Friday, July 16, 2010

Morton and Metaphysics

Timothy Morton's recent book, Ecology without Nature, is an interesting, provocative meditation on the notion of nature in writing--and since all "notions" are conceptual, articulated things, nature, when when we talk about it, is always, in an attenuated sense, "in writing." Morton's book is broken into three massive chapters. The first is required reading for anybody working with nature-writing: Pirsig, Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, whoever. The most important portion is a very astute itemizing of rhetorical techniques, what he calls an "ambient poetics," and what they are usually doing for these kinds of writers. Morton calls nature-writing "ecomimesis," which from its Greek roots would mean "imitation of the home." Just playing around with his terminology can yield interesting insights, even if you for the most part ignore everything else.

Which is what I would like to do to large swaths of his book. A lot of it, so it seems to me, is mired in fancy Derridean clothing that, while not tanking his unique perspective (as it totally would of a lesser critic), is quickly becoming out-dated. What I wrote below tries to bring out what that is.

Even as that is so, the second chapter is an attempt to link Romantic poetry, the Romantic ethos, the consumerist ethos, economics and our ethical thinking about nature. And while certain aspects are still too marxist for me to take seriously (which is to say, once you shuck the marxist vocabulary that requires a platonic method to constitute, the sentence loses its polemical point and so any utility at all), Morton has written previously on a much larger scale about only that subject, and some of the things briefly stated in this book are interesting and plausible. I can't wait for the day that our cultural-studies thinking forgets about marxism so that it can really spread its wings. The third chapter is a looser cavalcade of speculative, philosophical thinking about how we might "represent" (the modern translation of mimesis) nature. There are some interesting bits, to be sure, but reading Stanley Cavell (like this chapter from In Quest of the Ordinary) is probably a more productive use of time.

References are to:
Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 2007

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Near the center of his book, Morton makes this statement about the center of his book: “Ambience is really an externalized form of the beautiful soul. Without doubt, the discovery of the beautiful soul as the form of ecological consumerism is the most important concept in this book” (121). The difficult equivocation tucked into this statement is between “ambience as the rhetoric of talking about ‘the outside’” and “ambience as an historical construction.” Much of Chapter 1, which is given over to the discussion of ecomimesis and the poetics of ambience, reads like a manual for how to achieve the effect of there being an environment in one’s writing. However, granting that “strong ecomimesis” is “distinct and modern” (32, 33), Morton still spends most of the book talking about just how inescapable this rhetoric is while at the same time speaking of it as historically arising out of particular circumstances. But if the beautiful soul is a peculiar moment in the unfolding of the Western Geist, as Hegel thought and Morton following a Marxist brand thinks, it is unclear how ambience in general could be the externalized form of this particular historical construct, though it is clear how that being the case could make the beautiful soul look nearly inescapable.

One of the virtues of Morton’s book is his elaboration of a poetics of ambience, of the rhetoric of inside/outside. Its main vice is its assumption of the inescapability of metaphysics. Take Morton’s elaboration of the Derridean notion of the “re-mark,” which he takes to be the fundamental mark of ambience. He says, “there is nothing underneath the wave/particle distinction. The same is true of the re-mark. Either the inside/outside distinction is constituted, or not” (50). The analogy is perfect for his purposes, but on elaborating this point again at the close of the chapter, Morton immediately follows with “Not that the distinction is real; it is entirely spurious” (78). What could this mean? For a distinction to be an illusion, there would have to be a reality to the situation that you could then elaborate, but Morton expressly says that there is “nothing underneath” the distinction.

This curious equivocation is repeated in a similar way in Chapter 2, which is a recrossing of Marx back with Hegel to read the phenomenon of Romanticism. Morton suggests that Hegel's notion of the beautiful soul is an amping up of a picture of the mind that Morton calls “the ideology of consumer capitalism”—“the mind is like a supermarket and … our consciousness floats, with free choice, among various ideas that can be selected at will, like so many different bottles of shampoo or magazines” (126). This is an excellent description, as is his articulation of the beautiful soul as, in summary, one who values “transformative experiences” qua transformative experiences (111), whose “purpose is to have no purpose” (112) because the point is not what you are transformed into (the eschewal of content), but the transformation itself (the form). And though elitist Baudelaire-types (Romantic poets, bohemians, hipsters, etc.) realize self-consciously this lebensform, every mindless repetition of “supermarket consumption” reinforces the self-conscious form’s possibility of flowering by emphasizing how every act of “free choice” of this or that bottle of shampoo is but an abstract emblem for one thing: Free Choice. This drains the content leaving only the form (that which lies behind, e.g., the post-9/11 idea that if you don’t buy stuff at the mall, the terrorists will win).

