On Inviting the Ruffian In and Not Quite Being an Ecologist: A Response to Liam Heneghan (A Non-Philosophcal Theory of Nature Book Event)

What a wonderful gift Liam has given me here in his response. In his own delightfully peripatetic prose he summarizes the main aims of the volume; that is, to think nature in a manner where that act of thinking explicitly unfolds its own recursive naturalness or to treat “environmental philosophy/theology” as subject to the same processes, properties, and boundaries as the environment. I am edified that the aim of the book comes through and also by Liam’s positive appraisal of the book’s performance as a kind of ecosystem nested within others and nesting others within it. Liam zeros in on one of the admittedly bold claims I make in the book: that the words that lie before you on the page or on the screen do so as dead elements in a ecosystem that includes the living thoughts of those reading and taking up the energy of those dead thoughts. And so, I agree with Liam that there is an ecology at work in Heidegger and Husserl, though perhaps it might be more accurately, if gratingly, described as an eco-epekeina. For the ecosystems at work there are unrecognized ones, ones beyond the explicit logic of those texts. But such a reading is what I hope the book provides resources for, if I could somewhat pompously hope for anyone to take up some dead aspects of my work into their own work. If I may hope that others come to dine on me.

Thinking of the standard definition of energy as the “ability to do work”, I don’t think there is anything particularly strange or New Agey about the claim that dead words animate living thoughts. Moreover, to think death from within an ecological paradigm is to think beyond the pessimism of a form of naturalism overdetermined by philosophical sufficiency. Those familiar with my own philosophical preferences will be aware that I’m referring to the kind of philosophy found in reductionist and eliminativist discourses, but may not be aware that my reasons for rejecting the philosophies that travel under these banners owes more to what I see as their incoherence than any kind of offense they give to my aesthetic judgment or any preference I have for life. Many of these philosophies claim “we are dead already”, echoed in Liam’s final sentence, but I think the way that death is understood from within an ecology marks a major difference in the meaning of this sentence. I was surprised when reading Liam’s response to see that death figured so prominently in the book, but I can see that in many ways what is being dealt with in the book has to do with a subtle way of affirming death, our own death, in defiance of the way a death divorced from wider ecological relations comes to be the transcendental that guides the thinking of those others. If Liam is right that the book is a kind of emergent property that can only be taken the way a song is taken (that is, “all at once” and “only at the end”; I am thinking of Bergson’s reflections on time and music), then to say that the words are already dead on the page is to say much more than that death has the final word on those words or that death is something substantial rather than a process itself.

Despite my dyspeptic grouchiness (and my friend knows me well, I won’t hide from this loving diagnosis for I feel I have been seen and accepted), I have never found myself attracted to (Anglo-)pessimism, whether it that of Schopenhauer or the kind that makes more of an appeal to certain natural sciences (to the unthought exclusion of others) that are growing in popularity today. For some reason I have always been, at least until very recently, attracted to more romantic, vitalistic forms of thought (though I wouldn’t call these optimistic). But against the kind of enlarged and, to my mind, still valuable vitalisms of those philosophers who so captured me early in my studies (Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze/Guattari, maybe even a certain Spinoza), when I began to take seriously ecology as a challenge to philosophy and theology (to thought generally) I realized that I could no longer simply reject the ruffian of death from my thinking anymore. And that “infection” by death (and we are all infected by death, which we fight against until we don’t) is part and parcel of the wider infection or contamination (to call on Madame Curie) I subjected myself to by trying, even if mostly as an autodidact (am I anything but?), to learn and begin to think through the science of ecology.

This scientific aspect of the book is what I am perhaps most proud of and most nervous about. I am trained and comfortable providing critical readings of texts by philosophers and theologians, as I do in the first part of the book. And constructing one of the first synthetic presentations of Laruelle’s work, as I do in the second part of the book, while anxiety producing in its own way, flows more easily out that training as well as the weeks and months I spent reading translating his work. But the engagement with scientific ecology (in distinction with political ecology or environmentalism, which most environmental philosophers concern themselves with) was the challenge I put to myself and the one that threatened failure the most. One of the core claims, operating essentially as an axiom for me, was that the science of ecology is already doing philosophical and theological work, especially as regards the philosophical/theological question of nature. So, Liam asks, why do I not engage with the philosophical debates and systems that animated earlier ecological debates (and that often continue to do so)? While I do spend some time in this book discussing Tansley’s navigating between philosophical positions and escape from philosophical overdetermination, Liam’s is a fair question and his funny response that perhaps I was embarrassed is not all wrong. Yes, on the one hand, I think that ecology has chosen often unhelpful and unproductive philosophies to think itself with. But, on the other hand, I also think that what ecology does with those philosophies is far more interesting than the philosophical debates. While when an ecologist philosophizes about wholes and parts they may repeat certain aspects of philosophy, when they go into the field and interact or model an ecosystem or hack away at buckthrorn or section off a field to test restoration practices or weigh dirt and earthworms or study the effects of human and animal shit on urban ecosystems or any other number of experimental practices that take place in the field, then they are moving beyond the sufficiency of those philosophical terms and doing work with them or putting them to work. When Tansley or Odum think about the ecosystem and model it they break with philosophical faith (as Laruelle calls it) and instead think from their object. What emerges from that is beyond what I think ontology or ethics can give us, but something closer to the ecosystem in itself, immanent to itself and not determined by the logic of being or ethics, and so in part I did want to denude these concepts and ecology itself of the majority if its philosophical and theological baggage, but only because I think, in the practice of the ecologist, that baggage is already disempowered.

