And through a riddle at the last sagacity must go: mind as distributive agency (a visiting scholar seminar for the Mind and Life Institute)

After the French Revolution, the story goes, the British Romantics realized that an external revolution would not change the social sphere.  A deeper revolution was necessary, one that was less about abstract intellect, as Wordsworth argued, and more about what he called “feeling intellect.” Critics have since charged the romantics with being quietists and political dropouts who turned toward nature, and toward art as an autonomous realm of high vision, as if the case could thus be closed on the contemplative revolution.  Here, so close to 280 Main Street in Amherst, where a certain freckled narrow-handed “Nobody” dwelled in possibility, we might not blame ourselves for being acutely aware of at least one rather invisible contemplative who changed the fabric of American experience.

Changing the fabric of experience was certainly Wordsworth’s goal, the whole point of what he called the “meditative History” of The Prelude (Bk 13 418). In the culminating moment of this “internalized apocalypse” or epic of the ordinary, Wordsworth speaks of a “meditation” that rose in him one night atop Mt. Snowdon, an experience of nature’s power to transform “the outward face of things,” a power that “Nature thus / Thrusts upon the senses” so that “even the grossest minds must see and hear / And cannot chuse but feel” (Bk 13 84). Wordsworth felt that this was the external token of a similar power of the mind, whereby we escape the “laws of vulgar sense” and “universe of death” (Bk 13 140-1) precisely by being “ever on the watch, / Willing to work and to be wrought upon” (Bk 13 99-100).  Indeed, Wordsworth’s abiding theme is that “The human mind is capable of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads).  By turning our minds away from our computers and toward a much less stimulating presence of the earth, which seems rather oblivious to our rapid digital exchanges, we remember the difference between stimulation and sensation.

For Wordsworth, as for Blake, a gross and violent stimulant is what we might think of today as data or information.  Wordsworth objected principally to forms of mass print media such as newspapers and gothic novels that exerted gross or external stimulation on the nerves without arousing sensitive powers of imagination.  Blake objected primarily to what he perceived as a normative aesthetics, in both painting and poetry, which fed what he called “doubt” or reductive realism by imposing narrow or uninspired representations on the mind.  For Blake, normative aesthetics, or the reduction of art to naturalism, science to “natural philosophy,” involved active harm.   It was abstract and inhuman, rather than relational.  In the context of the broader issue of image versus imagination, matter versus materiality, Blake rejected forms of art and science that present “negations” (objects, identities) rather than “contraries” (relationships).  One of the best known passages of this illuminated epic Milton makes this explicit:

There is a Negation, & there is a Contrary

The Negation must be destroyd to redeem the Contraries

The Negation is the Spectre; the Reasoning Power in Man

This is a false Body: an Incrustation over my Immortal

Spirit; a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated alway

To cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination.

To bathe in the Waters of Life; to wash off the Not Human,

I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration

To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour

To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration

To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albions covering

To take off his filthy garments, & clothe him with Imagination

To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Inspiration

That it no longer shall dare to mock with the aspersion of Madness

Cast on the Inspired, by the tame high finisher of paltry Blots,

Indefinite, or paltry Rhymes; or paltry Harmonies.

Who creeps into State Government like a catterpiller to destroy

To cast off the idiot Questioner who is always questioning,

But never capable of answering; who sits with a sly grin

Silent plotting when to question, like a thief in a cave;

Who publishes doubt & calls it knowledge; whose Science is Despair…

Although Blake’s rhetoric is ‘enthusiastic,’ his critique of the “false body” in its relation to normative aesthetics is incisive.  Passively consumed representations construct our body, constituting us as subjects of sensation, infiltrating us with deadening ethical assumptions. No “wise passiveness” (Wordsworth) – silent awareness, or nondiscursive attention – is needed on our part in order to respond to these stimulations.  These stimulants are “gross” because they excite us at the coarse sensory and conceptual level – that level of gross experience where things appear to exist in a truly concrete and reified manner.  They are “violent” in their action on our ethical life.  Sensations, by contrast, are subtle and gentle.  To see a beautiful flower, or to take in the form of a tree – the way its branches open to space, or the way, despite is great weight, it seems to stand without gravity, in perfect equilibrium – requires that our minds become more quiet, receptive, and sensitive.  What the gross conceptual mind took for an image, thing, or name – a “tree” – gradually begins to appear to us a relation.  Instead of knowing what it is, as an abstraction, we feel ourselves in relation to it.  Where stimulation conditions us, sensation deconditions us.

This deconditioning or dereifying potential of sensation is too often missed in works of romantic criticism, such as Noel Jackson’s Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry, where the conversation about the “sensation-reflection” divide fails to register the nature of contemplation.  Sensation is taken for ‘immediate experience’ that impinges on us with its difference and particularity.  Reflection is taken for a distancing act of narrativizing, mastering, or ordering that experience after the fact.  Wordsworth, in Jackson’s reading, is invested in that secondary act of reflection, an act of organizing empirical experience, “humanizing” or sentimentalizing it in ways that  reaffirming prevailing assumptions about class, race, gender, and species.  At the same time, Jackson argues, Wordsworth draws on radical (at that time) French theories of sensationalist psychology to prove that sensation (and, for Wordsworth, therefore nature) is the authentic source of ethical and social feeling.  That is, as Jackson sees it, Wordsworth coopts the Jacobin genre of the long philosophical poem, in order to shift sensationalism from the radical intellectual view of human nature as non-essential, arbitrary, contractual and free toward the more conservative “emotionalist” view of human nature as organic, consensual, natural, and necessary.

The confusion in Jackson’s reading stems from a failure to understand contemplation, or to appreciate how it involves attention to sensation that de-solidifies or de-reifies our  conceptual experience of ‘objects’ or objective reality.  I do not attribute this oversight to Jackson, whose work is exemplary, but to the field of literary criticism in general.  We seem stuck with a model of experience that sharply divides the particularity or difference of “objective” sense-impressions from the form-giving or constructive work of “subjective” reflection.  Despite the affect turn, and a decade of resurgent aesthetic philosophy, we still tend to read affect and the aesthetic through a historical materialist lens that tells us that the social is being shaped by these unacknowledged mediums: that we are being constituted as subjects by forms of feeling that do not, on the surface, appear ideological.

But Wordsworth is not simply arguing, after Burke, that it is dangerous for “independent intellect” (The Prelude) to try to “dissect” the body politic, on the grounds that traditional social institutions are slow organic affective developments, or “fabrics” of feeling, which must not be violated, lest moral violence ensue.  Although it seems true that Wordsworth later grew conservative, at least during his most vital period of poetic production (in the decade approximately between 1796 and 1806) his contemplative stance suggests that what the radical intellectuals espouse in their sensationalist psychology is simply a theory of stimulation or conditioning.  Reflection is certainly important to Wordsworth.  His Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802) makes that clear.  He does suggest that it is the poet’s role to help “shape the sensory influx” (Goodman) and educate the senses of the public.  However,  the tendency to read Wordsworth as a Burkean traditionalist overlooks the vital element in his rethinking of sensation.  That is, what undoes the sensation-reflection divide in Wordsworth is precisely the fine distinction he makes between sensation and stimulation.

To understand this better, it helps to remember Alfred North Whitehead’s critique of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” as well as his critique of the “sensationalist myth” with its “presupposition of the mind with its private ideas” (Process and Reality 76).  As Whitehead explains, the psychology produced by empiricist epistemology has been dominated, after Locke, by a problematic notion of solitary substances.  This fallacy leads to a sensationalist psychology, which for Whitehead is in fact a tacit kind of idealism, because it has no means of explaining how the sensory stimuli of discrete substances produces experience.  In critiquing Hume, Whitehead strikes to the heart of the problem of what he calls a “subject-predicate dogma” (or what Derrida, after Heidegger, called the western “metaphysics of presence”) that allows us to see sensations and reflections but not relations:

The doctrine of the individual independence of real facts is derived from the notion that the subject-predicate form of statement conveys a truth which is metaphysically ultimate… With this metaphysical presupposition, the relations between individual substances constitute metaphysical nuisances: there is no place for them… The exclusive dominance of the substance-quality metaphysics was enormously promoted by the logical bias of the mediaeval period…. For [Locke] and also for Hume, in the background and tacitly presupposed in all explanations, there remained the mind with its perceptions.  The perceptions, for Hume, are what the mind knows about itself; and tacitly the knowable facts are always treated as qualities of a subject – the subject being the mind.  His final criticism of the notion of the ‘mind’ does not alter the plain fact that the whole of the previous discussion has included this presupposition.  Hume’s final criticism only exposes the metaphysical superficiality of his preceding exposition.  In the philosophy of organism a subject-predicated proposition is considered as expressing a high abstraction…. Hume has only impressions of ‘sensation’ and of ‘reflection’.  He writes: “The first kind arises in the soul originally, from unknown causes.”  Note the tacit presupposition of ‘the soul’ as subject, and ‘impression of sensation’ as predicate…    (PR 138)

That is, orthodox sensationalism presumes an independent and pre-existent mind that receives discrete sense-experience.  As in Adam Smith’s proto-psychology, there is no room for relation, and each mind is radically private and self-interested.  As substances are corpuscular (atomistic and solitary), we cannot think of them in terms of relations, and so sense-date strike each radically private mind, producing correlationist “ideas.”  In short, our images of things are taken to accord with the way things actually exist, as concepts rather than relations.

For Whitehead, orthodox sensationalism, and orthodox empiricism, provide us no means of understanding how consciousness or subjectivity might not exist as an ideal or metaphysical abstraction.  This is because the orthodox view (the “sensationalist myth”) takes sensations for stimulations or discrete data, rather than for relations.  Whitehead’s theory or “relativity” (or relation) and his theory of “prehensions” (or pre-cognitive affects or interchanges) does allow us to jettison idealist assumptions about the mind, and to imagine how the mind be generated through material interrelations.  Here, it is useful to remember Bruno Latour’s distinction between ‘material’ and ‘materiality’.  Spinoza, too, is a very useful context here.  As Gilles Deleuze suggests in Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, imagination comes closer to reason to an adequate idea of substance because reason tends to know things as images or as discrete, determinate identities while imagination apprehends experience in terms of “image-affections”: imagination as the awareness of “external bodies as present in us” of the “immanence of other powers in the compositions of ourselves” (Deleuze).  For Spinoza, joy or virtue is the increase in our capacity to be affected by an increasing number of bodies.

In the genealogy of embodied philosophy from Spinoza to Whitehead to Deleuze, affects are “prepersonal intensities” (Deleuze and Guattari) or active process-relations with the potential to alter the cognizer.  This embodied perspective is counter-cognitive or counter-philosophical in that it poses a (convincing) challenge to the dominant account (in Descartes, Locke, and Kant) of cognition as a formal circumscription of experience (i.e., the notion that the ‘form’ of cognition converts active relations into general experiences, and hence that the cognizer cannot be affected by the interrelations that exceed that form of cognition). For romanticists, Spinoza’s notion that “the mind is an idea of the body” offers a new handle on ways to respond to the romantic interrelational and processual self.

Counter-philosophy may help us nuance the distinction between two models of sensation, particular and processual. These models, I argue, continue to be implicit in our critical approaches, in which an “epistemic theory of sense-perception” (Shaviro) persistently overrides a process-relational one.  I link the former model to a dominant sensationalist “optics” (Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Smith) that emerged in the long eighteenth century.   I link the latter model to an alternative affective “haptics” of the “counter-philosophical” tradition (Spinoza, Bergson, Whitehead, Deleuze).  To sensationalist optics, which privileges the ‘pure’ observer, sensation is discrete: at once mobile passion (stimuli that impinges from outside) and sanitized idea (clinical information).  In contrast, for an affective ‘haptics’ (Deleuze), sensation occurs as that introduction of difference into the circumscriptive and normative observer. Dickinson famously articulated a critique of the imposition of sense upon sensation with the lines, “Much Madness is divinest Sense – /To a discerning Eye -/ Much Sense – the starkest Madness -“”Sense,” in this light (what Dickinson calls “starkest madness”) is understood as the policing apparatus of epistemic regimes that curb the “promiscuous” or interrelational ethos of “vibrant matter” (Jane Bennett).

Though brilliant work has recently been done on science and sensation in romantic poetry (Jackson, Goodman) current binaries (stimulation/reflection, intellect/feeling, sensationalist/subjectivist) leave out the third terms of sympathy and contemplation.  Thus, quintessentially “lyric” nineteenth century poets are often framed in terms of ‘reflective’ poets of ‘access’ (who seek to shape or refine the bare sensory influx through ‘sensibility’) rather than radically ‘meditative’ or counter-epistemological poets who relax the sanitizing line between person and nonperson, human and nonhuman.  We need, therefore, to continue to examine the power plays that took place around “sympathy” as a key term that has, to some extent, been lost to criticism.

Hence, when Wordsworth writes of an embodied ethos, he is not simply defending a kind of class-motivated traditionalism.  It seems no accident that Whitehead reported to have had his insight into the problem of reification in orthodox sensationalism while reading Wordsworth.  What Wordsworth offers is a critique of the view that narrows down sense-experience to a registering of data on an abstract mind.  The contemplative mind does not simply receive ‘more’ data.  If Wordsworth could not equate “sensation” with the radical, exciting, and threatening idea that the mind can be animated and stimulated by information, this is because such a view of sensation is mechanistic or what we might call posthumanist.  Where critics like Goodman and Jackson argue that emerging technologies of perception made it possible to perceive ‘too much’ immediacy, so that the mastering human gaze could no longer circumscribe experience in pleasurable or self-reaffirming perspective, it may be going too far, or missing the point, to argue that poets like Wordsworth thus understood poetry to be a means of imposing cool reflective distance, or calm mastery, on that hot immediacy.  In Wordsworth, the contemplative or meditative eye becomes more intimate with sensation.  It pays attention to apparently unstimulating or nonrepresentational things, only to discover that representations (the “tree”) are covering over the reality of matter as interrelation.  To be sensitive to things is to be present in the moment when things act like relations, or when gross experience becomes subtle.  In that moment, according to Wordsworth, we live in “a world of life”:

By sensible impressions not enthralled,

But quickened, rouzed, and made thereby more fit

To hold communion with the invisible world. (Bk 13 102-6)

When Wordsworth tells us that nature thrusts herself onto our senses, interfusing the meditative mind, he is making an argument about freedom.  “For this alone is genuine Liberty” (Bk 13 122) he writes, and goes on to define it as a “visitation” or “a love the comes into the heart / With awe and a diffusive sentiment” (Bk 13 162-3), yet also as a “prime and vital principle… in the recesses” (Bk 13 194-5) of our nature.  What is important about his argument is that, in effect, society cannot teach us to be social, because to be social is to be free, or rather to be in interrelationship is to be free.  It is to be free of limits on relationship, which society tends to teach us.  Societies, and states, tend to limit our sympathy, because if our sympathies and ethical responsibilities extend too far beyond the state, then obviously we cannot allow the extreme forms of exploitation and deliberate misrepresentation that drive our economies and permeate our societies.

