A couple hours ago I got off the phone with Tim Morton after having a terrific discussion about the ethical implications of object-oriented ontology and ecology. Tim remarked that the more we learn about ecology, the more ecologically aware we become, the more we discover that we are all ethical hypocrites. Here I’m reminded of a passage from Adorno’s Problems of Moral Philosophy. There Adorno remarks that,

This conception of ethics contrives to undercut the question that should form the basis of every deeper reflection on moral or ethical questions, namely the question whether culture, and whatever culture has become, permits something like the good life, or whether it is a network of institutions that actually tends more and more to thwart the emergence of such righteous living. (14)

The “conception of ethics” Adorno is here referring to is something like existentialism (as he understands it), where being ethical simply consists in acting according to what one already is. By contrast, Adorno wishes to draw attention to the sort of moral conflict between the world in which we live and our possibility of living a “righteous life”. What are we to do when the world in which we live itself prevents something like a righteous life?

From a eudaimonistic or virtue-ethics perspective, this deadlock would arise in a variety of ways. From the standpoint of eudaimonism or human flourishing, this realization would arise when we recognize that our social circumstances and conditions are such that 1) we are constitutively unable to achieve something like flourishing or eudaimonia in this world, and 2) that because of how we develop in our social world, because of how we our social world is put together, we a) don’t even know what flourishing would be, and b) have an incredibly distorted picture of flourishing. Here we have the core thesis around which Marx’s entire analysis of capitalism revolves. Conditions of production under capitalism are such that flourishing is impossible by virtue of the manner in which we become mere gears in a value-producing machine that undermines our own autonomy, that deskills and numbs us, and that where the commodity gives us an incredibly distorted picture of what flourishing would be, endlessly suggesting that it is the acquisition of this or that commodity that would provide us with the flourishing or actualization that I seek. “If only I had the iPad2, if only I had this or that exotic food, if only I had a McMansion, etc., I would achieve eudaimonia.”

As Marx argues, because we work under conditions of forced necessity, and because we are alienated from the products of our labor– yes, yes, I know, Marx later abandons the alienation thesis, yet this is still a valuable point to emphasize in understanding the dynamics of capitalism and why we should care about them –work comes to be seen as something outside life, something other than life, rather than as one aspect of life that contributes to our flourishing or eudaimonia. By contrast, life is now seen to unfold in the domain of whatever is not work, in whatever is outside work. The richness of life is thereby significantly devalued. Life now comes to consist in sleeping, eating, drinking, watching American Idol, etc. It becomes all those little snippets of enjoyment we can attain outside of work. As a consequence, “eudaimonia” becomes the acquisition of commodities and leisure rather than the actualization and cultivation of persons. In other words, within this social system we no longer even have a picture of what a virtuous or eudaimonistic life might be and everywhere we seem to feel as if there is something profoundly dissatisfying about this life without being able to determine what this source of dissatisfaction might be.

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Yet it is not simply that within this system we neither know what eudaimonia might be nor are able to attain it, it is also that we are unable to live in such a world in a “righteous way”. Whether we are aware of it or not– and part of the greatness of Marx was to reveal this seedy, invisible underside of our social system –everything we do involves the exploitation of others. The capitalist system forces me, a worker, to both exploit myself and live from the exploitation of others. To live in this system I must enter in the C-M-C (“commodity-money-commodity”) system of exchange. I exchange a commodity (C), my labor, for money, that I then use to purchase another commodity (C), such as food, shelter, transportation, clothing, etc., etc., etc. This is in stark contrast to the capitalist that lives according to the M-C-M structure of exchange, where he throws his money out in the world (M), buy a commodity (labor, for example), to get a greater amount of money at the end through the production of surplus-value (M). Those commodities that I purchase as a worker are, as Marx argues, the congealed labor of other workers. Within this commodity system I both assist in the exploitation of other workers and I deepen my own exploitation through the sale of my own labor. There seems to be no feasible way to live in contemporary society that doesn’t play into this dynamic of exploitation. Objectively, even where this is in no way reflected in our intentions and desires, we are entangled within a system that is characterized by vice, that inhibits our own ability to attain flourishing and that undermines the possibility of others attaining flourishing. Every time I drive my car, go to the grocery store, pay taxes, watch television, etc., I’m in the thick of it.

