January 2015


Despite his greatness in so many other areas, there’s a deep shame in Wittgenstein’s declaration that philosophy is what happens when language goes on holiday.  Far from being a mark of shame from which philosophy should be cured, the proper response is “yes!”  In philosophy, as in the sciences, mathematics, the arts, and poetry, there is an athleticism of language, an inventiveness that challenges and disrupts what the analytics call “ordinary language”.  Philosophy breaks language from its moorings, sending it flying in new trajectories.  In this respect, it is what Deleuze and Guattari called a “minor language” and stuttering.  It’s left handed.  To be sure, philosophy draws on the connotations of ordinary language, but only to send them flying in new and unheard of directions.  When Plato utters “eidos” it becomes something other than mere shape.  When Aristotle utters the term “category”, it becomes something other than an accusation.  When Heidegger utters “Dasein” it comes to mean something other than mere “existence”.  All of these connotations are drawn upon, but they become something quite different.  Maybe this is why the language of philosophy is always a bit grotesque and shares a resemblance to science fiction; even before science or fiction existed.  There is no criticism more shameful in philosophy than the criticism that this is not how people normally use these terms.  Quite right.  And in this philosophy resembles poetry– as Bertrand Russell noted –while also being a sort of mathematics or science.  Philosophy is one way in which ordinary language– which is one form power takes –is made to stutter.  Like the poet, but a poet that has a taste for mathematical demonstration and formalism, good philosophy strives to be tectonic with respect to the plates that compose ordinary language.

Initially the shift to conceiving societies and cultures as ecologies seems slight.  After all, in the traditions of social and political thought, societies have largely been thought both in terms of relations and processes.  If ecology consists not in thinking nature but in thinking beings of any sort in terms of relations, then it would seem that describing culture as an ecology changes nothing.  And in some ways this is true.  All that was there before in social and political thought remains.  It is not so much that something is lost with this move as the domain of entities relevant to culture is significantly expanded.

In Book III of the Ethics, Spinoza resolved to treat the emotions as phenomena of nature and to investigate them accordingly.  Something similar happens when cultures are treated as ecologies.  Thinkers such as Latour have argued that modernity is based on a split between nature and culture.  Nature is one kingdom, with its own laws or principles; and culture is another kingdom with its own laws and principles.  Generally nature is treated as the domain of causality, while culture is treated as the domain of meaning, the sign, or the signifier.  Under this model, investigating nature amounts to investigating causes, while investigating society means investigating meanings.  A wall is thus erected between nature and culture.

Like Spinoza, I want to investigate culture as a phenomena of nature (though as I’ve argued elsewhere and can’t get into here, this means transforming our understanding of nature).  Put a bit differently, in thinking cultures as ecologies I want to think societies in nature.  This doesn’t mean that I want to reduce things such as signs, signifiers, and meanings to biology and neurology like the evolutionary sociologist or something silly like that.  Meaning has its own manner of functioning as meaning; and while dependent on biology so far (perhaps AI’s are on the way that operate with meaning), cannot be explained in terms of biology.  Meaning has to be understood as meaning qua meaning, according to its own principles.

No, understanding culture as in nature means something quite different than giving reductive explanations of all cultural phenomena.  It means breaking down that wall between nature and culture.  Culture isn’t just meaning, but involves all sorts of natural elements as well without which it couldn’t exist as it does.  In other words, ecological conceptions of society are premised on the thesis that there are certain material conditions for the existence of culture.  Here we must take care, for “material conditions” immediately brings to mind Marx and his famous account of production as the ground of society and the forms society takes.  These are, indeed, material phenomena, yet in the ecological conception of society the material conditions of culture are not anything themselves produced by culture; at least initially.  These material conditions include things such as the existence of an atmosphere, fauna and animals of all sorts, energy in the form of calories and of others sorts to power tools, gravity within a certain range, temperature within a certain range, etc.

I am not, of course, saying anything new in pointing all this out.  Other theorists have articulated it as well.  Then again, here I am not interested in saying something new but in saying something true and playing some small role in drawing the attention of others to it.  Cultures, like organisms, I want to say, are material beings that interface with a broader physical world, both drawing matters from that world and releasing matters into the world.  And here I wish to say these material factors exercise a power of their own on the form that social relations take that often goes unspoken in our critical theories.  Yes, meaning is a key component of culture.  Yes meaning is something we need to investigate in our social and political thought.  However, we also need to attend to this broader dimension embodied in technologies of all kinds, infrastructure, features of geography, and the larger natural world in which cultural worlds are embedded in manners similar to Amazon rain forests and coral reefs.

220px-Lead_Photo_For_Category_(mathematics)0-41319275833666325Perhaps “relation” is the wrong word for what is thought in ecological ontology.  There’s something too ghostly, too incorporeal, about relations.  Everything in the entire cosmos could be still and there would still be relations.  Things would be to the left or right or one another, so many miles or light years apart, larger and smaller, and so on.  Yet ecology, above all, thinks beings in interaction and becoming.  While interaction is a form of relation, the concept of interaction captures a certain fleshiness of how beings hang together in ecologies that risks being lost with the signifier “relation”.

Beings in ecologies interact.  This is a mundane and obvious observation, yet maybe one we don’t often pause to think through.  First, even at a distance, there is always a materiality of interactions.  Every interaction requires flesh.  There are no incorporeal or ghostly interactions.  Two entities at a distance might interact.  Indeed, ecology often and primarily thinks interactions between beings at a distance.  The novelty of its thought consists in showing or tracing how two entities that appear to be unrelated– say frogs and cars –in fact affect one another in an assemblage.  Their interaction is not, of course, an immediate one.  It is not a direct touching.  Rather, there is a fleshy or material mediator that passes between them, surmounting time and distance:  the car’s carbon emissions.

read on!

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Zizek is offering a course on New Materialism and my Democracy of Objects at Princeton in April.  I think I just entered nervous breakdown territory.  It looks like it’s open to the public, so if you’re in the area, check it out.

Thinking at the edge of the apocalypse requires an ecological thinking. Yet ecology must be rescued from green ecology, or that perspective that approaches it as a restricted domain of investigation, pertaining only to rain forests and coral reefs. Ecology is a name of being tout court. It signifies not nature, but relation. To think ecologically is to think beings in relation; regardless of whether that being be the puffer fish, economy, or a literary text. Everything is ecological. Above all, we must think culture and society as ecologies embedded in a broader ecology. This entails overcoming that form of thought that restricts culture to an economy of signs and norms governing the functioning of those signs; as something that can safely bracket out the ecological. These things, of course, are elements in the ecology of societies.  Yet so too are infrastructure, material, waste, and energy.  Even ecological enunciations themselves are embedded in broader ecologies.  Ecological thought must include itself in its ecological investigations, practicing a certain sort of reflexivity, rather than treating itself as an observer outside of that which it observes.