THE POLITICS OF READING FOR WONDER
University Of South Dakota, February 8, 2017
Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and conservationist, once wished that she could give “to each child in the world… a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”[i] Carson wrote these words in “Help Your Child to Wonder,” a how-to article for Woman’s Home Companion in 1956. This was at the height of her celebrity career as a natural history writer, at the very moment she was turning to a more direct conservation politics and the writing of Silent Spring, her 1962 book on pesticides and pollution that would help turn environmentalism into a widespread movement. Without wonder at nature, she asked, why would we care about it? And if we fail to care, insulated in a dream of human power, we undermine ourselves: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race.”[ii] When she died in 1964, Carson was planning to expand the how-to article into a book called “A Sense of Wonder.” Environmentalists since Carson have felt about wonder the same ethical urgency: feeling themselves not to be mere logicians dutifully trundling moral principles to every corner of the world, but as awed nature enthusiasts who know enchantment as an inspiring, moral force.[iii]
Not only does our relationship to nature at large—the wild and various otherness of the cosmos—perhaps need and inspire our wonder. Philosophers have also argued that wonder is a cornerstone in our intellectual openness to and empathetic appreciation of human differences.[iv] Jane Bennett and others have argued that we need to “love life” at large in order to “care about anything,” human and nonhuman, and that a disenchanted world ranges its forces against such affective attachments.[v] This imperative has found its way into literary ecocriticism. Scott Knickerbocker opens his pioneering book on ecopoetics by considering wonder the “most important quality of ecocentrism” and by studying its literary production in a poem by Emily Dickinson.[vi]
The stakes are set high, then, for how our world understands wonder, and how it is made in art and literature. But what is wonder, exactly? And is it, after all, so very hard to find or to cultivate? A long tradition in philosophy understands wonder to be a very peculiar synthesis of perception, emotion, and thought: when we are struck by something somehow awesome, it defies what psychologists of wonder call “need for accommodation” to conventional or ready-to-hand ways of recognizing things in the world and their purposes, yet it is also aesthetically and intellectually imposing, impressive. Wonder is sensual, pricking our senses either actually or imaginatively; but it also touches us, evoking, as Aristotle would say, pity or fear; and finally, it makes us wonder in the cognitive sense, posing riddles to knowledge that we speculate upon. Aristotle followed Plato in calling wonder the origin of philosophy. Carson, Knickerbocker, Bennett and many others want us to wonder at nonhuman nature—as a way of realizing the limits to our own knowledge and powers, and also of feeling, ethically, for other things and beings. In the Dickinson poem that Knickerbocker analyzes, the poet encounters a bird on her walk. At first she describes it with domesticating metaphors, anthropomorphic and ornamental, before these give way to a series of gorgeous, jarring images that render a strange beauty and power.
If Bennett is right, such enchantment is not only all around us in the natural world, but in our manufactured ones as well—including the world of capitalist commodities and their marketing.[vii] There may be wonder in a bird or a rainbow, but also in a software application, an advertisement, a painting or a poem. One of the curious things about poetic or literary wonder is that it produces wonder for an unreal thing or event. Dickinson’s poem expresses the poet’s wonder at a bird, but in so doing it evokes the reader’s wonder at an imaginary bird, something built by the poem, from words interacting with our sensual experience, in our mind and feelings. A poetics of wonder cannot be an innocent disclosure, then, of the value or knowledge of nature. It is a cultural production, with all the risks and prejudices, but also didactic importance, which that entails. One of the contradictions of poetic wonder is that the experience of wonder is normally said (most cogently by Mary-Jane Rubenstein and Martha Nussbaum, but also by some experimental psychology) to be open-ended—suspending the aims and interests of the wonderer in an estranged, more freely sensual and thoughtful, somewhat selfless state. Yet the poetic construction of that experience is, by contrast, must be bound up in the aims and interests of the poet.[viii] Poetic wonder has designs on us.
