Framed: The Machine in/as the Garden

Framed: The Machine in/as the Garden

Timothy Morton

Timothy Morton offers a critical reading of Roderick Coover’s video Canyonlands: Edward Abbey and the Defense of Wilderness. In the video’s stark modernist form, Morton writes, “the hydroelectric engine of human progress still hums.” What’s needed now, he suggests, is a “Goth remix.”

Freud wrote that the unconscious is like wilderness (Freud 99-100). Movies about wildernesses must therefore be like dreams. The beauty of dreams is that they can be interpreted infinitely. Dreams contain implicit information, information that may even contradict the explicit message. Canyonlands: Edward Abbey and the Defense of Wilderness, a video made by Roderick Coover for the Canyonlands web project, has a beautifully simple, modernist style (Coover). It’s a kind of animated Barnett Newman painting, a rectangle inside a rectangle. The surrounding frame of shots of the Utah Canyonlands is silent - no, quiet, devoid of human speech yet rippled with water and birdsong. The inner frame consists of portrayals of advertising, tourist PR and spin of the flooded canyon as recreation space. Around everything floats the voice of Edward Abbey, reading letters of protest and writings. Interviews with others appear in boxes that float on the left hand side of the screen. Sometimes the sound of the desert quiet is superimposed on images of modern suburbia, photographs of the Canyonlands before development, and contemporary industry.

The intense simplicity causes the viewer to forget the intricate aesthetic strategies that go into producing something powerful and plangent. Indeed, one of the strategies is to erase all trace of technological production - certainly no wizardry is in evidence (I could have put the movie together on my Mac), which is a plus for the staging of Nature. The next step, of course, is to erase the trace of erasure. For quite some time I found myself unable to write about it, unable even to think about it. The movie is a masterpiece of stark self-evidence. The giant quotation marks of the desert frame surround the PR videos, ironizing them: see what a work is man, this quintessence of dust (Hamlet II.2.304).

The simplicity is distinctly modernist. I use the word as Bruno Latour uses it, to indicate a mindset that rigorously divides nature from culture, as cleanly as a rectangle cut out of the inside of another rectangle (Latour). Therein lies the problem. It makes a stark statement. Walled off within the silent judgment of the canyon as such, like an abstract canyon within the natural one, the ads and the PR look as they should do: sickening. There it is, the horror - framed by nature, a literal abyss within the abyss: a mise-en-abyme, like those medieval shields that put an image of their main design within themselves. This repetition is also absolute difference, however. There is the stark, quiet heat of the desert. There is the plastic noise of fabrication. The plastic noise is vacuum-sealed into the smooth bright package of the desert. Nothing escapes, no leakage.

The aquarium of sound that is Abbey’s voice bathes the visual imagery. What a strange, cold aquarium it is. I wouldn’t like to be on the wrong side of Edward Abbey. There’s no arguing with him. He paints you into a corner and shoots at you. He says, “You are this, and you are never going agree with me because you are this, and so to you I say the following.” They are not letters, in the sense that they do not expect a reply - not even letters at the moment of their inscription I mean, let alone the moment of their weaving into the movie Canyonlands. The letters are performances of the beautiful soul, the nightingale who sings alone in the darkness, an ancestral voice prophesying war (Coleridge, Kubla Khan, 30). The beautiful soul is an attitude towards things that Hegel describes as a stark division between self and other: self good, other evil (Hegel 383-409). There is the plastic culture; here is the narrator, invisible, like a latter day Ariel with a far more macho stage presence, speaking for the empty, desecrated canyon. The voice and the plastic PR are totally perpendicular to one another. They inhabit different dimensions. The beautiful soul emerged during the Romantic period. It’s the subject position of consumerism, the window-shopping drift that sees objects as if behind glass. It’s the subject position of aestheticism. And it’s the subject position of environmentalism, a negative modulation of consumerism (Morton 109-23). In this mode, the complaint is about how post-development consumers can’t and won’t experience the Canyonlands properly. What is wrong is a quality of aesthetic experience.

Beautiful soul mode appears in explicitly consumerist language in the interview with Coover and others on this site. The group is discussing how to walk in a desert:

…it’s become almost a cliché that when you’re out hiking in the desert you need to open yourself to improvisation rather than to have a specific destination. This approach is essential because the desert has a way of mocking just about any goal-oriented behavior. You see a hill in the distance that looks like an inviting destination for lunch, but by lunch time the hill mysteriously seems farther away than when you began; meanwhile, you’ve been struggling to get across all these washes and slot canyons that weren’t visible when you started out, and so on. Now this can be pretty frustrating if you’re a goal-oriented person, like I used to be, but it can also be very liberating. So at a certain point, you realize that you should forget about the hill and check out one of the washes. Thoreau used the term “sauntering” to describe something similar to this in his essay “Walking”; it also reminds me of the process of urban meandering that Baudelaire used the term “flâneur” to describe - wandering around the city becomes a way to experience it from a fresh perspective. I know my friends think this is a little strange, but I usually don’t bring a map or even a cell phone when I go out hiking. I’m happiest when I don’t see other people’s footprints. Of course, there needs to be some balance here - it’s also easy to get lost if you’re meandering in the desert. So you need to be aware of where you are, so you’re not going to lose your car or you can find your way back. But at the same time, you have to allow yourself to let the landscape dictate the path for you. (Miller)

