«Nearer than breathing, closer than hands and feet»,
(George Morrison, The Reawakening of Mysticism)
Ecological criticism and queer theory seem incompatible, but if they met, there would be a fantastic explosion. How shall we accomplish this perverse, Frankensteinian meme splice? I’ll propose some hypothetical methods and frameworks for a field that doesn’t quite exist: queer ecology. (The pathbreaking work of Catriona Sandilands, Greta Gaard, and the journal «Undercurrents» must be acknowledged here.). This exercise in hybris is bound to rattle nerves and raise hackles, but please bear with me on this test flight. Start with the basics.
Let’s not create this field by comparing literary-critical apples and oranges. Let’s do it the hard way, up from foundations (or un-foundations). Let’s do it in the name of ecology itself, which demands intimacies with other beings that queer theory also demands, in another key. Let’s do it because our era requires it: we are losing touch with a fantasy Nature that never really existed (I capitalize Nature to make it look less natural), while we actively and passively destroy life-forms inhabiting and constituting the biosphere, in Earth’s sixth mass extinction event. Giving up a fantasy is even harder than giving up a reality. […]
Unfortunately, a great deal of ecocriticism provides a toxic environment in which to spawn queer ecology. Ecofeminism (the classic example is Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature) arose out of feminist separatism, wedded to a biological essentialism that, strategic or not, is grounded on binary difference and thus unhelpful for the kinds of difference multiplication that is queer theory’s brilliance. Much American ecocriticism is a vector for various masculinity memes, including rugged individualism, a phallic authoritarian sublime, and an allergy to femininity in all its forms (as sheer appearance, as the signifier, as display). Other environmentalisms (such as cophenomenology, as practiced by Kate Rigby, Glen Mazis, and others) are more promising for their flexible, experiential view that Nature is a process, not a product; but I worry that they might just be upgrades.
Interdependence and Intimacy
Judith Butler makes a case for queer ecology, because she shows how heterosexist gender performance produces a metaphysical manifold that separates «inside» from «outside». The «inside-outside» manifold is fundamental for thinking the environment as a metaphysical, closed system: Nature. This is impossible to construe without violence. […] As I’ve argued elsewhere, ideologies of Nature are founded on inside-outside structures that resemble the boundaries heterosexism polices.
All life-forms, along with the environments they compose and inhabit, defy boundaries between inside and outside at every level. When we examine the environment, it shimmers, and figures emerge in a «strange distortion». When the environment becomes intimate, as in our age of ecological panic and scientifically measurable risk (Beck), it is decisively no longer an environment, since it no longer just happens around us: that’s the difference between weather and climate. Human society used to define itself by excluding dirt and pollution. We cannot now endorse this exclusion, nor can we believe in the world it produces. This is literally about realizing where your waste goes. Excluding pollution is part of performing Nature as pristine, wild, immediate, and pure. To have subjects and objects, one must have abjects to vomit or excrete (Kristeva). By repressing the abject, environmentalisms (I am not denoting particular movements but suggesting affinities with, say, heterosexism or racism) claiming to subvert or reconcile the subjectobject manifold only produce a new and improved brand of Nature. […]
But does that which is called Nature really work by exclusion? Might it be that queer theory has a strange friend in nonessentialist biology? What would that friendship look like? Most humanists, myself included, need remedial math and science classes, but they will find little to frighten them. In any case, science is too important to be left to scientists. Ecology stems from biology, which has nonessentialist aspects. Queer theory is a nonessentialist view of gender and sexuality. It seems the two domains intersect, but how?
Claiming this might not be radical or revisionist. Just read Darwin. Evolution means that life-forms are made of other life-forms. Entities are mutually determining: they exist in relation to each other and derive from each other. Nothing exists independently, and nothing comes from nothing. At the DNA level, it’s impossible to tell a «genuine» code sequence from a viral code insertion. In bacteria, for example, there exist plasmids, entities not unlike pieces of viral code. Plasmids resemble parasites in the bacterial host, but at this scale it’s impossible to tell which being is a parasite and which a host. DNA is literally a code that RNA translates in order for ribosomes to manufacture enzymes (end result: life-forms). Ribosomes can be programmed to read DNA differently: genetic engineering shows how a bacterial cell could manufacture plastics instead of proteins (see Material World for this uncontroversial bit of life science). In a sense, molecular biology confronts issues of authenticity similar to those in textual studies. Just as deconstruction showed that, at a certain level at any rate, no text is totally authentic, biology shows us that there is no authentic life-form. This is good news for a queer theory of ecology, which would suppose a multiplication of differences at as many levels and on as many scales as possible. […]
Evolution theory is antiessentialist in that it abolishes rigid boundaries between and within species. Life-forms are liquid: positing them as separate is like putting a stick in a river and saying, «This is river stage x» (Quine). Queer ecology requires a vocabulary envisioning this liquid life. I propose that life-forms constitute a mesh, a nontotalizable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level: between species, between the living and the nonliving, between organism and environment. Visualizing the mesh is difficult: it defies our imaginative capacities and transcends iconography. Perhaps negative imagery will have to do, picturing what the mesh is not. It isn’t soft and squishy like many of the organic metaphors favored by environmentalism (the «web of life») or by postmodern theory: I’m thinking of ideas such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rhizomes, preferred to “arborescent” forms because they’re supposedy nonhierarchical.
Queer textual form can offer «an open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances». Organic palpability has so often been adapted to authoritarian masculinism that queer ecology must thoroughly interrogate organicism and its ideological effects.
