Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Thoreau’s “Cosmopolitical Proposal”

July 13th, 2016

Thoreau’s Cosmopolitical Proposal


Henry David Thoreau casts a long shadow over my thoughts about and practice of walking, particularly his essay “On Walking” which opens with “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society.” In a stroke, he introduces what becomes an elemental concept–the wild–and frames his understanding of the human away from society in the big outside actively participating in the making of that outside. But his initial phrasing also opens the question of who is authorized to speak for another, particularly an other without language. Although the essay is full of many strongly (if ironically) stated sentiments about who is qualified to walk–“If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,–if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settle all of your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”–speaking a word for nature is, from the first instant, made in a tentative voice. He might speak a word for Nature, but he cannot speak for Nature. “On Walking” is an essay on being “part and parcel of nature,” of acknowledging its “subtle magnetism,” and the “capabilities of the landscape.” The Nature he speaks for is full of agencies known and unknown.

The Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers also wants to question those who speak “a word” for Nature, to understand what authorizes certain people (usually scientists) to speak for nature, and to what extent their words are final. Her “Cosmopolitical Proposal” advocates listening to multiple voices speaking for or with multiple constituencies, articulating alliances, and arriving at an often brief consensus. She opens with a question–“How can I present a proposal intended not to say what is, or what ought to be, but to provoke thought; one that requires no other verification than the way in which it is able to ‘slow down’ reasoning and create an opportunity to arouse a slightly different awareness of the problems and situations mobilizing us?” Her friend and mentor Gilles Deleuze once characterized Nietzsche’s philosophy as a “series of darts” –provocations to thinking– rather than a system or method. Alfred North Whitehead, Stenger’s other, more distant mentor, spoke of philosophy as “lures for thinking.” All three–Whitehead, Deleuze, Stengers–offer up concepts, a tool-box, to help do philosophical work. They give no absolute position from which to speak absolutely, but they do point out a branching path where thinkers can, in Thoreau’s word, saunter.

The beginning of “On Walking” is a critique of an overly sedentary existence promoted by the business economy, but it is also a description (sometimes prescription) of proper walking attitudes. In the latter part he echoes his mentor Emerson’s plea in the “Divinity School Address” for a unique American literature and philosophy, one partaking of and maybe even articulating the wild land they now occupy. This notion of “the wild” is a fraught concept, one subject to many different appropriations, most notably to support eco-political movements advocating for setting aside wilderness areas. His line “in wildness is the preservation of the world” is often misquoted as “in wilderness…” Without doubt, one could find elements of a Thoreavian wild in a vast wilderness, but it also is to be found in the “civilized” world: in swamps or low spots on farms, at the edges of fields, in the margins of cultivation (agricultural and social). Thoreau himself, as Walden demonstrates, seeks out the wild and lives it on those very margins. He notes in “On Walking,” “For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature, I live a sort of border life….” His wild is not an inhuman isolation from the tame or civilized, but instead is a force which gives energy, vitality, or following Whitehead, articulates the “ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty.” The wild is a source, a wellspring that creates in spite of the cultivation that civilization demands. It is the tang of the wild apple or the wilding potato growing on the edge of a cultivated Peruvian field ready to bring new taste and characteristics to the dinner table. A place to locate this is in one of his seemingly offhand rants near the end of the essay where, as a counter to an American obsession with the practical (or as a proleptic critique of the neo-liberal University), he calls for a “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance.” He immediately renames ignorance “beautiful knowledge” to distinguish it from the practical, but it could just as easily be called “the wild” as he follows his proposal with a Whitmanesque image of cattle who find vitality in the new spring grass after a winter of hay.

