Morton, Timothy

Assigned: Morton, Timothy. From The Ecological Thought, from “Introduction: Critical Thinking” (2621-31). Also read the editors’ introduction (2619-20).

From The Ecological Thought (2010)

From “Introduction: Critical Thinking”

1. On 2621-22 (“The ecological crisis we face…”), how does Timothy Morton introduce his general topic of “ecological crisis” and “ecological awareness” (2621)? How does he also introduce the key term he will be developing, “the ecological thought”? He likens the last-mentioned to “a virus,” but in what sense is he employing this odd metaphor in a positive way? What other ways of configuring the meaning of his key term does Morton offer up to the point in the text that ends with the Emmanuel Levinas quote, “infinity overflows the thought that thinks it” (2622)?

2. On 2622-23 (“You could think of…”), how do you interpret Morton’s statement, “in order to have ‘ecology,’ we have to let go of ‘nature’” (2622)? What is wrong with the “reified” concept of nature that, according to Morton, still prevails even in most thinking by and about ecology? (Vocabulary help: to treat something as a “thing” when its animate status or other complexity is thereby inappropriately reduced is to reify it; from the Latin noun res, thing). In Morton’s view, what other standard concepts does worthy “ecological thinking” need to bypass or overturn, and why so?

The Scope of the Damage

3. On 2623-24 (“Modern economic structures have…”), Morton begins by suggesting that “[s]omething about modern life has prevented us from thinking ‘totality’ as big as we could” (2623). How does he go on to develop a sense of what this “something” may be? Why, for instance, is it “harder to imagine evolution than to imagine abstract infinity” (2623 bottom-24 top), harder to deal with “the actuality of life on Earth” (2624) than with grand concepts? In what way is our concept of “nature,” too, involved in the hindrance Morton is describing? How, that is, have we built up a “ghost” (2624) conception of nature that prevents us from genuinely appreciating the natural world (if one may hazard that standard phrase here)? In what sense is this failure on the part of modern societies ironic in relation to the limitations of people living in much earlier times?

4. On 2625-26 (“While we’re on the subject of Nature…”), what main criticism does Morton make of Icelandic philosopher Páll Skúlason’s treatment of the nature-concept in his (Skúlason’s) 2006 book Reflections at the Edge of Askja: On Man’s Relation to Nature? How does Morton enlist Emmanuel Levinas’ critique of Martin Heidegger’s way of writing about nature in order to suggest that in our own time, “In the name of ecology, we must scrutinize Nature with all the suspicion a modern person can muster” (2625)? How, then, in this brief segment of his text, does Morton reflect on what he initially described as the flawed notion of “environmentalism” as opposed to “ecology” (2624 bottom)?

5. On 2625-26 (“Can we get over our addiction…”), how does Morton now define more closely his key term “the ecological thought” (2625) in a way that demands rethinking of other key concepts, definitions, and relationships, even in areas that we would not conventionally associate with “ecology” or “environmentalism”? What criticism does Morton make of the kind of environmentalist who, in his words, “wishes that we had never started to think…” (2626)? How do you interpret the ramifications of his insistence that “the ethics of the ecological thought is to regard beings as people even when they aren’t people” (2626)?

Opening Moves

6. On 2626-27 (“Thinking the ecological thought…”), Morton describes the “radically open” (2626) quality of what he calls “the ecological thought.” Why, according to him, is the study of art a worthwhile endeavor in such terms? (2627) Morton also says that ecological thought “isn’t like thinking about where your toilet waste goes. It is thinking about where your toilet waste goes” (2627). What is the implication of this comment regarding the necessary level of commitment to “the ecological thought,” especially in light of Morton’s reference to the Freudian concept of the unconscious?

7. On 2627-28 (“In Lakewood, Colorado, residents…”), what does Morton make of the example he cites pertaining to residents of Lakewood, Colorado who opposed the building of a solar array in a local park on the grounds of its supposedly unnatural appearance? What about the Scottish islanders who opposed a wind farm for much the same reason? How, too, in Morton’s view, might the very term “environment” need to be re-examined and possibly even left behind? What basic problem does he discover in the way we generally use that term?

8. On 2628-29 (“Along with the ecological crisis…”), on what basis does Morton somewhat discourage the efforts of those who would try to limit ecocritical study to works created by the British and Continental Romantics? How, in his view, has the admittedly excellent art of the Romantics often been misinterpreted or over-interpreted so that it ends up playing a reductive role in ecological thinking? By contrast, in Morton’s view, what would a “truly ecological reading practice” (2629) entail, and what benefits would it yield in connection to our understanding of art and the natural world or “the environment”?

9. On 2629-31 (“The ecological thought affects all…”), how does Morton situate “the ecological thought” in relation to other, more traditional disciplines such as art, science, philosophy, history, and so forth? In his view, how can it play a positive and productive role among such disciplines, both guiding them and studying them for what they offer? What criticisms does he make of humanities-based thinking and attitudes, and what criticisms does he make of scientific thinking and attitudes? Finally, how does Morton explain his decision generally to use everyday language rather than the arcane, specialized prose of “critical theory”?

10. General question: In our selection from the introduction to his book The Ecological Thought (2010), Timothy Morton provides the basis for a re-examination of modern Western civilization’s thinking about the natural world and humanity’s place within it. How would you describe the current state of America’s approach to what nearly all scientists in relevant fields say is a looming ecological and human catastrophe, one usually referred to with the term “global climate change” or, more bluntly, “global warming.” What is your own sense of our prospects for successfully confronting this alarming ongoing event in time to stave off the worst of its effects (rapidly rising sea levels and climate extremes, to name the main ones) upon the planet, its creatures, and humanity? Explain.

11. General question: In our selection from the introduction to his book The Ecological Thought (2010), Timothy Morton sharply questions the modern “environmental movement,” mainly in terms of the concepts by which it promotes and plans its attempts to improve a situation that increasingly (even with global climate change placed neatly aside) seems likely to prove disastrous for humans and the Earth itself. What has been your own experience with this movement, whether you have done volunteer or other work for it directly, or encountered those who do such work in the surrounding community? How do you assess its general effectiveness in increasing the public’s awareness of problems and opportunities with regard to ecology? What would make the movement more effective, if you find problems with it?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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