Thoreau had a horror of rust. To him, it was a symptom of inactivity (“I cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust”) and worse, it signaled the hardening of life into the inertia of habits and forms—“the rust of conventions and formalities.” But despite speaking up for wildness and “extra-vagant” experiment, Thoreau has himself become something of a rusty institution in the hundred and fifty years since his death. Walden is now a staple of school curricula and Thoreau’s aphorisms, designed to be stimulating provocations, have calcified into visitor shop pieties readymade for mechanical repetition: “In wildness is the preservation of the … snore.”
Thoreau’s canonicity in modern environmental circles thus constitutes a cultural authority at odds with the anti-institutionalism he advocated. But if the Thoreau we know has grown rusty, where is the wild and vital Thoreau today? This panel proposes to map the as yet undocumented routes by which Thoreau’s work has provoked and quickened latter-day artists, scientists, environmentalists, and social activists. Our papers ask a series of questions: In what unexpected places can Thoreau’s influence be found today? How might these contemporary developments help to open up fresh perspectives on Thoreau’s thought? And finally, what aspects of Thoreau’s philosophy or popular image have been, or should be, allowed to corrode to allow for the emergence of something new?
Towards these ends, the first two papers in this panel offer fresh and counterintuitive accounts of Thoreau’s environmental philosophy by reading his thought backwards through the work of 20th century artists and scientists. Jason Gladstone’s paper on the “earthworks” artist Robert Smithson returns us to Thoreau’s neglected writings on rust and disuse, rediscovering aspects of Thoreau’s ecological thought that were lost in the process of his canonization by the Beats and environmentalists in the mid-twentieth century. Cristin Ellis’s paper argues that Thoreau’s environmental legacy looks different if the Journal, and not Walden, is taken to be his defining project. Highlighting the Journal’s sustained attempts to document Thoreau’s physiological responses to his environment, Ellis locates Thoreau at the dawn of a scientific tradition that seeks ways of measuring the affectivity of the body (a tradition that includes vivisection, the invention of cinema, fMRI scans, and the nascent field of neurophenomenology). Turning to Thoreau’s political afterlives, this panel’s final two papers assess his relationship to contemporary social justice movements. Doug Tye argues that although Thoreau has been embraced by conscience-based and civil disobedient political movements, his own politics in fact hew to an ethic of solitary non-complicity which is not amenable to collective political action. Against this view, Erin Forbes argues that the networked and non-hierarchical structures of contemporary social justice movements like #BLM and #NODAPL can help to illuminate the extent to which Thoreau’s ostensible commitment to individualism is systemically undercut by the irreducibly interdependent and horizontal world that emerges from his extensive writings on the porous interconnections that bind humans to their environments.
PAPER 1, Jason Gladstone, The University of Colorado Boulder
Disuse and Incompletion in Thoreau and Smithson
Robert Smithson’s antagonism towards the “ecology movement” of the 1960s is often traced back to the role that movement played in blocking his 1969 proposal for an artwork entitled “The Island of Broken Glass” that was to be installed on Miami Islet, in Vancouver, British Columbia. As Eva Schmidt explains, “the plan to pour one hundred tons of tinted glass onto the small Miami Islet, a rocky island about fifty yards long could not be realized. A public controversy arose over the question as to whether wildlife would be injured by the broken glass.” According to Schmidt, this controversy later led to Smithson’s argument that “‘the belief in ecology and the infernal agents of pollution’ has the function of a cheap religion.”
In his 1973 essay “Fredrick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape” Smithson identifies Thoreau as the core of this “ecological” mindset. He then contrasts his own “geologic” aesthetic—an aesthetic that “understands the landscape as it is” by recognizing industrial pollution, technological incursion, and other human modifications as natural processes. It is likely that the “Thoreau” Smithson had in mind, here, was the version promulgated by the Beats. Nevertheless, in this paper I propose that—his own declarations to the contrary notwithstanding—Smithson’s aesthetic should be understood as an extension of Thoreau’s. In order to make this argument I will look at figures of disuse and incompletion in both authors: dropped tools, abandoned towns, and disused factories in Thoreau; rusted equipment, incomplete utilities, and abandoned sites in Smithson. What emerges from this conjunction, I argue, is an anti-ecological environmentalism that is significantly different from the investments that characterize not only contemporary ecological thinking, but also postmodernism, new materialism, and posthumanism.
Bio: Jason Gladstone is an instructor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder. His essay “Low-Tech Thoreau” appeared in Criticism 57.3 (Summer 2015 ). His work has also appeared in Contemporary Literature and Twentieth-Century Literature. He is co-editor of the volumes Postmodernism, Then (2012); Postmodern/Postwar—And After (Iowa UP, 2016); and Environmental Trajectories (forthcoming).
