Nature Poetics and Ecological Praxis

With regards to my last post Jeremy at Struggles Forever has provided an important reminder:

[T]he conception of Nature as a container, in my opinion, conveys the wrong message. Containers delimit and define boundaries. They serve as a ground for the things that occupy them. My fear – perhaps unjustified – is that defining Nature as the new container for everything (as opposed to the dualistic containers of Nature/Culture) – no matter how open and undefined that container is depicted – will lead to an interest in defining the boundaries of the container. Nature becomes the new standard by which we measure everything. Again, this is not what Michael and Levi intend, but without a great deal of conceptual work to reconfigure the notion of Nature (as well as the idea of a container), there is a very real risk of misinterpretation in talking about Nature as a container. I prefer, instead, to think of existence as a continuous process of composition where beings come together in complex ways to build relations, form new beings, and construct new ways of existing. In this conception (and I believe that Michael and Levi share it), there are no containers, no boundaries, and no grounds except those which are constructed – always historical, always contingent, and never totalizing.

Jeremy is correct to assume I share his rejection of the ‘container view’ of Nature. ‘Nature’ does not contain processes, flows and entities. Particular entities, systems, relations and flows comprise, generate and emerge as Nature. My point here is only that even at the most general level of reference I do not want to suggest that we use the concept of Nature to indicate entities are contained within it. Perhaps a better way to integrate talk about about the immanent emergence of reality with a poetics of nature, then, would be to assert that everything is of Nature. In this sense ‘Nature’ is conceived as an immanent plane or matrix. Individuated entities are not understood to be contained within Nature but always already compose and partake in it. Much like an individual wave or eddy is also always part of the ocean or river. The universe is a generative system composed of emergent fields, assemblages, elements and forces, and only ever gives birth to other open systems. And we don’t know enough about cosmological limits, or if boundary thinking is even generally appropriate to thinking about the nature of space-time, and there is certainly no indication that space-time does anything other than endogenously evolve and afford (rather than contain) novel developments. Of course, a lot more can be said about properties and tendencies of Nature but that is not within the scope of the present post.

The key organizing principle here is emergence: the process of emanating space-time generation. Nature in this universalizing sense is synonymous with Being, or perhaps ‘matter/energy’. There is no one thing that is Nature or Being or matter, but rather all things exist as beings, or are natural and material-energetic. Each of these terms act as generalizing semantic operators that in turn (at least with regards to Nature and matter) evoke a series of associations to actually existing particulates. So what I am trying to suggest is that may (or may not) be a poetics of Nature that can be usefully appropriated and developed as a means to provoke and stimulate certain strains of social imagination useful to the project of cultivating more sense-able and cognitively sophisticated (note:; for me cognition includes emotion and intellection) and attuned embodied subjectivities. Again, I think all these nuances must be foregrounded, so I thank my friend Jeremy for the opportunity to do that.

 Interestingly enough, however, after thinking my way through some of these issues I quickly start to feel as though I am betraying what I have called the principle of onto-specificity. This so-called principle hinges on a commitment to the methodological and epistemological practicalities of hominid perceiving and then coding (hence knowing) of particular situations viz. the specific ontic conditions (relations, objects and flows) within which they emerge. In intent and effect this commitment refuses generalization as anything other than thematic bridging and operationalizes a rigorous deployment of perceptual acuity (a phenomenology of the flesh) and pragmatic semantic/linguistic negotiation (reflexive language-games). To experience the world is to experience it in a decidedly human way – but the life of things outside of our nervous systems will not and cannot be ignored, refused or philosophized away. The more we experiment and acclimate ourselves to our own powers and limits the more we will be able to make-sense and code the relative powers and capacities of others. Therefore to know the world and cope-with the myriad array of beings and modes requires a sophisticated negotiation of active, receptive and projective powers. And because this negotiation can only ever take place between actual bodies any relevant detail about Nature or Being or the universe can only be referenced and indexed viz. ontic specificity.[*]

With regard to the present topic, then, we must acknowledge an important methodological and epistemological move to de-emphasis the utility and appropriateness of generalization (and multi-associative abstractions) for devising ecologically savvy ethical and political discourse and poetics (and praxis). If everything is ‘of Nature’ then nothing is. And so the term quickly becomes meaningless outside of its evocative and connotative (poetic) role in activating certain imagery and sympathies, and brings me closer to Morton’s decision to scrap the concept altogether. This de-emphasis on self-justifying abstraction requires us to look closely at exactly what the ‘Nature’ language-game offers in terms of a) thinkability, b) communicability, and c) the mobilization of actual bodies and energy in particular situations. So, of course, there is only so much a Nature poetics can do before more practical concerns require us to operate on the basis of and directly cope-with the details of how particular ecosystems, social niches and societal configurations are composed and sustained.

