Blog Post

Error: Stabs at an Ecological Dynamic

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

Like a novice third baseman, I can feel the errors piling up around me. I'll make a few stabs at them here, remembering that error isn't orderly. Quite the opposite. A good thing to!

Crafting a language for ecology in a post-sustainability context, I focus on error. If disruption and change are ecological principles, perhaps error represents a basic truth of Nature. In the atomic rain with Lucretius, waiting for the deviating clinamen, I seek ways to conceptualize ecological change.

Error wears many faces. Philosophical error, legal error, errors in engineering, in grammar, logic, ethics, mathematics, baseball. To err is to wander or deviate, and from that unplanned turn possibilities appear.

Unpacking the depths of my interest in error might require delving into the Little League of my childhood subconscious, but in scholarship my current error-fixation begins with early modern oceanic navigation. I've written about error in cartographic context:

The Age of Discovery was an Age of Error.

In a navigational sense, error is arriving unexpectedly at a place unlike the one you were planning to reach. It causes you to reach Cuba when you're sailing for China or wreck on the Scilly Islands when sailing for Plymouth. These kinds of deviation dominated early modern maritime travel. Global and oceanic errors piled up as early modern sailors reached unknown seas. Error was every voyage's shipmate.

Entangled with this mathematical or geophysical sense of error, which motivated progressive technical fixes from the Mercator projection to John Harrison's maritime chronometers, theological error invokes Original Sin, the deviance of human beings from divine law. To err is human, as the saying goes, but not only in a harmless way.

Being born into error requires humans to undertake endless labors of ineffective self-correction, an imperative that gave rise to such searching programs as the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, the inescapable predestinatory labyrinths of John Calvin (and his Anglophone heirs Hermann Melville and Thomas Pynchon), and the brutal enjambment with which John Milton's Christian epic disposes of classical myth:

               ...thus they relate,

Erring. (Paradise Lost, 1.746-7)

The poet insists that all who told stories before him spoke in error. He knows that he errs too, and that the loss of paradise has never yet stopped erring. After some turns, you can't find your way back to the former path.

On the third hand — how many hands is that? error! — errancy sometimes turns out all for the best. In the literary world of romance, sudden turns become fortunate coincidences, at least as they are revealed over the long voyage. In my favorite genre-joke, Northrop Frye defines classical romance through its use of error:

In Greek romance...the normal means of transportation 
is by shipwreck (The Secular Scripture 4)

In Spenser's Faerie Queene, Errour is a monster, half "like a serpent horribly displaide" ( and the other half womanly. She frustrates interpretation and for a time immobilizes our knight:

God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine (

Trapped by error and in error, the knight needs faith to set him free. This monster is romance error by definition — the opening enemy in Elizabethan England's greatest verse romance — but where is she taking our knight and our poem?

So what is error? Navigational deviation, original sin, misunderstood cause, romance circuity? Is the narratability of error, its essential work in making stories, related to its corrupting theological presence? Can we err without catastrophe?

Any attempt to solve such problems courts — yes, you guessed it — further errors. But despite the risk of adding one more turn to error's many-forked idea-tree, I'll propose ecology as a cognate language. Linking error and ecology helps to understand the centrality of disruptive social and ecological change in early modern culture. It may also help untangle some eco-knots of our own era of catastrophic change.

Error is ecological because ecological systems include movement and difference in their concepts of unity and change over time.

Ecology is errant because, as "new" or dynamic ecologists have argued since the 1990s, there is no permanent stability in the natural world.

Error, not stasis, typifies natural order.

Human mechanisms for navigating error do not involve correction so much as learning to accommodate change.

I wonder how replacing the over-saturated word "Nature" with "Error" might change ecological thinking. In general, I agree with Tim Morton, Donna Harraway, Bruno Latour, and others who think that any "Nature" separate from culture or the human is a problem, not a solution. I mostly agree with the goal of an "ecology without nature." But I also wonder how we might renovate or reconfigure Nature, both by including humans within it and also considering dynamic change and disruption as essential rather than accidental. What if Nature and Error are not opposites but mutually entangled?

Living in Nature requires — and sometimes rewards — errancy.

Living in Error is Natural.

Nature loves to hide, says Heraclitus. Perhaps Error hides also?

Put more simply: Nature errs. What might follow from this heretical ecological principle?

Professor of English
I teach English literature at St John's in New York City, with a focus on oceanic literature and culture, Shakespeare, ecocriticism, and histories of changing media technologies. My current book publications include a monograph on early modern maritime disaster narratives, *Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719* and a collection of essays, *Oceanic New York*, that respond to New York's urban waterways, Hurricane Sandy, and the place of art in times of crisis. I'm working now on the early modern Anthropocene and concepts of error in ecological thinking.