Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part II


Popular neuroscience suggests that affect underlies ethical decision. Though not all of the contemporary brain-obsessed arguments are compelling, traditional psychology, at least since William James, has forwarded similar hypotheses. Scholars of rhetoric also recognize the force of the pathos appeal, and have done so for thousands of years. If our emotional responses impact our ethical decisions and aesthetic response is also related to the emotions, then ethics and aesthetics may be more closely related than contemporary scholars in the liberal arts and sciences have generally assumed or asserted.

But what do we assume about the basic nature of the relationship between aesthetic response and affect? Do we merely love the beautiful, or do we find beauty in that which we love? For example, do we become attached to a natural place, because it is picturesque or because we associate it with meaningful events and other attachments?   Or, if such responses are “inherited,” either because they are instinctual or culturally conditioned, do ethical and aesthetic values co-emerge?

Related to these questions are the backward and forward looking problems of environmental degradation and generational amnesia. On one hand environmental degradation suggests that we may become less attached to wild places in the future as they are diminished and or degraded. On the other hand, generational amnesia suggests that our aesthetic standards may also be degraded. In a twenty-first century urban environment, for example, a small, roof-top garden may have more value (affective and aesthetic), by sheer contrast with its surroundings, than a large vegetable or flower garden in a more traditional, rural environment. Still, as we become increasingly overwhelmed with technology, it may also be that our appreciation for place and natural beauty is diminishing overall, as our early memories and attachments are less likely to be formed out of doors. And this trend may be contrary to an ethical imperative of caring for more places and more creatures. But what if an ethic of inclusiveness included caring about, even loving the ugly?

Institute for Nature and Culture co-founder and theorist of restoration ecology, Bill Jordan has raised the issue of restoring species that pose a threat to human interests, even a threat to human life—rattle snakes, for example (Making Nature Whole, 5). Jordan’s approach contrasts significantly with the idea of restoring “natural capital.” Is the latter approach truly ethical if it primarily serves human interests? Can we be sure that we even understand our own interests—that we can predict the future in this sense? Could a more inclusive ethical approach address this problem? And how would such an ethic relate to aesthetics?

The concepts of generational amnesia and degraded environmental brought to my mind the example of the L. A. River. The river (qua river) ceased to exist when it was replaced with a massive concrete channel built in the 1950’s and 1960’s.   Angelinos literally forgot the river because it disappeared, almost without a trace. Instead water flowed into and out of “the wash.” The mostly dry, concrete channel became an icon of the apocalypse, in Hollywood films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Escape from LA (1996), and indeed complex ecosystems, as worlds, were destroyed by this massive human intervention. But somehow the river was not completely forgotten.

In the late 1990’s a group of visionary citizens conceived of the absurd notion of restoring the river in a hybrid fashion. From these early initiatives emerged the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan.[1] What I found most remarkable about this plan, when I examined it, were the rich renderings (future simulations) of the river as an ecosystem, a place for recreation, and a cultural venue—a place in which to form attachments. In the past few years the restoration has achieved gradual but marked success with Angelinos now actually kayaking in certain areas.

So how did such an ugly place become the object of attention and care? Did citizens become interested in the “river” because they saw a potential for beauty, or did it become beautiful because it received care and attention? I’m not sure these are answerable or even meaningful alternatives.   What may be meaningful, though, is the implication that ethical decision and action require us to look beyond surface features to the spirit of a place—the spirit of a creature. The potential for beauty may be in everything we behold, as a function of our care and attention.

Image Reference: Los Angels River Revitalization Master Plan: Chapter 2, page 4


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The Sound and The Sample

The DePaul Humanities Center




 What does it mean to take a sound and remove it from its original context, place it into a new moment, and generate novel meaning from that? Capturing a percussive beat, a bit of an old LP, the vibration of a stringed instrument, a stolen moment of a bird in a meadow—all of these instances of sampling something and then doing something unique with that sample raise issues about what a sound is and what it means for a sound to be taken up and used anew—for art, for science, and for everything that is both or neither.

Join an interdisciplinary panel of scholars and artists for a night of innovative performance and analysis that sounds the depths of the ethics, ontology, and aesthetics of what it means to hear and what it means to sample a world that sounds.


