Ecological Necessity by Tom Sparrow

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Thinking Nature v. 1 /5/ - Ecological Necessity Tom Sparrow Home is a failed idea. People are no longer home or not home. — DeLillo, Mao II A significant literature is accumulating around Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature and asking about its relevance to environmental philosophy. Monographs and anthologies have been published on the theme. His course notes on nature from the Collège de France, and especially the ontology of “the flesh” he outlines in The Visible and the Invisible, are seen as fertile resources for philosophers who wish to defend the basic continuity between human and nonhuman nature. Like Spinoza, Merleau-Ponty is seen by some as an ally of the deep ecology movement. This essay sketches some of the general philosophical reasons that environmental philosophers are attracted to Spinoza and Merleau-Ponty, and focuses on how both thinkers share a common view of how the environment determines our power to act; or, put otherwise, how the environment conditions our autonomy. What specifically interests me here is how their thinking converges on the question of how the aesthetics milieus affect our bodies. I therefore take them both as contributing to the field of environmental aesthetics and offering us something like a metaphysics of place. As far as I know, this is an underdeveloped point of convergence. In the last analysis, I will argue that Spinoza is the philosopher better suited for environmental thinking. 1. The Monist Attraction

What makes the Ethics of Spinoza and the final, unfinished work of Merleau-Ponty amenable to environmental philosophy is their ontological monism. The attraction of monism, of course, is that it puts all beings on the same ontological plane without immediately privileging this or that being’s place


in nature. Humans are not regarded as superior to nonhumans, or less natural, by virtue of their possession of a soul or a rationality immune to natural laws. For Spinoza, being is called both God and Nature; the names are identical. Any individual, whether a grain of sand, flock of geese, lamppost, H.D. Thoreau, or a hail storm—each is a singular expression, or modification, of the one, infinite substance: God, or nature (deus sive natura). Individuals are identified by their effects, what they can and cannot do. In Merleau-Ponty’s later work The Visible and the Invisible, he explicitly frames his new attempt at ontology in contrast to what he perceives as a latent dualism at play in his earlier Phenomenology of Perception. The late work attempts to articulate the metaphysics of the sensible “world” without recourse to “consciousness” as the principle animating it. An entirely new language is deployed to do so. Whereas Spinoza draws upon standard scholastic and early modern concepts and categories to construct his ontology, Merleau-Ponty is compelled to develop a new constellation of metaphors and images to adduce the complex mechanics of being, or what he now calls the flesh (the name given to being in The Visible and the Invisible).1 Deep ecologists like Arne Naess see in Spinoza the metaphysical grounding of their own position in environmental philosophy. They regard Spinoza as, at least implicitly, espousing an ecocentric perspective that displaces humans from the center of the universe and asserts that nature is the only source of intrinsic value. If anthropocentrism is the root cause of environmental degradation and crisis, then the kind of equality among beings that we find in Spinoza seems to offer the antidote. Spinoza derives this equality primarily in the Ethics. As Eccy de Jonge puts it in Spinoza and Deep Ecology, Metaphysics…is brandished by deep ecologists as the way to render all the various strands of its theory coherent. They believe that Spinoza’s metaphysics can give weight to a nonanthropocentric philosophy of care by showing how ecological catastrophe has been the result 1

Merleau-Ponty claims that the flesh “has no name in any philosophy.” The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 147.


of a type of perceptual blindness. They claim that if we saw the world as it is in reality, we would see that all beings are interconnected: all part of the same self.2 While there is debate about whether Spinoza is genuinely compatible with the principles of deep ecology, I am not prepared to enter that dispute here. There is also a case to be made for the compatibility of Merleau-Ponty and deep ecology.3 Proponents emphasize Merleau-Ponty’s tireless attempt to escape Cartesian substance dualism, as well as the mechanistic interpretation of nature championed by Descartes.4 As Monika Langer writes in her essay “Merleau-Ponty and Deep Ecology:” “In reestablishing the mind’s ‘roots’ in the body and the world Merleau-Ponty describes how ‘objective thinking’—which dominates our (Western) culture, underlying as it does our common sense, our sciences, and our traditional philosophies—distorts our lived experience, alienating us from ourselves, our world, and other people.”5 In the place of Cartesianism, Merleau-Ponty installs a kind of thinking that reveals the basic continuity between human perception and perceived nature, between the sentient and the sensible. This is not an interconnectedness model, which would imply an original separation of humans and nature, but an attempt to think the originary identity of embodied consciousness and the natural world. Consciousness, for Merleau-Ponty, is capable of arising in the human body because the body is of nature as well as that which represents the potential of nature to open a space within itself wherein the self-reflection of nature can occur.6 This is what perceptual experience teaches us. And insofar as deep ecology


