Towards an Eco-Ontology

Adam over at Knowledge Ecology has posted about the need for a pluralistic ontology in thinking the differences between nature and culture. I’ve copied my response to him below:
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Another stimulating post, Adam. I love the thinkers you are bringing into conversation. I have not yet read Carolan’s essay, but I have a few comments to share about your summary.

You write that “physical environments can exist without social environments, but not the reverse.” What do you mean, exactly, by “physical” in this context? I remain convinced that Whitehead’s organic realism is the most fruitful approach to take if we are trying to bring forth a cosmology without undue ontological divisions between human beings and every other kind of being, whether they be dolphin beings, flamingo beings, sequoia beings, or helium and hydrogen beings. To say that physical environments precede social environments suggests that molecules, atoms, protons, etc., relate to one another in fundamentally non-living, non-semiotic ways; which is to say, they hardly relate at all, they simply crash into and pull at one another blindly. If we are going to call these physical “environments,” then we are already implying that physical beings “live” in relation to one another, that they are each autonomous boundary generating systems that live amongst other such systems within larger communities of constitutive relations. What are stars but collectives of hydrogen and helium atoms whose gravitational, electronic, and magnetic means of semiosis bring them into emergent social relations, relations so tightly woven that, at least from our earthly perspective, these collectives become autonomous beings in their own right? Are there really physical environments that aren’t always already social? Perhaps you could speak of isolated quarks as asocial beings; but they are almost always artificially separated in human laboratories, and all indications are that even these sub-atomic forms of self-organization are constituted by social relations between even smaller beings. I am pretty sure you agree, it is ecosystems all the way down, which is why I was surprised to read this statement.

Of course, we don’t want to just collapse nature into culture, or physics into society. But as long we realize that “culture” and “society” have never been purely human endeavors, I think a panexperiential or pansemiotic approach is quite fruitful. DNA is, after all, a kind of language. I don’t think genes operate on an entirely different ontological plane then human symbolism and communication. They are both processes that obey the same semiotic logic, and though the latter may be associated with greater degrees of reflexivity and consciousness, the former is the ground and condition of the latter: if my cells stopped communicating with each other, I would very quickly lose the capacity to speak with you.

What I would want to suggest is that we need a stratified or layered ontology to distinguish the multiplicity of umwelts that make up the universe. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there are ultimately multiple ontologies, since this seems to me to be only another form of reductionism (just a reduction to the many, instead of to the one). There are many distinct umwelts, or worlds brought forth through differing modes of sensory relation. But hey all exist in and as the same encompassing sphere of Being as part of the same universe (at least unless we are going to say that there are some beings we will never, ever, even in principle, come into relation with–which is quite possible, but in that case, even to speak of them is already to assume some relation, thereby bringing them into our sphere). So we could say there are as many worlds, niches, or umwelts as there are kinds of organism, but that each overlaps to varying degrees within a single cosmos. Perhaps, instead of talking about “nature” as some monolithic category, we could speak of “Earth,” which is undeniably the common ground of all the middle-sized creatures threatened by technoindustrial capitalism. Earth is the singular body that houses multiple ecologies.

In terms of an OOO, I think this is where human beings start to become unique, since only we seem capable of thinking about how ‘real’ objects condition ‘sensory’ objects. In other words, only we worry about ontology. The ecological crisis is deeply related to our failed ontology, but I think it still makes sense to seek out a common ground of being with all lifeforms, since it is precisely our human inability to live in relation to other worldlings that has generated a mass extinction. I don’t think a sort of “live and let live” respect for irreducible difference is realistic anymore, we are too enmeshed with the rest of the Earth community for such enlightened ignorance to work. Beings may always withdraw from one another, but in this very quality of mutual mysteriousness, we have something in common.