photo by Randall Honold
I’ve been spending time recently with Tim Morton’s new book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. I ordered it as the main text for a course on philosophy and the environment I’m teaching in December. The course lasts only two weeks and is two-thirds online, so I thought it would be a valuable exercise to focus intensely on one topic: the meaning of global warming. What could be a better book to use? Well, last night while struggling to write the introductory lecture, I found myself echoing Morton in quoting a Talking Heads song, muttering to myself, “my god, what have I done?”
Then this morning something clicked. I recalled the Dr. Suess book, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. It may have had special resonance growing up in wintry Wisconsin, where the prospect of interminable show shoveling had us understandably longing for a felis ex machina to relieve us of finger-numbing duties. You may recall the basics of the plot: Two kids are directed by their mother to shovel the walk while she goes shopping. The Cat in the Hat shows up (again – the same dramatis personae were in the original), snow-shoeing into their house and promptly helping himself to a piece of cake while reclining in a warm bath. That impertinent behavior causes a pink bathtub ring which the Cat removes with the mothers’ white dress. The pink spot is “re-moved” to, in turns, a wall, shoes, a rug, and a bed. With the help of littler and littler alphabetized cats emerging from his headwear, the pink spot is transferred to a TV, a sauce pan, and finally fanned outside to the snow in the yard. Attempts to eradicate the spot by pop gun, rake, and baseball bat only serve to spread the mess until the last anti-spot combatant-in-hat, the microscopic Little Cat Z, deploys the magical “Voom” to successfully clean up all the pink. When all the snow is restored to its original whiteness the Cat and his re-hatted assistants depart with the open offer of future spot therapy.
Theodore Geisel’s The Lorax gets all the attention as an environmental cautionary tale, but I think this one is the more interesting. If we’re truly living in the age of hyperobjects, per Morton – things that are massively distributed relative to humans: viscous, nonlocal, generating their own time and space – then even the wisdom of the Lorax is going to look quaint and inadequate. Let’s assume the pink spot is analogous to something like nuclear radiation, a persistent reality resistant to remediation. Both spread from a localized, background space to ubiquity. They can’t be wiped away or moved away. Did Geisel mean to say that, like Heidegger, only a god-like power from elsewhere can save us now, called forth by the spread of doom we’re within? Or did he want us to not give up the hope that we can solve our environmental problems with enough imagination (“maybe we can engineer some Zoom!”)? The Cat in the Hat is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, so helpful and all, but is that what we need?
I think I need to get my students to help me figure this out.
By Rick Elmore and Jon Elmore
Recently, while composing an essay on animal perception in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, we had the pleasure of encountering Philip Armstrong’s book, What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity (2008). In this text, Armstrong argues that the stories we tell about non-human animals in modern fiction are closely aligned with the framework of modernity and, particularly, the modern subject. In this sense, Armstrong’s work takes its place alongside a number of recent texts such as Kelly Oliver’s Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human (2009), which argues that non-human animals have been fundamental to our conception of the human in ways that have gone previously unacknowledged. It’s an important point and worth repeating. However, one of the things that struck us most forcefully in Armstrong’s book was a claim he makes about anthropocentrism.
A few pages into the introduction, Armstrong notes that in general to speak of non-human agency is to invite the charge of anthropomorphism: “Surely such a notion imputes to non-humans a capacity—traditionally considered unique to human beings—for conscious planning, decision-making, and choice” (3). It is commonplace when thinking about issues of animality to assume that any claim to non-human agency must be fundamentally anthropocentric, insofar as such claims seem to attribute aspects of human agency to animals. Although Armstrong here only addresses claims to animal agency, one sees this kind of critique in other aspects of animal studies, positing the notion that any thinking about other animals cannot help but engage in a violent “humanizing.” Behind such claims is the assumption that to begin from a human standpoint dooms us to the all too human limits of that standpoint. This logic is not unrelated to the basic ethos of Speculative Realism, insofar as there too the question (or one of them) is to what degree starting from a human or correlationist standpoint necessarily taints one’s analysis in an anthropocentric or correlationist way. There are, of course, good reasons to worry about anthropocentrism and about the potential for violence in our thinking about animals (and the rest of the world for that matter). Although Armstrong is certainly not the first thinker to challenge this kind of blanket concern over anthropocentrism, he questions it in an interesting way.