Sympathy, in this sense, has presented a real threat to the state, ever since the 17th Century, when two things happened: the violence of imperialism and the spread of ideas through printed words.  Philosophically, we produced a normative sensationalist epistemology, to curb this threat, a Smithian epistemology that affirms what Whitehead calls the the “subject-predicate dogma” and the “sensationalist myth” with its “presupposition of the mind with its private ideas” (76).  We assure ourselves that sympathy is a private experience, an act of projective caring, rather than an experience of interrelationship.  We produce “philosophies of access,” like Kant’s, which categorically bound the human mind.  Through our rational model of individual experience, we ban subtle experience.  We set normative limits on the experience of sympathetic interrelationship with what we are not.  We sanitize sympathy.  Our epistemological stance actually constitutes subjects of feeling.

Of course, “feeling intellect” poses a serious challenge to conventional masculinity. Its tenderness is a threat to the very sort of no nonsense self-controlled rationality that Adam Smith prescribed.  The man of feeling intellect, Wordsworth says:

Shall want not humbler tenderness, his heart

Be tender as a nursing Mother’s heart;

Of female softness shall his life be full,

Of little loves and delicate desires,

Mild interests and gentlest sympathies.

(Bk 13 205-10)

Wordsworth is unapologetic about these things, because he’s more interested in changing the fabric of the mind of man than in justifying political economies.  In the final passage of The Prelude, addressing his fellow poet Coleridge, he offers the encouragement that though “This Age falls back to old idolatry, Though men return to servitude as fast / As the tide ebbs” they can still “speak / A lasting inspiration,” instructing others “how the mind of man becomes /A thousand times more beautiful than the earth / On which he dwells…” (Bk 13 446-8) He isn’t arguing that the mind transcends nature, but that both mind and nature partake in beauty, “Of substance and of fabric more divine” (Bk 13 452).  Dickinson hit these points too:

Estranged from Beauty – none can be –

For Beauty is Infinity –

And power to be finite ceased

Before Identity was creased –

(F1515)

She shows us, with her characteristic humor, that when the mind dissolves – or shifts from gross to subtle experience – the idea of heaven loses its formal or representational quality.  We stop grasping it as an idea or image, so that the fabric of reality visits us:

Heaven is so far of the Mind

That were the Mind dissolved—

The Site—of it—by Architect

Could not again be proved—

(F413)

Dickinson saw nature through a contemplative lens, which is hardly the lens of the “self-interest” on which according to Adam Smith society is built.  Again, this lens is very dangerous to our social ideas.  We tend to either shut up or shackle up or even assassinate the gentle voice, as she reminds us in such poems as “They shut me up in prose” and “Much madness is divinest sense”:

MUCH madness is divinest sense

To a discerning eye;

Much sense the starkest madness.

’T is the majority

In this, as all, prevails.

Assent, and you are sane;

Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,

And handled with a chain.

(F620)

The notion of no-self is romantic. Blake declares knowledge or identity a “false Body” or “Incrustation” that must be annihilated.  Keats sees the sparrow out the window and “take[s]part in its existence and pick[s]the Gravel.”  Unlike the romantics, Emily Dickinson was not particularly burdened by the idea of imagination. She could laugh at poets:  “Their Summer – lasts a solid Year -” she writes, “They can afford a Sun / The East – would deem extravagant-” (533). But she also gave them a special place, as anonymous people who kindle awareness:

The Poets light but Lamps —

Themselves — go out —

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Circumference —

(F930)

Her no-self is not the imagination writ large as the Blakean “human form divine,” or the Keatsian apotheosis, but more literally an attention to reality without an independent self. She created an ecopoetics of “recessive action” and “uncounted experience” (Anne-Lise Francois), a lessening of the human in the approach to the humming threshold of active, vibrant matter. Critics remain baffled by her references to “the noiseless noise in the orchard that [she] let persons hear” or to pushing her dimples to see if it might bring “conviction” back of “me” but as I hope to show these two experiences are flip sides of interconnectedness: the lessening of self and the sense of a visitational reality.

Dickinson’s poetics is less idiosyncratic, stuttering, and stoic than humorous, counter-epistemological, and embodied.  She leading away from the “starkest madness” of the “much sense” of being self-interested to the “divinest sense” of what the majority deems madness: a thoroughgoing sense of selflessness or interconnectedness. In her poetry, instead of an “I” in its culminating moment of light and absolute identity, we meet a gently strange speaker, who has lessened toward an eventless horizon (Francois) – an ethos not of power and the sublime, but of counter-epistemological humor.

In a letter Dickinson writes,

“Not ‘revelation’ ’tis that waits, but our unfurnished eyes.”

~ (L #280) (J-0685) (F-0500)

Elsewhere, she writes,

“‘Come unto me’ begins in every place.” ~ (L #536)

Here we get two of the key ideas in romantic poetry.  The first idea is that the renovation of the world depends upon the renovation of perception.  As Coleridge put it, with similar Biblical inspiration, “in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand” (Biographia Literaria).  The second idea is a reconception of the earth as a nexus of interrelationship. Wherever we stand on the earth is like a link into that entire nexus, though the question arises whether we ourselves are not earth, and whether we need any link other than awareness into that nexus. Keats and Shelley took Wordsworth to task on this very point, as did Blake.  But the point is that nature, to borrow a phrase from Whitehead, presents a “lure for feeling.”

Here, we are certainly talking about beauty or about aesthetic experience. In a time of global warming, maybe we shouldn’t talk about beauty. Beauty is for aesthetes. Beauty is for those who can afford it. Beauty is an escape from reality. Beauty drives consumerism. The same critique can be leveled at spirituality, can’t it?  It’s romantic.  It’s self-indulgent.

Yet what if the romantic poets, and the ecstatic poets, are right when they tell us that the world is paradise, in the sense of interrelationship, and that our fixation on gross experience prevents us from experiencing that interrelationship?  What if they’re right that the only mental medicine for gross experience is subtle experience? In that case, a better word for beauty would be interconnectedness.

Dickinson tells us that interconnectedness is here and now.  If that’s the case and we don’t actively experience it, then we are in a state of disconnection, a state that actively miscognizes reality.  So it’s a matter not of shifting what we know but shifting how we know: shifting from a mode that thinks beauty is an object and largely external to a mode that walks in beauty.   Many contemporary thinkers speaks of epistemic violence, but Arthur Zajonc speaks of an “epistemology of love.” Buddhist philosophy speaks of changing from a state of misknowing to a state of valid cognition, a way of seeing that is in accord with reality.

The key point about beauty, in aesthetic philosophy, is that it has nothing to do with objects. If we think of beauty in terms of interconnectedness and interdependence, then that becomes obvious.  If beauty is interconnectedness, then it is precisely the relaxation of grasping at subjects and objects.  Steven Shaviro explains that for both Kant and Whitehead “the judgment of beauty is affective, rather than cognitive. More precisely, it is a feeling entirely divorced from objective knowledge.” (http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/WithoutCriteria.pdf)

Kant thinks beauty is apprehended by the disinterested mind, as if it involves the experience of a universal cognitive process rather than of an object, but it is probably more accurate to say that if our contemplative “taste” of beauty is “indifferent to the existence of the object,” then it is because subject and object both dissolve.  That is, the disinterestedness stems from non-grasping, and the non-grasping involves a very intimate sense of interconnectedness.  Logically, why would one grasp or feel “interested” in the moment when there is interrelationship?

Shaviro, through Whitehead, tries to explain this in terms of “affective tone.”  This tone is important for Whitehead because he asks us to think in terms of the primacy of experience or in terms of “prehensions” rather than “cognitions.”  Prehensions don’t necessarily involve consciousness.  Every interaction at work in this subtly impermanent, processual, creative universe is a prehension.  In Kant the world emerges from the subject. In Whitehead the subject emerges from the world. So Whitehead’s “affective tone” of process-relational prehension might be called interconnectedness.  Affect theory, today, is in fact challenging us to enter Whitehead’s ethos, his notion of a contemplative awareness that

…dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and… finds in the present immediacy a kingdom not of this world.  Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious to morals.  It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present. (PR, 343)

So, we are talking about a radical aesthetics in which objects lure us to feel them as actants – or lure us away from gross cognition to a more sensitive receptivity to interrelationship.  In Wordsworth’s terms, poetry moves us from a cold optics of “independent intellect” to a haptics of “feeling intellect,” from a universe of death to a universe of life. In Dickinson, as in Wordsworth, when we attend to a place, it seems to come forward and visit us – not simply as a place but as interconnectedness itself.

In general, Dickinson has a very peculiar attitude toward the earth. Repeatedly she refers to graves as “seams” in the green ground.   She never lets us forget that strangeness of the fact that although the poet is lying “folded in a perpetual seam” the words she dropped on paper can usher us into interconnectedness, or as she put it, consecrate our eyes:

A Word dropped careless on a Page

May consecrate an Eye

When folded in perpetual seam

The Wrinkled Author lie…

(F1267)

Occasionally in her poetry she seems to hark back to an instance, an hour, a day when a different kind of fold came to her. That moment seems to have been a “fold” in her experience, and yet also an enfolding that is ever possible for anyone because of the virtual nature of the earth as fold or as interconnectedness.  In a strange passage, she refers to the “Magic” that “consecrated” her as an attribute of the “general Earth”:

Somewhere upon the general Earth

Itself exist Today –

The Magic passive but extant

That consecrated me.

(F1226)

She is a bit more like Blake than Wordsworth in that she uses strategies like humor and riddle to approach this “fold,” rather than speak too directly, because, as she tells us, “Divinity dwells under Seal” (1057).

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

(F1263)

My goal in looking at Dickinson through the lens of contemplative studies is to try to respect this riddle or fold, which the physicist David Bohm called the “implicate order” and which Whitehead called creativity or process.  Buddhism speaks of three levels of phenomena: the visible, the slightly hidden, and the hidden.  The point about the hidden or secret is not that we need to keep it secret, but that it tends to spontaneously conceal itself, or to vanish from view.  Dickinson is always very sensitive to that – the fact that the invisible sort of wants to stay invisible.  In this regard, David Bohm’s name always makes me think of this Dickinson verse:

Twould start them –

We – could tremble –

But since we got a Bomb –

And held it in our Bosom –

Nay – Hold it – it is calm –

In another little poem, she pokes wonderful fun at our search for evidence:

Best Things dwell out of Sight

The Pearl—the Just—Our Thought.

Most shun the Public Air

Legitimate, and Rare—

The Capsule of the Wind

The Capsule of the Mind

Exhibit here, as doth a Burr—

Germ’s Germ be where?

(F1012)

Like a Zen master, or like Nagarjuna, Dickinson presents riddles that give a certain agency to reality.  When we try to grasp it, it eludes us. When we relax all grasping, it comes and visits us.  Our attempts to relate to it as a thing or non-agent – to know it rather than to attend to it – fail:

Too much of Proof affronts Belief

The Turtle will not try

Unless you leave him – then return –

And he has hauled away.

(F1240)

This issue of the fold is related to the issue of what Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things, calls “distributive agency.” Bennett argues that “human culture is inextricably enmeshed with vibrant, nonhuman agencies, and… human intentionality can be agentic only if accompanied by a vast entourage of nonhumans” (Bennett 108). She notes, “an actant never really acts alone.  Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces” (21). Or, as Bruno Latour puts it, “To be a subject is not to act autonomously in front of an objective background, but to share agency with other subjects that have also lost their autonomy.”

(http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/128-FELSKI-HOLBERG-NLH-FINAL.pdf)

Various contemporary thinkers have been arguing that the dire ecological crisis in which we have put our children is rooted in an epistemological violence.  We can trace this epistemic violence to what Latour calls the “modern” turn, or modern contract: the agreement to see objects and subject but not actants or relations.  After the affective turn, and its answer to the skepticism of the linguistic turn, the antidote suggested has been this different attitude toward agency: an attitude that doesn’t find subjects or objects but actants.

Ecophilosopher Adrian Ivakhiv calls this a “processual ontology”:

If we follow the processual ontology suggested by Whitehead, Deleuze, Bergson, and others, and take the universe to be fundamentally active and communicative—experience all the way down—then it is precisely this mental ecology that is central to things, and it is through perceptual experience that subjects and objects, and thus a subject- world and an object-world, are possible at all.

(Adrian Ivakhiv, Ecologies of the Moving Image, 34-6, emphasis added)

We can trace this notion of mental ecology to many sources – Whitehead, Spinoza, Latour, Guatarri, Peirce, Bohm.  Ivakhiv articulates a “new materialism” or “speculative realism” that draws heavily on these “counter-philosophers” or “counter-epistemologists,” articulators of an ethos eminently in sympathy with buddhist interdependence. As I hope to show, Latour’s critique of the modern contract is particularly useful.  Latour shows us how to come to what Arthur Zajonc calls an “epistemology of love,” or an epistemology of interconnectedness not unlike that of the increasingly endangered indigenous peoples around the globe.

Yet, lest we go native, Latour shows us how to steer clear of panpsychism, animism, vitalism, pantheism, and other isms that look for agents when, in fact, all we need are actants if we wish to avoid deanimating the world. The difference between objects and actants is that we understand ourselves to be in relationship to them, interrelated with them, in process with them, and ontologically on a par with them.  The very point about actants is that they’re both/and, yet also neither/nor: both subjects and objects, yet neither subjects nor objects.

Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way offers this wonderful little equation:

“Empty” should not be asserted.

“Nonempty” should not be asserted.

Neither both nor neither should be asserted.

They are only used nominally.

(FWMW XXII 11)

This riddle of mental ecology reminds me of a Dickinson line, “And through a riddle at the last sagacity must go,” from the poem that begins, “This World is not conclusion,” written at the age of thirty two, in her most prolific phase:

This World is not Conclusion.

A Species stands beyond –

Invisible, as Music –

But positive, as Sound –

Beyond our conclusions about the world, she seems to suggests, beyond our normative epistemic assumptions, there is something more: something vibrant yet not quite material.  Whitehead said that it was while reading Wordsworth that he had a flash of insight into what he called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” or reification.  But how are we to understand reification, in its deepest sense?  Unless we were raised by savages or pagans, we know that things are things, not subjects.  Ok, but as children of the quantum paradigm, we also know that on close examination, things exist in constant submolecular interchange, or even interpenetration.  We know that what look like things are also active interrelations. We also know that the photon becomes a particle when measured by the observer, but that it is also a wave.  Whitehead called this the “fallacy of simple location.” His “principle of universal relativity” tells us that “every actual entity is present in every other actual entity” (50) and his “doctrine of prehensions” tells us that “all actual things are subjects, each prehending the universe from which it arises” (55). For Whitehead the world is a nexus in nonlinear motion, a “unison of immediacy” (PR, 346) where “every actual entity is present in every other actual entity.”

The problem with “mental ecology” is that it can seem to be a formal or autonomous argument.  We may be led to think that process holds some sort of primacy over the world of objects or that mind holds primacy over matter.  That is, we may feel we are grasping the shape of some kind of ontological ground.  The 14th Century Buddhist Madhyamaka philosopher, of the Consequence School of Geluk philosophy Je Tsongkhapa, was particularly concerned with curbing a similar tendency in the buddhist understanding of emptiness. If we take it to be ultimate and to truly exist, then we might roundly declare that objective phenomena do not exist.

As the Dzogchen master Longchenpa cautions:

Mindless talk of emptiness ignores causation.

You may think the ultimate teaching is that there is nothing to do,

But when you stop the two ways of growing, your practice will wither.

Cultivate these two together – that’s my sincere advice.

“Longchenpa’s 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice” http://www.unfetteredmind.org/30-pieces-of-sincere-advice/2/

Likewise, the ethics of process philosophy is not otherworldy, but as Wordsworth suggests, tender, full of radical sympathy, compassion based less on an idea than of an awareness that passions or prehensions precede persons. Dickinson writes:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

(F982)

This poem is somewhat unique in Dickinson’s canon, in that it almost seems a hymn.  Yet, if it expresses a Christian ethos, this ethos also clearly emerges from the depth of her poetic practice and of her impetus to write.  If we consider what she writes about – usually not compassion but wisdom – not the power of love but the clarity of attention – then it seems reasonable to conclude that the tremendous emphasis she lays on the tenderness or sensitivity of awareness is the means by which she seeks to stop hearts from breaking.  That is, she focuses on helping us see the radical tenderness of awareness itself, rather than helping us see the great need for compassion in the world.

This has a bearing on our discussions of mind.  Paradoxically, a focus on wisdom or on insight into the mind involves the risk of callous solipsism. Meditators say we can know the mind through mere awareness, and this sounds like saying that the mind has some special ontological status.  Tsongkhapa tells us that the mind can only be known through self-awareness, not object-awareness, but that even so, self-awareness is not some sort of ontological ground.  As Douglas Duckworth explains:

The Consequence School is a branch of the Middle Way tradition that radically undermines any and all foundations… [It] gets its name from the form of reductio argument used to demonstrate emptiness, in contrast to formal (autonomous) arguments. According to Tsongkhapa, a formal argument for emptiness is not able to convey the meaning of emptiness (to someone who has not understood it) because formal arguments presuppose essences. That is, a formal argument presumes that a subject matter is objective or given, and this cannot be the case… This is because a proponent of the Consequence School consents to no such given, objective facts…

Self-awareness (rang rig), as distinct from object-awareness (gzhan rig), ascribes to the mental a unique way that a mind knows itself, a way that is different from the way a mind knows any other object. Geluk scholars deny any special status to self-awareness; the mind is simply a dependently arisen phenomenon, just like any other one. Moreover, nothing appears the way it really is to an ordinary being (Jamyang Zhepa in Hopkins 2003, 930). For this reason, this philosophy does not partake in ordinary phenomenology. Instead, it is primarily concerned with critical ontology, or what we could call a form of “ontological deflationism,” in that it aims to undermine the foundations of the entire ontological project (MacKenzie 2008, 197).

In the Geluk tradition, self-awareness is rejected as a notion that attributes to the mind a special status as an independently existent entity, and this idea is seen as one that hypostasizes the mind.

Duckworth, Douglas, “Gelukpa [dge lugs pa]”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/gelukpa/&gt;.

Thupten Jinpa sums up these issues:

Since Tsongkhapa’s ontology contains no notion of an underlying unitary substratum, it cannot be defined by any criterion as monistic… For Tsongkhapa, apart from the emptiness of individual things and persons, there is no ‘universal’, all-encompassing emptiness that can be characterized as some kind of great ‘mother-emptiness’.

(Self, Reality, and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy, Thupten Jinpa 174)

Yet, this attitude is anything but nihilistic:

“If, as a result of prolonged contemplation on emptiness, the individual becomes more and more desensitized to the sufferings of the world, there is a serious flaw in one’s understanding of the teachings of no-self…  One could say that compassionate action is the authentic way of being in no-self…

(Self, Reality, and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy, Thupten Jinpa 182)

I am slowly turning to Emily Dickinson – she wouldn’t want us to rush, and I don’t think she’d want us to interpret her too much – after all she told us quite clearly that she pretended to be an ordinary self because otherwise our “too telescopic eyes” would receive quite a shock.  The specific metaphor she uses is that of sewing or stitching a simulation or semblance of personhood to cover the no-person:

To simulate — is stinging work —

To cover what we are

From Science — and from Surgery —

Too Telescopic eyes

To bear on us unshaded —

For their — sake — Not for Ours —

(F522)

Dickinson writes about pretending to be a conventional person but living with the insight that conventions are just that: conventions.  Nowhere does she offer us a concept of true existence:

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—

Life’s little duties do—precisely—

As the very least

Were infinite—to me—

I put new Blossoms in the Glass—

And throw the old—away—

I push a petal from my gown

That anchored there—I weigh

The time ‘twill be till six o’clock

I have so much to do—

And yet—Existence—some way back—

Stopped—struck—my ticking—through…

(F522)

She tells us that she’s had some kind of experience of cessation –  in Buddhism this implies the dissolution of the mental imprints that add exaggeration to our perception of reality. Because grasping at existence puts us at a remove from reality – and involves active misperception or misknowledge – cessation involves an experience of reality.  Dickinson refers to this experience of reality as a “reward,” but it’s a reward that leaves duty and labor but no self-interest, or no further hope, or need, for gain:

Therefore — we do life’s labor —

Though life’s Reward — be done —

With scrupulous exactness —

To hold our Senses — on —

(F522)

Elsewhere, though, there’s a more tangible aspect to this reward. Often, she describes it in terms of music.  In doing so, she expresses the sense of emptiness as interfusion or interdependence less philosophically, and more effectively, than Wordsworth.

This World is not conclusion.

A Species stands beyond—

Invisible, as Music—

But positive, as Sound—

It beckons, and it baffles—

Philosophy, don’t know—

And through a Riddle, at the last—

Sagacity, must go—

To guess it, puzzles scholars—

To gain it, Men have borne

Contempt of Generations

And Crucifixion, shown—

Faith slips—and laughs, and rallies—

Blushes, if any see—

Plucks at a twig of Evidence—

And asks a Vane, the way—

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit—

Strong Hallelujahs roll—

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles at the soul –

(F373)

Alone, I cannot be —
For Hosts — do visit me —
Recordless Company —
Who baffle Key —

They have no Robes, nor Names —
No Almanacs — nor Climes —
But general Homes
Like Gnomes —

Their Coming, may be known
By Couriers within —
Their going — is not —
For they’ve never gone —

F303

Musicians wrestle everywhere –
All day – among the crowded air
I hear the silver strife –
And – waking – long before the morn –

Such transport breaks upon the town

I think it that “New Life”!

(F229)

Better — than Music! For I — who heard it —

I was used — to the Birds — before —

This — was different — ‘Twas Translation —

Of all tunes I knew — and more —

‘Twasn’t contained — like other stanza —

No one could play it — the second time —

But the Composer — perfect Mozart —

Perish with him — that Keyless Rhyme!

(F378)

Here we might consider something HH the Dalai Lama writes in The Universe in a Single Atom:

All meditatively valid subjective experiences must be verifiable both through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice.  If they are thus verified, such states may be taken to be universal, at any rate for human beings. (UinSA, 134)

The words of poets like Wordsworth and Dickinson do seem like credible reports of subtle experience.  They register something. For Buddhist philosophers, we cannot dismiss these report simply because they are not empirically verifiable.  As the Dalai Lama writes:

It may well be that the question of whether consciousness can ultimately be reduced to physical processes, or whether our subjective experiences are non-material features of the world, will remain a matter of philosophical choice. (UiaSA,136)

I wonder though if there is a performative aspect to this choice.  Again, it seems useful to refer to Latour, who asks us to “[refuse] to de-animate many of the connections between entangled agents.” He asks us to substitute the notion of the material with that of materiality. “Between matter and materiality, then, we have to choose.” Likewise he asks us to consider actants before actors, metaphor and metamorphosis before identity.

In this regard, he speaks of Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, as a useful description of the interrelational quality of actants, and a remedy for “the ‘scientific world view’ [that] has invent[ed] the idea of a ‘material world’ in which the agency of all the entities making up the world has been made to vanish”:

Why does it seem so important to shift our attention away from the domains of nature and society toward the common source of agency, this “metamorphic zone” where we are able to detect actants before they become actors; where “metaphors” precede the two sets of connotations that will be connected; where “metamorphosis” is taken as a phenomenon that is antecedent to all the shapes that will be given to agents?

The first reason is that it will allow us to put aside the strange idea that those who speak of Earth as a “living organism” are leaning toward some backward type of animism. The criticism has been leveled against James Lovelock, as if he had wrongly added a spurious layer of animation to the real world of “inanimate matter”.  If my reading of his work is correct, Lovelock has done exactly the opposite: he has refused to de-animate many of the connections between entangled agents that make up the sublunar domain of Gaia. And also, but this is more disputable, he has refused to sum up all those agents in the technical master metaphor of a single cybernetic system…. we should abstain from de-animating the agencies that we encounter at each step.

If we take the mind for an actant, then what happens when we think we are making constative rather than performative statements about the mind?

Latour offers an example of this distinction:

…a statement about the boiling point of water has no influence on water, while a statement by the right banking authority about the value of a dollar bill does define how much it is worth. One is called a “constative” statement, the other a “performative” one.

(B. LATOUR – WAR AND PEACE IN AN AGE OF ECOLOGICAL CONFLICTS http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/130-VANCOUVER-RJE-14pdf.pdf)

So with the mind, are we dealing with a distributive agency that we put under wraps? By odd coincidence, as I was writing this, Ben brought me a copy of Arthur Zajonc’s Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry.  I opened it to page 156 where I found three italicized words: relationships, metamorphosis, and agency.  The sentence read:

Briefly stated, instead of a science of objects and their behaviors, the emphasis at this stage of contemplative research is on relationships, metamorphosis, and what I will term agency… we will need to… learn to think in terms of relationships instead of objects, metamorphosis instead of stasis, and agency instead of mechanism.  (Zajonc 156)

Zajonc also reminds us that even if we want nothing more out of meditation than practical benefits, the more seems to show up:

Why ask for more?  The problem is that even if one doesn’t ask for more, more often shows up.  Subtle, and sometime not-so-subtle, experiences arise during meditation.  What do we make of them?  How do we handle them?… Once one takes up meditation, experiences arise. (144)

Zajonc proposes a “phenomenology of mental experience” that “stay[s] with experience itself” without drawing conclusions: “The first step is to set aside all metaphysical musing and adopt a positive attitude toward experience (145).” Arguably, one of the results of “staying with experience” is that we can come into relationship with mind as verb not noun.

As Zajonc puts it, “We know ourselves as agents, but we can come to appreciate that we are not the only source of agency in the universe. Everything around us springs from agency, which organizes relationships that change over time.” (157) Citing Emerson, “And never did any science originate, but by poetic perception” (186), Zajonc offers instructions on how to relax the tendency toward image-making or reification, so that we may directly experience an “activity” that, following Coleridge, and Spinoza, he calls “natura naturans” or naturing nature.

So, contemplative awareness is crucial if we want to shift from disconnectedness to interconnectedness, or effect a change in how we know.  The Dalai Lama touches upon the limitation of science for studying consciousness, and the need to use first person techniques to become “familiar” with it:

Even when combined, neuroscience and behavioral psychology do not shed enough light on the subjective experience, as both approaches still place primary importance on the objective, third-person perspective… the Tibetan term, gom, literally means ‘to familiarize’.  So the idea is a disciplined mental practice of cultivating familiarity with a given object, whether an external object or an internal experience. (UiaSA 141)

The Dalai Lama explains how a person can come to know the mind directly:

Gradually, in the midst of the internal chatter, one will begin to glimpse what feels like a mere absence, a state of mind with no specific, determinable content… Once this happens, there is a real opportunity to understand experientially what is described in the Buddhist definition of consciousness as ‘luminous and knowing.’  In this way a meditator will gradually be able to ‘grasp’ the basic experience of consciousness and take that as an object of meditative investigation. (159)

As he elaborates,

…whatever our philosophical views about the nature of consciousness, whether it is ultimately material or not, through a rigorous first-person method we can learn to observe the phenomena, including their characteristics and causal dynamics. (159)  

Familiarizing oneself with the mind as a luminous and clear phenomena is, one could argue, necessary if one is even to begin to see the possibility of what HH the Dalai Lama calls mental transformation:

My point here is not to suggest that we could use the scientific method to prove the validity of the theory of Buddha nature but simply to show some of the ways in which the Buddhist tradition has attempted to conceptualize the transformation of consciousness.  Buddhism has long had a theory of what in neuroscience is called the ‘plasticity of the brain’.  The Buddhist terms in which this concept is couched are radically different from those used by cognitive science, but what is significant is that both perceive consciousness as highly amenable to change. (149-50)

In an interview on the convergence of science and Buddhism, Thupten Jinpa explains:

Unless science as we know it changes, I don’t think science will ever come up with a final description of what consciousness is…. if you have the conception of science… as having a limited scope, then it shouldn’t be a problem. You would see it as just one of those things that falls outside the domain of scientific inquiry.

