Seascapes and Other Subjects: SEI at the Institute for Advanced Studies

SEI Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Killian Quigley reflects on the recent Planetary Poetics workshop presented by The Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, in collaboration with the Sydney Environment Institute.

Tim Marshall via Unsplash.com

To realize salubrious futures, it may be vital, first, to imagine them. But if imagination draws upon what it knows – and how could it do anything else? – then the matter appears awfully hard. The tools at hand – conventional stories, epistemologies, sensations, and so on – are too commonly inadequate to the task of composing promising horizons, possibly because it simply isn’t in their power to do so. What’s needed, perhaps, is retooling from the bottom up, so to make imagination over in radical, and currently unimaginable, ways. Thus, I think, the spirit of some avant-garde composers, like David Dunn, whose “Nexus 1” records an encounter between trumpeters and the Grand Canyon, in northern Arizona. Dunn recalls intending to decenter his human performers by using their sounds in order to provoke an acoustic response from the environment. The canyon, and its “reverberant structures,” were to be the work’s primary expressive agent. In the event, its agency exceeded even Dunn’s ambitious expectations, as ravens arrived to add their voices, and the landscape seemed not only to be made sing, but to sing back.

A couple of weeks ago, I travelled with a group of SEI colleagues to London for Planetary Poetics, a workshop at UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies. Two and a half days of talks, debates, informal conversations, and a film premiere do not submit themselves readily to summary. Still, I think it’s possible to describe the meeting’s broad ambit in terms of the issues I raise at the top of this post. Some underperforming tools were subjected to intensive critical pressure, some handier ones were described and prescribed, and some aspirant prototypes were explored and assayed. Of sustained interest was proliferating the points of contact among human beings and the planet – increasing and diversifying the kinds of encounter that people experience in the world. This might mean attending more carefully to auditory stimuli, which tend to be subordinated to visual signals. It could entail rejigging cartography, in its orientation as well as its content. Or it may involve committing to aqueousness, metaphorically and actually, and admitting the novel and perhaps discomfiting sensations such a commitment is bound to involve.

Making oneself more available to the planet sounds virtuous. But it sounds challenging, too: if I’m going to listen more, and more carefully, and if I’m going to rejigger my maps, then it’s possible I’m going to find it all unpleasant, not to say vertiginous. What, for instance, if I tune in intently to the call of the Australian white ibis, and I find myself wishing I could turn it off? Planetary Poetics was sensitive to these eventualities, and keen to interpret them as markers of virtue. We spoke – and here I borrow from the group’s assembled eloquences – in terms of “subjective dislocation,” “planetary defamiliarization,” and “precarious subjectivity.” The strong wind so mustered put a good deal of salutary distance between us and the figure – or stereotype – of the charismatic Romantic subject, filtering the universe for its treasures of knowledge and beauty. That sense of subjectivity, so dominant in some Western traditions of nature-writing and environmentalism, was manifestly one of tools that needed altering, updating, or putting to rest.

Behind the workshop’s title lies a brief but nourishing entry in Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables. In that volume, Gayatri Spivak introduces “Planetarity” by divorcing it from words – and worlds – like “earth,” “globe,” and “globalization.” This is crucially relevant for understanding what Planetary Poetics was investigating. Spivak contends that those latter terms, and the imaginings they inspire, have been taken on board by the very energies that environmental activism has attempted, or at least purported, to defy. This makes me think of Michael Pollan’s analysis, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and elsewhere, of so-called Big Organic, those agricultural interests that absorbed the power of organity while resisting parts of the ethics that many consumers associated with the concept. Against this opportunism, as well as the hubris that informs it, Spivak sees in planetarity an ethics derived from humility and a sense of pervasive, but not catastrophic, otherness: “If we imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us; it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away.” This, I think, is about decentering on a planetary scale, about apprehending ourselves as part of a thick, vulnerable, and only semi-knowable tangle that is at once unlike us and our home. “The planet is in the species of alterity,” Spivak writes; “and yet we inhabit it, on loan.”

My own presentation for Planetary Poetics was called “Seascape as Ideal Landscape: William Gilpin and the Pelagic Picturesque.” It was inspired by the work of Gilpin, a late eighteenth-century English artist and aesthetic theorist, and by my fascination for what seascapes mean, and how they relate to their terrestrial counterparts. Because that relationship is so often an incommensurable, or at least an uneasy, one, I have the feeling that by looking closely at how writers and other artists engage with the surface of the ocean, we can observe a kind of zone of alterity, a place where subjectivity becomes strange and conventional expectations are suspended. And this felt edifyingly relevant for the question that hung in my mind’s eye as I left London: what varieties of aesthetic and affect are required for the dislocating work in front of us? If being an unstable self is an auspicious way of proceeding, it isn’t clear that we can rely on standard definitions of pleasure, beauty, and indeed feeling. And what and who are in that “we,” anyway? (Rosi Braidotti, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at IAS, commenced the workshop with a plenary addressing a similar question. The applause was thunderous. You can watch it here.) I departed the IAS feeling a good deal less secure in my assumptions, and a great deal more exuberant about the potential for transforming them. A bit dizzy, and very giddy – not an unfavourable foot to fare forward on, maybe.

Killian Quigley is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at SEI. He is writing a book called Seascape and the Submarine: Aesthetics and the Eighteenth-Century Ocean. He’s also co-editing a volume of essays, titled Senses of the Submarine. Look out for his writings in Eighteenth-Century Life, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, and MAKE.