On Ontology

Interesting essay by Levi….

Larval Subjects .

As a discourse, ontology seeks to articulate the most general and fundamental nature of being or of what is and what is not.  Ontology and being are not the same.  Being consists of what is regardless of whether there is any discourse about it.  Ontology is a discourse about what is.  This distinction is important because ontologies, as discourses about the being of beings, can be mistaken.  There is no discourse that doesn’t presuppose an ontology or metaphysics (I use the two terms as synonyms).  For example, if you tell a person that your mother is seriously ill and going in for surgery and they reply by saying “I will pray for you”, their statement, whether they realize it or not, presupposes an ontology.  Minimally such a statement presupposes ontological claims about the types of beings that exist and about causation.  This person presupposes the existence of a divine being…

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What is Political Ecology?

anthropologies site has an excellent series of essays on political ecology. Ryan Anderson quoting from Land and Degradation and Society by Blaikie and Brookfield tells us:

“The phrase ‘political ecology’ combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy. Together this encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself” (1987:17).”

Graham Pickern in the same article describes it as an epistemological perspective that “that builds on the environmental justice focus on the relationship between social inequality and environmental harm, but broadens that focus to examine environmental injustices not as discrete events, but as historical and geographical processes shaped by asymmetrical relationships of power”.

Thomas Loder in his work on farming describes his use of political ecology as emerging from his confrontation of Assemblage Theory and its use of agencement

Agencement became extremely useful to me, as it helped me to frame the technological and political economic practices that led to energy production as a coherent unit (an assemblage), which I was then able to tie to larger scale processes via a boundary object, a referent which allows for communication between and across various assemblages (see Star & Griesemer 1989). Indeed, framing local energy production as an assemblage allowed me to relate discussion surrounding agricultural subsidies in Vermont to seemingly disparate topics such as climate change in Africa and the relationship between oil consumption and national security, an important step that allows a paper to speak to audiences beyond its purported subject. ( see: Integrating Agencement/Assemblage into Political Ecology: here)

He tells us that agencement is rendered as assemblage, connoting merely a collection of things. While this is one meaning of the French term, agencement also implies that these things do not come together in a static arrangement (or network), but have the ability to participate in processes by virtue of assembling, not least of which is disassembling and coming together with different things to create new assemblages and new processes.

Jarius Rossi provides an analysis of William Jordan’s Critical Philosophy of Restoration Ecology:

Jordan articulates a conservation/environmental philosophy that 1) requires restoration participants to realize that nature is social by making and maintaining an ecosystem, 2) challenges cultural and ecological narratives that portray nature transcendent, primordial, and balanced while simultaneously attempting to produce a temporarily stable state, and 3) uses the creation of a material landscape as a shared myth-making practice that forms temporary alliances between individuals with diverse interests. (see: here)

He became involved in Jordan’s  restoration ecology precisely because of its unique application of a conservation vision. As he states it:

Part of my interest in this vision is the way that he merges myth, ritual, and material to provide an entrance into a way of doing/thinking about nature that doesn’t rest on its ontological separation from human acts. He also dispenses with our ability to know/make/enact some original natural state. Instead, he articulates nature as something that needs a consciously and socially developed mythology that doesn’t avoid difficult questions and existential contradictions. He also emphasizes a decentered ontology of nature and ecology that finds resonance in post-modern scientific thinking on objects and social scientific theories of enaction.

What he discovered in the work of Jordan was that these diverse inquiries into objects, ecosystems, organisms, and societies are relational and subject to multiscalar, nondeterministic processes. In summary he offers:

Through these realizations, which are post-structural in respect to categories, but concerned with the actual materialization and operation of living entities, many new inquiries are possible. Jordan’s strength is to bring ecosystems, and our social-scientific strategies for remaking them, into the realm of critical, reflexive inquiry. The restoration of an ecosystem, from his perspective, is contingent on organismic materialities (i.e. life history traits of certain plants), yet subject to creative social intervention that moves beyond questions of authenticity and seeks to create shared cultural meaning among practitioners.

I think the unique vision of political ecology focusing as it does on the ecological, social and material objects/systems is heading in the right direction. The ontological aspects that it is dealing with could use some modifications and incorporation of the speculative realist movment as a part of its toolbag. I’ll be dealing with this among other things in future essays. My concern is to weave a series of essays dealing with the work of Murray Bookchin, Timothy Morton, Graham Harman, Levi R. Bryant, Ian Bogost, Slavoj Zizek, Bruno Latour, Niklaus Luhmann and many other philsophers and thinkers and how there work may impact a revisioning of social ecologies in our time.

Libertarian Municipalism – Murray Bookchin and Social Ecology

Murray Bookchin (January 14, 1921 – July 30, 2006) was a staunch defender of Enlightenment values (in a time when those values have become, if not reactionary, at least passe), and a harsh critic of the  fringe elements within the environmental movement such as the biocentric philosophies of deep ecology and the deterministic science of sociobiology. Throughout his life he worked toward a libertarian socialist vision, divorced from the more indvidualist ethos of the anarchistic tradition, and more in alignment, and harkening back, to the early communilism of the Paris Commune.

