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.

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