Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Pitch-black ecology

The new Collapse is proving a provocative read, and I will come to Reza Negarestani and Manav Guha’s pieces in due course, but already I find myself in somewhat of a bind. For Timothy Morton’s piece, “Thinking Ecology: the Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul”, whilst attacking some of the right enemies (Heideggerean mystical-holism and the conservative ecology of the “just-over-there”) ends up positing its own deeper and more obfuscatory mysticism. He begins, simply enough, with a basic thesis: interdependence in any region of reality (although he appears to be concerned with biological, and to a limited extent linguistic realities) can be minimally defined by two axioms, (1) any given thing is defined by its not being another thing, negatively differentiated and (2) all things derive from other, prior things.

From these minimal axioms of potential interdependence, Morton derives a sequence of propositions, which themselves eventually undermine the logic of the initial axioms. Chief amongst these is the impossibility of disentangling elements within ecosystems (at multiple levels: distinguishing absolutely between species, distinguishing living from dead, pulling apart environment and animal as lifeforms both reconfigure their environment and actually constitute such an environment for other such entities, all targets constantly in motion etc). This entanglement is embodied in the idea of “the mesh”, a term chosen to avoid both overly vitalist nomenclatures as a “web” and overly technological ones such as “network”. Humans, like every other form of life are ensnared within this mesh, bleed into it and into each other in slippery reflexive continua, our boundaries confused in a relation of intimate complicity which vitiates against any position of transcendent relation. Many of Morton’s scientific reference points are fascinating, particularly his account of the pre-living life of the crystalline 'RNA world', and the sinister creep of life (to use a Naught Thoughtism) at the sub-cellular level. And indeed, the majority of his thesis on interdependent intimacy (no transcendence for man within the ecological schema, no “leaving be” in a Heideggerean mould, no “nature”) I am in complete agreement with.

But in deriving his notion of interdependence from Derridean linguistic deconstructive thought, Morton lays himself open to a vitalist-correlationism, or a twisted ecosophical absolute idealism in the guise of a high-tech Po-Mo materialism. I am reminded of the deep irony in critical animal studies taking up object oriented philosophy: deposing the tyranny of Homo Sapiens by theoretical coup d’état only to install in the void it leaves behind the dictatorship of the animal (which someone like Larval Subjects is wise enough to immediately bound over, to enter the more interesting if not unproblematic territory of his own universal politics of objects). For though it is correct that it is difficult, perhaps even intractably so, to distinguish between living and non-living things (as in the example Morton quotes of the minimal functional difference between RNA viroids and computer viruses), this difficult continuum or grey-zone between the two does not mean that there is nothing outside the vital. It is correct that whilst ‘life’-systems are enmeshed within one another, there remains a realm, a region of time-space which pre-exists ‘life’ and which will be again, after ‘life’ has been extinguished. It is this challenge to thought, to life, which is countenanced and forms the speculative motor in the works variously of Meillassoux, Brassier, and Negarestani, though with very different conclusions.

As Reza Negarestani himself put it to me:

“Interiorisation as Urtrauma (originary splitting) does not result in […] the assimilation of the exteriority (extinction, ancestrality, etc.) by the principles of the interiorised horizon but rather it leads to a redistribution or retwisting of the exteriority’s non-belonging and the unilateral negativity (the nonnegotiable power) inherent to it. Rather than assimilating the exteriority and turning it into itself, the interiorised horizon is forced to reassign its extensive and intensive vectors to the unilateral negativity harboured by the index of exteriority, remobilising it as a subtractive form of dynamism for binding exteriority from within and from without.”

In other words the originary trauma of the emergence of life from non-living matter (in Reza’s terminology, the construction of an interior realm) does not result in the formation of an absolute immanence, but of a more complex topology of imbrications and corruption. The problem of Morton’s continua and intimacy-infection is that if extinction is assimilated by life, then the whole moral/ethical dimension of the project is damaged (ie- the references to ecological catastrophe which frame this work). The piece begins with gestures towards a “politicised intimacy” with other beings, rather than nihilism, and yet once Extinction/Ancestrality is taken seriously, the legitimacy of a non-nihilistic ecology becomes strictly moot. Not only must we divest ourselves of any inkling of transcendent ecology of “nature” and the beautiful soul who “lets it be”, but of hyper-relationist ecology which seeks the sublation of the ancestral dimension beneath a pan-vitalist rubric. Perversely, only a rigorous nihilism can vouchsafe the threat of the great outside. More than simply a melancholy understanding of complicity and inescapable ensnarement within permeable systems leading to a kind of responsibility, (and why responsibility and the weak ethical turn rather than irresponsibility?) instead we need to think a deeper and more disturbing complicity between living and non-living (which does not subsume one within the other but maintains the tension and complex topological relation between the two) an intimate embrace contorting life nested with non-life, life formed from the twisted planes and surfaces of the inorganic. The “butchery” of the outside (outside thought, outside life, the great outdoors in all its objective monstrosity), which is already within, already the very stuff of the inside. An intimate nihilism. The catastrophe, which ecology abjures, has already occurred.


Anthony Paul Smith said...

Yeah, no.

[ tobias ] said...

"instead we need to think a deeper and more disturbing complicity between living and non-living (which does not subsume one within the other but maintains the tension and complex topological relation between the two) an intimate embrace contorting life nested with non-life, life formed from the twisted planes and surfaces of the inorganic. The “butchery” of the outside (outside thought, outside life, the great outdoors in all its objective monstrosity), which is already within, already the very stuff of the inside. An intimate nihilism. The catastrophe, which ecology abjures, has already occurred."

Well, if you want to think that, then drop the polemics against Derrida and go read his essay "Fors" in the introduction to Abraham & Torok's -The Wolfman's Magic Word-, which is all about the topos of incorporation, and explained in a much more comprehensible way than Negarestani's rather disastrous passage he sent you (such topos of incorporation can be explained much easier).

You might also want to check out -Specters of Marx- which renames the problematic of incorporation 'hauntology' as it addresses the complicity of living/nonliving. As you probably know, hauntology occupies object theory relationists now thanks to K-punk.

As usual, the reaching consequences of Derrida's thought always returns in the polemical disavowal.

And it need not be nihilist. Nor vitalist. One would hope in the 21C that such a banal distinction has long since hit the dust. Apparently not.

Red said...

Nice to see you back Alex!

Tobias, feel free to bash your head in the direction of Derrida's grave, but now that you have single-handedly solved the philosophical quandary of the millennium, can you enlighten us how you came to this stupendous conclusion that the nihilism-vitalism polemics is passé and banal? By the way, do yourself a favor, take a look at Collapse to see what the contributors are talking about.

Scott said...

thanks for the feedback. I haven't read #6 yet but funny this guy doesn't even know that Reza's account of nemat-space is a fundamentally reworked version of Derrida's cryptology and DG's holey space.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Speaking of butchery and head-banging on graves, I am pleased to note that next year's Black Metal Theory Symposium will have an ecological orientation.

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Timothy Morton said...

Hi—I thought I'd argued that thinking ecology eats through the life–non-life boundary. Which distinguishes my work decisively from Bennett's by the way.

And—Derrida is not a nominalist! Beware!

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