by Fraser Gray
In the article titled, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology? An Ecofeminist Perspective,” Val Plumwood asserts that liberalism, the ideology that often underscores democratic systems, is responsible for democracy’s apparent inability to effect positive ecological change.[i] Specifically, she points to the dualisms inherent in liberal ideology as a crucial barrier to the implementation of corrective ecological actions which, in theory, democracy should be able to effectively enact.[ii] One such dualism is that between particular human affairs and Nature.[iii] These commonly include dualisms like culture/Nature, human/Nature, and society/Nature. In each of these cases, Nature is the secondary term (literally the second word in each dualism) and, thus, subordinate. That is, Nature is implicitly deprioritised in each dualism, suggesting that it is of less significance than human-oriented activities in the areas of culture and society. Plumwood argues that in order to facilitate a liberal democracy that would be able to effect positive ecological action, the subordinate and preferred terms of the human-centric dualisms should be reconciled so that Nature is not placed in an inferior position.[iv]
Building on Plumwood’s work, I argue that the Western conception of Nature itself needs to be critically examined before any reconciliation between it and the human-centric concepts outlined above can lead to positive ecological change. This is because the discourse surrounding Nature in Western society is inherently problematic. In fact, although Nature is often portrayed as a real object in an ontological sense, it has a philosophical history in the West where it is understood in purely aesthetic terms. This history can be traced to the Romantics who spoke of Nature in overtly aesthetic ways that were intended to contrast its pristine beauty to that of industrial human society.[v] On this view, Nature itself becomes an object amenable to political manipulations and is taken advantage of for its aesthetic quality. Ultimately, the Western concept of Nature hinders, rather than instigates, positive ecological governance.
In this paper, I will firstly argue in agreement with philosopher Timothy Morton that Nature refers to nothing concrete and, in fact, acts as an aesthetic veneer which creates distance between ourselves and non-human objects. Then, I will demonstrate that Nature as an aesthetic object is worryingly amenable to political manipulations. To illustrate this, I borrow Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aestheticisation of politics. Ultimately, I will propose that the Western concept of Nature is a crucial barrier to positive ecological and political action.
In his work, Ecology Without Nature, Morton asserts that Nature is “an arbitrary rhetorical construct, empty of…genuine existence behind or beyond the texts we create about it.”[vi] Nature, he argues, acts as a placeholder for a series of non-human objects which can range from smaller things like trees, algae, and animals, to larger ones such as ecosystems and climates.[vii] However, Nature itself is postulated as something other than these objects. Indeed, Nature is often understood in Western discourse as a kind of ethereal and supernatural object that arises from and subsumes the assortment of non-human objects commonly identified as Natural. As Morton describes, “Nature appears like a ghost over all things…[it] sits between all objects as some encapsulating concept.”[viii]
Subsequently, Morton argues that Nature, understood in this way, is not a concrete object. Rather, it is a much slipperier concept than any of the more verifiable objects it supposedly encapsulates, for where, amongst these things, is Nature? Morton turns to the history of Nature’s use in Western discourse to ascertain why it emerged as this slippery umbrella term in contemporary society. He traces its use back to the Romantics, a selection of writers and artists in the 18th and 19th centuries reacting to society’s alienation from Natural objects during an age of rapid industrialisation. During this period, the Romantics wrote of mountain ranges, rivers, and valleys with awe and, importantly, with a sense of longing to leave the human world of cold, destructive, industrial rationality and return to the emotional, fulfilling, and beauteous world of Nature.
Morton identifies the Romantic conceptualisation of Nature as the source of modern, Western understandings of the term. This is because the Romantic description of Nature as that pristine, beautiful, sublime thing “over there” which we—human beings—must or can get back to in order to escape the dredges of human society continues to this day.[ix] One need only look to the Nature-tourism industry or even have discussions with an “outdoorsy” friend to verify this. This is because within Romantic Western discourse, Nature is constructed by human beings as a contrasting world to that of the human world, as a veneer or atmosphere that encapsulates the totality of all living non-human (“Natural”) things. By creating such an object, we also construct the ways in which we understand what it is: namely, as an object separate from human beings, as something “over there” that is distanced from humans, but is also regarded as a special kind of object that sits in-between human beings and all other objects. For Morton, Nature is often perceived as this kind of paradoxical ambience, a situatedness that backgrounds humans and non-human objects but is, simultaneously, always distanced from us.[x]
In order to understand and, thus, to reconstruct Nature, Morton proposes that human beings must turn to aesthetics (understood here as judgements of artistic taste). This is because Nature is tangibly absent from the trees, birds, weather, and other non-human things that constitute it. Nature relies on other intangible aesthetic referents; that is, portrayals of Nature that have won-out as matters of artistic taste in Western (Romantic) discourse.[xi] The imagination plays a crucial role in constructing Nature from these referents as it involves making present that which is absent.[xii] By this I mean that the imagination is used to evoke an image of Nature from the aesthetic terms of reference we associate with it to make that which is intangible (Nature) seem tangible in the mind. Nature is continually conjured in this way within Western society, as the predominant Romantic terms of reference are utilised again and again, ingraining themselves deeper into Western discourse so that every evocation of Nature casts Nature as an aesthetic object.
