Sunday, June 12, 2011

Uncanny wolves, disenchantment, killing to eat

Two moments in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac capture a seed of today’s environmental imagination. One is among the best-known passages of the book, an edited recounting of the young Leopold’s shooting a family of wolves, part of his job as an agent of federal forests policy in New Mexico. He described reaching the dying wolf-mother in time to see “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” a revelation that “there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain.” This passage has become so archetypal that its image, A Fierce Green Fire, has provided the title for a history of the environmental movement. The second, lesser-known passage takes place along Mexico’s Gavilan River, where Leopold describes an elusive “music in these hills, by no means audible to all.” To hear even a few notes of it, he recommends, one must “sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it – a vast pulsing harmony – its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the second and centuries.”

Each passage is in some ways a conventional picture of nature’s majesty, the undaunted spirit of the wolf and the harmony of the cosmos. The more I reflect on them, though, the more I think the power of these passages lies in how Leopold, the observer, responds to the moment. The key act in each passage is the powerless to know, the failure to understand, what he confronts. Leopold wrote of watching the wolf die, “I realized then, and have known ever since” the moment’s lesson; but the lesson was “known only to her and the mountain.” This is not some sloppy inconsistency. What he realizes is that he does not know, and cannot know the meaning of the wolf’s existence as another living thing, one that sees the world from behind its eyes as surely as Leopold does through his. The lesson is a negative one: the arrogant policy he has been carrying out, to eliminate predators and drive up the game population, is not one he can follow. This policy is arrogant ecologically, because it presumes that people can easily grasp and manage the relations of species and land health – an idea experience shows to be spurious. It is also arrogant morally, because it disregards the “fierce green fire”; but what that fire is, why the wolf’s life commands respect, Leopold does not try to say. His mind is stilled before this question, before even asking it in a way that would invite an answer.

The passage from the Gavilan pivots on a meditative exercise: to “think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand.” Tried is the pivotal word in this pivotal passage. Leopold does not even suggest the point is to catalog those things the reader has understood, but instead to call up, and amplify and expand by repetition, a certain posture of mind: inquisitive, pressing forward, but in some unyielding way baffled. The intuition of harmonies spanning time, space, and the cycles of life is not a sudden triumph of understanding, but a consummation of bafflement so complete that it becomes a kind of vision. It brings to mind the mystical moment in Walden when Thoreau, sensing time and memory collapsing into an instantaneous joy, reports, “I can almost say, Walden, is it you?” There is no strict accounting for this sense of mutual recognition between a man’s mind and a fragment of the natural world that suddenly comes to stand for a spirit in the whole.

That is why it seems to me that the word for these encounters is uncanny. It also seems to me that we should try to understand their uncanniness, if we want a clearer view of how the natural world moves (some of) us today. This is an aesthetic question: it concerns how certain perceptions affect us, and what these effects reveal about the mind that is moved and the world that moves it. Aesthetics has a special place in environmental imagination: experiencing beauty or sublimity is a way of knowing the value of nature. People have not been led to believe that in nature’s value through a series of argued-for propositions, as much as they have begun from a felt sense that aesthetic experience discloses value, then tried to account for that experience.

The providential view of North America, the design for a continental garden, had the beautiful as its aesthetic touchstone. “The beauty of the world,” as the Great Awakening evangelist and theologian Jonathan Edwards put it, was formed of regularity, symmetry, all that bespoke by analogy the orderly mind of God and the benevolent harmony of perfected hearts. For slightly later heads less fixated on sin and salvation, beauty was the sign of usefulness: the balance and motion of a well-designed tool, the play of forces in a stable government, and the gentle slopes and rich yield of a fertile landscape all moved the mind to comfortable pleasure. The increasingly secular account of beauty was a major change, but one within a deep continuity: Edwards made the beauty of useful forms central to God’s analogies, and in both its evangelical and its secular forms, the theory of beauty drew attention to all the ways that human beings are at home in the world. Beauty lay in those things that served human happiness and security. It is no wonder that beauty should be the aesthetic of the garden.

