The ecological thought, part fourth

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We hailed it in God's name.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.66)

We made it! And, as you probably guessed, we're going to look at the various significances of “hailing,” not to mention “in God's name.” This means getting busy with Heidegger and Lévinas.

Note that the Albatross is still an “it.” (See my previous posts for analysis.)

On the shelf above my computer a printout from the Oxford English Dictionary has been sitting since February 2005. It's a printout concerning the word “Hello.” Yes, I've been meaning to think this through for three and a half years! Thank you, Romantic Circles!

Here's the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: “An exclamation to call attention; also expressing some degree of surprise, as on meeting any one unexpectedly.”

The dictionary continues:

A. as int. a. Also as a greeting. [Earliest citation 1883. Earliest citations are given in brackets below.]

b. Used as an answer to a telephone call. [1892]

B. as n. [1897]

Hence hello v., to shout hello!” [1895]

Things have changed somewhat in the new online edition. For a start, citations have been pushed back to around the time of the second version of our poem! The sense of “hello” as a greeting was emerging while Coleridge was refashioning The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

A. int.

1. Used as a greeting. Also in extended use. [1827]

2. Used to attract attention. [1833] [In the Althusserian sense: as when a police officer in an British comedy says “Allo, allo, allo! What's all this then?”] [“Hi” has something of this resonance]

3. Used to express surprise or to register an unexpected turn of events. [1838]

4. Used to answer a telephone call. [1877]

5. colloq. (orig. U.S.). Used to imply (sometimes disbelievingly or sarcastically) that the person addressed is not paying attention, has not understood something, or has said something nonsensical or foolish. [1985] [Let's call this one the Californian hello]

B. n. An utterance of “hello”; a greeting. [1854]

Notice how the definitions are assigned discrete numbers (five of them), as if the new dictionary were giving up on trying to explore the meaning of the word deeply. The telephone-answering “hello” is now sense A.4. rather than sense A.b. The sense that was given a place at the top of the hierarchy in the second edition (“An exclamation to call attention...”) is now assigned position A.2., and the dictionary gives no overall sense. Notice also the frequent “Used to”s—it's as if the dictionary is backing off defining words.

Is this a function of our neighbor-(in)tolerant, postmodern-totalitarian world? I would like to see whether these features—replacing metaphorical hierarchy with metonymic lists, giving up on an “umbrella” definition at the top of a hierarchy, and referring to English as if it were spoken by some exotic subject of anthropological research (all the “used to”s)—are widespread in the new dictionary. Isn't this seeming backing-away from hierarchy, from saying what you think, urgently recursive in the case of “hello,” the very word we insert so casually into every interaction to welcome, to start communicating, to hail the other?

Don't we lose the richness of the second edition's definition—this is no lament for a lost presence, but in a way, for a lost absence, for a lost sense of the unexpected: An exclamation to call attention; also expressing some degree of surprise, as on meeting any one unexpectedly.” The very phrasing here enacts the surprise it's describing. There's the pause that turns out to be a slightly negative “moreover“; a tentative approach to the existence of an other; the final encounter with “any one.”

We shall shortly find these issues key to the ecological thought that emerges like a viral code in the lines we are interpreting.

I would like to restore to this most tritely well known part of Coleridge's masterpiece the full weight, the gravitational field, of the profound ambivalence that marks the seemingly casual appearance of the Albatross. I believe that if we don't account for this gravitational density, we won't be reading the poem ecologically. It would be far too easy to claim either that the bird stands for Nature, or for Supernature. This is the black hole of the poem. The Mariner just shoots the Albatross, for no stated reason. No meaning escapes from this part. We need to respect the black holiness if we're going read it properly. So to work.

Hel-lo! It looks like “hello” is bound up with the history of telephonics. Strangely, though, it seems telephonic before telephones, as it were. If you express surprise “on meeting any one unexpectedly,” it's as if you are not yet talking with them, but are signaling that talking may or may not happen. It's a word that brings into language the proximity of an other.

It's a phatic utterance, in the language of the structuralist Roman Jakobson. It draws attention to the medium in which the message is transmitted. When you use it sarcastically, in the Californian manner, it's as if you are pointing out some imaginary communications breakdown. I visualize someone knocking on a glass helmet, or holding a telephone away from one's mouth and shouting “Hel-lo!”

