Reader's Note: This is another rambling post from a previous (2018) NaNoWriMo attempt. It is very "stream of consciousness" of my thoughts around that time where I was processing an influx of new philosophy and ideas, specifically from Timothy Morton and Slavoj Zizek. If that is what you are into, enjoy.
In the midst of the spectacles unfolding in our world, I often find myself reverting to the old trope “at a loss for words.” This is a bit ironic, as I have a multitude of words at my disposal. Perhaps, then, it is apt to address the situation not merely as the absence of words, but the difficulty with which to assemble them in any justifiable way--nay, beyond difficulty, the lack of skill, finesse, and utter disbelief. I simply have no model which fits the current paradigm.
I have been studying prodigiously the conundrums of the modern world; one may even say that I have been studying them from birth, having never quite understood the dominant ideologies. From the idea that my illiterate father working 70+ hours a week was not worthy of great treatment to the idea that a coal to diesel plant is the promising feat which will bring the deindustrialized rust belt farming community of my Southern Indiana hometown to the margin and back in line with competition in the global economic marketplace. Slavoj Zizek has called this “living in the end times” and “the trouble in paradise.” This week, literally, there was trouble in Paradise, Paradise, California that is, which exploded in flames as a wildfire engulfed the city, leaving only scraps in its wake.
Keeping with this train of thought, part of our present conundrum is not only present, but glaringly obvious in the wildfire conundrum, is it not? In efforts to bend the natural forces of the forest and climate to our will, we have inadvertently created the very same dangerous windfall that we sought to avert. The irony is painful.
So, too, are other ironies embedded in the system. The American Dream, an idea so ineradicable to the very psyche of 320 million people, states that only through our merits--the very pulling up of my own bootstraps--dictates my own success, not the cruel irony of sociology which, with near 100% accuracy, can predict not only my future income but also my voting record, geographical location, and gender while knowing rudimentary facts about me. Facts that, ironically, the giant corporate world of technology ruthlessly exploits for advertising profit, selling us more and more of what we know we want but are afraid to ask. It is as if the cloud-formed minds of Google Analytics knows us better than we know ourselves. Indeed, this is probably true, a kind of quasi-unconscious machine working on our behalf, befriending our brain and bringing to material fruition the very pleasures deeply ingrained in our psyche. Now they have broken free.
It is not just irony deeply enmeshed within this complex and complicated web of sociological, economical, and ecological webs, it is also a vast conspiracy. I do not mean to provoke the idea that JFK was overthrown by the government or that the illuminati is seeking information to infiltrate our minds--quite to the contrary, really. I am talking about the “unquestioned assumptions which are the true authority of any culture” that Derrick Jensen describes eloquently.
Unquestioned assumptions, to Zizek, might be quantified easily--though not wholly--as ideologies. The dominant ideologies include capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and others. Part of the reason these assumptions go unquestioned lies in their very nature: as so wholly embedded into our network of connections, our misinterpreted worldviews, and our very subliminal actions that they dictate our very lives, often without us even knowing, a kind of unconscious consciousness. Indeed, the very silent and secretive methods are essentially integral to the success of this species.
Without a doubt, this is why any exposition of the dominant ideologies is often met with repression and violence. For to dominant ideologies, a questioning of the underlying assumptions is an act of violence within itself. Mostly, this is due to the fact that, to perpetuate the ideologies, the dominant structures must use violence to replicate, thus enclosing us within a complex web of daily violence to which we become accustomed, or related. This is so much so that when individuals step outside of the ideology and question its existence enough, they are met not only with existential crisis, but violence, hatred, and expulsion.
By invoking violence and shunning, the dominant ideology reinforces itself through unquestioned logic. Logic that, in order to answer many of the illogical questions of our day, need to be extracted, examined, and explained so that we can question the logical basis of the very idea itself.
Zizek and Jensen do this, though in different and at times contradictory manifestations. Jensen critiques dominant civilization, emphasising that it is inherently unsustainable and should thus be dismantled, a return to primitive anarchist societies replete of market economies and filled with natural abundance and wonder. In other words, a farce. But to leave Jensen as a farce would be reductionist, for his insight--especially at a personal, individual level--is utterly valuable. On the contrary, Zizek, though somewhat flawed as he is, offers us at least a tool, an idea with which to critique the current dilemma, one that is instructive, utilitarian.
Within the Communist idea, we must rethink and reframe the world. But to first do this, we must be able to “name the thing” as hooks has referred to, an earlier reference to a pedagogy of the oppressed. Using hooks and Freire, we can construct a useful narrative--or perhaps counter narrative?--with which we can place our thoughts and ideas for reconstructing our society. To do this, we must engage in dialogue, perhaps even dialectics. For us now, dialogue is not an answer but a methodology, one which will enable us to deconstruct dominant ideologies which are decimating our positive lifeworlds. In the process of dissection, we may even find within the dominant ideology concepts and structures which we find useful. We must keep those. For it is not within the revolutionary mindset to wholly dismantle the world; indeed, this is where most previous revolutions have failed. In destroying the entirety of the previous lifeworlds, they decimate the very base with which they require to produce new revolutionary ideas in the first place. This must be the first step away for us engaging in dialogue today.
