115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Username and the Lyric ‘I’: Exploring Ecopoetic Theory in the Age of the Digital Cloud

Ryan Heryford, California State University, East Bay

This paper advocates for the necessity of ecopoetic theory in the age of the digital cloud, when technological fetishism supplants our attention to the attritional losses of unsustainable ecosystems.  Engaging with a canon of modern and contemporary American poets whose work distorts the unstable relationship between language, embodiment, and the material world, this paper argues that ecopoetic theory offers scholars and activists a discourse to explore our imagined detachment from disembodied landscapes.

Proposal: 

If, as Leonard Scigaj, David Gilcrest, and other early conveners of the ecopoetic critical tradition suggest, contemporary poetic theory expands upon and exacerbates the epistemological tensions between the word and the world, how then do words relate to an increasingly digitized world that seems ever more detached from its own materiality?   

The larger project from which this paper is drawn advocates for the necessity of ecopoetic theory in the age of the digital cloud, a time when technological fetishism often supplants our attention to the attritional losses and long-spanning structural violence of unsustainable ecological systems.  Drawing from poet and media-scholar Tung Hui-Hu’s assertion that despite popular imaginings of digital servers –i.e. clouds – as un-locatable non-actors in environmental life, the reality of these clouds is materialized in enormous electricity centers, some of which can use up as much energy as small cities, this article explores contemporary poetry’s formalist interventions into the material-semiotic divides of our obscured ecologies.  Engaging with a canon of modern and contemporary American poets, specifically Lyn Hejinian, John Ashbery, and James Merrill, all of whose work plays upon and distorts the unstable and temporally shifting relationship between language, embodiment, and the material world, this paper will argue that, now more than ever, ecopoetic theory offers scholars, readers and activists a discourse to explore and challenge our imagined detachment from ecological relationships and environmental certainties. 

For the “Poetry and Poetics” panel at PAMLA’s 2017 conference, I hope to present a specific section of this project that offers a reading of John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual” as it relates to disembodied subject positions in ambivalently represented landscapes.  If power in the age of digital capitalism, as political theorists Maurizio Lazzarato suggests, is a technology for creating and controlling the ‘subjective processes,’ by which one has to express oneself, one has to speak, what might Ashbery’s playful lyric ‘I’ offer us in regards to these modalities of compelled and enforced representation? Reading “The Instruction Manual” alongside various media theorists’ discussions of “the username” and the creation of online personae, I hope to suggest that this mid-twentieth century poem affords certain formal elements of play and reinvention to help us in further re-imagining our 21st century digital selves.

By focusing on the work of Ashbery, I will additionally argue that ecopoetic theory is not simply a meditation on ‘poetry about the environment,’ but an autonomous theory that can be read in conversation with a range of cultural practices and literary texts.  Ultimately, it is my hope that this paper will initiate a space to consider ecopoetic theory as a vital, nourishing and active theoretical praxis necessary for interpreting and responding to the more dangerous contradictions of our disembodied landscapes. 

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