Such designs will be diverse, but in modern times, there is an overarching one, which is simply a market for wonder or the promise of it. A need for the production of wonder is the flipside of a modern experience of disenchantment that is just as artificial, a feeling produced by the social and ethical consequences of consumerism and secularism that cannot be dispelled as the mere doom and gloom of an antimodernist imagination. Disney and the children’s culture industry at large seems frantically, compulsively devoted to inspiring wonder against the inertial feeling of spiritless goals and jaded disenchantment.
Literary scholarship seems driven by the same fear. While Rita Felski has called for literary scholars to free themselves from the iron cage of a disenchanted tradition of critique—of rationalist suspicion and demystification—and to embrace enchantment and other affects in art, one wonders whether we have not covertly indulged it all along.[ix]Whether innovative or merely iterative, scholarship never tires of promoting strikingly new perceptions, purposes and affiliations it discovers in its texts, claiming to open doors that have been shut from blindness or neglect. In this, we surely don’t look for bare novelty, or strict social purpose. Almost shamefully, I think—because it is not what we are supposed to be doing, because it seems like wanting to trick people, to evade rational evaluation—do we not also hope to enchant others or be enchanted ourselves with something strangely arresting in words and ideas? So it is that across the culture industries, wonder is today an experience less of rare, spontaneous enchantments, than of desperate, anticipatory re-enchantments, uniquely modern in temperament.
Another way of seeing this is to say, with historian Michael Saler, that we live in a world of ironic or “disenchanted enchantments.”[x] Like nearly all writers on the wonders of nature, Saler and Bennett are drawn to the good things, ethically and intellectually, that may also come from a deliberate, even disenchanted artifice of wonder. But why can’t such enchantments also be baleful or wicked? Does a pair of dancing khaki pants really inspire a progressive love and political respect for nonhuman things in our environments, while inspiring you to buy and own them? Wonder has long been associated with spellbinding for nefarious purposes; with credulity, misdirection, and deceit. My reference to Disney points to this ambivalence; so much of Disney wonder, its “magic,” is short-circuited by an insistence on mere change of feeling, a degraded liberal idea of sentiment. Effectively alone among those writing about the politics of wonder, the folklore scholar Cristina Bacchilega has recently promoted a distinction between enchantment that prompts critical thought, which is wonder proper, and enchantment that mystifies and reproduces consumerism, which is magic. I want to develop a similar and larger contrast, in which the experience of magic falls under what I call awe. Wonder prompts new knowledge seeking, perhaps even new experience seeking, in the unfamiliar. Awe has the same defamiliarizing effect on the mind and senses, but shuts down critical thought by rendering mystery or otherness absolute, unquestionable.[xi] The poetics of wonder and awe overlap aesthetically (as sensually striking), emotionally (as both gripping and jarring), and intellectually (as defying ordinary ways of reading the world), but they are distinct. Wonder feels like a vast doorway; awe feels like a vast wall. In the time that remains, I will pursue the ethical importance of a poetics of wonder as opposed to awe, but in doing so, I do not want to lose sight of the fact that walls can be pleasurable or good in their own way, and doorways may lead away as much as toward.
To explore the alternative politics of wonder and awe, I’ll look first at two popular movies in which these play a spectacular and thematic role. I’ll then turn to a couple of recent long poems that struggle with wonder and awe in representing modern ecological conditions.
The first movie is George Lucas’s 1977Star Wars. Probably only those who saw the movie in its time can appreciate how different the movie looked and felt, not only compared with movies in general, but even with existing sci-fi film and television. Its wondrous appeal comes in good measure from the partly familiar, partly strange look of its vast yet detailed worlds, and the unprecedented play of scale in and among them. Contrasts of figural minutiae with sensually thrilling distances in space and on planets are common in its spatial composition, its mise-en-scène. But the evocation of wonder principally derives from the magic expressed by the Force, and this is most striking in the dazzling choreography of the lightsaber duel. The lightsaber turns the merely human, with all its familiar awkwardness, into the Jedi, a graceful, radiant dancer. Yet the lightsaber without the Force would have been a mere special effect, an ornament. The Force, which has no direct representation, plays the role of a hidden system of power and intrinsic value. “It’s an energy field created by all living things,” Obi-Wan Kenobi explains. “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In this sense, the Force also represents a sublime play of scale, between a magical, ordinary size manifestation and an invisible, vast extension. It expresses a sublime vitalism one cannot know conceptually, but only feel. Its ethical implications are tricky.
