“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Saturday, July 16, 2011

We Are Undead: Trigg, Ecology, Expressionism

Dylan Trigg's post (read it, what a feast) is making me think about my hypothesis that the ecological age is an age of weakness, lameness and hypocrisy. It's just so marvelous I'm going to quote the opening paragraph in full:

Leon Spilliaert is haunted by his own reflection. In a self-portrait, his gaze can be seen staring back to the viewer through a series of mirrors. Leon Spilliaert’s mouth is open and his eyes appear to have been replaced with glassy orbs slotted in the flesh of his face. Through those eyes, the viewer cannot be sure if there is indeed a subject — Leon Spilliaert —peering from beyond the wall of the face. The face is frozen and mute; the pitiful expression of the mouth, less a scream of agony and more a final gasp gently collapsing inwards. Where Leon Spilliaert’s teeth once existed, a dark opening now appears, the flesh of the upper and lower lip held in place through the bones of the upper cheeks. The face is hollow and sullen, as if held in some glacial landscape. The artist confronts himself, and what he sees is already dead. In the mirror, Leon Spilliaert encounters his ghost, prematurely present in the world of the living. The ghost, ostensibly thought of as inhabiting the realm of the dead (if not the undead), has come too soon, thus rendering the still living Leon Spilliaert a specter of his own corporeality.
“A gentle collapsing, / The removal of the insides” (Talking Heads, “The Overload”). This horrifying weakness is what I've been arguing is key to ecological awareness, not some Gaian bliss out. A sense of what Agamben calls bare life maybe. But perhaps it's less than that, and curiously less destructible, less subject to the whims of exception. Maybe we need to call it bare undeath.

Why? When we see we are made of and depend on the plenum of other lifeforms, not only humans; when we see geological time stretching before and after us; when we know so much about the physiology of affect and cognition; when we know that Plutonium lasts for 24 100 years and global warming for 100 000; when we can Google Earth our parents' back gardens—When these things happen, we are confronted by ourselves as “a specter of his own corporeality.” We have become undead.

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