As I teach Morton’s The Ecological Thought this semester, I find myself thinking a lot about ecological ethics and politics. I really think we’re only barely able to pose these questions at this point. Part of the problem lies at the level of the very connotations of language, perpetually getting in the way of what needs to be thought. In a lot of ways this is what Tim is trying to address in his critique of what I call the “spatial or geographical concept of nature” is a critique of this issue. If I understand Morton correctly, what he’s critiquing in works like Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought is a geographical or spatial concept of nature. On the one hand, there is the domain of the city, the suburbs, the town, and the farm that is the world of society; while on the other hand there is the domain of the great barrier reefs, Brazilian rain forests, and Utah Badlands outside of society. Under this model, nature is a place that you go to outside of the city and suburbs. It’s a geography. From an ecological perspective, this is problematic because it places ecological concerns pretty low on the hierarchy of concerns. Are you going to worry about things like economic injustice, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. (the city) or the great spotted owl? Worrying about the great spotted owl seems like the worry of the privileged and the decadent because antagonisms revolving around the economic, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are more directly relevant to our social world or geographical locality.
Morton’s proposal– notorious among some environmental activists –is that we abandon the concept of nature. Now, I’m with the environmentalists in being bothered by the idea of abandoning the concept of nature, but I think for different reasons. In other words, I think they’re missing his point. Morton’s point, it seems to me, is not that we should abandon the concept of nature so as to no longer worry about the great spotted owl, but that where we conceive of nature as something outside society, we also end up treating things like the demise of the spotted owl as being of no social concern. My reason for being reticent to abandon the concept of nature are different from those of the environmentalist. First, I understand nature in a different way than Morton. For me “nature” does not signify a place outside of society, but rather is a synonym for being or existence, signifying the totality of what exists, composed entirely of physical or material beings, interacting through causes. In other words, for me minds and society are no less a part of nature than society. This is a part of my general polemic against idealism, Platonism, theistic religions, etc. There are only physical causes in my ontology and I think there are a number of reasons that it’s important to emphasize this. I’m not sure that Morton would disagree with this, though I have been troubled by his polemics against materialism as I think materialism, far from leading to an “enframing” of the world, instead leads us to appreciate the bodily, affective, and fragility of things, as well as the work and energy that go into everything (I think the expenditure of energy is one of the great oversights of how power and control functions in critical theory).
I also worry that since, at the semiotic level, concepts are organized around binary oppositions, abandoning the concept of nature ineluctably leads us into a pan-culturalism (a variant of idealism) anathema to Morton’s intentions. In other words, if we take thinkers such as Derrida and Lacan seriously– as we should –we should never have faith in the power of the content of how our arguments function, but also need to attend to the anonymous play of language in the linguistic field and how, as Lacan puts it somewhere in Seminar 5, language “cuckolds” us, using it for our own ends despite our best intentions. If, diacritically or oppositionally, the term “nature” immediately evokes the term “culture”, then erasure of nature risks turning everything into culture. I don’t think this is Morton’s intention, but that’s how language functions. It is on the grounds of how linguistic fields function that I come down hard on Morton in Onto-Cartography, not on the grounds of his intentions. With Althusser– under Montag’s reading –we need to intend to the effects of our discourse, rather than privileging the intentions of our discourse, as our writings are material entities interacting casually with brains and the social world like anything else. As an aside, it should be pointed out that the withdrawal thesis of object-oriented philosophy, which is not synonymous with object-oriented ontology, tends towards this sort of intentionalism (is it a surprise that we’ve seen a return to certain discourses of genius in creative production in some strains of this thought?). For this reason, given the choice, while fully endorsing Morton’s rejection of the spatial concept of nature, I nonetheless think that pan-naturalism is the way to go. We must find it in ourselves to see even society and history as a part of nature. This, I suppose, is my lineage from Lucretius and Spinoza; the two philosophers to whom I claim greatest allegiance when I’m being honest.
I digress. In seeking to de-suture nature and ecology, I think Morton is proposing an ecological ontology. Where ordinarily we take “ecology” to signify the study or investigation of natural ecosystems, Morton’s thesis at this period in his work is that being is ecological through and through. In other words, “nature” is not the distinctive feature of ecology, but rather ecology is the investigation of how things relate, interact, and depend on one another, and every being, whether cultural or “natural”, is ecological through and through. Put differently, there is no being independent of relation. To think ecologically is therefore to think beings in terms of their relations and interactions with other entities. As Morton remarks in the first chapter (in paraphrase), being is a Saussurean system, composed of relations or differences without positive terms. While there are plenty of reasons to question this thesis as us object-oriented ontologists have pointed out– and I’m increasingly reluctant to classify myself with that term –nonetheless, it’s difficult to argue that beings aren’t perpetually in some sort of relation even if they don’t also always have a minimal ontological excess over those relations that allows them to migrate into other relations. For me, what’s interesting and important is not entities isolated or withdrawn from relations, but what happens when entities encounter new entities and thereby forge new relations.
What we get here is a logic of the “and” rather than the “or”. In a non-ecological ontology, we either 1) see the qualities of a being as arising from within that being independent of all other beings (e.g. genes defining the features of the phenotype), or 2) trace effects or qualities back to a single cause. In a mesh or ecology this no longer holds as it’s a variety of causes that produce effects. For example, the sex of a fetus is a product of the genes and diet and hormones and birth order and probably other things besides. It is the result of an interplay between all of these things, not one of these things. The color of my coffee mug is ecological in this sense. It’s not in the mug, but is the result of an interplay between wavelengths of light, nervous systems, and the chemical properties of the mug. When we turn out the lights, it’s not that the mug remains blue and we just can’t see it, it’s that the blog has genuinely lost it’s color because it’s not interacting with other bodies such as photons of light.
Maybe what I mean when I say that we’ve barely begun to think the implications of ecology for ethics now becomes clear in light of the foregoing. When we hear the term “ecological ethics”, our first thought (or my first thought) is to think that this is a special domain of ethics devoted to how we should comport ourselves to nature. How ought we treat the spotted owl? What we here need to remember– a point the Brandomians and Sellarsians in their neo-Kantianism haven’t quite grasped yet –is that every ethics is based on an ontology. If it is true that being itself is ecological and that ecology isn’t just a special domain of ethics, then this raises a number of questions for how we think about ethics (questions to which I do not have answers). Much of our contemporary ethical thought is based on ideas of responsibility, and assigning praise and blame. This presupposes a theory of causation that can be traced back to a single origin in an actor. But if it is true that every property is an event produced through an interaction of interactants, then it is no longer possible to talk about causality in these terms. Every cause is an effect and every effect is a cause without us being able to decide what caused what.
I encourage anyone reading this to think about these questions very concretely, not like academics talking about Derrida, Badiou, or Levinas in abstractions, but in terms of men like Ariel Castro that abducted women and made them sex slaves for ten years. Practice good phenomenology and return to life and real circumstances. Stay close to the ethical issues you deal with in your own lives and dealings with the world. What are we to do with cases like the Ariel Castros of the world in an ecological ontology– which is probably right –that refuses to trace everything back to a causal origin but instead sees every individual as an interactant. I do not intend this as a low blow to ecological ontology as this is the direction I myself am moving in, but am instead asking how we handle instances like this where we clear wish– or I do anyway –wish to assign responsibility and culpability (Bennett raises similar issues in Vibrant Matter). What we need, I think, is a conceptual framework that’s rich enough to deal with interactivism while nonetheless preserving our ability to adjudicate these ethical issues. I’m not at all sure where even to begin.