Some notes on the first chapter of Morton’s Ecology Without Nature :
Ecomemesis is the rhetorical device through which the narrative frame is both identified (the “as I write this…”) and, in some sense, exceeded (the description of what’s “happening” as I write). Morton makes a distinction between “strong” and “weak” ecomimesis: “strong ecomemesis” is the explicit reference to one’s environment (he opens the chapter with three consecutive examples of “strong ecomimesis”, where he describes where he is as he writes). Weak ecomimesis, conversely, occurs whenever “writing evokes an environment”, such that, while the author does not explicitly say “here I am writing next to this tree”, a description of a tree effectively suggests exactly this kind of situatedness: it implicitly places the author in the world. In both cases, the idea is that, in suggesting the world rhetorically, the author gives a glimpse of the larger ideological impulses that inform his conception of “the environment”. As Morton describes, ecomimesis is “a pressure point, crystallizing a vast and complex ideological network of beliefs, practices, and processes in and around the idea of a natural world” (33).
Morton gives an outline of what he calls the “most salient features” of “ambient poetics”, or the rhetorical device through which ecomimesis is imparted. Here’s just roughly what those parts are about:
Rendering: “Rendering is technically what visual- and sonic-effects artists do to a film to generate a more or less consistent sense of atmosphere or world…The idea is that we obtain an immediate world, a directly perceived reality beyond our understanding. When ecomimesis renders an environment, it is implicitly saying: ‘this environment is real; do not think that there is an aesthetic framework here’ “ (35). It’s the basis of a kind of agreement between the author and audience, the suspension of disbelief through which even those who orient themselves by way of a strict post-enlightenment rationality (what Morton calls “cynical reason”) can still basically get on-board with what they implicitly understand to be fictions. It is “immersive yet humorous and ironical in a way that is, in Schiller’s language, sentimental rather than naive” (36). He later circles back on this idea when discussing re-mark, and the ways in which this irony can be exploited to unsettle the boundary between “art” and “non-art”.
The Medial: To do with the actual medium of the communication: “medial writing, for instance, highlights the page on which the words were written, or the graphics out of which they were composed” (37). He doesn’t explicitly reference McLuhan here but his insistence that “contact becomes content” is pretty much just “the medium is the message”.
The Timbral: It’s “about the sound in its physicality, rather than about its symbolic meaning” (39). The emphasis here has to do with embodiment, I think. Every communication implies its source. He points to Heidegger, who “affirms that we never hear sound in the abstract. Instead, we hear the way things (a very rich word for Heidegger) sound, in almost every active sense of the verb” (40).
The Aeolian: In contrast to the timbral, the aeolian “ensures that ambient poetics establishes a sense of processes continuing without a subject or an author. The Aeolian has no obvious source” (41). This is primarily an unsettling, anxious feature of ambient poetics, because (as suggested by ‘the timbral’) we generally want to know the source of a given sound. As Morton points out, “[m]ost ecomimesis wants to reassure us that the source is merely obscure—we should open our ears and eyes more. But this obscurity is always underwritten by a more threatening void, since this very void is what gives ecomimesis its devine intensity, its admonishing tone of ‘Shh! Listen!’ “(43). The idea, I think, is that the Aeolian speaks to the fundamental unknowability of our environment, and while we might want to conduct ourselves with “cynical reason”, we still intuitively recognize (and are afraid of) the absolute alterity of nature.
Tone: This one is pretty vague, but I think that’s a conscious choice on Morton’s part: “Tone accounts materially for that slippery word atmosphere…Tone is useful because it ambiguously refers both to the body and to the environment. For ‘the body’ (as it is often called in contemporary art and theory) is the environment, in the conventional, vulgar cartesian sense. ‘We inhabit the body’ like a person living in a house. Environmental art makes us aware of our ears, just as much as it makes us aware of atmosphere” (43-44).
Re-Mark: re-mark, borrowed from Derrida, seems to have to do with how ambient poetics signals the cut between foreground and background. This is really the root of Morton’s conception of “ambient poetics”. Morton writes, “[t]he re-mark is the fundamental poreterty of ambience, its basic gesture…It is a special mark (or a series of them) that makes us aware that we are in the presence of (significant) marks…A re-mark differentiates between space and place” (48-49). The real tricky thing, here, is this idea of “significance”, I think, because it seems to suggest a kind of quasi-unique ontological status for works of ambient poetics, or maybe even “art” more generally, in negotiating how the ecological is articulated (and I say “quasi-“ because Morton kind of hedges on this claim later by saying “none of this is to claim that inside and outside ‘really’ exist” (54)). So it’s a kind of paradox: ambient poetics works, for Morton, because it is both a rigid binary (i.e., something either is or is not an art object, as dictated by a “re-mark”), and occupies a kind of liminal space between the two (he points to “the common suburban lawn” (50) as a kind of ambient poetics, insofar as it is both kind of inside and kind of outside).
Ambient poetics can be understood as a kind of collapsing of art into non-art (or, more generally, a collapsing of a binary between inside and outside). It’s this moment of collapse, the “fleeting, dissolving presence” (51), that Morton is most interested in, because it’s these moments that suggest the artifice (the not-really-existing) of the whole binary. It’s the moment of Romantic irony wherein both author and audience realize that they are not observers of a flat and static ecology, but rather are themselves a part of the ecological. This dissolution, I think, is for Morton the “point” of ecological writing in general. As he posits, “Ecological writing wants to undo habitual distinctions between nature and ourselves. It is supposed not just to describe, but also to provide a working model for a dissolving of the difference between subject and object…If we could not merely figure out but actually experience the fact that we were embedded in our world, then we would be less likely to destroy it” (63-64).