Metaphor and the Ecological Transfer of Energy: A Reply to Adam Kotsko (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

Adam’s post brings to the fore a question I was asked repeatedly when I would present papers based off my research or when I would go in for the doctoral annual review process. More than once I was surprised to find a theologian ask, “but isn’t your use of ecology just metaphorical?” I always wanted to say back, “Is your discussion of the Trinity or work on the bodily resurrection just metaphorical?” And, as Adam rightly deduces, my suggestion that it isn’t a mere metaphor has nothing really to do with the current trend in theory to prostrate before some chosen science or as Laruelle sums up the history leading to this moment: “After the reading of philosophical texts (Derrida), of Marxist texts on history (Althusser), of Freud (Lacan), and then of the Human Sciences (Foucault), the interpretation of great mathematical texts is invited to take up the baton. It is decidedly the case that here, philosophy (and in particular, French philosophy) falls back into its habitual, pusillanimous mistakes, refusing to experiment with philosophy itself in its being, rather than just its objects, languages, and intra-philosophical becomings. This philosophical immobilization by way of history (as obligatory as ever, if often denied) is consummated, paradoxically, in a philosophy ‘without history’ (Althusser and Badiou). A philosophy that ends up as a lazy queen, who hitches her carriage up to a pack of scientists, and can only get going by riding in the wake of the history of sciences (Anti-Badiou, p. ix).” This is a strange continuation of what is perhaps most damning in Continental philosophy where students used to be encouraged to spend their life explicating Heidegger (a figure to whom, like Adam, I find I keep returning to), but are now encouraged to dedicate their intellectual talents to explicating the science that gets everything right. My attempt at a unified theory is a failure if that is what the engagement with ecology ends up being just as much as if it were a mere metaphor.

But it is also true that I am at times making claims that are more empirical and at other times making more speculative claims. The remarks about the requirement of nutrition for thinking is true and supported by a number of studies that bear on social justice issues (so, for example, this suggests one explanation that black children children tend to do more poorly on standardized tests since urban black communities tend to be forced to subsist in food deserts). Whereas the remark that books are dead and provide a kind of energy for living thought is clearly more speculative. This speculative nature does not require we approach it like a “mere metaphor”, though it does mean it is revisable and open to criticism. Without falling into the same sense of superiority such a reading may provide, I think that the work of Franco Moretti shows one possible way of mapping or modelling such an ecology relation in texts. In a sense all history of the reception of books is a natural history, the ways in which those texts have continued to animate thought though they are themselves dead. But we could also consider Derrida’s trace, for the energy that the dead provide is always a trace of what came before. Granted, I am taking the broad definition of energy (“the ability to do work”) at face value here, but I could imagine more empirically minded scholars finding a way to measure the ways in which ideas are at work in ecosystems (and indeed I know that such projects are under way and have tried to provide a philosophical framework for that work in an article on affective ecology). Some of the relationships I mention will not be significant at the level of measurement, though we shouldn’t confuse all science with simple measurement and despite the probable insignificance of some of the relations it seems to me increasingly important that scientific ecology begin to take more seriously the realm of ideas in ecosystem functioning. I don’t know if I wrote a book that many ecologists will find themselves reading or will ever want to read, but this sort of impact was one of my sincere hopes for the book even knowing its improbability.

It’s that seriousness I try to model myself in the various readings of other thinkers found in the text. Adam brings up one figure that recurs throughout the text, Heidegger, and he suggests I don’t give him the credit he is due. I think that’s a fair criticism. And though I am glad to see figures named other than Laruelle in his response, I also recognize that the readings I provide of various figures in the book are often truncated. I say in the book that I tend to use names like Heidegger as an index for a wider field of thought beyond the individual and so while, through my reading his actual texts, I began to see Heidegger’s engagement with science as far more serious than many are willing to grant, I also think that the Heidegger-field is guilty of a certain scapegoating of science and reveling in an ignorance of science in favor of doing the “real work”. So my focus on the Fundamental Concepts was less concerned with husking away the dross of poor interpretation, and instead looking at the ways in which Heidegger as a particularly dominant ecosystem (of) thought could be transformed. And the main thing, it seemed to me, that needed to be transformed was the way in which the World came to stand in for nature, to create a system of valuing various forms of being in a hierarchy, and not the ecological kind that Liam pointed us towards before, but the all-too-theological kind that is often haunting the fascist roots of political theology.