The point is that Dickinson scholarship has tended to have great difficulty registering Dickinson’s reports of subtle experience. But if we don’t hear the interrelational in her poetry, then we have kept her poetry corked in the bottle.  We continue to tell what Rilke calls the “colossal lie.” I think we need to take the sort of contemplative approach to her work that Latour advocates, a kind of Gaia hypothesis that refrains from “de-animating the agencies that we encounter at each step.”

From a historical materialist approach, we learn interesting facts about how she may have taken some of her voice from the black servants who lived in her house, or about how we’ve back constructed her as an exemplar of “lyric” poetry when in so many ways she’s profoundly anti-lyric.  Some of her poems were scribbled in pencil on the backs of advertisements, recipes, and envelopes, or embedded in letters.  Not all were poems at all.  She did wear a white dress, after a certain point, but she was not as reclusive as in the myth we have made of her.  She was a marvelous gardener, and an equally marvelous baker of breads, cakes, puddings, and cookies.  In later life, she had at least one lover.  A recent issue of the Emily Dickinson journal was dedicated to articles that explicitly discuss Dickinson and asian philosophy, often pointing to her zen-like emphasis on blandness and ordinariness, or on one-taste.  Margaret Freeman has discussed Dickinson in terms of embodied poetics or cognitive poetics, pointing out that Dickinson’s metaphors challenge the notion of mind as container or enclosure, and forcefully present a model of mind as radically open if not explosive.

But we still have trouble with the message that “much sense” is “starkest madness” – or that the gross level of mind, and what Wordsworth calls “laws of vulgar sense,” is a bit like deadness.  We have trouble accepting what she and Wordsworth are saying: that the disconnectedness that prevents us from holding “communion with the invisible world” stems from our attitude about the mind.  And that, with respect to our minds, we are alone.  When Buddhism speaks of ignorance, it refers to our ignorance of our own minds.  This sort of ignorance stems from a deeply engrained tendency to reify experience.  The moment we cease to reify experience, we immediately experience not only phenomena but also our minds as active, interrelational, or (I think as many people who have tried meditation would describe it) spacious and, for lack of better words, luminous or blissful.  So, ignorance in this sense works both ways.  By reifying our minds, and being unaware or unmindful of our minds, we experience a world of isolated phenomena.  By reifying phenomena, and being unaware or unmindful of phenomenal, we experience a limited, dull, habitual mind.  So, ignorance is an inattention to reality, rooted in self-perpetuating preconceptions, or in grasping.

Rilke, too, though I’m no Rilke scholar, may give us insight into the convergence of a certain solitude or aloneness with the interest in reality that will not be satisfied with preconceptions:

  How could it not be difficult for us?  …We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization. It will, of course, make us dizzy… A man taken out of his room and, almost without preparation or transition, placed on the heights of a great mountain range, would feel something like that… what a colossal lie his brain would have to invent in order to catch up with and explain the situation of his senses…  The fact that people have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called apparitions, the whole so-called “spirit world,” death, all these Things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the senses with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied… And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, #9

Here is a poem that brings all these elements together: solitude, non-normative experience, intimacy with the alien.  With Dickinson, there are countless gems. One has to point to whatever’s handy:

There is another Loneliness

That many die without—

Not want of friend occasions itOr circumstances of Lot

But nature, sometimes, sometimes thought

And whoso it befall

Is richer than could be revealed

By mortal numeral—

(F1138)

Here is a poem that speaks to the difference between the corked and the corkless, the wine that remains an object on the table, and the wine that is experienced:

Between the form of Life and Life

The difference is as big

As Liquor at the Lip between

And Liquor in the Jug

The latter — excellent to keep —

But for ecstatic need

The corkless is superior —

I know for I have tried

(F1123)

Finally, here’s one that expresses what I call her counter-epistemological humor:

Me from Myself — to banish —

Had I Art —

Impregnable my Fortress

Unto All Heart —

But since Myself — assault Me —

How have I peace

Except by subjugating

Consciousness?

And since We’re mutual Monarch

How this be

Except by Abdication —

Me — of Me?

(F709)

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane.  Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Dalai Lama. The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. Harmony, 2006.

Deleuze, Gilles.  Spinoza: Practical philosophy. Trans. Robert Hurley. San Francisco:

City Lights Books, 1988.

Dickinson, Emily.  The Poems of Emily Dickinson.  Ed. R. W. Franklin, Cambridge, MA:

Harvard UP, 1999.

Duckworth, Douglas, “Gelukpa [dge lugs pa]”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu archives/spr2014/entries/gelukpa/>.

Francois, Anne-Lise.  Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008.

Goodman, Kevis.  Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History. Cambridge University Press, 2004.   

Ivakhiv, Adrian. Ecologies of the Moving Image.  Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2013.

Jackson, Noel. Rhyme and Reason: Erasmus Darwin’s Romanticism.  Modern Language Quarterly 70:2 (June 2009).

Jinpa, Thupten.  Self, Reality, and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy.  Routledge, 2002.

Kant, Immanuel.  Critique of the Power of Judgment.  Ed. Paul Guyer.  Trans. Paul Guyer. Cambridge UP, 2001. 

Latour, Bruno.  We Have Never Been Modern.  Trans. Catherine Porter.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard UP, 1991.

—. (http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/128-FELSKI-HOLBERG-NLH-FINAL.pdf)

Longchenpa.  “Longchenpa’s 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice.” http://www.unfetteredmind.org/30-pieces-of-sincere-advice/2/

Massumi, Brian.  Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. Ca

bridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

Rilke, Rainer Maria.  Letters to a Young Poet. http://www.carrothers.com/rilke_main.htm

Shaviro, Steven.  Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze and Aesthetics.  MIT Press, 2009.

(http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/WithoutCriteria.pdf)

Smith, Adam.  The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. Knud Haakonssen. Cambridge:

Cambridge UP, 2002.

Spinoza, Benedictus de.  The Essential Spinoza: Ethics and Related Writings.  Ed. Michael Morgan.  Trans. Samuel Shirley.  Cambridge: Hackett, 2006.

Whitehead, Alfred North.  Process and Reality.  Eds. David Ray Griffin and Donald W.

Sherburne.  New York: The Free Press, 1978.

Wordsworth, William. William Wordsworth – The Major Works: including The Prelude.  Ed. Stephen Gill.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Zajonc, Arthur.  Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love.

Great Barrington: Lindisfarne, 2008.

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When things encounter each other, there is an exchange between them, a response or ripple that is affective or “emotional” in nature (as Whitehead argued) and that has to do with a “taking account of,” a meaning-making and responding to what is encountered. Between the social and the material, then, is the intermediary register of the mental-perceptual. The idea of a mental ecology is intended to suggest that we humans are embodied agents and interpreters of a world that is not only there to be perceived, but also perceptive and communicative in its nature. Perception or mind, understood as the sense- and world-making capacity intrinsic to all experience, is the interactive dimension through which a world comes into being for world-bearing beings…  If we follow the processual ontology suggested by Whitehead, Deleuze, Bergson, and others, and take the universe to be fundamentally active and communicative—experience all the way down—then it is precisely this mental ecology that is central to things, and it is through perceptual experience that subjects and objects, and thus a subject- world and an object-world, are possible at all.

(Adrian Ivakhiv, Ecologies of the Moving Image, 34-6, emphasis added)

The notion that Ivakhiv presents here, of a mental ecology – a notion he borrows from Felix Guattari, who wrote of a “virtual ecology” – is something I want to investigate and complicate, but most of all take seriously.  It’s eminently a notion in sympathy with the buddhist understanding of interdependence.  Of course, when Ivakhiv uses the phrase a “meaning-making,” he is alluding to the literal translation of the ancient Greek word poiesis, and thus indirectly alluding to poetry.  Whitehead preferred the word creativity, which he described as “the ultimate behind all forms, inexplicable by forms, and conditioned by its creatures” (PR 20) or as the “ultimate which is actual in virtue of its accidents” (7).  Ivakhiv calls this “processual ontology” a mental ecology because it challenges the usual divide between the inanimate and the animate.  Whitehead’s “principle of universal relativity” tells us that “every actual entity is present in every other actual entity” (50) and his “doctrine of prehensions” tells us that “all actual things are subjects, each prehending the universe from which it arises” (55). Consciousness, then, is not a special quality distinct from matter, but a byproduct of the fact that things “prehend” one another, or are mutually affected by one another.  This mutual apprehension, again, is unlimited, because for Whitehead the world is a nexus in motion, where “every actual entity is present in every other actual entity.”  Turning this around, one could say that process philosophy is simply a logical consequence of Whitehead’s insight into the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  Once we accept that the things we conventionally call objects are actually relations, then what Whitehead called the “subject-predicate dogma” and the “sensationalist myth” with its “presupposition of the mind with its private ideas” (76) collapses.  That Whitehead refers to these orthodox models of mind and matter, subject and object, in terms of dogma and myth is important.  It reminds us that our science and philosophy have been political, and that an ethics is at work here.  We either believe that everything is interrelated with everything else, or we do not.  As Bruno Latour has recently pointed out, in his critique of the scientific assumptions that both blind us to the role of human action in the athropocene and that render us lame in the face of global warming, there is no such thing as total knowledge and we never actually base our decisions on total knowledge.  To seek total knowledge is just a means of postponing action, and inaction has real ethical consequences.  As Latour suggests, what we call acts of knowledge tend to be acts of belief or ethical positions.

From this perspective, what does it mean that Whitehead undoes the gap between subject and object, and deemphasizes the special status of consciousness?  In emphasizing experience and feeling, as a quality of all processes, he sets us squarely in a universe of natura naturans rather than natura naturata – naturing nature rather than natured nature. He sets us, more importantly, in an interrelational and ethical universe, the universe of mental ecology, where “consciousness presupposes experience and not experience consciousness.  It is a special element in the subjective forms of some feelings…” (53).  One objection we might raise to Ivakhiv’s term “mental ecology” is precisely that the mental is so abstract and has been used as a means of privileging certain forms of life over others.  This privileging, and its violence, goes deeper than at first glance.  For instance, in England in the early nineteenth century, the definition of a rational citizen (who really had mind) was rather narrow: it excluded non westerners, non whites, non males, non adults, and non humans.  Clearly, the sort of “processual ontology” that Ivakhiv describes undercuts those forms of privilege and undoes the very distinction between physical and mental on which they depend.  As he implies, what he means by mental ecology is that mind emerges from ecological processes themselves.  In this model, mind is neither a quality of subjects nor objects but of both in that both are interdependent with one another, and that one both are dependent on a universe of active interrelations.

It is not immediately clear whether Buddhist philosophy would agree with this.  Because of the ethical benefits of this sort of processual ontology, on so many levels (as an antidote to the beliefs that cause such global violence, but environmentally and socially, particularly the belief in an atomistic self and in a mechanistic universe, in which interrelationship is rather limited), I feel it’s important to check this philosophy against thousands of years of Buddhist psychology and epistemology.  I suspect that the major difference is that Buddhism tends to describe the mind as nonphysical, and also tends to be careful about any ontology that might reify they mind, be it monist, pan psychic, or panentheist, or pantheist.  For instance, Thupten Jinpa describes Tsongkhapa’s position:

…for Tsongkhapa, the core of the Madhyamaka theory of emptiness is to free the mind from all temptations of reification, be they in the form of atman, brahman, elementary dharmas, indivisible atoms, absolute consciousness, the autonomy of reason, and so on…. Since Tsongkhapa’s ontology contains no notion of an underlying unitary substratum, it cannot be defined by any criterion as monistic. Although Tsongkhapa undeniably accepts that emptiness is the sole ultimate (paramartha), there is no suggestion that it (emptiness) is some kind of underlying hidden absolute with unique ineffable metaphysical properties. For emptiness too is ‘relative’ in that its identity and existence are contingent upon the things on which it is defined. For Tsongkhapa, apart from the emptiness of individual things and persons, there is no ‘universal’, all-encompassing emptiness that can be characterized as some kind of great ‘mother-emptiness’. (Self, Reality, and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy, Thupten Jinpa, 174)

Nothing in Ivakhiv’s “mental ecology” necessarily tempts us to reify either mind or matter.  He points neither to indivisible atoms nor to intelligent atoms nor to absolute consciousness. Whitehead, notably, does have to invoke the concept of God in order to hold his philosophy of organism together.  He writes that:

Religion deals with the formation of the experiencing subject; whereas science deals with the objects, which are the data forming the primary phase of experience… The process is nothing else than the experiencing subject itself.  In this explanation it is presumed that an experiencing subject is one occasion of sensitive reaction to an actual world.  Science finds religious experiences among its precept; and religion finds scientific concepts among the conceptual experiences to be fused with particular sensitive reactions. (Process and Reality, 16)

Elsewhere, he writes:

“According to the philosophy of organism these three components [consciousness, thought, and sense-perception] are unessential elements in experience, either physical or mental.  Any instance of experience is dipolar, whether that instance be God or an actual occasion in the world.  The origination of God is from the mental pole, the origination of the actual occasion is from the physical pole; but in either case these elements, consciousness, thought, sense-perception, belong to the derivative ‘impure’ phases of the concrescence, if in any effective sense they enter at all” (36).

