Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene

Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene


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The Anthropocene is a term proposed for the present geological epoch (from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards) to highlight the role of humanity in the transformation of earth’s environment globally, has become the subject of scholarship not only in the sciences, but also in the arts and humanities as well. Ecopoetics, a multidisciplinary approach that includes thinking and writing on poetics, science, and theory as well as emphasizing innovative approaches common to conceptual poetry, rose out of the late 20th-century awareness of ecology and concerns of environmental disaster.

Collected from contributors including Brenda Hillman, Eileen Tabios, and Christopher Cokinos, and together a monument to human responsiveness and invention, Counter-Desecration is a book of ecopoetics that compiles terms—borrowed, invented, recast—that help configure or elaborate human engagement with place. There are no analogous volumes in the field of ecocriticism and ecopoetics. The individual entries, each a sketch or a notion, through some ecopoetic lens—anti-colonialism, bioregionalism, ecological (im)balance, indigeneity, resource extraction, extinction, habitat loss, environmental justice, queerness, attentiveness, sustainability—focus and configure the emerging relations and effects of the Anthropocene. Each entry is a work of art concerned with contemporary poetics and environmental justice backed with sound observation and scholarship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819578464
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 526,502
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

MARTHE REED (1959-2018) was the author of five books, including Nights Reading, (em)bodied bliss, and the collaborative Pleth with j hastain. She was co-publisher and managing editor for Black Radish Books, and her poems have appeared in Jacket2, Tarpaulin Sky, and New American Writing, among other publications.

LINDA RUSSO is the author of three books of poetry, including Participant (Lost Roads Press), winner of the Bessmilr Brigham Poets Prize, and To Think of her Writing Awash in Light (Subito Press), a collection of lyrical essays. Her scholarly essays have appeared in Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry (University of Iowa Press) and other edited collections. She teaches creative writing at Washington State University.

Read an Excerpt




Approaches to Anthropocene Writing

Without deep reflection, we have taken on the story of endings, assumed the story of extinction, and have believed that it is the certain outcome of our presence here. From this position, fear, bereavement, and denial keep us in the state of estrangement from our natural connection to the land.

Linda Hogan | "Creations"

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has ... made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they — what can they — do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

Amitav Ghosh | The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

Staying with the trouble requires making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all. That kind of material semiotics is always situated, someplace and not no place, entangled and worldly. Alone, in our separate kinds of expertise and experience, we know both too much and too little, and so we succumb to despair or to hope, and neither is a sensible attitude.

Donna Haraway | Staying with the Trouble

Over twenty years ago, Linda Hogan's essay "Creations" clarified a need for "new terms and conditions that are relevant to the love of land, a new narrative that would imagine another way." Many have lived another way, many have imagined, many have faltered, and many have not: the narrative of advancement at any cost remains dominant, and here we are. Given what we know, how will, and can, we respond? Will we resist, with Hogan, the story of endings? Confront, with Amitav Ghosh, what it will take to avoid the Great Derangement? Override despair, with Donna Haraway, by creating new ways to stay with the trouble? The purpose of this glossary is to provoke possibilities for responsive writing within the Anthropocene, as defined both by the ongoing machinery of the carbon-fueled economy of late capitalism and the corresponding disruptions to planetary systems, and the corresponding disruptions to economic and social orders, and the corresponding reexamination and adjustment of those orders, and so on. It proposes that approaching any place as actively shaped and bearing social and environmental histories of wildness and settlement is one way to begin to respond. It further proposes that anyone can embed themselves in the sites and corresponding ecological systems that we modify for dwelling, preserve as wilderness, or cultivate for profit around the globe, engage pressing questions, generate new methods of inquiry, report back on the state of our living world(s).

We come across key words that help us understand our relationship to what we know and try to know. We invent these words for each other to use, or we repurpose them, keeping language vital. Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing within the Anthropocene is a collection of such words — words that can act as keys to thinking and acting in our lived place-times because they engage cultural, economic, and social framings that determine ecological relationships. Regardless of the debates surrounding the term Anthropocene within and across disciplines, the discussions advance and new descriptors proliferate — Capitaloscene, Capitalobscene, Misanthropocene — further emphasizing the need for vital writing. Donna Haraway's Chthulucene, to my mind, speaks most directly to the ground and possibility of making. Joining khthôn (beings of earth) and kainos (now, fresh, new), it names "a kind of time-place for learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth" and suggests that, as chthonic ones, we can "demonstrate and perform the material meaningfulness of earth processes and critters ... [and] also demonstrate and perform consequences." Entangled and worldly: we are all somewhere and each connected to myriad life-forms. Can we write response-ably, responsively, to our time and places as a way of remaking where (and how) we find ourselves?

