Skip to content

Two Ecosophies, Two Eco-Humanities

2010 October 11
by jtinnell

This post summarizes a conference presentation I gave last weekend at FGCU’s Humanities and Sustainability Conference.  My main objective is to explicate the theoretical differences between Arne Naess’s relatively popular “ecosophy T” and Felix Guattari’s ecosophical perspective, which he articulated in his later writings such as The Three Ecologies and Chaosmosis.  The argument should be relevant to those working in ecomedia studies; indeed, I conclude by asserting that Guattari’s theory of ecosophy (less acknowledged than Naess’s) can open up hereto underdeveloped research in the eco-humanities fields, research which beckons the disciplinary expertise of scholars of non-print media and/or writing.

In spite of the major difference that I outline below, Naess and Guattari both address their respective ecosophies to the same paradigmatic problem and they both start from the same premise.

Paradigmatic Problem: the apparent fact that much of the world’s populations exhibit a tendency to experience themselves as entities separate and categorically distinct from the natural environment.  (In other words, the widespread failure to live by Gregory Bateson’s point that the smallest unit of life is not an organism in itself but always organism plus environment.)

Premise: the ideal philosophical response in an age of ecological crises would intervene by (conceptually) redesigning the conventions by which we experience ourselves and the world (i.e., ontology) rather than proscribe a set of moral imperatives for people to follow (i.e., ethics).  (Ideally, environmental ethics could programmed into this would-be ecological ontology.)

Naess’s Ecosophy T

If there is a unifying theory that connects most ecological approaches across the humanities disciplines, certainly that theory is Arne Naess’s widespread notion of deep ecology or “ecosophy T.”  At a fundamental level, the mission of Naess’s ecosophy is to expand the sphere of objects with which people identity.  He believes that “identification elicits intense empathy” and that humans remain indifferent to that which they take to be utterly different than themselves.  To support this position, Naess shares a personal anecdote about a flea that suddenly landed in a sample of acid chemicals, which Naess was studying under a microscope.  He claims, “If I was alienated from the flea, not seeing intuitively anything even resembling myself, the [flea’s] death struggle would have left me indifferent” (Deep Ecology 15).

Naess goes on to claim that nature is all too often left out of the conventional, ego-driven formulation of what he calls our “narrow self;” Naess wants to inspire a movement beyond the ego-self toward an expanded ecological Self, which grows larger as one identifies with non-human species and particular elements or processes of natural environments.  That is, Naess’s ecological Self includes all that one identifies with (which is not at all limited to one’s body or even one’s species).  This ethical tricking of the ego-self into eco-Self becomes a way to instill a will-to-protect nature, such that to witness deforestation, for instance, is to experience the chopping away at one’s own being.

A living monument to Naess, literary ecocriticism, for example, typically invokes ecology as a strictly environmentalist discourse, and this position tends to prioritize the thematic study of literary representations of nature, often espousing, at the very least, a desire to distance one’s self from technological advancements and other complexities of modern urban life. (See Dana Phillip’s critique of popular stands of literary ecocritism in the early chapters of The Truth of Ecology.)

Guattari’s Ecosophical Perspective

Naess’s flea anecdote (above), a vital illustration of his thought, brings us to the most important difference between his ecosophy T and the ecosophy of Felix Guattari.  Naess calls for an expansion of the self via identification (“Self-realization”), whereas Guattari (and Deleuze) valorize autopoietic processes that perform a dissolution of the self via disjunction (“becoming-other”).  In other words—in a Guattarian reworking of the flea anecdote—I would not look for elements of the flea that remind me of myself; rather, I would receive the flea in its alterity and encounter aspects of the fleas that are completely different from myself, so as to “become-flea”: to introduce the flea’s manner of existence into the way I think and live.  (Deleuze and Guattari on becoming vs. identification: “Becoming is a rhizome, not a classificatory or genealogical tree. Becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something…”)

Initially, the difference between Naess’s identification and Guattari’s autopoiesis may seem trivial.  This minor difference, however, actually lays out two divergent, even conflicting, paths for identity experience and subjectivity.  Consequently, an eco-humanities inspired by Guattari’s theory of ecology would look very different than the familiar Naessian project of Nature appreciation.  Naess is interested in ecology as a sort of deeper, more philosophical consideration of environmental problems; “the environment” that his ecosophy T addresses is generally synonymous with nature.  Guattari, on the other hand, abstracts ecology from environmentalism, generalizing it into a robust theoretical framework capable of addressing question including but not limited to environmental ecologies, for most of his book The Three Ecologies elaborates on “social ecology” and “mental ecology.”

