My Vocabulary Did this to Me: An Admonition on Spicer’s Umwelt
By Chris Martin
In his 1934 ethological treatise, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, Jakob von Uexküll boldly put forth his concept of the umwelt. The umwelt, a German word that most directly translates as environment, is more richly described by Uexküll as the sense-world of a living being. He uses the tick as his primary basis. The tick’s umwelt is bewilderingly small. It cannot hear. It cannot see. It cannot taste. It can, in fact, only perceive two things: heat and butyric acid, an olfactory protein released in the sweat of all mammals. Its entire umwelt consists of heat and butyric acid. Humans, by contrast, have an almost infinitely more complex umwelt. Not only do we experience at least five senses, but we experience a relatively wide range of each sense.
In the follow-up to Uexküll’s Foray, he published another treatise, A Theory of Meaning, which was prefaced with the following statement: “Commended to the kind attention of my scholarly opponents.” Boo-yah. In it, he makes his case for the human as a “carillon of living bells,” where each perception sign contributes its particular tone to a larger corporeal orchestration. It’s mystic and Leibnizian and almost unbearably poetic. At one point he locates the physiological umwelt of living beings beside the aesthetic umwelt of a painter: “One speaks of ‘his palette’ and means by this the number of colors at his disposition in the execution of his pictures” (166). If we extend this metaphor to poetic composition, we could say that a poet’s umwelt consists of the vocabulary at his disposition in the execution of her poems. Just as the mechanics of painting are left out of Uexküll’s characterization of painting, we can leave out syntax and form from our consideration of poetry, at least within the scope of this essay.
If we visualize the spectrum of vocabulary-driven umwelts English-language poetry offers, it’s difficult not to see Shakespeare on the far side of vastness and complexity. The near side is more problematic. Bear with me as I place Jack Spicer on this near shore, less for the reality of his vocabulary than for his/its ambition. In one of his letters to a long-deceased Lorca in After Lorca, Spicer writes: “The perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary” (123). In effect, Spicer is counseling the poet to circumscribe her umwelt; to winnow it down so small that it approaches the minimalist sense-world of a tick. This makes double sense as environment, given that Spicer was infamous for dramatically circumscribing his own readership, rarely moving beyond the Bay Area. Foremost remains the question: why become a tick? Well, I think there are several valid answers, but the one I’d like to posit from Spicer’s perspective is this: because it increases the likelihood of reception.
If you are a tick, possessing the frequency of but a single smell, your likelihood of identifying butyric acid when it comes walking by is near perfect. One might even argue that Uexküll’s tick is the perfect rejoinder to Heidegger’s claim that animals are “world poor” by demonstrating how they are, in a highly focused way, signal rich. Some ticks remain motionless on the edge of a leaf for 18 years before a producer of butyric acid ambles along. As Spicer writes in an earlier letter: “You are dead and the dead are very patient” (111). And indeed, Spicer’s desire for an infinitely small vocabulary represented a grotesque form of death drive, a desperate and radical reduction. He hunkered down, winnowed his world, and waited for transmission. In the end, Spicer moved closer and closer to the tick’s miniscule sense-world. The man who saw himself as the “Dancing Ape” devolved past his mammalian predecessors to emulate the most dedicated and hermetic of insects. His perception signs were alcohol (butyric acid) and language (heat). Through these two signs he was able to locate what Uexküll calls “meaning,” which in the case of a tick is blood and in the case of a Spicer is poetry.
We all know this has an unhappy ending. For Uexküll’s part, he moved from the tick to a more disturbing and appropriate example. In A Theory of Meaning, he gives an account of the moth’s umwelt. Though its sense-world is more complex than the tick’s, the former’s aural range eerily approximates the latter’s olfactory range. Whereas the tick can only smell the single smell emitted by its prey, the moth can only hear the single sound emitted by its predator: “These animals only possess two taut bands as resonators in their hearing organ. With these aids, they are able to respond to air vibrations which are at the upper audible limit of our human ear. These tones correspond to the peeping tone of the bat, which is the main enemy of the moth. Only the sounds emitted by their specific enemy are picked up by the moths. Otherwise, the world is silent to them” (167). At the near shore of the poetic spectrum, one may find himself locked into congress with the enemy. Was Spicer, at the end of his life, consigned to hearing only what might destroy him? Did the Martian frequency, the Orphic radio transmission, necessitate an umwelt so caustically small that it drove all other messages toward silence? Whether apocryphal or not, Spicer’s final words provide an answer that doubles as an admonishment. Some transformations—Becoming-Tick, Becoming-Moth—are ill-advised.