“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The medium is the message

A truly good thing has happened.

In this age of insane gas prices (and insane gas use, period), Science (the big science journal along with Nature) has picked up the story about the videoconference I did.

I gave a keynote speech at the University of Edinburgh, which was hosting the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment conference. But I gave the talk first at UCD, to save an air fare and carbon, and sent them the dvd. Then I did the Q&A by videoconference.

It was a very positive and very ecological experience. In fact, the medium was in every sense the message. (And this was also the topic of my talk, so we got a nice recursivity going...)

Here it is.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reading is ecological

Hi everyone.

I've been thinking about reading today, because I was asked to provide a sort of mission statement for my other blog on ecocritical interpretations of poetry. I thought you might like to see it here.

Aside from other kinds of ecological reading, like exploring the nature imagery in a poem, or looking for how a writer talks about pollution, there's looking at artistic form as ecological. As in “environmental art”—art that makes you aware of space. More on this in later posts.

But there's a still further way of engaging with ecological reading, and that's my theory that reading itself is an ecological act. And this is what I lay out below.

I feel quite good today, like this critique thing might even work, you know? More on this soon I hope: but basically, you don't have to jump outside the Universe or pull yourselves up by your own hair. It's all possible, because reality is full of holes (4000 of them in Blackburn, Lancashire alone, I hear).

So here goes. Let me know if it works.

The ecological thought—mission statement

Think of a Rorschach blot: as well as looking like a cloud or a person, it is just a meaningless stain. Aside from content and form, texts are blobs of others' enjoyment, literally—they are made of ink—and less literally, but still fantasy is a part of reality. Therefore reading is fundamentally coexistence with others. To read a poem is a political act, a nonviolent one. At the very least, there is an appreciation, with no particular reason, of another's enjoyment. I would argue that (at least closely analytical) reading goes beyond mere toleration, towards a more difficult, disturbing, and potentially traumatic encounter with enjoyment—which is always “of the other,” even when it's your own.

Reading a text is a profoundly ecological act, because ecology, at bottom, is coexistence (with others, of course), which implies interdependence. What I call the ecological thought is the thinking of this coexistence and interdependence to the fullest possible extent of which we are capable. If we are going to make it through the next few decades, we will have explored deeply the implications of coexistence.

Some of these implications are highly disturbing to “environmentalist” ideology: that we are not living in a “world”; that there is no Nature; that holism is untenable; that personhood is a form of artificial intelligence; that ecology is queer down to the genomic level, and so on. These highly counterintuitive conclusions are forced on us by the ecological thought itself, which is thinking coexistence, coexistence as thinking.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is about reading as coexistence beyond mere toleration. On many levels, it presents ecological coexistence as a theme. At its most profound, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner forces us to coexist with coexistence itself, with the meaningless distortion of the real. It is a poem whose reading helps us to think the ecological thought. My blog is a contribution to this project. I am finishing a book called The Ecological Thought in which I explore these issues in a different way.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hurry slowly

Hi everyone.

Several people have been wondering what the plan is, as in: “What the heck are we supposed to do now?!” Clearly we live in an ecologically volatile age. Global warming is happening. We may well be in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on this planet. And so on.

What a perfect time to sit back, reflect, and think.

I mean that very sincerely.

Aristotle declared that contemplation was the highest form of praxis; I agree.

While addressing the environmental crisis head on is absolutely necessary, there is also an ideology of speed, that separates action from reflection, doing from contemplating. We must resist this ideology.

This is a problem. The sky really is falling!

Chicken little is right—but let's not be headless chickens. There is nothing more dangerous than justifiable speed.

Environmentalism and capitalism are the same in this: they both keep asserting “Just Do It!” at the tops of their voices.

What's an introspective, introverted, humanities theory-head to do?

Marx said that philosophers had up until now interpreted the world, but the point was to change it. I agree with Slavoj Zizek that maybe it's okay to interpret right now. Interpret in addition to changing...

One of the things that modern society has damaged, in its ecological destruction, has been thinking. Slowly, gently, we need to put thinking together—maybe for the first time.

(Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?
Trinity: Because you've never used them before.)

So yes, of course—more solar, more wind, less carbon, more rights for animals, pause the fishing, fight environmental racism, interrogate global capitalism, and on and on and on...

But also—hesitate, slow down, carefully. Derrida's main advice to his students: decelerate. Feel the grief. Go through the sadness. (More on this later—some of you are interested in this topic, and so am I.)

Now we need to distinguish this slowing down from the easy-wipe version of Heidegger that's out there...maybe that requires a whole different post.

For now, here's a couple of lines from the Introduction to Ecology without Nature:

It sounds like a perverse joke. The sky is falling, the globe is warming, the ozone hole persists; people are dying of radiation poisoning and other toxic agents; species are being wiped out, thousands per year; the coral reefs have nearly all gone. Huge globalized corporations are making bids for the necessities of life from water to health care. Environmental legislation is being threatened around the world. What a perfect opportunity to sit back and reflect on ideas of space, subjectivity, environment and poetics. Ecology without Nature claims that there could be no better time. (10)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Animals, Vegetables, Minerals, and Other Alien Beings

I recently gave a talk in two places at once: UC Davis and Edinburgh, via videoconference. This was to save carbon—but as a wonderful bonus, I got two amazing Q&A sessions for the price of one!

The talk is available here.

Thanks to my brilliant chair Margaret Ferguson for introducing me and supporting this event.

You will be interested in the talk if you are interested in:
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Cognitive Science
Literary Criticism
Contemporary music
Alvin Lucier
Laurie Anderson
William Wordsworth
Poetry and poetics
Ambient art
Ecological criticism
Animals in philosopy

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The catastrophe has already occurred

Chris Schaberg (see comments) has commented on post-apocalyptic movies (Wall•E, The Day After Tomorrow), and what they tell us about our attitude towards the ecological era we're in.

I believe that one thing we have to get used to is that the ecological catastrophe has already occurred.

The extent to which post-apocalyptic fantasies push the “catastrophe point” forwards into the future is directly proportional to how much we want to ward off the fact that it has already happened.

One way we can tell it has happened is that it's now impossible to measure certain things. Say you have some kind of self-interest theory (suppose you modify it to include lots of others like family members, friends, your social circle etc.). How is your self-interest theory going to deal with substances such as plutonium, which have consequences that far outlast you, your circle (however wide), even perhaps your species?

Global warming is the result of a few hundred years of certain processes occurring, but its effects may last for thousands of years.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

We had to destroy Nature before ecology could save it

Hi everyone,

This is a blog devoted to my ecological criticism projects. I'm the author of a book called Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007), and I'm writing the “prequel,” called The Ecological Thought (also Harvard).

Ecology without Nature has attracted some interest, notably from Slavoj Zizek.

I'm looking forward to using this blog to develop “ecology without nature” beyond the book projects.

Have you any suggestions for the “prequel,” The Ecological Thought?