Karl Steel's Reviews > The Ecological Thought

The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton
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Jan 16, 11

bookshelves: theory
Read in January, 2011

"The position of hunting for anthropocentrism is anthropocentrism. To claim that someone's distinction of animals and humans is anthropocentric, because she privileges reason over passion, is to deny reason to nonhumans. We can't in good faith cancel the difference between humans and nonhumans. Nor can we preserve it" (76)

A nonsystematic, brisk, aphoristic "prequel" to Ecology without Nature.

Morton's been adopted by the object-oriented ontologists, for good reason, although it's hard to tell whether his ecological thought allows for the withdrawn "for itself" and the "interplay of real and sensual objects" of Graham Harman. Compare:
"I hold that one billiard ball hides from another no less than the ball-in-itself hides from humans" (188) and "Real objects are incapable of direct contract, and indeed many have no effect on one another at all. Even the law of universal gravitation only applies among a narrow class of physical objects, and even then concerns a limited portion of their reality....objects confront each other only by proxy" ("Vicarious Causation" 200)
to Morton's
"Nothing is complete in itself" (33); "nothing is self-identical" (83); BUT, perhaps more harmonious with Harman, "'interconnection implies separateness and difference. There would be no mesh is there were no strange strangers. The mesh isn't a background against which the strange stranger appears" (47)
I'm delighted to do without "nature" without abandoning materiality or real acting objects (which, per Harman and Latour, may be ideas just as much as they might be so-called realia); and I'm delighted with this book, which, if it weren't so obnoxiously priced, would be a welcome addition to my graduate seminar.

Some favorite bits follow:
"Really thinking the mesh means letting go an idea that it has a center. there is no being in the 'middle'--what would 'middle' mean anyway?" (38)
"A dog might look cute until it bites into a partridge's neck" (38)
excellent readings of Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, where "we witness the Mariner ignoring the ethical entanglement with the other, then restarting it (or letting it restart) from an imaginably nightmarish ground. The disturbing, inert passivity of life forms is the zero level of this encounter" (47)
Morton sets himself against against the "earthbound" Heidegger, whose "environmentalism is a sad, fascist, stunted bonsai version, forced to grow in a tiny iron flowerpot by a cottage in the German Black Forest. We can do better" (27); although he doesn't do without Heidegger altogether, of course: "Heidegger poetically said that you never hear the wind in itself, only the storm whistling in the chimney, the wind in the trees. The same is true of the mesh itself. You never perceive it directly. But you can detect it in the snails, the sea thrift [sic?] and the smell of the garbage can. The mesh is known through the being of the strange stranger" (57)
Morton sets himself against uncritical conceptions of life, "There's something slightly sizeist about viewing life as squishy, palpable substances, as if all life forms shared our kinds of tisue. This prejudice breaks down at high resolutions. Viruses are large crystals. The common cold virus is a short string of code packages as a twenty-sides crystals; it tells DNA to make copies of itself. Is the rhinovirus 'alive'? If you say yes, you ought to consider a computer virus alive. RNA-based beings such as viruses requires hosts in order to replicate [so too, I say, do humans]" (67)
Humans are "fairly uniquely good at throwing and sweating: not much of a portfolio" (71)
Without citing Derrida's discussion, via Benthem, of 'not-being-able,' Morton says something similar: "We could categorize life forms according to weakness and vulnerability, rather than strength and mastery, and thus build platforms for finding solidarity in our shared incompetence" (71)
"Rugged, bleak, masculine Nature defines itself through extreme contrasts. It's outdoorsy, not 'shut in.' It's extraverted, not introverted. It's heterosexual, not homosexual. It's able-bodied--'disability' is nowhere to be seen, and physical 'wholeness' and 'coordination' are valued over the spontaneous body" (81) "Masculine Nature is unrealistic. In the mesh, sexuality is all over the map. Our cells reproduce asexually, like their single-celled ancestors or the blastocyst that attaches to the uterus wall at the beginning of pregnancy. Plants and animals are hermaphrodites before they are bisexual and bisexual before they are heterosexual. Most plants and half of animals are either sequentially or simultaneously hermaphorditic; many live with constant transgrender switching. A statistically significant proportion of white-tailed deer (10 percent plus) are intersex" (84) "The ecological thought is also friendly to disability. There are plentiful maladaptions and functionless phenomena at the organism level" (85)
"We need something like a 'no-self' description of states of mind--'anger has arisen here' says enough of what is meanginful about 'I am angry,' without fixing emotions in the amber of identity" (119) [but] "By not holding an objectlike picture of myself in mind, by being true to my inability to pin myself down, I'm being more honest. The ecological thought includes the subject, as our trip through dark ecology showed. The subject isn't an optional extra. Subjectivity is like a waterbed: push it down in one place, it pops up in another. Thinking that personhood is the enemy of ecology is a big mistake" (120)
Very good when jettisoning the "infinite" (despite invocation of the theist Levinas), where he speaks, for example, of "the shock of very large finitude" (118): thus, it's "harder to imagine four and a half billion years than abstract eternity. It might be harder to imagine evolution than to imagine abstract infinity. It's a little humiliating" (5); however, he still uses the word infinite "the [evolutionary/ecological] mesh consists of infinite connections and infinitesimal differences" (30)
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