Ecology against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek on Molecular Red

Ecology against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek on Molecular Red
Ecology against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek on Molecular Red

On November 28, 2008, Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, issued a public letter titled “Climate Change: Save the Planet from Capitalism”. Here are its opening statements:

Sisters and brothers: Today, our Mother Earth is ill. … Everything began with the industrial revolution in 1750, which gave birth to the capitalist system. In two and a half centuries, the so called “developed” countries have consumed a large part of the fossil fuels created over five million centuries. … Under Capitalism Mother Earth does not exist, instead there are raw materials. Capitalism is the source of the asymmetries and imbalances in the world.4

The politics pursued by the Morales government in Bolivia is on the very cutting edge of today’s progressive struggle—but, nonetheless, the quoted lines render with painful clarity its ideological limitation (for which one always pays a practical price). Morales relies on the narrative on the Fall which took place at a precise historical moment (“Everything began with the industrial revolution in 1750…”) and, predictably, this Fall consists in losing our roots in Mother Earth (“Under Capitalism mother earth does not exist”). To this, one is tempted to add that, if there is one good thing about capitalism it is that under it, Mother Earth no longer exists. “Capitalism is the source of the asymmetries and imbalances in the world”—this means that our goal should be to restore “natural” balance and symmetry. What is thereby attacked and rejected is the very rise of modern subjectivity, which obliterates the traditional sexualized cosmology of Mother Earth (and Father Heaven), of our roots in the substantial “maternal” order of nature.

Zizek: 'Ecology is one of today’s major ideological battlefields, with a whole series of… Click To TweetEcology is one of today’s major ideological battlefields, with a whole series of strategies to obfuscate the true dimensions of the ecological threat: (1) simple ignorance—it’s a marginal phenomenon, not worthy of preoccupation, life (of capital) goes on, nature will take care of itself; (2) science and technology can save us; (3) leave the solution to the market (higher taxation of the polluters, etc.); (4) superego pressure, emphasising personal responsibility instead of large systemic measures—each of us should do what he/she can (recycle, consume less, etc.); (5) maybe the worst of them all is the advocating of a return to natural balance, to a more modest traditional life by means of which we renounce human hubris and become respectful children of our Mother Nature again. But this whole paradigm of Mother Nature derailed by our hubris is wrong. Why? McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red provides an answer.5

The core of ecological crisis is a phenomenon noted already by Marx, the so-called “metabolic rift” caused by expanding capitalist productivity. In Wark’s words: “Labor pounds and wheedles rocks and soil, plants and animals, extracting the molecular flows out of which our shared life is made and remade. But those molecular flows do not return from whence they came” (xiii). When such a rift caused by human industry begins to pose a threat to the very reproduction of life on earth, so that humanity literally becomes a geological factor, we enter a new era of the Anthropocene:

The Anthropocene is a series of metabolic rifts, where one molecule after another is extracted by labor and technique to make things for humans, but the waste products don’t return so that the cycle can renew itself. (xiv)

Wark designates the agency of this growing rift with the ironic term, the “Carbon Liberation Front”: “The Carbon Liberation Front seeks out all of past life that took the form of fossilized carbon, unearths it and burns it to release its energy. The Anthropocene runs on carbon” (xv). There is a paradox in the very heart of this notion of the Anthropocene: humanity became aware of its self-limitation as a species precisely when it became so strong that it influenced the balance of all life on earth. It was able to dream of being a Subject only until its influence on nature (earth) was no longer marginal, i.e., only against the background of a stable nature.

Notions like “rift” and perturbed “cycle” seem to rely on their opposite: on a vision of a “normal” state of things where the cycle is closed and the balance reestablished, as if the Anthropocene should be overcome by simply re-installing the human species into this balance. Wark’s key achievement is to reject this path: there never was such a balance, nature in itself is already unbalanced, the idea of Nature as a big Mother is just another image of the divine big Other. For Wark, I am one of the big bad guys since I embody “all the old vices” (17) of contemplative materialism detached from praxis—yet I agree with his basic approach of dismissing Nature as the last figure of the big Other:

the God who still hid in the worldview of an ecology that was self-correcting, self-balancing and self-healing—is dead … The human is no longer that figure in the foreground which pursues its self-interest against the background of a wholistic, organicist cycle that the human might perturb but with which it can remain in balance and harmony, in the end, by simply withdrawing from certain excesses. (xii)

Zizek: 'We never encounter nature-in-itself: the nature we encounter is always-already caught… Click To TweetConsequently, after the death of the God-Father, the masculine Reason, we should also endorse the death of the Goddess-Nature: “To dispense with the invisible hand, and with homeostatic ecology as a basic metaphor, is to live once again after God is dead” (209). Firstly, we never encounter nature-in-itself: the nature we encounter is always-already caught in antagonistic interaction with collective human labour. But secondly, the gap separating human labour from intractable nature (all that resists our grasp) is irreducible. Nature is not an abstract “in-itself” but primarily the resisting counterforce that we encounter in our labour. However, we have to make one further step here. The fiction of a stable nature disturbed by human intervention is wrong even as an inaccessible ideal that we may approach if we withdraw as much as possible from our activity. Nature is already in itself disturbed, out of joint:

We still tend to think that if we stop certain actions, an ecology will right itself and return to homeostasis. But perhaps that is not the case. … What if there is only an unstable nature… (200)

The rift between labour and intractable nature should be supplemented not only by a rift within nature itself, which makes it forever unstable, but also by a rift emerging from within humanity itself. This rift, which explodes in modernity, is the “divorce between the sensation of the world and the idea of it” (105). We should not read this rift in the traditional humanist-Marxist sense, as the “alienation” of “higher” theoretical activity from living collective practice. Rather, we should read it as the fact that the living, practical experience of reality cannot be elevated into the ultimate resort—and therein resides the lesson of modern science and technology. The “inhuman” realm (the field of quantum oscillations is exemplary) is beneath our direct experience, accessible only through scientific theories: this queer world of particle physics “is so far below the threshold of human perception that we struggle for language to describe it” (165). Yet what we lack is not so much an appropriate language (we can construct that easily enough) but, much more, an appropriate sensation-experience of this queer world as a part of our reality. The same holds for the “Carbon Liberation Front”, our knowledge of which “is a knowledge that can only be created via a techno-scientific apparatus so extensive that it is now an entire planetary infrastructure” (180). Here also, as Wagner would have put it, die Wunde schliesst der Speer nur der sie schlug [the wound can be healed only by the spear which smote it].

Footnotes

  1. Available online at http://links.org.au/node/769
  2. McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, London: Verso Books 2015. Numbers in brackets refer to the pages of this book.
  3. See Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, Durham: Duke UP 2010.
  4. Available online at http://links.org.au/node/769
  5. McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, London: Verso Books 2015. Numbers in brackets refer to the pages of this book.

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