Water as Medieval Intellectual Entity

Hello All,

I hope that this finds you well. I am certainly feeling pleased, having submitted my thesis for examination on Friday. Although I currently have no new thoughts to put up on Fluid Imaginings, I thought I would end the last phase of my life by posting the abstract and acknowledgements from my thesis. I am taking this opportunity to show you all what I have been working on and how it turned out. More importantly, this is my opportunity to publicly thank the many organisations and individuals who have made this research possible.

More soon, but for now, my thesis:

Water as Medieval Intellectual Entity: Case Studies in Twelfth-Century Western Monasticism

James L. Smith

The University of Western Australia

School of Humanities


In this thesis, the imagery of water serves as a point of focus for an inquiry into the composition of medieval abstract space. As a ubiquitous element of human life with distinct properties and connotations across time, water touches, and has ever touched upon, both what is historically and culturally unique and what is ongoing within environmental imagination. This study examines the significance and the deployment of environmental imagery in the composition, narration, and recollection of organised thought in the Middle Ages. I argue that images of environment in systematic ecological arrangement perform a key role in revealing medieval spaces of thought.

The intellectual and imaginative uses of water in medieval thought merge mind and environment, and bind intellection and phenomenon within the spaces of the inner world. This thesis suggests that the medieval logic of these patterned spaces links us intimately to the internal structures of sense-making in a distinct intellectual milieu—that of monastic, twelfth-century, Northern European Christendom—and to the understanding of environment that it implied, be it cultural, religious, or quotidian.

In this thesis, I analyse the imagery and the rhetoric of water in various texts as a means to explore the potential meanings of water as an abstract entity in medieval thought. Through literary case studies of water in various expressive forms—diagrammatic representation, poetry, landscape narrative, and epistolary communication—I trace its existence as a thought system within the history of ideas that is both uniquely medieval and suggestive of broader sense-making patterns.

The thesis opens with the interpretation of water as complex metaphor, both in terms of its longue durée and generalised use, and in a specifically medieval context. The second chapter delves deeper into the medieval properties of water metaphor through an exploration of three key themes: the role of water metaphor in the metaphysical, salvific and intellectual world of Western Christendom, the elemental properties of water and their metaphorical resonances, and the role of water metaphor in the shaping of rhetoric.

The third chapter focuses on the diagrammatic representation of Pierpont Morgan M. 982, a manuscript leaf depicting Lady Philosophia nourishing the Seven Liberal Arts with streams of knowledge. In this diagram, it is the thematics of water that give the representation a flow of energy and a sense of motion within an imagined hydrological cycle.

The fourth chapter comprises a reading of the Fons Philosophiae, a didactic poem by the Regular Canon Godfrey of Saint-Victor. In the poem, a river system pouring fourth from a lofty mountain flows across the plains of knowledge, providing a space for the poet’s pilgrim-like persona to pass through and parse the Seven Liberal Arts, assessing the respective qualities of their rivers in a quest for their head waters in theology.

The fifth chapter interprets the epistolary style of the Benedictine Abbot Peter of Celle, a notable letter writer and Churchman. Within Peter’s letters, small parables and metaphorical flourishes demonstrate the compressed power of complex water metaphor by intermingling scripture and aqueous imagery to enliven the moral message, using the properties of water as an aide. Furthermore, the use of aqueous metaphor suggests a hydrological imagining of intellectual and epistolary community.

The sixth and final chapter explores the anonymous Description of Clairvaux, a ‘mirror’ of monastic life in which moral and salvific meanings are imbued in a quotidian account. Descriptions of the landscape, hydrological practices and moral mission of Cistercianism merge within a seemingly simple scene of paradisal locus amoenus and virtuous labour, making water the channel connecting daily experience and a grander metaphysical purpose.

This thesis provides a contribution to a new understanding of environmental imagination and knowledge visualisation in twelfth-century monasticism, coupled with insights of wider relevance to the study of relationships between water and intellectual culture. By revealing links between the shaping of inner space and the composition of word and image, it enables a reading of primary sources and textual media rooted in the imaginative processes of their creators. The intellectual entity of water, through metaphor, becomes an image of the vital principle, the vis naturae or élan vital, in intellectual life. Furthermore, this intellectual life is ordered through a fundamental pattern of organised distribution, a flow of life source to its manifold manifestations.



