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    Review of:
    Jed Rasula, This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002.

  1. I remember well the March 1984 cover of National Geographic because it seemed that I could look right into it at an iridescent eagle perched on a floating branch within a third dimension that, of course, vanished if the volume was not held just so. The holography that I see today is put to more practical uses (which that Geographic issue no doubt discussed), as an element of credit cards and software authentication certificates. Reading Jed Rasula calls that eagle to mind for the simple, if idiosyncratic, reason that he applauds and practices what he calls a holographic or hologrammatic approach to writing, in which the "argument is . . . not hypotactic--that is, not hierarchically disposed, but radically egalitarian. Its parts are its wholes and vice versa" (This Compost 8). As Rasula explains elsewhere, the "ultimate implication of the holographic method is that the whole book may be derived from a single proposition" ("Brutalities" 772), an effect with considerable appeal given the media environment in which the book must compete and to which it must adapt, largely through cultivating "redundancy in the information-theoretic sense: it is coded to survive the noise of inattention and distraction" (771).
  2. I have been dwelling recently on this method because Rasula has just given us a compelling book, This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry, in which this "radically egalitarian" hologrammatic style is supplemented by the practice of dissociative collage (8-9). Whatever Rasula has accomplished with this book (over twenty years in the making[1]) is ultimately inseparable from these practices, which, taken together, constitute what Rasula calls wreading. As Rasula explains, "'Wreading' is my neologism for the collaborative momentum initiated by certain texts, like The Maximus Poems, in which the reader is enlisted as an agent of the writing. Reciprocally, the writer discloses his or her own readerly orientation . . ." (11-12n). The result is a frequently recursive structure organized by headings rather than chapters and supporting a dense tissue of allusion and analogy peppered with utterances--call them holographemes--which are at root identical. At its best, Rasula's wreading produces memorable assertions that achieve the "pungency" of the dialectical aphorisms that Adorno calls for in Minima Moralia:

    Dialectical thinking . . . means that an argument should take on the pungency of a thesis and a thesis contain within itself the fullness of its reasoning. All bridging concepts, all links and logical auxiliary operations that are not a part of the matter itself, all secondary developments not saturated with the experience of the object, should be discarded. In a philosophical text all the propositions ought to be equally close to the center. (71)

