The Ecopoetics of Contact: Touching, Cruising, Gleaning

The Ecopoetics of Contact: Touching, Cruising, Gleaning In their “Ecosex Manifesto,” first published in 2011, queer performance artists Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle lay bare their eroticized habits of environmental care: “[Ecosexuals] make love with the earth… .We shamelessly hug trees, massage the earth with our feet, and talk erotically to plants… .” Such an approach, which counters mainstream environmentalism’s ascetic imperatives by advocating unbounded pleasure, playfully indexes one of the foundational impasses inhibiting the development of a queer ecocriticism: the conflicting status of embodied desire—and thus of touch—in its two constitutive fields. In her 1997 essay “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism,” ecofeminist scholar Greta Gaard analyzed a pervasive “erotophobia” in Western Culture that other critics have identified in environmental discourse more specifically (139). As cultural critic Andrew Ross pithily suggests, “Unlike other new social movements, ecology is commonly perceived as the one that says no, the antipleasure voice that says you’re never gonna get it, so get used to going without” (268). Clearly, a significant part of the environmentalist ethos is to make do with less: to reduce our consumption, to limit our desires, to forego what we so deeply want. In keeping with familiar imperatives like “leave no trace,” the practice of stewardship is often understood to be predicated on forms of restraint and inaction, leaving little room for either desire or pleasure—except, of course, to the extent that both are denied. The emphasis on self-deprivation ingrained within environmentalism conflicts—potentially violently—with the discourses of queer theory, which are foundationally concerned with desires and their free expression. I am far from the first to respond to this tension between the fields; Ross insists that “[p]eople respond better to a call for social fulfillment than to a summons of physical deprivation, and that is why any social movement that uses self-denial as a vehicle for inducing change is as pathetic as one that uses apocalyptic threats or appeals to Mother Nature’s vengeance” (268), a sentiment with which I mostly agree, even if I would not go so far as to call such impulses “pathetic.” But when he goes on to assert, speculatively, that we need a “world where individual gratification is intensified, and not determined, by concerns of common environmental well-being … where hedonism has replaced asceticism as the dominant mode of green conduct” (272–73), Ross does not make entirely clear what it would mean to practice a green hedonism. Likewise, when queer ecocritic Catriona Sandilands suggests that in order for “environmentalism … to go beyond ‘just saying no,’ … spaces for exploration must be allowed to flourish and proliferate” and, relatedly, that “[p]olymorphous sexualities and multiple natures are … at the heart of green resistances” (93), she does not clarify how these approaches would actually play out in practice. In other words, although we (like those who embrace ecosexuality) might like to imagine an environmentalism where we “just say yes,” neither Ross nor Sandilands gives us a model for making this approach an ethically viable reality. Such attempts to ameliorate the tension between queer theory and environmental thought, which provocatively equate embodied desire with environmental care, simply flip the switch from asceticism to pleasure. They therefore miss the opportunity to rethink the condition for both sensuality and restraint: the possibility of contact as such.1 This essay thus looks to an eclectic archive of ecopoetic texts—William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem “Nutting,” Samuel Delany’s 1999 nonfiction work Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, and Agnès Varda’s 2000 documentary film The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse)—in order to reconsider what contact itself entails. The unexpected echoes that reverberate across these works make legible a homology between three of contact’s verbal declensions—to touch, to cruise, and to glean—and, in the process, encourage us to exchange our familiarly dyadic, object-oriented model of contact (in which we either indulge desire or maturely heed restraint) for a more ambient and less directed mode. Within the contexts in which they appear, practices of touching, cruising, and gleaning—which we typically understand as necessarily tending toward or making contact with objects—become queerly intransitive, relinquishing their customary directedness in favor of a suspended, protracted, and often playful emphasis on relationality as such.2 By suspending direct consequence and immediate purposiveness and embracing a more promiscuous, less telic bodily grammar, these iterations of contact ultimately predicate environmental stewardship on a set of affects and temporalities not typically considered to be germane to it. In so doing, they also suggest new postures3 for us to adopt in the face of extant degradation, embodied risk, and the forms of transience that populate (or even constitute) our imperiled world. If all three of these works limn unexpected intersections between queerness and environmentality,4 they also help us rethink the animating concept of this special cluster. For the texts in my archive, whose conceptual power is located in their combination of somatic and formal experimentation, not only indicate the extent to which ecopoetics is already queer5 but also continue to queer what such a statement itself might mean. In what follows, then, I analyze queer ecological modes of contact that function as embodied poetics; ultimately, I suggest that insofar as Wordsworth’s, Delany’s, and Varda’s texts attend to the intersection of formal experiment and somatic practice, model a risky, spontaneous, provisional poesis (of both the body and the artwork), de-routinize environmental temporality, and exhibit a playfulness that is not incommensurate with care, they transpose ecopoetic concerns into a new ethical key. In my reading, the fact that these writers do not understand their own practices to be ecopoetic rhymes with—rather than threatens—the conceptual claims of this essay. These accidental ecopoets, writing in a way that skirts the edges of intentionality, courting (and evoking) surprise, model an ecopoetics of contact that does not seek to delimit (or fully predict) the terms of its touch in advance.6 In what follows, I aim to make my own reading—my own textual gleaning—similarly intransitive, and understand my episodic analyses as suggestive rather than exhaustive. In keeping with the dilated, objectless movement of the verbs that I engage, my critical practice seeks less to reify the claims of any one of these texts than to open ecopoetics to new lines of inquiry, and, in the process, suggests new understandings of what happens when the “queer” and the “ecopoetic” themselves begin to touch.7 Touching At the end of Wordsworth’s “Nutting,” a poem whose environmentality has been discussed far more often than has its queerness,8 the speaker recounts the “sense of pain” that he experienced after despoiling a hidden bower before shifting registers into a timeless, indeterminate command: Then up I rose, And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash And merciless ravage; and the shady nook Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower, Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up Their quiet being: and, unless I now Confound my present feelings with the past, Even then, when from the bower I turned away, Exulting, rich beyond the wealth of kings, I felt a sense of pain when I beheld The silent trees and the intruding sky. — Then, dearest Maiden, move along these shades In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand Touch,—for there is a Spirit in the woods. (ll.41–54) Many readers seek a proto-environmentalist ethic in these final three lines,9 finding in the speaker’s seeming regret a Romantic anticipation of that contemporary rhetoric imploring us to “leave no trace”; however, the “gentleness” and “gentle” at the end of the poem do not command restraint, but describe and condition action: “with gentle hand / Touch, —” the speaker instructs. Touch. But what? The dearest Maiden’s is a touch without an object, an act of reaching out and seeking, fingers extended, arm prone. Whereas the acts of violence in the bower are transitive—the speaker “dragged to earth both branch and bough,” “the hazels, and the green and mossy bower, / Deformed and sullied,” in turn “patiently gave up / Their quiet being”—the seemingly ameliorative commands that follow are not: “move along these shades / In gentleness of heart”; “with gentle hand / Touch, —.” And so we’re left to wonder about that mysteriously intransitive command with which the poem concludes, and to ponder the protraction of a touch not concluded by an (identifiable) object. For some period of time, at least, Wordsworth’s maiden will simply touch with, touch along, touch toward—in other words, she will simply relate. Her “touch,” then, seems more akin to a contemplative verb like “look” than it does to a gesture concerned with telos or end; the indeterminate duration of the dash that follows it constitutes its persistence and its gentleness alike. Such a possibility—or, we might say, the grammatical and material impossibility of an intransitive touch—offers both an initial response to the queer ecocritical impasse and a figuration of an ecopoetics in which contact is not sought (or resisted) as an object, but inhabited as a mode. For if the command itself can ameliorate the violence of the preceding lines, such recourse seems to emerge precisely through trusting touch while rethinking its parameters. If we are to attend to the problems we have caused by intervening in the natural order, the poem suggests, the solution is neither to retreat nor to attempt to erase our presence, but to engage within an intransitive register, to focus on forms of extension and participation and persistence that are not object-centered and that thus emphasize the very gesture of relation itself. By dilating contact, Wordsworth forces us to consider what touch is without the something that it touches, what happens when the verb loses the transitivity that we understand as lying at its very core. Such reimagining can in turn help us to find an alternative to the push and pull of pleasure and restraint with which Sandilands and Ross engage. Indeed, while the speaker’s description of his initial state of mind within the bower is the feeling of being “with wise restraint/Voluptuous, fearless of a rival …,” (21–22)—a formulation whose enjambment suggests a productive tension between the act of restraint and the condition of voluptuousness, we might understand the wise maiden’s act at the poem’s end as inscribing a kind of “wise restraint voluptuous,” and read the line break’s indeterminate suture as one site of the poem’s ethical intervention. This new “wise restraint voluptuous” (particularly if we take restraint here not as a figure for inaction but instead as a term for a reaching that never reaches its object10) exemplifies the radical potential of this mode of relation, in which distance and intimacy constitute, rather than in any way threaten, one another. For rather than oscillating between desiring and abstaining, as do the competing rhetorics cited above, Wordsworth’s poem proposes a restraint not incompatible with voluptuousness, or a voluptuousness not incompatible with restraint. In keeping with such a possibility, I want to suggest that we turn our attention to a set of texts that teach us how forms of embodied pleasure and play can not only incorporate distance, sufficiency, and restraint, but in so doing also constitute an ethos of care disentangled from (any reification of) the objects thereof. Such modes of intransitive contact are not a way of disregarding or devaluing objects (including, certainly, the objects that metonymically come to stand in for “nature” and the “planet”); rather, they provide a way of considering the affective, epistemological, and environmental consequences of our habits of reaching and our ways of being in relation (to). Cruising This attention to relationality as such may lead us, however queerly, from Wordsworth’s speaker, that “Figure quaint / Tricked out in proud disguise of cast-off weeds,” to unexpected inheritors of his “sallying