Aesthetic Ecology


Think big. Think dark. And think forward. Those are the imperatives of Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought. In Ecology Without Nature, Morton had already argued that our ideas of nature did not serve ecology particularly well. In The Ecological Thought, his call to leave those ideas behind receives a more concrete articulation: big, dark, forward. Big: so big that the bigness can no longer be contained by thought. The ecological thought is about this excess, and about caring for what’s not there. Dark: a darkness that unworks the domestication of the stranger. Although Morton doesn’t say so, one could argue that it’s about turning the entire world into Twin Peaks. It is no coincidence that special agent Cooper, by way of explaining his investigative techniques, first lectures to the local sheriff and deputies about Tibet; Morton argues in his book that Tibetans, because they cultivate a relation to infinite space, are particularly attuned to the ecological thought that he practices. (It is probably also no coincidence that Morton’s book, when abbreviated, turns into E.T.) Finally, the ecological thought thinks into the future—much further than any of us can conceive. This is because it is the thought of the hyperobject: of objects like the styrofoam cup, which will outlast us all.

Morton is the David Lynch of ecological thinking. One night, Lynch, who started out as a painter, thought he saw something move in one of his canvases—that’s how his career as a filmmaker started. It was this uncanny experience that made him want to make his paintings move, and turn towards film. For Morton, art is open to these experiences. It is in art that some unspeakable elsewhere—the “getting lost in the library stacks” that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak talks about in a recent interview about aesthetic education—happens. The particular form of what Morton calls dark ecology is film noir. But there are also other artworks that live up to the challenge.

Morton’s argument raises the stakes for nature painting, in the way that Willem Weissman’s work does (see the entries titled “B-sides and rarities” and “Inhuman”). It is in the painting of clutter that our ideas of nature are left behind, and that the ecological thought can begin to happen. As Slavoj Zizek states in The Examined Life, it is among trash that we should start feeling at home. We should unwork the ideology that makes thrash disappear. Dan Davis accomplishes this in a different way in Aloe Vera, a painting that operates (1) within the “without” of nature–the plant it represents has disappeared into a whiteout, only its contours remain; and (2) within the darkness of the environment that surrounds it. As the name of Davis’ plant illustrates, it is here that the “truth” (evoked by the adjective “vera”) of the painting’s aesthetic ecology lies.

References: Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge [MA]: Harvard UP, 2007); Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge [MA]: Harvard UP, 2010); Cathy Caruth, “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Aesthetic Education and Globalization.” PMLA 125.4 (2010). Image: Dan Davis, Aloe Vera, oil on canvas, 2010.


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