So far a good bit of cultural criticism. However, “ideology” as a term can only receive its utility from a contrast with something else, if not Marxian “science,” then at the very least some other ideological form (taking “ideology” in a very neutral, descriptive sense). So on the one hand we have the ideology of consumer capitalism’s picture of the mind as an empty consciousness floating around making “free choices”—but what is the alternative? Morton nowhere comes close to suggesting that he wishes to revamp a Marxist-like notion of “science” or any other kind of epistemological method with which to pierce behind the veil of appearances to reality, yet he says—in a constant motif of avoiding anything smacking of the “new and improved”—“these ‘new and improved’ versions of identity never entirely get rid of the paradoxes of the idea of self from which they deviate” (176). Morton doesn’t think we can have a new picture of the self: “We cannot come up with a ‘new and improved’ version of identity that will do without the paradoxes and aporias associated with it” (182). And yet it is not at all clear why not. One could grab Iris Murdoch at random from a bag full of anti-Kantians (Richard Rorty, Annette Baier, Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre) and it would be easy to show that not only does Murdoch identify the trouble with what we might call modernity its picture of an empty self (blaming it largely, though perhaps in the long-run unfairly, on Wittgenstein), but that she feels quite content in elaborating a picture of a non-empty self. What is unclear is not only how her picture of the substantial self catches itself up in Cartesian paradoxes and aporias, but more especially how it wouldn’t only improve Morton’s picture of an ecology without nature.[fn.1]

To help substantiate this, I would point to Morton’s approving mention of the “Western Apache’s use of narrative in the naming of places,” where “there is no difference between a place and the socially reproving and improving stories that the Apache associate with it, and thus, there is no nature” (180). Compare this to Rorty’s extrapolation of Daniel Dennett’s picture of the self as a “center of narrative gravity” to the general picture of any object as a center of “descriptive gravity.”[fn.2] In Rorty’s picture of the self, and indeed anything we differentiate as an object (which means putting into the foreground with a background), language is indelibly wrapped up into it. This has caught Rorty a lot of flack in the anglophone philosophical world, but it chimes perfectly with Morton’s appreciation of Derrida’s comments on narcissism, which are echoed when he says, “One cannot help anthropomorphism” (180).[fn.3] Indeed, Morton goes quite far in laying the groundwork for a rapprochement with American pragmatism when, following Marx’s pragmatism (encapsulated best in the “Theses on Feuerbach”), he says, “In order to be sitting by a fire, you have to satisfy certain needs” (181). This in one fell, odd semantical swoop captures the pragmatist point that differentiations come attached to purposes—it wouldn’t be this or that “place” if it weren’t satisfying certain needs, for which the distinction between an object in the foreground against a background is but the tool.

It is at this point that Morton would start making contortions. For one, he says that the possibility of the expansion of sympathy from the human to the nonhuman implied by Derrida’s work on forgiveness seems to imply “that we should treat animals and plants as ends in themselves and not as means. But the paradox is that maintaining this view denatures nature” (180) What isn’t clear is why this is bad—we are replacing one conception of nature for another, are we not? Morton’s Derridean enjoyment of paradox gets in the way of his point. After making the pragmatist point about tools and purposes I elicited earlier, he says “the debate about environment and world—between humans who are able to contemplate their needs aesthetically (with distance), and animals who make do with whatever is around them—is thus a red herring” (181). Morton, who is referring to John McDowell’s book Mind and World, is absolutely right, though I think his point is obscured by his transformation of McDowell. Morton is referring to a section in McDowell’s book where he is intent on elaborating a distinction between “mere sentience” and “second nature,” which humans have. Here’s the key line: “When we acquire conceptual powers, our lives come to embrace not just coping with problems and exploiting opportunities, constituted as such by immediate biological imperatives, but exercising spontaneity, deciding what to think and do” (McDowell 115) The key disagreement between McDowell and Rorty is McDowell’s reinvention of Kant’s notion of spontaneity as different in kind from “coping.” For pragmatists, the purpose behind the deployment of differentiations is coping. McDowell wants a radical difference between what animals do and what humans do. What’s unclear in Morton’s appreciation of the problem is what he could mean by calling this question “profound”: “are animals capable of aesthetic contemplation?” (Morton 181) For McDowell and Rorty, the difference is language and so, in Rorty’s rejection of the distinction between environment and world as a red herring, he would say the question is as profound as the task of figuring out whether the animal is linguistic.[fn.4] So what could it mean to reject the distinction as a red herring and still find the question compelling and profound?

