Friday, June 3, 2011

Laura Dassow Walls, Cosmos

As I look at the material world outside my study window, it occurs to me, first, that the pastoral is nowhere to be found, a total head trip; then, that the pastoral is found everywhere, for it’s the middle landscape, the modern milieu, all that’s left today now that nature has, as Bill McKibben told us, ended; finally, that the pastoral is right here, right now, under my feet as I write, out my window: thunder clouds and roiling green fire punctuated by dragonflies and bluebirds and crows that are rather too eerily prescient. I want to “root” or radicalize this pastoral view by insisting that the local is already, and always has been, “planetary,” just as “global” is always under our feet, local at every point (Latour).

I converge on this point via “cosmopolitanism,” an old Kantian term that is now a useful catalyst for the reframing of such holdover Cartesian binaries as local and global, nature and culture, science and literature. I take cosmopolitanism to be an ethical stance in response to the material fact of globalization; my path to this term comes via intellectual history, through my immersion in one of Kant’s followers, the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who, roughly 200 years ago when modernity was getting underway, attempted to revise Kant’s cosmopolitanism into a planetary rather than just a political platform. Humboldt envisioned the earth as a member of a universe of planets, stars, and stellar objects, all composing “the great garden of the universe.” From outer space, the earth could be seen first and last as a planetary body, undercutting the binary between earth and the heavens by showing that, as Thoreau would say, Heaven lies under our feet—or as Carl Sagan would instruct us in his TV series, not coincidentally also named “Cosmos,” “we are all star-stuff.”

This is not just an enlargement of scientific knowledge, more of the usual epistemological imperialism, but a fundamental reorientation in being: an ontological revolution. In Humboldt’s view, we are part of the “Cosmos” (a word he brought back from obsolescence into common usage) quite literally as partners, co-creators, with the vast beyond-the-human; both humans and nonhumans call each other into ever-more-elaborate existences. This is how they, and the Cosmos they generate, is coming into being: the Cosmos is a narrative, an unfolding, or as Humboldt’s student Darwin would put it, an evolution—riddled with uncertainties, to be sure, at the local level.

Of our three terms—radical, cosmopolitical, pastoral—I am least convinced by the term “pastoral”: given my Humboldtian orientation, haven’t I made the Cosmos sound more like a work site, a construction project, than a peaceful rural retreat? Perhaps I should, like Mike Ziser, be sidelining the pastoral for the georgic? This, he argues, allows us to move beyond all the stalemates that have accumulated around the pastoral and its associated terms—“nature,” above all—and there’s a good argument to be made, based on archival sources, that Thoreau was more intimately involved with the georgic than the pastoral. But there’s a good reason Thoreau never joined the Concord Farmer’s Club: he was the one whose work it was to look after the wild stock of the town. The georgic doesn’t, I think, give enough room for this out-side dimension, the unthought otherness beyond the managed woodlots and manured fields. Thoreau wanted to have one foot in the farmer’s world, but he wanted the other foot out-side it, because he wanted to develop an Archimedian point of resistance (res = thing; “resistance” by the natural to “civil government” or government by Kantian citizens), by whose leverage he, Thoreau, could move the world. He needed the pastoral to do this, for the pastoral, as both Mike Ziser and Larry Buell point out, points both ways, back to a more equitable memory and forward to its restitution (I agree, nostalgia for what we have lost is a powerful and necessary radicalizing motive force), downward to the soil and the particulars of what grows, or doesn’t, and upward to the stars and the utopian dreams of what might be. We need the past to imagine the future, we need the ground to give vigor to the dream. So let’s keep the pastoral, but yes, let’s radicalize it with the georgic: first, let’s recall its roots in the ethics of stewardship, of pastoral care, of those “flocks” of sheep and Hsu’s human “swarms,” those multiples and aggregates and collectives, that without care—without, as Julianne reminds us, even love—can turn into Latour’s unruly shambles. Second, let’s recall the way those roots can dig into the grounding of empirical “fact,” or “ground-truthing,” in the way of the sciences, never forgetting that facts are not dead things but lively assemblages, dynamic settlements always ready to fly apart; and third, that those roots can send up shoots into the air of imagination, fiction, utopian possibility. We need all three of these resource—ethics, sciences, literatures—if we are to make our way forward.

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