For Armstrong, following the work of Jonathan Burt, Chris Philo, and Chris Wilbert, the basic problem with this charge of anthropocentrism is that it assumes that “agency” is a fundamentally human concept. Yet speaking of animal agency does not necessarily suggest “assumptions about what specifically constitutes animal subjectivity or interiority” (3). There seems no reason to assume that all agency, subjectivity, or interiority need be human or similar to the human. In fact, it seems far more plausible that engaging with non-human animals challenges rather than reinforces our conceptions of agency, subjectivity, etc. Hence, these questions, “turn[s] the charge of anthropomorphism on its head, asking instead whether evidence of animal resistance in cultural texts and practices might not destabilize taken for granted assumptions about how agency works in the first place” (3). For Armstrong, the notion of animal agency, thus, leads not so much to anthropomorphism as to a critique of anthropocentrism.
Armstrong’s point is that, in principle, the claim to animal agency remains anthropocentric only so long as one assumes that the notion of “agency” being discussed is somehow related to human agency. Yet, this need not be the case; rather, the possibility of exploring other forms of agency challenges the hegemony of “human” agency. Hence, Armstrong’s analysis of non-human agency and its implications for our understanding of anthropomorphism and agency leads him to a kind of call to action: “A reconceptualization of agency [...] might facilitate a mode of analysis that does not reduce the animal to a blank screen for the projection of human meaning, and might offer productive new ways of accounting for the material influence of the non-human animal upon humans, and vice versa” (3). This is, of course, no easy matter, and he spends the rest of his book working through such “modes of analysis” in literary studies, exploring some of the most well-known, non-human animals of modern fiction: the whale in Moby Dick, the creature in Frankenstein, the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, and so forth. However, what we found so interesting in Armstrong’s analysis is the way in which it points to a certain anthropocentrism at the very heart of the concern for anthropomorphism.
One of the interesting insights springing from Armstrong’s argument is that the charge of anthropocentrism rests, ironically, on a profound privileging of the human. The notion that all human engagements with the world must always entail the “humanizing” of the world posits the world as something that cannot but conform, in some basic sense, to the human. In such a worldview, every engagement with the world is always already “human” in a way that forecloses in advance the possibility of access to any truly non-human world. Hence, in a somewhat strange turn of events, the worry over anthropocentrism ends up positing a remarkably anthropocentric world, a world in which every statement, analysis, experiment, and fact about the world ultimately figures the human. There is, of course, much that can be said about this kind of worldview, but the very first thing that must be said, it seems to us, is that it just can’t be right.
Borjan Bonaque, http://www.borjabonaque.com/portfolio/animal-agency/
Below is a comment on Tim Morton’s Realist Magic available on Open Humanities Press, and recently published in paperback. For a review see a previous Environmental Critique post by Rick Elmore, “Adventures in Realist Magic” (6.20.13). (WordPress link functions not cooperating in this endeavor.) I highly recommend the paperback to scholars who want to grasp the material more firmly and really work with it.
Timothy Morton’s critique of modern causality in Realist Magic is in some sense a fulfillment of an unspoken promise in the earlier works. It reveals the fragile “man” behind the curtain of the normal science that underwrites consumer capitalism, and it synthesizes Morton’s aesthetic and ecological investments in a manner that avid readers will find particularly satisfying. While it is commonplace to critique the scientific establishment in the name of ecology, much current criticism fails to grasp the elusiveness of the empirical method as a hyperobject that confounds conventional analyses. Morton’s thesis that causality is aesthetic braves the complexities. It also comes to the rescue of sleeping Beauty and the dwarfed Humanities (to confound and confuse narratives even further).
In this comment I focus on Morton’s stunningly simple inversion of the rhetorical canons. The five canons, often used to describe the writing process, are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. In Realist Magic Morton privileges delivery, arguing that the other canons, as aesthetic moments, follow (in reverse order) from delivery. Indeed, the work performs this thesis, beginning with the opening of Realist Magic and Morton’s sound track of PM Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss. The melancholy 90’s mix sets the tone for the work at hand, attunes us to Morton’s melancholy, and foregrounds relationships between affect and cognition within the context of causality.
Linking the rhetorical canons and causality is not so radical given the dominance of the canons as tools of thought in the pre-modern era, and the likelihood that the empirical method was derived from these rhetorical habits. However the reversal of order and focus on delivery, as opposed to invention, are very—Morton. As I suggest above, the inversion also dovetails with affect theory, if delivery follows sense of audience and sense of audience follows affect (attachment), as outlined, for example, in Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself. I particularly appreciate Morton’s references to sound throughout the text. Sound is an important element of rhetoric (which I think is categorically affective), not only because tone is always constructive of meaning, self, and relationships, but because internalized qualities of rhythm and harmony pervade all rhetorical performances including Morton’s text. This emphasis on sound is performed by the cadences of Morton’s well-known authorial voices, articulated through his prose, and in the echoes of his public and new-media selves. Morton’s recursive style is also punctuated by sharp images, including (my favorite) clown faces crowding the picture frame.