I would like to begin by acknowledging everyone who has given me the inspiration and advice to finish this PhD thesis. I would like to thank my mother Diane for her unceasing support and patience during these last four years, and my family in Australia and the United Kingdom. This thesis is also dedicated to the memory of my grandmother Margaret and my aunt Carolyn, long supportive of my academic career but sadly no longer with us. I would like to thank my girlfriend Debs for cheering me up and for believing in me. It was during the course of this thesis that we came together, and it was through her kindness, humour, and advice that it was completed.

The list of friends that I have made, enjoyed the company of, worked with, argued with, built with, and experienced PhD life with is too great to list in full here. They span the globe, and have made my life, and my thesis, richer. I would especially like to thank (in no particular order) Chris Lin, Rebecca Rey, Colin Yeo, Phil Kierle, Brett Hirsch, Ruth Morgan, Aisling Blackmore, Imogen Forbes-Macphail, Charmaine Fernandez, Andrew Broertjes, Danau Tanu, and Jo Hawkins of UWA for enriching my academic and personal life during my PhD. I would also like to thank Jane Héloïse-Nancarrow and Kats Handel in particular for their friendship, both individually and together with their fellow PhD students at the University of York. Finally, I owe a great debt of gratitude to my school friends from Helena College for keeping me in touch with the comings and goings beyond the academic world.

The encouragement, advice, and inspiration that have shaped and nourished both this thesis and its author came from many, for which I am eternally grateful. I offer special thanks to my supervisors Professors Philippa Maddern and Andrew Lynch for their generous advice, careful reading, rigorous interrogation of drafts, and personal support. I offer my thanks to the staff and students of the school of Humanities at the University of Western Australia for their assistance in matters personal, professional, and practical.

I offer particular thanks to the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, the Perth Medieval and Renaissance Group, the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotion, the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, the Postgraduate Student Association, and the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Western Australia for providing frequent and well-conceived opportunities for inspiration and training. I would like to thank all of those who have generously supported my doctorate and career, with special thanks to the Australian Research Council. I would like to thank the Graduate Research School, the School of Humanities, and Convocation at UWA for travel funding. I also would like to thank the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, the Centre for the History of Emotion, the New Chaucer Society, and the George Washington Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute for conference support.

Finally, I am pleased to thank the many overseas members of the academic community who have enriched this thesis over the years. I offer thanks to the staff and students of the university of York for their hospitality and support for the duration of my 2011 Worldwide Universities Network exchange to the United Kingdom. I also offer thanks to new friends from the medievalist community of the United States for their insights, collegiality and hospitality during three conference visits to Kalamazoo, Portland, and Washington, D.C. in 2012 and 2013.

Thank you, one and all.

A Postgraduate Blog: the end of the life cycle

A Wordle of my Thesis Draft
A Wordle of my Thesis Draft

Hello All,

Sometimes we blog, and sometimes we are silent. Recently, I have been thinking about the periods in my postgraduate life when I have used this blog the most, and the times that I have used it the least. I started Fluid Imaginings on the tenth of September, 2009. At the time I was full of new ideas from the first few months of my thesis research, and was longing for somewhere to share them. The blog served admirably in this respect, and I have often gone back to my old posts to remember ideas partially forgotten, to recapture old insights.

Wherever I went, the blog followed, ready to help me express my latest thoughts, both to myself and to others. It found new life in 2011 when I was on exchange at the university of York, helping me to articulate a new phase of more complex ideas that I was struggling with. This fed into new drafts of my thesis, and helped my creative process immensely. By 2012, I was blogging about conferences, fresh insights, and thoughts about postgraduate life, the matters that concerned me at the time.

Recent months of 2013 have been an Autumn and, in the most recent months, a winter of blogging for me. I have felt that my creative energies were tied up in other endeavors, and have felt little desire to write in this format. I find myself at the ultimate stage of my candidature, preparing to submit my doctoral thesis at the end of November. The Wordle above captures the thousands of words that have poured forth from mind and through keyboard, caught and quantified in a single image. These words are not for blogging, but they represent another mode of self-expression. I am caught up in the process of writing and of contemplating my future, and have felt little need or desire to share these thoughts here.

