Friday, December 16, 2011

From the Archive: From the Margins (1991), part two

With my presentation at the Earth Day Forum in 1991, I took a few, tentative steps toward a phenomenology of place intended to inform a practical environmental ethic.

I mainly focused on a pervasive theme in Berry's work, a theme made explicit in his essay, "Preserving Wildness" (1987): the intertwining of the domestic and the wild in the landscapes we inhabit, and even in our own bodies. Wildness pervades our experience, at the margins of the domestic realm, the boundaries between landscapes.
Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins. the margins are of utmost importance. They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins - lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like - are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are placed on human intention. (Berry 1987, p.151)
Berry dubs this alternative to monoculture a "landscape of harmony" (Ibid.). To get there from where we are, we must move from an exploitive attitude to a nurturing attitude, a profound cultural shift that cannot originate within the exploitive attitude itself.

Some of Berry's analysis and response to this attitude derives from his earlier work, The Unsettling of America. Unfortunately, I was, back in 1991, somewhat sloppy in compiling my notes for the presentation, so I still have some work to do in tracking down the references for some of what follows.
Agricultural experts and 'agribusinessmen' are free to believe that their system works because they have accepted a convention which makes 'external', and therefore irrelevant, all evidence that it does not work. 'External' questions are not asked or heard, much less answered. (Berry 1977?? - source unclear)
In response, Berry plays on two senses of marginality:
If change is to come then, it will have to come from the outside. It will have to come from the margins (Ibid.??).
He is speaking, in part, of "marginal" or fringe agricultural practices, such as his own way of caring for his land in Kentucky. He is also speaking of margins within the landscape itself.
to accommodate the margin within the form, to allow the wilderness of nature to thrive in domesticity. (Ibid.??)

The margins of the domestic realm could be taken as a matter of literal, objective geography and ecology: it is a matter of empirical fact that natural processes not subject to human control take place at the boundaries between different land uses.

Berry's own exploration of margins suggests it is also a matter of experience, suffused with ethical and even spiritual significance.

My hunch, back in 1991, was that margins could lend themselves to phenomenological elucidation, perhaps by way of an account of the horizon-structure of experience as it unfolds through time, or in terms of encounters with an "otherness" that exceeds human intention.

A possible point of entry could be the human body itself:
The question of human limits, of the proper definition and place of human beings within the order of Creation, finally rests on our attitude toward our biological existence, the life of the body in this world (Berry 1977)
Berry underscores the importance of the body in "Preserving Wildness":
Our bodily life, to begin at the nearest place, is half wild. Perhaps it is more than half wild, for it is dependent upon reflexes, instincts and appetites that we do not cause or intend and that we cannot, or had better not, stop (Berry 1987, pp. 139-40).
I gave my own gloss on the consequences of this point, as follows, in my (somewhat cryptic) notes for the presentation.
Makes the connection explicit: We must be careful and practice good workmanship in the world, because we ourselves, insofar as we are "wild" (i.e. have biological existence), are caught up in the world, and vulnerable within it.

The "ultimate" margin: the mutual accommodation of domesticity and wildness in human existence.
I foresaw two directions for a phenomenological engagement with this idea of "mutual accommodation":
1. wildness as an element of mystery. (Berry spoke of instincts and appetites) reminded of Nietzsche, or even Freud. All that we do not know about ourselves - against the reduction to mere rationality. The "Other" of reason is already within us, and it is for us to accommodate it, to seek harmony.
In the notes, I interpose another quotation from Berry:
To be divided against nature, against wildness, then, is a human disaster because it is to be divided against ourselves. It confines our identity as creatures entirely within the bounds of our own understanding, which is invariably a mistake because it is invariably reductive. It reduces our largeness, our mystery, to a petty and sickly comprehensibility (Berry, 1987, p. 141).
Then I consider a second direction for phenomenological elucidation:
2. must emphasize an aspect of embodiedness that is all too often ignored in philosophical debate: our vulnerability in the world, the possibility of the disruption of our flesh . . .

What is the environmental crisis? - a deterioration of ecological sysetms, because of our activity in the world, which threatens our own biological existence.
I concluded my presentation with a sketch of an environmental ethics derived from Berry.
  • anthropocentric, but in an expanded sense - human use 
    • limits of our self-interest (margins) 
    • expanded notion of what it is to be human (as above) 
  • practical (in an Aristotelian manner) must be grounded in a locality, a particular landscape. it is applied. in terms of excellence of practice, health or thriving 
    • abstract moral theory is "out of place" (2 senses) 
      • "inappropriate" 
      • "alienated" 
    • merges w/ local history and traditions, communities an integrated vision of human life 
      • narrative of place, renders an understanding of what the land has been and what the proper care of it is. 
      • local history becomes a manner of understanding the land 
      • [Can "read" the landscape.]
The notion of reading the landscape derives from Berry's suggestion for a "landscape criticism" (Berry 1987, p. 151).

I closed with a postscript on hope, which takes on new resonance, now that I am weighing a tragic outlook:
no finality or closure to this harmony. it is an ongoing practice, informed by the hope that harmony may be achieved. It is in the process itself that we must now begin to recover our humanity.

Wendell Berry. 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Wendell Berry. 1987. "Preserving Wildness," in Home Economics. San Francisco: North Point Press, pp. 137-151.

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