Yesterday’s talk was a great success. The full panel ran for about 90 minutes with a great question and answer session at the end. I’m posting my portion of the panel lecture below.
Yesterday’s talk was a great success. The full panel ran for about 90 minutes with a great question and answer session at the end. I’m posting my portion of the panel lecture below.
Ecology is typically defined as the study of relationships between organisms and environments, and the relationships between organisms to one another. This essay suggests another way forward: a re-visioning of ecology in the context of Alfred North Whitehead’s speculative philosophy. By thinking ecology with Whitehead we will be able to demonstrate a simple and surprising truth: all relations of any kind—be they between sea anemones and coral reefs or between philosophers and the world—are ecological in nature. By generalizing the definition of ecology to include relations of any kind, we expand our notions of what ecology is all about, and our ability to enact a cosmopolitics—a planetary thought for a planetary ecology—is greatly enhanced. But what, we might ask, does speculative philosophy have to do with ecology? Are we not mixing the empirical world of the natural sciences with the subjective world of a philosopher’s fantasy? I’m going to suggest that in order to actually understand the meaning of ecology—and in particular the possibility of an ecological ethics—we have to speculate, using the best of our sciences and the best of our imagination to do so.
It has been a good week for finishing up writing projects. I just completed a new essay entitled “Matter, Media, and Mind: A Threefold Approach To Ecologies.” I’m attaching the full pdf HERE. Many of the ideas presented in this paper will be the focus of a talk I am giving at the California Institute of Integral Studies this Friday, as part of their annual founder’s symposium. In the spirit of Whitehead’s return via various ecological philosophies, I hope that this essay can go some ways to re-visioning what ecology means for us in the twenty-first century. Here’s an excerpt from the portion on “Knowledge Ecologies” (from which this blog gets its name):
Knowledge ecologies have important implications for how we think about ideas. In the world of human knowledge, the idea acts as a cosmogram; an actor that is part of its surrounding terrain, an abstraction that is part of the territory it describes, exerting a pull on the world it tries to map. Ideas are things that, once generated by the thinker, immediately gain their own autonomy and ability to re-arrange other ideas. Plainly stated, ideas exist in the world in the same way as any other ecological actor; ideas are a part of the actuality of experience and are therefore amenable to an ecological interpretation. When mediated through the appropriate media ecologies, ideas can then impact the physical form of any other entity within their reach. As an abstraction, the idea is also a cryptogram, concealing certain features of the terrain it helps to enact. The contrast between the revealing and concealing character of the idea speaks to the fact that no single mode of thought has a monopoly on the real; rather, every idea is partial and relative to its ecology, capable only of exposing certain features of a more complex landscape. In this way knowledge ecology has a complex relationship to media ecology since both are actively foregrounding and backgrounding differed aspects of a more complex reality.
Its a climate research kind of day. Nature has THIS article on the successful collaboration of scientists working in teams to solve complex ecological issues (who would have thought!) I applaud this kind of research effort but it does remind me why I found integral ecology appealing in the first place (see my previous). When it comes to doing postdisciplinary research that stretches the natural, social, and humanistic sciences surely the integral ecologists have a leg up on what other folks are doing. There is plenty of good research coming out from all kinds of research institutes but I’m aways struck by just how on top of things the integral ecology crew is when it comes to designing research models and deployable, effective paradigms (the critical realist and science studies folk would have to be at the top of such a list as well).
I haven’t posted on integral ecology in a while and so was delighted when a friend passed along THIS interview with leading integral ecologist Michael Zimmerman. I was particularly struck by the difference the article refers to between “adaptive” and “technical” problems:
You can probably feel the difficulty of the whole situation. Time is short, uncertainty is high, and the stakes may be even higher. Competing business and political interests collide every day. The tensions run deep, driven by conflicting values and differing needs. This is the nature of the hard problems of our time: they are densely interconnected, emotionally-charged and complex. They also change rapidly, often without warning. In effect, these are what scientists call “adaptive problems” (or “wicked problems”), where the problems may actually evolve by the day. (In contrast to adaptive problems are technical problems, which tend to have a static solution where the skills, needs and capacities to solve them are known.) Climate change is immensely difficult because it is an adaptive problem, and requires adaptive leadership to address.
A great story on octopus intelligence HERE. With the following memorable quote:
Not long ago, a question like this would have seemed foolish, if not crazy. How can an octopus know anything, much less form an opinion? Octopuses are, after all, “only” invertebrates—they don’t even belong with the insects, some of whom, like dragonflies and dung beetles, at least seem to show some smarts. Octopuses are classified within the invertebrates in the mollusk family, and many mollusks, like clams, have no brain.
Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind. But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals—creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago—have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities. Their findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness itself.
I had always longed to meet an octopus. Now was my chance: senior aquarist Scott Dowd arranged an introduction. In a back room, he would open the top of Athena’s tank. If she consented, I could touch her. The heavy lid covering her tank separated our two worlds. One world was mine and yours, the reality of air and land, where we lumber through life governed by a backbone and constrained by jointed limbs and gravity. The other world was hers, the reality of a nearly gelatinous being breathing water and moving weightlessly through it. We think of our world as the “real” one, but Athena’s is realer still: after all, most of the world is ocean, and most animals live there. Regardless of whether they live on land or water, more than 95 percent of all animals are invertebrates, like Athena.
As Uexkull and Bateson have both in different ways shown, the material interactions of organisms in ecosystems presuppose their exchange and interpretation of signs…this can be generalized for the entire rainforest ecosystem. In a myriad similar ways, each organism and species exists by virtue of its capacity to perceive and interpret the world around it. An ecosystem is not a machine, where the various components mindlessly fulfill their functions as a reflection of the external mind of the engineer. Ecosystems are incredibly complex articulations of innumerable, sentient subjects, engaging each other through the lenses of their own subjective worlds (2001, p. 125).
[Excuse the previous grammatical errors in this post. I am experimenting with the WordPress App on my phone -- it is proving difficult to use!]
Some fine reflections on pedagogy, the structure of knowledge circulation, and post-disciplinary practices from Bryant in THIS recent post. Bryant defines post-disciplinarity thusly:
And so it goes. Kris, Eileen and I are involved in trying to create something called post-disciplinarity where it is recognized that all of these disciplines are local knowledges, partial views on the world, where it is recognized that the artist, engineer, designer, and activist create knowledge and thought every bit as much as the scholar, and where a space can be opened where these divergent lenses can come to resonate with one another and generate new innovation in thought, art, design, and political engagement.
This is very close to what integral ecologists mean by the same term (for the integral ecologist, each discipline produces true, but only partial perspectives). Further, for the integral ecologist, disciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary practices form the constitutive elements of what is called a post-disciplinary perspective. Disciplinary approaches are the most familiar, dealing with specialized knowledge and training from within the academy. Inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary approaches vary in definition depending on who you ask.
I tend to think of interdisciplinary practices as the migration of one set of methods or insight from one discipline into another (e.g., when philosophers use the methods and insights from the complexity sciences to create novel philosophical propositions).
Multidisciplinary approaches I take to mean the collaborative efforts of specialists from a variety of fields working together to solve particularly complex problems (e.g., when physicists, chemists, and biologists work together to understand the links between organisms and their environments).
Transdisciplinary research refers to the move away from both inter- and multidisciplinary practices in order to create a “metaparadigmatic” practice of research and knowledge making. Here researchers have included in their research agenda a reflexivity that continually calls into question the paradigms which construct and enact their research programs.
Postdisciplinary, then, refers to the ability to move in between inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary modes of research, as governed by the needs of the research project.
I think Bruno Latour is perhaps the strongest example of a postdisciplinary researcher I can think of, allowing the infrastructure of the actors in play to generate a unique research paradigm appropriate to the situation (Roy Bhaskar would surely be an excellent example as well, though he, I think with good reason, is hesitant to use the term “postdisciplinary” and instead prefers “cross-disciplinary”).
My own thesis work centered on creating a three-fold system of 1) a natural ecology, 2) a media ecology, and 3) a knowledge ecology. These three, interpenetrating ecologies roughly correspond to the physical sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, respectively. Its my fledgling attempt at producing a postdisciplinary approach to ecology.
I am highly recommending Dianne Rocheleau’s essay “Rooted Networks, Webs of Relation, and the Power of Situated Science” to anyone interested in political ecology, geography, actor-network theory (ANT), or science and technology studies (STS). My own reading of her essay is, as we shall see, heavily influenced by readings of the experimental metaphysics Bruno Latour lays out in Politics of Nature as well as by the cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead. By exploring Rocheleau’s work we can see how Whitehead’s concept of the bifurcation of nature has been effectively deployed (somewhat cryptically) by ANT, and further emphasizes the political import of critical engagements with ontology in thinking ecological issues.
Rocheleau’s essay skillfully maps the strengths, weaknesses, and future trajectories of both ANT and STS as they relate to questions of ecology, territory, geography, and politics. Rocheleau’s opinion of ANT and STS are on the whole positive, though she offers a few, to my mind, accurate rejoinders (both are still too anthropocentric!).