forth”: the figures who populate Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany’s account of cruising subculture and theorization of its ambient effect on urban life. While cruising—a practice often presumed to tend toward consummation11—may seem to have little in common with Wordsworth’s intransitive reach (or his “dearest Maiden”), both Delany’s book and other theorizations of cruising in fact emphasize (in Leo Bersani’s words) the “abstraction of the relational from concrete relations” that the practice entails. In his essay “Sociability and Cruising,” Bersani attends to “a pure relationality,” a mode of sociability propelled not by interests or ends but instead by what Georg Simmel deems “a feeling for the worth of association as such” (45). This abstracted sociability, shared by beings who have cultivated their own anonymity and lessness, is, in Bersani’s account, accompanied by “an intransitive pleasure”—one which, because of “the restriction of the personal,” “does not serve an interest, satisfy a passion, or fulfill a desire” but instead yields “the pleasure of the associative process itself” (48, 46). Such ideals are embodied in TSRTSB, a text which, by demonstrating how cruising both generates and illumines the ecological lineaments of urban livability, reconceptualizes its central practice, attending more often to the dilated temporality, constitutive accidents, and collateral benefits of cruising than to the pleasurable ends with which we so often associate it. In so doing, it also urges us to rethink the collective affects that suffuse cruising’s social ecology and to adopt a new posture in the face of risk—both the risk of communicative disease that led to the sanitizing of Times Square in the wake of HIV / AIDS and (implicitly) the risks of toxic exposure that sometimes lead environmentalists to advocate a similarly prophylactic stewardship.12 The first section of the book focuses on scenes of cruising, with such episodes functioning not merely as self-contained narratives but also as the ground for its second essay’s theorization of urban contact more generally. For in Delany’s account, the free expression of embodied desire foundational to cruising culture is necessary but not sufficient for the development of a truly democratic urban metropolis, which is predicated on forms of spontaneous interclass contact broadly speaking: It is not too much to say, then, that contact—interclass contact—is the lymphatic system of a democratic metropolis, whether it comes with the web of gay sexual services…or in any number of other forms (standing in line at a movie, waiting for the grocery store to open, sitting at a bar, waiting in line at the counter of the grocery store or the welfare office…coming down to sit on the stoop on a warm day, perhaps to wait for the mail—or cruising for sex), while in general they tend to involve some form of “loitering” (or, at least lingering), are unspecifiable in any systematic way. (Their asystematicity is part of their nature.) (198–99, emphasis added) Beyond the fact that all of the actions here are banal, daily, and casual, the verbs themselves are exclusively intransitive; rather than tending directly toward an object that exerts a kind of magnetic pull, they are open-ended, wandering, and persisting indefinitely. The resulting grammar (on the page and of somatic experience) is distinctly non-telic, both insofar as the culmination of these concatenated phrases is simply an acknowledgment of their collective nonspecificity, and insofar as the protraction endemic to their present progressive verbs precludes any sense of immediate utility or identifiable end. It is this capacity for—and predication on—forms of dilation and delay, precisely the way in which “contact” can be understood not as the vector-like relationship between subject and object but rather as the medial dimension in which such relation becomes possible—that makes it, for Delany, such a powerful concept and embodied practice alike. Although part of Delany’s point is that contact can be neither systematized nor wholly planned, it is worth acknowledging a set of principles common to all of the episodes that he describes: contact transpires in scenes of suspension that burgeon within—and transfigure the temporality of—more instrumental practices, including those central to capitalist productivity; contact is unpredictable, typically emerging unbidden, its consequences roaming widely in both time and space; contact itself is fleeting and transient, but its impact—on both those who experience it and, more importantly, the broader social ecology in which it transpires—can be long-lasting and profound. Indeed, it is precisely via their aleatory nature that the encounters foundational to cruising and contact come to bear their significance. For such sociability, in Bersani’s words, offers “a pure relationality which, beyond or before the satisfaction of particular needs or interests, may be at once the ground, the motive and the goal of all relations” (46). Cruising, likewise, yields a model “in which a deliberate avoidance of [stable, permanent] relationships might be crucial in initiating, or at least clearing the ground for, a new relationality” (59). Whereas the destructive contact between the speaker and the grove in “Nutting” exemplifies why environmentalism tends to reify commitment and permanence, TSRTSB demonstrates how transient forms of engagement can themselves be a path to social and environmental well-being, precisely by providing the “ground” for—and expanding the possibilities of—relation as such. Indeed, we might observe that, in both Bersani’s theorization and Delany’s explication, the gestures that contact comprises are important less as discrete actions than as the (pre)condition for sociability, democracy, and urban livability. Interestingly, in Delany’s account, we come to sense the lingering repercussions of contact through a kind of ambient affect—and likely not the one that we expect to encounter. For more pervasive than pleasure in Delany’s account is pleasantness, an affective or tonal phenomenon that spreads throughout the streets of Manhattan—and the pages of the book—in the wake of spontaneous contact. Perhaps the most memorable episode of pleasantness is the lengthy passage in which Delany describes strangers coming together in the street to gaze at the passing comet Hale–Bopp; as he reflects on the scene’s aftermath, Delany writes, “I have seen none of the people involved … again…. [The encounters’] only fallout is that they were pleasant—and that pleasantness hangs in the street under the trees and by the brownstone stoops near which they occurred, months after Hale–Bopp has ellipsed the sun and soared again into solar night” (183, emphasis added). And pleasantness, it turns out, also lingers atmospherically in the wake of the text’s scenes of cruising and contact more generally. Indeed, the word is foundational to Delany’s argument in the second half of the book, which theorizes the benefits of the kind of sociability that the moviehouse culture both embodies and facilitates: The primary thesis underlying my several arguments here is that, given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will. (111) In keeping with his investment in social webs and lymphatic systems, in the relationship between sex and stoop and store, between erotic and ecological life, “pleasant” is his word not only for the dispersed feeling after Hale–Bopp or for the experience of supermarket contact but also for several of his sexual encounters in and around Times Square. Throughout the book, his use of the word has the feel of something both systematic and spontaneous, something that—perhaps familiarly enough to any writer—straddles the line between accident and intent. He uses it so often—and in so many different contexts—that it comes to traverse the pages of the book as luminously as it does the social fabric of the city, transforming the pages of TSRTSB into a textual ecology redolent with pleasantness. Eventually, Delany comments on the semi-intentionality of his rhetorical experiment: “Nevertheless, the results of networking have regularly smoothed, stabilized, and supported my career and made it more pleasant (there is that term again) than it would have been without it” (138). After this acknowledgment, “pleasant” appears even more frequently, often multiple times within a single paragraph, gaining a rhetorical and conceptual density whose impact extends beyond any one appearance of it. In the same way that the feeling of pleasantness in the Hale-Bopp scene (and its aftermath) does not attach to a single being or encounter but rather suffuses the space, the adjective pleasant momentarily alights upon a given noun only to free itself to roam again. (Perhaps “pleasantness,” as Delany uses it, is thus a synonym for the “intransitive pleasure” upon which Bersani’s analysis relies—that is, an affect resulting when pleasure detaches from specific incidents and ends.13) Ultimately, then, the term’s emergence, movement, and persistence within the manuscript becomes synecdoche for much of Delany’s argument: how seemingly disparate practices or encounters can, unbidden, become a way of life and the precondition for community; how ethics can be predicated on accident; how individual and collective feelings can disperse throughout a world or a text. It is here that formal experiment comes to meet ethical claim, or—to cite Laura Elrick—“protean poetics intersect with experiments in and on social space” (197). For ambient pleasantness is likely not the paradigm that we expect to find woven through TSRTSB—not only because of the text’s more memorable emphasis on pleasure but also, and more importantly, because of the sociohistorical context in which Delany writes. Writing about an era of HIV, with its forms of epidemiological and emotional harm, from the vantage point of a homogenized American culture in which (his) Times Square, too, has been lost, Delany’s emphasis on pleasant surprise is intertwined with an attention to exposure, damage, and risk. Such a confluence may serve to reposition ecological discourse in a less paranoid relationship to risk, for (as queer theory teaches us) when we relinquish a certain insistence upon management and control, we acknowledge our exposure not only to danger and harm but also to hope, possibility, and affinity. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick insists in her theorization of reparative reading: [T]o read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious, paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new; to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise. Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. (146) Indeed, one striking element of TSRTSB is how capaciously generous it is, how moving, how tender, how full of faith in people and communities and fleeting contact. Delany’s is not a world without harm, certainly; TSRTSB is, at its core, an elegy for a community ravaged by the sanitizing effects of capitalism, depleted not only by the epidemiological consequences of AIDS but also by mainstream America’s fear of contact in the face of the disease’s epidemic contours. But—in keeping with the proximity that Sedgwick notes between reparative reading and the depressive position14—affirmative (and affirming) paradigms are built in the wake of harm. It is because there can be—and often are—terrible surprises that there can also be good ones; it is because we are exposed to the forms of loss that often seem to constitute not only the queer community but also the experience of environmental investment that we can also feel the way in which familiarity and fondness and improvement slowly burgeon. I do not mean to suggest simply that we dwell in a world where surprises—or luck, or health—can be either good or bad. Such a claim would not only be banal, but would also understate the radical implications of Delany’s text. For in responding to a moment in American culture when contact, particularly of the sexual variety, was pathologized, when the homogenization of Times Square was predicated on the imperative to sanitize public space in the wake of HIV, when a gay writer like Gabriel Rotello advocated abstinence in the name of a healthy “sexual ecology,”15 a reader might expect that Delany would simply invert the terms of such critique, and emphasize the ways in which contact itself can be beneficial. However, if TSRTSB teaches us anything, it may be that contact itself is neither good nor bad, neither healthy nor pathological; for Delany, contact is an ethos regardless of its outcome. What his book insists, we might say, is not that contact is good (although sometimes its consequences are) but rather that contact is; his account urges us to acknowledge the ways in which contact shapes the dimensions of our everyday life even (or especially) when it does not resolve itself into a legible end.16 In both queer and ecological contexts, we have become so accustomed to articulating the (often detrimental) outcome of contact—the epidemic disease ravaging a population of gay men, the songbird population falling victim to the effects of DDT—that we rarely attend to contact itself as an ongoing mode.17 Whereas those behind the “improvement” of Times Square argue that we must limit contact so as to limit harm, Delany refuses to collapse the former into the latter, insisting instead that contact is a kind of ecological web, and that contact is inherently promiscuous. If the verbs through and in which contact is felt—loitering and lingering and waiting and sitting—are intransitive, then, counterintuitively, so may be contact itself. No longer reducible to the touching of two objects (or of a subject and an object), the contact foundational to Delany’s own sexual ecology, it turns out, is less an act than a mode of occurrence, less a pathological condition than a condition of possibility. Gleaning Such a reading might lead us, finally, to a text whose contours are more familiarly environmental, but which is similarly saturated with forms of fleeting touch: Varda’s film The Gleaners and I, which casts gleaning as both a response to transience and a means of cruising the material world. If cruising, in Bersani’s analysis, constitutes “sexual sociability” (57), then we might say that gleaning, under Varda’s wandering (and wondering) eye, constitutes its environmental counterpart.18 Importantly, gleaning is not only Varda’s topic but also her filmic technique; rather than memorializing the figures that her camera provisionally captures, her cinematography privileges relinquishment over retention, rhythm over reification, and chance over premeditation, ultimately using playfulness as a mode of social critique. Her account and performance of gleaning, which suspend an emphasis on the objects (or images) gleaned in favor of the rhythmic relations that they inaugurate, encourage us to exchange our transitive practices of stewardship for the intransitive verbs and paratactic habits of association that the film subtly emphasizes. Ultimately, I will suggest, the film constitutes an ecopoetic argument for how environmental contact can itself become an unexpected form of love. Gleaners is composed of episodic portraits of French gleaners and pickers and gatherers and scavengers whose practice takes place at edges of various sorts: the edge between harvest and clearing, between ripeness and rot, between legality and transgression, between utility and play, between the logic of private property and the logic of the commons. Meandering from urban sites to rural locales and back again, the film unfolds associatively, foregoing main characters and narrative arcs in favor of a structure that provocatively juxtaposes and subtly rhymes its fleeting scenes. Near the midpoint of the film, Varda finds herself the passenger in a car, speeding down a highway past trucks transporting goods to Burgundy. Reaching her wrinkled hand in front of her camera lens, she begins a kind of rhythmic dance with the passing vehicles, “grabbing” each one as it passes before her gaze, truck temporarily contained within and then eclipsed by hand. “I’d like to capture them,” Varda says. “To retain things as they pass?” she immediately asks—to which she responds, “No, just to play.” The image of the hand clasping at the air—a gesture of futility that is also a gesture of success (thereby entangling these two terms), and as concrete an image of Wordsworth’s impossible verb as I have encountered19—serves as a figure for Varda’s project more generally. Although our customary sense of gleaning links it concretely and immediately to things, Varda’s film presents gleaning as an ethical posture that can persist separately from (and extend well beyond) the particular objects it encounters. For not only does Varda insistently attend to—and herself embody—the shape of the body reaching to pluck or stooping to gather, but she also casts gleaning as a rhythm that propels the momentum of both her film and the lives it depicts. For Bersani, the pure relationality of sociability often takes the form of “a certain kind of rhythmical play”; as he reflects: “Without content, sociability nonetheless imitates the rhythms of ‘real life.’ In conversation, for example, it is the movement of arguments rather than their substance that excites us—such as [in Simmel’s words] ‘binding and loosening, conquering and being vanquished, giving and taking.’ …[T]he fundamental rhythm of sociability is ‘association and separation’” (47)—or, to describe the movement of Varda’s hand time and again in the film, grasping and letting go. Even beyond its frequent gestures of sifting and sorting and scavenging, and even beyond its portraits of transient communities that come together only to come apart, Varda’s film is populated by forms of rhythmical play. Under the gaze of her camera, pruning shears can be a percussive instrument and, later, can “danc[e].” A neglected lens cap, swinging like a pendulum, becomes an impromptu dancer accidentally captured by an unknowing eye. The translucent face of an inoperative clock becomes a window behind which a human face can rhythmically move. Throughout the film, objects and tools appear largely in order to be wielded in non-instrumental ways. Things that have had a purpose are repurposed. And, more often than not, things are permitted to be useless, suspended in the realm of rhythm or possibility or play. Indeed, although one ethical vector of the film is its fervent critique of waste, another is its insistence that we redefine that term. For much of what the film celebrates is precisely what our culture deems wasteful—accidents that apparently lead nowhere, hands that clutch without (re)productive end, bodies standing where they do not belong, people who do things “just to play.” By making the film a buoyant celebration of such figures, Gleaners demonstrates the forms of pleasurable affective excess—of “pure delight”20—that can inhere amid practices of environmental sufficiency and social responsibility. Furthermore, just as sufficiency is hardly incommensurate with pleasure in Varda’s cosmos, so too does critique comingle with play; from scenes depicting robed magistrates in cabbage fields, which comically indicate the extent to which the law—not the gleaners whom it too often fails to protect—may be the one acting with impropriety, to the frequency with which gleaners subvert existing power structures by repurposing documents invested in maintaining forms of social order (tide tables, waste collection schedules, etc.), Gleaners indicts Western culture’s routinized habits of excess via an ethos of improvisation, tinkering, and play. Interestingly, one of the entities with which Varda both tinkers and plays is the queer grammaticality of gleaning itself. For not only is “to glean” (glaner) a verb that can be either transitive or intransitive, but in Varda’s account, there is also a ceaseless, steady motion between the subjects and the objects thereof; she continuously traces the alchemy through which the gleaner often becomes the gleaned. Just as, in the film’s penultimate scene, a man gleaning vegetables in the gutters of the Parisian market by day becomes by night a volunteer literacy teacher in the shelter where he lives, his knowledge gleaned by the students in his class, so too do hands—those metonymic subjects gathering—become in turn the fruits of the film’s own practice of gleaning. For hands, which themselves index both contact and transience, are the film’s most consistently recurring image: they appear not only as the hands of the gleaners pictured in virtually every scene, but also as the uncanny gloves propped up to dry by men cleaning oysters, retaining the shape of hands even while empty, and as Varda’s still more uncanny hands, whose texture up close makes her feel “as if [she is] an animal … [she doesn’t] know” and which (in her own words) constitute her “project: to film with one hand my other hand.” Varda’s favorite found object, a clock without hands, suggests the film’s intertwined interest in rhythms other than institutionalized time and concern with what happens when one’s (life)time encounters its own transience. And, of course, Varda’s choice of medium makes hands palpable not just in the film’s content but also in its form; many of her scenes are shot with a small digital camcorder, a technology that during the film’s composition was still in its infancy, held by hands whose age we can feel in the resulting images’ slight wobble. This wobble, importantly, serves as a reminder of transience within a recording technology nominally predicated on preservation. And, indeed, the film consistently attunes us to transience: to shifting populations in a suburban shelter, to the potatoes and grapes left to rot rather than offered to those in need, to one’s own hand becoming an indecipherable landscape amid the process of aging, to the thinning hair and wrinkled skin reminding Varda that “the end is near,” to figures who feature movingly in one of the film’s episodes, never to appear again. In the face of impermanence, Varda importantly does not resort to gestures of either conservation or memorialization. For to glean is not to preserve.21 To glean is not to retain—at least not in a way that maintains the objects’ utility or purpose or initial function. To glean, despite the forms of belatedness and aftermath upon which it is predicated, and despite the way in which it has declined in an era of mechanized harvesting, is not to elegize. This might return us to a point made in passing above: that environmentalist practice often understands its ethical imperatives to take the form of transitive verbs: to manage, to conserve, to save. In other words, when mainstream environmentalism does permit us to embrace contact, it often does so in order to encourage a kind of salutary (and premeditated) grasping22: to encourage us to “retain things as [or, ideally, before] they pass,” to save the planet (or its endangered species), to preserve dwindling resources. However, Varda’s film—precisely in how it distinguishes gleaning from hoarding, precisely in how it foregrounds the perishable and attends to entities past their prime, precisely insofar as it limns a practice of relinquishment that is not the same as indifference or nihilism—helps us to see how we might develop a mode of stewardship versed in intransitive verbs: to persist, to remain, to endure; to fade, to rot, to decay; to wander, to wonder, to play; to burgeon, to recede, to flourish; to care. Perhaps it is also fair to say that the film ultimately encourages us to develop a social ethic and a mode of environmental stewardship predicated on something as deceptively simple as love—or, rather, on “Love —,” promiscuously, intransitively speaking. For if one way to respond to transience is with a willingness not to clutch too tight, then Varda suggests that we extend such logic into our relationship with ourselves.23 She models such a posture not only in her engagement with her aging body, but also in her attention to figures whose practices fail to resolve into stable, singular identities. Just as the gleaners featured move promiscuously from object to object, so too do they shift from posture to posture, role to role. Jean Laplanche, that psychoanalytic theorist whose work is important to Bersani’s account of cruising, is here winemaker and theorist and psychotherapist. Herve, a maker of found art and adopter of chronological pseudonyms, is a painter and a retriever. The man in the shelter is a gleaner and a teacher and a biologist and a newspaper seller. Bodan Litnanski, who makes totem towers from metal scraps, describes himself as a brickmason and is described by his wife as an “amateur.” And virtually everyone in the film is characterized as a lover. At first, the film’s consistent attention to quirky love stories seems a potentially distracting side note to its more sustained attention to gleaning as an ethical posture. However, we soon realize that love is as consistent a