In accepting some forms of the dominant ideology, though, we must be quick to acknowledge that, because ideology is often invisible and silent, we must stray from reductionist and the reversion back to inadvertently accepting the dangerous aspects of dominant ideas. This is where dialogue plays a positive role, as it is gives us a base with which we can discuss and dissect ideas which are useful.
Though dialogue within a small percentage of our society is not likely to topple the dangerous elite which controls most amounts of power, it does create resistance within microcosms of the larger context. These tribes can then disperse and permeate the cultural fabric of the major framework.
In this way, we must be careful of the echo chamber, always assuring that we can reexamine our ideas and thoughts. Perhaps a useful way to do this is always to examine our thoughts and ideas through a specific lens. For Zizek, this lens is communism, in addition to psychoanalysis, where he relies heavily on Lacan and Hegel. Though I have no grasp of these specific thinkers, their ideas are profound. Engaging in dialogue with Zizek is not just thus an intellectual exercise, but a revolutionary one, complete with jokes and pop culture references galore. He even goes so far as to make a useful metaphor from architecture, as a living reference to our current agenda. Such profound insight is useful when moving forward to critique dominant ideologies.
To engage in dialogue is to revoke complicity and, in a contorted indirect manner, to confront injustice and immorality. Thus dialogue is a revolutionary act. Even small revolutions have great power, and it is power which we lack--and that which we wholeheartedly deserve.
Though I clearly do not intend to fully undermine individual autonomy, the present crises and challenges require a global scale, at a globalized pace. That is, to confront vast issues such as climate change (read: the multiple challenges embedded within the idea of climate change), we need to, at least in part, grasp their components. Because climate change is really much more than just a changing climate--it is vast species extinction, warming oceans, deforestation, habitat destruction, a warming climate, and decreased net productivity and biodiversity--it requires a multitude of approaches, each of which relates to a dominant ideological critique. At times, with the appropriate effort, we will find many of these dominant ideologies enmeshed within each other, namely within the capitalist industrial globalized economic and political system.
To confront the challenge of this multitude of complexities, we need a new ideological framework. Here, Timothy Morton is helpful. Arguing for an “ecological” worldview which is itself nearly entirely removed from the ideologies of the modern era, Morton provides us a road-map, a new ideology, with which to examine the current unfolding phenomenon.
Morton’s text, Being Ecological, is strangely a magnum opus, yet a delightfully simple counter-narrative. “You do not have to become ecological, because you already are.” is the simplistic message apparent at the book’s conclusion. Forwardly, he admits that the text is for those who are “not ecological” or do not call themselves so. He repeatedly uses the word retweet while referencing art and literature, hence while delving headlong into philosophy from Kant to Heidegger, in a digestible way. In a simplistic manner, you almost agree with in conclusion. But it is not just the agreements which make Morton worthwhile, it is the tools he evokes.
First, let us start with the idea that problems are large, complex, and multifaceted issues that we can only ever grasp a portion of at any given moment. Morton provides us language for this: a hyperobject. Originally used in computer science to explain phenomenon, Morton re-purposes the idea--one that is embedded within the philosophy of object oriented ontology--and breathes into it not only a new life, but a useful way to understand our surroundings.
Though less “materialist” than Zizek, it argues for a seeking beyond the simply graspable material which comprises an object. To put this simply, a hyperobject is something that in and of itself is entirely “un-graspable” in that it extends across such a dimension--namely spatially and temporally as well as geographically and, I would argue, almost intellectually--that it cannot at any one point become grasped. If you boil it down, as many of my friends have when interacting with the idea with me, anything is a hyperobject. In abstract reality, they are correct. But this does not detract from the value embedded within such an idea.
For instance, the very “anti-hyperobjectivity” of our own political debates presents us with demonstrably credible evidence for hyperobjects. In my undergraduate studies, I took an independent study course with a professor where we discussed leadership within education. One of the topics he remembers to this day was a day we spent discussing the differences between complex and complicated, noting how in the modern world we make issues that are complex complicated because we cannot fully grasp them. The same is true for hyperobjects, and herein lies their importance.
When we think of using hyperojects as a useful framework to understand (and I would argue even to study, to engage in dialogue, and to critique so as to learn) issues and ideas within the modern world, we provide ourselves with a useful idea. Take a high school class, Government. The very study of isolated subjects such as Government within high school (or I suppose college) is the study of hyperobjects. Your job as the teacher is to literally explain a hyperobject in the hopes that you can break down this object into useful schema with which your students can digest and apply to interact with the world. Does any student at the conclusion of your course know what “the government” is in its entirety? Does anyone. Herein lies the importance of the idea of hyperobjects within the confines of dialogue and revolution.
To make the most of Morton, though, we must engage with his other ideas, too. Namely, the Mesh, which I will further analyze below.
For years, philosophers, writers, adventurers, theocrats, and outdoorsman of all kinds have attempted to typify the enmeshed nature (no pun intended) with which humans are embedded within the world. Many have succeeded, though often in a new-agey spiritual enlightenment that views humans as somehow directly equivalent with other life forms, and so on. In seeking this mesh, the deep ecologists took the reigns, though, and transformed the idea, implicating a disastrous and dangerous idea, which ironically played on the very notions which they pretended to avert: the dichotomy of humans and nature.
Beyond New Age spiritualism, though, we can approach the topic from the philosophical foundations of Morton and Zizek. With the useful critiques of Jensen as the foundational base, we can inject the ideas through the lenses of the philosophers. The, through the political and historical lenses of Wapner, Purdy, and others, we can begin to reimagine our current place. Before that, though, let us consider the nature and culture dichotomy through the lens of the mesh.
Morton’s idea of hyperobjects is critical to understanding the mesh and how nature is an antiquated concept, not to mention the value-added statements it promotes, which I will discuss later. When we examine an object as so massively temporal, spatial, and geographic (even in terms of micro-geography, i.e. the idea that I cannot comprehend the multitude of atoms with which you are made), it begins to almost lose its subjectivity or even objectivity. Morton describes this as the whole being less than the sum of its parts. To him, the whole is reducible to one, or perhaps a couple, which in reality is less than the sum of everything which makes up that object. In reality, we can extrapolate this even further. Let’s take the example of the government class from previously. If, at the end of the course, our students can write an entire book based around the government, say one which describes the functioning of the government in great detail. Does this fully grasp the concept? No, because even this vast amount of knowledge is still less than the knowledge and the ideology of the government that is embedded within the totality of the world. To put it simply, even my vast understanding of something is less in its entirety than that something. This is exactly why science works, is it not? When I write an article, complete with all of my vast stores of knowledge and research of an object, I construct an understanding of that thing. When I submit it to peer review, though, someone whose stores of knowledge are nearly identical from mine but who possess a certain extra bit of information can add that to the study, right? Even so, along comes a third person who adds or extrapolates even more. In this way, each successive scientist adds to the totality of the thing, though never fully reaching the thing. In this way, the whole of the paper is still less than its subsequent parts. This does not even take into the consideration the other aspects of the “totality” of something, namely the political and philosophical consequences, rather we as simply discussing merely the “ontology” of the thing. What science does for us though is provide links, and this is the second important aspect.
As our vast knowledge grows indefinitely, we recognize that problems are connected. For instance, ocean acidification is related to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Herein begins the mesh. Though we cannot understand the totality of the ocean or even of CO2, we can begin to see their relationship. When we dig deeper, we reveal more relationships and more layers. This process can extend indefinitely. The deeper we dig, the more enmeshed we become. Herein lies the utility of this idea.
It is in these interconnected complexities that we must ask the question, “so where is the human and nature divide? Does it exist? Or did we create it?” Even if we did create it, it does not prove its creation useless, though it does, I think, encourage us to engage in dialogue and critique our current ideas, namely the strictness of the dichotomy. It is not difficult to understand how such an understanding the world was ingrained it the nearly global psyche. Religion, and even early science, played a role, not to mention the humanities, which argue for a truly human experience. In interrogating the mesh, we are left with questions, such as what is even human? Did we draw these borders arbitrarily, and what might be the consequences of such actions?
It is these very same questions I have pondered for years, fed by the deep ecologists and theologians, such as Thomas Berry, who initially interrogated the ideas through theology, arguing in alignment with eastern perspectives for a more connected world. Surely that is what we have built.
Taking the ideas of complicity within dominant ideologies and the existence of a mesh permeated by hyperobjects, there should be an implicit and explicit call to action. Within the implicit realm, we must realize that, no matter what, we are affecting the mesh through which we are immersed. This means, that no matter what actions we take, we have an effect. As Morton posits, in this way you can view a plastic bag not as such, but as a trap for a turtle. In the same way, this realization posits us with explicit action: what must we do about this revolutionary idea? My answer: engage in dialogue with it. When we approach the subject and interrogate it thoroughly, we can achieve much of merit. Namely, I believe there are a few specific realms which should be interrogated such, and I will list them below.
First, the idea within the book The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene is exactly that: how did we get here? What are the historical, philosophical, scientific, and sociological meshes and constructions which enable the Anthropocene?
Secondly, what does this mean? These are philosophical questions. Beyond ontology, and the how, we must approach the meaning of this thing within our world. What does this newfound knowledge and framework provide for us?
And lastly, what must we do about this? What call to action does this muster, if any? After deciding the how and the what, we must approach the why. This is a political, philosophical, and ultimately, ecological question of great value.
Let us dissect it with dialogue.
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About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.