Jeffrey J. Cohen ed., Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green (University of Minnesota Press, 2014)
Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)
by Tom White
Arthur George Tansley, British botanist and founder of the theory of ecosystems, based his research on the fundamental assumption that all natural systems tend towards equilibrium. “The great universal law of equilibrium,” Tansley wrote in his 1922 textbook Elements of Plant Biology, “[…] governs all the processes of which we have knowledge […]. All things which exist are constantly tending towards positions of balance or equilibrium.” Four years later Tansley edited a collection with Thomas Ford Chipp (then assistant director at Kew Gardens) titled Aims and Methods in the Study of Vegetation. Aims and Methods was published by the grandly-named British Empire Vegetation Committee, and consists of a general outline of ecological methods of exploration and a number of case studies as to how these methods had been applied in various parts of the world. With the express purpose of mapping the “vegetational assets” of the empire, Aims and Methods is representative of the entanglement of ecology, economics, and colonial management in the early development of what would come to be known as the “Oxford school” of ecology. As Peder Anker writes, the dominant image in Aims and Methods is one of Britain as “the property owner and manager of the colonies who unfortunately are unaware of the natural supplies at their disposal.”
Chipp’s own contribution to Aims and Methods examined the Gold Coast of Australia, where the native aboriginal population had caused “widespread destruction of the natural vegetation [… of] considerable economic importance.” In particular, the “evil” practice of clearing “virgin forest” with fire had destroyed the equilibrium of the wooded ecosystem of the Gold Coast. Chipp’s essay is representative of most in the volume: none of the ecologists who contributed offered any empirical evidence of the assumed lost equilibrium of the verdant, fecund forests of a pre-historical time. While, as Anker notes, this was not an entirely unreasonable assumption at the time, it gained additional purchase by offering British ecologists a legitimisation of imperialism itself: Tansley, Chipp et al. could argue that “the empire was saving the native tribes from themselves and their bad habits of forest clearance.”
The image of the (lost) forest that forms the basis of Chipp’s essay, stable and idyllic until the advent of humans, of course echoes the story of Adam and Eve, exiled from Eden for eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. A related version of this story, one in which the biblical echo ricochets amongst the skyscrapers, cooling towers, and motorway flyovers of the modern world, is that an earlier harmony between natural and human worlds has been destroyed by modern capitalism, science and technology. Many “green” ecological discourses, from popular environmentalism to theories of sustainability, preserve Tansley and his followers’ conceptualisation of a natural world governed by “the great universal law of equilibrium”: in this view, a return to a healthy relationship with the natural world requires a return to equilibrium, a state best represented by the verdant, bright green forest.
In an academic context, green cultural studies has developed over the last three decades from a small sub-genre of literary criticism largely focused on nature writing to a keyword of the order of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. As Jeffrey J. Cohen writes in the introduction to Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green, a green reading offers “an environmentally-minded analysis of literature and culture” concerned primarily with “how nature is represented within a text and how modes of human inhabitance unfold within an imagined natural world.” In a presentist mode often combined with an “admirably activist bent,” green readings have examined various issues of environmental degradation (particularly as a result of unchecked industrialisation). As Cohen notes though, green readings often reproduce what Bruno Latour has called the “Great Bifurcation” between nature and culture, the split between self-evident natural world and human-produced culture that Latour argues is continually thought but never actually practiced. Underwriting many green readings is the supposed serenity of the natural world and, in turn, a faith in the restorative powers of natural landscapes; this nature is somewhere we go to, rather than something within which we live, hopelessly imbricated, each day. As a mode of inquiry green “too frequently signifies a return, however belatedly, to the verdancy of an unspoiled world, to whatever remnants of a lost paradise might be reclaimed.”
