Romantic Circles Blog

The ecological thought, part fifth

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Synethiaphobia: that's my Greek invention for “phobia of intimacy,” the basic feeling of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “I fear thee ancient Mariner! / I fear thy skinny hand! (4.224–225). Nothing excites synethiaphobia more than the horrifying vulnerability of Life-in-Death. Coleridge hits the synethiaphobic bullseye in part 3.

Pleasingly, synethiaphobia contains the word ethos, which here implies being-with, ethics at the profoundest level.

The ecological thought is, I claim, anti-synethiaphobic. In Lévinas's language, not “allergic” to the other.

Synethiaphobia constructs boundaries between here and there, between inside and outside. Therefore, a non-synethiophobic (truly ecological) reality would not constitute a “world.” Yikes! For worlds have horizons, and thus a here and a there, an inside and an outside.

From this point of view, a lot of ecological ideology has basically been barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. (For simplicity's sake I'll abbreviate these forms of ideology as “environmentalism,” so be aware that this word has a special usage in my posts from now on.)

Now let's have a think about Life-in-Death, with Judith Butler. Butler makes a case for the beginnings of a queer theory of ecology, because she shows how gender performance produces an inside vs. an outside—and those terms are fundamental for thinking the environment (what's “around” us):

The boundary of the body as well as the distinction between internal and external is established through the ejection and transvaluation of something originally part of identity into a defiling otherness. As Iris Young has suggested in her use of Kristeva to understand sexism, homophobia, and racism, the repudiation of bodies for their sex, sexuality, and/or color is an “expulsion” followed by a “repulsion” that founds and consolidates culturally hegemonic identities along sex/race/sexuality axes of differentiation. Young's appropriation of Kristeva shows how the operation of repulsion can consolidate “identities” founded on the instituting of the “Other” or a set of Others through exclusion and domination. What constitutes through division the “inner” and “outer” worlds of the subject is a border and boundary tenuously sustained for the purposes of social regulation and control. The boundary between the inner and outer is confounded by those excremental passages in which the inner effectively becomes outer, and this excreting function becomes, as it were, the model by which other forms of identity-differentiation are accomplished … For inner and outer worlds to remain utterly distinct, the entire surface of the body would have to achieve an impossible impermeability. This sealing of its surfaces would constitute the seamless boundary of the subject; but this enclosure would invariably be exploded by precisely that excremental filth that it fears.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, in Vincent Leitch, ed., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2001), 2495.

Butler is talking about gender, but she might as well be talking about the environment. If we apply her argument to ecology, we notice two things. First, human society has defined itself by excluding dirt and pollution. In an age of ecological panic and scientifically measurable risk (Ulrich Beck's risk society), we find ourselves unable fully to endorse this exclusion, or even to believe in the world that the exclusion produces. This is literally to do with thinking about where you waste goes (excremental and otherwise).

Secondly, and perhaps even more disturbingly (because we're now talking about ideological fantasy, and its grip on social reality), this exclusion of pollution also goes for our performance/construction of “Nature” itself. Nature is defined as pristine, wild, immediate, pure—and masculine...yes that's right! Nature is not Woman! (More on this soon.)

In order to have subjects and objects, you have to have abjects to vomit, to spit, to excrete. Butler is using Julia Kristeva's psychoanalytic theory of abjection, expounded in Powers of Horror.

Any theory of the environment that claims to subvert the subject–object distinction, if it doesn't address the issue of the abject, will become simply an idealized or “new and improved” brand of Nature, which already excludes the abject.

Therefore, while we “clean up” the planet, theory should be doing precisely the opposite: lingering with defilement and pollution.

This is basically the idea of “dark ecology,” something I explore differently in Chapter 3 of Ecology without Nature.

The ecological thought and queer theory are intimate. It is not that ecological thinking would benefit from an injection of queer theory from the “outside.” It's that, fully and properly, the ecological thought is queer theory: queer ecology.

In turn, queer theory—and queerness, for that matter—is not an ephiphenomenal blip on the most recent page of human cultural history. Nor is it a late addition to 4.5 billion years of evolution. A quick read of The Origin of Species and even more so, The Descent of Man, will convince you that life forms themselves are queer all the way down. Then if you really want to whack-a-mole the idea that humans have genders, but animals just have “sex,” there's no need to read Donna Haraway's work on primates (though it would help). You can pick up a copy of almost anything Richard Dawkins has done. It's probably bad taste in some circles to say you've been reading Richard Dawkins but there you go, I'm a bad taste sort of a guy.

Just describing my summer reading...continental philosophy and hardcore reductionist empiricism! What a combination! Darwin is beautifully written and very easy—he designed the books to be sold in railway stations. If you really want a deconstructive good time, take a look at Dawkins's The Extended Phenotype. It will change your sense of reality. You will no longer be able to hold holistic concepts such as “world” and “ecosystem” and you will come away with a refreshed sense of how life forms are planet Earth and how almost everything you experience is the phenomenal display of the genetic code (you think genes stop at the boundaries of the flesh?).

