Figure and Disfiguration in Contemporary Ecopoetics
[Artworks] exist as a force in the long history of our efforts to represent the world to ourselves and, in the process, to humanize ourselves.
Susan Stewart, The Poet’s Freedom1
This chapter explores how a literary mode, ecopoetics, which emerges in North American poetry in the early 2000s, engages and redirects poetic figures of address—apostrophe, prosopopoeia—in order to reimagine human obligations to the nonhuman world. Written in a period of sharply rising global emissions and failed climate accords, poems associated with this emerging mode stage imaginative encounters with nonhuman entities and remaindered materials. Dramatizing the attempt to recognize and draw into relation, these works consider the incommensurabilities and violent estrangements of that effort. The modes of address they employ appear as urgent problems rather than assurances, questions without forthcoming answers. They also occur as extravagant or ironized calls, admissions of guilt and shame, or refusals or inabilities to address another. In all these ways, this chapter contends, they illuminate a new chapter in the history of aesthetic processes of humanization that Susan Stewart describes in this chapter’s epigraph: what I call “anthropogenic poetics.”
It is the very redundancy of the term “anthropogenic,” its routing back to poiesis along uncanny lines, that I highlight as a key dimension of contemporary ecopoetics. To think through this poetic tendency, we might turn to Bruno Latour’s description in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence of an uncanny aesthetic relay:
Like technologies, let us say that works of art are always anthropomorphic, or, better, anthropogenic. Which does not mean that the artisan or artist has given a particular work the “form” of a human, but rather that the work has gained the form of a human in a rebound effect. . . . It is the anthropos stunned by the offerings made by his own hands who is made to draw back in surprise in the face of what is morphing him.2
In this passage, Latour argues that the artwork’s process of subjectification teaches the perceiver how to imagine himself in new and surprising ways. Stressing the ways that imagination and subjectification “emanate from the work” rather than preceding it, Latour claims that we are “produced by what we produce.”3 In turn, this insight points to a sense that poems or works of fiction are “unsettling” in their revelation of previously unfathomed dimensions of the human subject. Perhaps most evocative in Latour’s portrayal of this dynamic encounter is how his vocabulary stresses the face-to-face, underscoring its “anthropomorphic, or, better, anthropogenic” qualities.4 Latour’s insistence on the anthropogenic extends the human outward via the literary trope of prosopopoeia.5
Apostrophe and prosopopoeia are the essential poetic tropes for examining the problems and possibilities of speaking for, to, with, and in the absence of others. Barbara Johnson, writing of de Man’s work on these rhetorical figures, points out that they can extend who or what “counts as a person,” ascribing significance and relationality to the nonhuman world.6 These figurations of intimacy at the same time denote distance, unreachability. The speaker calls across an unbridgeable chasm, attempting to fulfill a desire to bring the other into full, flesh-and-blood presence, to allow the other to speak back. This desire to face the other involves various forms of reckoning, including a confrontation with absence itself. These are the tropes that name and draw forth, measuring dependencies, mutual obligations, imbalance, inadequacy, unnatural loss, and deprivation.
In its employment of these tropes along these Latourian lines, ecopoetics can be said to be concerned with the redescription of a particular subject via the circuit of poiesis. Many poems categorizable within this mode are concerned with the ways the disconcertingly humanizing process that Stewart and Latour describe as central to the operations of the artwork must be fathomed anew in light of the global dimensions of crisis organized under the frame of the Great Acceleration. These texts eschew not only a standpoint of empirical distance—a framework common to the canonical American tradition of nature-writing—but also a perspective of dehierarchized intimacy of speaking subject with her surroundings, instead highlighting new signs and consequences of human activity in the environment that produce unfamiliar subject-effects. These poems portray forms of estranged recognition that emerge as a kind of defacement or disfiguration.7
To describe this poetry as “anthropogenic” gestures not only to this tropological inheritance and its Latourian redirection but also to the conceptual framework of the Anthropocene, the development of which is coterminous with the poems surveyed in this chapter. The ecopoetics texts of this chapter do not directly stage these dynamics in their representations. But they can be understood as attuned specifically to a first-world subject and his outsized privileges and obligations in an era of profound socioecological transformation. These works convey the profoundly unequal effects that accompany where and how one lives, and they meditate on the difficult question of individual responsibility for environmental crisis.8 My use of the term “anthropogenic,” then, reflects not a poetics of species universalism per se. Instead it points to the ways these poems draw on tropes of humanness, subjectification, and de-facing as they examine particular, situated subject positions in a historical moment. It calls attention to the ways these works play out the relay-effect Latour describes—the disconcerting sense of being “morphed” by one’s own creation—as a feature of a particular kind of subject-formation taking shape in an emergent poetic mode. The term “anthropogenic” draws attention, then, to the ways such tropes associated with lyric find particular inflection under these specific historical pressures.9
I argue that these works of ecopoetics offer representations of new dimensions of internal estrangement and symbolic de-facing that accompany an emerging consciousness of this differential responsibility. Without offering direct critiques of the Anthropocene concept, they illuminate the “negative discrepant history”—in a pointed modification of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s key phrase “negative universal history,” about the universalism of climate change and the new modes of historical thinking it requires—characteristic of the socioecological contradictions of the early-twenty-first century.10 At the same time, they offer insight into larger affective states—longing, denial, dread, hopelessness, grief—that emerge in response to ecological degradation in a period where the urgency of climate change has been met with political gridlock and business-as-usual capitalism. In its reflections on the strange mix of exigency and inertia that characterizes American environmental politics in the early 2000s, ecopoetics can be defined as a mode attuned to the new contradictions, subjective and objective, arising in the post-Kyoto period.
1. Susan Stewart, The Poet’s Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 198.
2. Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 246. Original emphasis.
3. Ibid., 247, 248.
4. Ibid., 246.
5. Paul de Man defines prosopopoeia as “the fiction of an apostrophe to an absent, deceased or voiceless entity, which posits the possibility of the latter’s reply and confers upon it the power of speech.” Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-facement,” MLN 94.5 (1979): 926. See also Jonathan Culler’s extended treatment of prosopopoeia in Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 186–211.
6. Barbara Johnson, Persons and Things (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 6. Johnson writes, “Apostrophe enables the poet to transform an ‘I–it’ relationship into an ‘I–thou’ relationship, thus making a relation between persons out of what was in fact a relation between a person and non-persons” (9).
7. Here I follow de Man’s description of prosopopoeia as concerned with “the giving and taking away of faces, with face and deface, figure, figuration and disfiguration” (“Autobiography as De-facement,” 926).
8. As Andreas Malm has noted, “A person’s imprint on the atmosphere varies tremendously depending on where she is born. . . . A single average U.S. citizen emits more than 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, or Burundi.” Andreas Malm, “The Anthropocene Myth,” Jacobin, March 3, 2015, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/anthropocene-capitalism-climate-change/.
9. For Jonathan Culler, lyric address functions primarily not as a means of portraying an event in the past but of making an event occur in the moment of the poem’s utterance. He writes, “The bold wager of poetic apostrophe is that the lyric can displace a time of narrative, of past events reported, and place us in the continuing present of apostrophic address, the ‘now’ in which, for readers, a poetic event can repeatedly occur” (226). I argue here, however, that poetic address in this “anthropogenic” sense can be understood not primarily as a performative utterance that displaces context for immanent event but instead as a form of voicing grounded in and routed through specific historical situations. The poem’s address is bound up, inseparably, with the problems emergent in that present.
10. Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History,” 222.