Emilie Autumn, February 22nd 2012, Toronto

A mix of old and new greeted plague rats at the Opera House last Wednesday as Emilie Autumn once again visited Toronto, this time to promote her newest album “Fight Like A Girl”. While those representing order at the venue itself were a bit more authoritarian than I was personally used to, the space itself was very nice.

The performance began in much the same vein as her previous one with the perennial favouret “4 o’clock” with her rat mask and the spectacular shadow screen. I was pleased but also somewhat perplexed to see the similarities between the two shows. It seemed a bit like a splicing of two, admittedly excellent, separate performances into one.

Still, sporting an impressive and feathery fohawk, Emilie Autumn did her thing, and did it well, singing songs both angrier, and yet also more hopeful than her previous album.

And as I stood there in the audience, crow’s head staff in hand and flanked by my friends Scott, Brendan (possibly the worlds tallest Emilie Autumn fan) and his partner Sarah (both who I first met at an Emilie Autumn concert last year), standing in a sea of teenage girls, I really realized just how much we were vicariously sharing in Emilie Autumn’s trauma in ways that I think should be, if not problematized, at least reflected on in greater detail.

I have come to believe that we can not help but try to live out the dramas of our minds in the world around us, and more often than not the creative act becomes the medium through which we try to self-consciously shape ourselves. I think that Emilie is well aware of this, and she takes care at the end of her shows to applaud her plague rats for their unity amid diversity, and encourages them to sublimate their own suffering into creative acts, to “take back the asylum”. Yet just as much as the creative act, we also stage the people in our lives themselves as actors in our mental dramas. They fulfill a variety of archetypical needs, and indeed, it is in fact trickier than most would like to admit to say we “know” another person. In this case, the audience is just as much a part of Emilie’s mindspace as she is of theirs. In such songs as “Swallow” (one of my favorites) I have the feeling Emilie knows this. Which such stanzas as:

I’ll tell the truth all of my songs
Are pretty much the fucking same
I’m not a faerie but I need
More than this life so I became
This creature representing more to you
Than just another girl
And if I had a chance to change my mind
I wouldn’t for the world
Twenty years
Sinking slowly
Can I trust you
But I don’t want to

And:

I don’t want to be a legend
Oh well that’s a god-damned lie, I do
To say I do this for the people
I admit is hardly true
You tell me everything’s all right
As though it’s something you’ve been through
You think this torment is romantic
Well it’s not, except to you
Twenty years
Sinking slowly
Can I trust you
But I don’t want to

What I wonder is, how many of her fans are likewise so aware? What are we really doing when we share in this kind of vicarious trauma? Is it cathartic, voyeuristic, or part of the compulsion to repeat inherent in the traumatic event itself? How many plague rats actually do think “this torment is romantic”, or conversely, how could one actually survive such torment unless sustained by a kind of romance? What does she represent to her fans more than “just another girl”? I know that I am not what one would consider the target demographic for such performances, the infamous 49%, as it were, and I’m still struggling through “The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls” (the content makes it a difficult book for me to read), but I think I have some sense of these answers for myself.

But enough of my endless attempts at something like introspection and hyper-intellectualization, and back to the show!

The pre-encore performance ended with the song “One Foot in Front of the Other” which I have to say was probably my favoret of the new songs sung that night. After all the displays of trauma and sexuality it completed the performance with the not-uncomplicated sense that maybe things are going to be ok.

Lyell, Analogy and the Distancing of Geology from Cosmology

While for contemporary readers the reason may not be so readily apparent, in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology he needed to insist that geology was something other than cosmogony as the very precondition for his attempts to persuade his readers of the three main premises of his work, namely: Actualism, the view that the same kind of causes have been at work at all times in history, Uniformitarianism, that they have also been operating at the same intensity and the existence of a closed, self-sustaining, system in which these forces act.

Having previously stated that “[g]eology is intimately related to almost all the physical science, as is history to the moral”, he then proceeds to distance it from other modes of knowing for “just as the limits of history, poetry and mythology were ill-defined in the infancy of civilization” so too were the limits of geology in his own time. This is of some note, for where Lyell sets his boundaries will greatly affect his ability to present his point.

Take, for instance, his statement that when we inquire “into the state of the earth and its inhabitance at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition” which demonstrates both his Actualism and his Uniformitarianism. If the concept of cosmogony were permitted to encroach on geology then this statement would have been made much more problematic for him, for any inquiry into the beginning of things generally either posits a definitive beginning (in which there was some fundamental change in the structure of causality) or else accept that the universe was cyclical (which he goes to great length to disprove in the second and third chapter of this work, attributing this position in part to an early misunderstanding by pagan religions of the presence of fossilized animals). True, there are many other potential conditions, and the concept of a purely infinite cosmos which is not cyclical, is not addressed, however these were the two alternatives that he wished to specifically avoid in his geological researches.

