Interview with Lisa Doeland, De Groene Amsterdammer, August 1, 2013, 50–51
Timothy Morton on becoming ecologically conscious
“We have to learn to hesitate”
If we want to solve the ecological crisis, we have to stop trying to do the right thing, posits ecosopher Timothy Morton. “Everything we do is a little bit wrong. We have to face that.” By Lisa Doeland
The work of British Timothy Morton can easily be called eclectic. He received his doctorate in 1992 for research on the body and food culture in works by Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and later wrote The Poetics of Spice. In 2007 he created a sensation with the publication of Ecology without Nature, in which he bluntly states that the reigning thought about ecology has got it wrong, because it assumes “nature” as something that is removed from people/humanity, as something that people are destroying in their drive for progress. If we want to save the world, he writes, we can’t do anything with a concept such as nature—“calling something nature, putting it on a pedestal and worshipping it from a distance does for the environment what patriarchy does for women.”
With this he did not just establish his name as an ecological thinker, he was also immediately incorporated into the so-called object-oriented philosophy, a recent movement that resists the notion that only the relation of humans to things matters. They want to move beyond the anthropocentrism of Immanuel Kant, for whom everything revolves around the subject. There is more to “things” than [what] we know about them. Like the object-oriented philosophers, Morton opposes the idea that the human [“man”] is central, and that his role in the whole is determinate.
In 2010 Morton published The Ecological Thought, a guide to true ecological thinking. Elaborating on his thesis that ecology asks of us to go beyond the man/nature duality, he states that ecological thinking is a position that assumes mutual connections between humans and their surroundings. He calls this “radical intimacy” and “radical co-existence.” But we should not confuse this radical intimacy with something like the holism of deep ecology. When Morton calls himself an “ecosopher,” he is certainly not placing himself in the tradition of the holistic Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, according to whom humanity is inextricably connected with nature as a whole. Rather, he is an ecosopher in the way French philosopher and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari was. The guattarian ecosopher assumes a complex interaction between humankind, society and the environment, and concentrates on studying that.
Morton's ecology isn’t deep but dark. In The Ecological Thought Morton compares the ecologically thinking and acting person to a film noir detective. He generally thinks he is investigating a crime he has nothing to do with, but gradually discovers he is personally involved. Dark ecology teaches us that there is no possibility of a metaposition from which we can determine what exactly is going on and what is the correct course of action. Going beyond anthropocentrism and no longer seeing humankind as normative, that is the point.
Morton was in the Netherlands for the symposium Perspectives on Nature, which was organised in connection with the arts event Yes, Naturally: How Art Saves the World by the municipal museum of Den Haag. He is enthusiastic about the title. It not only incorporates his fundamental criticism of the notion of Nature with a capital N, the line through it also makes us face an impossibility: you read the sentence and you don’t. With that you defy the laws of logic, which, according to Morton, is what ecology is about. Things are fuzzy. “Take a field that is transformed into a parking lot,” he says. “What is the exact point when the field stops being a field and becomes a parking lot. It’s hard to say. Or take the evolution of the frog. Things that weren’t frogs became frogs, but when exactly did they become frogs? And when won’t they be anymore? Evolution isn’t something you can locate/localize.”
We should take the subtitle of the exhibition with a large grain of salt, according to Morton. Art does not give us a recipe for saving the world. But that it makes us think is already a big help. “What I think we should do is collect and hesitate. I think hesitation itself is a deeply ecological act. You ask yourself: should I buy a plastic chair or a wooden one? Do I eat wild salmon, or farmed salmon, or no salmon at all? Hesitation in thought and hesitation in deed go hand in hand.”
Because what is the right thing to do? We want to take responsibility, but it is often unclear whether we have succeeded or not. According to Morton the reason for this is that ecological acts often have an unheimisch quality: “It’s because we are not only situated within this thing we call the biosphere, we simultaneously are it. From a philosophical point as well, we cannot step outside this “thing” we see ourselves bonded within. That’s why ecological acts always give you the feeling you’re a bit wrong.”
Following Kierkegaard, who felt that if you want to take yourself seriously, you have to acknowledge that against God you are always in the wrong, he therefore states: “Against the biosphere you are always in the wrong.” Precisely because you are in it, because each act has a certain effect, the consequences of which we often can’t quite see. “We realize we are all caught in David Byrne’s song “Once in a Lifetime,” in which we become conscious: this is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful biosphere! This is not my beautiful ecological act! The art is not to erase that unheimisch feeling, but to embrace it.”
But how can we arm ourselves against the feeling that in the end it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what we do? Morton admits this is tricky: “In the past 200 years, being smart has meant being cynical. I am smarter than you because I can see how hypocritical you are, because I can see how perverted/corrupted everything is. But out of this cynicism, there is also a form of hope speaking. The cynic believes that if he has been able to stir up our disgust with ourselves enough, that he can change our minds with that. In that sense, the cynic himself is the hypocrite! The point is that we realize we can’t do whatever we want, that it is better to eat less or no meat, to drive less or not drive cars at all. But while we do that, we must realize that we haven’t erased ourselves and that we are not blameless beings. We can only become blame/fault/debt-free if we rid ourselves of ourselves.”
This necessitates, according to Morton, a different position towards everything living and non-living that is part of our biosphere. “We must take for granted the thought that we find persons across from us everywhere. Not only highly developed animals like dolphins, but also trees and blades of grass are persons. And because they are persons I may harm them.” But isn’t that just animism? “Yes,” says Morton, “but a logical and scientific animism.”
Let’s take a polar bear and call her Suzan. Suzan has a problem, she’s on a melting island. What will we do? Do we teach her to swim? Do we invite her into our home and ask her to become a part of our family? There are various solutions to the problem that Suzan is losing her biotope and they’re all a bit odd. And that’s the real problem. We are occupied with the preservation of species, when what we should be occupied with is Suzan and how we can help her not to drown. Let me put it differently: I’m not just nice to you either because you belong to the human race. I’m nice to you because you’re a person.”
Morton does see how this increased number of “persons” causes the burden of responsibility to increase enormously. “That’s indeed a side effect. It changes us into fearful Woody Allen-like figures. Then everything I do is a little wrong, a kind of failure. But that’s actually good, because when we approach the world as a machine in which you can determine how exactly it works, then things go wrong.”
According to Morton we must thus go beyond cynicism, beyond the paralyzing thought that it makes no difference at all what we do, and the idea that the ecological problems with which we find ourselves faced are too big to be solved. He can’t give us a prescription/recipe for ecological acts. But he does venture to say something about how it would feel to act in such a way. For this he refers to Freud and his concept of melancholia. “Freud called melancholia the imprint of another being on the inner space of the individual. I think that melancholia is an ecological feeling because it has to do with your relation to the outside world,” Morton says. We can’t escape wounding each other.”
Freud points to a lack of self-esteem as the principal characteristic of the melancholic. Someone who is melancholic has lost his [sic] interest for the outside world. He does nothing anymore, and in his self-reproach sometimes goes so far as to be overtaken by the delusion that he will be punished [very awkward sentence]. Are those who want to act ecologically not regularly overtaken by exactly that feeling? Can we ever do right? No, says Morton. But we can learn to come to terms with that. “The process of coming to ecological consciousness is something like a mourning process. It is our duty as ecosophers to take people past the denial, past the anger, the negotiations, and the mourning. When people are overtaken by a slight feeling of sadness, then they’re there, then they have reached the stage of acceptance.”