Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press) 2016) xii + 191 pp. $30.00 Hb. ISBN 978-0-231-17752-8
Drawn from his 2015 series of Wellek lectures, Timothy Morton's new work by turns fascinates, mystifies, stuns, confuses, and excites. Readers who seek new vocabularies for thinking about the Anthropocene and the vexed relation between human society and biological life will find a lot to work with. Readers who seek a more succinct explanation of 'dark ecology', an aesthetics of ecological experience Morton has been developing for a decade, will be disappointed. Rather than attempt to summarize the study's many argumentative threads, I will point out a few key lines of thought and then examine the challenge Morton presents to the wider field of science and literature and for drawing analogies between its subjects.
A few words on the organization of Dark Ecology: arguing that 'ecological awareness is weird: it has a twisted, looping form' (6), Morton plays extensively with looping forms at both small and large scale: from statements that loop back on themselves ('weird weirdness' (6), 'the seduction that the seduction might not be a seduction' (86)); to several ouroboros icons; to the sequence of the chapters themselves. The three main chapters, or 'Threads', are bookended by a preface titled 'Beginning after the End' and a conclusion titled 'Ending Before the Beginning'. In fact, that latter chapter presents his most focused introduction to the whole work. This structure encourages the reader to loop back to the beginning, but a first reader would be better served by beginning at the end, which most clearly states the central concepts and the interrelations between chapters. At a smaller level of scale, Morton notes that 'broadcast' is an agricultural metaphor for widely scattering seeds, and this accurately describes a prose style that seems bent on metaphorical dissemination. Here Morton continually distills and markets his thought in filbert-sized formulations aimed at a wide audience, from the repeated use of allegorized phrases like the 'Easy Think Substance' (47) or 'The Sadness' (148), to his extended riff on a chocolate bar as a metaphor for 'dark' aesthetics.
There are several useful features of Morton's account, from his expanded exploration of open and 'fuzzy' systems and temporalities, to the argument that, in ecological and living systems, the whole is smaller than the sum of the parts, a relation he terms 'subscendence' (116). I am less sure of the value of 'dark ecology' itself – though, at a recent ecocriticism conference (ASLE), it seemed to be the most popular skyhook for signaling critical currency. To embrace our current location as a 'loop within a much larger loop' (70) seems, in Morton's imagination, to mean we can have access to our participation in that larger loop via a dark, uncanny, or 'Goth' aesthetic. At the heart of the notion of dark ecology (which derives from discussions of the 'night of the world' in the writings of Hegel and Slavoj Zizek) is a claim about our ability to access our environmental imbrication through a dark aesthetic experience, a regression to our primal self of the kind suggested in Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States. To experience this darkness means to access our collective past, a past that, loopily, is just as much a part of our present and future. We can see and feel our dark ecology, and so, change our ethical and political orientation toward the problem of humanity's operation within the environment. Setting aside the anthropological imagination that someone like Hegel brought to bear in thinking such 'darkness' or that Freud brought to thinking about the uncanny, I wonder if this position of a total aesthetic embrace with the world can sustain its ambition. In spreading dark ecology across so many dimensions of experience and objects of concern, like an aesthetic Nutella, it seems almost impossible to discriminate its true flavors.
For this reason, I'd like to ask what problems Dark Ecology presents as an example of criticism for our field. Gillian Beer has famously admonished critics of science and literature to consider how that interplay represents a 'two-way' street, that is, not simply how scientific developments shape cultural production, but how scientific practice and the knowledge it produces are shaped by literature and other social forms. Despite the thick interplay of scientific and humanist thinking on display in Dark Ecology – it often seems to run two-way all the way – the consideration of either science or literature in their own right is uncharacterically thin.
