Autophenomenography as a docupoetics of the natural history archive
  • EJ Shu

This essay investigates what documentary poetry might bring to the scene of natural history. More specifically, it charts the emergence of a methodology for understanding how docupoetic praxis might work with the material instantiations of the natural history archives. The essay reflects on the production of a suite of documentary poems centred on the habitat dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. The author undertakes this reflection via autophenomenography, deploying the ‘material phenomenology’ of French philosopher Michel Henry to explain how her research and writing practices were constituted in the archival encounter. The author shows that while the non-textual archives may at first seem unavailable to docupoetic praxis, a strategy for using these objects is made possible by understanding their phenomenality as coincident with the poet’s own affectivity. To this end, the paper includes fragments of the author’s poetry in development. After Michel Henry, the author suggests that the resulting poetry is not a representation of the archival object, but rather a presentation directed by the poet’s affectivity or ‘pathos’.

Keywords: documentary poetry; autophenomenography; Michel Henry; archives; natural history


Poetry’s capacity to bear witness to the events of human history is well established (Forché 1993; Milosz 1983; Rowland 2014). Among the poetries of witness, documentary poetry (or ‘docupoetry’) is distinct for its appropriation of extant texts in the making of the poem — a mode described by the modernist poet Muriel Rukeyser as ‘extending’ the document (1938: 146). Such documents may take various forms — institutionally curated records, media reports, films and photographs, interview transcripts and so on — but all are characterised by an exteriority and anteriority with regard to the documentary poem. The documentary poet often addresses such documents in their aggregate form as archives, both in the sense of official repositories of information as well as material which is ‘only loosely classified, material whose status is as yet indeterminate and stands between rubbish, junk and significance’ (Featherstone 2006: 594). Docupoetry’s intertextual strategies of quotation, collage, erasure and embellishment typically take the form of an intervention on the archives: challenging dominant narratives, attending to gaps and the ‘hauntings’ of memory (Harkin 2014), and amplifying silenced or marginalised voices. Consistent with poststructuralist and critical perspectives on the archives (e.g. Foucault 2012; Derrida 1998; Hamilton et al 2002), the docupoet recognises the archive as unstable and contingent, as the product of epistemological and classificatory systems rather than as a resource for the ‘extraction’ of knowledge (Stoler 2002).

In recent years, documentary poetry has tackled subjects as diverse as the prison-industrial complex (Wright 2007); life and death in a coal mining community (Nowak 2009); biography (Wilkinson 2012, 2014a, 2019) and murder (Philip 2011). Yet even as the remit of documentary poetry is defined as the relating of ‘historical narratives, whether macro or micro, human or natural’ (Harrington 2011: n.p; my emphasis), and anthropogenic change draws attention to the enmeshment of human and natural histories (Chakrabarty 2009), the affordances of docupoetry for retelling natural histories remain underexplored. Perhaps this is because the materiality of the natural history archives presents the docupoet with a complicated set of objects that seem inaccessible to intertextual work. When the archives are comprised of things which tell a non-textual story, for which ‘the eye is the critical organ’ (Haraway 1984-5: 24), how might such ‘documents’ be used?

This essay reflects on an attempt to devise a docupoetic praxis for working with the material instantiations of the natural history archives. In May of 2019, I undertook seven days of practice-based research at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, with the intention of developing a suite of poems in response to the iconic habitat dioramas of the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals. My archival sources included the constellations of texts surrounding the dioramas — interpretive signage, expedition diaries, fieldwork studies, books, correspondence, pamphlets and taxidermy manuals. Yet my research also entailed a different kind of work in which I endeavoured to treat the contents of the dioramas themselves as archival documents.

