In the poem “Like a countless bird,” the late French Caribbean author and political philosopher Edouard Glissant wrote about a new poetic epistemology that “attunes to the odyssey of the world… it is possible to approach this diverse chaos and to grow by the unforeseeable occasions it contains… to pulsate with the pulsation of the world which finally is to be discovered.”1 Glissant argues that we have to think in creative paradoxes that embrace their own opposites. This resonates quite strongly with the ecological poetics proposed in this essay: We can only embrace the paradoxes of lived existence if we allow ourselves to think in an embodied fashion, as consciousness in physical form. This is the language of a first-person-science: “Imagine a flight of birds above a lake in Africa, in North or South America…” So starts the poem.
Glissant calls his philosophy the “Thinking of Tremor”. The thinking of Tremor is Enlivenment-in-action. I refer here to this concept because of the rare connection between thought and feeling, experience and politics, local and global that it points to. Glissant’s poetics is an illustration of the power of inviting contradictions to exist and even flourish in our view of the world. It celebrates the richness of an existence which does not define itself by identities, but by relationships (Here, one does not speak of “my race” vs. the others, or “culture vs. natural resources,” but of my particular biography that relates to a particular place that is a particular habitat for particular species – yet which nonetheless has universal resonances.) We must not fight these contradictions or flatten them out. They are the material life’s creativity and the raw stuff upon which improvisation draws.
The ecologisation of thought
Glissant’s thinking shows how the natural history of “dependent-freedom-in-incompatibility” can be integrated into a poetics of the world, and how this poetics lends itself to a political view of things. In the center of this stands the certainty that all lived reality, be it physiological, ecological, emotional, sociological, political, economical or artistic, is paradox. Glissant therefore strongly argues for a “poetics of diversity”.2 Drawing on his African-Caribbean background, he calls this search for productive contradictions a “creolisation of thought.” We have to accept the absoluteness of the total and the individual at the same time; we have to see that identities are existential but only brought upon momentarily, through the interbeing of relations.
On the basis of the argument of this essay we could say that Glissant’s concept of a “creolisation of thought,” which so much relies on the admission of contradictions, is in its deep current also an “ecologisation of thought.” Ecology understood as the description of a relational whole composed of individuals thrives on incompatibilities. Living reality is established through the unforeseeable actions of individuals, who are not only independent agents, but also parts of a whole. Glissant’s “thinking of tremor” therefore is also the “thinking of life.” It is the “thinking-action-of-the-embodied-living in relation with the other.” Ecological systems – with humankind in their midst – are sliding from catastrophe to catastrophe as part of their normal process of transformation and self-creation.
Already the mere living cell is self-contradictory. Its existence results from the interplay of two entirely different forms of coding in our bodies, the abstract-genetic-binary and the felt-somatic-analogous one. But only by being incompatible these two code systems together generate meaning-in-translation and hence coherence.3 Lived reality is self-contradictory – and every culture managing to enliven this reality must be contradictory to some extent too. A grazing commons in some remote highland is an ecological and economic paradox, because only by strictly forbidding to use the pasture for certain times, can this resource be preserved and available in the future.
From this viewpoint, the inner ecology of the cell and the social ecology of humans seem to be mere levels in a continuous interplay of freedom and necessities. The living world is self-contradictory because it is “a world where all human beings and animals and landscapes and cultures and spiritualities illuminate each other. But illumination is not dilution.“ 4
The worldview based on these creative contradictions could be called “biopoetics” – in contrast to the prevailing perspective of “bioeconomics”.5
Anti-Utopia: We should take death seriously
The essential stance of a biopoetic point of view is to cultivate living contradictions as essential. This is important not only to recognize paradoxes as paradoxes, but to find in their presence the deep root of an enlivened spirit. That also means that we have to accept death as an integral part of life, and even a decisive moving force of life. Death is a prerequisite for development.
It is necessary to take a closer look at the dialectics of life-through-death. Above I have observed that by reducing the living world to nonliving building blocks the prevailing scientific approach has turned into a "ideology of non-living.“ Its underlying assumption is that "in truth“ the world is non-living, and so the experience of lived reality has no value. This attitude is paradoxically fed by the attempt to control the world and to improve on its flaws, motivated by the desire to make human life better. Emphatically striving for life, bioeconomics does not accept death as a reality within life and therefore becomes a practice focused on the nonliving.