On the one hand, Morton gives few developed critical readings of literary artifacts. There is a mesmerizing reading, at the opening of the first 'thread', of the threshing scene from Tess of the d'Urbervilles as an example of the machinations of 'agrilogistics', Not so the readings of the Oedipus myth, Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, or Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. A similar problem of attention is shown in the way he develops key pieces of his argument through citations to recent findings in various scientific fields, including evolutionary biology, climatology, quantum physics, and anthropology. On closer examination some of these claims are not supported by the work cited. In one example, Morton asserts that ancient 'bacteria already had genes that could switch on resistance to a fatal dose of antibiotics' (83), and for this reason, the recent emergence of antibiotic resistant strains is less about linear evolutionary response that the heterogeneous looping temporality that he posits. There are several problems with this claim. First, the wide-ranging metagenomic survey he cites shows that the highest concentrations of these potential 'antibiotic resistance genes' (ARGs) are found in environments with no exposure to antibiotics. This suggests that presence of ARGs does not correlate directly to the evolution of antibiotic resistance, a point underlined in a major review that concludes 'the lack of a proper definition of antibiotic resistance for environmental strains of bacteria, the numerous databases with scant information on antibiotic resistance in the environment and the lack of functional demonstration of ARGs in environmental genomes are considerable limitations for the characterization of the environmental resistome'.1 Moreover, the notion that such genes are lying dormant in the background population, waiting to be 'switch[ed] on', suggests a basic misunderstanding of how bacterial genetics and evolution work. Given the compact nature of bacterial genomes and negative selective pressures, the wide prevalence of ARGs in environments without antibiotics indicates their active importance in other metabolic or signaling pathways, as researchers have noted. To put it simply, ARGs 'look like' antibiotic resistance genes in some genomic surveys, but are almost certainly performing other functions, while the ability to 'switch on' and help resist actual antibiotics has not been shown.
This may seem like an inside-baseball critique – we can't expect everyone to have a degree in molecular biology – but such problems are also evident in his engagement with Charles Darwin's discussions of sexual selection, a more significant problem for a scholar trained in nineteenth-century studies. In Morton's account, 'Darwin argues that the only reason why I have reddish facial hair and white skin is because someone thought it was sexy a few million years ago, and she probably didn't have a choice' (102). But the cited portions of The Descent do not address human facial hair. Darwin's fascinating discussion of human beards and skin color in fact occurs much later in that work, where he postulates that male facial hair and coloration is probably less a product of human sexual selection than an inheritance from our ape ancestors (insofar as some monkeys show similar patterns).2 In one of the passages Morton cites, Darwin wrestles with the problem of assigning such dimorphisms to either natural or sexual selection, noting that 'in most cases it is scarcely possible to distinguish' between their effects.3 In place of Dark Ecology's extended engagements with Derrida, Lacan, and recent work on 'Object Oriented Ontology', I'm tempted to ask Morton to address the complexity of such boundary cases in Darwin's writing as part of a wider account of the imbrication of ecological systems. We might all go back and 'just read Darwin' – as Morton once put it.
The basic thinness of these engagements (with criticism qua criticism, and science qua science) suggests something important about Beer's formulation: if the traffic between science and literature should drive on a 'two-way' street, that street needs at least four lanes. That is, the zippy external study of interplay (science to literature, literature to science), must run alongside the slow but accurate work of internal description of each field (getting the science right; doing justice to the literature). This is why interdisciplinary study is hard, especially when those disciplines fall on different sides of the disciplinary divisions of the arts and sciences. The field of science and literature derives some of its authority from its capacity to accurately mediate between two distinct systems of knowledge. Analogies drawn between science and literature, when they work, have two components: first, a fully articulated and just treatment of their respective elements, and second, a study of their interplay that elucidates something about those patterns that was not evident. Dark Ecology often fails in the former, but the patterns it elucidates are truly fascinating. If strong analogies find patterns that have no name, Morton's study offers many new names for patterns that may or may not exist.
Devin Griffiths, University of Southern California
1 T U Berendonk, C M Manaia et. al., 'Tackling antibiotic resistance: the environmental framework', Nature Reviews (Microbiology) 13.5 (May 2015), pp. 310-317, 313
2 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: Penguin) 2004, 672
3 Ibid 245