Opposed to a nature conceived of in terms of balance and self-regulation (theories that find their fullest expression in the holistic totality of Arnae Naess’s “deep ecology” and James Lovelock’s “Gaia”), the essays of Prismatic Ecology seek to examine
the catastrophic, the disruptive, urban ecologies, the eruptive, heterogeneous microclimates, inhumanly vast or tiny scales of being and time, the mixed spaces where the separation of nature and culture are impossible to maintain.
Organised according to the colours of the spectrum, while also encompassing intermediate shades (pink, chartreuse, beige, violet-black, grey) and those forms of light that lie beyond immediate human perception (ultraviolet, x-ray), Prismatic Ecology seeks to establish a multihued response to the predominance of arboreal green in ecocritical discourses. A wide range of theoretical and critical modes are deployed on a range of “primary texts,” with Cohen’s introductory discussion of the “compositional” processes of a medieval manuscript illuminator, a twenty-first century conceptual artist, and the Mississippi River, indicative of the temporal and generic sweep between, and often within, these essays. It is not possible to do full justice to the range of approaches on display in Prismatic Ecology in the current context, so I offer here only a brief survey of certain contributions that particularly resonated during my own reading (safe in the knowledge others will recompose its essays into their own colourful composition).
Vin Nardizzi’s “Greener” – a particular highlight of the collection – turns to the problems inherent in a particularly pervasive green discourse: sustainability. Quoting from a number of contributions to the 2010 PMLA essay cluster on the topic, Nardizzi emphasises the extent to which sustainability, far from the self-evident good it has been made to appear, “is actually a ‘vague,’ ‘wildly optimistic,’ and ‘diluted’ ‘pipe dream’ of ‘green pastures’ that capitalism has generated to sustain its own development and to safeguard its own hegemony.”In this vein, Nardizzi’s “greener”“encompasses […] the dire ecological conditions and unstable inequities that motivate and are further produced by attempts to stimulate ‘green’ economies on a global scale.”
Central to Nardizzi’s contribution is a reading of Ward Moore’s 1947 SF masterpiece Greener Than You Think. Moore’s novel traces the exploits of unlikeable narrator Albert Weiner, an opportunistic salesman who unleashes an untested fertiliser on a suburban lawn in Los Angeles. The grass rapidly grows to gigantic dimensions, rapaciously consuming everything and, after a while, everyone, in its path. Far from feeling guilty, the otherwise inept Weiner becomes, through a series of fortuitous investments and alliances, the world’s most powerful capitalist. Moore’s satire of post-war America’s suburban sprawl, mob mentality and fears of communist infiltration hinges on the irony that the fertiliser is intended by its inventor to alleviate global famine through sustainable food production. Instead, “the all-consuming grass proves to be a counterpart to the unfettered growth of monopoly capitalism.” However, in his closing discussion of the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park, Nardizzi seeks a “reallegorization” of the grass. Rather than a counterpart to the growth of capitalism, the grass in this context becomes “an unremitting force gathered to counteract […] capitalism” (my italics). The protestors of OWS “enacted a plantlike resistance,” enduring the elements, lingering in one place, and, ultimately, perhaps even opening a space from which it is possible to reclaim the impetus of an environmental movement that has been so smoothly incorporated into the workings of contemporary capitalism.
The essays for brown, grey, and black are particularly far-removed from the iridescence of bright green and its related discourses of equilibrium and sustainability. Steve Mentz’s “Brown” and Jeffrey J. Cohen’s “Grey” both dwell in “hybrid spaces that span living and nonliving matter.” Mentz’s essay traverses three brown worlds (sand, swamp, and shit) via ingenious readings of three canonical texts: Edmund Spenser’s sonnet ‘Amoretti 75,’ John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress and Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra. Cohen’s essay takes its cue from a splicing apart and reassembly of the term “inhuman”; in his reading “inhuman” signifies not only “not human,” but also “in-human,” the “alien within (any human body is an ecosystem filled with strange objects).” This leads onto an extended discussion of graphic novels, films, and television series that deal with zombies, the monster-of-choice for late twentieth and early twenty-first-century audiences. Reversing the attributes of ghosts (souls without bodies), zombies (bodies without souls) offer an uncanny cultural expression of the recent “material turn.”