But Liam’s question about the ontological peculiarity of the six “fundamental conceptual elements” of ecology is more difficult to respond to. First, when writing the text I didn’t know if conceptual elements was the right term, but what I mean by this are the elements that one can find within the ecosystem of scientific ecology. What animates that thinking while at the same time modelling in an immanent way what animates or constitutes or manifests (each of these terms is laden with some baggage) the ecosystem in itself (and one of the things that excited me initially in my research on the development of the ecosystem concept was the move from a representational model to a realist one). So, one of my worries was that I hadn’t chosen the most vital aspects of ecological thinking, while having the sense supported by my research that these were, if not the most, at least still vital. Second, the difference in terms of their status is important and I wish I had spent more time in this book thinking through that difference and making use of the tool of hierarchical scaling Liam mentions. While a full and adequate response to that difference would take more time and space than a blog post allows, allow me to sketch out a bit what I think that looks like. While one thing I would need to push back against is the notion of hierarchy taken up here (the term, as students of Christian theology will know, originally refered to leaders of sacred rites and that it was Pseudo-Dionysius who used and transformed the term into the abstract noun we use today to think of the organization and scale of being/power). But even the notion of hierarchy as literally “holy power” remains to my mind very questionable and I would worry about how that might effect and theologically–even as a divine Nature-with-a-capital-N–determine ecological thinking. So, in part the reason I simply deploy these elements in a “flat” way is because I think that this captures something about the ways in which ecosystems actually function. But the notion of scaling is not utilized in the book, and it may indeed be that thinking of ideas as part of the ecosystem could be scientifically scaled by ecologists in a way similar to what I suggest in the book. While my own task as one who isn’t quite an ecologist (though I enjoy walking with, listening to, and drinking with them) is to think philosophy and theology as already ecological, I think that while the realm of ideas (the noosphere as Deleuze and Guattari called it following the strange Catholic theologican de Chardin) is under-researched and under-theorized within ecology, research into that area will only deepen our scientific understanding of the functioning of the ecosystem and provide for perhaps more useful political and ethical approaches to dealing with our contemporary problems.

So, to close my response to Liam’s generous post, I think it is true that these thoughts in some sense are already dead, but it is my hope that they may be taken up as energy for new forms of living thought that may push forward a mostly moribund environmental philosophy/theology and may offer new resources for scientific practice as well. All the while knowing, of course, they may just sit and rot. But, thankfully, that’s still not nothing.

One thought on “On Inviting the Ruffian In and Not Quite Being an Ecologist: A Response to Liam Heneghan (A Non-Philosophcal Theory of Nature Book Event)

  1. Writing a book, like stepping out the door in the morning, is a risky affair. Will the world see me as I hope I am projecting, or will they, for example, wonder why that 50-year old Irish man is wearing converse and so forth? When a book, or paper, leaves the doors, it may be even worse: these words record what I thought last year and I’ve moved on. And worse still, perhaps, is when we invite the stranger in for a home visit. Or in your case, Beatrice invited a bunch your friends into your domicile and asked us to interrogate you on home soil. I am mindful of this because over the coming week or so, your guests will no doubt be inviting you to comment upon aspects of the book based solely upon the peculiarities of their own thought. You may read these pieces wondering why is he inspecting my shoes, can’t he see my marvelous corduroy jacket? This, of course, is what it means to create an ecosystem of thought.

    All of this is to say that I appreciate your remarks on my remarks. I’ll say a few things. I am delighted that I made the omnipresence of death in your book visible to you. Broodier thought may have a different source for you than for me but the most proximate influence in my work is Bill Jordan’s writing on the “shame thing”. But more fundamentally death and decay is the ecological thought, as much at least as productivity and the who-eat-who of trophic ecology. That which we have on the page is not just thought, but the history of thought. We smear words on a page like a snail trails snot, or like spring hare pursued across the meadow casts dropping. Let’s not linger of what sort of consumers it makes us when we absorb the writing of others. But yes, writing is ecological. Are you the first to point this out? Perhaps not as a general thesis, but surely the first to show how ecological this all is.

    I am interested in your response to questions about the status of philosophical concepts already smuggled into ecology (holism and so forth – ecology’s metaphysical ghosts). I like what you say here – my intuition was that you want to find an appropriate way to schematize (using the term in a very very low register) ecology with thought. I think this is also consistent with the manner in which you chose and presented your ecological concepts.

    Of course, we will talk much more about this in May when you are back in Chicago. In the meantime though I greatly look forward to reading the posts of your other readers.

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