A capsule summary of the background to Morton’s book would be that it assumes that Derrida was correct when he elaborated the notion that philosophy is rhetorical yet rejects rhetoric and that philosophy is inescapable. Morton’s book has the vices of its virtues in this approach—he precisely avoids all those questions in which the Derrida-like unavoidability of paradox might become suspect. This isn’t exactly a criticism, for it would be like criticizing the creator of a new paradigm for spending too much time constructing it—at a certain point you want to stop abusing the blueprints and see what goes up. The oddity of Morton’s experiment, naturally, is in turning deconstruction into a basis for construction, but this simply embodies the paradoxes Morton continually finds rooted and unavoidable at the bottom of every deconstructive investigation. It is this issue of “unavoidable paradox” that should provide a moment of true curiosity for the deconstructive deep-sea diver—for how is the baptism of a paradox into metaphysical unavoidability any different from a Cartesian Archimedean point?[fn.5] Morton teases out paradoxes in the rhetoric of ecology and, rather than getting rid of them, makes them the basis of his constructive project, the way the world is that we must deal with. But how does this not turn deconstruction into a Cartesian method of piercing behind the veil of appearances to reality and not turn Derrida into a foundationalist? The problem is neither paradigm-deconstruction nor paradigm-construction, but rather—as in all major, interesting philosophical difference—picking the wrong assumptions to hold with conviction (in the Greek: dogma) and build off of. This doesn’t “demolish” Morton’s project, of course, which is the true virtue of his book. For as much as his rhetoric against much thinking revolves around the threat that they are seeking the “new and improved” and he is radically not (somehow), it hardly clouds the interesting ideas that pop out.


[1]Murdoch elaborates this view in “The Idea of Perfection” in her The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge, 2001) (which can also be found in the very representative collection of her essays, Existentialists and Mystics). She says this picture, which she finds behind the behaviorist, existentialist, and utilitarian, is a “happy and fruitful marriage of Kantian liberalism with Wittgensteinian logic solemnized by Freud” (9). Her view of the self is based on emphasizing “contexts of attention” to the process of choice, and of dissolving the notion of a “will” that undergirds Kantian moral philosophy, treating so-called “decisions” as more like “compulsions.” In her attack on the will, she mirrors Williams in his book Shame and Necessity and MacIntyre’s notion of “emotivism” in After Virtue.

[2]This is in his essay “Daniel Dennett on Intrinsicality,” particularly 105-110, of his Truth and Progress (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3]For further remarks along this line on anthropomorphism with respect to animals (particularly my reference to Snell), see "The Representation of Animals."

[4]Rorty's most illustrious student, and McDowell's long-time colleague at the University of Pittsburgh, Robert Brandom, has also reconstituted Kant's shadow in the face of Rorty's long-standing battle with it (since "The World Well Lost"). While McDowell tries to breathe life into Kant's notion of "spontaneity" (which Rorty comments on in a 1998 article in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research), Brandom breathes fascinating life into Kant's notion of the "unity of apperception" (in the first chapter of his 2009 Reason in Philosophy). The difference between McDowell and Brandom, and why Rorty would have endorsed Brandom's version of Kant, is that McDowell tries to make an ontological distinction between "mere sentience" and the "second nature" of language. Brandom, on the other hand, takes Rorty's Davidsonian point and works further from there to show just what the addition of language does entail to our difference from animals, for the move from sentience to sapience. This point is most stunningly worked out in the last chapter of that book, "How Analytic Philosophy Has Failed Cognitive Science," where Brandom reverses Rorty's long (long) standing notion that philosophy does not make progress by showing (and convincing even me) that philosophy, indeed, does show results that other disciplines might want to bone up on.

[5]For a little more on metaphysical baptism, see closing two paragraphs of "Dynamic Quality as Pre-Intellectual Experience."

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