He also describes God as “the poet of the world” who “does not create” it, but “saves it” through a “tenderness that loses nothing that can be saved” or a “patience… tenderly saving the turmoil of the intermediate world by the completion of his own nature” (346).  Here, Whitehead’s vocabulary shifts from one of process and relation to one of love.  If his emphasis becomes more ethical and emotional, it also comes quite close to what post humanist thinkers like Rosi Braidotti and Jane Bennett might mean when they speak of a life-centered ethos or a political ecology of things – that is, an ethos that recognizes the value in things that lie outside of the human perspective.  This is Whitehead’s fourth alternative to the three main forms of theism:

“It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover.  It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world.  Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious to morals.  It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present” (Process and Reality 343).

Whitehead’s sympathy with the nonhuman may become more clear to us if we consider his response to Wordsworth.  In an illuminating passage of Science and the Modern World, Whitehead links his critique of “misplaced concreteness” to Wordsworth’s famous sense of “interfusion” or sympathy with nature.  Actually, Whitehead reported that it was while reading Wordsworth that he had his insight into the problem of reification. Here, Whitehead invokes Wordsworth to take the logical insight into interdependence and interrelation into the domain of experience, or what in Buddhism is called Abidharma, phenomenological attention to first person mental experience.  What stands out in this passage is Whitehead’s care in pointing out that it is not the case that Wordsworth hands over the inanimate to science and concentrates on an element of the animate that science cannot analyze.  Rather, it is simply that Wordsworth is sensitive to the lack of separateness that is a basic feature of reality.  This lack of separateness, I would argue, carries two implications: on one hand it means there must always be some experience of non-separateness or wholeness; on the other hand it means there must always be some experience of an interrelationality that really does not consist of wholes.  In a more thoroughgoing sense, there’s no need to speak in holistic terms, or in terms of wholeness or unity.  Elsewhere, Whitehead prefers to speak in terms of a nexus of interrelations.  In other words, one does not have to assume that either Whitehead or Wordsworth essentialize nature or adopt a view of nature as ultimate, or as an abstract reality somehow deeper than and distinct from interdependence and impermanence.

Whitehead’s insights into Wordsworth from Science and the Modern World (1925):

He [Wordsworth] alleges against science its absorption in abstractions. His consistent theme is that the important facts of nature elude the scientific method. It is important therefore to ask, what Wordsworth found in nature that failed to receive expression in science. I ask this question in the interest of science itself; for one main position in these lectures is a protest against the idea that the abstractions of science are irreformable and unalterable. Now it is emphatically not the case that Wordsworth hands over inorganic matter to the mercy of science, and concentrates on the faith that in the living organism there is some element that science cannot analyse. Of course he recognizes, what no one doubts, that in some sense living things are different from lifeless things. But that is not his main point. It is the brooding presence of the hills which haunts him. His theme is nature in solido, that is to say, he dwells on that mysterious presence of surrounding things, which imposes itself on any separate element that we set up as an individual for its own sake. He always grasps the whole of nature as involved in the tonality of the particular instance. That is why he laughs with the daffodils, and finds in the primrose thoughts ‘too deep for tears.’

Partly my interest here, as I turn to Emily Dickinson, is this question Whitehead raises about what in nature poets find that fails to receive expression in science.   If the correct term for this quality is presence, what exactly are we experiencing when we experience presence?  Are we experiencing the luminous quality of our own minds?  Are we experiencing the thoroughgoing interrelationality of nature?  What Wordsworth has in mind seems to be some kind of ultimate mind, but the important point, I would argue – true, also, of Whitehead – is the emphasis on the word “felt.”  In other words, Wordsworth, it’s first of all the experience that matters, and the effort to put that feeling into words is secondary.  The main thing is to acknowledge that this feeling has happened. As he writes in famous lines of Tintern Abbey:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, 100
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Here we might consider something HH the Dalai Lama writes in The Universe in a Single Atom:

“All meditatively valid subjective experiences must be verifiable both through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice.  If they are thus verified, such states may be taken to be universal, at any rate for human beings.” (UinSA, 134)

Although Wordsworth’s lofty expression may give us the sense that he is the lone romantic poet standing against the “independent” or dissecting intellect of science, and that he has unique access to a special truth, the word “felt” may remind us that what’s at stake first of all is an attitude of the body and mind.  Throughout his 13 book Prelude, Wordsworth insists that his interest is in the everyday, the common, the ordinary.  He’s trying to tell us what an ordinary body feels when it attends to nonverbal or nondiscursive reality, which turns out to be full of relations.

When we are looking at the first hand report of poets like Wordsworth and Dickinson, the thing that seems important is that they are registering something.  Buddhist philosophers like the Dalai Lama, and like Thupten Jinpa, seem to feel that these first hand reports are valuable, and that we cannot dismiss them simply because they are not empirically verifiable.  As the Dalai Lama writes,

“It may well be that the question of whether consciousness can ultimately be reduced to physical processes, or whether our subjective experiences are non-material features of the world, will remain a matter of philosophical choice.” (UiaSA, 136)

I wonder though if there is a performative aspect to this choice.  Again, it seems useful to refer to Latour, who in a recent lecture in Vancouver has reminded us that “all our decisions are made without waiting for complete closure.”  Our knowledge of the world, too, is performative, in the sense that we choose a particular set of relations.  We act as if we lived in a world of interrelations, where our actions and statements have effects:

As Latour explains:

We are all aware that acting means taking risks and making bets. This does not mean that all those decisions were arbitrary since you acted on feelings, on many subtle cues, pointers, tastes and warnings that depended on your having rendered your- selves sensitive to a multitude of unconnected events and tiny perceptions. And this does not mean that you took your decisions without any knowledge either. Rather, it means that they had not been made after a full knowledge had been obtained and consensus reached. But it is fair to say that, once a decision took effect, a lot of new knowledge was obtained and many rectifying steps were then taken along the way.

Yet, the problem as Latour has, for decades, been defining it is that the basic move of modernity – the move that gives us the power to behave as if the world of natural objects is not affected by and does not respond to the world of social subjects – is precisely the move of dividing natural and social by thinking in terms of pure subject and pure objects rather than in terms of interrelations.  All sorts of entities are made to vanish in that move, he argues.  Latour asks us to “[refuse] to de-animate many of the connections between entangled agents.” He asks us to substitute the notion of the material with that of materiality. “Between matter and materiality, then, we have to choose.” Likewise he asks us to consider actants before actors, metaphor and metamorphosis before identity.

In this regard, he speaks of Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, as a useful description of the interrelational quality of actants, and a remedy for “the ‘scientific world view’ [that] has invent[ed] the idea of a ‘material world’ in which the agency of all the entities making up the world has been made to vanish”:

“Why does it seem so important to shift our attention away from the domains of nature and society toward the common source of agency, this “metamorphic zone” where we are able to detect actants before they become actors; where “metaphors” precede the two sets of connotations that will be connected; where “metamorphosis” is taken as a phenomenon that is antecedent to all the shapes that will be given to agents?

The first reason is that it will allow us to put aside the strange idea that those who speak of Earth as a “living organism” are leaning toward some backward type of animism. The criticism has been leveled against James Lovelock, as if he had wrongly added a spurious layer of animation to the real world of “inanimate matter”.  If my reading of his work is correct, Lovelock has done exactly the opposite: he has refused to de-animate many of the connections between entangled agents that make up the sublunar domain of Gaia. And also, but this is more disputable, he has refused to sum up all those agents in the technical master metaphor of a single cybernetic system…. we should abstain from de-animating the agencies that we encounter at each step.

If we take the mind for an actant, an agent, an interrelation, then what are the implications of the philosophical choice to not see the agency of the non-material?

As Latour implies, that which we regard as “natural” we tend to regard as object rather than actant.  Our statements about such things we take for constatives rather than performatives. However, what if the world is composed much more of agents than of objects?  Latour makes this problem clear through examples:

There is a traditional division in philosophy between statements about “natural” phenomena — it makes no difference to them that you know them or not — and “social” phenomena — to know them is to modify them (I put “natural” and “social” in scare quotes for a reason that will be clear in a minute).  John Searle has written a whole book about this division: a statement about the boiling point of water has no influence on water, while a statement by the right banking authority about the value of a dollar bill does define how much it is worth. One is called a “constative” statement, the other a “performative” one.

(B. LATOUR – WAR AND PEACE IN AN AGE OF ECOLOGICAL CONFLICTS http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/130-VANCOUVER-RJE-14pdf.pdf)

So with the mind maybe we are dealing with an actant that we put under wraps.  “To be a subject is not to act autonomously in front of an objective background, but to share agency with other subjects that have also lost their autonomy.”

http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/128-FELSKI-HOLBERG-NLH-FINAL.pdf

What do her meditative experiences tell us?  Why does she write of pain, silence, loneliness, ecstasy, sound?

At least, when we dismiss first-person investigation, we seem to dismiss consciousness as an actant, and to do so performatively.  As Latour argues about global warming, it matters what we believe in this case.  It leads to ethical and social consequences.

The Dalai Lama and Thupten Jinpa both touch upon the limitation of science for studying consciousness, then:

Even when combined, neuroscience and behavioral psychology do not shed enough light on the subjective experience, as both approaches still place primary importance on the objective, third-person perspective.  Contemplative traditions on the whole have historically emphasized subjective, first-person investigation of the nature and functions of consciousness, by training the mind to focus in a disciplined way on its own internal states… the Tibetan term, gom, literally means ‘to familiarize’.  So the idea is a disciplined mental practice of cultivating familiarity with a given object, whether an external object or an internal experience. (The Universe in a Single Atom, 141)

The Dalai Lama explains how a person can come to know the mind directly:

Gradually, in the midst of the internal chatter, one will begin to glimpse what feels like a mere absence, a state of mind with no specific, determinable content… Once this happens, there is a real opportunity to understand experientially what is described in the Buddhist definition of consciousness as ‘luminous and knowing.’  In this way a meditator will gradually be able to ‘grasp’ the basic experience of consciousness and take that as an object of meditative investigation. (159)

As he explains,

…whatever our philosophical views about the nature of consciousness, whether it is ultimately material or not, through a rigorous first-person method we can learn to observe the phenomena, including their characteristics and causal dynamics. (159)

The point of direct meditation on the mind is precisely that the mind is an actant.  It has the capacity to transform:

My point here is not to suggest that we could use the scientific method to prove the validity of the theory of Buddha nature but simply to show some of the ways in which the Buddhist tradition has attempted to conceptualize the transformation of consciousness.  Buddhism has long had a theory of what in neuroscience is called the ‘plasticity of the brain’.  The Buddhist terms in which this concept is couched are radically different from those used by cognitive science, but what is significant is that both perceive consciousness as highly amenable to change.” (149-50)

This capacity for transformation is not limited to certain people: “It is important to stress here that, like the training of a physicist, the acquisition of mental skills is a matter of volition and focused effort; it is not a special mystical gift given to a few.” (156)

In an interview on the convergence of science and Buddhism, Thupten Jinpa explains:

In the end, I think one other area where there will be a big stumbling block is the nature of consciousness. Some philosophers believe that science will never be able to have a full explanation of consciousness and that’s why it’s called the “hard problem.” Unless science as we know it changes, I don’t think science will ever come up with a final description of what consciousness is. The whole paradigm of science is from the third-person perspective. So within that paradigm, how can the first-person character of consciousness ever be captured? You can get closer and closer, but how are you going to finally get to the position where you describe the character of the experience of subjectivity in a comprehensive manner? What kind of language are you going to use? Science has to capture this first-person character of consciousness in some kind of scientific construct, but the language of science is all third person oriented. All of the models of science are really based on looking from outside in. It is object-oriented language and object-oriented description. Also, consciousness has the capacity to be self-aware. The third-person approach can never describe that.

In some sense, scientists do understand that at this point there is no actual evidence for their materialist standpoint, but at the same time most of them would agree that it is a kind of regulative assumption. They have to make that assumption to make any progress. All the current neuroscientific work is based on the assumption that ultimately consciousness is the brain. So I think this is one area where at some point there’s got to be a parting of the ways.

On the other hand, if you have the conception of science I described before as having a limited scope, then it shouldn’t be a problem. You would see it as just one of those things that falls outside the domain of scientific inquiry. And then there’s no contradiction.

The point is that Dickinson scholarship tends to avoid a phenomenological approach.  We learn interesting facts about how she may have taken some of her voice from the black servants who lived in her house, or about how we’ve back constructed her as an exemplar of “lyric” poetry when in so many ways she’s profoundly anti-lyric.  A recent issue of the Emily Dickinson journal was dedicated to articles that explicitly discuss Dickinson and asian philosophy, often pointing to her zen-like emphasis on blandness and ordinariness, or on one-taste.  Margaret Freeman has discussed Dickinson in terms of embodied poetics or cognitive poetics, pointing out that Dickinson’s metaphors challenge the notion of mind as container or enclosure, and forcefully present a model of mind as radically open if not explosive.  But we still have trouble addressing Dickinson’s reports of subtle experience – and this seems tragic, because, as HH suggests, these experiences are not for the gifted few, but are qualities that we can all experience.  Indeed, if we live without these experiences, then we have limited ourselves to a very superficial experience of mind and reality.  That’s the point: that when Dickinson talks about nature, she is much more interested in the nature of reality, and of mind, than in the nature of things.  These things aren’t mutually exclusive: she’s a profoundly incisive observer of concrete detail, but there’s more to her work than that.  It’s from Dickinson herself that we get the message that a limited experience of mind, even for a day, is a bit like deadness.  It’s also very clear that there’s something constantly egging her on, a pain or dissatisfaction.  Keats put this well in The Fall of Hyperion: 

‘None can usurp this height,’…
‘But those to whom the miseries of the world
‘Are misery, and will not let them rest.

So I want to present a poem that brings all these elements together.  With Dickinson, there are countless gems, so one just has to point to whatever’s handy.  In this poem, as in others, she refers to a sound that is like a multitude or multiplicity.  It’s visitational.  It’s not actually music, but it’s like music.

This World is not conclusion

This World is not conclusion.

