Ecophenomenology: Acting for the climate in a more-than-human world
by Kate Ince
Professor of French & Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham.
A live issue for many of those who have joined OXCAN since it was founded in 2020 is whether the knowledge and expertise they possess because of the work they do for a living (whether paid or voluntary) supports the contribution they can make to the organisation (now a charity) and its aims. Many members gained qualifications in the physical, natural or environmental sciences at Oxford when they studied there but may or may not have deployed their academic knowledge professionally, and the range of academic disciplines relatable to climate change, global heating and environmental decline is of course much broader than just the sciences. Another subsection of members currently works for organisations or institutions closely involved with addressing various dimensions of the climate crisis, whether in an actively practical way or through study and research. But a sizeable proportion of OXCAN members (it has been estimated) are, like me, unqualified in anything ‘useful’ to the environmental challenges facing us except great concern about the damage climate change is without doubt now causing to the Earth, its oceans, its weather, its human societies, and all its forms of animal and other non-human life. (For the record, I am a graduate of Modern Languages who has worked for almost forty years in academic research and teaching in my subjects of French Studies, Film Studies, and Gender Studies.) At OXCAN’s inspiring first annual conference in May 2023, I had several conversations with members about this issue: does your ‘day job’ help you to help? Or is it ‘only’ time, interest and concern that you can offer to the work we have all engaged to undertake by joining?
Photo by Coralie Meurice, Unsplash.
For reasons that I think many people will understand, for me, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased the urgency of this process of self-questioning. I had sometimes thought of joining the Greens but have always been reluctant to pledge my support to one political party. In 2020 I did join the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and began volunteering on a local nature reserve for one morning a month once the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 allowed such work parties to resume. Beginning almost at the start of the first lockdown, in April 2020, I started reading – not so much books recommended by others than titles I found in the publishers’ lists that regularly drop into the inboxes of academics: Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (2017/2015) by French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour (who sadly died in 2022), then Andreas Malm’s The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (2018), which a colleague did recommend as a critique of Latour’s work and proved to be a terrific read. I was already familiar with authors such as Naomi Klein, of course, and to some extent with writings about the Anthropocene by academics such as Donna Haraway. I took in James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2006) then, interested in connections between the climate crisis and the ongoing pandemic, started Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate and Chronic Emergency (2020), but became bogged down in his thinking about ‘war communism’ and didn’t finish it. The academic year 2020-21 was a punishing one for all university teachers working entirely online from home (even those of us without home schooling to undertake), and over the spring and summer of 2021, I started to grow weary and fall victim to what to my mind was undoubtedly ‘eco-anxiety’. I remember picking up the recently published paperback edition of Naomi Klein’s On Fire: the Case for a Green New Deal one afternoon that summer but putting it down again only minutes later, unable to continue with a reading programme I had determinedly added to my academic work in 2020 because I was keen to relate the two somehow. A research grant I had held between 2018 and 2021 was coming to an end (after having been extended for a year to allow for conferences cancelled due to the pandemic), and it would have been immensely satisfying to feel that I had enough usable knowledge to apply for new grants in (for example) the area exploring connections between the climate crisis and the arts. After all, almost everything I have taught and written about over the last thirty years has been (French and European) film, literature, and philosophy of various kinds.
A selection of the books mentioned.
In 2023, now that the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer dominating our attention and my eco-anxiety is calmer, it is in fact turning out that one thread of my academic research already supplies me with ways of thinking about a central dimension of the climate crisis, if not with practical knowledge or skills that will help to diminish it. The word that can sum this up and that I shall go on to explain is ‘ecophenomenology’, which does not have its own page in Wikipedia but appears as a subsection of the entry on French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961). I have been familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s work since the 2000s because in the 1990s and 2000s, phenomenology of a Merleau-Pontyan stripe was quite decisively taken up by Film Studies academics (led by the American Vivian Sobchack) as an approach to studying the viewing of film, one that emphasized the embodiment of the spectator and the sensory character of their viewing of (fictional or non-fictional) film. Writer-theorists like Jennifer Barker explored the cinematic experience as a tactile one – a characterization of the activity of looking that is not necessarily obvious. Merleau-Ponty is but one of a number of phenomenological philosophers (in France, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) linked to existentialism because they emphasize the importance of ‘enworldedness’, being-in-the-world or ‘existence’ above essences, and definitions of what it means to be human. The German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) is usually regarded as the founder of phenomenology and coined the term Lebenswelt (life-world), though was in fact more transcendentally and less existentially inclined than his pupil Martin Heidegger (1889-1976, always controversial because of his membership of the Nazi party from 1933 until the end of the Second World War). Phenomenology was taken up by many French philosophers including the originally Lithuanian Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), Sartre (1905-1980) and Beauvoir (1908-1986), and Merleau-Ponty, a fellow-student and friend of Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s, published his first two books in the early and mid-1940s just as the all-the-rage type of existentialism popularly associated with St-Germain jazz clubs and black polo-neck sweaters was in its ascendancy. It is particularly Merleau-Ponty’s book The Phenomenology of Perception (1945) that has made possible the development of what is now called ecophenomenology, a trajectory of thinking I shall now attempt to explain.
