We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called “life”
Electric word, life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
-Prince and the Revolution, “Let’s Go Crazy” (1983)
What kinds of narratives do we tell others, and tell ourselves, to get through this thing called life? This is a question that gains urgency with the exponentially increasing knowledge that life as humans have come to know it is reaching its own narrative climax. According to some, the resolution to our story is still up to us if we act now and act fast. According to others, we’re already too late, and the means we’ve created to sustain our lives, marked by a never-ending loop of production and consumption, have become actors in our own scenes of destruction. I’m writing here in generalized terms of the forces of global warming and the attendant realizations that human actions have quite possibly led us to the sixth mass extinction, wherein the rapid loss of global biodiversity has reached the scale of the five previous global extinctions, the most recent of which occurred 65 million years ago with the demise of dinosaurs.
Of course, these prior extinctions are still with us. The material remains of so many deaths, species and beings that humans can only conjure in the imagination, have transformed into oil, natural gas, and coal — substances that humans mine, extract, blast, and coax out to fuel and sustain a certain way of life. The organic material buried in the deep time of silt and rock comprises the fuels that humans have burned and depleted to the point where we now face our own definitive end: in just over 200 years, humans have burned 200 million years of fossil fuels.
Narratives of extinction invite us to consider the fragilities of human existence — the thin seam between what it means to exist (an ostensibly autonomous and willful state) and to be made extinct (which seems to require the action of another, a force outside the soon-to-be extinguished subject). But the counterpart to human power is vulnerability, and despite our likely having ushered in a new geological epoch, we have met up with the reality that our existence demands interdependence. And human extinction may be our own doing.
I’m interested in what we do with the apocalyptic narratives facing us: how do we not give up, or give in to the affective weight of ecological crisis? And what do we miss in these scenarios where it seems all hope is lost? This is as much a question for literary critics as it is for climate scientists.
I. Charged Rocks, Becoming Dinosaur
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park (adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel) focuses its narrative energy on a fictional island near Costa Rica where a small team of genetic scientists creates a wildlife park of cloned dinosaurs. They are funded by billionaire philanthropist John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough). Here’s a brief clip wherein Hammond describes the process of extracting what he calls “dino DNA” from a mosquito preserved in amber.
Jurassic Park Dino DNA from Kara Thompson on Vimeo.
The fantasy provoked by this narrative is one of touching a time, a temporal landscape that is not our own, one that never belonged to humans at all. And in this fantasy, amber preserves the life source that will reanimate the being long extinct.
But this fantasy is not limited to fiction. The same year that Crichton’s novel was published, Sue Hendrickson, a paleontologist and volunteer for a private entity called the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, was exploring for fossils in the Badlands of present-day South Dakota, near the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. While the rest of her team went off to fix a flat tire, Hendrickson walked farther into the area and noticed three articulated vertebrae, ribs, and a large bone visible and exposed on the face of a bluff.
Seventeen days later, Hendrickson and her team excavated the world’s most complete and well-preserved remains of a Tyrannosaurus rex, entombed for 65 million years in the Badlands landscape.
Two years after this discovery, “Sue” (as the T-Rex was named in honor of Hendrickson) was confiscated by the FBI and stored in a shipping container for 18 months while competing interests — the paleontologists who claimed her; Maurice Williams, the rancher on whose lands Sue was discovered; the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe; and the U.S. federal government — tangled in litigation about property ownership. Simply put, to whom did this fossil belong? To the Black Hills Geological Institute, who excavated her and paid Williams $5000 for her remains? Or to Williams, a Lakota rancher whose land was held in trust by the federal government? If the latter, did the remains belong to Williams himself? To the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe? To the federal government?
Sue is now on permanent display at the Chicago Field Museum.
Maurice Williams was ultimately designated the rightful owner of the fossil because the appellate court determined the fossil was veritable land. Black Hills Institute v. United States concludes that under South Dakota law, “the fossil was an ‘ingredient’” that comprised the land; and the state defines land as the “solid material of the earth, whatever be the ingredients of which it is composed, whether soil, rock, or other substance.” This is to say, in the 65-million–year duration between this dinosaur’s death and the time of Hendrickson’s discovery, the once lively and organic material, flesh and bone, had transformed into land. From the appellate court decision:
The salient point is that the fossil had for millions of years been an ‘ingredient’ of the earth that the United States holds in trust for Williams….Although it is movable, the fossil was part of Williams’ land.