  • The Speers, “Mrs. Dalloway Excerpt”
  • Liam Heneghan, “Echoes from the Little Stream of Death”
  • Beverly Fre$h and The Wild American Dogs, with Greg Scott

“Inside of the Night—The Crooner, The Bingo Caller, and You.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

7:00 – 7:30 p.m.

Cortelyou Commons

2324 N. Fremont St., Chicago

(1/2 block east of the Fullerton L stop)

This event is free and open to the public.

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Shifting Ground

(photo by Randall Honold)

(text by Christine Skolnik)

low tide

At low tide

This shifting ground

shaped by water


astral and other bodies

calls and responds

reflects on our image

reflecting our days

marvels at the seeming source

of distinctions

What numberless

wondering worlds

are obscured

by this

bright orb?

What grounds them?

Image Source: Dylar Addict, low tide

Dylar Addict, Home


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After Biopolitics: Society for Literature Science and the Arts, Houston 2015

November 12-15, 2015

Paper/Panel Proposal Due Date: extended to April 15, 2015

Please see below conference description and call for papers.  This is a very intelligent, thought-provoking, and congenial event frequented by friends of INC and EC.

(SLSA is particularly interested in recruiting more scientists, artists, and philosophers at this time.  However, contributions from all disciplines are welcome.)

“Over the past thirty years, no paradigm has become more central to understanding our own moment than the paradigm of biopolitics—a fact that has left hardly any discipline untouched, resulting in new formations such as bioart, bioethics, biotechnology, biomedia, biocapital, bioinformatics, biovalue, and biocomputing, among many others. The reasons for this are not far to seek: the engineering, canalization, domestication, and commodification of “life” in the era of “synthetic biology,” at a level scarcely thinkable fifty years ago; rapid depletion of the earth’s resources in the context of global warming in what used to be called the “first world”; seemingly endless debates over the political and economic complexities of healthcare, social security, lengthening retirement ages and dwindling personal savings rates in the developed West; confrontations over abortion and immigration in the United States, in which the concepts of “life” and “race” are never far from view; the unequal global distribution of access to medical care and medical technologies at the very moment when pharmaceutical industries have never been more deeply woven into daily life in the developed West (or more profitable); and the post-9/11 context of the “war on terror” and ongoing anxieties about security and borders resulting in the normalization of spaces and practices of juridical “exception” such as Guantanamo Bay, drone warfare, and electronic surveillance at a level heretofore unknown, all revolving around a logic whose biological underpinnings reach back to the very origins of the biopolitical in the concept of the “body politic.” Add to these an increasing awareness (in no small part under the pressure of global warming and the emergent paradigm of the “Anthropocene”) of the plight of non-human life (whether in discussions of animal rights, factory farming, and the bioengineering of non-human creatures, or in the increasingly undeniable fact of the sixth major extinction event in the history of the planet) and how deeply imbricated t is with the plight of the human and its technology, and you have ample grounds to understand why “life” (in the broadest sense) has become the central object of politics over the past few decades.

In the face of such developments, the conference theme, “After Biopolitics,” seeks to reexamine the theoretical, cultural, social, and political underpinnings of the biopolitical paradigm, and to explore conceptual resources (both within and outside of the biopolitical paradigm) for the possibility of thinking what has been called an “affirmative” biopolitics that views the intersection of “Life” and the political as a potential space of affinity, community, and creativity, rather than the “thanatopolitics” that has dominated the biopolitical paradigm thus far.”


  • The concept of “Life”
  • Immunitary and autoimmunitary paradigms of biopolitics
  • Race, species, and biopolitics
  • States of exception: theoretical and historical dimensions
  • Bioengineering life
  • Biomedia and bioart
  • Biopolitics and the Anthropocene
  • The politics of medicalization and the Medical Humanities
  • The biopolitics of foodways
  • “Letting die”: the biopolitics of extinction
  • Biopolitics and the ecological paradigm
  • Biopolitics and genocide
  • “Making live”: biopolitics, health, and hygiene
  • Neoliberalism and biopolitics
  • The concept of sovereignty in biopolitical thought
  • Biopolitical histories of race, gender, and sexuality
  • Genetics, epigenetics, and biopolitics
  • “Flesh”: concepts of the body and embodiment in biopoltics
  • Imagining affirmative biopolitical futures
  • These and other topics related to the theme will be welcome. As always, the conference of the Society for Literature, Society, and the Arts is open to wide range of related topics drawn from a broad array of scholarly and creative disciplines and practices that are relevant to the mission of the organization.