At this stage, I begin to feel the stirring of new life for Fluid Imaginings. With spring comes new shoots. As my thoughts move through this bottleneck and into a new era of post-PhD life, I sense that a new love for blogging is growing within me. After my thesis is submitted, I can imagine overhauling this page, converting it into a space for my ideas and interests far beyond the narrower scope of recent years. I have noticed that the months following the completion of a PhD are often a time for those who have not previously maintained a blog to begin expressing themselves online. I think that this is an excellent time to begin and love reading the many excellent posts of friends and colleagues at this stage of their career and life, but am equally grateful that I have had a rich and exciting time blogging as a postgraduate student.

This post is something of a eulogy for Fluid Imaginings the postgraduate blog, but also an indication of my growing sense of enthusiasm for another Fluid Imaginings, the future blog as-yet unblogged. If I have any advice to give in this post, it is this: do not see your blog as a demand on your creative energies that must constantly be used, but as part of the waxing and waning of emotions and creative impulses that go hand in hand with the life of a scholar and a writer. All blogs I follow have waxed and waned, and many have ended. Many more have sprung up to replace them, and many more will follow. A blog is more than a medium, it is a repository of a writer, a vault of hopes, dreams, inspirations, and anxieties.

In the future, this blog will endure in a new form. For now, it is quiescent. My love of blogging remains throughout these cycles, and will continue with me beyond my life as a PhD student. The subtitle of my blog reads ‘Reflections on and of Academic Life by James Smith’, and this quality will remain. What this sentence means in the future is as yet unclear.

Until then, be well.


At the Breaking of the Net

A Fisherman prepares his net – Wikimedia Commons.

Hello All,

I would apologise for having remained silent for too long, but I feel that my delay in posting has resulted in something important that I would like to share. Although I feel that this post is aimed more at those just starting out in academic research, I hope that more experienced readers might see something of themselves, or of those whom they know, in this post.

To put it succinctly, this post is about limits. As a researcher, a thinker, one is required to cast a net into the unimaginably vast seething mass of data that is human knowledge and its discourses. We cast our net, made from the woven strands of all that we have read with the craft of our personal artifice, and we seek to haul insights, wet and gleaming with novelty, from the deep. As Novalis wrote in the 18th century, “Hypotheses are nets: only he who casts will catch”. The bigger the net, the bigger the catch. But how much can a mind truly be expected to catch, how large a surface area can our inquiry have before insights start to slip away?

This thought has been troubling me of late. As a generalist by inclination, I stubbornly spurned the advice so often given to PhD students to ‘just focus on your thesis’. “I will cast my net as far and as wide as I want, thank you very much!” was my internal response. This approach has yielded many benefits, for I have entered debates and been involved in presenting papers and writing articles that have shaped my core thesis, enriched it with new and strange fruit. It is good to be a generalist, and the intellectual rewards have certainly vindicated my decision. The time of the PhD candidature, I feel, is not a time to become complacent, to limit oneself. I would argue that this applies even in the case of attempts to create depth of expertise, for to my mind any sufficiently ‘deep’ delving of a topic should raise so many questions as to create a practically unlimited supply of possible tangents.

And yet, there is only so much time, only so much experience, only so much reading in any one head. Becoming flexible and spreading into diverse topics of inquiry is rewarding, to be sure, but it is important to never forget a simple fact: we are flexible and plastic, but one can only spread attention so far. I have found that a state of extreme extension is the situation within which I feel most challenged and most engaged, where ideas teem and combine in a manner that I find exhilarating. And yet this is also the point where the net your mind has cast, despite all of its gains, is at greatest risk of breaking. It is easy to rationalise this overextension, for it does not result in failures per se. Indeed, the more things ‘on the go’ the greater the yield even when many projects do not work out. ‘Fail early and often’, as the Research and Development people say.

All the pressure of deadlines, possibilities, time constraints, financial obligations, speculations etc. create a great pressure cooker within the mind. It needs a valve through which to release. This is much easier to achieve post-PhD, for the constant cycle of short term projects makes it easier to play the boomerang game, always experiencing the relief of a completed task ‘cast out’ balanced against the reward of a completed project ‘returned’. And yet for a PhD student, the candidature is a bottleneck inhibiting the release of projects: there is one overarching project that must be seen to completion, the likes of which the writer has never experienced.

