“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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Integral Ecology Reading Group Week 1: On Romanticism

Several of us got together and started a reading group on Michael Zimmerman's Sean Esbjorn-Hargens's mighty tome Integral Ecology. I'm the designated driver for this reading group in late July but the first post, by Adam Robbert, brings up the question of Romanticism. And as a Romanticist at heart (trained that way by an English Lit. Ph.D.) I felt the need to begin something like a comment. Adrian Ivakhiv has led the way here with some comments on this issue.

Here is the quotation from Adam's fine exegesis:

For Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman, the emergence of the Romantic movement was a reaction against modernism, which blatantly sought to exorcise the notion of interiority from human experience, and from human relations to the natural world. As important as these Romantic criticisms were, they nevertheless fell prey to another form of reductionism, this time in the opposite direction. The Romantics, according to the narrative in Integral Ecology, too often “focused on their feelings of awe and wonder inspired by their encounters with the material aspects of nature’s sublime power and beauty” (p. 31). Integral Ecology distinguishes between three different kinds of “Nature:” “nature” refers to the experiential world, split between sense data and emotive/phenomenological experience, “Nature” refers to the exterior dimensions of the whole Kosmos, and “NATURE” refers to the entirety of the Kosmos including its interior and exterior dimensions. For Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman the Romantics confused “nature” with “NATURE” and for this reason were unable to forward a less reductionistic account of the natural world than their modernist interlocutors. I think those of us with more detailed knowledge of the Romantic period would be of great benefit to the rest of us in assessing some of these commentaries.
I'm going to let this sit a while so it may take two or three shortish posts to address it enough, for my satisfaction anyway. But for now, I think it's worth observing that there's a fundamental split between how I understand Romanticism and how Integral Ecology appears to understand it. There are two arguments to run here:

(1) For me, Romanticism just is modernity (I assume Integral Ecology is saying the same thing when it uses “modernism”). Far from being a reaction against interiority, modernity produces it. In this I am a pretty orthodox Foucauldian. Inner space, unconditional, vast, void-like, was discovered fully by Kant—there was a kind of prequel discovery in Pascal and Descartes, but the idea was ripened in Kant's Third Critique. The aesthetic dimension is a dimension of unconditional open space.

But this is part of the emergence of consumerism. Capitalism couldn't exist without the open space of free subjectivity. Why else would you want to choose Pepsi instead of Coke? I ask this with all sincerity. Of course, inner space can't be reduced to the “freedom of choice” between Pepsi and Coke, though many ideology theorists would say that that the two are deeply correlated.

(2) If Integral Ecology means modernism in terms of a more specific range of aesthetic experiences (Virginia Woolf rather than Wordsworth, let's say), then I'm afraid they are wrong in another way. For this kind of modernism is simply an upgrade (or at least a different version of) Romanticism. The “ism” part of the term is what gives this away. Since Romanticism, market forces and the role of the author, and the state of aesthetic philosophy, have been such that art becomes an “ism,” that is, a set of practices with some kind of (implicit or explicit) manifesto attached to it. A whole style of looking at the world. This style very much takes place within the configuration space of consumerism outlined in (1) above. Modernism may be a few chess squares away from Romanticism, but it's on the same board, in this sense.

There is another way to run these arguments, and it has to do with Nature. (I am capitalizing it to highlight its constructedness, not to go along with the second definition given above in the quotation.) Again, there are two subsections to my objection:

(1) The trouble for Integral Ecology is that Nature (as we think we know it) just doesn't exist before Romanticism. Nature just is the correlationist construct par excellence, “both what we half-create and half-perceive” as Wordsworth puts it. I'm not convinced yet that the expanded view (supposedly expanded) given in Integral Ecology is anything but this actual Romantic concept of Nature, in a new and improved guise. The concept for some reason seems to invite perennial upgrades—that's part of its sticking power. Which brings me to

(2) Within historical Romanticism, narrowly defined, there were plenty of attempts to describe a nonhuman, nonsubjective Nature. Percy Shelley's revision of Wordsworth was precisely along these lines—amplify the Spinoza, put in some Holbach, add some materialism and presto, a cosmic vision to compete with the best of them. Footnote 1 of his poem Queen Mab is about the vast distances of the Universe given the speed of light (yes they knew about that in 1812).

Conclusion: “integrating” the supposed two halves that Romanticism split asunder is hardly difficult. It consists in using cartoons of things that weren't even split in actual Romanticism, and somehow producing a cartoon about reconciling them. The reconciliation cartoon is bound to be less rich than Romanticism itself. Upshot: I'm already a little bit cross...

1 comment:

davdevalle said...

Whilst I am in sympathy for your comments on Integral Ecology's skewed history on the history of interiority see Charles Taylor's argument about St Augustine of Hippo as one source of the self. I am also swayed by the long Romanticist turn as put forward by Isaiah Berlin in his The Romantic revolution. The history of fissures and splits in talk and thought are too easy to trace and rarely satisfy