His legacy is his commitment to a vision of life that entailed realignment of social values toward the goal of harmonic balance between human need and natural world. He termed this Social Ecology:

“Social ecology is an ecology not of hunger and material deprivation but of plenty; it seeks the creation of a rational society in which waste, indeed excess, will be controlled by a new system of values; and when or if shortages arise as a result of irrational behaviour, popular assemblies will establish rational standards of consumption by democratic processes. (p. 97 Social Ecology and Communalism).”

Communalism was for Bookchin the integration of Social Ecology in the public sphere of politics, which included libertarian municipalism and dialectical naturalism. He saw this vision as drawing on the older Left ideologies of Marxism and anarchism – the libertarian socialist tradition, and integrating it with an environmental ethic of sustainability and balance with the natural world. He saw it not as a impossible dream but as a fully dialectical enactment of theory and practice that would unite the best of the anarchistic traditions with its commitments to antistatism and confederalism, as well as its fierce antagonism against hierarchichal forms of domination in politics and environmental concerns. Communalism offers us a critique of the market economies, as well as a forward looking vision of what might replace the current economic system that is degrading both human and non-human environments. As he states it, Communalism’s,

“…aim is not to nationalize the economy or retain private ownership of the means of production but to municipalize the economy. It seeks to integrate the means of production into the existential life of the municipality, such that every productive enterprise falls under the purview of local assemblies, which decides how it will meet the interests and needs of the community as a whole (p. 102 ibid).”

Not being a pipe-dreamer, Bookchin, knew that the communalist vision would need to provide an educative as well as political vision, that to change the world we would need a new ‘vocabulary’ “to explain its goals, and a new program and theoretical framework to make those goals coherent (p. 111 ibid).” And, as with most things, he knew that it would need commitment of indviduals, of leadership, as well as a political structure, a set of institutions, with bylaws and a constitution. For as he says, “Without a democratically formulated and approved institutional framework whose members and leaders can be held accountable, clearly articulated standards of responsibility cease to exist (p. 112 ibid).”

His commitment to a free society based on mutual respect and non-hierarchichal principles of government and economy are admirable and to be applauded, but as we now look around the planet and see the power of transnational capital and the superclasses that control it, I wonder if his vision, like many good hearted men of his calibre, is too idealistic in the end. Yet, if we do nothing what shall be our excuse, our justification? As he said just before his death, “…our choices on how to transform the existing society are still on the table of history and are faced with immense problems. But unless present and future generations are beaten into complete submission by a culture based on queasy calculation as well as by police with tear gas and water cannons, we cannot desist from fighting for what freedoms we have and try to expand them into a free society wherever the oppurtunity to do so emerges (p. 116 ibid).”

Let us hope that the present generation will listen to those wise words, and awaken from their ideological sleep, and begin to realize the social dream of a free and open society based not upon market economics and domination of the rich over the poor, but on an egalitarian vision of social justice and equalitarian values that might lead us toward a social ecology that values not growth and mindless capitalism but the harmonic balance between human and environmental needs and creativity.

Non-human nature

Conceiving nonhuman nature as system, as instigating its own self-productive evolution rather than as a mere vista, has profound implications-ethical as well as biological-for ecologically minded people. Human beings embody, at least potentially, attributes of nonhuman development that place them squarely within organic evolution. We require a way of thinking that recognizes that “what-is” as it seems to lie before our eyes is always developing into “what-it-is-not,” that it is engaged in a continual autopoetic, self-organizing process in which past and present, seen as a richly differentiated but shared environment, give rise to new contingent conditions that open toward life and afford emergent properties within the system of the world allowing for change. Accordingly, the human and the nonhuman can be seen as aspects of a co-evolutionary system/environment, and the emergence of these systems can be located in the evolution of the nonhuman, without advancing naive claims that one is either “superior to” or “made for” the other.

No society so far has been able to organize itself,  that is to say to choose its own structures and to use them as rules for admitting and dismissing members. Therefore, no society can be planned. This is  not only to say that planning doesn’t attain its goals, that it has  unanticipated consequences or that its costs will exceed its usefulness.  Planning society is impossible because the elaboration and implementation of  plans always have to operate as processes within the societal system. Trying to  plan the society would create a state in which planning and other forms of  behavior exist side by side and react on each other. Planners may use a
description of the system, they may introduce a simplified version of the  complexity of the system into the system. But this will only produce a  hypercomplex system which contains within itself a description of its own complexity.

– Niklas Luhmann

“Philosophy, then is not a doctrine, not some simplistic scheme for orienting oneself in the world, certainly not an instrument or achievement of human Dasien. Rather, philosophy is this Dasien itself insofar as it occurs, in freedom, from out of its own ground.

“Whoever, by hard research, has arrived at this self-understanding of philosophy is granted the fundamental experience of all philosophizing, which is this: the more completely and originally research comes into its own, the more surely is it “nothing but” the transformation of the same few simple questions.

“But those who want to transform must bear within themselves the power of a fidelity that knows how to preserve. The only way to feel that power grow within oneself is to be caught up in wonder. And the only way to be caught up in wonder is to travel to the outermost limits of the possible.

“Yet, the only way to become the friend of the possible is to remain open to dialogue with the powers at work in the whole of human existence [Dasein]. And in fact that is the philosopher’s way of being: heeding what has already been sung forth and can still be perceived in each essential occurence in the world.”

– from For Edmund Husserl on His Seventieth Birthday