Thinking ecologically


I am sure Tim Morton has been called a charlatan before- he may even have done it himself.. He is not a philosopher who requests reasoned careful answers. He may not be a philosopher at all.

The appeal he makes is to be a new kind of thing. Or a different kind of thing. And the reason for this is Ecological Catastrophe. This is something I know a little bit about.

Ever since it was suggested as being a thing ‘Ecology’ has been a source of imperatives. The metaphor contained in the term is housekeeping, and periodically it had become a demand to Put Your House in Order. Haeckel, a utopian, Tansley, a cryptofascist, Ehrlich, a neo-liberal , Gorz, a neo -Marxian, Irigaray, a feminist, Lovelock, a scientismist and even prince Bloody Charles have all told us what we need to do to save the planet. Like Mary Douglas says  in Purity and Danger  , nature is one of the four arbiters of right behaviour.

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civic art detail. Sheffield station

Morton’s approach is rather different. For him an ecological ethic is postmodern and anti-authoritarian. Facts are not political, they are facts – climate change is evident, it is not an imperative. What is to be encouraged is to live well, which means living ecologically, or at least in awareness of what we are.

This does not mean doing lots of recycling,, but investing in practices that are more embodied, instinctive, creative and interactive.



.Walking nearby along a parallel path I discovered  the feminist thinker and historian of science Donna Haraway and her cohort. Haraway sees no need to contest history.. She creates a selective herstory of connection and complexity, which through neologism, cross reference and imaging suggests a futurology of kinship and symbiosis, which will be familiar to readers of Ursula Le Guin. Her metaphors are biological rather than philosophical – lichens, spiders, webs. She is big on detail , endlessly making kin, crediting connections and informants. It is a rich brew –  weaved in it is the work of others such as  Anna TsingScott Gilbert, Vincianne Despret, which I hope to blog about soon

They seem surprisingly unable to meet. Morton is consciously slippery and anti-heroic, yet his practices are mainly singular and within the canon.  In her recent work Haraway’s claims of thinking anew ( ‘Think We Must’) hide orthodoxies within her practice which are not examined. Connections and tentacles are good because spiders make them – we are entering the Chthulucene era, and we need new metaphors. Reducing human population (‘Making Kin Not Babies’) is seen as a necessary moral imperative ( although not a prescriptive one) to conserve resources. As a slogan that seems unctious  to me and, yes, prescriptive  in its moralizing.


Lichen, Elphinstone. Popular as metaphorical fuel in the Chthulecene.

Both versions try to see us a part of nature. Morton wants us to see our nature as part of nature. Haraway (like Irigaray) sees feminine values and masculine ones as having different origins and developments. She sees the masculine ones as deeply connected with the Anthropocene ( as does Morton via his concept of agrilogistics) and the feminine ones as an appropriate response to ecocrisis – and an overlooked counterpoint running through the Anthropocene.


viaduct near Huddersfield

Maybe predictably, given my gender,  I  currently respond more strongly to the Morton version. I don’t know if all women would always want to be connecting and weaving and co-creating and entangling, but I feel that is only a partial response to a fragile world. All metaphors have unintended consequences – but i think we need to avoid getting drawn uncritically into overarching ones.

Ive just heard that the British Sunday papers , during the week the UN has stated that there is less than a decade before global warming reaches a point where life will be unsustainable, have managed to print  only one article about any of this. Although this is at one level horrifying, it is at another quite predictable. Morton has not only predicted this, but analysed it too in his book Being Ecological.

We probably can’t think usefully about the consequences of global warming ( or Mass Extinction in the term Morton prefers) (see here also the response of Rebecca Solnint).  The ecological thinking of Morton, Haraway,  and the Dark Mountain crowd are usefully suggesting that thinking differently is necessary and possibly inevitable.