Ignorance can take many forms, and usually not particularly positive ones, but Thoreau’s is a plea for thought freed from the cultivation of a rigidified civilization, of one that only listens to narrowly defined expert voices speaking an officially sanctioned discourse. Useful ignorance is a form of naïveté, a voice that can produce insights that, because unrecognized, are not available to the expert witnesses. The central figure in Stenger’s “Cosmopolitical Proposal” is the idiot, a conceptual persona she takes from Deleuze (who appropriated it from Dostoevsky). In Stenger’s hands, the idiot is the tentative, unauthorized voice who asks non-sensical or useless questions. Idiotic questioning is a way to strip bare the categories of sense and use. She does not deny knowledge but does want a fuller understanding of the ground on which it stands: “We know, knowledge there is, but the idiot demands that we slow down, that we don’t consider ourselves authorized to believe we possess the meaning of what we know.” Stenger’s idiot is a practitioner of Thoreau’s useful ignorance, or perhaps is Thoreau himself–someone willing to ask naively the obvious question, who slows down a railroaded consensus. Thoreau is the consummate railroad philosopher. Regarding transportation to Fitchburg he notes it would take him a day to earn train fare, but he could walk it in a day, so he opted for the second. A form of willful perversity perhaps, maybe a refusal to participate in an unnecessary economy, from most perspectives the action of an idiot, but definitely a way to slow down. In her plea for slow science, Stengers quotes Whitehead’s critique of a narrow professionalism: “minds in a groove. Each profession makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove. (…) The groove prevents straying across country, and the abstraction abstracts from something to which no further attention is given.” Inherent in this position is the desire to move transversally, as Thoreau advocates, to set out across the fields instead of following established roads, and as a consequence to slow down enough to pay due attention– not just to the world encountered but also to the thinking produced by that practice. Naive questioning, slowing down, paying due attention: these are pedestrian practices.

In “On Walking” Thoreau notes, “My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.” This is contrasted to Emerson’s more famous transparent eyeball, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.” Thoreau is not after knowledge (at least none of the officially authorized kind), nor does he attain airy transcendence. Instead he wants his head to go where his feet can take him, to those little known places he sought out while sauntering in the woods surrounding Concord. He opens “On Walking” tracing an etymology of saunter, first claiming it describes someone going to Sainte Terre, to the Holy land. Then he sets out the possibility it comes from sans terre, to be without land, which “will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” Ultimately Thoreau prefers the former, but I like the latter because of the double logic it proposes. To be without ground is to acknowledge that the position from which you think and speak is solid but transient. To saunter intellectually is not to be arrogant but instead tentative. You can venture to “speak a word for Nature,” but you cannot utter the definitive term. You cannot close off the conversation. The second half of the logic is that such groundless can still provide a home, that we don’t have to root ourselves in the village, condemned to repeat the same formulae, nor do we have to run on the grooved rails of the train. Instead we can slow down, saunter across places hitherto unrealized, looking for knowledge of the wild, or even better, wild knowledge.

T. Hugh Crawford

A [Walking] Life

March 15th, 2016

A [Walking] LIFE


What if the transcendental field were actually a field? Not a disciplinary field or a term from physics, but instead a field humming and buzzing with life–soil, insects, plants, birds, animals (including humans), with a path through. Gilles Deleuze returns to fields, to immanence, in his last essay, “Pure Immanence: A Life.” It is a work of old age. Nearing death, A Life deserves to be thought. I have recurred to this essay many times over the years but have only recently arrived at an age where I feel its richness, something I am still incapable of expressing even as it moves me. So instead I just want to make a tentative claim. Deleuze’s last essay can be read by walkers as their A Life. In those few pages (it is a remarkably compact piece), he does not mention walking, but does describe with uncanny precision the experience of non-self, the actual life that both appears and is performed by serious walkers. Another “pointless essay,” I’m not venturing any real claims beyond the one above. Instead I want to proceed in the manner of my friend Isabelle Stengers and try to think with Deleuze (a strategy that requires many quotations, but it is the only way I know how to proceed).

His opening sentences are by themselves a complete essay and a summary of A Life: “What is a transcendental field? It can be distinguished from experience in that it doesn’t refer to an object or belong to a subject (empirical representation). It appears therefore as a pure stream of a-subjective consciousness, a pre-reflexive impersonal consciousness, a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self.” Perhaps feeling old, Deleuze is making himself an ancient philosopher–a pre-Socratic–voicing a philosophy of immanence, a philosophy lost because of subjects set over against objects, lost because of the transcendence of the idea of self. As he says in the Nietzsche essay included in Pure Immanence, “The degeneration of philosophy clearly begins with Socrates.” So what would an a-subjective consciousness be? Practically it seems an impossibility as, at least to me, consciousness has always been the province of the self, but Deleuze want to speak of a transcendental field (and later pure immanence, the two of which veer together). So the question is whether it is possible to experience that field prior to or in spite of the fall into a subject-object existence. Clearly A Life is some sort of process of recovery.

Sitting in a library reading Deleuze can twist the mind. We fall, we grope, yet a-subjective consciousness remains elusive. But the field begins to answer, the field crossed on foot in a long ramble where, as all long-distance walkers know, the subject-object dualism is nonsensical. Minds are in bodies, bodies are in clothes and gear, which in turn are in the world. By that I don’t mean the World writ philosophically large, but rather the physical world being occupied and traversed: this path, this air, these sounds which do not appear to the senses as an outside, an object to be surmounted, but instead are the blurred zone of the becoming of field. Not being, not self– field! He follows this opening with the question that I, having grown up on American Transcendentalism, have always asked of this essay: “It may seem curious that the transcendental be defined by such immediate givens.” Although the Transcendental he struggles against is Kantian, let’s instead walk a bit with Emerson, because I don’t think Deleuze is terribly far from him here (though their paths soon diverge). The ecstatic moment of American Transcendentalism occurs in Nature: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,–no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Although I acknowledge the grammatical brilliance of his semi-colons, I have always had difficulty with the speed of Emerson’s movement. In a few short sentences, he goes from the woods to the “currents of universal being.” As an inveterate walker himself, Emerson knows crossing such distance takes time. The speed of walking is the speed of thought — something much slower than the rapid transcendence Emerson executes here. Of course he has a philosophical point to make, one not to be found in the field but instead is enabled by the field. Emerson’s transcendence is a movement out of the “givens” of the path he actually walks, so even though his loss of “mean egotism” seems much like Deleuze’s a-subjective consciousness, in the process it loses its immanence.

So it is here that Emerson’s way diverges from Deleuze’s, but let’s follow it for just a moment to see how it aligns with, instead of moving away from Kant’s. Still from Nature: “The first effort of thought tends to relax this despotism of the senses, which binds us to nature as if we were a part of it, and shows us nature aloof, and, as it were, afloat. Until this higher agency intervened, the animal eye sees, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines and colored surfaces. When the eye of Reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added, grace and expression. These proceed from imagination and affection, and abate somewhat of the angular distinctness of objects.” This in some ways accounts for his rapid transcendence. As is clear from his transparent eyeball and fear of losing his sight, Emerson wants to celebrate what the mind brings to perception of nature which is, from the outset, considered as spectatorial other. Emersonian objects are refined by Emersonian subjects. Very much in a Kantian tradition, he wants to celebrate what the mind brings to those objects, the “imagination” and “affection” that temper the angularity of the material world. The other path, the one followed by Deleuze is through the “animal eye” along with all the other senses (including proprioception) that perform the crossing of the transcendental field. Given Emerson’s spatio-visual metaphors, his transcendence is a move up, a change in perspective that provides an intellectualized understanding, a bird’s eye view of the field. Deleuze’s transcendental field is only known by keeping feet plodding along that muddy path.

A serious walker–one who is tramping long enough for the daily world to vanish and to also move beyond an aesthetic appreciation of “taking a walk”–can recover the transcendental field that pre-exists the subject-object distinction with a different form of empiricism, one Deleuze calls transcendental: “We will speak of a transcendental empiricism in contrast with everything that makes up the world of the subject and the object. There is something wild and powerful in this transcendental empiricism that is of course not the element of simple sensation (simple empiricism), for sensation is only a break within the flow of absolute consciousness.” Wild and powerful–a good way to describe what he opens up in this passage. Walking presses the question of consciousness (simple or absolute) and sensation, both of which push the boundaries of A Life in the world. Where to begin? Maybe back in the field where we started. Without doubt, a general walk across that meadow, that field buzzing with life, is full of sensations perceived by all the aggregate entities found there equipped some sensorium (all the way to light sensitive minerals). Deleuze’s absolute consciousness senses this but does not articulate a sensation as that pitches the absolute consciousness into an opposition–sense/mind/subject vs. world/object. To have a sensation is to break from the field where all participate, interact, flow. It is instead, as he said earlier, “a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self [emphasis mine].”

He continues: “Must we then define the transcendental field by a pure immediate consciousness with neither object or consciousness with neither object nor self, as a movement that neither begins nor ends.” Here it seems he is using the term consciousness as a placeholder, a concept, to describe this movement or becoming within the transcendental field. “Consciousness becomes a fact only when a subject is produced at the same time as its object.” The world of becoming he wants to describe happens before that fall into subject/object. In terms of human experience, such events come in waves. We walk across that field, the low-growing shrubs crowd in the path. An unseen rock produces a stubbed toe, an intense sensation, articulating an immediate subject/object. No transparent eyeball or part or particle of God there. Just you, your foot, and that damn rock. But what was happening before the unfortunate incident? Was the walker–bathed in light and heat, surrounded by sound–a subject living in an objective world? In Kant’s transcendental philosophy, yes. In Deleuze’s wild and powerful transcendental empiricism, no.