    The center in Rasula's case turns out to be nothing less than a new atavism, a revival of the Olsonian muthologos. One of the virtues of This Compost is precisely its return to Olsonian posthumanism[2], but its excavations in the open field yield claims entranced, and compromised, by grave archaisms exerting a strong centripetal pull on an otherwise excentric project.
  3. Holography simplifies the task of elucidating this thesis, for if the part contains--in good holographic fashion--the whole, then it should be possible to peer under a single heading of This Compost in the right light to see the whole eagle of Rasula's argument spread its finely crafted wings. I will choose as that section "The Starry Horizon," wherein the book's central liability is as apparent as anywhere, but not before a brief introduction to Rasula's aims, which he targets in the first place because "certain challenges persist: the need of long-term views, the need to reckon our own wild nature into any consideration of 'nature' as such" (10).
  4. Rasula's radical atavism is immediately apparent from the book's epigraphs (their collective avant-garde rhetoric and typography inflected with sociobiology), while his deliberately unconventional citation practices necessitate his Preface, much of which is devoted to orienting readers to the book's unusual structure. This Compost, Rasula tells us straightaway, is first of all "an anthology of sorts, concentrating on the Black Mountain lineage in modern American poetry," the trailing qualifiers signifying that while there are "tacit limits to the poets included," his "anthology of sorts" is not grounded in what he has elsewhere called "canontology" (xi).[3] If Rasula is not interested in canonizing "a particular set of poets" (xi), he is concerned to secure a place for something much larger than the poets themselves: "this book does not validate aesthetic claims commonly made in literary criticism so much as document a stance toward the living planet, a stance these poets share with many people who know nothing of poetry" (xi). Demonstrating that poets as diverse as Walt Whitman, Louis Zukofsky, Gary Snyder, A.R. Ammons, and Jorie Graham share a common stance will be one burden of his book, or, as Rasula prefers, his "essay," albeit a lengthy one; there are no "chapters as such" but "headings" that "indicate topoi in the old rhetorical sense: sites of excavation and deliberation" (xi). In the first indication of a centripetal force acting upon this project, Rasula notes that although the book is "arranged to be read chronologically, the method is somewhat circular, so the reader will find certain topoi recurring in a seasonal rotation" (xi). And if the argument proceeds according to a natural cycle, so too "footnotes appear at the bottom of the page because . . . I favor a bifocal prospect, atavistic residue perhaps of hunting and tracking instincts" (xi).
  5. While such circuitousness and a preference for asterisks and daggers, rather than the more-conventional numbered endnotes, may not strike readers as anything more than pleasantly anachronistic, if any practice is likely to engender some confusion it is what I refer to above as "dissociative collage." Long familiar to readers of postmodern poetry, what this method entails is the in-text parenthetical citation of prose but no such page references--and on the whole not even in-text attributive tags--for the poetry that Rasula collages, sometimes for two and three pages at a stretch (indicating a change of authorship only by a tilde at the far right margin). More often than not, readers must consult a special section at the end of the book if they are curious about the disparate sources from which these collages are composted, but even there Rasula foregoes page references for any poetry published prior to the twentieth century "since there are so many editions" (xii).
  6. In spite of this elaborate apparatus, Rasula tells us that the book "is not altogether a scholarly project" but "represents an intersection of communities," which remark occasions from Rasula a digression on the project's origins in not only his "ongoing participation in an extensive network of poets" but also, tellingly, his involvement "in the milieu of archetypal Jungian psychology" and a two-year stint reviewing books on Pacifica Radio's KPFK from 1979-1981 (xiii). The intersection most important to Rasula is that moment, preserved in the pages of journals like Alcheringa, before the myriad practices and communities enabled by the precedents of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan and company became institutionalized as Ethnopoetics and Language writing. Rasula recaptures this nebulous moment in twentieth-century poetics through his dissociative collages, which are justified thus: "By dissociating the name of the poets from many of the citations, I wanted to restore to the poetics at hand that solidarity in anonymity which is the deep issue of planetary time, for that is the 'issue' in several senses of the poetry of This Compost" (9). While he prefers not to speak of what "literary politics has made it misleading to call 'open'" poetics (6) (which for him is too bound up with careerism and its personae), Rasula does subscribe to the notion of "poetry as ecology in the community of words" (7). Moreover, Rasula wants to demonstrate that this stance grounds the identity of "a poetics-in-process" encompassing most of American radical poetics since World War II, "all documents of a poetics attentive to the poem as mutho-logistical, of psyche's logos, and cosmographic"; even writers like Silliman, Watten, Bernstein, Andrews, Hejinian, and Scalapino share in "this investigative propensity . . . with some different emphases" (45n). As Rasula himself makes clear, then, his project aims to restore a collective identity, as if such a "solidarity in anonymity" was ever the case, as if it was not so clearly an identity under construction.
  7. The heaping of quotations onto the compost pile begins immediately. The Introduction tosses Snyder alongside Thoreau on top of Melville, shovels on Jolas, Emerson, and Bateson, mixes in Atlan, Maturana and Varela, and Santayana, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries indiscriminately rotting together in a ripe but not altogether unpleasing compilation of the various uses to which the figure of composting has been put over the last couple of centuries. Rasula is particularly attentive to the ways Romanticism and Transcendentalism anticipate contemporary ecology, especially as those traditions inform a postwar American poetics itself engaged in epistemological explorations:

    Calling on the imagination as a resource of ecological understanding means calling on poetry in a truly re-creational capacity, one that redefines "recreation" as original participation, much as Coleridge sought a poetry that would propagate a continuum initiated by the divine fiat. Such a prospect has gone in and out of focus during the past two centuries, but its reemergence under the countenance of a so-called "Black Mountain" school was historically congruent with, and sometimes affiliated with, the interdisciplinary matrix gathered around what Norbert Wiener named "cybernetics." (3-4)

    Such reemergences and congruities are the very stuff of Rasula's compost library. But one has to dig deeper into the essay for the strongest whiffs of his thesis, in holographemes like this: "The biological awareness of human species-life animated by the compost library is a crucial link between dormant animal tact and the metabolism of intelligence as it flourishes in writing" (50). For the baldest rendering of Rasula's argument, it might be most economical simply to reproduce a series of similar claims as a collage[4], both to reveal the implications of Rasula's position and to provide readers a taste of his method:

    The post-human--the posthumous Homo Sapiens--passes from cosmos to chaos. But chaos has always been with us, intrinsic to cosmos if not to cosmology . . . . The subterranean transmissions of composting poetry have been compacted in the compost library, where biodegradable thinking occurs, where we can conceivably speak of an "ecology of consciousness" in which psyche wandering is in touch with human boundaries, noting the logos that forestalls the corruption of cosmos by chaos.


    The propioceptive and ecological necessities impinging on the creative act--the psyche acting in the poem on cosmos through logos--are vital to Olson's legacy.


    History is inconsequential data unless animated by the old story sense of psyche (a protagonist) working on creation (cosmos) with some tool (logos). To recover the old lore as evidence of a prior logos is insufficient; one's own psyche mingles involuntarily with psyches elsewhere or in other times. Story--logos--stirs and disturbs psyche.


    What we have at hand now is a need to reimagine the archaic (soul: the archaic word for human) so that it includes logos (certitude, sign) but is not dominated by it, leaving room also for psyche (our personal bit of chaos, which daily and nightly delivers a recycled portion of our "faculty of tact as members of life").