Remember that this land is held in trust by the federal government. But because Williams did not seek approval from the Secretary of the Interior for the original transaction of $5000 paid by the Black Hills Geological Institute, the sale to the Institute was void. Therefore, the dinosaur-cum-land was effectively held in “trust” for Williams, and therefore belonged to him.
The narrative of the T-Rex named Sue is conditioned by multiple temporalities — historical, geological, Lakota, and capital, to name a few. And we can see quite clearly that historical and geological time meet with the designation of “trust land” and “dinosaurland.” The determination that dinosaurs have been a part of the earth for so long that they have effectively become land, like rock and soil, is the fantasy of cloning dinosaurs from the DNA trapped and preserved in amber but in reverse. That is to say, they are effectively the same fantasy played out at different temporal points: the T-Rex dies and comes back to life as fungible property — a reproduction that inheres in capital (land, private property), rather than in the body; or Capital (in the body of a billionaire CEO of a corporation) manages to resurrect the dinosaur from DNA preserved in amber and buried in sedimentary rock. And it is a form of capital reproduction — rather than sexual reproduction — that generates the dinosaur.
In each narrative, fossilized remains enliven fantasies related to geological time: to “discover,” reconstruct, and possess the most complete T-Rex in the world, or to resurrect an animal form humans only know by trace and imagination. But what these two narratives can’t quite seem to reconcile — or at least what they repress — is that fossils are also our fuels. By burning fossil fuels, we touch other epochs — the remains of animals and plants that well preceded us. The fantasy of bringing dinosaurs back to life, or the capital and paleontological interests in preserving and possessing the fossilized remains of the largest intact T-Rex so far, somehow do not cohere or transpose into desires to preserve the animal and plant remains that have become rock, minerals, coal, oil, and natural gas. These parts of the “land” we simply burn to live.
II. Electric Life, Gushy Feelings
What do we mean when we say that something is alive, lively, animated, versus when something is dead, inert, or non-sentient? As Prince says, “life” is an electric word. Brilliant and vivid. Thrilling and charged.
Electric comes from the Latin electrum, or of amber – a fossilized resin of evergreen trees. The Greeks knew amber as a kind of “natural plastic material,” and that rubbing it could produce electrostatic phenomena, what we call static. In 1600, a British physician named William Gilbert published his book On Magnetism, in which he studied the forms of attraction produced when materials such as amber were rubbed. He named it the amber effect, or an electric attraction. But over time, inhuman vitalities, like amber and electricity, have come to describe something intimately human – the ways we describe feeling charged by or attracted to someone, drawn to their, shall we say, perceptible magnetism.
Certain words used to describe nonhuman things, from electricity to extractive processes, get transposed onto profoundly human conditions of being and then back again, to contexts that seem utterly detached from human ontology. Words like oozing, gushing, release, even seeping and leaking, describe affective, bodily modes, but they are also used in the context of resource extraction — the oil that gushes spectacularly from the below earth’s surface, then oozes into capital accumulation.
Jett Rink strikes oil from Kara Thompson on Vimeo.
Here we watch Jett Rink (played by James Dean) strike it rich on Texas land in George Stevens’ 1956 film Giant. Rink stands above a deep well and stares downward, a pose of defeat and exasperation. But suddenly and unexpectedly, a gushing forth from behind — his initial shock turns into elation. He raises his arms and slowly becomes saturated in rich, black oil. His newfound wealth makes way for all kinds of novel possession for this previously poor, white, landless Texan.
Jett has acquired his first plot of land by a sort of queer inheritance, a passing down of property not by blood relation but by his former employer, Luz Benedict, who is the sister of Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson). His land ownership strikes a sharp contrast to the other important properties in the film: Bick’s cattle ranch or Leslie’s (Elizabeth Taylor) horse farm in Virginia — their privileges of land and whiteness both handed down and reproduced. After Jett celebrates his oil strike, the scene fades first to the scene represented in the still below on the left, and then a quick cut to the scene on the right. These two short scenes, during which there is no dialogue and very little movement, depict the resonant temporality of white inheritance: the order of sex/gender; the stately nature of property; and the children to remind us that the future of whiteness and/as property belongs to them.
