Liam Heneghan: “What sort of ecologist is Anthony Paul Smith?” (A Non-Philosophcal Theory of Nature Book Event)

The author of this post is Liam Heneghan

In the spirit of Schumann who when asked to comment on the meaning of a composition he had just played, simply played it again, it is tempting to suggest to those who want to know what’s going on in Anthony Paul Smith’s book: A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought that they simply read it. Cover to cover.

This answer is not a satisfactory one however. There is, after all, something very different about books compared to music. Books are what get left behind as an author moves through thought. And like all books Smith’s comes dead on arrival. In his inscription on my copy of his volume Anthony scribbled: “Here it is in the flesh of a tree.” Dead words on a dead tree. In fact “death” exceeds “life” in Anthony’s book, if the index serves as guide, by seven unique mentions (death has 11, some covering several pages; life tallies a mere 4). Indeed, explicitly within the framework of “immanental ecology” — Anthony’s term, drawn from François Laruelle’s non-philosophy, for an amalgam of ecology, philosophy and theology — he comments how it is the reader who must animate an “energy flow” between her living thought and “those that die on the page of philosophical treatises.” (p114). Words on the page are dead, thought decomposes: the author has sloughed them off. So it is up to us, if we care to, to bring life to Anthony’s book, not simply by playing it over like a concerto, but by transforming it into the flesh of our own thought. Heterotrophs that we are, we are invited into Anthony’s ecosystem; we shall dine upon him. 

How, exactly, is this to be done? Fortunately, Anthony’s book, like most stimulating books, teaches us how to read it as we read it. This implies that it is not an easy book to read. After all, no one would expect that a simple book would provide us with a tutorial on how to grapple with it. And I think it is the case that Anthony’s book is a challenging one. The book is admittedly well protected in its own rind. After all it begins and ends with formulations derived from Laruelle’s “non-philosophy” which in his introduction Anthony calls “the method for [his] work.” Now it may be that to many readers of this blog this is quite a familiar terrain, but I have not spent much time with Laruelle: I am intrigued but bewildered. That being said, Ray Brassier, or so Wikipedia tells me, described Laruelle as “the most important unknown philosopher working in Europe today”; apparently we who know not our Laruelle are legion. So Anthony’s book begins with non-philosophy. It also ends there. You’ll forgive me if this spoils the tension but A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature culminates with a non-philosophical and non-theological theory of nature. This theory has “a tripartite structure that understands the creatural as subject of nature, the chimera of God or nature as non-thetic transcendence of nature, and the One as radical immanence of nature.” (p9). Alright then. But we should not think that Anthony expects that we will find this formulation immediately intuitive. In fact he concedes that it should “seem impenetrable”. It is his intention that “by the end of the book [this] should come to have a determinate meaning for the reader.” That is, the book tutors us so that the initial impenetrability becomes lucid before we are done. Since there will be quite a few posts in this series on the book, a number of them written by more seasoned Laruelleans than I, I will not say much about the degree to which we can agree that this lucidity has been accomplished.

If the rind is comprised of non-philosophy, then the pulp of this fruit is pure ecology: like a kiwi fruit all the way through, green and sweet and unexpected. And like a kiwi fruit there is a secreted core: dark and messy. Of this hidden core Anthony writes: “Suffering also directs my attention here, though it may be obscured somewhat through the form it has taken.” But to put all of this less fancifully, if non-philosophy is the method, scientific ecology and its engagement with philosophy and theology is its primary subject. Moreover the book is ecological, not simply about ecology. Anthony’s strategy with respect to ecology is subtle, he is not simply giving us an ecological result and saying that he’ll teach us the ecological concepts needed to understand the result. Without a doubt the text manifestly explains ecological concepts, but more strategically the argument performs the very ecology of thought that he wants us to incorporate into the soma of our own disciplines. In short, immanental ecology, is above all an instantiation of immanental ecology.

I’ll give just one example of the ecology of thought that this book on ecologies of thought performs. The ecosystem concept which Anthony champions, as indeed he should, is defined by the interactions of the living with its abiotic environment (including its never-living elements), interactions which manifest a suite of properties largely unexpected from a scrutiny of those ecosystem parts. Diversity and its putative relationship with system stability, and with nutrient cycling, is an example, albeit an underwhelming one of such emergent properties as these unexpected manifestations are called. No matter how much one dwells on a single species or one hundred of them (independently of one another) one would not predict (not simply at least) these emergent properties. Historically ecologists, especially those working within the framework of ecosystem ecology (which for the most part I do) were committed to some version of holism. Under the bust of Gene Odum, the most influential of the early American scientific ecologists, in the lobby of the Institute of Ecology (now the School of Ecology) at the University of Georgia, is the simple inscription “The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts.” Now, Anthony knows all of this but does not pay much attention to the notion of emergence or to the holism it seems to imply. Why not? On the one hand it may simply be that he is embarrassed for us. After all, holism is not an especially respectable philosophical provenance. So it may be that Anthony wants to sail is between the Scylla of reductionism and the Charybdis of holism. Maybe. But it seems that, more importantly, Anthony’s argument accomplishes an emergence of its own: immanent ecology emerges from the assemblage of its parts.

