Morton’s The Ecological Thought is truly a marvelous little book. In the second chapter, Morton begins to take apart the concept of the environment, which could likewise be thought as a deconstruction of the concept of the world. A while back, when I gave my Georgia Tech presentation on flat ontology, someone asked me why I deny the existence of the world or universe as an object. I’ve struggled with this question ever since.

On the one hand, I think there’s the formalist way of demonstrating the non-existence of the world. In many respects I began this blog with a formalist demonstration of the non-existence of the world. The formalist demonstration comes largely out of Lacan and Badiou, and relies heavily on set theory. There are a couple of different ways in which the thesis that the world does not exist, can be argued. On the one hand, we can evoke Cantor’s paradox. Here the argument would run that a set of all sets cannot exist because the power set of a set is always larger than the set from which it is derived. As a consequence, we cannot form a totality out of the world. Another way of making this argument– which Lacan implicitly employs in his graphs of sexuation –would be to deploy Russell’s paradox pertaining to the set of all sets that do not include themselves as members.

While I am deeply fond of these arguments, I think they’re problematic from a metaphysical point of view. As philosophers like Hallward have noted, it’s not clear that we can jump directly from the properties of mathematics to the properties of existence. Let’s take the argument for the non-existence of the world from Cantor’s paradox to illustrate this point. What is the power set of a set? The power set of a set is the set of all subsets that can be constructed out of an initial set. Suppose, then, you have the following set: {x, y, z}. The power set of this set would be as follows: {{x}, {y}, {z}, {x, y}, {x, z}, {y,z}, {x, y, z}}. This works fine mathematically, however what the power set is implicitly saying is that all of these different sub-sets can exist. However, when we talk about the world, it is not clear that entities can enter into all possible relations with one another. Because, as Harman puts it, entities are behind firewalls, or as I put it, entities only maintain selective relations with other entities in the world, it seems possible that a totality could exist.

In The Ecological Thought Morton proposes another way to reach this conclusion. As Morton writes, “[t]here is no environment as such. It’s all ‘distinct organic beings.’ Existence is coexistence or, as Darwin puts it, ‘adaptation'” (60). A moment later, Morton goes on to draw out the implication of this thesis: “There is no static background. What we call Nature is monstrous and mutating, strangely strange all the way down and all the way through” (61). How, then, does Morton’s thesis challenge the existence of the world? Ordinarily, when we think of the environment or the world, we think of it as a container, not unlike the way Kant thinks about time and space. However, if the environment does not exist as such, but is rather consists of organic (and I would add non-organic) beings, then we can no longer speak of an environment or a world as such. For each change that takes place in an organism, the environment itself has also changed. All other organisms must now adapt to this organism and the original organisms, in turn must now adapt to these new adaptations. A rather striking example of this is the manner in which early microorganisms transformed the atmosphere from a toxic brew of noxious gasses (to critters like us) into an atmosphere saturated with oxygen. Indeed, they were so successful at this that during the precambrian period there was so much oxygen in the atmosphere that there were giant dragonflies (critters you definitely wouldn’t want to encounter on a dark night), six foot long centipedes, and lightning storms would create raging forest fires. Of course, it’s also for this reason that evolution is not teleological and can’t be described in terms of progress.

A third way of making this argument would be through onticology. As I argued in an earlier post drawing on systems theory, every object is a system organized around a distinction between itself and its environment. While I do indeed retain Maturana and Varela’s distinction between allopoietic machines (non-living objects) and autopoietic machines (living objects), I nonetheless argue that every object exists in a state of closure such that it only maintains selective relations to its environment. The paradox, then, is that the distinction between system and environment is a distinction made by each object itself. As such, every system or object constitutes its own environment. If this is the case, then we cannot talk about an environment as such. This would be a consequence of the withdrawal of objects.

Take a micro-organism like the fascinating tardigrade. The tardigrade, depicted to the left above, is a multicellular, microscopic organism that has eyes and fully formed legs. Among its more amazing characteristics is that it can be exposed to extreme heat such that it entirely dehydrates. When this occurs, it withdraws its legs into its body and turns into a little pellet that appears to be dead. However, add some water to its dish and it puffs back up and resumes movement. It is similarly able to endure extreme cold. A strange stranger indeed! However, my point here is that for all intents and purposes, frogs, persons, rocks, etc., do not belong to the environment of tardigrades. The point, then, is that we cannot talk about an environment but only, rather, a multiplex or mesh of environments that perhaps enter into relations of structural coupling with one another without possessing any overarching unity.