Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016; 208 pp. ISBN: 978-0231177528.
Reviewed by Russell J. Duvernoy, Seattle University.
With this text, Timothy Morton, a leading figure in object-oriented ontology (OOO), continues to explore its implications for rethinking ecology and global climate change. For Morton, the unprecedented scope and complexity of anthropogenic climate change is a key motivating factor in the resurgence of speculative ontologies: “The ecological era we find ourselves in – whether we like it or not and whether we recognize it or not – makes necessary a searching revaluation of philosophy, politics, and art.” (159) Such revaluation strikes to the heart of what we take to be true about reality. Indeed, Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence contends that the possibility of a future peaceful coexistence between human and nonhuman lifeforms challenges assumptions about the nature of objectivity, temporality, and the distinction between life and death. In a reversal of common orthodoxy, he argues that we must give up the notion that ecology requires a clear and determinate distinction between good and bad as a necessary corrective for “thinking future coexistence.” (27) Rather, we must pursue a “dark ecology,” an ecology that does not recoil before “thinking the truth of death.” (161) Morton insists that passing through this “depressing” thought will bring “massive cognitive relief that if integrated into social form would embody nonviolence.” (161) This is because the root affective source of the entrenched behaviors that have led to ecological crisis is the deep desire to eliminate or deny death, rather than accepting its inevitability. Fixating on life and construing death as that which is to be avoided at all costs results paradoxically in an inability to become sensitive to the precarity inherent to life. This inability drives the stock-piling logic that Morton diagnoses as the historical beginning of the dialectic that has led to ecological crisis, which Morton names “agrilogistics.” (42-46)
With this orientation as operational rudder, Dark Ecology presents an ambitious and provocative mixture of high theory, literature, science, and pop culture aimed at cultivating a capacity for what Morton calls “ecognosis,” a process of “becoming accustomed to something strange” and “becoming accustomed to strangeness” in a way that does not reduce that strangeness through “acclimation.” (5) “Ecognosis is like a knowing that knows itself.” (5) This epistemic ecognosis reflects the text’s central ontological idea, namely, that all things exist in loop structures, such that they are never solely reducible to a discrete and constant presence. (98-110) Awareness of this loop structure quality of existence, which has the effect of unsettling static identities and presumed completeness, has been deliberately and violently repressed since the dawning of a “specific logistics of agriculture that arose in the Fertile Crescent and that is still plowing ahead.” (42) This “technical, planned, and perfectly logical approach to built space” arises in an effort to “eliminate fear, anxiety, and contradiction […] by establishing thin rigid boundaries between human and nonhuman worlds and by reducing existence to sheer quantity.” (43) In exposing agrilogistics as the fundamental condition of possibility for industrialization, Morton disrupts the customary assumption that industrialization is the root cause of ecological crisis, such crisis being already contained in the agrilogistic drawing of a sharp boundary between human and nonhuman worlds.
Morton’s engagement with the agrilogistics program is neither primarily historical nor anthropological but rather ontological and formal. This is because Morton understands ontology to be closely bound up with the normative assumptions that it sanctions, and as such, the text works to destabilize the foundational ontological assumptions constitutive of agrilogistics. The proposed connection between ontology and normativity is crucial for making sense of Morton’s tendency to move between the ontological and the existential, both in terms of critical insights and positive articulations. Shifting from high abstraction to concrete existential attitudes, as manifest in artistic and media expressions, performs one of the basic features of ecology as Morton understands it: “Ecology is the thinking of beings on a number of different scales, none of which has priority over the other.” (22) Such “beings” include material objects as well as ideas and what Morton calls “hyperobjects,” those distributed over expanses of space and time (for example, the human species or climate change).
Morton identifies “three philosophical axioms [that] provide the logical structure of agrilogistics;” each of which he challenges. These are: “(1) the Law of Noncontradiction is inviolable; (2) Existing means being constantly present; (3) Existing is always better than any quality of existing.” (47) The enforced primacy of the law of noncontradiction makes the loop structure of beings unthinkable. Combining this with the assumption of constant presence results in a view where animals, objects, and ecosystems exist in a clearly determinate and separate realm from the human-constructed cultural world. This enables one to think of a natural environment as a discrete and independent entity. From this logic, one may develop strategies of conservation or management of such entities while remaining safely ensconced as separate from them. Thinking ecologically, however, Morton argues that there is never such a thing as a single, clearly determined and demarcated boundary that separates some thing X from all that is not X. This goes further than a familiar romantic claim of interdependence. Rather, Morton insists that the full implication of this is that no thing x is fully present, even to itself: “existing means having a gap between what you are and how you appear, even to yourself.” (104) Morton follows Quentin Meillassoux in terming this Kantian gap between being and appearance “correlationism,” but he departs from Meillassoux by claiming that this gap is ontologically fundamental, not just a feature of subjective perception: “the human-world gap is not the only one. Everything has a gap like that.” (103) Moreover, the gap between being and appearance is self-reflexive, so that “objects are relations with themselves logically prior to relations with others.” (99) This raises a number of difficult logical questions about the status of identity, but rather than inspect such formal difficulties Morton transitions quickly to leveraging its affective and existential implications.
It is here that he chooses to deploy the deliberately provocative rhetoric of “dark” to describe his ecological thinking. Two moves are crucial for understanding this emphasis. First, in claiming that being has a loop structure, Morton challenges the common ecological platitude towards holism: “the flickering between a thing and its appearance is the reason why coexistence can’t be holistic. Something is always missing.” (106-7) We cannot become one with a harmonious whole, both because there is no whole and because harmony, if it is possible, cannot be construed as a stable collection of constitutive parts working towards a common telos. Rather, because all things exist in loops, first with themselves and then with others, “the whole is less than the sum of its parts.” (114) This shifts the locus of ecological meaning from a presumed all-encompassing macro-level whole, and instead locates it at a more dynamic differential level, where one can never be certain that they are dealing with the whole story.
Morton’s move thus shifts the traditional eco-normative impulse towards privileging a presumed harmonious whole. At its extreme, such an impulse tends towards forms of fascism, that, despite their purported intention, can only reproduce the pathologies they are intended to correct. By contrast, recognizing the essential incompleteness of being encourages a different affective attitude, one that Morton frequently describes in the language of vulnerability and finitude: “ecognosis means: letting become more susceptible.” (129) Susceptibility and finitude means affectively facing ecological essentials – to let go of self-presence is also to accept the way in which one’s self is implicated in loops and means beyond conscious control.
Second, challenging the law of noncontradiction is essential for thinking ecologically: “if you want ecological things to exist – ecological things like humans, meadows, frogs, and the biosphere – you have to allow them to violate the law of noncontradiction.” (73) Without recognizing the vagueness and ambiguity of boundaries, one ends up with a false image of discrete entities independent of their milieus and qualitatively interchangeable. Morton illustrates this with a creative deployment of the Sorites paradox in relation to the identity of a meadow. Because “[t]here is no single, independent, definable point at which the meadow stops being a meadow” (73), a strict insistence on reading the law of noncontradiction ontologically is tempted to make an illusion of the meadow. This paradox exposes the dangers of a formal principle of thought infiltrating our ontological assumptions, since if the law of noncontradiction is inviolable, then all of the messy phenomena of ecological existence can be decried as illusory. In order to resist this mode of infiltration, Morton installs a rejection of noncontradiction as ontologically primary: “To be real is to be contradictory, to be a member of a set that doesn’t include you. To be real is not to be easy to identify, easy to think, metaphysically constantly present.” (36)
The bulk of the text’s energy is spent unpacking and defending these claims. This is accomplished with varying success. Morton’s habit of citing single articles in support of controversial scientific results as if they were consensus views is unlikely to gain him readers with a more skeptical epistemological bent. These range from relatively innocuous claims about plant sentience to problematic presentations of evolutionary theory. (101-2) Those looking for practical policy suggestions are also unlikely to be able to make much of Morton’s manner of shifting between ontology and the existential and affective. Perhaps most troublingly, Morton does not consider the possibility that the affective shift towards a “dark ecology” could, if not handled with sufficient care, have counter-productive effects by intensifying rather than undoing logics of militaristic self-preservation. While such an effect would clearly be a misreading of the theory, the depth of ontological understanding translated into affective orientation that Morton invites is no easy existential feat. This question of unintended consequences based on misunderstandings is one that any innovative thinker faces, but it seems particularly pertinent to Morton insofar as he insists on the absence of self-presence and the necessary gaps between intention and presence constitutive of all beings, including ideas.
That said, no theorist can please all readers, and the riskiness of Morton’s approach should not be used to completely reject its insights and relevance. Lurking within the willfully flamboyant rhetoric, tongue in cheek asides, and cascading references to pop culture and music, there is a substantial and coherent argument. That this argument is unlikely to convince skeptics is not clearly a fault, unless we presume universal and one-size-fits-all criteria for evaluating all theoretical projects. Such an assumption would be, for Morton, a symptom of the way that agrilogistics hides behind an apparently benign privileging of the serious and sober.
In contrast to the agrilogistics’ insistence on the primacy of a single scale of time and space that is qualitatively homogenous, the ecological thinking Morton urges is resolutely heterogeneous. It recognizes the ongoing looping coexistence of beings at a multiplicity of different temporal and spatial scales. As such, one of the “practical yet highly nonstandard” suggestions that Morton makes is the need for less seriousness in the approach to politics. (159) “Let’s get a bit playful. Which also means, let’s not have a one-size-fits-all politics. We need a politics that includes what appears least political – laughter, the playful, even the silly.” (113) This suggestion may be one of Morton’s strongest insights, especially insofar as it serves as a corrective to the puritanical streak that so much environmentalist theory labours under. In this sense, Morton’s observation that the content of thoughts is sometimes less important than the manner or attitude through which they are held becomes crucial. This follows from the ontological understanding that all things exist in loop structures, thoughts and ideas included. Since a thought or attitude is “mutually constitutive of the reality [it] describes,” then “if we want a good reality – say, for instance, non-violent coexistence between all beings – we might need to figure out what kinds of attitude are conducive to such a reality.” (131) The intent of Morton’s call for playfulness is less an exercise in indulgent frivolity, and more a compassionate recognition of the pain and suffering of existence and of the way that so many of serious-minded humanity’s projects have intensified and exacerbated this suffering. Morton’s dark ecology, in calling for more awareness of “comedy, the genre of coexistence” (119), seeks to cultivate attitudes that might ultimately meet and alleviate this suffering (through accepting it) rather than denying or hiding from it.