Thursday, April 26, 2012

Deep (Environmental) Ambivalence (And TROLLS!)

I have previously discussed (here and here) my interest in developing environmental historian William Cronon's "deep ambivalence" with respect to "wilderness" as an environmental rhetoric in its own right. Here is a quick refresher on Cronon's "deep ambivalence." Cronon writes of being "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.
So I am interested in deep ambivalence as mode of engagement (an environmental attitude) and I am interested in seeing what can be done with wilderness as a rhetorical object. Tim Morton (who writes both about ecology and object-oriented ontology) is helpful on both counts.

What I have been calling "wild objects" (in an attempt to re-cycle "wilderness" in terms of OOO) Morton calls the "strange stranger," a term I would adopt were I not specifically interested in working through the environmental rhetoric of "wilderness." Morton writes, "Life-forms recede into strangeness the more we think about them, and whenever they encounter one another—the strangeness is irreducible" (165). From here, Morton goes on to argue that "ecological philosophy that does not attend to this strangeness is not thinking coexistence deeply enough" (165). The same, I obviously want to argue, is true of environmental rhetoric, which often un-stranges the stranger in doing its work. Writing about the story of climate change, Bronislaw Szerszynski argues,
This story is one in which the diagnostic task of establishing the truth of anthropogenic climate change naturally gives way to the practical one of finding effective political and technical responses to it. (10)
I would argue that Morton's admonishment is even more relevant for environmental rhetoric as rhetoric, following Kenneth Burke, is largely about persuasion to attitude, which is incipient action. The assumption that getting the diagnosis right naturally leads to changes in behavior assumes both that we could ever "get it right" and that it's information alone that leads to action (rather than the matrix of personal, social, affective, and environmental forces that cultivate attitudes). Both of these assumptions are problematic.

Wild objects, especially as I want to read them through my continuing obsession and employment of The Troll Hunter, really get fleshed out as Morton writes, "The more we know about a strange stranger, the more she (he, it) withdraws" (166). This works rather well for my reading of The Troll Hunter as an object-oriented environmental rhetoric: the whole apparatus of the film is designed to bring us into close contact with the troll in order to reveal its strangeness. We have the information forms produced by the Troll Security Service (TST), the lessons about types of trolls, the history, the legends, and even the blood work, but all of this pushes the trolls further and further away. The weirdness and wildness and strangeness of the troll is increased even by the film's documentary style, which, as styles go, promises a certain immediateness. Morton writes, "Bizarrely, increase access (technically possible or not, hypothetical or not) does not decrease strangeness" (166). Again, this line of thought in Morton and weirdness in The Troll Hunter resists the normal way we approach environmental rhetoric, which typically insists on truthful (read "complete") representation of the object. In other words, we have to get it right to even begin to save it. The Inconvenient Truth and its line graphs is a perfect example this kind of environmental rhetoric. As Morton argues, "It's not simply a case of the right equipment passing through it like a knife through butter" (177). Objects do not need to be kept wild: objects remain wild even in the midst of interaction.

Now, the question of interaction leads necessarily to a discussion of the nature or mode of that interaction. Morton discusses melancholia as the mode of subjectivity that OOO utilizes, and Morton's melancholia, I think, feels a lot like Cronon's deep ambivalence.
Melancholia is precisely the mode of intimacy with strange objects that can't be digested by the subject. (175)
What Morton thus proposes is a mode of interaction—what (Kenneth) Burke calls attitude (which is emotional and physical, affective and social)—predicated on strangeness. Melancholia is not the resignation of depression; it is a mode of intimacy and thus of interest and engagement. And so melancholia resonates with Cronon's deep ambivalence, which is itself not a resignation but a recognition (and respect) of strangeness—the stuff that cannot be reduced to us, decoded by us, or controlled by us.

The consequences of escaping (or shaking off) our melancholia are dire. "Melancolia," Morton writes, "starts to tell us the truth about the withdrawn qualities of objects" (176). Furthermore, and here I turn back to Morton's Ecology Without Nature, where he writes of the need for "the openness of this whatever, pronounced with the distracted yet ironic casualness of a California high school student" (158). (Morton's discussion of modes of distraction in Ecology syncs with melancholia.) Without this whatever or this melancholia, "the ecological collective to come will be captured by the fantasies of nation building that have haunted the concept of nature" (158). To this I would add Szerszynski, who writes the following of a rather un-melancholic approach to ecology:
To put this another way, climate science’s action-orienting power derives not from its objectivity, autonomy and disinterestedness, but from its always-already presumption of application. Our relation with the weather has been pulled towards a certain kind of reading that constitutes it as a code that can be mastered and controlled. The metabolic relation of humanity and nature has been understood only in narrowly causal terms, obscuring the disseminative drift of meaning and thus tilting us inexorably towards the idea of climate change as a problem that can be solved rather than an opening to be responded to. (19)
This opening can only be responded to in the melancholic mode of Cronon's deep ambivalence, which is neither resignation nor a fantasy of decoding or of nation building. Deep ambivalence, like melancholia,
is the default mode of [object-oriented] subjectivity: an object-like coexistence with other objects and the otherness of objects—touching them, touching the untouchable, dwelling on the dark side one can never know, living in endless twilight shadows (176)
Deep environmental ambivalence supposes an inconvenient truth that can never be charted. Deep ambivalence is wrapping your heart and mind around (or perhaps pouring them into) a wild object around which you cannot completely wrap either.


  1. Good! See also, if you like, chapter 44 in Moby-Dick:

  2. I just retweeted your Melville quote, btw. It works really well here. Perhaps I need to re-read Moby-Dick this summer?

  3. Well said! And I look forward to more monsters and ambivalent relationships with them. And I agree that there is always the withdrawal, the ever receding language of natures, even our own natures. And yet, the question always comes around to two points 1) so what? If it is forever receding and unchartable why fret over it anyway? and 2) even if there is cause to fret over the unknowable or the incommunicable, how are we to relate to that? Essentially, the questions are ones of epistemology and ethics. And I know, I haven't read your other posts, nor did we chance to discuss this between bites (and snorts) of food and excellent company, so I may be asking questions you have answered elsewhere.

  4. Great to hear from you, David. And the questions you are ask are good ones (and they reflect the distinctions between ontology, epistemology, and ethics, which also, at some point, need to be folded back together). And they are, honestly, questions I haven't quiet (or at least directly) answered. I'm still collating, as they say. My instinct here is that this ontological approach raises the stakes for questions of epistemology and ethics. The Szerszynski piece I cite is important for just this reason: our ontological assumptions inform how we go about knowing and how we respond in light of what we know (which probably isn't the best to articulate epistemology and ethics). To that end, I appreciate this response even more, and I do hope we get a chance soon both to discuss this and to enjoy more food and excellent company!