Eccy de Jonge, Spinoza and Deep Ecology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 61. Fred Evans, in contrast, argues that Merleau-Ponty is not aligned with deep ecology in “Unnatural Participation: MerleauPonty, Deleuze, and Environmental Ethics,” Philosophy Today 54 (2010): 142-152. 4 Recall that Descartes even went so far as to see animals as machines, a view that is only indigestible if we regard humans as more than machines. 5 Monika Langer, “Merleau-Ponty and Deep Ecology,” in Galen A. Johnson and Michael B. Smith, eds., Ontology and Alterity in Merleau-Ponty (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990), 124. 6 As Ted Toadvine puts it: “The splitting of the body into sensible and sentient aspects or ‘leaves’ has a parallel in every being, namely, its dehiscence into ‘visible’ (sensible) and ‘invisible’ (meaningful) dimensions.” Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2009), 113. 3


encourages a reorientation of our perception of nature to find our proper place within it, Merleau-Ponty can help us overcome our estrangement from nature.7 Merleau-Ponty’s identification of human and nonhuman nature is nothing new, of course. Where he innovates is with his idea that the human body is nothing more than a fold in the flesh of the world, and yet it is irreducible to its physiology. The body simultaneously generates and is generated by the flesh enveloping it. This is the idea that has caught the attention of ecophilosophers and ecophenomenologists working in the continental tradition.8 By describing being as flesh, MerleauPonty intends in his later work to overcome the residual constructivism9 of the Phenomenology of Perception by adducing the way we are at once embraced by the sensible while our perception unfolds it. In his own words, “[The flesh] is the coiling over of the visible upon the seeing body, of the tangible upon the touching body.”10 Merleau-Ponty’s ontology refuses to reduce sentience to a mere effect of the sensible and he has no desire to naturalize human beings.11 Rather, he aims to describe the unique place that human beings assume in their environment, without either eliminating or elevating their specific difference from other beings. As Fred Evans has argued, “the notion of flesh does not sacrifice difference or nature’s heterogeneity on the altar of…identity: flesh…is the division of itself into two realms of being, the sensible-sentient and the sensible, whose unity it only ever imminent.”12 At bottom, the philosophy of flesh regards (human and nonhuman) nature as the “dehiscence or fission of its own 7

For what is perhaps the most earnest attempt to use Merleau-Ponty to reorient our perception of nature, see David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Vintage, 1997). But also see the critique of Abram scattered throughout Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). 8 See the collection of essays edited by Suzanne L. Cataldi and William S. Hamrick, Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007) and Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine, Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003). 9 Constructivism about nature is not only a philosophical problem. It leads to skepticism about the reality of environmental problems, as Paul Wapner argues in Living in the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010). 10 Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 146. 11 To understand why, see Bryan Smyth, “Merleau-Ponty and the ‘Naturalization’ of Phenomenology, Philosophy Today 54 (2010): 153-162. 12 Evans, “Unnatural Participation,” 144. On the flesh, see Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 130-131; 139, passim.


mass,” which is not lifeless matter but rather an “element,” a “concrete emblem of a general manner of being.”13 Instead of further exploring The Visible and the Invisible’s ontology of the flesh, I want to extract a useful ecophilosophical resource from the Phenomenology of Perception that, once isolated, will enable us to see that Merleau-Ponty and Spinoza share a common notion of how place determines our power to act and exist. This we might call the necessity of place, or ecological necessity. 2. The Mosaic Body (Merleau-Ponty)

