The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics

The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics

by Joshua Schuster


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The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics by Joshua Schuster

In The Ecology of Modernism, Joshua Schuster examines the relationships of key modernist writers, poets, and musicians to nature, industrial development, and pollution. He posits that the curious failure of modernist poets to develop an environmental ethic was a deliberate choice and not an inadvertent omission.

In his opening passage, Schuster boldly invokes lines from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which echo as a paean to pollution: “Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall!” Schuster labels this theme “regeneration through pollution” and demonstrates how this motif recurs in modernist compositions. This tolerance for, if not actual exultation of, the by-products of industrialization hindered modernist American artists, writers, and musicians from embracing environmentalist agendas.

Schuster provides specific case studies focusing on Marianne Moore and her connection of fables with animal rights; Gertrude Stein and concepts of nature in her avant-garde poetics; early blues music and poetry and the issue of how environmental disasters (floods, droughts, pestilence) affected black farmers and artists in the American South; and John Cage, who extends the modernist avant-garde project formally but critiques it at the same time for failing to engage with ecology. A fascinating afterword about the role of oil in modernist literary production rounds out this work.

Schuster masterfully shines a light on the modernist interval between the writings of bucolic and nature-extolling Romantics and the emergence of a self-conscious green movement in the 1960s. This rewarding work shows that the reticence of modernist poets in the face of resource depletion, pollution, animal rights, and other ecological traumas is highly significant.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817358297
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 10/15/2015
Series: Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 1,118,667
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Joshua Schuster is an assistant professor of English at the University of Western Ontario.

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The Ecology of Modernism

American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics

By Joshua Schuster

The University of Alabama

Copyright © 2015 the University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8853-9



On the Morals of Marianne Moore's Animal Monologues

There are few animals in modernist literature, and also a diminishing number of actual animals in modernity. Rates of species extinction began to rise noticeably at the end of the nineteenth century, while the numbers for the vast majority of wild animals started to plunge due to hunting and habitat encroachment. This disappearance across the earth of animal life has prompted some animal studies scholars to state that in the modern period, as Akira Mizuta Lippit asserts, animals "exist in a state of perpetual vanishing." This literal depletion of animals, some argue further, is compounded by a figurative loss — the vanishing of an animal imaginary. Steve Baker goes as far as to declare, "There was no modern animal, no 'modernist' animal. Between nineteenth-century animal symbolism, with its reasonably secure hold on meaning, and the postmodern animal images whose ambiguity or irony or sheer brute presence serves to resist or to displace fixed meanings, lies modernism at its most arid. ... For modern art, the imperatives of formalism and abstraction rendered the image of the human difficult enough. ... The animal is the very first thing to be ruled out of modernism's bounds."

Yet at the same time the modernist period is marked also by a proliferation of theories of vitalism and paeans to life. One of Mina Loy's commandments in her forward-charging manifesto "Aphorisms on Futurism" is to "UNSCREW your capability of absorption and grasp the elements of Life — Whole." Again and again, modernists vowed to bring art and life closer together, to "grasp the elements of Life," but attempts were rarely made in modernist literature to put into writing the specific experiences of the actually existing animal life on the planet. The rhetoric of life is everywhere in modernism, but strangely enough animals are rarely to be found. There are, of course, some notable representations of animals in modernist literature, as some scholars have distinctly pointed out, but many of these depictions gravitate to a small set of charismatic species usually associated with primitivism, crises in biological theory, or psychoanalytic formulas. These limited formalizations of the animal seem a step back in understanding the variety of animal life compared to the complex descriptive language of nineteenth-century natural science, which drew inspiration from almost any species, from worms to conifers to loons to apes. When animals appear in modernism, they are depicted often as motivated by simplified instincts, serving as symbols for something other than themselves: the human condition, allegories of Darwinism, vestiges of a deeper unconscious, or as industrial objects fated to be turned into consumer goods. Actual animals in modernity are displaced by a certain kind of reductive caricature of modernist "animality."

