“A Music Numerous as Space”: Cognitive Environment and the House that Lyric Builds
Abstract and Keywords
This article examines the concept of cognitive environment in relation to ecocriticism. It discusses Gaston Bachelard’s analysis, in his The Poetics of Space, of historian Jules Michelet’s work depicting the building of a bird’s nest. It suggests that the corporeal act of nest-building may then be argued to imply the continuity of an organism and its environment and that the notion of enclosure is built into any ecology or Thoreavian economy.
…to move things is all that mankind can do, for such the sole executant is muscle, whether in whispering a syllable or in felling a forest.
—Charles Sherrington, 1924
The Birds begun at Four o’clock—
Their period for Dawn—
A Music numerous as space—
But neighboring as Noon—
—Emily Dickinson, Poem 783
Dwelling at the Breast
In the first of his pantheistic natural histories, the 1856 tract, L’Oiseau, historian Jules Michelet depicts the building of a bird’s nest:
On the inside…the instrument that prescribes a circular form for the nest is nothing else but the body of the bird. It is by constantly turning round and round and pressing back the walls on every side, that it succeeds in forming this circle…. The house is a bird’s very person; it is its form and its most immediate effort, I shall even say, its suffering. The result is only obtained by constantly repeated pressure of the breast. There is not one of these blades of grass that, in order to make it curve and hold the curve, has not been pressed on countless times by the bird’s breast, its heart, surely with difficulty in breathing, perhaps even, with palpitations.1
(qtd. in Bachelard 101)
(p. 441) This passage is taken up a century later by Gaston Bachelard, who explicates it in his phenomenology of intimate enclosure, The Poetics of Space. In his view, Michelet’s bird illustrates what Victor Hugo calls “the function of inhabiting” (Bachelard 90), which is enabled in turn by “the strange, symmetrical, immediate, almost consubstantial flexibility of a man and an edifice” (Bachelard 91). In writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo had conceived of the soul and physiognomy of Quasimodo as formed by his in habitation of the alcoves and niches of Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Michelet’s account of nest-building—a visionary architecture as much as it is an ornithological report—suggests that the libido of the creature-builder flows outward and into a dwelling that is consequently infused with its being. Yielding to the contours of the breast, the nest becomes both extension of, and complement to, the bird’s physicality. In the course of home-making, the outward pressure exerted by the animal (its ex-pression, if you will) organicizes what is expressed; in Bachelard’s words, “[t]he nest” becomes “a swelling fruit, pressing against its limits” (101). The envisioning of the ontology of tenant and home as “almost consubstantial” by all three thinkers serves to recast the spiritual continuity and unity of Michelet’s pantheism as a physical reciprocity between bird and nest, an Emersonian physical fact of bi-directional influence. The corporeal act of nest-building may then be argued to imply the continuity of an organism and its environment.
Self-expression is the representative activity of the poet, and the result of such expenditure, as Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us, is that “[t]he man is only half himself, the other half is his expression” (448). This aphorism, drawn from the essay, “The Poet,” is directly preceded by the statement “…we study to utter our painful secret” (448). The palpitations of Michelet’s bird suggest not only pain, but a pathological suffering that is here vented muscularly, at the chest from whence originates the agent of poesis—the breath. Suffering expressed through the rhythms of song and intensified in the singing is a time-honored poetic modus, but the ramifications of nest-building to the dynamics of poem-making suggest affinities linking these pursuits that enrich the simple association of birds with the afflicted poet-singer. As Henry David Thoreau intuits during his experiment in self-reliant simplicity at Walden Pond, poetic value inheres in the very act of building one’s house:
There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their own dwellings with their own hands…, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! We do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveler with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? What does architecture amount to in the experience of the mass of men? I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house. (300–301)
Thoreau’s wisdom insists that the simple and the mundane part company as the home-made is elevated to the level of the poetic, and the mass-produced is concurrently (p. 442) devalued. As he points out, singing also conveys the pleasure of home construction, and, in fact, suffering and rejoicing give rise to polar lyric moods that are nevertheless intimately intertwined. The bird, spent at last in palpitation, is at length attenuated; poetic self-expression is achieved only at a cost. Yet, the bird also has reason to celebrate its creative enlargement achieved via the affiliated tasks of singing and building. There is something about the strenuously self-expressive and local act of providing shelter—the metaphoric feat of home-making—that is, as these two passages suggest, intrinsically poetic.
The spatial dimension of lyric poetry is an implicit presence, something sensed as it were, part of the mythos of the form. Poems, as the legends of poets would have it, are houses. Conceived of by custom as an architectonic entity, the poem is constructed of the overlay of rooms, of the elaborate formation of stanzas—the intricate bejeweled salons of the Renaissance sonnet or the “pretty” chambers Donne set out in earnest to erect. Northrop Frye, in fact, attributes the effect of lyricality to the stanzaic unit that he contends “may impart a lyrical quality even to a long continuous poem: The Fairie Queene seems ‘lyrical’ in a way that Paradise Lost does not” (34). What is perhaps a central clue to lyric spatiality is lodged within the term “verse,” heir to the Latin versus, the turning (or the turning back) that permits the tilling of a field, an alternative unit of apportioned domesticity. Charles Olson’s mid-twentieth-century poetics of “field composition” recalls the etymology in order to renovate the form by bursting out of stanzaic constraints to reclaim the field as the fundamental compositional unit. According to the conceit, the poet marks off a plot of ground, traverses it in order to cultivate, that is, to manipulate it to his own ends, an aim the bird achieves via the tool of the breast pressing on raw material. The turning back at the edges of the evolving structure recapitulates the bird’s rotational movements, but here the (poetic) foot is the organ and implement of pressure.
