Dark [interrupting] Ecology

by Jeremy R. Strong

            *Note: Though I once met Timothy Morton and thought he was a very intelligent and friendly person, I stand by this older critique of Ecology Without Nature.

The catalogue of literature and pop culture references that Timothy Morton draws upon in his book Ecology Without Nature is astonishing for its lack of diversity. Though Morton uses a large number of illustrative examples to supplement his very intriguing theory that the idea of capital “N” nature prevents human beings from being ecological (1), his theory relies on examples that when taken together are a veritable circus of white privilege. For example, the theorists acknowledged within the first three pages make up a catalogue of entirely white and almost entirely male group of elites including: John Elder; Angus Fletcher; Susan Stewart; William Cronon; David Harvey; Aldo Leopold; Deleuze and Guattari; Walter Benn Michaels; Marx; Benjamin; Lacan; Latour and Heidegger. That Morton acknowledges debts to three non-white scholars—Freud, Derrida and Zizek—would be refreshing, if the appearance of their names were not all but obligatory in many modern theoretical arguments. Morton’s insistence that he will primarily focus on the Romantic Movement in his quest to engage with theories of contemporary political ecology leads to a similar white cavalcade: Blake; Coleridge; Wordsworth; Thoreau and others. One would think that after setting up such a distinctly white male critical and literary framework for the book, that when Morton brings in popular culture, it would incorporate more cultural and ethnic diversity. However, the final list is even more startling in its whiteness: Beethoven; J.R.R. Tolkien; Pink Floyd; The Orb; David Abram; Val Plumwood; Alvin Lucier; John Cage; M.C. Escher and David Toop. Here Morton’s inclusion of Leslie Marmon Silko as one of the only non-white artists is almost ironic, given Silko’s lifelong commitment to bringing attention to white cultural imperialist bias. Morton’s book introduces the concept of dark ecology in opposition to the aesthetic pleasure that drives our approach to the idea of ecology and lays bare the willful ignorance of the average person to the realities of “consumerism” (181). Morton indicates that dark ecology requires an acceptance of the narcissism that leads us to embrace the “queer idea that we want to stay with a dying world” (184-5). In order to further understand the connection Morton envisions between queer theory and ecology—a partnership he feels is “long overdue” (186)—this essay will examine Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erikson’s Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, alongside Morton’s theoretical framework for dark ecology. This dual textual exploration reveals that dark and queer ecologies, if they are to prove truly successful as theoretical frameworks, must engage more closely (and in Morton’s case, must engage period) with critical race studies and also with more inclusive definitions of queerness. Then, to demonstrate the usefulness of critical race theory in interrupting Morton’s primarily white cultural catalogue, the essay will temporarily interrupt Ecology Without Nature, particularly the section “Dark Ecology”, with a queer/dark ecological examination of Benh Zeitlin’s film Beasts of the Southern Wild. The essay will first demonstrate that critical race theory shares much common ground with queer ecology through an examination of coalition resistance in the film read against similar notions in Queer Ecologies, before closing with a reconsideration of what Morton’s dark ecology would look like if it did not ignore identity politics.

            Though Morton is clear that understanding dark ecology requires an embrace or interaction with pain, he seems primarily to have in mind individuals who in the course of their daily lives experience relatively little of it (182). I am thinking here of Morton’s opening this section of the book with reference to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a film (and director) for which the primary audience is made up of white middle-class American males. The horror film allows access to fantasies of terror, violence and pain in order to round out the safe, peaceful and pleasant daily lives of the middle class. A film like this is less likely to appeal to minority groups who have long been—and still are—marginalized, oppressed and subjected to painful realities. So while Morton rightly identifies that a human subject might experience the horrifying screaming of the thing in the film as a paradoxical blend of inert nature and acts of subject definition (speech or action), the question remains: what subject does Morton have in mind? 

With Morton’s relating the continual failure to maintain distinct identity and also be “immersed in nature” directly to “bohemian Romantic consumerism”, it seems that he is assuming dark ecology is a mode of thought available only to the privileged; hence his correlation of the distracting nature of an ambient life of supermarkets, airplanes and technological utopianism (183). Morton claims that the “ultimate fantasy of ambience is that we could actually achieve ecology without a subject”, clearly indicating that the fact of our living as though there were no subject involved in the degradation of the environment is ludicrous (183). By unconsciously assuming a white subject, Morton positions the critical choice to act upon global warming as a white struggle. This likely isn’t intentional on Morton’s part, but is a very large oversight in a project that seeks to “broaden” the field of ecocriticism, which Morton notes has “held a special, isolated place in the academy” (5). One major question should be—in a text that claims to be unafraid of “difference, of nonidentity, both in textual terms and in terms of race, class and gender”—why are discussions of these major issues continually positioned as important and overdue for mergers with ecocritical theory but also simultaneously postponed (5)? It may be that Morton sees aesthetics as divorced from questions of race and gender, though the work of Kierkegaard, upon which Morton heavily draws in his discussions of God and beauty, is itself problematic for its reliance on European notions of Christianity and Patriarchy and has been criticized as racist. Morton does acknowledge that elitism may exist for those who can lose possession of “the beautiful soul” and who can “recognize that we did it, we caused environmental destruction, not you, whoever you are” (185). It is odd however, that Morton doesn’t explore further the potential racial dimensions of who precisely might be hypocritical enough to destroy the environment and then take a bizarre kind of pleasure in being powerful enough to do so. It is also interesting to wonder who the italicized you represents in this case; as the lower order of those not powerful enough to destroy the environment, is Morton just carelessly reifying othering here? Morton makes assertions that seem to cry out for an intervention of critical race theory, such as when he notes “dark ecology dances with the subject-object duality” (185). Subject-object duality comes up frequently in writing interrogating racism and the tendency of white power structures to objectify minority groups. While Morton’s work certainly could be usefully tempered by considerations of race, his writing does gesture sparingly to useful overlaps with some of the concerns of queer theory, particularly Judith Butler’s notions about gay definitions of melancholy identity and mourning (186). Morton also hints at a very interesting contact zone with queer anti-futurity work such as Lee Edelman’s No Futurewhen he notes that dark ecology is “based on negative desire rather than positive fulfillment” (186). This resonates fairly powerfully with Edelman’s idea that “narcissism associated with homosexual desire […] becomes […] the basis for social survival by being severed from itself, undergoing transvaluation from primary to secondary, from life negating to vital” (Edelman 53). These two nods to Butler and Edelman make up the most promising extent of Morton’s reach into queer theory in the book. Any lack in the work done to bridge queer theory with ecocriticism in Morton’s Ecology Without Nature, however, seems supplemented by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erikson’s comprehensive exploration of the same in Queer Ecologies, a text that thoroughly explores the relationship of sexuality to natural landscapes.

            In the introduction to Queer Ecologies, Mortimer-Sandilands and Erikson argue that rural landscapes have the power to “naturalize” queer sexualities (2). They turn to the relationship between Jack and Ennis in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) in order to demonstrate this, noting that the wilderness can serve to reify—even for gay men—the importance of performing “heteromasculinity” (3). However, through their position as shepherds and their exploration of homosexual love in opposition to the heterosexual relationships they both participate in when in their urban environments, Jack and Ennis trouble the Christian heteronormative tradition and their narrative “resists the normative pairing of nature with sexuality” (4). The writers set the stake of the book as a project that reveals “the ongoing relationship between sex and nature that exists institutionally, discursively, scientifically, spatially, politically, poetically, and ethically” (5). A similar recognition of the relationship between race and nature is distinctly lacking in Morton’s text. Though Mortimer-Sandilands and Erikson don’t deal with race at great length in their long introduction either, Chapter 8 of their book does. In “Undoing Nature: Coalition Building as Queer Environmentalism”, Katie Hogan points to the concepts of “pure nature” and “pristine wilderness” as being linked in American environmentalism to “racial, gender and sexual oppression throughout American History, with specific instances of social purity and racial hygiene campaigns involved in eugenics like ideologies” (234). Here, it seems natural to question Morton’s work for a failure to devote any space to this subject, particularly given that he spends a great deal of time using similar terminology in his discussion of the aesthetics of human interactions with nature. Hogan examines the documentary film Ballot Measure 9 and its coalition building in revealing “disturbing overlaps between racism and […] homophobic violence” (241). She also points out that the film reveals the “environmental disaster of hate” through its linking of queers and visible minorities as equal targets of the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance (OCA), which sought to drive them out of the state by perpetrating horrific acts of violence on their animals and property (242). Hogan points out that nature has a “eugenics-like potential”, in which queer theory has the power to intervene (246). Though I don’t take my criticism of Morton’s work so far as to accuse him of making gestures to eugenic arguments, I do find his neglect of race problematic, in that the same eugenics-like potential identified by Hogan seems to go unaddressed by Morton. The question then becomes what exactly a useful variation in Morton’s textual archive would be and how exactly it could help to clarify some of the troubling aspects of his understanding of ecology. I take Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild as only one example of a queer and race focused example of art that could raise some important questions for Morton’s theory and interrupt the notion of dark ecology, if only to help ground its definition in a return to questions of identity politics.

