Critical Ecologies: Ten Years Later
Critical Ecologies: Ten Years Later
Andrew McMurry looks back on ten years of ecocriticism and identifies
a “new physiocracy,” whose exclusive interest in technology is no better than the exclusive valuation of property that typified physiocrats of the Nineteenth-Century.
I. The Planet Killers
Elizabeth Kolbert throws up her hands at the end of her three-part New Yorker investigative series on the whys and wherefores of global warming: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technological society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing” (63). I’ve been thinking for some time about this notion of choice: that we could choose self-destruction is a datum in great need of explanation by anyone who styles himself an ecocritic. The resources of poetry and literature and art are not particularly suited for stopping or even slowing the headlong rush into destruction (and this is where I differ from some in ecocriticism, such as Lee Rozelle, who imagine that poetry and art and film can help us tread more lightly on the earth) because the roots of the problem go far deeper than culture can penetrate. Still, a study of culture helps us to understand what sort of creatures we are that we can effectively choose to immolate ourselves and the planet. Literature, as we all know, is the human pageant distilled; but it’s equally the transhistorical record of a sad and furious primate, a mirror held up to our species’ ugliness. Passed through the interpretative lens of ecocritical theory, literature reveals instance after instance of our inability to project, limit, and control the mainly negentropic quality of all our activities in our environments. In simple terms, the price we have paid for the complexity of our things is the decomplexity of earth’s things. As a species, we have the power to modify our surroundings to suit our needs but not the wisdom to suit our needs to our surroundings.
Though literature has plowed long and deeply the broad fields of human ignorance and conceit, we must also look for answers in our prehistory, before we became cultivated. As Rob Swigart explains, some of those reasons go back to our salad days in the Pleistocene. Humans are visually-oriented, bipedal animals with big brains and opposable thumbs. Unlike our anthropoid cousins who stuck to their niches, homo sapiens evolved to thrive across a range of habitats. We have always been superb ecological colonizers. It’s hard to break such habits: nature’s nosey Parkers, we think we are welcome everywhere. Self-described as sapient, we can solve many thorny problems and, indeed, are eager to test ourselves against them. That almost every problem we face today is of our making is not a fact that shames us much or causes us to draw back: we want to think our way out without retreating one iota. We do not give up what we have earned through conquer: we have taken the planet, and we are not about to relinquish it.
As we seem biologically predisposed to devastate our habitats, shall we take a moment to savor how well things worked out? Indeed, human cultures have long celebrated their triumphs over the earth and, in most respects - green guilt aside - they still do. Annually, for example, every nation reports its economic and population growth statistics. A rise of even a percentage point is cause for joy - more consumption and more consumers is doubleplusgood. From one perspective, there’s no point in fretting: other species, too, burgeon without weighing the costs (it’s called “overrunning the niche”). So if we choke on our own excrescences, well, blame nature: genes are not concerned with limits; they seek only to spread.
But we like to think that there is more to us than a predisposition. That big brain, in theory, should pull us out of the mire; it’s a boot-strapper of great power. “Civilization” is the brain’s supreme product, and the shared and stored knowledge that is created by civilizations ought to be counterweight to our fundamental ecological ruthlessness. Because they are civilized, even the rich and powerful (in other words, those most insulated from danger) know that despite the immediate political and economic attractiveness of staying the course we really do need a workaround - and soon. So why hasn’t civilization been more helpful in tempering our Pyrrhic war against nature? Why can’t it better coordinate and channel the various drives that seem to do us in: pride, greed, fear, love, hatred, passion, disenchantment, restlessness, the usual suspects? Why do grown-up civilizations exist only in the pages of science fiction novels?
Who knows? Each person who has addressed the first questions of what it means to be human has provided a piece of the puzzle, and it is quite true that we have been concerned with our murderousness since at least the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi. But most of the codification and proscription of human violence has to do with human-on-human violence. Not enough has been written about our violence to the non-human, and the role of speciesism as the master binary that authorizes all the various forms of other-oriented brutality. Observing a spider on his floor, William Hazlitt wrote, “I bear the creature no ill-will, but still I hate the very sight of it. The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it. We learn to curb our will and keep our overt actions within the bounds of humanity, long before we can subdue our sentiments and imaginations to the same mild tone.” The spirit of malevolence: an apt phrase that conjures up the pleasures of hating, the joie de la mort. “It will ask another hundred years of fine writing and hard thinking to cure us of the prejudice and make us feel towards this ill-omened tribe with something of ‘the milk of human kindness.’” Two hundred years on, our antipathy to spiders - and nature in general - is indeed milder, but that is due less to kindliness than to convenience: nowadays natural entities, like human ones, are management problems, and you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. But you still catch them. A spirit of benevolence toward bugs - now that would be something!