In the midst of this overall vanishing of the animal, however, a countertrend also emerged: amateur animal enthusiasts, naturalists, and biologists began to develop ways of recording and narrating ever more minutely the lives of animals. Along with advancing methodologies in behaviorism and ethology, the amount of data about animals began to multiply during modernism, including contributions from the diverse print culture of journals, magazines, photography, animal-watching guides, and children's literature. From Ernest Seton Thompson's yarns in Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) to popular magazines like National Geographic to the rapid spread of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCAs), an eclectic variety of discourse about animal lives became widely available in a time when human contact with animals already began to become rare and more regulated. The vanishing animal coincides with the proliferation of animal media and the mediated lives of animals. Part of the reason for this explosion of animal media is due to the dwindling of animal numbers, for as animals became rarified or even extinct, the only way to consistently encounter them was via indirect representation. Yet the rapid spread of the culture of animal media consumption proved to have its own allure, as animal stories and images offered an increasingly lively and uncanny substitute for the animals themselves.

Considering that the modernist archive is thin when it comes to attending to the lived, subjective world of animals, the poetry of Marianne Moore, with her wide-ranging attention to animals both common and rare, stands out quite prominently. Moore's poems, and particularly her use of the fable genre, are evidence of perhaps the most varied menagerie of any modernist poet. She writes on animals treated as iconic by humans like monkeys, oxen, elephants, and ostriches, along with animals further off the beaten track such as tuataras, pangolins, jerboas, and plumet basilisks. Moore's poetics perform an integration of animal, human, and artifice into a lyric form that shows acuity for how humans and animals codefine each other's worlds. Yet Moore is not a naturalist-activist in the mold of a woodsy Thoreau desirous of sudden and immediate contact with animals in the wild. She is a concrete New Yorker, attending to animal life as already in situ in the mediated environs of books, clippings, films, curios, and poems. Moore's animals exist in conditions of modernity that are fundamentally controlled by humans, but despite these layers of mediation, animal subjectivity and expression are not excluded or impossible.

Alice Kuzniar has stated that the leading question for animal studies "should be not 'do they have language?' but 'do we have an adequate language to speak to them and about them?'" To speak to animals and about them, one would need a nuanced discourse attentive to their worlds. Moore's answer is to celebrate difficulty and modernist style as a parallel to the animal's embodiment of a kind of style or bodily panache in a world where their lives are increasingly mediated. Her work offers a unique view on the confluence of modernism and the lives of animals, affirming both with a belief that collage, mannerism, morality, and grace were shared attributes of the modernist poem and the animal adapted complexly to its habitat. Following in the tradition of the fable, Moore's poetics open the way to recognizing in animals the power to speak for themselves. Yet, Moore walked a fine line between spectacle and appreciation with her noted patronage of zoos, circuses, natural history museums, and her welcome reception of fanciful popular media representations of animals. Her fables avow and disavow anthropomorphism; they can exhibit a fantastic view of animals while also rejecting the egregious imposition of human categories onto animals. Ultimately, instead of making Moore into the proto-animal rights activist or the full-fledged ecologist, I argue that we should consider how the often awkward and compromised animal-human mixes of her fables advocate for awkwardness, compromise, and artificiality as forms of cross-species bonding. What we see in Moore's menagerie is the elaboration of a modernist form that responds to the changes and stresses lived by animals in modernity and grapples with how adaptation to multifarious environs demands shifts in style for animal and poet alike.

Animal Vernaculars and Open Ciphers

Moore makes a curious analogy between poetry and animals in the opening of her review in 1936 of a new volume by Wallace Stevens: "Poetry is an unintelligible unmistakable vernacular like the language of the animals — a system of communication whereby a fox with a turkey too heavy for it to carry, reappears shortly with another fox to share the booty, and Wallace Stevens is a practiced hand at this kind of open cypher." Stevens, the fox, is apparently rounding up readers or other poets to share in his "booty" that is too much to bear for one person. The fox, so often associated with cunning and craftiness, is highlighted here in its camaraderie. Modernist poetry is an "open cypher," a "system of communication" shared by both humans and animals, yet also poised at the edge of the "unintelligible." But the cipher's surfeit in a poem at least promises one unmistakable form of communication: an invitation to share in reading.

