Reflections on Melancholia and Ecology: An Introduction

by Anthony Paul Smith

In Richard Louv’s recent DePaul lecture he ended his talk with a provocative statement, saying that if you were to ask the average 20-something American how they envision the future he thinks most would imagine a future like Blade Runner or Mad Max. While these dystopian visions are a bit dated, with most of my students probably thinking more of The Hunger Games (will we really be that well dressed after the apocalypse) or The Road, it served to remind me of the often remarked upon link between depressing news and ecology. Most of my students, the only unscientific sampling of 18-22 year-olds I have access to, seem to agree that most of what ecology tells them that seems to matter is ultimately depressing. Ecology doesn’t even comfort us anymore with the old philosophical theodicy of the balance of nature! And, as Louv made mention, this does seem to disempower them. Looking at the issues regarding global climate change it does appear like the only meaningful changes would have to be made at a level very few of us feel we have access to in our increasingly alienated political situation. Louv mentioned that we need to do a better job of imagining a different future, and I agree, but I don’t think such an imagination come come without a bit more tarrying with the dark side of our world exposed to the energy of the sun day in and day out by ecology.

To start with, the reason I think we can’t simply go forward fashioning a vision of a better world is, as ecologically-inflected humanists, we risk then simply creating a theodicy. And to my mind, nothing breeds more depressives than a theodicy that satisfies from the perspective of reason, but in the everyday will always fail to account for the real suffering confronted there. Reason is weak in the face of pain and death. But it also relates to a general difference between melancholy and depression that one can find in Freud and others, and beautifully written about by my friend Brad Johnson. If these theorists are correct, there is some kind of link between creativity and the melancholic person. A drive to create a future can arise out of dissatisfaction with this present, with this world. And so, this will inaugurate a series of posts on melancholy and ecology, exploring the role of affect in ecologically-inflected philosophy and theory.

Now affect-theory has become something of a trend amongst humanities researchers in the past decade, but my first experience of it came from Gilles Deleuze‘s reading of Henri Bergson on what he calls “creative emotion” (though I have also written on it in relation to ecology for a volume on Spinoza). In short, though sometimes human beings like to think of themselves as rational agents, all intentions and reasons, we are more than that. We can find ourselves caught up in flows and movements of thought that are, not irrational, but something like outside the rational. Bergson describes it beautifully in relation to music in his last book, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion:

“Let the music express joy or grief, pity or love, every moment we are what it expresses. […] When music weeps, all humanity, all nature, weeps with it. In point of fact it does not does not introduce those feelings into us; it introduces us into them as passers-by are forced into a street dance.”

That’s what I hope to do with this series of posts, a few reflections on melancholy to see if it is, in relation to ecology, perhaps a creative emotion.


Filed under Affect and Ecology

2 responses to “Reflections on Melancholia and Ecology: An Introduction

  1. Christine Skolnik

    Much to ponder here. But here’s an initial response. Could we begin with an affect-laden (positive or negative) version of the future? And would this (not a rhetorical question) contrast with heartless and soulless visions? And speaking of Deleuze and Bergson, how does the call for a new vision of the future (happy or melancholy) relate to the virtual? I think you’re suggesting a melancholy tomorrow—right? Like the movement from psychosis to health through depression.

  2. Christine Skolnik

    Also what’s the role of anxiety? I think anxiety is more akin to depression than melancholia, to be respectful of your distinctions. But see this Tim Morton talk:

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