Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature

I've been resisting finishing Timothy Morton's Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (finishing it again, actually, but I didn't review it the first time). Part of me wishes I could just point you to my comments on Doug Porteous' thoughtful but highly practical Environmental Aesthetics, but these are wildly different books, even if they share some core goals.

Resist as I might, eventually it had to happen: and now the book is closed.

A great part of my reluctance to commit to this comment, I need to say, comes from my conflicted feelings about the recent flap about theory, in and about ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. If you haven't read the relevant pieces yet, I encourage you to do so, because it should be essential reading for anyone trying to figure out how theory might fit into the L&E world. So that I don't have to wait for you to go read the assorted relevant articles, here's a potted and partial summary.

First, Simon Estok writes a mostly reasonable (but also too insistent) piece suggesting that ecocritics need to think and work in a more consistently theoretical way. Surely he expected some blowback from remarking on what he considers "an increasingly orthodox ecocritical machinery," but still. It's a solid piece, but it's not really theory in itself, more of a call for the development and tolerance of theory as a mode of inquiry in a field of study with a striking emphasis on realism. And (sorry, Simon) I wish it had performed theory at a higher level as a way (and in the context) of calling for more of it, but it's what we've got as the proponent of theory.

Second, Tom Hillard writes a fairly reasonable piece suggesting how he might use theory more consistently and usefully in his own research and teaching, specifically to talk about ecophobia in relation to Gothic fiction. He sensibly objects to Estok's call for ecocriticism to take on a focused theoretical approach as "overly proscriptive, potentially stifling, and, let’s be honest, unlikely to happen," too, but really effectively takes up some of the elements of Estok's argument, claim, and hope.

Third, S.K. Robisch writes - and to his great detriment, Scott Slovic publishes - an angry and unhelpfully ad hominem reply to Estok, representing as well as a broader response to "the ecocritical equivalent of cosmetics testers—from Neil Evernden through Timothy Morton." (I don't think I'm alone in not understanding the equation in this phrase, or in disliking what I think I understand.) In Robisch's view, "Poststructuralism, cultural criticism, and their sleazy uncle 'theory' have spun out of control to the point at which we should expect more frequent deformities resulting from inbreeding." Perhaps most startlingly, Robisch suggests asking this question of conference presenters talking about questions of the animal: "If I got naked right now and came running at you, howling, what would you do?" It's the kind of piece for which the word "screed" was invented -- and I don't think I've ever used the word before.

Scott has now added a comment on decorum to the ISLE disclaimer, remarking that ISLE will not publish pieces that "imply the incitement of violence." I thank him for it, though this seems to me inadequate to the specific case, though definitely not inappropriate in general terms.

All this informs how I respond to Timothy Morton's work, in Ecology Without Nature as with other texts. Brighter minds than mine see important things in Morton's work, and I've been an appreciator since his 1994 monograph on Shelley's vegetarianism.


As I was explaining to someone recently with theoretical chops much superior to my own, I feel the need to defend to many ecocritics almost any effort at theory. For those people, I will persist in describing Ecology Without Nature as a book with which those who work in the L&E field really should consider engaging. It raises provocative and serious questions, and if you refuse to consider serious questions, you're going to weaken, perhaps fatally, your credibility and your arguments. For those ecocritics who do theory, though, I'm underwhelmed by the outcome of Morton's considerable expenditure of effort in pursuit of a new theoretical model for apprehending, appreciating, seeing, etc environment.

Gosh -- am I drafting a proposal for ASLE 2011 in this already unnecessarily long commentary?

There's some good stuff here, like his very late remark that "Romantic environmentalism is a flavor of modern consumerist ideology" (p.172), though this is hardly new to Morton and could be profitably yoked to an analysis of capital and capitalism, of the trouble with wilderness (pace Cronon), and of related issues. But for those of you who already do or read theory in relation to the L&E discipline (and thanks ever so much for reading this far, btw), I've got three basic concerns:
  1. There are way too many straw figures in this book. I need more specific references to, and more detailed readings of, texts and writers against who I can measure Morton's claims. Even if I can find some of these texts and writers myself, I need to know whether this is a schematic statement on his part, or one informed by detailed knowledge of the field.
  2. Morton calls for "ecocritique," something he distinguishes from ecocriticism and which would leave us "awake to the irony that a national park is as reified as an advertisement for an SUV" (p.164). To which I ask -- aren't the cool kids doing this already? Keri Cronin's 2006 piece in Mosaic on postcards from the Rocky Mountains, for example, does some version of this (and her forthcoming book Manufacturing National Park Nature: Photography, Ecology and the Wilderness Industry of Jasper National Park promises to do exactly this). His description of "ecocritique" seems to me reflective of the work being done by so many attendees at the recent ALECC conference in Nova Scotia, such as Cate Sandilands, Cecelia Chen, Anne Milne, and Jon Gordon, as well as non-attendees more than once cited there like Nicole Shukin.
  3. And because of points 1. and 2. above, much of his complaint feels kind of obvious, where it doesn't feel unhelpfully fuzzy.
I've picked up a copy of Morton's new book The Ecological Thought, and I'll get there eventually, but I'm really not heartened by his move toward Buddhism in that book. To me, such a move doesn't promise greater clarity. And if I'm going to defend Morton's future work in detail, rather than just on principle and just to those who flat out need more theory in their lives, I need more clarity and a more detailed sense of engagement with current work in the field. The version of ecocriticism being questioned in this book feels out of date to me -- but maybe it's just because I was so excited by the good work being done at ALECC 2010!