In following her skilled and careful analysis (itself enacted through a case study on farm forestry in the Zambrana-Chacuey region of the Dominican Republic) we find many of the common characters often associated with problems of political ecology (e.g., diverse and conflicting constituencies of humans, plants, animals, and technology). Rocheleau asks us to consider these diverse agents as part and parcel of “complex ecologies” which we must view “from the multiple standpoints of complex actors” where we “need a prism that reflects the combined light and patterns of “social” and “biotic” life, in a way that helps us to get beyond the nature/culture binaries that suffuse our thinking” (p. 209).
On the uses and advantages of ANT and STS I quote Rocheleau at length:
In general, formal models present networks as existing beyond space and place, above the mess of land, water, blood, and soil. Some social scientists treat net- work structures as inherently recent phenomena (Castells 2000), contrasting high-technology, postmodern, postindustrial conditions with prior organic, pre- modern societies. Networks in STS have arisen from social and cultural studies of information and biotechnologies, while much of political ecology has been in the trenches (literally) of rural life. Yet the actor networks postulated by Latour (2005) can allow us to jump scales and to combine humans, plants, animals, machines, and nonliving elements of the planet, from bedrock and hillslopes, to rivers, rain, and sunlight. Political ecology can bring these models “down to earth,” to recon- cile networks with energy flows, nutrient cycles, and movements of people and other beings in territories and ecosystems.
The convergence of political ecology and STS can bring power into network models of assemblages of people, other living beings, technologies, and artifacts. While STS has focused on the power of technologies and the workings of science within societies, political ecology has focused on relations of power between state and corporate structures and local communities whose livelihoods and cultural integrity are threatened by eviction, invasion, resource theft, and environmental degradation (Peet and Watts 2004; Blaikie 1985). Political ecology has also been about popular resistance to this oppression, as well as organized popular move- ments to protect their home ecologies, reassert their own worldviews, and recon- struct their own integrated arts and sciences of “production” and “conservation” (Rocheleau 2008; Brosius, Tsing, and Zerner 2005; Escobar 1999, 2008; Peet and Watts 2004; Robbins 2004; Zimmerer 1996), as in the forestry, agroforestry, and ethnobotany work of the Federation (p. 214)
Rocheleau’s sentiments here bring to mind the two-house problem Latour formulates in Politics of Nature. Recall that the two houses (“Nature” and “Culture”) form the dominate poles of attraction in modern societies, and are split by an uncrossable bridge which seems to make the task of bringing politics and ecology together an impossibility. Latour suggests that this split amounts to a crisis for 1) our social representations of nature by calling into question the discursive and ungrounded nature of human politics; robbing politics of the power to speak to or for an objective external reality (I’m looking at you lobbyists) and 2) the objectivity of the scientific enterprise which must account for the multiple and contested nature of “the sciences” as oppose to a monolithic “Science”.
By articulating the problem of political ecology in terms of these two opposing houses, Latour has, in my opinion, effectively deployed Whitehead’s arguments against the bifurcation of nature in a political realm. I read Latour’s notion of the “actor” as an effective usage of Whitehead’s concept of prehension, creatively resisting the dualistic notion of nature which posits the mental as something wholly separate and distinguishable from the material. For Whitehead, both a mental and material pole are integrally present in every existing entity such that the cosmos is pervaded by prehensibility and experience; all actualities are both materially real and capable of affectivity, even if only on a supremely limited scale.
By politicizing Whitehead’s bifurcation of nature, which I think is a fair interpretation of what Latour is up to, he is able to explain, at an ontological level, why the politics of nature have been contorted into the two house system we have today (i.e., they are products of a Cartesian “event” whose seismic activity still oscillates into the metaphysics and politics of today).
Thus, on the one hand, we have an indisputable and mute “Nature” which is forever beyond negotiation and exists as a sort of formidable and objective a priori to which we must, with our dim scientific awareness, adapt to (or perish). On the other hand, we have “Culture” which is a thoroughly epistemological and discursive affair (postmodern relativism at its worst) and marked by a never-ending recess of argument and negotiation without ground. By segregating Nature from Culture in this way, Latour argues, we are left powerless, unable to construct a real politics of nature that can cross the rubicon of constructivism into an enduring composition of the real; which, according to Latour, is precisely what a politics of nature needs to do.
In other words, the social must extend into the natural without being usurped into an exclusively human (i.e., correlationist) affair. The political must become ecological without forgetting that the ecological exists independent of our conceptions of it, and, indeed, actively resists our conceptions of it. For Latour the central task is, then, to abolish the two-house system by engaging in the work of building a collective through creating an “experimental metaphysics” that resists the bifurcation between Nature and Culture, thereby constructing a cosmopolitical society (e.g., a diverse society of human and nonhuman actors operating on the same ontological plane).