We seem to be in some philosophical rare air here, but those out trekking for a long time, who move from the awareness that they are taking a walk into walking, find themselves living an act that is automatic, but not unconscious. This is why Deleuze’s idea is so wild and powerful. The walker is conscious, aware, but only occasionally finds herself as a subject set up against an object. An example: walking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal which is considered by many to be one of the best long distance treks in the world. Because of the spacing of villages with accommodations, people usually circle the massif counterclockwise. A constant topic of conversation amongst trekkers is the Thorung La, a pass 17,769 ft. high which requires careful acclimatization to prevent altitude sickness. A walker can approach a trek like the Annapurna Circuit as a circumambulation of a mountain, a way to pay respect to it and the path followed, a path “as a pure stream of a-subjective consciousness.” Or, because Thorung La is an obstacle, it becomes something to be conquered, a goal, something on a bucket list. There is perhaps no stronger subject/object distinction than man vs. mountain. That sense of self is a youthful philosophy, one of challenges, finely hammered arguments, or treks with rigidly determined itineraries and carefully marked scenic overlooks. The older, pre-Socratic Deleuzian circumambulator passes landmarks, marvels at the eagles overhead, shrinks from high swinging bridges, and of course occasionally takes bearings, but most often feels the path, the air, and light. That experience is by no means a construction of self or a movement into a different world. Rather it is the experience of pure immanence.

So what then is A [Walking] Life?: “We will say of pure immanence that it is A Life, and nothing else.” The experience of pure immanence is what he was sketching out earlier with the transcendental field. It is pre-subject/object and simply lived (not lived simply). The experience of pure immanence is in the walk in the field not leading to higher consciousness but instead to A Life: “The transcendental field is defined by a plane of immanence and the plane of immanence by a life.” Here is the payoff: Deleuze executes an ethical turn, wanting to embrace A Life not as a primitive experience prior to the celebrated constitution of the human mind, but rather as one I would call profoundly ecological. Such a life “is a haecceity [intensity] no longer of individuation but of singularization: a life of pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil, for it was only the subject that incarnated it in the midst of things that made it good or bad.” To experience the ethical not as a form of judgment but rather as a form of becoming both outside the trivially ethical good/bad and inside a transcendental field of fully engaged life, one experienced by many people in many places, but without doubt regularly lived by walkers. It is a life of traverse, of being always in-between: “This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be one to another, but only between-times, between moments….” Walking is always between. To stop at a scenic overlook, to marvel at the [Emersonian] spectatorial, is to stop. To be in a moment, not between. As he says in the essay on Nietzsche published in the same volume: “Modes of life inspire ways of thinking; modes of thinking create ways of living. Life activates thought, and thought in turn affirms life.”
A Life is not continuously lived, but when it occurs, it is performed: “A Life contains only virtuals. It is made up of virtualities, events, singularities. What we call virtual is not something that lacks reality but something that is engaged in the process of actualization following the plane that gives it its particular reality.” A day may begin with a plan and proceed by a map (the product of ichnographic vision), and by the end might have traced out that (usually digital blue) line, a plane that Deleuze and Guattari would call “territorialization” (in A Thousand Plateaus), but the passage is purely virtual. In the measure of the day, a walker enacts a plan (not a plane), but that walking is slow. Its measure is on the level of the between-moment. This virtuality is a-conscious because “Consciousness becomes produced as a fact only when a subject is produced at the same time as its object…” Consciousness, subject, object are retrospectively produced in the performance of immanence. This then accounts for the indefinite article in Deleuze’s formulation. We are never in the presence of THE LIFE. That would be Being, a definition that pinpoints life in the way GPS and a map captures position but loses everything else. The map does not include the eagles circling overhead, the smell of cherry blossoms, the squeak of dry snow, the slip of mud, a midday snack of a Snickers bar, and that sense of rhythmic totality walking brings. It is indefinite because such becoming always evades capture, even as it is beyond articulation– which is why Deleuze’s last essay is so damn difficult. So is walking.

T. Hugh Crawford

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