I just began The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton and am finding it compulsively readable. If anything else, Morton is a vivid and talented stylist. It’s likely that Morton, if he’s familiar with it at all, thinks that object-oriented ontology and onticology are a part of the problem. As Morton says early on, “…the form of the ecological thought is at least as important as its content. It’s not simply a matter of what you’re thinking about. It’s a matter of how you think” (4). A little further on Morton remarks that “[e]cology shows us that all beings are connected. The ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness” (7).
It is here, no doubt, that the most radical difference between Morton’s ecological thought and onticology/object-oriented ontology is to be found. Onticology begins with the premise that being is fundamentally composed of substances or objects and that these substances are both independent of one another and autonomous from one another. On the surface, then, nothing could appear further from ecological thought. Nonetheless, either I am schizophrenic and believe that I can square the circle, or I am correct in arguing that onticology is profoundly relevant to ecology and is deeply ecological in spirit.
While I applaud Morton for his investigation of relation and his attentiveness to relation, it is my view that ecological thought is doomed to go astray so long as it asserts an ontological relational internalism, or the thesis that beings are their relations. This, for two reasons: First, ontological internalism generates a theoretical pessimism, for insofar as it holds that beings are constituted by their relations it is also necessarily committed to the thesis that beings cannot be otherwise. This, I believe, is among the profound implication of the concept of split-objects and Harman’s withdrawn objects. Within the framework of my onticology, the point is that beings can never be reduced to their actuality, that they are always in excess of their actuality, and that it is this actuality is a product of the contingent relational networks into which a substance enters into. The paradox is thus that far from leading us to ignore context and relations, the thesis that objects are independent of their relations, that they withdraw from their relations, that objects are never identical to their local manifestations or actualities, actually leads us to become more attentive to contexts and relations precisely because these play a key role how objects actualize themselves in a local or contingent context and because lurking in the back of our mind is the knowledge that objects can always actualize themselves differently in other sets of relations.
In this regard, the concept of split-objects accords very nicely with Morton’s concept of “strange strangers”. As Morton writes,
The ecological thought imagines interconnectedness, which I call the mesh. Who or what is interconnected with what or with whom? The mesh of interconnected things is vast, perhaps immeasurably so. Each entity in the mesh looks strange. Nothing exists all by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself.”… Our encounter with other beings becomes profound. They are strange, even intrinsically strange. Getting to know them makes them stranger. When we talk about life forms, we’re talking about strange strangers. The ecological thought imagines a multitude of entangled strange strangers. (15)
While onticology takes leave of the thesis that nothing can exist all by itself– while certainly acknowledging that such disconnection can produce radical change for the worse in an entity –it heartily endorses the thesis of the strange stranger that goes even to the heart of the entity itself. And if this is the case, then it is because each entity is split between its local manifestation and the volcanic excess it harbors within itself at the level of the virtual. As Spinoza famously said, we do not know what an object can do.
The second reason ecological thought is doomed to go astray without a robust concept of substance is that genuinely ecological thought requires us to think the difference that substances make when they enter new collectives or regimes of attraction. Drawing on my favorite example, we need to be capable of thinking what happens when cane toads are introduced into the ecosystem of northern Australia or Queensland. The point here is that while it is indeed true that entities often come “interconnected”, these relations are external to the objects they connect. Entities can shift in and out of these relations and when they do not only are their changes in the new regime of relations into which they enter, but they themselves undergo transformations as a result of these new relations. My point, then, is that substance and connection alone are not ontologically sufficient. We need to retain a central place for substances within ontology.
Morton is at his best when he tears the concept of nature to shreds. On the one hand, nature has always been thought in a relation of exteriority to the human. We are told, there is the domain of culture or society, the domain of freedom and history, the moral realm, belonging exclusively to the human. By contrast, we are told that there is the mute, passive, and dumb domain of nature outside of the realm of the cultural. Already, in tearing down the nature/culture divide in the way that thinkers like Latour and Morton attempt to do, a fundamental shift in perspective begins to take place. On the other hand, tremendous damage has been done to ecological thought and the environmental movement as a result of new agey chants about holism, spirituality, the divinity of nature, and the wisdom of nature as some sort of self-balancing harmonics that always equals out (as if there aren’t numerous black holes in various galaxies that do not daily devour beautiful ecosystems). The soon we get away from these conceptions of nature, the sooner we quit divinizing nature, the sooner we can begin seriously thinking ecologically.