    Myth is amorphous and protean because it so freely changes hands or mouths. Myth is the legacy of biodegradable thought, compost rumination. Myth comes to mouth to make apparent what the eye can't see. It is a means of giving scope to idiosyncrasy and gratuitous beauty--the bounty of gratuity.


    The poetry I've been wreading here enacts myth as carnal movement of words within words, seeds of images and story, feeling and thinking, emerging from the muthologistical certainty of all the evidence we can lay claim to as the centrifugal force of our inner inherence. Net and web, ring and circle, coil and labyrinth, whorl and cup: all shapes, forms, insignia of nature . . . . Finding or "experiencing" nature makes no difference at all without the sense of good nature that stamps all force and form with grace and tact.

    Chaos, cosmos, logos, muthos, psyche. Rasula is aware of the dangers attendant upon this lexicon: "When we try to imagine the archaic we know neither what we're looking for nor what we're seeing. The old lore is at once a body of testimony and an invitation to risk" (46). To what does such "lore" testify, then, and what do we risk for the sake of surprise? I turn now to "The Starry Horizon" to shed some light upon just these questions.
  8. Robin Blaser, Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, and Walt Whitman figure prominently in "The Starry Horizon," but not so much as Nathaniel Mackey, Paul Metcalf, and Kenneth Irby (whose poem "Delius" furnishes the title of the section). Irby's poetry, Rasula informs us in his Bibliographic Glossary[5], "is intellectually oriented to a sense of open form and geographical space by way of Olson and Dorn," although he has an "interest in hermetica . . . nourished by his association with Duncan, Kelly, and Lansing, among others" (240). That many readers have probably not encountered his poetry is no surprise since "most of his work has been issued in ephemeral form" (240). In any case, the section is a typical compaction of poetry and mythological studies, all of it in this instance testifying to the universal importance of "star lore" and the terrible consequences of its loss. Recalling Calvin Martin's assertion that poetry is a means of computing "where, in the deepest sense, one is in the bio-sphere, using words and artifice that have accurately touched the place" (qtd. in Rasula 8n), "The Starry Horizon" begins from the premise that knowledge of the night sky "facilitated imaginal placement as a coordination of mind and map, psychodynamics and geophysics posing together in astronomical apparel" (114). Such "coordination of mind and map" is most assuredly not cognitive mapping in the sense popularized by Fredric Jameson, who appropriated the concept from social geography in order to suggest the possibility of developing an ability "to grasp our positioning as individuals and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle" (54) over against "the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects" (44). Where Jameson seeks to confront our disorientation under late capitalism, Rasula seeks a Paleolithic sublime in his "lore," here metonymic of muthologistics in general: "Through . . . such burrowings in the compost library we begin to glimpse an ecological import in mythic lore which makes a point of recalling and imagining a world of profundities exceeding comprehension" (114).
  9. I am tempted, given the status Rasula accords C.G. Jung's Aion "as a charter of compost poetry" (114), to call mythic lore a kind of racial memory. And what anamnesis, from Whitman to Pound to Olson, disinters from the teeming humus or recollects in searching the heavenly firmament, is nothing less than what R. B. Onians calls "the imagined primal cosmic psyche or procreative power, liquid and serpent" (qtd. in Rasula 115). Or as Rasula himself puts it, "pysche is a personal stain, a portable speck of chaos, a gleaming scale of the ouroboros" (115). Lore is a virtual reservoir, the liquid foundation of an ancient identity: "Pysche itself becomes the ocean of wisdom and tact spans the human world as the oceans of water span the globe" (115). It is a proposition that Rasula will go on to formulate in terms suggested by the late Paul Shepard, who went Bruno Latour one better, arguing that We Have Never Left the Pleistocene. His scholarship has obvious appeal for proponents of ethnopoetics, as a passage like this makes clear:

    White European/Americans cannot become Hopis or Kalahari Bushmen or Magdelenian bison hunters, but elements in those cultures can be recovered or re-created because they fit the heritage and predilection of the human genome everywhere, a genome tracing back to a common ancestor that Anglos share with Hopis and Bushmen and all the rest of Homo sapiens. The social, ecological, and ideological characteristics natural to our humanity are to be found in the lives of foragers. (173)

    One element of hunter/gatherer cultures that Shepard was particularly concerned to recover is a tribal social structure in which the initiation of adolescents into adulthood is given the attention that it deserves. So far as Rasula is concerned, we might even view "our entire acknowledged civilization as nothing but a series of adolescent gang-related incidents" (116).[6] The loss of the old lore is that serious a matter for Rasula, and Americans bear particular responsibility "as last first men to breed that monstrance, a civilization whose entire institutional propagation has been riddled with profound lapses of imagination" (116-17). This rhetoric culminates in some very instructive examples of a supposedly devastating "disregard for the American past" in a paragraph from "The Starry Horizon" which I quote in full:

    Along with the ravaging of natural and human resources in America, there is a corresponding disregard for the American past. We have little dissemination of such basic contradictions to the inherited views as the Bat Creek, Tennessee, Hebrew coins of 100 A.D.; New England engravings in Roman Numerals indicating adherence to Sosigene's calendric reforms of 45 B.C.; or traces of an ancient Libyan alphabet in the Virgin Islands. Where do we go for such news but to the poets? (117)

    This would be news indeed! But the mystery of why such astounding "basic contradictions" (which Rasula finds in the work of Mackey, Metcalf, and Irby) find "little dissemination" outside of obscure poetry is rapidly dispelled when, hunting in the footnotes, one discovers that this lore ultimately stems from the work of Cyrus Gordon and Ivan van Sertima, both of whom are notorious for what anthropologists, archeologists, and paleographers do not hesitate to call pseudo-science.
  10. Take the first claim, for instance: that remnants of the lost tribes of Israel found their way to the center of North America nearly two millennia ago, as evidenced by the discovery in an Eastern Tennessee burial mound of "Hebrew coins of 100 A.D." In fact, no such coins were ever discovered. What was purportedly discovered "in 1889 by John W. Emmert, a Smithsonian Institution field assistant, during the course of the Bureau of American Ethnology Mound Survey," is what has come to be called the Bat Creek Stone (Mainfort and Kwas 2). Mainfort and Kwas offer this dispassionate description of the artifact in question: it is "a relatively flat, thin piece of ferruginous siltstone, approximately 11.4 cm long and 5.1 cm wide. Scratched through the patinated exterior on one surface are a minimum of 8, and possibly as many as 9 . . . signs that resemble alphabetic characters" (3). As Mainfort and Kwas go on to relate, these characters were initially mistaken by Emmert's supervisor Cyrus Thomas as evidence of a Cherokee alphabet predating Sequoyah's syllabary and thus as proof of Thomas's pet theory that the Cherokee were responsible for the mounds which so mystified nineteenth-century Americans. The stone did not become well known until the early 1970s when Cyrus Gordon claimed that by "inverting the orientation of the stone relative to the published illustrations" the characters became legible as a Paleo-Hebrew inscription meaning "'for the Jews' or some variant thereof" (2). Contemporary scientific opinion, however, is unequivocal: the Bat Creek Stone is a fraud, very likely perpetrated by the alcoholic Emmert (who was recognized even in the late nineteenth century as not entirely reliable) in a bid to curry favor with his superior Thomas in hopes that proof of Thomas's theory would lead to permanent employment with the Smithsonian.[7] Despite such consensus, the Bat Creek Stone remains an object of fascination for amateur archeologists with other agendas.
  11. Readers are probably more familiar with Ivan van Sertima's contemporary Afrocentrism than with nineteenth-century artifacts of dubious provenance. Indeed, Van Sertima's most vocal critics have taken on the task of debunking his work precisely because it is an especially tenacious example of cult archeology.[8] These critics note that educators have increasingly found themselves confronted by students who want to know "whether there is any truth to the claim that the ancient Egyptians and Nubians might have influenced or might have created the first 'civilizations' to emerge in the Americas" ("They" 199). Critics are motivated, too, by the not-inconsiderable concern that such claims about superior Africans importing the seeds of civilization to the inferior peoples of the Americas also "dimini[sh] the real accomplishments of Native American cultures" ("Robbing" 421). It is a charged and polarizing issue; critics who dispute Van Sertima's scholarship are for their trouble accused of conspiring to silence the truth about civilization's African origins, of being "academic terrorists" and the like. Readers can judge for themselves the relative weights of the arguments and counterarguments, but the consensus among professional anthropologists and archeologists seems to me as clear in this case as it is concerning the Bat Creek stone: "There is hardly a claim in any of Van Sertima's writings that can be supported by the evidence found in the archeological, botanical, linguistic, or historical record" ("Robbing" 431). Gerald Early, invited by Current Anthropology to comment upon the