Thursday, August 22, 2013

Materialism, Economic and New

sunset, Cadillac Mountain
by J J Cohen

I'm just back from Maine, a trip that combined some hiking in Acadia (that's your postcard to the right) with three campus visits (University of Maine at Orono, College of the Atlantic, and Bates College: son liked all three), a family visit in Bangor, and a family reunion in Ogunquit. That's quite a bit of movement over eight days of vacation.

I'm certain that my eco-geological preoccupations began along the Maine seacoast, no doubt as a child, since the tidal pools at the rocky sea edge have always been one of my favorite places. Although I tried not to bring much academic work with me this year, I did think a great deal about the Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies graduate seminar I will be teaching starting (gulp) Monday. I want to share with you a comment that Tobias left on that post about my draft syllabus while I was away, as well as my brief and I think inadequate response, in the hope of spurring a larger conversation -- or at least to offer some food for thought as the term begins. Tobias wrote:
I’ve been developing the syllabus for a graduate seminar as well—“Species and Planet in the Long Eighteenth Century”—and I’ve found particularly useful work at the intersection of Marxism and environmental history, such as Jason Moore’s essay, collected on his website: I’m planning to teach “Nature and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism” alongside _Robinson Crusoe_. Moore begins his argument with the thesis that the feudal “lord-peasant relation was fundamentally antagonistic to long-run ecological sustainability” (107), leading to a series of crises (intensified by the waning of the Medieval Warm Period), the solution of which was geographic expansion, which in turn provided the conditions for capital accumulation and the transition to capitalist modes of production. He quotes Wallerstein: “The only solution … that would extract western Europe from decimation and stagnation would be one that would expand the economic pie to be shared, a solution which required, given the technology of the time, an expansion of the land area and population base to exploit” (116). I’m also teaching from an excellent book by three French scholars, _In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilization through the Ages_, which includes a chapter on the medieval energy regime, focusing largely on water mills and transportation. From my perspective, this sort of extended Marxism, which considers the ecological conditions and energy regimes that shape capitalist development, while continuing to recognize the fundamental explanatory power of historical materialism, is crucially important to theorizing the Anthropocene.
I responded (and here I will lightly edit to remove some typos):
Tobias: thanks so much for your thoughts - and for your frequent pushing me to think more materially [in the Marxist sense] about production and consumption; it has been very, very helpful to me. I've been ruminating over what you've offered as I hike and swim in Maine, thinking a lot about the human impress upon these ecologically "pure" spaces that are actually just zones for the consumer-vacationer. There is so much to say about the so-called transition out of feudalism, and it would include some trenchant critiques of that supposedly hegemonic mode as partly a retroactive fantasy, as partly a too totalized view of what was on the ground multiple, shifting, and geographically specific governmental assemblages, few of which were stable for all that long. Feudalism is sometimes more useful for the work it does in buttressing rupture narratives than in actually explaining, say, 14th C England's modes of production and consumption (which were mercantile), or 9th century Britain, even under Alfred (pillage economies far and wide). Almost everywhere I look within medieval materials I see the same tendency: towards excess consumption to the point at which an ecology goes out of balance and must readjust. Iceland loses its entire tree canopy in a century (Vin Nardizzi has traced a similar process for early modern England). England loses its animals for hunting, leading to game reserves and reformulations of king's dominion and property, etc. Humans tend towards the Gaussian function but also tend to pull back before utter collapse. That seems to me the most important lesson for the Anthropocene: when will it be too late to pull back and reorganize? So on the one hand: YES we absolutely need to understand the mechanics and historical specificities of shifting energy regimes. YES historical materialism is vital to such an enterprise. But in addition, there seem to me some ethical questions not well addressed through historicism of whatever kind -- primarily, how to make people desire differently? That task (one in which history is suggestive but holds no secure answers) is one that preoccupies me in my ecological work.
I don't think that's a good enough answer, and would like to think more about economic materialism of a Marxist bent alongside the new materialism. At Tobias' suggestion I've also been reading through Jason Moore's work (I'm grateful Moore has made it so easily accessible via his website). I've found much to admire in his wide-ranging essay "From Object to Oikeios: Environment-Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology." The closing paragraph is especially provocative:
Constructing narratives of the longue durĂ©e as if nature matters as producer no less than product is more challenging still. This is the challenge that world-ecology meets head on. If nature matters ontologically in our philosophy of history, then we are led to engage analytically the human-biospheric dialectic’s double internality. Humans simultaneously create and destroy environments (as do all species), and our relations are therefore simultaneously if differentially through time and across space being created and destroyed with and by the rest of nature. From this optic, “nature’s” status undergoes a radical shift in our thinking: a transition from nature as resource to nature as matrix. This means that nature can be neither destroyed nor saved, only reconfigured in ways that are more or less emancipatory, more or less oppressive. But take note: our terms “emancipatory” and “oppressive” are offered not from the standpoint of humans narrowly, but through the oikeios, the pulsing and renewing dialectic of humans and the rest of nature. At stake now perhaps in a more salient way than ever before in the history of our species is exactly this: emancipation or oppression not from the standpoint of humanity and nature but from the perspective of humanity-in-nature. 
I like how Moore's work reconfigures materialism's dialectical movements to include interpenetration of nature and culture, humans and the matrix of nature. He does so with an eye towards being able to articulate, forcefully, how climate change works and what human agency means in these perturbations. It's a rather anthropocentric approach but without such approaches owning up to human responsibility for eco-catastrophe is likely impossible.