As a reflection on my practice, this essay is an experimental instance of autophenomenography — a research orientation derived from the more well-established term ‘phenomenography’. Phenomenography, as developed by Swedish educational researcher Ference Marton, assumes that people only have access to the world through experience, and that these experiences can be investigated by analysing the categories that people use to describe them (Marton 1986). Moreover, such descriptions are often shared, making way for analysis about ‘socially significant’ forms of interpretation (Marton 1981: 180). Phenomenography does not take a position on the nature of reality (Svensson 1997: 165), but rather is an empirical research orientation typified by detailed description and analysis — not unlike the ‘thick description’ of ethnography (Geertz 1973: 3-30). As a reflexive study of my own phenomenal experiences in the museum, I use the alternative term autophenomenography. First proposed in 2004 by educational researcher and Guyinbaraay woman, Maree Gruppetta (2004), autophenomenography has since been explored in a small number of research contexts, perhaps most fruitfully by Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson (2009; 2011; 2016) who has applied it to apprehend the ‘cognitive, corporeal, emotional’ (2011: 59) structures of phenomenality within sport and physicality. Distinct from autoethnography, autophenomenography is thus the reflexive investigation of phenomena rather than social and cultural life. While autophenomenography is yet to be fully developed as a methodology, its potential to generate representations ranging from ‘modified realist tales… to more evocative genres such as poetic representations and performative, audience-interactive forms’ (Allen-Collinson 2011: 54) suggests its value for making sense of the phenomenal encounter within creative practice.

In the following essay, I attend to some of the limitations of Husserlian phenomenology and execute a concept of autophenomenography in terms of the ‘material phenomenology’ of Michel Henry[i] (1973; 2008), according to which I understand the museum dioramas as phenomena accessible via ‘impressional’ consciousness. The salience of Henry’s material philosophy emerged only in the process of my research, and therefore I present this interpretive framework as emerging alongside — rather than preceding — my creative practice. Through the lens of Henry’s material phenomenology, I emphasise the self (‘auto’) as a source of experiential data about phenomena that challenges and traverses the limits of the visual. Further, I conceptualise autophenomenography as an affective form of recording or documenting (‘-graphy’) — a concrete research praxis in which my impressional experience is worked out on the page. Autophenomenography is thus an apt descriptor both for the investigative content of this essay and the poetry that resulted from my encounter with the archives. This essay highlights three salient aspects of my autophenomenographical research. The first is the coincident appearance of the dioramas’ phenomenality with my own affectivity, such that both seemed to appear simultaneously; the second is the way I utilised this fact to both borrow from, and be ‘moved’ by, the affectivities of other museum visitors; and thirdly I consider the resultant poetry as descriptions of phenomenal appearing, rather than representations of appearances themselves. 


The materiality of the natural history archives

Within scientific practice, the production and archival arrangement of scholarly documents is considered fundamental to the task of constructing order from the ‘apparent chaos of available perceptions’ (Latour & Woolgar 1986: 33). However, the science archives are further complicated by their materiality[ii], in that they consist not only of texts, but also of objects that perform the same kinds of epistemological work. According to the influential treatise, Qu'est-ce que la documentation?, produced in 1951 by French librarian and historian Suzanne Briet, the inclusion of objects in the archive is achieved by defining the ‘document’ according to its function, rather than its form. Briet proposed that any concrete or symbolic sign may be considered a document, so long as it operates as proof of a fact:

Is a star a document? Is a pebble rolled by a torrent a document? Is a living animal a document? No. But the photographs and catalogues of stars, the stones in a museum of mineralogy, and the animals that are catalogued and shown in a zoo, are documents. (Briet 2006: 10)

More recently, historian of science Lorraine Daston has proposed a similarly functional definition for the archives of the sciences. She describes the science archives as the product of a set of enduring practices, in which archival contents are first acquired on the basis of predetermined criteria; made retrievable through a set of finding aids; reconfigured to reveal patterns; and lastly transcribed across time and space (2017: 8-11). Daston’s practices of acquisition, retrieval, reconfiguration and transcription operate as forces of organisation that transform material objects — things as disparate as bodily tissues (Acker 2015), ice (Perić 2018) and fossils (Sepkoski 2017) — into representational and interpretive claims about the world.

The materiality of the modern natural history archive reflects the discipline’s origins in the Renaissance, when plant specimens brought back from the New World could not be accommodated within existing frameworks of botanical classification and thus required new forms of interpretation and description (Samson 2012: 16-7). Michel Foucault notes that, prior to the mid-seventeenth century, natural inquiry had taken the form of history — a unitary account in which an organism’s physical properties might be described alongside its cultural, mythological, symbolic and everyday qualities (Foucault 2002: 140). However, with the emergent empiricism of the scientific revolution, regimes of seeing — both with the eye and with new technologies such as the microscope — came to dominate experimental and taxonomic forms of natural history (Findlen 2006: 464-6), reducing descriptions of an organism’s ‘being’ to clinical records of its observable qualities (Foucault 2002: 142).

