LIKE A NOVICE THIRD BASEMAN, I feel the errors piling up around me. I’ll make a few stabs at them here, remembering that erring isn’t an orderly process. A good thing too!
Crafting an eco-language for postsustainability in a pluralized Anthropocene, I tend toward error. Since disruption and change are basic ecological principles, error—in the sense of turning, changing, surprising—represents a basic truth of the more-than-human composite we still mostly call Nature. Getting wet because I’m standing out in the atomic rain with Lucretius, I’m looking for plural ways to conceptualize ecological change.
Errors wears many faces. Philosophical error, legal error, the sinner’s turn away from grace. Errors crop up in engineering, in grammar, logic, ethics, mathematics, baseball. To err is to wander or deviate, and from that unexpected turning possibilities appear.
Unpacking the depths of my personal fascination with errancy might require delving into the Little League of my childhood subconscious, but as an ecocritic my error fixation begins with feeling lost at sea. Early modern oceanic navigation forced sailors, writers, and poets into reckoning with nearly unsolvable errancy. I’ve got a bumper-sticker version of that insight: “The Age of Discovery was an Age of Error.” In navigational context, error means arriving unexpectedly at a place that’s not the one you were trying to reach. Errancy means you reach Cuba when you’re sailing for China or wreck on the Scilly Islands when sailing home to Plymouth. Global and oceanic errors accompanied early modern sailors as they ventured into poorly known seas. Error was every voyage’s shipmate.
Entangled with this mathematical and geophysical sense of error, which motivated a series of technical fixes from the Mercator projection to John Harrison’s maritime chronometers, lurked the premodern obsession with Original Sin, a basic human turning away from divine law. To err is human, as the saying goes, but not only in a harmless way.
Being born into error may acquire new resonance as long-established ideas of human sinfulness transmute themselves into species-level guilt over having fouled our planetary environment. As we come to recognize the Anthropocene not as cliff to be avoided (too late for that!) but as the condition of our present and future, literary figurations of “endlesse worke” become newly valuable. From the knights and ladies who roam the labyrinthine allegories of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590–94) to the more practical but still interminable Spiritual Exercises (1522–24) of Ignatius of Loyola, a shared premodern vision emerges of human insufficiency and the need for ceaseless labor. Spenser’s quests and Ignatius’s prayers inform the predestinatory labyrinths of John Calvin, as well as his Anglophone literary heirs including Herman Melville and Thomas Pynchon. The shock of living in Anthropocene error marks John Milton’s brutal enjambing revision of classical myth in the first book of Paradise Lost:
. . . thus they relate,
The Christian poet insists that all who wrote before him wrote in error—but he knows that he too errs, and that failing to stay on the straight path represents a basic human condition. The world without Anthropocene pollution appears only as Eden itself, the loss of which has never yet stopped erring. After some turns, you can’t find your way back to the former way. Eventually, the idea of a single path starts to seem nebulous. Perhaps it’s time for many routes?
On the third hand—how many hands is that? Error!—errancy may turn out for the best. That’s the fond hope and deeply held fantasy of the ancient literary form we call romance, in which sudden turns become fortunate coincidences, as they are revealed over the fullness of the long narrative voyage. In my favorite genre joke, Northrop Frye defines the origins of classical romance through navigational error: “In Greek romance . . . the normal means of transportation is by shipwreck.” In Spenser’s Faerie Queene Errour is a monster, half “like a serpent horribly displaide” (22.214.171.124) and the other half womanly. She frustrates interpretation and for a time immobilizes the Knight of Holinesse: “God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine” (126.96.36.199). Trapped by Errour and in errancy, the knight requires faith to set him free. Spenser’s creature represents romance error by definition—the opening enemy in Elizabethan England’s greatest verse romance—but where is she taking our knight and our poem? Into her den, into immobility: a place where you can’t err any more because you can’t move.
So what is error as ecological principle? Navigational dislocation, original sin, romance circuity: what links these disparate deviations? Is the essential narratability of error, its crucial work in making stories, related to its corrupting theological force? Can we err without catastrophe—or can Anthropocene error and its mounting catastrophes be reimagined not as a once-and-for-all break with an alienated paradise but as a way to recognize the shifting and violent contingencies in which we live?
Any attempt to solve such problems courts—yes, you guessed it—more errors. But despite the risk of adding one more turn to the many-forked idea tree, I’ll propose ecology as a cognate language for error in the Anthropocene. Linking error to ecology helps emphasize the centrality of disruptive social and ecological change in both premodern and modern cultural moments. Thinking with error may not help us untie all ecological or political knots, but perhaps this practice may help us recognize the difference between pleasing fantasies and deep-down encounters with Nature as nonhuman presence.
Error is ecological because ecological systems operate through movement and difference as they change in time.
Ecology is errant because, as the “new” or dynamic ecologists have been arguing since the 1990s, there is no permanent stability or “sustainability” to be found in the natural world.
Human mechanisms for navigating error do not involve “correction” to an assumed norm so much as learning to accommodate change.
Recognizing that Nature and Error are twins can change ecological thinking in the Anthropocene. I agree with Donna Haraway, Timothy Morton, Bruno Latour, and many others who have been arguing for some time that any concept of “Nature” that insists on being separate from “Culture” is a problem, not a solution. But I also doubt the word Nature is going away, so my aim is to help renovate or reconfigure this plastic term, in part by returning to its rich literary and philosophical history. Nature has a deeper intellectual past than Ecology. How might a Nature that expands to include not just nonhumans but also chronologically distant figures as well as dynamic change and disruption as constitutive principles operate? What if Nature and Error are not opposites but mutually co-conspiring?
Living in Nature requires—and sometimes rewards—errancy. Sailors and poets have always known this problematic truth. The Anthropocene may teach error’s painful lessons on a planetary scale.
Living in Error is Natural. Unfortunately.
Nature loves to hide, says Heraclitus. Perhaps Error names the principle through which Nature secrets itself?
Put most simply: Nature errs. What might follow from this heretical ecological antiprinciple?