The partitioned unity given by the metaphors of “stanza” and “field” reflects the lyric reversion from the linear thrust of language and the resultant dimensionality that characterizes the lyric poem. For present purposes, “room” and “field” will be regarded as more or less interchangeable tropes: the domesticating activities of cultivation and building function as overarching metaphors for human action into and within the environment. In its agricultural sense, cultivation “converts” the earth into a beneficent force, establishing thereby a system of interchange in which ontological flow is in fact bi-directional. It is not only that man is sustained, enlivened by this fundamental instance of barter; his environs are constituted of his effluence. The root “hum” common to “human,” “humus” (soil), and also “humble” evokes within this image the consubstantiality attributed to bird and nest, suggesting that verse is built of a material exchange. It is precisely this realization that led Wallace Stevens to revise the opening declaration of “The Comedian as the Letter C” from “[m]an is the intelligence of his soil” to “his soil is man’s intelligence” (CP 27, 36) and to acknowledge, thereby, that the line between mind and matter is not so clearly defined. Michelet’s interpretation of the event of building likewise rejects the Western tradition that regards the space contiguous to the animal as a bloodless, geometric abstraction in favor of an embodied view of adjacency (p. 443) as informing, enlivening consubstantiality. In this thinking, inhabited space transcends geometry (Bachelard 47).
Further, the notion of enclosure—and thus a degree of stability or substantiality—is built into any ecology, or Thoreavian economy, as both words derive from the Greek oikos, or “house.” Building establishes its bi-directional flow; it makes of said interchange an establishment that is, in Bachelard’s way of thinking, deeply intimate and immediate, what he refers to as a “garment-house” (101). In describing the construction of his own dwelling, Thoreau finds refuge in a different organic metaphor:
This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me, and reacted on the builder. It was suggestive somewhat as a picture in outlines. I did not need to go outdoors to take the air, for the atmosphere within had lost none of its freshness. It was not so much within doors as behind a door where I sat, even in the rainiest weather (338).
The garment-house is in this rendering translucent and reactive, shaping the builder as it frames his view of the out-of-doors. Thoreau ensconces himself not simply within his home, but near a threshold with imminent access to what lies beyond. In his symbolism, the sheltering edifice becomes a metaphor for the other consummate medium of making—perception:
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. (343)
What are most fitting to us, in other words, are our own imaginative constructions including, fundamentally, our perceptions. The insight that we render artistically the “atmosphere,” the medium through which we perceive, and engage thereby in a supreme practice of making, is profound. Thoreau’s pronouncement sets up Walden’s famous mandate to live “deliberately” by “front[ing] only the essential facts of life” (343), which is directed specifically at the process of constructing one’s house: “It would be worth the while to build still more deliberately than I did, considering, for instance, what foundation a door, a window, a cellar, a garret, have in the nature of man, and perchance never raising any superstructure until we found a better reason for it than our temporal necessities even” (300). By “temporal,” Thoreau means both transitory and earthly; anticipating pragmatism, he prods his audience to evaluate the long-term returns of both physical and spiritual actions so that they may be compared on a kind of balance sheet to the effort expended in their execution.2 The urgency for such evaluation is extended to imaginative effort, which must be “worthy of the contemplation of [our] most elevated and critical hour,” and it is with this gesture that Thoreau uncovers the artistic or poetic value of constructing the house of perception. The house built deliberately, economically is—symbolically and actually—“the very medium through which we look,” necessarily erected at and establishing the border between self and environment. For such a (p. 444) “garment-house” to fit, it must be stitched conscientiously of meet actions, of carefully weighed decisions. It must conform to the builder if it is to serve its function to be sturdy yet permeable.
To probe both the native spatiality of lyric poetry and the innately poetical quality of the house, to grasp the significance of the poem’s peculiar method of imparting a sense of transit, of inscribed demarcation, dimensionality and enclosure, one must conceive of space as the emergent consequence of the lyric’s deep investment in perception and action, the creative wellsprings and structuring dynamics evoked and engaged in the experience of the lyric poem. The poem’s sense of apportioned space reflects the dynamics in play at the immediate juncture at which an organism actively accommodates itself to an environment using perceptual and motor tactics to engage in the cognitive processes implicated in the function of inhabiting and the habitat it constructs. To fully comprehend the poetic idea of the garment house, it is necessary to visit the fundamental faculty of perception.
