Speculation and Ecology: Some Notes for Friday’s Talk

May 2, 2012 § 3 Comments


[Images: Billy Kidd]

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 ecologyis 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.

1. Speculative Philosophy

Speculation involves taking everything that we know, and everything we know about what and how we know, and using it to respond to the demands of a given situation. In this sense, speculation is about taking a point of view that is both deep and wide, an attempt to understand how our own bodies are both subjects of speculation and the vehicles by which we speculate. But speculation is also about drawing a line, about questioning the very practice of who gets to draw lines where. It’s about determining when the infinite regress of the subject that knows about how the subject knows about how subjects know has gone too far. Thus while speculation makes a claim about the situation it attends to from within that very situation, it also acknowledges its own risk by choosing to say, “I think this will help, let’s give this a try.”

But what does speculation have to do with ecology? Insofar as ecology is about understanding the relationship between living beings and their worlds, and insofar as speculation involves making a claim about the reality of others (beyond our interests in them), one can say that speculative philosophy and ecology go hand in hand. Ecology implicitly involves coordinating spaces where the multiple interlocking worlds that make up the Earth are mobilized. Any question with an ecological component—involving, say, questions about land use, ethics, and eating habits, or spiritual practices, resources, and social justice—necessarily brings with it the consideration of not just diverse peoples, but diverse peoples, their worlds, and all of the nonhuman beings that get caught up in the human drama of political decision making.

This mode of speculative philosophy is one we can think of as akin to what Isabelle Stengers has called cosmopolitics, what Bruno Latour has called a parliament of things, what Val Plumwood calls dialogical interspecies ethics (“earth others”), what Alfred North Whitehead calls a democracy of fellow creatures, what Donna Haraway has called companion species, what Thomas Berry has called a communion of subjects, what Tim Morton has called ecological coexistentialism and what Ian Bogost has most recently called Alien Phenomenology, where we ask the question: what is it like to be a thing?  

In the spirit of speculative philosophy, I suggest that the modes of thought we use to think about ecology need to change. We need a notion of ecology that implicates our psychology, technology, and economy without getting lost in the battle between making meaning and revealing meaning. Ecology is about science, yes, but it is also about the truth that ecological knowledge is not sufficient for solving ecological problems. If the technical details were all we needed—say, the safe limits of C02 in the atmosphere, for example—we would already be well on our way to an ecologically sound civilization. But we all know this is not all that we need. We need a better methodology when conducting ecological research. Thus in the place of one ecology I suggest three: a material ecology, a media ecology, and a knowledge ecology; or an integral ecology of matter, media, and mind. I’ll focus here only on the media and knowledge ecologies, since most people will already be familiar with the material ecologies described so well by evolutionary and environmental scientists.

2. Knowledge Ecology

Let’s say something about knowledge ecologies first. Knowledge ecologies pre-date human beings by at least the 4 billion years within which life has existed on Earth, and possibly much longer; in this sense knowledge ecology can be seen as a subsection of a wider field of study known as “ecosemiotics.” From this perspective, we find that humans are not alone on Earth in enacting worlds of meaning. Rather, it is the human who arises within an already emplaced, living, and effulgent hum of other beings and their worlds. Amidst the pre-existing knowledge ecologies of orchids, chrysanthemums, and bonobos the human’s own mind is partly configured and extends outwardly, touching the surrounding landscapes with thoughts, language, and ritual. In other words, the human mind-space is only a small portion of a much larger ecology of minds that stretches across the Earth’s biosphere, and this matters when thinking about what ecology means.

As research into cognitive ethology has shown, all organisms, from amoeba to baleen whales, have a unique sense of the world within which they live. Knowledge ecologies thus imply that all organisms have an interior dimension, a psychological life (no matter how alien it may seem to that of the human) within which they construct a meaningful relationship to the worlds around them, and to the other beings they encounter. While knowledge ecologies are not exclusive to humans, it is in the context of the human that we find the explosion of many new knowledge ecologies (e.g., worldviews, paradigms, ideologies, myths, and other subtle ecosystems) exerting their own gravitational pull upon the world. To be sure, an idea may not have the physical substantiality of a hammer or submarine, but it would be difficult to argue that ideas don’t impact the material conditions of the entities around them. In many cases it is an idea (neoliberal economics, for example) that is the decisive factor in generating relations between humans and nonhumans. A study of knowledge ecologies would thus include the role ideas, worldviews, paradigms, or ideologies play in co-shaping human and more-than-human worlds.