debunking work of Haslip-Viera, Ortiz de Montellano, and Barbour, is even bolder: "The authors are right in suggesting that Afrocentrism is Eurocentrism in blackface. One of the serious problems that oppressed people like African-Americans face is dealing with the sometimes destructive tendency to create parallel institutions that copy white ones almost entirely" ("Robbing" 434). That is, as his critics point out, Van Sertima's narrative is simply an inversion of "the old 'Heliolithic hypothesis' that was so popular among racialist scholars in Western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In essence, its proponents believed that civilization arose only once, in a 'white' ancient Egypt, and diffused from there to the other parts of the world" ("Robbing" 420n7). Afrocentrism solarizes this hypothesis, as it were, while pushing its claims for the diffusion of civilization from an Egyptian center even further.
  12. Does the lack of mainstream attention to such "news" really constitute a "disregard for the American past" comparable to "the ravaging of natural and human resources"? Is there really any question as to why this "news" is not widely disseminated? What is particularly disappointing about the perpetuation of at best controversial and at worst downright fraudulent information under the rubric of "lore" is that it is so unnecessary to making a larger, and more egalitarian, argument here. That our species has its origins in Africa is almost certain. That global migrations and intercontinental trade predate Columbus is not news. After all, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel, there was an extraordinarily improbable cross-cultural exchange between East Africa and Southeast Asia, via Madagascar, long before Europeans came along (381). Now, Rasula knows something about fact-checking (aside from his considerable scholarship, he was once a researcher for Ripley's Believe It Or Not!), and it seems unlikely that he is unaware of the scholarly consensus regarding fringe archeology. All of which invites the question, why perpetuate such claims, or at least lend them credibility, at the risk of vitiating his own project? But then again, Rasula makes clear in his Preface that "This Compost is not altogether a scholarly project" (xiii). Moreover, in a gesture that evokes one of Whitman's most famous utterances, Rasula would seem to foreclose any possibility of conventional criticism of the sort I am leveling here: "If holes are found in the 'argument,' all the better--they're for burrowing, for warmth and intimacy" (8). Can we bring "scholarly" criteria to bear upon a book that looks at first like an academic duck but at second glance resembles a rabbit?
  13. The question recalls another commentary from the issue of Current Anthropology discussed above. Anthropologist David Browman commends Haslip-Viera, Ortiz de Montellano, and Barbour for the "thankless" work they undertake in even engaging Van Sertima's work when most academics simply ignore it; but Browman goes on to suggest that this "quest is in one sense futile, as they attempt to apply academic definitions of 'knowledge' in a cultural situation where such standards simply are not seen as appropriate by the members of the group involved" ("Robbing" 432). The problem of incommensurable epistemologies is all too familiar to readers of postmodern theory. And it issues once again from Rasula's book. I would like in closing to approach this problem by juxtaposing Rasula's Olsonian posthumanism with the work of two other posthumanist scholars with whom he might be expected to have some affinity, in hopes that the differences that emerge might disclose the contingency of Rasula's observations. I will turn first to William V. Spanos, who has done so much to enable a philosophical discourse on American poetry, and then to Cary Wolfe, who has been diligently synthesizing developments in posthumanism while revealing the speciesist limits of many of those advances, and whose Critical Environments draws upon some of the same philosophers and theorists whose work informs Rasula's (particularly William James, Foucault, Deleuze, and Maturana and Varela).
  14. In The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism, Spanos reminds us that for millennia "the logos in the Aristotelian sentence 'Man is the animal who is endowed with logos'" has been rendered as some variety of rationality (6). Thus, the "'onto-theo-logical' tradition has covered over and eventually forgotten its origin in legein (to talk)" (6). In short:

