by Michael Uhall, The University of Illinois
As a political theorist, I often find myself submerged in the academic and professional details of my work. For example, I spend most of my time reading and writing, and much of what I write is addressed to an audience largely composed of other political theorists. The politics of knowledge production aren’t quite so simple, of course, and I think we political theorists should welcome the imperative to make our work speak to anyone who cares to listen.
In brief, my work addresses what I call the ecological crisis. The ecological crisis does not reduce to climate change – indeed, climate change is only a symptom of something much more intractable. Instead, the ecological crisis refers to a crisis of relationality that obtains at multiple scales – from the individual to the collective, from the local to the global. In short, the ecological crisis started when we started operationalizing the relationship between nature and politics in a certain way.
Call this way pathological modernity, which theoretically misconstrues nature as the ontological space of determination and necessity. If nature is necessitarian, then either the political also is determined by the principle of necessity, or else politics exists somehow apart from nature, even opposed to it.
This poses a ruinous conceptual dilemma that leads to extinction.
Politics as the unique synthesis of collective action and collective imagination becomes impossible both if nature determines it and if nature serves as its antagonist. If nature determines our politics, then this eliminates the possibility of free action. Without the possibility of free action, collective action ceases to be action. Action becomes behavior; decision is determined. On the other hand, if there is freedom – that is to say, if politics is possible, after all – then this produces an irresolvable antagonism between nature and the political. Hence, if nature serves as antagonist to the political, then politics transforms into sheer domination, and a politics of domination is no more genuinely political than is mere compulsion itself.
Think of it like this: either nature makes the political impossible, or politics is purchased at the price of eliminating or excluding nature, practically and theoretically. This dilemma drives pathological modernity forward, and it produces and sustains the ecological crisis as such.
In short, my work begins with the two intuitions: (1) something is terribly wrong and (2) the future will not resemble the past.
Rather than merely producing a critical theoretical diagnostic, however, I want to suggest alternatives and reasons for adopting such alternatives.
For example, in my work, I argue that the pathologically modern philosophy of nature to which we adhere can be replaced by an altermodern philosophy of nature that incepts a degree of freedom at the origin of nature itself. We rarely examine what we are talking about when we talk about nature. Instead, we simply assume that what is natural is deterministic and necessitarian. There are historical and intellectual reasons for this, but, these reasons, like all reasons, are subject to revision – else we are mere dogmatists and worshipers at the altar of modernity.
I also argue that such an altermodern philosophy of nature allows us to reconstruct how we conceive of human subjects – that is to say, of what it means to be an individual or collective agent capable of taking action and making decisions. In short, I conclude that subjectivity is – must be – an emergent property of ecologically embodied immanent relationality. In other words, agency emerges only in ecological conditions. Accordingly, I propose the concept of companion ecologies to help us understand better what and who we are. Companion ecologies name the composite, multimodal, yet entitative pluralities that constitute our ecological conditions, ranging from our gut and skin microbiomes to our habitats more generally, as well as the numerous agencies that compose and traverse such spaces.
Both the altermodern philosophy of nature and the theory of the ecological subject I propose allow us to intervene in the operation of commonplace political terms. Specifically, I look at identity, community, and normativity. In ordinary language, these refer to the ways in which we are concerned with ourselves, our companions, and our judgments. After contrasting securitarian and immunitarian dynamics (each modeled after different ways of understanding the formation of immunological functionality – i.e., immanent relationality), I conclude that we can recuperate a robust sense of human identity as creaturely, which is to say, radically dependent upon the companion ecologies in which we emerge. Likewise, community takes shape, then, as a function of ecotone – or, as the complex of companion ecologies that overlap and traverse each other at multiple scales. We do not have a community, because a community is not a form of identity. Instead, we are always already in a condition of community. As such, we are creatures – human animals – who depend radically upon the ecological conditions that first manifest us as distinctive agents. We are agents only by virtue of other agencies. This entails a new form of normative naturalism, a naturalism that says not “Do what I say because nature says so” (as with the old naturalisms), but, instead, “Act revisably in such a way as to acknowledge and preserve the metabolic and vitalizing capacities of your conditions of existence.”
All of the foregoing, however, constitutes a theoretical intervention aimed at dissolving certain conceptual formations and replacing them with new regimes of description. Take up my terms, and you will see nature and politics differently. See nature and politics differently, and you will have the means to resolve the ecological crisis. The problem is that our conscious assumptions and unconscious attachments already are formed under the conditions of pathological modernity. They are not a superficial optics that can be easily swapped out for another, like you might switch a pair of glasses. Here we encounter the weakness of theoretical interventions. Theory can elucidate, impel, or inveigh, but it cannot compel material change by itself.
Accordingly, I have condensed and extracted nine strategic recommendations with the intention of illustrating how the theoretical interventions I propose translate into modes of practical action. Theory is a form of action at a distance. I say these recommendations are strategic, first, because strategy is the hinge between speculative inquiry into the real and experimental practice. Also, they are strategic not because they speak to specific material interventions (although I do refer to specific examples, when possible), but because my recommendations are able to cash out into a wide range of possible programs. Note that these recommendations are not derived formally from my theoretical interventions, and nor are they the only possible such recommendations. That being said, I believe that, in nuce, they embody the practical framework of departure for a politics of exit from pathological modernity.
In other words, if you want to survive the ecological crisis and flourish after the collapse it heralds, consider what follows.