UBC Theses and Dissertations
Green men, plant brains and nervetrees : Ronald Johnson's object-oriented poetics of embodied mind L'Abbé, Sonnet Lynn
This dissertation is an ecocritical single-author study of the work of the American modernist poet Ronald Johnson (1935-1998), who sustained in his work a career-long inquiry into the relationship of poetry and Nature, and into the limits of representing subjective perception in language. Johnson understood poetry as a process by which "nature looks at itself" that took, as its starting point, the biological embeddedness of the human subject in his or her own environment. The human mind, for Johnson, was the telos of Nature’s evolutionary change and the chief instrument of this looking. When Johnson's Nature, not dualistically differentiated from human subjectivity, “looks at itself” through his poetry, the boundaries of epistemological and identity categories of subject and object become indistinct, a representational challenge that Johnson — who was not at all interested in disrupting, but only discovering his own model for, “the” Natural order — often negotiates through the use of plant tropes and metaphors. The figure of the plant shows up in Johnson's work where the poet, acting as an idealized Western human self, reaches to identify beyond the boundary of species identity, to greenly and leafily represent a kind of alterity that is un-othered by its observer. This dissertation proposes that Johnson's formally innovative poetry, which plays within the genre tradition of nature writing, poses figuratively what philosopher and critical plant studies pioneer Michael Marder argues: that the figure of the plant, which grows "in-between classical metaphysical categories of the thing, the animal, and the human" stands as the potential "prototype of a post-metaphysical being" (“Vegetal” 487) More importantly, Johnson’s work suggests that the mindbody, particularly the human nervous system, as an object-that-knows, confounds Western metaphysics in the same way. Johnson’s “nervetree” figure, I argue, moves us closer to visualizing where the human object, as embodied, ecologically-embedded subjecthood, fits in a post-metaphysical, object-oriented ecological thought.
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