The T.H.E. has posted a rather unflattering review of The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton (hat tip to Gratton). Some of the review, I think, is somewhat justified. As Laurence Coupe, the reviewer writes:
It might be said that post-structuralist thinking attempts something similar to the Buddhist exposure of illusion, but it falls far short of it when it merely results in a high-handed denial of the more-than-human world (here I use David Abrams’ phrasing). I am afraid to say that this is what seems to happen in the course of Timothy Morton’s new book, The Ecological Thought. Let me say that I do appreciate what Morton is attempting to do: that is, correct our unthinking attitudes to nature – or Nature, as he calls it – to make us think more carefully about the way we reify, consume or idealise it. But alas, the effect is far more deconstructive than reconstructive: “In the name of ecology, we must scrutinize Nature with all the suspicion a modern person can muster. Let the buyer beware.”
Morton’s case for a natureless ecology is not aided by the fact that he has such difficulty in defining it. “Ecology has to do with love, loss, despair and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis … It has to do with reading and writing … It has to do with sexuality.” That is from the introduction, but after nearly 80 pages we are none the wiser: “The ecological thought is about people – it is people.” Nor does it get much clearer by the final page, I’m afraid.
To be sure, Morton’s book is littered with these sorts of remarks and he doesn’t follow through in showing just how these things are about ecology (that’s not the purpose of the book), but if I say that this criticism is only somewhat justified, then this is because Morton tells us what the ecological thought is quite early in the book. It is thus surprising that a senior lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University (you know, folks that are supposed to be skilled at close reading) misses what Morton says on page seven:
Ecology shows us that all beings are connected. The ecological thought [Morton’s emphasis] is the thinking of interconnectedness. The ecological thought is a thought about ecology, but it’s also a thinking that is ecological… It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings– animal, vegetable, or mineral.
Wow, that sounds like a pretty clear articulation of what the ecological thought is! Are we really none the wiser by the time we finish Morton’s book? Given my background in psychoanalysis, let’s take the example of depression and psychosis that Morton evokes and that the author not-so-implicitly mocks. What would it mean to think about depression and psychosis ecologically? What would it mean to think about depression and psychosis non-ecological? Well, if we follow Morton’s prescription on page 7, a non-ecological analysis of depression and psychosis would treat it as an isolated and intrinsic feature of the human brain independent of anything in the person’s environment. By contrast, an ecological analysis of depression and psychosis would treat these as real states of human brains, but would analyze the relational network in which these states occur. It would look at the genetics of the person and the upbringing of the person and the social environment of the person and the diet of the person and the regimes of production characterizing the social world of the person and etc., etc., etc.
In short, an ecological approach to psychosis and depression would look at the interplay of all these components or relations in an assemblage producing subjects of the sort that suffer from depression and psychosis. This, for example, is what Guattari was trying to do at his La Borde clinic. He noticed that psychosis certainly had an organic dimension, that the use of psychotropics shouldn’t be excluded in treatment, but also that the very organization of clinics can intensify illness. As Guattari observed, the manner in which staff/patient relations are organized feeds back into illness. Consequently, one thing the La Borde clinic sought was to generate social relations that disrupted certain hierarchies that seem to intensify illness (and here we should think of the fraught relationship Schreber had with his doctors).
Likewise, La Borde sought to engage patients in practices that would “deterritorialize” them from toxic forms of life they had previously lived outside the clinic. For example, an executive who suffered from a psychotic break might be given the job of cooking for the other patients and staff. The rationale behind this is two-fold: First, there is a recognition here that the particular timing of the patient’s psychotic break (why at this time?) very likely had something to do with his professional life, the social role (manager) he occupied in this role, and so on. Second, through introducing the patient to a new environment, a new context of activity, a new set of goals and so on, perhaps the patient will form new “refrains” (what Guattari refers to as rhythms and forms of life that stitch our identities together) that would allow the patient to form a new set of social relations and a new identity in the wake of the dissolution of their world. As Guattari readily emphasized, this is an ecological way of thinking about psychosis and change through and through.