A Species stands beyond—

Invisible, as Music—

But positive, as Sound—

So, this visitational experience beyond our conclusions has some sort of positive force.  But we cannot come to it through knowledge.  We have to attend to it, not know it:

It beckons, and it baffles—

Philosophy, don’t know—

And through a Riddle, at the last—

Sagacity, must go—

There’s something about it that, as Buddhist philosophy puts it, is either slightly hidden or extremely hidden, and yet people continue to risk transgressing orthodoxies in order to understand it:

To guess it, puzzles scholars—

To gain it, Men have borne

Contempt of Generations

And Crucifixion, shown—

Then she tells us that faith is not enough here.  Faith plucks at evidence and asks for guidance.  We need instead some kind of direct perception:

Faith slips—and laughs, and rallies—

Blushes, if any see—

Plucks at a twig of Evidence—

And asks a Vane, the way—

Religion tries to give us faith but these are just narcotics to numb the real discomfort we are in.  The thing that’s really niggling at us is, one could say, our sense of isolated existence, and our failure to realize interrelationship as an experiential reality:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit—

Strong Hallelujahs roll—

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles at the soul –

                                                                                          F373 (1862)  501

Elsewhere, she describes this sense of interrelationship, which occurs in solitude:

Alone, I cannot be —


For Hosts — do visit me —


Recordless Company —


Who baffle Key —

They have no Robes, nor Names —


No Almanacs — nor Climes —


But general Homes


Like Gnomes —

Their Coming, may be known


By Couriers within —


Their going — is not —


For they’ve never gone —

F303 (1862)  298

I’m just going to rattle through a few more poems.  I’m not going to bother interpreting them for you much, as I think they’ll speak to you directly.  I’ll just divide them into categories.  The first is visitational sound (we’ve already seen two examples, here’s are two more):

Musicians wrestle everywhere – 


All day – among the crowded air


I hear the silver strife – 


And – waking – long before the morn – 

Such transport breaks upon the town


I think it that “New Life”!



It is not Bird – it has no nest – 


Nor “Band” – in brass and scarlet – drest – 


Nor Tamborin – nor Man – 


It is not Hymn from pulpit read – 


The “Morning Stars” the Treble led


On Time’s first Afternoon!



Some – say – it is “the Spheres” – at play!


Some say that bright Majority


Of vanished Dames – and Men!


Some – think it service in the place


Where we – with late – celestial face – 


Please God – shall ascertain! 

Better — than Music! For I — who heard it —
I was used — to the Birds — before —
This — was different — ‘Twas Translation —
Of all tunes I knew — and more —

‘Twasn’t contained — like other stanza —
No one could play it — the second time —
But the Composer — perfect Mozart —
Perish with him — that Keyless Rhyme!

So — Children — told how Brooks in Eden —
Bubbled a better — Melody —
Quaintly infer — Eve’s great surrender —
Urging the feet — that would — not — fly —

Children — matured — are wiser — mostly —
Eden — a legend — dimly told —
Eve — and the Anguish — Grandame’s story —
But — I was telling a tune — I heard —

Not such a strain — the Church — baptizes —
When the last Saint — goes up the Aisles —
Not such a stanza splits the silence —
When the Redemption strikes her Bells —

Let me not spill — its smallest cadence —
Humming — for promise — when alone —
Humming — until my faint Rehearsal —
Drop into tune — around the Throne —

                                                                               F229 (1861)  157

Here are two about ecstatic experience:

There is another Loneliness
That many die without—
Not want of friend occasions it
Or circumstances of Lot

But nature, sometimes, sometimes thought
And whoso it befall
Is richer than could be revealed
By mortal numeral—

Between the form of Life and Life
The difference is as big
As Liquor at the Lip between
And Liquor in the Jug
The latter — excellent to keep —
But for ecstatic need
The corkless is superior —
I know for I have tried (1123)

And here are two about psychological cessation:

I felt my life with both my hands

I felt my life with both my hands

To see if it was there—

I held my spirit to the Glass,

To prove it possibler—

I turned my Being round and round

And paused at every pound

To ask the Owner’s name—

For doubt, that I should know the sound—

I judged my features—jarred my hair—

I pushed my dimples by, and waited—

If they—twinkled back—

Conviction might, of me—

I told myself, “Take Courage, Friend—

That—was a former time—

But we might learn to like the Heaven,

As well as our Old Home!”

                                                            F357 (1862)  351

I tie my Hat — I crease my Shawl —
Life’s little duties do — precisely —
As the very least
Were infinite — to me —

I put new Blossoms in the Glass —
And throw the old — away —
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there — I weigh
The time ’twill be till six o’clock
So much I have to do —
And yet — existence — some way back —
Stopped — struck — my ticking — through —

We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman — When the errand’s done
We came to Flesh — upon —
There may be — Miles on Miles of Nought —
Of Action — sicker far —
To simulate — is stinging work —
To cover what we are
From Science — and from Surgery —
Too Telescopic eyes
To bear on us unshaded —
For their — sake — Not for Ours —

Therefore — we do life’s labor —
Though life’s Reward — be done —
With scrupulous exactness —
To hold our Senses — on —
F522 (1863)  J443

                                                                                          

Affect theory offers a new means of understanding nature poetry, particularly in the romantic vein.  Here, of course, the term romantic does not pertain to love poetry, but to poetry of the early nineteenth century, which was romantic in the broader sense that it viewed experience itself as potentially passionate.  Specifically, in this context, passion does not refer so much to powerful emotions, or to powerful feelings of desire, as to a material flow of sensation related to the etymological root, pati, suffer.   What I am calling passion or suffering here, Whitehead called “feeling,” which he explained in terms of a process of “prehension” by which all apparent “particulars” emerged out of a process of mutual registering. Deleuze preferred the word affect to passion, precisely because affect is more clearly prepersonal.  This notion of passion or affect of course comes right up against the deep bias of orthodox western epistemology.
Although western philosophers in the “counter-philosophical” tradition (Spinoza, Bergson, Whitehead, Deleuze) have challenged this bias, we may need further cross-cultural dialogue with eastern thought (particularly Indo-Tibetan buddhist philosophy) to get the to the heart of this issue.  One thing eastern philosophy might remind us, with keen precision, is that it is only through a conceptual lens that we “reify” phenomena, or ‘know’ them in terms of solitary objects.  Whitehead famously called this the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Until recently, with the work of various philosophers inspired by Deleuze’s “counter-philosophy” and Whithead’s “process philosophy” (Massumi, Shaviro, Bennett, Braidotti, Stengers), we were not much in the habit of thinking about the relationship of mind and matter in this way.  What is radical about this new current in philosophy is the understanding of matter, which perhaps could not be better expressed than by Whitehead, who argued that the problem in western philosophy had been its notion of the particular:
All modern philosophy hinges around the difficulty of describing the world in terms of subject and predicate, substance and quality, particular and universal… We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures; whereas, under some disguise or other, orthodox philosophy can only introduce us to solitary substances, each enjoying an illusory experience: “O Bottom, thou art changed! what do I see on thee?
The true point of divergence is the false notion suggested by the contrast between the natural meanings of the words ‘particular’ and ‘universal’.  The ‘particular’ is thus conceived as being just its individual self with no necessary relevance to any other particular…. The principle of universal relativity directly traverses Aristotle’s dictum, ‘A substance is not present in a subject’.  On the contrary, according to this principle an actual entity is present in other actual entities.  In fact if we allow for degrees of relevance, and for negligible relevance, we must say that every actual entity is present in every other actual entity.  The philosophy of organism is mainly devoted to the task of making clear the notion of ‘being present in another entity’.
(Process and Reality, 50, emphasis added)
Although Whitehead held Spinoza to be something of a monist, and personally tried to avoid the monist position (and its attendant danger of what Bruno Latour has described as “panpsychism”) by giving a special place to “eternal objects” or to mental realities that cannot be collapsed into material processes, there seems to be a remarkable similarity between Whitehead’s account of prehension and Spinoza’s account of affect.  This similarity is most evident in Deleuze’s explication of Spinoza’s notion of imagination.  Deleuze attacked the problem of traditional epistemology: the assumption that the “image of thought” is unproblematic and nonviolent.  He called instead for thought without an image, or for imagination as it was understood by Spinoza and by the British Romantics.  Spinoza’s ethics, though it speaks of power and action, actually involves a kind of negative, virtual, counterepistemological aesthetics. What could be more foreign, heretical, or humiliating to the human than Spinoza’s account of imagination as the awareness of “external bodies as present in us” (The Deleuze Connections 23) or his notion  that to imagine is to be subject to the “immanence of other powers in the compositions of ourselves” (The Deleuze Connections 28)?
Spinoza’s radical challenge to Descartes was based on a similar objection to the Cartesian emphasis on the circumscribed knower as a category distinct from material process.  When Whitehead pinpoints the notion of the particular as the key problem in western philosophy, he is likewise articulating a driving insight into reification or “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  The problem that arises with Descartes is what Whitehead diagnoses (in reference to orthodox western philosophy) as the “presupposition of the mind with its private ideas” (76).  Against this representational model of cognition, and its attendant epistemological problem of the “gap between idea representing and ‘actual entity represented'” (76), Whitehead asserts the existence of an “extensive continuum” as a plenum of mutual interrelations:
But if we take the doctrine of objectification seriously, the extensive continuum at once becomes the primary factor in objectification.  It provides the general scheme of extensive perspective which is exhibited in all the mutual objectifications by which actual entities prehend each other.   Thus in itself, the extensive continuum is a scheme of real potentiality which must find exemplification in the mutual prehension of all actual entities.
(Process and Reality 76)
Like Kant, Whitehead views matter as a plenum, but Kant promptly isolates cognition from this plenum, placing the subject at the center of the experience of the world, whereas Whitehead understands this plenum interrelationally, as the field or nexus of mutual prehensions out of which subjects emerge.  In Whitehead, subjects emerge out of the world, the world does not emerge out of the subject. In other words, Whitehead’s model of experience is thoroughly embodied and participatory.  His principle is interconnectedness, which thoroughly undermines any notion of the “mind with its private ideas” or of abstract, disembodied, private experience. In brief, in challenging the western account of particulars (as “solitary substances”), Whitehead challenges a western “orthodoxy” that precludes our recognition that nothing exists independently, or that everything exists interrelationally or interdependently.  As he observes: “…under some disguise or other, orthodox philosophy can only introduce us to solitary substances” (50).
     With affect theory, we begin to think through, in a serious manner, the implications of matter that is not atomistic.  We begin to consider what it means if the things we designate as concrete particulars are in fact interfused or interrelated with an infinite nexus of things. On this basis, Whitehead relabeled persons as “actual entities,” to place persons within the same category as all existing things, or everything that becomes concretized in the creative process of mutual prehensions.  Affect theory, particularly as Deleuze articulated it, and as Massumi has further explicated, speaks of affects or passions as prepersonal intensities or flows of experience that precede the selective and eliminative action of consciousness.  In regard to terminology, Deleuze preferred the word “affects” to “passions” precisely because the latter term carries connotations of personal emotion, or feeling tied to personal experience.  Affect theory, in this light, explains persons as the foreclosure of affects (I prefer to say, of passions).  That is, passions precede persons.  Hypothetically, then, there should be the possibility of a lessening of the person at the threshold of vibrant matter or unqualified affect.  Studies of Emily Dickinson, such as Anne Lise Francois’s Open Secrets and Katie Peterson’s Supposed Person: Emily Dickinson and the Selflessness of Poetry have emphasized exactly this “lessening” or attenuation of the bounded self or discrete knower.  Implied in these studies is a sense of participation in the material universe that literary criticism has difficulty registering.  After all, it describes the romantic attitude par excellence.
To suggest that experience is passionate was, for the romantics, to suggest that somehow when one allows oneself to experience some aspect of the world, one actually participates in its reality.  This can either be taken as an expression of delusional grandiosity or as an expression of humility.  One can read it as an inflated claim to special knowledge through some “more than ordinary organic sensibility” or as a report of what happens when one reduces one’s claims to knowledge.  For example, for the poet watching the wind move through the trees or the clouds sweep across the sky, the act of attention is not simply a visual or optical experience, in which one ‘knows’ the world through an optical image, but is also a haptic experience, pervaded with touch or contact.  Attention, then, is not simply mental (in the more proscriptive sense of the word) but is also embodied.  Wordsworth, as I will explore further, called this the “excursive” quality of the mind, and described the highest potential of this kind of attention as “interfusion.”
[NOTE: Arguably, when Wordsworth attributes this power to the mind,one can take him for an idealist.  As Karl Kroeber argues in one of the earliest works of ecological literary criticism (aptly titled Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind), both the Yale School critics and the New Historicists did exactly that: they read Wordsworth as a poet of the mind in transcendence of mundane nature.  And while, admittedly, the Wordsworth of the immortality ode is different in significant ways from the Wordsworth of the 1805 Prelude, to the extent that Wordsworth does write of interfusion, some sort of embodied experience seems deeply implied.  That is, if the mind goes ‘out’ into an experience of natura naturans or naturing nature, then the mind is coming into contact with some sort of active process of reality. From a twenty-first century perspective, it seems reasonable to think about “naturing nature” in terms of the active interrelationality of material processes.  This brings us right up against the crucial terms: matter and mind.  How can the mind go out and meet matter? If we take these two as fundamentally independent of one another to begin with, there is a real problem.  However, what happens when we rethink matter less in terms of concrete and discrete units of existence and more in terms of fluid interrelations?  In Wordsworth, the mind is profoundly affected by these living interrelations, which impress it with ‘sympathies’. Over and over, his salient theme is that mind steeped in these experiences of interrelation will suffer less from a sense of isolated existence.  Such a mind will be infused with the primordial principle of relationship, and hence less selfish].
From a common sense point of view, most of us will agree that experience does seem to be embodied.  When we walk through a woods, we receive impressions that seem to act upon our sympathies.  We feel that we participate in the reality of those woods, and the more romantic among us may feel that we actually receive a quality of peace or harmony from those woods.  However, we may be reluctant to describe our experience as interfusion, if only because it involved a general sense of participation, but nothing so intense as interfusion.
Sympathy, as I will discuss, is the key term.  To what extent do we believe that knowledge and experience involve sympathy?  Various philosophers of the long eighteenth century articulated models of experience that effectively foreclosed sympathy.  Locke’s empiricism, for instance, is based on an atomistic theory of sense experience that seems better attuned to a world of discrete objects than of relations, although Whitehead goes to lengths in Process and Reality to remind us that Locke was well aware that relations or ‘powers’ obviously do underlie the things we refer to as objects.  Kant’s transcendental idealism treats material reality as a plenum or as a bristling manifold, but promptly seals human cognition off from potential sympathies with “vibrant matter” (Bennett).  For example, Kant’s account of the aesthetic of the beautiful de-emphasizes the object of sense-experience and gives primacy to the “free play” of cognition.  That is, the object of aesthetic experience is only interesting to the extent that it escapes easy qualification by the faculty of understanding.  Thus, as the processes of mental representation fail to find a suitable image or concept for the object, the faculty of intuition (sense experience) and of understanding (representation) are set into a curiously irresolvable play or dialogue.  For Kant, the stimulating strangeness of an experience of beauty has less to do, then, with the qualities of the aesthetic object, than with the mind’s experience of its own cognitive processes. The same proves true in Kant’s account of the aesthetic of the sublime: in the failure of the mind’s processes of representation (due to the apparent lack of finite form in an object such as an immense mountain), the mind gains a glimpse of higher, more mathematical processes that nevertheless provide continuity to cognition.
Hence, while Kant describes material reality as active, vibrant, and indeterminate, his emphasis falls exclusively on a priori universal forms of cognition that convert ‘mere conditioning’ sense experience into human experience.  The primacy he gives to this form-giving capacity of the mind becomes most evident when he explains that moral choice is free precisely because it is not determined by ‘pathological’ or merely passive conditioning sensuous experience.
The questioned to be raised in affect theory is perhaps best introduced by Alfred North Whitehead’s proposition that “consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness.  It is a special element in the subjective forms of some feelings” (Process and Reality 53).  Whitehead offered particularly incisive critique of empiricism as it emerged from Locke, arguing that “Locke inherited the dualistic separation of mind from body.  If he had started with the one fundamental notion of an actual entity, the complex of ideas disclosed in consciousness would have at once turned into the complex constitution of the actual entity disclosed in its own consciousness, so far as it is conscious – fitfully, partially, or not at all” (53).  Indeed, Whitehead challenges the implicit empiricist tenet, most prominent in Adam Smith, that experience is private, because sense data impinge upon a particular mind.  Whitehead dismisses this private theater of atomistic experience as “sensationalist mythology” (141) arguing that feeling and sensation cannot be collapsed this way: “The confinement of our prehension of other actual entities to the mediation of private sensations is pure myth.  The converse doctrine is nearer the truth: the more primitive mode of objectification is via emotional tone, and only in exceptional organisms does objectification, via sensation, supervene with any effectiveness” (141).  As I read Whitehead, he is making a distinction between atomistic sensation and what elsewhere he calls “sensitive reactions” (16). Prehension (or the process of coming to know another entity – “objectification” – through sensitive feeling, mutual modification, or relational experience) thus does not involve “sensation” (the private registering of discrete sense-data) so much as feeling; only sensation in the sense of the highest form of sensitivity to detail and difference (one might think of Wordsworth) enhances feeling or the process of experience.
Ecophilosopher Adrian Ivakhiv offers a gloss that explains the primacy of “mental ecology” in Whitehead, or of the idea that the world is “perceptive and communicative in nature” and that the universe is “fundamentally active and communicative—experience all the way down,” thus tying Whitehead to other “counter-philosophers” (Bergson, Bates, Deleuze, Guattari):