In the Phenomenology’s chapter on space, Merleau-Ponty refers to the body as a “mosaic of given sensations.”14 At this point in the text he is giving an account of how the body orients itself vis-àvis a given spectacle and trying to lend equal weight to environmental conditions and the body’s agency, so as to avoid the falsities of determinism and absolute freedom. When he defines the body as a mosaic of sensations, he is affirming that the body’s sensorium is constantly inundated with a stream of heterogeneous sounds, colors, forms, smells, etc. This “mass of tactile, labyrinthine and kinaesthetics data” on its own is pushed in no particular direction, says Merleau-Ponty. For it to get oriented in a place the mosaic must be given a direction, which is dictated by the practical aims of the body at a given time. As Merleau-Ponty says, “What counts for the orientation of the spectacle is not my body as it in fact is, as a thing in objective space, but as a system of possible actions, a virtual body with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and situation. My body is wherever there is something to be done.”15 A place, then, is not equivalent to a specific physical location, it is something negotiated in perception between the body in action and the aesthetic environment surrounding it.


The Visible and the Invisible, 147. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962), 249. 15 Phenomenology of Perception, 249-250. 14


There is no question that Merleau-Ponty balances the subjective and objective determinants of being emplaced. He holds that space originates from the “perceptual ground” and, when we are oriented in space, our body “understands” how to interact with the spectacles it encounters.16 He successfully evades determinism by demonstrating that, when we attend to perception, we see that our actions are never fated by the environment: they are achieved through negotiation. Nevertheless, there is always a set of environmental restrictions imposed on the body; it has limits to what it can accomplish. These limits are set by, among other things, the sensuous content of the environment, the habits acquired by the body and its physical constitution, the interference of proximate bodies, and so forth. In short, environmental conditions lend a certain necessity to the body’s range of action. Far from omnipotence, our power is basically dispositional: what we can and cannot accomplish is conditioned by how we are situated in our environment. “Each attitude of my body,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “is for me, immediately, the power of achieving a certain spectacle, and…each spectacle is what it is for me in a certain kinaesthetic situation.” “In other words…my body is permanently stationed before things in order to perceive them and…appearances are always enveloped for me in a certain bodily attitude.”17 Bodily kinesis and environmental aesthesis are internally bound together. Indeed, perception is this binding. In familiar perceptual environments, our bodies are equipped with the habits that enable them spontaneously to negotiate the sensory data they’re given. This “power of orientation” is what Ed Casey, following Pierre Bourdieu, calls a habitus. 18 A habitus is roughly equivalent to the internalization of a habitat, which might be natural, fabricated, or virtual. One way the habitat informs the habitus is through its aesthetic media.19 Some media, of course, will stand out in relief from the 16

Phenomenology of Perception, 251. Phenomenology of Perception, 303. 18 Edward S. Casey, Getting Back into Place (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 292, 293. 19 For a thorough examination and defense of this point as well as its ethical and political ramifications, see Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 17


background and be consciously noted, perhaps intensely so, while others will be absorbed without being perceived.20 In this respect, the identity of the body—which is, for Merleau-Ponty, never devoid of a set of intellectual and corporeal habits—is determined by the ambience of its habitat. Its habits, which are partially housed in the body schema, are essential to its “power to respond” to its aesthetic environment. The acquisition of new habits allows the body to expand its horizons, or “dilate” its being in the world by “appropriating fresh instruments.”21 The nature of the body is fundamentally prosthetic. As receptors of aesthetic data, the senses are passive. More than this, they possess the power to actively and affectively respond to their habitat. They maintain a power of sensing that makes them active agents in the perceptual process. Qualities present themselves to the senses, contributing to the body’s mosaic; at the same time the body apprehends in these qualities a “motor significance” that solicits a “type of behavior” from the body. This, of course, is enabled by the body’s habitus. MerleauPonty writes: “The subject of sensation is neither a thinker who takes note of a quality, nor an inert setting which is affected or changed by it, it is a power which is born into, and simultaneously with, a certain existential environment, or is synchronized with it.”22 When the body responds to an aesthetic stimulus, it does so neither reactively nor mechanically. As an “aesthetic attitude” it comprehends “the relation of appearances to the kinaesthetic situation.”23 The sentient body enters into a dialogue with its aesthetic situation; it understands this situation because it speaks the same language and, what’s more, is composed of the same sensible stuff—the flesh. Consider a painter, e.g. Cézanne, who gives expression to this aesthetic dialogue: in order to change the world into paintings, he must give his body over to the world, be animated by it, and translate its qualities to the canvas.24 In Merleau-Ponty’s 20