Now, at this point I’m sure that some readers are furrowing their brows saying “Hey, you’re an object-oriented ontologist! Don’t you guys hate relations! Don’t you guys argue that relations and objects have nothing to do with one another?” This refrain keeps cropping up (here, here, and here: all from friends) and represents, I think, a failure to get the point of OOO. OOO has never argued that relations are unimportant. OOO has argued that objects cannot be reduced to their relations, that they always exceed their relations. Let’s put this in Deleuzian terms, since Deleuze has far more clout than us little object-oriented ontologists and is perhaps a bit sexier. OOO is a rigorous ontology of deterritorialization. When OOO says that objects cannot be reduced to their relations, that they are not identical to their relations, that they are in excess of all their relations, what OOO is saying is that within any network, within any set of relations, within any field, deterritorialization is always possible. Indeed, one of the primary reasons for engaging in “the ecological thought” is precisely to strategize possibilities of deterritorialization. We can talk about relations and interconnections to our hearts content within an OOO framework, so long as we always recognize that deterritorialization is always possible and that relations are mobile, contingent, local, and temporary. That’s it. Somehow it sounds less extraordinary when I put it this way.
Now, given Laurence Coup’s own research interests, I suspect that what’s really piqued his ire in this pissy review is Morton’s assault on Nature. Morton, an eco-theorist, dares to argue that Nature does not exist. But what’s going on here? As far as I can tell, there are three things at work in Morton’s impassioned critique of Nature. First, ecology– in its mainstream incarnation –has all too often presented itself as a thought entirely about Nature. Ecology, the story goes, is about “green things”. About trees, oceans, fish, spotted owls, climate, weather, etc. From the standpoint of popular culture, we can easily imagine someone saying “I have no interest in Nature! In fact I hate it! It’s either too hot or cold out there in the woods! Mosquitoes bite me! I get poison ivy! No thanks! I’ll stick with my air conditioning, my internet, my fast food, my television!” Nature is presented as something over there and this impedes thinking ecologically. Part of Morton’s point, I believe, is that there is no “over there”, but rather that we’re up to our teeth in ecological relations and that we cannot separate the world of “Civilization” from the world of “Nature”. In this way we’re led to attend to how all these things are bound up with one another. For example, we notice that ecology isn’t just about not hunting deer and feeding myself with game meat, but that that Big Mac comes from somewhere, often (at least in the past), involving the clearing of Amazonian rain forests for grazing fields that are only sustainable for a few years anyway and that this, in turn, contributes to global warming through cow farts (methane release from livestock being one of the principle causes of global warming) and decreased fauna that filters carbon dioxides. In other words, there is no divide.
In this respect, second, Morton strikes me as being profoundly Latourian (even though he never mentions Latour as far as I can tell) in leveling his deconstructive wrecking ball at the concept of Nature. In We Have Never Been Modern, Latour argues that Modernity is based on a hard and fast distinction between Nature and Culture, where the two domains are to be thought as entirely separate and distinct. Nature is the domain of matter, of mechanistic causality. It is that which is “over there” and outside of culture. Culture is the domain of freedom, meaning, the social, the linguistic. When cultural properties are attributed to Nature– the Modernist narrative goes –we get despotic and ignorant superstition. For example, when a spring hail storm occurs destroying the crops, the infamous Malleus Maleficarum instructs us that this is the result of a witch who has exchanged sexual favors from the devil for doing his bidding (the book instructs us that women are so obsessed with sex that they will agree to do the bidding of Satan in return for sexual favors). Modernity tells us that we must, above all, not attribute meaning to nature events if this sort of brutal superstition is to be avoided. Likewise, Modernity tells us that if society is to be protected against despots, it must, above all, avoid treating social structures, roles, positions, and identities as natural. For example, we must treat the king as being a king not because he is naturally a king (by divine right), but because we created these social roles. If the horrors that arise from these crossings of Nature and Culture are to be avoided, then we must keep these two domains rigorously apart.
Latour’s point is not that we should return to pre-modernity, treating Nature as being pervaded by meaning and purpose and Culture as arising from a divine and natural order. No, his point is that these domains can never be smoothly or cleanly separated and that culture is always bound up with the natural order and nature is always bound up with culture. To repeat, this is not “social constructivism”. Let’s take an example to illustrate this point. In the decades leading up to the French Revolution, France had been buffeted by a number of poor wheat harvests, leading to periods where flour was extremely scarce. This, in turn, led to extreme poverty among a significant portion of the population. And when I say poverty, I mean people who were literally without shoes or stockings and widespread famine. In the meantime, we had the rise of the Bourgeois merchant class. Now, as a result of famine and lack of work, many of the peasants were migrating to the cities to beg or in hope of finding jobs (often they died within five years, while thousands of children were simultaneously abandoned). This extremely poor segment of the population saw daily how the other portion of the population, a small portion, was living and thus recognized that another form of life was possible. Certainly the natural variations in wheat production, the climatic changes, the precariousnous of wheat as a primary crop (and bread made up two-thirds of the peasant diet so this was no small matter) played some role in leading to the French revolution. Certainly nature, here, was an actor in social affairs, no? And here “nature” was no small actor, for the events of the French Revolution had a decisive impact on the entire world.