Ecologist Dana Phillips takes issue with Morton’s argument on the grounds that he assumes that an object’s form is more essential than its contents.[xiii] Specifically, that in suggesting Nature cannot merely serve as a referent to a list of contents (trees, ecosystems, species, and so on) and the relations between them is to unjustifiably prefer the form of objects rather than the parts that constitute them.[xiv] Indeed, Phillips would argue that the Romantic Nature writing that Morton attacks merely is a description of contents and the kind of feelings they evoke as a result of our relationship with them. Therefore, our understanding of Nature does not portray any ethereal object over and above these contents and the feelings they elicit. However, Morton and other object-oriented ontologists would reject this idea on the grounds that it is unnecessarily reductive. To clarify, object-oriented ontology (or “OOO”) is a realist philosophy which holds, among other things, that the human world exists independently of human awareness.[xv] What makes OOO distinct from other realist philosophies is that objects never make full contact with each other or the human mind.[xvi] That is, real objects—objects in-themselves—are not reducible to or definable by the relationships they have with humans or other objects.
OOO uses the concepts of undermining and overmining to explain this position, both of which correspond to the two kinds of knowledge human beings can have of objects; that is, knowledge about what they are made of, and what they do.[xvii] The former approach is undermining and it primarily involves reducing objects to their smallest elements.[xviii] This is a popular approach in the natural sciences which often reduce objects to multitudes of atoms or tiny strings. However, OOO shows that this approach cannot account for “emergence”—the phenomenon in which new properties appear when smaller objects are joined together to form a new one.[xix] For instance, atoms of sulfur, oxygen, and hydrogen on their own are not necessarily harmful, but when combined to create a certain compound, they form sulfuric acid which has the new quality of being highly corrosive. If objects were reducible to their smallest parts, then these emergent properties could not be accounted for by the qualities found in its smaller components.[xx]
In contrast to undermining, overmining attempts to reduce objects to their impacts on human beings or other objects.[xxi] The issue with this approach is that it cannot account for change. Indeed, if an object is reducible to its current relations or effects, then presumably the said object also lacks any surplus that would allow it to produce different relations or effects.[xxii] Aristotle demonstrated the fault of such reductions through his concept of potentiality, the possibility that something can do something else in the future.[xxiii] For example, I could be using a fork at this instant to place food into my mouth, but that does not mean that the fork is not exhaustible to this relation as it could break at any moment, proving that there was always a latent possibility for the fork to break. Therefore, objects always possess qualities beyond their immediate effects or relations.
Objects for OOO are, thus, those things that cannot be undermined or overmined, things that are neither reducible to their smallest components or to their relations and effects, since this is common amongst all objects.[xxiv] Therefore, by suggesting that Nature is merely a referent to a list of things and their relations, Phillip’s critique of Morton ultimately deprives Nature of objecthood. This is because objects are not reducible to either their components that make them up or to their relations with other objects. Unfortunately, this would also mean that Nature does not exist, a position that is assumedly untenable because despite its complications it is still an object of significance within human discourse (it is talked about, investigated, and so on). When we consider this, we are consequently brought back to where we started, with only the slippery and ethereal aesthetic object that is Nature to guide our Western understanding of those living non-human others that are encapsulated by this term.
