Haunt of the Ecological Phantom or Gaia on the Couch


/1/ – The Fullness of the World

Just a cursory glance at several of the environmental or ecological theories or related philosophies, one immediately finds oneself on the Aristotelian side of the philosophical universe. This genesis goes through Spinoza, Bergson, and coming to fruition with Deleuze (and arguably Butler). One of the most basic Deleuzian concepts, is that of the One-all, the metaphysical consequent from the the univocity of being. (The equivocation of god and nature in this fashion was what got our friend Spinoza excommunicated.)

A kind of radical materialism is the end result, a “transcendental empiricism” and that all being is difference, everything is a kind of different molecular assemblage of the same material even in terms of concepts such as goodness. In his biting critique Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, Badiou characterizes Deleuze’s philosophy as a form of monism, that it simply collapses the fundamental divisions of nature. Peter Hallward, who writes extensively on Badiou recently wrote an analysis of his great rival Deleuze entitled Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation. In this text Hallward states that Deleuze’s ever differentiating sense of being places the virtual in a place completely alien to material reality, that it has no weight on the actual material world. For Deleuze the virtual remains a kind of positively charged cistern from where the event emerges as a kind of crystallization of the material of reality.One wonders at the necessity of this kind of philosophy. At a very basic level one has to wonder whether notions of idealism (which are often associated with the ‘other’ popular strain of philosophy starting with Plato and residing currently with Badiou) are maintained, particularly in regards to ‘being one with nature’ or in terms of Gaia Theory, that the earth itself is one giant organism. The underlying connections to the feminine and the relation to nature raise certain problems.

/2/ – Ecosublimity

The French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne attempted to bring together the issues of feminism and environmentalism in the radical era of the 1970s. Combining the two is fairly logical given how the naturalness of the female body is equated with images of virginal nature, of that which can be seeded, remade et cetera. At the same time eyebrows should be raised on the conflicts that arise from the extreme sexism found in many environmental movements. The figure of Edward Abbey is notable here. The so called ‘Thoreau of the American West’ was horrible sexist and automatically tied his vision of ecological activism to a kind of old time masculinity. His outbursts are not completely alien as environmental writing relies on a feminization of nature in writing – constructs of nature are described in terms of the female body. One could also make the connection between ‘Woman as Thing’ in courtly love and the early British use the sublime. The concept of the sublime was utilized by several British thinkers to describe certain objects of nature, in particular high peaks they had explored. The question to be asked is whether nature, or the environment is always already too much, too overwhelming.

In regards to the sublime, and the earlier mention of crystallization, the figure of Stendhal is of note. Stendhal is known for his psychological complex works of literature as well discussing love as a kind of crystallization, where the final step of one’s infatuation is delight caused by overrating the object of love. Stendhal syndrome, named after the author, was so called because he fainted from being overwhelmed in Florence, his heart pounded, his head became dizzied, at the sight of too much beauty.

Is there a kind of sublimity ‘at first sight’ or can it be recycled, is the bothersome similarities to more ethereal things, in nature, that brings about a kind of overwhelming? What is raised is the question of the narcissistic element of the sublime – where, according to Alenka Zupancic, speaking in Kantian terms, the passage from the horrible to the sublime is possible when the individual, confronted with the sight of nature rearing its head, places their bodies at the mercy of it but removes their mind, in a kind of ontological evacuation, thereby setting it above – ‘The boundless ocean above be is so great and I am so tiny but I can only appreciate such a difference by holding my consciousness above it.’

The problematics of reading crystallization with loss is found in suggested in a quote from Stendhal’s On Love: “In love, unlike most other passions, the recollection of what you have had and lost is always better than what you can hope for in the future.” Beyond the question of whether love can be recycled, one should ask if love is a kind of ghost that was never alive in the first place, or where does the ghost fall between crystallization and haunting?

/3/ – Ghost of the Dodo

While environmental issues can be narrowed to scientific terms, to get at the thinking through of loss one should take up deep ecology. Deep ecology sets out to question the ethical relationships between humans and their environment, and generally eschews the scientific objectivity which may overly divide humanity and nature. Ethical concerns in regards to the environment are most obvious when it comes to human caused extinctions, such as in the case of the Dodo. Here the aforementioned question of the ghost becomes important.

In her text Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imaginary, Avery Gordon argues that haunting is somewhere between “familiarity and strangeness” (p. 55) as well as that which “prevents rational detachment” (p. 98). In terms of environmental ethics, the Dodo cannot be recycled except as a kind of lesson about the carelessness of humanity. But is this re-use more of a haunting, the spectral form of the dumb bird itself, or more of a crystallization in the Stendhalian sense, a fold in the environment itself where the Dodo was never differentiated from the ecosphere, it was only one particular molecular configuration?

To return to Gaia theory, the tension that arises is again that of Deleuze and Badiou, of whether the exception, the evental happening, is somehow included within the vary material blanket of nature. A parallel to this the tension between the nihilist and the existential detectives in the film I ♥ Huckabees.

In the end the film attempts to synthesize the fullness of the world, the interconnectivity of all things and the fundamental negativity of life. The final consensus of the film is that the very interconnectivity is comprised of such negativity. The ghost then could be the very imperfection of this relation, where the fullness of the world is the very impossibility of harmony, where time is the effect of repetition that stalls or haunts us by blasting, to use Walter Benjamin’s term, into the present.

To say, following deep ecology, that humans are another part of the environment, is a thesis that is still undergoing considerable alteration. In terms of the environment then, humanity is symptomal to nature, it is always an exception while always being deeply constitutive, yet empty.

The final point to be made here is to attempt to bring together the symptomal nature of humanity within nature and the ghost, or haunting of the environment. Our very relation to the environment is self-haunting in that our very view of nature, at least in terms of plants and animals, is transitory. It is the pesky remainder of our own mortality.

/4/ – Specter of us

The cultural object which I believe brings this self or automatic haunting to bear, is the band Cloud Cult, and in particular their song ‘Your 8th Birthday.’

First, it is important to mention the environmental attitude of the band. Not only do they maintain and use a ecological friendly CD processing plant, but when they go on tour they ‘purchase carbon’ by investing money into wind power and planting trees to compensate for what they will use on tour. Cloud Cult also calls St. Paul, MN their home, a place where environmentalism runs rampant.

Their song ‘Your 8th Birthday,’ is about the son of two of the band members, Kaidin, who died when he was two in his sleep. One of the song’s most beautiful verses from the song is:

“You make traffic jams feel like parades
You bury the dead with the faith
That makes lightning bugs swarm
As if it was graduation ”

Beyond the particular content of their lyrics, the imagery is suggestive of a multiplicity of hauntings. The title of the song itself speaks to what would have been Kaidin’s 8th birthday, had he lived, but beyond this, there at once the suggestion that nature accompanies us (‘lightning bugs’) and is forgotten or under threat because of everyday humanity (‘traffic jams’). The strongest connection here may be the faith that existence will continue despite the fact that we are always burying the dead.

Or, to put it another way, the specter contradictory displays our indebtedness to one time, yet, because of its repetition, suggests that time is out of joint, that it is beyond history, or in Derrida’s terms in a state of disjointure. ‘The present is lacking’ as Mallarme says, because there is no sense of the present time, particularly the ecological sense following a Aristotelian philosophical frame, but only that which can be reformed and remade, again. In the sense the ghost never disappears adequately but only flattens out. It is a transmogrification, that does not leave a gap to sense.


One Response to “Haunt of the Ecological Phantom or Gaia on the Couch”

  1. 1 purloinedcoin

    You raise some rather startling points about the nodes of intersection between ecology and Deleuze’s variant of monism. To take this to a semi-related topic, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how we could take these lessons within the field of global warming and the depletion of fossil fuel reserves. I’ve been personally mulling over the type of post-millenial tension that has found expression in the form of these crises along with other concerns about “the future”.

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