The Force appears to be neither good nor bad, yet it has a light side and a dark side. These may be exploited for respectively good or evil purposes—in particular, the liberal ideals of freedom, flourishing, and diversity, as opposed to oppression, destruction, and gray-scale conformity. Not everyone can feel the Force or use it, but the entire plot of Star Wars turns on the very, very few who can. On the surface, as ordinary knowledge, the story is a two-sided war involving the entire population of a galaxy, in which a totalitarian Empire expands against desperate opposition from a Rebel Alliance. We learn next to nothing about social, political, or economic interests behind the war, and indeed, these turn out to be mere byproducts of its hidden system of meaning—a conflict between the magical power of individual feelings of a few Jedi and Sith, and all the ordinary resources either can pull into their wake. The abstraction of feeling from any social history or indeed material life, as a foundation of moral choice, naturalizes a rigid dualism of good and evil.
Because the Force is either sublimely unknowable or abstractly felt, any wonder it inspires can only turn to awe. Hence its institutionalization by mystical religious orders, Jedi and Sith, rather than by science. We are asked to imagine a world in which the management of feeling, not the pursuit of knowledge, is what decodes riddles of good and bad, right and wrong. If there is unfreedom or misery in the world, it is due to individuals whose heart is in the wrong place. Sociology, economy, and culture play no role in the plot. The Force is an inward and spiritual experience, always individual, not collective—exemplified by the solitary Yoda, eyes closed as he works his magic. This spiritualized liberal individualism tacitly mirrors its masculine and white heritage: not only the women of Star Wars, but also men of colour, Wookiees, and whatever species Yoda belongs to, all fail the Bechdel test. It is true, hypothetically, one might genuinely wonder how to be good amidst all the asymmetries of resources and knowledge in the diverse, messy cosmos imagined by the Force, but one doesn’t. In awe of its power, one simply feels the light and dark, or not—more likely not, in which case one can only follow those who do.
Star Wars depends on a poetics of awe in the following respects. Like much science fiction, it uses systematic estrangements, or disaccommodations of ordinary schemas of knowledge, to reveal an unexpected or hidden reality. (What is that tin can like thing? Oh, it seems to be talking to that robot, so it must be another robot.) But these disaccommodations are normative. In the opening scene, a pair of indistinct planets emerge at a distance, out of the depths of space. We hardly have time to wonder about their nature before they become background for one hurtling spaceship, fired upon by a larger spaceship giving chase. Martial music accompanies the scene, underscoring the battle action. We know what is happening because a long textual preamble has crawled across the screen, filling in the details of who is on what ship and why, and their place in the galactic war plot. The planets are conventional images, resembling those in our solar system. The ships, too, are at first somewhat conventional. The Rebel ship has glowing thrusters on the back and a rocket shape, while the Empire’s ship is tapered in an aerodynamic way and sports something like a naval battleship’s command bridge. The way that the latter first emerges only in part, as a close up that fills the screen as its vast, detailed structure glides across in pursuit, requires some mental accommodation: what is it? As the ship reveals itself, it effects an awesome sensual obliteration and totalization of the mise-en-scène that reflects the vast reach of the Empire in the plot and of the dark power of the Force we are to learn is behind it. In short, wonder’s disaccommodations offer a sensual and cognitive kick, but they quickly dissolve into narrative legibility, along with a remainder of inexplicable awe before a scale of power that may defy representation.
