“Does [writing] need to be an act composed by a human entity?”
Gary Barwin quotes this question from a rawlings’ recent online work Gibber to open his recent post at Jacket2 on her complex, proliferatively ludic project that examines language and landscape with an ecopoetical eye. As rawlings puts it “Gibber hinges on exploring notions that humans read their environments and/or that humans are in conversation with landscapes and the inhabiting non-human species.”
Gibber, then, participates in an important eco-poetical, -logical, or -sophical task, attempting to transcend “the urge to identify, name, possess” by culturing an eye and ear for the “ecosystem (or any ecosystem components) as a text, or…as a writer of its own text[,]… as a collaborator”. Hence, the question Barwin via rawlings raises.
The project to dethrone Homo Sapiens as the sole linguistic animal is shared widely across the ecopoetical spectrum. Robert Bringhurst, a poet whose work couldn’t be more unlike rawlings’, dilates language in two ways. In The Solid Form of Language, consistent with archaic wisdom and contemporary zoosemiotics, he first reminds us of those other, nonhuman languages, “the calls of leopard frogs and whales, the rituals of mating sandhill cranes” (11). Then, in A Story as Sharp as a Knife, he expands the linguistic beyond the communicative circuit, writing
We read the tracks and scat of animals, the depth and lustre of their coats, the set of their ears and the gait of their limbs. We read the horns of sheep, the teeth of horses. We read the weights and measures of the wind, the flight of birds, the surface of the sea, snow, fossils, broken rocks, the growth of shrubs and trees and lichens…We read the speech of jays, ravens, hawks, frogs, wolves, and in infinite detail, the voices, faces, gestures, coughs and postures of other human beings. (14)
To which we might add (as Bringhurst does) that language includes even “the chemical messages coming and going day and night within the brain” and all that is “chemically written into our genes.”
Unsurprisingly, rawlings and Bringhurst are hardly the first to be inspired by the compelling charm of this vision of universal semiosis. Hölderlin famously writes “Ein Zeichen sind wir” (we are a sign) in harmony with Novalis’ thoughts on the hieroglyphs of The Book of Nature, a metaphor that itself originates in the Latin Middle Ages. What, then, could be more ecologically sane and poetically sweet (“poethical” as rawlings puts it) than to savour this fruit plucked from the semiotic tree that opens our ears and eyes to not only the languages of nonhuman Others but to what perception itself spells out?
However imaginatively appealing this Book of Nature, the inflation of the linguistic that underwrites it also conflates certain conceptual distinctions whose erasure is fateful. Among others, what is lost is the genus-species distinction between understanding in general and understanding language. Whenever I perceive something as something, I understand, I interpret, as would happen whenever I “read” an ecosystem or “the tracks and scats of animals”. However, specifically linguistic understanding necessarily involves an address, a conversation.
What happens when I take a non-linguistic (albeit interpretable) phenomenon as a linguistic address? I must posit a speaker, an interlocutor. In the world order that originally imagined the Book of Nature, that speaker or writer is God. But who, in the absence of God, writes what is “chemically written into our genes” for instance? The metaphor of the genetic code was criticized at the moment of its inception precisely on these grounds, that it was an inappropriate application of linguistic or information theoretical concepts . Lily E. Kay sums up these criticisms nicely in her Who Wrote the Book of Life?
Information theorists, cryptologists, linguists, and life scientists criticized the difficulties (some would say inappropriateness) of these borrowings in molecular biology, arguing that the genome’s information content cannot be assessed since the key parameters (e.g., signal, noise, message channel) cannot be properly quantified. DNA is not a natural language: it lacks phonemic features, semantics, punctuation marks, and intersymbol restrictions. So unlike any language, “letter” frequency analyses of amino acids yield only random statistical distributions. Furthermore, no natural language consists solely of three-letter words. Finally, if it were purely a formal language, then it would possess syntax only but no semantics. Thus the informational representations of the genome do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. (2)
However much “reading” natural phenomena does “not stand up to rigorous scrutiny,” it enables a grasp of what is read that empowers the reader, as present-day genetic technology undeniably demonstrates. Attributing a message or intentionality to non-linguistic, spontaneous things is an extension of the Platonic metaphysics that conceived of all things as if they were products made according to a plan or Form. This productionist metaphysics is the first chapter of the story that leads to our present technological society. The presupposition that Nature possesses a plan, whether written out in hieroglyphs or mathematics, enables us to articulate that plan and thereby order Nature to our own ends. The disastrous consequences of this instrumentalization of Nature are too-well known.
Thus the understandable desire to transcend the Adamic monologue that imperiously names natural things, to imagine instead what it would mean to hear, understand, and converse with Nature, gets caught up in a dialectic that reveals the character such well-intentioned listening shares with the worst excesses of scientific-technological interrogation.
Does writing, what is read, demand a human writer? Who’s asking?