As previously mentioned, however, the Western idea of Nature is a poor and misleading guide at best. This is illustrated by discussions of Nature in political theory such as, for example, Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aestheticisation of politics. The aestheticisation of politics refers broadly to the act of “giving [the] masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.”[xxv] Benjamin’s classic example of this concept is the way in which Fascism uses war as a form of artistic gratification of the people’s frustrations without altering the property system that (at least according to Benjamin) causes said frustration.[xxvi] However, the concept is now commonly used to critique politics that emphasise style over substance—emotion over reason—a form of politics that attempts to deceive people into believing that their needs have been met when in fact this is far from the truth.[xxvii]
Usually, the aestheticisation of politics is used as a leftist critique of right-wing and capitalist politics. Nonetheless, this separation is blatantly false. All ideologies engage with aesthetics to some degree, even Marxism, which arguably presents an idealistic image of harmonious social life born through sublime eruptions of worker solidarity.[xxviii] As such, I use the concept to highlight that all ideologies and their associated political actors (be they politicians, influential people, or corporations, et cetera) can create an image of Nature that gratifies the aesthetic needs of the public. This is particularly the case for those actors who present positive images of Nature’s health to attain public acceptance of their actions and, thus, stall meaningful ecological change. The best examples of this aesthetic gratification present themselves in cases of destructive projects, specifically operations such as mining and other non-renewable resource extraction.
When a government or associated corporation attempts to justify the destruction that a project will cause, it is often presented as something positive for the economy, but it is also presented as something that will not cause irreparable damage. In Australia, an example of the latter point is the concept of offsetting, an environmental regulation that requires companies to counteract the damage they cause, often by replicating destroyed vegetation communities in another location.[xxix] Governments and companies often justify these actions by referring to Nature as that aesthetic object “over there,” no longer present in the destroyed community but as thriving and flourishing beautifully somewhere else. However, offsetting is arguably a scam, as the value of the existing vegetation community cannot be easily replicated, and many attempts at offsetting result in the death of said vegetation with no requirements in place to ensure they are re-established.[xxx]
In an aesthetic sense, offsetting is meant to evoke a sigh of relief amongst concerned citizens that something is being done to counteract the destruction. However, it is essentially a spectacle made to gratify the want for an enduring, resilient Nature that is still living beautifully somewhere. By this, I mean a Nature that is always existing as an ever-present pristine object. Nature is always perceived as “more than the sum of its parts,” something that is superior to and greater than the objects that constitute it. When viewed in this way, projects such as mining may destroy a particular ecosystem, species, or important geological formation (an object under Nature’s list of contents) but Nature nonetheless lives on. The parts remain expendable, Nature indispensable.
In a sense, Nature’s aesthetic quality as that beautiful object “over there” appears in each instance to soften the blows dealt to non-human objects. Nature and the political actors who utilise it suggest that we can have it both ways; we can have economic growth and have Nature; we can destroy unique ecosystems and still have that beauteous Nature. Therefore, the desire of the masses to protect Nature is gratified through its aesthetic value in cases like offsetting, whilst Nature’s objects, the ecosystems, animals and plant life that supposedly constitute it, perish. Positive political action is thus stultified by the aestheticisation of Nature. Anxieties about a dying Nature and the potential political action which would result from it are put to rest as we find solace in Nature’s permanent magnificence and splendour somewhere over there.
Indeed, my use of Benjamin’s argument to extrapolate the political implications of Nature as an aesthetic object can be criticised on the grounds that I am making an unconscious value judgment. Specifically on the basis that I am implying that introducing aesthetics as a basis for judging political actions is irrational without justifying why this is the case.[xxxi] In fact, for scholars like Jon Simons, aesthetics is merely another medium through which politics may be understood and explored to illuminate different interpretations of political action.[xxxii]
Broadly, I do not disagree with Simon’s position. I also agree that aesthetics can be a useful medium to engage with and understand politics that does not necessarily mislead or manipulate. Nonetheless, it is the study of aesthetics itself that uncovers the problematic aspects of the popular Western conception of Nature, as it is only through studying Nature’s aestheticisation that the issues I have illustrated emerge. Thus, I have not attempted to demonstrate that the introduction of aesthetics into politics is inherently irrational, only that the use of Nature’s aesthetic quality as a vector for creating political solutions is misleading and problematic. The case study of offsetting above illustrates this as it indicates the tendency of political actors to utilise aesthetic concepts (like Nature) to their own advantage.
In conclusion, building on Plumwood’s work, Morton highlights that one method of creating positive ecological action is not to romanticise Nature, but to instead question our current conceptions of it critically and thoroughly. The Western understanding of Nature, as a slippery umbrella term, provides a basis on which to stultify positive environmental change through aesthetic gratification. In essence, it allows us to forget the objects destroyed by our actions and to replace them with that beauteous Nature that is always over there…somewhere.
