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The Four Ages of Poetry or, Hegel: The Eco Remix

It may not be so cool of me but I just loved Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his presentation of the Chauvet Cave, full of the oldest known human art, from 30 000 BC.

Why? Because Herzog is a Romantic poet. Maybe it's just because I'm a Romanticist but it's also because I'm an object-oriented ontologist type, who starts from the position of phenomenological “sincerity” (Ortega y Gasset), aka “Wherever you go, there you are,” as the great philosopher Buckaroo Banzai put it. In other words, acknowledging the role of the narrator, the narrator's contamination of what she is saying or seeing.

Herzog shows us how he fails to capture the whole cave because of severe legitimate restrictions on access. He shows us the scientifically mediated cave (with interviews with the archaeologists and so on), before he shows us the “naked” cave mediated only by him and his crew and his cameras (yeah right). We never get to see an (illusion of an) unmediated cave. He shows us the depth of time from which it's impossible to draw any conclusions. At every turn he announces his failure, thematizes it, makes it into part of the content rather than trying to erase it.

The cave paintings might not strictly be an arche-fossil in Quentin Meillassoux's terminology: no relic from a time before cognition. But even so they are impenetrable to a contemporary human.

Or are they? Because Herzog puts himself and the camera in the shot (how can he not? He's restricted to a slim metal gantry, so that the camera is fully there, with the wires and technicians), magically we do achieve a kind of relationship with the cave.

What is a drawing in a cave anyway but a series of lines, like writing, which, as one of the archaeologists in the movie points out, is a more durable communication than face to face speech—though we lose exactly what the line is “saying” over the millennia.

What are those lines, those beautiful sinuous ripples of lion bodies and human flesh, other than a kind of mimicry, camouflage, translation (in object-oriented-ese) of the human and nonhuman realms?

When one archaeologist from the site looks for an explanation he brings up an Aboroginal line painter who touches up a painting on a rock wall. When asked why he's drawing, the man says “I'm not drawing, spirit is drawing.”

So there we have it: withdrawn objects, yet a magical, illusory, ironic access to them in a shared configuration space we call the aesthetic dimension. To draw a line of a lion's back on a cave wall is to set up a Bat Phone to the lion and yet to acknowledge my difference from the lion.

The drawings of horse heads and other animals are repeated over and over, as if (this is my hypothesis) the ritual of art is a repeated sequence of movements with charcoal (and other media) that perform this Bat Phone hookup, as if in repeating the horse the drawer evokes the first drawer and so on.

So that encoded into the very first horse drawing is the possibility of its reproduction.

So that the very first horse drawing is not an original. So that the very first drawings known are not the first drawings. So that Herzog's Romanticism, which acknowledges how spirit massively outstrips materials (as Hegel puts it), also opens the door for nonhuman objects to come pouring in, in the form of stalactites, charcoal lines, torch smudges, horses and crystals. And cameras.


But what about the strange ending of the film, featuring an environmental pocket of white albino crocodiles and alien worlds formed by run off from a nearby nuclear power plant...in which Herzog muses about crocodiles from the far future speculating about the cave paintings?

For a kick off, it's a sign of the times that a Romantic such as Herzog can't stick with a self-contained, though open in the sense of self-reflexive, narrative-that-includes-the-narrator (the standard Romantic form). Suddenly there is a coda, something after this Romanticism.

I've been doing a series  of talks in which I argue for a fourth aesthetic moment, extending Hegel's tripartite periodization of art by imagining what ecological art is: the point of contact with nonhumans, the moment at which nonhumans enter human language in a decisive way.

I don't mean to say Hegel's model is correct or that we should become Hegelians. It's more like Hegel, as a product of the modernity we are living, speaks (and can't speak) about some of the issues in a way that's quite congruent with how we think about them.

Hegel imagines the history of art as the history of evolving relationships between the substance of art—art forms, materials, genres, the objects of art (stone, paint, film stock), and the content (“spirit”). What we have in Hegel's white Western periodization are three moments (bold) with their corresponding aesthetic features (italics):

1) Symbolic. Art's substance (statues, instruments, paint) outstrips its content. Fetishism (if you are an imperialist bearer of Enlightenment) or animism.

2) Classical. A brief Goldilocks harmony between substance and content. Symmetry. Bach, Mozart.

3) Romantic. Art's content outstrips its substance. Philosophy drives ahead, art can only fail better (irony).

In the Deleuzian manner, in which we push philosophy from behind to vomit forth some unspeakable secrets, we can imagine a fourth moment, which I call a time of asymmetry:

4) Ecological. Art's content outstrips its substance in one way: we know way more every day about reality (science). But the substance of art outstrips the content (revenge of the objects). An asymmetrical confrontation between the human and the nonhuman.

Three startling similarities and differences emerge between the fourth age of art and the previous three:

—Moment 4 is like moment 2 in that there is equal power between substance and content. But unlike it since this equality is asymmetrical, unstable.

—Moment 4 is like moment 1 in that objects such as Pollock's paint drips now free themselves from the human realm. But unlike it since humans have more knowledge.

—Moment 4 is like moment 3 in that there is still irony. But unlike it since objects are no longer simply sounding boards for human subjectivity.

There are two absolutely unique features of the fourth age: 

In Moment 4, the strange stranger appears. We return to a kind of animism (the first age), but sous rature. Animism.

In Moment 4, the future future opens. A future without us. A future in which an object like radioactive waste lasts longer than the time stretching all the way back to the caves with their paintings.

A future in which evolution develops intelligent albino alligators who make their own Romantic movies about cave paintings.

Timothy Morton's picture

Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. Professor Morton's interests include literature and the environment, ecotheory, philosophy, biology, physical sciences, literary theory, food studies, sound and music, materialism, poetics, Romanticism, Buddhism, and the eighteenth century. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays, including The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) and Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007).