This is exactly the kind of scene Rocheleau’s rooted networks describe. Yet, despite her enthusiasm for ANT, she brings the field to task for what, in her opinion, is an overemphasis on the human and technological agents distributed within what is in fact always a much more diverse ecology of action. Rocheleau calls upon ANT to diversify it’s perspective by including a more ecological (e.g., “rooted”) conception of nonhuman actors (and their perspectives) that, while always implied by ANT, are not always so forthrightly represented. In this way Rocheleau’s perspective is deeply sympathetic to an object-oriented or integral ecology; both of which afford some measure of prehensivity to all entities in the universe (i.e., apperception is rooted in ontology itself). On the further refashioning of ANT Rocheleau writes:
In contrast, we can transform ANT to fashion complex, polycentric network models that both complicate and clarify our visions of possible futures. We can expand ANT to incorporate the distinct positions and perspectives of multiple groups of people and various species and assemblages of plants and animals, along with artifacts, technologies, and physical elements of their surroundings. It’s not just a matter of getting closer, to get the one true story. It’s about “getting it” through the eyes of a diversity of actors in distinct positions, in complex actor networks, that are best described as rooted networks and relational webs. As part of a search for viable alternatives to “sustainable development,” I propose to re- cruit the network construct and stretch it, building on selective elements relevant to social and biological science: power and polycentricity, situated knowledge(s), roots and territory, self-organization, and complex constructs that mesh nature and culture (p. 215).
We can think of “network” and “root” as verbs rather than nouns, to visualize the diverse rooting strategies that connect webs of relation to the surface(s) of the planet, as well as technologies of internal connection within complex entities. Several well-known plants illustrate the varieties of rooting and webbing: tap- roots in pine trees; the perching of epiphytes (“air plants”) in tree canopies; the profusion of new plants produced by “spider plants” outside the pots or the main rooting zone of the parent plants; the soil-building habits of coastal mangroves around their woody stilt roots; and algal mats, which create their own float- ing worlds from microflora and -fauna, making a seafaring macro-being from microconstituents. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) elaborate specifically on the un- derground metaphor of rhizomes6 to describe the entangled realities of connec- tivity and the complex dynamics of social change (pp. 215 – 216).
What Rochelau does well is to push ANT into new and necessary dimensions; moving it away from a strict fascination with humans and technology and into the complex ecologies of animals, plants, and minerals which remain underrepresented in some sociological models (apart from their association with the political power dynamics of humans — an important, though inadequate, accomplishment).
What Rocheleau doesn’t do, and what no one has yet to successfully accomplish, is to describe precisely how to incorporate the needs and perspectives of nonhumans into the political and legal dynamics of human societies. I don’t fault her for failing to solve these problems, but rather highlight them so that we might drive our collective energy and creativity into thinking, practicing, and crossing over into, a thoroughly ecological democracy.
Leon has a an excellent post up concerning a recent NPR article discussing the important question, do animals grieve? The answer of course, is an emphatic “Yes!” The go-to scientist for research into cognitive ethology is Mark Bekoff (whom I have discussed here and here) as well as more generally the diverse field of integral ecology (of which I would consider myself a proud member).
After shooting down a few of the most common, and unwarranted, criticisms of the OOO framework (e.g., OOO is “human hating;” nihilistic; depreciates the cosmos by turning everything into a “disposable object”) Leon moves into the more interesting territory regarding what OOO has to offer ethics, aesthetics, and ecology — three strands that continue to become more deeply entangled as OOO continues to develop. Leon writes:
I don’t see deanthropocentrizing the human as a “leveling” out or “bringing down” the human to the level of objects, but rather as the opposite: bringing all objects up to an equal level of value and importance, a place that the human *used* to occupy alone (and hence not an overmining). Again, this is what I take to be a realism about univocal value. Sure, rocks or pens may *matter less* in context, but fundamentally, the fact that anything is, rather than is not, means that “is” has a value in and of itself. Thus how I see a “universe of objects.”
This is exactly right. Often times ontology, cosmology, or metaphysics are used as blunt instruments to belittle the concrete reality of humans (or quasars, tadpoles, or sunsets). What is lost in this mode of reduction however, is precisely what Leon calls our attention to. By placing the human in cosmological solidarity with all other entities in the universe the line between “humanness” and “nonhummaness” becomes increasing blurred — though not indistinguishable!