So far we haven’t been too good at unpicking the grand metaphors in ‘Natural History’ . And while I am not keen on the creation of more of these ( like agrilogistics, for example)  I can see the attraction of radical change. What I like about Being Ecological is the  section entitled ‘A Brief History of Ecological Thought’. This starts with an extended discussion of Homer Simpson’s teenage music choices, defies the notion of ‘history’ , deconstructs the styles of ecological thought as responses to not knowing, and ends thusly

You area fully embodied being who has never been separated from other biological beings both inside and outside your body, not for one second. You are sensitively attuned to everything happening in your world which is why you end up blocking some of it, because you are afraid of the stimulation might be too intense. You have an idea that there is an inside and an outside of yourself , and perhaps this is  the deepest way in which you start to think that being ecological involves some massive change.


Which might be a good place to start. After I ve rewatched Homerpalooza.



An Inside and an Outside of Yourself

Morton suggests that we use a greatly restricted portion of our consciousness in thinking about the world ( rather than experiencing it). He believes the thinkers of experience and consciousness ( principally Kant and Heidegger) have artificially excluded the possibilities of Being for things( which might include animals, but also art, and possibly tables) So in answer to the ‘What would it be like to be a Bat?’ question, his answer would be ‘Dunno,lets try and imagine that as best we can (which is probably phenomenologically)’.

He suggests  this type of thought , and about this type of  stuff is an exclusion at the heart of anthropocene thought – although clearly not in the Romantic l.iterature he began his work with (and I can  also find these questions interestingly asked , albeit in a human context, by Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Deleuze and Irigaray).

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A fish, Glasgow Cathedral

I wonder whether we need to grant other things or beings consciousness if we accept they have intentionality- that they are part of our consciousness and we ( at least in a cultural sense) are part of theirs. That consciousness is never an abstract concept (and neither really is thinking) but only possible as being about something, and that thing as vorhandenheit, affects the type of responses we have about it. ( is this a kind of conservatism).


Hannaline Visnes, Egyptian Cat

What might that look like? Morton s big example is the Rothko Chapel, but I might suggest Gaston Bachelard‘s meditations on home, the playful attempts to be like an animal of  Charles Foster , or the deconstruction/wilding of the white cube space of the Talbot Rice Gallery by Lucy Skaer and Fiona Connor, which I saw recently. I like these examples because they are embodied , phenomenological responses, which allow  that there might be more than one response , and avoid the kind of ecorighteousness which creeps along under the Black Forest mysticism of Heidegger, and the witchdoctory prescriptions of shamanism.  In terms that i hope Tim Morton might like, we can muck about a bit.


La Chasse, Lucy Skaer at Talbot Rice. During the exhibition the positions of the pieces gradually change position.

It might reasonably be asked in response – what is not phenomenologically engaged practice? There is a bit of a clue in the question – passive, pseudo-rational formulations, and work in the style of agrilogistics (Morton).  This is undoubtedly complicated by the realization that works become vorhanden , and are completed only by the response of the receiver, so that even the most insensitive architectural blueprint or fashion statement might be reclaimed – say via the Oxfam store, wanderings of psychogeographers, or a community buyout of the local football club. A good example would be the history of the  brutal, reactionary , functionally useless and now hauntingly vacant and ruined Cardross Seminary.


Which makes me consider my own cultural practice – these blog posts.  They came from my insides. These do seem to have a life of their own , if largely dormant – that is they are now, outside. They are occasionally read  by algorithms, and even actual people – who may entangle bits of them in their own practice. WordPress every so often encourage me to get better at marketing in the hope they will be able to charge me for using their platform, but I assume only if I become wildly popular , which I am skilled at not doing. Every so often I’ll tidy them up a bit and wonder why I wrote them – and go back inside. Usually I ll recognise an impulse or a moment they are responding to. Somewhere back on the site you can find a mission statement – I d claim it all as my best response to precariousness.

Morton also wants to ask

What if charisma was actual?

(He is talking here about the charisma of an art object , rather than that of a trickster or charlatan, but i think we need to consider both)


I am not saying that the Drain Surgeon is a charlatan- I like his style,but I d still check his references.