To account for spatial apprehension within his proto-phenomenological treatise, The Principles of Psychology, William James grounds the availability of spatial knowledge in perception. He begins “The Perception of Space,” the chapter he dedicates to the topic, “with the direct observation that a sense of space accompanies acts of perception within most sense modalities. All spatial knowledge,” he observes, “is at bottom sensorial” (152). The range of each of the sensory systems, from the limits of taste in interiority to vision’s terminus at the horizon, then, modifies corporeal reach in evoking spatial awareness. The first thing that bears noting about lyric space in light of this simple observation is that it is not necessary to make an abstract or theoretical argument for its existence, because an inchoate spatial quality may be said to accompany the derivative perceptual experience of the mental images poetry occasions.3
James next posits that the perceptual experience of space yields, to varying degrees of exactitude, the quality of voluminousness or vastness. Vastness is in fact the primary sensation within the experience of space, the quality that makes all others possible (135), and yet, in itself vastness yields an impression that is void of order (145).4 To become subject to our grasp, space must first be demarcated. The primordial expanses yielded by sensation must “be measured and subdivided by consciousness, and added together, before they can form by their synthesis what we know as the real Space of the objective world” (145).5 The modality most capable of intricate subdivision, of “perceiving space to be composed of lesser portions simultaneously coexisting alongside of each other” and within one another, is vision (136). For James, the visual nesting of spatial units within larger ones imparts “the very rudiment of order” (147).6
The transition from a vague feeling of capaciousness to a precise specification of space is then the transition to understanding: (p. 445)
[The] entrance [of the idea] into the mind is equivalent to a more detailed subdivision, cognizance, and measurement of the space considered. The bringing of subdivisions to consciousness constitutes, then, the entire process by which we pass from our first vague feeling of a total vastness to a cognition of the vastness in detail. The more numerous the subdivisions are, the more elaborate and perfect the cognition becomes. (152)
James emphasizes the way in which a backdrop of spatial ambiguity—some melodious Keatsian plot—foregrounds the partitioning that permits the apprehension of one’s surroundings. In the first stanza of Poem 783 quoted in the epigraph, Emily Dickinson uses the adjective “numerous” to modify the nouns “music” and, by virtue of comparison, “space,” eschewing the expected “voluminous.” Although volume is the appropriate concept for measuring space with objective accuracy, she instead asserts the fact of the divisibility of space and enacts, rather than denotes, its division into component units. The word “numerous,” of course, entails the notion of number, of poetic foot and musical measure, but it also acknowledges that vacant space may be quantified, lent divisibility and rendered graspable. Notably, James qualifies hearing as a sense capable of evoking relative vastness but particularly resistant to subdivision. Dickinson goes one step further in recognizing that scission is among the functions of the medium of song and that the divisions of poems and homes permit the apprehension of the spaces they delimit.
James’s analysis of spatial apprehension is qualitative, not only in its focus, but also in its origin. Remarkably, his far-reaching work is based in great part on introspection. Reconciling qualitative experience with the incommensurate realm of physical reality (and especially the brain) is, of course, one of the major tasks facing present-day philosophy. To broach the problem, Gerald Edelman begins by maintaining that it is reasonable to assume that the brain must be capable of generating the features of consciousness. Writing with Giulio Tononi, he postulates that the physical substrate must share the structural and dynamic qualities of consciousness, including integrity and differentiation, if it is to be productive of them (143, 146–52).7 The function of differentiation upon which subdivision depends is in fact salient in the early phase of visual perception, in which information is processed in parallel; once triggering stimuli in the form of electro-magnetic radiation have been selected from the environment and received by the neurons in the retina, they are isolated and processed on parallel optic tracks that do not initially interact.8 At this level, and henceforth, the brain engages in a series of contrast mechanisms that accord significance to the divisions the sensory systems have created. Differentiation is a scalar process: as discrete information is eventually associated and merged into neuronal networks, progressively larger assemblies of neurons are contrasted through oscillating rhythms until the brain is able to distinguish a neural correlate of the self from a neural correlate of the non-self (Brains 56). The function of the sensory systems is first—though not exclusively—to articulate into meaningful divisions the input it has selected from the environment and to differentiate it into features by means of neuronal contrast mechanisms.9
(p. 446) Perceiving Space
Perception is also an original, constructive faculty, but if its revelations were unconnected to the world, it would be quite literally maladaptive. Logically, survival depends on a degree of correlation between the environment and the percept that specifies it. The perceptual significance of environmental information was first explored by psychologist James J. Gibson ini his 1979 study, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. In this landmark text, Gibson challenges the then-current experimental model by liberating the subject from his restrained, quiescent posture in the laboratory chair in order to make possible the study of ambient vision, enabled by looking around, and ambulatory vision, enabled by walking around. With an attention to first-hand perceptual experience reminiscent of James, Gibson replaces the physical understanding of a world constituted of matter with an ecological understanding of world made up of media affording the transmission of information and substances, environmental constituents with properties, especially surfaces, that are potentially available to perception. It is this ecological, cognitive definition of substance that is relevant herein.
Gibson begins with the observation that the minimal viscosity of air, the medium in which birds and animals subsist, both facilitates their movement and permits the transmission of light, which bounces off surfaces and reverberates until the medium achieves a saturation point in ambience (50). The study of what he names “ecological optics” is concerned with the information that is available for perception as a result of the reflection of light off the surfaces of substances (16–18, 47, 50). As surfaces variously absorb, reflect, transmit, or project light (30–31), these heterogeneous facades that comprise objects and separate them from the medium and from one another become the aspects of an environment available to perception (22, 94). Surfaces enable perception because they feature textural differences within themselves and may be differentiated from other surfaces by virtue of their borders (23, 52). Gibson refers to the layouts of relative opacity, translucency, and transparency they enable as the ambient optic array: the environing field of view consisting of visual angles formed by light reflecting off surfaces and converging at the eye, and thus existing only relative to the viewer (53–54).
Movement is critical to Gibson’s understanding of perception, for by moving, an organism disturbs the ambient optic array in altering its structure (103) and determines thereby which aspects of the array are more or less invariant (73). What remains stable through movement specifies a structural layout (89), while instability may specify either the motion of the perceiver or the motion of substances in the environment (73). Perception functions by extracting invariants from the flux and ascertaining the structure that persists in the way that the revolutionary motion of the bird confirms the familiar contours of the nest. It gives access to affordances—what the environment offers the organism for its use as determined by both the environment and the animal cognizing it. Affordances are not subjective properties of the environment, then, but rather those that are significant relative to the organism (Turvey and Shaw 97).
