Philosophy Kitchen

CFP#15 \ The End of all Things. Ecological Contingency Strategies

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan (1982)

PK#15 September 2021

Edited by Philosophy Kitchen

At the basis of any discourse that we could define in a broad sense "ecological" there is the idea that there are good reasons to take leave of a clear separation between the natural sphere and the sphere inhabited by speaking entities that operate with artifacts and symbols. The ontological difference between natural kinds and artifacts remains, of course, but stopping at this does not at all demobilize the epistemic framework within which one is used to understand and interpret the boundary that should separate human animals from animals of other species and living beings in general. It has therefore proved productive to point our gaze in the direction of the violent structure of any device which, by exploiting the rhetorical resources offered by a notion of nature understood as the place of the immutable, intends to make the modification of specific social practices unthinkable. A decisive contribution to this was made by feminist thought, which, aiming to deconstruct the logic of patriarchal domination, could not fail to cross the logic that governs all those forms of anthropocentrism that, directly or indirectly, justify the violent domination of humans over animals of other species and, more generally, over natural entities. It is no coincidence that Donna Haraway, one of the most important feminist thinkers, has made decisive theoretical contributions to the reflection on the ecological question. While certain forms of ecofeminism lead to perplexity because of their mystical and neopagan traits (think here mainly of Starhawk), it remains true that feminist instances cannot but constitute the privileged starting point to begin to lay the philosophical and ethical-political foundations of the ecological question.

From a purely theoretical point of view, on the other hand, it should be pointed out that in the contemporary philosophical scenario, a discursive regime has been installed - even if not to the point of becoming hegemonic - that privileges an ontology of the process, by virtue of which the set of entities that populate planet Earth is a set that includes the planet itself that hosts them. This discursive regime (which willingly hosts the reference to authors such as A.N. Whitehead, G. Simondon, G. Deleuze, F. Guattari, I. Stengers, B. Latour) makes it possible to understand how the jumps and discontinuities between the inorganic and the organic do not involve net caesuras, impassable boundaries, but are events that attest the occurrence of osmosis and interactions. Among them it is also to be understood that singular event that, within the collective of the entities that together form the ecosystem, is the appearance of cognition: singular event among others, the latter is configured merely as a subset of acts – usually defined as "mental" – which allow what was once called "nature" to be reflected, to coimplicate itself in a game of cross-references between processes each with its own duration and consistency. Hence the following question: how to conceive of an ontology of processes that describes how singularities and events coexist and disseminate within these processes, without ever transcending them?

It is enunciated, starting from here, a further implication of ecological thought: the unity that marks the ontological consistency of an individual emerges as a simulacrum, if not as a convenient conceptual shortcut, to be replaced by descriptive apparatuses that, in naming an entity, intend to annex it to the rest with which it is symbiotically intertwined. Within this perspective, the living are configured as holobiont (this is the happy neologism coined by L. Margulis): associations, compositions or assemblages of a host and members of other species living within or around it, and which together form an ecological unity. It is this systemic unity that makes sense to deal with, and not with the individuals that compose it (in the footsteps of authors such as D. Haraway and I.E. Wallin). Symbiosis is one of the causes to explain the appearance of evolutionary novelty and the origin of new species in the world, thus completing the picture of evolutionary theories between stasis and jumps. In this context, other forms of life, such as viruses, bacteria or plants (which a thought incapable of truly embracing the revolution introduced by post-humanism relegated to a second level), acquire a peculiar meaning due to the fact that they all have a decentralized organization, which well corresponds to the model of the network. This induces them to integrate information from the environment in accordance with a process along which the boundaries between one individual and another are significantly blurred. And so we are led to ask ourselves: how a theory of symbionts, or holobionts, can provide a contribution to radicalize that transformation of the sciences of the living that has been going on for a long time, according to which the relationship between the individual and the niche that hosts him or her must be understood by using conceptual devices that go beyond the classic all/part distinction?

Ontologies of process and symbiosis are flanked by epistemologies that put the thought of systemic complexity in the foreground (reference is made here to authors such as G. Bateson, R. Ashby, H. von Foerster, H. Atlan, N. Luhmann). Here the theoretical reflection on the interweaving between the living and the niches that host them becomes the main way to deal with what most commonly comes to mind when evoking the term ecology, namely its presentation mainly in the form of a problem, a request for solutions in the face of a situation perceived as critical in a global sense. Now, it is almost impossible to go beyond this very general statement without encountering infinite points of view, descriptions, strategies, practices and measures that are very different from each other and in some cases in profound contradiction with each other. It thus emerges that the question of how to solve the ecological crisis is actually a question about ourselves, as bodies co-implicated in the system that we would like to preserve from disaster. In an epistemological sense, ecology can be seen as an autological notion, or rather as the form through which the paradox of the ultimate foundation is given in the network of contemporary knowledge. As a sort of questioning of a higher level than those of the different specialized systems, an observation that has as its object a problematic field in which the observer is always included. This means that ecological demand challenges the different specialized systems of contemporary society - the different disciplines that aim to know the world by "fixing" their objects in it and constructing application programs for them - by confronting them not with an object that falls within the field of observation that characterizes them, but on the contrary with that object that is constitutively external to them and yet decisive for their internal coherence and stability. The environmental issue, thus, focuses on the common of all the specialized systems of society, without however making it available, except in the form of "indeterminable complexity". We can then ask ourselves: what epistemic effects does the concept of "ecology" produce on scientific and social discourse? How are the relations between epistemology and ontology re-articulated in this context in view of a new form of stability of post-catastrophic states and events?

Among all the systems that, both globally and locally, have a privileged interest in dealing with the deterioration of living conditions on the planet are the political and legal systems, closely intertwined. It is reasonable to suppose that, if they continue to take the form of the post-Westphalian order, the institutions called upon to take decisions that are binding on everyone will do no more - and this far beyond the European West - than manage the tragedy of the commons by exacerbating inequalities and injustices, guaranteeing some and denying others the access to resources that will become increasingly scarce and precious. Created to protect property, the law, also in its international institutional articulations, does not seem capable of guaranteeing access to vital resources that have become scarcer for all, nor of setting limits to the action of those who, through their actions, produce, albeit indirectly, significant damage to the ecosystem. If the right serves to generate freedom, first and foremost freedom of enterprise, the cost that would have to be paid to accept a limitation to ecologically harmful action would coincide with a significant reduction in freedom (this was well shown by R. Coase in his essay on the problem of social costs). On the other hand, could states that wanted to take charge, through specific legal measures, of safeguarding the common good save the planet if only a few were to act in that direction? The answer is obviously no. Some might then consider it desirable for a new global Leviathan to emerge, endowed with the power to impose on all actors the respect of those norms that would have as their objective the safeguarding of decent planetary living conditions for all, for us and the other species. If, on the other hand, one wishes to distance himself/herself from such a highly dystopian scenario, one must ask himself/herself  what form of coordination between nation states should emerge in order to ensure that measures are implemented over the next few decades to prevent an ecological catastrophe. The latter, faced with these irreconcilable hypotheses, forces us to reflect not only and not so much on what we eat and what we consume, but above all on the very nature of sovereignty. It is therefore urgent to ask ourselves: if in the post-Westphalian order within which every single sovereign state moves what counts are the relationships of force between states, how can the co-ownership of human beings and their environment politically articulate, well knowing that an irreducible conflict of interests undermines the possibility of placing the issue of the common interest in environmental protection at the core of the global agenda?

Below are the main theoretical points which we would like to discuss:

- nature as a plan, between process ontology and constructionism (G. Deleuze, G. Simondon, F. Guattari, A. N. Whitehead, B. Latour)

- ecology as an internal articulation of systems theory and complexity paradigms (G. Basteson, R. Ashby, H. von Foerster, N. Luhmann)

- the concept of ecology and its epistemological implications related to the re-articulation of the encyclopedia of knowledge

- development of theories of evolution that take account of interspecific relationships (I.E. Wallin, L. Margulis, D. Haraway)

- animal, vegetal, microbiological forms of socialisation and forms of self-organisation. (I. Stengers, V. Despret, B. Morizot, A. Tsing)

- interweaving of male dominance, economic system and ecology in the theorization of feminist movements, with particular attention to the ecofeminist debate (D. Haraway, K. Warren, V. Plumwood)

- models of legal-political-economic governance in response to the ecological crisis, with particular attention to possible models of development of the post-Westphalian order in terms of international politics and social and redistributive policies (G. Teubner).

- analysis of the effects generated by the redefinition of the notions of "space" and "living" in the context of architectural and urban design theories

Accepted languages: Italian, English, French and German


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