In “Black,” Levi R. Bryant calls for an ecology attuned to the “connotations of despair” that are fitting for our current ecological circumstances, as well as to
issues of race, minoritization, and second- and third-world countries, underlining how these groups are disproportionately affected by climate change.
The maintenance of equilibrium is hence obtained through negative feedback, the process through which systems limit or check themselves in order to maintain homeostasis (a thermostat maintaining the temperature of a room, for example). Humans, Bryant writes, are right to prefer negative feedback to the cataclysmic potentiality of positive feedback, but this does not mean that the former provides a more accurate explanation than the latter of how the universe actually works. Turning away from the teleological design implicit in models of natural equilibrium, as well as under-theorised notions of “interconnection,” Bryant calls for something like an “existential ecology”, an ecology of a universe indifferent to our continuing existence.
As Stacy Alaimo notes in “Violet-Black,” the ocean is particularly suited to a newly prismatic ecology, as seawater itself scatters light. Eschewing the landlocked nature of much ecocriticism, several essays seek to plumb the depths of a blue/black ecology: Alaimo on the abyss, Latour, and deep-water photography, and Eileen Joy on depression, the Old English elegy and David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress (“Blue”) in particular engage with the marine world.Alaimo’s reading of the attempts of the Census of Marine Life and French journalist Claire Nouvian to photograph deep-water species offers a nuanced way to think about how otherwise inaccessible species are made visible to us humans. The images captured by the Census and Nouvian are invariably edited in order to eliminate “backscatter,” the mix of particles and tiny creatures present in the depths of the ocean (see here for examples). Drawing on the work of Latour, Alaimo argues that the humanly-made and therefore highly mediated quality of these images increases rather than decreases their “status as truth.” While the immediate ecosystems of these species are erased, what is visible in each image is the networks – the “swirl of science, economics, politics, technology, and aesthetics” – that have enabled their production and later viewing.
Each essay in the collection includes a variant on the phrase “a [colour name] ecocriticism is/would be…,” a refrain that, whether through design or happy coincidence, weaves together its varied contents. Prismatic Ecology offers not simply a survey of selected critics’ current or previous work, but rather an invitation to future ecocritical approaches beyond green, specifically those that would be founded on what in the afterword (or “Onward”) Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann call a “nonanthropocentric humanism.” The collection is not without its flaws: the rapid, often associative movement between critical modes and texts within certain contributions is on occasion hard to follow, and may not be to the taste of all. More specifically, the work of Jane Bennett is approvingly quoted and referenced on a number of occasions as the prime mover of the recent “material turn”; I would perhaps have liked to see a deeper engagement with the reductionism of such an approach. These, however, are minor criticisms though of an expansive and theoretically astute volume.
Timothy Morton’s “X-Ray” is the last essay in the collection. Morton and Stacy Alaimo are perhaps the best-known of recent writers on art, literature, and ecology, and both are frequently cited by their fellow contributors to Prismatic Ecology. Morton closes his essay with a brief mention of “hyperobjects,” a concept first established in his 2010 book The Ecological Thought. Hyperobjects takes up where “X-Ray” leaves off: hyperobjects are nonhuman objects “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” and, for Morton, the project of trying to understand them is vital to a renewal of ecological thinking. Global warming is the most pressing of all hyperobjects (Morton insists on “global warming” throughout rather than the pleasantly alliterating “climate change,” for much the same reasons as were examined in a recent article in the Guardian). The Florida Everglades, the Solar System, and plutonium also qualify, as do “very long-lasting product[s] of human manufacture,” such as plastic bags and Styrofoam. However, Hyperobjects is not an attempt to strictly delimit what may or may not count as a hyperobject (throughout the book Morton states that x could be a hyperobject rather than x is a hyperobject), but rather to think from what Morton calls “the time of hyperobjects.”