through line as are the roads that stitch together the regions to which Varda and her camera travel. For the film is suffused by images of love, from the heart-shaped potatoes, gleaned by Varda’s wrinkled hand near the beginning of the film, pictured in (and as) a kind of beautiful rot near the film’s end, to the forms of community that burgeon among the urban gleaners who care for each other with scavenged food and salvaged appliances and a renewable capacity for care. (Says the sometimes-homeless urban gleaner Salomon of his neighbor Mr. Charlie, “he’s a friend. More than a friend, a protector, a godfather; he’s everything to me.”) And, indeed, the paratactic roles of the characters make them lovers in a different sense. For one thing that the film’s motley crew has in common is that they are all amateurs, their lives propelling them rhythmically from interest to interest, from passion to passion, from love to varied love. Coda: Loving Perhaps what these ecopoetic texts’ queer reconceptualization of contact ultimately encourages us to do, then, is to love the planet—but to do so in a way that queers and defamiliarizes that most familiar phrase. For we find ourselves invited to practice this love neither in the chaste way suggested by the ascetic practices so often attached to environmental stewardship (that embrace of “wise restraint”24) nor in the hedonistic manner advocated by the advocates of ecosexuality (that uncritical investment in the “voluptuous”). Rather, Wordsworth and Delany and Varda (themselves no less motley a crew than Varda’s gleaners, but also, like those gleaners, resonant with one another in a surprisingly sustained way) remind us that we might love as amateurs love, in a way whose practice is promiscuous, in a way that does not know in advance what it seeks to find, in a way that inhabits the indefinite protraction of the dash, in a way that rhythmically wanders the urban street, the rural field, and spaces in between. In so doing, they suggest not only that “to touch,” “to cruise,” and “to glean” may be homologous to one another, but also—more profoundly—that they may collectively perform an intransitive queering (or may all be synonyms for a queerly intransitive form) of the verb “to love.”25 Footnotes 1 Such a critique also can be leveled at Stephens and Sprinkle, who do in fact embody and perform an environmentalism predicated on “just saying yes.” 2 The intransitive tendings that I trace resonate with existing ecopoetic inquiries; see, for instance, Gillian Osborne’s account of Tyrone Williams’s presentation at the Berkeley Ecopoetics conference, which—in Osborne’s words—“seemed interested in expanding the telic motions of desire toward something whose purpose isn’t necessarily satisfaction,” or Brian Teare’s query, posed in his interview with Angela Hume: “[I] wonder what epistemologies and narrative consequences we’re not exploring because we’re too wedded to whatever objects we rightly or wrongly think we’ve lost.” 3 I mean my use of “posture” to suggest the possibility of adopting a non-identitarian relationship to the world. Inspired by queer theory’s resistance to stable identity categories (both on their own terms and as the basis for political activism), “posture” is meant to evoke a kind of affirmative unsettledness—an openness to the forms of provisionality, play, and surprise that I discuss throughout the essay. 4 If the three texts in my archive are not typically read as “ecopoetic,” then it’s also true that they are not typically considered both queer and environmental. “Nutting” and Gleaners already belong to the environmental literature canon, and my analysis traces their extant queerness; conversely, TSRTSB is distinctly queer, and my analysis brings to light its ecological dimensions. 5 As Hume has suggested, queer ecopoetics may in fact be a tautological descriptor (“Queering Ecopoetics”), and I am inclined to agree. In the context of the present argument, I would defend such a claim by emphasizing the extent to which ecopoetics already invests itself in the “irreducibility of the body” (Skinner cited by Corey), attempts an “impure poetics” (Skinner 7), practices forms of spontaneity, play, and other deroutinized temporalities (Hume, “Interview,” 753) situates itself at boundaries which it seeks to blur or cross, and “operates in an oppositional mode” (Magi 238). 6 My engagement with works not typically understood as belonging to the ecopoetic canon takes seriously the extent to which ecopoetics “explores the difficulties and opportunities at the boundary,” “function[s] as an edge,” “cut[s] across divisions” (Skinner), and “shuttl[es] across boundaries” (Hillman). More specifically, insofar as ecopoetics “oppos[es] a tradition in literature that rewards self-containment” (Magi 244) and thus may resist attempts to taxonomize (or “genrify”) it (Ttoouli), I venture to treat “ecopoetic” less as a label applicable to the entirety of a text than (a) as a set of ethical and formal possibilities that spring up, unexpectedly and unbidden, in a variety of queerly ecological texts and (b) as a readerly posture (or practice) that can help us make sense—and trace the repercussions—of such appearances. If, as Evelyn Reilly has suggested, “ecopoetics is a way of thinking that can run through many different kinds of poetry” (Hume, “Interview,” 755), I here extend her logic slightly to suggest that ecopoetics as a way of thinking may run through many different genres. In other words, part of how I seek to queer an already queer field is by limning the contours of an ecopoetics practiced in a somewhat new terrain: in pages of nonfiction prose, in an experimental French documentary film, in the irreducibly embodied—and fundamentally transient—practices of cruising and gleaning, in the urban setting of Times Square, in the context of HIV/AIDS and viral exposure, and, finally, in the lines of Wordsworth, the kind of nature poet often named in ecopoetic critiques of Romantic (and Enlightenment) subjectivity. 7 Relatedly, if queer theoretical practice has by definition operated in an oppositional, anti-normative, disruptive mode, it is worth wondering what it would mean to practice an intransitive queering. 8 For one important queer reading of the poem, see Griffiths. 9 See, for instance, Buell (7–8), and Kroeber (65–66). 10 Although such a formulation risks sounding chaste or even puritanical, I mean it to indicate a mode of touch that neither definitively claims nor anticipatorily defines its object, and hence stays open to the possibilities (and the various tonalities) of reaching as such. The following sections of the essay will trace Delany’s and Varda’s material instantiations of a similar grammar. 11 See Blackie and Dean. 12 For a queer ecocritical reading of the way in which gay public sex historically has been deemed “harmful to healthy environments” (150), see Gosine. 13 Likewise, “pleasantness,” the noun, which appears increasingly frequently as the text unfurls, may be understood as “pleasant,” the adjective, detached from concrete referent and moving atmospherically. It’s worth observing, too, that in the analogous affective and somatic registers of the book, pleasantness is to pleasure as contact is to cruising. Indeed, Delany defines “the pleasant” as “pleasure in its most generalized form” (121). For a more sustained account of the Hale–Bopp scene’s relation to queer ecological politics, see Ensor. 14 See Sedgwick (128). 15 I refer here to the argument of Rotello’s 1997 book Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men. 16 Such logic is also clear if we take seriously the terms of Delany’s own metaphors, which nod to the specter of HIV/AIDS. For by analogizing contact to the lymphatic system, he insists that contact is not the pathogen (nor itself automatically the antidote) but rather the responsive ground or body where health (or illness) roosts. 17 Heeding an approach like Delany’s could help environmental stewardship adopt a less paranoid posture toward contact in at least two ways: first, by separating the ready conflation of touch with harm (as felt in the imperative to “leave no trace”) and, second, by encouraging environmentalists to attend as much to the medial or systemic dimensions of relation as to the objects thereof. 18 Indeed, the gleaners’ accounts of their practices often resemble descriptions of cruising. For instance, Herve tells Varda that “the encounter happens on the street. The object beckons me…” and—in language that echoes Bersani’s claims about the identitarian lessness involved in cruising—claims that by surrounding himself with objects, he is “moving toward lessness—as much lessness as possible.” 19 Gleaning itself is also one possible synonym for Wordsworth’s titular practice. 20 Varda applies this description repeatedly to beings and scenes that she encounters. 21 This is certainly not to deny the fact that gleaned entities (both material and abstract) can themselves be preserved, but rather to foreground the extent to which Varda’s model of gleaning is predicated, both ethically and formally, on reckoning with transience. 22 This language of “grasping” is also often central to claims that we must know the environment in order to value it. See, for instance, the introduction to The Ecopoetry Anthology, which insists that “[w]hat we as humans disregard, what we fail to know and grasp, is easy to destroy …’” (xxvii). And yet Varda’s film, like the other texts in this study, suggests that there is a way to care without grasping—in all the variously normative senses of that term. 23 We might read such an approach as Bersani’s lessness in another register. 24 Here, I refer both to the injunctions to forms of abstinent restraint present in such slogans as “leave no trace,” referenced above, and to the resolutely chaste affection implied in the predicating of environmental care on the image or figure of “Mother Earth.” 25 In so claiming, I certainly do not mean to neutralize the queerness and anti-normativity of cruising. However, part of what interests me about Delany’s text is how he traces the way in which the casual encounters upon which cruising and contact are predicated—encounters which he explicitly says are “not love relationships” (56)—ultimately suffuse the city with a kind of impersonal love. Indeed, a book that disavows the primacy of (monogamous) love is often understood to be a love letter to (a particular era in) New York. (See the reviews included in the book’s front matter for examples of such readings.) Works Cited Bersani Leo. “Cruising and Sociability.” Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays. U of Chicago P , 2010 . Blackie Michael. “Cruising.” Reader’s Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies , Ed. Murphy Timothy F. . Routledge , 2000 . Buell Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination . Belknap Press , 1995 . Corey Joshua. “Notes from the 2013 Berkeley Ecopoetics Conference.” The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. 13 March 2013 . Dean Tim. Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking . U of Chicago P , 2009 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Delany Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue . New York UP , 1999 . Elrick Laura. “Poetry, Ecology, and the Production of Lived Space.”) ((Eco(lang)(uage (Reader)): the Eco Language Reader , Ed. Iijima Brenda . Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs and Nightboat Books , 2010 . Ensor Sarah. “Queer Fallout: Samuel R. Delany and the Ecology of Cruising.” Environmental Humanities 9 , no. 1 ( 2017 ): 149 – 66 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Fisher-Wirth Ann , Street Laura-Gray , eds. The Ecopoetry Anthology . Trinity UP , 2013 . Gaard Greta. “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism.” Hypatia 12 , no. 1 ( 1997 ): 114 – 37 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS The Gleaners and I. Directed by Agnès Varda, Zeitgeist Films, 2000 . Gosine Andil. “Non-white Reproduction and Same-Sex Eroticism: Queer Acts Against Nature.” Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire , Ed. Mortimer-Sandilands Catriona , Erickson Bruce . Indiana UP , 2010 . Griffiths Timothy M. “‘O’er Pathless Rocks’: Wordsworth, Landscape Aesthetics, and Queer Ecology.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 22 , no. 2 ( 2015 ): 284 – 302 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Hume Angela. “Imagining Ecopoetics: An Interview with Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Evelyn Reilly, and Jonathan Skinner.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19 , no. 4 ( 2012 ): 751 – 66 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Hume Angela. . “Queering Ecopoetics: Nonnormativity, (anti)futurity, Precarity.” jacket 2. 2 April 2013 . Hume Angela , Teare Brian . “Angela Hume and Brian Teare.” The Conversant , March 2014 . Kroeber Karl. Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind . Columbia UP , 1994 . Magi Jill. “Ecopoetics and the Adversarial Consciousness: Challenges to Nature Writing, Environmentalism, and Notions of Individual Agency.”) ((Eco(lang)(uage (Reader)): The Eco Language Reader , Ed. Iijima Brenda . Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs and Nightboat Books , 2010 . Osborne Gillian. “Love, Love, My Season.” jacket 2. 25 April 2013 . Ross Andrew. The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society . Verso , 1994 . Rotello Gabriel. Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men . Dutton , 1997 . Sandilands Catriona. “Sex at the Limits.” Discourse of the Environment , Ed. Darier Èric . Blackwell , 1999 . Sedgwick Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You.” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity . Duke UP , 2003 . Skinner Jonathan. “Editor’s Statement.” Ecopoetics 1 , no. 1 ( 2001 ): 5 – 8 . Stephens Elizabeth , Sprinkle Annie . “Ecosex Manifesto.” SexEcology: Where Theory Meets Practice Meets Activism. http://sexecology.org/research-writing/ecosex-manifesto/. Ttoouli George. “George Ttoouli Says, ‘Because? No.’ (Or, Why Ecopoetics?).” Gists & Piths: Thoughts of Sorts , 20 June 2016 . Wordsworth William. “Nutting.” William Wordsworth: The Major Works . Ed. Gill Stephen . Oxford UP , 2000 . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment Oxford University Press

