Afterlives “unfolding”: figures of afterness at the Conference on Ecopoetics

by Angela Hume

Discarded plastic in the UC Berkeley Eucalyptus Grove. Photo by conference participant Jen Coleman.

I have been thinking about afterness, ecopoetics, and ecological crisis. What does it mean to come after? After Katrina? After the BP blowout? After 400 parts per million?[1] After what the philosopher Ray Brassier calls “the fact of extinction” itself?[2] What might it mean for poetry and poetics? In Evelyn Reilly’s words, it’s possible that “we are in a moment of…more and more poetry [relating] to the ecological, that, in an inverse of ‘no poetry after Auschwitz,’ we are in a moment of ‘all poetry after Katrina,’ or the Deepwater Horizon, or Sandy or whatever it is that comes next.”[3] Moreover, what do affective states or feelings of afterness have to do with contemporary environmental conditions and crises? What do they have to do with cultural memory, with grief and mourning, with revolutionary thinking and activity?

According to Nathan Brown, in his Conference on Ecopoetics presentation “Phūsis, Technē, and Poiēsis: Toward a Postmodern Poetics,” true “postmodernity” can only come after capitalism.[4] And since we have not yet moved beyond capitalism, “postmodernity” remains an object to be achieved through struggle, one that will culminate with the displacement of the value form along with all of the ways that it dictates social practices, including the practice of poetry. For Brown, what this means is that the social role of poetry after capitalism will necessarily be understood very differently — “just another practice,” perhaps, “neither called upon to disappear nor to be more than what it is.”

For Myung Mi Kim, on the other hand, in her paper “Deracination, Proliferation, Affiliation: On Ecopoetics, Innovative Practice, and Linguistic Human Rights,” poetry is and will continue to be tasked with the difficult social work of undermining language as a homogenizing, standardizing instrument. In the wake of what Kim names “ecological deracination” — the forced uprooting of humans, animals, plants, and even languages from their native environments — it is the work of poetry (and other tools for linguistic innovation) to uncouple language and narration, make critiques of “mono-lingualism,” and, ultimately, reanimate language as an “unfolding.” In deracination’s aftermath, Kim argues, it becomes our urgent task to strive for a transformative, translocative poetics.

Other presenters tarried with afterness as well. As part of the panel “The Ghost in the (Drum) Machine,” Katy Didden, Lisa Brown, Joshua Bennett, Ross Gay, and Patrick Rosal reflected on artistic practices of erasure, reuse, and remix, methods that (they argue) draw attention to the afterness of any artwork — the way the work is “always looking over its own shoulder,” to quote Bennett on hip-hop artist Frank Ocean’s remix project Nostalgia, Ultra. On a different panel, and in an attempt to problematize conceptions of “reuse” in art, Joshua Schuster’s paper “After Recycling: Environmental Conceptual Poetics” resisted the idea that because any text can be recycled it can therefore always also be a model for a kind of environmental ethics. Instead, Schuster suggested, we might turn our attention to the “purposeful purposelessness” of some conceptual practices of reuse, practices that in his view create a space for new ecological perspectives.

As history shows, and as many philosophers have noted, knowledge and historical understanding are always constructed retrospectively. Perhaps this fact has to do with the “irreducible belatedness” of language, as Gerhard Richter argues in his book Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics.[5] (In Walter Benjamin’s words: “knowledge comes only in lightening flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.”[6]) For Richter, afterness — a particular figure of modernity, one always bound up with succession and survival — may be read as figuring a certain crisis of experience itself. In my view, this idea is particularly useful for ecocritical thought: how to think the crisis time of the present, in which all experience is experience after the onset of ecological collapse?

On Margaret Ronda’s reading, this is precisely the type of thinking that contemporary ecopoetics is registering today. In her conference paper “Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene,” Ronda links ecopoetics itself to afterness.[7] Upon examining what she calls the “end-of-nature thesis” that (she asserts) begins to predominate in the late 20th century, Ronda argues that the literature of this paradigm is none other than ecopoetics, for which nature-as-an-imaginative-resource’s “meanings” become available only as afterimage, or elegiac, “negative” thinking.

In the end, the Conference on Ecopoetics, like any historical object (even “nature”), only exists for us in and through its afterlife. In recent months, Gillian, Margaret, and I have been struck by the impulse among conference participants to archive and critically reflect upon conference proceedings. From one-time blog posts that work to creatively synthesize some of what came up over the weekend (see, for example, Catherine Owen’s “rhizomatic blogs” at Barzakh) to efforts by literary blogs like OmniVerse and THE DISINHIBITOR to publish series of participant presentations (Tyrone Williams’ and Evelyn Reilly’s presentations are now up at OmniVerse, and Jonathan Skinner’s, Brian Teare’s, Rob Halpern’s, C.J. Martin’s, and Laura Moriarty’s are up at the THE DISINHIBITOR), many people have been active in the collective construction of a robust conference afterlife. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out links to participant archives, collaborations, and reflections, updated regularly at the Post-Conference webpage.



[1] Just last month, scientific instruments registered carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million — well above the upper safety limit of 350 ppm and the highest concentration of the gas in the atmosphere in several million years.

[2] Brassier, in his book Nihil Unbound, tarries with Jean-Francois Lyotard’s claim that, in a sense, everything is dead already due to the very fact of extinction — the fact that 4.5 billion years from now, the sun, and therefore all terrestrial life, will die. See Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (New York Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991). For Lyotard, because science tells us that the conditions of possibility for our lives on earth will be annihilated, extinction — whether due to solar catastrophe or some other catastrophe (which seems the more likely possibility today) — can only be thought as that which has already happened, if the life of the mind, or philosophical questioning, dies out with the sun. Brassier’s interest in Lyotard’s discussion has to do with what Brassier calls extinction’s “objectifying power.” On Brassier’s reading, everything is dead already because the fact of extinction is a leveling power in itself, negating the difference between mind and world and, in Brassier’s words, “turning thinking inside out, objectifying it as a perishable thing in the world like any other” (229). Therefore, extinction unfolds in what Brassier calls “anterior posteriority” — a kind of before-afterness, corroding human thought’s ability to project any sort of traditional future (230, my emphasis).

[3] Evelyn Reilly, “Environmental Dreamscapes and Ecopoetic Grief,” first delivered at the Conference on Ecopoetics and subsequently published at OmniVerse (spring 2013), http://omniverse.us/evelyn-reilly-environmental-dreamscapes-and-ecopoetic-grief/.

[4] Brown revises Fredric Jameson’s now-canonical formulation, according to which postmodernism is a unique manifestation of late (but not post) capitalism. See Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).

[5] See Gerhard Richter, Afterness: Figures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[6] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 456.

[7] Margaret Ronda, “Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene,” Post45 (spring 2013), http://post45.research.yale.edu/2013/06/mourning-and-melancholia-in-the-....