Modern, or, rather, postmodern humans have a range of well-developed vocabularies for talking about infinity, from the Kantian sublime to various religious and spiritual discourses. What we don’t have, Morton argues, are ways of thinking about very large finitude – the terrifying yet mundane fact that a plastic bag will last for roughly twenty-thousand years, or that radioactive materials buried under Yucca Mountain in Nevada will still be there “21.4 thousand years from now,” when the mountain itself may not. In this view, ecological awareness is a coming to terms with our existence in multiple temporal scales. The “end of the world” of which Morton speaks is not, therefore, the often crude and lurid apocalypticism of certain trends of ecological thinking, but rather the end of a particular way of thinking about the world. Indeed, it is the very concept of “world” that has itself been brought to an end by hyperobjects: due to hyperobjects like global warming the world, like “nature,” can no longer be thought of simply as the background of lived human existence. Two events are central to this shift, and for Morton it is possible to trace the end of the world with an uncanny precision. First, in April 1784 James Watt patented the steam engine, commencing the depositing of carbon in the earth’s crust. Second, on the 16th of July 1945 the Manhattan Project tested the Gadget, the first atomic bomb. This event, and the subsequent detonation of nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marked the beginning of the Great Acceleration, “the logarithmic increase in the actions of humans as a geophysical force.”
In Part One Morton outlines the defining features of hyperobjects: viscosity, non-locality, temporal undulation, phasing, and interobjectivity. The detour into recent theoretical physics in the chapter on non-locality well exemplifies the range of materials on which Morton’s work draws, and represents an admirable attempt to ground the theory of hyperobjects in contemporary explanations of how the world works. Part Two, “The Time of Hyperobjects,” asks how we might react to the inhuman temporality of hyperobjects, and returns in further detail to the notion of the end of the world. The process of attuning to the end of the world wrought by hyperobjects requires a new aesthetic, one based on three central concepts: hypocrisy, weakness, and lameness. Gone, Morton argues, should be human pretensions of mastery over the world and a faith in cynicism or critique to change things for the better.
For Morton, the existence of hyperobjects compels us to think ecologically, not the other way around. That is, we are not suddenly able to think hyperobjects as a result of an expanded ecological consciousness, but rather “plutonium, global warming, pollution, and so on, gave rise to ecological thinking.” This is an important point in Hyperobjects, as it points to the broader relationships in Morton’s thought between object-orientated ontology (ooo) and ecology. While the former has been implicit in some of his previous books (and has formed the explicit content of a large number of articles and shorter essays), Hyperobjects represents a full-scale attempt to combine ecological thinking and the central principles of one strand of the philosophical movement that has come to be known as speculative realism. In Morton’s terms, speculative realism is one of “numerous philosophical approaches [that] have recently arisen as if in response to the daunting […] coincidence of human history and terrestrial geology.” It is ooo, primarily associated with Graham Harman, that is at the heart of much of Hyperobjects. Harman’s concept of the “withdrawnness” of objects – the inability of any object to account for the ultimate reality of another – meets with particular approval in Morton’s work, particularly in the chapter on interobjectivity. The withdrawnness of objects (and hyperobjects in particular) means that no discourse is truly “objective,” if that means that it is a language that sits “meta” to what it is talking about a premise that Morton uses to explain the ‘iterative, circling style’ of the book itself.
Criticisms of speculative realism have abounded since pretty much straight after its coining as an umbrella term for a number of loosely-linked philosophical viewpoints. It is not my intention to rehearse these criticisms here, but rather simply to note speculative realism/ooo’s current influential position: in the essays of Prismatic Ecology it is discussed at length by Steve Mentz (“Brown”), and Jeffrey J. Cohen (“Grey”), and mentioned in passing by Julian Yates (“Orange”). Graham Harman’s “Gold” traces a history of object-orientated ontology, replies to its Hegelian-Marxist critics who accuse his work of being a form of “commodity fetishism,” and then offers an ecological and political analysis of the gold industry. In Hyperobjects, Morton’s frequent recourse to the idea of withdrawnness occasionally leads to declarations of mystery (“the real dinosaur is a mystery […]”). Other assertive declarations such as “the more data we have about life-forms, the more we realize we can never truly know them,” and the formula “x just is y” (“a process just is a real object”) occur on a number of occasions, without always convincing.
Other questions arise during the course of Hyperobjects. Morton’s vignette of an uneasy conversation between two passers-by about the weather that opens Part Two captures perfectly the odd situation in which we now live – formerly a default conversation filler, the weather has been given a new social and political charge as a result of global warming. As such, the idea of nature as a background to human existence is no doubt no longer tenable. As throughout his work, Morton capitalises “Nature” precisely in order to “de-nature” it, one step towards ridding ourselves of the notions of foreground and background on which the idea of world is founded. However, the question remains as to whether it is desirable, or even possible, to rid ourselves of “N/nature” in the manner Morton advocates. In a related sense, thinkers such as Joanna Zylinska have questioned whether we in fact need ontology first and foremost in attempting to deal with the unfolding ecological catastrophe. Instead, Zylinska suggests we begin with a “minimal ethics,” an attempt to think how humans might
assume responsibility for various occurrences in the universe, across different scales, and how they can respond to the tangled mesh of connections and relations unfolding in it. (see here)
Hyperobjects is a provocative book, restlessly, and often brilliantly traversing popular culture, philosophy, and science: Wall-E, The Matrix, Twin Peaks, Blade Runner and the music of My Bloody Valentine appear alongside extended discussions of quantum physics, Buddhism, Martin Heidegger, Alphonso Lingis, and Bertrand Russell (to name just a select few). Morton’s circling, iterative, and often personal prose imparts his work with both poeticism and a density of thought; every page of Hyperobjects brims with ideas. While not all will agree with the ooo scaffolding of Morton’s thought, the concept of the hyperobjectis a valuable one in thinking anew about the future of the planet.
Both Prismatic Ecology and Hyperobjects exemplify the theoretical sophistication and multi-disciplinary reach of certain strands of current ecotheory. Far beyond the green, equilibrium-governed worlds on which many of the last century’s approaches were founded, both works seek out those moments at which disorder, complexity and nonhuman agency become newly and unavoidably apparent. This is not to say that either work wallows in despair, though, or propagates a simplistic model of immediate human action; as Morton notes on various occasions in his work, this discourse of immediacy, the urgent yet oddly empty calls to rethink our ever-increasing consumption, is itself perhaps the greatest inhibitor of genuine and meaningful action. Instead, both works argue compellingly for the ways in which fiction, art, film, television, and philosophy can be read alongside or in combination with scientific discourses, in order that we might think anew about past, present and future, and about our relationship to a world no longer “around” us, but within which we are, and always have been, one part amongst many.
- Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945 (2001), 36.
- The second episode of Adam Curtis’s 2011 series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts,” begins with Tansley and goes on to trace the influence of cybernetic theory on the development of ecology in the mid-twentieth century. As Curtis points out, the theory of a self-regulating world is troublingly similar to the markets of neoliberal economic theories that suggest such markets somehow intuitively “know” how to harmonise themselves.
- Works of ecofeminism and environmental justice are not so easily assimilated into this admittedly brief description. Both, however, do not necessarily move beyond the idea of “green.” Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism (2004, 2nd ed. 2012) remains the best introduction to the numerous strands of ecocritical work, as well as the relationship between science and the humanities in ecological discourses.
- PMLA vol.127 no.3.
- For a particularly strongly-worded rebuttal of ooo, readers should see Nathan Brown’s recent review of Morton’s Realist Magic.