The women’s faces begin to register confusion and surprise as they watch Jett drive haphazardly across Bick’s green lawn, a clear line of demarcation from the open and brown grazing or oil land — his presence will soon disrupt the order and reserve we see above. Still covered in oil, Jett staggers out of his car and faces Bick, who’s on the porch: “My well came in big, so big, Bick. And there’s more down there, and there’s bigger wells. I’m rich, Bick. I’m a rich ’un. I’m a rich boy.” In this scene, Jett crosses the racial, gendered, and classed boundaries that the film attempts to keep in tension. But the breaking point isn’t when Jett announces that he will have more money than Bick could have ever dreamed of; the brief fistfight between Bick and Jett begins when Jett tells Leslie that she looks pretty, “good enough to eat.” Jett’s desire for Leslie is all the more threatening to Bick’s calm, white surface because of his appearance — he’s a “greaser,” or perhaps blackened (and his name contains the trace of this racist fear). But unrequited desires — for Leslie, or perhaps really for Bick — also possess Jett. Theirs is a classic homosocial tryst, a tangle of desire to be and desire to have. Together, Leslie, Bick, and Jett form a tempestuous threesome bound by extraction and attraction.
Jett’s emotions and inappropriate desires become uncontainable only after the oil itself gushes and spews: the oil that exists because of the dead matter below; the oil that makes possible the electric charge above; the bodies charged by fear, desire, and capital.
III. Mining the Text
This still from the Jurassic Park clip above draws a connective point between the thrill of fossil hunting (especially if it contains “dino DNA”) and mining.
These two men in hard hats and with shovel and pick — a quaint vestige of prospecting — tunnel their way well below the earth’s surface to mine the amber. We watch them descend through multiple sedimentary layers, signifiers of geologic time, until they reach the amber, the treasure that will unlock a radical regression to a previous geologic era, but only by way of the most sophisticated (and futuristic) science. The image of men with their pickaxes is reminiscent of other forms of resource extraction, such as oil derricks and pumps that methodically hammer at the earth to extract oil,
the most recent, lucrative, and controversial form of energy extraction. Fracking entails pumping millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals at least one mile below the earth’s surface in order to blast open rock and release natural gas and oil.
I’ve argued elsewhere that resource extraction both parallels and structures the way we read literature. For instance, late 19th– and early 20th-century oil production — a highly visible process from discovery to refinement (think of Jett Rink again) — is preceded by romance and sentimentalism. With fracking, the energy and activity have gone deep underground, and so too the visual narrative of what actually happens to the rocks 7000 feet below the surface.
Those of us trained under Marxist and psychoanalytic techniques may equate the very act of reading with interpretation. We are trained to read symptomatically and suspiciously, to understand that the text is shaped by absence and repression. In The Political Unconscious, Frederic Jameson defends Marxist critical insights as the “ultimate semantic precondition for the intelligibility of literary and cultural texts.” He calls for the “semantic enrichment and enlargement of the inert givens [my emphasis] and materials of a particular text in three concentric frameworks: political history, the struggle between social classes,” and “history now conceived in its vastest sense” (modes of production, social formations, diachronicity). For Jameson, the text’s very materiality — and I take this to mean everything from its publication and circulation history to its structure and form — is made most vibrant and alive by the act of reading at a radically different scale: the scale of vast history, affect, and sociality. The reader’s encounter with the text thus transforms an otherwise inert and material object into an ideological (cultural, political, social) form.
Here I want to connect Jameson’s account of reading to the questions I’ve raised so far: how can we narrate this moment of our own environmental story? And what does it mean to be alive or sentient? Put another way, if Jameson’s formulation assumes that a human’s vitality — their ontological positionality, their acts of interpretation — enliven and in turn make vital an otherwise inert object, what does this mean for a moment in which we are reckoning with an understanding of “the environment” in peril because of human action, an impact that can only be described on a geologic scale? Our material questions also force lingering philosophical ones: What does it mean to be human, rather than “nature” or “land” or “dinosaur”? How do we reconcile long-standing Western assumptions about the purported human/nonhuman hierarchy when humans have clearly wreaked immeasurable damage? Such questions have made way for new intellectual and scholarly modes, which attempt to shift radically the ways we think about materiality and the inert/lively with their commitment to non-anthropocentric thinking. These modes of critique assert that there is no ontological hierarchy: nonhuman animals and objects are not reducible to their encounters with humans.