The romantic view of North America, as we have seen, had its own aesthetic touchstone in sublimity. The most extreme and spectacular places in nature elicited corresponding qualities in the human mind: elevation, awe, a kind of reverence. For those who hewed closely to Kant’s theory of the sublime, the meaning of this feeling was a reminder of our freedom, evidenced in the play between the instinctual reaction of terror in the face of vast, impersonal, and threatening nature, and the rational response of willed steadiness, an object lesson in the power to rise above natural impulse. In less rigorous versions, this idea underwrote a general sense that sublime places put the visitor in touch with a higher self, whatever the mix of religious and psychological doctrines that spelled it out. A similar but less idealistic account of sublimity came from Edmund Burke, who saw sublime sensation as, in effect, a rush: the sensation of fear, say, at a cliff’s edge, combined with knowledge of being in fact safe from threat. In either version, sublimity emphasized that nature ran beyond our understanding and power to guide it, but also that the human mind was fundamentally separate and independent from nature, defining itself by contrast with the natural world and the power to transcend it. Pilgrimages to the high Sierra were not a way “back to nature,” so to speak, but rather chances to hone consciousness in the face of nature’s inhuman aesthetic drama.

When Sigmund Freud turned to the uncanny in 1919, he recognized that it was a minor and eccentric aesthetic topic, mostly involved in understanding the eerie charm of certain science fiction and fairy tales. Psychologist Ernst Jentsch, who had come to the topic earlier, had described uncanniness as the unsettling effect of being unsure whether some creature – a mechanical doll, for instance – is a human being or an automaton. Freud both deepened and extended the idea. Uncanniness, he argued, describes the resurgence of animism, the belief in an intelligent, intentional, and enchanted world, where inhuman objects may have feelings and wishes, and our thoughts have can have the same power as acts. Science fiction had revived animism with robotic technology, but the well it tapped was older and deeper. Freud argued that in the uncanny experience, we returned, fleetingly, to the child’s enchanted world, and also to an earlier stage of civilization, when spirits, animals with feelings and intentions, and the magical effects of thoughts were not fantasies but everyday concerns, not private indulgences but public affairs. As individuals and as a civilization we had learned to put aside these perceptions in the name of reason, sacrificing them to a clear-eyed view of our situation and mastery of our circumstances. Their return was frightening but also enchanting, a license to be children again as the garden-walls around our carefully cultivated maturity briefly dissolved, and the animate wild slipped in.

To be clear, Freud found nothing charming in this. He was a servant of reason in an age drunk on unreason and charging romantically into some of history’s worst atrocities. His mission was not to celebrate obscurantism and magic, but to bring them into the light, where they could no longer cast their spells on the naive. He was not, however, one of those dogmatic rationalists who think that the answer to superstition is more geometry. Instead, he saw the power of the uncanny as a product of our continued investment in those things we have had to put aside, or bury, to become adults – as individuals and, as most Europeans of Freud’s time saw it, as a civilization. He illustrated this point through a quirk of the German language: the word Freud took for uncanny, unheimlich, or not-home-like, was a negation of heimlich, home-like, familiar, natural. A family gathering, a homeplace, a familiar landscape, a walled garden or other enclave: these were heimlich. What was unheimlich was eerie, alien, haunted, sinister – the ghosts, fairies, changelings, and dark things that lurked about and infiltrated such a place. Hence the core examples of the uncanny, the hints of other, not always friendly consciousness in a world not quite tamed to human purposes.


So far, so clear. The heimlich is close to the beautiful, the garden aesthetic, and the uncanny slips in to haunt it. Here, though, Freud found in language the key to a characteristic point. Heimlich had a spectrum of meanings, which began from the images of familiarity and moved decisively toward hints of the hidden, secret, shameful, and mysterious. The term could refer to secret liaisons, to private bodily functions, to a hint that something haunted lay just below a scene of tranquility – a cellar beneath the house, a shadow in the garden. For parallels in English, consider how “intimate” can mean a warm familial or friendly embrace or the more fraught territory of sex, how “private” denotes both the property of the home and backyard and the genitals, or – for a slightly older example – how privy chamber can refer to both the innermost sanctum of authority and to a toilet. The uncanny appeared in the outside world, Freud argued, because it was answering – or expressing – what was repressed inside – in the mind, the home, and a rational and sanitary civilization. The sense of an enchanted world, today, takes its power from the persistence of what we have had to disown in disenchanting the world.


For Freud, the psycho-sexual examples were more fundamental than the ones residing in the natural world: genitals and childhood terrors are real, after all – though sometimes disowned – while ghosts are not, and our thoughts do not – of themselves – make things happen. The victims of maturity and rationality, in his view, were mainly human instincts and appetites, which fleetingly reasserted themselves in the magical intimations of uncanniness. The uncanny, on this account, is a dreamlike state in which our rigorously enforced sense of reality breaks down and we revisit older mental states: time circles back on itself in repetition, the world sends us secret messages, the dead speak and walk, and we are haunted by spectral beings, like the imaginary ones who seemed real to us in deadly serious childhood games.