The visual heterogeneity that in Gibson’s model affords an understanding of the environment is constituted of borders, edges, corners, and brinks—sites of distinction that (p. 447) are consequential to the organism. They furnish contact, as by grasping, or avoidance, as not falling off a cliff and into the vague (29). Analogously, discontinuity is an affordance—perhaps the defining affordance—of lyric, a genre characterized by the use of lineation. By means of its tendency to disjoin its unit structures, lyric poetry registers and exploits the innate structuring tendencies an environment offers and a mind enacts. Within the various metaphorical conceptions of lyric space, the brink that is the poetic line break becomes the wall, the periphery of the field or nest, beyond which is the unknown from which one reverts necessarily upon the withdrawal into interiority, upon perceiving. The brink at line’s end is the edge of the fertile, or the negotiable, of positive affordance. It marks the limits of the terrain in which one is at home while simultaneously exposing one to the ambiguity of the undefined, or the vague, afforded by the use of, for example, enjambment.
What is it that Dickinson’s Birds “begun” at “Four o’clock”? At the limit of this, the poem’s first line, possibility is vented and meaning is undetermined. With the shift of viewpoint onto line two, the information that the object of the past participle “begun” (oddly deprived of an auxiliary verb) is “Their period for Dawn—” becomes available and meaning is recovered. The fact that this second line is demarcated allows us to the grasp the idea that the period was begun “for” or “on behalf of” Dawn. Yet it is necessary to re-orient ourselves only slightly to see that beyond this self-contained and cohesive unit lies further possibility if we take “for Dawn” to mean “because Dawn” and in so doing to initiate a new clause. The potential vista opened as the clause is curtailed at line’s end is then occluded (yet still present to knowledge) by the entrance of an object appositional to “Their period”: “A Music numerous as space—” with which the Birds (have/had) begun to define and to fill their Period.
Gibson further observes that surfaces available for perception are characteristically disposed in a continuous, nested hierarchy.10 Visual nesting occurs because nearer surfaces occlude more distant ones. Occluding surfaces are visual clues for “depth” as the effect of nesting gives rise to a sense of behindness (Gibson 77); they purvey the knowledge of behindness which one might access if one were to venture around an entity, analogously by troping, or turning to examine its anterior surfaces, its poetic depth or interpretive possibility—the meaning beyond. Lyric poetry’s ability to nest “episodes within episodes, subordinate ones and superordinate ones,” to use Gibson’s language (101) does not effect occlusion literally. Yet, by virtue of its propensity to embed lines within sentences, sentences and phrases within lines and stanzas and to foreground words (and the word is heftier and more prominent within poetry) salient subunits may indeed obscure the meaning of their contexts at the same time they fit into them as into a picture. Truncated as it is, the subordinate clause “for Dawn” is nested within the line in which it appears as a prepositional phrase: focusing on the former usage obscures the fact that the period is intended for dawn, as a gift. In addition, the alternate meaning one might assign to the word “period” of sentence-ending punctuation mark allows us to interpret these first lines to mean that the birds “begun” to confirm the conclusion of dawn by punctuating it. A paradox inheres in the co-extensiveness of the past and present given by the two meanings of “period” that render an extent of time that is just beginning even as its ending is signaled. The paradox is recapitulated by the use of the (p. 448) verb form “begun”: the replacement of the expected imperfect “began” by the lone past participle indicates that the action has been completed in the past, if we infer the helping verb “had,” or that it has only just begun, if we prefer the auxiliary “have.” Surfaces and brinks may afford mutually exclusive usages, as a cliff may offer protection, as from an enemy, or death, as from falling. Entertaining alternate and at times mutually exclusive affordances, bringing them forward into our grasp while maintaining knowledge of what lies behind, provides us with an understanding of the poem that accommodates potential perspectives and is thereby richly conceptual. The line structure of a poem allows one to make various uses of the poem while not foreclosing upon the possibility in which Dickinson wished to dwell.11
The act of perceiving, then, assumes three co-extensive orders: the qualitative distinctions of James’s psychology; their corresponding enaction at the neurological level; and the analogue of both: the borders affording perception within Gibson’s environment. Perceptual attention distinguishes space and in so doing abstracts the lighted structure of the world around us in order to build percepts. A cognitive propensity to distinguish is adapted to a landscape of difference.
