[Anthony Paul Smith, La Salle University, previews his new book, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).]
I have a bad habit of making intellectual work personal. I don’t mean that I lose my temper when my work is criticised, though like too many other academics I have, of course, done that. And I don’t even mean that I see my work as a “vocation”, like many theologians of the confessional kind do. No, my bad habit is something closer to when Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari say that the question “what is philosophy?” can perhaps only be asked late in life, in a quiet moment when one can finally say, “What is it I have been doing all my life?”
The line might not have been intended to be funny, but I have always read it in the spirit of Woody Allen-esque dark humor. Imagine one of the 20th Century’s greatest philosophers and his revolutionary friend, mere years away from their deaths, looking at all the books they’ve written, all the psychological patients helped, all the people inspired by them and who have learned from them, and then, instead of a certain pride, settling into a certain Sunday malaise, setting in at twilight. Perhaps I am not yet old enough to ask this question, but I can’t help but look at this book in my hands and ask, What have I been doing my whole life? Of course, there is a certain nihilism to Woody Allen; each of his movies always has that nagging question in the background: What does any of it matter? And indeed, that’s how I always make my work too personal. Because, in the light of the ecological catastrophe which has already started to settle in, what does it matter that to have written a book on nature with the title A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought?
This is actually a profoundly ecological question that gets to the heart of what the book is about, because to answer it I have to step away from the obsessions of theology and philosophy today when dealing with the question of nature and which I critique in the book. In this post, I want to introduce you to how I understand standard philosophical and theological discussions of nature to have focused, before ending with a short sketch of the different approach I attempt in Ecologies of Thought (I prefer to refer to the book by the subtitle).
But let’s keep it personal for a moment, before I turn to outlining the book itself. Because I want to first speak at a human level, or what I prefer to think of as the creatural level. Since the book is so highly abstract and is written in the usual respectable academic tone, let me write here as a person.
The impetus for this book goes back to my experience in the second grade of having my ecological consciousness raised for the first time. The year was 1990 and Barbara Bush had teamed up with a host of cartoon characters to push that year’s Earth Day (actual cartoon characters – I’m not being funny by referring to her anti-ecological co-Republicans in this way). Reading about this event – probably in some free Warner Bros. or Disney owned magazine designed to hook kids on the cartoons and their toy lines – was the first time I remember looking around me and thinking that there was this whole big connected thing in which I was a tiny part. I didn’t call this thing nature yet and I didn’t yet know what a biosphere was, but I felt at the tender age of eight that mysterium tremendum. Because that is what hearing that your planet was falling apart around you, largely because of the actions of your species, felt like. It was terrifying and yet I was drawn towards to it, to this power which seemed to reside in creatural life.
From that moment forward the question of nature stuck with me. It stuck with me when my mother’s religious experience brought me into the culture of Christianity and my father’s atheism pushed me to look at the world as just an accident of the universe. What did any of the culture that my parents gave me have to do with this overwhelming thing called nature? What could either religion or atheism say to me about a nature that could both be broken by our hands and also had the power to simply forget about us?
This brings us finally to the book itself. The book is separated into four parts. The first part lays out a typology of the various relationships philosophy and theology have with ecology, both in terms of the scientific discourse on ecosystems and in terms of politics of nature. The second part of the book is devoted to an introduction to François Laruelle’s “non-philosophy” which constitutes the methodology for the construction of the theory of nature put forward in the book. I have written elsewhere a great deal about Laruelle, but what his method provides for me in Ecologies of Thought is a way to bring together philosophical theology with the scientific discipline of ecology. Part three is devoted to an argument that scientific ecology is already in itself thinking philosophically and theologically, as well as that philosophy and theology are implicated in ecological systems. This last point is important, as it means we can no longer rely on idealist conceptions of philosophy or theology unmoored from very real material concerns like “can one think without food, that is, without existing ecologically?” I then go on to develop a philosophical and theological reading of certain concepts and notions in ecology that are used in part four to develop a theory of nature.
So, what do I think is wrong in terms of the way philosophers and theologians have tended to engage with nature? First, I should point out that, following Laruelle’s method I don’t simply dismiss any of the systems of philosophy or theology that my work is coming after and building upon. Indeed, I treat them as ecological materials and structures that I can engage with both as thought and as ecology. The purpose of the first part of the book is to simply lay out the nature of how philosophy and theology relate to another discipline – ecology. What is it that they each do to the other discipline they proclaim to speak about and often for? What is their relationship?
I develop a typology to organise these relationships a bit more. For philosophy, I see a bonded type that tries to bond philosophy to some science in order to think of nature (usually a “big” science like physics or mathematics) and a subsumption type that always subsumes science within philosophy, claiming that the science itself cannot think. Christian theological discourse on nature that engages with ecology all tends to fit necessarily under the subsumption type, as theology claims to unify all the sciences (itself included) in the light of revelation. However, I locate two different kinds of subsumption in the Christian eco-theology literature. One is an inflection type, attempting to join Christian theology with ecology in order to raise them both up, and the other is a declension type, seeing in science only a witness to fallen reason which requires theology and the religion behind it for healing and “right ordering”.
While some of what has gone on under the name of eco-theology and eco-philosophy has been admirable, there are a number of weaknesses with these approaches. One major weakness is that the approach to engaging with the science of ecology is itself not ecological. To oversimplify for the sake of this post, both disciplines tend to over-code ecology by absorbing them into some already existing philosophy or theology.