For Merleau-Ponty, sensation is situated below perception. As such it is more unwieldy than perception. Phenomenology of Perception, 142,143. 22 Phenomenology of Perception, 211. “Things have an internal equivalent in me; they arouse in me a carnal formula of their presence.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception, edited James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwester University Press, 1964), 164. 23 Phenomenology of Perception, 303. 24 Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” 162, 163. 21


words: “To understand [the painter’s] transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body —not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.”25 Art, on this model, is not representation; it is expressive of the flesh. As Brett Buchanan has shown in Onto-Ethologies, Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature portrays the body as an unfolding of what Jakob von Uexküll (and Heidegger after him) calls the Umwelt. The Umwelt is not a clearly circumscribed place or an objective location, it is an open-ended milieu that at once structures and is constructed by our behavior “within” it. In this sense, it is nowhere. The form of the Umwelt is not physical but perceptual, and yet the Umwelt is also, in Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of nature, that which underlies conscious perception, what an organism moves and lives in.26 It is, then, everywhere an organism is. Buchanan writes: “there is a reciprocal…relation between the organism and its milieu. The animal is said to be produced by the production of the milieu, but, in saying this, both animal and milieu are produced by a production that goes unnamed. Neither one is individually the product, while both together are a product.”27 If we ask what it is that ultimately produces the animal and its milieu, the answer can only be “the flesh,” what would be prime matter of perception. Where Spinoza would call this infinite substance, God, or Nature, Merleau-Ponty calls it flesh. With this trope he hopes to “describe natural being prior to conscious perception and intelligibility,” something that can only be alluded to rather than apprehended directly.28 We find evidence of the dynamics of the flesh in our aesthetic life: when we realize that we are both enveloped in the sensible realm and productive of it; that our senses are pulled along by the sensible and bring the sensible to fruition. The body is the site where the flesh folds back upon itself, 25

“Eye and Mind,” 162. Brett Buchanan, Onto-Ethologies: The Animal Environments of Uexküll, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008), 115-116, 125, 128-129, 134. Merleau-Ponty, Nature, trans. Robert Vallier (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 173. See also Toadvine, Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature, 90, where it is pointed out that in the course on nature “nature is the noninstituted, [that which] precedes the intentional activity of consciousness….” 27 Buchanan, Onto-Ethologies, 136. 28 Onto-Ethologies, 140. Also see Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 179. 26


becoming at once the seer and the seen, the subject and object of visibility. Merleau-Ponty uses the figure of the chiasmus to denote this crossing, or “reversibility,” of the sentient and sensible aspects of the flesh. As Ted Toadvine explains in Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature, “This interleaved or intertwined relation of body and world moves us definitively beyond the ontology assumed by the language of ‘environment’, which posits the subject and its surroundings as present entities. If the world and the perceiving body form a chiasm, then neither can be understood as positive beings, nor can their relationship be one of containment or surrounding.”29 On this model, nature is not something that one can find oneself in. Nature is that element which expresses itself as sentient and sensible via the mosaic body. To borrow the language of Spinoza, the flesh is the natura naturans that gives birth to discrete beings (natura naturata). To summarize, we can say that Merleau-Ponty’s image of the body as a mosaic of sensations gives us, on the one hand, an understanding of the body as determined by its aesthetic milieu. In this sense, the body must always be capable of tolerating30 the appearances and spectacles that comprise its habitat. On the other hand, these qualities charge the body with the aesthetic blueprint of its milieu, thus providing it with the tools to operate. Freedom is then proportional to the degree of tolerance the body can sustain, and it will manifest itself as expression, either artistic, practical, linguistic, or otherwise. Tolerance will be maximized when the body’s habitus is synchronized with its habitat. In order to express oneself freely, it is necessary to negotiate the aesthetics of the environment. Demonstrating that this necessity is basic to freedom is central to Spinoza’s project too. 3. The Power of Images (Spinoza)

29 30

Toadvine, Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature, 114. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 454.