The liberation of the viewer into action permits the definition of cognitive environment as that which is perceptually available to an organism; in Gibson’s words, the “surroundings of those organisms that perceive and behave” (7). What the organism is afforded by its surroundings are possibilities for behavior (Gibson 96, Turvey and Shaw 97). (Likewise, linguistic objects and events afford potential interpretative behavior to one conversant with and liberated within a language.) In this theory, behavior (movement) enables perception by changing the ambient optic array. The recuperation of movement as a necessary agent within perception has also been adopted within constructivist models of the faculty that entwine it with action in a single, indivisible activity. The most radical of these, Francisco Varela’s Buddhist-inspired “enactionism,” is built on two premises: the first and most relevant herein is that “Perception consists in perceptually guided action” (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 173). With this claim, Varela merges perception and action into a single process and in so doing gives prominence to embodied sensory-motor structures in the shaping of the exterior world. In his own words:
[T]he point of departure for the enactive approach is the study of how the perceiver can guide his actions in his local situation. Since these local situations constantly change as a part of the perceiver’s activity, the reference point for understanding perception is no longer a pregiven, perceiver-independent world but rather the sensorimotor structure of the perceiver (the way in which the nervous systems link sensory and motor surfaces). This structure—the manner in which the perceiver is embodied—rather than some pregiven world determines how the perceiver can act and be modulated by environmental events. (173)
(p. 449) The emphasis in this quotation is Varela’s, but the passage emphasized could apply to Michelet’s interpretation of nest-building. In the parable of the bird, the shape of the breast allows the organism to act upon and shape environmental events (the natural ingredients of the nest) and to be “modulated” by them on a perceptual level. Action shapes perception, the tailoring of environmental events to the perceiver, and perception serves action. This connection is forged within the neurobiology of the organism as well.
Thus the overall concern of an enactive approach to perception is not to determine how some perceiver-independent world is to be recovered; it is, rather, to determine the common principles or lawful linkages between sensory and motor systems that explain how action can be perceptually guided in a perceiver-dependent world.
A representative mechanism of sensory-motor connection has been theorized by neuroscientist Walter Freeman, who disturbs the longstanding linear, cause-to-effect trajectory that saw the percept’s terminus in action in order to prioritize the constructive role the body plays in shaping its perceptual grasp of the world. Redefining analytic intentionality—the concept of the “aboutness” of mental contents or their relationship to the objects in the outer world at which they are directed—he conceives intentionality as rather the means by which organisms proactively position themselves to perceive. Intentionality is relocated from the organismic action into the environment that constructs the perception. At the neurological level, it is “[t]he process by which goal-directed actions are generated in the brains of humans and other animals” (Brains 8). Using the past results of similar actions as a guide, the brain predicts the perceptual result of an intended action and acts—or does not act—accordingly. An intentional action may be as simple as the turning of the head to confirm the source of a noise visually. The bird’s incremental adjustment of its position within the nest is intentional in this sense. As action determines perception, the directionality of the perceptual process is in its full sense an outward directionality. The problem of the passivity of the observer was perhaps the central flaw of Locke’s epistemology, and it is one Freeman remedies by inverting the ingrained understanding of the agent/patient relationship within perception so that the outside, the environment, also exhibits the feminine quality of pliancy: “The form of the nest is commanded by the inside” (Bachelard 101).
The long-standing prioritizing of perception in relation to action assumed that the mind represents the world as it is and subsequently acts upon its representation. The prioritizing of action assumes that a representation of the world is co-constructed by the organism of its past experience (memory), the parameters of its capacity for action (the limits of its body), and perceptual input (its environment). On a neurological level, intentionality is enabled by the phenomenon Freeman names “preafference,” which involves a corollary discharge of the plan of action: “When a motor plan is sent to the motor systems in preparation for innervation of the spinal column, a ‘copy’ of the plan is simultaneously relayed to the sensory cortices to enable them to predict the sensory consequences of the intended action” (“Consciousness” 151). Through preafference, (p. 450) the organism “imagines” how its projected actions might alter the position of the sense organs (the eyes, the ears, the fingertips, the breast) within their environment (Freeman 2000 33). The senses are thereby primed to anticipate particular stimulation, and such expectation shapes the percept on a neurological level. Percepts have been implicitly acted into: they have been actively (whether voluntarily or not) sought and constructed. To integrate Thoreau into this theory, deliberate action leads to a most fitting carving of the air. Living deliberately is living with an eye to the selection of an action that constructs a best perception and in so doing affects the quality of the day.
We have before us two divergent philosophies that privilege action in the construction of the perception of space. Varela’s enactionism and Freeman’s neurodynamics focus on the way specific embodiedness shapes percepts, while Gibson’s ecological optics provides a justification for a cognitive continuity between organism and environment in a search for a realistic basis for perception in optical structures. The work of Varela and Freeman stresses the constructivist function of perception, the way that input is reassembled under the constraints of organismic history and physical embodiment to form percepts that remake the world as it is. A notorious example is the qualitative experience of color, which does not necessarily correspond to the physical definition of color as a wavelength range of electro-magnetic radiation. It is this kind of example that leads Freeman into an epistemological solipsism: the idea, shared by Wallace Stevens, that we cannot know the world objectively because it eludes our capabilities to do so. I am suggesting that this view is not incompatible with Gibson’s claim that the concept of the affordance is evidence of a kind of realism, or of the connectedness of perception and environment. We couldn’t grasp an object, for example, if its edges were not where we suppose them to be. The variegation or array of sites of distinction within the layout of a cognitive environment are the points of connection between the two. The marking off, the surveying of a homestead implicit within the notion of verse is enabled by, and gives rise to, the fitting structures that establish the complementarity of the expandable organism and its environment.