The visuality of natural history’s methods produced a field of documentation marked by ‘unencumbered spaces in which things are juxtaposed’ (Foucault 2002: 143; my emphasis). Among these early spaces were ‘cabinets of curiosities’, characterised by variety and novelty (Daston 1988: 457-8). However, by the turn of the nineteenth century, natural history’s primary stage had become the orderly space of the museum. Modelled after the Paris Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle (Spary 2000: 221), the modern natural history museum reified knowledge through architectural techniques of display, its objects ‘captured, stuffed, pinned down and categorised, sheltered beneath iron and glass canopies or Romanesque towers’ (Yanni 2005: 159). Within the curatorial practice of ‘dual arrangement’ — in which a museum’s holdings were divided between those on public display and those stored behind the scenes for scientific research (Winsor 2009: 68) — visuality remained a prime organising feature of the public-facing realms, with specimens configured to represent an assumed natural order (Golinski 2005: 97).

Exemplifying the museum’s strategy of display was the habitat diorama: a room-sized exhibit sealed behind glass, featuring taxidermied animal mounts alongside contributory elements such as vegetation, specialised lighting and a painted background, together giving the illusion of the natural landscape. Adapted from Louis Daguerre’s diorama theatres of the early nineteenth century, the natural history diorama reflected both the ‘tinkering technophilia’ of the mechanical age (Rasmussen 2018: 261), in which ever-more exacting techniques could close the gap between the real and the simulacra, and a Romantic impulse that considered spectatorship an opportunity to salve the industrial-age rupture of the animal-human relation (Berger 2007). As a hermetic ‘window on nature’ (Quinn 2006), the habitat diorama claimed to represent nature while simultaneously enacting the modern commitment to vision as the primary sense for establishing and sustaining knowledge (Levin 1993).

Today, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is home to one of the world’s most extensive collections of habitat dioramas, grouped in geographical and taxonomical collections such as the Hall of North American Forests and the Hall of New York City Birds, etc. The individual dioramas function both as historical assemblages, whose components encode ecological and genetic knowledge from a specific place and time (AMNH 2019), and educational devices, marshalled into a narrative about the importance of conservation. As examples of material instantiations of the natural history archive that are not just publicly available, but explicitly assembled for public consumption, habitat dioramas present the documentary poet with a prime opportunity for experimental modes of research.



Image # 327487 American Museum of Natural History Library. Rota (photographer), ‘Alaska Brown Bear Group, North American Mammal Hall, 1960’


The objects and I appear

‘Back to the things themselves’ — the rallying cry of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger — suggests phenomenology might offer a useful theoretical platform for the docupoet working with object-laden archives. Somewhat paradoxically, this maxim does not propose an explicit return to things qua things. Rather, it signals an investigation of the givenness of objects, or how they appear in their being. Husserlian phenomenology proposes (after Franz Brentano) that givenness is constituted in ‘intentionality’, which describes the way consciousness intends or ‘points to’ the object (Husserl 2001: 102). This intentionality — later described as ‘care’ by Heidegger (1962: 237) — constitutes the subject and object within a relation of experience. For Heidegger, this experience is fundamentally interpretive, or ‘hermeneutic’. In other words, the supposed object has a being which is both open to, and ‘in need of’, interpretation; and hermeneutics is the object’s ‘presumed mode of access’ to consciousness (Heidegger 2010: 11).

The task of devising a hermeneutic strategy for ‘reading’ the dioramas was front of mind when I first arrived at the museum. Prior to my visit, I had become keenly aware of the role of taxidermy and conservation within recent restoration work in the Hall of North American Mammals (AMNH & Bauerle 2012). Taxidermy mounts are vulnerable to decay over time, and thus function as examples of the ‘anarchival’, or that which eludes preservation (Hennessy & Smith 2018: 130). Artificiality is the key to a specimen’s natural appearance, to such degree that its ‘true colours’ (AMNH 2014-2017) require ongoing maintenance via synthetic dyes and the repair of body parts, all executed by the conservator-cum-artist. My understanding of these processes meant that I approached the museum expecting to encounter the dioramas at the level of taxidermy: as plaster bodies, preserved skin, glass eyes. Analogous with the docupoet’s use of extant documents, I expected the material ‘stuff’ of these archives to be both temporally stable and somehow amenable to the work of interpretation.

However, upon entering the Hall of North American Mammals, I immediately experienced the diorama contents not as inert, but as instantaneously and emphatically staged in various forms of being, contemporaneous with my own: I had the sense of the grizzly bear standing on its hind legs; the porcupine climbing a tree; the mountain goat kid lagging behind; the lynx stalking the hare. Even knowing in advance that the wolf diorama featured coloured marble dust to suggest moon shadows, my impression was not one of marble dust or even diorama, but rather two wolves running across snow at night. In other words, despite anticipating a tranquil place studded with relics, I found the hall jam-packed with objects doing things, and these actions seemed without beginning or end:

the bison teeming, grazing, making depressions, rustling
insects and cowbirds
following, the grass low enough
for prairie dogs to colonise.

Clearly, I was falling for the diorama set-pieces. Yet in contrast to Donna Haraway, who experienced the museum’s Hall of African Mammals as ‘peaceful, composed’ and emblematic of an imposed natural order (1984-5: 24), my own experiences of the dioramas were dominated by feelings of precarity. Perhaps influenced by exhaustion after my long-haul flight, I felt uneasy about the musk ox’s potential for slipping as it picked its way down a snow-covered rock. I was unsure about the relative hunger of the eastern cottontail rabbits in what looked like a stripped field; and I was gripped by the sunset scene in which a female skunk, a string of juveniles behind her, reached diorama edge and paused, seeming to telegraph all the queasiness that comes from reaching the limits of one’s understanding.

Notably, my sense of the dioramas’ ‘being’ intensified over time. On each subsequent visit to the hall, the liveliness of the taxidermied objects seemed to grow more conspicuous, something I attributed to the dioramas becoming increasingly saturated with my impressions. The scenery, too, seemed enlivened by the frisson between my memory of it (laid down the day before) and its freshly encountered qualities. These differences between memory and encounter were productive, in that scenes appeared more nuanced with repeated viewings:

I’ve been here before — when I’m here, am I standing
in front of the herd or inside it?
It seems to me that snowline creeps lower
every time I come.

This insistence of the first-person pronoun within the dioramas’ seeming or appearing posed a significant problem for my archival investigation. On the one hand, intentional consciousness seemed to provide access to the dioramas as phenomena. Yet on the other, there was clearly something in me that was the basis for this intentionality, something insistent and organic. The transcendental phenomenological observation proposed by Husserl felt unavailable, as my attempts to focus on the appearance of the dioramas were overtaken by a pervasive awareness of appearing-ness, or the assertion of the experiencing self. If I was going to ‘read’ from these non-textual archives in my docupoetic project, I would need to somehow account for the basis of this phenomenological encounter.


Towards an autophenomenography of archival research

According to French philosopher Michel Henry, phenomenology’s limitations in accounting for the experiencing self are symptomatic of phenomenology’s ‘ontological monism’, or its tendency to analyse the appearance of objects while simultaneously making inaccessible to analysis the conditions under which appearance appears (Henry 1973: 237). Henry’s proposal for a ‘material phenomenology’ (1973; 2008) makes an important intervention by designating this concealed, constituting quality as ‘affectivity’ or ‘pathos’, thus radicalising phenomenology by investigating not just the phenomenality of the world, but also ‘the substance, the stuff’ that allows phenomenality to appear to consciousness at all (2008: 2). In other words, material phenomenology aims to disclose the interiority of subject, which Henry names ‘ipseity’, from ipse, Latin for ‘itself’.

As the fundamental condition for phenomenality, affectivity here does not mean emotion or ‘the particular content of a feeling’ (Henry 1973: 465). Rather, Henry considers affectivity in structural terms, as ‘the pathetic immediacy in which life experiences itself’ (2008: 3) — invisible to the living subject and yet fundamental to any apprehension of the world (1973: 1433). There are parallels here between Henry’s notion of affect and Freud’s notion of the unconscious, in that both are hidden from experience, and the existence of both can only be inferred (2008: 129). For Henry, affectivity is ‘invisible’ because it prefigures experience in a way that is both immediate and concrete; it is felt ‘without the intermediary of any sense whatsoever’ (1973: 462).

Henry argues that affectivity’s relationship to the world is one of ‘dialectical unity’ (1973: 446), a relation that engenders the phenomenological process. Whereas Husserl proposed that intentionality ‘animates’ or transforms sensory data into phenomena (Husserl 1983: 85); Henry inverts this position, recasting sensory data as affectivity and proposing affectivity as the condition for intentionality (Seyler 2016: n.p.). By positing that sensory data are the very basis of our consciousness, Henry proposes that the phenomenological process is not one of intentional consciousness, but rather ‘impressional consciousness’ (Henry 2008: 23; my emphasis). Affectivity — as both ‘the impression’s mode of given-ness and its impressional content’ (2008: 17)— thus prefigures the act of interpretation and precedes every ‘operation of knowledge’ (Henry 1973: 459). Moreover, the operations of impressionality and affectivity are self-arising, suggesting that impressionality must be understood as auto-impressionality, and affectivity as auto-affection. In making this argument, Henry posits living subjectivity as completely self-sufficient; it requires for its constitution no relationality, nor any kind of ‘fracture, separation, alterity, difference, exteriority [nor] opposition’ (Zahavi 2007: 136). For Henry, the radical immanence of affectivity is the radical immanence of life itself — life should be understood in phenomenological rather than biological terms, as auto-affection is ‘life’s immediate givenness of itself to itself’ (Davidson, in Henry 2008: xi, ix, xv).

Henry’s proposal for the immanence of affectivity helps explain my sense that my diorama observations had become suffused with a sense of ‘appearing-ness’. A re-reading of my research notes as evidence of affectivity suggests that the dioramas only perform their function as natural history ‘meaning-machines’ (Haraway 1984-5: 52) in the moment of their appearing; in other words, when experienced as phenomena by the impressional subject. Thus although the book and film versions of The Night at the Museum (Trenc 1993; Garant & Lennon 2016) imagine the dioramas coming to life after the last visitor has gone, my sense was that the opposite was true — that when I and the other visitors had left the museum for the day, these bears and jackrabbits and caribou would quietly revert to their base materials: glass, fur, plaster, metal, dye… their affectional charge subdued; their animalness dissolved.


Affected by another

Marton’s observation that phenomenography reveals common structures of experience resonates with Henry’s material phenomenology, in that it suggests that my impressional data from the museum was communally shared and not merely my own. Millions of people visit the museum every year (AMNH 2018: 3), and my viewing experience in the Hall of North American Mammals was accompanied by a nearly constant commotion from an ever-changing coterie of fellow visitors. This chatter evinced the play of others’ affectivity in their phenomenological encounters with the diorama contents. As I stood amongst the crowd, borrowing faint light from the dioramas, I wrote down fragments of overheard utterances, each with moods, tones, cadences and emphases different to my own.

Visitor commentary fell into distinct types. One was the viewer-as-authority, in which the (usually male) speaker shared their expertise: ‘Your skin is a huge part of your weight’. Another consisted of adults engaging children’s attention: ‘You think this guy’s caught the salmon? I don’t think so… you see that river otter?’ Talk included that of young students and their teachers on educational field trips: ‘Coyote alert! Coyote alert!’ and ‘Guys, guys… Hey, these are not polar bears.’ Some people spoke directly to the illusory qualities of the dioramas: ‘The shadows aren’t actually shadows’; and there was always the reminiscing adult: ‘They’ve been around so long, since I was a kid.’ Younger visitors typically assigned motives or relationships to the mounts: ‘One of them’s digging up a hole! He’s yelling for help’; ‘Look at the baby one’. Children also ‘voiced’ the animals with wolf howls and cougar snarls. I caught glimpses of kinetic responses too (running, pointing), but in the darkened hall it was sound that dominated my awareness.

While these vocal articulations evinced the ways in which the animals appeared to others, they also impacted on my own meaning-making and caused me to interrogate my interpretive schema. For example, it may not have occurred to me to explain the relationships between the animals in terms of friends and family in my own life: ‘That’s me, and that’s T—’; nor to speculate about the animals’ characters: ‘Do you think they’re nice?’ The responses from children also caused me to wonder if my sense of propriety or beliefs about the scope of scholarly research might be occluding elements of my experience. Was there something in me, too, that wanted to shout, ‘Coyote alert!’ or howl with the wolves? Would I have cared so much to write about the musk ox group had not a young visitor referred to them as ‘monsters’? My experience was swayed by the verbal responses in this common interpretive field.

In a discussion of Henry’s work, Hugo Letiche has suggested that Henry insufficiently recognises affectivity’s potential to be ‘polyphonic, participative and socially interactive’ (2009: 302). Letiche points to affectivity as ‘talking to somebody about something’, as well as the potential for dissonance between different sensory registers such as sight, hearing, smell, pressure and pain (2009: 302). Yet while Henry emphasises affectivity as self-originating rather than social, he also argues that this state of aliveness is shared with others and produces a community of different subjectivities. The community is a ‘subterranean affective layer’ (Henry 2008: 133) in which participation is neither intentional nor necessarily self-evident. What the individuals of this community share is not a set of things, but rather the way in which these things appear to them (Henry 2008: 119). Relations within such a community — in which ‘the living look at one another, represent one another, and conceive one another’ (Henry 2008: 133) — produce new dimensions of experience.

Drawing on theories that show self-constitution as open to change from interactions with others, Hanne De Jaegher suggests that Henry’s perspective points to a kind of intersubjectivity — or jointly created ‘inter-affectivity’ — in which individuals affect or move one another to produce participatory sense-making (2015: 124). This view, in which joint sense-making ‘fundamentally allows us to reach into each other’s self-affection’ (De Jaegher 2015: 126), suggests that the din of overheard commentary in the museum might serve doubly as a research resource. I could ‘borrow’ from the affectivity of others, and I could also allow my interpretive frame to be transfigured by the responses of those around me. This consideration produced poems in which multiple interpretive strands were assembled in conversation, as in this excerpt from a poem entitled ‘The mountain goat diorama’:

is a pleasure to experience, even if one doesn’t
read its label: LOOK CLOSELY.

You see ‘em? Go up and say, Hi Goats.

where these goats are, you would hear more
than see this
glacier moving — a creaking as

ice strains
down the valleys, and a booming
crack when the leading edge breaks off

It’s like a zoo —
They took out all their organs.

plucked chunks from the rock faces, leaving
in search of entertainment.



Image # 39572p American Museum of Natural History Library. Millou (photographer), ‘Little girl at Mountain Goat Group, Hall of North American Mammals, April, 1922’


By applying different interpretive registers to the dioramas — derived from published text, interpretive signage and overheard dialogue — the poem complicates ideas about representation and time. On the one hand, the poem explicitly frames the mountain goat scene as a performance for viewer consumption. The diorama is there to be enjoyed as a spontaneous and affective moment of trans-species hailing (‘Hi Goats’) without requiring any foreknowledge of an academic or theoretical nature (‘even if one doesn’t / read its label’). Yet on the other hand, it animates the glacier in the scene, introducing a disjuncture whereby the animals are frozen in time (‘They took out all their organs’) but the icy landscape — no longer stable in our contemporary climate — is disintegrating, thus undermining the diorama’s claim to mimesis. The casual quality of the commentary (‘in search of entertainment’) evokes a luxuriance of time that chafes against the urgency of the glacier’s collapse.

Drawing on overheard commentary also allowed me to construct poems in which the ‘official’ narrative of the diorama signage could be configured in new ways. This was especially so in relation to children’s impressions of danger and predation within the staged scenes.

In the race to reach the Pole, fresh game
supplies survival, sometimes
musky in taste but necessary
to ward off scurvy. Their strategy is to stay and cope.

They use their horns. They circle up.
They circle up, and no-one’s going to get
the babies in the centre.

The interpretive signage for the musk ox diorama, featured in the poem excerpt above, provided a diagram of ox defence formations as viewed from above, with yellow shapes representing the adult musk oxen arranged in a circle round the smaller juveniles, while wolves — shown in white — were shown roving around them, their trajectories traced out in dotted lines. The young speaker of the italicised lines above was able to interpret the pictorial scheme but was unlikely to have read the accompanying textual account which described musk oxen being killed for food by members of the British Arctic Expedition of 1875. This official account had originally impelled me to read loss and death in this scene. Yet the self-assuredness of the child’s utterance — invoking adult competence against the threat of annihilation — offered a more hopeful and unequivocal conclusion than the one I would have produced in isolation.


Manifesting the invisible

Poetry is not taxidermy; and a poetic assemblage of textual fragments is not representation. As noted in the introduction to this essay, docupoetry typically intervenes on the archives because the poet believes there is an alternative narrative to be told through a reconfiguration of documentary evidence. Certainly, the archives associated with the Hall of North American Mammals offered multiple openings for critical and political engagement. As I sifted through archival papers, I wondered about the now-anonymous and probably female hands that had typed them; I was alert to the erasure of First Nations sovereignty within accounts of wilderness; and I noticed how the animal specimens were collected and posed according to gender hierarchies.[iii] Moreover, as I roamed freely over the textual field in the hopes of bagging prime specimens of language, my praxis invited me to critique the potential for what Susan Howe describes as ‘acquisitive violence, the rapacious “fetching” involved in collecting’ (cited in Morris 2014: 182), in which textual trophies are torn from their original contexts just as the diorama animals had been from theirs.

While I affirm critical perspectives that illuminate tropes of dominance within the museum space, I contend that another form of ethical response to the archives may be charted by rejecting an ‘acquisitive’ interpretive frame in favour of an affective immersion in the life-world of the museum via impressional consciousness. Indeed, a suspension of one’s interpretive frame, even if partial and temporary, is sometimes necessary for archival research, a process described by David Gold as requiring a ‘beginner’s mind’ (2009: 43). Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson has made similar arguments in regard to autophenomenography, noting it requires an attitude of ‘enchantment, an attempt to suspend our “adult” knowledge and preconceptions in order to view the world through the fresh, excited, “naïve” eyes of childhood’ (2011: 50). Impressional consciousnesses is thus a kind of surrender to the archival phenomena, a refraining from immediately assigning political or social motives in order to investigate other modes of archival relations. In my research with the dioramas, the privileging of impressional consciousness allowed a poetics that challenged natural history’s commitment to orderliness and its trust in the veracity of visual data.

This bear, the one
             on its hind legs, facing the glass, has on its back

                        a kick-me sign
                        the mark of the yoke

                                                   a barcode
                                                                              ticks, fed to the gills

The second bear
           is on all four paws and less
           photogenic, more inclined
           to meet the eye
The third bear
           in this pair is wearing
           an invisibility cloak, sophisticated dazzle. What will the otter

           (its eye
           trained on the bitten balsa-wood salmon, stiffened, silvered)

           make of the hot huff and scent
           of caries, the sigh
           of the apex predator that comes (when it comes)
           from nowhere?

Notably, the poetry that emerged from this project seemed to account for the materiality of the diorama and my own impressions simultaneously. Henry’s material phenomenology considers this dual operation — of revealing both the exteriority of the world (i.e. objects that manifest) and lived interiority (affectivity or pathos) — as intrinsic to art (2009: 6-7). In a discussion of the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Henry argues that the formal qualities of points, lines, planes and colours in painting all express the force of the artist’s subjectivity, and thus allow us to see ‘what is not seen and cannot be seen’ (Henry 2009: 10). To Henry, this means all art is abstract, even that which purports to offer a pure reproduction, because abstraction is equivalent to the artist’s interiority:  

Interior = interiority of absolute subjectivity = life = invisible = pathos = abstract content = abstract form (Henry, cited in Fritz 2009: 420)

Despite being a novelist himself, Henry did not articulate a theory of literary production. However, a transposition of Henry’s ideas about visual art onto literature suggests that poetry’s formal qualities — rhyme, gaps, stanzas, repetition, musicality, tone, etc — are similarly able to reveal the world as emerging with affectivity. Such a view is consistent with Jessica Wilkinson’s proposition (after Robert Duncan) that poetry’s formal qualities can account for the ‘pluralistic reality’ of human experience (2014b: n.p.). The connection between affect and form has also been noted by Eugenie Brinkema, who argues that the text’s formal qualities serve as the locus of affect, rendering all of affect’s ‘wild and many fecundities of specificity’ (2014: xv). Analogous to Henry’s observation that art ‘narrates’ pathos (2004), the apprehension of affect requires a close and sustained engagement with textual form — affect within the text must be read in order to be felt (Brinkema 2014: 38).



