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The reader is informed that they are not moved by such phenomena, but surely this is an occupatio , a favorite Romantic trope. We have already been moved by the time we are informed of this. The sleeping flowers are minimally personified, bestowing in their quiet secrecy a stronger appreciation for the ambient world than the trite Triton surely something of a pun. We will shortly return to Wordsworth's engagement with the aesthetics of the commodity form, but first we shall investigate more closely the salient features of ambient poetics.

We have established that ambient poetry deconstructs the difference between figure and ground. In the following three sections, an outline is presented of three specific linguistic effects of ambience: minimalism; the lingual voice; and contact as content. The element of ambient poetry we have just observed is its concern for minimization of expression, content or both , which it shares with ambient music.

Eno's gramophone was just barely audible.

Some Exemplary Voices

So in the same way ambient poetry makes certain features of reality just perceptible but nevertheless, they are perceptible. I describe this as minimal signification, and I use Jacques Derrida's notion of the re-mark to delineate this Derrida, Dissemination 54, , , , , The re-mark is that mark that designates a set of marks as such: the mark that differentiates between figure and ground. Zizek explains:. When Woodstock "speaks" in the Charlie Brown cartoons, the only reason we can ascertain that the little strokes of black are his speech is the speech bubble around them.

This is a minimized degree of speech, not a metaphysical zero-degree a structuralist concept but an infinitesimal degree. It is thus not correct to agree with the physicist Brian Greene, who designates the letter as the zero degree of language Greene This is what ambient poetics seeks to convey. The effect this art produces is not unlike the notion of "quantum fluctuation," a ripple in apparently empty space that re-marks it: a minimalist explanation of the origin of the universe Zizek, Remainder , Greene Taylor's "Twinkle" is an enactment of this linguistic quantum fluctuation; and "Twinkle, twinkle" even more so.

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Let us consider this further. In the mouth, the explosion of "Twin" and the swallow of "kle" present an illusion of language in a minimal, on-off digital state. By "language," however, we would here have to include Lacan's idea of "llanguage, lalangue"—the meaningless fluctuation of tongue-enjoyment Zizek, Remainder , This meaningless fluctuation is the presence of the Lacanian Real in language.

This is the Real observed in the mouth in Lacan's reading of Freud's story of the dream of Irma's injection Freud, Interpretation ; Lacan The deliquescent "medium" of the voice in the sense of breath, tongue, lips, mouth cavity, saliva.

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The medium has become the message, in a paradoxical fusion. Voice in Taylor, then, is not to be thought of as beckoning towards phonocentrism Derrida, Speech and Phenomena. The lingual voice is my translation of Michel Chion's term, the "voix acousmatique," discussed in the following subsection. The infant addressee of "The Star" experiences the mother's voice not as metaphysical presence , but as ambience.

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How may we account for this theoretically? The second element of ambient poetry is what I have decided to call rendu , after Chion's view of certain kinds of movie in which a special feature of the filmic medium itself is taken as an aspect of its content Chion The making of the medium into a message I take to be a prime condition of ambient poetry. One of the more conventional kinds of rendu is what Chion calls the voix acousmatique , commonly employed as the voice-over: "sounds one hears without seeing their originating cause" Chion This voice is not disembodied but the reverse: a voice without a subject.

Far from being the phonocentric locus of the logos, as in certain versions of deconstructive theory, this voice is a disturbingly asignifying element of language, which floats free of its content and form. The existentially horrific or blissful presence of the voice that floats without a subject and without speech is remarked upon by Zizek in his analysis of Chion Zizek, Looking Awry 40, 82, 93, This lingual voice is present in "The Star" as the singing voice of the carer who sings the lullaby; in the Romantic period indubitably a woman's voice.

The voice that floats around the text looking for an object wondering as it wanders is the very medium in which the poem, as lullaby, is enacted. This voice is more disturbingly present in Charlotte Smith's great sonnet, "Written in the Churchyard at Middleton in Sussex. In ambient poetics, the medium in which communication takes place becomes the message that is communicated. In the terms of the structuralist Roman Jakobson's "Closing Statement," the contact becomes the content in ambient literature Jakobson It is thus to some extent an illocutionary statement, a statement designed to perform a direct effect as would a spell, a mantra or the "so be it" of "Amen.

