Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Leave No Trace: The "Wilderness" Isn't Wilderness Anymore

Any outdoors enthusiast knows by heart the mantra and commandment of all wilderness activity: “Leave no trace.” Straightforward stuff: go into the wild and neither leave nor take anything. A seemingly simple directive of outdoors behavior, except Leave No Trace has a curious half-discursive, half-physical composition. On the one hand LNT, is, in the form we all were typically indoctrinated by, simply a set of discursive precepts for behavior in the “outdoors;” and on the other hand LNT is a 501-c-3, nonprofit incorporation (literally Leave No Trace Inc). Here, then, we find ourselves confronted with a curious, complex hybrid of an ideology; nevertheless, out of this intentional confrontation I wish to outline a specific biocultural entity for which I currently lack a technical term – something like a “paradigm-apparatus,” although such a term is, clearly, quite clunky.

Leave No Trace Paradigm: How We Think About Others Knowing About Us Out “There”
        What makes LNT so curious is, perhaps, not so much its being both discursive and corporate (in its fullest etymological sense, as a body [corpus] and as a business: something “actual”), but how and for what reason it intersects the discursive and the corporate. LNT is, at its face, a campaign to mobilize a specific manner of behavior within a specific locality. Within the American wilderness (an oddly “out-there” beyond-civilization place), LNT directs us to move through said wilderness without affecting the environment you are an outsider of such that you remain alterior to the environment (a hermetically closed off system of beings who are, by being so closed, non-human . . . according to such a logic). Taking LNT at its face, we appear to be in the realm of ontology (the study of being and its modes of existence considered as such). Yet, why “leave no trace?” Why shift discourse into a seemingly alien field from that which the ideology is purportedly concerned with? That is, why take an ideology that is concerned with ontology and express it with a term ripped from epistemology such that the entire campaign’s “text” ( the slogan and proper noun “leave no trace”) becomes about visibility, about the control over one’s visibility-yet-to-come in a specific medium (those “traces” left behind for others to see), and, ultimately, about the manipulation of the erasure of one’s self within both locality and time (the trace isn’t a trace until it has entered into history, until your presence has “left”)?
      The historical contingencies LNT was created to meet help explain, in part, such a bizarre discursive shift. In the 1970’s our National Parks found themselves inundated with visitors, thus prompting the United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and Nation Park Service to draft pedagogies for instructing “non-motorized visitors” how to behave in wilderness areas (for more:
     Crucial here: the parks were flooded with people. To make sense of this particular urgency as pertaining to LNT’s paradigmatic structure, we must examine the “scale” of self-other articulations when considering how an object is known to other objects. A 1:N scale expresses the articulation between an object to an alien object (for LNT, human-animal): in a formula of intelligibility, the “sign” left by an object would not be intelligible to another object that is comporting itself towards knowing the first object; or, more simply: the “sign” of Object A is not visible to Object B as intelligible (it is not information, which is, according to Levi Bryant, “the difference that makes a difference”). A 1:1 scale would correspond to a human-human (or chipmunk-chipmunk, bear-bear, whatever-to-whatever) articulation: the “sign” left by Object A would be intelligible to Object B as a signifying sign, as information (and that sign would with time become, properly, a “trace”). The historical contingency (flood of human visitors) to which LNT responds consists not only of this later scale, but also of a specific declension of that scale: an anthropocentric instance.
      Just look at what LNT seeks to “erase” (how one is to behave so that an other-like-you cannot know of your past presence) from one’s trekking through the “wilderness:” camp and travel on durable surfaces (don’t leave new footprints), leave what you find, including edible plants (to “allow others a sense of discovery” – of non-human life), minimize use of fire (“True Leave No Trace fires show no evidence of having ever been constructed”), and, my favorite, dispose of waste properly (hide your shit). While these behaviors (mobility, shelter, food, food’s apotheosis, and warmth) can have detrimental impacts on wildlife, what LNT’s principles stress are traces that are intelligible to humans. And I am not saying that the signs we leave are not visible and, in some fashion, intelligible to wilderness animals (they certainly are); the point here is that such signs in their intelligibility to animals would not be, properly, “traces.” Those signs which LNT outlines (those “traces” we must not leave in behind) and those signs which to animals are intelligible are not necessarily the same. Again, the signs I wish to highlight are only those that LNT has singled out as “traces,” not those that are intelligible to animals yet have been marginalized by LNT’s scope. Seriously, do bears give a damn about your abject waste?
     The historical contingency LNT responds to (a population increase promulgating a 1:1 scale of intelligibility) and LNT’s response to that contingency reveals something like a “state of exception” grafted onto the “society of the spectacle:” a plane of pure visibility upon which all residue of living presence is made potentially intelligible to such an extreme that even in the “wilderness” (that realm once characterized as being absolutely removed from us) we experience anxiety over being-seen-and-known. (Sorry for the sloppiness of these terms, but I wish to hint at a crucial aspect of the contemporary condition rendered visible through LNT: that we all live in a “Camp” [state of exception] that is in large part characterized by the primacy of images and visibility [society of the spectacle])

Leave No Trace Apparatus: How Our Bodies Are Captured in the Wild
     And what we are anxious about being exposed (or, more precisely, what LNT encodes as being fit for anxiety) gets to the heart of LNT’s curious intersection of the discursive and the corporate: the biological necessities of shelter and food. Keeping in mind LNT’s bivalent status as discursive and corporate, LNT is, properly, a biocultural nexus (bio: private bodily needs; cultural: prescriptions for making bodily acts fit for publicity). That is, LNT can be halved according to a biological/private and cultural/public bifurcation wherein “bio”= biological self-care (how you dispose of your crap) and “cultural” = how those biological acts of self-care are taught to be carried out. Literally, the very gesture of a living being’s taking a shit is prescribed by a cultural discourse – LNT itself, a didactic apparatus using language to teach “proper” biological actions (Leave No Trace, Inc “was incorporated to develop and expand Leave No Trace training and educational resources”). LNT is, accordingly an apparatus: a “thing that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings” (Agamben, “What is an Apparatus?” 15).

     Now, hopefully, a working definition of what LNT actually is can emerge. LNT’s discursive existence (as a slogan and proper noun) meshes violently with its corporate manifestation (as an incorporation seeking the control over biological acts) to form something like a “paradigm-apparatus” – an entity whose function is to respond to a historical contingency (population increase) through discursive (slogan encoding proper anxiety over one’s visibility) and biological (self-care) means. Not only is LNT located at the intersection of bio/cultural (as an apparatus), it is also located at the intersection of the paradigmatic and the apparatic. LNT both models thought (how one thinks about one’s being visible and intelligible to others-like-you) and captures gestures (how one effects biological self-care) such that these activities interpenetrate each other, rendering LNT a paradigm with apparatic power and an apparatus with paradigmatic force. With LNT the paradigmatic ensures the apparatus’s infinite deployment (the expansion of its force-of-capture to all levels of being) while the apparatus simultaneously constitutes the paradigm’s naturalness (the appearance of a model of thought as a simple matter of common course).

No comments: