On the Use and Abuse of Objects for the Environmental Humanities: Recent Books in Object-Oriented Ontology and Ecotheory

Below you will find a long review essay on three relatively recent books in Object-Oriented Ontology as they attempt to engage with ecology and ecological concerns (you may also download it as a PDF if you prefer). For those who read the essay, you will see that I am very critical of these works. The review was originally commissioned for an academic journal. This journal differs from other in its review policies in that reviews are sent out for peer review. The two reports I received from readers were very enthusiastic and recommended the review be published with some minor corrections. One reviewer actually suggested that the review was too forgiving and thought I should be even more critical. When I made my revisions I didn’t act on that suggestion, as I felt the piece was already harsh and, for the few who would read it, would already be controversial as is.

I was excited to publish the review and had spent a great deal of time on it. However, after the initial peer review stage the two main editors also take a pass at the reviews. Both ultimately disagreed strongly with the readers and made a number of suggestions and demands. This process lasted through two rounds and ultimately I felt they were asking me to change the piece so substantially that it was no longer a tolerable situation. Though I disagree strongly with them, I am thankful for some of their comments and respect their commitment to their standards. However, I am criticizing very powerful figures in the broad field of environmental humanities not because I think it is a good career move, but because I believe in the criticism. As I explained to the editors when I decided to withdraw the piece, I am not really rewarded for publishing work at my institution and am provided very little support for research and writing and as such I see no reason to compromise on what I do decide to publish much as they refuse to compromise.

Some of what I put forward at the end of the piece is forming the basis for a new project on ecology and colonialism, which includes a reading of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” through the work of Frantz Fanon.

On the Use and Abuse of Objects for the Environmental Humanities: Recent Books in Object-Oriented Ontology and Ecotheory

Anthony Paul Smith, Department of Religion & Theology, La Salle University, United States

This review essay examines three recent works of ecotheory, Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green(edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, and Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, all of which attempt to make use and deepen the philosophical project of object-oriented ontology (OOO). After an overview of the place of OOO within contemporary philosophy and its general principles, the essay posits that there is a unidirectional relationship between OOO and ecotheory (inclusive of scientific ecology). Since the practitioners of OOO discussed in this essay all claim that their work is philosophically realist in orientation, this failure to engage and mutate their philosophical work according to scientific ecology bears witness to the inability to fully break from anthropocentrism. At a deeper level this failure acts as a symptom for a wider failure to break from the colonial episteme that goes unexamined by OOO. Making use of Hortense Spillers’s conception of “pornotroping”, the essay offers a reading of various author appeals to love, erotics, and sadomasochism that argues this same colonial episteme of anti-Blackness structures OOO’s understanding of the object. While presenting a general critique of OOO’s interventions into ecotheory, the essay also calls for a deeper engagement and centering of scholarship in Black Studies and Queer Studies, particularly from an Afro-pessimist and anti-social perspective. Continue reading “On the Use and Abuse of Objects for the Environmental Humanities: Recent Books in Object-Oriented Ontology and Ecotheory”

Rehearsing the Future: Human Reskilling at Standing Rock

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A couple weekends ago I was able, despite illness, heartbreak, and some serious lack of preparations, to make it to the Oceti Sakowin camp at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, joining in the massive and now global movement to protect water against the depredations of Energy Transfer Partners and its Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s a lot going on there. Yes, it’s a radical, heroic protection of water against a pipeline. But it is many other things. It’s an experimental community where total strangers are feeding and healing one another, singing and dancing and telling their stories, planning to go for a few days and staying for weeks and months, quitting their jobs and finding totally new visions for their lives. A place where people find that empathy and trust are assumed, not proven or questioned or earned. It’s a place where the often confused and reckless energies of protest meet ancient Lakota traditions of prayerful and ceremonial willingness to die for what is sacred: the earth, the air, the water, life itself on this planet.

Continue reading “Rehearsing the Future: Human Reskilling at Standing Rock”

The fantasy of a hard boundary

The history of every hitherto existing society is the history of attempting to do away with the irreducibility of human decision-making. From the appeal to the inscrutable demands of the gods to the pious submission to the logic of the market, human beings have always been desperate to offload their responsibility for themselves onto some external agency. The newest variation on this theme is that once we hit the limits of earth’s carrying capacity, we will be forced to make fundamental changes to our collective behavior and norms.

This impulse is understandable, because the technologies for consciously directing our collective human decision-making are all laughably inadequate. Collective decision-making has historically consisted of a small group of people claiming a right to power and most people “deciding” to submit to them, often in ignorance of the fact that their power isn’t immutable. Even when people want to change the situation, the powerful often have violent means at their disposal. Great minds from Anselm to Hobbes have claimed that even decisions made under duress are technically free, since you could always go ahead and die, but even if we grant that disturbing premise, we have to agree that this minimally “free” decision to stop resisting in the face of violence does not match up to our ideal of freedom. In any case, the combination of violence and submission is unlikely to lead to very good decisions, from a collective perspective.

Hegel may have believed that the events of his era ushered in the possibility of a more transparent and deliberate form of collective decision-making (called “Spirit”). Maybe he was even right about that! But in any case, we have collectively chosen not to take it up (using the familiar combination of self-assertion, violence, and passivity). And now the car is on fire, with no driver at the wheel, and all we can hope is that market incentives will drive nihilistic corporate leaders to doom fewer of us than we currently project.

So the fantasy that Mother Nature herself will step in and correct us is appealing, but it’s also nonsense. We human beings do have limits, above all our embodied finitude. In that sense, we can’t just do whatever we want indefinitely, because we will destroy ourselves. But we can destroy ourselves. There is no hard boundary that brings us up to the point of destroying ourselves but stops us just shy of the mark. When Mother Nature pushes back, we can collectively decide — most likely through some combination of power politics, passivity, and violent coersion — to just go ahead and die.

Doubtless we wouldn’t decide that if we had a truly transparent collective deliberation on the matter, and maybe we will luck out and choose something else when push comes to shove. But whether we do develop effective means of collective deliberation or else just luck out, in neither case will it be because some external agency forced us to. It will be our collective decision, because our collective responsibility for ourselves is inescapable.

Is climate change a plus for neoliberalism?

One of the biggest challenges for neoliberal public policy is creating artificial scarcity. Competitive markets are regarded by neoliberal policymakers as the ultimate horizon of human meaning and freedom, and creating markets requires creating scarcity in order to motivate competition. Hence the emphasis on strict enforcement of intellectual property laws, for example, to create artificial scarcity in an area where electronic reproducibility has created effectively infinite abundance.

With this in mind, I wonder if destructive climate change is actually a good thing from a neoliberal perspective. It has been difficult to implement neoliberal scarcity in countries with a memory of the postwar abundance and various forms of state generosity — much less to create competitive marketplaces in regions that still lived under more communal regimes. How much easier will it be when there is once again real scarcity, when the earth stops giving as much?

Think of all the salutary competition that will occur once we’re past the 2°C horizon! Think of the exciting new opportunities for technological solutionism — and intellectual property profiteering — that will open up! The problem all along has been that the earth keeps giving, but once we’ve permanently lowered its “carrying capacity,” we’ll finally be able to sort out the real winners and losers!

The theodicy of ethical consumerism

I wrote a few weeks ago about the ideological function of free will: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them. In the theological realm, the goal of granting us free will isn’t to enhance our dignity or the meaningfulness of our life, but to make sure God has someone to blame for all the bad things that happen — and I believe we can apply the principle of a homology between the theological and the political realm here as well.

A perfect example of this is dynamic is ethical consumerism. It often strikes me as bizarre that we’re even given a choice between the gross processed food and the healthy organic food, or between the hideously wasteful product and the ecologically conscious product — much less that the “price signals” are invariably tilted toward the bad option. Wouldn’t it be better to remove the bad option in the first place? Why is something so important left to arbitrary individual choice?

Here I think the fact that we know consumers will generally make the wrong choice is not a bug, but a feature of ethical consumerism. The political class and business elites have already collectively decided that ethical farming and environmental sustainability are not important goals — and so they have left them up to individual consumer choices so that they can disavow responsibility and blame all of us for not choosing correctly.

Whenever we’re offered a free choice, we’re being set up.

Non-Theology in the Pigsty (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

As surprising as it may seem to those of us who consider ourselves, despite it all, theologians, Anthony Paul Smith comes in peace. ‘Ultimately’, he writes, ‘this non-philosophical and non-theological practice, with all its constitutive parts, declares peace to all – the philosophers, the theologians, and the ecologists’ (p62). What sort of peace does he offer? Not the colonial peace of the Radically Orthodox, for whom reconciliation is possible only on condition of the unconditional surrender of all things to Christ the king and theology his queen; nor the hippy peace of certain sorts of green thinking for which we join hands around the world to live in harmony with Nature; nor even (not quite, not exactly) the democratic peace of weak theology, in which we are all as wrong as each other and the real task to cultivate a multiculturalism within which the only thing which will not be tolerated is intolerance. Rather, this is the peace of ecology, a nature red in tooth and claw, the circle of life within which all things interact with one another, a peace which is a matter of indifference to the grass, joy for the lion, but not quite so much fun for the antelope.

The problem with theology, Anthony says, is its incorrigible bossiness. It can’t stop telling nature what it ought to be like, and insofar as it engages with scientific accounts of nature it does so only to demonstrate that they have failed to wash behind their ears, or to hold them up, squirming with embarrassment, as a shining example for everybody else. Theology knows that cleanliness is next to godliness, that good girls wouldn’t ever; theology will take over your country because the poor savages need somebodyto tell them what to do, and it will drag you up kicking and screaming into some semblance of a civilised human being, just as long as it doesn’t murder you first. Continue reading “Non-Theology in the Pigsty (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)”

On the respective ease of imagining the end of the world and the end of capitalism

When I was growing up, environmentalist propaganda efforts were in full swing. I learned about environmental problems in school. I watched Captain Planet at home. Recycling programs were rolling out in local communities for the first time. My father, an ardent Republican and Rush Limbaugh listener, dutifully peeled the labels off of cans and rinsed out milk cartons, doing his part. As the Cold War wound down, US and Soviet authorities collaborated on environmental measures, and MacGyver went from being a spy to being an environmental activist. George Bush, Sr., had pioneered a cap-and-trade program that significantly mitigated acid rain, and other leading Republicans such as John McCain were happy to work with Democrats on similar measures. And finally, in 2000, the Democratic presidential candidate was Al Gore, a man who had published a book on the environment characterizing the automobile as the most destructive technology ever devised.

I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time, but if you’d asked me when I was 16, I probably would have guessed that by the time I was an adult, progress on the environment would be so far advanced as to be unrecognizable. What we got instead was tax subsidies for SUVs (a class of vehicle virtually no one needed), along with a housing boom based on even more intensive suburban and exurban expansionism (which is extremely wasteful of energy in essentially every way), an end to all US participation in international environmental treaties, growing distrust of public recycling programs, and the emergence of environmentally sound products as a luxury niche for the wealthy and aspiring. My local grocery store, in a pretty progressive neighborhood famous for its lesbian population, doesn’t even bother to carry recycled paper towels. The effects of global warming are undeniable in the increased number of unprecedented natural disasters and even in the uncanny disruption in weather patterns that we experience every day, and no serious action is being taken or even discussed — or indeed, even imagined as a live possibility. Meanwhile, the market forces that were supposed to make alternative energy competitive have instead made it profitable to drill for oil reserves that would have been economically infeasible a generation ago, so that the US has reemerged as a major oil and natural gas producer.

In the light of such an absolute and irretrievable failure, I think we need to revise the slogan about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It’s as though we collectively were given a choice of which we would choose, and we chose to end the world. The decisive victory of liberal-democratic capitalism really was the end of history, just not in the sense intended.