Fabulous Gnosis, or How to Not Think Ecology as Economy

How much sense does it make to think of nature as a gigantic system of exchanges?   Why does it seem so intuitive, so obvious, that what goes on in ecosystems can be mapped through economic language, through the language of opportunities, optimization, equilibrium, management, interests, investments?   Is it just because Darwin was reading Malthus when he penned The Origin of the Species?  Or is it because, as Philip Mirowski has been detailing for years, there is a long and complicated history of “transferred metaphors” between economics and other sciences (especially physics, biology, and cybernetics)?

Anthony Paul Smith has recently written a powerful work, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature:  Ecologies of Thought, that can begin to teach ecology to think without economic metaphors.

One of the implications I take from Anthony’s advocacy of “unified theory” is that if ecology mutates philosophy, non-philosophy must also mutate ecology.  It is not just that an ecological, scientific stance must be introduced into philosophy and theology, but that fabulation must infect ecology.  Not in some cheap postmodern way of claiming that all concepts of nature are fictions, but in the much more precise sense that the action of fabulation, the activity of fiction, is a generic structure in nature, insofar as humans who fabulate are natural.  Once the ecological stance makes the natural status of fabulation clear, then fabulation must be discerned in an ecology broader than humanity.  I have a specific reason for wanting to push this point, and it does not have to do with the “general” pursuit of “universal” truth.  Fabulation must be weaponized in ecological thought against economism.  Ecologies can be seen as transfers of matter and energy between the living, never living, and the dead, but on Anthony’s telling, these are regions of shared pain where species attempt to inhabit niches.  One of the most important insights we arrive at is that fabulation as a mode of dealing with shared pain must mutate ecological thought.

I am wondering about how “the scientific posture” itself might be mutated by its immanental inclusion in the ecologies (of) thought.  I’m not interested in this “in general,” but in view of a deep problem in what is called “scientific explanation,” especially explanation of the ecology.  That problem is the predominance of economic “metaphors” in ecology.

What we mean by explanation is generally a species of reduction.  When ecology “explains” the ecosystem in terms of “exchanges,” species having “options,” drives for “optimizations,” etc., it installs a master-narrative of economics, it theologizes (on) the economic.  The economic metaphor (which of course, as lived, is not a metaphor) implies a set of atomic individuals bent on maintaining their individuality at any cost (i.e. servicing their utility function in accordance with their fixed preference schedules).  In standard economic thought, forms of radical inequality (i.e. “asymmetry”) are supposed to be exogenous to models of marketplace optimization and equilibrium.  So a range of serious problems that plague human life can be seen as “external” to any “economic system.”

Ecologies are not so lucky, and the science of ecology precisely has to account for interpenetrating and overlapping biospheres, including elusive and shifting thresholds and borders at and around which species attempt to maintain their niches.  Ecosystems that overly-optimize become fragile, less resilient, because less open to change.  As ecologists like Walker and Salt realize, this places serious limits on the “explanatory” power of concepts like balance or equilibrium (and, as Nicholas Nassim Taleb has been arguing, in both Black Swan and Antifragile, economic optimization is subject to the exact same problem, since economic activity is, after all, also natural, also fully within the broader ecology).

Yet, try as they might, even Walker and Salt cannot avoid economism-in-the-last instance, even when they conclude, as Anthony quotes them, that “[t]here is no such thing as an optimal state of a dynamic system.  The systems in which we live are always shifting, always changing, and in so doing they maintain their resilience—their ability to withstand shocks and to keep delivering what we want” (152).  It is in this last phrase “keep delivering what we want,” that economism persists.  If by economism (or exchangism) we think in terms of fixed individuals with fixed preferences attempting to maintain or resist threats to the deliverance of what they want, and who make tradeoffs or bargains with others in order to maintain those perceived interests, then even when Walker and Salt jettison “efficient optimal state outcome[s]” as an explanatory principle for the functioning of ecosystems, there is still a dominance of an economic, exchangist paradigm in the last instance:  every species is still conceived as a more or less fixed interest in relationships of trading or bargaining with others in order to maintain those interests.

I am under no illusion that philosophy, as opposed to ecology, necessarily avoids the overdetermination of its vision by economism.  On the contrary.  But I think that one of the implications of Anthony’s work in developing a general theory, a unified theory of ecology and philosophical theology, is the demand for a mutation not simply of philosophy and theology by an ecologically-scientific stance, but the further mutation of what is meant by science, and meant by scientific explanation, given that science, too (even when it is practiced far below the radar of Scientistic metadisursive hegemony), is subject to a set of hallucinations that overdetermine what it means to know, to explain, to render an account.  Specifically, the hallucination of an “economy of nature” in ecology is especially toxic, given that it is vital to in some sense muster ecology or at least ecological materials in order to resist and explode the economic hallucination of reality, the hallucination that life = exchanges.