The Ecopoetics of Contact: Touching, Cruising, Gleaning

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Association for the Study of Literature and Environment
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© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com
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Abstract

In their “Ecosex Manifesto,” first published in 2011, queer performance artists Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle lay bare their eroticized habits of environmental care: “[Ecosexuals] make love with the earth… .We shamelessly hug trees, massage the earth with our feet, and talk erotically to plants… .” Such an approach, which counters mainstream environmentalism’s ascetic imperatives by advocating unbounded pleasure, playfully indexes one of the foundational impasses inhibiting the development of a queer ecocriticism: the conflicting status of embodied desire—and thus of touch—in its two constitutive fields. In her 1997 essay “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism,” ecofeminist scholar Greta Gaard analyzed a pervasive “erotophobia” in Western Culture that other critics have identified in environmental discourse more specifically (139). As cultural critic Andrew Ross pithily suggests, “Unlike other new social movements, ecology is commonly perceived as the one that says no, the antipleasure voice that says you’re never gonna get it, so get used to going without” (268). Clearly, a significant part of the environmentalist ethos is to make do with less: to reduce our consumption, to limit our desires, to forego what we so deeply want. In keeping with familiar imperatives like “leave no trace,” the practice of stewardship is often understood to be predicated on forms of restraint and inaction, leaving little room for either desire or pleasure—except, of course, to the extent that both are denied. The emphasis on self-deprivation ingrained within environmentalism conflicts—potentially violently—with the discourses of queer theory, which are foundationally concerned with desires and their free expression. I am far from the first to respond to this tension between the fields; Ross insists that “[p]eople respond better to a call for social fulfillment than to a summons of physical deprivation, and that is why any social movement that uses self-denial as a vehicle for inducing change is as pathetic as one that uses apocalyptic threats or appeals to Mother Nature’s vengeance” (268), a sentiment with which I mostly agree, even if I would not go so far as to call such impulses “pathetic.” But when he goes on to assert, speculatively, that we need a “world where individual gratification is intensified, and not determined, by concerns of common environmental well-being … where hedonism has replaced asceticism as the dominant mode of green conduct” (272–73), Ross does not make entirely clear what it would mean to practice a green hedonism. Likewise, when queer ecocritic Catriona Sandilands suggests that in order for “environmentalism … to go beyond ‘just saying no,’ … spaces for exploration must be allowed to flourish and proliferate” and, relatedly, that “[p]olymorphous sexualities and multiple natures are … at the heart of green resistances” (93), she does not clarify how these approaches would actually play out in practice. In other words, although we (like those who embrace ecosexuality) might like to imagine an environmentalism where we “just say yes,” neither Ross nor Sandilands gives us a model for making this approach an ethically viable reality. Such attempts to ameliorate the tension between queer theory and environmental thought, which provocatively equate embodied desire with environmental care, simply flip the switch from asceticism to pleasure. They therefore miss the opportunity to rethink the condition for both sensuality and restraint: the possibility of contact as such.1 This essay thus looks to an eclectic archive of ecopoetic texts—William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem “Nutting,” Samuel Delany’s 1999 nonfiction work Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, and Agnès Varda’s 2000 documentary film The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse)—in order to reconsider what contact itself entails. The unexpected echoes that reverberate across these works make legible a homology between three of contact’s verbal declensions—to touch, to cruise, and to glean—and, in the process, encourage us to exchange our familiarly dyadic, object-oriented model of contact (in which we either indulge desire or maturely heed restraint) for a more ambient and less directed mode. Within the contexts in which they appear, practices of touching, cruising, and gleaning—which we typically understand as necessarily tending toward or making contact with objects—become queerly intransitive, relinquishing their customary directedness in favor of a suspended, protracted, and often playful emphasis on relationality as such.2 By suspending direct consequence and immediate purposiveness and embracing a more promiscuous, less telic bodily grammar, these iterations of contact ultimately predicate environmental stewardship on a set of affects and temporalities not typically considered to be germane to it. In so doing, they also suggest new postures3 for us to adopt in the face of extant degradation, embodied risk, and the forms of transience that populate (or even constitute) our imperiled world. If all three of these works limn unexpected intersections between queerness and environmentality,4 they also help us rethink the animating concept of this special cluster. For the texts in my archive, whose conceptual power is located in their combination of somatic and formal experimentation, not only indicate the extent to which ecopoetics is already queer5 but also continue to queer what such a statement itself might mean. In what follows, then, I analyze queer ecological modes of contact that function as embodied poetics; ultimately, I suggest that insofar as Wordsworth’s, Delany’s, and Varda’s texts attend to the intersection of formal experiment and somatic practice, model a risky, spontaneous, provisional poesis (of both the body and the artwork), de-routinize environmental temporality, and exhibit a playfulness that is not incommensurate with care, they transpose ecopoetic concerns into a new ethical key. In my reading, the fact that these writers do not understand their own practices to be ecopoetic rhymes with—rather than threatens—the conceptual claims of this essay. These accidental ecopoets, writing in a way that skirts the edges of intentionality, courting (and evoking) surprise, model an ecopoetics of contact that does not seek to delimit (or fully predict) the terms of its touch in advance.6 In what follows, I aim to make my own reading—my own textual gleaning—similarly intransitive, and understand my episodic analyses as suggestive rather than exhaustive. In keeping with the dilated, objectless movement of the verbs that I engage, my critical practice seeks less to reify the claims of any one of these texts than to open ecopoetics to new lines of inquiry, and, in the process, suggests new understandings of what happens when the “queer” and the “ecopoetic” themselves begin to touch.7 Touching At the end of Wordsworth’s “Nutting,” a poem whose environmentality has been discussed far more often than has its queerness,8 the speaker recounts the “sense of pain” that he experienced after despoiling a hidden bower before shifting registers into a timeless, indeterminate command: Then up I rose, And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash And merciless ravage; and the shady nook Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower, Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up Their quiet being: and, unless I now Confound my present feelings with the past, Even then, when from the bower I turned away, Exulting, rich beyond the wealth of kings, I felt a sense of pain when I beheld The silent trees and the intruding sky. — Then, dearest Maiden, move along these shades In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand Touch,—for there is a Spirit in the woods. (ll.41–54) Many readers seek a proto-environmentalist ethic in these final three lines,9 finding in the speaker’s seeming regret a Romantic anticipation of that contemporary rhetoric imploring us to “leave no trace”; however, the “gentleness” and “gentle” at the end of the poem do not command restraint, but describe and condition action: “with gentle hand / Touch, —” the speaker instructs. Touch. But what? The dearest Maiden’s is a touch without an object, an act of reaching out and seeking, fingers extended, arm prone. Whereas the acts of violence in the bower are transitive—the speaker “dragged to earth both branch and bough,” “the hazels, and the green and mossy bower, / Deformed and sullied,” in turn “patiently gave up / Their quiet being”—the seemingly ameliorative commands that follow are not: “move along these shades / In gentleness of heart”; “with gentle hand / Touch, —.” And so we’re left to wonder about that mysteriously intransitive command with which the poem concludes, and to ponder the protraction of a touch not concluded by an (identifiable) object. For some period of time, at least, Wordsworth’s maiden will simply touch with, touch along, touch toward—in other words, she will simply relate. Her “touch,” then, seems more akin to a contemplative verb like “look” than it does to a gesture concerned with telos or end; the indeterminate duration of the dash that follows it constitutes its persistence and its gentleness alike. Such a possibility—or, we might say, the grammatical and material impossibility of an intransitive touch—offers both an initial response to the queer ecocritical impasse and a figuration of an ecopoetics in which contact is not sought (or resisted) as an object, but inhabited as a mode. For if the command itself can ameliorate the violence of the preceding lines, such recourse seems to emerge precisely through trusting touch while rethinking its parameters. If we are to attend to the problems we have caused by intervening in the natural order, the poem suggests, the solution is neither to retreat nor to attempt to erase our presence, but to engage within an intransitive register, to focus on forms of extension and participation and persistence that are not object-centered and that thus emphasize the very gesture of relation itself. By dilating contact, Wordsworth forces us to consider what touch is without the something that it touches, what happens when the verb loses the transitivity that we understand as lying at its very core. Such reimagining can in turn help us to find an alternative to the push and pull of pleasure and restraint with which Sandilands and Ross engage. Indeed, while the speaker’s description of his initial state of mind within the bower is the feeling of being “with wise restraint/Voluptuous, fearless of a rival …,” (21–22)—a formulation whose enjambment suggests a productive tension between the act of restraint and the condition of voluptuousness, we might understand the wise maiden’s act at the poem’s end as inscribing a kind of “wise restraint voluptuous,” and read the line break’s indeterminate suture as one site of the poem’s ethical intervention. This new “wise restraint voluptuous” (particularly if we take restraint here not as a figure for inaction but instead as a term for a reaching that never reaches its object10) exemplifies the radical potential of this mode of relation, in which distance and intimacy constitute, rather than in any way threaten, one another. For rather than oscillating between desiring and abstaining, as do the competing rhetorics cited above, Wordsworth’s poem proposes a restraint not incompatible with voluptuousness, or a voluptuousness not incompatible with restraint. In keeping with such a possibility, I want to suggest that we turn our attention to a set of texts that teach us how forms of embodied pleasure and play can not only incorporate distance, sufficiency, and restraint, but in so doing also constitute an ethos of care disentangled from (any reification of) the objects thereof. Such modes of intransitive contact are not a way of disregarding or devaluing objects (including, certainly, the objects that metonymically come to stand in for “nature” and the “planet”); rather, they provide a way of considering the affective, epistemological, and environmental consequences of our habits of reaching and our ways of being in relation (to). Cruising This attention to relationality as such may lead us, however queerly, from Wordsworth’s speaker, that “Figure quaint / Tricked out in proud disguise of cast-off weeds,” to unexpected inheritors of his “sallying forth”: the figures who populate Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany’s account of cruising subculture and theorization of its ambient effect on urban life. While cruising—a practice often presumed to tend toward consummation11—may seem to have little in common with Wordsworth’s intransitive reach (or his “dearest Maiden”), both Delany’s book and other theorizations of cruising in fact emphasize (in Leo Bersani’s words) the “abstraction of the relational from concrete relations” that the practice entails. In his essay “Sociability and Cruising,” Bersani attends to “a pure relationality,” a mode of sociability propelled not by interests or ends but instead by what Georg Simmel deems “a feeling for the worth of association as such” (45). This abstracted sociability, shared by beings who have cultivated their own anonymity and lessness, is, in Bersani’s account, accompanied by “an intransitive pleasure”—one which, because of “the restriction of the personal,” “does not serve an interest, satisfy a passion, or fulfill a desire” but instead yields “the pleasure of the associative process itself” (48, 46). Such ideals are embodied in TSRTSB, a text which, by demonstrating how cruising both generates and illumines the ecological lineaments of urban livability, reconceptualizes its central practice, attending more often to the dilated temporality, constitutive accidents, and collateral benefits of cruising than to the pleasurable ends with which we so often associate it. In so doing, it also urges us to rethink the collective affects that suffuse cruising’s social ecology and to adopt a new posture in the face of risk—both the risk of communicative disease that led to the sanitizing of Times Square in the wake of HIV / AIDS and (implicitly) the risks of toxic exposure that sometimes lead environmentalists to advocate a similarly prophylactic stewardship.12 The first section of the book focuses on scenes of cruising, with such episodes functioning not merely as self-contained narratives but also as the ground for its second essay’s theorization of urban contact more generally. For in Delany’s account, the free expression of embodied desire foundational to cruising culture is necessary but not sufficient for the development of a truly democratic urban metropolis, which is predicated on forms of spontaneous interclass contact broadly speaking: It is not too much to say, then, that contact—interclass contact—is the lymphatic system of a democratic metropolis, whether it comes with the web of gay sexual services…or in any number of other forms (standing in line at a movie, waiting for the grocery store to open, sitting at a bar, waiting in line at the counter of the grocery store or the welfare office…coming down to sit on the stoop on a warm day, perhaps to wait for the mail—or cruising for sex), while in general they tend to involve some form of “loitering” (or, at least lingering), are unspecifiable in any systematic way. (Their asystematicity is part of their nature.) (198–99, emphasis added) Beyond the fact that all of the actions here are banal, daily, and casual, the verbs themselves are exclusively intransitive; rather than tending directly toward an object that exerts a kind of magnetic pull, they are open-ended, wandering, and persisting indefinitely. The resulting grammar (on the page and of somatic experience) is distinctly non-telic, both insofar as the culmination of these concatenated phrases is simply an acknowledgment of their collective nonspecificity, and insofar as the protraction endemic to their present progressive verbs precludes any sense of immediate utility or identifiable end. It is this capacity for—and predication on—forms of dilation and delay, precisely the way in which “contact” can be understood not as the vector-like relationship between subject and object but rather as the medial dimension in which such relation becomes possible—that makes it, for Delany, such a powerful concept and embodied practice alike. Although part of Delany’s point is that contact can be neither systematized nor wholly planned, it is worth acknowledging a set of principles common to all of the episodes that he describes: contact transpires in scenes of suspension that burgeon within—and transfigure the temporality of—more instrumental practices, including those central to capitalist productivity; contact is unpredictable, typically emerging unbidden, its consequences roaming widely in both time and space; contact itself is fleeting and transient, but its impact—on both those who experience it and, more importantly, the broader social ecology in which it transpires—can be long-lasting and profound. Indeed, it is precisely via their aleatory nature that the encounters foundational to cruising and contact come to bear their significance. For such sociability, in Bersani’s words, offers “a pure relationality which, beyond or before the satisfaction of particular needs or interests, may be at once the ground, the motive and the goal of all relations” (46). Cruising, likewise, yields a model “in which a deliberate avoidance of [stable, permanent] relationships might be crucial in initiating, or at least clearing the ground for, a new relationality” (59). Whereas the destructive contact between the speaker and the grove in “Nutting” exemplifies why environmentalism tends to reify commitment and permanence, TSRTSB demonstrates how transient forms of engagement can themselves be a path to social and environmental well-being, precisely by providing the “ground” for—and expanding the possibilities of—relation as such. Indeed, we might observe that, in both Bersani’s theorization and Delany’s explication, the gestures that contact comprises are important less as discrete actions than as the (pre)condition for sociability, democracy, and urban livability. Interestingly, in Delany’s account, we come to sense the lingering repercussions of contact through a kind of ambient affect—and likely not the one that we expect to encounter. For more pervasive than pleasure in Delany’s account is pleasantness, an affective or tonal phenomenon that spreads throughout the streets of Manhattan—and the pages of the book—in the wake of spontaneous contact. Perhaps the most memorable episode of pleasantness is the lengthy passage in which Delany describes strangers coming together in the street to gaze at the passing comet Hale–Bopp; as he reflects on the scene’s aftermath, Delany writes, “I have seen none of the people involved … again…. [The encounters’] only fallout is that they were pleasant—and that pleasantness hangs in the street under the trees and by the brownstone stoops near which they occurred, months after Hale–Bopp has ellipsed the sun and soared again into solar night” (183, emphasis added). And pleasantness, it turns out, also lingers atmospherically in the wake of the text’s scenes of cruising and contact more generally. Indeed, the word is foundational to Delany’s argument in the second half of the book, which theorizes the benefits of the kind of sociability that the moviehouse culture both embodies and facilitates: The primary thesis underlying my several arguments here is that, given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will. (111) In keeping with his investment in social webs and lymphatic systems, in the relationship between sex and stoop and store, between erotic and ecological life, “pleasant” is his word not only for the dispersed feeling after Hale–Bopp or for the experience of supermarket contact but also for several of his sexual encounters in and around Times Square. Throughout the book, his use of the word has the feel of something both systematic and spontaneous, something that—perhaps familiarly enough to any writer—straddles the line between accident and intent. He uses it so often—and in so many different contexts—that it comes to traverse the pages of the book as luminously as it does the social fabric of the city, transforming the pages of TSRTSB into a textual ecology redolent with pleasantness. Eventually, Delany comments on the semi-intentionality of his rhetorical experiment: “Nevertheless, the results of networking have regularly smoothed, stabilized, and supported my career and made it more pleasant (there is that term again) than it would have been without it” (138). After this acknowledgment, “pleasant” appears even more frequently, often multiple times within a single paragraph, gaining a rhetorical and conceptual density whose impact extends beyond any one appearance of it. In the same way that the feeling of pleasantness in the Hale-Bopp scene (and its aftermath) does not attach to a single being or encounter but rather suffuses the space, the adjective pleasant momentarily alights upon a given noun only to free itself to roam again. (Perhaps “pleasantness,” as Delany uses it, is thus a synonym for the “intransitive pleasure” upon which Bersani’s analysis relies—that is, an affect resulting when pleasure detaches from specific incidents and ends.13) Ultimately, then, the term’s emergence, movement, and persistence within the manuscript becomes synecdoche for much of Delany’s argument: how seemingly disparate practices or encounters can, unbidden, become a way of life and the precondition for community; how ethics can be predicated on accident; how individual and collective feelings can disperse throughout a world or a text. It is here that formal experiment comes to meet ethical claim, or—to cite Laura Elrick—“protean poetics intersect with experiments in and on social space” (197). For ambient pleasantness is likely not the paradigm that we expect to find woven through TSRTSB—not only because of the text’s more memorable emphasis on pleasure but also, and more importantly, because of the sociohistorical context in which Delany writes. Writing about an era of HIV, with its forms of epidemiological and emotional harm, from the vantage point of a homogenized American culture in which (his) Times Square, too, has been lost, Delany’s emphasis on pleasant surprise is intertwined with an attention to exposure, damage, and risk. Such a confluence may serve to reposition ecological discourse in a less paranoid relationship to risk, for (as queer theory teaches us) when we relinquish a certain insistence upon management and control, we acknowledge our exposure not only to danger and harm but also to hope, possibility, and affinity. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick insists in her theorization of reparative reading: [T]o read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious, paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new; to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise. Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. (146) Indeed, one striking element of TSRTSB is how capaciously generous it is, how moving, how tender, how full of faith in people and communities and fleeting contact. Delany’s is not a world without harm, certainly; TSRTSB is, at its core, an elegy for a community ravaged by the sanitizing effects of capitalism, depleted not only by the epidemiological consequences of AIDS but also by mainstream America’s fear of contact in the face of the disease’s epidemic contours. But—in keeping with the proximity that Sedgwick notes between reparative reading and the depressive position14—affirmative (and affirming) paradigms are built in the wake of harm. It is because there can be—and often are—terrible surprises that there can also be good ones; it is because we are exposed to the forms of loss that often seem to constitute not only the queer community but also the experience of environmental investment that we can also feel the way in which familiarity and fondness and improvement slowly burgeon. I do not mean to suggest simply that we dwell in a world where surprises—or luck, or health—can be either good or bad. Such a claim would not only be banal, but would also understate the radical implications of Delany’s text. For in responding to a moment in American culture when contact, particularly of the sexual variety, was pathologized, when the homogenization of Times Square was predicated on the imperative to sanitize public space in the wake of HIV, when a gay writer like Gabriel Rotello advocated abstinence in the name of a healthy “sexual ecology,”15 a reader might expect that Delany would simply invert the terms of such critique, and emphasize the ways in which contact itself can be beneficial. However, if TSRTSB teaches us anything, it may be that contact itself is neither good nor bad, neither healthy nor pathological; for Delany, contact is an ethos regardless of its outcome. What his book insists, we might say, is not that contact is good (although sometimes its consequences are) but rather that contact is; his account urges us to acknowledge the ways in which contact shapes the dimensions of our everyday life even (or especially) when it does not resolve itself into a legible end.16 In both queer and ecological contexts, we have become so accustomed to articulating the (often detrimental) outcome of contact—the epidemic disease ravaging a population of gay men, the songbird population falling victim to the effects of DDT—that we rarely attend to contact itself as an ongoing mode.17 Whereas those behind the “improvement” of Times Square argue that we must limit contact so as to limit harm, Delany refuses to collapse the former into the latter, insisting instead that contact is a kind of ecological web, and that contact is inherently promiscuous. If the verbs through and in which contact is felt—loitering and lingering and waiting and sitting—are intransitive, then, counterintuitively, so may be contact itself. No longer reducible to the touching of two objects (or of a subject and an object), the contact foundational to Delany’s own sexual ecology, it turns out, is less an act than a mode of occurrence, less a pathological condition than a condition of possibility. Gleaning Such a reading might lead us, finally, to a text whose contours are more familiarly environmental, but which is similarly saturated with forms of fleeting touch: Varda’s film The Gleaners and I, which casts gleaning as both a response to transience and a means of cruising the material world. If cruising, in Bersani’s analysis, constitutes “sexual sociability” (57), then we might say that gleaning, under Varda’s wandering (and wondering) eye, constitutes its environmental counterpart.18 Importantly, gleaning is not only Varda’s topic but also her filmic technique; rather than memorializing the figures that her camera provisionally captures, her cinematography privileges relinquishment over retention, rhythm over reification, and chance over premeditation, ultimately using playfulness as a mode of social critique. Her account and performance of gleaning, which suspend an emphasis on the objects (or images) gleaned in favor of the rhythmic relations that they inaugurate, encourage us to exchange our transitive practices of stewardship for the intransitive verbs and paratactic habits of association that the film subtly emphasizes. Ultimately, I will suggest, the film constitutes an ecopoetic argument for how environmental contact can itself become an unexpected form of love. Gleaners is composed of episodic portraits of French gleaners and pickers and gatherers and scavengers whose practice takes place at edges of various sorts: the edge between harvest and clearing, between ripeness and rot, between legality and transgression, between utility and play, between the logic of private property and the logic of the commons. Meandering from urban sites to rural locales and back again, the film unfolds associatively, foregoing main characters and narrative arcs in favor of a structure that provocatively juxtaposes and subtly rhymes its fleeting scenes. Near the midpoint of the film, Varda finds herself the passenger in a car, speeding down a highway past trucks transporting goods to Burgundy. Reaching her wrinkled hand in front of her camera lens, she begins a kind of rhythmic dance with the passing vehicles, “grabbing” each one as it passes before her gaze, truck temporarily contained within and then eclipsed by hand. “I’d like to capture them,” Varda says. “To retain things as they pass?” she immediately asks—to which she responds, “No, just to play.” The image of the hand clasping at the air—a gesture of futility that is also a gesture of success (thereby entangling these two terms), and as concrete an image of Wordsworth’s impossible verb as I have encountered19—serves as a figure for Varda’s project more generally. Although our customary sense of gleaning links it concretely and immediately to things, Varda’s film presents gleaning as an ethical posture that can persist separately from (and extend well beyond) the particular objects it encounters. For not only does Varda insistently attend to—and herself embody—the shape of the body reaching to pluck or stooping to gather, but she also casts gleaning as a rhythm that propels the momentum of both her film and the lives it depicts. For Bersani, the pure relationality of sociability often takes the form of “a certain kind of rhythmical play”; as he reflects: “Without content, sociability nonetheless imitates the rhythms of ‘real life.’ In conversation, for example, it is the movement of arguments rather than their substance that excites us—such as [in Simmel’s words] ‘binding and loosening, conquering and being vanquished, giving and taking.’ …[T]he fundamental rhythm of sociability is ‘association and separation’” (47)—or, to describe the movement of Varda’s hand time and again in the film, grasping and letting go. Even beyond its frequent gestures of sifting and sorting and scavenging, and even beyond its portraits of transient communities that come together only to come apart, Varda’s film is populated by forms of rhythmical play. Under the gaze of her camera, pruning shears can be a percussive instrument and, later, can “danc[e].” A neglected lens cap, swinging like a pendulum, becomes an impromptu dancer accidentally captured by an unknowing eye. The translucent face of an inoperative clock becomes a window behind which a human face can rhythmically move. Throughout the film, objects and tools appear largely in order to be wielded in non-instrumental ways. Things that have had a purpose are repurposed. And, more often than not, things are permitted to be useless, suspended in the realm of rhythm or possibility or play. Indeed, although one ethical vector of the film is its fervent critique of waste, another is its insistence that we redefine that term. For much of what the film celebrates is precisely what our culture deems wasteful—accidents that apparently lead nowhere, hands that clutch without (re)productive end, bodies standing where they do not belong, people who do things “just to play.” By making the film a buoyant celebration of such figures, Gleaners demonstrates the forms of pleasurable affective excess—of “pure delight”20—that can inhere amid practices of environmental sufficiency and social responsibility. Furthermore, just as sufficiency is hardly incommensurate with pleasure in Varda’s cosmos, so too does critique comingle with play; from scenes depicting robed magistrates in cabbage fields, which comically indicate the extent to which the law—not the gleaners whom it too often fails to protect—may be the one acting with impropriety, to the frequency with which gleaners subvert existing power structures by repurposing documents invested in maintaining forms of social order (tide tables, waste collection schedules, etc.), Gleaners indicts Western culture’s routinized habits of excess via an ethos of improvisation, tinkering, and play. Interestingly, one of the entities with which Varda both tinkers and plays is the queer grammaticality of gleaning itself. For not only is “to glean” (glaner) a verb that can be either transitive or intransitive, but in Varda’s account, there is also a ceaseless, steady motion between the subjects and the objects thereof; she continuously traces the alchemy through which the gleaner often becomes the gleaned. Just as, in the film’s penultimate scene, a man gleaning vegetables in the gutters of the Parisian market by day becomes by night a volunteer literacy teacher in the shelter where he lives, his knowledge gleaned by the students in his class, so too do hands—those metonymic subjects gathering—become in turn the fruits of the film’s own practice of gleaning. For hands, which themselves index both contact and transience, are the film’s most consistently recurring image: they appear not only as the hands of the gleaners pictured in virtually every scene, but also as the uncanny gloves propped up to dry by men cleaning oysters, retaining the shape of hands even while empty, and as Varda’s still more uncanny hands, whose texture up close makes her feel “as if [she is] an animal … [she doesn’t] know” and which (in her own words) constitute her “project: to film with one hand my other hand.” Varda’s favorite found object, a clock without hands, suggests the film’s intertwined interest in rhythms other than institutionalized time and concern with what happens when one’s (life)time encounters its own transience. And, of course, Varda’s choice of medium makes hands palpable not just in the film’s content but also in its form; many of her scenes are shot with a small digital camcorder, a technology that during the film’s composition was still in its infancy, held by hands whose age we can feel in the resulting images’ slight wobble. This wobble, importantly, serves as a reminder of transience within a recording technology nominally predicated on preservation. And, indeed, the film consistently attunes us to transience: to shifting populations in a suburban shelter, to the potatoes and grapes left to rot rather than offered to those in need, to one’s own hand becoming an indecipherable landscape amid the process of aging, to the thinning hair and wrinkled skin reminding Varda that “the end is near,” to figures who feature movingly in one of the film’s episodes, never to appear again. In the face of impermanence, Varda importantly does not resort to gestures of either conservation or memorialization. For to glean is not to preserve.21 To glean is not to retain—at least not in a way that maintains the objects’ utility or purpose or initial function. To glean, despite the forms of belatedness and aftermath upon which it is predicated, and despite the way in which it has declined in an era of mechanized harvesting, is not to elegize. This might return us to a point made in passing above: that environmentalist practice often understands its ethical imperatives to take the form of transitive verbs: to manage, to conserve, to save. In other words, when mainstream environmentalism does permit us to embrace contact, it often does so in order to encourage a kind of salutary (and premeditated) grasping22: to encourage us to “retain things as [or, ideally, before] they pass,” to save the planet (or its endangered species), to preserve