Perhaps the spirit of malevolence seeps out to the boundaries of the human social system itself, perhaps marks those boundaries. Maybe society, even in its best-managed form, is finally just a war-system; everybody bears arms, and the enemy is everything not of our kind. Hazlitt noted that “without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.” So we are planet killers by nature, and no more needs be said. To search for a more proximate cause would be as absurd as asking the fox why he raids the henhouse. “Where do you want me to begin?” he’d say.
II. The New Physiocracy
ebr’s first “Critical Ecologies” collection was edited by Joseph Tabbi and Cary Wolfe. Posted in 1996, it was organized around a distinction between ” biological, organic ecologies - what we usually just call ‘the environment’- and those abstract, inorganic, informational, and digital systems and networks that one hears so much about these days.” Based on a comment by Tim Luke, that original collection took on a “green” and “grey” cast, with essays seeming to self-organize around the organic and informatic poles. Critical Ecologies has continued its exploration of the discontinuities, paradoxes, and general uncertainties of the green-grey dichotomy for, lo, these ten years. The green/grey patina of the thread has developed into a full-blown verdigris, with the medial and information ecologies our contributors have most often explored implicitly colored by their awareness of the other, natural ecologies, which are, needless to say, experiencing a massive crisis. Whether the information technologies and ecologies we humans are cocooning ourselves within can mitigate that encompassing eco-crisis or can only exacerbate it remains to be seen.
Perhaps both: why not information technologies that systematically insinuate themselves into the processes of nature and then take them over, effectively destroying and preserving those processes at the same time? We have precedents in older technologies: levees to replace bayous; cattle to replace bison; tree farms to replace forests; sunken tankers to replace reefs; controlled burns to replace lightning; deer hunters to replace wolves; air-conditioning to replace climate. As chip technologies begin to enter all those older technologies and provide us with unprecedented control and feedback over them (think “smart levees” or “intellideer”) there’s reason to believe that someday soon the whole planet and everything on it will be accessible via one vast GIS interface that can call up, combine, sort, interleave, or isolate the countless information layers that will structure the planetary database. The mapping of the world in read-only memory, however, isn’t the point: we want to be able to reconfigure the map virtually and then draw it back on the world. The ultimate goal? To terraform the earth. To make an earth ever more fit for humans - even as it becomes unfit for everything else. One thinks here of the many speculative fiction imaginings of the “ecumenopolis,” a globe-girdling conurbation in which every natural process is replaced by technology (e.g., Coruscant, the dreary planet-city in George Lucas’ second Star Wars trilogy: from horizon-to-horizon nothing but spires and landing pads, an architectural idiom of Chrysler Building crossed with punch bowl).
I call this regime that contemplates the replacement of natural ecologies by info-tech ecologies the “new physiocracy.” I define it as a techno-politico-economic order whose great imaginative project is the transubstantiation of matter into information. Its key operations are decoding, modeling, and fabrication. Genetic engineering is the archetypal program: decoding of existing genomes; laboratory modeling of altered forms; and subsequent fabrication, whether through cloning, tissue culture, or direct gene splicing. The resultant organisms (e.g., viruses, insects, plants, eventually large animals) are inserted into existing ecologies, either natural or quasi-natural (e.g., farming), there to take the place of extirpated, extinct, or otherwise unavailable autochthonous components - or, ideally, to take part in wholly new ecologies that will provide remedial and even improved biophysical services for humankind.
Why “physiocracy” and why “new”? The “old physiocrats,” perhaps you’ll know, were 18th century French economists who theorized that the true basis for all prosperity was agriculture. Land was the first, final, and sole source of wealth. In their view, commerce and manufacturing yielded no net gain to national economies and so should not draw government intervention and support. Everything depended on possession and improvement of real estate. Jefferson was informed by their thinking, as are, I’d hazard to say, most everyone in the American green tradition, whether they know it or not. By contrast, the general wisdom of the Information Age is that economies grow on semiconductors and symbol manipulation, the French farming union be damned.
Despite its reductive view of economies - or perhaps because of it - old physiocratic materialism has never completely died out. Old physiocracy is a way to stand one’s ground against the info-glut and to signal impatience with the grand claims of postindustrial theories of value. It’s not only greens or paleoconservatives who incline to the old physiocratic ways: channeling the attitude if not the actual theory, Michael J. Boskin, one-time chair of Bush I’s Council of Economic Advisers, famously claimed, “It doesn’t make any difference whether a country makes potato chips or computer chips,” meaning that profit is profit, and there’s nothing special about information technology. A new physiocrat might reply, “true, as long as the potato chips are made by the computers.” For the new physiocrats, only that which can be co-processed as information seems to have any substance. From field to mouth, a potato is less palpable as foodstuff than info-stuff. Tagged at every step, a potato is bred, seeded, planted, cultivated, harvested, transported, sliced, cooked, packaged, distributed, marketed, and sold; and even as it is being denatured into a thin greasy wafer, it is building up an information nimbus that lasts longer and travels farther than the humble root vegetable itself.
For new physiocrats, nature becomes like a musical score: to play it correctly one must first learn how to read it, following Bacon’s dictum in the Novum Organon that “nature to be commanded must be obeyed.” New physiocrats may not yet know all of nature’s music, but they can certainly hum a few bars. And already, they are altering the tune, adapting it to their purposes. Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest agricultural combines, says on its website that “Nature has the answers. Is anyone listening? Yes. ADM. The nature of what’s to come.” So it’s clear that new physiocrats like ADM or Con Agra or even family farmers planting “RoundUp®-Ready” soybeans are primarily building knowledge objects and data structures, not soil. One might say that the passage from old physiocracy to new physiocracy is the passage from real estate to ideal state, from dirt to silicon, from the earthenware to software. Stated more baldly, the new physiocracy is just latest form of the Enlightenment dream, to turn nature into instrument. Still, there does seem to be one little difference: Bacon claimed that “Toward the effecting of works, all that man can do is to put together or put asunder natural bodies. The rest is done by nature working within,” meaning that instrumental knowledge depended on an understanding of - but, ultimately, adherence to - nature’s rules. The new physiocracy adds this addendum: “and now we can change the rules.” The new physiocracy is largely unimpressed with “the natural” even as, on a global scale, food, water, and resource allocation are becoming the central security issues of the 21st century.
Katherine Hayles notes that “Virtuality is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns.” New physiocracy is the cultural perception that material objects have been superceded by information patterns. Contrast that perception with the old physiocratic thinking, which aligned itself with a materiality that kept pride of place over any information value - moral, monetary, scientific - that could be assigned to it, for at bottom real estate was “value” itself. New physiocratic cultural perception can be given a fairly non-theoretical valance: “These days, folks put more stock in things on screens than things in the ground.”
At the heart of the new physiocracy is, of course, a paradox: how can you perceive that information trumps natural objects when surrounded by natural objects you still are? The truth is that new physiocrats love nature, indeed, are finding better uses for it all the time. It’s just that new physiocrats perceive (literally, “to take into possession”) the world differently than did their grandfathers: matter now proceeds from information, not the reverse. Indeed, matter begins to look like the transitional state between states of information. Gene technology is again archetypal: new physiocrats now understand that genomes are not simply organisms’ internal blueprints but field-tested code that new physiocrats can borrow. In fact, an organism is simply the momentary material expression of information, information that was around long before the organism was alive and that will stay around long after it is dead. Because information is so easily produced, transmitted, archived, rearranged, and - crucially - corrected to conform with the new states of nature that info-tech begets, new physiocrats perceive that they now possess nature through its detailed description. Nature has the answers: listen. Then stop listening and get building.
Yet even as the world phase-shifts into a “liquid modernity” (Bauman), the premodern, preindustrial, prehistoric solidity of the Earth itself won’t disappear. Dirt is all around us, right up to the doorstep of the Intel clean room. Let’s not be coy: the new physiocracy is a moment of dangerous arrogance. That is because a perception of matter that looks past matter is foolhardy, fatuous, and self-flattering. Knowledge is built up by generalizing about particulars; the new physiocracy seems like a powerful knowledge. But it isn’t knowledge so much as a copia, a vast body of factoids. Our new allegiance to information is like our allegiance to a thermostat: as long as everything is working, one rightly imagines that one has control over heat. Heating and cooling programs, adjustments on the fly, differential comfort zones from room to room - all of these possibilities invest the thermostat with power: it is a command node, an interface with the interior weather. Meanwhile, the physical plant is immaterial, somewhere down in a corner of the basement. That materiality is suddenly exposed when the physical plant goes down or the control panel itself is on the fritz. Then control is briefly relinquished to the experts; one has faith that order will soon be restored. And most of the time it is. Most of the time. But information is only data with a bit of structure; it isn’t knowledge, and it’s not even close to wisdom.
If you are concerned about the hubris of new physiocrats, just keep in mind that you may well be one. The new physiocracy has extended its dominion from its point of origin in science and technology to communication, politics, economy, even literary and cultural criticism. Implicit paeans to the magic of information technology abound in the work of cyberculturalists”, philosophers, and literary critics”. It’s not that these thinkers don’t understand the complications of info-tech; of course they do: recognizing complications and further complicating them are critics’ stock in trade. They certainly have a more subtle view of info-tech than boosters like Thomas Friedman, whose bestseller, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, examined the global consequences of the information economy. (For Friedman, as with most creative destructionists, the ecumenopolis will experience growing pains, but the bottom line is that we should look ahead rapturously to the Federation of One Planet.) And it’s not that these thinkers don’t understand the complications of info-tech better than fabulists like Joseph McElroy. My point is that info-tech theorists and critics could stand to be more reflective about the implicit reassurance they are giving us in these analyses, to whit: that with greater critical penetration info-tech can be jiu-jitsued into working for us. More information about information will lead to better control of information. Better control via information over the matter that matters. In other words, for us planet killers, the only way out is through. Critics can do their part by pointing out the defects behind info-tech’s official front, like efficiency experts at the gun factory.
Still, why do the new physiocrats’ work for them? Why not err on the side of cynicism? How many times has an ecocritic or a science studies person written (as if it were the next-best thing to manning the barricades) “I would like to complicate our reading of x”? Sometimes I think it would be more useful to take a claw-hammer to our reading of x. Sometimes I think we’ve never read any x well enough to earn the right to complicate that reading. Why not assume we are illiterate and that we have just been mouthing platitudes all along? Why not assume that far from going mostly right our occupation of this planet has gone mostly wrong? That for the last 25,000 years we’ve been living on borrowed time? Why not assume that our ignorance, not our information, is our most salient feature? Why not? Who ever said the earth owes us a living? That it owes us life?
But, no, that’s not our way. Ensconced as we are in an era of explosive technological advance and - no matter if lately disowned - can-do science, only a later age will be able to look back and discern our unconscious attachment to the rhetorics of info-progressivism and mastery:
I believe that one of the goals of science studies, notwithstanding the problems attendant on advanced technologies, should be to repay in some small part the tremendous gifts that science and technology have given us. We can best achieve this, I think, through constructive interventions that enable scientist and technologists, as well as the society generally, to understand fully the connections that enweb science and technology within the culture. (Nanoculture 23)
The crucial question with which this book has been concerned is how the “new kind of science” that underwrites the Regime of Computation can serve to deepen our understanding of what it means to be in the world rather than apart from it, comaker rather than dominator, participants in the complex dynamic that connect “what we make” and “what (we think) we are.” (My Mother Was A Computer 242)
I admire Hayles’ commitment to teasing out connections and productive complications; she does that better than anyone. But she also marks herself as an inside trader of information, which is only to say that she inhabits two worlds of discourse and carries communications between them. Despite the obvious and well-known rewards (especially for her readers), doing so has risks. There is the risk of blindness (what Kenneth Burke dubbed “trained incapacity”) if the critic accepts the epistemological premises of the object text, in this case, that the Regime of Computation provides a durable and normative framework for how we might “be in the world.” That we are obligated to high-tech’s gifts and insights - rather than addicted and enslaved to them - is an even riskier premise. To be sure, Hayles contests the narratives of information, shows them always to be messier, more embodied, more human than the boosters would wish. What of it? To the educated man the world is a rich tapestry, an observation that counts for nothing in a bar fight.