Moreover, illocutionary statement are strictly context specific. As a non-priest, I cannot say "I now pronounce you man and wife" to a pair of strangers on top of a London bus and have my words mean anything. The atmosphere in which the message exists—its ambience—is a significant element of its meaning.

In fact, its context is its meaning; to use the six-part model of communication proposed by Jakobson, the contact the medium in which the message takes place has become the message Jakobson The poem "The Star" is its background: the voice of a nurturer typically one assumes a mother or nurse lulling a child in its bedroom. It is worth reflecting for a moment on what a powerful tool Jakobson's six-part model of communication is for describing ambient poetry.

Jakobson derived the term "phatic" for communications that foreground the contact from Malinowski's work on meaning in "primitive" languages. Recapitulating phylogeny as ontogeny, Jakobson states that the phatic is "the first verbal function acquired by infants; they are prone to communicate before being able to send or receive informative communication" The phatic quality of the original means that its phonemes and graphemes may be substituted for others, in the best tradition of nonsense verse.

Carroll continues: "Here the Dormouse shook itself, and began to sing in its sleep 'Twinkle, twinkle, twinkle, twinkle -' and went on so long that they had to pinch it to make it stop" The Dormouse's minimalist repetition also attests to the phatic dimension of the original poem. Continuing this line of thought, the actual content of the message itself is designed to soothe its addressee into sleep: to perform an effect on a subject rather than contemplate an object.

Morton, "'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' as an Ambient Poem"

The content of the message is an overdetermination of the soothing repetitions of the nurturing voice, the sinthomic presence of embodied enjoyment that hovers around the poem. The twinkling of the star is not just meaningless "noise" in the cybernetic sense: it is minimally significant. Nevertheless, its twinkling is not useful for the traveler.


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The star's role as a triangulating device or as a time-piece depends upon its inert objectal status. Its reduction to this is what gives the star its significance, what makes it tell the time. In this form, it is a cybernetic device: cybernetic in the precise sense that this word implies guidance, steerage Greek: kubernetes , governor, helmsman.

The universe is "to hand" in Heidegger's sense for the traveler; as convenient as a wristwatch. In one way, the entire poem is "handy" in this way, presenting a miniaturized universe. On the other hand, the poem opens the contemplating mind onto nonconceptual vastness. The star's wondrousness is logically prior to its instrumentality.

The Ancient Mariner's stars are already objectified as time-pieces: they are "handy" in Heidegger's terminology Heidegger 69, This imposition has recently been read as falling within the territorializing logic of imperialism. David Simpson has argued that the empty, Antarctic vastness towards which the Mariner voyages is an aesthetic Romantic version of the imperialist conquest and objectification of the world Simpson In our time this objectification has reached the limit of life-forms themselves, as the genome is mapped, genes are patented, and rainforests are ransacked for biotechnology, in what the ecofeminist Vandana Shiva describes as a colonization of the "inside" of living organisms.

Alan Bewell has recently argued that colonialism and imperialism in the Romantic period produced tremendous anxiety about, fascination for, and desire to dominate the earth's life-forms. The Mariner's conceptuality is resonant in the sliminess of "a million million slimy things" The Rime of the Ancient Mariner , 4. But both instances absorb the gaze into a teeming infinity and collectivity Sartre: "a sly solidarity," The snakes are still slimy, but they are not to be abjected and subsequently objectified.

Their sliminess is not only the revenge of objectivity "the revenge of the In-itself," as Sartre puts it, , but also an invitation to look more carefully, to wonder. The "things" become "snakes. I am sucked into a culinary reference here, especially as it pertains to Coleridge's Romantic opposition between poetic hypsilatos sublimity, power and gluchotes sweetness , also caught up in his anti-slavery writing on sugar. Sartre declares that the revenge of the In-itself is threatening to the masculine subject: "the sugary death of the For-itself like that of a wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns in it" The sugariness of Taylor's poem is an indication of its objectal ambience—an immersive sliminess that threatens to drown the figure in the ground.

