by Christine Skolnik
Following up on a recent Institute for Nature & Culture conversation around Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought and William Jordan’s The Sunflower Forest, I invited environmental and economic justice activist, Jeff Tangel and restoration historian, William Jordan to respond to a thesis that emerged there. Here is my attempt to articulate that thesis followed by responses from Jeff and Bill.
Liam Heneghan proposed that Bill Jordan’s work exceeds his stated subject matter—restoration—in a similar way that Tim Morton’s work exceeds climate change as a stated topos. His comment provoked me to think about natural degradation in general as a hyperobject. It’s beyond our ability to grasp intellectually, and though we are committed to discrete acts of restoration we know that we cannot turn back the ecological clock.
See “Hyperobject Irene”:
The goal of engagement with both restoration projects and initiatives that reduce green house gases may not be to enact some master plan that is likely to succeed, but to struggle in the face of overwhelming challenges and in doing so, achieve a better understanding of our relationship to ecosystems. Mindfulness, ritual, atonement, affective engagement, and health were all on the table during that INC discussion, and I might add to that buffet of benefits developing the capacity for complex systems thinking. At that meeting I suggested that capitalism is another such hyperobject, referring explicitly to Jeff Tangel’s current work. If we accept the adage that we cannot solve today’s problems with the technologies that we used to create them, then homogenous modernist meta-narratives must surely be counted among such dubious technes.
Jeff Tangel: Faced now with some understanding of objects too big to be “fixed” in any common sense of the word—hyper-objects like climate change, natural degradation, and consumer capitalism—we still must choose to do something. But what? In The Plague, Camus’s protagonist, Dr. Rieux is faced with a devastating epidemic within the Algerian city of Oran. Citizens are quarantined. Life within the city becomes simple provisioning, the treatment of the sick—and the disposal of the bodies.
Each of the main characters portrays different choices, different means towards their respective ends, while sharing the common hope of the epidemic’s passing. Dr. Rieux chooses sympathy—an understanding of the world that he employs as a fulcrum, as a solid place to make a stand. By assisting those suffering an unbearable situation, he maintains sanity, and he survives the terrible epidemic. This is a remarkably similar to Tim Morton’s prescription in The Ecological Thought in which he argues the only sensible way forward is to act with care and concern for the strange stranger. And to do that post-haste.
Camus’s work is an allegory, representative of our common existential condition. Likewise, our environmental problems are deeply shared; they are nowhere in particular, but instead, everywhere. Our condition is the product of our understanding of the world as a place of production; it is a product of our use of production as our fulcrum. And so, like it or not we are in assemblage with the chemicals in our own bodies, our systems of exchange, and our beliefs about means and ends. While water tables drop and sea levels rise, Styrofoam maintains itself just fine.
What should we do then? First, do nothing, and plenty of it: stop understanding the world in terms of production. What gives Styrofoam the edge over humans? Could it be that it is unproductive, that it wants nothing, produces nothing and does nothing? Conversely, our exponential acts have put us in this “fine mesh we’re in,” ironically producing objects that will outlive us.
But we must do something, so how to decide? What is the fulcrum on which we can stand to make decisions within this mesh? Like Dr. Rieux and Morton, sympathy and compassion—tout de suite! Or as Randy Honold has said: “We tried taking, and that didn’t work. Maybe we should try giving.” True pragmatism. And so, sustainability may turn out to be awareness, ahimsa, and care—a seamless alignment of means and ends. Beyond that, satiety and doing nothing. After all, ours is a plague of our own making; it is a product of our production. So first thing: stop production.
William Jordan: In a rant that anticipates by 400 years our concerns about the prospects of global climate change, Titania, the queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” (II,i: 81-117) attributes the disordering of the climate to her husband, who, she asserts, has interfered with the rituals by which the fairies maintain the order of the world. If we allow that fairies may be taken in this context as “people,” what Shakespeare is depicting here is actually anthropogenic climate change. And the passage reminds us of an ancient wisdom we should perhaps hasten to recover and put into practice at this perilous moment on the verge of climate disaster. This is that people have always understood that they live in a world—a hyperworld, if you will—that they can’t control, but that they can, in the right spirit, cajole, seduce, appease, bewitch, sweet-talk . . . let us say charm, into a congenial mood.
To this I would add the observation that this sweet-talk is not merely fanciful. No, the ritual does not change the weather. But it does renew and maintain the inner, human resources of knowledge, skill, restraint and caring on which, in the end, the world really does depend. If this is true, then we are looking at the root of our environmental difficulties in the demotion of ritual and its removal from the center of community life that has been an aspect of the modern experiment.
Perhaps we will find—if we are lucky, or adventurous enough to do so—that the solution lies not in the technologies that “got us into the mesh,” as Jeff nicely puts it, but in the ancient technologies of the imagination: myth, symbol, ritual and the arts. Actually, this comes close to Jeff’s ideal of doing nothing. Of course, ritual is not doing nothing. But, as defined by Anthropologist Roy Rappaport, it entails acts “not entirely encoded by the performer,” and so enacts a radical deference to nature that is perhaps better than nothing precisely because it is active and deliberate.
So, let the ritual and festival begin.
Who ever thought we could save the world without the dance of ritual? Or that we would even want to try? And what better context for the invention of ritual than the practice of ecological restoration?
Christine Skolnik. Thank you gentlemen. Makes me think about ways to restore/refresh/retrain our brains, and how that would affect the environment.
P.S. Just in c/o Randy Honold re. Jeff Tangel’s contribution, and call out to another DePaul favorite, Levi Bryant’s “McKenzie Wark: How Do You Occupy an Abstraction?”: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/mckenzie-wark-how-do-you-occupy-an-abstraction/
 Here’s a plug for Tim Morton’s blog, Ecology Without Nature as well as our own Rick Elmore: http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/search?q=hyperobjects
 Morton, Tim. The Ecological Thought