The trick, I feel, is to know when you have cast too far, overextended the net. In the phantom world of proactive deadlines, it is hard to tell in advance just what one has committed to, what is a true deadline, and what is a self imposed deadline. This is by no means an argument for complacency. Cast wide, and cast well. But it is important, for the sake of one’s quality of life and sanity, to know when the pressure has become too great. What can be let go? When have you set yourself an unrealistic goal? Only here, at the edge of overextension, can you find your true potential and also your greatest fear. A low-level, omnipresent, groundless, sense of anxiety emanates from the cognitive dissonance that is overextension. You both know that you have to do many, many things, and know that you do not really have to do them. You are driven to do them.

If I have learned one thing from these thoughts, it is that this problem can be managed with an almost surgical application of pressure to the one commitment that was one too many, the infinitesimal straw that caused such woe to the camel. If you can do this, then the pressure relieves, and clarity returns. Only once your mind has ceased to fly or to fight, once the pressure is gone, is there the space to truly consider where the net must fall, and yet to cast it once more is to immediately begin the cycle once more.

This may seem strange, but I both love and detest the wrangling of mental energy that comes at the breaking point of the net, the feeling that one more task will break you, but one fewer will disappoint you. My advice to any others feeling this pressure is this: the problem is not the ocean, it is the net. The only control we have is the manner in which we weave it, deploy it, and manage its catch.

A Letter from Seclusion

The Turnhout Begijnhof, Toerisme Vlaanderen
The Turnhout Begijnhof, from the Toerisme Vlaanderen website

Hello All,

It took me a very long time to get around to writing this post, but I have decided to break my silence. I have been enjoying a different pace of life and adjusting to a very different set of activities and responsibilities, and for some reason this impeded my ability to write for Fluid Imaginings. I have thought of doing so many times, but the time did not seem right. Today I thought that I might write a little about the possibilities and peculiarities of taking oneself away from it all in the ultimate stages of thesis submission.

I have been living very peacefully for the last few weeks in Turnhout, a small city in Flemish Belgium close to the Dutch border. I am interning as a publishing assistant in the English language division of Brepols, a publisher that many medievalists will be familiar with. Brepols is housed within the Begijnhof of Turnhout, a former community for religious women to live together in common piety now converted to a home for retirees and UNESCO world heritage site. My current room is within the building occupied by Corpus Christianorum, creators of Greek and Latin critical editions, and current stewards of a vast library of Latin and Greek texts. My room, and its twin, are named for great monasteries of the medieval Eastern and Western Christian worlds, Subiaco in Italy and Studion in Constantinople.

This is my place of seclusion until September, when I return to Perth and submit my thesis. There are many advantages to this situation: Brepols has a library of its extensive collection of books, I have somewhere quiet to work, the surroundings are peaceful (I can hear birdsong from my window this very minute), and I am learning new skills at the same time in my editing duties.

There is a peace and pervasive air of scholarly life to this place that I have found to be good for me. Many people spend precisely this period in their PhD in comfortable environs close to supervisor, administration, and source material, but I can recommend a sharp break as a good inspiration in stressful times. I would like to stress, however, that there are certain things that one absolutely needs to finish a PhD: support, security, company, and certain resources. I only chose to do this internship because I was confident that I could continue to have these things, with the added benefit of cross-training and an adventure.

As promised, some thoughts on my circumstances. Just before PhD completion, there is a powerful urge to flee, to do something else, to move on. This is somewhat easier to overcome in familiar surroundings, but once you have fled a little to another country, momentum pushes you to flee further, into something else entirely. If you have changed this much, moved contexts this much, then why not go further? I find myself struggling to keep attached to my PhD while simultaneously spreading myself out in new directions. I am invested in and enjoy my research, but have always seen my doctoral studies as a chance to learn more about myself, to build myself, to cultivate myself. How far should one go in this pursuit? Does the ultimate end of such a process during PhD, especially in  these uncertain times, grow one out of desiring a doctorate?

Yes, and no. Yes, because the person I want to be, the professional I want to be, the academic I want to be and the doctor I want to be are all different now to when I started. I have said in a previous post that we in the Humanities are pluripotent in our uselessness, and I feel that opportunities like this internship continue to grow my possible, latent ability to make a mark on the world, to be something, to do something that I am proud of. No, because I can imagine so much more than I once could. If one ‘goes rogue’ close to submission, then it forces self-reflection about that it is that causes you to do what you do. Inertia will not carry you to submission if you break it. If you continue to redefine your context, then you must continue to re-justify your life choices to yourself.

I feel that this experience will temper me in my conviction about everything I have done thus far, or force me to reassess my desire to do certain things. Absence from the lull of campus life makes one think very carefully about what it is to be a PhD student, what it is that a PhD student does, and what comes next. I will continue to write on this topic as time passes, probably in a stream of consciousness like this one.

Until then, Be Well.


Fluid: An Ecology of the Inhuman

Hello All,

I have returned to London from Washington, D.C. after an enjoyable, thought provoking, and lively day at the George Washington Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (GW MEMSI) symposium on the topic of Ecologies of the Inhuman. I would like to thank all involved for making the day so enjoyable, and to thank Jeffrey Cohen and the wonderful people at MEMSI for being such excellent hosts. Thank you also to Ian Bogost for participating and providing a fresh and enlivening object-oriented perspective that was greatly appreciated.

As well as providing a vastly complex and scintillating insight into just what it can mean to think ecologically outside of an anthropocentric frame of reference, the symposium provided some troubling and often disturbing insights into the violence, dislocation, horror (as one audience member put it) and problematics of ecology. An enmeshed and interwoven world solves many problems that impede us, and yet raise new quandaries. In a world rendered fluid, riven, socially troubling, potentially dissolute, and intermediate by ecological thought (the dark ecology of Timothy Morton), how can an acceptance of this reality enable action, and what kind of action should it enable?

There is, by the very definition of the context in which the day took place, no definitive answer. A definitive answer would be undesirable, for it would give the illusion of permanent matrices for choice to be made. Any yet, through inspiration, I feel that there are many worlds of action waiting to unfold in co-composition with actors large and small.  I would like to offer a copy of my paper below as stimulus, to feed rumination for those who were present and engagement for those that were absent:

 *** Fluid ***

To flow is to strive against inertia, to spread forth, to become diluted by the myriad eddies of life, to become enriched by new influx. To flow is to be lost, to rush through life, to be dashed upon unfamiliar resistance, to feel turmoil within. These dynamics form a bond of historical specificities merged with material certainties across time, for the fluidity of creativity, composition and dynamism must ever inspire and unsettle in equal measure. This is something to be desired and to be feared, something that surrounds us in ecology of temporal and material motion that can no more be escaped than effect can escape cause. This paper, in its second iteration, flows through the fluid anxieties of medieval moral life, and empties itself into modern vicissitudes.

In a medieval intellectual world encapsulated by a shifting and swirling maelstrom, matter had a disturbing agency. As Augustine put it in De Doctrina Christiana, the world was to be used as a vehicle of travel, not to be enjoyed.[1] It was somewhat disturbing when the world used you. Through myriad pushings and pullings, buffetings and fluxes, the motions of the medieval world propelled not only human life, but the mobile cosmos on a grand scale. And yet while the crystalline spheres moved with reassuring and geometric grace above, the temporal world overflowed with ever combining forces.

Fundamental patterns of vital motion, the very forces that drove the cosmos, were the same forces that epitomised the flaws of temporality. The response within the human heart? Anguish. “Why do we love you, O World, as you flee from us?” entreated Alcuin of York in his poem O Mea Cella.[2] Alcuin’s ardent allegoresis of the world as addressable dissolves instantly into a torrent of inhuman motion. The answer? Contempt. In the twelfth century, Hugh of Saint-Victor described the temporal world, with all that is in it, as “flood water sweeping past, whose inundations and changing currents -whether we compare them to a flood that covers everything or to a mighty sea- are very like reality.”[3] Regarding the human heart, Hugh admonishes the reader to remember that “All things pass and flow and not a thing subsists under the sun, so that the sentence is fulfilled: vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”[4]

With flight of the world came a strong sense of anxiety, for it was inexorable and non-human. The alienating conatus of a passing world, the very stuff of mundane life in process, was a constant reminder of temporality in unfavourable comparison with the unblemished empyrean heavens. In his twelfth century De Contemptu Mundi, Bernard of Cluny evoked the trope of the fugitive world in a powerful display of spiritual pathos. “See how the whirling courses of things hasten away, like streams of water. The world’s glory has fallen and fled and vanished in the cycle of days…Its position is unfixed, its status is unstable. It goes and it returns, like the sea, now bad and tomorrow even worse.”[5]

