Chapter 1: Seeing Ecology 

Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses. the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
WILLIAM BLAKE, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1790-93)

1.1. Preludium




What is seeing ecology? For starters, it's the title of this dissertation. The need for a globally-oriented, environmentally-focused, book-length project that aspires to help us to see ecology in new ways would seem obvious enough. As I write, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has forecasted an especially frenetic Atlantic 2020 hurricane season, an event that climate change made both more likely and intense.   By 2050, as our planet continues dangerously warming, the earth is likely to look vastly different from outer space than it did in 1972 when the Apollo 17 crew took the oft-cited "Blue Marble" image (Fig. 1). That photograph, the most extensively reproduced image in history, was shot from below, giving a glimpse of the globe's ecology from the Antarctic southto the Mediterranean north.   Less than


Fig. 1. Apollo 17 'Blue Marble', 1972. National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration


eighty years after the picture was taken, this image will not resemble or represent the planet's environmental reality in any way. By then, the earth's antarctic ice cap will have shrunk past recognition.   The fact of our planet's being is in peril is beyond dispute. The necessity of new critical theory capable of giving us the essential tools to address this crisis is undeniable.




This dissertation instantiates one new aspect of that process oriented towards visual culture with the purpose of advancing critical forms of thought capable of serving as vital pillars in upholding ecological sustainability and environmental resilience as key credos for contemporary society. "Seeing ecology" means to adopt a mode of vision capable of grasping the reality of the interconnected vectors of relations that define our world. Doing so, I argue, necessitates a vigorous engagement with the field of visual culture, thinking in terms of iconology, the interpretation of images across visual, literary, and sonic media with respect to Panofsky's conceptual framework for tracing the "meaning or content, constituting the world of 'symbolical' values" by "conceiving of pure forms, motifs, images, stories and allegories as manifestations of underlying principles."



To this end, some preliminary definitions are in order. By "seeing," I mean to call to mind more than the singular sense of ocular vision (although I do mean to do that, also). Rather, I mean to evoke something closer to what the contemporary American musician and songwriter Anthony Green means when he composes a song for the group Circa Survive titled,"close your eyes to see."   That is, I wish to promote a way of conceiving vision as a composite form with and beyond the five senses, as a more complex assemblage of sensation than most histories of art allow. In this regard, the act of "seeing ecology" comprises a means of envisioning one's relation to the world in such a way that co-involves hearing, smell, taste, and touch, as well as sight. A corollary of such an imperative is that one must, faced with the question of an iconology oriented towards diverse ecologies, demonstrate modes of seeing across multiple media as multiple ways of knowing.




In this respect, the gerund form I deploy in "seeing ecology" is significantly intentional. It refers to the nominal subject in question (the person, animal, plant, stone or other inorganic form viewing environmental relations). The participial form I deploy, therefore, evokes process. What I want to get at is an understanding of seeing as a phenomenon that's always unfolding. 


By ecology, I mean to refer to the branch of biology that concerns the relations and interactions between organic living organisms, inorganic matter, and the biophysical environment. It was the German natural philosopher Ernst Hæckel who first used the term, creating it to refer to the"totalizing conception of the entirety of relations between organisms relative to one another and the surrounding outer world, to organic and inorganic conditions of existence; the so-called ‘economy of nature’, the correlations between all organisms living together in one and the same locality."   Hæckel's concept critically reminds us of the interherent forms of interconnectivity that define what it means to live on this planet. Importantly, he draws on the longer discourse of the "economy of nature," a concept invented by the Swedish biologist Isaac Biberg in 1749 to crate a conceptual framework to study the roles individual creatures play in broader natural processes. To understand and vitally affirm living in an age of environmental, planetary, and climatic cataclysm is, effectively, as we would now understand it, to apprehend one's relation to the field of the Other, which now must be construed to be fully inclusive of one's fellow humans, non-human animals, and the more-than-human local and global environments we all together share.




In bringing seeing and ecology together, although this dissertation is resolutely oriented towards our contemporary climate predidcament, I believe it's important to begin at the beginning. Within the field of Classical Philosophy, what we now call "nature" was encapsulated much more expansively in the Ancient Greek word, ≪ φύσις ("phūsis"). The OED defines nature as the "phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed humans and human creations."

Accordingly, my theoretical investment in vision and ecology is perhaps unexpectedly at once phenomenological, critical, and post-classical. In the Introduction to Metaphysics, Martin Heidegger defined the very essence of being according to the Ancient Greek idea of ≪ φύσις ("phusis"):





On this, Heidegger argues forcefully that in "the age of the first and definitive unfolding of Western philosophy among the Greeks, when questioning about beings as such and as a whole received its true inception, beings were called phusis."   Being is immanent to nature. Nature is immanent to being. Being and nature are entwined in an always ongoing process of becoming.


Yet it's critical even while taking Heidegger as a point of departure to immediately move beyond his thought. As Adorno forcefully contends in Negative Dialectics, Heidegger's approach is "untrue" insofar as "he talks as if the contents we want to recuse were thus directly in our minds."  To him, Adorno contends, "entwinement turns into its exact opposite, into the πρώτη οὐσία," Aristotle's first substance of being.  What we need, Adorno suggests, is a situated ontology aligned with history, the situatedness of the existential subject, towards politics. 


In this respect, in a time of immense environmental fracture, seeing ecology demands new versions of what Michel Foucault called "practices of the self." That is, the development of a personally-transformative praxis of self betterment and actualization in terms of a re-visioning of unity in and through the self, what Foucault called altering "the relation of oneself to oneself," implying a "shift in ones attention" with the corresponding result that one "rejoins oneself, like a harbor sheltered from the tempests."  The French post-classical philosopher Pierre Hadot, who influenced Foucault and whom Foucault likewise influenced, rightly situated the key critical theorist in terms of the idea of the spiritual exercise within the field of Ancient Philosophy. Namely, Hadot notes in Foucult a "movement of interiorization [that] is inseparably linked to another movement, whereby one rises to a higher psychic level, at which one encounters another kind of exteriorization, another relationship with 'the exterior.' This is a new way of being-in-the-world, which consists in becoming aware of oneself as a part of nature. At this point one no longer lives in the usual, conventional human world, but in the world of nature."  The idea of οὐσία becomes transformed. Moving inwards becomes the cognitive apparatus of transforming and connecting the self with the more-than-human world of φύσις, or nature. 


In the age of the first and definitive unfolding of Western philosophy among the Greeks, when questioning about beings as such and as a whole received its true inception, beings were called phusis. This fundamental Greek word for beings is usually translated as "nature." We use the Latin translation natura, which really means "to be born, "birth." But with this Latin translation, the originary content of the Greek word phusis is already thrust aside, the authentic philosophical naming force of the Greek word is destroyed. This is true not only of the Latin translation of this word but of all other translations of Greek philosophical language into Roman, This translation of Greek into Roman was not an arbitrary or innocuous process but was the first stage in the isolation and alienation of the originary essence of Greek philosophy.



©2018 by Jacob Henry Leveton. Proudly created with