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Attention, Imagination, Reflection: Three Spiritual Responses

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Attention, Imagination, Reflection: Three Spiritual Responses

Valentin Gerlier

‘If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character, the Philosophic and Experimental would soon be at the Ratio of all things; and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.’

William Blake, There is No Natural Religion

As many commentators have noted, our current eco-scientific crisis, began with the advent of modernity and its reduction of the nonhuman world into a mechanised realm, devoid of meaning and amenable to be subjected to techno-rational control – a field often referred to as ‘nature’. Despite the denunciation of this state of affairs by artists, philosophers and religious and spiritual thinkers alike over the centuries, this situation has held sway to the point that it no longer seems feasible to think of the arts and humanities as having anything to say about our contemporary ecological predicament — it now seems a matter of astute science and responsible politics.

Yet is not this state of affairs also a crisis in human commitment, reflection and imagination, an urgent call for a renewed understanding of what constitutes a responsible response to the nonhuman world? For William Blake, as the above quote suggests, only poetry and prophecy (or poetry as prophecy) can go beyond the reduction of the nonhuman world as ‘ratio’, as object. In its classical sense, the word ‘prophecy’ did not mean simply ‘telling the future’, but more compellingly, referred to practices of discernment, interpretation and creative illumination of present situations. Hence the task of the imaginative artist, for Blake, is spiritual: it is that of ‘prophesising’, discerning, illuminating, but also re-creating these genuine relationships. To say the poetic character coincides with the prophetic is to appeal to the human imagination as a unique, vital agent of response to the interwovenness of the real, whose role is creatively to articulate the primeval entanglement of the human and nonhuman beyond what the ‘philosophic’ (reason) and ‘experimental’ (science)’ can say.

Following Blake’s cue, and reading across literature, poetry, philosophy and religion, this seminar offers to those involved in the arts and the humanities a threefold exercise in recuperation of the poetic/prophetic as spiritual responses to the contemporary situation. Does the poetic/prophetic entail news ways of looking, sensing and being present to the nonhuman world (attention)? What is the interplay between the practice of renewed attention and creative production (imagination)? And finally, how can such responses bring fresh insight to manners conceiving our relationship to the nonhuman (reflection)? In this sense the ‘spiritual’ will not be reduced to any pre-conceived adherence to (or rejection of) ‘beliefs’ but will be explored primarily a mode of ‘prophetic’ response, one that involves a radical receptivity as well as radical creativity – both of which prompt, it is hoped, new manners of thinking.

Accordingly, the seminar will unfold in these three parts:  

1.      Attention.

The current appetite for ‘mindfulness’ has done much to promote the effect of attention and contemplation on well-being, though it has also tended to instrumentalise and technologise those practices for self-growth and personal benefit. In this first part of our course, we will explore the impact and importance of attention to the nonhuman world. To be sure, the notion that human consciousness can in some way ‘affect’ the environment is very ancient: rather than a disembodied gaze grasping an alien object, many pre-modern philosophies understood human consciousness as an emergent and integral property of the material universe, and many contemporary philosophers still attempt to articulate this relationship – teasing out how our action in the world depends upon our primordial seeing and being with things. We will ask: what does it mean to attend to the nonhuman world? Is there more to it than to simply pose one’s gaze on things? Can attention mean a kind ‘attunement’ or affinity? Can it be construed, performed and experienced rather as mode of ‘being with’ things, of ‘attending’ as also ‘tending’, and thus of relation or care?

2.      Imagination.

If attention is to learn to be with what is with us, is imagination calling forth a different kind of vision? A seeing of what is not, or what may be, in what is, and what is in what is not, as Shakespeare playfully explores in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, may be a circuitous route in articulating the deeper contours of the real and the inexplicable yet abiding interwovenness of things. In this second part, we will read across premodern, modern and postmodern texts that have ‘prophetically’ explored the relation between human and nonhuman realms (in literature, prose, poetry, music, visual arts). Such works, in their probing, experimental movement, prompted in part by the nonhuman, tend to creatively disrupt and transform stable descriptive reference and create new, revelatory, and unpredictable horizons.  We will ask: what can the human imagination say about, to and perhaps even with the non-human world? Does the material world too have its own imagination? What might it mean to imagine the nonhuman and the imagination as always already involved with one another?  