    de-struction discloses that the Western tradition at large, despite the apparent variations, has been a logocentric tradition, one based on a philosophy of presence--the mystified assumption of an original Identity . . . that has been dispersed with the "fall" into time. This logocentric/recuperative interpretation of human being thus results eventually in the total acceptance of the secondary or derived (constructed) notion of truth as correspondence--as agreement of the mind with its object of knowledge . . . . (6-7)

    And in a particularly germane passage, Spanos notes that "this diagnosis of the discourse of Western man" is not "restricted to postmodern philosophers," but is shared by a number of "postmodern writers," among them Charles Olson, whom Spanos goes on to quote from Letter 23 of The Maximus Poems ("muthologos has lost such ground," etc.) (11). While Spanos, like Rasula, finds much to admire in early critiques of logocentrism, he argues that they are not sufficient, not least because humanism has been too quick to criticize "the limitations of positivistic scientific inquiry" without acknowledging that the "vicious circularity of technological method has been inscribed in all the disciplines" (19). This is why Spanos ultimately calls for a transdisciplinary practice, one which overcomes rather than reinforces "the false and secondary opposition between the humanities and the sciences" (23). Hence, "the oppositional intellectual," for Spanos, "must recognize the affiliative bonds between the specific sites of repressed and alienated forms of knowledge" (xxi). He continues, "What is needed is a specifically engaged but collaborative practice" (xxi).
  15. So far this seems very much in tune with Rasula, whose wreading practices are collaborations in the ongoing construction of a poetic counter-memory. And in a statement on the curricular implications for a posthumanist pedagogy congruent with Rasula's critique of canontology, Spanos writes, "To utilize history to overcome history, the oppositional intellectual, of whatever critical persuasion, has the responsibility of gaining a commanding view of history and its multiple coercions, not in the sense of a panoptic mastery, but in the genealogical sense of their socially constituted origins and ideological ends" (xxii). This is a fit description of what Rasula has accomplished for postwar literary history in The American Poetry Wax Museum. But while Rasula may have begun to chart the genealogy of his own position--that niche in the open field between Ethnopoetics and Language--his "commanding view" does not escape ontotheology's gravity.
  16. As Spanos shows, logocentrism fuels a "longing for the lost origin, for enlightenment" (11). The nature of that origin may have changed with humanism's historical rejection of "the Word of God in favor of the mind of mortal Man" (21), the substitution of "the anthropologos for the theo-logos" (22), but the ends of logocentrism's pedagogical narrative did not change: "human beings exist in some kind of fallen state and therefore . . . the essential purpose of learning is self-evidently recuperative: to regain the heights--and the mental and spiritual well-being--from which they have fallen into the disease of time" (11). Or again: "Western education has thus always reaffirmed a nostalgic and recuperative circuitous journey back to the origin. More specifically, it has always had as its essential purpose the domestication of new knowledge by resorting to the itinerary of the recollective cultural memory" (15). As we have seen, Rasula's ecological imperatives legislate a project of restoration, although the ouroboros is a recuperative figure activating not so much "cultural" as phylogenetic memory. Humanism may have rejected the theology of a fall from the permanent presence of Identity into diseased Difference, but in its place emerged an anthropology to secure a similar circuit, and now a radically atavistic muthologistics holds that the wilderness of Difference has been tamed by a monoculture, with ecologically disastrous results (to recall the first of Rasula's epigraphs: "the animal" has been "stolen from us"). This species of posthumanism substitutes the mutho-logos for the anthropo-logos, with a corollary reversal of the poles of Difference and Identity. Of course, not all atavistic theories achieve even this reversal; Paul Shepard seems to find in the Pleistocene a secular prelapsarian moment: "We live with the possibility of a primal closure. All around us aspects of the modern world--diet, exercise, medicine, art, work, family, philosophy, economics, ecology, psychology--have begun a long circle back toward their former coherence" (170, emphasis added). But whether ethnopoetics seeks to recover a primal Identity or an original Difference, it turns to the deep past in the name of our "mental and spiritual well-being." The center changes, the circle remains intact, or, as Rasula might say, in tact. But even if tact is necessary to any oppositional practice, it is not enough. This, at any rate, is one of the claims that arises in Cary Wolfe's Critical Environments.
  17. Wolfe is certainly not alone among contemporary critics in pursuing what Spanos calls transdisciplinarity, in the sense of an oppositional intellectual practice that traces "contemporary power relations in terms of a relay extending throughout the indissoluble continuum of being, from the ontological (the anthropologos) through the cultural (the discourse of Man) to the economic and sociopolitical (the practices of consumer capitalism, patriarchy, and racism)" (xxiii). But he has been crucial to the dissemination of systems theory in America. And a comparison between Rasula's timely but brief nods to cybernetics in his Introduction and Wolfe's more sustained study suggests that in composting autopoeisis until it is indistinguishable from lore, Rasula's posthumanism may serve, as Spanos might say, to domesticate this "new knowledge." At the very least, we can say that there is a very different position vis-à-vis "wisdom" to be derived from systems-theoretical transdisciplinarity, and Wolfe has formulated it succinctly thus: "the only way out is through" (Critical xiv). What Wolfe's slogan for a reconstructed pragmatism means is that we must "follow through to its conclusion the problem of contingency, to assert that 'everything that is said is said by someone,' and to then remember that all such assertions are based on a 'blind spot' of paradoxical distinction that not the observer in question, but only other observers, can disclose . . . . Self-critical reflection is thus, strictly speaking, impossible, and must instead be distributed in the social field among . . . a 'plurality' of observers" (xviii).
  18. I will forego a lengthy explication of what such a distribution of blind spots throughout the social field entails and how Wolfe arrives at this conclusion. As I noted before we began this detour through other posthumanisms, my hope was simply to disclose the contingency of Rasula's observations. Or, put otherwise, to show that Rasula sees what he can see, namely a pressing need for "long term views" which "reckon our own wild natures into any consideration of 'nature' as such" (10). It comes as no surprise, then, that he feels an affinity for Maturana and Varela, whose biological research leads them (like many of the poets in Rasula's "anthology of sorts") to recognize East Asian wisdom. It is an affinity grounded in what Wolfe identifies in Critical Environments as the hope "that ethics may somehow do the work of politics" (80). While Wolfe is careful not to dismiss the explanatory power of mutual causality, he asserts that Maturana and Varela's "repeated calls for us to heed the wisdom of Buddhist 'mindfulness' and 'egolessness'" are an attempt "to solve by ethical fiat and spiritual bootstrapping the complex problems of social life conducted in conditions of material scarcity, economic inequality, and institutionalized discrimination of various forms" (81). Mutatis mutandis, this discloses quite clearly the limitations of Rasula's closing endorsement of "the sense of good nature that stamps all force and form with grace and tact" (199).
  19. Fifteen years ago, in a reply to Charles Altieri called "The Politics of, the Politics in," Rasula noted, with some scorn, that contemporary poets were accommodating "the ascendent public discourse of self-promotion and advertisement" (317), singling out "the Care Bears soft touch of Hugh Prather, the carnival geek antics of Charles Bukowski, and the Age of Aquarius spell-casting of Bly, among others" (317). A few pages on, however, he has a different take on "spell-casting"; following Charles Bernstein, Rasula recalls with approval

    a venerated principle germane to the poetic tradition of the high sublime: the hypnotic reverie, the stupefied assent of the reader drugged with bewitching words. As Brecht would remind us, a self-critical method of delivery need not entail a less impassioned spectacle; it simply serves as a way of maintaining a functional perspective that visibly operates alongside the passion it conveys. (320)

    Holography seems to be Rasula's own signature accommodation, his sentences no less astute for being enchanting, the lore they transmit by no means irrelevant for being archaic (however much it taxes my credulity). But I get the sense, reading Rasula, that such magic really suffices as an oppositional practice if one adopts the long view of deep history, and this gives me pause.
  20. If, following Wolfe, we measure concepts pragmatically by the work they enable--by the observations they make possible--what can we make of the view that Rasula's framework affords us:

    We face a dilemma unprecedented in the entire epoch of Christian moralism or the preceding age of Greek pride: the danger is no longer wicked tyrants and evildoers, it is the cumulative byproduct of normality, with its increasing disinterest in plants and animals, the earth and the stars; its marginal awareness of economic and political dereliction; and a corresponding hyperattention to mass-mediated fame and fortune. (190, emphasis added)

    There is no doubt that we live in the midst of an environmental crisis. But as for the rest of Rasula's characterization of our situation at the start of the twenty-first century (or, as Gary Snyder calculates it, the fiftieth millennium[9]), his is not a world I recognize. I recognize the caricature that he has drawn here well enough, to be sure. But where Rasula sees "increasing disinterest" and "marginal awareness" I see burgeoning activism and new practices of everyday life, both owing much to the new media. "Increasing disinterest in plants and animals" does not generate trade disputes over genetically modified organisms or fuel a skyrocketing organic foods industry, and as Wolfe points out in the Introduction to his latest book, Animal Rites, contemporary scholarship is only now catching up to popular culture in interrogating our speciesism (1). "Marginal awareness" does not explain the international movement for global justice, while cultural studies has shown again and again that there is more to consuming mass-mediated products than a distracting or narcotizing "hyperattention"; indeed, the blurred line between reading and writing that Rasula so values has analogues in numerous fan subcultures. If Rasula does not see any of this, then of course poetry will appear most valuable as a vehicle for the transmission of good nature. And if poetry is not equipped for alternatives, like the cognitive mapping alluded to earlier, then we can all join with William Carlos Williams in his refrain from Paterson, Book 3: "So be it" (97-98).
  21. "Foster or debunk. It's a strategic question," argues Brian Massumi in Parables for the Virtual. In what may be the most refreshingly direct address I have read in some time, Massumi asks:

    why not hang up the academic hat of critical self-seriousness, set aside the intemperate arrogance of debunking--and enjoy? If you don't enjoy concepts and writing and don't feel that when you write you are adding something to the world, if only the enjoyment itself, and that by adding that ounce of positive experience to the world you are affirming it, celebrating its potential, tending its growth, in however small a way, however really abstractly--well, just hang it up. (13)

    There is no question that Rasula has added, in no small way, to the pleasure that I continue to take in poetry. Rasula's practice affirms and celebrates the potential of poetry to model careful comportment. All the same, my reservations--neither intemperate nor arrogant, one hopes--stand. Many of us share a desire for what Olson, near the end of The Maximus Poems, calls "the initiation / of another kind of nation" (633). That initiation surely requires the decentering of the human. But it just as surely should not circuitously plant the seeds of another center out of the (masculinist) desire for the Paleolithic which Rasula shares with so many of those who opened the field for those of us working today.
  22. English Department
    Indiana University

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    1. Rasula himself draws attention to the duration of the book's composition in his Preface (xiii). One wonders if he does not also have himself in mind when he opens the Introduction with fraternal remarks on Thoreau, whose "instincts were not scholastic, but ecological" and who prepared Walden "with geophysical patience," thus testifying both "to a composting sensibility: attuned to the rhythms by which literary models decayed and enriched the soil" and to a "reverence for the pagan hieroglyphic divinity of the natural world" (1).

    2. Note that this is not a posthumanism avant la lettre but is, at least as early as 1952, an explicit and self-conscious posthumanism; see Olson, "The Present Is Prologue."

