Inside Earth Sensations: Outside of Theory. Reflections on a Conference

Contributor: Julie Gemuend, member of the Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG).
Photo by: Julie

In the late, long shadow afternoon of October, I breathe a rose. The rose is one of many that has come to full flower in the botanical gardens of Aarhus, Denmark. I arrived here, in the country’s second-largest city, for the academic conference Earth Sensations: Affects, Sensibilities and Attachments in an Era of Climate Change. This beautifully-composed interdisciplinary conference gathered thinkers of all stripes to explore the sensational flows and interchanges between bodies and environments — between interior and exterior landscapes — in the hopes of sparking new modes of thinking about and being within the mutating material world. Thought-provoking presentations yielded thoughtful conversations that addressed the ways we perceive and participate in the natural world; though, that world of muck and mystery, mosses, and magic, was itself absent. There were seldom moments when we engaged with that living world, save a few rushed breaths of fresh air between panels, cloistered as we were in those institutionally antiseptic, temperature-controlled buildings. But, of course, this is the way of conferences, of learning in higher education, and of academia at large. We are accustomed to withdrawing into safe, comfortable spaces that facilitate concentration and theorization, after the archetypal image of the standalone genius — the thinking individual reading and writing philosophy in solitude.

 And yet. 

There is something so alienating about this model of producing knowledge, especially for those of us who dedicate our research to excavating our connection to nature — who not only think and write about the necessity of rekindling a whole-hearted, embodied, and ecological participation in the adventure of life itself, but also, try to live it. Thinking and writing are typically conducted in isolation, in a room of one’s own, not only separated from others and the physical world, but from our bodies, as well. And though scholarly research can be conceived as some sort of conversation between the author and the thinking and writing formerly done by others, it nevertheless unfolds in the ether of imagination — a disembodied experience, distanced from the material and sensory world. This is why Virginia Woolf suggests that we stipple our reading and research with divergent pursuits, such as walking, cooking, or gardening.i. Reading, Woolf proposes, is best served by pausing to engage in simple or repetitive tasks that allow a short vacation from the work. Time spent in a garden — “picking a snail from a rose” — refreshes the senses and ignites little synapse fires across the brain, which offer sudden unexpected points of entry back into the work.ii. Thus, thinking not only requires fingers that press keys into black words on a white screen but also fingers that sink deep and slow into the warm soil of the living world.

My experience in the rose garden offered an invitation to engage in the latter. To spend time in direct and intimate observation with roses was clarifying — smoothing the velvet petals between two fingers, inhaling the honeyed scent, utterly bewitched by the incandescent ruby reds and island yellows. The garden provides an escape from the vortex of academic vernacular. In an era where deception and illusion have become cultural pastimes, the garden gives us a way to ground ourselves in something more substantial, more tangible. This material realm is one of processes and the passage of time, of bodily labour and the senses, of reciprocal generosity and care. To live more than a half-life, we must pass beyond a simple understanding of what those black-and-white words might mean, and truly feel the prismatic spectrum of life in our bodies — live it with all our senses.

Rebecca Solnit reminds us that “just as everything symbolizes the body so the body symbolizes everything else,” which, she claims, is a sentiment that could be applied to roses, as well. iii Roses, in western culture, have come to embody the whole gamut of human experience. They are the customary offering for milestone life moments that soften sorrow and loss and celebrate romance, achievement, recovery, and hope. In this way, the rose is more of a vessel than it is a flower — a vessel that conveys both life and death. The body, of course, is a kind of vessel, as well, one that Jane Bennett speculates can convey the creativity of the cosmos. In her keynote presentation at the Earth Sensations conference, Bennett explores the ways in which words take up residence in the porous body. She speaks animatedly about how we think, framing the process as an encounter of surprise that comes from something in the cosmos that then mixes with something in the human. Bennett conjures the doodle to illustrate her point. When a person doodles, it is often with a certain measure of miles-away absentmindedness, a wandering rather than a walk with a clear destination or purpose in mind. This, Bennett suggests, is because the doodler inhabits a mode of subjectivity that isn’t quite theirs — it’s crossbred with something already in existence, with nonhuman constituents, cosmic forces that express themselves through the human body in a spontaneous act of co-creation. Bennett, who understands the human as composed of animal, vegetal, mineral, and atmospheric vitalities, seeks a language capable of expressing the way this nonhuman cocktail is immanent within human writing itself. Her proposal: middle-voiced verbs.

Middle-voiced verbs are neither active nor passive. Using them situates us as contemporaneous with the act so that our efficacy is one amongst a complex, heterogeneous process. In this way, we participate in a lively process while being processed. Take Walt Whitman’s phrase “It sails me, I dab with bare feet” or “I sing the body electric.” According to Bennet, we can’t sing the body electric unless we are amidst the body. Middle-voiced verbs, in Bennett’s formulation, best represent our ontological entanglement with other agential nonhuman entities and forces. Writing is the outgrowth of our own subjectivity interwoven into the subjectivities of the cosmos, which speaks through us in middle-voiced verbs. Through her examination of language, Bennett proposes that we humans are more akin to middle-voiced verbs than we are actors or participants. We are composed and decomposed by extraneous and intrinsic substances and forces, as middle-voiced verbs remind us, the outside is inside, the strange is inherent in the familiar. 

While Bennett’s presentation explores feelings and forces that are operative below the radar of sense perception and the kinds of words that can tune into them, Alexis Shotwell’s presentation examines feelings that are not so much imperceptible as they are hard to make out or rather make fit into established categories. Shotwell’s approach is an affective one that acknowledges feelings as relational and co-formed rather than individual. That is, we require others to feel. This means that others have power over our feelings through processes of interpretation. For example, those who occupy positions of social power may interpret our feelings through emotional categories that serve their own needs and interests. Collectivizing feelings in this way has transformed mourning into political organization, evidenced by feminist anger or climate anxiety, but, as Shotwell suggests, our feelings are often too nuanced to be contained by existing classical emotional categories such as joy, fear, anger, or sadness. Inchoate, slippery, and difficult to express, Shotwell calls these feelings “freeform.” 

My experience in the rose garden serves as an example of such feelings: the warm sun slanted the gardens into my lap and the absence of other people made it so that all my senses were tuned to the frequency of roses, which perfumed the air so intensely that as I inhaled I felt as if I were breathing the roses into me, as if through the power of scent their essence became a part of me, became infused with my own life force. Did the rose become a part of me, or did I become a part of it? This hard-to-describe feeling arose from an ineffable, but in no way vague, shift of consciousness into the plant itself. I was no longer sensing the rose but living it. 

Shotwell believes that the acceptance of big-box feelings as the only feelings available to us is a political problem that might be solved by building non-monetizable spaces where new, collective, free-form feelings, like those of my rose rendezvous, can be cultivated. These spaces would advance a no border politics, thus opening portals through which feelings flow and mingle, uniting us in solidarity with one another towards futures that are still in the making — futures to which free-form feelings can contribute. Borders, Shotwell stresses, are not just about fixing and categorizing but produce and are the product of social relations from which we must emancipate ourselves. Borders have been demonized in some academic circles for the deep divisions they create between self/other, mind/body, and a cascade of additional dialectic oppositions. But do we want to fully dissolve borders? Elsewhere in the conference borders were deemed necessary. Sophie von Redecker regards borders as necessary for encounters for we can only be in touch with the other if there is a border that distinguishes self from other. Von Redecker’s presentation explores human-nonhuman working groups through alpine shepherding in northeastern Italy, positing that agency is distributed amongst the shepherd-livestock-guard dogs-landscape assemblage. In this case, the borders that fences create are indispensable because they do the work of the shepherd while she sleeps. In a sense, they allow the shepherd to extend the boundaries of self.

Borders may be about fixing things, but they are not fixed. They are porous, plastic, and pliable, constantly renegotiating what falls inside and outside of their parameters. The conference panels considered this interplay between interior and exterior through various lenses: grief, trauma, pleasure, enchantment, toxicity, decolonization and migration, wild and cultivated landscapes, art and design, affects and activism. My own presentation was part of the Sensibility and Health panel. I reframed the hypersensitive body as an imaginative intervention that figures embodiment as porous, co-composed, infected, and infectious — as positively vulnerable. This reframing articulates an understanding of the human as contaminated by otherness and thus accountable to a material world that is never merely an external place but always the very substance of ourselves.

