Tuesday, November 06, 2007

of sundogs & standing

gothic shadows, reprised

Blogging belatedly on this previous weekend’s Humanities Day at the University of Chicago (not to be confused with the City of Chicago’s Humanities Festival which is currently in full swing).

How it works: During parents’ weekend each year (I don’t think UofC calls it “homecoming” -- there’s no football team, no tailgating, no ritual brutality at this particular egghead U) the Humanities Department throws a party for all the folks, and the Humanities’ Profs queue up and give lectures in a day long show and tell. The event is free and open to the public, so along with the grey hairs a few younger pulses show up for the offering.

Results, over the seven years we’ve attended, have been hit and miss. This year was a winner on all counts, with a kick off by Christina Van Nolcken delivering a lecture on the Vikings -- plump full of great stories of Eric the Bloodaxe and Ivar the Boneless, including speculation on whether or not Ivar’s inability to produce bonage at strategic moments with young maidens may have contributed to his nickname.

Richard Neer’s keynote was also first rate -- an explication of Poussin’s Landscape with Blind Orion Seeking the Sun that attributed the striking occurrence of a double sundog [1] in Rome contemporary with the artist's time in that city (resulting in the optical illusion of four additional suns), for the freaky ambient light source in Poussin’s image -- hard to pin down, difficult to trace -- and the speculation that the artist may have been a commenting on the rising tide of Scientific thought.

Made me wish, as it always does, that I could make a living just thinking stuff up like that. And reading books and shit.

through the doorway

But the lecture that stuck was the one delivered by the one guy who got out of his own way and led the gathered assembly through the materials, using the shake up your brain with that good old fashion dialectic method of Socratic inquiry.

David M. Thompson, Associate Dean of the Humanities Division, laid down several different texts -- including Article III of the U.S. Constitution, two Supreme Court rulings and a handful of poetry -- and from there bent my brain into a pretzel re the difficulties of getting anything accomplished on behalf of the environment in America’s courts.

His point in a nutshell: To stand before the Court and argue one’s case one must have standing, or “the ability of a party to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party's participation in the case” [2]; but of course to establish standing in a case where the environment is under threat -- when a species, or landscape, or ecosystem is endangered rather than an individual -- demands that the plaintiffs and their counsel perform all kinds of legal acrobatics to show some kind of “injury in fact”.

The first example Thompson put forward was Lujan, The Secretary of the Interior v. Defenders of Wildlife heard by the Supreme Court in 1991 in which two Americans argued, some what ridiculously, injury in fact as individuals who may be future tourists to Egypt and Sri Lanka who, given U.S. government funding of deleterious projects on foreign soil, would no longer have the privilege of viewing endangered species in their native habitat.

Not a particularly compelling approach, unless you believe in championing the right of the Bourgeoisie to an ideal vacation. But one of the only few available in a legal system that’s oriented to the primacy of property ownership. I.e., if you bought it you can call it broke: otherwise, no dice.

In striking contrast we read Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist and Wallace Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West, which as poems set out to do very different things, but manage each to accomplish that thing that the good poets are so good at: turning translucent the boundary between the self and the natural world, and wondering at our indivisibility from it.

Nearly a week later when my friend Aric blew through town he mentioned a concept that threads through the paper he was to present -- an African (Swahili?) word for citizen: “mwananchi” -- “one who belongs to the land”, and he noted that in Africa there are no words for scenery, for view -- for this thing that we gaze upon, objectify. It’s all one: part and parcel. Earth and body; host and resident. Solid ground on which we stand -- ours to injure, in fact.

Nothing is happening

A waterdrop
Soundlessly shatters
A gossamer gives

Against this unused space
A bird
Might thoughtlessly try its voice
But no bird does

On the trodden ground
Are themselves more pulse than sound

At the return
A little drunk
On air

Aware that
Is happening

—Charles Tomlinson
(another poem served up by Prof. Thompson)


[1] The Plains serve up sundogs every once in awhile -- also known as a 22 degree halos. I captured a weak one once upon a time »

[2] Legal Standing per Wikipedia


Mikkel said...

Erik Blodøks was such a big girl's blouse.

mrtn said...

What Mikkel said. Also, the "boner" term is not ancient, it is US vernacular ca. 1950, supposedly. So the idea that ol' Beinlaus was impotent probably dates to the US post ca. 1950. OTOH all the kings of old were totally gay anyway.

mrtn said...

In a more serious and totally non-ironic vein through which no blood mocking of the ancient kings and (drag) queens flows, the very fact that one has to go the courts to gain traction on environmental issues is a sign that the state is not doing what it is supposed to do.

suttonhoo said...

point well taken (re courts & states; jury's out on the girl's blouse ;) -- we didn't look at states' laws -- it'd be interesting to see if the same problem presents itself there: i.e. the individual who is not a property owner has little recourse regarding damages inflicted to his/her ambient environment.

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