    3. Readers may recall this neologism (one of Rasula's favorite devices) from The American Poetry Wax Museum, where Rasula offers this by way of definition:

    Insofar as a canon is more than a roster of names, it is a collocation of attributes, a showcase for modalities of the exemplary. Canontology has to do with sanctioned prescriptions for being, which translates in a given generic setting to styles of belonging. Canontology regulates membership. (471)

    And again:

    Poetry is at the center of a pedagogic matrix, where it is administratively put to work for canontology. For several centuries, anthologists have labored in the canonical mine at the center of national cultures, separating the purported ore from a murky amalgam of subterranean deposits. I want to suggest by this fanciful analogy that anthologists devoted to the Enlightenment task of sorting the grains of wisdom and beauty have really been working in the dark. (472)

    A more comprehensive review would pursue the question of just how far removed Rasula's project is from this canontological excavation of "grains of wisdom."

    4. The following quotations can be found on pages 43, 45, 46-47, 179, 183, and 199, respectively (all emphasis in the original). If readers imagine each quote as coming from a different author, they will have some sense of what it is like to read substantial sections of Rasula's "anthology of sorts."

    5. Rasula's Bibliographic Glossary, an appendix of sorts, would seem to belie his disavowal of canontological motivations, since the "rudimentary contextual data" the Glossary provides is intended to fill lacunae owing to the poets' not having "been widely anthologized" or not having "received much critical attention" (237). Given these criteria, surely John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, and Gary Snyder have no place in this Glossary.

    6. Compare this to Shepard, who suggests that "much of modern angst has its roots in the episodes of failure to mitigate regressive psychological traits in personal development between the twelfth and sixteenth years . . . and the endless social aggression that follows. The lack of appropriate initiation ceremonies for adolescents today is a glaring tear in the fabric of society, patched up by sports, teams, and clubs and exacerbated by gangs, where adolescents create their own identity without the watchful guidance of elders" (160).

    7. While the evidence that the Bat Creek Stone is a fraud seems to me incontrovertible, Mainfort and Kwas acknowledge that identifying the culprit is more difficult and that they "have no unequivocal data to present" about the identity of the perpetrator (12). Even though the circumstantial evidence that they marshal against Emmert is quite convincing, it is ultimately moot. There are no coins (as Rasula, following Irby, has it), and the stone has been considered suspect since not long after its appearance; even "Cyrus Thomas and other staff members at the Smithsonian Institution came to doubt the authenticity of the stone" (14). Mainfort and Kwas revisit the entire matter in "The Bat Creek Fraud: A Final Statement."

    8. I am referring to Warren Barbour, Gabriel Haslip-Viera, and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, who co-authored two major critiques of Van Sertima published in 1997. In order to simplify parenthetical citation, I will hereafter reference Haslip-Viera, Ortiz de Montellano, and Barbour as "Robbing," and Ortiz de Montellano, Haslip-Viera, and Barbour as "They."

    9. See Snyder. Please note that this parenthetical remark is not meant to disparage Snyder's call to rethink our calendar according to what he calls "the implicit narrative of Euro-American science" (390). As Snyder notes, "We humans are constantly revising the story we tell ourself about ourselves. The main challenge is to keep this unfolding story modestly reliable" (390). It is precisely the "reliability" of Rasula's "story we tell ourself about ourselves" which is in question here.

    Works Cited

    Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Trans. E.F.N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1974.

    Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 1999.

    Haslip-Viera, Gabriel, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, and Warren Barbour. "Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima's Afrocentricity and the Olmecs." Current Anthropology 38.3 (1997): 419-41.

    Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

    Mainfort, Robert C., and Mary L. Kwas. "The Bat Creek Fraud: A Final Statement." Tennessee Anthropologist 18.2 (1993): 87-93.

    ---. "The Bat Creek Stone: Judeans in Tennessee?" Tennessee Anthropologist 16.1 (1991): 1-19.

    Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

    Olson, Charles. The Maximus Poems. Ed. George F. Butterick. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

    ---. "The Present Is Prologue." Collected Prose. Eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 205-07.

    Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard, Gabriel Haslip-Viera, and Warren Barbour. "They Were NOT Here before Columbus: Afrocentric Hyperdiffusionism in the 1990s." Ethnohistory 44.2 (1997): 199-234.

    Rasula, Jed. The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940-1990. Urbana: NCTE, 1996.

    ---. "Brutalities of the Vanguard." Contemporary Literature 35.4 (1994): 771-85.

    ---. "The Politics of, the Politics in." Politics and Poetic Value. Ed. Robert von Hallberg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

    Shepard, Paul. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Ed. Florence Shepard. Washington, D.C.: Shearwater-Island, 1998.

    Snyder, Gary. "Entering the Fiftieth Millennium." The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations, 1952-1998. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999. 390-94.

    Spanos, William V. The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

    Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. Rev. ed. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1992.

    Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

    ---. Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the "Outside." Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998.

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