dwindling resources. However, Varda’s film—precisely in how it distinguishes gleaning from hoarding, precisely in how it foregrounds the perishable and attends to entities past their prime, precisely insofar as it limns a practice of relinquishment that is not the same as indifference or nihilism—helps us to see how we might develop a mode of stewardship versed in intransitive verbs: to persist, to remain, to endure; to fade, to rot, to decay; to wander, to wonder, to play; to burgeon, to recede, to flourish; to care. Perhaps it is also fair to say that the film ultimately encourages us to develop a social ethic and a mode of environmental stewardship predicated on something as deceptively simple as love—or, rather, on “Love —,” promiscuously, intransitively speaking. For if one way to respond to transience is with a willingness not to clutch too tight, then Varda suggests that we extend such logic into our relationship with ourselves.23 She models such a posture not only in her engagement with her aging body, but also in her attention to figures whose practices fail to resolve into stable, singular identities. Just as the gleaners featured move promiscuously from object to object, so too do they shift from posture to posture, role to role. Jean Laplanche, that psychoanalytic theorist whose work is important to Bersani’s account of cruising, is here winemaker and theorist and psychotherapist. Herve, a maker of found art and adopter of chronological pseudonyms, is a painter and a retriever. The man in the shelter is a gleaner and a teacher and a biologist and a newspaper seller. Bodan Litnanski, who makes totem towers from metal scraps, describes himself as a brickmason and is described by his wife as an “amateur.” And virtually everyone in the film is characterized as a lover. At first, the film’s consistent attention to quirky love stories seems a potentially distracting side note to its more sustained attention to gleaning as an ethical posture. However, we soon realize that love is as consistent a through line as are the roads that stitch together the regions to which Varda and her camera travel. For the film is suffused by images of love, from the heart-shaped potatoes, gleaned by Varda’s wrinkled hand near the beginning of the film, pictured in (and as) a kind of beautiful rot near the film’s end, to the forms of community that burgeon among the urban gleaners who care for each other with scavenged food and salvaged appliances and a renewable capacity for care. (Says the sometimes-homeless urban gleaner Salomon of his neighbor Mr. Charlie, “he’s a friend. More than a friend, a protector, a godfather; he’s everything to me.”) And, indeed, the paratactic roles of the characters make them lovers in a different sense. For one thing that the film’s motley crew has in common is that they are all amateurs, their lives propelling them rhythmically from interest to interest, from passion to passion, from love to varied love. Coda: Loving Perhaps what these ecopoetic texts’ queer reconceptualization of contact ultimately encourages us to do, then, is to love the planet—but to do so in a way that queers and defamiliarizes that most familiar phrase. For we find ourselves invited to practice this love neither in the chaste way suggested by the ascetic practices so often attached to environmental stewardship (that embrace of “wise restraint”24) nor in the hedonistic manner advocated by the advocates of ecosexuality (that uncritical investment in the “voluptuous”). Rather, Wordsworth and Delany and Varda (themselves no less motley a crew than Varda’s gleaners, but also, like those gleaners, resonant with one another in a surprisingly sustained way) remind us that we might love as amateurs love, in a way whose practice is promiscuous, in a way that does not know in advance what it seeks to find, in a way that inhabits the indefinite protraction of the dash, in a way that rhythmically wanders the urban street, the rural field, and spaces in between. In so doing, they suggest not only that “to touch,” “to cruise,” and “to glean” may be homologous to one another, but also—more profoundly—that they may collectively perform an intransitive queering (or may all be synonyms for a queerly intransitive form) of the verb “to love.”25 Footnotes 1 Such a critique also can be leveled at Stephens and Sprinkle, who do in fact embody and perform an environmentalism predicated on “just saying yes.” 2 The intransitive tendings that I trace resonate with existing ecopoetic inquiries; see, for instance, Gillian Osborne’s account of Tyrone Williams’s presentation at the Berkeley Ecopoetics conference, which—in Osborne’s words—“seemed interested in expanding the telic motions of desire toward something whose purpose isn’t necessarily satisfaction,” or Brian Teare’s query, posed in his interview with Angela Hume: “[I] wonder what epistemologies and narrative consequences we’re not exploring because we’re too wedded to whatever objects we rightly or wrongly think we’ve lost.” 3 I mean my use of “posture” to suggest the possibility of adopting a non-identitarian relationship to the world. Inspired by queer theory’s resistance to stable identity categories (both on their own terms and as the basis for political activism), “posture” is meant to evoke a kind of affirmative unsettledness—an openness to the forms of provisionality, play, and surprise that I discuss throughout the essay. 4 If the three texts in my archive are not typically read as “ecopoetic,” then it’s also true that they are not typically considered both queer and environmental. “Nutting” and Gleaners already belong to the environmental literature canon, and my analysis traces their extant queerness; conversely, TSRTSB is distinctly queer, and my analysis brings to light its ecological dimensions. 5 As Hume has suggested, queer ecopoetics may in fact be a tautological descriptor (“Queering Ecopoetics”), and I am inclined to agree. In the context of the present argument, I would defend such a claim by emphasizing the extent to which ecopoetics already invests itself in the “irreducibility of the body” (Skinner cited by Corey), attempts an “impure poetics” (Skinner 7), practices forms of spontaneity, play, and other deroutinized temporalities (Hume, “Interview,” 753) situates itself at boundaries which it seeks to blur or cross, and “operates in an oppositional mode” (Magi 238). 6 My engagement with works not typically understood as belonging to the ecopoetic canon takes seriously the extent to which ecopoetics “explores the difficulties and opportunities at the boundary,” “function[s] as an edge,” “cut[s] across divisions” (Skinner), and “shuttl[es] across boundaries” (Hillman). More specifically, insofar as ecopoetics “oppos[es] a tradition in literature that rewards self-containment” (Magi 244) and thus may resist attempts to taxonomize (or “genrify”) it (Ttoouli), I venture to treat “ecopoetic” less as a label applicable to the entirety of a text than (a) as a set of ethical and formal possibilities that spring up, unexpectedly and unbidden, in a variety of queerly ecological texts and (b) as a readerly posture (or practice) that can help us make sense—and trace the repercussions—of such appearances. If, as Evelyn Reilly has suggested, “ecopoetics is a way of thinking that can run through many different kinds of poetry” (Hume, “Interview,” 755), I here extend her logic slightly to suggest that ecopoetics as a way of thinking may run through many different genres. In other words, part of how I seek to queer an already queer field is by limning the contours of an ecopoetics practiced in a somewhat new terrain: in pages of nonfiction prose, in an experimental French documentary film, in the irreducibly embodied—and fundamentally transient—practices of cruising and gleaning, in the urban setting of Times Square, in the context of HIV/AIDS and viral exposure, and, finally, in the lines of Wordsworth, the kind of nature poet often named in ecopoetic critiques of Romantic (and Enlightenment) subjectivity. 7 Relatedly, if queer theoretical practice has by definition operated in an oppositional, anti-normative, disruptive mode, it is worth wondering what it would mean to practice an intransitive queering. 8 For one important queer reading of the poem, see Griffiths. 9 See, for instance, Buell (7–8), and Kroeber (65–66). 10 Although such a formulation risks sounding chaste or even puritanical, I mean it to indicate a mode of touch that neither definitively claims nor anticipatorily defines its object, and hence stays open to the possibilities (and the various tonalities) of reaching as such. The following sections of the essay will trace Delany’s and Varda’s material instantiations of a similar grammar. 11 See Blackie and Dean. 12 For a queer ecocritical reading of the way in which gay public sex historically has been deemed “harmful to healthy environments” (150), see Gosine. 13 Likewise, “pleasantness,” the noun, which appears increasingly frequently as the text unfurls, may be understood as “pleasant,” the adjective, detached from concrete referent and moving atmospherically. It’s worth observing, too, that in the analogous affective and somatic registers of the book, pleasantness is to pleasure as contact is to cruising. Indeed, Delany defines “the pleasant” as “pleasure in its most generalized form” (121). For a more sustained account of the Hale–Bopp scene’s relation to queer ecological politics, see Ensor. 14 See Sedgwick (128). 15 I refer here to the argument of Rotello’s 1997 book Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men. 16 Such logic is also clear if we take seriously the terms of Delany’s own metaphors, which nod to the specter of HIV/AIDS. For by analogizing contact to the lymphatic system, he insists that contact is not the pathogen (nor itself automatically the antidote) but rather the responsive ground or body where health (or illness) roosts. 17 Heeding an approach like Delany’s could help environmental stewardship adopt a less paranoid posture toward contact in at least two ways: first, by separating the ready conflation of touch with harm (as felt in the imperative to “leave no trace”) and, second, by encouraging environmentalists to attend as much to the medial or systemic dimensions of relation as to the objects thereof. 18 Indeed, the gleaners’ accounts of their practices often resemble descriptions of cruising. For instance, Herve tells Varda that “the encounter happens on the street. The object beckons me…” and—in language that echoes Bersani’s claims about the identitarian lessness involved in cruising—claims that by surrounding himself with objects, he is “moving toward lessness—as much lessness as possible.” 19 Gleaning itself is also one possible synonym for Wordsworth’s titular practice. 20 Varda applies this description repeatedly to beings and scenes that she encounters. 21 This is certainly not to deny the fact that gleaned entities (both material and abstract) can themselves be preserved, but rather to foreground the extent to which Varda’s model of gleaning is predicated, both ethically and formally, on reckoning with transience. 22 This language of “grasping” is also often central to claims that we must know the environment in order to value it. See, for instance, the introduction to The Ecopoetry Anthology, which insists that “[w]hat we as humans disregard, what we fail to know and grasp, is easy to destroy …’” (xxvii). And yet Varda’s film, like the other texts in this study, suggests that there is a way to care without grasping—in all the variously normative senses of that term. 23 We might read such an approach as Bersani’s lessness in another register. 24 Here, I refer both to the injunctions to forms of abstinent restraint present in such slogans as “leave no trace,” referenced above, and to the resolutely chaste affection implied in the predicating of environmental care on the image or figure of “Mother Earth.” 25 In so claiming, I certainly do not mean to neutralize the queerness and anti-normativity of cruising. However, part of what interests me about Delany’s text is how he traces the way in which the casual encounters upon which cruising and contact are predicated—encounters which he explicitly says are “not love relationships” (56)—ultimately suffuse the city with a kind of impersonal love. 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ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and EnvironmentOxford University Press

Published: Apr 10, 2018

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