beneath the myth
of high ground
but there is no
it is toxic waste you mourn for
In his characteristically eccentric and predictably enthralling new book, Humankind, Timothy Morton argues that Marxism has erred in excluding nonhumans from “social space,” but is capable of correcting its course because of its commitment to solidarity. The exclusion of nonhumans is a bug, rather than a feature of Marxist thought. Capitalism, based on property ownership and various forms of slavery, conversely, is necessarily exclusive and hierarchical.[i] Resources, including humans and nonhumans, are subordinated to the transcendent value of capital, and human beings, in effect, develop kinship bonds with capital rather than human and nonhuman beings. Folding anarchy back into Marxism, Morton argues that solidarity with nonhuman beings simply effaces our ties to consumer capitalism (“Kindness,” 2300 – 2313). Though Morton criticizes the New Left’s focus on identity politics for reproducing essential difference and thus undermining solidarity, his vision is certainly a boon for the Left (“Things in Common,” 207-261). I’m not quite sure if Morton’s radical reconfiguration of social space is Marxism as we know it, or as it was conceived, but Humankind might encourage intellectuals to trade their chains for an optimistic New New Left. Humans and nonhumans in solidarity, willing Trump’s last tweet.
One of Morton’s most radical concepts is the symbiotic real. I say it’s radical not because symbiosis is new, but because Morton presents non-hierarchical symbiosis as an integral feature of political life. When we become aware of the symbiotic real, solidarity is no longer a value, choice, or decision. It simply is, and any social, economic, or political theory that externalizes nonhuman beings is recognized as inoperable—an insolvent fantasy (“Things in Common,” 66 – 87). Another important element of Morton’s project here, and I think it’s his most significant one to date, is interrogating life, categorically. “Life” based on substance ontology, and specious distinctions between its various forms, is antithetical to life (“Life,” 807). Rather than subordinating life to the “agrologistic” principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, that create mutually exclusive categories of life and non-life, and identify life with autonomous being, Morton rediscovers and celebrates life as quivering, shimmering, spectral (“Life,” 770, 776, 846, 850, 860). He sings of life forms that overflow their boundaries, downward and upward. Human beings, composed of myriad nonhuman beings, and haunted by what have heretofore been considered inanimate objects; nonhuman beings composed of what have heretofore been considered inanimate objects, and haunted by human beings. “[T]he intrinsic shimmering of being” (“Life,” 860).
The “correlationism revelation mode” is like a magic trick (“Specters,” 893 – 916). First we see a subject and an object, and then suddenly the two are collapsed into the transcendental subject. The symbiotic real is supernatural, occult. Everything has agency, and everything also withdraws (“Specters,” 942, 987). While we are engaging with a nonhuman, even an inanimate object, it is also engaging with us, and hiding. And this includes nonhuman aspects of ourselves (“Specters,” 942). Humankind comprises the nonhuman aspects of the human, including the unconscious. Both human and nonhuman beings are haunted by spectral others and spectral selves. This is spectral phenomenology (“Specters,” 942). Ecological awareness is being with a “ghostly host of nonhumans” (“Specters,” 1089). “To encounter an ecological entity is to be haunted” (“Specters,” 1113). Every life form has a spectral double, and “[b]eing alive means being supernatural” (“Specters,” 1323).
Subscendence is the most theoretically important concept of the book, and possibly the most important piece of Humankind’s political argument. Under the sign of subscendence, Morton illustrates that wholes are smaller and more fragile than the sum of their parts (“Subscendence,” 1767 – 1794). And this applies to menacing hyperobjects such as neoliberalism. Though we imagine it as Cthulu, Morton suggests neoliberalism may be ontologically small and easy to subvert. It pervades social space, but it cannot contain or rule its parts. Our fear and cynicism is based on an assumption that neoliberalism is a transcendent whole, but solidarity with human and nonhumnan beings can help us dismantle it. Locally unplugging from fossil fuel energy grids seems trivial, until we rediscover solidarity and begin to replicate such local forms of resistance (“Subscendence,” 1726 – 1828).
Subscendence replaces mastery. Because parts exceed wholes, and because all objects withdraw, increasing knowledge does not result in mastery. The more objects and levels of objects we discover, the more objects withdraw. And this includes our knowledge of ourselves. The more we know about ourselves the more we perceive our withdrawl. “You are a haunted house” (“Subscendence,” 1965). The dream of access to the thing itself is replaced by a real feeling of being followed or watched. Intimacy is paranoia, and truth is being haunted (“Subscendence,” 1912; “Kindness,” 2649)
Humankind, like human beings, is “a fuzzy, subscendent whole that includes and implies other lifeforms, as a part of the also subscendent symbiotic real” (“Subscendence,” 2013). This quote reminds us not to reify the symbiotic real—it’s not a new transcendent whole, God or Gaia. Just as humankind is haunted by the inhuman, so the symbiotic real is haunted by spectral beings in a spectral dimension (“Specters,” 1198; “Kindness,” 2274).
As an explosive whole, speciesism is a violent form of exclusion, predicated on racism and substance ontology (“Species,” 2016, 2243). Morton argues that agrologistics not only severed humans from nonhuman beings, but created technologies like caste systems, and property ownership, that severed humankind from itself (“Species,” 2206, 2243). Institutionalized, systemic, racism (subsequently) naturalized difference, and telegraphed social hierarchies into the domain of the nonhuman (“Species,” 2206). The symbiotic real, conversely, undermines hierarchies. In a symbiotic relationship both members are dependent on one another. Neither is on top (“Things in Common,” 70). If human beings are dependent on each other and on nonhuman beings in non-hierarchical ways, what maintains social hierarchies? The severing of kinship with human and nonhuman beings.
“The Severing” is a “traumatic fissure” between the “human-correlated world” and the “ecological symbiosis of human and nonhuman parts of the biosphere” (“Things in Common,” 272). Solidarity is the “default affective environment,” but anthropocentrism suppresses solidarity between humans and nonhumans, and erects boundaries between humans (“Things in Common,” 296 – 299). The effects of this intergenerational trauma are widespread, resulting in a desert landscape “from which meaning and connection have evaporated” (“Things in Common,” 312, 355). This results in alienation, not from some transcendent presence but from “an inconsistent spectral essence we are calling humankind,” as well as the spectrality of nonhuman beings (“Species,” 2197-2201). “What capitalism distorts is not an underlying substantial Nature or Humanity, but rather the ‘paranormal’ energies of production” (“Species” 2204).
Ultimately, Morton argues that solidarity is kindness, and kindness is an unconscious aspect of ourselves, which we share with nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2283- 2306). Acknowledgement, awareness, and fascination are all aesthetic and ethical/political acts of solidarity (“Kindness,” 2296 – 2368). And since our origins lie in the symbiotic real, these “styles” of being also belong to nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2294, 2453, 2835). Indeed, recent animal behavior studies suggest that solidarity is inherited from nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2860). Morton ends by queering the active and passive categories, and “veering” love toward the environment (“Kindness,” 2963, 3119). Solidarity requires nonhumans because we are inseparable from the symbiotic real (“Kindness,” 3123 – 3127). We are them. “Solidarity just is solidarity with nonhumans.”
[i] “Things in Common,” 416, 430. All in-text references are to chapter titles and locations.
Two Men Contemplating the Moon, Caspar David Friedrich
Michael Uhall is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with an M.A. in Philosophy from the same institution. He is writing a dissertation prospectively titled “On the Political Uses of Creative Darkness: Nature, Companion Ecologies, Biopolitics,” and his website can be found at https://www.michaeluhall.com/.
CS: What follows are excerpts from a longer piece which can be found on Uhall’s blog, here .
Introduction: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling
At first glance, the three figures under discussion – Algernon Blackwood, Marion Milner, and Friedrich Schelling – seem to form a rather unlikely trio, especially if you’re looking for insights into politics in the Anthropocene. Before I can examine why they complement each other so well – not to mention what insights they do, in fact, provide when grouped together – I’ll introduce each figure, since my impression is that none of them tend to be particularly familiar to us.
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was an English writer of horror and fantasy tales in the early 20th century. Best known for such stories as “The Willows” – considered by H. P. Lovecraft to be one of the finest weird tales ever written – Blackwood’s output ranges from the didactic and whimsical to the disconcerting, eerie, and haunting. As Mike Ashley, S. T. Joshi, and others document, his stories tarry constantly with dark vitalities and psychic doctors, with transformative terrors and with the radical disruption, even dissolution, of the subject upon her encounter with natural forces that exceed and escape from the prisonhouse of modern selfhood.
Marion Milner (1900-1998), by contrast, was a practicing psychoanalyst, best known for her development of freewriting techniques and introspective journaling, as well as her classic case study of a 20-year-long analysis with a severely schizophrenic analysand, Susan, and her wry self-reflections on the negative capacities of the self in On Not Being Able to Paint (1950). [ . . .] Always of principal interest to Milner is what she perceives as the fundamentally unconscious origins of existential creativity, and how it is that creative acts and practices can be blocked – or else made possible – by the subject’s own comportment toward “inner” and “outer” nature alike. “The idea of a live tree,” she writes, “with its roots hidden in darkness and its branches outspread in the light, seems to me an apt symbol for a way in which one can experience oneself creatively.”
Last, we have Friedrich Schelling, a 19th century German philosopher of nature writing mostly between 1794 and 1815. Schelling argues that nature fundamentally consists of infinite productivity – that is to say, nature is neither the aggregate of all products, nor is it an embodied or underlying “substance,” as for Spinoza. Rather, nature is the very principle of productivity as such. [ . . .] Apparent momentary stability appears insofar as the constitutive opposition of forces in nature flirts with equilibrium and then falls repeatedly into disequilibrium. What this produces, Schelling claims, is not an entropic slide into absolute disequilibrium, but, rather, developmental stages of increasing complexity and reticulation – what Schelling calls “potencies.” A potency is a formal degree of complex organization (or self-organization). Each is composed of “darkness,” that is to say, of matter that is organized more or less differently, thereby giving rise to potencies that exceed basal norms. As Schelling writes in an 1806 essay: “Das Dunkelste aller Dinge, ja das Dunkel selbts nach einigen, ist die Materie” (“Matter is the darkest of all things – indeed, it is the darkness itself”). Accordingly, we see in Schelling a deep fascination with what we can call the “nightside” of nature, that is to say, those expressions of nature that do not reveal themselves easily or, perhaps, at all to the instrumental techniques of the natural sciences.
So there we have them: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling. An author of weird horror stories, a psychoanalyst, and a German Idealist. It’s necessary to note, in passing, the various ways in which we could reconstruct genealogies of influence or force fields of effect that link these apparently disparate figures together. For example, much scholarly work (e.g., Ellenberger, Ffytche, McGrath, Žižek) has been done to show how the German Idealists – and Schelling, in particular – contribute to the development of the concept of the unconscious prior to Freud. On the other hand, the lineage of Dark Romanticism that precedes the weird tale bears no small relationship to these very same discourses – E. T. A. Hoffman was a touchstone for Freud, of course, while a figure like Heinrich von Kleist was close friends with Gotthilf Schubert, one of Schelling’s disciples. In Blackwood’s case, some of the meager scholarship addressing him examines the influence of Gustav Fechner upon his work. Fechner, a German psychologist in the mid-19th century, was a late devotee of Schelling’s, and much of his work assigned itself the task of reconciling the mind/body problem, specifically. Rather than dwelling further on any of these genealogies, however, I’d like to put all three figures to a more speculative use.
Inherit the darkness: Schelling
It’s from Schelling primarily that the concept of creative darkness emerges, although, as Eugene Thacker and others have noted, affinities between various descriptive vocabularies of darkness and some sense of primal, or primary, creativity can be discovered in many alternative traditions (ranging from various Western mystical traditions to the Hawaiian creation chant Kumulipo and even the Tao Te Ching).
Creative darkness refers to the interaction between the emergence of ontological novelty as the product of creative agency or action, on the one hand, and the alluring, but often disconcerting or even horrifying opacity of nature, on the other hand.
For Schelling’s philosophy of nature, the question is always: How do free subjects emerge in nature? I think this is a particularly relevant question for any attempt to think a meaningful, nonpostural politics in the Anthropocene – a term that, as Timothy Morton excels at pointing out, implies both the remarkable power of human agency and nevertheless implicates the human in the ecological crisis we face today. Accordingly, the attempt to conjure possible existential alternatives to our current path is one of our principal political tasks today. To do this – to create “new modes and orders” (borrowing the term from Machiavelli) – requires first that we attend closely to the seething darkness of nature itself – both “inner” and “outer.”
“Rooted in darkness”: Milner
It’s here, then – for our sense of the “the inner darkness of our nature,” or the natures that we are – that the turn to Milner proves most productive, for she unceasingly directs our attention to the expressions and sources of the creative unconscious as implicit in the materiality of the body itself. For Milner, the unconscious is not a generically ideological writing machine, nor is it the subject of symbolic interpolation, but rather, the interface between the body and what we still rather unimaginatively still call “the mind.” For Milner, the body and the mind are not distinct entities in any sense. Bodies dream, feel, and think long before they are conscious. Having a mind – or, perhaps more clearly, making a mind happen – is one of the many things that bodies do. So there’s a sense in which the unconscious is the body, or that function of the body that makes minds and enables minds to take shape, to endure, to change, and to shift over time.
