riPOSTe


From: Ursula K. Heise (ukh2@columbia.edu)
Subject: ebr 4

EcoLogic: A RiPOSTe

Ebr 4 deals with ecology. No, ecologies: its assumption is that the concept of "ecology," literally or metaphorically, also applies to phenomena other than the predictable ones of flora, fauna, water, soil and weather. Beside "green" ecology, therefore, half the issue deals with "gray" ecology, i.e. the contemporary media landscape. Although that may be stating it a bit too broadly: most of the articles in the "gray ecology" section deal with a specific medium – computer technology in its various manifestations. Why this particular combination: nature and computer, landscape and cyberspace? Some cultural theorists have referred to the world of computer networks and information flows as a "third nature" that has emerged beside "first nature" (the natural world) and "second nature" (the socio-cultural world of man-made systems). Clearly, if one looks for metaphorical applications of ecological vocabulary, any number of socio-cultural systems from the realm of "second nature" would offer themselves: book publishing, haute couture, the airline industry, criminal law, car manufacturing, tv programming; literature and other art forms in particular, in a journal such as ebr, would be obvious choices. Superficially at least, any of these domains (as well as an indefinite number of others) corresponds to what one expects of an "ecosystem": it is a recognizable subsystem with its own structures and rules, operates on the basis of balances and dependencies between diverse needs and demands, contends with scarcity of resources and pits competing agents against each other, all in such a way that the system survives. If the one sector, however, that has here imposed itself most consistently as a site of metaphorical transfer is that of information technologies (apparently the editors did not impose this link from the start, but saw it gradually emerge from their own thought as well as from the contributions they received), one must ask what makes the link between the realm of nature and that of the computer so compelling for academic environmentalists.

Unlike editor Joseph Tabbi, then, I'm not so much worried that half of the contributors to the issue were "carried away by metaphor" as I wonder why metaphor carried them to the particular place where they ended up. Certainly, the metaphoric vocabulary that has sprung up around computer technology may have played its part in encouraging the connection to natural ecology, since it insistently emphasizes both spatiality (websites, chatrooms, cyberspace) and connectedness or interdependence (webs, nets, hyperlinks). Tabbi himself, when he explores this issue via his own activity as editor of an electronic journal, foregrounds how much of his work is about the construction of links. And yet, are the systems that develop from these links really like ecosystems? One of the most striking things about the connections between the various components of an ecosystem is that they are for the most part not optional, but imposed by the vital needs and necessities of particular species and the soil and climate they live with. Disrupting such links, as humans have learned at the cost of many a destroyed landscape and many an endangered species, can threaten the subsistence of the system as a whole. The same is arguably not true of our "cybernetic ecosystems": is the integrity of Thomas Cohen's essay disrupted if I do not look up the CIA link? Hardly. Is the existence of the Worldwide Web endangered if a few hundred websites disappear? I doubt it. Surfing the net or leaping from site to site via hyperlinks may be exhilarating and enriching, but neither the functioning of the web nor my knowledge of it are crucially dependent on any one of these links. In this respect, the ecological metaphor is misleading, since it attributes a vitalist wholeness to contemporary computer networks that they do not possess and that their very design, in fact, is meant to challenge.

But perhaps the central idea of ebr's "two ecologies" is not really dependent on any structural homology between natural ecosystems and computer technologies. Maybe it is compelling for an entirely different reason: the conjunction of green and gray points to two important poles of Western cultural imagination in the late twentieth century the desire for a return to an untouched natural environment and an uncontaminated human body (with New Age culture as one of its most conspicuous manifestations), on one hand, and the exhilaration of the completely artificial space of the Worldwide Web and the endless impersonations and transformations of identity it allows, on the other. Ecological thought is compelled to maneuver in the conceptual space between these two poles. For academic environmentalists in the humanities, this maneuvering is complicated in addition by the persistent questioning of "authentic nature" in literary and cultural theory over the last three decades, a legitimate critique that needs to be reconciled with the call for the preservation of what nature ("authentic" or not) is still left. Rather than describing any structural analogy, then, the juxtaposition of "green" and "gray" ecology outlines a conceptual force field in which environmentalists in general and academic environmentalists in particular are bound to think and act.

