as a whole without also accepting other problematic constructions. She also differentiates her way of writing about herself from the usual memoirist who considers themself a unit, that is, outside the language group.
Instead of the unitary self, My Life changes as the writer changes. This particular work, although I don’t think it’s true of all of her work, moves her public identity toward an alliance with egalitarian writers in the matrix. Her identity changes with role. Continually expanding the text of My Life to, as she says, “relinquish control” seems only partially true. Expanding her text as events occur in her life continues to assert her control over it, reigniting her identity as a writer in control of the resources of writing (techniques among them) and the connections between the events of her life.
Her agency is not relinquished in the way it would have been if she simply wrote a book and left it to the readership to read it differently over time. In some ways then My Life’s method increases her control over the text; that’s what I mean by skill. I would not mistake her modesty for a repudiation of her skill. I’d also suggest that her focus on social being is central to her poetics. As you see in Selfie, Hejinian’s resource autobiography focuses on only herself as an individual social being; she never speaks of ecology or “nature”. I found this odd and evidence of her continuing resistance to my externally defining identity for her: individualist.
Charles Bernstein was one of the individuals who built a group identity called language-oriented writing. While San Francisco language writers were working together since the early 70s, the origin of the common group identity is most clearly visible in The Language Letters book published in 2019 by New Mexico University Press. In that book you can see how the ideas of language writing developed through the epistolary (group exchange) form. Their collaboration constructs a group with connections (letters) between them. They both respond to each other’s letters and initiate independent statements. Bernstein with Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews (as well as a few letters from other members of the group including Hejinian) act in the book as individuals focusing on the same set of targets, a group formation.
In the years after closing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, I saw Bernstein extend his literary presence into a larger cultural realm by exploring how to differentiate himself overtly from the language group and still retain an identity and an audience. He attempted with some success to move from individualist social being to what Michael Thompson called an autonomous view of self within their ecosystems of writing. Bernstein and Silliman attempted to extend beyond the group identity through Silliman’s blog and Bernstein’s critical and academic writing. The group acted as a platform to launch careers and evolved.
In contrast ecopoets don’t seem to address this ecological network in their relations with each other, although several editors have attempted to put together anthologies of contemporary ecopoets in the usual literary fashion. In this way, I see language writing as more dependent on ecology than ecopoetry. Jonathan Skinner is one of the exceptions through his magazine, ecopoetics. Ecopoetry usually uses more standard methods of writing and publishing and does little to align how poetry is written and read with the kinds of changes they hope to slow. Of course, there are exceptions like Jack Collom in Exchanges of Earth & Sky and Evelyn Reilly in Styrofoam.
In another contrast to language writing’s engaging diverse resources, Oulipo writers used specific, often narrow, constraints on resources as the linkage between them. They differentiated though limitation such as Perec’s omission of the letter e and Lescure’s N+7 procedure. Among language writers, several have worked with constrained texts such as Kit Robinson’s Dolch Stanzas where he uses a limited vocabulary to write. Rather than limitations, Selfie insists that the text and the method of writing are additions, while linking each addition across multiple disciplines. I want readers to look at identities as polymorphic rather than as operating in only one way.
Fink: Readers of Selfie should pay close attention to your powerful argument for the value of “experimental, innovative and investigative” poetry with various aesthetic leanings that is not merely “embracing the uniqueness of the isolated individual alone and separate from their surroundings,” including a “tendency toward opacity,” as “poets are more able to show inner conditions and drivers of action than the oversimplifications of politics, journalism or the religion of the Puritans.” Between the poles of “unrestricted freedom” and “rigid order,” both parataxis and hypotaxis, you suggest, can “separately… emphasize political and social values of connection” and “together… help create a fuller expression of self than either one alone and the organismic binary in individual, social, and biological networks.” Involving both risk and opportunity, parataxis “increases the amount of information to digest and the range of possible meanings,” as in “the trial and error of natural selection,” and emphasizes “our non-linear connectivity and social equality,” while hypotaxis “supports individual expression, the nuances and argument of the environmental model.” Through presentation of “a language [people] can use to avoid regressing to individual and group protectionism when unnecessary” and to understand “how we are connected to each other,” poets can “help promote ecologically relevant practices in poetry and other cultural activities. These cultural acts contribute substantially to psychological, social and scientific themes that influence people to work toward arresting climate change by opening sequestered individual organisms to collaboration as a human faculty, change as increasing and an inclusive rather than evaluative hierarchy” imposed by “oligarchic groups all avoid to isolate the individual as a consumer of their ideologies.”
