📙 Being Ecological
Author: Timothy Morton
Full Title: Being Ecological
Ecological information delivery mode in the media seems most often to consist of what we could call an information dump. At least one factoid – and often a whole plateful – seems to be falling on to our heads. And this falling has an authoritative quality: the delivery mode seems to be saying Don’t question this, or even You should feel very bad if you question this.
There seem to be plenty of ways of living ecological knowledge. Just think about being a hippy, something with which I am vaguely familiar. Being a hippy is a whole way of life, a whole style. But is being a hippy compulsory as a way to live ecological information?
Being Ecological is starting by peering under the hood of the ways in which we talk to ourselves about ecology. I think the main way – just dumping data on ourselves – is actually inhibiting a more genuine way of handling ecological knowledge.
Things versus Thing-Data
Here is the paradox: we know what to do and we won’t be able to get high up enough above the world to see exactly what that looks like. And it’s very strange, because these two facts go together: we have accurate data and accurate solutions, yet – and – this goes along with being unable to see the wood for the trees. There always appears to be too many trees.
There is a radical gap between the apple and how it appears, its data, such that no matter how much you study the apple, you won’t be able to locate the gap by pointing to it: it’s a transcendental gap.
What things actually are is sharply different from thing-data.
An ecological control society would make the current state of affairs, where kids get tested every five seconds for their ability to resemble a rather slow computation device, look like an anarchist picnic.
Sometimes I think, ‘Really? I have to assemble a huge group of humans and start a revolution right now, then I can relate to polar bears?’ But awareness of the sensuous existence of other lifeforms doesn’t have to involve big ideas or actions. How about just visiting your local garden centre to smell the plants?
At the end of ecology conferences, you so often hear someone saying, ‘But what are we going to do?’ And this has to do with guilt about sitting on chairs for a few days thinking and talking (and perhaps also with the sheer physical frustration of sitting on chairs for a few days).
I want to persuade you that you are already being ecological, and that expressing that in social space might not involve something radically, religiously different.
Conventional wisdom says that being ecological is a special, different mode of being, akin to becoming a monk or a nun.
Isn’t being a Person a little bit about being paranoid that you might not be a Person?
Please, please don’t hurt me, Mr Funding Source, I’m a sort of educated PR guy who is going to decorate this boring cupcake of scientism with these nice human-flavoured meaning-candies.
The subscendent nature of art means that ecological art that calls itself as such can’t be about Sierra Club-style uplifting poster-type grandeur. It must include ugliness and disgust, and haunting weirdness, and a sense of unreality as much as of reality.
Why can’t there be an ecology for the rest of us? For those of us who don’t want to go out camping in the fresh air, but would rather pull the covers over our heads and listen to weird goth music all morning? When can we start laughing, not just in a hale and hearty way, but with irony, a sense of the ridiculous, an excessive feeling of joy?
A lifeform is like that must-have eighteenth-century equivalent of the iPod and Bose speakers, the Aeolian harp. It’s a string instrument that you place in an open windowsill. It resonates to the breezes that veer around the house.
Your indifference to ecological things is exactly the sort of place where you will find the right kind of ecological feeling.
You don’t know why you should care: isn’t that what we are all feeling when we experience something beautiful?
When you appreciate a lifeform, for no good reason, it’s as if you made the Uncanny Valley a bit shallower. If you carry on like that, the Uncanny Valley starts to flatten out. It flattens out into something I like to call the Spectral Plain.
There are some basic rules of politeness on the Spectral Plain, and these have to do with the idea of hospitality to strangers.
Perhaps some of us care in all the wrong ways – too aggressively, too melancholically, too violently. Heidegger argues that even indifference is a form of care.
Ways of being ecological summon certain kinds of words, certain kinds of arguments: in one philosophical view (Lacan, Althusser) they are called subject positions. In this case, far from being impressionistic or ‘subjective’, the phenomenological approach is more accurate: exploring the question, ‘What is it like in heavy metal world?’ might give you a lot more to chew on about heavy metal than an exhaustive account of all the types of metal according to the lingo that’s evolved (black, death, speed, doom, grind …).
When you look for the environment above and beyond lifeforms, you don’t find it. Even the rocks and even the air you are breathing are part of some lifeform’s phenotype.
If even the concept of environment is a Neolithic product and thus part of the problem and not part of the solution, perhaps we should spend our ecological time bemoaning the horror of so-called civilization? A certain style arises that I am going to call the religious style. This mode becomes more and more popular every day and its modus operandi becomes increasingly rabid.
When you see evil as a thing apart from yourself ‘over there’, you can fly a plane into it or destroy it with a powerful bomb. You can justify murder. Evil is the gaze that sees evil as a thing apart from me.
The truly spiritual position is to realize that whatever evil is, it is an intrinsic aspect of oneself.
Bataille gave a name to this smooth functioning myth: the restricted economy. A restricted economy is one in which the dominant theme is efficiency: minimum energy throughput. The Earth is finite, and economic flows must be restricted to its finite size and capacities. So much ecological ethics, politics and aesthetics is based on the economy of restriction.
Although it sounds very reasonable, something is drastically missing from the style of restricted economy, which means that in the end it’s at the very least spiritually unsatisfying for those who try to maintain it.
I think that ecological politics is about expanding, modifying and developing new forms of pleasure, not restraining the meagre pleasures we already experience because we are only thinking in ways that our current modes of doing things allows. What would pleasure look like beyond the oil economy?
Our awareness is no longer human-scaled, no longer keyed to anthropocentrism. This is potentially great, if we can ‘own’ and explore it. But it will require all kinds of trauma work to go through. It would be like trying to figure out how to exist now that we have become totally paranoid. This might be very tricky, but not impossible – people recover from trauma all the time. We would need to learn to become playful about the lack of an obvious solid ground of meaning, one obvious scale on which to see and act.
In a funny way, it’s as if the end of the world has already happened, if by world we mean a stable set of reference points that guide our actions. Like Nietzsche proclaiming that God is dead, maybe we should boldly proclaim that the World is dead.
Snared in the urgency of ecological awareness and the horror of extinction and global warming, it’s so incredibly difficult to miss this key point. I can’t tell you how many environmentalist conferences I’ve been to where the ending atmosphere had to do with some kind of fist-clenching, jaw-clenching desperation to be or do something totally different.