Caitlin Hurst and Ada Smailbegović on Poetics of Liveliness (Part 2)

Today’s post continues our interview with Ada Smailbegović about her book Poetics of Liveliness. Read the first part of Smailbegović and Hurst’s conversation, where they discuss rhythm and materiality, the world held at the edge of a razor, and how a silkworm might write a poem. In this portion of the interview, further imaginative and evocative realms are explored: artificial noses and other speculative tactile technologies are imagined; the temporal liminality the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended us in is considered in relation to bodies tangled in war; and poetry and other aesthetic practices are considered as devices to amplify and clarify the human experience.

Hurst: In your book, you mention there’s a desire or a longing in Robert Hooke for some kind of technological instrument that doesn’t yet exist. Hooke is an early microscopist, right? And as you note, science and technology have been good at extending vision, enabling us to see things very close up and across great distances, but, in comparison, have not done very much for the sense of touch. Hooke dreams of an instrument that could do something for touch. You propose that, in a way, maybe a poem can function like such an apparatus.

Smailbegović: Hooke is living through this moment when telescopes and microscopes are both creating a sense of proximity of otherwise distant or inaccessible realms. At the same time he is very troubled by the inadequacy of our senses and he fantasizes about instruments that could help with our hearing and transmitting sound across distances and then even with senses like smell or touch. Of course we do have ways of transmitting sound and vision across vast distances in the present, as has been plentifully evident in the current Zoom era.

But we still sense in these forms of mediation a real absence of a fuller sense of embodiment, partly because we actually never really developed instruments that could transmit tactile experience, or smell. I sometimes fantasize about being able to wear a glove through which you could feel the surface of the floor, and you could actually touch really fine crevices within the microscopic realms of the floor. This is not something that’s commonly available in our experience, even though we do have microscopes, such as a scanning transmission electron microscope, that can manipulate matter, even at an atomic level now, which, in a sense, bridges a kind of gap between vision and touch. Or, we do have artificial noses that can detect certain kinds of chemicals, but they are still very poor in performance in comparison to a cat’s nose or a dog’s nose. 

Hurst: There’s a Jakob von Uexküll quote about a mosquito’s sky that comes up more than once in your book that serves as a vivid illustration of that: “When mosquitoes dance in the sunset, they do not see our big human sun, setting six kilometers away, but small mosquito suns that set about half a meter away. The moon and stars are absent from the sky of the mosquito.”

Smailbegović: For Uexküll each umwelt—each sensory world or bubble—is full of sensations, is saturated in sensation. And, it is as rich as it needs to be. So Uexküll really offers a nonhierarchical way of thinking about the sensory worlds of different organisms, which takes me in a circular way to your question about strategic anthropomorphism. I feel that there are two aspects to Uexküll’s work. On one hand, he is an ethologist and he’s designing experiments to understand how organisms perceive their environments through their behavior, but on the other there is a feeling of a fairy tale in reading his book A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, where one feels that the imagination is also really important in trying to understand nonhuman animals. So he is, in a way, straddling the edge between poetry and science. While we’ve often felt that imagining the experience of another organism is really dangerous, and have labeled such a practice as anthropomorphism, I think that we need to really compare its risks to something that I would call mechanomorphism, coming out of a tradition of understanding animals, and even human bodies, as machines. For instance, Descartes, in his Discourse on Method would say things like, “if you had a real monkey and a mechanical monkey next to one another, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart” and he also felt very much like the human body operated as a kind of machine. And then of course, in order to have a freedom of will ascribed to humans, one needs an addition of the soul or the mind, which would liberate us from the mechanization of the body. But such freedoms are not afforded to nonhuman animals. I think we’ve existed in a very long mechanomorphic tradition, that’s partly come out of the limitations of our epistemic systems. It’s been easier to understand physiological processes or bodies as machines and to think of them as having parts that are discrete, where one can eliminate one part in some way or eliminate one variable and design an experiment around that. I think that mechanomorphism is as much of a projection onto the living world as anthropomorphism. And I do think that mechanomorphism is implicated in many of the processes of extraction that have led to accelerated environmental change. So, maybe having a different relation to the nonhuman material world is something that’s urgently needed.