As both a publisher and practitioner of poetry, what are some examples of contemporary work that accomplish what you’re describing?
Sherry: The accomplishments occur as specific instances within a work, more than entire works although some entire works are relevant to environmentalism. The examples of poetry cited in Selfie are those you seek, but there are many more and I find it difficult to make a useful list that isn’t too limited. As a producer, publisher, and editor, I support a variety of experimental, avant garde, innovative, and investigative approaches to using language as poetry and the arts of language as they connect throughout the society and biosphere.
Multiple forms and strategies support environmental ideas, hundreds of poets and poetries.
Many don’t even acknowledge and associate their writing with environmentalism, coming as they do from prior writing that isolates the individual and the social from the environmental. I’m trying to suggest that although it derives from social criticism, a series of prior investigative poetries, language writing (and other poetry) operates environmentally in many cases without intending to. Some of my literary friends would find this contention appalling. But in fact, all human activity operates environmentally whether it acknowledges it or not.
The politics of resistance extends to denial of integration of one being, culture, and writing practice with another by emphasizing emotions recollected in tranquility, “gut” reactions (and I’ve made the point that the dominance of bacteria in the gut implies that these poets are letting their bacteria think for them which is a fundamentally environmental practice), individual desire, love, and social criticism whether socialist realist or language centered. I would suggest that among the people we’ve talked about:
I’d suggest that the language writers are humanists critical of themselves.
Many authors coming from other foci include surroundings to express the value of their connections between things.
I want to say again that these writers and others are all environmental writers as humanity is a subset of biological organisms, but the organismic binary (the poet in their garret and woodland hermitage) when taken alone produces an antagonism, a resistance to otherness, a denial of connection in society that will destroy our species if we allow it. The slow-motion train wreck of American society exhibits the problem writ large.
Fink: Since “desire causes climate change,” the desire for “freedom” must face the fact that “ecosystems, with mixed open-closed formations, are not as free as we can ideally imagine,” and “capital surplus requir[ing] continual expansion to be successful” is in direct contrast to the need for “us to scale back that capitalist, humanist tendency” due to “the planet’s” limited “carrying capacity of the immense load of humans,” you emphasize both the difficulty and necessity of persuading stakeholders to restrain desire and reverse the prioritizing of “freedom” and instead to regulate “free enterprise”: “The constraints imposed to arrest climate change—reduced use of fossil fuels, limits on mining, and effluents, establishing new modes of transport, food production, construction, and manufacturing to protect fragile ecosystems—change power structures and wealth distribution.” Risk includes “the uncertain outcomes of any remediation.”
You mention ecological progress in Germany and elsewhere. Even “Saudi Arabia is actively pursuing alternatives to fossil fuels.” Can you elaborate on some of the specific components of voluntary restrictions of desire in daily life and results of those actions in regions outside the U.S.? What can we learn here from those examples to encourage such transformation of behavior?
Sherry: Increasing populations on our limited planet is the most difficult environmental problem, that immense load of humans. Constraints on proliferation of human populations, while difficult in the light of sexual desire and desire for power, can be accomplished with culture. Use of internet, television, and other channels of communication like birth control have already been successful in places like Brazil in reducing human reproduction. But I am no expert in any of the six industries that are the primary contributors to climate change. I understand culture as the way to convince those corporate leaders and specialists who know how to reduce emissions to become increasingly aware of the situation and their responsibility to do something about it while continuing to feed, clothe, and house large populations.
Desire as I mean it operates at several levels. First, and foremost, when you’re warmer you relax and so warming the earth helps reduce conflict at the same time that moderately higher temperatures increase violence in individuals. So, if you’re looking for a simple answer, you won’t find it. Early civilization in the mid-Holocene, around 5000 BC, began when the northern hemisphere ran about 2+degrees centigrade warmer than today, warm enough to generate significant deterioration in our contemporary civilization. Normal climate ranges over the past five millennia are far greater than our current infrastructure is prepared to deal with.
Immediately, desire becomes very complicated for political stability. Lacan said something like Constraints on desire scale up to law. So authoritarian governments are more likely in the age of global warming without important cultural changes that link ideas like freedom with responsibility for individuals, with equality for societies and with land and resource management for ecosystems. Freedom does not effectively operate by itself. Selfie talks a lot about these composite things and ideas.
Second, accumulation requires management of surplus. People store food to assure it’s available year-round. This is true for most commodities. Housing, too, must be managed. The solutions won’t be found in reduced human activity, because in many ways humans need to be more active to solve these problems, more engaged. If surplus is managed by a collective resource like government, a very different scenario emerges than when it’s managed by private organizations subject to individual and commercial desire. Those private sources seek to capitalize on surplus when resources dwindle, profiteering. This is why you can reasonably mention socialism which I’d frame as environmentally sound social programs and social agendas rather than class consciousness.
Third, desire for individual status, driven by the organismic binary and social topping, makes all these resource management issues more difficult. Without collective management, my freedom easily becomes your bondage. But what “one wants” is restricted by our mental limits, expectations, prior experience, and available resources, place, and time, so it only makes sense to talk about freedom in conjunction with the ecosystem one inhabits. Neither the conservatives with their desire for freedom from government regulation nor the liberals with their desire for freedom from societal restraints seem to accept the conditionality of freedom and its inherent binding to other values and situations. Individuals don’t have much effect on the planet because of scale. Addressing climate culture is a social and political problem.
Fink: You sketch ways of using “mass media” to convince “large groups of people” and pressure “oligarchs, institutions, and their networks… to prioritize sustainable production rather than wealth accumulation and funding the income defense industry….” On one hand, environmentalists must utilize “channels that are built to create public opinion in the US” to achieve this critical mass of understanding that “as climate change pressures our surroundings, social networks and selves, we have no choices beyond adaptation and extinction.”
On the other hand, “wealthy individuals” and leaders of “corporate networks” need to be convinced “that progressively lower profits will stem from production that pollutes” by “accountants, consultants and finance leaders making calculations based not on the net present value… but on rolling future value….” They need to see “projections where pollution slows growth by suppressing demand and increasing costs of production beyond the ability to raise prices,” as well as “inhibiting the accumulation of physical assets and impeding… accumulation of technological and intellectual capital” that drive “economic productivity and growth.” In other words, you hold that the oligarchs that you studied in your previous book, a rewriting of Machiavelli’s The Prince, must get the news that focus on short-term profitability and the laissez-faire capitalist mode will become disastrously unprofitable for them and that a substantially mixed economy—a lot more socialism than we have now—is the only thing that will keep capitalism going in the long run! In a more general passage, you declare: “As society changes, humanist identities do not disappear (we still emphasize and think of some parts of ourselves when we take a specific role) but they are circumscribed within the frame of environmental identity,” and perhaps this sheds light on your view of political economy. Is human survival on this planet dependent on convincing capitalists to accept a good deal of socialism and to convince democratic socialists and “hard-core” socialists that they have to get the capitalists on board?
Sherry: I like how you found the political line in the text. We’re not yet in a position to predict what is necessary and there is probably no single system that operates optimally in all locations. “Emissions of greenhouse gases from six industries—transportation, energy production, manufacturing, construction, mining and agriculture—cause global warming. Industrial processes are linked to systems in the biosphere: ‘These interconnected systems are increasingly vulnerable to cascading impacts that are often difficult to predict…’ (U.S. Global Change research Program. The Climate Report. Melville House, 2019. 13.)” The different perspectives on resource availability that Thompson introduced and that I have exploited play in the variety of methods that humanity has at its disposal to arrest climate change. For example, some people will try to eliminate use of cows for food because of their significant emissions. Others will try to keep producing cows for an elite market by capturing and reusing methane as a fuel to manage the cow herds. The moral backlash that we see coming from the right and the left, albeit for different moral principles, will impact our ability to have a single result even within a nation. Regulation will need to address the variety of solutions. But climate will direct how we solve climate problems as much as humans will slow climate change.