In other words, we exist in a web of reciprocal interactions between humans, animals, plants, objects, and environments. Timothy Morton visualizes this kind of interconnectedness as a mesh. Morton’s mesh is populated by a multitude of entangled entities, none of which exist in a vacuum. In this reality, the boundaries of form are blurred — there is no clearly defined inside or outside of beings. The mesh travels within, across and among all entities, which include everything from cells to stars. We can never perceive the mesh directly but if we orient our attention toward our bodies, the biosphere, and its inhabitants we might be able to detect it amid certain earth sensations: the gesture with which a small flower opens in the morning; the sound of the wind whispering through the trees; the full-bodied scent of a rose as it nears the end of its cycle — the smell of life and death, of sweet decay. Emblems of ephemerality, roses often appeared in 17th-century vanitas paintings common in Europe at the time, where robust bouquets were set alongside skulls as a reminder that blossoming, and decaying cannot be uncoiled. 

Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1642. Adriaen van Utrecht, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


In a sense, this investigation of inside and outside that so permeated the conference was largely a brokering of self and non-self, life, and death. In Western culture, we consider life and death as oppositional, a hard and unyielding boundary between them. Yet, if we look at the field of posthumanism, we encounter a recasting of the life/death binary as a life-death continuum, where these formerly discrete categories are folded into each other, together creating what we might call zoe. Zoe is cosmic energy, like Bennett’s nonhuman vitalities. According to Rosi Braidotti, one of the foremost thinkers of posthumanism, zoe is the non-human, vital force of all living creatures, the “dynamic, self-organizing structure of life itself.”v. Zoe is restless, fugitive — as in too much, too vast to be contained in any one body for long. Zoe grows out of the body the way a crab grows out of its shell and continues its journey onward from one vessel to the next. This means that death is not an end, it is rather “the transience of life.” Viewing the world through this kind of frame impacts the way we encounter the material world. vi. A feeling of belonging begins to replace one of separation and we come to realize that lives are not lived only in the head, but they are an embodied experience where all human and nonhuman entities are tethered to each other by the shimmering, web-like filaments that zoe leaves in its wake.

This same reframing might also cast a light on the inextricability of theory and practice, thinking and doing, a difficult perspective to embrace considering that stability and categorization grant us a sense of control in this overwhelmingly complex and accelerated world. It may seem easier to imagine things as belonging to discrete categories rather than all tangled up with each other. But we don’t need to untangle those knots. We need to live them, not just with our minds, as academia prescribes, but with our bodies. Thinking-with we might call it — thinking while walking, while gardening, with others, human and nonhuman alike, with the world. Cognition, as Katherine Hayle reminds us, is not localized in the neocortex but occurs throughout the body. Furthermore, “it extends beyond the body’s boundaries in ways that challenge our ability to say where or even if cognitive networks end.” vii. Expanding the boundaries of self, of mind, into the body and beyond will bring discourse to life or bring life to discourse. 

This is my ultimate takeaway from the conference and conceivably why my rose encounter continues to take up so much real estate in my mind. Why those same roses have found their way, rather conspicuously, into the fabric of this reflection paper. The rose urges us to remember the garden and the garden ushers our minds from abstract realms back to the earth, back to our bodies and our senses. The body reminds us of our mortality, which in turn reminds us to live in the here and now, to take the pulse of the world-as-it-is. A mere mental evocation of the elemental is not enough. The body’s feelings, whether they arise as shy and shaky puffs and whispers or the most explosive emotional resonances, are the thick, radial root for true vision, and only from that root will we truly see that the world does not happen to us, nor do we happen to the world. We are in a relationship with the world, amidst the world. We are, following Jane Bennett, middle-voiced verbs. 

i Woolf, Virginia. 2020. “How One Should Read a Book.” Gateway to the Great Books, volume 5, edited by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, Laurence King Publishing.

ii Woolf, Virginia. 2020. “How One Should Read a Book.” Gateway to the Great Books, volume 5, edited by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, Laurence King Publishing, p. 50.

iii Solnit, Rebecca. 2021. Orwell’s Roses. Viking, p. 15.

iv Morton, Timothy. 2012. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press. v Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Polity Press, p. 60.

vi Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Polity Press, p. 133.

vii Hayles, Katherine N. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. The University of Chicago Press, p.17. 


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