Fraser Gray is a student of Philosophy and Law. They have philosophical interests in object-oriented ontology, identity, politics, and aesthetics (particularly in literature).
[i] Val Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology? An Ecofeminist Perspective,” Environmental Politics 4, no 4 (1995): 134,145.
[ii] Val Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology?” 134, 163.
[iii] I capitalise Nature throughout in an attempt to ‘de-Nature’ it.
[iv] Plumwood, “Has Democracy Failed Ecology?” 163.
[v] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007) 115, 124-125.
[vi] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 21-22.
[vii] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 14.
[viii] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 15.
[ix] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 115, 124.
[x] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 32-33.
[xi] It is important to note here that the discourse surrounding Nature is not and has not been the same in different cultures and at different time periods. A notable example is Japan, wherein an equivalent word for Nature did not appear approximately until the early 1900’s, a time when Japan was attempting to replicate the modernisation of Western societies. See Young-Sook Lee, et al, “Tracing Shintoism in Japanese nature-based domestic tourism experiences,” Cogent Social Sciences 4, no. 1 (2018): 1446672.
[xii] Alex Donovan Cole, “Amor Bellitās: Arendt on Kant and Aesthetic Judgement in Politics,” Theoria 65, no. 3 (2018): 79.
[xiii] Dana Phillips, “Review Article,” Oxford Literary Review 32, no 1 (2010): 153-4.
[xiv] Phillips, “Review Article,” 153-4.
[xv] Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (Great Britain: Penguin Random House, 2018) 10.
[xvi] Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, 12.
[xvii] Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, 43.
[xviii] Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, 45-46.
[xix] Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, 30.
[xx] Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, 31.
[xxi] Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, 49.
[xxii] Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, 49-50.
[xxiii] Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, 50.
[xxiv] Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology, 51.
[xxv] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana Press, 1992), 211-244, 234.
[xxvi] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 234-235.
[xxvii] Jon Simons, “Aestheticisation of Politics: From Fascism to Radical Democracy,” Journal of Cultural Research 12, no 3 (2008): 207.
[xxviii] Simons, “Aestheticisation of Politics,” 209-210.
[xxix] See Department of Environment and Heritage, “Queensland Environmental Offsets Policy,” Queensland Government, July 2017, https://environment.des.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0041/89789/offsets-policyv1-4.pdf.
[xxx] Jelena May, Richard J Hobbs, and Leonie E. Valentine, “Are Offsets Effective? An Evaluation of Recent Environmental Offsets in Western Australia,” Biological Conservation 206 (2017): 249-257.
[xxxi] Simons, “Aestheticisation of Politics,” 208.
[xxxii] Simons, “Aestheticisation of Politics,”227.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt and translated by Harry Zohn, 211-244. London: Fontana Press, 1992.
Cole, Alex Donovan. “Amor Bellitās: Arendt on Kant and Aesthetic Judgement in Politics.” Theoria 65, no. 3 (2018): 71-101.
Department of Environment and Heritage. “Queensland Environmental Offsets Policy.” Queensland Government, July 2017. https://environment.des.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0041/89789/offsets-policyv1-4.pdf.
Gorodeisky, Keren, and Eric Marcus. “Aesthetic Rationality.” The Journal of Philosophy 115, no. 3 (2018): 113-140.
Harman, Graham. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. Great Britain: Penguin Random House, 2018.
Lee, Young-Sook. et al. “Tracing Shintoism in Japanese nature-based domestic tourism experiences.” Cogent Social Sciences 4, no. 1 (2018): 1446671-1446683.
Lemke, Thomas. “Materialism Without Matter: The Recurrence of Subjectivism in Object-Oriented Ontology.” Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 18, no. 2 (2017): 133-152.
May, Jelena, Richard J Hobbs, and Leonie E. Valentine. “Are Offsets Effective? An Evaluation of Recent Environmental Offsets in Western Australia.” Biological Conservation 206 (2017): 249-257.
Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Morton, Timothy. “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.” Qui Parle 19, no. 2 (2011): 163-190.
Phillips, Dana. “Review Article.” Oxford Literary Review 32, no 1 (2010): 151-161.
Plumwood, Val. “Has Democracy Failed Ecology? An Ecofeminist Perspective.” Environmental Politics 4, no 4 (1995): 134-168.
Simons, Jon. “Aestheticisation of Politics: From Fascism to Radical Democracy.” Journal of Cultural Research 12, no 3 (2008): 207-229.