(Longest review yet on this blog. God help me if I can't keep being brief.)


Kip said…
"Aren't the cool kids doing this already" ?

I feel so much better about my "screed." When this is the kind of deep thought and glib superiority I'm up against, I feel more reasonable by the moment.

Thank you for this deep-running commentary. If you'd like to see what a real research apparatus behind my ecocritical position looks like, when I'm not responding to something so unreasonable as Simon Estok's accusatory and condescending ideological work, or Timothy Morton's hyperbole, then you might try reading my book or articles. This could help explain to someone who might think of himself as a student of literature why I was so impassioned in my essay to ASLE.

Or you could just stop being the pot calling the kettle black.
richard said…
I'll probably say more later, Kip, as I've only got a few minutes free right now. But did you not notice that my glib - intentionally glib - remark about whether the cool kids are doing this already was in fact targeted against Morton?

In brief: theory needs to be better. It needs to be more careful, more informed by precise textual analysis and ecological awareness, and more responsive.

In particular, Morton's not consistently good enough. Some of his commentary is really valuable, and some of it doesn't deserve to be published or read. I've said exactly this, and in detail, before: check out my post on the 2011 ASLE conference, for example.

In brief: attacks against theory need to be about the ideas rather than the people. They need to be precise and detailed and constructive. Ad hominem insults are less than useful.

Your critiques of theorists include some useful stuff, but it's buried and discredited by the rest of your expression. And the ideas behind your critiques are important enough that it kills me that the tenor of your critiques prevent anyone from taking up the cause carefully (and in your case, bothering to read your comments carefully).

BTW, I'm still curious, probably unnecessarily so, about what exactly you meant by your comments about Estok, Evernden and Morton being "the ecocritical equivalent of cosmetics testers." A lack of ethics, I suppose, with the plus of animal abuse as a symbolic frame, but why this rather than, I don't know, venture capitalists or lumber barons or vivisectionists or something....
richard said…
OK, Kip, I've ordered your book, and it should be here within about three weeks. I look forward to reading it.

But even if it's reasonable, sensible, analytically brilliant, and inspiring, I'm still going to resent and resist the kind of rhetorical display you used in ISLE. HOWEVER, even given my distaste for how you've sometimes handled yourself publicly, I'm absolutely committed to praising your critical work to the degree I think it deserves praise. I'm hoping for good stuff in it.
Anonymous said…
There's a lot one could criticize about "Ecology without Nature." I agree that the application is not as strong as it could be, and while I appreciate the humor quite a bit, his style pushes the envelope of academic discourse in a way that doesn't help much with the development of the ideas (the line about the national parks and SUV commercials is a case in point).

Nevertheless, that book holds a special place in my heart because it gave my dissertation the momentum it needed at a moment when I was at a loss on how to frame the project. I don't work on anglophone literature, and the ecological problematic in the texts I was writing about is quite different from what you get in, say, American nature writing. The initial reading around in ecocrticism I did was too much on the "essentialist" side of the discussion about Nature. In fairness, I also gave up way too quickly, but it was enough to make me run away from ecocriticism until I read "Ecology without Nature" and realized that I could talk about ecological issues and still navigate between essentialism and constructionism.

In regards to the basic thesis of Morton's book, and in regards to Kip's (hi!) article in ASLE in 2009, it would be foolish to deny the sheer materiality of the exterior world, be it a city street or a wooded mountaintop. But what is valuable about Morton's argument is that it's not a tale that ends with "and it was all a construct." "Nature" and its more egregious counterpart "wilderness" are concepts that are both historically and nationally contingent. I like national parks, too, but they are also products not just of a theoretical act of "fencing in," but of histories of colonization and expropriation. This is also an area where certain "green" camps bump into problems with economic and racial justice: not everybody has the means to get to a national park, and yes, as soon as the experience of nature is separated from the quotidian sphere of production, it's already reified. Then of course there is the fact that much of the wilderness that the white colonists discovered in the new world was there because the people who had tended that land were decimated by disease.

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