MSJ Series: Guessing at Depth

SEI Postdoc Fellow Killian Quigley unravels the asymptotic nature of artistic practice, and asks whether diving into new aesthetic and poetic spaces can help us to transcend our anthropocentric ethics of care.

Fan worm, image via Shutterstock ID: 327636769

Poetics and aesthetics are, among other things, theories and practices of attention. As an artist pays heed, they not only reveal the scope of their own regard—what gets noticed and imagined, and in what manner—but orient and compose their audiences’ views. Arts configure worlds, and modify the contours of cognisance and care. In the context of bewilderingly rapid planetary change, these potencies acquire specific urgency. A responsive and integral “ecopoetics,” write Angela Hume and Samia Rahimtoola, aims at nothing less than the “making of a new home,” through “work of cultural and poetic invention that creates a more sustaining social and ecological context”.1 If it’s true that by sensing, forming, and representing, artists may literally produce novel ways of “[dwelling] with the earth,” and even of “being human,” then this is potent labour indeed.2 3

It bears noting, however, that opinions on these matters are neither homogeneous nor united. Some are a long way from sanguine. In a recent essay on climate fiction, or cli-fi, Katy Waldman posits a key, and possibly intransigent, problem for Anthropocene poetics. Literature, she writes, is essentially “humanist.” No matter their style or subject, writers are bound to create art that redounds, however circuitously, upon homo sapiens. Put simply, human writing is categorically incapable of addressing anything other than human preoccupations. Waldman’s point, then, is not that writers are themselves to blame for these shortcomings. The issue is too basic for that: languages, and the things languages make possible, can only ever express an asymptotic relation to the “autonomous” meanings of “non-hominal” entities, of environments “on their own terms”.4 Under these lights, the limits to literature’s “capacity to imagine not only a different who, but a different where and when” appear soberingly stark.5

Nonetheless, the figure of the asymptote—a line that approaches another, following closely but never converging—intrigues. What if it’s more than an emblem of art’s insufficiencies? What if the asymptote represents a sort of space, and an ethic, for making? A kind of dynamic and unsteady ground for observing, interpreting, and inventing? The poet A. R. Ammons has written that to think ecologically is to occupy “a firmless country”.6 Maybe the asymptote, by constantly moving and searching and never fully finding, is a theory and a practice for ecopoetic and ecoaesthetic work, as well as a humbling reminder of that work’s fundamental contingency.

What practices and possibilities does asymptosy encourage, if it is deliberately and rigorously inhabited? It’s a question that recalls me to the work of the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, whose How Forests Think I’ve been fortunate to read alongside some of my Multispecies Justice colleagues. In that text, Kohn explores interactions among organisms—homo sapiens and otherwise—in and around Ávila, in western Ecuador.  Learning with jaguars, dogs, leafcutter ants, humans, trees, and others, Kohn rejects the assumption that thought, interpretation, representation, and selfhood are exclusively hominal affairs. This inclines Kohn toward what he calls “a perspectival aesthetic,” whereby selves relate to other selves by making “provisional guesses” about the thoughts and experiences of those others. Sure, assents Kohn, those guesses are “mediated, provisional, fallible, and tenuous”.7 But that is, in a sense, beside the point, which is that all selves are guessing, about other selves and about their very own, all the time, and so framing asymptosy as a uniquely human, or human-linguistic, constraint misses the bigger, richer picture.

Can I become a better guesser? I’d like to think so, and I’d like to think that that’s the perplexing, animating challenge that Kohn’s work poses for poetic and aesthetic practice. At the same time, I can’t help wondering how guessing operates in environments that simply are “profoundly non-human,” such as the undersea.8 In surroundings where anthropic sensation, interpretation, and indeed life are exceptionally precarious, the asymptotic line may have a hard time swimming, let alone coming anywhere near the selves it seeks.

Last month, I heard the painter Lily Simonson and the biologist Peter Girguis discuss their collaborative efforts to sense, interpret, and represent life in the deep ocean. I also spent time with Simonson’s Painting the Deep, an exhibition of large paintings of abyssal spaces and abyssal selves, including hairy-limbed yeti crabs and some memorably sensuous giant tube worms. The pictures were composed, in part, from luminescent pigments, which make their colours and textures humanly accessible only when displayed under black light. As well as orienting her audiences toward deep-sea habitats, Simonson’s paintings continuously enact the mediated and uncertain nature of that very orientation. This is something different from triumphally expanding the human sensorium to incorporate yetis and giant worms. It’s something more serpentine, a bringing to view that is at the same time a sign of hominal incapacity. If this is home-building, it obeys a multifarious architecture, one whose chambers may be mutually dependent, but whose dimensions are never fully mine to make.

1. Angela Hume and Samia Rahimtoola, “Introduction: Queering Ecopoetics,” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 25, no. 1 (2018): 134.
2. Jonathan Bate, quoted in Hume and Rahimtoola, “Introduction,” 138.
3. Stephanie LeMenager, “Cli-fi, Petroculture, and the Environmental Humanities,” interview by River Ramuglia, Studies in the Novel50, no. 1 (2018): 155.
4. Katy Waldman, ‘How Climate-Change Fiction, or ‘Cli-Fi,’ Forces Us to Confront the Incipient Death of the Planet,’ The New Yorker, November 9, 2018.
5. Ashley Hay, “Crossing the line: Unknown unknowns in a liminal, tropical world,” Griffith Review 63 (2018): 25.
6. Quoted in Lynn Keller, “Green Reading: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and Environmental Criticism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 612.
7. Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 86-97.
8. Alex Farquharson, “Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep,” in Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep, ed. Alex Farquharson and Martin Clark (Nottingham: Nottingham Contemporary and London: Tate Publishing, 2013), 6.

SEI is exploring these questions and more over the course of the year in our monthly Multispecies Justice blog series, featuring researchers from the new FASS research theme on Multispecies Justice.

Killian Quigley is a Postdoctoral Fellow at SEI. Killian researches the poetic, aesthetic, and broader cultural histories of environments and ecosystems. He is focused, especially, on marine – and above all submarine – contexts. With Margaret Cohen, of Stanford University, he is co-editor of The Aesthetics of the Undersea, forthcoming late 2018 from Routledge Environmental Humanities.