Hurst: There’s this moment in your book where the writing totally shifts, I think it’s in your chapter on clouds, which begins with an experiment in description. Suddenly, there are these very precise, poetic, textural, mesmerizing descriptions of a cloud, or actually a cloud project called the Blur Building. At first glance, the cloud might appear as a blob, an undifferentiated mass. To discover some vocabulary for more fine-grained cloud descriptions you go back to, I think, Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ diaries, both writers who are very attentive to changes in the weather, to changes of light in the clouds, and are able to capture these shifts of density and shape and color, to precisely describe changeable mists. So it was interesting to me that, you know, your book is about poetry and not necessarily narrative or other modes of description. But when you’re looking for a language for liveliness, you also turn to these private writings or notebooks that aren’t necessarily poetry. So I was wondering what you think of the capacity of other modes of writing that aren’t necessarily poems or are not recognizable as poems to make perceptible these fine-grained differences, these very subtle changes. Are there kinds of writing that are less good at that, such as more narratively driven writing? Are diaries good at that? Is poetry best suited to it? In composing the piece were you actually able to see the Blur Building to make that description? You weren’t physically present, I assume, because it was an installation in Switzerland in 2002, I think? Were you looking at a photograph? Or were you looking at a video?

Smailbegović: I was looking at a video, which was part of an exhibition at MoMA in New York. I would watch it over and over again. Simultaneously I was thinking about this collaborative piece by Lisa Robertson and Stacy Doris, called The Perfume Recordist. In it, they write about how you could almost dilate description—like, in a sense, if you increase the level of detail, you could make time more and more granular by extending the level of descriptive detail. And so I think there are basically three iterations in that text in which I try to create interstitial spaces in between the sentences, a kind of paratactic space, into which I then insert more description, so the text keeps on dilating and becoming more and more granular. It becomes a way of noticing more and more detail. So I think that there’s a dimension of the book that’s interested in poetic attention as a practice of temporal attunement, which may permit the perception of rhythms that may be imperceptible to humans at first. And so I think that there’s a desire, maybe going back to Hooke’s idea of amplifying instruments that aid the human senses, for poetry to almost act as a kind of microscope, that allows a different attunement to scales of time that may otherwise be imperceptible to the human sensorium. And so it’s maybe a question about aesthetics, like how poetry and aesthetic practices more widely, can act as temporal amplification devices. These questions may be important in the context of climate change, which I sometimes think of as a temporal falling out of sync of all of these evolved rhythms of how organisms encounter one another. As their environments shift due to increasing temperature they may fall out of sync with one another. And so I think there’s maybe a desire for poetic and aesthetic practices to help us attune to these shifting rhythms. But I think maybe this also goes back to Dorothy Wordsworth and Gerard Manley Hopkins, these earlier nineteenth-century figures and the ways that they were able to pay attention to change. For instance, Dorothy Wordsworth will write about the dots and flecks on the surface of the sea. And then, the next day, the surface of the sea will be slightly, slightly different than it was the day before. But there is always a sense of minute change. This reminds me also of Gertrude Stein, and how in “Portraits and Repetition,” she writes about a hopping frog, basically saying that each time a frog jumps it’s a little bit different than any other time that the frog has jumped and that there is in fact no such thing as repetition. So I think sometimes in this kind of space of the everyday or the space of daily writing that these journals offer, I think something like that becomes really evident. Even if there is a pattern and a kind of observation of the same scene that in fact there’s never a kind of total reoccurrence.

Hurst: These feel like helpful pandemic-era lessons maybe, in terms of being stuck in one space and noticing that it actually is transforming all the time. I kind of wish I’d read Dorothy Wordsworth during lockdown.

Smailbegović: This makes me think a bit about a more recent direction in which my work is headed. The experience of the pandemic has actually been a sort of incubator in some way for trying to think more about these questions of nonhuman temporality and also the experience of waiting or suspension, or a kind of falling out of sync maybe, of being inside very different rhythms of time than other people and not being able to always sync up one’s rhythms to other people’s rhythms. I think that, for me, that was also evocative of personal experiences of war and refugee temporality that I’ve had in the past during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. (I do want to be careful to not necessarily equate them or collapse them into one another.) My work has never directly intersected with these experiences, but I think the pandemic events increasingly shifted my thinking towards them, both in terms of my work as a poet and a critic, and in particular what I am thinking of as experiences of temporal displacement and how these complex geometries of space and time connect to one another. And some of the experiences that occurred in the space of quarantine, like waiting, reminded me of a kind of suspension of time, in my refugee experience, where there’s a sense of uncertainty about the future, and maybe a falling out of a certain kind of progressive time of capitalism. And so as I’ve been thinking more about these questions, I’ve been reading about a body of thought that is called feminist refugee epistemology, which is often looking at women’s experience, and the experience of the everyday and practices of the everyday as a mode of resistance. This connects for me to what you were saying about minute changes and what I would call the tiny politics that occur in these spaces of waiting. So I am trying to connect maybe the temporal experiences of displacement that go hand in hand with the aftermath of war and migration to some of the questions of temporal displacement and change that have to do with environmental transformation and climate change in particular.

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