This totally counts as a blog post

So during Poem Play last Saturday we made a bunch of water balloons, and on each water balloon we inscribed one word, many of which were directly inspired by Dark Ecology. These balloons were thrown at a tree in the middle-distance, and each word that exploded on the tree was written on the left. If the balloon missed, it was written on the right. Balloons that hit the tree but did not explode were written in the middle. These words in sequence created two separate poems, with the words in the middle used for both poems.

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I could transcribe how I viewed the poem, but I think it would be more fun if everyone had their own interpretations!

A For Effort

I am not sure I agree with Xenotext‘s purpose. From what I understand, the end-goal seems to be to successfully translate a sonnet onto a strand of sample DNA, that a bacterium then absorbs. The bacterium outputs a protein based on the inputted DNA, and this protein then encodes another sonnet, which then creates another protein, etc. The point of all this is that by placing the poem into a resilient bacterium, a piece of humanity “might outlive every civilization, persisting on the planet until the very last dawn, when our star finally explodes” (151).

The problem with this imperative is that it is hollow of significant meaning. First, and this is especially true with foreign DNA absorbed by bacteria, genetic mutations over the course of millions or billions of years are sure to occur. This could permanently alter the translation mechanism of the protein, perhaps even preventing it from being able to successfully encode any meaningful “sonnets”. Once the deterioration begins to occur, it would rapidly accelerate until the protein ceases to be produced, and the poem will die.

Furthermore, even if the foreign DNA manages to avoid mutation for millions of years, what is the purpose of this? What are its tangible effects? Who is there to read these fragments of language so far in the future that the decoder has lost all significance? If this poem is all we have left of our presence, if it serves as our cultural flag embedded into an Earth we have moved on from, how could it possibly be received correctly?. An alien race would need to first genetically sequence this bacterium, then determine that some individuals had anomalous DNA fragments, and then re-code the fragments into their base text. If that were not enough, they would then somehow have to correctly translate this into English, AND THEN have a cultural knowledge of 21st century poetics to appreciate the content and significance of this mode of poetry.

All together, this project seems to utilize basic understanding of genetics to jump to conclusions about poetic immortality with an almost idealistic naivete. Even if I disagree with the author’s project, it is still a worthy endeavour to pursue for art’s sake. However, what irks me about this whole thing is that it seems to function as Bok’s contribution to salvaging eco-disaster, his answer to “The Late Heavy Bombardment” (11). This comes across to me as slactivism, but dressed up in fancy poetic aspirations to obscure the minimal amount of ecological work  the text actually seeks to address. It frustrates me because this seems like a way for Bok to pat himself on the back, when it is clear that his passion could be applied to modes of expression that have much more productive results.

Immortality

“Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit? What is its gyre memory? How do we measure the half-life of its drift?” –A Tale for the Time Being (143)

In a normal scenario, an object occupies a space, and it remains in this space as long as it has not run out of time. Time can be preserved physically, such as that of a living, acting person, or it can be preserved linguistically, such as knowing the life history and deeds of said person. When the person dies, everyone they knew dies, and their legacy has faded away, they have stopped existing in time, and their position as a time-being is no more. The internet as an object of space and time seems to run counter-current to Ozeki’s theory on how these vectors influence knowledge and retention.

In Ozeki’s own words the internet acts like a gyre, retaining information instead of water. Time can still decay and die (servers can eventually go down), but this process can be greatly slowed. The efficacy of search-engines insure that points of data that have once been connected maintain that connection. No matter their importance, all information feeds into other information, and since deletion form irrelevancy is almost non-existent, nothing is destroyed. Traditional time-beings function as energy; and to maintain balance old energy must be destroyed as new time-beings emerge in space. The internet betrays this law, as it contains practically infinite space. It is an input with no pressure for an output.

The gyre does not produce flotsam, nor can anything be even jettisoned from it. Somewhat paradoxically, the attempt to remove the information sparks an investigation of the information, which produces more hits and creates more connections, lengthening the life-span of the information. In fact, this phenomenon patterned itself so many times that it was given a name: The Streisand Effect. Even after the moniker of this theory ceases existence as a time-being, the Effect will remain for all to observe. A fitting immortality for this new world of knowledge accumulation.

The Sleep of Reason

Lelache provides an excellent summary of Haber near the end of The Lathe of Heaven, when she realizes “what a big man he was, how big a beard he had, how drastically impressive he looked” (139). Haber’s self-assurance of his choices enlarges him, transforming him from a bemused man that strokes his beard, to a towering deity with a “hairy, bear’s smile” (26) and “a dark, powerful” (126) voice. More subtly, his beard changes color from “red-brown” (26) to “curly black” (118). A fitting look for “a reproachful God” (127).