What I would like to ask is: how might revaluing the nonhuman natural world lead to revaluing the way we think of the textual world? Whereas literary criticism is deeply committed to humanist principles — to, for instance, the ways that authors and readers animate a text, or the centuries-long role that literature plays in supposedly teaching us how to be (human) — what if we account for literature having its own propulsions and tendencies? If a dinosaur can be a fossil, a rock, or land; if oil and humans can gush or become electric, amber, static, then what does it mean to read a poem with the rocks in mind?
IV: I Sing the Body Electric
While literary criticism takes humans and humanist principles for granted, accounting for inhuman vitalities invites the critic to approach the text from a different angle, and form a new ecology of reading. So let’s see how this works out with Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric.” One of twelve poems which comprised the first edition of Leaves of Grass published in 1855, “I Sing the Body Electric” projects an idealized version of democracy, a potential national future predicated on the body. Whitman articulates a horizontal relationship between body, soul, and poem. The narrator asks in stanza one, “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” The final stanza begins:
O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of
the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are my poems,
The narrator continues with one long breath, no end-stops for several lines, as he atomizes the body from head to heel:
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition […]
The human body is disaggregated, but not dissected, for it remains whole, soul, and poem. He finally takes a breath at heel, but only a long pause, a semi-colon, to suggest:
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one’s
body, male or female,
And then he’s off again: “The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,/The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,[…].” The body is affective (attitudes), geometric (shapeliness), and possessive, and again flattened, by which I mean horizontal—that there is no hierarchical distinction between one body and the next, or between the body and the soul, and the poem. Whitman makes this argument without risking what he calls shapeliness; that is, he mines the body both inside and out, but without destroying it in the process. There are no distinctions between inside and outside, between actions done with a body and the body’s own electricity: “The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,” and earlier, “Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening.”
“I Sing the Body Electric” is a play of surface and depth. We can certainly read for subtext, for the queer desires this narrator conveys when he describes two young fellows tangled up in one another— “The wrestle of wrestles, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured […] the embrace of love and resistance.” The poem also argues quite clearly, and without much subtext, for the kind of democracy that cannot fathom enslaving other bodies, and therefore other souls.
These are not only plausible readings, but also politically and ideologically generative. And if we’re reading with the rocks — the ones that we encounter on the surface layers of lives; the ones beneath our feet that, at least for now, are sources of energy; the ones that may have once been a dinosaur or a plant — we begin to realize that just as the rock lives and moves, the body is an electric thing — not bound by the surfaces of skin and flesh, not only human, but charged and amber and fossil and rock. With Whitman, perhaps, we may find a way to tell the stories we need now to tell — the ones that acknowledge our horizontal relation to the earth, even as we have the capacity to alter it.
Postscript, but at the forefront
As I hand this essay over, citizens of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation and other Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota citizens and allies remain at Camp of the Sacred Stones, Red Warrior Camp and Sicangu Oyate Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land in (present-day) North Dakota. They stand in resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is planned to run within a half-mile of Standing Rock, and across Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. The river is a crucial water resource for Standing Rock; the pipeline would not only endanger the water, it would also disturb burial grounds and sacred sites on the tribe’s ancestral treaty lands. The Army Corps of Engineers sanctioned the pipeline without consulting tribal governments, which is required by federal law. Now tribal citizens must use their own bodies to stop the construction of this pipeline, which is so perversely named after a nation of people whose lives, lifeways, and ancestors are threatened by its very presence.
The pipeline would transport up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil fracked from the Bakken Shale. After having crossed four states and 209 waterways, it would reach its market hub in Illinois. Natural gas and oil industries want fracking and pipelines to go unnoticed. They count on the blasted rocks to remain silent and the ancestors to lay quiet. But the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) has another plan: to stand up for their present and future; to stand up for their ancestors who rest with the earth; to stand with the water and the rocks.
Kara Thompson: Prefers dogs.