The most powerful words jostle frameworks, unsettling and enabling shifts of understanding, use, and contexts. For those interested in protecting natural environments, Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks, a collection of glossaries for the British Isles, marked a significant moment. Macfarlane set out to stop the destruction of places whose life and reason we cannot see and as a result drew attention to a hunger for words that can sharpen our knowledge of places. Landmarks gathers geographically specific words in dozens of languages and dialects that reflect "waves of invasion, settlement and immigration" to enable familiarity with places we (do and don't) inhabit according to the logics of the primary constituents of those places — plants, animals, minerals, and weather cycles that make life possible. Macfarlane cites as a precedent the grassroots effort to detail the life of a brindled moorland on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides that was being targeted by a British energy company. Learning their home was an ideal site for a massive wind farm, local poets and artists responded by making narrative, poetic, painterly, photographic, historical, cartographical, and lexical accounts, including Finlay MacLeod's "Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary." This collaborative labor represented the "barren" landscape as a living habitat and clarified how individuals specializing in profiting from natural resources had failed to value the landscapes that provide those very resources. That the energy installation proposal was defeated speaks volumes about the importance of the knowledge(s), so foreign to industry, that poets and artists work with and create. It shows how, through acts of progressive world-making, new or forgotten concepts (re)emerge. It is this kind of (re)emergence, a becoming-with, that Counter-Desecration hopes to inspire.

Macfarlane found inspiration in Barry Lopez's Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Both of these books provide crucial information for landscape literacy and emphasize the value of accurate, and where possible indigenous, place-based knowledge. Both gather language that "keeps us from slipping off into abstract space" — words that help us make something of landscapes that would otherwise be perceived as "developable" nothings. Further, both books celebrate national landscapes. As Lopez elaborates, acquaintance with a language that helps one say "more clearly and precisely what we mean" would

draw us closer to the landscapes upon which we originally and hopefully founded our democratic arrangements for governing ourselves, our system of social organization, and our enterprise in economics. If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately, about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better.

It is in this relational overlap — between places and the human systems and practices that shape them, between our flaws and our desires — that Counter-Desecration focuses. It takes up the lens of geographical humanism, seeing places not as empty containers but as fields of relations already constituted by multiple trajectories of myriad beings, each bearing their social and environmental histories. At the same time, it allows us to ask who is our? and what is ours? For coming to terms with this, too, is another urgency posed by the Anthropocene. When powerful individuals and organizations choose to ignore the reality and risks of climate change, by, for example, hampering and censoring the work of scientists, we must continue to utilize and invent ways to see what we need to see.

Home Ground was published in 2006, and while some of its entries address natural resource and land use issues, the US-Mexico border, and global warming, reading geography for signs of human dominance was not a primary goal. In Counter-Desecration, by contrast, some of Home Ground's lexicon reappears, rendered anew. For instance, game trail differs from "trail" by citing big animals (elk, bear, etc.), "our first civic planners"; The Great Plaints redefines "plains" by singing a lament of species displacement; south borderland amplifies ideologically driven violence as a defining feature of a "borderland"; and watershed emphasizes our fluid relationship with earth's water by detailing toxic presences, such as heavy metals, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. The inclusion of common terms is not by design, but it emphasizes place as semantically active and knowledge of geographical features as critical for grasping effects of the Anthropocene.

The story of conflicting visions for Lewis's brindled moorland resonates with current conflicts in the American West over cattle grazing, dam removal, fossil fuel extraction, wolf populations, and suburban development and habitat and biodiversity maintenance (currently, survival of the sage-grouse is at stake). The same anthropocentric perception that often guides energy infrastructure developments — that there is "nothing" out there — affects grasslands and river ecosystems, myriad species, including humans; NoDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) and other front lines in the pipeline resistance continue to make this clear. The story of the moor also resonates with my own becoming-Anthropocene story, of growing up in a northern suburb of New York in a home bordered with trees and surrounded by town and state parks and Nature Centers. The apparent consistency of these "natural" contexts obscured the causes and effects of actual changes: housing developments eating up huge swaths of woodlands and pastures, a state park originally named for indigenous people renamed for a US president, a wetland filled in to build a shopping mall. Eventually I'd realize how I'd learned how to see-not-see. In "The Place, the Region, and the Commons," Gary Snyder warns that "the world of culture and nature, which is actual, is almost a shadow world now, and the insubstantial world of political and rarefied economies is what passes for reality." The degradation of actual worlds and spaces is not in any sense a uniquely American phenomenon, but Americans continue to follow the mandate to approach places with dollar signs blinkering our eyes. Economic growth trumps rights to a safe and healthy environment, especially those of marginalized, poor communities located in industrial or increasingly industrialized zones. And this movement doesn't stop at our borders, as we are expert at outsourcing accumulated trash and toxic labor, sending plastics and computer components to Asia to be "recycled," for example. In other ways, the force of dominant power structures shapes places and relations in our ecological present. These include, but are not limited to, structural racisms and colonialisms that threaten civil rights; practices of "development," from agriculture to energy infrastructure to housing, that influence human settlement and fragment habitats and destroy biodiversity; toxic legacies of industries, such as mining, that make development on these scales possible; and policies that exacerbate the effects of mounting climate instabilities (floods and landslides, melting glaciers and shrinking coastlines, droughts and forest fires). Add to these the fact that acts of economic and ecological violence, whether causes or effects, are inflicted on the most vulnerable, and the consequences, deemed externalities, are often ignored or made invisible, especially to those of us located in the global North. All places change, and the remaking of places, it seems, always comes at a cost, but the nature and rate of that change depend on our ability to articulate what (besides capital) is being exchanged and how we and others will be affected. The bioregional knowledge derived from indigenous people who have a long history and culture of living in a place without destroying it is vital, as is access to knowledge necessary to comprehending the ideologies and mechanisms of the advancing projects that culminated in "the Anthropocene."