By this I don't mean to imply that the two realms are always necessarily antagonistic; MacKenzie Wark, in his article on "third nature," argues that computers are a crucial tool for apprehending and analyzing complex natural processes: as he narrates in some detail, software such as SimEarth, which simulates long-term human developments and their impact on the global biosphere, was crucial for his own understanding of large-scale ecological processes. In addition, new scientific approaches to nature such as non-linear dynamics have been crucially dependent on computer technology, and have had a significant impact on the ways in which natural processes are envisioned. If one looks beyond the computer to other media, an even broader range of issues and questions emerges: the rise of nature documentaries and the images of the natural world they present, with all the ideological implications these images might have (incidentally, nature documentaries underwent quite considerable generic changes in the 1980s, evolving toward a generally less anthropomorphic presentation of animals and including far more sexual and violent scenes than previously – a change that would surely deserve close cultural analysis!); the question to what extent the visual documentation of nature can or in fact has made obsolete older artificial sites of encounter between man and parts of the natural world, such as the zoo; or, more directly, the way in which ecological issues are presented on television, radio and in newspapers (a question which Andrew Ross has addressed in his Chicago Gangster Theory of Life) and how this presentation affects public opinion about ecological matters. Curiously enough, these very direct links between the contemporary mediascape and ecological problems are hardly discussed in the essays that make up ebr 4, which instead focus on more indirect and more metaphorical bridges between the two areas–an indication, perhaps, of the extent to which academic environmentalists sense the tension between the two poles of the natural and the digital.

Stephen Kellert's essay outlines in interesting ways another field of contradictory forces that shapes contemporary environmentalism. Kellert sets out to defend the claim that certain scientific insights are valid regardless of cultural and historical context–a defense that should surely be welcome to environmentalists, considering the global extent and effect of environmental degradation. His amusing jingle, "Gravitational attraction is proportional to mass/ No matter what's the latitude or who's the ruling class," seems to make precisely the point that science defines aspects of nature which cultural theorists, especially those with an interest in the environment, ignore at the risk of making their own arguments irrelevant. But then Kellert goes on to justify his defense of scientific universals by arguing that they sometimes come in handy in cultural and political struggles. Which may be true in some cases, but what if they don't in others? Paradoxically, the claim for the universal validity of some scientific insights here seems itself to have validity only when it is politically opportune. And what do we do about all the scientific claims that have no direct political relevance at all, the law of gravity that Kellert himself cites for example? The inconsistency of the argument here seems to me suggestive of a broader predicament with regard to science that environmentalism faces: on one hand, science is the ultimate ground of legitimation for many environmentalist claims about the state of nature, but on the other hand, science is also seen as one of the forces that have brought about environmental deterioration. Awareness of both factors leads precisely to the ambiguity that characterizes Kellert's argument – the desire to vindicate scientific claims of validity, on one hand, and the wish to subordinate those claims to political aspirations, on the other.

Other essays also outline such tensions that environmentalism has to contend with. The relation between science and the new digital realm, for example, emerges as highly ambiguous in ebr 4 when we compare Timothy Luke's essay, which points to the ways in which the reality of computer development has outpaced the scientific categories available for living from inorganic beings, with Paisley Livingston's, which outlines very precisely in what aspects contemporary computer technology falls short of its science fiction projections (even with regard to something like Gibson's "cyberspace," which has become a common term for virtual reality applications as well as the Internet, even though neither is as yet anything like the kind of space described in Neuromancer). Stacy Alaimo's piece on ecology, feminism and poststructuralism, Cary Wolfe's on environmentalism and liberal humanism, and Joseph McElroy's on the concepts and categories we use in thinking about the relationship between humans and nature, for example, address other fields of tension for ecological reasoning. Overall, then, ebr 4 surprises one by some of the topics it does not cover and most importantly, the direct connections between ecology and contemporary media; but in the more abstract and metaphorical connections between the two domains that it does address, it presents a fascinating map of the intellectual positions and tensions academic environmentalism currently faces.

Ursula K. Heise
Columbia University



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