             Beasts of the Southern Wild follows the sideways growth (to borrow Kathryn Bond Stockton’s terminology) of six-year-old Hush Puppy as she learns to survive and build community in the Bayou region called the Bathtub. Hush Puppy does not live under a typical heteronormative family structure, as her father Wink is separated from her mother and is hardly ever around, being in and out of the hospital, away fishing, or most often, passed out drunk away from home. The film also allows Hush Puppy to become part of a queer community, made up of dynamic individuals who are black, white, men, women, other children, and retirement age veterans of Bayou life. The members of the community support each another when a massive hurricane forces many others to leave the Bathtub for safer urban spaces. The authority figures in the film, presumably FEMA employees, become a collective and unwanted threat that attempt to forcibly remove Hush Puppy and her queer family from the Bathtub. This is presumably so that they can be cared for in the dry, safe environment of the hospital, though the film—through its undercurrent of resistance to such biopolitical controls—implies that a queer community living unrestrained and without dependence on the state apparatus, is the real reason for government intrusion. What kind of freedoms would the state be concerned might be explored in an environment like the Bathtub? 

Sexual or gender freedoms come immediately to mind, as in Beasts, Hush Puppy is often encouraged to explore her identity outside the trappings of her femininity. For example, her father Wink often refers to Hush Puppy casually as “man”, as though they are just buddies hanging out and not confined to the limits of a father-daughter relationship. This is echoed in Hush Puppy’s having her own house and her father calling on her to “beast it” when they are having dinner with the other members of their community, a call taken up by everyone in a moment more reminiscent of a fraternity initiation than that of a family dinner. Wink also often calls on Hush Puppy to “man-up” or to “be a man”. This articulation of Hush Puppy’s freedom to experiment with her gender identification serves as notice that in the bathtub, sexuality is also something that exists in a state of exception from state control. This recalls Mortimer-Sandilands and Erikson’s notion of “eco-sexual resistance” in their introductory section about ecological politics. They write that the “articulation of sexuality and nature” together form resistance to “ecologically implicated heteronormativity” (21). They also point out that: “we should reorient our politics and take on something like a queer ecological perspective, a transgressive and historically relevant critique of dominant pairings of nature and environment with heteronormativity and homophobia” (22). The narrative and imagery of Beasts represents such a reorientation and supports much of the thrust of Queer Ecologies in laying out a mandate for sexual and ecological politics unified against damaging mainstream attitudes (27). When Wink and his friends attempt to blow up the levy that keeps their community flooded, one of the men, filled with fear, fails to detonate the homemade gator-bomb. Hush Puppy, having hidden in the back of the boat, successfully sets off the explosives—a clear indication that masculinity in the Bathtub is renegotiated through the child and through the feminine. This is fine with the men in the film, who celebrate Hush Puppy’s achievement as an act of heroism. The levy is a symbol of the colonial control of natural resources as well as the policing of the movement of bodies, and its destruction represents the kind of unification of ecological and sexual political resistance presented in Queer Ecologies

The overarching narrative of Beasts can be read as that of a queer community that shares a positive relationship with its natural surroundings. Hush Puppy cares for her animals, and though she will eat them if she has to in order to survive, she explores almost every other option her environment has to offer (including scrounged cans of cat food) before she would have to needlessly kill her pets—who are consequently also her friends. Hush Puppy and the queer community she belongs to, like the gay communities examined in Queer Ecologies, create “different spatial-political relationships to natural environments” in Beasts of the Southern Wild. This makes the film, despite some of the sorrows it presents, a positive example of human beings participating in ecology with nature through queer notions of community and sustainability.