I distrust charisma massively, as I have learnt from the tradition of skepticism. I would spend a long time analysing exactly what makes us love, or awed, or hate. I can accept in most rational senses this would be futile. But the quest would be about deconstructing and defusing power. It is to try to undermine the impact of the demagogue.

What would it be like to put that aside? Would I then believe We Are Taking Our Country Back, or that Things Go Better with Coke?

Morton says

‘Critique mode is the pleasure of non-pleasure, the sadistic purity of washing your hands of the crime of being seduced, as if detuning were about exiting attunement space rather than what really happens, which is only retuning’

Well ok.

I have a visceral emotional reaction to what I think of as bad art.  I think , to nick his terms this is about being dragged into attunement against my will. This involves the nausea of a betrayed gut feeling.  So he’s sort of right. I remember identifying it (at length during Four Weddings and A Funeral ( I m not going to link to that, the bastards are rich enough already), during the (numerous) sections which manufactures a technical scenario purely to draw out an emotional response which should be, in my view, entirely personal and voluntary. I am not proud of having paid to watch it, in an actual cinema, but I will add that it was cold outside and there were few alternatives.

We’d like to believe  real artists (the ones we like) is so caught up in their internal struggle with creativity that they’d never do this, so Rothko draws a pure response from us. Maybe, but what about Damian Hurst, or Banksy, or Picasso( and some people really, really like the updated romanticism of  4WAF)? Or the manufactured tension of lets say, the Bourne Conspiracy (which I might secretly be seduced by).  My point in these type of arguments is we will never be able to define what art is, and that’s whats good about it.

I think there is a distinction to make between artefact ( which includes art) and phenomena( which might include art experience). There is absolutely a need to explore sceptically artefacts ( lest we forget Goebels and Saatchi and Saatchi), and absolutely the right to experience the charisma , aura or vorhanden-ness of phenomena. It seems unproblematic from this perspective to say that phenomenological experience linking the inside ( emotions and thoughts) to the outside ( stuff) via our sense data connects us to a world experience which will make us engage with it, and reciprocally makes us ourselves. This would be close to Morton’s idea of ecological consciousness.


Meadow, Uyeasound, Unst

My own ethic is that it is a uncomfortable (if sometimes exciting) space that involves reordering the environment. The odd stone tower is not going to destroy a beach, but does the dog need to be redesigned, and do the Scottish Highlands need to be reforested?


These discussions need scepticism, and maybe to avoid becoming lodged forever in conservatism, they also need charisma – by which I mean the power of actual specifics to work on us.

Many of these are completely random – while I searched for an example of environmentally conscious practice, my  commute took me past the local chiropodist who have chosen to name their business TOE-FU *.

There is, at no level, anything about the manipulative power of  this advertising which would draw anyone to go and get their feet done, but since there has to be some indication that it’s there, then making random bus passengers laugh is a fine enough example of Bataillean excess, Mortonian charisma,or the skilled use of lumpen Scots to be worth reproducing.

I might have picked a more sublime example , or one which feels more well , environmental.  But I didn’t – you can if you want. Ecology is the study of the organism in its environment, ecological  consciousness  must be about engaging with what you do, and feeling a physical response to it.  So pardon the pun.


*Just in  case I ever have an international readership ( apart from the algorithm from Singapore)  the – fu suffix in Scots vernacular  is equivalent to -ful (e.g handful,  although not, strangely, useful, or beautiful , which we don’t use in Scots).  The local pronounciation here puts the stress on the first syllable and shortens the final vowel sound , so it does sound a lot like bean curd.




2 thoughts on “Thinking ecologically

  1. Interesting article that introduced me to some new ideas. Donna Haraway sounds an interesting writer / thinker although I think I need to read more to understand why the Anthropocene is such a male response. Interesting, but it doesn’t strike me as providing a practical answer. Then again what does with such a big problem. I wonder what they would make of Extinction Rebellion!


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