What about sexuality? Biodiversity and gender diversity are deeply intertwined. Cells reproduce asexually, like their single-celled ancestors and the blastocyst attached to the uterus wall at the start of pregnancy. Plants and animals are hermaphroditic before they are bisexual and are bisexual before they are heterosexual. Males and females of most plants and half the animals can become hermaphrodites either together or in turn, and hermaphrodites can become male or female; many switch gender constantly.
A statistically significant proportion of white-tailed deer (at least ten percent) are intersexual. Hermaphroditic snails entwine with seeming affection. Moreover, processes of sexuality are not confined within species. Encountering another individual benefits plants, but they do it through other species, such as insects and birds. The story of evolution is a story of diverse life-forms cooperating with one another. Bees and flowers coevolve through mutually beneficial «deviations».
Heterosexual reproduction is a late addition to an ocean of asexual division. Heterosexuality only seems a good option (rather than an «expensive» plug-in) from the point of view of macromolecular replicators. It doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of these molecules’ vehicles (us and the beetles). Gender as performance is underpinned by evolutionary «satisficing»: if your body kind of works, you can keep it. This accords with Butler’s view of performativity as regulated sets of iterated functions that act as constraints. To this extent, DNA itself is performative. There’s no contradiction between straightforward biology and queer theory. If you want a queer monument, look around you. […]
This brings us to what is horrifyingly called «the question of the animal» (I can’t help thinking of «the Jewish question» when I hear this). Ecological critique has argued that speciesism underlies sexism and racism (Wolfe); why not homophobia too? How do we think about life-forms and their diverse sexualities and pleasures? Any attempt at queer ecology must imagine ways of doing justice to life-forms while respecting the lessons of evolutionary biology; that the boundary between life and nonlife is thick and full of paradoxical entities. The biochemist Sol Spiegelman showed that there is no rigid, narrow boundary between life and nonlife. This issue isn’t simply semantic. There must have been a paradoxical «preliving life» made of RNA and another replicator: perhaps, as Spiegelman argues, self-replicating silicate crystals. Biology abolishes vitalist fantasies of protoplasm extruding itself into the shapes of living organisms. Vitalism may be old hat, yet the resurgence of Henri Bergson and Deleuze and Guattari in the academy prolongs it. […]
Queer ecology may abandon the disastrous term animal and adopt something like strange stranger, my bad translation of Derrida’s arrivant. To us other life-forms are strangers whose strangeness is irreducible: arrivants, whose arrival cannot be predicted or accounted for (Hostipitality). Instead of reducing everything to sameness, ecological interdependence multiplies differences everywhere. How things exist is both utterly unmysterious and unspeakably miraculous. Interdependence implies that there is less to things than meets the eye. Yet this lessness means we can never grasp beings as such. This doesn’t mean life-forms don’t exist: in fact, it’s the reason they exist at all. Queer ecology will worry away at the human-nonhuman boundary, too. How can we ever distinguish properly between humans and nonhumans? Doesn’t the fact that identity is in the eye of the beholder put serious constraints on such distinctions? It’s not just that rabbits are rabbits in name only: it’s that whether or not we have words for them, rabbits are deconstructive all the way down.
Nothing is self-identical. We are embodied yet without essence. Organicism is holistic and substantialist, visualizing carbon-based life-forms (organic in another sense) as the essence of livingness. Queer ecology must go wider, embracing silicon as well as carbon, for instance. DNA is both matter and information. True materialism would be nonsubstantialist: it would think matter as self-assembling sets of interrelations in which information is directly inscribed. The gardenvariety environmentalisms, with their vitalist webs of life, have ironically strayed from materialism. Queer ecology would go to the end and show how beings exist precisely because they are nothing but relationality, deep down; for the love of matter.
Strange strangers are uncanny, familiar and strange simultaneously. Their familiarity is strange, their strangeness familiar. They cannot be thought as part of a series (such as species or genus) without violence. Yet their uniqueness is not such that they are independent. They are composites of other strange strangers. Every life-form is familiar, since we are related to it. We share its DNA, its cell structure, the subroutines in the software of its brain. Its unicity implies its capacity to participate in a collective. Queer ecology may espouse something very different from individualism, rugged or otherwise. […]
Ecology is the latest in a series of humiliations of the human. From Copernicus through Marx, Darwin, and Freud, we learn that we are decentered beings, inhabiting a universe of autonomous processes. Ecological humiliation spawns a politicized intimacy with other beings. This intimacy is a polymorphously perverse belonging (and longing) that doesn’t fit in a straight box—an intimacy well described by queer theory when it argues that sexuality is never a case of a norm versus its pathological variants. Such intimacy necessitates thinking and practicing weakness rather than mastery, fragmentariness rather than holism, and deconstructive tentativeness rather than aggressive assertion, multiplying differences, growing up through the concrete of reification. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.
* Timothy Morton’s text has been translated for the first time in Italian by Vincenzo Grasso for KABUL (Dario Alì, Valeria Minaldi, Francesca Vason) within Earthbound. Overcoming the Anthropocene, KABUL Editions, Torino 2021. With texts by: Bruno Latour, Jason W. Moore, Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, T.J. Demos, Greta Gaard, Timothy Morton, and Giovanna Di Chiro. Preface by Gaia Bindi www.kabulmagazine.com . This text, with the permission of the editor, has been adapted for this occasion, bringing it into line with the rest of the essays offered.
Il termine traduce il neologismo inglese Hostipitality, che rimanda a sua volta al francese hostipitalité, coniato nel 2000 dal filosofo francese Jacques Derrida [Ndt]
L’espressione inglese It’s Life Jim, but not as we know it è una citazione della canzone Star Trekkin’ pubblicata nel 1987 dal duo inglese rock demenziale The Firm, ed erroneamente attribuita a Mr. Spock, celebre personaggio di «Star Trek». [Ndt]