Each of these theories concedes that the perceiving body moves in space and, as a result, perceives differently. Spatial apprehension is shaped by movement, which constructs perception (and thus the perception of space) both neurologically and by shifting the vantage point of the observer in order to confirm transience and relative permanence, per Gibson. Traversing involves a repositioning, which for the bird-poet takes the form of turning or troping, where troping—figuration—becomes the revised vantage point enabled by verbal action. The movement of the builder/farmer demands that an understanding of lyric space be forged in terms of the organism’s changing experience.12 In the lyric poem and in Michelet’s nest, space is an experiential and not an abstract phenomenon. The poem is a nest of shifting orientation that inscribes one’s position, or more properly disposition—one’s tone, or indeed attitude (in at once a kinaesthetic and a moral or emotional sense); it is a space created by the breath-driven revolutions of the bird, a home that at all points makes reference to the body of its inhabitant. What the poet encloses with the end of understanding, are its own limits—the limits of its bodily self, which are at times narrow and defined and at times extend into unanticipated vistas. The house and the field and their poetic counterparts are then transitional spaces in (p. 451) which an exterior is actively made interior, and an interior refashions what is outside in order to comprehend it. A home is a space tailored with reference to the body and grasped as it is disposed. It is an expressed composition of the outside; the manipulated space of positive affordance; the way a speaker delimits and apportions for comprehension the perceptually extended borders of its self.
Varela’s second principle for enactionism, that cognitive structures emerge from “the recurrent sensorimotor patterns that enable action to be perceptually guided,” is also applicable herein (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 173). His idea that conception emerges from the more fundamental activity of perception and action is an insight shared by Gibson and Freeman, and it allows one to read a poem comprised of concept-laden language as a perceptual act. There is, appropriately, a mythos surrounding poetic language that invests it with the dual powers of agency and acute perceptual awareness. Poetic words are actors: the term “utterance” itself bespeaks an expressive or outward gesturing in which the expulsion of the breath is emblematic of poetic action. “Words and deeds are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy” observes Emerson (290). This notion of the word as efficacious actor, as disembodied mover, the word of the fiat lux or the decree to the stately pleasure dome is an idea deeply rooted in the Western tradition.
Equally tenacious within Western poetics is the idea that the poetic word is situated on, or directly informed by, an irrepressible perceptual stream. The notion that lyric poetry inscribes an attention to perception and both registers and prompts its processes subtends radically dissimilar poetry and poetics and has instigated the spilling of much critical ink. For example, Coleridge bases the dynamic of his creative, secondary imagination in the perceptual dynamic driving the primary imagination (263). The idea is also germinal and constitutive for the figure who is perhaps the Romantics’ best critic, Charles Olson, who prescribes that the momentum of the faculty be enacted in the poem where “[o]ne perception must flow instanter on the other” (17). Each poetics seeks to tap into the current of unreflective (that is, unconscious or marginally conscious) perception, presumably in order to preserve it in its essence. As lyric poetry imagines the word as an enactor or creator of a world and as a constructed image of a world, its spatial sense may be seen to inhere in the lexical interplay of perceived and enacted space.
Given the insights offered by Michelet, Thoreau, and James, it is perhaps inevitable to explain this last assertion by turning to the principal experimental poetics of the nineteenth century. It goes without saying that the poems of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman evoke divergent senses of space. In the light of biography in particular, it is easy to read Dickinson as a poet of enclosure, of bounded domesticity and withdrawal, and all the more so when her warren-like compositions are set against the foil of Whitmanian illimitability. The latter’s near-contemporaneous technique, in which one long line pulls the reader around to the next, and lists are all-inclusive and presume, with every entry, (p. 452) their own continuation, stands in strong opposition to the former’s poetics of concision.13 If the lyric repertoire features means of subdivision, the poetry of Emily Dickinson is exemplary in its lyricism: its bent toward scission is amplified by the veer of her pervasive dash, which also serves to foreground the units it segregates, producing, at times, a nesting effect of occlusion. The curtailed extension of line effected by the punctuation mark heightens the poem’s propensity to fold back in upon itself and to refer internally, creating thereby an architectonics. The presentation of the poems suggests containment, stability, graspability at the same time it allows for many changes of perspective. Hers is a poetics of disjunction, and, per James, it should and does render conceptual complexity.
Yet, Dickinson’s structural pretensions to sequestering domesticity belie the penetrability of her domiciles by the undomesticated. On the one hand labyrinthine structures housing oddly-shaped Quasimodos, her poems are yet Thoreauvian frameworks letting in the air. Every disjunction provokes (as it records) a moment of disorientation, an imbalance that is acknowledged and intensified by the use of off-rhyme and marks the necessity and the opportunity for re-orientation. The wide-open doors and windows letting in spring breezes to aerate the home allow for the leakage of what is often named the pre-conceptual. Each brink or caesura is a threshold to the uncognizable: at her line breaks, one both encounters and reverts from the unknown (as Thoreau situates himself behind a door and not within doors). In Dickinson, this tension between the Jamesian vague, recurrent in her poetry, for example, as notions of eternity and as lack, and the subtly constructed means of their reconceptualization, is extreme. The dash is also a kind of joinery, the ur-mark of continuity across discontinuity, at once an intensification and a mitigation of the brink it spans. In Gibson’s lexicon, it affords the disjunction and continuity of the edge of a surface or signifying division within contiguity. And as the divisions are unexpected, the architecture novel, one must work to comprehend their significance. What Dickinson chooses to select and to construct of the world allows for the uncognizeable to co-habit with the cognized in an open-air edifice resembling a nest. She maintains a space for the ambulant, thinking self that is intimate, yet infinitely capable of admitting the unknown, the outside, without pretense to understanding it as it is. In Poem 1084, a single, singing bird “propounds” a melody and, at length, creates place:
- At Half past Three, a single Bird
- Unto a silent Sky
- Propounded but a single term
- Of cautious melody.
- At Half past Four, Experiment
- Had subjugated test
- And lo, her silver Principle
- Supplanted all the rest.
