Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Ivory Tunnel

In The Social Creation of Nature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) environmental philosopher Neil Evernden suggests that instead of looking down from the ivory tower, we may instead enter an ivory tunnel, a "viaduct to the roots of societal understanding," where we may join "those who undertake the task of describing the fragments and aromas that drift past in the ivory gloom ... with the hope of sufficiently changing the landscape of assumptions that new questions can be asked." (1992: x)

Sometimes the questions aren't new; sometimes they have been forgotten. In Building Dwelling Thinking (1951 lecture published in Basic Writings 1992: 363) Martin Heidegger asked, "What is the state of dwelling in this precarious age?"

The Ivory Tunnel considers the state of dwelling in this "precarious age", seeking to uncover how the environmental crisis may be understood as a crisis (or as Bruce Foltz puts is, krisis) of dwelling. Heidegger held that we dwell as mortals; a crisis of dwelling must be considered in its roots as a crisis of finitude as well. This is the subject of my research and current writing.

How is it that our culture has moved from a living cosmos to a dead one, in which we have come to understand saving and preserving as pickling rather than letting be? Why have we come to fear change, and see death only as extinction? We still amass flowers at funerals, yet embalm our dead and bury them in hermetically sealed caskets and concrete vaults designed to separate vulnerable human flesh from the encroaching soil. A suspicion arises that we have traded meaningful Being for transient materialism.

If we consider the environmental crisis, we might see both the difficulty and the possibility of response. Environmental philosophers argue that the environmental crisis is not only physical but metaphysical. Bruce Foltz (On Heidegger and the Interpretation of Environmental Crisis, Environmental Ethics, 6 (Winter 1984), 323-338) suggests that our "fundamental relation to nature, rather than nature alone" (1984: 324) should be taken as the subject of this crisis, and further, that we should speak not of a crisis but a "genuine krisis: a deciding, a judgement, a sentence in which not only our future survival, but our comportment toward nature in general is called into question." (ibid: 324).

How might we reconsider our "fundamental relation" to nature? I argue that one way we can do so is by looking at finitude, and how our culture deals with death. Of particular interest to me are explicitly 'ecological' responses, such as the natural death movement, natural burial, garden memorials, and the like. As an addendum to my more formal ongoing research program, The Ivory Tunnel is a repository for musings and serves primarily as an annotated bibliography of the otherwise uncategorized. Much like the mind of its author.


Blogger Jay said...

Really interesting, and beautifully written. I can't wait to read more as time goes on.

I must say, however, that I'm a bit bothered/intrigued by the phrase "how we look at finitude". First of all, we don't, which seems part of the problem. Death for us always the death of an other and therefore never really our own and therefore never really real. It seems to me that this constitutes both a metaphysical pathology afflicting our society (as, if I've read you correctly, you suggest) but also a pathology definitive of the "human condition": only the world that continues after my death can determine its real, final, meaning. To follow through with the logic of this existential reading of the dilemma, then, it seems that the notion that we could somehow hold up our finitude before our eyes or minds -- that we could somehow soberly confront it and determine its meaning -- amounts to a philosopher's pipe dream. Moreover, it strikes me, intuitively, that there may exist an internal relation between our fundamental incapacity to grasp the reality and meaning of our finitude and our incapacity to grasp ourselves as part of the continuous whole of nature and not as nature's external master (or did I just restate what you've already said?)

Where on earth am I going with this? I'm not entirely sure, but I think to here: that I find myself reacting with some pessimism to the notion that we're just "looking at death the wrong way". It seems to me that a shift in the way we look at death couldn't possibly be sufficient to effect a turn away from our collective pathology; rather, I tend to see the way we look at death as effect of this pathology. I would think that a more fundamental shift must take place, one that's much more akin to what we could provisionally call a spiritual transformation for lack of a better phrase. On the other hand, I would certainly grant that taking a deep look at our attitudes toward death and our death rituals could lay some of the groundwork for such a transformation to take place . . . at any rate, great posts, sorry to have rambled so long, what you wrote just got me thinking . . .

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This simple article on "human death", authored like most true wisdom by anonymous trolls, begs for such as Muse to improve it and perhaps fill in all the various missing links. As this article is a basis for translation into many other languages, at least, the right questions might be propagated. Also relevant to the question of an unliving universe is the "mechanistic paradigm" which is the basic assumption underlying a machine metaphor for what is investigated by the sciences.

6:07 PM  

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