(Phatic messages are the essence of what I call ambient poetics, which is the cornerstone of Ecology without Nature. All messages are environmental, because they encode their medium into their form. All art is, to this extent, ecological. Ecology will soon become a term like race, gender, and class, with which it is inextricably entwined in any case—a term you look for even when the supposed content of a text is not environmental per se.)

“Hello” is an etymological variant of “hallo,” which derives from “hollo” (the word in our poem), “hullo,” “hillo,” and “holla.”

Here are the definitions for the oldest variant, “hollo.”

A. int. A call to excite attention, also a shout of encouragement or exultation. [1588]

B. n. A shout of hollo! a loud shout; esp. a cry in hunting [1598] [c.f. “hey,” as in The Tempest, when Prospero and Ariel pretend to be commanding hunting dogs—“Hey Mountain, hey!” IV.1]

[“Hi” coincides with this:


Hunt. Hare


Thei cryed, ‘Hy, hy!’ all at ones ‘Kyll! kyll! for kockes bownes!’


Gentl. Mag.


Hold, hold, 'tis a double; hark hey! bowler hye! If a thousand gainsay it, a thousand shall lye.



Chr. Tadpole

xxx. (1879) 267

‘Hi!’ cried the brigand, giving the mule a bang with the butt-end of his musket. ‘Hi!’



This Man's Wife



It was not a thrilling was only a summons{em}an arrest. Hi!



In Alpine Valley

I. 47

Here, hi! have a cigar?


Daily News

2 Oct. 3/3

A good lunch, and then hi! for the Crystal Palace.]

Hmm, hunting...hel-lo.

It is indeed in sense B. that the dictionary cites our poem:




(1880) 79 But when th' acquainted Hollow he doth heare..He leaues his flight, and backward turnes againe.


Caveat to Conventiclers

4 He was no sooner seated, but he gave a lowd Hollow through the Air.



C'tess D'Aunoy's Trav.

(1706) 9 They set forth lowder Hollows than before, and wished me a good Journey.



Anc. Mar.

I. xviii, The Albatross...every day for food or play, Came to the Marinere's hollo!



Age of Bronze

xiii, The hounds will gather to their huntsman's hollo.

So the conventional way to read the passage on the Albatross would be to see a progressive degradation in communication. First the bird is “ God's name”; then it “came to the Mariners' hollo,” like a hunting dog; then, like a hunted bird, it's shot. It goes from lofty, almost angelic being to hunted animal in the space of a few verses. We descend from hail, to hello, to hi! Or even to oi [1936]!

It would be very easy, in this reading, to conclude that the telephonic hello had turned us away from Being, had turned us all into hunting dogs. Too easy perhaps.

Even the “hunting dog” sense of “hollo” has its ambivalence, between a call to play, and a call to return to the master. Unless play were always a simulation of hunting. Surely the bird comes “for food or play,” not to retrieve other dead birds! It is no hawk. In a sense the sailors themselves are playing, pretending that the bird is a kind of hawk. A pet. Like pretending that a rather ungainly golden retriever were a wolf. Of course the Albatross is “wild,” not “domestic.” But it's not hawk-wild, not majestic-wild. It's ungainly, it's disturbingly wild. It's “abject-wild” (more of this in a moment). Its hugeness is wonderfully captured in Mervyn Peake's illustration of the Albatross hung about the Mariner's neck at the end of Part 2.

Peake's Albatross

Now it seems as if there is a hesitation within the word “hello” itself, a hesitation that addresses (welcomes?) the matter at hand. For you can say “hello” and be speaking to yourself—“hello, how curious...”—as if the expression of wonder at an unexpected encounter (with an other) provoked a self-reflexive version of the Californian “hel-lo”—perhaps a less sarcastic, more gentle version. As if the strange stranger (because that's what we're talking about) provoked a self-reflection that was decidedly not a closed loop, but an opening. Or, better, as if the self-reflection noticed that an opening was already there, as if one had cut oneself and one was looking at the wound. “Hello” is the sound of someone noticing a wound. A gentle wound, perhaps, just a “lapse in being” as Lévinas puts it. Curiouser and curiouser (Alice in Wonderland style).

