In defense of Electricity

David W. Gilcrest has read Plato. David W. Gilcrest has read Derrida. David W. Gilcrest has read them on paper and not on a screen. David W. Gilcrest has formulated an absolutely foolish argument from that reading that reveals he hasn't read them at all.

My suspicions were initially aroused by Gilcrest's unquestioning acceptance of Derrida's controversial reading of the Phaedrus of Plato as a means of exemplifying the Deconstructive method. Plato is much more sophisticated than most post-structuralists have given him credit for being, and this misunderstanding of Plato is, I think, largely at the root of the division between Analytic and Continental philosophy. Such divisions, however, are not particularly germane to a discussion of the media by which literature is transmitted. This is a lesson that we hope the academy will one day figure out, although such hope at times feels rather Pollyanna-ish. What's at issue is Gilcrest's celebration of Paper, the idea that poetry being printed on Paper is a glorious ethical Good that reminds us of the connection between Language and Nature. (This capitalization is intended to be sarcastic.)

For those of us living in the real world, and whose interest in poetry and poetics isn't driven by a need to build a career in academia such as the one that Gilcrest is supporting with his book Greening the Lyre—which I have not read—but rather by a genuine afición for the subject matter, Gilcrest's argument is patently absurd. To argue that printing poetry on paper rather than transmitting it electronically somehow reminds us of our ethical responsibilities to big 'N' nature is precisely the sort of foolishness that has made the poetic conservatives like Gilcrest so completely culturally irrelevant.

For those readers confused by Gilcrest's intentionally jargon fueled and obfuscated prose, let me break it all down for you:

Gilcrest begins by referencing a statement made by the Vietnamese poet Thich Nhat Hanh about the poetic process. In that statement, Thich Nhat uses paper as a metaphor for the blank beginning of the composition process. Using a bit of rhetorical slight of hand Gilcrest takes this figurative evocation of paper literally and moves on to:

The kind of poetic perception called for here underwrites an understanding of what Thich Nhat Hanh terms "interbeing," the notion that identity is intrinsically conditioned and relational. As many critics have noted, such an understanding is entirely consistent with a contemporary ecological attitude that emphasizes the interanimating and interdependent nature of ecosystems and their participants. [... and] also serves to remind us of the fundamental connection between language and the natural world, arguably the starting point for any ecocritical endeavor. In this sense, Paper stands in a metonymic relationship to the environmental preconditions of discourse in both its oral and written forms. Paper stands for trees, earth, water, the body, life: the ten-thousand things of our living world.

If you're shaking your head and going "huh?" you are not alone. First off, what's this interbeing stuff? Well, according to Gilcrest, it's the "notion that identity is intrinsically conditioned and relational." Which may be more familiar to the informed reader as the Buddhist precept of "anatman" or "no-self." So why not just say that? Because Gilcrest has his career to think of, and speaking like this helps him keep his cushy tenured professorship. Moving on a bit, Gilcrest next says that this notion has been observed by "many critics"—which critics you ask? Beats me, but I'm guessing Gilcrest is one of them—to be "entirely consistent with a contemporary ecological attitude that emphasizes the interanimating and interdependent nature of ecosystems and their participants."

In other words—and you may want to break out the bong to fully feel this one: "it's all like, connected man, we're all a part of the like, circle of life, y'know? Like Nature and Man we're all like a part of each other, dude, totally!" From that stirring insight Gilcrest makes the leap to stating that Thich Nhat's quote reminds us that "language and the natural world" are "fundamentally [connected]" and that this is "arguably the starting point for any ecocritical endeavor." Of course, the questions this passage raises are: 1.) how are language and the natural world connected? 2.) In what way is that connection fundamental? 3.) Who argues that the observation that they are fundamentally connected is a starting point for anything let alone any "ecocritical endeavor." 4.) What is their argument? 5.) What is an ecocritical endeavor? and most importantly 5.) What on earth is David W. Gilcrest talking about? Gilcrest doesn't give us much in the way of clues to figure out what he's saying, but I think with a little detective work it's definitely possible.

Doing a little googling, I found an abstract of Gilcrest's book Greening the Lyre—which I will not read—describing Gilcrest's project of ecocriticism as analyzing nature poetry in light of environmental damage. Which, broadly, sounds very similar to the project of ecocriticism itself. Ecocriticism is a relatively late addition to the list of schools of critical theory, distinguished largely in that its primary concern is with a specific genre of text, rather than with bringing to bear on all texts a methodology of close reading—as other schools of criticism do.