3.      Reflection.

Prompted by the present crisis, recent philosophers have tried to re-articulate the relationship between human and nonhuman. Some have attempted to single out the eminent dignity and elusiveness of individual ‘things’ beyond the cognitive reach of humans; yet conversely, there has been a call to establish relationship, to ‘make kin’ with the nonhuman world and discover new modes of relationality. But if reflection is to emerge from the encountering paths of attention and imagination, in what way can new philosophical account of things provide a path towards a caring, responsible and vivified engagement with the real? How are we to account for the nonhuman as elusive and mysterious, yet interlocked in intimate relationship with the human? What in other words, of the ‘the philosophical and experimental’ when approached in the light of attention and imagination, of poetry/prophecy? This third part of our course will thus encourage a reflective response to the practices, insights and works studied in the first two parts, by engaging with scientific, philosophical and metaphysical texts. 


Student Work

We will engage in creative retrieval and a generous, convivial interpretation of an array of sources. The seminar will take its localities in what can be broadly construed as Western traditions but sympathetically engage with responses from other traditions. This approach encourages attentive, imaginative as well as reflective responses. An ‘attentive’ response could result in the creation of aural, visual or other works oriented to refine and refresh attention. An ‘imaginative’ response could include an artistic response (writing, music, art) to some of the materials studied. A ‘reflective’ response could include a dissertation or philosophical commentary on a text.  

Sample Bibliography

Arber, Agnes. The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950)

Basho, Matsuo. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (1702)

Bennet, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010)

Bennett, Jane. ‘Systems and Things: A Response to Graham Harman and Timothy Morton’ (2012)

Berry, Wendell. The Peace of Wild Things: And Other Poems (2018)

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793)

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794)

Blake William. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (c1804)

Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980)

Clark, Thomas A. Distance and Proximity (2000)

Clark, Timothy. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment (2011)

Caravan, Gerry and Kim Stanley Robinson. Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction (2014)

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Biographia Literaria (1813)

Chrétien, Jean-Louis. The Ark of Speech (2001)

Chrétien, Jean-Louis. The Call and The Response (2004)

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin (1999)

Economou, George. The Goddess Natura in Medieval Literature (1993)

Foltz, Bruce. The Noetics of Nature : Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible (2013).

Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming (1978)

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature (2006)

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016)

Harman, Graham. The Quadruple Object (2013)

Hildegarde of Bingen, Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works, with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox (1987)

Hildegarde of Bingen, Hildegard of Bingen: Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum ed. Barbara Newman (1998)

Heidegger, Martin, Poetry, Language, Thought (1971)

Heraclitus, Fragments (c500BC)

Illich, Ivan. Beyond Economics and Ecology (2013)

Illich, Ivan. H2O and The Waters of Forgetfulness (1985)

Illich, Ivan and Barry Saunders. ABC: The Alphabetization of The Popular Mind (1988)

Irrigaray, Luce and Michael Marden. Through Vegetal Being (2016)



Kohn, Eduardo, How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013)

Krishnamurti, Jiddu. Freedom from the Known (1969)

Krishnamurti, Jiddu. Notebooks (1985)

Laotzu, Dao De Ching (c600-400BC)

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern (1993)

Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia: Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (2015)

le Guin, Ursula. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed (1973)

Marden, Michael. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013)

McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Makin of the Western World (2010)

Merchant, Caroline. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (1990)

Merton, Thomas. Mystics and Zen Masters (1967)

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and The Invisible (1963)

Midgley, Mary. Science and Poetry (2001)

Migdley, Mary. The Solitary Self (2010)

Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature (2007)

Morton, Timothy. Being Ecological (2018)

Pickstock, Catherine. Repetition and Identity (2013)

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Antartica (1997)

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Aurora (2015)

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c1595)

Shakespeare, William. King Lear (c1606)

Sheldrake, Rupert. A New Science of Life (1985)

Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (2020).

Shepherd, Nan. The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm (2010)

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics. 2 vols (2010)

Taigu, Ryokan. One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977)

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass (1855)

Williams, Rowan. The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (2014)

Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942)

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