Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ecology Without Nature, or Doctor Who vs. the Myth of Subject-Object

I'm a big Doctor Who fan, and have been since the early '80s, long before the special effects and makeup were believable. This has nothing to do with this post. I only mention it because that's how excited I am by what I'm learning from a guy named Timothy Morton, whose blog can be found here.

Ecology Without Nature is the name of his blog, and also the title of his book. He has another, which he calls a prequel to EWN, called The Ecological Thought. And the concept discussed in both books (which I intend to buy as soon as I'm flush enough), that of ecological thought itself, is one that has been blowing my mind ever since I started to figure it out. This journey has been accomplished mainly by listening to the podcasts of his classes at UC Davis, where he is a Professor of English; these are free and available at iTunes (just search "Timothy Morton"), and I can't recommend them highly enough. I don't know that I agree with every aspect of his thinking; I do have some superficial issues with the ideas he has about art and aesthetics in general (yes, human aesthetics are a big part of how we "do" ecology, whether we know it or not). But on the whole (except that according to his philosophy, there is no "whole" to be "on"), I find his Ecological Thought to be rivetingly persuasive, open in its application and liberating in its ability to identify and erase thought-problems that I couldn't get past before.

What's odd to me is that Tim Morton himself doesn't seem to find it as uplifting. He seems to think that a lot of it is rather depressing, actually...and at first, it does seem like that to me as well. But when you apply ET (coincidental acronym? Perhaps not, since we are all pretty alien in this philosophy) to pragmatist design methodologies such as permaculture, you may find that a lot of things that you were refusing to think about--because you couldn't get them to fit--start making sense, and your practice becomes yet more practicable. Practice, if it leads somewhere, is never depressing, as gardeners and martial artists well know. Painful? Yes, sometimes, even to the point of deep grief. Frustrating? Indeed! But not depressing. Tim Morton describes Ecological Thought as "viral"; "getting" it is like getting a cold, and once you've got it, you can't do anything about it except let it run its course.

I have found, to my increasing delight, wonder, and astonishment, that this seems to be true. What I "get", so far, is as follows. I hope Tim will correct me if I misinterpret anything.

The reason we are in so much trouble that we can't seem to get out of, due to our destruction of the natural world, is that it was a disastrous mistake to ever start thinking in terms of "nature" and "worlds" in the first place. To talk about the "end of nature", or the "end of the world" is to invoke a whole range of mythical, imaginary hobgoblins that only serve to scare us into moping apathy. To end "nature" and "the world" as concepts is something we should get done as quickly as possible! For, as it turns out, there never was a "nature", not in any sense: "Nature" as a medium for living beings does not and has never existed, nor do beings have "natures" that you can generalize about. The concept of "Nature" as an "object over there", as Tim says, or as a backdrop to a separate and equally nonexistent object called "humanity" that we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are a part of, is absolutely useless to identifying our places as unique beings in an interconnected ecological mesh.

This interconnection is total. There is nothing "you" can identify that is "not you", or "other". A political party that wants to romantically identify itself as "Green" and its members as "greens" ignores a significant romantic irony in their own story: The reason we have the color green is because of an event billions of years ago that was, for the beings involved at the time, an ecological disaster of total proportion. Chlorophyllic (or "green") bacteria destroyed their own ability to breathe the planet's atmosphere by producing too much oxygen...which we now breathe as we poison ourselves. These bacteria now survive only by hiding in the cells of plants, like the human batteries in the movie The Matrix. Hardly a meaningful existence, you might think...except (and this is where it starts to get really Goth and creepy) that you could say the same thing about the plants themselves. For the Matrix was as much a machine for preserving humans as for imprisoning them, and viewed in this way, plants themselves are not "natural" in the way we used to think. They are machines for the survival of the chloroplasts, and really a kind of artificial life.

The mitochondria in our cells are similar. We die without them, but perhaps the more important point is that they die without us, and that's why we're here. It turns out that animals aren't "natural" either, and that even the categories of "animal", "vegetable" and "mineral" are themselves hobgoblins. Likewise "life", insofar as we differentiate between it and "non-life" of various kinds. For if the Turing test proves that there is a point at which you can't tell a computer program from a real person, the inverse also holds true, and we are all a form of artificial life.

