Identity, Ecology, and Entanglement

Review: Timothy Morton The Ecological Thought Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012 159 pp.

Joshua Paetkau

the-ecological-thoughtUnder the auspice of identity we write towards an indiscernible future that holds forth hope not only as vision or project but in reality and in truth. What is it to evoke a catholic commons but to signal an intimate entanglement with which we are never truly finished? Never finished because the commons is not something that belongs to us but rather the interconnectedness wherein we constantly find ourselves surprised by beings who fill us with wonder, delight, amazement, disgust, frustration and pain. To speak of the commons is always to speak of what is beyond private control; it is to speak of communion and camaraderie and at the same time the pain, isolation, and violence that come bound up in earthly existence. That the commons is catholic is a sign of its expansiveness, our locality is not protectionist. And what could it be to be seeking the kingdom except that we are on the road open to encounter with that strange stranger who just, just might be the Christ?

The book I am going to review doesn’t talk about the catholic commons. It talks about the mesh, a vast interconnectedness where nothing exists all by itself. It doesn’t talk about Jesus, but it does talk about the strange stranger, that is, those intrinsically strange beings whom we encounter. Beings who become even stranger to us in intimacy. The more we know the more profoundly weird the universe becomes.

The Ecological Thought is a witty, gritty take on ecology. It author Timothy Morton is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of California, Davis, and he presents a savvy, literary ecology. An ecology that is unafraid to play in the shadows. Perhaps, one might even venture to say, an ecology noir.  Morton’s response to the “bright green” optimism of some contemporary environmental thinking is “when I hear the word ‘bright’ I reach for my sunglasses.”(16) At the same time his is not a cynicism of detachment. Irony may abound but it is politically and emotionally committed, always displaying a clear sense of passion and compassion for the subject matter.

What exactly is the subject matter? Well, quite literally, it is absolutely everything. The beginning of the ecological thought, says Morton, is the realization that everything is interconnected. As frightening as this thought appears it opens up the world to us more the more we consider it. And it demands not cold calculation but the full engagement of our creative faculties. Quoting the poet Percy Shelley regarding developments in science he writes, “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know.” (1) To think the ecological thought, then, is an imaginative task. In Morton’s case this imagination is shaped by, among other things, John Milton, Tibetan peasants, Darwin, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.  An eclectic mix, perhaps, but then as Morton says, “the ecological thought is a virus that infects all other areas of thinking. (2)

Infectious because the ecological thought is ultimately a “process and practice of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings – animal, vegetable, or mineral.” (7) The fact that human experience is so inextricably intertwined with the lives of other beings and spaces requires big thinking. While recognizing the importance that words like local, organic, and particular have played in resisting globalization, Morton argues that the risk of being trapped by smallness is one which plagues the environmental movement. An awareness of the interconnectedness of things would allow us to realize that our existence is never as fiercely local and under our own control as we might like it to be.

As part of this awareness Morton challenges the concept of Nature as an entity existing independently of human society. He is critical of a notion of nature that functions in effect as a privileged type of private property, and of the kind of robust, optimistic language it engenders. He writes:

Environmental rhetoric is too often strongly affirmative, extraverted, and masculine; it privileges speech over writing; and it simulates immediacy (feigning one-to-one correspondences between language and reality.) It’s sunny, straightforward, ableist, holistic, hearty, and “healthy.” Where does this leave negativity, introversion, femininity, writing, mediation, ambiguity, darkness, irony, fragmentation, and sickness? Are these simply nonecological categories? (16)

Morton’s answer to this last question is a decided no. He argues that the dark experience of being separated from Earth is a place where we can experience ecological awareness. Here he delves into the possibility of a new ecological aesthetics which takes its cue from film noir. Here the point of view of the narrator is revealed to always already be stained with desire. There is no neutral vantage point.  The deployment of his writing makes apparent how difficult this kind of thinking can be, and how readily they can fall back into technological optimism and the reification of forms of thought. At one point Morton suggests that genetic modification is commensurate with selective breeding programs. Both, after all, have elements of human intervention and synthesis. While this would seem to flow directly from his argument against reified Nature I suspect, in fact, that it is shaped more by a view towards genetic determinacy. Morton does recognize that genetic manipulation is controlled by big capital and is entrenched in the contradictions of private property, especially genetic material as private property. He seems to fail to note, however, that the particular manipulation of knowledge is bound intrinsically to our form of industrial capitalism. How we know things is an important part of the knowledge itself.

This particular problem led me to view the overall project with a hint more suspicion. The Ecological Thought promised a lot and made creative use of many different schools of thought. From Darwin to Derrida the entanglement was drawn forth with imaginative elucidation. I found here deep resonances and an appreciation for those things in life that do not always strike us as majestic or beautiful. At the same time I could not shake the feeling that the book was written under the spectre of Obama capitalism. An edgy techno-savvy literary capitalism, certainly one with possibilities, but one still problematically drenched in the culture of military surveillance.

Morton has a lot to say about Google Earth and cyborgs, but rather less to say about the struggles faced by smallholder farms, or the uneven effects of climate change on the world’s poor. He has a lot to say about cooperation and collective action, but it is a collective action mediated by science and sound government policy. Here, at least, there seems to be a window open to a kind of radical emancipatory politics. Collective action cannot be a simple matter of legislation, Morton is well aware of this. Perhaps this is why he stresses imagination, intimacy, and consciousness. These are important questions. The fact that Morton focuses primarily on the domestic and the synthetic elements of life no doubt results from the lack of such a focus in most environmental literature. The question does remain, however, as to how this intimacy looks in wilder less synthetic environments?

The Ecological Thought goes a long way in countering an environmentalism wedded to private property. Morton raises hard questions with imagination, and through his writing we are exposed to some of the severe contradictions such an environmentalism perpetuates. The fact that the book does not chart a clear path out of the perplexity of green capitalism is a testament to the complexity of the problem and not the paucity of the author.

Despite, and sometimes because of, some of the book’s weaknesses I think it offers a platform from which to think the commons, to think our entanglement with other beings, in ways that are creative, catholic and open to the deep pain as well as the deep joy of our human existence. From our identity we strive for something more, some indiscernible that will make room for all our experience, not only the simple sunny holistic optimism, but our doubts, fears, pain, joy, amazement and wonder. It is, in a word, a profoundly human text.

Joshua Paetkau is a father of two and is currently living and working at the A’Rocha Pembina Valley Field Station, Manitoba.  He holds a bachelor of arts in theology and social science.  He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

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