Larry McCaffery calls on Baudelaire, poet of consumerism who along with Thomas de Quincey invented the stoned or opiated Kantian stroll through the city, purposeless looking without purchase. The conversation turns spontaneously to the connection between walking and “reading a text.” So we have the reader, the text and the evil world which reader and text abjure. Abbey’s voice then is the voice of a reader, an exegete of the desert’s sacred text.

The form that sutures voice and evil world together is the silent canyon frame, what the walker-reader takes to be his text. The voice speaks to the world in the little rectangle, the manipulative, technocratic, greedy capitalist world. The voice emanates from around or behind or in front of the desert frame. It is as if the desert has a voice, a voice crying in the wilderness. The wilderness then is at once totally inhuman, and totally human: sheer extension inhabited by a res cogitans, a voice that repeats a message over and over, a message without a present addressee, without a response (like a message on an answer machine), a mechanical ghost in a Cartesian mechanism. A message that is meant to be overheard, whose inscription already bears the trace of the non-addressee, the spokespeople for the non-plastic Earth who overhear, the choir to which the message preaches. An auto-affective performance in a vacuum - yet the self-presencing, self-justifying voice already overhears itself in the ears of another. The voice in/as the wilderness is fissured from within, like the subject of Desert Solitaire, a performance of wilderness and aloneness, which yet was written in the presence of Abbey’s wife as amanuensis. A ghost voice talking from a ghost canyon. A spectral Earth pretending to be real flesh and sand.

The movie is both a work of mourning for the canyon, and a work of mourning for Edward Abbey, and makes it difficult to tell each work apart. The desert is a metonymy for Abbey, the environmental activist and writer who died in 1989. Or Abbey is also a metonymy for the desert, a self-styled voice crying in the wilderness (the title one of Abbey’s books). It becomes productively impossible to tell which one has priority. Things become more complex when we think in terms of the physical media, the material environments in which the messages of Abbey and desert and plastic world are conveyed. In one sense Abbey addresses the plastic world through the medium (Jakobson: the contact) of the desert, circumventing us. In another sense the desert addresses us through the medium of Abbey’s voice, circumventing the plastic world. In another sense the plastic world addresses us through the shifting, dynamic frame of the desert, circumventing Abbey. One of the four parties (desert, Abbey, plastic world, ourselves) is excluded in each possible setup. The circumvented addressees are there yet not there, withdrawn, like a desert strewn with slot canyons that appears to be a flat surface when seen from a shallow angle. The dark side of the Earth - the darkness that is the Earth as such - is never exactly where this movie says it is - in fact it is exactly never where this movie says it is.

According to the logic of the voice, the desert quiet speaks in the pauses between Abbey’s lines. The page on which his message is inscribed, the medium in which his voice takes shape, are the shifting desert sands, marked by the occasional cry of a bird, a fizz of water. This is the most ambiguous - the most interesting, the least compelling yet the most haunting - aspect of the film. The desert as such, whose quiet is never total silence, seems to provide something like paragraph breaks for Abbey’s readings, and a visual frame for the PR plastic world. The desert is fully technological then, a device for spacing and enframing (Gestell, Heidegger’s word for modern technology). Yet the subtle quiet of the desert escapes the task to which it has been put, like a too big sheet of blank paper that withdraws in its very mass from the human meanings inscribed therein. This is no wilderness. It’s a teeming hive of activity, shifting sands, wind, an insect crawling hither and thither. Think of all the nonhuman actors in this part of the film. They are living and non-living squiggles that seem to compose the unified Barnett Newman frame around the plastic world. Yet they constantly withdraw from it. This is where Earth really makes its presence felt: in its resistance to Abbey’s allegorizing voice, its silent withdrawal from humans and from its very being(s). The profound multiplicity of Earth crawling with sand grains and life forms belies the human aestheticization of the desert as wilderness. There is no judgment here, only a quiet carnival of open-ended play.