There is another way of seeing uncanniness, which highlights something that did not interest Freud: the real things outside the literal garden wall. It is, after all, true that the world is full of consciousness that is like yet unlike our own, and patterned by reality that we only partly understand, and which does not exist for our instruction or convenience. American nationhood was founded on the systematic denial of these facts, in the Puritan and evangelical “analogies” that made nature a storehouse of moral lessons and the providential story about a natural world created for us to labor on and make fruitful. These, you might say, were our ideological and imaginative garden walls. Along with these ideas, early Americans waged a kind of war on whatever violated the story. They hacked and sawed the forests until they could not any longer, and then they burnt them. They pursued the wolf, the animal they saw as nemesis to a settled, responsible, and productive life, with the relentlessness of total warfare, as if to ensure that whatever waywardness it represented would never stalk the continent again. Often enough they battled in themselves whatever was not industrious and rational – the qualities, according to John Locke, of those who deserved the earth. And the imagined alliances between hostile forces outside and subversive ones within, as when Thomas Morton – at least in the minds of his Plymouth neighbors – completed a circuit connected wild Indians, impious servants, and the animist spirit of paganism, all on the untamed ground of the New World. It was to evoke the felling of a pagan temple that the pilgrims, after their cleaning fire, renamed Morton’s Merrymount Mount Dagon.

It was partly because of these linked enmities and suppressions – total warfare outside and counter-insurgency within – that nature, particularly wild nature, could take on the enormous symbolic force it had for John Muir and his disciples. It was symbolic in the specific and strong sense that it could put people in touch with the reality, the source of energy and insight that it represented. Recall the metaphor of sublime landscapes such as Yosemite Valley as spiritual antennae, rebroadcasting signals from a higher consciousness. As Charles Taylor puts it, in the Romantic celebration of strong feeling, the children of a systematically repressive culture felt as if they had recovered a lost continent. That recovery came with a new relation to a landscape in part because the useless, extreme, and disorderly places on that terrain had been as reviled and hard-driven as similar elements in human personality. It was in this sense that Freud’s contemporary and fellow tragic rationalist, Max Weber, understood the nature cults that sprang up in Germany in the early twentieth century. If they were indirect ways of getting access to rich kinds of human community and experience, then he could given them a qualified respect – qualified by their tendency to make a fetish of nature. If, on the other hand, the outdoor enthusiasts really believed they were finding something in nature that gave their lives meaning, then they were making a dishonorable intellectual sacrifice, squandering the legacy of Western rationality in sentimental projection and papier-mache myth-making.

That legacy, as both Freud and Weber understood it, had produced disenchantment. Indeed, it required it, by driving a decisive wedge between scientific knowledge of the world, on the one hand, and the human hunger for meaning and direction, on the other. On this understanding, the enchantment of the natural world had been, always and only, an attempt to deal with human matters. Magic was a failed version of practical science, a gambit to secure good crops and avoid vicissitudes of weather and disease. Other aspects of animism were projections onto animals, or spirits embodied in nature, of our thwarted wishes and longed-for powers, and desires so disruptive that we mainly concealed them even from ourselves. Enlightenment reclaimed human powers for human beings. It also confronted us with our limitations and perversions. These were the complicated, difficult gains that nature’s fetishists hungered to surrender.

But what if this were not the only true story about enchantment and disenchantment? What if there were another version of what it meant to live in a world thick with inhuman intelligence and meaning, and so another version of what it would mean to reclaim a human estate from superstitious fear – a version that did not entail the stark choice between a spiritually mute world and one echoing with our own self-indulgent demands? It seems to me that there is such a version, that it constitutes a kind of counter-tradition that is distinct from both providential and romantic paths to self-assurance, and that the uncanny is its expression today. In a great study of the animist culture of the Athabascan people of Alaska, Richard Nelson describes a worldview that falls into neither the pathos of magic-drenched enchantment nor the austerity of thinking humans alone on earth. Instead, this hunting people understood themselves as engaged in constant negotiation with other species, and even rivers and landforms, that was on the one hand intensely practical, and on the other hand presupposed the intelligence and sensitivity of these non-human entities. A hunter should not offend the animals, not because they are divine, as if one were offending God, but for the same mix of practical and moral reasons that discourage us from offending other people: it is better to avoid insult, both because it is gratuitous hurt and because it invites counter-insult and a withholding of help that we need, or may need later. Human society is a constant dance of solicitude and indifference, generosity and exploitation, that may come unavoidably with interdependence that is both material (we need one another to live and flourish) and moral (we need one another to be who we are and wish to be). In the Athabascan worldview that Nelson describes, relations between humans and other species have the same character, their practical and moral dimensions impossible to pull apart.