Ultimately what I am suggesting here is that any ethics and politics attempting to embody an ecological intelligence and ethos must reflexively adopt some version of both radical empiricism and intellectual constructivism – buffered by an attitude of experimentation. Framed another way, I advocate exploring the ecological-compositional ‘logic’ of sensation (see people like Deleuze, Lingis and Sparrow in this regard) via practical and visceral experimentation coded and tempered by strict accommodations for the limits of interpretation. This post-representation phenomenological praxis, if you will, can then be coupled with a deliberate tracking and indexing and social dialoguing of all manner of consequences (causal complexity, precarity, affect, effect, etc.). Hominid ethics and politics must be militant in its specificity, persistent in its dialogicality, and rigorous in its pragmatism if it is to be legitimately considered an embodiment of the ecological imagination.

Jeremy continues by asking another important question:

The question is, what is an ecological ethics for the anthropocene? First of all, why an ecological ethics and not some other kind of ethics (deontological, virtue, utilitarian, etc.)? The answer is that these forms of ethics are not equipped to deal with the complexities of life in a world where human existence has become so imbricated with the existences of non-human others. Prior ethical formulations depend upon some kind of ontological grounding, and such groundings, in our world, do not exist. So how do we think of ethics without a ground? How does an ecological ethics differ from those prior ethical formulations?

My preliminary move to address this question was offered in the previous post and is packed tightly into the following statement:

[E]cological ethics and politics not only have to be construct-aware but also practically oriented towards affective activation and physical mobilization. In this regard, then, what seems to be required is an ethics and a politics of nature that is simultaneously about the ecological as well as capable of self-consciously and self-confidently being ecological. That is to say, to think the ecological is to think below it at the level of details, alongside it at the level of praxis, and beyond at the level of perpetual reflexive accommodation.

As enmeshed, expressive and territorializing actants our ethical statements, normative behaviors and intentional choices guide our experiences, coordinate our senses and provide the basis for our knowledge constructions, and thus directly impacts other entities and assemblages through our actions and artifacts. The more ethical way forward, then, is through perpetual humility, radical exploration and concerted sensitivity to the existence and affect potency of all that persists and goes on outside us, in the Outdoors, with all the naked (non-thetic) splendor this entails. We are finite beings and our knowledge is circumspect but we are still of this plane of immanence and in this world of raw consequence. When thus understood ethics is itself at base an ecological praxis – a knowing-being-coping endeavor.

As Jeremy writes:

[A]n ecological ethics is profoundly relational. It’s not about “being good” or even “doing good,” but about the way we interconnect with others and the effects of our actions on others.  Secondly, it can be neither proscriptive nor prescriptive – there are no “thou shalts” or “thou shalt nots” (at least, not in specific form), because these depend on a ground to define right from wrong. Instead, an ecological ethics is about the processes of forming relations rather than about the specific kinds of relations that are formed. Furthermore, it recognizes that all actions are problematic – there is no action that is free from negative consequences, and there is no standard by which negative consequences can be weighed against one another (e.g. in utilitarianism).

All of this seems to imply a breakdown of ethics, and the potential for an “anything goes” attitude. If there is no ground for judgment, no pre- or proscriptions, and everything has some negative potential, then why should we not do whatever we like? And, in some sense, this is true – an ecological ethics would open us to experimentation and exploration. It would make possible new forms of interrelation and connection, allowing us to figure out what works. But an ecological ethics also makes demands. Living in a world of interconnection, lacking any ground except that which we compose – a world that is profoundly collaborative and constructed, in other words – demands a degree of humility.

Our politics must be profoundly relational because our reality is profoundly relational. And our ethics must be based on humility because human know-ability and intelligibility are limited. Human life is a mix and mangle of powers, process, sense and assembly. Are we ready to live accordingly?

[*] The principle of onto-specificity, with its subsumed and fully integrated appreciation for the limits and decisional and differential character of thought and language (as fully elucidated by folks such as Wittgenstein, Derrida, Rorty, Laruelle), is also a central feature of the post-nihilist perspective. Human language and meaning reflexively deployed can lead to an activation of bodily intelligence and a reorientation of cognitive and sensory ratios.

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