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The zoologist Ernst Haeckel derived the term ecology from the Greek oikos. This “household,” the subject of ecology, reminds Timothy Morton of a gothic mansion harboring secret rooms and haunted by specters. Like the governess in James’s The Turn of the Screw, we who take residence in this household, the Earth, are initially sure of our innocence and of the objectivity of our vision. Only later do we notice our own signature in the obscurity and violence we had attributed to an alien presence. Morton writes critical eco-noir, in which our earthly domicile turns out to be no less uncanny (unheimliche, un-homely) than those other domestic spheres, the family and the nation, founded on the illusion of identity, the metaphysics of presence, and the repression of the past.
In The Ecological Thought, as in Ecology Without Nature (Harvard 2007), Morton identifies how environmentalists and green-minded humanists perpetuate that age-old sleight-of-hand whereby Nature is transformed into Necessity. Organicism begets fascism, natural limits underwrite Puritan asceticism, and the Malthusian struggle justifies distributive asymmetries. The trick goes like this. First, nature is externalized as the constitutive outside of human civilization—“something over there,” as Morton likes to say. Thus hypostatized, nature may be domesticated, a source of both authorizing social norms and consumable resources. With an imperceptible motion, the performer may transform nature into superego or id, the proper place of Heideggerian dwelling or a sublime wilderness. Nature is cute enough to cuddle, tasty enough to eat, and yet sufficiently distant that its aura may sanction any course of action. Pity and sadism, preservation and exploitation, consecration and instrumentalization all follow from the same basic gesture of setting-apart as a prelude to assimilation. Morton sees any invocation of nature—whether nostalgic, localist, or apocalyptic—as an invitation to bad faith: a denial of the vertiginous openness of our earthly condition.
The ecological thought, by contrast, shows us that our home is a “mesh,” consisting of “holes in a network and threading between them” (28), and that our neighbors are “strange strangers,” beings “whose existence we cannot anticipate” (42). Ecological thinking, as Morton practices it, demystifies nature not by proliferating such neologisms but by negation. Like a Zen kōan, “the ecological thought opens onto ‘un-thinking’” (77), revealing that presence and the present are illusions, that our world is neither a system nor an economy (which is another implication of oikos), and that it lacks discernible individuals. Negative ecology is a critical practice but also a viral “infection,” with the same inevitability as linguistic deferral (19). Thinking non-identity is thinking, however, an infinite regress of dislocating self-consciousness. Its scene is not a wild forest, where phenomenological immersion in an animate world, with an ambiance so unlike a city street, would induce fantasies of nature’s tangible existence. Incidents such as Thoreau’s well-known account of existential vertigo on Ktaadn, “this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me,” are rare. Describing his own circling of Kailash, Morton reports on the vastness of space as seen from the Tibetan Plateau but includes no similar instance of epiphanic de-realization. For Morton, ecological thinking, as critical negation, proceeds by way of evolutionary science and aesthetic self-reflectivity.
The ecological thought is Darwinian and is difficult for the same reason the theory of evolution seems so counter-intuitive to us Platonists and Aristotelians: its anti-essentialist and non-teleological understanding of creation. Like commodity fetishism, or the unconscious, or différance, evolution is almost unthinkable because of the gaps between its content and its form, its synchronic structure and its diachronic history. The engine of evolution is not fitness, and certainly not adaptation; it is mutation, accidents that become meaningful after the fact. “Causality works backward,” Morton claims (62). Not only are there no species—“Rabbits are deconstructive all the way down” (82-3)—but even individual organisms turn out to be endosymbiotic assemblages. Evolution proceeds by way of an infinite number of cobbled-together temporary measures, as Morton writes so well: “The mesh is made of prosthetic devices and algorithmic behaviors. An eye is a wet, squeezable pair of glasses. Legs are soft, brittle crutches. Ears are rather florid headphones. Brains are things that quack like minds” (85). And at the heart of this non-nature is a phenomenon as difficult for dualists (meaning all of us) to conceptualize as light or language: “DNA is both matter and information” (83). The information society is three-billion-years old. Evolutionary theory is useful for de-reification—“Merger sponges are good for thinking with,” Morton writes, wittily revising Levi-Strauss (77)—even if, in this case, Morton’s negative ecology is highly selective, overlooking the less destabilizing ideas of population and ecosystem ecology (with its food webs and keystone species) or the theory of punctuated equilibrium.
Art, also, dislocates us, and so serves ecological thinking. The Ecological Thought cursorily returns to the truly rich arguments about environmental form developed in Ecology Without Nature. Morton is quite honest about his unresolved ambivalence regarding the aesthetic—an ambivalence he sees as itself characteristically Romantic. Perceptual immersion may, like a walk in the woods, serve to naturalize distance, securing the self by bringing it close but not too close to the other. When the aesthetic manages to close the distance between essence and substance, subject and object, it produces hesitation, irony, or de-realization—the first stages of political engagement. In The Ecological Thought, Morton stresses the extent to which Wordsworth and company, contrary to both new historicist and ecocritical interpretations, explored landscapes of absence, interruption, and otherness. “At his most visionary,” Morton writes, “Wordsworth loses his vision,” facing his misshapen, deranged, and destitute earthly intimates (47). Persons and things, foreground and background, collide in transpersonal intensities; spots of time are “experiences being missed, or less than expected, or blank” (79). Morton’s readings are quick and oblique, drawing attention to moments of unexpected absence or sharp, surprising proximity, like the wonderful first line of Clare’s “Autumn Birds”: “The wild duck startles like a sudden thought” (50). In Chapter Three, Morton turns to twentieth-century aesthetic forms—from diastic poetics to abstract expressionism, Woolf’s stream of consciousness to Jazz improvisation—that dissolve the distance between actors and environments, “demystifying our planet and our Universe” (105). While Morton wants us to learn to take our pleasures more seriously, he recognizes that aesthetic enjoyment damages politics when it offers only the intoxication of ambient experience while solidifying the ground beneath our feet. At its best, the aesthetic merely prepares us for politics by drawing us into its frame.
The starkest challenge for the ecological thought is moving from the oikos to the polis, from dark ecology to political praxis. While Morton is highly sensitized to that shell game whereby descriptive statements magically transform into prescriptive norms, he finds it difficult to sustain the de-reifying work of negative ecology. Consider this typical claim: “Since everything depends on everything else, we have a very powerful argument for caring about things. The destruction of some things will affect other things” (35). We may, of course, reject the initial axiom—the more restrictive statement in the second sentence implies as much—but even if there is such an all-encompassing web of interdependence how does it constitute an argument for care? Note, even, the implicit personification, the way an ontic condition is supplemented by a commanding voice. Uncannily, Morton finds himself involuntarily repeating that familiar Romantic gesture of approaching an inhuman world as a means of “unthinking” the ideological status quo but then, despite his intentions, returning with new natural resources for imagining community. Rather than conjecturing about the original state of nature, or spending a year in the woods, Morton reads Richard Dawkins. “The ecological thought is also friendly to disability,” he concludes. “There are plentiful maladaptions and functionless phenomena at the organism level” (85). The inevitability of such affirmations—encapsulated in Morton’s positive dictum, “We must because we are” (124)—attests to the irrepressibility of nature, not so much as a reified thing but as a personified authority (though, thankfully, a “friendly” one). Morton, of course, anticipates his own constitutive blindness. He identifies the essential continuity between symptom and cure when he deems nature-worship the “the damaged and damaging attitude that gave birth to the ecological thought” (97).
In developing an ecological praxis, the aesthetics of indeterminacy and Darwinian anti-essentialism prove no more dependable than the voice of nature. “Reading poetry won’t save the planet,” Morton writes, and “Evolution doesn’t tell you how to behave” (60). So how do we save the planet? Morton’s answers reflect a significant slackening of methodological rigor. When he treats ethics and politics in The Ecological Thought, the deconstructive attention to nature-as-myth, as well as the profound dialectical sophistication sustained throughout Ecology Without Nature, give way, subtly but ineluctably, to optimistic liberal humanism. Morton often acknowledges his debt to Adorno and Benjamin, but their theorization of “natural history” (Naturgeschichte) as a critical category requires that demystification go both ways: “to comprehend historical being in its most extreme historical determinacy, where it is most historical, as natural being,” Adorno explained in a 1932 lecture in Frankfurt, and “to comprehend nature as a historical being where it seems to rest most deeply in itself as nature.” Morton fulfills only the latter imperative, thoroughly historicizing nature while leaving in place the far more powerful legitimating fictions of the self-determining subject and the liberal state he inhabits. Today, after all, “it’s my subjective opinion” and “it’s my culture” constitute far more powerful rationales than “it’s natural.” As Bruno Latour has pointed out: nowadays, everybody is a cultural constructivist.