What we need now more than ever are “perspectives by incongruity” (Burke again), and they only emerge when one is willing to clear the decks of thought by relinquishing those very metaphors and narratives that seem tailor-made for the current situation. Computational discourse, for example, has taught us much about our brains and our methods of organization but - and if you resist the following claim consider for a moment why you are so attached to its converse - that discourse is beginning to turn sclerotic, especially so in this new physiocracy, where not only is my brain a computer, but so is my mother and the whole damn universe itself. Regardless of one’s overt intention to contest the futures offered up by robotics, nanotech, genetic engineering, and so on, what firms and grows in the act of contestation is the info-tech discourse itself. Even bad press is good press.
It’s precisely when wisdom becomes conventional that we want the oblique metaphor to show up and derange the game - even if the metaphor is little more than a refusal to play. To be sure, it is a miserable task to criticize without including the note of hope, the terminal exhortation, the “up again, old heart,” as Emerson put it. Like the dog owner who says when his mutt growls at you, “Oh, don’t worry, my Toby never bites!” every critic warms to his subject, feels what he studies or the way he studies it is good in the way belief. But I think the rest of us should be leery of Toby. He’s descended from wolves; it’s in his nature to bite. So there is something to be said for a critical stance that refuses to make nice right up to the bitter end, keeps its distance from that which it can’t help but admire. Anyway, the new physiocracy can take care of itself. Leave the note of hope to the marketing specialists or, if you must have it, at least preface it with a jeremiad.
Another, better example of the critical bind I’m describing is Donna Haraway’s well-traveled cyborg figure. We recall that for Haraway we humans are inserted into often hostile environments, worlds we didn’t choose, and we must find ways of redescribing ourselves to carve out our own realms of freedom. By rejecting origin tales and teleologies foisted on us by the old patriarchal traditions, we cyborgs can narrate ourselves as “boundary projects,” with limits that are changeable, multiple, and networked. We create ourselves these days, no god-thing or élan vital required. Let’s not imagine we are demi-gods and goddesses, though just self-fashioning, hopeful monsters uninspired by divine breath or cosmic necessity. And not even an evolutionary shore on which to try our luck: now we make the shore and make the luck.
To the optimist, the cyborg is a liberatory figure well-suited to the postindustrial, postgender, posthuman trashscape, a coming-to-terms with the exigencies of invasive technologies and the informatics of domination by an expansion of the possibilities of what it means to be human. But to the skeptic the cyborg is not a figure for liberation from oppressive environments but of acquiescence to disastrous ones - just another example of our compulsion to make silk purse’s from sow’s ears, we hopeless hopeful monsters on a steel beach (to borrow John Varley’s metaphor). Politically, Haraway’s figure pulls as much to the right as to the left. If you are downsized out of your job after 25 years you can look upon it as an opportunity for an individual or as a failure of a society. But to look upon it as an opportunity inevitably affirms the economic environment that makes downsizing ever-more likely. Similarly, to celebrate the cyborg as a figure of liberation from the wasteheap of modernity will simply prepare you to swallow more easily, following Haraway’s expression, “ManTM on the menu.”
Well, you can’t wrestle a pig and not get mud on you. I suppose we are all new physiocrats now, doubters and believers alike. I am not writing this essay on a banana leaf in my own blood. Perhaps I should just point out that no civilization that has ever existed has lived in harmony with its environment. Those that have done best on that score have simply been those that have done the least in augmenting man beyond his Pleistocene station. New physiocrats dream they can solve the basic contradiction between Augmented Man and Earth, that info-tech will sanitize the vulgar matter-energy swaps we’ve been subjecting the planet to for eons, culminating in the last hundred years’ conversion of buried seas of oil into winding sheets of carbon dioxide. And if the earth remains stubborn and surly in all its dirty materiality, by most accounts poised to bleed off centuries of resentment in the form of ice-sheet cracking and ocean current redirections, this does not faze the new physiocrats. Like the doctor on The Simpsons who tells Homer’s worried family, “we can’t fix his heart, but we can tell you exactly how damaged it is,” new physiocrats are content to have perfected the very language in which to speak our doom.