So let us spend just a moment with these parts. Not with an expectation that we will thereby grasp the whole, but with a view to appreciating the system that Anthony has constructed. But first we can ask how important is ecology as a disciplinary part of Ecologies of Thought? One crude measure is that of the 172 bibliographic elements that are listed about a quarter (23%) are from ecology. The others are philosophical, theological (or hybrids of the two), and some literary references. Importantly, it can’t be claimed that Anthony intends to overrun these disciplines with ecology. So let us now turn our attention to how Anthony uses ecology as a part of his project.

At the core of ecology is the notion of trade-off. Energy is limited, and tough decisions have to taken. If this were not the case there would arguably be only one super-competitive every-species, accomplished at all things. We are the Borg; albeit an autotrophic Borg. Photosynthesis: we got that; root production: we got that too. Instead diversity is an expression of strategic decisions (though, at the same time blind, evolutionary ones) about what ecological work to perform. And so it is with Anthony. He can’t simply replay all of ecology, he must make the tough decisions. So it is that he selects “six fundamental conceptual elements of scientific ecology” in addition to his integrative use of the ecosystem concept “that they all relate to.” His six are biodiversity, niche, exchange of matter and energy, space, time, and resilience. I have things to say about Anthony’s appropriate of each of these but having trade-offs of my own to consider, I will limit my remarks to one peculiarity of his list. The ontological status of each of Anthony’s ecological conceptual things is very heterogeneous. Some are processes, some properties of systems, some are things with boundaries. His ontology is flat. I realize that a notion of flat ontologies has a role to play in some contemporary aspects of continental thought, but I intuit that there is also a special meaning for this drawn from non-philosophy, which perhaps Anthony will elucidate in a response (though he should feel free to ignore this, if it does not interest him). In particular, he makes no use of the hierarchical arrangement that ecologists ordinarily deploy is arraying their conceptual material. Ecological populations aggregate in communities, which in concert with dead organic material and the abiotic realm comprise ecosystems. And depending upon how concrete your conception of the ecosystem is one can then have spatial hierarchies, that go from the soil pore all the way up to Gaia as a global entity. It is pretty clear that Anthony knows this – he uses the terminology like a pro! Rather he ignores it in his presentation of conceptual tools in ecology. Why?

The answer is, I think, that the process of aggregation is the work of the book itself. A primary purpose of the work is “not so much to provide answers to the ecological crisis” (a cause no doubt of some of Anthony’s private suffering) but rather is “to test if thought itself can become intentionally ecological in its construction of a theory of nature.” For this not to descend into an unpalatable ecologism, where philosophy and theology sup on ecology, it is important, I suppose, for ecology to be laid bare, stripped of its metaphysical ghosts, and made available in a certain way so that there can be a democratic engagement. A central claim that A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature makes, based upon an informative review of a wide range of material, is that theology and philosophy is not yet ecological. Not even where they purport to engage with ecological concepts. They patrol their own borders, and eject scientific ecology like a ruffian hammering at their doors. What Anthony wants to do, however, is to “infect” thought with ecology. He invites the ruffian in.

To be clear (and gliding along a little to swiftly I fear) what I think Anthony is doing, is showing us the parts, demonstrating that there is not a systemic engagement with scientific ecology across the disciplines, especially not in those where you might think there should be (deep ecology etc.). In the process of describing the parts, he opens up a space on the page in which he describes a need for opening up a space, and makes this the very space where this ecology of thought happens. Right before our eyes.

One quick challenge for Anthony is that he might interrogate the degree to which is already a secret immanental ecology going on in the philosophy of those who he critiques as not going far enough. Perhaps in the structure, if not necessarily the content of Heidegger’s Being and Time, perhaps in Husserl’s Logical Investigation on parts and whole?

Enough! I risk becoming a Pierre Menard, or a Schumann of someone else’s composition. I have more to say, but it’s noon on day in which this post is due, so I will let it go. I like Anthony’s book. In addition to the pleasures I describe above, I think you will like the way it is written. Anthony reads, in places, like Whitman, a dyspeptic, a grouchy Whitman.

So I leave with an answer to the question I posed in my title. What sort of ecologist is Anthony Paul Smith? He is, not surprisingly, an immanental ecologist. What may be surprising, however, is that many of the rest of us are too. We just didn’t know it. Read Anthony’s book, and read this, but know that we are dead already.

Liam Heneghan is an ecologist teaching at DePaul University and a graduate student in DePaul’s Department of Philosophy. He blogs at http://10thingswrongwithenvironmentalthought.blogspot.com/

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