“It is oddly pleasurable,” says a recent review in The Economist, “to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book [The Sixth Extinction], which offers a ramble through mass extinctions, present and past” (Feb. 22, 2014, p.74). Wry and waggish in The Economist’s signature style, the remark is symptomatic of the magazine’s position — increasingly awkward — as the foremost weekly advocate of free markets and deregulation, whose failings are plainly visible anywhere you might care to look. What cost profit? It seems the magazine’s main purpose is to skirt this question, and if the balance ledger increasingly reads global warming, mass extinction, ecological collapse, the editors can always fall back on the icy pleasures of sardonic humor.
The Economist isn’t alone in its bad faith, of course, and in fact the magazine’s flip tone helpfully underscores a basic dilemma of ecological consciousness: the sheer disparity in scale between one’s personal experience and events unfolding in the world at large. How can we reconcile our daily acts with their role in climate change? How to square our “pleasures,” as The Economist puts it, with their implication in ecological disruption? How fit our small lives into the story of planetary death?
One way these concerns are routinely managed is through the modest ritual of recycling. In the Western world the enjoyment of consumer goods is increasingly linked to networks of services meant to reduce the cost of that enjoyment. A drink once drunk, the container is responsibly disposed of. But if the consumer acquits himself in this way, it’s unlikely he has balanced the ledger; in the feedback loop of producer-consumer/recycler, the negative feedback represented by the recycled container won’t plausibly cancel the damaging output to the environment. After all, the soda company ends up with a profit, and presumably keeps on growing, perhaps somewhere on the far side of the world.
The contradictions embodied in the consumer’s ritual of returning a can or other waste product are inadvertently captured in the international symbol for recycling. Designed in 1970 by Gary Anderson, a 23-year-old student at the University of Southern California, the symbol is widely referred to as a Möbius strip, and Anderson himself credits that figure as an inspiration, along with the work of M.C. Escher. A bold, dynamic image, elegant in its simplicity, the symbol’s three arrows chasing each other suggest a perfectly-balanced system of homeostasis and perpetual motion. And yet the Möbius strip adds a dimension of paradox and irrationality to the ideal the image means to convey, for although Möbius strips can exist in actuality (in typewriter ribbons, for instance), their strange topological features — one single surface and only one boundary — have no material existence or practical application in the broader three-dimensional world. The realm of the Möbius strip is that of simulation, hallucination, dream and fantasy, and as symbol of ecological aspirations the image can only be delusory. The consumer who reads the recycling symbol is subtly encouraged to believe the economic fable that the two sides of a coin are in fact one; that this side — of consumption and pleasure — is no different than the other — which may actually be a dreadful realm of waste and destruction (eg, the Ghanaian electronics dumps or inner Mongolia’s toxic lake). The Möbius strip is an ersatz infinity, eternity in a pocketbook. It replaces the sober realities of difference, division and distance by a fantasy of continuity and oneness. In this way the image defeats dialectics and suspends critique. The world’s economy and ecologies have no such unifying and harmonious whole, except on a scale where the imagination fails us.
On such an expanded scale, that of the “Anthropocene,” for instance, Anderson’s Möbius strip might perhaps be taken as the image of life recycled on a geological time-frame, in other words, as strata. A state of frozen infinity, recycling recycler and recycled alike, geological strata pose spatial and temporal conundrums similar to Anderson’s image. But when artists attempt to envision this scale of recycled life, the results are not so optimistic.
Robert Smithson’s photo-essay “Strata” was published in 1970, the same year Anderson’s recycling symbol was released. 1970 also witnessed the inaugural Earth Day, which consecrated an ecological movement that had been building over the decade. Smithson’s own Earth Art during the 60s and into the 70s was similarly concerned with pollution, land reclamation and ecology, though his interests led him always to contemplate the Earth’s matter on an extremely wide time-scale.
“A book is a paper strata,” Smithson says, stringing snippet-like descriptions of distant times together with mentions of x-rays, stereoscopes and dioramas in museum displays, emphasizing the latter’s near-obsolescence so as to project the reader into the museum’s (and the text’s) entropic future. The canny paratactic construction of “Strata,” telegraphic in style and lacking conjunctions and transitions, links past, present and future through verbal abutments and layerings that connect as much as they disjoin. The point bears repeating, as Smithson’s ecological consciousness emphasizes the mind’s distance from the matter it contemplates, a distance given dynamic form in his dialectic of site and non-site, a conjoining disjunction that both bridges the gap between museum and natural site yet defies synthesis in opening the dialectic onto entropic processes in both space and time.
Sea butterflies fall into a nameless ocean. Plaster restorations collecting dust in the Museum of Natural History. The tracks of trilobites harden into fossils. Accumulations of waste on the sea bottoms. Jelly-fish baking under the sun. Digestive systems shown in diagrams. … A tendency to amorphousness….
Adrienne Rich’s recent poem “From Strata” strikes similar tones to Smithson’s text. That this poem counts among the author’s last lends it a terrible poignancy; the verses splice together intimate and no doubt personal feelings with the wreckage of human and natural history “upthrust from strata.” “Sharpened flints / pulverized coral stoneware crumblings / rusted musket muzzles” lie close to this notation: “the nerve-ends of my footsole / still crave your touch as when / my earlobes glowed between / your quiet teeth.”* Demiurge of her buried preserve of memories and clutter, the poet wills into being their ambiguous afterlife: “Let this too sleep in strata.”
Viscous stealth, brutal calm: subterfugal, churning
encrypted in tar sending expendable
bodies to underworlds unseen until
catastrophe blows apart
the premises a spectacle hits
the TV channels then in a blink
a dense cloth wipes history clean:
but never in beds never to warm again
with the pulsing of arrival shudder of wordless welcome
Could it be the poet secretly channels Smithson’s Spiral Jetty at the end of her poem? The final sections refer to “scraps of paper” that go “spiralling down” the toilet, and evidence that “swirls under,” while overhead we see an intrusive “surveillance helicopter” (helico, as Smithson reminds us, means “spiral,” from the Greek helix).** Obsessed with the layers of strata that each compares to printed paper, neither the artist nor the poet is tempted to twist those layers to make them into a Möbius strip. Their spirals evoke a future of shrinking returns, eternities beyond the mind’s grasp, and recycling without profit, utility or redemption.
* Adrienne Rich, “From Strata,” Tin House, vol. 13, no. 4 (Summer 2012), 38.
**”The Spiral Jetty,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 148.