Ambient Poetics in Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature

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).

Dynamic Homogeniety: A Short Talk on Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter

The following is a very short thing written for a panel discussion on posthuman conceptions of community at the university of manitoba, 3 feb 2016

In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett develops a theory of vital materialism that employs the Deleuzian notion of assemblages to conceptualize the diffuse set of actors (both “human” and not) that are involved in the enactment of any given phenomena. The goal, for Bennett, is “to articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due” (viii). For Bennett, the emphasis on a wider set of beings is meant to recontextualize human intentionality as just one of many actors behind the enactment of any given phenomena, such that “[t]he locus of agency is always a human-nonhuman work group” (xvii). While Bennett’s work aims to fulfill the noble posthuman project of “decentering the human”, her conception of agential heterogenetic assemblages, wherein “strong responsibility seems… to be empirically false” (37), could be understood to suggest an eerie and chaotic agential landscape wherein human intentionally is subsumed into a blur of nonhuman forces, and human responsibility gives way to a kind of agentive nihilism. While I don’t think this is actually Bennett’s intention, it is definitely something that anyone reading her work is going to have to contend with. So, in what follows, I’d like to talk a little bit about why certain aspects of Bennett’s otherwise compelling notion of vital materialism are so troubling, with a particular emphasis on her usage of heterogeneity as the basis for the assemblage.

The whole issue, as I see it, is summed up pretty cleanly when Bennett attempts to cash out her theory into a kind of ethics. She writes, “[p]erhaps the ethical responsibility of an individual human now resides in one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating” (37). So rather than instilling a sense of responsibility toward one’s assembled community of human and non-human others, Bennett’s notion of the assemblage leaves the human actor observing his relationality to others only indirectly, while he vigilantly monitors his own participation in assemblages whose trajectory he appraises to be “likely to do harm” (37). What’s important to note is not only how this conception of agency leaves the human disconnected from what he would otherwise view as “his” actions, but, perhaps more fundamentally, the fact that, in a certain basic sense, it actually reaffirms the distinctly humanist ontological binary between human and nonhuman that Bennett is trying to distance herself from: The human is still figured as the starting point of inquiry, as he vigilantly calculates and reacts to his relationship to a heterogenetic assemblage from which he is implicitly uniquely capable of extricating himself.

While Bennett’s turn toward this residual humanism does read jarringly against the theoretical project of her work, my suspicion is that she is lead to this position on the basis of her heterogenetic account of the assemblage: because her notion of assemblages implicitly requires a set of ontologically distinct beings who then iteratively enact a “confederate agency” (37), Bennett’s vital materialism does not sufficiently problematize “the human” as a given point of departure: The heterogeneity of her assemblages in fact necessarily fixes the ontological status of “the human” as a discrete being before its inscription within the assemblage. Thus, the human subject remains the starting point of his own calculus, with all the anthropocentric and individualistic assumptions that the liberal humanist conception of “the human” entails, who then situates himself within an assemblage of others, who figure mostly as potential impediments to the enactment of his particular intentions. Granted, this is a decidedly uncharitable reading of Bennett’s theory, but without challenging the ontological primacy of the “human” being, she is left with no recourse to combat the inertial presence this humanistic anthropocentrism.

To remedy this, I advocate for what one could call “dynamic homogeneity” in assemblage thinking, or a conception of agency that not only directs its attention toward the assemblage, but actually takes the process of assembling itself to be ontologically primary.

Rather than conceiving of agency as a set of discrete phenomenal assemblages which are themselves constituted of similarly discrete, marginally interactive actors, dynamic homogeneity describes a singular, ongoing and indeterminate process through which ostensibly discrete beings (both human and not) are contingently assembled.

The benefit of this approach is that it effectively dissolves any hard or lasting boundary between the human and the assemblage, such that our human actor is freed from the illusion that he could ever truly choose not to participate in the assemblage with which he is inherently entangled: because his existence as such is necessarily contingent upon the singular, dynamic, and ontologically-primary process of assembly, he is also inherently and irrevocably tethered to the human and non-human community alongside whom and which he emerges. Thus, we are not so much focused on wether or not to participate in an assemblage that may be set up to cause harm, but rather how our own irrevocable participatory behaviour can be modified to encourage the flourishing of the whole ongoing assembling process. This is the basic move made by posthuman theorists such as Karen Barad, who argues, “There are no singular causes, And there are no individual agents of change. Responsibility is not ours alone. And yet our responsibility is greater than it would be if it were ours alone. Responsibility entails an ongoing responsiveness to the entanglements of self and other, here and there, now and then” (394). Like Bennett, Barad rejects the notion that responsibility is “ours alone”, but then goes on to suggest that, precisely because it is not ours alone, we are responsible not only to ourselves, but to our whole assembled community. By making the process of assembling ontologically primary, a dynamically homogenous account of vital materialism productively affirms our irrevocable participation in the world as an ongoing act of becoming, and emphasizes our responsibility to the community of others alongside whom we contingently emerge.