What of we moderns, caught as we are in a sea of our own? As our institutions crumble, our cultures intermingle, our grasp on the triumphant anthropocentrism of the Enlightenment fades, what must we do? Alcuin and Hugh sought order in the intricacies of spiritual edifice, and yet even our minds flow away before us, leading to destinations tantalising and terrible. Flow is both our greatest distraction, and our most vibrant opportunity. Tim Ingold eloquently captures this when he argues the “ocean of materiality” humanity inhabits “is not the bland homogeneity of different shades of matter but a flux in which materials of the most diverse kinds, through processes of admixture and distillation, of coagulation and dispersal, and of evaporation and precipitation, undergo continual generation and transformation.”[6]

We can synthesise, we can build and we can strengthen, but we must allow ourselves the flexibility to flow with the forces that roil around us. To quote Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert, “catastrophes precede and follow any stability; failures inevitably arrive. In such moments of perturbation we behold the web of interrelationships that constitutes and sustains our own worldedness. Cataclysms inevitably shatter such ecological meshworks, but failure is an invitation to dwell more carefully, fashion more capacious perspectives, and do better.[7] Perhaps, in imitation of our medieval forebears, we can invest ourselves in cultivating our observer position in the heart of ecology so that we too might seek that which is worthy of lasting affective engagement. Our response? Fluid.

[1]    De Doctrina Christiana, Book 1, Chapters 3-5. For an online edition, see: <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/12021.htm>

[2]    “cur te fugitivum, mundus, amamus?” For Latin text, see: <http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/alcuin/cella.shtml>

[3]    Noah’s Ark III, ‘De Vanitate Mundi’, in Hugh of St. Victor, Selected Spiritual Writings / Translated by a Religious of C.S.M.V., with an Introduction by Aelred Squire, O.P. (London: Faber, 1962), pp. 175-176.

[4]     ‘Hugh of Saint Victor: Theology and Interiority’, in Ineke van ’t Spijker, Fictions of the Inner Life: Religious Literature and Formation of the Self in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 119-120.

[5]    Ronald E. Pepin (trans.), Scorn for the world: Bernard of Cluny’s De contemptu mundi : the Latin text with English translation and an introduction. (East Lansing MI: Michigan State University Colleagues Press, 1991), Book 1, p. 71.

[6]     Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description. (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 24.

[7]     Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and Lowell Duckert, ‘Howl’, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, 4 (2013),  p. 4.

Biomimetic Humanities?: Some thoughts

Patterns in Sand. Courtesy of Martyn Gorman via a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Hello All,

The last few weeks have seen a lot of activity and intellectual engagement, and the inevitable catalyst of such interactions has comingled, percolated and vigorously hybridised many ideas within my head. Today I would like to talk about one of these ideas, or more precisely about a meeting point between ideas that has started to coalesce.

While at the recent ANZAMEMS conference in Melbourne, I gave a talk based on some work I have previously presented, but with an increasing emphasis on the relationship between historical (primarily pre-modern European) engagements with the world of materials and interactions that surround us and intersect with life, and the shaping of the inner environment, the world of ideas. This is the principle focus of my thesis, focusing upon the role of water as a Medieval Intellectual Entity, a creator of ideas through materiality and structure as well as a repository for those very ideas. In my talk, entitled Waves in Translation: Our Once and Future Emotional Relationship with the Ocean, I attempted to bring the medieval shaping of thought-space and affect in co-composition and non-composition with the ocean into dialogue with some of the problems of modernity.

This project has given me some ideas for a new project that combines some of the inchoate trends in Ecomaterialism and New Materialism emerging within medieval studies literary criticism and ecocriticism, the growth of Environmental Humanities, the Elemental Philosophy of David Macauley and others (a topic i’ve put into dialogue with the work of Gaston Bachelard in this article), and some interesting intellectual history and anthropology work on the natural world (books like Jamie Linton’s What is Water? or the work of Tim Ingold come to mind). What is the focus of this new project? As the title of this post implies, I am interested in exploring biomimicry, defined as follows by the biomimicry institute:

“The core idea [of biomimicry] is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with.”