The Mariner's temporary solution to the problem of his guilt and isolation is an immersion in the aesthetic experience of gluchotes : a sugary sentimentality whose gaze is down, as opposed to the sublime upward gaze of the masculine mountain-climber. This is an entirely unexpected solution given Coleridge's linkage, in the mids, of sugar with softness, artifice, luxury and cruelty Morton, "Blood Sugar".

The problem of human beingness, declared Sartre and Lacan, is the problem of what to do with one's slime one's shit : "The slimy is myself " Sartre Ultimately, is sliminess not the sacred, the taboo substance of life itself? The question of ecology, ultimately, is also bound up with what to do with pollution, miasma, slime of all kinds: with things that glisten, twinkle and decay. Should radioactive waste created by the nuclear bomb factory at Rocky Flats about eight miles away from Boulder, Colorado be swept under the Nevada carpet of an objectified world, a salt deposit that was declared in the s to be safe, but in the s has been found to leak the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or WIPP ; how about the planned destination for spent fuel rods from reactors, Yucca Mountain in New Mexico?

What does one do with the leakiness of the world? Deep green notions such as Nuclear Guardianship as advocated by Joanna Macy and Kathleen Sullivan suggest that poisonous things, like the plutonium whose "twinkling" release of poisoned light takes tens of thousand of years to cease, should be stored above ground in monitored retrievable storage; moreover, that a culture, indeed a spirituality, would have to grow up around the tending of this abjected substance.

This is fitting: spirituality is not an escape from, but a taking care of, the abject. It should, incidentally, be clear that this view of "nature" is radically different both from the New Age and from the standard Cartesian dualism. While in these views, nature is a mysterious harmony or an automatic machine, in this essay's Zizekian view a synthesis of Schelling and Lacan , nature is the existential life substance Zizek, Remainder This all may seem rather far away from twinkling stars.

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But the semiotic implications of twinkling are entirely relevant to this discussion. What is disturbing about ambient signification is its minimalism: what is horrifying about slime is that it glistens as well as disrupting the boundary between figure and ground that is the basis for the subject's self-positing in Sartre. We cannot self-posit; we are embedded in the slimy atmosphere in which stars twinkle. Twinkling and glistening "being-glossy" are the visual equivalent of muttering or whispering without words.


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The twinkling star is the objective correlative of the lingual voice. Taylor's star, like the Mariner's water snakes, is "in the real"; the narrator perceives it as such—which of course goes beyond concept "How I wonder what you are". It is so ontologically prior to its being a clock; and temporally prior to this in the singing of the nursery rhyme. And more significantly still it returns to being this, even with a vengeance "Though I know not what you are"; stronger even than a choric repetition of the first verse.

In this Taylor achieves one of the goals of the ambient artist: to reproduce, simulate or "render" the real in Chion's terminology. The star is in the poem a hole in the symbolic that limns the Real: about as close to the Real as Lacan allows language to approach. As such it is a miniature version of the Wordsworthian "spot of time," the traumatic disruption forming the piece of grit that makes the pearl of the subject in the oyster of experience.

From the point of view of the subject, this trauma is a hole, a tear in the symbolic tissue. But this absence masks a more bizarre kind of presence. The star is also a meaningless twinkling, the matheme for which would be , the symbol for the phallus and for "woman": what "does not ex-sist" in patriarchal language see Zizek, Looking Awry It is a sinthome, a meaningless sprout of enjoyment, the inconsistent object around which ideology swirls-is it a timepiece?

Taylor brilliantly returns the star to its sinthomic presence. When seen from outer space stars do not twinkle. One can verify this in an age more technologically "advanced" than the Romantic period. In that period , the only way to do this was from the utopian dimension of the Enlightenment—the impossible point of view of space itself, used to good effect in the opening notes to Percy Shelley's Queen Mab. By mentioning the speed of light and implying theoretically vast size of the universe, Shelley establishes a radically nonanthropocentric point of view, in imitation of Milton.