In The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty writes extensively about the bodily engagement of the human being in their environment, to which perception is key: the human body is a ‘perceiving thing’ and perception is a fundamental openness onto the life-world or Lebenswelt. Merleau-Ponty was a psychologist as well as a philosopher and opposed psychological approaches of his time (behaviourism, for example) which held that perception was a causal product of atomic sensations. He proposed instead that perception was an active and dynamic faculty through which the ‘body-subject’ (an English term coined to deal with the tricky translation of the French le corps propre) was engaged and intertwined with the world, its environment. Existential phenomenology’s ‘phenomena’ are not objects in the sense understood by the natural sciences, but a correlate of the perceiving body and its sensory-motor functions. Even more importantly, our bodies are not only or mainly objects of study for the medical, natural or social sciences but ‘a permanent condition of experience’: in Merleau-Ponty’s thinking first-person experience, like perception, is primary. The primacy of perception is all of a piece with Merleau-Ponty’s substitution of a ‘body-subject’ for the consciousness-dominated Cartesian cogito that by the 1920s had dominated French philosophy for several hundred years: Descartes’ disembodied human subject had declared ‘I think therefore I am’, but Merleau-Ponty’s cogito (if he had had one), might have been ‘I perceive therefore I exist’, because for him, all consciousness is perceptual consciousness. For Descartes’ dualist understanding of a human subject divided into mind and body, Merleau-Ponty substitutes a monist understanding of an undivided embodied, corporeal consciousness.
The addition of the prefix ‘eco-‘ to phenomenology of a Merleau-Pontyan kind had already happened by 2003, in the title of Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine’s collection of essays Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. It can probably be dated to the earlier appearance of a book by the activist and scholar David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (1996), whose subtitle proved to be more influential than its main title, in so far as the expression ‘more-than-human world’ was widely taken up by other scholars and activists. In The Spell of the Sensuous Abram had advocated a reappraisal of animism which could, he proposed, be employed not just to root human cognition in the sentient human body, but to link our bodily experience to that of non-human animals as well as that of all sorts of other species and life forms. Like the ‘earth others’ Donna Haraway habitually refers to in her recent writing, a term like ‘more-than-human world’ seems essential to the effort to reimagine and recreate humankind’s relationships with other species that must accompany work already underway on reversing decline to the Earth’s biodiversity. Abram is a student and scholar of traditional ecological knowledge systems of diverse indigenous peoples as well as of anthropological writings about animism, but it was his 1984 essay ‘The Perceptual Implications of Gaia’, based on Merleau-Ponty’s work on perception and embodiment, that first brought him into association with James Lovelock and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who were both already influential figures in the fight to understand and combat the damage being done to the more-than-human world by over-developed, fossil-fuel burning and carbon-emitting late capitalist societies.
The intention behind this short account of my recent thinking about how best to engage with combatting global heating and climate change is not to provide current or potential members of OXCAN with a reading list, even if that is something I am thoroughly trained in doing. It was and is simply to draw attention to the issue of connecting one’s life and professional experience up with ‘causes’ we wish to contribute to, and to offer the view that this can be an effortful and time-consuming process, but that ways through the effort can emerge from unexpected areas of work and life. However limited the ‘contribution’ you can make to OXCAN’s aims and objectives, working out how to think about that contribution is a process that has its own value, because it will help the organisation to cohere, to endure, and to grow.
 Jennifer Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience, University of California Press, Berkeley. From about 2011 on I have made my own contribution to what soon turned into a voluminous new area of film criticism.