Morton ends up recommending an explicitly Kantian ethics, a conception of responsibility based on non-determination and self-relation: “The ecological thought reserves a special place for the ‘subject’—the mind, the person, even the soul” (113). Apparently it is through a quota system—by reserving a “special place” for the subject—that Kantian imperatives work in a world without categorical distinctions. This position is especially striking since in Ecology Without Nature Morton writes, “Nature is thus not unlike the ‘subject,’ a being who searches through the entire universe for its reflection, only to find none” (14-5). So why reserve a special place for the “subject” but not for those other reified categories—“wilderness,” “endangered species,” “place”—that have provided an insufficient but not meaningless bulwark against destructive development?
To be fair, in his reflections on ethics Morton also speaks of Levinasian obligations that are more in line with his account of enmeshed “strange strangers.” We experience demands that reflect our vulnerability to the vulnerability of others. “Other beings elicited the ecological thought,” he writes, “they summon it from us and force us to confront it” (135). What this amounts to, though, is an imperative to act together as free subjects. Rather than treating the subject and liberal society as “nature-like” (which is to say, as determined and determining), Morton seems convinced that human subjects, at least in a world without transcendentalized nature, will choose solidarity and that democratic capitalist societies can mediate such solidarity, leading to the “progressive social policies” that will save the planet (60). “To tackle pollution, climate disruption, and radiation,” he counsels, “we must think and act big, which means thinking and acting collectively. This will take conscious input. We will have to choose to act and think together” (131). I wonder what Slavoj Žižek, whose voice often echoes in Morton’s prose, would say about such a fuzzy command, with its conflation of liberal freedom and totalitarian necessity. To speak of a subject who chooses—even one whose self-reflexivity has been honed, and whose compassion has been expanded, by the ecological thought—is to sidestep the dilemmas we face in a world without nature. Is the liberal nation state, in an era of global financial capitalism, equipped to confront the temporal duration and global scale of the environmental crisis? How do we recognize the overwhelming human intervention in Earth’s biological and geophysical systems without invoking as a “reference point” something definitively not human (30)?
There is another sense in which Adorno spoke of nature dialectically de-reifying history. The actual suffering justified in the name of history-as-rational-progress is revealed when we attend to the corporeal, mortal body, to “material nature.” He attributed this idea to Benjamin’s work on the Trauerspiel, from which he directly quoted: “Everything about history, that from the beginning, has been, ultimately, sorrowful and unsuccessful, is expressed in a face—or rather in a death’s head” (263). It is not Morton’s failure to translate ecological thinking into praxis that I question—he offers good reasons why such translation will always prove fraught—but rather the way his Shelleyan eco-optimism keeps his gaze fixed on the “ecological society to come” (19). He comes across as surprisingly sunny for a self-described goth as he describes better living through terraforming and genetic engineering. “These are not the end times but the first glimmerings of new times,” he promises (19). Of course, Morton may be right: we may, finally, learn to reconcile oikos and polis. What worries me, though, is his casual dismissal of our catastrophic dealings with the biosphere, with nature as mortal body, over the past two centuries. Though he associates the ecological thought with melancholy, the “earth humor,” he is impatient with elegy, the work of mourning.
Elegies are about burying the dead. They are the grief equivalent of canned laughter: they do the mourning for you, thus providing an outlet for one’s sadistic fantasies against the lost one. Nature elegy is a paradox, as it’s about losing something we never really had: losing a fantasy, not a reality.104-5
The heartache experienced by us moderns, for Morton, is only that of losing an illusion. I realize he wishes to provoke when he writes, “As the ice caps melt, perhaps we should be teaching drowning polar bears to use flotation devices” (128), or when he worries more about the treatment of cyborgs than animals, or when he claims that “All food is Frankenfood” (86). I am provoked mostly because of my own inability to determine whether such insouciance is a symptom of the demystifications of the ecological thought or of Morton’s own mystifying faith in the world-making potential of the liberal human subject. I tend toward the second explanation. It is not that there are no polar bears in Morton’s world, as relentlessly realist ecocritics have charged; rather, Morton seems to be banking on our capacity to care for polar bears and to design suitable life-rafts. In any case, if we fail to bury the dead, to take time to write elegies for lost species, lifeworlds, and ecosystems, to express what is sorrowful, either because we believe we would be mourning our own fictions or because our eyes are fixed on the future, then I imagine the debris will continue to grow skyward.
Tobias Menely is Assistant Professor of English at Miami University.
“The Idea of Natural History,” trans. Robert Hollot-Kentor, in Things Beyond Resemblance (New York: Columbia UP, 2008), 200. See also Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (New York: Free Press, 1977), Chapter Three.
“Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004).