“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 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.


Tommbert said...

I'm keen to voice my agreement with your project of ecological thought as you lay it out here. Especially interesting to me is the connection of all thought with some sense of place, that by acknowledging inherent connectedness allows us a way to think outside of a division between texts as political and apolitical in an environmental sense. As a note, it reminds me of S.K. Robisch's opening assertion in his essay on ecological narrative that "No prose is written out of place"--no matter how strenuously some would argue against that claim.

One area of concern (interested debate?) seems to be that offering an opening to counterintuitive claims, such as your examples, might lead to a slippery slope of some kind. If all thought exists interconnectedly with the world, does this give comfort and aid to some/all forms of irrationality? There's some logic in saying that if it pops into your head, it must have come from somewhere, and that "coming from somewhere" sounds like a nod at ecological thought. More importantly, maybe it's the case that irrationality isn't as bad as we make it out to be. If so, how might we use its energy?

Am I being too inductive? Or, I wonder if I might be using "ecological" in a more metaphorical sense than you're invoking it. Nonetheless, these are things that I'm thinking about at this point, and will continue chewing on for a while.

Thanks for the thoughtful mission statement!

DGA said...

I like what you are doing here but I am not yet convinced that holism is untenable.

Holism in the romantic, Hegelian, Cosmik Debris sense that you get in, say, Ken Wilber's stuff? Sure, fine, untenable.

But what of the holism you get in Marx, where you're concerned with the totality of all relations, or for that matter the Body without Organs or plane of consistency in some crypto-Marxists of good repute? Where you have wholes, and relations of parts among wholes, you have holism.

Regardless, thank you for presenting this view. I wrote this blog entry shortly before coming up for air and finding your own project. In hindsight, I wish I had read your book before submitting those papers, but what the hell, it washes out in revision.


Timothy Morton said...

Hi Daniel,

I'll leave Marx aside for a moment, though I'm with Althusser on this one--that far from a holistic structure, society is a "decentered totality." You've got me thinking about this and I'll try to post something soon.

But as far as D&G go--would you like me to send you a copy of my book? There's a critique of them in chapter 1.

Basically they try to get around Nature by concocting what I call a "new and improved" version (with the consumerist resonance that phrase entails).

I see you are interested in Buddhism--you could apply Nagarjuna's argument here. D&G try to have both whole-without-parts and parts-without-whole simultaneously. So their view is twice as inadequate as good old fashioned holism!

That's the trouble with poststructuralists--they want to have their cake and eat it too. (With the notable exception of deconstruction.)

DGA said...

Thanks for the response here. A follow-up to clarify:

Nagarjuna's specific argument on holism escapes me at the moment but, broadly speaking, he's concerned with explicating co-causality or dependent origination, how subjects and objects in a sense make each other coherent. (My experience with objects such as teapots allows me to recognize that shape over there as a teapot, and so on, even though I know that teapot is not a Real Teapot but a temporary aggregate of causes and conditions, a form. Merleau-Ponty's example of the spot of color on a wall or a carpet works here.)

So wholes aren't ultimately wholes, they are only moments in space (emptiness is form), which is to say, the "decentered totalities" you bring from Althusser works nicely here. (I do think Madhyamika and certain versions of Marxism have some interesting points of contact.)

I'm going to read your chapter on D&G before opining much here but I do think they posit a definite relationship between the strata and the plane of consistency (the parts and the whole), which is to say, I read the thing as holistic in the same vein as, say, Plato's Timaeus or The Faerie Queene. The BwO is a wholly democratic socius, an allegory for one, as much as anything else.

I'm not saying D&G are correct in their holism, only that I think they're being holistic in the old-tyme allegorical sense. Particularly in A Thousand Plateaus when they take up Althusser's version of subjectification. I am also certain that my reading of D&G is a minority view!

Given the choice between these positions, I'd choose Nagarjuna's.

Again, thank you for putting these ideas in circulation and for the conversation here.

Kip said...


"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."

Um, huh?

This is the kind of clever nonsense that lands one a job at UC Davis, because high-fashion humanities professors don't turn a critical eye on claims that titillate them, especially about the nonhuman world.

We are indeed living in a world. There is indeed nature. Claims to the contrary may be met with simple contradiction, because they're claims of ideological prejudice.

Holism was the tenable that made tenable tenable, before human discourse started dabbling in relativistic deconstruction and hyperbolic claims about absence. Personhood has nothing to do with artificial intelligence unless you believe Jean Baudrillard--who was himself an artificial intelligence.

"Queer down to the genomic level" is no more efficacious than is "straight" down to the same level. Yes, gender in (human) nature is a construct following from sex, but the current happiness over queering everything doesn't make this assertion the truism it's stated to be.

The reason these "implications" are "counterintutive" or "disturbing" is because they're without foundation. This is the kind of banter you get from the liquored up at a semi-trained intellectuals' pissing contest/cocktail party. It's very marketable, very publishable, and wears no clothes.

What I mean when I say that no prose is written out of place is that much as an abstractionist solipsist would love to think otherwise, he's got to breathe, and his words are labels for the "world," which is an ecosystem, which is built of nature. Heads in a vacuum generate science fiction, and that only until the pressure of the void is sufficient to implode them.

"Ecology without nature" would be a cute idea if it weren't taken too seriously. The carefree parsing of a metaphor for some romantic flaw of consciousness is itself often just another romantic flaw of consciousness.