When things encounter each other, there is an exchange between them, a response or ripple that is affective or “emotional” in nature (as Whitehead argued) and that has to do with a “taking account of,” a meaning- making and responding to what is encountered. Between the social and the material, then, is the intermediary register of the mental-perceptual. The idea of a mental ecology is intended to suggest that we humans are embodied agents and interpreters of a world that is not only there to be perceived, but also perceptive and communicative in its nature. Perception or mind, understood as the sense- and world-making capacity intrinsic to all experience, is the interactive dimension through which a world comes into being for world- bearing beings… An environment is itself comprised of perceptual and communicative relations; from this, it follows that perceptual ecologies constitute the interactive milieu within which the material or “objective” becomes the social and “subjective,” and vice versa. That milieu is where sensations and sensory organs, bodies and desires, social groups and mediating formations become connected in specific ways. Perceptual ecologies are the interrelations that arise in the zone between things, the space that Maurice Merleau-Ponty described as the fleshy, interpenetrating chiasmus of self and world. They are the spaces of “contagion, contamination and inspiration,” as Connolly and Bennett put it, where force and affect flow “across bodies” and are communicated “by looks, hits, caresses, gestures, the bunching of muscles in the neck and flushes of the skin.” If we follow the processual ontology suggested by Whitehead, Deleuze, Bergson, and others, and take the uni- verse to be fundamentally active and communicative—experience all the way down—then it is precisely this mental ecology that is central to things, and it is through perceptual experience that subjects and objects, and thus a subject- world and an object-world, are possible at all. 

(Ivakhiv, 34-6, emphasis added)

Do we Americans really understand Buddhism?.

Jinpa, Thupten. Self, Reality, and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle Way.  London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

For Tsongkhapa, emptiness is the intrinsic nature (svabhava) in that it is the ultimate mode of being of all things and events; yet, it cannot be said to exist by means of an intrinsic nature (svabhava), for the latter would imply that emptiness exists in some essential or absolute sense.  Emptiness equals x’s absence of intrinsic existence, which is x’s own nature in that it is non-contingent and not dependent on others.  However, emptiness cannot be said to be its own nature independently of a subject. (98)

Tsongkhapa argues that although it is true that if an entity exists by means of its own intrinsic nature (svabhava), it must be non-contingent and independent of other factors, yet non-contingence and independence in themselves cannot exhaust the full meaning of svabhava.  If this were so, then the Madhyamikas would have no dispute with the essentialists on the ontological status of empirical objects.  Even the essentialists (the Vaibhasikas and Sautrantikas) do not deny the contingent and dependent nature of phenomena given their acceptance of the fundamental Buddhist principles of momentariness and conditionality of all existent things.  So when notions such as non-contingence and independence are refuted in Madhyamaka literature, we should, according to Tsongkhapa, understand that these are refutations of certain aspects of svabhava that do not in themselves constitute the totality of the Madhyamaka critique of svabhava.  (100-1)

Tsongkhapa also identifies another type of nihilism, which he calls ‘nihilism through reification’.  By this, Tsongkhapa contends that grasping as absolute negation of intrinsic existence is itself a form of nihilism.  This is the reification of emptiness, for this constitutes absolutizing that which is the direct negation of intrinsic being itself… perhaps Tsongkhapa wishes to draw our attention to the intimate connection that exist between the extremes of nihilism and eternalism…. when emptiness is absolutized, this entails a rejection of the reality of the conventional world thus causing one to fall into nihilism.  Similarly, when no existential status is accorded to the world of everyday experience, the result is to believe in some kind of transworldly absolute entity, thus causing one to fall into eternalism. (172)

Interestingly, Tsongkhapa states on several occasions that there exists such a unique Prasangika approach.  For the Prasangika, it is appearance (instead of emptiness) that counters eternalism, and it is emptiness (instead of appearance) that counters nihilism.  Such a reversal in this process can only be effected because of the unique Prasangika understanding of the principle of dependent origination, whereby dependent origination is equated with final emptiness…. for Tsongkhapa, the core of the Madhyamaka theory of emptiness is to free the mind from all temptations of reification, be they in the form of atman, brahman, elementary dharmas, indivisible atoms, absolute consciousness, the autonomy of reason, and so on…. Since Tsongkhapa’s ontology contains no notion of an underlying unitary substratum, it cannot be defined by any criterion as monistic.  Although Tsongkhapa undeniably accepts that emptiness is the sole ultimate (paramartha), there is no suggestion that it (emptiness) is some kind of underlying hidden absolute with unique ineffable metaphysical properties.  For emptiness too is ‘relative’ in that its identity and existence are contingent upon the things on which it is defined.  For Tsongkhapa, apart from the emptiness of individual things and persons, there is no ‘universal’, all-encompassing emptiness that can be characterized as some kind of great ‘mother-emptiness’.  (174)

For Tsongkhapa, perhaps the main problem with agnosticism is that the line between agnosticism and full-blown epistemological scepticism is extremely fine, if not non-existent… Tsongkhapa sees epistemological scepticism, ontological nihilism, and moral relativism as different aspects of the same spectrum.  (175)

 

Furthermore, like all Prasangikas, Tsongkhapa does not reject the reality out there.  What is denied is its intrinsic existence and intrinsic identity.  The identity and being that the world possesses are said to be only contingent.  Insofar as this is true, there is an element of relativism in Tsongkhapa’s ontology.  However, that is not to say that no reality exists outside our language and thought… There is nothing purely linguistic or conceptual about these facts of reality.  (175)

Perhaps one of the key points in Tsongkhapa’s claim that critical reasoning is indispensable for enlightenment relates to his understanding of the nature of avidya – fundamental ignorance – which is thought to lie at the root of our unenlightenment.  According to Tsongkhapa, this avidya is not a state of mere unknowing; rather, it is an active, cognitive state of ‘mis-knowing’.  It apprehends our own existence and the world as enjoying some kind of intrinsic, ontological status.  This belief is considered to lie at the heart of our reifying perspectives that tie us to a perceptual state of bondage.  If this is the case, then Tsongkhapa seems to ask, ‘How can a state of mere non-discursiveness free us?’  Non-discursiveness is essentially a passive withdrawal of the mind from all mental activity, which can at best lead to a state of non-mentation, or a blank mind.  This state of non-mentation, however, cannot have any real effect in rooting out our fundamental ignorance, for it does not penetrate into the depth of avidya’s delusory nature.  For how can simply not thinking about it help dispel our fear of the snake in a cave?  Only by discovering that there is no snake in the cave can we eliminate

this fear from the mind.  And, this act of discovery constitutes, for Tsongkhapa, a primarily cognitive process involving critical analysis, i.e., reason.

 

Thus, at the heart of the claim lies the following thesis: it is only by cognizing the absence of intrinsic existence of self and the world – seeing that they are empty of ultimate existence – that the process of undoing our unelightenment can begin… For Tsongkhapa, a negation of the self’s intrinsic existence and cognition of the absence of the self’s intrinsic existence are one and the same… Thus, when the intrinsic being of self is negated, the absence of the self’s intrinsic being is affirmed….  Since the negation of intrinsic being constitutes for Tsongkhapa a cognition of ultimate truth, to have knowledge of emptiness through inference is thus a case of ‘knowing that’.  It is definitely not a state of mere non-cognition; rather, it is an active state of cognition whose content is the emptiness of intrinsic existence… For Tsongkhapa an insight capable oFor Tsongkhapa, perhaps the main problem with agnosticism is that the line between agnosticism and full-blown epistemological scepticism is extremely fine, if not non-existent… Tsongkhapa sees epistemological scepticism, ontological nihilism, and moral relativism as different aspects of the same spectrum.  (175)

 

Furthermore, like all Prasangikas, Tsongkhapa does not reject the reality out there.  What is denied is its intrinsic existence and intrinsic identity.  The identity and being that the world possesses are said to be only contingent.  Insofar as this is true, there is an element of relativism in Tsongkhapa’s ontology.  However, that is not to say that no reality exists outside our language and thought… There is nothing purely linguistic or conceptual about these facts of reality.  (175)

Perhaps one of the key points in Tsongkhapa’s claim that critical reasoning is indispensable for enlightenment relates to his understanding of the nature of avidya – fundamental ignorance – which is thought to lie at the root of our unenlightenment.  According to Tsongkhapa, this avidya is not a state of mere unknowing; rather, it is an active, cognitive state of ‘mis-knowing’.  It apprehends our own existence and the world as enjoying some kind of intrinsic, ontological status.  This belief is considered to lie at the heart of our reifying perspectives that tie us to a perceptual state of bondage.  If this is the case, then Tsongkhapa seems to ask, ‘How can a state of mere non-discursiveness free us?’  Non-discursiveness is essentially a passive withdrawal of the mind from all mental activity, which can at best lead to a state of non-mentation, or a blank mind.  This state of non-mentation, however, cannot have any real effect in rooting out our fundamental ignorance, for it does not penetrate into the depth of avidya’s delusory nature.  For how can simply not thinking about it help dispel our fear of the snake in a cave?  Only by discovering that there is no snake in the cave can we eliminate this fear from the mind.  And this act of discovery constitutes, for Tsongkhapa, a primarily cognitive process involving critical analysis, i.e., reason. (177)

For Tsongkhapa an insight capable of eradicating the deeply ingrained misknowledge comes only through a convergence of deep meditative concentration (samadhi) and sharp penetration of the mind into the way things really are (tathata).  For this, the attainment of both deep contemplation and profound analysis is essential. (177-8)

The crux of Tsongkhapa’s defence seems to be based on the claim that within his own ontology a coherent and robust existential status is accorded to the everyday world of experience.  He also seems to suggest that since ‘knowledge’ of the emptiness of intrinsic being is arrived at through critical awareness, that emptiness cannot be construed as mere nothingness.  He is arguing that just as emptiness can be established through critical reasoning so can it be cognized and experienced by the practitioner. (181)

 

In the immediate aftermath of a profound deconstruction of intrinsic existence, when the perception of self and the world returns, it is believed that this happens in a totally refined sense.  Self and the world appear almost in a ‘new’ light – i.e., they are both actual and empty of intrinsic existence, which has always been the case.  Self and the world now appear illusion-like.  According to Tsongkhapa, this marks the realization of the profound nature of dependent origination…. Tsongkhapa envisions the culmination of one’s analysis into the ultimate nature of things as a profound convergence between emptiness and dependent origination… At this point, the mind of the Madhyamika practitioner is believed to have reached such a developed stage that even a mere perception of the fact of dependent origination spontaneously gives rise to the deconstruction of the solidity of all objects of cognition.  For such a person, it is said that emptiness truly equals dependent origination.