But is Moore being cunning with us too? Moore likely knows that foxes are known to kill all the hens in a henhouse only to eat just one. Booty involves having blood on one's hands one way or another — so what about the poet? Viewing the fox's craftiness as exemplary of style may be evidence of generosity or denial, but do these open ciphers really have anything to do with animals, or are foxes just a clever and convenient metaphor? And what about the perennially contentious question of whether animal communication constitutes "speech," let alone a "vernacular" or even a poetics? Moore's poetry is replete with animal encounters, but readers of these poems have never been sure how literally to view these animals in the thicket of Moore's dense poetic collages. Attributing symbolic intentionality to animals, often seen as a code word for anthropomorphism, is still considered by many to be contentious, but even intentionality, an "open cypher," makes room for ambiguity. Poems are intentional objects, but what they are capable of communicating always exceeds the varieties of intentionality invested by the author or embedded in the poem's form and content. Moore's animal analogy suggests that the way poetry exceeds its own intentionality is similar to the way animals exceed their instincts or biological scripts.

Recently, Moore's poetry has received renewed attention from those interested in the bourgeoning field of animal studies. Randy Malamud offers a mixed assessment of Moore's animal poetics, which he sees as "often rampantly anthropomorphic" and "unabashedly awestruck by her animal subjects" (93), although he commends her work for its devotion to intricate animal observations. At the same time, Malamud comments that poems that are full of "elusive complexity" and are "coyly elliptical" (94) may speak only to truly committed and patient animal observers who are most likely already to be sympathetic to such beings. Malamud does not consider that elusiveness and coyness may actually provide the behavioral basis for a kind of cross-species solidarity. What turns out to be overriding in Malamud's reading is whether Moore's poems can or cannot translate into a model for animal activism and justice toward all life. To the degree that a poem's formal complexity suggests carefulness, attention to detail, and a refusal to fix things to one meaning, Moore's poems offer a template for enriched representations of animal lives. But Malamud also finds that Moore's poems devote themselves too much to obscure details and quirky animals that are rarely seen. Thus he finds these poems to be quite limited if they are to serve as models of long-term, everyday coexistence with animals. Moore is seen as a precursor for contemporary animal studies but also someone who troubles the search for ancestors because she enjoys attending zoos and circuses, has little to say directly about animal freedom or long-term intimacy with species, and sees elusiveness as crucial for both animal and poet. While Moore advocates for an ethical treatment of animals, she eschews militancy, does not espouse vegetarianism, and prefers a difficult and convoluted poetics of animals that does not easily correspond to the jarring images and blunt slogans that today's animal activism usually requires. Later in her career, when Moore made her most overt animal rights statement in the poem "The Arctic Ox (or Goat)" (1959), she admitted that she felt such advocacy flattened out her poetics into a form that was mass-media friendly. "If you fear that you are / reading an advertisement, / you are."The poem ends with the dogmatic remark that "If we can't be cordial / to these creatures' fleece, / I think we deserve to freeze" (195), but the cordiality of the tone works against any urgency or radical activism beyond a reminder for human-animal conviviality. Rather than seeing Moore's weak militancy as a limited and ultimately failed form of animal activism, we might reconsider her work as demonstrating how modernist formal complexity is linked to an increasing awareness of the construction of personhood in an environment filled with ambiguous relations between humans, animals, plants, and sundry objects. Instead of dismissing the poems as fatefully burdened by anthropomorphism or as meek in comparison to an animal liberation manifesto, I see these poems as attempts to account for the reality of the heavy mediations animals are undergoing in modernity. All of Moore's animals and animal poems are about mediation; these poems do not preclude affection or ethics but see these traits as embedded in the larger trends of modernity that pose direct conflicts to most animal habitats. Additionally, Moore critically engages with the common modernist animal topos of the primitive versus the cultivated, or the wild versus the domesticated. Moore's animals are laden with ornament and cultivation in their bodies and behaviors. This cultivation occurs sometimes by humans via enculturation and domestication but also sometimes by resisting humans; in either case, however, style is not figured as repressing an unconscious drive that needs to be released like a tiger let loose into the wild. Instead, whatever remains of animal "instinct," according to Moore, is now well enmeshed in a world marked by artifice and spiritual codependence, for both animals and humans. "Religious conviction, art, and animal impulse are the strongest factors in life, I think," wrote Moore in a letter from 1921.