So what does Ecologies of Thought do that is different? It takes up Laruelle’s method of non-philosophy (and I develop in nascent form a corollary discipline of non-theology in the book, which will be the focus of future research), which treats these disciplines as simply materials that can be brought together democratically or in some kind of commons. Laruelle has referred to his work as the fostering of a Democracy (of) Thought as well as a Communism (of) Thought (the brackets around ‘of’ represent the suspension of this relationality, as non-philosophy aims to think a thought that is identically thought and democracy or common), which brings together science and philosophy, religion and philosophy, and other disciplines.
While this provides me with a good model for what interdisciplinary work between the humanities and the natural sciences can look like, at least for the contributor coming from the humanities, it also already avoids some major problems in the usual philosophical and theological ways of thinking about nature. At the heart of some of the more extreme forms of theology, whether it be the analogical subsuming of nature into the supernatural (Milbank, Benedict XVI) or the rejection of nature all together in the face of the in-breaking of the wholly Other (Barth, the new apocalyptic theology), we are presented with thinking that is teleological thinking at its base. Thus nature is already always determined by that thought. Nature can never surprise us. It is never perverse. But there is also the twist that, for the first form at least, nature is also appealed to in a fantastical way in order to ground our ethics and politics.
I say that this is fantastical because, make no mistake about it, depending on where you look in nature you will be given very different visions of what is good and right to do. Lars von Trier was at least somewhat right in his Antichrist; nature is evil. The whole complex of energy exchange is, after all, just a polite scientific way of saying that everything is eating everything else, often having to tear it apart and break the body of the other, and then just shitting it out the next day for the earth.
But the purely naturalist approach to engaging with nature is no better, really. In its more extreme forms as a hybrid of the so-called Continental and analytic traditions, the naturalist philosopher subsumes nature into an identity of “just already dead”. Here, again, nature isn’t surprising and is evaluated by its end. If the current majority consensus in cosmology is correct and the universe is to end in a heat death, then nothing, no Derridean trace or cosmic stones to cry out to God, will be left. And so nature is just death, since that is where it ends up.
Well, so what?
This is a fair question because both of these paths lead to errors derived from being simplistically reductive in their understanding of nature. Problems with the first are well known for those coming out of the critique of natural law, treating all “deviant” behaviours as simply “disordered natures”. In plain terms, this view of nature leads to silly statements, like the recent theological claim about the “ontological impossibility” of gay marriage. That’s Milbank again, and it’s a statement worth mocking instead of treating with academic politesse, but it also reveals something about theological thinking about nature. It constantly confuses and mixes the empirical and the transcendental, the ontic and the ontological. After all, surely to make the claim that gay marriage is ontologically impossible is to claim one of two things. Either it means that gay people who are now currently married are not actually married, which is akin to Richard Dawkins claiming that Milbank isn’t a professor of anything since Dawkins doesn’t recognise the validity of theology. Or it means that the very structures of being have been contradicted, suggesting some science-fiction vision of the space-time continuum ripping apart because people with the same genitals have been married somewhere in the cosmos. I could be wrong, but since we are all still here and gay people are still married, that seems a bizarre claim that is essentially meaningless beyond some rhetorical dazzlement.
But just as bizarre is this idea that we are already dead. As if it matters to our actual lives if we will be remembered in a hundred years, to say nothing of the timescale upon which the heat death is to take place. As if the fact that you won’t even exist in one-hundred years’ time stops everyone from struggling for some kind of happiness, some kind of free moment today (it does, of course, stop some; may they find some peace).
At the heart of both the philosophical and the theological, I claim, is a theodicy (with or without God). For the theologian that theodicy is easy, especially coming from a place of male, white privilege. Of course this is the best of all possible worlds! Of course it is providence that I was born here, in this place, with this skin, with this access to food, with this power! And the good news is that it is all going to be ok, because any problems that arise with nature, including the humans that are a part of it, will be rightly ordered at the end. The philosopher’s theodicy is a bit different, perhaps a bit sexier, but it is still theodicy. Because there is a certain appeal to finally being done with this world, with the best of all possible worlds being none. To reduce all human beings to already dead, to see the world with the eyes of one suffering from Cotard’s syndrome, is to ultimately be free of the overwhelming ecological relations we find ourselves implicated in.
In the light of these theodicies, my book takes the biblical figure of Job as its model for subjectivity. I can’t say hero, because Job was not a hero. But, following the reading of Negri and others, Job does present himself as one who resists both the theodicy that comes from thinking the world is well made and the theodicy that comes from slipping into death as the true nature of the world.
Ultimately, I develop a theory of nature that is tripartiate in character, drawing in the end on an ecologically transformed Aquinas and Spinoza alongside the Islamic theologian-philosophers al-Sijistani and al-Din Tusi. There is indeed a transcendent Nature-with-a-capital-N and it may be that its kingdom is death, but this kingdom is not absolute and is relativized in relation to the subjects of that kingdom, to those creatures who live and die and continue to do so within Nature. This creatural nature everyday looks to the sun for its energy and keeps going. The very existence of these creatures in their immanence resists theodicy, they are and in their being have no telos that gives them identity. What we need today when facing the ecological catastrophe that has already arrived is not a new St. Benedict, but a new Job. A Job that faces the contradictions present in the world without attempting to unify and ameliorate them in a theodicy, but instead tarries with them as the very subject of nature.
In a world such as ours, where the whole of creation appears to cry out in suffering both human-caused and non-human, how can our most abstract thinking help be anything but personal?