Merleau-Ponty’s mosaic body provides a useful model for elucidating Spinoza’s more metaphysical account of how bodies are affected and determined by appearances. Here I will focus on the way that Spinoza conceives the relation between a singular body and the images that populate its environment. It has been argued that Spinoza has no aesthetics.31 On the contrary, I think Spinoza does offer an aesthetics. Here are some of its elements. Spinoza’s metaphysics posits only one substance: God, or nature. Individual bodies—the body of a human being or animal or machine or natural disaster—are not ontologically different from this substance, but are determinate and extended expressions of it (E2D1).32 No body exists in isolation, however, for each always finds itself caught up in a composition of bodies, some of which conspire with it to form a union and some of which work in opposition to this union. Jane Bennett remarkably describes the Spinozan body as a “mosaic or assemblage of many simple bodies.”33 The Spinozan body is only ever conspiratorial. Whether or not one body will conspire with another body is something determined by the nature of the two individuals involved (E2P13S). A body’s “nature” entails several things, some “internal” to it and some “external.” It is the body’s essence; the law governing its existence; its power to preserve itself and to act; its virtue (E1P16, E3P7, E4D8). Each of these things articulates the necessity of the body’s nature, which is itself an effect of that causal nexus which constitutes nature writ large. Every body, we might say, is caught up in an ecology of bodies that affects its ability to thrive and sets the definition of thriving. As Spinoza postulates: “The individual components of the human body, and consequently the human body itself, are affected by external bodies in a great many ways.” And: “The human body needs for its preservation a great many other bodies, by which, as it were, it is continually regenerated” (E2P13


James C. Morrison, “Why Spinoza Had No Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47, no. 4 (Fall 1989): 359-365. 32 All parenthetical references are to Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992). 33 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 22.


Postulates 3, 4). The immanent and efficient cause of this ecology is nature as infinite substance, because all things are of nature and subject to its laws (E1P18, P25). Nature is the grand conspirator. Another way of saying that all things are of nature is to say that all things are an affection, or determinate mode, of substance. As such, all things are expressions of the essence of nature and determined by this essence. Nothing in nature, then, is contingent (E1P29). Despite this necessity, we cannot help but judge some of our encounters with other bodies as “good” and “bad,” as if they could have been otherwise. When another body affects us in such a way that it diminishes our power to act, we judge that body bad; when it increases our power to act, we judge it good. These judgments, Spinoza says, turn upon a fundamental error: we mistakenly believe other bodies to be good or bad in themselves, when in actuality it is the nature of the conspiracy that engenders negative and positive affects (E1P26 Appendix). If I am of a weak and peaceful disposition and you are strong and domineering, I will likely judge our possible union as unfavorable. Whereas if our dispositions share a common nature, we will judge each other to be good insofar as we are compatible. But good and bad are not real attributes; they are imaginary qualities, false attributions. Moral judgments are nothing more than affective conspiracies. As Spinoza writes, “although human bodies agree in many respects, there are very many differences, and so one man thinks good what another thinks bad; what to one man is well-ordered, to another is confused; what to one is pleasing, to another is displeasing, and so forth” (E1P36 Appendix). Because we are often ignorant of the necessity of the causal nexus of which we are an expression, we imagine all sorts of reasons for our flourishing or misfortune. If we properly perceive our place in nature, however, then we know that “nothing belongs to the nature of any thing except that which follows from the necessity of the nature of its efficient cause; and whatever follows from the


necessity of the nature of its efficient cause must necessarily be so” (E4 Preface).34 Instead of causing despair about the necessity of ecological crisis, this should instead induce a shift in our thinking about the environment. In part this shift requires that we stop thinking of the environment as outside us, stop thinking of nature as over there somewhere. This entails thinking beyond the local and the wild, and toward the totality of being. Truly ecological thinking requires this infinite task.35 Aesthetically speaking, the visual media populating the environment have a basic role to play in our bodily disposition. “Images” therefore have a hand in determining our power to act and be acted upon. “Images of things,” says Spinoza, “are affections of the human body, the ideas of which set before us external bodies as present; that is, the ideas of these affections involve the nature of our own body and simultaneously the nature of the external body as present” (E3P27). Images are used by the corporeal environment to modify us (E2P17S). They can manifest as external perceptions or ideas in the mind (or as memories of perceptions).36 These affective modifications have the power to increase or decrease our power to exist. Or, as Deleuze frames it, “from one state to another, from one image or idea to another, there are transitions, passages that are experienced, durations through which we pass to a greater or a lesser perfection.”37 Whenever our body is affected or modified in some determinate way, we attribute the cause to some external body. Even when that body no longer appears before us, its image can nevertheless affect and condition us when we imagine or remember it. This is because


