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09 June 2011

Wilderness Ontology

Levi (here and here) and Michael (here, here, and here) have recently been posting on what they're calling a 'wilderness ontology.'  As Levi puts it in his first post:
"What’s crucially important to wilderness thought is that humans occupy no particularly privileged or unilaterally determining position within being. We are beings amongst beings and being, of course, would continue were we to cease to exist or die out ...  The mark of wilderness thought is this decentralization and multiplication of points of view. Now suddenly, human points of view are but one point of view among others. The fur trapper contends with the point of view of the grizzly bear and the approaching winter storm. He is amongst beings rather than a being for which all other beings are correlates." 
Obviously, this is a concept I wholly agree with, though I'm not sure I would use the term "Wilderness" since that term comes with a great deal of baggage.  Environmental philosophers, historians and others have spent a great deal of time and ink deconstructing it - revealing it as a construct and a problematic category opposed to "Civilization" - how can we suddenly reclaim it?  It wouldn't be the first time, I suppose, but maybe a better term exists.  I certainly like Tim Morton's use of ecology, which Levi likens to his wilderness.  I also think the concept shares some similarities with John Law's "hinterland" in After Method, though that could be deconstructed in a similar fashion as has "wilderness."  But whatever you choose to call it, a wilderness ontology is certainly a worthwhile project.  The question that remains is, what does it do for/to us - how does it affect our experience and practice?

Moving from a wilderness ontology, I think, does many things for us, but I'll focus on just a couple.  First of all, it humbles us.  It forces us to experience ourselves not as the lords of creation we tend to think we are, but as humble actors trying to make our way in the world just as every other entity is doing.  Granted, we are doing far more to the planet than say an eagle or an ant (on the other hand, see the E.O. Wilson quote on the sidebar...), and we are certainly of a different kind than all of those others, but difference and scale of influence is no cause for hubris.  Second, it eliminates, as Levi calls it, the Romantic ideal of the wisdom of nature - as if to say we should only be more natural and everything would be alright.  It exposes this for the normative and value laden claim that it is.  What does it mean to be natural?  Who gets to decide?

But does this exonerate us from our responsibility to those non-human others?  No, I think not.  In fact, a wilderness ontology places us in a far better position than we have ever been in before to create a more just and sustainable world.  In order to dominate, control, and destroy an other, one must first degrade it - turn it into passive material that doesn't care what happens to it.  For people, we call this dehumanization, and I wouldn't be the first to suggest that something similar has been done to the non-humans we share this planet with.  Only by denying the agency of non-humans (and humans too) have we been able to destroy them, and only by restoring that agency can we hope for a different constitution to emerge.  This, to me, is the point of feminism, post-colonialism, and every other activist movement - first and foremost, to force those in power - those who dominate - to recognize the agency of the Others.  The same is now being accomplished for the non-humans we live with and relate to. 

Wonderful as this may be, I think that recognition is not enough.  It's a start, for sure, but the real work comes after in terms of building a new world.  As Ghassan Hage points out, "... what is important is the relational imperative - that is, how do you make bad relations good relations?"  Recognizing the agency of Others is the first step, the second, possibly more difficult, step is to start to transform those relations from ones characterized by domination and degradation to ones characterized by cooperation and trust.  That's the work that a wilderness ontology allows us to perform.


michael- said...

Well I certainly understand your hesitation with the word 'wilderness', I still think we should reclaim it.

Our species needs to sense, understand and appreciate just how 'wild' we are. Humans are animals. And we live in a planetary ecology. The earth is material-energetic matrix raging with forces, flows and materials that can never be domesticated.

Jeremy Trombley said...

No argument here, Michael. :)
Until we do reclaim it, though, we're going to have to continually remind people of the problematic nature of the term and how we intend to differentiate our use of it from prior uses. As Levi says, concepts are practices, and this practice is fairly well entrenched in our culture - it's going to take a lot of time and effort to reroute it.

btmc said...

I read in the economist the other day that the Anthropocene, coined in 2000, is becoming more commonly used in certain circles. I found the article problematic. Not that humans are major players in environmental shaping, that seems obvious. but the tone of this discussion, as if our role in species selection and climate change was a sort of power, rather than a grave responsibility.
I wonder what you think of the term? "The age of man" seems to be here, regardless of how we act, our actions have environmental consequences.

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