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Ecocriticism, Climatic changes -- Philosophical aspects, Critical theory, Human ecology -- Political aspects


It occurred to me not long ago that each time I read something new I pay special attention, without really meaning to, to how the work projects forward into a future or futures. This has been going on, I now think, for some years. Perhaps this quasi-conscious reading practice has played a part in the recalibration of my own orientations to the future, which, with every new climatic event, seem to grow dizzier and more disorganized, feeling some of the time like players in a game of musical chairs. Whether it is in relation to “All Around the Mulberry Bush” or something else, the visceral feeling that tunes most familiar to you – tunes that, indeed, have helped to compose your being – could cut out at any time can, to be sure, take a toll. After a while, even despairing visions of the future may exert an appeal as the degree of uncertainty you must swallow to remain open to what may come seems only ever to move in one direction. But I have come to think that, politically speaking, resisting the urge to plunk down on the nearest chair can make a difference. For, at least some of the time, we pay for resolution in attachment to this world.

Reading Timothy Luke’s Anthropocene Alerts prompted me to reconsider this thesis. Beyond highlighting Luke’s perceptive and forward-looking thinking, the volume documents the longstanding tendency in his work to rethink critical theory with attention to ecology. By developing critical theory’s critique of reason, Luke has offered a much-needed model of what a theory would have to do in order to measure the extent of the damage – planetary, political, and personal – being done. That model is what Luke calls “ecocritique,” or “the relentless contestation of the politics of nature, economy, and culture as the core of a critical theory of the contemporary.” Another key takeaway from the volume concerns the indispensability of attention to political economy in eco-politics. I continue to learn from Luke on this score. But I also wonder if greater explicit attention to ecological processes and forces – to nature’s own powers and propensities – might have altered the analytic tone one hears across the essays in this volume. For my reading suggests that an early sense of possibility in the text dims over time. Its concluding engagement with the work of Theodor Adorno may suggest that, given the present reach of climate and biodiversity crises, few possibilities remain to inflect our existing ecocidal consumption and production practices in more just and eco-viable directions.

If Luke is perhaps uncertain whether by now anything can actually be done, he may believe that critical theory in the form of ecocritique offers the best, or even only, hope of clawing out a viable and worthy path ahead. True, select chapters contain affirmative engagements with figures not typically cast within traditions of critical theory – Edward Abbey, for instance, and Ted Kaczynski, whose “manifesto,” Luke says, “makes so many valid criticisms against industrial society that it cannot be ignored.” But it sometimes seems as if the study’s numerous other interlocutors are regarded as downright clueless, dangerous, or both. Three categories of interlocutor, not necessarily mutually exclusive, stood out to me in particular (the categories are mine, not Luke’s). First are the aspiring techno-masters – among them sustainability scientists, earth system scientists, and “Anthropocenarians” – who seek to understand earth processes in order to control them and whose politics embody a similar top-down technocratic ethos. Then, there are the mystifiers: arcologists, for example, at least some eco-activists, and, perhaps, deep ecologists. Finally, one encounters the rosy dupes, the ecopoets, new materialists, and environmental literary critics who lack courage “to face the contradictions of contemporary reality” and whose “pathetic pleas to each other” to “end environmental racism or technocapitalist waste as we know it” fail even to question “what is really being made lyrical in a society rendering itself and its detritus into stone.” Not so closely aligned with critical theory myself – I rather suspect my political-theoretical proclivities lump me in among the dupes! – in the remainder of this essay, I will draw from the work of a few thinkers in other traditions in order to explore some possibilities of ecocritique that emerge when thought is understood not only in terms of “reason,” but also as processes that, while distinctive, are not exceptional among the many diverse processes of nature. To play up how critique, when understood in this way, is always advanced in relation to specific ecological processes (or “forces”), I will refer to my spin on Luke’s concept as eco-critique from now on.

While what I mean by eco-critique will be fleshed out more fully as the essay progresses, let me say a few additional words about it here. Criticism, as I understand it and as Michel Foucault writes, “does not consist in saying that things are not good as they are”; rather, it “consists in seeing what kinds of self-evidences [évidences], liberties, acquired and non-reflective modes of thought, the practices we accept rest on.” The conceit of criticism understood in this way is that to think in a different way is also, at least in some sense, to live in a different world – that, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “as we think, we live.” Explaining why for him criticism is so crucial in politics, and why reform and critique are not opposed or even fully separate, Foucault says: “thought often hides itself, but it always animates everyday behavior. There is always a little bit of thought even in the silliest institutions, always some thought even in mute habits.” If you have heard about the scientists who – concerned that intensifying hurricanes are distorting meteorological classifications – suggest the need for a new class of storm, that of the Category 6 hurricane, you may be wondering to yourself about my suggestion: greater explicit attention to nature’s own powers can inspire a stronger sense of future possibility. But we do not only imagine or otherwise represent the future; we also feel the passage of thens into nows, of nows verging onto … who-knows-what’s coming into being. Taking up Foucault’s notion of criticism as “the work of thought on itself” in an expansive way, I will explore certain material practices of relating-otherwise to the bodies and forces of the earth as practices of eco-critique. The essay concludes with a few remarks on the politics of eco-critique understood as what Anna Tsing and others call an art “of living on a damaged planet.”


© 2020 Caucus for a New Political Science


This is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in New Political Science. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in New Political Science, 1–7.



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