Orr on the other hand is described as a “short, slight, fair man” with “beard short” (7). The beard seems to represent a form of primal masculinity, a controlling animality that Haber has in abundance and that Orr notably lacks.This building of power descriptors culminates after Haber has used up all he has needed of Orr, and Lelache finally sees him for what he has become: the “bear-shaman-god” (141). What more fitting for Haber than to be a bear; an immense being with a jovial, hibernative veneer that explodes into authoritative primality when challenged.

This grotesque excess of masculine dominance continues until Haber rips control of the dreams from Orr to produce them himself. For all of his physical presence he can only conjure up  dreams of absence; he has lost his humanity by desiring to control everyone else’s. In other words, the “effective nightmare” he unleashes is merely a result of “the emptiness of [his] being”, a reflection of the callousness of his soul (151).

In short, Le Guin seems to be implying that seizing control of our environment in a misplaced attitude to be dominate is selfish at best, and ecologically catastrophic at worst. The visions of a better tomorrow must be tempered with considerations of the present situation. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

Lost in Translation

After watching the film version of Z for Zachariah, it is immediately apparent that substantial changes were performed on the source material. John is no longer as controlling and abusive, Faro does not die from radiation sickness, and Ann no longer exiles herself from the Eden-like valley. Perhaps the clearest insight into the intention of these changes comes from arguably the biggest change of all; the inclusion of Caleb as a character.

It could be argued that the list of changes represents a shift away from the environment as a central shaping of the narrative to that of the human as a driving force: Caleb. Most of John’s central flaws within the text (jealousy, selfishness, a need for control), are brought about by a toxic environment that has hardened him to empathy and gentleness. In the film, Caleb becomes the opposing force to John’s future with Ann, causing John to have some of his more negative traits emerge. Caleb’s addition as a character not only comforts audiences with the familiarity of the popular love triangle (thanks Twilight), it also serves as a way for audiences to identify with the narrative by making the film focus more on character relationships influenced by individuals instead of outside conditions. However, I believe that this focus on human-created drama weakens the focus of environmental decay rotting humanity, while also not substituting anything more interesting than tired cliches in its place.

Variety.com in their review of the film echo this perspective, and this final section attempts to articulate the effect of replacing substance with more palatable fluff:

But despite all of that, the film remains strangely inert, and the romantic triangle at the story’s center never gives off any real passion or heat…. building to an incredibly contrived climax straight out of an old Saturday morning serial. Who ends up with whom in the end? It scarcely seems to matter.

…. [the film] never achieves [an] effortless, lived-in feel. You keep waiting for someone to pull back the curtain and reveal that the characters are all subjects inside a highly controlled experiment, like the period townsfolk of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.” But the curtain stays drawn, and whatever deeper meaning Zobel hopes to impart remains just out of reach.

 

Imagining the Dagger

One scene I was particularly struck by in The Sea and Summer was an exchange between Teddy and Nick about Macbeth. Teddy has shone interest in drama, but gets into a fight with another student over how a scene involving how a ghostly dagger should be presented. Nick understands, stating “There’s always someone who wants a prop dagger floating in mid-air, all silver-gilt and menacing” (138). Teddy counters this, saying “But the dagger is only in Macbeth’s mind. He doesn’t even see it clearly…. You don’t have a dagger on stage. He acts it. He makes you see it as he does”(138). This, I believe, is the moment that George Turner most clearly articulates his view on writing the apocalypse.

After Turner introduces his thesis statement, he expands on it by having Nick intentionally poorly act out the scene. As expected, this causes a frustrated Teddy to blurt out “The audience has to be looking for the dagger, not watching you! Their eyes have to be behind yours, looking out” (139). Looking at this from a writer’s point of view, one of the central problems for writing about the future apocalypse is that it is in the future, and thus it becomes easy for any potential message to be deferred by the reader due to a “Not My Problem” attitude. The goal then, becomes to write about the strange yet disturbingly familiar: stapling the spectral future to a very corporeal present. As Nick puts it, the book proposes to “shock the eyes of the groundlings” (138), keeping the eye fixated on something that cannot be seen but can be felt, if the actors believe in it enough. Within the book this technique appears in full effect, as Turner has an almost uncanny ability to foretell the near future.  Computers and internet (triv) are a central part of people’s lives, the space program has sputtered to a halt, a crumbling of the housing market has left the economy flagging, the economic gap between the rich and the poor continues to increase, and so on.

These parallels to our present time are unsettling, reminding us that the past isn’t so different from the present and the future isn’t as distant as we would like to believe. The safety blanket has been pulled away, leaving behind only the dagger underneath. And this dagger is slowly, inexorably digging its bloody tip into our collective backs.