Perhaps the most important test of valid insight into emptiness for Tsongkhapa is how one’s understanding manifests in action.  If, as a result of prolonged contemplation on emptiness, the individual becomes more and more desensitized to the sufferings of the world, there is a serious flaw in one’s understanding of the teachings of no-self… In other words, profound awareness of the truly empty nature of things and events must manifest in compassionate ethical behaviour… One could say that compassionate action is the authentic way of being in no-self… all actions that pertain to others now stem from a perspective that is no longer rooted in the notion of the ‘truly’ important, egoistic self. (182-3)

My dissertation will reflect my interest in the new task propelling romantic criticism since the conjunction of an ‘affective turn’ and of an ‘aesthetic turn’ in the 1990s. My claim about this task is that it is still evolving, and that it has roots very deep in the twentieth century critique of the cogito. For the French thinkers with deepest impact on my project (Foucault and Deleuze, particularly in their work in the 1970s), this critique actually began with Hume and Kant, read with a certain inflection, if not most obviously with Spinoza and Leibniz.  That is, “counter-philosophy” has always been part of the enlightenment.  Yet the particular task of this counter-philosophy, since the 1990s, has been less to cut language (and experience) free from representation (Bergon’s “the actual”) than to attend to non-representational relations active in what Hume called “passions,” Spinoza “affect,” and Bergson the “virtual.”

This turn to the (micromolecular and multiple) body was characterized by Foucault and Deleuze as an ethos or way of life, perhaps most accurately summarized in Spinoza’s definition of virtue as an increase in the body’s capacity to be affected by other bodies, or an increase in its “powers.”  Brian Massumi’s recent gestures toward an “aesthetico-politics” may remind us not only that this is a politics of pleasures but that these joys or pleasures (intensities) are intensely desanitizing or deterritorializing. It matters that, as Foucault indicated with his turn to biopolitics, the stakes of the politics of language (the linguistic turn) have exposed the stakes of the politics of sensation (the affective turn).  Arguably, the Derridean semiotic ecology of difference has made it possible to see the Deleuzian virtual ecology of affect. Derrida’s insights into acts of knowledge as operations of power (the cogito as a logocentric, metaphysical violence) are continuous with Foucault and Deleuze’s insights that the intellectual task was not to ground the subject but to problematize the subject-practice divide. More recently, Bruno Latour has accentuated this labor, problematizing the epistemic assumption that knowledge is non-coincident with ecological or ‘geological’ (inanimate or agentless) action.  For Latour, knowledge/action and thing/agent divides must be reconceived as “actant-networks”.  In this view, to know is to affect (knowledge not only has cultural effects but ecological effects, and calls forth rapid reactions from ‘nature’, such that knowledge-nature mutually reorganize).

The impact of this “virtual ecology” or “political ecology of things” is to bring western thought face to face with its implicit ‘orthodoxy’.  My argument about romanticism is that – if we dare to put aside the defense mechanism of an orthodoxy that as if by reflex recoils so quickly from hints of ‘the visionary’ or ‘the ‘prophetic’ (or of mysticism) that it prevents itself from being receptive to what romantic poets even meant by ‘vision’ – we can read it in ‘new’ ways (with ‘new’ eyes), ways that might suggest organization around an affect-kernel yet closer than Latourian ‘actant-networks’ to Deleuzian ‘immanence’, ‘intensivity’, or virtuality.  We can become more sensitive to the unironic register of ‘deconditioning’ or ‘dereifying’ material counter-effects that prompt aware of ourselves as agentless networks.

Put differently, the task is to read romanticism for its materialism, and to read its materialism as active and affirmative, or in terms of “vibrant matter” (Bennett).

How can one decipher what Wordsworth means?  For Burke, the power that exceeds human speech resides in affect, but only because affect encounters the singularity of the object – in a sense, the true, unitary  speech of things.  For Kant, the power that exceeds human speech is the noumenal, or the sheer heterogeneity of “things-in-themselves” that simply is not cognizable, or not accessible to the a priori bounds of the categories of understanding.  But the a priori, too, as pure mind rather than heterogeneous matter, surpasses representation.

When Wordsworth suggests that the word “Imagination” is itself an inadequate means of referring to a phenomenon or power, does he find the word inadequate because “imagination” implies a metaphysical faculty when he wants to refer to a heterogeneous phenomenon? Is the metaphysics of language (or of logocentric capture) the problem?  Is “imagination” – in De Man’s sense of an ironic, irresolvable gap between phenomena and language – an experiential thing that words gesture off into abstract oblivion?  Does the very act of attempting to represent it, through figuration, disfigure it, or pass it along a phantom series, from living experience to concepts at second and third removes?

Imagination – here the Power so called

Through sad incompetence of human speech,

That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss

Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,

At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;

Imagination here (deferred, echoed as a likeness, ‘stepped-down’ into representation) engulfs and overwhelms the “lonely traveller,” whose disorientation is suddenly absolute: “I was lost.”

Halted without an effort to break through;

But to my conscious soul I now can say –

‘I recognize thy glory:’ in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

(Prelude VI, 592-602)

Is this not just like Kant’s account: a sudden, total disorientation and a glimpse of glory.  Why, then, does Kant see in the glorious glimpse pure a priori mind (as “reason”) when Wordsworth sees “Imagination”?  Is imagination an a priori faculty of the mind for Wordsworth, or the creative becoming of the mind (indivisible from the creativity of phenomenal becoming) or a thing he cannot describe?  Why does he seem to identify the imagination with his “conscious soul”?  Does this not seem to suggest that what Wordsworth glimpsed in that total disorientation of discursive reason was his soul?  One of the things that the image of the “flash” revealing the “invisible world” seems most to suggest is that when Wordsworth realized he had crossed the Alps without knowing it, he glimpsed the cosmic scale of things, from which all relative goals (and indeed all relative existence in space and time) no longer seemed to have a bound, center, or basis or comparison.  “I was lost” might mean, “I lost all point of reference.”  In the failure of relative knowledge, he had a flash of the unknown, or of the absolute.  As the absolute cannot be described, it can only be represented as “usurpation” – an utter irrelevance of the ‘I’ as the knowing center.

From this perspective, perhaps the most compelling (if still inadequate) answer for why Wordsworth represents this usurping awareness as imagination is that, for him, imagination itself stands as an emblem of that which is other to reason.  Imagination is an “unknown mode.”

This ‘alternative’ version of Kant’s sublime blatantly changes the terms.  Kant sees, at the heart of the sublime, the radical failure of the imagination (in its image-bound, constructivist attempts to organize heterogeneity), a failure that reveals the deeper unity of reason.  By constrast, Wordsworth connects “Imagination” to an unknown mode without reference point, a kind of awareness that cannot be converted into “knowledge,” an “unfathered vapour” or immanence tied not to the “light of sense” but to the lightning flash that reveals “the invisible world.”  Moreover, where Ferguson describes the Burkean account of the sublime as an absolute grasping of the “one” (the solitary, singular self) and the Kantian account as a non-coercive, relative, constructivist designation of the “one,” for Wordsworth, the key point is: “I was lost.”

Imagination, here, is figured as a “Power” that escapes accurate description, or one that exceeds language. That is, one way of defining imagination is that, though it clothes itself in language, it is never identical with language. It is “awful” and sublime (quite in contrast to what Kant argues – i.e., that when imagination fails the sublime power ‘rises’ as reason), and arises not from the abyss of a cliff or cataract, but from the awful terrain of the mind.

Wordsworth writes: “I was lost.” One can read this to mean: the sense of “I” (agency) was lost. As in Kant, the individual mind is “halted” – but here the metaphor is of being surrounded by a disorienting mist not faced with a ‘boundless’ immensity. Kant’s emphasis on boundedness and the boundless is explicit. Yet Kant protects us from the boundless by arguing that what we really encounter is not the boundless but the representation form or power of our own reason. Here, though, in Wordsworth, the poet is enshrouded in the power of the Neoplatonic “one,” a vapour that requires no father but rises as pure immanence.

The next lines are stunningly ambiguous: “But to my conscious soul I now can say/’I recognize thy glory:’ in such strength/Of usurpation…” A ‘usurpation’ has taken place, but of what by what? Who is the poet addressing: his conscious soul, his consciousness, his soul, or the power of imagination, when he says, ‘I recognize thy glory’? Clearly he means the imagination, yet why then does he offer the phrase “conscious soul”? A condensation seems to take place: the aspect of the soul that can be designated as conscious, and as glorious, is the imagination. [AGAIN TIE TO DELEUZE PLOTINUS]

The phrase “to my conscious soul” implies an address to his own soul, an acknowledgement that his soul is conscious, or maybe a consciousness that he must be a soul, and that the soul has usurped reason?

Consciousness (under the name of the father, reason) has been usurped. In the same gesture, religious dogma (God the father) has been usurped by creative interbeing. If we take Wordsworth literally, he was ‘rapt’ away, wrapped up, overwhelmed by a “strength of usurpation”: “when the light of sense/Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed/The invisible world…”

Could this suggest not that the light of sense is ‘snuffed out’ but that the sensing light of intelligent feeling extends outward into the world?  Apparently not, because WW writes, “but” – it snuffs out, but with a flash – for a moment one apprehends the invisible.

Hartman quite suggestively reads such statements as references to actual death, and to an anxiety about mortality. The “light of sense” is a difficult phrase. Does it refer to consciousness or sentience as ‘sense experience’, or to consciousness as that which makes sense of phenomenal experience (what Kant calls imagination, which we cannot trust (as naive immediacy) because the imagination is an abstracting faculty that filters sensuous intuition, apprehending only the approximate shape, and general form, of sense objects.  Is the extinguishing of the light of sense death, or is it the momentary glimpse of life no longer captured or limited by discursive faculties?

Above all, how is it that Wordsworth associates the sublime experience of the power of the imagination with the going “out” of the “light of sense,” when for Kant imagination is the light of sense?  In Kant, admittedly, this “light” could also be understood as intuition, or pre-representational sense-impingement.  But the halting, or the break that Wordsworth describes would seem to correspond to the Kantian sudden, radical failure of imagination to make sense of the sense world – to fail to form “mental objects” or mental images.  The key idea here, it seems, is that the mind is almost always without fail occupied with mental images, and these mental images appear to capture (in a secondary way) the world in excess of representation.  In the lapse of these mental images, the mind all at once breaks a habit of discursive grasping – and endless involvement in objects that ultimately defy its grasp – and the point is that the break is an enormous opportunity for the mind not to be entangled in sense-impressions and mental images.  For Kant, this break would emphatically not represent an opportunity for imagination (as a faculty of mental images) but for reality – the pure formal reality of mind.

How, then, can Wordsworth usurp the Kantian model, and restage the sublime as Imagination?  One has to examine the lines again:

in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

One may note the “excursive” quality of this “light” of sense.  That it “goes out” seems to carry a double meaning: it is extinguished, but also it travels outward. It travels outward as a sudden lightning “flash,” one that reveals the “invisible world.”  This invisible world is not where “greatness” makes its “abode.”  Rather, “greatness” makes it abode in the “strength/Of usurpation” – in the event, the occurrence, the processual moment of revelation.  Greatness is then the defamiliarizing power that overthrows conditioned perception.  (For Foucault this defined the avant-garde of modernism, in its encounter with ‘madness’).

Does Wordsworth mean the light of common sense? Or, does he mean perception itself? This “light” goes out, but “with a flash that has revealed/The invisible world.” Suddenly, the metaphor has shifted radically from an enshrouding mist to a flash of lightning, as if the ‘invisible’ is all around us, but we lack the vision to see it. Blind, bounded, unconscious, we cannot see what lies outside identity, and what is only visible in the death of identity. Arguably, “I” and ”soul” are not at all synonymous – the latter is invisible and non-codifiable: it can only flash in the disruption of discursive identity. So, it is a sweetly sad contradiction to say “‘I recognize thy glory:’” – because it involves a disownment – in a sense, ‘I’ can never recognize the soul’s greatness or glory, because that glory only flashes in the annihilation of the ‘I’ – but this can be acknowledged syntactically through the pronoun “thy” (‘I recognize thy glory’) – the glory is not mine but thine (it is of an otherness, an alterity). Imagination is the power of this alterity.

Consciousness, enshrouded in the vaporous power of the imagination, is a self-annihilatory lightning flash that reveals the “invisible world.” More befuddling yet, all of this is a description of an “abode.” “Greatness” (or the sublime) makes its “abode” in this “strength/Of usurpation” which is not a thing but a “when,” a “when” that is an incursion into, a usurpation of, ordinary time:

But to my conscious soul I now can say –

‘I recognize thy glory:’ in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

Here, perhaps, we have the image of a flash within a cloud, both figures for a disembodied mind. Wordsworth’s language seems to emerge from a specific religious terminology, one I have not yet traced, but with interesting connections to kabbalah and possibly gnosticism. In kabbalah, or Jewish mystic thought, the polysemic word “shekinah” refers to the presence of God, the abode or dwelling of God, and to the female presence or “bride” of God. In the Christian tradition, this presence of God is often associated with “glory.” Hence, it’s rather hard to read this outside the context of Judeo-Christian mystic experience, or theophany, with the one crucial difference that this indwelling fatherless presence of glory is explicitly linked to the imagination, and explicitly linked to a usurpation of paternal, institutional rationality.

This flash of mind-as-alterity that is both within the personal mind and radically outside it (at the core of personality-in-life and yet unbounded-in-death) is like the traditional religious concept of the ‘presence of God’: a presence too powerful to look upon and live. It is death, but the death of the limited identity (the “I”). To see it is the end of consciousness. In that sense, consciousness is a shadow, a shabby construction of words or mediate fabrications. One finds the same logic in Shelley’s famous metaphor for poetry in A Defence of Poetry: “Poetry is a sword of lightning ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.”

This is exceedingly different from Kant’s account of the sublime, in that it involves not a cancellation of the illusion of sense-experience and the exposure of the work of representation as a marvellous encounter with the very form of the mind, but a glimpse of the soul, that cannot be experienced except as the cancellation of the known, the visible, the structured: a usurpation.