The racial dynamic within Beasts of the Southern Wild also raises several really important questions for Morton’s definition of dark ecology that I outlined earlier. As a film in which some of the characters must live in a close and precarious relationship with their environment because of the racial politics of exclusion, and also because those characters, like Hush Puppy, still manage to thrive, Beasts leads to questioning what Morton calls the “noir form” of ecological politics (187). In Morton’s terms, dark ecology “undermines the naturalness of the stories we tell about how we are involved in nature” (187). However, this position should be dismantled for its bias towards urban, technological and other clinical embodiments, which could be argued as primarily the realm of the white middle class (those who listen to Pink Floyd to feel melancholy and watch John Carpenter movies to understand fear). The characters in Beasts don’t need to tell false stories about how involved they are in nature; they feel its every move on the swell of the tide and understand human caused resource depletion when they must search for their food in the murky depths of a swamp. They are living their involvement in nature and are not detached from it or their environment. In the film, Hush Puppy’s desire to find her mother becomes a journey taking her outside of nature, as she travels on a ferry that offers more protection from the elements than her (or her father’s) house ever did and arrives at a brothel, Elysian Fields, that is symbolic of the western fantasy escape from death and the limits of the natural world. Hush Puppy ultimately redirects this desire towards the community that really supports her when she returns to bury her father and take her place among the people she wants to identify with. Her acceptance of her community and of life in the Bathtub is also Hush Puppy’s recognition of her place within the natural world, as a being that embraces the limits of nature.

 Morton does acknowledge that desire plays a large role in the make-up of ecological thought and that “love must be more excessive, exuberant, and risky than a bland extension of humanitarianism to the environment” (188). What is odd is Morton’s decision to read desire and ecological thought through reference to the revolutionary politics of the replicants in Blade Runner instead of looking to more concrete examples of revolutionary race politics in the real world (188). Morton’s assertion that “solidarity has, unexpectedly, become a choice”, is a strange claim to divorce from the politics of race relations or gender identity (188). If Morton considered the idea of coalitions between collectives and their potential interrelationships with ecology and environment (in the way that Katie Hogan does)—it might recover the place for identity in his definition of dark ecology. As it stands, Morton looks to the collective as that which emerges in a spontaneous or natural fashion, “rather than being enforced” and seems tickled by the idea of a “natural capitalism” that is “attuned to the rhythms and resources of the planet” (189). Beasts of the Southern Wild, however, depicts a group of people forced through economic and racial segregation to create their own sustainable community in response to anything but a whimsical natural capitalism. There are complex human factors (like greed: corporate and individual) and unsavory historical American human trafficking legacies (like slavery) behind what leads the individuals to form a queer community in the film. This shouldn’t negate the fact that this community develops really promising sociological landscapes in opposition to those of the mainland oppressors; the point is that there is nothing really spontaneous about their collective—they need to form it to survive. The agency of human beings is also another way in which a critical race reading of Beasts problematizes Morton’s theory of dark ecology, a theory that seems to lean heavily on the idea of new organicism as that through which nature could be seen as “pure mechanism” (191). This seems to reduce the human responsibility in the act of damaging something valuable; if nature is merely a mechanism, then that implies what we break can be fixed. Beasts demonstrates, particularly through the narrative paralleling of the flooded and ruined ecosystem alongside that of Wink’s flooded and ruined body, that defining who is responsible for destructive actions is the most important thing that there is. While the levy stands in for the inhumane decision making process of US authority, Wink claims his destroyed liver as his own by refusing to allow doctors to save his life—as by doing so, they reduce the other despicable actions of the state.

Morton ends with a reading of Frankenstein, through which he again dodges a discussion of race by footnoting the relevance of that text to the critical tradition of the monster being an “inconsistent object of racist fantasy” (194-5). He also attacks both humanism and posthumanism rather hypocritically by indicating we should care for the “creature” of man and that doing so would “acknowledge the monstrosity at the heart of the idea of nature” (195). But Morton himself is willfully in ignorance of any concrete discussion of socio-cultural or biopolitical relationships between human beings, advancing many interesting extensions of high philosophical theories that remain disconnected from lived human experience. It is therefore difficult to imagine how one would go about embracing a dark ecology that loves “the disgusting, inert, and meaningless” (195), when there is beauty, vibrancy and meaning even where ecological sustainability is at its breaking point—as it is in the Bathtub. 

This essay has demonstrated that dark and queer ecologies provide useful philosophical and political methodologies for engaging with the world. But in using Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild to test the weak points, the queer ecological ideas presented by Mortimer-Sandilands and Erikson in Queer Ecologies prove a more useful theoretical approach than Morton’s concept of dark ecology, because they don’t negate or ignore lived experience and the coalitions that are possible between queer identities and ethnic minorities. That isn’t to say that Morton’s Ecology Without Nature is without other merits in its challenge to ecological modes of thinking—far from it—but the book, in claiming to be “unafraid of nonidentity” (5), should be investigated for the ways in which it is afraid of engaging directly with identity through important lived realities of class, gender and as this essay has argued, race.

Works Cited

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Dir. Zeitlin, Benh. Perf. Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. E1 Films Canada, 2012. DVD.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.

Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona., and Erickson, Bruce. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 2010. Print.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.

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