For individual paper contributions, submit a 250-word abstract with title. Pre-organized panel submissions, which might include three or four papers per panel, should include an additional paragraph describing the rubric and proposed title of the panel. Roundtables, alternative format panels, and the like are encouraged.

Submit all proposals to

Paper/Panel Proposal Due Date: extended to April 15, 2015

Notification of Acceptance: June 1, 2015

Click here to download the full CFP

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Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part I


In November of last year the DePaul Department of Philosophy Department hosted Ted Toadvine, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, who spoke about the politics of biodiversity (“Biodiversity and the Diacritics of Life”). Toadvine argued that the concept of biodiversity is poorly understood by experts as well as the general public; nevertheless, it is consistently wielded as an argument against commercial development, for example. Some of us in the audience were wary of the neoliberal implications of this argument. If biodiversity, like climate change, is considered a hard concept to grasp, does this give the public license to ignore the environmental impacts of unbridled development?

I was personally more interested in Toadvine’s argument that maximum biodiversity is neither ecological desirable or aesthetically pleasing. Invasive species for example contribute to diversity, but are not ecologically desirable. Aesthetically we appreciate diversity, but in a context of harmony and balance. Toadvine offered a clever and memorable example of a table setting; we wouldn’t want every single piece of china and silverware to be different. He also pointed out that biodiversity is linked to our concepts of “nature,” and often stands in for a vague idea of an aesthetically pleasing landscape.

Toadvine also discussed biodiversity in relationship to identity politics. He reminded us that the concept of biodiversity arose with a focus on diversity in socio-cultural contexts, and argued that the value of social diversity undergirds arguments for biodiversity. While I agree that “diversity” as a social concept is doing rhetorical work in this context, I’m more interested in the broader genealogy of diversity as a value. Toadvine mentioned Darwin, for example, but I’m also reminded of Linnaeus and Enlightenment fascination with biological variation.

Toward the end of the talk, Toadvine adopted a sublime mode, making references to the relationship of human beings to much larger scale phenomena, up to and including the cosmos. I noted, then, that I was emotionally swept along, and subsequently reflected on the relationship between affect and aesthetics in this context. In the Q & A, I commented that the aesthetic may warrant greater attention, in environmental philosophy, because of its relationship to affect, and the arguments from neuroscience that affect underlies judgment. In other words, if our ethical decisions are influenced by our (emotional) attitudes, and our emotions are closely tied to our aesthetic responses, then ethics and aesthetics may be lost cousins—contiguous rather than opposing concepts. I assume that they are opposing concepts in some quarters for two reasons: the tendency in our culture to oppose surface qualities (the aesthetic) to deep truths (ethical), and the academy’s devotion to ethics at the seeming expense of aesthetics.

In the mid eighteenth century Edmund Burke articulated a popular set of assumptions that connected aesthetic response with feeling. The sublime was connected with pain, and the beautiful with pleasure. Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful built on the psychological theories of his time and particularly the association theories of John Locke. Burke’s work reminds us that aesthetics has occupied philosophers for millennia, and his major arguments “consummate” the relationship between psychology and aesthetics. Though Burke’s argument was not overtly ethical, his interlocutor, Mary Wollstonecraft made the connection between ethics and aesthetics clear. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, for example, Wollstonecraft performatively modulated the masculine sublime to her own feminine rights discourse. In the same work Wollstonecraft denounced superficial, feminine beauty and championed intellectual beauty in women. Indeed she redefined beauty in this context.[1]


Circling back to the idea of biodiversity as a proxy for picturesque landscapes, I wonder about the nature of our attachment to the picturesque in nature? Does love follow beauty, or does a judgment of beauty follow attachment to place? Can radically inclusive, neighborly love makes us see landscapes differently and appreciate biodiversity beyond our current, iterated aesthetic conventions? And if our experience of love/beauty became radically inclusive, how would this modulate given aesthetic principles? More in the next installment.

Image Sources:


BBC Radio 4 In Our Time

[1] Skolnik, Christine M. “Wollstonecraft’s Dislocation of the Masculine Sublime: A Vindication.” Rhetorica 21.4 (2003): 205-223. Print.


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Notes From the Banks of the Two Yamunas

By Randall Honold

I had the pleasure of spending the first two weeks of December in India, co-directing a study abroad trip with John Shanahan and Michele Morano of our Department of English. We took 13 undergraduates to Delhi and Mumbai, plus the obligatory day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

It was John’s and Michele’s first visit to the country; my sixth and third with students. Our aim was to plunk students down into places undergoing rapid ecological (in the expansive sense) change and practice paying attention to what’s happening there. It wasn’t about “understanding” India as much as being among some of its dimensions and letting them press upon us. Every place has a fractal quality, inexhaustible with complexity and the ability to overwhelm, but megacities make this truth obvious. We were overstimulated almost every day and it’s an understatement to say we were tired when we got home!

While being bored in India would take some effort, I nevertheless do something brand new every time I’m there. Wangling reasonably compliant co-travelers adds to the adventure. So, given the environmental interests of many in our crew, we arranged to get an up-close look at the Yamuna River, which flows from the lower Himalayas, bisects Delhi, and comprises the main tributary of the Ganges. The Yamuna plays important roles in Indian mythology, literature, religion, history, and now in the political ecology of the region. Overwhelmed and underfunded, sewage processing facilities fail to keep up with the output of 20 million (give or take a Chicago) human bodies, resulting in the continual flow of untreated or insufficiently treated effluent into the river via ten sources. A small contribution to the pollution stems from human cremation. The Nigambodh Ghat, where Hindus have been ritually burning their dead for 3000 years, has gas-powered crematoria, but devout (and affluent) families prefer a sandalwood pyre, the remains of which are placed into the waters. We spent some time in solemn observation of the preparation of one pyre and politely declined the offer of a boatsman to take us on an excursion. Here the river has an inky blue sheen and a complex aroma with top notes of rot, ash, and shit. What parts of the shore that aren’t cemented over are muddy with a few scrubby plants along the barriers. The only nonhuman life in sight are scavenging gulls. The Yamuna, here, is by any definition, not a river. It has no oxygen. It supports no life.


What a contrast we found only a few kilometers north, on the other side of the dam at Wazirabad! There the river was still just that – glistening and rippling and sustaining a robust marsh ecosystem. In our brief time at this spot we saw multiple species of shore birds, fishers in the distance evidently having some luck, and a family setting out a picnic spread.

yamuna north

Efforts to clean up the Yamuna are ongoing. The tales we heard of impediments to river conservation were familiar: not enough funding, politicians breaking promises, increasing shoreline development, volatile chemical dumping, and general public ignorance. While we didn’t head back to our lodgings at the end of the day overly optimistic about the future of the Yamuna, we nevertheless shared a kind of grim realism that the scale of work it will take to bring back and sustain the health of this focal place and so many more like it is necessary and possible. May the two Yamunas become one again.

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It’s the Indifferent Universe That Brings Us Together

by Rick Elmore


There is a deep affinity between what is called Speculative Realism (SR) and pessimism, insofar as both of these philosophical approaches understand the universe as, on a fundamental level, indifferent to human existence. This affinity is most clearly marked in the work of Ray Brassier, for whom the realist commitment to a world independent of human thought leads necessarily to the nihilist conviction that the world is “indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable” (Brassier 2007, xi). From this perspective, realism undermines all that might make humans feel at home in the universe. This basic undermining of the human is, of course, an essential tenet of pessimism. As Eugene Thacker writes, echoing Brassier, pessimism “is the difficult thought of the world as absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes, desires, and struggles of human individuals and groups” (Thacker 2011, 17). From Schopenhauer to Ligotti, pessimism rests on the assertion that “while there may be some order to the self and the cosmos […] it is an order that is absolutely indifferent to our [human] existence” (Thacker 2011, 18). Hence, there is a basic sense in which realism and pessimism agree that, for humans, the universe is not all smiles and noodle salad. We may need the universe, but it certainly does not need us, and this non-reciprocal relation challenges the privilege we’ve so often accorded ourselves. This basic commitment to an indifferent universe is not, however, merely a tenet of pessimism or Brassier’s realist nihilism, but is an implicit assertion of all anti-correlationist realisms, I think.

