I recently wrote a piece on ecology, spirituality, and philosophy entitled “White Baby Jesus Vs. Dark Ecology” for my Spiritual Desert blog. Our comrade Matt, aka Bypolar the Toxic Cherub, turned it into a piece of youtube video art:
This is one manifestation of my recent engagement with the philosophical work of Timothy Morton. Morton is part of an emerging movement of radical philosophers who academics are calling the “New Materialists”. Like Marxists, these materialists emphasize there is a reality outside of our individual thoughts, and that we are shaped by social, political and economic forces. Like Marxists, they emphasize humans have self-activity; we shape ourselves and other objects through our creativity, which is alienated into labor under capitalism. However, like many radical ecologists, they also emphasize that non-human beings have agency to shape each other and us; hence the universe is a rhythm of various objects imprinting themselves on each other.
Morton locates human subjectivity as one form of inter-objective activity among many. In other words, our thoughts themselves are physical because they are happening in our bodies, and in the interactions between our bodies and other objects.
In his most recent book, Morton focuses on the historical agency of very large objects like the universe, the planet, and climate – what he calls “hyperobjects.” But he is part of a broader trend called Object Oriented Ontology, which argues that even smaller objects engage in forms of uncanny, weird, aesthetic causation. He talks about that in his (free) book called Realist Magic, a play on the literary tradition of magical realism.
Morton is attempting to develop a revolutionary aesthetic, artistic, and political response to the ecological crisis. He wants to encourage us to take the partial, impure, impaired actions that are possible now to slow the destruction of the planet’s climate. He wants us to do something, however limited and hypocritical, instead of waiting in pure despair for the end of the world. He argues that the end of the world has already happened because the concept of “world” implies the planet is simply a backdrop to our grand historical biographies, our world-building. And that concept has already been destroyed by hyper-objects. Global warming collapses the distinction between foreground and background, between humans and our environment, which destroys many of the philosophical underpinnings of BOTH western religions AND 19th century scientific rationalism.
In this sense, Morton’s thought stumbles right through some of the limitations of the Marxist humanism, postmodernism, anti-humanism, and new-Ageism that are so popular here in Northwest radical communities. He calls his perspective “Ecology without nature” or “dark ecology” because he thinks that truly overcoming the nature-human divide requires jettisoning the concepts of “nature” and “humanity” altogether. Instead of going out to the woods to find nature, we can develop an ecological perspective right here in the middle of our polluted metropolis; it will simply be an uncanny, uncomfortable one. We can meditate on the fact that the styrofoam cups we are using will last hundreds of years, and that the casual conversation we just had outside the grocery store about the weather is actually a conversation about global warming.
Like a Zen (martial) artist, Morton aims to provoke uncanny experiences of encounter with other human and non-human beings, encounters that can lead to ethical commitment, compassion, and radical action rather than apocalyptic waiting, cynicism, or games of theoretical one-upmanship (the trap of acting “more meta than thou”).
I’m finding all of this very helpful in breaking out of some of the cynicism and demoralization that set in around here after the collapse and repression of the Decolonize/ Occupy movement. I also think it’s very uncanny how myself, Morton (a celebrated professor) and Bypolar (a revolutionary artist from the ‘hood facing trumped up riot charges) are coming to some of the same conclusions. Maybe we are all becoming more attuned to the planet we are living inside. Or maybe the planet is breaking its way into our thinking.