By cosmologizing the human we are placing her within the context of the multibillion year processes from which she emerges. At the same time, we are noting that such a contextualization returns to the cosmos it’s interior, withdrawn nature. The impact of this cosmological maneuver are two fold:
1) It reveals that the human has not been traumatically “decentered” by the triple revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud (feel free to add to this list your favorite “traumatic” decentralists…). This decentering, we can now see, was actually only a traumatic event from a particularly eurocentric, dualist, and transcendentalist perspective. I think its time we stopped whining about the poor european psyche’s “displacement” and realized that immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology actually center us within the context of things. Now, this statement is a bit of a paradox. For while cosmologizing the human does place her within a 14 billion year heritage, it also presents a frightening consequence. Because everything has an interior, withdrawn nature capable of prehending it’s environment (and in this way spreads experience throughout the cosmos) it means that we emit, along with everything else, a sort of misty contextual zone. This brings us two point #2.
2) The surprise epiphany of OOO and what we can call philosophical cosmology (after David Ray Griffin’s distinction between Whitehead’s cosmology and standard scientific cosmology) is that the panexperientialist universe is teaming with what Donna Haraway calls “significant otherness.” In other words, the philosophical cosmology evoked by Whitehead (and carried forth in some patches of OOO) renders not a cosmos of empty space punctuated by random blips and dots hopelessly colliding with another inside of the cold container of space-time. Rather, the Whiteheadian cosmos is a vast ecology –at an ontological level — of strange beasts and critters each emitting their own worldspaces much like a tree exhales oxygen. Thus while the human joins this entangled cosmic marsh bank, she is a refugee, floating in an alien world, just as she is perfectly alike, at an ontological level, to all the other entities in the cosmos.
What else can we glean from the ethics, ecology, and aesthetics of OOO? Leon is already on to it:
Yes, objects in the universe of ontological parity can be anything: pencils, pens, rocks, distant stars, etc. Yes, various scales are at work, each object encompassing and encompassed by another (Justus Buchler was on to this long ago). Yet the withdrawal of these objects seems crucial above all else. It means that in their own being-an-object, objects do “flee” from access to them. The comprehensibility, the knowing or totalizing of each object’s own distinct value forever eludes us – it cannot ever be fully represented to another (although, as I argue elsewhere, I think aesthetic feeling and empathy are crucial and important here). Stating that objects can be fully known, that their inner essence can be grasped indubitably, or that objects can be totalized *is* nihilism and anti- … object-ism? An autonomous zone of the object is the spring-point of *its own* essence, its own, for all intents and purposes, “subjectivity” or better, its own “perspective.” Thus the own unique “center point” of objects. Philosophies of access which lay claim to exhausting that center are the true nihilistic philosophies.
In this way, OOO may very well be the first substance-based, anti-essentialist philosophy (because apparently thats possible!) Leon is right to suggest that all objects are for-themselves. But I think we can say that objects are also always for-another. Thus an OOO ethics might imply that all entities are ends-in-themselves, and, as sensual objects, are a-means-for-another, where neither the for-itself or the for-another exhausts the actual nature of the object. This is an interesting twist, especially when placed in the context of environmental or ecological ethics where value is often described in terms of the related factors of utility, market-value, and scarcity. A full development of this idea will have to wait for another post.
Leon ends with some interesting reflections on the use of the word “objects.” He writes:
Per the above article [on animal grief] I think that being decentered means that realizing that animals, too, are objects (but I ask: other than to shy from former conceptions of “subjectivity” as in idealism gone wrong, why not “subjects” or at the very least “perspectives.”
This is an excellent question and one I have contemplated numerous times. For the integral ecologist, apperception (following William James and Whitehead) is the fundamental feature of the universe with which everything participates (IE is close to panpsychism, panexperientialism, and pansemiotics), and indeed one of it’s main influential figures is Thomas Berry who famously stated: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Of course the “objects” Berry had in mind were Cartesian objects robbed of interiority and value, ripped apart by greed and neoliberal industrialization, and not the erupting, molten cores of activity that Graham Harman has in mind. In this sense, I think we are arguing over terminolgy when in fact the spirit and message underlying both is greatly the same.
Great post Leon.
In his essay “Panpsychism And/Or Eliminativism” (which I highly recommend everyone read) Steven Shaviro writes:
Beyond this, the real problem with Meillassoux’s and Brassier’s accounts is that they both assume that matter in itself — as it exists outside of the correlation — must simply be passive and inert, without meaning or value. But isn’t this assumption itself a consequence of the bifurcation of nature? It is only an anthropocentric prejudice to assume that things cannot be lively and active and mindful on their own, without us. Why should we suppose that these are qualities that only we possess, and that we merely project them upon the “universe of things” outside us? Eliminativist arguments thus start out by presupposing human exceptionalism, even when their explicit aim is to humble and humiliate this exceptionalism. If you take it for granted that values and meanings are nothing but subjective human impositions, then it isn’t hard to conclude that they are ultimately illusory, for human beings as well as for other entities.