Circling inelegantly back to rhetoric, aesthetic and affective qualities of causality are evident not only in the rhetorical canons, but also in the Classical Stases, which are the stages of an argument or deliberation. The conventional order (stages) of Stases arguments (“stasis” is the singular) are fact, definition, cause and effect, evaluation, and policy/procedure, or what I might here modulate into “practice.” (This is one of many versions of the Stases, btw.) Arguments about causality are crucial to conventional processes of deliberation because they are the presumed basis of value judgments and practical procedures, but they are relevant to the discussion at hand because, as arguments, they have an affective quality. A good deal of contemporary critical and rhetorical theory (not to mention neuroscience) has proposed that cause and effect follow value judgments, which follow practice as habit. To the extent that all of these arguments are aesthetic/affective, not only sound and sight, but various other senses (external and internalized), determine our perceptions of causality. Following Morton, rhetoricians might further explore an inversion of the Stases. We might ask what aesthetically and affectively warrants practice and work back through value, cause and effect (or effect and cause), and definition, to fact.
Such a reverse practice, a rhetrico-hermeneutic moonwalk if you will, could be applied to virtually any socio-cultural situation or text. Ecological restoration, for example, a major concern of the Institute for Nature & Culture which sponsors Environmental Critique, could be encountered as an aesthetic problem, which derives its ethical means and meanings from beauty, writ large.
On the simplest level Realist Magic reminds us that causes are infinitely complex and our instrumental understanding of them is always an interpretation. The book is full of rhetorical magic performed, as Morton advises, right before our eyes. While the old alchemists strived to turn dross into gold, Morton merely vanishes matter, and thus the usual “substance” of both capital and science. He does not dissolve the real into the ideal however. Rather he separates the real from the material, redirecting our attention to affect, the limitations that science places on our affective experience, and the capacity of art to reveal and realign our priorities.
Image titles, artists, and sources in the order they appear:
Installation 1 by Gregory Euclide:
Field of Flowers by David Friedman:
Self-portrait with Masks by James Ensor:
The Big Bang by David Friedman:
by Liam Heneghan
More than any at other conferences I have attended, participants in the annual Mars Society meeting, which was held this year in Boulder, Colorado (August 2013) — their 16th such meeting, my first — like to nod their agreement. In contrast, attendees at the meetings I more regularly visit concerning the ecological fate of the planet signal their comprehension with aghast motionlessness. When Robert Zubrin, director of the (currently Earth-bound) Mars Society, announced in Boulder this summer, that Mars is our future, the audience nodded. Rather, I should say, we nodded.
Not only is a manned mission to Mars technically feasible with existing, or almost-existing, technology but Zubrin insists that it is desirable for us to go to Mars sooner rather than later. Zubrin was reasserting an argument that he has been making for some time. In The Case for Mars — The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must (1996) he set out his blueprint for Mars Direct, a plan for manned missions to Mars that would pave the way for colonization and would be both cost-effective and possible with current technology.
Why should we go to Mars? There are economic arguments in favor of us doing so, Zubrin claims. Certain elements, such as deuterium used in nuclear reactors, are hyper-available elements on Mars could be profitably used on Earth. Additionally, rare metals: platinum, gold and silver, can be
recovered from Mars and returned to Earth. The economic arguments are important to the case for Mars, but central to Zubrin’s argument, is what exploration of Mars says about us as a species. We should go because we can; it’s who we are. According to Zubrin “virtually every element of significant interest to industry is known to exist on the Red Planet”. Of all the planets in our solar system Mars has by far the greatest potential for self-sufficiency. The resources on Mars will cater for both initial colonists and for the subsequent expansion of a civilization on the Red Planet. For example, subsurface accumulation of water can provide supplies to explorers. Moreover, the colonization of Mars “reaffirms the pionee
ring character of our society.” Drawing parallels to Roald Amundsen’s successfully traversing the wilderness of Canada’s Northwest Passage in 1903, an expedition which adopted a “live off the land” strategy, Zubrin appeals to a pioneering grit and esprit in forging his plans for Mars. Summarizing his reasons for colonizing Mars, Zubrin wrote, “For our generation and many to follow Mars is the New World”. Considering that as of the 9th September 2013 more than 200,000 have applied for a one-way settlement mission to Mars over at the Mars One website, it would seem that Zubrin’s assessment is confirmed.