Ecology teaches us something similar. As Morton has argued (some of Morton’s main features are summaried here), the more ecologically aware we become the more we discover that nature is not something “over there”, some place that we “go to” on the weekends, but that we’re in the thick of it, thoroughly entangled in it, in such a way that we ought not claim it exists at all. We would like to clean our hands of the ecological catastrophe, to live a “righteous life”, yet everywhere we find ourselves entangled in ethical riddles, ethical deadlocks, arising from the ecological nature of being. Recognizing, for example, that nonhuman organisms such as cows have inherent ethical worth and that meat is one of the central contributors to the ecological catastrophe through the methane released from livestock, the pollution that comes from transporting them, the rise in planetary temperatures that takes place as a result of clearing forests and jungles for grazing land, etc., I now resolve to no longer eat meat. Yet now I face the ecological problems that arise as a result of the “monoculture” and the problems it generates in the clearing of ecologically complex fauna so as to only grow corn and other grains. I now take up a banner against monoculture, seeking to diversify the plants that are grown, yet in doing this I don’t produce enough food to sustain the massive world population. Do we allow these people to die through starvation or destroy the environment and cause death as well through the promotion of monoculture? Recognizing that petroleum and coal are extremely dirty pollutants, I now resolve to support natural gas, yet in doing so I destroy local ecologies through fracking. Increasingly it seems that the cell phone has become a necessity of life, yet it drives away the bees that we rely on for the pollination of food for ourselves and other organisms.

Everywhere we find these sorts of deadlocks or what Lacan referred to as “the Real”. The Real refers not to “reality”, but to fundamental deadlocks, paradoxes, and antagonisms that haunt collectives. It is in this connection that we should understand the concept of “black ecology”. According to Wikipedia, “black is the color of objects that do not emit or reflect light in any part of the visible spectrum; they absorb all such frequencies of light.” Black turns out, under this definition, to be a nice metaphor for withdrawn objects as it suggests objects that are never fully present, never fully manifest, in the world.

Contrary to traditional ecology, the first thesis of black ecology is that objects are external to their relations. Where bright ecology argues that relations are internal to objects– Arne Naess, for example, argues that a mouse is no longer a mouse in a vacuum because it has been severed from its environment –such that objects are constituted by their relations, black ecology begins from the premise that ecology has something to teach us, that it is a genuine domain of research, activism, and investigation, precisely because objects are external to their relations. In other words, what ecology investigates is what takes place when entities are severed from existing relations (e.g., what happens when bees disappear?) or what happens when new entities are introduced into existing regimes or networks of relations as in the case of the introduction of the pain-killer diclofenac into the Indian ecosystem. In short, ecology investigates what takes place, what new local manifestations occur, when entities enter into new relations with one another. Here the blackness of black ecology is to be found in the fact that entities never fully manifest themselves, that there is always something withdrawn in them, and that new manifestations can always take place with new relations.

The second thesis of black ecology is that ecology is not the study of nature, but the study of exo-relations between entities. Issues pertaining to how a child’s brain develops and what sorts of affectivity and cognition arise in relation to new media such as television, the internet, computers, smart phones, etc., are no less ecological than questions of what takes place in India’s ecosystem when vulture populations plummet. Ideas, practices, languages, plastics, religions, buildings, roads, power lines, smart phones, etc., are no less topics for ecological analysis than the H1N1 virus, vultures, rising planetary temperatures, coral reefs, etc. Indeed, in many cases we can’t understand the latter without understanding the former. This is why Marx’s mode of investigating society is no less ecological than the naturalist that investigates the role of vultures in India’s ecosystem. Both are investigating relations among entities and the difference those relations make. If relations were internal there would be nothing for ecology to investigate precisely because there would never be any changes and shifts among relations leading us to wonder what effects, what differences, will be produced in black or withdrawn objects.

The third thesis of black ecology is that the environment does not exist. Our tendency is to think of the environment as a container that is something other than the entities that populate the environment. The room I am now sitting in is, under this model, an environment because it is a container, while my couch, chair, television, computer, my body, my cats, etc., are all entities within this environment. Within the framework of black ecology, “environment” is just shorthand for relations between externally related objects. There are only relations– forever shifting and changing –between entities and never an environment as such. What ecology investigates is not “the environment”, but relations among entities.

Finally, the fourth thesis of black ecology is that the proper object of ethics is the ethical real. As Adorno writes, “[w]e can probably say that moral questions have always arisen when moral norms of behaviour have ceased to be self-evident and unquestioned in the life of the community” (16). Ethical meditation, normative meditation arises in response to the ethical real, to fundamental deadlocks, antagonisms, paradoxes, and impossibilities where existing norms no longer provide the means for deciding these issues. Genuine ethics becomes a domain of invention, precisely because such thinking arises in response to problems where rules, norms, and habits do not already guide us. The darkness of black ecology thus lies in confronting the ethical real which is, as Lacan teaches us, something we generally strive to cover over through the symptom. And for us, the question that both ecology and Marx presents us with is the question of how it is possible to live eudaimonistically– and what eudaimonia might even be –in a world that seems to undermine the very possibility of eudaimonia.