Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thinking With the Ecological Thought

So what am I learning from this encounter with Tim Morton's Ecological Thought?

That a thought unrelated to practice is empty. That the relation to practice, too, must be thought and developed. That practice necessarily makes room for embodied others (and not just strange strangers), who need their own room to breathe (la partage du souffle), and that the provision of such room within the text--within the practice of style--is an ethical matter.

An ethical text--one I can live with, in a strong sense of the phrase--provides a map of the positions it seeks to engage, a sketch of how they're related to one another and therefore how I expect to engage them. Such a map should allow the reader to assess both the terrain and my map, to come to an independent judgment of how persuasive or effective the engagement has been.

For instance: there are plenty of places in the literature of ecology/environmentalism that resemble, in some ways, the lines of thinking that Morton pursues. Why doesn't he engage with them, if only to elaborate differences? His thinking crosses paths with ideas about ecological modernization, and with Tim Ingold's work in The Perception of the Environment. Would it do damage to his thought to tarry awhile in the vicinity of such texts?

Traditional scholarly convention distributes the map of its engagements between primary texts, worked into the body of the text, and secondary references, confined to the foot- or end-notes. Such spatial distinctions establish, as it were, the kinship terms for academic work. Morton has endnotes, but they act more like links than references; his text is a field of wild cross-pollination. This enacts the idea that ecology means the loss of the foreground/background distinction, the evaporation of distance, but it also collapses the distinction between map and territory and, indeed, just about any epistemic distinctions whatsoever (this despite his claim to distinguish between, say, environmentalism and the ecological thought.).

Alongside these concerns, there is a question about the time of reading, an issue related to practices of attention. Traditional reading takes time, with the text being an artefact designed to orchestrate time (I think of David Miller's phrase about the Victorian novel as a "drill in the rhythms of industrial society"). It may be that virtual reality dissolves such artefacts, suspending reading in a space of lateral associations and an environment of optionality (I currently have a dozen tabs open in my browser, and can readily skip between them: the fabric of this writing is riddled with those possibilities, and the awareness that they affect the reader as well. ). In this informational space, reading "takes" no time: it is pock-marked with points, constellated but not connected. Having grown up breathing, following the marked paths, the vacant, interstellar spaces frighten and disorient me, leave me infuriated. But perhaps those raised in the upper atmosphere are acclimatized: this is what ecologists call "shifting baselines."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

THE Ecological Thought?

It's been some time since I was as provoked by a book as I've been by Tim Morton's The Ecological Thought (2010)--probably since reading his last one, Ecology Without Nature (2007) (also the name of his blogsite). Not that being provoked is necessarily bad, but my irritation risks overwhelming what is actually interesting about Morton's text. Like Slavoj Zizek, whom he cites and thanks, Morton goes out of his way to deride other people's icons ("Wilderness areas are giant, abstract versions of the products hanging in mall windows"--p.9; "These fake landscapes are the original greenwashing"-10), to caricature the thought he critiques by associating it with Things We All Despise ("Environmentalist ideology ... ruthlessly immediate, aggressively masculine, ruggedly anti-intellectual, afraid of humor and irony"--p.8), and to make off-hand counter-intuitive remarks as if they were self-evident ("Some people simply don't want to know that their water is recycled excrement"--9: a zinger too good too pass up, even though it flies in the face of basic chemistry: the All-is-connected Ecological Thought can't be bothered with petty distinctions).

Some of this can be chalked up to being an entertaining lecturer; some of it stems from the habitus of Grand Theory, where outrageous assertions are coin of the realm, always deferred for later development; some of it has the whiff of academic self-marketing, where claims to Big Think, even if under-realized, pave the way to promotion. But as a whole it feels like cybergenic ADD: it establishes an affective field of breathless association ("You could see turbines as environmental art"-9; "Ecology is a matter of human experience"-12). Although he SAYS that "We shouldn't be afraid to withdraw and reflect," this is not a contemplative text: it has only two speeds, fast and faster. And remember, "The ecological thought permits no distance" (39)

More to the point, its version of "thinking" feels radically individualized, closer to the Egotistical Sublime than to the Congress of All Beings. Morton's "Ecological Thought" seems untroubled by politics, being more intent on establishing My Correct Views on Everything (to cite Kolakowski) than on cultivating alliances or thinking in context. Its tone is, fundamentally, ungenerous ("Heidegger's environmentalism is a sad, fascist, stunted bonsai version"--27, presumably because he cherished place and home). No one else, it seems, is entitled to a voice, or a view worth respecting, at least not within the precincts of My Text: no ethics of hospitality here.