Something Other than a Fable

Moore's poetic forms are not strictly mimetic of animal forms but seek a shared reality with animals. There is indeed a long literary tradition that adheres exactly to these aims: the fable. The broadest definition of a fable is a story that relates a particular instance to make a general claim about moral conduct. But ever since Aesop, the fable has been understood more specifically as a brief account (oftena lyric poem) of animal life, presumed to be fictional, which serves as an instructional example about the human social order. There is one other key defining aspect of fables: they are the literary genre in which animals speak, either in direct quotation or through behaviors that indicate reason and complex imagination.

Modernized and modified, the fable is the core genre of Moore's work. Her poems "Black Earth" and "The Monkeys" show animals literally speaking in first-person monologues, while all of Moore's animal poems convey the argument that an essential quality of animal expressivity is their capacity to use style as a tool for adaptation. Moore's fables draw out the ways animals exist in intricate aesthetically laden environments and must use their own moral senses — which Darwin argued were no different in kind than those of humans — to comprehend, outwit, or solidify cross-species bonds, as in the fox fable. My aim in this chapter is neither to turn Moore into a subversive ecologist or proto-animal liberationist nor to diminish the contrarian power of her emphasis on animal entanglements in environments so often dominated by ideologies of inexorable development. I will try then to follow the implications of Moore's own recommendation: "In trying to reveal the clash of elements that we are — the intellectual, the animal; the blunt, the ingenious; the impudent, the imaginative — one dare not be dogmatic. We are a many-foliaged tree against the moon; a wave penetrated by the sun" (Prose 327).

John Ashbery once called Moore "an American La Fontaine" but admitted that readers likely will not construe this title as very honorary. "Is she not a sort of Mary Poppins of poetry, or, to state the case against her as quickly as possible, an American La Fontaine." While animal fables make up a significant portion of the appearances of animals in literature, few literary critics grant the genre any serious attention. John Simons's views are fairly representative: "The role of animals in the fable is almost irrelevant. They are merely vehicles for the human and are not, in any way, presented as having physical or psychological existence in their own right." Boria Sax does not even grant the fables much insight into human minds, declaring, "We find none of the complexities of human psychology. Insofar as the characters are human, they are completely one-dimensional. It seems more accurate to understand the animals as incomplete human beings. Perhaps the use of animals rather than people as characters is primarily a means of establishing emotional distance." Instead of bridging the gap between humans and animals, Sax finds that the fable's heavily contrived scenarios — which have led the word "fable" to become synonymous with falsehood — just reaffirm the separation of species and solidify a great chain of being with humans perched on top.


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Table of Contents


Preface: Conceptualizing Modernism's Ecologies,
Introduction: Regeneration through Pollution,
1. Fables: On the Morals of Marianne Moore's Animal Monologues,
2. Ambience: How to Read Gertrude Stein's Natures,
3. Blues: Race and Environmental Distress in Early American Blues Music,
4. Traffic: Noise as an Ecological Aesthetic in the Art of John Cage,
5. Contaminated Life: Biopolitics after Rachel Carson,
6. Conclusion,
Afterword: Where Is the Oil in Modernism?,

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