I think Milner is directing our attention toward what I’d call a deeply personal materialism, one which simultaneously separates and sutures action and ideation in the conscious and unconscious personality of the subject. Hence Milner’s advocacy for what we might call a arboreal model of the self (as against the various [rhizomatic]  models of subjectivity proposed in the wake of Deleuze and Guattari): “So it was that I came to try thinking of the tree as a symbol for the ego’s direct, non-symbolic sense of its own being: something rooted in darkness, but spreading its branches into the light.”
Sylvan darkness: Blackwood
In Blackwood’s novella, “[The Man Whom the Trees Loved],”  precisely this same structural emergence of the subject takes place, albeit at a different scale. Although Blackwood almost always directs our attention expressly to the seething darkness of nature “out there” – consider, for example, the endless, earthly alien whispering of the willows in “The Willows” – his interest often turns to dissolving subjects whose very dissolution opens up the possibility for a heightened attunement to the natural world, or else whose interpenetration by inhuman agencies makes possible radically different forms of life or ways of being-in-the-world.
“The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” then, concerns the long, slow seduction and integration of the retired forester David Bitacky by the forest near which he retires. What this seduction largely entails remains ambiguous, although the main character of the story, David’s wife, documents the seduction with unsettlement, at first, and, eventually, horror at the darkly vital stationary green hurricane that the forest embodies. David spends more and more time in the depths of the forest alone – “a man, like a tree, walking.” Eventually, of course, the forest consumes David, and sylvan dread becomes a fierce, verdant joy. As Punter and Byron state, “the transcendence of human concerns that this implies is carefully balanced against his wife’s powerful sense of loss.” Returning to Blackwood: “In the distance she heard the roaring of the Forest further out. Her husband’s voice was in it.”
Toward a conclusion
In conclusion, I argue that considering the concept of creative darkness through the speculative lens these three figures provide gives us access to a dimension of speculative political theory that we often overlook. Specifically, two central contentions animate the foregoing considerations. First, I want to suggest that the politics of ecological receptivity and transformation we need now are impossible without a new theory of the human subject. Second, I think we need to start looking at why this doesn’t mean what we probably think it means – for by abstracting her out of the conditions of creative darkness, we have fundamentally lost touch or misunderstood what sort of creature a human subject is.
Read the whole paper here.
Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2000.51/
EC now following Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach. This excerpt is from “Eco Watch: Robin Wall Kimmerer in Sun Magazine on ‘Two Ways of Knowing.’” (More from and about VanderMeer soon.)
The Sun Magazine recently published a fascinating interview with Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, who fuses her formal science background with knowledge from her background as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She also serves as the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.
I encourage you to read the entire interview, which speaks to a holistic and more complex view of ecosystems and the environment–and one that’s useful in thinking about how we combat global warming and biosphere degradation but also in how we re-imagine our relationship to the Earth in a more meaningful and positive way.
It’s useful, too, in pushing back against the frequent fetishizing or simplification of the cultures of various Native American and First Nation peoples–first by thinking of these diverse and varied cultures reductively as one culture and second by thinking of their views of the environment as being only “mystical” and not practical. I’d also argue that within the realm of “traditional” science, Kimmerer’s comments point to a vital fact: while specialization in science is important it can also be extremely limiting.
Continue reading here.
by Liam Heneghan
By my quick calculation the population of Dublin city and its surrounding county, cannot be ecologically accommodated by the entire land mass of Ireland. Dublin spills over the borders of the country in which it is located.
This is how I arrived at this conclusion. The population of Dublin city and county combined is 1.273 million (1). According to footprint.org the average ecological footprint of an Irish person is 5.61 global hectares (22nd highest in the world) (2). An ecological footprint is a measure of the amount of land people live on and that is required to both furnish the resources needed for consumption and to absorb waste. The units used in footprint analysis (global hectares) is a measure of biologically productive hectare required to sustain people. Thus the total footprint of Dublin is 7.24 million hectares (population x average footprint). Since the total land mass of Ireland is only 7.03 hectares there is an overshoot of the population of Dublin beyond the borders on the country to which it belongs. The overshoot is at present about three percent. Dublin, it seems, needs to slim down a bit, perhaps quite a bit.
Keep reading here.