The undervalued third: reflections on enacting ecosophy through ‘deep’ or ‘narrative’ mappings

It’s worried me for a while now that, although there’s some understanding of the interaction of the social and environmental ecologies among those who might claim to be working ‘ecosophically’ in this area of ‘mappings, there seems little or no understanding of the necessary psychic challenges involved. This might seem odd, given where Guattari was coming from, namely psychology, but then the last thing most artists or academics are concerned with is reflecting on the psychic processes in which they’re caught up.

Sometimes I do things that I don’t understand at the time, things that seem extreme and out of character. When this happens, it can take quite a while for an understanding to emerge of what, in the moment, was experienced as an overwhelming need to act decisively without being entirely clear as to why. Recently an example of this, combined with attending the recent Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference, has pushed me to confront the fact that, in a culture of possessive individualism, it’s only through accepting a major change in self-understanding that any genuinely creative ecosophical praxis can appear. Until that happens it’s all-too-often the case that a sophisticated rhetoric manages to mask the fact that supposedly ‘radical’ individuals are in actuality ‘sheep in wolves’ clothing’. (That is, despite their self-presentation, they continue to enact at the level of psychic ecology the given roles or stereotypes engendered by possessive individualism, to manifest ‘life as’ an Artist, an Academic, etc.).

I’ve tried to think through this issue in various ways, most obviously by developing the notion of the spectrum of positions between the individual oriented by a monolithic sense of self (‘life as’), that’s animated by the desire to be ‘best of breed’ – the radical Artist, Professor, or whatever –  and what my friend Pauline O’Connell once referred to as the position of ‘compound cur’. But as the poet, artist and mytho-archaeologist Erin Kavanagh has led me to see, that spectrum is both too static and too simplistic. She writes in an email that:

“The problem to my mind with ‘compound curring’ is that one becomes a ‘bestest mongrel’ very quickly. It’s the whole ‘interdisciplinary practice becoming disciplined’ dilemma isn’t it. By doing it well we both show how ridiculous these boundaries are and simultaneously create more. It’s a conceptual ouroboros. I’ve found thus far that I have to be ‘good enough’ to hold my own in everybody’s fields in order to be taken seriously, so for me it’s a little more like being a Collie who shows, trials, does flyball / obedience / agility and will still play with the kids at home afterwards. On the plus side, we don’t get bored!”

Erin’s image of the ‘good enough’ Collie is an effective visualisation of what I’ve seen as ‘self as polyverse’ but, even as it clarifies my concerns, taken in conjunction with her recent presentation at the 2016 TAG conference, it also points up something I have failed to draw out sufficiently in the past. This is that ‘compound curring’ as I understand it is also centrally linked to testimonial imagination (seen as a vital counterweight to the ‘best of breed’ emphasis on generating novelty, difference, progress, a new or utopian vision, and so on). All of this has been thrown into high relief as I’ve read James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani’s book: Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book’. (It’s not wholly insignificant, perhaps, that Deleuze and Guattari’s A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia declares that Jung is profounder than Freud). The link here is with Shamdasani’s insistence that Jung breaks with the linear, the monomyth, insisting instead on “a serpentine path” that draws on the encyclopedic knowledge of a great storyteller, on “a plurality of myths, a plurality of templates” (pp. 88-90). This is, then, precisely not the personal or exclusive work epitomized by the figure of the Modernist artist or the lone scholar, each of whom is so anxious to guard the uniqueness of an individual creation. Instead it’s the work of testimonial imagination or, in Sonu Shamdasani’s terms, a “taking up the tasks left by the dead” so that the “present is then animated by the past” (p. 85). This is, then, quite the opposite of the (ultimately Modernist) desire to escape or overthrow the past. Rather it depends on a surrendering to porosity, to what, to borrow from Donna Haraway, I’d call a ‘staying with the trouble’, by letting it flow in all its variation and complexity through our own lives.

All of which is particularly relevant to my own concerns. Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book sheds considerable light on my fascination with the old Borders ballads as an imaginal playing out of one of our deepest psychic tensions, the “the conflict between the ancient and the modern, between the pagan and the Christian” (p. 58), seen not as belief systems but as modes of being or mentalities. What is important is not, in the last analysis,  the historical veracity of the claims I’ve made for those ballads as quasi-pagan, as retaining traces of  a once pervasive  animist mentality. It’s understanding my own willingness to stay with an act of testimonial imagination with regard to those ballads; to listen for the dead who still speak to us through them.