- At Half past Seven, Element
- Nor Implement, be seen—
- And Place was where the Presence was
- Circumference between. (491)
(p. 453) Through the articulation of song, “Experiment” or risk-taking, the willing negotiation of the unknown, subjugates “test,” the evaluation of demonstrated knowledge, and by poem’s end, presence is place-bound. Place, in the common usage of the term, is space that has been sufficiently demarcated as to be coherent—it is fitted to the presence of the perceiver. However, the syntax here inverts the role of the divisive preposition “between” as the terms it distinguishes are ambiguously its objects. As a result, circumference may be seen to intervene between place, where presence is, and non-place/non-presence, what the speaker calls the “silent Sky,” or, alternatively, it may be interpreted to separate presence from place, thrusting it into a vastness without anchor.
“Circumference” is a recurring term in Dickinson’s lexicon, one that often marks sensory limits. Unattainable and horizon-like, it is “Beyond the Dip of Bell” in Poem 378 where “Dip” is taken to mean aural diminishment (180). In Poem 633, circumference is available only upon the cessation of the rotation of a “Cog,” a metaphor for the “cognitive” apparatus that puts circumference in motion and blurs it (313). (Only upon the cessation of thought does the ultimate become definable.) Finally, Poem 1620 suggests that circumference is unreachable, “possessing,” that is, striking only in the future if one could but arrive there; otherwise it is available only as a courtly ideal, as the “Bride of Awe” (667). In each of these examples, Dickinson’s horizon-like notion of circumference allows the indefinite to seep into the place it surrounds without being assimilated into that place. Her use of the term is an admission that there is a beyond, an unreachable Stevensian reality, and with it, she gestures toward an ecological definition of place as an unlimited extension of surfaces nested in a relationship of inclusion. Because place is unstable and comprised of nesting surfaces that entail “mutual embeddings and mutual separations” (Gibson 57), its units may not be counted and are potentially “as numerous as space.” Place, in the ecological sense, is not locatable with the aid of Cartesian coordinates; that is, it cannot be identified in relation to other, stabilized places. Enclosed by the horizon that is the contingent and temporary limit of the perceiver in relation to its environs, forming and deforming as it coheres around the presence of the perceiver, place is finally, like Dickinson’s poems, unbounded and vulnerable (Turvey and Shaw 96).
This poetic understanding of the relationship between an organism and the place it specifies is reflected in the ecological doctrine of “animal-environment mutuality and reciprocity” (Turvey and Shaw 99). The concept of mutuality assumes commensurability and thus symmetry of relation (as numbers may be added to one another), while reciprocity refers to difference that is complementary. The difference between an organism and its environment confers an asymmetry of relation without sacrificing the commensurability of the terms. Gibson’s theory, as elaborated and quantified by M. T. Turvey and Robert E. Shaw, assumes a level of analysis at which elements are “complementary duals” in the sense that they complete one another (99). In tandem, mutuality and reciprocity are the conditions of an epistemic ecosystem providing that “[t]he knower (animal) and the known (environment) are not rigidly separable components, they are not definable (p. 454) independently of each other, and knowing cannot be isolated from these components” (Turvey and Shaw 100).
For a synergy of animal and environment, the asymmetry of dualism (where animals and environments are merely incommensurate kinds) must give way to the symmetry notion of duality (where the two are commensurate kinds). The ecological counter to the traditional doctrine of animal environment dualism is, therefore, animal-environment duality.
Ecological analysis then obviates the dualism of mind and matter in defining a cognitive environment as that which is available to be perceived.14 The reciprocal alignment of the distended breast with the nest’s inner curvature is emblematic of an animal-environment relationship of duality in which the raw materials are the environment shaped and perceived, and the nest is a present structure of perception. What poetry does is to preserve the hypothetical structure that is evidence of the cognitive contiguity of organism and environment as well as their “consubstantial flexibility.” The divisions the mind creates are complementary to the surface disjunctions in the environment, and the poem is the point at which their complementarity is manifest; song is “neighboring, like noon” (a border that has no extension, but divides and secures the complementary contingents morning and afternoon). The poem is a kind of cognitive hinge referring in both directions, outwardly to an apprehended cognitive environment and inwardly to the cognitive process by which it apprehends.
Place Avails Not
Reflecting, in the late essay “Democratic Vistas,” on his life-long project of answering Emerson’s call for a national poet of America, Walt Whitman also expresses a metaphorical understanding of the poet’s vocation as the erection of a vesture house:
…we have again pointedly to confess that all the objective grandeurs of the world, for highest purposes, yield themselves up, and depend on mentality alone. Here, and here only, all balances, all rests. For the mind, which alone builds the permanent edifice, haughtily builds it to itself. By it, with what follows it, are convey’d to mortal sense the culminations of the materialistic, the known, and a prophecy of the unknown. (994)
At times, Whitman’s prideful “I” seems something more or less than organismic, timeless, roving and unrestrained by the gravity that binds mere creatures to the earth. His sense of space is often conceived of as spaceless because it is relatively uninterrupted by perceptual and conceptual distinction: percept and concept for him aspire to inclusivity. His use of anaphoric repetition, for instance, brings one back to the same space and enlarges, rather than subdividing and defining space. His lists may be said to have the same effect: in embracing the grand scale, they supersede place. Particularly, in relation (p. 455) to Dickinson, Whitman is a non-pronominal poet who eludes finite situation. The girth of his “I,” unconstrained as against an opposing “you,” instead assumes every “you” and with it the environment each “you” entrains. Note the progression of the first five lines of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
- Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
- Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.
- Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
- On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more
- curious to me than you suppose,
- And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my
- meditations, than you might suppose. (307–8)
There is, of course, division within Whitman’s poetry; it is, after all, composed of words and lines, and place is rendered as a result (the East River on which Brooklyn Ferry sails and the New York Harbor beyond it). Yet, there is always an overwhelming counter-tension that seeks to eradicate the local by distending it—present-day Brooklyn Ferry encompasses Brooklyn Ferry of yesteryear. This is Whitman’s manner of rendering the visionary mode of lyric, freeing body from physical constraints and yet subjecting it to a perceptual dynamic. The resultant expansion of perspective enables his poetry to become vatic. The irony is of course that Whitman is avowedly a poet of embodiment, championing the singular, unidealized, and even putrid ashes-to-ashes body of earth. For Dickinson, the two modes cohabit in tension, the unknown beyond leaking in to the substantive structure, but for Whitman, their co-presence is simply unparadoxical. Place is placeless because the eye is liberated. It avails not.
In Ovid’s version of the Orpheus myth, the mournful tones uttered by the poet grieving the loss of his bride Eurydice summon to himself an apparently exhaustive host of species. Trees in particular are uprooted unnaturally, drawn to the poet and catalogued in a Whitman-like listing (if one will pardon the inversion of historical priority). In aspiring to include all tree species, the recitation of the list lends the idea that the poet evokes not just a local, but a full sense of environment with his song by calling it into perceptual range and expressing it. Orpheus is here the exemplary, visionary ur-poet. Built into the vatic mode is the sense that one can transcend bodily, human limits without transcending the dynamics of the body. (Orpheus’s descent into Hades and his consummate poeticizing in the realm of the afterlife from which he returns is indicative of this paradox.) The poet therefore must remain at all times attentive to an environment, expressing it by building a cognitive edifice that preserves its structures. The construction of the nest is supplied by outings (utterances) into the environs for sticks, straw, and blades of grass, ventures abroad that domesticate the outside, bringing pertinent potential structure into the space one occupies, and in occupying, structures. It is the structural commonality and complementarity of the two terms that allows the garment to be cut and re-cut to fit. Wallace Stevens posits just such a structural common ground in expressing the possibility for representation within a schema in which reality includes the mind: “The accuracy of accurate letters is an accuracy with respect to the structure (p. 456) of reality” (NA 71). The poem as it stands is both a structural, linguistic replication of the environment’s tendency to nest and to disjoin, and an emergent act of perception inscribing a new environment available to be perceived by the reader. An ecological, constructivist poeisis of space presumes fresh perception to rule out the reflexive and the automatic and their end in the pre-fabricated and the mass-produced, which is antithetical to the poetic tradition of making. The poem is a new nest, verse a converse—a conversation and a reversal or bidirectionality of predication emergent as a “dwelling together.”
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(1) . Michelet’s original French text reads:
“Et au dedans, l’instrument qui imprime au nid la forme circulair en’est encore autre que le corps de l’oiseau. C’est en se tournant constamment et refoulant le mur de tous côtés, qu’il arrive à former ce cercle.
Donc, la maison, c’est la personne même, sa forme et son effort le plus immédiat; je dirai sa souffrance. Le résultat n’est obtenu que par un expression constamment répétée de la poitrine. Pas un de ces brins d’herbe qui, pour prendre et garder la courbe, n’ait été mille et mille fois poussé du sein, du coeur, certainement avec trouble de la respiration, avec palpitation peut-être.” (208–9)
(2) . It will remain, of course, for Charles Sanders Peirce and William James to give full-development and efficacy to this idea.
(3) . Neurologically, the experience of mental imagery activates sense-motor representations; in other words, it utilizes the same neural pathways as perceptual experience.
(4) . James had introduced his analogous idea of “the vague” in the earlier, 1884 article, “The Stream of Consciousness,” in which he argues for its import to cognition and underscores the need to attend to it (Vol. 1, 254).
(5) . The significance of this move will be amplified by James’s later radical empiricism and its emphasis on relation, which he argues is apprehended directly.
(6) . The experience given by the other sense modalities is more difficult, but not impossible to subdivide. Hearing, the sense literally engaged by poetry, also permits distinction-making and a sense of nesting as one sound may occlude another.
(7) . The work of James himself, who foresaw many of the advances of cognitive science, vindicates this idea. His identification of discrimination, association, and selection as decisive, qualitative methods affording the apprehension of space through its subdivision (135) predicted analogous propensities that have since been identified within the neurological dynamics of perception.
(8) . An example may be drawn from color vision. The retina consists of three types of color receptor neurons processed separately on three optic tracks. The brain contrasts the input of two of them, sums the difference between them and then contrasts the result with the input provided by the third in order to interpret color.
(9) . The existence of specialized receptor neurons (the notion of a receptive field) alone justifies this claim. Discrete bits of potential information are selected from the environment based on their compatibility with a particular receptor.
(10) . It would be too easy to make a connection between the phenomenon of the nesting of smaller units within larger ones that describes poems and the environment as it is available to vision and the structures built by birds.
(11) . See Poem 657.
(13) . This is literally the case. The poet cut lines of verse into strips and sewed them together.
(14) . The material basis for organism-environment continuity at the level of analysis of physics, for example the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, is not available to perception.