On the dissolution of the self

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[NB the following was written over a number of days and has not been edited to resolve tense and chronology]

As the year dips towards its nadir, I set about the task of finding myself again. Events of recent weeks have left me disarticulated; discomposed. I am back on my feet, more or less, but my mind and body feel bruised and wary, still weathering the strangely compound effects of recent bereavement, chronic spinal pain, and a bout of severe flu.

Yesterday, the sun came out briefly after a long, cold week of rains. I stepped out gratefully into the light with no particular destination in mind, slowly drinking in the sounds, the colours, the textures; the soft blue of the distant hills bleeding into the fiercer blue of the sky. As I walked, I tried to place my awareness at the bottom of my toes, the backs of my shoulder blades, the muscles of my abdomen. Feeling my way cautiously back into the world, I began to recover a sense of my own coordinates through the minute affirmations of surface contact: the warmth of the sun on my thighs through two layers of cotton and wool; the soft brush of a rain-fresh breeze on my lips and cheeks. A sense of self has little purchase in this world, without its constituent senses of relation.

Recently, I chanced across a short passage from Judith Butler’s book Precarious Life (2004, p.22), in which she describes how grief reacquaints us with the co-constitution of selfhood:

When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. Maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us. It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well.

After a period of formal shared mourning, and then the ‘suspended animation’ of the flu, I am alone again, slowly recovering my strength, and finding a way back into my work. Not strictly alone, of course – such an idea presumes (as Butler suggests) the idea of a discrete and independent self, distinct from a world ‘out there’. The ‘self’ I’m concerned with ‘finding’ again now is something different – not so much a question of coherent identity as a sense of situated-ness within that shifting milieu of relations of which I am constituted; an orientation among other bodies and ideas. Ultimately, this kind of approach is also the focus of my work – to elicit a sense of the workings of landscape as a radically relational process. For company in this project I have, among other things, a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Kathleen Stewart’s A Space on the Side of the Road, and snippets of Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams – selected for me by my partner, Scarlet. They make good companions, these thinkers, for reflecting on what it means to be researching landscape, while avoiding that misconceived geometry which counterposes an interior self with a world ‘out there’.

For Solnit, the promise of getting lost lies in the possibility of finding that which you might not even have known to look out for. This possibility is contingent upon a dissolution of the self – or perhaps more specifically, a recognition of how the self is fundamentally constituted and oriented by the world in which it is embedded. Too strong an attachment to the idea of your self as author of your search will force the world into a perspective convergent upon your own projected horizons – you will simply make the world in your own image. Such an attitude offers a semblance of clarity, but forecloses the possibility of being profoundly affected by encounter – of stepping outside what you thought you already knew. Solnit explores the notion that becoming lost might, in other ways, be a process of becoming more thoroughly oriented to the world. By way of example, she turns to Dorothy Lee’s account of the Wintu in north-central California, who rely on cardinal directions, rather than left and right, to describe even their own bodily orientations: “When the Wintu goes up the river, the hills are to the west, the river to the east; and a mosquito bites him on the west arm. When he returns, the hills are still to the west, but, when he scratches his mosquito bite, he scratches his east arm” (Lee, quoted in Solnit, 2006, p.17).

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Shortly after arriving back in this country, I came across a children’s book titled (in Hebrew) How to be a Researcher and Discoverer of Lands. It seemed an apt find, given my current occupation, so I picked it up. Leafing through the pages, I found it was translated from an English edition: an uncritical re-hash of colonial-era British nostalgia and bravado. Reading the Hebrew copy felt particularly ironic, since many of its illustrated vignettes could equally well have been set somewhere in the immediate vicinity – I was reminded, for example, of John MacGregor’s etchings in Rob Roy on the Jordan:

image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

The irony struck a chord – the structure of a PhD research project seems somehow to lend itself implicitly to the image of the solitary, intrepid explorer (in which academic tradition is, of course, historically rooted). This image is predicated on an idea of otherness that completely overlooks the extent to which even the most seemingly remote of lifeworlds on this planet are throughly and inextricably linked (in fact, as decolonial critiques have shown, a huge amount of work has and still does go into maintaining the imaginaries of otherness that sustain colonial ideas of possession and progress). Here knowledge is cast as mastery over the world, rather than something that emerges in relation with it. It is difficult to keep my thoughts from ordering themselves obediently along these lines – from being caught up in the aspirations and anxieties of a solitary pursuit; the desire to make a good impression by resolving open questions into a clear and decisive perspective. Solnit (2006, P.17) helps bring me back to another way of thinking: “In Wintu, it’s the world that’s stable, yourself that’s contingent, that’s nothing apart from its surroundings.”

The idea of dissolution has a certain appeal. Immersion in this particular landscape, with all its troubled and complex richness, induces in me a kind of vertigo – what Stewart (1996, p.69) calls a “desire to abandon myself to the surrounding texture and density.” Simultaneously both a key site in the historic development of orientalism and the exotic ‘other’, and one of the most thoroughly colonised and mediated environs on the planet, this is a landscape that feels, to quote Stewart again, “dense in the thickets of storied sociality” (p.9). The stories I’m looking for – the relational workings of the landscape, the imbrication of ideas and material forces, the playing out of human-nonhuman encounters – are resonant in every detail, from the grand to the most mundane.

My cautious walk out across the village brings me to a small outdoor gym, installed some years ago with boldly proclaimed lottery funding, in a corner of the local park. Like grant-funded schemes the world over, it appears short of an ongoing maintenance plan; here and there an arm is missing or a bolt loose, leaving my exercises lopsided and off balance. The problem of plans and their persistence – of how ideas live out their lives in the material being and doing of particular sites and situations – is a problem that extends to multiple scales. My awkward lopsided workout at the outdoor gym reads as a kind of prosaic proxy for the unfulfilled intentions and wayward trajectories of grander designs (drainage schemes, feeding regimes) that shape this landscape – interventions conceived under different conditions from those amid which they must be sustained and delivered.

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This is something more than a forced metaphor: my point is that direct bodily experience of those disjunct flows and rhythms, the material affects of cycles of care and neglect, elicits a different kind of attention to similar mechanisms working at a broader scale. This kind of attention is supplementary to functionalist analysis of the discrepancies between ideas as they are conceived and how they are realised. What it adds is a sense of how those ideas’ material afterlives are experienced by different entities as bodily  as well as ideational affects. By extension, processes such as the desiccation of peat soils, or the habituation of cranes to new food sources, can also be felt, or at the very least imagined, as bodily affects. In other words, it becomes possible to work from a presumption of commonality with nonhuman entities, and not from an (equally imagined) perspective of detachment in which relationality is reduced to only its outwardly measurable effects.

What this approach allows for is something akin to empathy – a capacity to experience the feelings of others as one’s own – but with the difference that it focuses on affects, and not on feelings per se. This is important because while it is far from clear whether we can ever presume to know whether and how nonhuman animals (or others) experience feelings – the felt results of affects as registered by a conscious mind – it is arguably much more straightforward to presume that nonhuman animals are affected in similar ways to ourselves (1). While we cannot directly access affects in conscious thought or language, by entering into spaces of affective resonance with nonhuman animals we can hope to be moved differently by the encounter, and so also to think differently our relationality and common involvement in the workings of shared landscapes.

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A few days before that solitary excursion to the park, I braved the rain and cold wind for a brief trip to the nearby nature reserve with Scarlet. From a willow in the relative shelter of the bank, a group of maybe twenty night herons stared back at us inscrutably, or ignored us completely as they huddled again the persistent, gusty drizzle. The intimacy of the encounter seemed worthy of fuller attention, and we lingered despite the cold to attempt a quick sketch. Off to our left, a duck appeared, swimming our way. As we drifted over to get a better look, we were surprised to find the duck making straight for us – swimming in a determined line to the water’s edge and struggling up the steeply overgrown bank, to hover a scant couple of metres from our feet. She was a female teal, tiny, and breathing with a strange wheezing gasp. Concerned, we phoned the reserve staff, and two rangers came to collect her. Though clearly impelled by conflicting urges – she repeatedly bolted only to struggle gamely back up towards us again – she allowed herself to be caught, and was taken back to the centre to be kept in sheltered isolation while she recovered, or died. With cases of bird flu reported at poultry sheds in the area, the bird’s sorry condition was also a worrying indication of the disease’s possible spread (3).

Flu-struck as I was, it was impossible not to relate to the teal on more than just a rational level. Those gasping breaths betrayed a bodily effort in the face of weakness I could not help but resonate with. It was with the ache of my bones and the hollow internal chill of my vital organs, as much as with my reasoning mind, that I felt the implied threat of disease rippling out from the body of the individual teal to the entire bird and human populations of the valley – felt that tension between persistence and surrender which marks the dual compulsions of life under threat. I could reason through the possible social and political implications, and I could feel sympathy for the duck’s miserable state, but prior to either thought or emotion there was the vital charge of mutual affects that made available to me something of the underlying commonality of animal experience, a sense of what it is to be diminished in the world.

To approach humans and allow yourself to be caught is not a typical behaviour of wild duck, especially not teal, who are notoriously shy. I have no way of knowing what impetus moved her – whether she had prior experience of human kindness, or perhaps a more abstract sense of animal solidarity in hard times, or even a fatalistic drive to seek out any kind of catalytic encounter that presented itself. Whatever it was, something about the duck’s diminished state rendered her open to a different kind of relation with humans. Similar, my own vulnerable state opened me up to a more intense affective encounter, to a deeper sense of consequence – and to different trajectories of thought and felt experience that continue to inflect my research, to direct my attention as I make drawings and observations elsewhere in the valley.

In my proposal for research, and in a recent presentation to the Royal Geographical Society annual conference, I have developed a methodological imperative based on the idea of ‘becoming vulnerable’ (Brice, 2016). My inspiration here is a passage from Hasana Sharp’s Politics of Renaturalization (2011, p.41), in which Sharp posits  vulnerability to others as “the very condition of possibility for life, strength and wisdom.” Here vulnerability is treated not as a passive state of receptivity, but as an actively cultivated attunement to our mutual susceptibility with other bodies and ideas (2). ‘Becoming vulnerable’ takes this theoretical proposition seriously as a directive for doing practice-based research in both field and archive.

What interests me is the possibility that methods for ‘becoming vulnerable’ might open up space for a different kind of encounter, less constricted by the idea of of the human self as somehow fundamentally separate from the world. These kinds of space of encounter might offer an alternative to the heroic model of solitary explorer discussed above. This methodological imperative is an entirely different proposition from simply being vulnerable. In fact, vulnerability here does not denote fragility (a state of diminished affective capacity), but rather the opposite – a deliberate, generative state of being open to intense, affective encounter; being open to moving and being moved. To be sure, there is a fundamental element of humility involved in ‘becoming vulnerable’, but humility here should be equated not with diminution but with a generative expansiveness.

Film Still: Aguirre, Wrath Of God (2000), directed by Werner Herzog. Stonevision.

Film Still: Aguirre, Wrath Of God (2000), directed by Werner Herzog. Stonevision.

Hardship is most probably not sufficient, in and of itself, to elicit this kind of humility. Colonial explorers customarily experienced no shortage of hardships. Cast within the conventional geometry of human exceptionalism, however, adversity is represented as a form of heroic ordeal – an affirmation, rather than a peturbation, of mastery over potentially hostile new environments (though see Scott, 2006). The common experience of a body wracked by flu, in this case, was not so much an instance of heightened fragility – of incapacity – but rather a state of heightened capacity to be affected in my encounter with another (nonhuman) sufferer. In other words, though ‘vulnerability’ in its more literal sense applies quite well to a case of the flu, it could in theory have been another set of circumstances which elicited this heightened capacity – something generally considered positive, such as the pleasurable company of a lover, or satisfaction after a good meal. What the example of a literal mode of ‘vulnerability’ does lend to this argument, however, is an important inversion of familiar hierarchies and power relations, which posits the necessary humility of ‘becoming vulnerable’ as a direct challenge to the (colonialist, masculinist, scientistic) model of knowledge as human mastery.

On a more personal note, this example serves a reminder to myself, at a time when my energies and aspirations appear compromised by pain, grief, and ill health (though I am writing now in much better spirits), that vulnerability is precisely the mode of practice I am seeking to develop, and that there is nothing wrong with being tangibly reminded of human frailty, and of its fundamental commonality with nonhuman animals and other beings.

To end this post on a positive note, I will quote the passage from Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams (2001, p.228), in which he makes the case for a necessary inclusion of artistic and humanistic enquiry in the processes of geographic exploration. At first reading, Lopez seems happy to reproduce the romantic trope of explored places as ‘remote’ and ‘untouched’, but it seems to me that his underlying argument is fundamentally critical of human presumptions to knowledge as dominion.

We desire not merely to know the sorts of things that are revealed in scientific papers but to know what is beautiful and edifying in a faraway place. Considering the tradition of distant travelers, the range of their interests and the range of their countrymen’s desire to know, the government camp on Cornwallis Island seemed an impoverished outpost. There were no provisions there for painters, for musicians, for novelists. And there were no historians there. If the quest for knowledge in any remote place is meant in an egalitarian sense to be useful to all, then this is a peculiar situation. Yet it is no different from what one would find in a hundred other such remote places around the world. Whenever we seek to take swift and efficient possession of places completely new to us, places we neither own nor understand, our first and often only assessment is a scientific one. And so our evaluations remain unfinished.

Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land, however, no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression — its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane. and you know the land knows you are there.

Notes

  1. This differentiation is complicated and deserves a fuller treatment than I give it here, but is worth noting in passing with a view to later expansion. For a useful treatment of feeling, emotion and affect see Shouse (2005).
  2. For further elaboration of this methodological concept follow future publications.
  3. Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza is a poultry disease in which wild birds appear to have a minimal role. Wild birds can, however, be vulnerable to contamination, and are also frequently targeted or held accountable for spread of the disease, despite a notable lack of evidence. For a comprehensive statement on the subject see BirdLife (N.D.)

References

BirdLife (N.D.) ‘BirdLife Statement on Avian Influenza’, BirdLife International, Available at: http://www.birdlife.org/action/science/species/avian_flu/index

Brice, J. (2016) Watery lives: Drawing multi-species narratives from field and archive, in ‘Beyond Interdisciplinarity: Situating practice in the art-geography nexus’, Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference, 1st September, London.

Butler, J. (2006) Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, London ; New York, Verso Books.

Lopez, B. (2001) Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, New York, Vintage Books USA.

Scott, H. V. (2006) ‘Rethinking landscape and colonialism in the context of early Spanish Peru’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 481–496.

Sharp, H. (2011) Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, Chicago; London, University of Chicago Press.

Shouse, E. (2005) ‘Feeling, Emotion, Affect’, M/C Journal, 8(6). Available at http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0512/03-shouse.php

Solnit, R. (2006) A Field Guide To Getting Lost, Edinburgh, Canongate Books.

Steer, D. (2007) How to be an Explorer, Dorking, Templar Publishing.

Stewart, K. (1996) A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an Other America, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

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2 responses to “On the dissolution of the self

  1. Pingback: On observation and capture | crane cultures·

  2. I am still waiting for my copy of Precarious Life but I have just received the following apposite quotation from earlier in the passage quoted above:

    “Perhaps, one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly forever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say _submitting_ to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance…. I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why. Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan, one’s own project, one’s own knowing and choosing.”

    Butler’s description of of starting the day, of being foiled, exhausted and perplexed, is exactly what I am experiencing; and was sharing with someone close when she received the new quotation.

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