This version of an enchanted worldview emphasizes the presence in the world of many non-human minds and forms of order, and the intuition that we owe them some kind of acknowledgement and consideration. If we start with this idea, then disenchantment would not have to mean denying it outright, but instead making it, in ways, more subtle and difficult by recognizing that these other minds are deeply different from ours, that we cannot be sure of their content or attitude, and that what they mean for us, morally and practically, is something of a mystery. But the intelligences themselves, and the puzzle of their meaning, these would persist. This is consistent with the spirit of Montaigne, captured in his formula that humans are not above nature, whether as the lieutenants of God, with dominion over earth, or as the austere, solitary heroes of Weber’s tragic rationalism; but neither are they below it, seeking instruction in how to live from other forms of life, or from ecological patterns. Instead, we are a distinctive part of it, a part distinctive in that it thinks, and in how it thinks – how we think: in our articulate self-consciousness and the reflexive problems (Who am I? What should I do? What will help me to decide?) that it generates.

On this version of disenchantment, both of the epochal human emancipations, from fear and from need, swept too broadly, launching a kind of warfare against the enchanted world, as against human vulnerability to nature’s terrible vicissitudes. The emancipation from need did its work, conquering a continent, hand in hand with providentialism, that massive modern theory of nature enchanted with a single idea: progress toward wealth and higher forms of political freedom. The emancipation from fear, the secularizing disenchantment of the natural world, took the providential view as its last target, though the outcome this struggle is still an open question, at least in the United States. Although disenchantment was a war on fantasy in the name of a realistic human freedom, it fostered, paradoxically, its own fantasy. This is the fantasy that the world contains no minds but our own. Closely related is the idea any meaning must be of a recognizably human kind. If these things are true, then any apprehension of meaning in non-human things, presumably without minds like ours, such as Leopold’s epiphany face to face with the dying wolf, must be either a purely human thing or rank sentimental projection. But to see the matter this way means misunderstanding Leopold: he does not say that in the Gila National Forest he met a mind like his own, which told him what to do. He says that he met another mind of some kind, another focal point of life, and that it was utterly strange to him, describable only by a kind of metaphor, and that when he relt his responsibility for its dying, he disowned his part in an obsessive war that was then in its last stages. The uncanny, then, marks a recovery, a faltering, candidly uncertain, but still exhilarating entrance into a second naivete, one that is necessarily very different from the original naivete of the enchanted world that our enlightening ancestors laid to waste long ago.

Like other versions of environmental imagination, the uncanny has a material and technological setting: it not just an option in a menu of mental attitudes. By way of comparison, sublimity depends on practical mastery over nature’s sources of terror. To experience the sublime, it must be true that you can observe the overwhelming face of indifferent nature quite confident that you will sleep that night in a safe place and return the next day to an industrious and rational life. John Locke’s theory of the universal garden could become a touchstone only for a people with the means to reshape a continent. In this way, it is importantly different from the embattled gardens of the medieval monasteries. Those “Jerusalems in anticipation” were not built in the belief that nature would be generally redeemed by human effort. Instead, they awaited divine redemption like signal fires built for hoped-for rescuers. Uncanniness, even more than sublimity, arises in a world that we have mastered, so that its independence of us, the presence of inhuman forces that are not just backdrop but break into the foreground of our action and awareness, can surprise and unsettle us. It also responds to a key event in ecological consciousness: the paradox in which growing knowledge of nature discloses the limits of that same knowledge, and mastery reaches the point where, as with nuclear power, toxic pollution, or climate change, our powers slip from our hands and give us over to a kind of man-made fate. These changes can produce a second skepticism, an attitude that stands to the classical and Renaissance skepticism of a Montaigne as the second naivete of the uncanny stands to the original naivete of the enchanted world. We might see the ethical meaning of this second skepticism as a version of the precautionary principle: that we should presume against acts that might do serious and irreversible harm, even if we think the chance of that harm is slight.