But the engagement with Heidegger was, for me, just as surprising as the engagement with Thomas. Over the years of research I kept finding myself reading Heidegger, even though I rarely agreed with him. And his work had a profound impact on the shape of the end of the book. The work at the end of the text has not been brought in the course of the book event and I think that may owe to its incredibly speculative and perhaps hermetic form. But part of the claim of the book is that nature is not an ecological concept (so, here and just about only here, I agree with Tim Morton). Ecology does not study nature, it studies ecosystems, but what ecology tells us about ecosystems may have consequences for how we understand nature philosophically and theologically. This is why I attempt to make the unified theory of philosophical theology and ecology (and, though I focus on a particular “hard” science, Laruelle talks about unified theories of philosophy and religion, ethics, art, etc., all of those “regional forms of knowing” may be at play).

I once jokingly described the book as a decent into madness. It begins innocently enough with an overview of the various relations of ecology, philosophy, and theology. I lay these out as a clear and defensible typology that I think may actually be useful for mainstream environmental ethics and eco-theology. I then move to the methodological section where I explicate Laruelle. I am proud to say that I think this was, at the time of its writing and publication, the fullest explication of Laruelle’s non-philosophy, though it owed much to earlier works by John Ó Maoilearca (aka Mullarkey) and Ray Brassier. From there the book moves into the reading of certain ecological concepts “as if” they were already doing philosophical and theological work and didn’t need to be re-inscribed within already-existing philosophical and theological paradigms that would disempower ecology. I am proud of this section, especially the section on niches which others seem to also glob onto, but it is certainly risky, both in terms of the potential to not be philosophically or theologically respectable and in terms of looking like crackpot science. The final section, however, is the attempt to develop the theory of nature and it does so by separating nature from the World (in Heidegger’s sense, but also in the Abrahamic sense) and thinking nature using Heidegger’s four-fold as a way to place disparate ecosystems (of) thought. Not exactly his most popular concept and surely a great risk lies there for misinterpretation. But did allow for me to think more freely than if I had simply been a Heideggerian or simply been trying to explicate ecology as the new Master.

And here, at the end, I want to speak a word in defense of a certain kind of metaphor. For what the Derrida’s and Deleuze’s (who, with Guattari, refused to call their use of anything “mere metaphor”, saying “We don’t believe in metaphors”) freeing up of philosophy did for me was allow for the transfer of energy. In the original sense of metaphor we find a meaning that is more exact and very different from the usually pejorative sense given it, as it literally means “bearing” something “between”, a “transfer”. In this sense of metaphor we find something already ecological at work, one that will lead into our response to Joshua’s discussion of economics and ecology. For nothing is a mere metaphor, not even the slur that acts as a metaphor when someone asks, “Isn’t that just a metaphor?” For they are confusing the A and B in relation with the C of metaphor itself. But, if we are able to think it is because of this transfer of energy, this ability to do (intellectual) work within a wider ecosystem. If I may be allowed a kind of nod to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, there is something about the death inherent in metaphor that leads to a kind of epekeinaphor or a carrying something beyond death as if that was all there was.

12 Responses to “Metaphor and the Ecological Transfer of Energy: A Reply to Adam Kotsko (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)”

  1. Philippe Says:

    The “Isn’t x just a metaphor?” or “… just metaphorical” argument is an interesting problem. What does metaphor means in such a context and why is it used in a derogatory (or pejorative) way (Bachelard in his Formation of the Scientific Mind)? In your last paragraph, you point to “a certain kind of metaphor”, hinting at the fact that there may be more than one way to understand the metaphorical process (aside from its traditional relationship to analogy). Agamben wrote about such a process both in Stanzas and in Signatura Rerum. Thanks for this book event by the way: I’m enjoying both the readings of your book and your response to them (even though I have no theological knowledge whatsoever).

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So I take away from this that my intuition that “theory” and political theology might count as unified theories in Laruelle’s sense is correct? That might be important for Laruelle reception, because it would indicate that his approach isn’t totally idiosyncratic and unprecedented — indeed, in connection with “theory,” it would be a natural extension of what many humanities scholars are already doing.

  3. Charles R Says:

    Is the connection between the mathematics of thermodynamic entropy and of Shannon entropy useful to thinking through the connections you see between the niches of ideas and the niches of biological material?

  4. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    I don’t think you have to know anything about dogmatic theology to engage with the book and I am glad to see you enjoying the book event. The short answer is that, yes, I think a certain understanding of metaphor may be potentially interesting since it isn’t analogy (which says something is like something but not it at the same time, theologically this has a difficult history of making one of the terms hierarchically dependent on the other). The literal sense of metaphor suggests both a kind of transfer that appears to respect the identity of the two terms, while also making certain demands about “bearing” things between the two of them. I think this is something already at work ecologically.


    Yes, absolutely. My attraction to Laruelle’s method initially was that it seemed to formalize things that were already at work in Derrida and Deleuze. I don’t think he is particularly idiosyncratic and was always a bit shocked that people found him to be so difficult. I suppose some of that is the fault of the rhetoric, though even there I always thought he was being somewhat ironic. But, yes, I think this is what many people in the humanities are doing.