But I still don't think it's enough. I'm not an environmental historian, and in most of my projects I am not doing the close contextual work of mapping how a specific energy regime develops within ecological constraints and engenders material consequences. Most of the texts I have been examining in my recent work are so multi-temporal that I cannot tie them to anything like economic or even contextual specificity: the lapidaries, for example, carry some material forward unchanged from 300 BCE. They are not ahistorical, but they are sedimentary (that is, veined with polychronic deposits of material). And in the end I am not all that interested in discovering, say, why Marbode of Rennes composed his seminal lapidary in the eleventh century as I am in mapping the world his text imagines, how as a work of both science and speculation (I'd call it an alternative ecology) it bequeaths to the later Middle Ages a way of perceiving the world in which even stones thrum with vital activity and burgeon with story. It is difficult to emplace carbuncle within an energy regime (even if it is a kind of coal), but it is possible to speak of the invitation it keeps offering (an invitation accepted again and again) to discern a certain radiance in "mere" materiality that mandates an ethical regard towards inhuman things. And for me, the great ecological obstacle is not so much to inform people of culpability and make them realize repercussions (importance as those two things are), but to get them to desire differently. The Middle Ages provide well, not a good example, exactly, but a good archive for that task. 


Steve Mentz said...

Not sure I'll have time to say anything substantial about this before I leave for Maine Sat morning -- always a few days later than you, Jeffrey -- but this is great & provocative stuff. I downloaded a couple of Moore's essays for future reading, and also like Tobias's sharp re-insertion of "extended" Marxist politics into the eco-mix. I also like the image of sedimentation, which for me recalls Glissant's *Poetics of Relation* and his description of the sea-floor. It seems important, and difficult, to create a critical language for multi-temporality and inhuman pressures while still doing justice to human and political questions.

Unknown said...

I'm so pleased you found some of my arguments useful; thanks for the kind words! Please do suggest: how do we move towards a less "anthropocentric" historical method? My hope, with the oikeios, was that highlighting the relation through which manifold species-environment configurations (including but not limited to the mosaics of humanity-in-nature) might allow for a rigorously non-anthropocentic method, and thence, rigorously non-anthropocentric narratives. Suggestions?

Comradely, Jason W. Moore

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for commenting here Jason -- and for the very good work that you do. Your oikeios and nature as matrix certainly do offer non-anthropocentric possibilties (but I also think all narrative is inherently anthropocentric; we can warp it, fragment it, glean something that isn't human within it, but stories we tell ourselves are stories of ourselves).

Anyway, what I meant by comment in the post above is that in the essay I read you foreground the human (admittedly to de-center that term). Would it have been possible to bring in with greater specificity some more of the nonhumans that your essay includes, to narrate more of their agency? When I read your essay I was thinking a great deal of the work of Bruno Latour, Timothy Ingold and Tim Morton, all of whom you share some common concerns as well as conclusions with. The two Tims are especially good at foregrounding meshes in ways that resonate with your own framing.

In my own work I've been concentrating on nonhuman scale, especially through stone. Even if there is no way out of anthropocentricity, speculative forays into the lives and agency of the nonhumans coextensive with the human oikos (as well as into the lives of those we cannot know and do not touch) are, I think, productive of alternative ontological stories.