The same dissolution and remainder affect wonder’s play of scale. An unbridgeable divide separates the scales of ordinary life from those of the Force unless you have the telepathy or telekinesis of a Jedi or Sith. For all its ubiquity as life energy, the Force is paradoxically inaccessible, both to characters at large in the story and to the audience trying to understand it. The play of scale between ordinary and revealed systems of power in Star Wars, stuck in an enchanted dualism of knowledge and feeling, is awesome. Later, racing across the surface of an artificial planet in his space jet, pursued by enemy fire, the hero can hardly hope to judge the precise moment to drop his bomb down a narrow shaft of which he has only seen technical drawings. The fleeting scale and complexity of the Death Star is nothing, however, to the incommensurable reach of the Force, whose feeling for space and time is purely other. In the articulation of such plays of scale and disaccommodation, we grasp the politics of awe: a sense of what I call alienated mastery. This might seem counterintuitive: awe, with its humbling spectacle of power and order, to which ordinary reality is subject, will surely undercut naïve, egocentric mastery. But it only displaces or inverts its basis. Fabricated awe must always generate dual signs of the known versus the unknowable in legible absolutes—of light and dark, life and death, spiritual and material, human and inhuman, self and other, or good and evil—and these always come laden with values. And also, typically, with ideologies of species, race and gender. The manufactured sublime, as in Star Wars, naturalizes and so authorizes and underwrites a discourse of mastery over the ordinary world—a mastery that is the insidious verso or imprint of its submission to awe. There is never really any question what its hero should do, or why, as a Jedi. We are spellbound by ideals that are estranged in sublime origin, but not strange in ordinary practice.
Barely two years after the release of the first Star Wars, another popular movie shifted the foundations of wonder in cinema and in science fiction: Ridley Scott’s Alien. The mystery of Alien is not a ubiquitous Force, but a localized and specific Creature. Its mystery belongs to a heterogenous cosmic ecology—a background world without any presumed commonality or holistic system, only diverse presences that may emerge and interact here and there. Such encounters occur on the edge of the narrow lighted circles of each others’ capacities for apprehension. Hence there is no absolute light side and dark side of life at large; there are as many forms of light or clarity as there are species of life sensually to afford them. There is no one big wall of the unseen to live in awe of and orient one’s morality from. There are only unpredictable encounters to wonder at. The characters in Alien cannot express an ideal of mastery with their backs to the wall, or any clear moral ideology that would ordinarily direct such mastery. Yet I will argue that a profound ethical process is at the heart of its intricately fabricated spectacle, a design in the wonder. The process unfolds from a dialectical poetics, not the dualistic one of awe. And it calls for an ethical practice that abandons the pursuit of mastery in favour of resilience.
A comparison of the opening sequences of Alien and Star Wars will demonstrate these contrasts. Alien begins with a view of the edge of a backlit planet, its rings glowing. As the view tracks across the dark surface to the rings on the other side, the title emerges one line at a time, seeming at first to be a geometrical pattern and only gradually legible as a word. Both planet and word are spectacular, but partly hidden. These disaccommodations cue the audience for the need of interpretation and reinterpretation to come: what will impose itself, however powerfully, will not yield to ordinary recognition.[xii] There is no story in medias res, or rather, that back story is a complicated, disjointed one that only comes together by virtue of the encounter itself; it must be discovered by the characters as much as by the audience. In Star Wars, the appearance of spacecraft is of conventional tools of human characters, of their pilots and masters. In Alien, the spacecraft tugboat, named Nostromo, and its immense haul, is neither aerodynamic nor its purpose in a larger galactic history at all clear, and a sequence of shots showing its empty interior give it an eerie life of its own. This sense intensifies when a computer terminal comes to life with rapid, largely illegible scrolling output lines, which reflect in the facemask of an empty pilot’s helmet. In short, the first alien in Alien is the spacecraft itself, and though we likely feel this on some level, we may not yet think it. When the ship’s AI is later identified as “Mother,” we are forced to re-categorize the nature of the ship—not merely a setting or a tool, but Mother’s body, another personified being in which the human characters live, albeit an artificial one. Mother diverts her course to an out of the way solar system in response to a technological message from another spacecraft, before waking the crew. The intelligent nature of Mother is uncertain, but we must further revise our understanding when we learn that she is not merely an AI pilot, but also acts for the business corporation that owns her, whose goods she tows. The strange name, “Mother,” indicates a symbiotic relationship between human and machine—and behind that, perhaps of individual and corporation—that is echoed in the symbiotic predation of the Creature itself, and vulnerability of the humans to it.
The encounter with an alien, then, sends the protagonists and audience on a journey of wonder, not only at what may be learned and felt about the Creature, but what may be learned and felt about themselves, the unsuspected folds of their own life worlds. The poetics of wonder are here dialectical because the obscurity of what is intelligible in other lives, and of what it is right to do with them, is never banished; and the light cast by each encounter, each learning event, causes new questions and problems to arise. Every sign is subject to a tragic reversal and surprise recognition, a Sphinx’s riddle opening up further riddles. The glowing letters reflecting from the empty facemask—or the Creature clinging to Kane’s face—or the cat companion on board—offer various images of vitality, purpose, causality, and organization—indeed, of composite histories of explanation—that could in principle be increasingly revealed, and are somewhat, but without closure. This dialectical structure is nowhere more central than in the encounter itself, which is really of two distinct alien life forms that have previously merged, organically and technologically—so that the alien encounter is really an encounter with yet another encounter, an alien mise-en-abyme of process and différance (of supplementation and decentring of identities), though it takes quite a while to figure all this out, so accustomed are we to think in binary terms of self and other, this and that.[xiii] Life, in an expanded, wondrous and terrifying view of it, cannot be mastered—only managed tactfully and tactically, provisionally, and adapted to, as a practice of resilience.
I have drawn this contrast between wonder and awe in these two films in order to suggest how their politics diverge as a result—one in the direction of moral absolutes and emotion-based, or therapeutic change; the other in the direction of moral estrangement and knowledge-based, or ideological change. The Force offers a genial ideology of the way things really are, a kind of weak, universal spirituality that says, be as life-affirming as possible and work for the flourishing of life and its diverse capacities in the world. This is valuable, but what if “life” encounters in itself, its own body, a ruthless Corporation or invasive species of Creature? The unsentimental decision of Alien’s heroine, to let Kane die outside the Nostromo in order not to risk others’ lives, would never have been Luke Skywalker’s, yet she is vindicated. Moral questioning, rather than faith, may be more valuable. The science fiction genre also foregrounds the artifice of wonder, which is the production of unreal encounters with invented natures, as an ethical act. This kind of invention is not only required by fantasy genres. It may also be sought by writers and artists who want to represent real world conditions that defy conventional representation. Modern times have forced such conditions on us, in which we identify coherent actors in our life that are too large adequately to represent or grasp: globalization, the anthropocene, climate change. Fredric Jameson has called this a problem for cognitive mapping. Aristotle called it a problem of representational scale, of eusonopton or “seeing-well-together,” on which wonder depends. Wonder requires a play of scale, of unexpected depths and relations to life, but if these are bottomless they turn to awe. This problem is at the heart of contemporary writing about the planetary scales of ecology. How to represent something so vast and complex, yet crucial to our ethical lives? Ursula Heise has usefully shown how the “global” has been represented by either of two aesthetic modes—by allegory, which unifies in an image or conceit (like Mother Earth or perhaps Eliot’s The Waste Land), or by collage, which multiplies fragments (like Pound’s Cantos or Google Earth).
The tendency in ecopoetics today is collage, and it is perhaps nowhere more forceful than in Myung Mi Kim’s 2002 long poem, Commons. Kim is a Korean American poet whose fragmentary, very self-reflexive style has been called postmodern. Commons picks up themes of geographical, linguistic, and cultural border crossing in social and ecological contexts, in order to imagine a global commons and responsibilities to it. The poem juxtaposes fragments of sign, phrase, and sentence that range across planetary references. The relationship of fragments is made difficult by the lack of causal articulation between noun phrases and non sequiturs across shifting scales. Some of the opening lines, for example, are: “Names of things made by human hands. Making famine where abundance lies. / Mapping needles. Minerals and gems. Furs and lumber. Alternations through the loss or transposition of even a single syllable. The next day is astronomical distance and a gnarled hand pulling up a wild onion.”[xiv] Poem “317” of Commons (19) is as follows:
—to settle refugees—to remove land mines
And their task leaked
cho-gah-jiib : a color—straw and wintered grass
The question is labor
Skin loosening from bone is age
Ages longer than drought or rain
ee . 은
My bewilderment in moving from line to line, sometimes unable to guess the meaning of non-English signs, uses as a handrail the composing activity of the poet. These fragments are mapped and plotted out by a cognitive agency that I take to be my protagonist. Her expressive labour is in principle intelligible rather than irrational, even if I lack the knowledge or experience to access with confidence its explanatory contexts.[xv] She intends a dialectical movement of fascination, knowledge, ignorance, translation and speculation. She glosses Francis Bacon approvingly about this fragmentary, aphoristic pursuit of knowledge, inimical to mastery: “Aphorisms are ‘broken knowledge’ that create ‘wonder’” (108).[xvi]
Nevertheless, the magnitude of Commons is so ambitious, so inclusive, as to risk the impracticability of eusunopton, of seeing-well-together, which provides both the emotional hooks and the rational grounds for Aristotelian wonder. The range of reference, her “desire for the encyclopedic” (107), often exceeds the reader’s ability to imagine specific, intelligible agencies and actions that could account for what it represents. Modern conditions of globalization, and technologies able to traverse scales from the microbe to the galaxy, have brought equally near to us our knowledge, and our ignorance, of a staggering diversity of powers and things. Seeking a coherent representation of our place in nature, Aristotle drew the line at the celestial heavens; today, we might draw the line as nearby as our own financial systems or companion animals. For Aristotle, ancient tragedy walked a line between cosmic well-being and toxic miasma, where the miasma is localized in a place and answerable as a riddle. Such lines and riddles now run all around and through us, as they do onboard the Nostromo, embedding us in countless, barely representable networks of naturalcultural agency. A generalized, unboundaried miasma pushes the intelligibility of wonder towards the impasse of awe. If as moderns we recognize this planetary condition, our choice remains starkly that of the ancient tragic protagonists – whether to seek the satisfactions won by the exertion of a sheer will to power within our habitats (mastery), or to seek them in adaptation to some idea of ecological commonweal (resilience). The social and ecological “commons” allegorized by Kim’s poem is barely graspable, a wonder teetering on the edge of the ineffable, a menagerie almost dissolving into invisible vitality like the Force, yet refusing to do so.
What we have in common, our commons, finds a narrower focus in another long poem, Styrofoam, by American poet, Evelyn Reilly. Styrofoam is about the god-like hidden natures and reaches of plastics in our lives and environments—both creative and destructive. The poem shares with Commons the collage approach of imagist parataxis, and is similarly difficult to interpret. In both poems, we move from the riddle or datum of each verse to the next, which offers a new dialectical context for its interpretation, but poses a riddle of its own, and so on. If the sense-making distance is too great between them, and they multiply, the danger is that dialectical knowledge will turn to disoriented awe. Similar to Commons, Reilly’s poem moves into every corner of human, biological, and plastic existence with wonder at its mysterious fragments, wandering among pictures and voices of science, history, and art. Unifying it all, verse to verse, turn upon turn, is the legible yet unexpected historical agency of plastic at large, a kind of fluid, oceanic creature [one of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects[xvii]] with a life of its own, barely understood by the species that engendered it, barely representable by our grammars and languages. The magic of this poem is in its invocation of this dark and expansive life, a hidden and powerful being, toxic or life-giving, in this transcending but always material stuff. The poem opens with a traditional dialectic of question and answer, embedded in song, and in the evocation, for its muse, of a plastic oracle whose ecstatic vision is a product of chemical toxicity (this is a twist on the mortal women who served as Delphic oracles, seated on a sacred tripod above vents in the earth, high on immortal, chthonic fumes). Another avatar of this magic is the mystic St. Theresa, evoked via her manifestation in Gertrude Stein’s opera, as a plastic visionary.[xviii] Mystical awe is here materialized, and the heavens rendered intelligibly commonplace, in Reilly’s disturbing vision of St. Theresa’s celestial body in the form of plastic St. Theresa souvenirs floating in a “poly.fix.styx.fury.flurry.slurry / of extra-terrain garbage” in Earth’s orbit (28). The vast, obscure, puissant meaning of plastic, from its microscopic to its planetary scales, turns a friendly or ominous, but always earthly face to the reader. It is never completely other or unknowable. Thus it evokes not merely sublime otherness, but a disturbing empathy in wonder.
