A propos yesterday’s post on transition culture and the Bataillian (versus Malthusian) thermodynamics of ecopolitics, the new issue of the Harvard Design Magazine, on “(Sustainability) + Pleasure,” turns out to be all over this topic.

Wendy Steiner’s “The Joy of Less” introduces it well, positing a sensualism that’s quite happy with the “pleasure economy” of an “age of surplus” and that locates its heroes and prophets among such figures as Walt Whitman, William James (with his redefinition of meaning as “feelings of excited significance”), and the sensibility of European modernists (Baudelaire’s flaneur, Breton’s surrealist vagrant, and Nabokov’s Lolita-loving Humbert Humbert) — as opposed to the rhetoric of sustainability, which “is all about limits on freedom and the thwarting of desire.” “The disconnect between sustainability and pleasure is profound,” she writes, but then goes on to point out the blurrings and conciliations of the two both in children’s culture (school ecology programs, Wall-E) and in the postmodernist arts of Pynchon, Delillo, Chadwick and Spector, and others.

More intriguing is Andrew Payne’s article on “Sustainability and Pleasure,” which presents a well considered critique of contemporary discourses of “life” and “biopolitics” from a perspective that distances itself from social-constructivist excesses while maintaining a non-reducibility of the cultural to the natural. Payne excavates the long history of the concept of “scarcity,” from Enlightenment physiocrats, Malthus, Haeckel, and twentieth-century ecological planners and architects like Geddes, Mumford, and McHarg, through to Bataille and Lacan (with clear expositions of the former’s “cosmic” economy and the latter’s linguistic definition of the human, though the relationship between these and the eco-scarcity discourse is a little roundabout, I would say). He then summarizes the “biopolitical turn” represented by evolutionary aestheticians, neuroscientists, and philosophers like DeLanda, partly through a synopsis Roberto Esposito’s Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy.

“Everywhere we look,” Payne writes, “the specter of a nature we once imagined ourselves as having exorcised from our social constructions makes its uncanny return” — a return he critiques insofar as it is undergirded (as in the sustainability discourse) by a commitment “to viewing the environment as a primary and, if prudently managed, perduring matrix out of which social and political institutions emerge as secondary manifestations of adaptive behaviors homologous to those found in the settlement practices of non-human species.” “Suspended between the animal and the human, the organic and the inorganic, the biological and the informatic, the virtual and the actual, the cosmic and the microcosmic, life — at once absolute fact and absolute value — is increasingly a mirage, an enigma, a specter.” Payne’s argument alerts us to the riskiness of bringing back the natural into our understanding of the cultural, but I’m not convinced that the discourses he critiques signify a mere return of earlier environmental or biological determinisms (as his argument suggests).

The issue also features an auto-interview of/by Peter Sloterdijk, whose as-yet largely untranslated Heideggerian (and somewhat Latourian) interpretations of the spatialities of a global world have made him something of a darling within the Continental philosophy set. (See Society & Space 27.1 for some more enlightening translations and accounts of his work in this vein.)

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  1. a pretty complex history of sustainability…
  2. more on complex sustainabilities