Saturday, December 3, 2011


In a previous post I introduced my new research project on object-oriented environmental rhetoric. My original way into this project was my previous (and on-going) work on the physis/nomos split. Frequently, discussions of environment or environmentalism presume a fundamental disconnect between humans and their environments: technology and culture (on the side of nomos), for instance, alienate us from nature (on the side of physis). Thus, a concept like wilderness became interesting for me. For example, the anthropologist Tim Ingold (in his awesomely brilliant The Perception of the Environment) takes the whole concept of wilderness to task.
Scientific conservation is firmly rooted in the doctrine [...] that the world of nature is separate from, and subordinate to, the world of humanity [...] As a result, we tend to think that only environments that still exist in a genuinely natural condition are those that remain beyond the bounds of human civilisation, as in the dictionary definition of wilderness: "A tract of land or a region uncultivated or inhabited by humans beings." (67)
Ingold's take on "wilderness" very much resonates with the work of environmental historian William Cronon, who argues (in "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature") that the very idea of wilderness is problematic for environmentalism:
But the trouble with wilderness is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. The flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world. The dream of an unworked landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living...only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living form the land.
Moving along as I was in the Cronon article (and rather fresh off of reading Ingold), I became rather content with dismissing wilderness as a defunct term with entirely too much actively pernicious philosophical baggage (for another, similar angle, see Zizek's critique of ecology). But then I reached Cronon's conclusion, where, he claims, he is "forced to confront [his] own deep ambivalence about [wilderness's] meaning for modern environmentalism." On the one hand, he argues, the notion of wilderness disconnects humans from their environment and thus often produces irresponsible behavior. That is, we let ourselves off of the hook when we take ourselves out of nature.
On the other hand, I also think it no less crucial for us to recognize and honor nonhuman nature as a world we did not create, a world with its own independent, nonhuman reasons for being as it is. The autonomy of nonhuman nature seems to me an indispensable corrective to human arrogance.
I was stuck. I had no time for Cronon's ambivalence: "Doesn't he know I am trying to crank out an article!" I was troubled, however, because I was persuaded by his ambivalence. We aren't disconnected from nature (the physis/nomos split is deeply troublesome), but the many other participants in nature aren't simply the same as or reducible to us either. There is such a thing as wilderness, but it isn't a wilderness apart from us.

And this is, of course, where object-oriented ontology (OOO) and now, lately, object-oriented rhetoric (OOR) arrives on the scene. In his review essay of Graham Harman (a key figure in OOO or, also, speculative realism), Scot Barnett tightly formulates the OOO/OOR position:
For Harman, then, the project of object-oriented philosophy involves two key moves: first, the recognition of the ontology of individual objects or tool-beings and their perpetual withdrawal from other objects in the world; and second the attunement to the reality and implications of these objects coming into relation with one another and how those relations in turn produce new objects whose depths, like any other object, can never be fully known or expressed in language.
Wilderness, then, can be re-read (and rescued) in this way: individual objects, which I read broadly here to include plants, animals, and rocks, perpetually withdraw from us--they remain wild in being never fully known to or controlled by us. And those wild objects will relate with one another in ways unknown to us (as wild objects ourselves) and produce effects we cannot codified (and might very well find threatening). This, I think, suggests something very interesting (if not fully known to me at this point) to environmentalism and environmental rhetoric. Barnett writes of the
many opportunities for future researchers to extend Harman’s thinking into the development of a broader and more nuanced rhetorical consideration of the world and our (i.e. human speakers' and writers’) being with others—human and nonhuman alike—in the world.
The View from My Office. There is a garden and a tree. There are squirrels and birds and bugs in the garden and in the tree. There is an auto body shop, a play house for my son, and an alley complete with various dumpsters. I am embedded in this environment. For instance, I watch the squirrels and the birds (note the bird book). I relate to them and they, at times, to me. But the squirrels and the birds and the bugs in the garden also withdraw from me and relate to one another independent of me. I am not out of nature here, but it nevertheless is wild.
I am interested, in light of Cronon's deep ambivalence about wilderness (a term I may yet jettison) and Ingold's rather forceful (and persuasive) rejection of it, in develoing a rhetoric of, or better yet, for human and nonhuman relations (the "being with others" Barnett describes above). We can't be apart from nature, but we can never fully know and determine everything also in it.


  1. This is interesting to me if I'm allowed to turn it around, which--if I understand what you're saying--is almost implicitly not only allowed, but required [sorry 'bout that syntax]...

    Namely, that there is a wilderness "within" too of all the same properties: something that "remains wild in being never fully known to or controlled by us."

    Of course this is "interesting" to me because it takes me to a place I love--the ambiguity of the self, etc. But aren't we talking about the same thing (notice: not plural, but singular!)? Yet, disappointingly for me, I think you've got a more palatable idea here, because it allows for some wriggling--I can simply suppose that you're writing about "that," out there--and not about me... if I don't read too carefully.

    Merry Christmas.

  2. Wilderness within by all means! Think even at the level of bacteria in the stomach (I know, I moved from self to body, but stick around): there are all sorts of thingS in us that withdraw from us.

    And you are actually touching on somewhere else this project might take me: all of my previous work on cyborgs and extended mind might get a lot more complicated in light of "OOOO/OOOOOOR, or whatever." The stuff that we incorporate into us that is neither fully knowable or reducible to us. And so even the whole notion of "incorporation" is now fraught with a kind of arrogance.

    Merry Christmas!