I have never been able to understand why attributing qualities such as “passive” and “inert” – these are still qualities - to nonhuman (and indeed, nonbiological) entities is suppose to be seen as more accurate, more scientific, or more philosophical. Shaviro, in the above quote, notes Whitehead’s “bifurcation of nature,” a phrase Whitehead used to describe the post-Cartesian dualism in thought (between, for example, primary and secondary qualities) which suggests that it is only with the advent of the human that anything like “meaning-making” occurs. The universe, in the bifurcated view, is a hollow, non-experiencing desert of activity, it is the human who, through their need for meaning, projects a series of historically contingent fabrications onto the extant cosmos.
Lets take a little journey – some of which will be rudimentary, but necessary for our aims. If we fast forward a few hundred years, and steep ourselves in a little basic biology and cognitive ethology, then we find that Descartes’ position was greatly mistaken. The evidence quite clearly indicates that the so-called “higher animals” (which to me is more like code for “the ones more like us”) also inhabit their own species-specific experiential domains. Furthermore, there is also evidence to suggest that complex organisms not only have a distinct sense-experience relative to their morphology, but it is also quite likely that individual organisms have their own psychology, and their own unique biographical history that shapes them – just as a human being experiences formative events that shape their psyches throughout their lifetimes. In 2011, I don’t think there is anything controversial about any of these claims.
If we take this trajectory a step further, we also find that unicellular creatures, such as an amoeba, also possess an “experience” of their environment. In cell biology, this has everything to do with the cell membrane – the skin around the cell which acts not only as a barrier, producing a differential between the “internal” world of the organism and the “external” world of the environment, but also acts as a zone of contact and interpretation. Again, any 6th grader who has taken biology already knows this.
The ability to reproduce this differentiation between the “internal” and the “external” is called “autopoiesis.” This zone of contact, which is always in a simultaneous state of production, reproduction, and decay, always interacts indirectly with its environment (we can use the term advisedly provided that we understand that the organism-environment coupling is a slippery and complex retro-activity). Thus, when Francisco Varela or Evan Thompson talk about “structural coupling” they are referring to the manner in which there is always a mediated interval between entities, and between entities and their environments.
Through the process of structural coupling, causality between an autopoietic unity (e.g., a cell) and it’s neighboring cells or environments, is always indirect. Environments cannot “cause” an organism to behave in a certain way, rather, causation is, again, mediated by the specific constitution and activity of the cell or organism which participate creatively in the unfolding causal chain of events. Such structurally coupled interactions cascade across a hierarchy of different levels (e.g., the cells in my body exist as part of the ecology of my body, just as my body exists within the ecology of San Francisco). Driving more to the point, it is the organism’s sensori-motor appartus (it’s somatic structuring) that “enacts” a particular state and set of variables from a more complex field of activity. In other words, at every level of biology, experience is occurring, and, not only is it occurring, but it is physically participating in the enaction of a life-world.
There is still nothing terribly controversial about the above two claims. Further, there is nothing anthropomorphic about either claim. Thus when we take in the evidence brought forth from both cognitive ethology and cell biology (we can choose less exotic versions of biology than enactivism and still come to the same conclusion, mind you) it makes perfect sense that human’s possess a deep experiential nature – its inherent to any biological entity. Humans are simply a different form, existing along a continuum, of experience-bearing organisms.
This is where things start to get murky, but we can, I think, breach the life-matter barrier without resorting to wishful thinking or anthropomorphism, and still see that non-biological matter also possesses a capacity for experience. It may be helpful to add here that, in addition to using the language of enactivism, we can also look to semiotics as a way of understanding the organisms relations to itself, other organisms, and non-biological entities. Biochemist Jesper Hoffmeyer in his work Signs of Meaning in the Universe suggests that “biosemiotics” is a prevalent feature of any living entity. Hoffmeyer, in similar fashion to Varela and Thompson’s enactivism, suggests that organisms not only function through processes of “endosemiotics” – by which he means that the cells in your body are acting semiotically through processes of chemical signification and interpretation – but also that organisms inhabit “semiotic niches” which form an entangled symbol-interpreting mass across the Earth. Thus, in addition to a global ecosphere, there is, according to Hoffmeyer, a global “semiosphere.” (I’m not shy to point out that my phrase “knowledge ecology” has much to do with my reading of both Thompson and Hoffmeyer – a point which also implies that, though I don’t ultimately agree with Brassier and Meillassoux, I find their presence in the semiotic ecosystem valuable – but more on that later).