It is telling to note how closely his explanation for the primitive belief in a cyclical cosmos reflects his opposition to the Neptunist doctrine of catastrophic floods. He uses both pagan and Christian examples to point out the psychological origins of catastrophic thinking, which resonates with his previous analogy of the relationship between geology and history. He states that “[t]he connexion [sic] between the doctrine of successive catastrophes and repeated deteriorations in the moral character of the human race, is more intimate and natural than might at first be imagined”, making reference to the Chilean earthquake of 1822, and those Catholics who attributed it to God’s displeasure. Through this comparison, he argues the existence of Pagan and Catholic misunderstandings of nature as being the basis for his Neptunist opponents’ position.

Lyell’s dependency on analogies, the same analogies which allow him to distance himself from his detractors, also rests on the separation of cosmogony from the true object of his study, as can be seen in his discussion of the relationship between history and geology. Near the end of the first chapter he promises that he will “attempt in the sequel of this work to demonstrate that geology differs as widely from cosmogony, as speculations concerning the creation of man differ from history”. Both history, in the sense that Lyell means, as the history of civilization, and geology cease being recognizable disciplines when they are drawn back far enough into the past. Thus as prehistory is to the history of civilization, so too is cosmogony to geology; it is a paradigm shift whose transgression eclipses the purpose of its original study. For the purpose of Lyell’s project it does not matter how ancient the earth is, as long as we do not begin at the very beginning we can assume a certain consistency and therefore draw conclusions (which indeed, may not be possible in any other fashion). This is particularly evident in his comments on human history, in which he states that we can:

“trace the long series of events which have gradually led to the actual posture of affairs; and by connecting effects with their causes, we are enabled to classify and retain in the memory a multitude of complicated relations […], which, without historical associations, would be uninteresting or imperfectly understood.”

Without the ability to trace these “historical associations” through a consistent, though finite, chain of cause and effect his argument is made lame by its lack of causal and historical certainty, yet this uncertainty is exactly what cosmogony would throw into Lyell’s geography if he were to accept it as part of his study. How could the ultimate origins of the earth be explained by geology without the possibility of a frightful regression into an endless chain of causality, or else without the need for a transcendent principle acting beyond the commonly understood order of cause and effect?

Thus Lyell’s need to amputate cosmogony from geology demonstrates a persistent paradox in the nature of the historical sciences. This is particularly so in the case of geology which depends on an understanding of secondary causes (or an indirect approach to causality) to demonstrate its validity: In order for the science to explain things with some universality, as Lyell insists is necessary, it must limit itself to a finite subject whose very finitude makes the historical associations mentioned in the preceding quotation possible. Thus there is an interesting and potentially paradoxical concern that if we wish to be able to say anything universal it can not take as its object that which is actually universal, such as the beginning of things.

However, is it so important to “amputate” cosmogony in Lyell’s scheme, considering that the scientific and rhetorical basis of his arguments are so strong? Yet it must necessarily be of the greatest importance. It is striking that the chapters refuting geology’s difference from cosmogony were left out of the Weber anthology on this subject. They constitute Lyell’s efforts to sweep the slate clean of “the most common and serious source of confusion” in early geology. He does this in order to firmly root his hypothesis in what he sees as more empirical soil, but which has its own implications outside of this particular project.

To play the devil’s advocate, could it not be said that Lyell’s need for a closed, self-sustaining system would necessarily benefit from admitting cosmogony into the scheme of geology? If he were only trying to demonstrate the self-sufficiency of the closed system this would have been the case; however, here we again come up against the demands of Actualism and the Uniformitarianism placed by Lyell on his geology.

Ultimately then, in order for Lyell’s project to succeed he needed to separate the definite science of geology from the indefinite results of cosmogony. Whereas the one would leave him no starting point from which to draw his other conclusions, the other allowed him a freedom to demonstrate the consistency of causes on this earth, without having to resort to explanations beyond or behind its origins. It is in its way another example of the trend in the nineteenth century towards increased specialization, in which disciplines were further subdivide in order than anything might be known with certainty about the particulars of nature. The problem after Lyell would then not be a matter of separation, but one of consolidation.

For More Information:

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology. London: John Murray, 1830.

(Accessed online at ESP: Electronic Scholarly Publishing: http://www.esp.org/books/lyell/principles/facsimile/)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principles_of_Geology

Weber, A.S. Ed. 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.