Image # 296649 American Museum of Natural History Library. Unknown photographer, ‘Fred Mason, Fred Scherer, and Charles Tornell removing ram from Bighorn Sheep group, Hall of North American Mammals, April, 1942’




Bruno Strasser has observed that the production of new knowledge via description and analysis of extant collections has been a hallmark of natural history since the Renaissance (2012: 320). This frames natural history as an ‘open-ended’ field (Daston 2017: 10) in which the archives are not stable end-points in knowledge production, but rather opportunities for fresh interpretation:

The contents of the [science] archives exist to be reconfigured — into patterns, periodicities, taxonomies, and generalizations, but also as narratives, revelations, and arguments. (Daston 2017: 10)

Daston’s inclusion of ‘narratives, revelations and arguments’ within such reconfigurations suggests an affinity with the interventionist project of docupoetry. While I do not intend to dissolve the distinctions between scientific and poetic forms of knowledge, nor claim that scientific peer review would ‘warrant’ my poems (Zuckerman & Merton 1971: 96), my poetry produces new knowledge of a kind by allowing different archival instantiations to tangle together on the page. It brings lines from printed documents into contact with records of my impressions of objects, puts overheard voices in conversation with official signage, skips across timescales from the 1930s to the future, and shows affectivity being moved by the pathos of others. The poetry is permeated with motifs of the visible and invisible, which together characterise visual data as fickle, distracting and variable. Vision is only one factor among many in the ‘appearance’ of the material archives, with other kinds of sensing (aural, tactile, imaginal, emotional) accorded authority in the production of new narratives and interpretations.

My poetry thus intervenes in the ‘ocularcentric’ (Levin 1993: 2) regimes that have shaped the construction of natural knowledge. If we accept, after Henry, that art narrates pathos (2004) and reveals ‘the interiority which always, silently, never ceases to be there’ (Talon-Hugon 2005: 613; my translation), then poetry — as the trace of ‘impressional consciousness’ — may be understood as making legible the more-than-visual world and subverting the museum’s tropes of dominance and display. The poem shows the world as emerging simultaneously with affectivity, such that both must be written as coincident and co-constituting. This means that autophenomenography — applied in this essay as a method for understanding my archival encounter — is an equally fitting descriptor for a docupoetics of the natural history archives, in the sense that my poems serve as written records of my phenomenal experience.

In hallucination, writes Henry, ‘pathos governs directly its own images’ (cited in Seyler 2016: n.p.), and so it was in the production of this poetry. In this essay I have reflected on my attempts to apply the strategies of documentary poetry to the material instantiations of the natural history archive, analysing my experience through the lens of Michel Henry’s material phenomenology to show the archives’ phenomenality as emerging with my own affectivity. I have described how my impressions were affected by those of other museum visitors, and I have characterised the resultant poetry as manifesting my own interiority in the phenomenal encounter. I propose that this awareness of ‘falling for’ the material instantiations of the archives — of participating in their being — is an important resource for the poet-researcher, one which offers a legitimate mode of archival intervention. In doing so, I affirm the radical openness of the science archive to new lines of enquiry, including those that set out to extend the document via creative praxis.


The author thanks the anonymous reviewers of this essay, whose critical feedback improved its clarity and quality.



[i] I am most grateful to Ming-Qian Ma, Associate Professor of English, State University of New York at Buffalo, for introducing me to Michel Henry’s material phenomenology.

[ii] My use of the term ‘material’ to denote the object status of archival contents is not intended as synonymous with Michel Henry’s use of the term to describe his project of phenomenology. 

[iii] Beyond the Hall of North American Mammals, the museum also exhibits human culture. The function of these displays in reproducing tropes of race and Indigeneity has been the subject of extensive criticism and activism, e.g. the recent Decolonize This Place campaign (Jegroo 2018).


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Works cited in the poetry

The full poem, ‘Prairie of the past’, includes text excerpted from Quinn, SC 2006, Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY: Abrams/American Museum of Natural History, 96-7; and the American Bison and Pronghorn exhibition text, Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, American Museum of Natural History, 2019.

The full poem, ‘Level mountain’, includes text excerpted from the Caribou (Osborn Caribou) exhibition text, Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, American Museum of Natural History, 2019.

The full poem, ‘The mountain goat diorama’, includes text excerpted from Quinn, SC 2006 Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY: Abrams/American Museum of Natural History, 104; and the Mountain Goat exhibition text, Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, American Museum of Natural History, 2019.

The full poem, ‘The bellows’, includes text excerpted from Quinn, SC 2006 Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY: Abrams/American Museum of Natural History, 120; and the Musk Ox exhibition text, Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, American Museum of Natural History, 2019.