Anthony does this—provides a re-fabulation of ecology, beyond economic hallucination—it seems to me, through his usage of Negri’s reading of Job.  Here Anthony offers a set of concepts that can replace the economism within which ecology remains, as yet, constrained.

What is common to creatural being is pain.  One species causes pain to another in the working out of niche boundaries.  But corrolary to this pain is the necessity for biodiversity that niches witness to.  There is then a certain creatural sociality as universality at work in the pain of living among one another.  This pain is primary and emotions such as fear or anger are but secondary effects contingent upon the organization of that pain in the creatural socius.  Even violence is secondary to pain, insofar as that violence can be turned into peaceable force by way of creation.  It isn’t my intent to argue for an overturning of death in the ecosystem, but simply to disempower death, just as Job disempowers God.  The niche shows that death, as well as life, is secondary to a more immanent creative power at work as nature against Nature.  Niches witness to the exile of nature from hypostasized Nature.  The refusal of the value of Nature as halluncination of the immeasurable in the name of a grace of nature that is witnessed to in the perverse creative power of new species producing new ways of living indifferently to death (145).

Job creates his niche through a perverse “acceptance of God’s unlimited Power and yet required that God answer for it, so the niche is perverse in the face of the unlimited Power of Nature” (145).  Job’s identity (in the last instance?) is neither as simple product or effluvia of God’s unlimited power, nor as simple defiance or resistance to that power, but a complex acceptance-defiance of Power.  It is the acceptance (perverse submission?) that disempowers Power, since in the moment of “revelation” what is revealed to Job is not God’s awesome “alterity” as Power, but Godself as potency (as never-living?) or perverse creative power.  “In my flesh shall I see God.”  The perverse creative power is experienced “in-person” as a body, as my suffering body, my body in pain (223).  And yet the body itself, on this view, is a “cynical equivocation that locates within this same transcending nature the site of the appearance of the Messiah or a great number of potentialities achieved on this body” (223).

What can this re-vision do for ecology?  In the first place, ecologists, it seem to me, need to take much more seriously the “natural” status of fabulation, of stylization, or of the essential “grace” of all creatures.  It seems to me that Deleuze and Guattari pointed in this direction in A Thousand Plateaus, especially in the plateau “On the Refrain,” where they muse on the double becoming of Messiaen and birdsong:  as Messiaen’s compositions become “cosmic refrains,” birdsong’s functional and territorial aspects (their “utility” in evolutionary terms) are relativized by their expressive or “fabulous” character.  The suggestion would be that ecology could mutate if it could more adequately include culture in its conception of nature.  But this requires thinking through what is going on, naturally, in fabulation.  This is most clear, I believe Anthony is arguing, if we take that sort of ultimate or extreme fabulation called “theology” or philosophical theology as itself paradigmatic for fabulation (which of course means taking philosophical concepts as simple materials, disempowering them in advance of their Worldly status as non-fabulated, as hallucinations).

It was human beings (likely a group) in pain who imagined, in an act of fabulous gnosis, what a Job would be like in pain.  If intense enough, such fabulation is what we mean by “revelation” (as apophaticism and epiphany) and why it can take a perfectly generic character wherever fabulation does not allow itself to be overdetermined by fear or anger.  This, anyway, is how I read Anthony.


Perhaps every animal, every living thing, theologizes in the sense that it interrogates or explores or re-expresses its potencies as a way of receiving them.  I believe this is what Anthony calls the “perversity” of nature.

Put formally, separated from the One, the creature is only identified in the last instance by the One.  This absolute futurity of identity is sustained by (and expressed through) the power of the creature to resist the imposition of any identity not-yet-futural.  This looks like perversity or exile from the point of view of the World, which is the point of view that imposes an organon for identity, short of the radical future held open by the fabulation of creatures.

A “flow” of matter-energy between the living, dead, and non-living is not in any sense an “exchange.”  It is a changing co-belonging to an ecosystem.  When Anthony names nature “perverse,” I think he names it non-optimal, far from equilibrium, inefficient, excessive, risky, chancy, pointless.  But more importantly, an ecosystem is a shared experience of pain.  It is a shared process of trying to conceive or fabulate what it would be to do exactly what we are doing.  It is perhaps the refusal of this “as if” character of the One that defines the World.  But to embrace the fabulous gnosis of the One is to determine the as-if-One in as many ways as it is possible to fabulate.

One of the paradoxes here is that we cannot pass directly to science in the name of the earth (against the World).  We must always pass by way of fabulation (and be wary that so often the fables of economics lie ready to hand).  This attempt to identify science and fiction is perhaps the mistake Philip Pullman makes in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Trying to re-write Milton’s Paradise Lost from the perspective of a “fortunate fall,” Pullman imagines a multi-verse, a universe of multiple worlds where matter is conscious, but where religious authority is bent on eliminating knowledge (gnosis) of such potency in the name of the preservation of its authority (primarily over what pleasures and joys, what fabulations, are allowed).  His heroine, Lyra, and hero Will, are children destined to survive a war on heaven and to become a new Eve and Adam.  Their gnostic challenge is to fall again in the face of a religious authority (in the shape of Lyra’s tyrannical mother, Mrs. Coulter) that is trying to stop the fall from re-happening.  It’s an interesting re-telling of the Gnostic myth, from the point of view of a “materialism” (the traditional Gnostic myth is that the material world is corrupted; Pullman asserts, in more Laruellian fashion, that it is the world of abstract spirit, spiritual authority, not matter and its vitality, that is evil).

