Timothy Morton's The Ecological Thought


REVIEWED BY ERIC HENGSTEBECK

The Ecological Thought
by Timothy Morton
Harvard University Press, 2010.
Hardcover: 184 pages
ISBN: 978-0-674049208

What do a Styrofoam cup, Tibetan Buddhism, and daffodil DNA have in common with Blade Runner, Slavoj Žižek, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”? The answer can be found in Timothy Morton’s latest book, The Ecological Thought (2010). This book builds on the momentum of Morton’s critically acclaimed Ecology without Nature (2007), confirming Morton’s status as a pioneer in the relatively still uncharted realm of ecocriticism. What makes The Ecological Thought intellectually and artistically exciting is the way it reveals environmentality in strange places. As unexpected as they are effective, Morton’s diverse sources and examples give the book a distinctive energy. From Frankenstein to Solaris, from Miles Davis to house music, from John Milton to Emmanuel Levinas, Morton creates synapse-like connections across seemingly impassible chasms of time and medium. The first chapter of The Ecological Thought is called “Thinking Big” and it effectively announces the theme of the book, a manifesto for tearing down the disciplinary limitations currently plaguing modern academia. Thus The Ecological Thought is about re-imagining and re-defining thinking ecologically, through art, science, and ethics. Nonetheless, the book remains highly accessible. One need not be familiar with, or necessarily interested in, theoretical trends to follow and appreciate Morton’s argument. And for those who are interested, the book conveniently includes many footnotes that delve into its core conceptual underpinnings.

What The Ecological Thought essentially offers is a fresh set of critical terms for engaging ecologically with some of the most demanding issues facing the world today, regardless of one’s particular discipline. Morton argues that if we are to take the modern ecological crisis seriously, we must learn to think radical interconnectedness, which means learning to see the co-process of discovery and creation at work in all objects. He thus introduces the concept of the “mesh,” one of three new and potentially highly productive concepts found in The Ecological Thought. What the mesh reveals is how we are never quite what we appear to be: ecological existence is always a type of bare existence. To develop and explicate the meaning of bare existence ecologically, Morton uses the concept of the “strange stranger.” Fittingly, Morton’s concepts are themselves enmeshed in webs of other concepts: the logic of the strange stranger contains traces from sources as diverse as Buddhism’s “compassion,” Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life” (homo sacer), Žižek’s “neighbor,” Levinas’s “face,” Derrida’s “arrivant (l’arrivant), and Julia Kristeva’s “intimacy.” 

Finally, Morton employs the concept of “hyperobjects” to theorize the significance of all the long-lived toxic objects, from plutonium to Styrofoam, which have been mass-produced since the industrial revolution. Because of their ability to penetrate our environment, right down to the DNA level, these hyperobjects pose a special challenge to the imagination. More terrifying than sublime objects, because they erase the safety of aesthetic distance, they engender a sense of uneasiness and thus function as the objective correlative of the strange stranger. While it is uncertain whether or not these concepts will ignite a new trend in critical thinking, one thing is clear: the future of ecocriticism depends on books like The Ecological Thought.