What would a practical ethics or environmental law look like that took the uncanny seriously? One way to begin addressing this question is to consider which facts about the natural world we have persistently ignored and suppressed, and how those return to surprise us. Then we might use of the surprise by finding a way to acknowledge more generally what it expresses. Consider first our ways of dividing the land. The first, providential-republican generation of land law set the country west of the original colonies on a grid shaped for handoff to productive private owners. The benefits of this strategy were real, as measured by its economic goals, on land whose fertility matched the scale of yeoman ownership. In more arid lands to the west, it produced – again by its own measures – the irony of failed, blown-out, drought-stricken homesteads that never became homes. This land policy also stood against any thought that the land might contain other kinds of values. And so it produced land-use that steadily erased other values, an invisible warfare against whatever could not be eaten, used for shelter, or sold. It also underwrote explicit warfare against whatever stood in the way of such use, licensing destruction that ranged from Tocqueville’s settlers’ clearings to the forest infernos of the Upper Midwest to the extermination campaign against the wolf. The uncanny attends moments in which we relinquish some of this mastery.

Consider killing an animal you intend to eat. In one sense, this is a simple exercise of mastery, and no doubt it has seemed that to many. As best I can tell, this was the spirit in which the traditional farmers and hunters that I grew up near approached their killing: as an act strictly matter-of-fact and even routine, whose meaning they would not have taken as a question, except as a matter of getting food or sport. I suspect it was because of this attitude that many rural people, including many that I grew up around, were quite willing to give to give up home-grown and hunted meat and raw milk when industrial sources appeared instead. If our dominion over nature is beyond question, then the difference between home production and the industrial sort is just an economic one. It was the rare American farmer who did not take this attitude from the middle of the twentieth century forward.

It can be a different thing, though, to kill uncertain about what this act means. Does it eliminate it a center of consciousness and awareness, the focal point of a world, as each person is the center of a version of the world? Is it, if so, a world we can imagine our way into, or so different that it lies beyond all but the most groping comparisons? Barry Lopez once admirably imagined the sensory world of the narwhal, whose landscape is almost purely acoustic, a soundscape, so that a shock of noise disrupts it like a sonic boom but also, simultaneously, like a blinding flash of light, and like an earthquake the bends the horizon itself. A world full of such events would be radically different from ours, even apart from questions that are closer to imponderable: the kinds of memories, intentions, fears, and attachments that such an animal might have, and what consciousness these could compose. What is it that blinks out when we kill? What is the meaning of the rippling resistance of the animal’s muscles, the screams we hear as terror and pain? To know what is gone, we would have to know what had been there. That question, with all its obscurity, is what the uncanny confronts us with. An industrial food system completes this obscuring by shielding us from the questions. Alertness to the uncanny re-opens us to them, to the surprise of our own unsettlement, our ignorance of what this act is, and our disturbance at it, which we do not know how to weigh. If we want to be confronted with the question, it helps to step outside of a food system that conceals it from us.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting to think of the quality of our encounter with our natural environment as uncanny, especially as a way to shrug off the kind of biological/ecological generalized quasi-scientific aura that (for me, anyway) tends to surround my concept of “nature.”
    Very fast, here’s what else comes to mind:
    1. It has been a long time since I read Freud’s essay. My recollection is that he found in the “unheimlich” the return not just of something left behind or repressed, but in particular something familiar, and that the peculiar quality of the uncanny was that this something was recognizably known at the same time that it was unknown. This kind of knife edge balance or combination of opposites resonates for me with your central point about our need to investigate a “world . . . full of consciousness that is like yet unlike our own” It is really interesting to contemplate the possibility of a kind of balance between knowing/not knowing, recognizing/not recognizing – an acceptance of this kind of uncomfortable and productive state
    2. It is equally long since I read Heidegger’s Being and Time, but I thought I remembered that he discussed the uncanny. Opening up the book I found this: “Uncanniness is the basic kind of Being-in-the –world, even though in an everyday way it has been covered up. Out of the depths of this kind of Being, Dasein itself, as conscience, calls.” (II.3. p. 322 Macquarrie & Robinson trans. 1962). This is in a section “Conscience as the Call of Care,” in which H discusses the struggle to understand moral conscience as emanating from another, namely, God, or alternatively to explain conscience away “biologically.” He then proceeds to analyze an in between state of confronting conscience as the self in “the very depths of its uncanniness.” P. 321. Seems maybe worth a look as you continue to flesh out this idea of understanding our relation to the environment as a sense of the uncanny.

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