Earth Aesthesis: Sallis's Topographies Pioneers a Deleuze and Guattarian Aesthetics of the Earth

Bobby George

Sallis, John, Topographies, Indiana University Press, 2006, 164pp, $24.95 (pbk), ISBN -0-253-21871-3

[1] The topos, or topic, of this elemental composition is, as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once said about Difference and Repetition (1995), "manifestly in the air." But, in this particular case, the contours of the future, of philosophy itself, are to be traced in the lines of the Earth. Always taken in conjunction, or, as Derrida claims in Of Grammatology (1998), always already inscribed from the start, the graphia, or writing of the text, is salty and learned, remarkably evocative in its depiction of place. "Writing, then, as topography" (2006: 136). The text itself harks back to Homer and an ancient Greek conception of the Earth that is as primordial as it is refined, and yet, it also postures–cautiously and optimistically–in the direction of an Earth still to come. "This book is about certain places," informs Sallis and more precisely, Topographies (2006) is about the current state and orientation, or sense, of philosophy, as such (1).

[2] Comprised of thirty-two separate chapters, or philosophical vignettes, that aspire to approach place not in the manner of the "accelerated distraction of tourism," but rather, in the mode of perennial concentration, Sallis attempts to "install himself differently" in his destinations (3). He poses the thesis, not purely as a hypothesis, that a particular location has a certain set of precise questions and problems that are as unique to the place itself as they are ubiquitous to the concept of place, and he sets out to map these inquiries. Or, at least, this is the claim that he pursues, adamantly and passionately. Sallis ponders: "Not all thoughts are alien to places. Not all are such that thinking them requires disregarding the particular place where one happens to be at that moment. Not all thoughts can be thought just as readily in one place as in another. Not all are such that they can be thought–indeed with the same clarity and intensity–anywhere" (70).

[3] Each topic, and this is the main theme of the entire landscape presented, has a different topos. The topics addressed are almost as distinct as the places frequented and discussed. Their specific altitudes, climates, temperatures and terrains are all pertinent to his fabulations and stretch to include time, place, history and aesthetics. For instance, Sallis explores: the birth of the term "philosopher" near Samos and the thalassic surface of the sea; the nature of Heraclitus and his claim that the "cosmos is fire," in a trip to Alsace, France, at the time of the summer solstice; Kant and the "riddle of the sublime" in the face of the Grand Canyon; the inception of the eternal return of the same in the lithic mountains of Sils Maria; shelter and domestication in the thick woods of Pennsylvania; and finally, the nature of the "beyond" in Newfoundland. Thus, Sallis traces these paths, and numerous others, in an attempt to rethink the nature of thought and its relations to the Earth.

[4] From before Thales to after Nietzsche, then, the graphia is not only a description of place, but also a part of the rumination process: the line of thinking that escapes stratification. Traditionally, topography is understood as the study of the earth's surface, an examination that offers a detailed classification of space; but here, it is understood as the exploration of a thought, the opening of thought, or, a thought, upon the Earth. This is the necessary, and perhaps only, direction that philosophy must take, Sallis intimates. A new set of coordinates must be enacted, or just the same, constructed, and he offers the determinations needed to do so, immanent and oriented to life.

[5] Historically, there have been a number of different connotations associated with topography, such as the military and mathematics. In this case, the military undertones are understated, but present the real and immediate sense of the fulmination required to embrace the resistance to transcendence and support the terrestrial faith, in a survey, not of ordnance, but of philosophy. Sallis inspires the reader to adhere to the principles of the Earth, in all their beautiful, monstrous and parlous forms and entertains the notion of an ontology of the Earth.

[6] Sallis imparts one important caveat that the reader must heed: "While this book is thus about places, it is not about place in general, not about the concept of place. For place is not primarily conceptual; whenever one comes to frame a concept of place, one does so always on the basis of place experienced in its intuitive singularity." Therefore, before the composition unfolds, place as a concept is qualified and another conception of place is quietly proffered. This admonition here at the start, helps to set the tone and pace of the entire meditation, and in particular, it establishes a fresh tempo in reference to his destinations.

[7] Often, these destinations are chosen, such as Naxos and Delos. On the islands of his ancestors Sallis breathes the life of nature and feels the rhythms of the sea. "Here," Sallis postulates, "sense exceeds thought" (117). He describes the trip, and his reflections on the location, as such: "The experience began to dawn on us there that evening, the experience of elemental immediacy; and it left us almost silent, as we listened to the gentle waves and looked up at the brilliant nocturnal sky" (118). Sometimes, these destinations are chanced upon, and not destinations at all, such as a conference in Japan. At this site, the time of the season and the time of the bare elements of nature conjoin, as tempestuous time. "Time can adhere to a place," states Sallis, and he reflects on the forms and presentations of time as presented in the dry landscapes of Kyoto (43). As a result, the ecology that is presented embraces time as its greatest asset and most horrific, consequential occurrence, or continuance.

[8] Each time that he enters another location there is a profound and resilient, if not beautiful, sense of the purposelessness that can be found in the often disparate places, as in a film of Abbas Kiarostami: the camera traipses through the barren terrain as it traverses time itself. That is, and perhaps this is of the most interest here, as it corresponds to the thesis, each location seems to solicit a distinct, unique response. The Earth replies to questions posed and poses questions itself. For instance, in a discussion of Nietzsche and the birth of the eternal return, Sallis probes into the nature of the "arrival of a thought", as if in personal correspondence with Zarathustra.

[9] "How is it that thoughts arrive, that they come as if from nowhere and yet arrive precisely as one comes to a certain place? How is it that their arrival is linked to a certain place? Even granted that thoughts do come–that they are not merely produced–is their coming pertinent to what is thought thereby?" (71) And, perhaps more decisively, or at least, poignantly: "Can the significance of thoughts coming at a certain place be rigorously determined? How would thought come to carry out such determination? Or does the happening of thought remain always elusive?" (71). Further still, "Nothing is more thoroughly put into question in Nietzsche's thought than origins and the return to origins. The interrogation is radical: it is a question of the very sense of origin, of the sense (direction) of the return to origins, and inseparable from these, a question of the origin of sense" (72). The recondite nature of these questions does not only indicate the broad scope of Sallis's discussions but also reflects the heart of the treatment: the contention that thought takes place in a direct relationship with the Earth. It is in this sense that Sallis thinks of aesthetics, understood in terms of its Greek roots, aesthesis: "making visible".

[10] Sallis pioneers an entirely different aesthetic. Not a transcendental aesthetic, as in the Kantian tradition, but an aesthetics that could most aptly be termed an aesthetics of the Earth. This aesthetics is predicated on difference and creation, rather than identity and sameness. It is concerned to address the need for another orientation of philosophy; one that is more tectonic in nature and that offers support, not just as foundation but also as liberation.

[11] Art, therefore, finds its ultimate enunciation in the matter of the Earth; and an artist, on this account, finds that creation is the adaptation of the operations to the materials, for matter itself is a revolution. His philosophy of nature, it could be said, is akin to his philosophy of art. As in a Richard Serra piece, such as Sequence, Sallis's departures are precipitated by intensities, and the same could be said for his entrances. "The way out and the way in are the same," explains Sallis (145).

[12] Pushing Kant to the limits of the critical project, Sallis takes seriously Schelling's pronouncement of a "superior empiricism." He heralds time as the interaction of life and the architecture that surrounds us, a relationship that is not just recorded as a historical transition, but as a composite force, a temporal layer that demonstrates the articulation, or constitution of the Earth. To this dénouement, Sallis charts a course in the middle of Deleuze and Derrida: Amidst the conception of a "GeoPhilosophy" understood as the determination of national philosophical characteristics, that Deleuze promoted in his last collaboration with Felix Guattari; and, in addition, the messianic notion of an Earth to come that is furthered in the late Derrida, as an Earth that remains latent in the promise of the future and one that has already, and always, been ushered in. Of course, it is the natural telluric forces, the vital, material and historical processes that differentiate Deleuze and Derrida, for Deleuze fosters philosophy as a force of the earth–Darwin and Vernadsky–and life as its principle dynamism. Sallis complicates the notion of the Earth that is nurtured in the Christian and Platonic tradition, the concept of the Earth that starts in the last sentences of Socrates and still persists. At the same time, he posits another, more optimistic conception of the Earth as rich, fertile and impersonal.

[13] In the penultimate chapter, on the shores of St. John's, the "oldest city in North America," as Sallis reminds us, his companion notes the path "from the harbor to the open sea" known as the narrow straight and comments: "Beyond that, the next land you come to is Ireland" (155). In a typical peregrination, Sallis sets out to explore this statement and open it up further, as in his Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental (2000): "I lingered in the imagining, somewhat as one lingers in the contemplation of something beautiful; yet I continued, almost spontaneously, to librate between looking beyond as if to the coast of Ireland and drawing my vision back to the visible scene there across the harbor, just beyond the narrows. In all of this play of imaging, there was no need to form an image, no need for a mental picture of the coast of Ireland. The imagining proceeded entirely without any images; it took place entirely within and around the visible spectacle, there beyond the narrows" (157). The forces of the Earth thrust forth, just as the sun itself rises, unique, intense and terrific in its expression, and perhaps, as a sign that points "beyond" the phenomenological to a newly explored land, the Earth.

[14] The taste of the sea can be read in the cusps of his sentences. One can almost discern Foucault's famous quote in reference to the end of man as a face traced in the sand. In this case, the tide has shifted and it is not man so much that is of concern. "The Earth is almost all that matters" says Sallis (77). There is another Order of Things, an order or logic of the Earth that demands that philosophy, and thought more specifically, must once more be placed into a direct relationship with the Earth, and in Topographies, Sallis has affirmed this sense...