Tag Archive: ecotheory


(On Kevin Kelly’s “The New Socialism,” Paul Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, Steven Shaviro’s “Against Self-Organization,” and more.)

Self-organizing adaptive systems and other networks are more than just the flavor of the philosophical month; they are a model increasingly used to make sense of the natural and cultural worlds. Generally it’s assumed that such distributed self-organization is a good thing and that our intelligence needs to mirror it as best as possible. This message is reiterated in books like Daniel Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence, a worthy recent entry onto the popular market by the psychologist who popularized the terms social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Summarizing the research of ecological economists and industrial ecologists, among others, Goleman argues that what we need is a “radical transparency” about the entire production and consumption cycle of the products we buy. I’ve only skimmed the book, but I imagine that this argument can be added to the social and emotional intelligence arguments he’s previously made, and perhaps to a “political intelligence” piece that may need to be better developed, so that what we’d get is a radical transparency about the ecological and social justice impacts of the things that make up our world.

Transparency and complexity would seem to go hand in hand, then: the more we are aware of the causal loops making up the increasingly complex systems of our uncertain world, the more capable we are of dealing with the results of those complex feedback loops. But there’s only so much knowing that can go around in a world that’s flooded with information, but in which that information comes primarily in the form of distraction. Both the distribution of knowledge and the economy of attention will be areas we’ll need to be concerned with more and more. On the latter, I highly recommend Sam Anderson’s New York Magazine piece “In Defense of Distraction,” an entertaining jaunt through the landscape of twenty-first century distraction, where attention is increasingly becoming a new currency, and attention aids, from neuroenhancement drugs to mindfulness training, will increasingly provide us with what we need to navigate the world (while remaining upwardly mobile).

To better map out the distributive politics of knowledge and of ecological (and other kinds of) intelligence, we may need to retrieve traditional ideological concepts like “socialism,” and also to examine our assumptions about the nature of the whole system (whether that be global capitalism, the biosphere, or the combination of the two). A couple of recent books and articles can help us think about the ethics and politics of globally distributed intelligence.

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In Why Environmental Understanding, or “Framing,” Matters, published today on the Huffington Post (and on AlterNet), liberal framing guru George Lakoff provides a useful critique of a forthcoming EcoAmerica report on the framing of environmental and climate change issues. While his conclusions are perceptive and make the article a valuable read — I’ll get to those — I find the assumptions underlying his critique worthy of examination. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist, and he contrasts his use of the term “frames” with sociological work on “discursive frames,” rather unfairly biasing the comparison in his favor by suggesting that the sociological approach is “superficial” while his is rooted in the neurobiology of brain functioning.

We think,” he writes, “mostly unconsciously, in terms of systems of structures called ‘frames.’ Each frame is a neural circuit, physically in our brains [sic]. We use our systems of frame-circuitry to understand everything, and we reason using frame-internal logics. Frame systems are organized in terms of values, and how we reason reflects our values, and our values determine our sense of identity. In short, framing is a big-deal.

All of our language is defined in terms of our frame-circuitry. Words activate that circuitry, and the more we hear the words, the stronger their frames get. But if our language does not fit our frame circuitry, it will not be understood, or will be misunderstood.

In translating science for a popular audience, especially in a political context, one of course has to simplify. But I find Lakoff’s simplifications here a bit jarring. They remind me of those Cartesian diagrams of human mental circuitry by which a physical stimulus leads to a neurochemical response leads to a physical reaction (see illustration above), with no place for culture or for a feeling human agent in the middle of it. Lakoff reduces all of our understanding to words (“all of our language” works this way) activating distinct neural circuits called “frames,” which are “organized in terms of values,” with the latter in turn “determin[ing] our sense of identity.” It’s not clear where these “values” come from, or if values and identity have their own separate neural circuits or, if not, what exactly they are. According to Lakoff, “two competing value-based systems of frames,” and therefore two identities, are available “in our politics”: a conservative one and a progressive one. (See his Moral Politics for more on these.)

But my quibbles here are not so much with the simplification of our politics or of the “neural circuitry”; I’m content to acknowledge that a quick polemical Huffington Post article is not the place for articulating a thorough and coherent model of language, selfhood, and society. What’s more important to me, though, is that there seems little role in Lakoff’s model for affect, that is, for individual and collective emotional response, in people’s processing and use of language, concept, metaphor, and image.

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I’ve been impressed and even moved by a few recent posts over at Larval Subjects. “Electro-Chemical Signifiers” describes the author’s transformation from full-fledged Lacanian (both theorist and analyst) to something that seems much broader and welcoming of the world. Not, of course, that Lacanians cannot be broad and welcoming of the world; I’m only judging LS’s movement based on his own narrative. That narrative concerns depression and a cure (not a talking cure) as well as, it seems, gardening.

In “Gardening”, LS mixes soil, happiness (the author’s, at watching spinach, romaine, and cucumbers “poke up from the earth”), science, and Alberto Toscano’s Theatre of Production (which I just ordered) and Susan Oyama’s Ontogeny of Information (which I found mesmerizing when I read it years ago and am now happy to hear referred to more & more as she belatedly finds a well-deserved audience).

In the (ex-)Lacanian confessional he writes:

“I think Guattari had the right idea in proposing a model in which we strove to think the intersection of regimes of signs, the biological body, economics, nature, etc… A highly complex ecological, networked model.”

Not only is Guattari wandering in this intersective middle-earth of bodies, neurons, cultures, politics, and economies, but so, I would add, are Deleuze, William Connolly, Francesco Varela, Eve Sedgwick, JK Gibson-Graham, Antonio Damasio (in some respects), and many others who’ve been inspiring my thoughts on this blog and in my writing. Thanks, LS, for your courage.

One of the impressive recent efforts to bring the physical sciences and the social sciences and humanities back onto “consilient” speaking terms (to use E. O. Wilson’s terminology, though his own efforts at this have been unimpressive) is Wendy Wheeler’s The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. Wheeler is a humanist, an English lit specialist whose work emerges out of the Raymond Williams tradition of British cultural studies, and her foray into biosemiotics and complexity science is highly original and ambitious. She’s an editor at British Left-political cultural studies journal New Formations , having produced special issues on complexity and ecocriticism in recent years. Complexity research has been making some waves in sociological and cultural theory circles for a while now (e.g., in Theory Culture & Society), but biosemiotics is more of a newcomer on these intellectual (humanistic/culturological) shores. The book is blurbed by leading biosemiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer, author of, among other things, Signs of Meaning in the Universe (Indiana U. Press, 1996).

While I’ve only read parts of the book (and a few outtakes in other venues) and am not qualified to comment on its use of complexity theory or biosemiotics, it’s heartening to see Donald Favareau’s very favorable extended review, “Understanding Natural Constructivism” in Semiotica, which has been a leading venue for biosemiotic research and theory for several years. I strongly recommend it both as a summary of Wheeler’s book and as an introduction to biosemiotics.

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