Lets get back to Whitehead and the problem of matter and experience. Recall that for Whitehead the post-Cartesian landscape is populated by a troublesome species of thought he calls the bifurcation of nature. In the beginning of Process and Reality Whitehead readily labels this position as “incoherent” and subsequently proposes his philosophy of organism. Whitehead’s ontological commitments are different than both Brassier’s and Meillassoux’s (at least I’m confident this is the case for the former, less so with the latter). As the name implies, the philosophy of organism takes the organism as it’s model for the universe, rather than the interness of matter. Whitehead’s organic realism thus views atoms, protons, and electrons as entities that are more like integrally functioning organic unities than the bits, bytes, or blocks of some scientific naturalisms. Here Whitehead, I think, makes the simpler – and more elegant – of two choices. Rather than trying to figure out how a non-feeling, non-experiencing cosmos can emerge as the subjectivity of the human, Whitehead sees feeling (“drops of experience”) as central to existence itself.
Whitehead’s actual occasions are each throbbing centers of experience that, when aggregated together in physical, chemical, and biological processes, produce a greater depth of experience, an increased mode of valuation. Thus, to my mind, the move attempted by the eliminative materialist is akin to a process that Michael Polanyi called “the epicyclic structure of belief.” In his essay “The Stability of Beliefs” Polanyi writes:
To the stabilising power of circularity we may add secondly the capacity of a well developed interpretative framework to supply secondary elaborations to its beliefs which will cover almost any conceivable eventuality, however embarrassing this may appear at first sight. Scientific theories which possess this self-expanding capacity are sometimes described as epicyclical, in allusion to the epicycles that were used in the Ptolomean and Copernican theory to represent planetary motions in terms of uniform circular motions. All major interpretative frameworks have an epicyclical structure which supplies a reserve of subsidiary explanations for difficult situations.
It is in this sense that I believe the eliminativist is performing a kind of Ptolemaic turn towards trying to eliminate experience – despite the gyre this puts subjectivity in – and despite the increasing evidence that it seems we live, however dimly, in a panexperientialist universe. Thus I suggest that meaning is a factor of any set of relations, and is not, contra Brassier, an exclusively human projection. Rather, the universe overflows with meanings-for in every possible direction. I am not troubled by the lack of meaning in the universe, I am troubled by the opposite – the tremendous realization that the cosmos is dripping wet with meaning; a vast, and sensual ecology of feeling and experience . For this reason I find Whitehead’s position more convincing than, definitely Brassier’s, and, probably Meillassoux’s.
Now, as I mentioned, I take an ecological approach to all things philosophical. This means a few things we should keep in mind, and they come standard issue if you are a) a pragmatic pluralist or b) an integral theorist. I am quite comfortable with promoting an ecological diversity of knowledge groups – I truly think this is the way forward. By this I mean that we ought to be encouraging epistemological, ontological, and methodological diversity. The problems to which thought should be responding to today are legion and there is no monopoly on right solutions held by any camp, tribe, association, or movement. Diversity is a healthy sign of an active and robust knowledge ecology.
However, this doesn’t mean, from an ecological point of view, that “everything goes” no, no. Interaction differentiates and individuates and I encourage debate and disagreement – provided that its done for a worthwhile aim. Thus I disagree with folks like Brassier and Meillassoux, even as I have a tremendous respect for two people that are clearly demonstrating an enormous amount of rigor and are, as best they can (and, to be sure, they are much further along than I in terms of articulating their ideas), forwarding a meaningful description of the cosmos (yes, it still bears meaning, even if it is the meaning-of-no-meaning).
All of this is to say that I think Shaviro is on the right track, and that I very much look forward to how these conversations continue to take shape.
Thanks for your response, Nick. I share your enthusiasm for this chapter as integral metholodlogical pluralism (IMP) is to my mind one of the most useful aspects of integral theory. I think you are right to call into question the usefulness of a meta-methodological approach in light of certain postmodern tendencies to aggregate perspectives ad infinitum. However, I think methodological pluralism is one place where E/Z really come out on top: IMP seems to be the type of agile, yet multidimensional research paradigm that ecological issues require. Looking at their description of the research conducted at Hamilton Harbor, Ontario I think clearly shows the value of developing methodological pluralisms (p. 268).Thus having gone this far into the world of integral theory, I think I am prepared to accept most but Read the rest of this entry »
We have crossed the half-way point in our reading of Integral Ecology and in this weeks readings E/Z take us through through the “Who” of their “What x Who x How” equation for performing ecological research. Adrian has an excellent response up (he is this weeks designated driver) and I will be posting comments on his remarks in addition to my own response here.