    Charles R.,

    In so far as I understand the two concepts, yes, I think that may be a way to link two.

  5. Hill Says:

    Deciding to call his project “Non-Philosophy” was probably a mistake. I think that in itself may be the biggest stumbling block.

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well, perhaps. But he’s been clear from the outset it’s analogue was with non-Euclidean geometry. There was also something tongue in cheek about it. Any name always appears a bit clunky anyway. Deconstruction? Schizoanalysis? Speculative realism? object-oriented ontology? Even, ordinary language philosophy? They are all a little silly sounding. I think Laruelle was clowning a bit with the name while also using it to index a real difference.

  7. Hill Says:

    Right but non-Euclidean geometry is non-[adjective]-geometry. It’s still geometry. So on that score, the comparison is a total failure.

  8. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Huh? Non-Philosophy is still philosophy.

  9. Hill Says:

    Right. My point is just that in literal terms, the name “Non-Philosophy” implies otherwise, namely that Non-Philosophy is not philosophy or somehow supersedes it. I think most of the uninitiated approach Laruelle with defensiveness even having never read a word, as a result.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    One might also quietly note that non-Euclidean geometry isn’t called simply “non-geometry.”

  11. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well, maybe they had better focus groups. (He calls it non-standard philosophy now, so maybe he agrees.)

  12. Dominic Says:

    According to Yeats, the Spirits who spoke to him through the trances of George Hyde-Lees, giving him the material for his esoteric tract “A Vision”, declined to explain their system in detail, saying instead that “we have come to bring you metaphors for poetry”. Metaphors-for-poetry are not “just” metaphors – they are the matter of poetry itself, its moving parts or hydraulic conduits. But they are metaphors-for-poetry rather than components of an intellectual system, metaphors-for-philosophy: Yeats’s spiritual visitors respected the Romantic distinction between poem-making and system-building, and urged Yeats to go on working as a poet rather than dedicating his life to making sense of what could not be made to make sense.

    (Lyotard: “I have read in a French weekly that people are unhappy with Mille Plateaux because, especially in a book of philosophy, they expect to be rewarded with a bit of sense”.)

    It was sometimes said of Derrida that he had collapsed, or wished to collapse, the distinction between philosophy and literature (I think this was Habermas’s complaint). Derrida’s reply was that this wasn’t, and couldn’t be, a simple distinction. But it may be a question of orientation, of tendency or drift: “I have never believed that there were metaphysical concepts in and of themselves. No concept is by itself, and consequently in and of itself, metaphysical, outside all the textual work in which it is inscribed”. We could say that non-(standard)-philosophy inscribes philosophical (and other) conceptual names in textual work which is not finally oriented by the goal of sufficiency. Deconstruction was already doing something very like this with philosophy, disengaging it from its metaphysical telos, pulling it in different directions – including towards the “literary”. At the same time, Derrida could make literary writing seem remarkably, almost supernaturally, systematic: an instrument of unconscious philosophical intelligence (I’m thinking of a text like Signsponge here, or Ulysses Gramophone). I’m sure that was part of why he appealed to me so much, as a literature student who always covertly wanted to be doing philosophy.

    We could also say, then, that what Laruelle finds in Derrida’s “differance”, “trace-structure” and so on is a remobilisation of metaphor under the standard of sufficiency: once again things are marching system-wise, a syntax is being drawn together, the moral core of philosophy is being secretly replenished. Derrida’s famous non-concept-words are linking up, forming new chains, becoming metaphors-for-philosophy. So Laruelle gives Derrida some Derridean medicine, plugging him back into a general metaphorics, a fictive milieu, an ecosystem in which philosophy is no longer top predator. He does rather the same sort of thing to Badiou (although that’s not the only thing that’s going on in Anti-Badiou, which I think is also a performative demonstration of how Laruelle thinks metaphors-of-science can be redeployed in a general metaphorics, as against what he sees as Badiou’s discipline-and-purge approach).

    What is “mere” metaphor? It’s what you might be afraid metaphor would become in a general metaphorics, if it were no longer metaphor-for-philosophy. It’s metaphor-for-poetry if you think poetry is “mere” poetry (if, for example, you were to describe deconstructive or philo-fictive writing as “a kind of poetry”, as a way of saying that it was just a pretty arrangement of words and that there was nothing “in” it). Although “mere”, and hence trivial and unworthy of attention, it’s also anxiety-inducing because it conjures up the spectre of a disorientation in which one can no longer say with authority what master one’s metaphors are serving. A general metaphorics is one in which metaphors-of-philosophy can be made available to poetry, or science, or any other type of endeavour. It supports no general orientation, but a multiplicity of paths connecting concept to concept, phrase to phrase, region to region. Deleuze’s metaphor for it was “rhizome”.

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