Joseph Tabbi


In the correspondence that led up to the current issue of the electronic book review, Cary Wolfe and I invited potential contributors to consider the figure of "ecology" in criticism and culture, along with related terms such as "fields, strings, loops, and webs (or, in the more explicitly down-to-earth terms favored by writers such as Joseph McElroy and A. R. Ammons, shores, estuaries, landfills, and liminal zones and microclimates)." As with the term "postfeminism" in ebr3 and the provocation to "sell out" in ebr2, the idea was to give contributors some leeway in defining the theme, to let the term "ecology" take shape through the varying interests and perspectives that each writer might bring to the subject. Before many submissions arrived, however, we began to think of them as falling into two distinct categories: biological, organic ecologies - what we usually just call "the environment" - and those abstract, inorganic, informational, and digital systems and networks that one hears so much about these days. When one of our contributors - Tim Luke - wrote in to ask whether he should pitch his essay toward the "green" or the "gray" scale, we realized that the topic had organized itself into two distinct topics, which we present here with matching background colors.

Green and gray: Were half of our contributors carried away by a metaphor? Or have people really become so used to living in a Second Nature that to speak of a "media ecology" is by now redundant, as ebr columnist Linda Brigham contends. For Brigham (who sidles up to the subject by way of a popular movie review), the relations of humans to both natural ecologies and technological symbol-systems has become something more or other than metaphorical, and media by now are the environment we move in. The former separations that metaphor once served to bridge - between inside and outside, mind and nature, city and country, civilization and wilderness - have been replaced by systemic differentiation, by "a field of mutual implications and reciprocal modifications of parts." Rather than continue to speak of subject and object, or the old Romantic replication of natural forces in the human mind and spirit, this issue's contributors prefer to speak of "systems" and "environments," with the understanding that one implies the other, just as the individual is implied in the social; and just as nature, and nature's fate, is now implicated irrevocably in human-built ecosystems.

No More Heroes

A word needs to be said concerning our use of "systems" - a term that continues to be  associated with all things technocratic, alienating, and inhuman, but one that may in fact be less disabling, politically, than any of its humanistic alternatives.   The standard narrative of the left-liberal hero who fights the "System" and brings it, and the people who cynically serve it, cringingly to their corrupt foundations, has lost much of its force in a society governed by rule of law and a bureaucracy whose legitimacy is justified less by the nation-state than by an ability to compete in the transnational marketplace.  Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action, reviewed in this issue by David Cassuto, is an example of a popular and authentically populist narrative in which the humanist formula simply won't work, since the current tort laws (set up in a spirit of civic good faith to deal with burdens of proof and standards of human doubt) makes it extremely difficult to bring a polluting corporation to justice.  The genre of the "scientific detective thriller" also fails the authors of Our Stolen Future because they cannot ("beyond a reasonable doubt") prove a causal link between genetic disturbances and the industrial chemicals in the Great Lakes region.  There's "no smoking gun" when you're dealing with (1) human endocrinal systems whose degradation, like the pollution that presumably causes it, is systemic; and (2) a quite different, market-driven system "that profits from pollution," as Carol Stabile points out in her review of Our Stolen Future.  

By not engaging the second, human-made system, the scientist-hero can only arrive at hopeless, atomized solutions, in which the individual consumer is presented with a comprehensive list of vegetables, meat, fruit, fish, and fowl that should be avoided, or at least carefully selected and rinsed, if you're to avoid the risk of cancer and genetic disorder. The consumerist solution may be fine for appeasing consciences and encouraging the creation of upscale mega-markets; unfortunately, it has done very little to slow the pace of environmental degradation, which seems to go on independently of individual good intentions, right thinking, and emotional dispositions. As Andrew McMurry notes while assessing the limitations of John Livingstone's otherwise admirable efforts at consciousness raising, "it is painfully obvious of late . . . that morality has no more influence on the economy than it does on the weather."

We've reached new heights of consciousness and new depths of political distraction when everyone can have inter-racial friendships and the nation still remains divided economically along strict racial lines; when national parks can enjoy a popularity that transcends political factionalism and still be handed over to developers (not least by the celebrities who spearhead the Environmental Defense Council). Having women in power won't automatically make for caring, sensitive environmental policies, as Stacy Alaimo implies in her review essay, and, as Wolfe says at the end of his, the issue of animal rights "is not about whether or not you like animals."

