Worldly Angst: Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought

There is no more pressing concern that can be addressed right now than global warming. Think about it. Our planet has the very rare quality of having just the right temperature for H2O to abound in three different states of matter. We earthlings are a privileged bunch. Thinking beyond earth and into stars, galaxies, and other planets inspires wonder (or wonder inspires thinking towards the sky), but, also, right here on this planet matter/energy has found a way to loop and grow and evolve into what we call life. Writing and speaking this way can stop us in our tracks and make us stare out in astonishment, but it also can provide cover against seeing what is right in front of us and forget where we are. Where we are historically is in the funky position of being unable to think past certain concepts stringing us along a ruinous path; ruinous for us and our environment. But I contend that part of solution is blurring the lines between ‘us’ and ‘environment’. Thinking about ecology instead of Nature is to think a forward moving coexistence instead of a detachment.

Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010) presents a way to rethink our notions of ’nature’, ’life’, and even ’world’ in a way that allows us to respond to the breakdowns in complex systems honestly and think through them both realistically and fantastically. His ’Eco Thought’ is timely in that it wrests Nature from its status as a “place over yonder” one can ignore by
resuming Cultural pursuits or visit on a hike in the woods and injects it directly into us. It is timeless in that it does the critical-textual work of marking out the beginning of a new era.

We never achieved a break from Nature as human beings in civilization but conceptually and in language. Blending and bewildering conceptual oppositions like Nature-Culture flows seamlessly from paragraph to paragraph for Morton, spreading virally throughout the book. Indeed, his concept of the ’mesh’ blurs even matter and life in a non-vitalism making room for the terrifying inside us and outside of us. What we call life is just matter/energy flowing in an interconnected mesh, “[t]his flow has been ongoing since DNA started its random mutations. Evolution is mutagenic. It isn’t linear or progressive.” (p.43) Eliminating our secure position as humans or even life-forms and unsettling our false pretenses to independence from “the rest” puts our ideas into extreme doubt. This isn’t to convince you that you are not alive but that you, I, and we are not the culmination of anything in time but instead a presently contained mutation with no end.

This can feel like one big negation of reality, and Morton even writes: “Negativity might even be more ecological than positivity is. A truly scientific attitude means not believing everything you think.” (p.16) Yet this profoundly weird nothing that follows us along subverting all attempts at transcendence and identification is not to “put us in our place” in bare existence. It is to reject the distance implied in delineating place to show that everything is interconnected but not in a completed whole. The holes found everywhere in the w-hole prevent a world from asserting itself. No safe haven is given by taking sides in the traditional divisions used to clarify problems of the being of the world like Mind and Matter. The strangeness of connectivity without coherence undermines all efforts to make sense of the world by carving it up into well-ordered sections. Negation has gone viral; the hole is quickly found in both areas.

“The ecological crisis makes us aware of how interdependent everything is. This has resulted in a creepy sensation that there is literally no world anymore. We have gained Google Earth but lost the world. “World” here means a location, a background, against which our actions become significant.” (p.31)

Its as if globalization and our dominance of the planet has left no where to go – no setting or stage from which one can say “this is where I am”. Sweeping the basis for meaning away can be a dreadful thought, and Morton’s only consolation “to the tear in the real [is]… [i]f it has always been there, it’s not so bad, is it?” (p.31) His concept of the mesh accommodates differences in time and location; it is only in this historical moment when the planet is under domination by such a concentrated system that we feel the anxiety of losing our home.

Thinking past this loss of world and coming up with new concepts for this purpose means leaving behind the world as a container and even the universe of physicists. The act of creating concepts is a philosophical exercise in the vein of Delueze and Guattari and the ecological thought is precisely a conceptual way of imagining a mode of being within language that gets through a physical-ecological problem. This involves mystical and spiritual revival but in a way that does not imagine other more perfect worlds, ordering them with respect to our mortal inferiority. Heck, it doesn’t even encourage the reader to focus on the real world exactly:

“…what we think of as “imagination” is just an after-image, an extrapolation we make when we notice people using language… do we have a sense of *world* in our heads, a background against which we can operate?” (p.88)

The Wittgensteinian move is to recognizing the limitations of language and get us to think the world beyond it without bringing along the messy metaphysics carried over from language, but Morton contends that even the world is stuck within those linguistic limits. The difference of conceptual relations spills into reality whether we discourse or not: cleaning up our language and speaking of the world outside of it will do us no good. We’d do better to think in terms of ecology, instead of forms of *life*.

Ecology evokes environment, life, and science so that we are encouraged to internalize the methods of scientific inquiry yet also avoid miring ourselves too much in its technical terminology. The mesh permits their inter-connectivity without ordering them centrally or referring a word to its ’thing out there’ identically. If we are going to properly deal with the climate we need sound, trustworthy science to compliment a radical shift in (for lack of a better word) consciousness through concepts. This is the difficult work of thinking the tangled concepts in a style that paves the way for an ecological existence. This existence is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety but this need not and cannot result in the desperate groping for a harmony that we mistakenly perceive to have lost.

The rapid firing of conceptual distinctions and mind-numbing dodging and weaving in Morton’s book does well in mirroring the swirling confusion of the crisis gripping our planet. It also makes the arguments hard to follow. He makes the paradoxical character of these ideas explicit: “[a]lthough there is no absolute, definite “inside” or “outside” of beings, we cannot get along without these concepts either. The mesh is highly paradoxical.” (p.39) Another big concept of his is ’the strange stranger’ in which “there is no way to maintain the strangeness of things.” (p.41) But Morton scores a clear hit by concentrating on Capitalism and its co-optive logic. The distortion that Capitalism employs in the commodifying of everything from sexual bodies to food production proliferates without individual assent and even encourages rage against itself – as long as dissent can be useful in making a sale. The disorienting groundlessness of ecological philosophy is one particularly poignant method of isolating the ideology putting us all at risk in Capitalism. It gives us a more sharpened mind for evading the snares of Capitalist logic, which thrives on individualizing terror. That terror exists beyond any of us humans and beyond the world, yet Capitalism thrives by enclosing it within individual minds. An ecological mind doesn’t reactively leap into a communal-nationalist passion in its rejection of individuals though. This remains attached to the concept by simplifying the negation. The ecological thought utilizes the form of radical collectives rather than communities of abstraction.

“So along with the political radicalisms that seek to create new forms of collectivities out of the crisis of climate disruption, there must also be a rigorous and remorseless theoretical radicalism that opens our minds to where we are, about the fact that we’re here.” (p.104)

At the same time, the void of intense personal practices found in the likes of meditation are never fully divorced in the mushy interconnection of the mesh. They even allow us to organize ourselves otherwise than the stable routines demanded on us by Capitalism. Individuals joined together in collectives exert a form of relating to each other that is neither Individualist nor Holistic.

Morton’s ecological thought (but is it his anymore?) is an honest work of the thought needed to act responsibly towards not just people but things. Things like chemicals, trees, mountains, etc. are given better treatment by ecological thinking than by a domineering Nature one must repeatedly affirm they are a “part of”. Not even the world is a whole to be a part of. This paves the way for a more stylistic existence that attends to the field of interaction in and out of language. This radical concept is an intriguing development in urgent times.