Alien Phenomenology vs. Environmental Holism

I’ve been enjoying Ian Bogost’s new book, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.  It’s another great contribution to object-oriented ontology.  One of the problems I have with it so far is that it misrepresents holistic approaches to environmental issues.  I generally appreciate the object-oriented critique of holism, but it’s important to accurately specify what holism is involved.  To paraphrase Bogost, all holisms might equally exist, but they do not exist equally.

Bogost says the following:  “In every conception of environmental holism from John Muir to James Lovelock, all beings are given equal absolute value and moral right to the planet–so long as they are indeed living creatures.  One type of existence–life–still comprises the reference point for thought and action” (p. 7).

Every conception?  I don’t think so.  A bunch of conceptions?  Sure.  The majority of conceptions?  Maybe, depending on whose conceptions get counted.  In any case, not every conception of environmental holism in the last hundred years has made life the reference point for thought and action (nor have they all assigned “equal absolute value” to everything).  There are plenty of environmental holists who have arrived at their metaphysics like Bogost arrived at his, “by way of inanimacy rather than life” (p. 9). 

Consider Aldo Leopold or Baird Callicott.  They are most certainly holistic, but their reference point is the land, which includes but is not defined primarily in terms of biota.  Leopold and Callicott have been very influential on a lot of the environmental holism running around these days.  You cannot give a very relevant critique of environmental holism if you don’t critique the land ethic.  Another kind of environmental holism that eludes Bogost’s critique is the ecology and environmental ethics based on Ken Wilber’s Integral theory (of which Michael Zimmerman is a leading proponent).  The holism of Edgar Morin’s complex thought harbors a planetary environmentalism that is also noteworthy here.  My point is simply that some holisms are closer to Bogost than he indicates, and that environmental holism can be a partner in creative dialogue instead of a quickly dismissed straw man.

I’ll have more to say after I finish the book.  Regardless of any shortcomings it might have, it’s a fun and engaging book.  The Latour litanies alone are worth the price of admission.

5 thoughts on “Alien Phenomenology vs. Environmental Holism

  1. Thanks for these comments. I think you’ll find that there’s a little but not much more discussion of environmental holism in the book, and that this passage is more provocation than theory, but we’ll see what you think when you finish.

    In any case, it’s always dangerous to use words like “every,” and maybe “most” or “most influential” would be more fair, but also less fun (sometimes it’s worth going all-in for the excitement of the aftermath). But even so, aren’t Leopold and Callicot focused entirely on biological life at the end of the day?

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Ian. I think your book strikes a good balance between fair and fun and between provocation and theory. I’m excited to finish the book, and I’m already finding myself re-reading a lot of your delicious descriptions. As for Leopold and Callicott, at the end of the day they are helpful allies in the fight against zoocentrism and biocentrism, but unfortunately, they don’t get the thing about things.

      1. It’s a bit of a puzzle, and I’m not sure what to do with it either. That is, what does it mean to have an ecology that includes objects? How far do we take it? Backhoes and plastic detritus? Is it even possible or desirable? I’m not sure, but certainly we may have to move beyond “nature” in order to get there.

        Also this comment text is super tiny!

      2. Yes, here’s to an ecology with objects and without “nature.” I’m not sure if it’s possible or desirable, but I suppose that, occasionally, there are some impossible and undesirable projects that are definitely worth doing. Either way, I should really fix my comment text. Thanks for the heads up :)

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