Diverse as they may be, these hard social and environmental problems are not separate from one another. Yet advocates for a green politics have yet to imagine a many-issue political platform that would regard the human and its various environmental Others together, as mutually dependent actors sharing the same fate. It's not easy these days to come out "in favor of universals," as Stephen Kellert does in his essay, but without a politics that recognizes "universal norms and rights," it's hard to see how matters will improve with the environment.

In Search of a Universal

What, then, of the gray area in this discussion, the cultivation on a global scale of human-made ecosystems that increasingly order human work and its relations to the natural world?   Of all contemporary "systems," the Internet is the one that inspires a nearly universal skepticism in humanists.  Surely this latest eruption of Western technological power, with all the social commitments and natural resources it requires, represents one more source of ecological stress, not its solution.   Moreover (to continue with the skeptic's argument), what began at least partly as a utopian experiment in communicative action and unconstrained collaboration has wasted little time in revealing the totalitaritian side of its global pretensions - in its oligarchic mergers, its heightened security systems, and its numerous other colonizations of the liberal public sphere.   Software designers can construct as many virtual environments in cyberspace and make them as picture-perfect as we like; none of these representations should keep us from resisting the destruction of a living rain forest, the poisoning of an ancient and non-renewable water table, or the loss of a species.

The argument has a necessary admonitory force. But it misconstrues the constitutive character of technological "globalism." No system is total, however much it demands of its environment - more labor, more disk space and bandwidth, more money: more resources than the world can provide. The various Internet technologies are grounded ineluctably in both the political sphere and the natural world, and it's a mistake to represent them as some disembodied matrix in cyberspace. Precisely because of this material groundedness, the totalitarian temptation can pretty easily be diffused, but this can happen only so long as the channels of communication remain open and protocols of rational discourse are observed by those in power, so that organized groups have a chance of responding effectively to what's going on in multiple environments - both natural and political. Whatever is universal in the Internet is nothing that can be identified in its component, distributed networks; only access can be universal, and such universality can only be achieved through political, not technological, means.

Some Media Ecologies

In day-to-day practice, I tend to think of these issues as I suspect most writers who work in electronic environments think about them: through the media of inscription that I have at hand - what Paul Harris in his hypertext devil's dictionary defines as a "technography."  If computers are to contribute to a critical ecology, what better place to begin thinking ecologically than in the organization of a journal's workflow and a writer/programmer's working day.  Nowadays, to prepare a document for publication mostly involves assembling material from multiple image- and text-processing sources, with the writer paying as much attention to the eventual physical arrangement of elements as to their content.  In the act of composition, I generally collect notes along with excerpts from e-mail letters sent and received; I consult my web browser for references, for passages that might be worth citing, and (not least) I look for promising codes written by web designers with more experience (and more backing) than I possess.  I then paste everything into a separate word processing file and work over the results until I have a draft that's suitable for mark-up and eventual web distribution.

In editing an issue of ebr, I may have half a dozen applications running at once, a different program for each functionally differentiated task, with anywhere from two to ten windows open in a given application. The triumph of the analytical spirit? I've stopped thinking so. Multi-tasking, when it's working, ceases to fragment attention by breaking up bits of text, and becomes a way of carrying component parts to a higher level. A job doesn't complete itself in a direct progression from beginning to end along a straight time-line, but waits on the completion of several separate tasks. Generally, it takes a long time to get things done in electronic environments, but the "length" of time depends on several parts coming together, not on a drawn-out process under any one writer's control.

A contributor writes to say that he's got a novel to finish and a "story for magazine money also in progress. But so is my piece for you, so hold out a moment." I depend on this essay to fill a place in the issue design. But it's past deadline, the design has changed, and I have other things pressing. So I can wait.

Again, I hope I'm not straining a metaphor by suggesting that the ebr workflow, and the organization of an electronic journal generally, can be like an ecology. But I would like for each issue to be a self-organizing assemblage, a functionally differentiated site which connects up with networks at various levels - through the organization of sections and hypertext links among articles in a given issue, which may in turn be connected to other articles at other sites. These are not the encyclopedic links - "for more info on x, link to y . . ." - that Harris finds so reductive of technographic possibilities. We are unapologetically a scholarly journal, but we're not interested in contributing to the endlessly expanding base of referential knowledge that justifies the production of most university scholarship.