There have been a number of posts on this site illustrating the way in which SR encompasses an array of philosophical realisms and materialisms (and it is a term that, for various reasons, I think we should move away from). However, what all these positions generally have in common is a resistance to what Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism: the belief that the human-world correlate forms the central element of philosophical investigation (Bryant, Srnicek, Harman 2011, 3). For thinkers such as these (and here I am thinking of Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Timothy Morton, Iain Hamilton Grant, Jane Bennett, but also, as Katerina Kolozova shows in her recent article, “Thinking the Political By Way of ‘Radical Concepts’,” Quentin Meillassoux and François Laruelle, among others) any serious realism rejects the assumed importance of human thought to the constitution of the universe. In their own way, each of these thinkers asserts an indifference of the universe to human existence, that is, they assert a basic pessimism. Now obviously there is much to argue for here, as one would need to show that “indifference” is the fundamental basis of pessimism, and that each of these thinkers, in their quite different philosophical systems, articulates a basic indifference. However, it seems right to me that there is a parallel between the realist assertion of a world independent of the human mind and the pessimist contention of a fundamentally indifferent universe, and that this parallel suggests that realism (understood as an anti-correlationism) necessarily entails a certain pessimism. I think this connection between pessimism and realism helps to clarify the growing interest among realists in the question of horror and the work of H.P. Lovecraft, in particular. However, it also suggests a connection between realism, pessimism, and environmental philosophy, insofar as the critique of anthropocentrism entails a significant displacement of the importance of the human as well.

The critique of anthropocentrism is a commonplace of environmental thought. From Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson to Val Plumwood and Warwick Fox, there has been a recognition that the overprivileging of the human or of certain human capacities contributes to the instrumental, exploitative, and destructive relationship between modern culture and the natural world. From this perspective, it is difficult to imagine a serious environmental philosophy that would not question the place of the human. Yet despite this thoroughgoing critique of anthropocentrism, few environmental thinkers go as far as arguing that the universe is fundamentally indifferent to human existence. (I’m indebted to my friend and one of my favorite environmental philosophers, Keith Peterson for this insight. He’s good stuff, and you should all be reading his work). There are naturally exceptions to this rule, mostly in the tradition of deep ecology. For example, the Australian philosopher, William Grey articulates what he calls a “cosmic anthropocentrism,” the belief that “[t]he intellectual history of the past few centuries can be characterized as pedestal bashing: a succession of successful demolitions of comforting myths through which we have sought to locate ourselves in the world” (Grey 1993, 463). For Grey, modern scientific and social scientific thought develops through a continuous challenge to the place and importance of the human, from the Copernican undermining of the centrality of humans in the universe and the Darwinian displacement of humanity’s biological privilege to Freud’s contestation of the human as uniquely rational, Grey sees the intellectual history of the West, much like Brassier, as an unseating of the supposed importance of the human. It is this unseating that marks an affinity between realism, pessimism, and environmental thought. What I find interesting about this affinity is that it raises the question of whether a thoroughgoing critique of anthropocentrism requires that we accept the ontological and metaphysical claim that the universe is indifferent to human existence?   Put differently, is a certain pessimism requisite of environmental thought or requisite for any robust critique of anthropocentrism? And if it is, how might this connection suggest a realism in environmental thought that goes deeper than the dominant, scientific realism? (This is a question already at play in Tim Morton’s work). In short, I wonder how deep our critique of the human needs to go in environmental philosophy, and in what way realism and pessimism help us to think this critique? And, conversely, are realism and pessimism forms of environmental thinking, forms that could be assisted by a more explicit “ecological” focus?

Image Source: Biospheric Communionism <;


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