The Enlivenment position, on the other hand, claims that non-being is a central aspect of life. Any organism is a constant struggle from its center of concern against the forces of dead matter tearing it down. In such a perspective, death is an integral part of life, and only through it can life flourish. Only by accepting non-being, failure, temporal limitation and the fact that every process will end, can we empower the creativity to bring forth growth and newness. "Coda“, a beautiful poem of Rainer Maria Rilke, illustrates this necessary entanglement of being and non-being within life: “Death is great. / We are in his keep / Laughing galore. / When we deem ourselves deep / In life he dares weep / Deep in our core”. 6
This means rejecting the promise of any world that purports to come to be free of contradictions and proclaim its absolute consistency. A poetics of nature is wary of utopian thinking because it doubts that further “evolution” of hitherto unknown human capacities will somehow resolve our global dilemmas. All life processes are necessarily a mess of some sort.
Seen from this angle, life is “a complete disaster,” as the author and scholar Natalie Knapp puts it.7 Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabit-Zinn talks about “full catastrophe living”.8 No concept, philosophy or ideology will change this situation, because the precarious and disastrous nature of any living organisation results from its “precise relativity” – from the fact that any process in the living world is a bridging between two incompatible but mutually translatable realms. The world is not subjective, it is not objective – it is relative. “Reality,” says Knapp, “on the most basic natural level is precisely indeterminate.” The disconcerting implication of this insight is that we must systematically include this indeterminacy in our search for truth. This search therefore might have the gestalt of analogical reasoning – as in the abductive logic of “men are grass” (see section III). It needs to cope with indeterminacy and “emotional disaster.”
A culture of enlivenment thus is emphatically anti-utopian. But to be anti-utopian does not mean to give up the quest for an enlivened reality. It only means that this quest is, by its very nature, endless, ever without total achievement, though not without effect and reward.
This is what Vaclav Havel meant when, during his life as a dissident and Samizdat writer in former socialist Czechoslovakia, he noted: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”9 The quest for Enlivenment is only possible if we are aware that we will never achieve a complete “victory” against imperfect but improvable conditions.
In the last pages of this essay I wish to give a provisional overview of some elements of a culture of enlivenment:
1. First-person and third-person thinking and acting intertwined
We should explicitly establish practices, structures and institutions that can provide a “first-person-complement” to existing ones. In science, we discussed the possibility of admitting poetic ways of expression and of experience into the pantheon of serious inquiry. In economics, the commons approach incorporates the principle of diverse interests negotiating mutually acceptable outcomes, and individual actors coming to respectful terms with their habitat. This concept transcends the idea of a mere exchange of resources and covers many areas of human-human and human-nature interactions. The commons therefore is not only a name for an economic or ecological regime, but also a political way of re-organising relationships.10
2. Paradox and complementarity
If living beings necessarily exist in a world of paradox, it means that we must come to see the contradictory dimensions of life as complementary and not try to resolve them. It means that we must use nature and at the same time protect it through the way we use it (as large herbivores protect savannas by grazing on it, for example). It means that we see economic exchange as suffused with emotional bonds. It means accepting pain and death as necessary complements of any enlivening growth process, and not trying to deny or repress them as our hedonistic culture usually does. Enlivenment means accepting that to remain the same, we may need constant, often painful transformation. It means, finally, that feeling enlivened does not necessarily mean feeling nice.
3. Sustainability is a poetic process
Sustainable actions mean actions that over the long run make the continuity of life processes possible. Sustainability is not just about assuring the simple replenishment of supply; it is about generating more life, creating new possibilities of development and meeting needs in novel ways. Manfred Max-Neef has shown that basic needs are non-hierarchical and that neglecting only one of them can have pathological consequences.11 Hence, “more life” cannot be defined in either material or psychological terms only. It means a life that produces more meaning and participatory experience, and even more beauty – and is able to grant material supply of needed resources. A full life is a beautiful life – although it can also be a difficult, even tragic life.
4. Enlarging the idea of the “Anthropocene”
In talking about the gap between humans and nature, people often invoke the “Anthropocene Hypothesis,” the idea described in Section I that holds that since humans have become a driving force influencing nearly every geo-biophysical process on earth, humans themselves equal nature. (“Anthropocene” means “age of man.”)12
Anthropocene proponents believe that the human species, through technology, has finally bridged the gap between itself and the remainder of nature. Anthropocenes think that “nature as we know it is a concept that belongs to the past. No longer a force separate from and contrary to human purpose, nature is neither an obstacle nor a harmonious other. Humanity forms nature, and so humanity and nature are one.“13 In Antropocene thinking, the gap between nature and culture has dissolved, not because humans have come to a different understanding of life and their role in it, but because their technology has swallowed nature.
It might seem that my proposal for an “Enlivenment era” is a biocentric version of the Anthropocene hypothesis. But there are differences. The Anthropocene approach tries to unite man and nature, but starts from the opposite side of the Enlivenment idea. If the proponents of the Anthropocene say that finally “man and nature are one,” they do so only because man and nature have been thought as different in the first place. But humanity is a part of nature. And nature is a part of us. It is the crucial form of reality that unfolds in our lives. Man, after all, is an animal species. Therefore, it is logically impossible to pose “man” and “nature” as equal counterparts. Nature is the sum of all forces bringing forth creative life. It is only possible to say that “Humanity forms nature” in the sense of a rapidly multiplying species that directly or indirectly influences every aspect of its ecosystem.
The emergence of the Anthropocene idea is a necessary step in leaving behind the old Enlightenment thinking of man vs. nature. But it is only a step and must be developed further to a full new view of nature as a generating force inside of us. The only reason that we can posit a more unified view of a creative biosphere is because we have become able to re-evaluate dualistic and static notions in our description of reality, eclipsing such dualistic categories as “humanity” and “nature.”
To me, the Anthropocene idea is the philosophical equivalent to globalization: the whole earth now is conflated with humans, and more precisely, with (Western) technological man. Anthropocene might be useful as a classification of geological eras, but it has no analytical content. We should rather realize that we are living in the Zoocene era, a term that I propose to use instead. This word derives from the Greek word zoë, meaning life in its felt sense, and including the whole animate earth. The Anthropocene view and ecological thinking in the first-person, multipolar “creole poetics” of enlivenment, might be mutually incompatible. It is not a coincidence that the first term has been coined by a “white male Protestant Western scientist,” and the other, creole poetics, by an Afro-French poet and thinker from the Caribbean.
5. The world is a physical resource and a three-dimensional space, but also an emotional reality – an “inside” as well as an “outside.”
Individuals and the biosphere encompasses both material processes and meaning relations. Together they constitute lived experience, which from inside of organisms is subjectively "felt" and from outside of organisms exhibits itself as "sensuous" and "expressive." This poetic space is not to be confused with “spirit” (inside) and “body” (outside), but is rather both conjoined as metamorphic material that is always meaningful.
This idea breaks with any notion of primacy of either matter or symbolic relationships, and so in this radical way is non-dualistic. There is no outside to poetic space because the poetic space encompasses both organic and non-organic matter. At the same time it becomes clear that the imaginary scene of this poetic space can be subject to transformation from both “sides”: through material manipulation but also through imaginative creation. The poetic space is open to new interpretations, new utterances of self-expression and can be transformed in such a way that real change in the world takes place. It follows from these ideas that any process of imagining and transforming reality has its greatest potential to be alive if it is a poetic – or artistic – process.
6. The biosphere is a process, not a state.
We can quickly escape the habit of thinking in identities if we accept that everything is in continuous change – as the body that exchanges all its atoms with the environment every a few years through the process of metabolism. Any process goes through “good” and “bad” states. Process is not stable, but rather a constant fluctuation. So history has no clear direction towards the “good,” as is taught in monotheistic religions and practically attempted in neoliberal economics. Rather, we can see that the only quality that really grows over time is the amount of different experiences – felt depth – in biosphere over time. Life is making more and more experiences about itself. It is enlivening itself. The interesting fact is that we do have an inborn instinct for it, a drive just to do the same as the world does: to deepen our experiences, to extend our knowledge of ourselves and others, to unfold new capacities, to strengthen bonds, and so on. One might say that this process is about learning to respect and learning to love.14
Finding ourselves in the others
Let me, as a final thought, repeat that this shared equality extends beyond humanity into the whole biosphere of the more-than-human world. This is the last of the striking paradoxes we shall embrace. To become fully human we need the relationship to that which is emphatically non-human: the interbeing with other living beings. We have to become animal to be human.
In the republic of innumerable species and existential relational processes, all contradictions are embedded without being flattened out. We could even say that through the beauty, through the searing emotion that natural settings are able to provoke in their human participants, we feel the balanced existence of all those complementarities: That life is a gift and a burden; that necessity must be obeyed to be free; that death is unavoidable. All this is written nowhere, but enacted through the unknowing wisdom of commoning among myriad feeling bodies, plants and organisms.
Plants and animals are not just abstract models for relations. They are the relations in their very enactment. These are the mediation of their paradoxes in the same moment. They are closed unto themselves, as any living being is, and at the same time they are open and touchable. Something rests in the middle of their being that is accessible and yet absolutely unfathomable. It is not alien, but it is without limits. This is exactly what Goethe referred to as “Urphänomen,” – “primordial phenomenon”: a pattern of life that is inscrutable yet which at the same time is its own explication – but only as a phenomenon, not as an explication or algorithm, both of which are reductive.
In wild nature’s presence, be it as taxonomically close to us as an ape or as seemingly infinitely distant as a tadpole, we find ourselves amongst speechless yet eloquent creation. The animal’s gaze upon us is woven from the entanglement of the most intimately known with the most alien. It is the most enlivening gaze imaginable.
The distinctness of many of our experiential categories might only be possible because in wild nature, in natura naturans, there is this form of embodied and hence objectified subjectivity. Could it be that this embodied subjectivity has brought us forth and still dwells within us, guiding our responses on how to confront our own embodied existence? Here seems to lie a path where dualism can be healed. The deep cleft which has opened up between us and other beings, between the world as we experience it and the world as we describe it, closes and re-integrates itself again. For the first time for a long period, in this space, we are welcome. The deep cleft closes, but not to beckon us toward a utopian dream, but to allow us to experience a moment of praise and awareness.
Plato had suggested that for every term, be it as abstract as can be, there is an eidos, an archetype in the empire of ideas. Certainly, Plato was not completely clear at this point. The empire of ideas does not lie beyond, in an ideal world, but is anchored here, in the bodies of plants and animals, in the buzz of the bees and the shape of the circling raven.
1 Edouard Glissant (2005): “Comme l´oiseau innumérable“. In: La cohée du Lamentin. Poétique V, Paris: Gallimard.
2 Edouard Glissant (1996): Introduction à une poétique du divers. Paris: Gallimard.
3 Kull (2012), op. cit.
4 Edouard Glissant (2002): “The Poetics of the World: Global Thinking and Unforeseeable Events”. Chancellor’s distinguished lecture, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge, April, 19.
5 Andreas Weber (forthcoming): Biopoetics. Towards a biological theory of Life-as-Meaning. Heidelberg, Amsterdam & New York: Springer. See also: Andreas Weber (2003): Natur als Bedeutung. Würzburg: Königshausen. Download at: www.autor-andreas-weber.de.
7 Natalie Knapp (2013): “Die Welt als Analogie” . Talk at the conference Lebendigkeit neu denken. Für die Wiederentdeckung einer zentralen Dimension in Gesellschaft, Politik und Nachhaltigkeit. Heinrich Böll-Foundation, Berlin, 14. November 2012, unpublished. Natalie Knapp (2013): Kompass neues Denken: Wie wir uns in einer unübersichtlichen Welt orientieren können. Reinbek: Rowohlt.
8 Jon Kabit-Zinn (1990): Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Delta Press.
9 Václav Havel (1986): Disturbing the Peace: A conversation with Karel Hvizdala. New York: Knopf, p. 181.
10 For political representation, we should consider a deepened discussion on models of a “third chamber” or “workshop” of embodied practices. The project of a “World Future Council,” inaugurated by Jakob von Uexküll, is probably closest to this idea. See www.worldfuturecouncil.org. For some inspiration concerning a “third chamber” see Andreas Weber, Bettina Jarasch, Jascha Rohr (2011): “Lasst uns die Krise feiern!”. OYA 07/2011. Online at www.oya-online.de/article/read/338-lasst_uns_die_krise_feiern.html
12 Paul J. Crutzen, P. J., and E. Stoermer (2000). "The ‘Anthropocene.’" Global Change Newsletter 41: 17–18.
13 Akeel Bilgrami et al. (2013): “Das Anthropozän-Projekt. Eine Eröffnung”, program flyer. Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 10.-13 January, 2013.
14 Glissant states accordingly: “In the same way, the Tout-Monde is obscurely the Place of a process… we don’t need to establish structures, we have to explore processes. Exploring processes means that you accept something unacceptable: to think about and to learn to think about what is unpredictable. Processes float in spaces in the same way that they float in times. I don’t mean to imply that we are all birds in flight over an African lake, but that we are perhaps noble, wild and grandiose enough to consider that our relation to the other is a continuous tremor. In this tremor we can find true equality. Edouard Glissant (2002): “The Poetics of the World: Global Thinking and Unforeseeable Events”. Chancellor’s distinguished lecture, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge, April, 19.
This essay, "Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture, and Politics,” by Andreas Weber was recently published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It is also available to read here on Shareable. Enjoy!