The sort of discourse ebr values can be appreciated largely from the design changes that have been under way during the first year of publication - and also from the kinds of innovation we've avoided so far. For example, we had a spirited debate about the use of Frames, when a member of the staff discovered Kairos, an academic web site devoted to university studies in rhetoric. There you can follow a link to another site, but rather than leave the site you're at, the new site is brought into Kairos, and is embedded as another table among the nest of tables that make up this site. For a while, some of us thought that Frames were the way to go, but the technique soon grew oppressive, both visually (all those thick scroll bars) and in its implications. Why this concern with keeping readers captive?

So the editorial decision (which we're still debating) was to eliminate frames from our design in order to remain open to the web (our media "environment"). One can, for example, move from Tom Cohen's post-humanist travelogue to the CIA pages on Ecuador and Bolivia, and augment a genre-dissolving meditation with some hard facts; Daniel X O'Neil's verse essay, written in protest of the U.S. policy in Bosnia, links directly to the Dayton agreement. One can link from Charles Baldwin's media theoretical discussion of John Cage to an actual Cage page (which the ebr editors judged was a decent entree into the dozen or so Cage pages out there). A lively journal, like a healthy ecosystem, recognizes itself as a component part in a larger system or network; it draws energy from its online environment without trying to take everything "out there" into itself. And the journal, if it's to be more than a self-validating entertainment, does well to critique what it finds there - to express our differences with other sites, and to set up the feedback relations that are "crucial to the maintenance of systemic balance," as Wolfe says in regard to ecosystems generally.

Such critical differentiations and feedback mechanisms can work internally, as well. Michael Wutz's review of Bruce Clarke's revisionary modernism, though separate from this issue's ecocritical special, is right in line with ebr3's postfeminist focus; so his review will help keep that earlier thread alive. Similarly, Andrew McMurry's discussion of "wildness" picks up on a theme that David Cassuto introduced in ebr2, and Marjorie Perloff's incidental observation that free verse is "on the way to being replaced . . . by a visual layout that takes the page rather than the line as poetic unit," looks ahead to a forthcoming special on image and narrative. So we've linked Perloff's comment to the relevant call for papers.

The availability of precise intratextual links - the construction of which is largely what it means to edit an e-journal, ensures that the backlog remains active, just as a recently inaugurated feature, the riPOSTe, should ensure that the site stays active in the months between issues. It's not very likely that a print reader, intrigued by a letter to the editor, will dig out a back issue in order to see what the initial discussion was all about; only the specialist tends to become more than casually aware of threads and continuities that a journal is trying to develop. In electronic environments, by contrast, it's just as easy to read in back issues as in the current one, and through attentive editing a journal's organizing themes can emerge, over time, into a system of connections and mutually reinforcing parts, independent of the particular cluster of articles in which a given theme is introduced.

Finally, as a gesture toward the reciprocal ecology linking print and electronic media, "Critical Ecologies" features a set of machine-generated patterns by ebr art editor Daniel Wenk. The machine in question was an electrical typewriter, made by Olivetti's East German factory for sale in the United States. To preserve the particular materiality and print texture of Wenk's work - the impress of a typewriter key on the page, the paper background, the kerning, and the typographic patterns that suggest symbols in a Geological Survey map - we scanned each image using a Hewlett Packard scanner. Wenk is following a print tradition evident in experimental books by Johanna Drucker, Fluxus, and Arno Schmidt, in which the poet-typographer lets the material of reading - the printed letter on a page - serve the purpose of a text's design. Always more than mere illustration, the visual features of print typography become doubly functional in an electronic environment: from any essay in the green or gray issue, or from within the more general reVIEWs section, readers can return to the ebr4 cover page by clicking on the object-symbols at the foot of the essay. Wenk's recombinant title and series of inch-square symbols delineate an invisible territory, maps of which the reader can draw and redraw by clicking through the issue.

Joseph Tabbi is the editor, with Michael Wutz, of a collection of original essays, titled Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology, coming out in the Spring from Cornell University Press. He is the author of Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk (Cornell 1995).

Copyright  1997 ebr

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