Something like this feeling was evoked by Rachel Carson when she wrote Silent Spring, which begins by imagining a small town afflicted by a miasma of disparate illnesses, deaths, and absences. If its hidden reality, the hidden problem, was the crop pesticide DDT, then one’s awe would end at the power of a single chemical travelling invisibly through a whole life world, like the dark side of the Force. And the solution would be to ban DDT. But that’s not what she says. The hidden problem is not DDT alone, but the need for DDT in modern agriculture, in modern industrial life. This leads Carson, a nature conservationist, to promote methods of culling insects using technologies of mutant breeding that attacks insects’ sexual reproduction—that is, to advocate both creating artificial new animals and killing other animals, paradoxically in order to protect nature, human and nonhuman. She knows there is no ideal solution to the problem, and that all solutions may create new problems in ecological systems. Her dialectical story, then, argues for resilience rather than mastery, and accepts a kind of uneasy, ongoing ethical crisis in what we do to nature, rather than a fixed idea of right and wrong.
By telling that story of a silent spring, Carson allows us to see our world in a newly disaccommodated way, as a fateful entanglement of human and nonhuman histories and designs, that is both close to us (close to the heart, even) and made vast and strange—both knowable and unknown. The enchantment of wonder is a key element in her ecopoetics and in the texts I’ve talked about today. It needs to be nurtured, to be valued as a critical process much more than it is at present, alongside theory’s legacy of critique and demystification. But in so doing, we must also be wary of its political ambivalence, even in ecopoetics. Wonder may be designed to open one door while locking others; wonder may halt at the wall of awe. To cultivate an appreciation of wonder proper, even a desire for it, requires understanding these designs. This is what a practice of reading for wonder undertakes. To prepare for this, I am trying to ask how wonder works, how designed or poetic wonder works and what are its ethical implications, how ideology or awe may limit wonder, and how one might teach wonder, without simply saying “wow, this poem is amazing.”
[iv]See for example Margeurite La Caze’s extension of Luce Irigaray’s argument for the virtue of wonder in “The Encounter between Wonder and Generosity,” Hypatia 17.3 (2002), pp. 1-19; and Martha Nussbaum’s discussion of wonder in the education of empathy and citizenship in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge UK: Cambridge UP, 2001), 426-7.
[xv]I assume this mainly because of the solemnity of the political and existential content, but also because at the end of her book, the poet appears explicitly to say so: “The lyric undertakes the task of deciphering and embodying a ‘particularizable’ prosody of one’s living.” ).
[xvi]Kim refers to Bacon’s discussion of the limitations of knowledge in Book One, section I, paragraph 3 of his Advancement of Learning, together with his discussion of the value of aphorisms in Book Two, section XVII, paragraph 7. In the former paragraph he calls wonder “the seed of knowledge” (8) but also, with respect to God, “broken knowledge” (9); in the latter paragraph he observes that “aphorisms, representing a broken knowledge, do invite men to inquire further; whereas methods [i.e. reasoning alone], carrying the show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at furthest” (136).