The Preservation of Disaster

In La Jetee, the protagonist is forced by his captors to travel back in time,with the hopes of figuring out a way to stop the upcoming global disaster from happening. In his travels he meets a woman, who he proceeds to meet at a variety of points in her life, striving to unravel the causal relationship between the past, present, and future. Their final encounter is at a museum of “natural” history, a place consisting of display upon display of taxidermied animals, animals pinned by plaques describing their prior existence. Humanity has a museum containing thousands of dead animals propped up in a parody of life, their death cut away, their empty cavities stuffed with the desire to have a history without forgetfulness. This Sisyphean task cannot be completed, no matter the finesse in the act, as “the present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection” (Tarkovsky 58).

Such then does the film execute this concept with its cinematography, a collection of black and white photographs that capture an essence of history and nostalgia while at the same time rebuffing the viewer form experiencing the moving life of the past. The photographs are not the same as the actual past, yet visually they still leave everything intact.This is disaster, the inability to access a past experience to aid the future, stuck only with crude constructs and the fading photographs of memory.

An Uncertainty Principle

When reading The End of Nature, I was struck by the concept that we cannot detect the “warning signal”of climate change until there is an extreme diversion away from the mean. Specifically, I am referring to the quote “There is no magic point where you pick out the signal…. There’s no point where it switches over. But when it gets to three sigma- when it gets to three standard deviations- you’re getting to a level where it is unlikely to be an accidental warning” (25). To parse some of the mathematical lingo, a standard deviation (denoted by the symbol sigma) demonstrates one mean distance from the mean. To apply this concept to the statement, three degrees of freedom implies that the only way to indisputably detect climate change is if the temperature deviates three times more than average. This can potentially be a very large fluctuation, and opens the door to an interesting, but very frightening train of thought.

Considering that even a 1 degree increase in global temperature can have permanent, catastrophic effects on the environment, and that normal environmental fluctuations are “plus or minus .2 degrees” (25), we will have no idea that climate change has begun in earnest until we reach a fluctuation of 0.6 degrees.  This is more than halfway to estimated levels of intense change, made more frightening by the fact that most changes we are now seeing were set in motion years ago, “changes-many of them, at least- [that] are irrevocable” (45). In other words, we very well could have already sealed the doom of our planet decades ago, and no amount of cutting down on fossil fuels or cleaning of the oceans is going to divert Earth from its inevitable demise. Worst of all, we won’t even know when it it will start in earnest until it has already begun.

This concept brings to mind the film Melancholia, where the rogue planet of that movie acted as a physical symbol of Earth’s inevitable eco-apocalypse. By the time Melancholia is first detected by the most advanced scientific instruments that humanity has to offer, Earth is a zombie, perhaps has been one for millions of years, since the factors came into play that influenced Melancholia’s path. In a message that becomes increasingly relevant as time passes, the film warns us of our own, non-fictional ecocide:

The severity of the damage can be argued and debated, but make no mistake: the disaster is out there, and it is inexorably drawing closer.

 

The Dark Descent

This idea is still being worked out, so I apologize if some of my points are too obtuse.

In The Book of the Dead, the section entitled “Power” literally details a tour of a power-plant, but figuratively explores a descent into a both literary and personal Darkness. At the beginning of the poem, words like “brilliant”, “light-pointed”, and “skin-white” craft an image of Heaven, an idealistic zone of pure intention and good thought.

Below this lies “the road to take when you think of your country”, a power-plant of “grey-toned” stone but with light shining “from three-story windows”. This is the Earth, a gritty place dominated by man-made objects, no longer containing the immediate “brilliance” of Heaven, but with light still observable from a distance. Here resides the human experience and sense of identity within themselves and their environs, and it is no coincidence that a human provides a tour of this facility of self-reflection.

In case the stratification of the planes and the descent through them isn’t apparent, Rukeyser calls the next level the “world of inner shade”, the “second circle”, a reference to the circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. The second circle, Gluttony, is the dark center of the human, the cold heart of the power-plant. The planned tunnel is by humans for humans, but once veneers of quality of life improvements, providing jobs, and industrial progress are stripped away from the concept,  the plant is created and funded for one common purpose:to provide wealth to the elite who crave it, at the cost of others’ capital, labor, and lives.

The ultimate conclusion to this ravenous appetite for wealth is provided from the bottom level, the “after-night”: Death itself. Here is the unsalvagable, “all the light burns out”. You “cannot ascend”. Here the lies eternally echo on the pitch-black tunnel walls, a monologue of deceit and self-justification who’s only audience are the damned and the dead. This is the resultant of the subjugation of nature and the human, of the allowance of idle selfishness to ignore the plight of the silenced worker. “This”, as Rukeyser ominously prophisizes, “is the end”.