The situation works in reverse as well. All of us are familiar with Easter Island. The island was once flush with magnificent trees. It was a bountiful paradise full of wood (always a crucial resource in pre-industrial societies as a source of energy and building materials) and all sorts of wildlife. The land, however, was not particular good for agriculture. We all know the story. The Easter Islanders cut down the trees to move the massive statues. There were religious reasons, no doubt, behind the erection of these statues, as well as reasons pertaining to politics and power. As the situation on Easter Island got more dire, carbon dating suggests that competition to erect the largest statue became more intense. It is likely there were a variety of reasons for this. Chieftans had to pacify a populace that was increasingly suffering from greater and greater starvation (art from this time shifts and starts depicting people with ribs showing and bellies bloated with hunger). People began to increasingly living in caves. The fossil records suggest that there were a couple of reasons for this. On the one hand, wood had been exhausted for the building of homes. On the other hand, it looks like people began resorting to cannibalism and thus sought places where they could hide from other humans on the prowl for food (it didn’t help that rats had overrun the island and were gnawing through all the seeds, preventing the growing of new trees and crops). Likewise, it’s likely that the larger statues were erected as a sacrifice to the Gods. And finally, there’s simply crass human pride wishing to establish a legacy after death. Here we have culture impacting nature.
To make matters worse, Easter Island is such that it has few shallows. The ocean drops off quite deeply very quickly. Imagine the horror of being trapped on the island when the last trees were exhausted and canoes could no longer be made to fish. Not only did the islanders extinct a few species of abundant birds that nested on the island, but the fossil record indicates that fish suddenly disappeared from their diet. It must have been horrible… It must have been, as Morton says, a thought of despair. Today we are like Easter Islanders. The world has become an island. Mars is not a realistic possibility for colonization. We’re trapped on this rock without a boat that can take us elsewhere. With all due respect to Kim Stanley Robinson (and I have tremendous respect for him), we need to understand that we’re islanders. Part of this requires overcoming the notion of Nature.
In his deconstruction of Nature I believe Morton is doing something similar to Latour. He is refusing to treat Nature and Culture as two distinct and ontologically incommensurable domains. Rather, the ecological thought is about how these domains are bound up with one another, how they are intertwined with one another, and how we need to muster the conceptual resources to think a variety of heterogeneous components ranging from signifiers to rats if we’re to properly think through these issues. Part of this task requires abolishing the concept of Nature as a great elsewhere outside of culture. Sometimes I’m mocked for wanting to think about things like rats. “Don’t you care about humans? Who cares about rats?” But the example of Easter Island drives the point home. I want to think about rats precisely because I do care about humans. Rats make a big difference in the world, some of it good, some bad. Rather than thinking in terms of society we need to think in terms of collectives where these collective include things like rats, trees, humans, signifiers, works of art, mythologies, and so on.
Third, a good deal of ecological thought suffers from an ideology that is detrimental. Morton always approaches this third issue with a soft touch. He refers to “ecological kitsch” without going too deeply into what he means by ecological kitsch. Based on a symptomatic reading of Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought, I suspect that what Morton calls “ecological kitsch” refers to a concept of Nature as a self-contained, harmonious set of internal self-regulating relations that always return to harmony and balance so long as they aren’t perturbed by man or humankind. Ecological kitsch is Avatar. Before getting to what leads me to this reading, what’s the problem here? First, it’s just not true. As Nietzsche famously said in Beyond Good and Evil, nature is wasteful beyond measure. No doubt, right now, there is a black hole devouring a solar system that contains a planet with a rich ecosystem and that includes emerging intelligent octopus life that will soon enter the space age and explore the rest of its solar system. Every season fish produce millions of offspring with only a few surviving. Throughout natural history, there have always been species that have gotten the upper hand throwing everything out of balance. This happened, for example, with the rise of the eukaryotes that filled the atmosphere with oxygen rendering it flammable and causing the extinction of millions of species due to the decline of various dioxides in the atmosphere. Asteroids pound into the earth, wiping out millions of species, and so on. The idea of nature as a harmonious and balanced system is a fantasy if ever there were one. And it is a dangerous fantasy because it leads to the idea that the great normal will always return. No Poindexter, there are positive or runaway feedback loops that are irreversible. Perhaps this happened on Venus.
Second, has anyone noticed that the idea of Nature as a harmonious, wise, and self-regulating great earth mother mechanism is identical to the idea of the capitalist market? A brilliant South Park episode splices talk about angering God or the Gods with how we’ve angered the economy. Neoliberal ideology has it that the economy is a self-regulating system that always returns to balance and harmony. To intervene in this system, the story goes, is to disrupt it and invite disaster by not obeying the anonymous wisdom of the economy. What is so great about the South Park episode is that it accomplishes that Lacanian traversal of the fantasy where we come to realize that the big Other does not exist but that we were the market all along. The case is similar with a good deal of ecology. Because nature is seen as harmoniously self-regulating, any technological intervention in climate is seen as inviting catastrophe (a theme of many a eco-driven sci-fi novel and movie). Belief in Nature prevents us from taking action and intervening.
Third, and closely related, if we look at the history of the concept of Nature we will note that it has almost always functioned to define what is, well, natural. By this, of course, I mean that the concept of Nature has been used to define essence, that which should be obeyed and from which we should not interfere or deviate. Racist arguments, homophobic arguments, misogynistic arguments, and so on have always appealed to Nature on these grounds, both evoking nature to justify the treatment of certain groups of people, but also to naturalize certain social structures. Point two is deeply wedded to this. Isn’t this a way of thinking we would do well to depart from?
So why do I think Morton equates ecological kitsch with the concept of Nature outlined in point two? Everywhere Morton emphasizes that we haven’t yet caught up with Darwin, while simultaneously calling for a queering of Nature. This theme in Morton’s work is extremely significant and telling. While certainly attending to co-adaptation or the manner in which organisms are fitted to one another, Darwin everywhere explored deterritorialization or how organisms always harbor within themselves a dark potential to explode all harmonious “ecological” relations, disrupting all of that co-adaptation and setting it all in motion. Everywhere Darwin celebrates not the harmony of nature, but rather how small differences can suddenly become significant differences as a result of geographical drift and climatic change, but also how all sorts of cross-lateral, cross-species relations generate new vectors of becoming that lead in entirely surprising directions. It is not simply that, as Deleuze and Guattari powerfully noted, that there is an “unnatural” coupling between the orchid and the wasp, it is that that wasp, in coupling with a variety of different flowers engages in cross-fertilization by carrying pollen from one species of plant to another species of plant, leading to a queer conception in the fullest carnal sense of the world. Similarly, viruses, when transmitted from one host to another, sometimes carry bits of DNA– not unlike Derrida’s point about the iterability of signs and their potential to be grafted in new chains –to other species leading to new drift in species.
And here we get to the point of Morton’s queering of Nature. Morton is not simply championing the rights of GLBT folk– though fortunately he’s doing that too –but he is targeting one of the core fantasies at the heart of “Nature”. Few have suffered as much under the concept of Nature as the GLTB community. These strange strangers, without topos or place in Linnaeus’s sorting of “species”, always existing within multiple cartographies at once such that they challenge the clean lines of any clear place or category, are, for Morton, the very essence of nature. Nature itself, says Morton, is queer. And to say that Nature is queer, is to say that nature itself is unnatural, that it is always pervaded by contingency, monstrous couplings, drift, and that which evades any smooth categorization. With his queering of Nature Morton hits the key symptom at the heart of all “nature-thought” or naturphilosophie.
But to what end? Is this strange ecology without nature simply a perverse game on Morton’s part? I don’t think so. In his magnificent essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, Kant begins by remarking that,
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.
I believe that Morton is groping towards a similar sort of declaration. Ecology must be rescued from its self-imposed immaturity. This is why Morton’s ecology is a dark ecology. Immaturity is often a bright and inviting space, even though the fantasies that haunt immaturity cause us so much suffering (“Santa won’t come if I do X!”). Enlightenment in ecology means giving up our childish immature fantasies of a warm and fuzzy Nature, of a Nature that is embracing and harmonious, of a Nature that is Wise and always returns to balance, of a Nature that is an Earth Mother that is fecund and without destruction, of a Nature where even death and destruction serves some meaningful purpose in the scheme of things. It means giving up on the idea of a nature that is natural and discovering the queerness of nature. It means discovering that Nature is not an Elsewhere that we go to in our SUV’s on weekends (at least in fantasy when we buy them), but that ecological relations pervade everything. It means giving up on granola, ludditry, and primitivism. It means recognizing that even a fissure within being like the emergence of “the subject” or sentient octopi are natural. It means catching up with Darwin. Morton’s dark ecology, which celebrates the queerness of nature, which proclaims that we haven’t caught up with Darwin, which vigorously denounces Nature as the great Elsewhere, and which rejects the primacy of relation in favor of the externality of relation and deterritorialization couldn’t have arrived a moment too soon. Let’s hope that he’s heard.