You want anti-essentialist performativity? Just read Darwin. Then to cap it off, study DNA—if you like, all life forms (phenotypes) are performances of DNA (the genotype). This isn't like phenotext and genotext (Kristeva)—it is phenotext and genotext! Because genotext consists of the social and biological (and Kristeva adds “ecological”) forces that determine the text—which, at a certain level, is DNA itself. This includes the phenomena of sexual display, the engine of sexual selection. Sexual display, as opposed to the “survival of the fittest” (a phrase anxiously inserted into Darwin's text at the behest of Wallace, who wasn't too keen on the idea of non-utilitarian notions of evolution), accounts for a whole lot of why life forms look and act the way they do. There is no good reason for my skin color and reddish facial hair—it's just that a few million years ago, someone thought it was sexy. It's likely that a whole lot of how our reality looks (from houses to Coca Cola bottles) has to do with sexuality (well, duh), which has to do with performativity. No, I'm not citing Freud or Butler. I'm paraphrasing Darwin.

DNA itself is of course a text—in the strong poststructuralist sense. My uncle recently retired from his biochemistry research job. One of his discoveries was about ERV-3. (You can find it in Virology 196 at or PubMed if your university has that database). Your DNA contains 98% chimp DNA (we know that), 35% daffodil DNA (Wordsworth eat your heart out), and on and on—but it doesn't stop there. The DNA also contains viral and plasmid insertions so that it's impossible, even at that level, to identify which part of the code is “host” and which part is “parasite” (paging Hillis Miller...). ERV-3, otherwise known as Endogenous Retrovirus 3, does interesting things. For one, it appears to code for a protein that enhances the immunosuppressive properties of the placental barrier. So it appears that you are reading this because a virus in your genes helped your mom's placenta to operate properly. What an amazing mixture of boundaries, insides, outsides, and permeabilities, all the way down...

DNA has no flavor. There is no human-flavored DNA. There is no daffodil-flavored DNA. There is also no male-flavored DNA.

Deconstruction and queer theory have nothing to fear from biology—come on in, the water's lovely!

So I guess what I'm saying is that queerness is installed in reality at the ontic level, at the level of substance. It's not a sheer style of higher primate phenotypes, primates who are at the tip of a tiny arm growing out of one of the spokes on the wheel of life, which is mostly made up of “asexual” bacteria and amoebae. Any claim that nonhumans have “natural” binary sex is editing out about almost every single life form.

So how are we to read Coleridge in light of all this? Or is he just a historical artifact now, interesting in his wrongness? Is there any utopian energy still bound up in the text of The Rime? I believe there is, and that this energy has to do with intimacy, and the fear of intimacy, with other life forms, with life forms as other. (That includes you.) This “other“ is decisively not an object, but a subject—though this word may be inadequate to describe the depths of the “person.”

We could debate whether or not Coleridge is depicting a world, whose world it is, whether it's coherent, etc. But I don't think these questions are as powerful as the one that still seems to beckon from our own political future. This is the question of how to be-with the other life forms on this Earth.

If the terms of the debate are about whose “world” it is anyway, then I can't get involved, because to do so would be to accept the terms—that we are living within worlds or systems that are bounded by horizons, holistically integrated, etc. Otherwise the poem becomes an interesting relic from an age when those thoughts could still be held without bad faith. Which is okay. Perhaps then I would interpret the poem as a good example of how not to do the ecological thought. But I think the poem speaks to us now, about things we are only just beginning to think.

“The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she” (3.193). An interesting syntactical inversion of “It is an Ancient Mariner” (1.1). While the Mariner's existence precedes his identity (so to speak), here we have the reverse. It is as if the Mariner's fantasy about Life-in-Death impedes her existence. Synethiaphobia gets in the way of intimacy. The Mariner sees her as fantasy realized, as a horrifying creature from his inner space. Woe betide anyone who appears to externalize someone's fantasy. In this mode, love is always mortifying. Life-in-Death is a “Nightmare”—a horse that rides the night. (Another animal motif—a dream-horse, a horse-dream.) She's a Spenserian allegorical figure, a cipher. She appears only to incarnate the Mariner's deepest fears and wishes. Notice the tense change: “Who thicks man's blood with cold” (3.194) The Mariner forgets that he is telling a tale, so “ghastly” is the fantasy that sill seems to stick to him, as intimately as his “skinny hand, so brown” (4.228).

Can we, dare we, read against the grain here, against the overwhelming tide of fantasy and identification? Can we push back through identity to sheer existence? To intimacy with this strangest of strangers?


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