While I hesitate to go into too much detail in this post, I will elaborate on one of the concepts that is crucial to Guattari’s ecosophy: nascent subjectivity.  At the end of The Three Ecologies, Guattari claims that we must, in responding to the “major crises of our era,” invent new practices conducive to an identity experience he calls “nascent subjectivity” (45).  What exactly is nascent subjectivity? Why does Guattari place such a high premium on it? And how would this nascent subjectivity put us in a better position to address contemporary ecological realities?  By Deleuze and Guattari’s configuration, in contrast to the Cartesian cogito, an individual’s thoughts do not constitute the full measure of his being.  The subject is less the product of his own thought and more the residue of the social machinery in which he directly and indirectly participates, for the boundaries of “private” thought are drawn through the sociohistorical apparatus (an emergent assemblage of desiring-machines).  In many ways, Guattari’s thinking on nascent subjectivity can be seen as an extension of his earlier writings with Deleuze on the notion of the “residuum subject” (see chapter 1 of Anti-Oedipus).  In The Three Ecologies, Guattari specifies some of the obscurities of Anti-Oedipus; in particular, the earlier image of the individual-as-residue is redrawn: the individual becomes a ‘terminal.’  Hence, one’s subjectivity is not only a by-product of forces operative in the three ecologies (mental, social, environmental); subjectivity is always already immersed in the flow of existential refrains or vectors.  The individual can no longer be seen separately.  To speak of an individual subject, natural as it seems, is to reinforce a reductive vocabulary of existence, which inhibits any actualization of “[a] collective and individual subjectivity that completely exceeds the limits of individualization, stagnation, identificatory closure, and will instead open itself up on all sides” (Three Ecologies 44).  Nascent subjectivity, then, is not an entity one can postulate once and for all; indeed, it is best described as a process whereby thinking emerges immanently in relation with the event, which it perpetually strives to encounter—or receive—in the manner of a rhizome.

Relevance to Ecomedia Studies

Ecomedia studies partakes in Naess’s brand of ecosophy whenever the study of non-print, environmentally-themed media follows the critical agenda established by literary ecocriticism (e.g., canonizing nature-oriented works, enabling students to improve their relationships with nature and become more environmentally-conscious, critiquing particular representations of nature and environmental issues, etc.).  While the aims of this agenda are certainly worthy, I do not think that ecomedia studies should be limited to Naessian project of nature appreciation.  In addition to the questions common to literary ecocriticism, I want to think more about what is unique to film and new media: what can the study of these mediums contribute to the eco-humanities that no other field can?  For me, the riches of digital media lie not only in the audiovisual representations of nature; the hypertextual nature of the internet, for example, attunes us to experience things at the level of relationships rather than isolatable entities.  That is to say, ecomedia studies can also contribute to the realization of a more ecological identity experience, one closer to Guattari’s “nascent subjectivity” and further from the Cartesian cogito, which Naess (though he hopes to manipulate it) ultimately remains faithful to as though selfhood was an eternal fact of humanity.  Scholars of grammatology, most notably Eric Havelock, argue convincingly that the identity experience we call selfhood was invented contemporaneously with literacy, as alphabetic writing made widely possible for the first time a separation of knowledge from the knower.)  What new developments in identity experience do the writing systems of digital media make possible?  This question becomes extremely relevant for ecomedia studies if one suspects, as I do, that the writing systems of digital media can be designed to, in various ways, facilitate more ecological dimensions of identity experience than those afforded by the ontological conventions of the literate self.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Salma permalink*
    October 12, 2010

    John, the comparison between Naess and Deleuze and Gauttari is theoretically very useful. I also like how you articulate the ways in which you see Ecomedia Studies as different from Literary Ecocriticism in its potentials.

