May 10, 2010 by Peter Gratton
(Those who were kind enough to cross post the previous interviews are modestly asked to do so again. Cross-posted with realism course blog, realismcourse.wordpress.com)
Timothy Morton is Professor of Literature and Environment, University of California, Davis. He is author of The Poetics of Spice and Shelley and the Revolution in Taste, and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Shelley and Cultures of Taste/Theories of Appetite. Most recently, he is the author of a “pre-quel,” The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) to his 2008, Ecology without Nature (2008), in which he critiques previous conceptions of nature as inimical to ecological thinking. He also blogs about his work, with great links, at ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com. (For those looking for a quick background to this book and his work, I suggest this set of Youtube videos.)
In what follows, I’ll summarize (in this case, the summary really doesn’t do justice to the book) The Ecological Thought in order to provide the background to the “mesh” below. This “pre-quel” to the earlier Ecology without Nature (2008) is a difficult work to summarize, since it lays out its concepts by thinking ecologically, that is, each chapter enfolds on the other, rather than having discrete subject matter. But this should not be read to mean that it’s a meandering tome in search of a thesis: the “mesh” of things is the thesis. Morton performs a kind of horizontal thinking that he believes is necessary for coming to terms with ecological being. In his earlier work, Morton argued that nature itself is a modern concept that pushed a part of being to some “out there” beyond human cultures, and his present book makes clear just how destructive he takes this concept to be. In the first place, “nature” repeats the capitalist treatment of the non-human as a strange set-aside for human beings, except in this case the resource is the mark of a pre-cultural origin to which we return.
Politically, this is disastrous, not least because of the use and abuse of nature in various right-wing ideologies of the past two hundred years. (Here Morton is dead-on in his critique of Heidegger-inflected environmental holism as a repetition in another form of his notorious 1930s political convictions.) It’s also problematic in the way that it can’t help but be puritanist and reactionary in an era in which the technological and the cultural is omnipresent, though Morton is clear that there never was a time of a lost communion of humans with nature. In this ideology, “nature” gives us “wilderness areas” that “are giant, abstract versions of the products hanging in mall windows” (p. 7).
Thus, in a sense, Morton’s book is directed less at the kind of ideologues who will deny global warming until well after the water has waded up to the knees of Floridians than at deep ecologists, who, following Arnie Naess, talk about a profound harmony between human beings and nature disrupted by modern capitalism. It’s not clear from Morton’s book what the ontological status of such a “nature” would be, since it’s one thing to say that ecological thinking must deal with nature as it is now, though it’d be hard to argue with the deep ecologists that there is some X that is outside and beyond the human, than to deny tout court a non-human real.
The point, as I take it, is that it’s the Romantic “nature” and the conception of a pre-established harmony that truly must be done away with: “The idea of Nature as holistic, healthy, real thing avoids the challenge” of radical coexistence (p. 11). Hence, Morton argues, we must also do away with the notion of the “environment,” which has also stood for that which surrounds the human. But an ecological thought, he argues, does not just protest the “rigid ideological categories” of human/animal, culture/nature, etc. Rather, it sets out to demonstrate not just how nature itself is a category of the human (when it posits what does not belong to it) but also how what we consider the natural (minerals, machine-like movements, etc.) is the human.
Morton introduces the idea of the “mesh” as a means for understanding the “interconnectedness” of existence. Since he is well aware of the use and abuse of internet (the web, networks, etc.) and spiritualist (vitalism, the holism, etc.) metaphors and concepts, Morton seeks out this term as a means for thinking the form of connections and separations among the objects of the world, without arguing that there is some substance (e.g., Thales’ water) hovering in the background of all things. To think the “mesh” is to think these connections and blank spaces that is the (no)thing that connects all things in a manner akin to Bruno Latour’s irreductionist theory of assemblages, wherein there are no substances but only collectives of relations. To bulk up this concept, Morton turns at several crucial places to the writings of Darwin and points out how his work enables anti-essentialist, anti-teleological thinking inimical to considerations of structures not hyper-empirical. He writes, “The ecological thought stirs because the mesh appears in our social, psychic, and scientific domains. Since everything is interconnected, there is no definite background and therefore no definite foreground. Darwin,” he concludes, “sensed the mesh while pondering the implications of natural selection” (p. 28). The seeming “pointlessness of life forms” in evolutionary theory, he notes ironically, provides the “saving grace” of ecological thought.
