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—— 8 —— In Touch With the Sensuous World The Reclamation of the Elemental in Continental Philosophy The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth. —William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Why not still proceed over the untamed yet obedient element? —Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Elements are the glue of the world, the vicarious cause that holds reality together, the trade secret of the carpentry of things. —Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics I came closer to living then than at any other time in my life because I was close to elemental things. —Ansel Adams, Letter on his time in Yosemite With the growing recognition of the widespread disturbance and disruption of the environment, the notion of the elements that first appeared in Presocratic thought as Thales’ water, Anaximenes’ air, Heraclitus’ fire, and Empedocles’ rhizomata have resurfaced in transfigured form and returned quietly to the philosophical fore. Continental philosophy of the twentieth and twenty-first century has begun, in fact, to critically explore and creatively embrace the biological and built worlds with a new language and fresh perspective.1 In the process, the recent re-emergence of what we may identify as “elemental philosophy”—the elements in effect having become adjectival—provides the potential to help transform contemporary environmental discourse and address ecological dilemmas. We have examined previously the role of bodily touch and physical contact and advanced the idea that due to their domestication and technological mediation 293 294 | Elemental Philosophy we have lost, forgotten, or misplaced significant epistemological, ontological, and cultural connections with water, air, earth, and fire, even if they are not necessarily encountered with unencumbered immediacy. For a number of ancient Greek thinkers, touch plays a central role in their frameworks. In general, they stress important elemental links between the physical, psychological, and philosophical dimensions of the environment. In Aristotle’s theory, for example, we saw how contact provides a hidden and binding thread through his various accounts and allows us to apprehend and indeed grasp a deep sense of place. We now consider a few additional ways that new ecological, experiential, and philosophical relationships with the elements or elemental phenomena might be forged by pointing to routes that encourage us to be in better touch and closer contact with the ambient air, water, earth, and fire. Each of the thinkers to whom we presently transition works to find or fashion a vocabulary or voice—frequently through the field of phenomenology—in which to express our changing relations to the natural world and the encompassing environment. Rather than interrogating an abstract, elusive, and often overdetermined concept of nature, they generally investigate instead the appearance and showing of the elemental. This Continental thought assists us in generating an alternative kind of environmental sensibility that is attuned to other-than-human realms, as well as our built surroundings. By attending to the avenues these philosophers open up, we might, in turn, form practices and perspectives that enable us to better protect the places we inhabit. We spoke of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomes as a creative extension and pragmatic reworking of Empedocles’ rhizomata. We also brought the philosophy of Husserl, Whitehead, and, to a lesser extent, Derrida, Arendt, and Virilio to bear on our discussion of the elements. Through Gaston Bachelard’s archetypal reanimation of earth, air, fire, and water, we now explore the ontological and material aspects of an elemental poetics and reverie. By way of Martin Heidegger’s notion of a fourfold, we examine the significance of dwelling and its connection to understanding our place on and within the earth. Via an invocation of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s late work, we touch on the notion of the flesh as a form of corporeal re-membering of the enveloping elements. We also take up Luce Irigaray’s focus on elemental passions, the air and the gendered body in relation to the classical tetrad. The composite world of natural things and the elemental demands or imperatives they exercise on us necessitates, too, an encounter with the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas and Alphonso Lingis, who both meditate on the meanings of exteriority, elemental sensibilities, and our sensuous surroundings. Finally, as the human mind engages the impersonal forces and natural phenomena that encapsulate us, the insights of Edward Casey and John Sallis provide valuable philosophical suggestions for navigating the elemental landscape and developing the elemental imagination, two integral aspects to a robust environmental aesthetics. Together, these thinkers further facilitate a slow shift from a...


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