I’ve often pondered where to even begin when attempting to lay out my scattered thoughts about what might be required for an adequate ecologically informed approach to rethinking the nature and trajectory of homo sapiens sapiens in the world.
In this, I often drift towards a more poetic renderings – flights of simile and metaphor, imagery and sense invocations. There is so much that can be said then what is managed in prose, but so much more in the gaps. And, given that I’m prone to convolution and an awkward style of expression, poetry is where I find my thoughts. But poetry has its limits too. So the following is yet another attempt to string enough sentences together to gesture at the beginnings of an ecologistical framework.
1. The immanent force of non-human agencies is ever-present within the clamorous texture of our conscious experience.
Saturating our experience is an ontic tangibility disclosing the intensive-affective materiality of life both in-itself and for-itself. Which is to say, the Real cuts and collides in our perception. It’s traceable accompaniments anchor cognition in a vast plane of khaotic consistency affording the very conditions of what is actual and what might be possible.
This pre-thetic background immanence affords and occasions all consequential action. It is, in the parlance of a certain strain of intellectualization, the very condition of possibility for existence, action and communication. To exist is to affect and be affected, to be assailed and to assail, and no amount of conceptual gerrymandering can eliminate the raw phenomenal and corporeal presence of the Real and its variations.
We are ontological exposed – vulnerable at moment, paradoxically both assailed by the Real as well as woven into its very flesh. And it is through this encompassing causal suchness that existenz is occasioned. Every action, every utterance and every gesture arises from this ontological ‘commons’, or background conditionality we all share.
2. The confirmation of the background conditionality of immanent existenz is the special task of phenomenological approaches to epistemic adaptation.
The creeping movement of non-symbolic alterity permeates our temporal field of experience, alerting us to the risks and rewards of being, and thus framing all our searches for a concrete knowledge of our situations. No matter how intellectually ‘dark’ we may deem such presences to be, the demands of the Real are as relentless as they are varied.
“Phenomenology, then, is an essential cognitive task of confronting the threat that things pose in their very being. … After phenomenology, we can only conclude that a great deal of philosophizing is not an abstract description or dispassionate accounting, but only an intellectual defense against the threatening intimacy of things” (Tim Morton, Realist Magic).
The threats and ontological intimacy of things is ever-present and demands our response in every moment and with every movement. We are fundamentally in and of the world; or, as a that famous Nazi once claimed, our very nature is of ‘being-in-the-world’. And to claim otherwise is both perceptually dishonest and intellectually irresponsible.
So let us grant the presence of a pre-linguistic background context where contact and communication is made possible, or let is give up entirely the game of talking about consequence and causality and stop thinking together altogether.
But what are we to say of this mesh of causal conditions and grounded consistency that wouldn’t always already be just a caricature of something so dispersed and encompassing? Nothing. Or, rather, nothing definitive.
I advocate a radically strategic (axiomatic) negation of doxic symbolic codings of background immanence as means of shifting certain cognitive habits and priorities away from decisional closure (dogma) towards enhanced perceptual sophistication and pragmatic concerns capable of registering agental materiality on its own terms. I have suggested before that such a shift in cognitive and perceptual attention might be considered as a type zero-point realism – which methodologically suspends intellectual decisionism in favor of an conceptual and tactical open engagement with real worlds.
The Mahayana Buddhists make a similar move with the notion of sunyata (emptiness) when attempting to help seekers attend closer to raw, propositionless reality as opposed to continuing to be mystified but his/her own reified beliefs.
All of this is to say that there is always already a common world where interaction is rendered possible and in which all politics necessarily partake. This common world is the corporeal ecology of things – a structural plane of possibility. And all materialisms and materialist politics gesture towards this (see for example Manuel DeLanda on non-linear material dynamics, Jane Bennett on vibrant materiality, or John Protevi on political affects). By appealing to the contributions of nonhumans (and non-conceptuality generally) both without and within we attempt acknowledge, cope-with, and engage the background corporeal ecologicality as the medium for any politics of conflict or solidarity.