But Pullman’s fictional world falls apart because of its imperative that there must be a return to origins, to an original state signified by matter itself, or dark matter.  Instead of fabulation involving a complex tripartite structure of reception, resistance, and invention, the fiction collapses around resistance in the name of a fetishized, pristine materiality, an attempt at a “direct transcription” of the earth.  But as Anthony is teaching us, it is precisely the earth that resists (and thus fabulates) transcription.  The attempt to write fiction = science engenders an inevitably violent struggle rather than the itinerant paths of peace, fragile yet persistent, that Anthony points out to us.  His Dark Materials is profoundly violent, and luxuriates so much in its violence, in a way that I have found deeply disturbing as I have listened to the second of the three books, The Subtle Knife, with my 6 year old as we drive around Philadelphia.  Pullman is trying too hard to be “realistic,” to push the hard core “truth” of the necessity of violent sacrifice for the “cause” of the war on heaven, killing off main characters left and right.  While I completely resonate with the Gnostic vision of conscious materiality and the struggle against authority, Pullman’s insistence on sacrificial violence is not so much a failure of morality as it is more simply, and more consequently, a failure of fiction, a failure of fabulation, a failure to produce the fabulous gnosis that alone, because indirectly, obliquely, perversely, insistently, at every niche possible, interrogates and refuses the economy of violent sacrifice, the requirement of an economic world (or wording) of earth.


  1. metaphysical fiction

    Everybody, in a sense, is either investing or wasting, all the time, every
    day. From observed hand patterns, a Taoist analyst may be able to tell that you have rebuilt your home,
    a Chen-Yen Buddhist that your grandmother’s spirit was watching over you,
    and a Buddhist-cum-Taoist that your liver was overworking.
    The metaphysical hub of the American southwest, maybe even the world.

    • Janet

      You write:
      “Not in some cheap postmodern way of claiming that all concepts of nature are fictions, but in the much more precise sense that the action of fabulation, the activity of fiction, is a generic structure in nature, insofar as humans who fabulate are natural.” AND:
      “If intense enough, such fabulation is what we mean by “revelation” (as apophaticism and epiphany) and why it can take a perfectly generic character wherever fabulation does not allow itself to be overdetermined by fear or anger.”

      It seems to me like Pullman is both afraid and angry (as we all are prone to becoming, if we are not very very vigilant and careful and nurturing of ourselves as well as others), and that consequently he is sweepingly reductive and inexact…. The violence is in his reductionism.

      And it is not a generic reductionism or a generic absolutism, but rather your gorgeous kind of (epistemic) fabulation–its formal elegance combined with its inherent, constitutive denial of any absolute One (because that’s utterly unthought in the linguistic universe of ancient Greek-speaking philosophers, though we blithely impose our “the One” there, right and left) –is just how I’m reading Aristotle’s dynamic phenomenology (in the Categories), for instance–which is not a phenomenology of the beings, so much as it is a phenomenology of the inherently differential (hence at once apophatic and revelatory) pathways of journeying-toward which they open for our delectation, but which open only because each of them is actively engaged in its own “self-expressing receiving” of its (elegantly-shaped but non-determinative) possibilities. There’s a “generic” there that is very different from the categorial reductionism inherent in our own received generic formalisms. So I really picked up on your hints of that, Joshua, in the sentences I cited. I really love: “…can assume a perfectly generic character.”

      I am also fascinated by your niche model for thinking a (comparatively) non-violent ecology or system of co-belonging. Since I am totally submerged in the Greek texts at this point in my life, I think of the terrifying Thrasymachus, as over against the niche-ecology of gentle philosophic friends engaged in the fabulation of a more-just city. We are always coming right up to the very edge of the brute real, aren’t we? That reality of heedless and brutal violence (fueled by fear and anger) that would seem to make a mockery out of any kind of self-sacrifice or self-curtailment? Yet that niche-ecology, which Socrates proved by an unforeseen ordeal of death that was fabulated by himself alone, endures.

      More power to you, Joshua, in your work and thinking, which I love. It feels to me, these days, as if my own ordeals of inchoate struggling (with my various readings of so many widely-scattered texts, all readings that require one another in order to be the readings they are)–it feels as though it’s finally coalesced into something larger, something that I can live with. I can’t wait to share a rough book ms with you in this year. I don’t imagine very many people would think our projects had much in common. But, of course, they do.

      So glad you’ve revived this blog, Joshua. I’ll work my way through your new posts, gradually. My best to Deep as well.

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