Archives for posts with tag: Deconditioning

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 –


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—


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.


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 —


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.” (

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…


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.


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 —


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?


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.


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.”


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.


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”

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.


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 = <;.

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 —


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…


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 —


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 –


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 —


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”!


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!


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.


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—


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


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


And since We’re mutual Monarch

How this be

Except by Abdication —

Me — of Me?


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 = < 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.

—. (

Longchenpa.  “Longchenpa’s 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice.”

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.

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


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.

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).