    There is though a somewhat unjust critique of literary ecocriticism’s agenda(s) here. The field is considerably broader than Naess’ “deep ecology” and has already productively begun to engage Deleuze and Gauttari (along with a host of other theorists who look beyond simple nature appreciation). A good place to access some of this discussion in literary criticism is in the journal of Interdisciplinary Studies on Literature and the Environment (ISLE), where various articles reference Delueze and Gauttari ( You can also consider Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism Review (—review-of-2007-8).

    • John Tinnell permalink
      October 12, 2010

      Thanks for passing along these links, Salma. I should’ve taken more time to qualify my remarks on literary ecocriticism in the post. When I refer to ecocriticism, what I specifically have in mind is the more dominant, conventional mode that Greg Garrard dubs “normal science.” My knowledge of literary ecocriticism doesn’t really extend much beyond its mainstream iterations and interdisciplinary, theoretical discussions of the field (since I’m not really interested in literary criticism in-itself, but rather as a point of reference for developing ecological approaches to rhetoric, writing, and media studies). And I admit that my opinion of the normal science of ecocriticism is shaped largely by the radical ecocritiques waged by Dana Phillips and Timothy Morton.

  2. Steve Rust permalink*
    October 13, 2010

    Very thoughtful comments. I’m wondering what you might think of an essay like David Luka’s, “Consuming Timothy Treadwell: Redefining Nonhuman Agency in Light of Herzog’s Grizzly Man” in ANIMALS AND AGENCY. Eds. Mcfarland and Hediger. Brill: 2009.

    Luka applies D&G’s ‘becoming-animal’ to explore how the film’s representations of the Grizzly Maze (the ecological ‘assemblage’ where Treadwell, Grizzlies, and Herzog meet) pushes against both Treadwell and Herzog’s notions of animality to enact a ‘becoming-with’.

    I guess my question is how do you think the role of close textual analysis/content analysis fits into larger analysis of media. How can ecomedia studies bridge content analysis and political economy given the model you suggest?

  3. John Tinnell permalink
    October 13, 2010

    Thanks Steve, that Luka essay sounds interesting and I’ll try to get my hands on it. To answer your question, I think close analysis (of specific films) should play a vital role in ecomedia studies (and even the development of ecological theory across the humanities).

    For instance, we can discuss specific films, scenes, and shots in terms of how they envision/perform or problematize certain ecological theories/concepts (e.g., Naess’s self-realization, Guattari’s nascent subjectivity, etc.); but we can also conceive of the close reading of films as itself an act of ecological theorizing/thinking: in other words, specific films present not just content or representations but films also “think” on the basis of their own an formal/aesthetic logic (and so ecomedia studies would seek close readings of films that deal emphatically with environmental issues/themes…but also films that, less overtly, forward the kind of thinking gestured toward by ecosophy; judging from your description of Luka’s essay, it seems he achieves a cool blend of both). I’m especially drawn toward the latter approach for the way it treats film as film rather than an audiovisual illustration of an already established theoretical concept or political position, but I do think both approaches have value.

    As we go about articulating, a la Deleuze, the ways in which cinema challenges philosophy (or ecology, subjectivity, etc.), we certainly need to prioritize the close reading of specific films (and the works of other electronic or digital media); specific films and filmmakers probably say/show things that can further our thinking about ecology or environmentalism as much as a theoretical text can (and perhaps films can grapple with philosophical problems in a manner that is unavailable to theoretical texts…at least this is an argument that’s becoming fairly common now in film studies). For example, I’m thinking of Antonioni’s eccentric treatment of natural environments and electronic recording technologies in his film The Passenger. I am tempted to think that a close reading of certain sequences in this film could inspire some original insights relevant (or parallel) to established theories of ecology and/or posthumanism…and that to read these sequences purely as an illustration of some a priori notion would be an insult to the complexity of the filmic moments, which can only really be accessed via close analysis.

    Anyway, that’s just one way of bridging the work of close film & media analysis with the “larger,” apparatus-level questions relevant to ecomedia studies/theory. And my thinking here is certainly shaped by my enthusiasm for film aesthetics and ecosophy. I’d like to hear other approaches to the question that are perhaps rooted in different methods of engaging film and/or ecology.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS