The Mastery of Non-Mastery
From the Series: Green Capitalism and Its Others
We are now becoming like the soothsayers of old.1 We are now becoming like ancient stargazers each night asking the heavens whys and wherefores. We sense our animal selves, our plant selves, our insect selves, all of that and more as an angry sky beats down, our bodies resonant with hitherto unknown liaisons as foreign beings skid in from the unknown. Suddenly we are alive in our bodies as to stellar influence and solar wind when all goes dark once more but for fireflies, epitome of the newly animate world, reminders of chances missed, others to catch, roadside lairs of pixilated consciousness.
The poet Schiller famously proclaimed the disenchantment of nature late eighteenth century as new technologies harnessed to capital came into play. But today is not nature re-enchanted?
Hieronymous Bosch’s hallucinatory visions of hybrid plants, animals, and humans come to mind. Deformed and often beautiful beings float through ruptured wholes given over to sexual pandemonium as fires rage on the horizon of cities and castles.
A dark surreality falls upon us as that mimetic double of Trump and discordant weather churn together in waves of metamorphic sublimity. This is the world of sorcery and deceit, simulation, and disimulaton. Look around. From Fakebook on.
The question is how to confront this at a time when magic and things sacred are commodified and New Age silliness abounds?
Emily Dickinson (1996, 207) put it like this :
The last night that she lived
It was a common night,
Except the dying; this to us
Made nature different
We noticed smallest things,—
Things overlooked before,
By this grand light upon our minds
Italicized, as ‘t were.
Death—as in death of the planet—alerts us to “things overlooked before,” implying we ineluctably make not just more but new modes of connecting. And second, the things overlooked are now “italicized as ‘t were.”
To italicize is to repeat but in a different, urgent, font. This exercise of the mimetic faculty is better known to anthropologists as “sympathetic magic,” inviting us to enable the mutuality inherent in mimesis and, therewith, the mastery of non-mastery against the domination of nature.
“We sense our animal selves, our plant selves, our insect selves, all of that and more as an angry sky beats down . . .”
Such a body and such a ripple involves my body, your body, and the body of the world in conversation with each other, which is what now makes language such a delightful burden as things talk to things.
Thus the trick forced upon us by meltdown is how to write without words or, should I say, with words that act like those evanescent spells spoken softly into things to activate their glow, their speed, their love.
Fires had been kindled in a few places. Marvelous spectacle. Red, sometimes purple flames had crawled up the hillside in narrow ribbons; through the dark blue or sapphire smoke the hillside changes color like black opal under the glint of its polished surface. From the hillside in front of us the fire went down into the valley, eating at the tall, strong, grasses. Roaring like a hurricane of light and heat, it came straight towards us, the wind behind it whipping half-burned bits into the air. Birds and crickets fly past in clouds. I walked right into the flames. Marvelous—some completely mad catastrophe running straight on at me with furious speed. (Malinowski 2013, 11–12)
Walking into fire. Yes! That’s us, for sure. This is how I envisage us today, us firewalkers limping behind our fireflies faced with the re-enchantment of the sun in the age of meltdown roaring like a hurricane of light and heat with birds and crickets flying past frantic in clouds flecked with color in the turbulent slipstream.
And the fieldwork? What if this blur of bodies in flight becomes along with heat and color our ethnographic focus? What if the fieldworker practicing participant observation participates with the birds and the crickets flying past in colored clouds as can happen when in Terra Incognita you write in your fieldwork diary opening up that other fire called yourself?
This is what happens when you take seriously all that magic the islanders have told you about—soft murmurings of spells into things:
like canoe lashings to go safer and faster
into fragrant herbs to make love magic
into crushed betel nut mixed with pigment to make an intense red
into one’s skin to make it glow
What happens if the fieldworker participates in this magic too, whispering prehistory into things as poetry in the present when the sub-freezing temperature shot up yesterday to early spring warmth. The snow started to melt like a blowtorch was put to it and the mist rose from the river like a shroud enveloping all that lay around. We walked in the mountain close to sunset with the streams running high, stripping off our clothes. At times we spooked ourselves, disappearing into the mist like the phantoms we were, same as happens in certain sunsets when the light turns everything purple with shots of yellow and blue raining like vapor from the far off ridge where the sun sets. The craziest thing was that every few minutes we would walk through a pocket of hot air and then a minute later walk through chill. And the craziest thing was that as with immersion in the mist, so you sensed this mimetic pull into rampant Otherness of being in a torrent of imminent destruction. Tornadoes were reported further south.
As was yesterday, one of those days of utter perfection early fall. It seemed like we were living in glass, the world not real but a picture in which we held our breath.
1. A glimpse into a forthcoming book, The Mastery of Non-Mastery, University of Chicago Press.
Dickinson, Emily. 1996. The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson. New York: Modern Library.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 2013. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. New York: Routledge.