3. Media Ecology

Knowledge ecologies share a complex relation to media ecologies. Media ecology, a term first introduced by Neil Postman, refers to the “laws of media” or the so-called “tetrad” first outlined by Marshal and Eric McLuhan. Media ecology has a simple and intuitive definition: media ecology is the study of media as ecology. For the McLuhan’s, the study of media involves understanding the ways in which humans extend their own cognitive and sensory capacities through externalized technologies. The tetrad was formulated as a methodological device to study media interactions and was based around four related questions: what does the medium enhance, make obsolete, retrieve, or reverse? The first two aspects—enhancement and retrieval—investigate what is foregrounded by a specific medium; the second two questions—retrieval and reversal—emphasize what is backgrounded by a specific medium. These media extensions take many forms including the role of speech in oral societies, the role of text in literate societies, and the role of electronic communication in modern societies. Each of these media ecologies enhances, retrieves, reverses, and obsolesces different sensory patterns of organization (e.g., literacy foregrounds visual sensation, but backgrounds hearing; orality foregrounds hearing, but backgrounds seeing).

Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford are also considered media ecologists, though of a different stripe. Ellul critiques the way in which the technification of society (following the industrial revolution) has led to a reorganization of human labor and social relationships so that, in the post-industrial period, human societies become organized around the logic of machines. As such the requirements of efficiency, rationality, automation, technification, and the subordination of more-than-human-ecologies are mandated in order for machine technology to continue thriving. Mumford launches similar critiques through an analysis of the history of technology and, more specifically, by tracing the history of the city as mode of human dwelling. In this context media ecologies also include industrial technologies, cities, modes of production, and the ways in which all of these factors influence human social organization and psychology.

But where the Mcluhans and media ecologists fall short is by limiting the notion of media ecology to humans. For reasons mysterious to this scholar, the Mcluhans rejected the notion that the laws of media applied to other species, despite the fact that beavers build damns, ants build colonies populated by millions (and engage in complex systems of agriculture), and that all organisms are in fact “niche-constructing” organisms, in part building their “environment,” and extending their own particular embodiments out of their own behavior. Pushing media ecology to include all organisms is an important step to take. But why stop there? It is possible to push media ecology even further when applied in a Whiteheadian sense, thereby generalizing the concept to incorporate any entity whatsoever.

When generalized, media ecology becomes much more interesting and takes on a fully ontological character. All of the laws of media described by the McLuhans could then apply not just to humans, but also to entities of all shapes and sizes. For cars, paved roads are a part of their media ecology; for mp3s, iPods are a staple of their media ecology; and for a variety of botanical items—tulips, apples, marijuana, and potatoes being among the most noted—human beings themselves constitute a functional feature of these organisms’ media ecology. In other words, the media ecology is not just limited to the ways in which humans extend themselves into their world, but rather notes the way in which any organism (and indeed any entity in the universe) extends itself into a world. In this sense, a Whiteheadian media ecology explodes the notion of the extended phenotype out of the biological realm to suggest that all actors are capable of becoming ecologies that can help proliferate and transform other actors given the right conditions

4. Conclusions

By focusing ecological research on three levels, we also come to the conclusion that ecology exists both within and without the correlation between the human and world (or between any organism and its world) and for this reason ecology cannot be reduced to the relation between an organism and its enacted life-world(s). Rather, ecology speaks to a cosmos of numinous depth that breathes its presence into the flesh of our bodies, showering us with radioactive isotopes, interstellar gamma rays, and fractal mathematics as much as it does golden retrievers, probiotics, and nature parks. For this reason, ecology is not the same as environment; ecology is not the same as the relationship between organisms and the environments; ecology is another name for the erupting, evolutionary actuality of the cosmos and includes the rushing force of galaxies spinning around supernova cores just as readily as it does the composition of music, philosophy, and architecture.

A cosmopolitics in the context of ecology renders certain the fact that insides and outsides on the planet Earth have imploded. The smog-filled air we breathe is as much a product of the social and political thought patterns humans have enacted as it is of CO2 emissions being released by global confederations of technologically powerful producers and consumers. The ecology of knowledge in particular calls to mind the intimate connection between human thought, language, and culture, and the overriding reality that human beings are but one actor amidst a diverse society of beings—both within and without the human skin—living, breathing, and perishing inside of the much larger ecology of the Earth. The promise of a re-visioned ecology, sketched only in brief here, is that by taking ecology into account on three levels—matter, media, and mind—we are better able to construct practices of research that can aid the complex, multi-leveled worlds of which we are all a part.

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