Then there is the tentative “hello?” that someone utters in a dark room when they are not sure whether anyone is there or not. It's like the echolocation of a bat or the sonar of a dolphin. This can also be a test of the medium of transmission itself, like a “ping” command to a url when you're not sure your internet is working. This hello says “I am here” and “This is here,” at once. Interesting, therefore, that Jakobson suggested that bird cries were phatic in this sense. When a parrot parrots a human word, it's not saying that word, it's saying hello. There's a wonderful ambivalence just within this hello, as if it meant “Is this a medium? Or not?” “Is this thing on?” (The saying of which might activate the realm of meaning, might indeed magically “switch it on” as it were). This is an illocutionary hello that does something in the saying of it, in its very ambivalence. “Is this on?” becomes “This is on!”

This hello, too, has its ambivalence. It appears to begin communication (that's what Jakobson says the phatic function is for—to demarcate communication from non-communication). It's a minimal mark, a sort of on switch. But doesn't the on switch imply the existence of an electrical circuit, a house, a shared existence, a being together? The existence of at least one (more) person? As if the darkness itself of the dark room, the Lévinasian “night” of sheer existence, were already populated, were already a communicative field, an electrical circuit. There is already information-space. Space is already warped by language. The “third” is already in the other, waiting in the darkness, even when there's no-one.

This (co)existence subtends and subverts easy communication, with its inside–outside system. “Hello” implies a pre-existing boundary between information and noise. An unspeakable coexistence.

And there is the “hello!” that summons, like a hunting dog, the other.

When you say hello on the phone, are you saying it in the first, second, or third sense? What kind of mixture?

When you “hail” something “in God's name,” are you welcoming a predictable stranger into an already well established domain? Is the bird an ambassador from God's domain, as it were, or are the sailors ambassadors for God, welcoming a foreigner to their “far countree”? The ecological irony here would be that the sailors are definitely in the albatross's world, a hostile ecosystem. This welcome “in God's name” would then be a colonial greeting to someone who already lived there. The bird should beware, in that case. It is already dead.

Is the hailing therefore already a kind of hunting-dog hulloo? Summoning a predictable object or tool (living or inanimate, already dead) to a predictable place? As when a car mechanic you called on your cellphone arrives on the deserted highway? “Hello! Thank God you're here!” (Again, I find Coleridge's poem weirdly predictive.)

For Heidegger poetry is a hailing (Heil—we can't but help hear the resonances, hel-lo!). This hailing appears to take place in, and/or to establish, a medium, a world. There is a sheen of otherness, a shimmering of the veil as he puts it, in the theater of the Same. The curtain swishes back (hello) to reveal a world.

Now hailing positively implies a lifeworld. A Norse one at that. Like “life” and “world” themselves, “hail” has an Old English root. To salute, to wish welcome, to “hail” is a metonymy of the noun “hail,” which means a mixture of “Health, safety, welfare. In northern ME. taking the place of the native Eng. hele, HEAL” (OED, “hail,” n2.1). The origin of the word is Old Norse, “heill health, prosperity, good luck” (OED). “Heal” or “hele” is an amalgam of health, good fortune, spiritual well-being—there's an integrated world, a horizon of meaning, a mind-body manifold that ecophenomenologists can only dream of.

Perhaps the lifeworld already had some tatters in it by the time “hail” acquired its nautical sense [1546], the sense we still use when we hail a taxi (v2.3, 4 and 4b—the latter being the one we use when we ask “where do you hail from?”). Now we're beginning to pick up a telephonic register—a calling or summoning from afar.

(Irony: when Heidegger says that poetry makes the absence of things present, brings the farness of things near, is he not thus distorting hele and hail and heal-thiness towards its modern, telephonic sense? Take a look at Avital Ronell's incredible The Telephone Book.)

Perhaps, however formal the hello tries to be, however much the ambassadors have prepared the party to receive their guest, there is always the trace of a radical uncertainty, effaced in the pomp and circumstance of welcome, and all the more visible in its effacement. Thus “in God's name” strives to efface this uncertainty, to underwrite the encounter with God's name (I can't help thinking of the welcome to Munchkin Land in The Wizard of Oz!). It interpellates the Albatross into a theistic symbolic order, and thus functions like the police officer's “Allo, allo, allo!”—an expression of predictable surprise, of a crime caught in the gaze of the law. Something fishy is going on in the ice.