How humanity transitions from the current domination of global capitalism depends very much on the capitalists themselves. Right now it looks pretty dismal with Charles Koch, Peter Thiel, and their cronies controlling regulation of the world’s largest economy, the Chinese Communist Party’s impression that they have to keep producing in the current manner without pause to stay in power, and the Indian government doing little or nothing by way of abatement. But events like the Covid 19 pandemic will have a way of changing culture to show us how much we need our interactions with each other to thrive. The Covid 19 plague is a global climate crisis in the sense that all culture is truncated into themes of disease, protecting vulnerable populations, maintaining revenue during shutdowns, and isolation of one individual from another. In other ways major global corporations will use the pandemic to cement power as smaller firms may not have the capital to survive. Climate change will reduce overall freedom of action in some areas and increase freedom in others, but culture can help us as a species, in different ways, to find value in freedoms other than digging an open pit copper mine in Chile. This implies greater social control by states over corporations and a change in the culture driving multinational corporate processes. Freedom does not thrive alone any more than individuals thrive alone.
Fink: Of “the Green New Deal,” which “shows how connecting jobs, job training, and clean energy production can enhance the possibilities of a society that is both fair and green,” you say that “claims about [it] as greenwashing capitalism and as a socialist monster are equally possible depending on how programs are implemented.” What kinds of implementation would you like to see? How might they avoid the problems implied?
Sherry: I’m no expert on the Green New Deal which seems on the whole to be a great way to use social programs for climate remediation. It solves two levels of the problem at once. If the government takes over a task like building the infrastructure for electric vehicles—charging stations and standards for and electronic analysis of electric motors—then the social institutions will grow in power. But that means citizens must become more involved in the political process to avoid narrow control at the top of government.
If the majority of Americans want to return to traditional values (and there are those on the right and the left who say the same words), then the government might create standards and prototypes and then allow free enterprise to perform and profit from the buildout. Governments do that now with fossil fuels and can switch support mechanism to renewables.
The question for me is whether the amount of labor required to build a set of green solutions for the six industrial flows causing pollution is greater or less than the amount of labor required to manage the current polluting systems. What’s the level at which green solutions begin to make sense because it becomes apparent that older models are too costly in many senses of cost?
In transportation, I’d suggest that eliminating fossil fuels will mean fewer jobs total in transportation because electric motors are both more reliable and simpler than internal combustion engines to build, fuel (batteries are still a problem area) and repair in part because of the huge cost of oil to the world both in terms of extraction and maintaining those political systems that extract it. In agriculture, we may need more jobs. In construction, we may need more jobs and more off-site, controlled modular construction. In mining, we certainly have more costs in controlling effluent, but can we find non-mining solutions to things we use metals for today? I think that’s clear enough as we start to break down the problem.
There are lots of approaches, but net present value calculations come up with very different total costs than recalculating costs of climate change as time passes. But even with net present value calculations, “In the ‘aggressive abatement’ case (450 ppm), the mean ‘Net present value [NPV] of climate change impacts’ is only $410 trillion — or $275 trillion with adaptation. So stabilizing at 450 ppm reduces NPV impacts by $615 to $830 trillion. But the abatement NPV cost is only $110 trillion — a 6-to-1 savings or better.” (https://archive.thinkprogress.org/scientists-find-net-present-value-of-climate-change-impacts-of-1240-trillion-on-current-emissions-754446a2cd64/, 051920)
This question isn’t very much about poetry any more but my main concern in Selfie is to show that divergent ways of thinking in the current world mean we need to adapt our cultures to commit to intentional climate management before we’ll get strong and continuing commitment from the people who manage the lion’s share of the world’s resources and means of production. The people of the world are mostly already on board and know what needs to happen. It’s the elites who need educating.
If you want to read more about Selfie: Poetry, Social Change & Ecological Connection the book is now available hard cover and ebook: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-19-4870-1