Good and bad, writes Spinoza, “indicate nothing positive in things considered in themselves, and are nothing but modes of thinking, or notions which we form from comparing things with one another” (E4 Preface). They are synonyms for pleasure and pain, respectively (E3P39S). 35 Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 40. 36 There is an entire ecology of images laid out by Spinoza, involving perception, imagination, memory, and their associative principles. This ecology is one of the primary elements of his aesthetics, and a point of contact with Proust, Bergson, and Deleuze. See E2P18 and E3P52, for instance. Compare this point with the account of sensation given by the ancient atomists, who posited , following Empedocles, that physical effluences (eidola) travel from objects to affect the human sensorium. This is why vision is a species of touch for Democritus. See the report of Theophrastus (DK68A135) in Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., Philosophy Before Socrates (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 331. 37 Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights, 1988), 49.


images are permanent modifications of the body; they persist in the mind even in their absence, with their power to induce affects in us undiminished. This is their hold on our disposition (E2P17, 18). Images not only modify the body’s physical constitution (“affection”), they generate affects like joy and sadness. By “affect,” Spinoza means “the affections of the body by which the body’s power of activity is increased or diminished, assisted or checked, together with the idea of these affections” (E3D3, emphasis added). An affect occurs in the body when it evaluates as good or bad, affirms or negates, the body affecting it. These affects, in turn, determine the capacity of the affected body to act and be acted upon. A good affect, like joy, results from an increase in perfection. A bad affect, or sadness, is the diminishment of perfection. In both cases, the affect conditions the body’s mode of existing and defines is “capacity of being affected.”38 This capacity increases if the affected body adequately apprehends the reason for its affect; it decreases if the affected body harbors a “confused image” of its state.39 When our thinking is restricted to local manifestations, we trap ourselves in the confused image. Ecological thinking points the way out of this confusion by unveiling the truth that sometimes (as in the case of climate change) we affect ourselves at a distance, through an intermediary like “the weather,” and thereby diminish our own power to exist. Every intentional act involves an image that affects the body, modifies it in some determinate way. Perception, imagination, and memory are dominated by images; these images give rise to affects that strengthen or weaken the body. In this sense, the constitution of the body is produced as an effect of the manifold media circulating throughout the environment. Its agency, then, must be regarded as a modal expression of the ecology of images and the heterogeneous objects that conspire with it. In Bennett’s words, Spinoza offers us a conception of agency whose “efficacy or effectivity” is “distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localized in a 38 39

Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, 49-50. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, 50.


human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts.”40 The body is the product of natura naturans, understood as the material substratum of all that exists. And all that exists, for Spinoza, exists necessarily insofar as it is an expression of the infinite substance and immanent cause of all things: God, or nature. In Spinoza’s view, our freedom resides in our capacity to adequately locate ourselves within the causal nexus and understand the local and remote causes of our affects. This involves grasping the mechanics of the ecology of images that circulate in our aesthetic environment, and more generally the way in which media impact our bodies and minds.41 When we understand the cause of our affects, our bodies transition from a state of passivity to one of activity (E3P1). When we become adept at regulating the affections we suffer, we thereby increase our freedom (or power) by making ourselves less susceptible to (or more tolerant of) images incompatible with our nature and the sad affects that accompany these images (E5P10S). The power to order our encounters comes with an increase of adequate knowledge of the efficient causes of local things, and with the understanding that nature, including human nature, is governed by necessity. “In so far as the mind understands all things as governed by necessity,” says Spinoza, “to that extent it has greater power over affects, i.e. it is less passive in respect of them” (E5P6, modified). We take one step closer toward our freedom when we realize how we are determined to act and exist by an “infinite chain of causes” (E1P28) and an infinite proliferation of images. This is the freedom involved in ecological thinking. 4. The Privilege of Sentience; or, Think Bigger! Although Merleau-Ponty and Spinoza share some common ground in their thinking about environmental aesthetics, they bear notable differences. I want to conclude here by suggesting that the environmental import of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is hindered because it privileges sentient over 40

Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 23. I suspect that Niklas Luhmann, The Reality of the Mass Media, trans. Kathleen Cross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), could shed a lot of light on this remark. 41


insentient beings. This, I think, is basically a methodological problem: it arises because Merleau-Ponty, even in his later ontology, uses perception as the basis of his interrogation of being. Spinoza, by contrast, proceeds geometrically and derives his philosophy of embodiment from his definition of substance. In other words, Spinoza begins with the environment and derives the individual, whereas Merleau-Ponty attempts to think the totality of the environment from the perspective of a single organism. Even if this is not anthropocentrism, it is at least an environmental philosophy that maintains a hierarchy, from the top of which sentient beings peer down at their insentient neighbors. This is a point often overlooked by commentators who regard Merleau-Ponty’s supposed overcoming of dualism as a decisive advance for environmental thinking. While writing the ontology of The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty admitted that his early work failed because it departed from the “‘consciousness’-‘object’ distinction.”42 It thus assumed the very objectivist dualism it sought to overcome. The ontology of the flesh is meant to overcome this classical prejudice by casting the duality of subject and object as a result of the dehiscence or separation (écart) of the flesh of being, or as unfolded by the Umwelt. But if it is the case that the ontology of the flesh and the investigation of nature are intimately linked in Merleau-Ponty’s corpus, then we have reason to believe that the flesh might implicitly perpetuate dualism, instead of overcoming it.43 This is because Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature is an evolution of his earlier (dualistic) work on perception and the structure of behavior. The ontology of the Umwelt is understood, on the one hand, from the perspective of the organism’s behavior and, on the other, from the perspective of human perception.44 As a result, when


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 200. As Toadvine tell us, “Merleau-Ponty’s later work is intended to make explicit the ontology underlying his earlier writings, and the development of this ontology is explicitly linked with the investigation of nature. In fact, the ontology of ‘flesh’, probably the most famous concept in Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre, can be developed only be way of an ontology of nature.” Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature, 109. 44 Buchanan, Onto-Ethologies, 115-16, 128-9. 43


Merleau-Ponty describes the chiasm that obtains between the seer and the seen, he necessarily privileges the seer over seen. This is why I must agree with Evans when he writes this: Despite this appearance of having established an even-handed ecology, Merleau-Ponty’s view of nature harbors a “sin of the flesh” that limits his achievement. As a chiasmic being, flesh must include at least one “sensible” that is also sentient; without such a being, flesh cannot see or touch itself, cannot “imminently” coincide with itself, that is, perpetually remain on the verge of sensing itself sensing, of becoming one with itself. [The division of nature into sentients and sensibles] assigns to sensing creatures, including ourselves, a far more central role than their actual place in the universe would appear to merit them. Such a division implies that nature requires sentient beings for its existence and precludes any reference to the universe prior to the advent of sentience.45 Defenders of Merleau-Ponty will reply by saying that he makes numerous references to “wild” or “brute” being as that domain of prereflective being that is forever prior to human consciousness. For Merleau-Ponty, the notion of “brute” or “wild” being supposedly “intervenes at all levels to overcome the problems of the classical ontology.”46 But even if we concede that a pure realm of savage being exists, Merleau-Ponty would still have to refer us to the sentient-insentient dyad to explain how being is animated. He comes close to explicitly doing so when he, paradoxically, identifies wild being with the perceived world.47 It is here that visibility and invisibility must play out their dialectic of reversibility. By contrast, Spinoza gives us an ecological thinking that is neither grounded in human perception nor hampered by the strictures of phenomenological method. Rather than describing the body as interlaced, intertwined, or embraced by nature, he thinks the body as an effect of the infinite mesh of causes which comprise nature.48 Furthermore, his entire philosophy aims to displace human being from the center of nature. Accordingly, it offers a more democratic assessment of being, one in which the organic is no more active than the inorganic, sentient creatures no more valuable than insentient objects. Spinozist nature is a heterogeneous body, each individual representing a singular 45

Evans, “Unnatural Participation,” 145. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 211. 47 The Visible and the Invisible, 170. 48 As de Jonge notes, there is no “relational field” in Spinoza because discrete subjects and objects only exist in our imaginations. At the metaphysical level, there is only the singular causal mesh. Spinoza and Deep Ecology, 104. 46


mosaic of nature. On this reading, there are no ready-made ethical prescriptions to be found in Spinoza (or Merleau-Ponty, for that matter). Instead, Spinoza suggests that “the best course we can adopt, as long as we do not have perfect knowledge of our affects, is to conceive a right method of living, or fixed rules of life, and to commit them to memory and continually apply them to particular situations….” This entails that “in arranging our thoughts and images we should always concentrate on that which is good in every single thing so that in so doing we may be determined to act always from the affects of pleasure” (E5P10S, modified). It could be demonstrated, I’m sure, that ecological wellbeing is the sine qua non of human blessedness. Another way to put the criticism of Merleau-Ponty is to say that he just doesn’t think big enough. His is a localist ontology, generated by his experience on the ground. Granted, this gives it a “concrete” dimension that is lacking in most nonphenomenological philosophy. It may be topologically richer in virtue of this fact, but it fails to do the ecological work that Spinozism does. What ecological thinking requires is what Timothy Morton calls “the ecological thought.” When Spinoza beseeches us to think the infinite chain of causes that determines our place in nature, he is soliciting the ecological thought from us. When we consider that even nonlocal events are immanent events, intimately bound to us and our behavior—this is the ecological thought. This is thinking that extends beyond the local existential field or milieu, out to the stars and into the bowels of the earth. The ecological thought thinks the interconnectedness of every thing whatsoever; it finds strangeness and ambiguity in this intimacy.49 It makes no pretense of actually comprehending this strangeness in its sublimity, for the strangeness is absolutely proximate. It forbids the safe, reflective distance that would alleviate the horror of being caught in the web of natural causes. Morton writes in The Ecological Thought: “The ecological thought permits no distance. Thinking interdependence involves dissolving the barrier


Morton, The Ecological Thought, 15.


between ‘over here’ and over there’, and more fundamentally, the metaphysical illusion of rigid, narrow boundaries between inside and outside.”50 What exists is not a thing called nature, but the totality that Morton calls the mesh. And we are locked within it, incapable of perceiving it directly. Inside the mesh foreground and background are collapsed, preventing us from orienting ourselves to the environment spectacle. The mesh cannot be internalized by our habitus, or rather our habitus can only ever be overwhelmed by the excesses of the mesh, unhinged by its strangeness. This is why Morton designates the ecological thought as a form of madness or schizophrenia.51 If the local reveals to us the familiar dwelling, the perceivable place, home, then the mesh is revealed through the strange stranger—that being we meet whose foreignness is all the more enthralling when we realize its intimate connection to us in the vast assemblage of objects that sustain us. The mesh is detectable everywhere, “in the snails, the sea thrift, and the smell of the garbage can.”52 Morton again: Thinking big means realizing that there is always more than our point of view. There is indeed an environment, yet when we examine it, we find it is made of strange strangers. Our awareness of them isn’t always euphoric or charming or benevolent. Environmental awareness might have something intrinsically uncanny about it, as if we were seeing something we shouldn’t be seeing, as if we realized we were caught in something.53 The ecological thought suggests that we will always be trapped in the confused image of what affects us. That our ecological situation cannot be controlled or comprehended, only glimpsed through flashes of strangeness in the “hesitation, uncertainty, irony, and thoughtfulness”54 of dark (not deep) ecological thinking. This is because “the more you know, the more entangled you realize you are, and the more open and ambiguous everything becomes.”55 And yet the imperative to think the ecological


The Ecological Thought, 39. The Ecological Thought, 28, 30. 52 The Ecological Thought, 57. 53 The Ecological Thought, 58. 54 The Ecological Thought, 16. 55 The Ecological Thought, 17. 51


thought persists. This is as much a thought about ecological necessity as it is of ecological necessity. To think it is necessarily to be thought by it.