PAPER 2, Cristin Ellis, University of Mississippi
Thoreau’s Pulse: The Environmentalism of Affect
If the sublime solitude touted in Walden has been a touchstone for the conservation-based environmental movement, Thoreau’s Journal points to a very different environmentalist ethos grounded in the affective body. Highlighting Thoreau’s practice of observing his own sensory and affective responses to the natural phenomena he observed, I place the Journal’s idiosyncratic empiricism within an ongoing tradition of scientific inquiry that attempts to bring the dynamism of affective life into the realm of empirical inquiry.
As Thoreau objects in his Journal, empirical accounts of phenomena tend to reduce inspiring natural events, like a brilliant sunset, to “a mass of vapor which absorbs all other rays and reflects the red.” Such an account “is nothing to the purpose,” he observes, “for this real vision excites me, stirs my blood, makes my thoughts flow, and I have new and indescribable fancies, and you have not touched the secret of the influence” (Journal 25 Dec 1851). As I show, Thoreau’s desire to empirically account for his affective experience—his exhileration, his quickening pulse, his racing mind—also animates later nineteenth century scientific efforts to measure and map the impressionable body in motion (efforts which produced the first myographs and maps of circulation, generated animal rights debates over vivisection, and ultimately helped to invent the first movie camera). More recently, this empirical tradition has given rise to modern brain-imaging technology and the nascent—but as I shall suggest, distinctly Thoreauvian—field of neurophenomenology.
In highlighting this scientific endeavor’s early appearance in Thoreauvian naturalism, this paper seeks to generate a new sense of Thoreau’s ecological philosophy, one that suggests that, in beginning to move beyond critiques of “anthropocentrism” in acknowledgement of the porous imbrication of embodied mind and environment, contemporary ecocritical thought is still catching up with Thoreau.
PAPER 3, Doug Tye, Independent Scholar
Protesting Too Much: Thoreauvian Resistance and the Limits of Non-Complicity
Freshly released from his overnight stint in Concord jail, Thoreau picked up his shoes from the cobbler and went hunting for huckleberries; safely swallowed by the wildness of a field two miles from town, he says in “Civil Disobedience,” “the State was nowhere to be seen.”
It is no longer possible to escape the representative machinery of “the State” by going two miles from anywhere. In this essay, I try to reconstruct the historical context of Thoreau’s overnight stint in Concord jail (including a brief and surprisingly unboring excursus on Massachusetts’ antebellum tax codes), and to sort through the critical mythology that has sprung up in its wake. I want to interrogate the recent move to rehabilitate Thoreau’s habit of stepping away, into nature and out of society, as the basis for a potently radical or authentically democratic politics. Ultimately, I argue, Thoreau’s individualism, steeped in the classical-liberal tradition of self-ownership and minimal government, entails adherence to a politics of non-complicity above all. It is too much to call Thoreau antisocial, but he certainly ascribes both moral and political power to solitude, a nominal “place” beyond or outside of the guilt induced by the actions, whether individual or collective, of others. He is, then, more useful for the New Americanist project Robyn Wiegman calls “refused identification” than for any organized counter-hegemonic project. My point here is not to delegitimize either conscience-based disobedience or communitarian projects of organized resistance; I want rather to question the link between Thoreauvian non-complicity and contemporary radical progressivism drawn in such recent studies as, for instance, Shannon L. Mariotti’s Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal or Sam McGuire Worley’s Emerson, Thoreau, and the Role of the Cultural Critic.
PAPER 4, Erin Forbes, University of Wyoming
Resisting Civil Government from Thoreau to #BLM and #NoDAPL
“A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length even become the laughing-stock of the world.” – Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts” (8 July 1854)
“Our country is a laughingstock. All over the world, they're laughing.”—Donald Trump, Florida Rally (8 Nov. 2016)
Thoreau and Trump have more in common than many might care to admit. As the quotes above suggest, both fear an America become the butt of a worldwide joke. Both promote distrust of government and disdain for the rule of law. Both proudly refuse to pay taxes. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” Thoreau asserts in “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), one of many quotable lines indicative of the staunch individualism and anti-institutional orientation with which has largely come to be associated.
Given the alarming ease with which it proves possible to align these two figures, many have been tempted to dismiss Thoreau as so much proto-orange “pond scum,” to quote Kathryn Schluz’s much-discussed New Yorker take-down. But what of his commitment to justice? The inspirational role he has played for key activists such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. is well known. Questioning what of Thoreau’s political arsenal survives—& what is best jettisoned—in the interest of serving the ends of social justice in the twenty-first century, this paper examines Thoreau’s articulation of an alternative, collective basis for universality that pushes against his individualist legacy.
I argue that contemporary social justice movements, which are uniquely networked and nonhierarchical, open up new perspectives on Thoreau’s work. Looking at the afterlives of “Resistance to Civil Government” and “Slavery in Massachusetts” in the Movement for Black Lives and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s mobilization to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through their treaty lands, I join a growing body of scholars interested in uncovering in Thoreau vibrant ontologies that underscore human-nature intra-action and material agencies in shaping a just future.