Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, Timothy Morton. Columbia University Press, 2016. $30, 208 pages.
Timothy Morton says in his new book, Dark Ecology, that we must nibble away like field mice on destructive patterns of thinking. This is one of many compelling images in the book, but first I want to acknowledge that like the field mouse, I too have been nibbling away at Morton’s ecological arguments—not to dismantle them but to find inspiration and nourishment in little doses.
The main source of these doses is his blog Ecology Without Nature that he regularly updates with written posts and videos of talks and lectures. When I first started visiting, I would puzzle over the entries, absorbing them slowly at first (everything felt like a riddle) then more quickly as his ideas became more familiar.
Morton has a prolific reputation on the eco-criticism scene. His lectures and talks take him far and wide, while his audience has grown from academics (and eager graduate students like me), to architects, artists, politicians, and even pop stars. In fact, Morton’s philosophy really took off for me when I surreptitiously garnered a copy of the published email exchange between him and the world famous Björk. The emails are hard to get unless you buy the three other booklets that make up the set, but I’m here to tell you the conversation you are privy to is worth it. One reviewer called it, “a wild, wonderful conversation full of epiphanies and sympathies, incorporating Michael Jackson, daft goths and the vibration of subatomic particles…” That same kind of vibe is what you will find in his full-length books as well.
Wallace Stevens once famously said that poetry is the mind protecting itself from itself. Timothy Morton’s latest book Dark Ecology, though not poetry, seems to come close as it engages in this autoimmune grapple. The work is philosophical and theoretical. The content is how we humans can rethink ecology.
The cover art first alerts us to Morton’s approach. Many consider environmental and ecological thinking to be somehow wholesome or harmonious… “green.” Dark Ecology foreshadows a departure from the rhetoric of organic granola snacks and ergonomic shoes. Ferns and moths erupt and twist against a black background. A sparrow lies belly up beside a cobweb in the bottom right corner—is it alive or dead? Morton reminds us that we are all in a twilight state of living and dying, a “charnel ground” of entities. And so begins our loopy descent into ecognosis.
Loopy because the book takes loops as its primary subject. Morton sees all systems, entities, and thoughts as twisted loops, loops begetting loops—blended between themselves and not themselves. His conversational, yet dense sentences burst with allusions and pop culture references, practically writhing. One of my favorite analogies is his comparison of our attempts to “delete ambiguity” as the attempts of the blue meanies to shoot guns at the end of Yellow Submarine: “…flowers come out of them every time they pull the trigger. Every attempt to reduce a system to simplicity (by firing a gun at it, for instance, or by trying to unzip oneself, like DNA) ends up with the system reproducing itself, flowering into contradiction.” While lively and humorous, the galloping pace can leave a reader a bit breathless.
Honestly, the boundless directions of Timothy Morton’s thoughts make it hard to write a cogent review. I want to discuss his new ideas (like agrologistics!), while acknowledging some of his previous work (Hyperobjects, Object-Oriented Ontology, Ecology Without Nature, and so on), while also not discursively trailing too far off into the weedy garden that his eco-philosophy. His thoughts are so well-weaved and tangled together, it’s no wonder his book takes the zigzagging, free-wheeling approach that it does.
As Morton’s work reaches a wider audience, however, there seems to be an implicit need to defend his intellectuality. Some reviewers online copy and paste his more difficult sentences, saying (basically) “Ugh! Look at this! This pompous writer is just trying to be esoteric and inaccessible! Ditch this book, read something else!” It’s understandable to not want to puzzle long over a book when the list of nature writers is long, and if written down, could probably stretch across the US and wrap the Earth once or twice in snaky paper chains. But instead of anxiously flitting from one book to another, or skipping the book to read the review, what would happen if we engaged with this material without simultaneously throwing our hands up while asserting our superiority over it?
Of course clear writing is important. But I believe that some reading, some thinking, is hard (and that’s okay!). Not hard like painful or hard like it makes you sweat, but the hard work of admitting, I don’t totally know what this means and sitting with that, or even looking something up, or reading and rereading a sentence. Many daily routines require us to have our minds already made up about something. Ecognosis (and philosophy and poetry…) requires us to unmake our minds. To muse. Morton might suggest that these works are the field mice, nibbling at us.
Morton’s end goal is not to signal his intellectual prowess, or spread snobby abstractions. It is to be, to laugh, to feel. For him, ecological awareness (that we are each objects, surrounded and compromised by other objects, more intimate and unfamiliar than we had ever previously realized) is a type of feeling—prickly, like a cactus. One of the projects of this book is to induce this feeling, this “think/feel.” An embodied awareness that takes nonhumans into account as we imagine and design our futures. Perhaps we can co-imagine and co-design co-complicitly with other beings.
But best of all, consider how all this musing relates us back to amusing. To sit with one’s mouth open (the original meaning of the word “muse”) is a funny sight! In the last section of the book Morton reminds us that if we are to think seriously about the earth and global warming, we must have humor too. He likens this journey of eco-awareness to a trip through a Dungeons and Dragons-like board game. I like to picture it more like a boat ride on log flume, (also called “dark rides”). The underwater track slips us through shadowed chambers and creaky animatronics, behind fake stalactites where dinosaurs coexist with pharaoh kings and exit signs. The effect is somewhat beautiful, somewhat creepy, sad, profound, and silly.
Engaging with books that challenge us, and invite us to play in paradox and counter-intuition, is a way to open our receptivity and to be amused by ourselves. We should give it a try.
Sarah Jordan Stout is a graduate student studying literature at West Virginia University. Her poetry has been published at Connotation Press, Rust+Moth, Stirring a Literary Collection, and Dunes Review. She lives and works in Morgantown.2