III. Anecdote of the Barn
My brother-in-law and his three brothers farm a large swath of land in southern Ontario. Together they milk something over 300 dairy cows. At this time of year (August) the view from the back of the barn is hundreds of acres of corn, a few fields of cut hay, and a herd of Holsteins making their way slowly back toward their stalls from the pasture. The milk they produce - as yet untainted by BGH here in Ontario - is more or less the same staple food humans have relied upon since the domestication of preferred quadrupeds began sometime back in the Neolithic.
My brother-in-law’s son, just now nineteen, graduated high school a year ago and immediately began apprenticing at a large factory about 15 miles from the farm. The factory belongs to ATS (Automation Tooling Systems), the largest designer and manufacturer of automated assembly lines in the world. If you shave with a Gillette razor, ATS has likely built the robots that make those razors. The machine components my nephew fabricates for use in those systems represent the culmination of the practical sciences of engineering, materials science, and computer modeling. They are quintessential 21st century artifacts, in that they are robots made by robots.
The point I’m supposed to make now is that this nephew is falling away from farming, that all of the third-generation kids will be similarly lured off the farm by higher pay and easier working conditions in high-tech plants, and that the farm will eventually be sold to developers. But that’s not the point. In fact, my nephew’s plan is to ply the “robot trade” just long enough to learn how to troubleshoot and repair a crucial technology that already exists on his father’s farm: a multi-million dollar robotic milking system. The robot milkers effectively allow the cattle to milk themselves on their own schedules, receive custom feed allotments, and to move about freely in and out of the “parlor” that houses them. For cows, this is as good as it gets. For the farmer, the system establishes a new level of control over the process and product and a welcome bit of freedom from many grinding routines. But the price is a commitment to a technology over which they have no real expertise nor, given the complexities involved, the likelihood of gaining it. My brother-in-law can fix most of the other machines on the farm, can midwife a calf’s birth, can build any structure required by the exigencies of farming: but he cannot reprogram the software in the event of a crash, and he cannot tinker with the delicate armatures and sensors of the robot milkers if a cow accidentally bends them. But that, of course, is what his son hopes to be able to do. To have the necessary know-how right on the farm has always been a source of the farmer’s independence. And from an economic standpoint, know-how is essential, often the only difference between a still-hanging-in-there farmer and a failed one.
But he will not have that know-how much longer. What he knows is not expressible in his everyday activities as it once was. This new mode of information does not accumulate in the land and animals he works; it always flows somewhere else, away from the farm, to accumulate in databases, models, templates, accounts. In turn, he cannot observe his land and animals and take what he’s learned to adjust and steady his work ahead. The circle is broken; he is put outside of it now, a piece-worker, an observer of alien knowledges. Though information flows all around him - through the computers and bar codes in the barn and the GPS devices that determine where he guides his tractor over the fields to minimize wastage and maximize yield - it is not his to possess. It’s a strange form of perception, this new physiocracy, that gives a person the feeling of grasping everything but the reality of grasping nothing.
My brother-in-law, his son, his brothers, their families, and all the other people making their lives on the land, retain some sense of an old physiocracy, a belief that in their work they are connecting themselves to the long-enduring and ever-giving earth, the most secure footing on which to build a life, a home, a civilization. Some, like my nephew and William Major, imagine they can connect the old physiocracy with the new, in the way that farmers always have: through their heads, hearts, and hands. As Emerson said, “The first farmer was the first man,” and “all trade rests at last on his primitive activity.” But the farmer today is also a new physiocrat, which means that all his works and all his lands are part of a vast, interconnected ecumene whose founding principle, such as it can be understood as a principle, is the urgency of information. Information first and last. Only in between is matter.
Emerson also wrote, “the mid-world is best.” If the new physiocracy is the epoch in which matter came under the thrall of information, could a post-physiocracy mark the return to matter stripped of information, to the things themselves? Is that the answer? Alas, that world that never was is never to be.
Our world is being strip-mined for information so that its replacement can be readied.