In the first chapter, “Thinking Big,” Morton attacks the postmodern thesis according to which all that is left to us, after modernity, are petit narratives bereft of totalizing force. Yet, he clearly is not out to return to “thinking big” in terms of “centered” modes of thinking (humanism, theology, substance ontology, etc.). Conceptually, a mesh is itself nothing but a set of relations that are not all or at once, but also not divided sequentially from each other. Thus, it functions as “vast yet intimate: there is no here or there, so everything is brought within our awareness. The more we analyze, the more ambiguous things become” (p. 40). Thinking the mesh of interdependence means taking cognizance of the non-existence of species difference wherein an essence of “animality” could be proferred as simply “non-human.” (Every time one suggests an essential human trait, it’s not long before some animal is found with an akin characteristic [pp. 70-71].) The point is to think the “strange strangers” of those that coexist with us, including the strange depth of our subjectivities. At this point, Morton lapses in the mode of the poetic, working through Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a means of conceiving this mysterious strangeness among and within us.
This brings us to the “uncanny” element of the mesh itself, which is precisely not something in which we would be at home (so much for all the metaphors of deep ecology), but is something “you never perceive directly,” since it would cease to be the “interconnectedness” of things and be but one thing among others (p. 57). The point, as I take it, is to think an expanding unboundededness of relations, while being attuned to the mysterious element this “unboundedness” marks. A “true materialism,” he argues, “would be nonsubstantialist: it would think matter as self-assembling sets of interrelationships in which information is directly inscribed” (p. 83).
This brings us to the second chapter, “Dark Thoughts.” I want to be careful not to suggest that Morton is providing us with another environmentalist or new age conception of the “ineffable.” A “dark ecology” does not stop short of thinking the non-human beyond, like a spiritualist version of negative theology. Rather, it marks the problem by which “knowing more about interconnectedness results in more uncertainty” about the very categories we use to mark out the world. Where this has led some to a postmodern skepticism that dictates all that we cannot know about the world, Morton is right to champion a mode of thinking in which clarity is precisely the enemy of thought about what is real at the same time as he is not skeptical in the classical sense: “The book of Nature is more like a Mallarmé poem than a linear, syntactically well organize, unified work” (p. 61).
Morton is not alone, of course, in trying to tease out a workable ontology consistent with the fantastic, almost trippy visions of the world on offer from physics and biology, as well as the modern deconstruction of the subject where co-existence or Heideggerian “Mitdasein” comes to the fore. The trick is to produce concepts that don’t fall back into the old binary oppositions now rendered moot while also not simply rendering oneself mute in the face of our quite dark thoughts about ecological devastation. This occasionally, however, leads Morton to link “the ecological thought” to all manner of progressive thinking, which, while critical of identity politics, will “also be friendly to disability” studies [p. 85]. Morton’s “dark ecology” guides us to a rather bright version of the future in which races are known not to exist, disabilities are to be thought as differential abilities, and homophobia becomes homo-philia. But, on the flip side, isn’t there a danger of being anti-ecological in the every day sense? Thinking big may seem to mean here simply describing as inoperative the stubborn localized identities of various “collectives” whose members, such as indigenous critics of globalization, are not simply holding to naïve essentialisms.
Morton’s minimal thesis is that existence “is coexistence,” and his third chapter, “Forward Thinking,” champions an ethics that no longer is content to find ways to “let nature be” (p. 101). (This, of course, is an implicit criticism of Heideggerian environmentalisms that use his concept of “Gelassenheit.”) In this chapter, Morton weaves considerations of “cooperation” across species and across the globe as an “obligation of ecological thought” (p. 101). What he demonstrates is an ethics of certain humility given our place in the world: “perhaps the ecological art of the future will deal with passivity and weakness; with lowliness, not loftiness” (p. 109). In this way, we are forced from our place as sovereigns over nature, returning us to an “animism” that Morton puts under erasure (“animism”). What he means is not thinking of trees and the grass and books as having an animating soul, but rather as having a “sentience” marked by an openness to the very interconnectedness under discussion. As he does throughout this book, Morton’s shows an abundant openness to a variety of discourses, from Darwinian theory to Romantic literature to treatises on cybernetics, which for him makes up the decentered “ecological thought” as well as the thinking that is itself ecological throughout this book.