I find that this has some very startling political implications. Take the issue of corporate personhood, for example. This is a very hot issue currently, about which my readers (if I have any) may have some strong opinions. The question of whether we should treat corporations as people or not is interesting, and capable of generating endless and potentially fruitless debate, but it's rather beside the point when you consider that we don't treat people like people! How does our legal system define a "person", anyway? Read the Constitution, read the Bill of Rights. This concept of "personhood" is so limited as to be demeaning, reducing people to objects that only differ from corporations in that they have something called "malice". Our legal system is not the sole culprit here; as individuals, we objectify people all the time. "Other" people are, to differing degrees, "good" or "evil" (to say nothing of our habit of manipulating them when we can and it suits us). Neither of these are things you would say about someone you truly regarded as a Person. Indeed, in objectifying "evil", we become evil ourselves, simply by identifying ourselves as "good". Good? You? Me? Us? What a laugh that is. I like this British sarcasm: "Good in here, innit?"

It would seem like the prudent thing would be to destroy the entire legal system we operate under and replace it with one that actually treats People (meaning you, me, the dog, the tree, the centipede, the cow, the lettuce, the computer program, the book, the humic soil molecule, the mountain, the idea, and the corporation) as People...but not as a "We the People". Because as it turns out, there is no "we" and there is no object called "The People" that can be manipulated by law. Each Person is wholly, universally unique. And each unique being is totally interconnected in an inescapable mesh called Ecology.

Anarchosyndicalism, anyone?

"Other" things are not other, for our genotypes do not stop at our skin. As our mitochondria and the mercury in our tissues from the burning of fossil fuels make clear, these "other" things are not only under our skin, they are our skin! Each being is universal, and its skin is all other beings. Our universality is made horrifyingly clear when we realize that we can't have conversations about the weather without thinking about global warming anymore.

This leads to something called OOO, or Object Oriented Ontology. Levi Bryant gives a great layman-accessible explanation of this way of thinking about existence here. I disagree with him about refrigerators, but that doesn't really matter. OOO is related to a relatively new branch of philosophy called "speculative realism". As I "get" it (which maybe is not very well), what OOO does is to remove the firewall between subject and object. "I" am as much an object as anything else I can point to, and all objects (including inanimate ones) have a perspective and a point of view just as I do. There is no subject.

I find this very refreshing when I consider all those annoying ends to otherwise interesting conversations that go: "Well, that's just your opinion, and others are entitled to their own!" Or in other cases, the conversation ends before it begins, with the insipid "Well, this is only my opinion, but..." This is the brutal triumph of relativism over constructive argument. Or, if you're being accused of being an unoriginal, pointy-headed intellectual, you might hear, "Well, you just got that out of a book!"

It turns out that no one is entitled to an "opinion" at all. Reality is not some object that one is entitled to have different opinions about as it suits one. It has intrinsic being, and deserves one's sincere attempt at understanding. True compassion requires no less than that we develop and test our arguments. And what on earth is this demeaning talk of "books", as if books were somehow un-people that we can enslave, disenfranchise and say rude things about, as we've done with so many other un-people? We do treat them that way, though: we display them on our bookshelves as if to say, "Look! See? I'm not a racist! Some of my best friends are books!"

Well, I don't have any funky soundbite ending to this one, folks. Check out Tim's books, blog and podcasts, and grock to your heart's content. See you tomorrow or so.


  1. The last bit about opinions I find extremely relevant. My girlfriend (and many others) think I don't see things from other peoples perspectives well enough. In my efforts to explain what I felt, which happens to be exactly as you have explained it to be, I have succeeded in coming across as very arrogant. Thinking there is only one point of view I can understand the animosity but if you describe it as trying to understand something greater than yourself is much more elegant.
    On another note I just discovered your blog and I have found it to be eerily similar to my own life and philosophies. Not excluding your height, slimness, appetite, and love of cooking you described in another post. You have found a loyal reader!

  2. Samuel, thank you! And I crave your patience: I haven't blogged in a while, and my days are so full this month that I don't know when I will.


I'm very happy to have you weigh in. I make no rules against the use of words or the expression of honest emotions, but let's all please keep it civil. Thank you!