What have we learned here? Gilcrest is an ecocritic, sure, which means he's interested in the environmental ethics involved in the production and reading of texts. So, then, why is he saying that chopping down trees and turning them into paper to write on is a good thing? It seems like a responsible conservationist would advocate a more paperless poetry, a poetry such as the kind that Gilcrest is backhanding, transmitted solely through electricity. But here is Gilcrest's conservatism surfacing. Paper, he is arguing by bouncing his ideas off of an (outdated) Derridaean criticism of speech, is more authentic because it is more natural. Why? Because paper comes from trees and trees are natural. And because of that naturalness it reminds us of our ethical responsibilities to the nonhuman world. That's it. That's the extent of what all of Gilcrest's jargon filled flights of fancy amount to. Of course, paper is mass produced in industrial factories that, as anyone who has ever been to a mill-town can tell you, stink to high heaven with the gross chemicals they belch into the air. Paper requires technology by which it is modified into a product that does not occur in nature anywhere. In fact, the only thing that makes paper technology seem natural is that paper is old technology. Paper production has been going on for thousands of years and is simple enough to explain to elementary school children.

By way of contrast, electricity is also a part of nature. It is a powerful transformative force at play in the invisible sectors of the natural world, harnessed occasionally by animals like humans, but more often guiding them unseen, and directing the changes in an ecosystem with a regularity that is only visible on a macroscopic, that is to say "systemic," scale. When we type in word processors, read poetry on the internet, or save it on a floppy disk, we are harnessing electromagnetism, something just as much a part of nature as trees. Leaving aside the nonsensical assertion that language is fundamentally connected to nature—which if read one way is so obvious it doesn't need saying, and if read another doesn't seem to have any meaning at all—it is by no means obvious that whatever properties Gilcrest is claiming for paper are in any way unique to it.

Which is where that conservatism I was talking about comes in. Gilcrest holds up as examples elsewhere than in this article poets like Robert Frost, A.R. Ammons, Seamus Heaney, and Adrienne Rich; dull, establishment poets who, if anything, reinforce the status quo of cultural views of the natural world and its poetic reflection and are not in the least bit interested in progressive structures or interplay in their work. Which is the problem with critics like Gilcrest who, married to the academic schema of tenure for publication at all costs, reproduce endlessly dull praise of stale, unadventurous poetry dressed up in this season's jargon. Essays such as Gilcrest's amount to little more than coldly cynical career moves. They devalue the product of critical commentary and make necessary a more radical poetics than Gilcrest imagines, a poetics that struggles to exist outside the oxygen-deprived heights of the ivory tower. This poetics must refuse to adopt the dialect of such critics, infected as it is with meaningless jargon and tied to a specific set of literary allusions to a small number of Dead French Philosopher's of the last century. Freed from the fashions of professional academy criticism, a more forward thinking and truly responsible poetics can look to the fields of linguistics, biology, and the environmental justice movement to find current and relevant ways to explore the intersection of language and nature. Gilcrest, however, is a dead end and should be ignored.

Comments

Of course, we're also all

Of course, we're also all interconnected with the dioxin and other toxic byproducts released during the production and bleaching of the paper Gilcrest holds so dear...

The original article was

The original article was completely ludicrous.

The thing is, "nature" is something completely different now from what it was in Adrienne Rich's, Archie Ammons's, or even Seamus Heaney's formative years. Even in the wide-open United States, society gets ever more urban, and rural areas get ever less pristine. As a result, "nature" means something different to people today.

It always seemed to me that the debate people had about the conflict between nature and the modern technological society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries opposed and idealization of complete technical mastery (with or without humanism) against a romantic, pure natural teleology. Even as late as the 1960s it never seemed to occur to anyone that what we'd have is a technological society that barely manages to master anything alongside a permanently despoiled natural world.

I would hazard that most young people today relate to a piece of paper the way they relate to Coca-Cola, toothpaste, Wonder bread, and injection- molded plastic: a perfectly uniform substance of unknown providence. There's little to romanticize there, and little reason to romanticize it.

And yet you have to make meaning of it all, somehow. So that's what writers today will do.