~Biomimicry Institute – What is Biomimicry?

This definition, usually applied to the design of technology, challenges us to study nature based on three criteria:

Nature as model: Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then emulates these forms, process, systems, and strategies to solve human problems – sustainably.

Nature as measure: Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the sustainability of our innovations.  After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned what works and what lasts.

Nature as mentor: Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature.  It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but what we can learn from it.

This is quite vague, but I am interested in the following question: If we live in a world of non-human agency and scope, dense interactivity, profound affective entanglements and vast challenges or failures, then how might we adapt the model, measure and mentoring capacities of nature? Although I have a lot of problems with with word ‘nature’, and would perhaps replace it with Timothy Morton’s ‘ecological thought’, I feel that there is opportunity to draw from material across discipline (literature, historical source, philosophy), across culture (how are imaginings of ecological pattern and form culturally constructed?), and across time (how does a historical perspective offer cases that can be compared or contrasted with modernity?).

We face so many conceptual problems in the 21st century: climate change, environmental degradation, water crises, population growth. Can we develop an adaptive humanities that draws on the standards and patterns of the inhuman world to redefine or advance humanism? What could we shape within our methodologies, patterns of research and choices of arrangement from a study of nature? There are so many possibilities emerging: new temporalities, new scales, new ethics, new standards, new forces. How can we learn from these across the myriad planes of inquiry upon which our discourse is based? Although I feel that a detailed study of the complexities of life beyond human exceptionalism has started to unlock so much, perhaps a study of the process by which we reshape ourselves could teach us more. Some food for thought in the coming months.

I must away to start on the strenuous path to thesis completion, but will post more soon. Until then, take care.



The Pluripotency of Uselessness

A Pluripotent Stem Cell: Courtesy of Kalmar et al., PLoS Biology 2009, via a CC Attribution 2.5 generic license

Hello All,

I have recently been thinking a lot about a word I love: pluripotency. Usually used to refer to cells that are undifferentiated, the word sparks off my imagination with Latin-etymology-mania-derived thoughts of the many powers of a thing un-manifested, of having a great many (plurimus) powers (n. potentia). The medical definition of the word pluripotent includes a quality that appeals to me, the state of being “not fixed as to potential development”.

This word, to my mind, epitomises the quality, the powers, the potentia, of a Liberal Arts scholar. A recent article by Nigel Tubbs in the Times Higher Ed, entitled ‘The importance of being useless,” argued that the recent growth of the Liberal Arts degree in the UK (a recent development vis a vis the US), can help recuperate education as the “practice of freedom,” as Paulo Freire called it:

If [students] are going to have to go into debt for their degree, then they are determined to spend the money on something they are really going to enjoy and that does not necessarily mean a degree directly linked to a career.

The transformational quality of the liberal arts to create free (liber) citizens in an increasingly instrumentalist world is, to my mind, an essential point to consider.

As a scholar profoundly interested in the ecomimetic and biomimetic qualities of thought, I feel that our old friend pluripotency should enter the fray in this debate. If we follow the Classical Adage of Publilius Syrus that “debt is the slavery of the free,” then following the litterae humaniores is something of a Faustian pact: gain intellectual freedom, lose fiscal freedom. And yet, despite the ‘encumberance’ of our so-called ‘uselessness’, we are powerful, we are powerful in diverse ways, we are pluripotent. Despite the potential shackles of following a path lacking in fiscal utility, we are free to be anything, many things, all things. More crucially, we can imagine the path to our being.

I leave you with this exhortation: you are not useless, you are formless. You are not a tool to be used for a single use, you are a swiss army knife. You are not one thing, but always-already potentially anything or anyone. You can be complex, multifaceted and resplendent. Some of your potentia may gain you an income, others may be a pursuit of pure joy. We live in a world of increasingly diversifying and fluid roles and competencies. Go with that flow, express your potential by building your freedom, practise your manifold virtue. As Bruce Lee tells us, empty your mind and be formless. Adopt the form of the octopus or its more militant formal cousin, the hydra. If one of your heads is severed, strike with a new one. If a tentacle fails to apprehend a goal, deploy another. You are not fixed as to your potential development.

After all, potens (power) is derived from potis (capability)…

Worst case scenario, you can be the plot of a romantic comedy.