Reality is a bewilderingly complex and wild field of operations (wilderness). There exists intricately composed, networked and hyper-relational entities, assemblages and flows at various scales relative to the human emerging from the background (or ‘dark’ wilderness of being) to impinge and impose their agental force upon us. If the background is where we all meet and subsist then we as corporeal-vulnerable-coping-beings become more or less capable of navigating and negotiating (more or less consciously) depending on our ability to locate and relate to that which transcends us within that field. As such, I think it is crucial that we remain sensitive to and locate any possible or actual sites of antagonism and solidarity within this general ecology as shared multi-leveled political context.
As Levi Bryant has pointed out (here) in his appeal to pluripolitics (geological, thermodynamics, etc.), any realist ontology and politics worthy of its claims would be attuned to the different strata, assemblages and flows at work in any given situation, at the same time as attending to the ideological and narratological activities of human discourse.
I believe this type of widening of political sense-ability and imagination is certainly possible given the tools and sophisticated speculative theories currently available. In fact, there is historical precedent when modifications in our technical abilities combined with altered perspectives and deliberations of the natural world resulted in changes in political and intellectual possibilities. The culminating political, institutional and economic upheavals generated out of the European Enlightenment was part of an outgrowth of humans gradually becoming more and more aware of non-discursive (material/ecological) realities and then increasingly referencing them in our semiotic codes and communicative habits.
Returning to the immediate point, however, what I am trying to suggest is that any discourse, tradition, or intellectual fashion advocating a strict form of cultural relativism or social constructionist view that resists reference to the autonomous operations/life of non-discursive realities FAILS to sufficiently account for what is going on in our experiences within the wider field (‘Background’) of action and consequence. At the same time, any discourse circulating without reference to hermeneutics and the limitations inherent to communicative action FAILS to sufficiently account for the very real semiotic constructions impacting any given human situation. No level of reality or affective complex should be left out of the mix. Which is to say there is a decidedly ontographic dimension to politics. This is why many of us believe that after decades of an overemphasis of politicized opinions and discursive politics operating at the level of ideology that a reckoning of the autonomous life of matter-energy at the registers of the existential-symbolic is THE political issue of our time. ‘Intervention’ requires an adequate sensitivity and ontographic accounting of the general ecology (or background context) of political activity (political ontography?).
Human politics are always already ecological practices deeply implicated in infrastructural processes. Here I think of infrastructure as the intra-active context for subsistence and social relations. The forces, modes and means of ecosocial (re)generation are determining. Infrastructure is the ‘weave’ that supports our worlds and organizes all consequential flows. Infrastructures are where we begin not only imagining alternative modes of existing but actually enacting them. Infrastructure is the intra-active plane on which the foam of political ideology forms. Beneath or before human phantasy and ideology there are basic ways that humans assemble themselves – the affording ‘soil’ within which the weeds of justification and ideology grow.
Marx knew this, Foucault knew this, so many great thinkers knew it, even if they didn’t quite articulate it strongly enough. What truly matters is the weave that forms our worlds and its consequential flows, not the stories we tell about its strands. And so engaging the social field at the multiple levels and strata that form infrastructure means augmenting political ideologies with the power of praxis and its results. We need a whole new set of references and action potentials that allow a type of “infra-politics”, as Angela Mitropoulos has suggested:
Infrastructure is the answer given to the question of movement and relation. As an answer to the question of movement and relation, infrastructure is the “promiscuous infrastructures” that have sustained the occupations and encampments of Tahrir Square, Wall Street, and Oakland. The infra-political builds toilets in homeless encampments in Sacramento; by-passes pre-paid water meters, trickler systems and privatised water piping in Durban; formulates vocabularies of reconfiguration rather than foreclosure and standardisation; delivers health care to noborder protests and undocumented migrants; creates phone apps for evading kettling by police in London; digs tunnels under national boundaries; and more – the infra-political, in other words, revisions activism not as representation but as the provisioning of infrastructure for movement, generating nomadic inventiveness rather than a royal expertise…
To think politics as infrastructural is to set aside questions of subjectivity, identity, demands, promises, rights and contracts, and instead to render visible the presumptions that the knots of attachment, adherence, care or fondness and have already been tied by nature or supposedly incontestable forms of connection (by kinship, race, money, sexuality, nation, and so on). The materialities of infrastructure render it the most pertinent political question there is. Everything else is distraction. Infrastructure is the undercommons – neither the skilled virtuousity of the artisan, nor regal damask, nor the Jacquard loom that replaced, reproduced and democratised them, but the weave.