This deep ambivalence serves in part to undo the work of “As if it had been a Christian soul.” It is as if the sailors can't tell, or don't want to tell, whether the bird is metaphorically or literally an emissary from God, or actually is God, emerging through the fog. To “hail it in God's name” in this sense might be to think of it as God itself, or himself, or herself, God in person, as person: to ascribe the name of God to the Albatross itself.

For there is yet another hello—the abject hello, the hello we say when we see someone who's already there, whom we do not like, or who does not like us. “Oh, it's you.” Isn't there something like this in the first line, “It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1)? He never gave us a chance to say hello. He was already there. Even though we don't technically like or dislike him yet, his presence disgusts and disturbs us. Surely this is not the hello the sailors want to be heard when they greet the Albatross. But perhaps it haunts their hello all the same.

The abject hello is the underside of reverence, the dark, ugly side of hailing. It is what hailing tries to excrete, to maintain its reverent authority.

When we greet the strange stranger, we are embarrassed by the fact that she, he, or it is already there. In the most intimate possible sense, for our existence is coexistence. There is already less of us to go around, and less of the strange stranger. The strange stranger from the first is not an integrated being greeting another integrated being in a more or less well established medium. “Hello” will always contain a trace of an awkardness, even hostility (Derrida: “hostipitality”), which it will struggle to edit out. The smooth, easy-wipe “hello” of a computerized telephone answering system or customer service contains the echo of this awkwardness in its very smoothness.

The sailors' joy and relief (if that is what is implied in their hailing) has an exorbitant element within it. Perhaps it is this excess enjoyment that ends up getting the bird killed. It eats their biscuit worms, shares their world, seems to guide them through the ice. Perhaps their unbearable dependency on it is precisely what provokes the shooting. Or, aware of their humiliation (the bird sees it, even plays along with it), they kill what they welcomed with such relief. We will never know.

There is perhaps an isomorphic backward glance at the end of part 2, when the “death-fires danced at night” in a sickening reel (“About, about, in reel and rout”), and the bird is hung from the ancient Mariner's neck, another humiliation. It could be read as a phantasmagorical increase of the play and fantasy that seemed innocent in the sailors' play with the Albatross. It gets even worse in Part 3, of course, when Death and Life-in-Death are playing for possession of the crew (“casting dice”).

One of the ways in which Nature shuns ecology is in its rejection of the queer Trickster.

The Albatross appears to have come from a beyond, but who knows? Do the sailors know? Is there not some vaguely hidden recognition that the appearance of the bird and the sailors' joy closes off the beyond forever? That the Albatross hails not from a beyond that gives meaning to a world bounded by a horizon, but appears abruptly on this side of a radically incomplete Universe, too close for comfort?

Isn't this how the utterly trite meaning of the Albatross, a karmic weight around your neck, a weight that is detachable from the poem, even, as if this part of the poem were itself the Albatross of the poem—isn't this how the trite meaning captures something profoundly true? That what we are witnessing here is gravity—matter itself, pulling us, pinning us to this side of reality? The horror of fog and mist is that it abolishes the background. Suddenly everything is foreground. The lifeworld goes up in smoke. The apocalyptic curtain is drawn around the beyond. The Albatross comes out from behind the curtain of mist, from out of its endless folds—we have no idea how far it's traveled (or not).

Isn't this anti-Wagner art, where you get to see the curtain wafting around, where you get to see that it hides not a world, not a horizon or a beyond, but a horrifying nothingness in its folds? This is the meaningless contingency in the face of which the sailors desperately try to rig up some kind of superstitious meaning in Part 2.

We are witnessing demystification, yes, but not so that we can see the workings underneath—another kind of apocalypse, and thus another kind of mystery. We are demystified, but there also takes place an “infinitization,” a disturbing appearance of infinity on this side of things. It just “cross[es]” the ship's path, “At length.” No fuss, no bother really—just a reminder that we're still alive.

How do we live in this world, on this side of reality, which is ecological coexistence, so easy to negate with apocalypticism, which now itself takes ecological forms? So easy to imagine the death of humanity, mass extinction—ha, that'll teach those Cartesians! They'll be laughing on the other side of their face when they're dead! Is this why we are writing ecological criticism? To increase our Schadenfreude? Aren't we just like the sailors, humiliated when our dreams (of Nature) are disturbed, wishing not for a genuine coexistence with other beings, but for a return to sleep, to green dreams?