Adrian’s post “On Noosphere and Noesis” really gets into some interesting and important questions, many of which still hinge on the difficulties we encountered in week #1 when trying to gain clarity on the troublesome question of subjectivity, where we threw around several related, though clearly different terms (“panpsychism,” “panexperientialism,” “prehension,” “pansemiotics,” etc). I think our difficulties in discussing the concept of “noosphere” (which is first introduced in detail in chapter 3 of Integral Ecology) fall within this same rubric of troublesome language and definitions.
Comments on Chapter 2, “It’s All About Perspectives: The AQAL Model”
By Sam Mickey
Chapter 2 gets us further into the AQAL model: the all-quadrant, all-level framework that we started exploring last week. The AQAL model was developed by Wilber in the 1990s, and E-H&Z follow Wilber very closely, maybe even too closely (perhaps “slavishly,” following Adrian’s comment last week). Before elaborating on the specifics of the AQAL framework (pronounced ah-qwul), E-H&Z discuss the “perspectivalism” that is “[c]entral to this framework” (48).
Perspectivalism involves post-disciplinarity. E-H&Z mention that, while their aim to “organize and integrate many different perspectives” shares some commonalities with interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, the Integral approach is actually “postdisciplinary” insofar as it can be used in contexts that are disciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary (47). Post-disciplinary is synonymous with meta-disciplinary, as they mention in a footnote (557n5). Are they drawing too precise of distinctions here with this proliferation of prefixes? Or maybe not precise enough? That is a question I have for Integral Theory in general. I appreciate all of the distinctions, but I feel like they always slip into too much precision (e.g., distinguishing between inter-, meta-, multi-, post-, and meta-) and not enough precision (giving short shrift to Romanticism and postmodernism). Reading Integral Theory, I’m often reminded of Aristotle (Ethics, 1094b) saying that an educated person is one who adheres to the clarity of what they study, treating objects of study with the precision those objects call for, not less precision, and not more.
Comments on The Introduction: “Whose Environment Is It?” and Chapter 1: “The Return of Interiority: Redefining the Humanity-Nature Relationship”
Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World, the near 800 page tome written by Michael Zimmerman and Sean Esbjorn-Hargens begins with a rather simple description of a forest scene. In this forest we find beetles, Douglas firs, flying helicopters, photographers, grizzly bears, chainsaws, bulldozers, and the wandering satellite eyes of GIS imaging equipment. In addition to this we also find environmentalists, ecological scientists, loggers, politicians and manufacturers all in a curious debate; we might say the focus of this debate is to determine the “reality” of the forest. “Which is the “real” forest?” our authors ask. Whose perspective counts in the construction of this forest? What does it mean that the forest exists multiply, as it is encountered by different species of animals, different kinds of equipment, and different kinds of humans?
This opening scene represents the core of integral ecology. If you can see why the multiplicity of the forest, and the multiplicity of perspectives that seek to determine how to relate to the forest is a problem, then you are probably, in one way or another, an integral ecologist. Over the next several weeks we will be exploring the central issues presented in Integral Ecology, investigating its key assumptions, and perhaps interrogating some of it’s weaknesses. To do this we will need some basic knowledge of integral theory, much of which is provided with a good deal of clarity in the introduction and in the first chapter of the book. Our goal in this first post will be to explore some of the basic tenets of integral ecology, as well as to ask some questions that might provoke further dialogue into the basic premises of the Esbjorn-Hargans/Zimmerman perspective.
Starting on June 1st a group of us will be discussing the book Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World. If you are unfamiliar with the work, please check out the book, and also visit The Integral Ecology Center for more info.
See below for the reading schedule as well as the individuals hosting the site, feel free to follow along and join in where ever you can!
June 1 – 7: Introduction/Chapter 1 – The Return of Interiority and Conceptual Framework of Integral Ecology (Adam – Knowledge Ecology)
June 8 – 14: Chapter 2 – It’s All About Perspectives: The AQAL Model (Sam – Knowledge Ecology)
June 15 – 21: Chapter 3/4 – A Developing Kosmos/ Developing Interiors (Adrian – Immanence)
June 22 – 28: Chapter 5 – Defining, Honoring, and Integrating the Multiple Approaches to Ecology – TBA
June 29 – July 5: Chapter 6 – Ecological Terrains: The What That Is Examined (Antonio – Mediacology)
July 6 – 12: Chapter 7 – Ecological Selves: The Who That Is Examining (Adrian – Immanence)
July 13 – 19: Chapter 8 – Ecological Research: How We Examine (Nick Hedlund-de Witt – The Integral Ecology Center)
July 20 – 26: Chapter 9 – Ecological Harmony and Environmental Crisis in a Post-Natural World (Tim – Ecology Without Nature)
July 27 – Aug 2: Chapter 10/11 – Practices for Cultivating Integral Ecological/ Integral Ecology in Action Awareness (Michael – Archive Fire)