“Natural beauty, purportedly ahistorical, is at its core historical.”
—Theodor W. Adorno
According to recent surveys conducted around the world, the one thing that appears to bind people of all nations together is the feeling that the planet’s environment is in serious trouble. With last year’s Academy Award winner An Inconvenient Truth the third-highest grossing documentary in movie history and the “greening” of everything, including Wal-Mart, on the rise, the time is ripe for a paradigm shift in thinking on matters of ecology. In Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, University of California-Davis Professor Timothy Morton maintains that the first step is to scrap nature as we know it. It isn’t the thing itself that needs trashing—we’re doing a fine job of that already; it’s our way of thinking about it that needs to be structurally realigned.
Our notion of nature—i.e., as the pristine wilderness unsullied by civilization’s polluting presence—has its origins, in Morton’s reading, in the Romantic Movement that started in the 18th century in Europe. (Actually, veneration of the “natural” is evident in classical Greek humanism and also in the pastorals of Ancient Roman poets like Virgil; but in the sense of it being opposed to technology as the malleable object of humankind’s desire for control, he’s right on the money.) For philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and poets like Johann von Schiller beginning in the mid-1700s, nature offered respite from the transgressions of so-called civilized society then embarking on the initial phases of industrialization.
The Romantic concept of nature is the backdrop for what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, in his 1989 book Sources of the Self, terms “the expressivist turn,” the embrace of the individual’s unique inner-voice against both the repressive authority of absolutism and the blunt rationality of radical Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. Its poster child is Rousseau’s Noble Savage, eating fruit freshly fallen from the tree and lounging around the open meadow in the times before private property and wage labor.
The two poles of the Romantic view of nature, the complementary ideals of a sacrosanct external world and a self-sufficient inner experience, have persisted remarkably unchanged down into the present. (Think of ecotourism on the one hand and MySpace on the other.) For Morton, the problem with the objective conception of nature is that it’s set on a pedestal, something forever destined to remain “over there,” somehow separate from our daily lives. The subjective perspective—the immersion of the individual self into his or her own navel-contemplating existence—ropes off reality from the other side. The pressing issue at this point is bridging the divide.
To assist in this challenge, Morton calls upon Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, the cranky mid-20th-century highbrow German philosopher who’s undergoing a much-needed reappraisal as of late. Indeed, the more aphoristic passages of Ecology without Nature are very reminiscent of Adorno, minus the headache-inducing linguistic contortions.
From Adorno, Morton gets the notion of “nonidentity,” the existential state of physical matter comprising the universe that exists beyond our attempts to rule over it, in essence true nature in all of its terrifying, inanimate and resolute otherness. Nonidentity can be contrasted with current ecological constructions such as creative evolution, which sees a succession of evolutionary stages, each enveloping the preceding—first, the geosphere, i.e., physical nature, then the biosphere, i.e., biological nature, and finally the noosphere, i.e., the sphere of human thought. Nonidentity properly understood can never be absorbed by the noosphere; the best that can be achieved is uneasy détente. And it’s in accepting this truth and working with it that hope for the future lies, if there’s to be any at all.
Morton updates Adorno with more recent thinking from deconstruction and other strains of poststructuralist theory. If this sounds formidable, it is. Ecology without Nature isn’t for the intellectually demure. But it’s an important book that, in a scant 205 pages of main text divided into just three chapters, frames a debate that no doubt will be carried on for years to come. And for a book of its scope rendered in such compact form, Ecology without Nature is in fact eminently readable.
Like Adorno, Morton develops his argument along aesthetic lines. The idea of art as a form of autonomous individual expression (as opposed to craftwork performed on behalf of a patron be it king or church) emerged around the same time as the Romantic notion of nature. In the Romantic tradition, including subsequently most of the avant-garde, art is directly connected to nature under the guise of the creative genius who supercedes academic convention and other forms of external control. Both art and nature are thus ways of repairing the damage society has inflicted on the individual and the environment. But whereas nature is something that’s “over there,” art is human production closer to hand. It’s a place where the nonidentical can be virtually revealed in the intersection between physical matter and conscious being, the relation of objective form and subjective content that constitutes a work of art.
Adorno’s main focus is music (he was an accomplished composer of the modernist school who studied with Alban Berg); Morton concentrates mostly on poetry, though Ecology without Nature ably discusses other media, including installation and performance art and ambient music. Unlike Adorno, Morton is comfortable with kitsch, i.e., cultural products that are essentially mass-produced commodities such as movies and pop songs. This in part stems from Morton’s disowning of the Romantic residue in Adorno, who saw “high” culture as a zone of transcendence, if one that’s admittedly transient, utopian and privileged. Where Adorno may have been in denial, Morton is on the road to recovery.
If we must forsake the Romantic idea of nature, we must similarly abandon its understanding of art as something to be held on high. Artists have got to slog through the stinking shit of global capital just like everybody else. “We’re going to have to admit it: we’re stuck,” Morton states with stoic affirmation. We must love the toxic world in all of its ugly beauty, Morton tells us, including and perhaps especially in art. We don’t have the option of leaving.