(Reading Morton brings to mind Jane Bennett's remarks in "The Moraline Drift:" what gives a text that moralistic flavor? Self-certainty, a quest for purity, punitiveness: being caught in the rip-tides of one's own judgment. Bennett calls for ethical tactics to cultivate a humbler stance, preferring to present one's "world-view as an onto-story rather than an ontology," for instance: "Weak ontologists do aim to persuade others of the value, meaningfulness, or ethical advantages of their onto-stories. But they seek to balance the moraline drift of this project with a courageous admission of weakness"--17.)

The lack of generosity, of hospitality, feels somehow connected to the formlessness of the text, its headlong quality or precipitate flight. As a reader of poetry and an aspirational asthmatic, I tend to be sensitive to the rhythm of reading, the space it allows for companionable breathing. Morton's staccato observations, patterned on Zizek, make no room, take no time, give no quarter, have no mercy-- a condition they then describe as the true existential condition. This is partly temperamental, I suppose, but it is also deliberately cultivated--no, as they say, accident.

And yet, and yet...

I have great sympathy for the open-ended, essayistic quality of the text. Beyond the verbosity, there are some interesting thoughts--I can't call them insights--into the unboundedness of ecosystems, and how acquaintance with some texts can move us towards engaging their dynamics. On his blog, Morton mentions some affinities with William Jordan's Sunflower Forest, where a related "onto-story" about the incompleteness of nature (and the psychic costs of relatedness) proposes to resolve itself into restorative ritualization. Jordan's project draws on Frederick Turner, and aims at collective action: so far as I can tell, by contrast, thinking the Ecological Thought is its own reward.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

OSU Grad Students Sustainability Summit

April 1, 2011: OSU Grad Students hosted their first (annual?) sustainability summit, to unveil a resolution to establish a set of sustainability goals--by 2015--for the university. After introductions, the event centered on a set of presentations--by James deFrance, Aparna Dial, Joseph Fiksel and Rattan Lal--covering some basics points about sustainability, including concepts like sources and sinks (Lal), natural capital, feedback loops and systems thinking (Fiksel) and the basics of OSU's planning process.

Rattan Lal spoke of the need to establish baselines for emissions and resource use, as the basis for establishing goals. Aparna noted the challenge of aging infrastructure, and the initiative to meter all the buildings, a $3.5 million project. Joseph talked in general terms about the limits of the traditional model of economic growth, and the overshoot generated by failure to take account of natural capital. One of the few moments of argument surfaced when someone asked whether capitalism needed to be reined in, and both Joseph and Aparna extolled market mechanisms as an efficient way of coordinating responses. Both of them have been trained as engineers.

The event was well-attended and promising, but had its limits as a learning opportunity, in part because it assumed a homogeneous audience, all starting from a common baseline. In future years, I hope the organizers consider how to better integrate the summit into the rhythm of the academic year, and to choreograph diverse stakeholding groups. Coordinating such an event with Earth Week activities, for one, would open out the process to a larger context. Similarly, it would be useful to have breakout sessions geared towards different constituencies (There was a stylistic microdrama in the division between the suit-and-tie reps of Student Government and the t-shirted insurgents from Free the Planet and the grass-roots types.). It was, for instance, testimony to the limitations of the political imagination that, when asked how we can make sure the goals are implemented, the primary response was to "pressure' the administration.

At an organizational level--because sustainability is an organizational problem--it would be helpful for those working on the various dimensions of the issue (operations, student life, curriculum, research, community engagement) to meet semi-regularly to share goals, questions and learnings from the year. We need to create a field--a community of practice--that can "hold" the question of sustainability and how to approach it on an ongoing basis. Holding the question, creating a container for conversation, differs from a hierarchical performance review, in that it establishes a supportive environment, one which aims to renew and deepen commitment by making room for reflection and appreciation. It should, as well, ease the burden of individualized action, which often leads to moralism and resentment.

Psychologically, the challenge of sustainability is the need for enthusiasm, the desire for "more life." How to invest what can seem like compulsory austerity and self-discipline with symbolic and affective satisfaction? From sacrifice to communion.