"The Great Derangement" is Ghosh's name for a fictional retrospective labeling of our current age, when "most forms of art and literature were drawn into modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight" — that is, that we live in a world already substantially altered by, and destined to experience the cataclysmic results of, climate change. Ghosh traces a history through the Enlightenment to arrive at a contemporary situation in which literary works by and large maintain the "partitioning" (Bruno Latour's term) of "Nature" and "Culture" that consigns science exclusively to the former, while forbidding literature, as works of "Culture," to address science, thus leaving a gap in inquiry and knowledge. Ghosh blames this partitioning for the "suppression of hybrids" like science fiction (which he himself writes). In recent years, many works of creative nonfiction have addressed this gap by engaging current frameworks of scientific knowledge and popularizing the lexicons of botany, forestry, ichthyology, microbiology, and ornithology, for example, as evidenced in these titles published in 2016: biologist Hope Jahren's Lab Girl; two works by naturalists, Richard Mabey's The Cabaret of Plants and Stephen Buchmann's The Reason for Flowers; German forester Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees and Fiona Stafford's The Long, Long Life of Trees; Jonathan Balcombe's What a Fish Knows and Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus; David Montgomery and Anne Bikle's The Hidden Half of Nature; and Jennifer Ackerman's The Genius of Birds and Jonathan Balcombe's and Leigh Calvez's The Hidden Lives of Owls. That we live in an age of inspired attention to the "hidden" truths of other species on earth is evident. This is also the age of the sixth extinction. If we are coming to grips with how little we know about what we are losing, shall we then do more to challenge destructive narratives of progress that rule our age?

This, according to anthropologist Anna Tsing, is an absolute necessity because our stories for moving into the future rely on dreams of modernization and fail to "address the imaginative challenge of living without those handrails, which once made us think we knew, collectively, where we were going" — toward a singular, improved future. Our condition is one more of precarity than of certainty, and our survival may depend on our ability to embrace this, on our willingness to abandon visions of organization made stable through either harmony or conquest and "emerge in blasted landscapes" — to live with our messes together. This is a good place to pause and consider the possibility presented in Counter-Desecration. Poets, Ghosh acknowledges, were always at the forefront of the resistance to modernity's "partitioning." And so this glossary, a hybrid and a collection of hybrids, proposes to inhabit and enliven the realm of literary thinking about science and philosophy, racism, colonialism and anticolonialism, politics and geography. Poetry is a marginal art both because it works the edges of thought, suturing discourses and inviting strange bedfellows, and because it pushes thinking away from popular, conceded-to topics by entering new terrain. Counter-Desecration hopes to inspire a poetic resurgence through the creation of new contexts for realization and enacting life-affirming change.

The fact that, for Tsing, survival will be collaborative corresponds with the collaborative nature of this glossary. We wanted to know others' ways of seeing, and what others were creating or had come upon and remade for their own use. Perhaps to give the whole venture the air of legitimacy, we proposed to collect what we called "entries." But what contributors wrote, in addition to pieces that would fit (for the most part comfortably) in a standard language reference text, were narratives, poems, lists, manifestos, meditations, and microessays. The terms themselves reflect the various ways of experiencing and putting language to places and the systems with which we interact. Many entries move edgewise into that complexity, to disrupt powerful, globally invested corporate myths that efface particularities of emplacement and of myriad, diverse realities. Many entries are place-based or write from an embodied perspective; others bear implications for emplaced thinking. Glossary contributors draw on a range of heritages and knowledges, including those from Asia and the Pacific Islands, along with those more prevalent in the global North. They draw on a diversity of landscapes, from wilderness to suburban, from urban to rural, from mainland to island. They draw on history, philosophy, and scientific, political, and literary theory; on research, fieldwork, and creative praxis; on experiences rare and unique and mundane. Together they create and re-create mobile, shifting fields of inquiry. Each entry begins to tell a story, because the violent erasures of complexity that define the Anthropocene force us to provide our stories of who we in any place are, what we in any place value, and how in any place we enact who we are and what we value.


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Table of Contents

Preface by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Entangled & Worldly: Approaches to Anthropocene Writing by Linda Russo
“somewhere inbetween”: Speaking-Through Contiguity by Marthe Reed
Contributor Bio/Statements

What People are Saying About This

Lynn Keller

“Affirming the imagination’s importance in effecting change, with marvelous invention this poets’ glossary of terms responsive to the Anthropocene illuminates losses and violations, offers resources, inspires hope.”

From the Publisher

"Affirming the imagination's importance in effecting change, with marvelous invention this poets' glossary of terms responsive to the Anthropocene illuminates losses and violations, offers resources, inspires hope." —Lynn Keller, author of Recomposing Ecopoetics

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