Plate 9 from William Blake’s Book of Urizen
Timothy Morton believes that the binary between human civilization and Nature is worn out. For him, the setting apart of Nature is akin to the way patriarchal discourse set apart the category of Woman (and there’s of course a long history of aligning Woman with Nature with both construed as fundamentally other to Man). The nub of the gist for Morton is we must abandon the category of Nature altogether.
Morton lacks the relentless physical ticks and spitty lisp of Slavoj Žižek, but his rapid use of divergent references from science to popular culture offers a similar rush. He’s dealing in serious ideas but his terms – from plate glass windows to Wile E Coyote – are concrete and plainspoken (mostly). Here he begins by suggesting a corollary between human history and biological evolution, which both unfold through contingency and chance, with no stable referents but instead an endless process of re-inscription and re-writing, be it of events or DNA. Our lungs evolved from fish bladders, and there’s nothing essentially lungy about the latter nor superior about the former. This leads Morton to insist on a transformation in our approach to ontology (the philosophical study of Being, of the nature of what is). For example, he says the notion of originality is meaningless and the distinction between where our bodies stop and the environment begins is illusory.
Such insights and troubling of old categories, for Morton, are necessary to bring thought up to speed with developments in life sciences and economic processes, with DNA itself subject to copyright and value extraction (rent), for example. According to him the idea of Nature as humanity’s backdrop is played out and we must embrace the foreground: an emerging ecological thought.
Morton broaches the subject of the Beautiful Soul – a term taken from Hegel – by way of 19th-century boycotts (of sugar and spice, in opposition to slavery and colonialism). By positing evil as something “over there,” the act of abstention or withdrawal allows us to feel noble and unsullied. This is the essence of the Beautiful Soul (though not a fair account of boycotts as a political practice). As he says, “the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing over there is evil as such… evil is not in the eye of the beholder, evil is the eye of the beholder. Evil is the gaze that sees the world as a thing over yonder.” The political example here is the War on Terror, which posits evil as a determinate entity over there.
Thus the Beautiful Soul is the flip-side to the Dick Cheney (and now Barry Obama) side of the coin. The Beautiful Soul withdraws from engagement, unwilling to dirty her hands, while the neocon mounts an assault. But both the Beautiful Soul and the torturer-in-chief construct evil as an outside force, a foreign entity. The first is a quietist, the second a (state-)terrorist.
What follows, strangely, is that environmentalists who believe industrial civilization is an evil to be vanquished on behalf of Mother Nature (the Derrick Jensens of the world) are the flip-side to anti-consumerists who believe their withdrawal frees them of responsibility for the evil of environmental destruction.
How to exit from this Beautiful Soulism that constructs evil as a material thing “over there,” which reifies (thingifies) relations? For Mortin it means actively taking responsibility for what exists, for circumstances as they are, and letting go of the fantasy that we can hold the world at a distance and judge it from an aesthetic remove. Morton goes so far as to say there’s an unavoidable violence inherent in such detachment; that aestheticization of nature is the flip-side to its instrumental exploitation. I suspect this won’t be persuasive to some. Nevertheless, the only way out of this impasse, he says, is to forgive ourselves for our Beautiful Soul-like tendencies.
We have to occupy our hypocrisy – take responsibility for it – rather than pretend we can step outside it by withdrawal or attack.