Who is the implied spectator - what is the subject position for which Canyonlands codes? A witness perhaps. A silent witness, passive in her frozen inertia; perhaps a widow of the canyon, a grief stricken witness. This witness is unable to think, unable even to bear witness, perhaps, since the ekphrastic intensity of image and sound allow no space for her. She is crushed to a one-dimensional line between the superego of the desert and its dry voice of judgment, and the id of the capitalist enjoyment machine. There it is, unfolding onscreen, in all its terrible beauty and ugliness. Like a wilderness. We can’t get in, we can’t get to the imagery that envelopes the false PR. It’s removed from us on the other side of the screen, of course; but also it seems to evoke the canyon as it was in the past, and entropy means time only goes forwards. There is no way to undo the damage. Nature is spent. In a sense the modernist technology of the documentary does to us precisely what the modernist technology of capitalism did to the canyon. We are overwhelmed, flooded with emotion.

I must admit to feeling quite ambiguous about this aesthetic strategy that erases all strategic traces. On the one hand, what can one say? It’s incontestably true. The canyon was flooded. Perhaps the only sane response is a scream of despair. Does this make the documentary similar to Gottfried Benn’s poem, denounced by Lukacs as decadent regression but praised by Adorno for precisely the same reason?

Oh, that we were our primordial ancestors.
Small lumps of plasma in a sultry swamp.
Life and death, conception and parturition -
All emerging from those juices soundlessly.

A piece of seaweed or a dune of sand,
Formed by the wind and bound to the earth.
Even a dragon-fly’s head or the wing of a gull
Would be too remote and mean too much suffering. (qtd. in Adorno 169)

I think not. It’s not an upbeat message I’m after. It’s not some coda or an address to write to so I can petition that this never happen again. It’s not even a call to arms and the address of the nearest monkeywrench crew. No: I am a weird philosopher and I want the scream to be more decadent, starker, darker, more twisted. I want a Goth remix of Canyonlands.

A Goth remix would acknowledge that it’s an aesthetic construct, not a masculinized performance of non-performance. The modernist frame and frame-up would be exploded in every possible way. The reification of Nature, the setting up of a silent corpse on a pedestal, would be carried to the nth degree so that we might have a chance to pop through it and out onto the other side where all the nonhumans live, including the rocks and sand. A Goth remix would be ironic, in the Romantic way - the way Blade Runner is ironic, by making the narrator realize that she is the protagonist, in a creepy realization of total complicity with the crime. This would involve doubling the aesthetic frame back on itself to reveal that what appears to be outside the frame - in particular Edward Abbey’s voice - is also inside it, of it, shaping it and shaped by it: guilty.

A Goth remix would be several steps along the five stages of grief. What we have at present is stuck in denial. Doomed to repeat the empty formalism of modernist theory and practice, Canyonlands is unable fully to articulate the blood-curdling scream that is indeed necessary to mark the destruction of the canyon as such. Its squeaky clean, fully insulated interior leaves no rough edges for the viewer to get a purchase, no undetermined space for open-minded distraction or drifting. The online version is no better, offering precisely the kind of text to which McCaffrey (unwittingly?) compares desert landscape: a readerly one, like a liturgy. Interpassive, not interactive. Canyonlands automates our response, relieving us of the burden of responding. Like a canyon full of water, there are no cognitive handholds. There is no way in: it’s shrinkwrapped in aura like those skins and shells for iPhones and laptops that ensure that the product will be forever walled off from our greasy fingers: instant aesthetic distance, peel off backing and apply. No space for ambiguity, hesitation, randomness, openness - the things that are the essence of the evolving DNA vectors teeming on this planet: this is Serious Stuff. We are supposed to gawk like apes beholding the Monolith, a cinema-screen-sized slit of darkness that appears in an unpeopled desert landscape (Kubrick). The dry impotence of Abbey’s voice smashes bone upon verbal bone, intoning “Death. Death. Death.” Yet death - not decay or whitening bones in the desert sun, but the death drive of plastic culture - is never owned.

Canyonlands is a horrifying indictment of modern civilization, in the key of modern civilization itself. The hydroelectric engine of human progress still hums in the film’s core. How many times must we repeat the past like machines?

Works cited

Adorno, Theodor. “Reconciliation Under Duress.” In Fredric Jameson, ed. Aesthetics and Politics. New York: Verso, 2002. 151-76.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson and Raimona Modiano. New York: Norton, 2004.

Coover, Roderick. Canyonlands: Edward Abbey and the Defense of Wilderness. Roderick Coover, 2010.

_____. Canyonlands: Edward Abbey in the Great American Desert. Accessed July 8, 2010.

Freud, Sigmund. Lecture 31, “The Dissection of the Psychical Personality.” In New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. New York: Norton, 1989. 71-100.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Analysis and foreword by J.N. Findlay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Jakobson, Roman. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” In Thomas A. Sebeok, ed. Style in Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1960. 350-77.

Kubrick, Stanley, Dir. 2001: A Space Odyssey. MGM, 1968.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Miller, Alanna. “A Dialogue about the Desert.” Interview with Roderick Coover, Larry McCaffery, Lance Newman and Hikmet Loe. Accessed July 8, 2010.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Roma Gill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.