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Beautiful Soul Syndrome Timothy Morton

Hegel held that philosophy wasn't just about ideas, it was about attitudes towards ideas. These attitudes were kind of as yet unthought ideas, ideas that hadn't yet been fully realized consciously. If, as Donald Rumsfeld has claimed, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, there are also, as Zizek adds, unknown knowns—things that we know, but we don't know that we know them: the unconscious, if you are going to be psychoanalytic. So once you realize what your attitude towards an idea is, that attitude itself becomes an idea, towards which you have yet another attitude which you'll need to figure out—and so on in a dialectical progression that Hegel calls the phenomenology of spirit. Philosophy, therefore, is the history of philosophy, and history is inextricable from philosophy. Thus it's a pleasure to be talking today about the history of environmentalism, and in particular about an attitude towards certain ideas

2 within environmentalism, an attitude that maintains its grip precisely to the extent that it hasn't been fully thought, consciously. This is the attitude I am calling Beautiful Soul Syndrome, or BS for short. Yes, that is a joke. And it's a pleasure to explicate the history of this idea, which is doubly Romantic, as it were, because the name Beautiful Soul was first developed by none other than Hegel himself to describe a certain attitude he found typified in Romanticism.1 And within Romanticism there developed the environmentalism within whose ideological framework we are still struggling today. First, though, a word about “prehistory,” as I note that our lecture series is entitled “A Cultural Prehistory of Environmentalism.” Prehistory seems nicely poised between history and nature, as if it indicated a time before history as such, or as if it was a prior history that is continued in the sequence of events we acknowledge as historical. We know the ideological uses of prehistory to describe “primitive” or “non-Western” societies, a usage to which Hegel himself was prone, as when he designated Africa as outside of history, locked in a perpetual prehistoric cycle whose spell could


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller,

analysis and forward by J.N. Findlay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 383–409.

3 only be broken by an imperial incursion. Prehistory, then, is a rather suspect term, but it also works in a strange way, because it suggests, as in my second tentative definition, a history of which we are not yet properly conscious. This pre-historical condition is, I suppose, the condition of most ecological knowledge—we are as yet unaware of the extent to which Darwin, born two hundred years ago, had already historicized nature, laying the groundwork for a truly natural history by outlining in broad terms the algorithmic processes according to which this history might proceed. And indeed this history is not simply a story we are telling about something that is not historical in essence. For DNA is a code, and codes are languages, and history is not only events but also the inscription of events, and so is evolution, because that's how evolution works—through constant rewritings of the DNA sequence. This rewriting proceeds without a teleology, which is why Marx loved it so much that he wrote Darwin a fan letter, and which is why it's truly historical, because every single contingent event counts, and nothing is an analog, metaphor, or metonymy for anything else. Our lungs evolved

4 from swim bladders in fish.2 There's nothing lung-y about a swim bladder, nothing predictive or teleological about it, nothing superior about a lung, nothing metaphorically suggestive of breathing in the swim bladder, and so on. Like history, the more you find out, the more ambiguous things become. All the way down to the DNA level, things are highly ambiguous. DNA as such lacks an essence—it's made up of all kinds of viral code insertions so you can't tell which bit is original—the question of originality is meaningless, to some extent. DNA as such isn't very DNA-ish. And it's a text, so you can reread it and rewrite it. That's what viruses do—they tell your DNA to make copies of themselves. So DNA doesn't contain a little picture of you. In the same way, to study historical events is to study an ever-ramifying, increasingly complicated mesh of interconnected circumstances that don't quite add up to each other. So the more we know about so-called nature, the more unnatural it seems. Do you think a virus is alive? A virus is a macromolecular crystal that contains some RNA code. It doesn't reproduce as such, it only tells your cells to make copies of it. The cold virus is a huge twenty-sided


Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, ed. Gillian Beer (Oxford and New York: Oxford

University Press, 1996), 160.

5 crystal. If you think the rhinovirus is alive, then you probably should admit that a computer virus is also alive, to all intents and purposes. A computer virus also tells other pieces of code to make copies of itself. The life–nonlife boundary is not thin and it is not rigid. We have a very protein-centric view of life as a squishy, fluid, palpable thing—we're still living with the remnants of that other Romantic view, Naturephilosophy, with its fantasy of protoplasm or Urschleim. Your DNA doesn't stop expressing itself at the ends of your fingers. A beaver's DNA doesn't stop at the ends of its whiskers, but at the ends of it dam.3 A spider's DNA is expressed in its web. The environment, then, from the perspective of the life sciences, is nothing but the phenotypical expression of DNA code. This includes oxygen (anaerobic bacterial excrement). And it includes iron ore (a byproduct of archaic metabolic processes). You probably drove or flew here today using crushed liquefied dinosaur bones. You are walking on top of hills and mountains of fossilized animal bits. Most of your house dust is your skin. The environment is beginning to look like not a very successful upgrade of the old-fashioned term nature.


See Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene (Oxford and

New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

6 What the heck am I doing, then, as Professor of Literature and the Environment? Well, I suppose that's my job, making things difficult and complicated that appeared to be simple and straightforward. In part this is merely about bringing us up to speed with contemporary life science and with contemporary capitalism, which is now embarking on an inner colonization of life forms and their DNA, and which is now developing the technology to tell bacterial cells to produce plastic, not bacterial cells. It's called Life 2.0 and as Zizek points out, if you call it Life 2.0 you've conceded that nature was really Life 1.0—life as such is always already a form of artificial life.4 But we're nowhere near up to speed with this and have no real idea of what it means, beyond some posthuman platitudes about cyborgs. In the words of another great Romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley, “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know.”5 So nature and environment are not such good words, because they're not so accurate. There are, however, other reasons for finding these terms problematic, and that's where Hegelian philosophy comes in, because, as you'll recall, Hegelianism claims that ideas also come bundled with attitudes,

See Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London and New York: Verso, 2008), 440. Percy Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman


and Neil Fraistat (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2002), 530.

7 attitudes that may even be encoded into the ideas themselves, like operating software, so that the idea is unthinkable as such unless you also plug in some kind of attitude towards it. Like a vanishing point in a perspective picture, ideas select for certain ways of being understood. This is a strange feature of ideas, which some call ideology. Ideology is not a well understood term, because we think it means belief, which we think means an idea you are holding onto tightly—these two assumptions are themselves ideological, unfortunately, and obscure what ideology actually is. The horrid thing about ideas, says ideology theory, is that they come bundled with attitudes, as Hegel claims, so that the attitude is as it were an automated feature of the idea—it just kind of pops up when you have it. In other words, the attitude isn't a subjective state that is somehow independent of the idea you're thinking. That's why attitudes are hard to get rid of: they're hardwired into “that” side of reality, rather than “this” one. If it was just a matter of prejudice, then we'd all have grown up long ago and we wouldn't have any need for cultural prehistories of anything. But as Marx saw, the attitude that sees attitude as prejudice (we call this attitude the Enlightenment) suffers from its own bind spots, which have to do with an illusion of freedom and autonomy.

8 The critique of attitudes is the subject of William Blake's poetry, which is why he makes such an interesting ecological poet, though not a nature poet and not an environmental poet by any stretch of the imagination, for he saw immediately that nature codes for a certain attitude that he found regressive and oppressive. His Songs of Innocence and of Experience are wonderful, deceptively simple attitudes, or as he says “contrary states of the human soul,” which you can teach undergraduates to read by telling them to put a speech bubble around them. In England in the 1970s there was a common newspaper competition called Spot the Ball. A group of soccer players appear in a photo, all positioned differently, and you have to put an X where you think the ball is. Blake's songs, by contrast, are Spot the Player. There's the ball, hanging in space, and you have to figure out the position of the player—the attitude—that must have determined the position of the ball. So, for instance, “The Tyger” is not really about tigers, and only superficially about whether God could have created evil things. It's about how the kind of attitude that sees things as autonomous external objects (objectification) imagines God to be an all powerful tyrant to whom we must kowtow, the Universe as a mysterious place of powerful sublimity that makes us tremble with fear, and so on. It's about a state of mind that reduces reality to a set of rhetorical questions

9 along the lines of “Is the Pope Catholic?” “What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” (“The Tyger,” 23–24) implies an answer that somehow “we all know very well” (my ideology warning light blinks on now), like those Discovery Channel shows about the awesome destructive powers of Mother Nature.6 Unlike the speaker in its mirror poem, “The Lamb,” the narrator of “The Tyger” is too scared and tongue-tied, and oppressed by his ignorance, masquerading as worldly wisdom and “experience,” to be able to see how he's caught in an attitude of which he's not conscious. Innocence, for Blake, doesn't mean ignorance, but simply never having harmed anyone whatsoever, a state that gives you a lot of power. Experience, funnily enough, is the ignorant one—it tells lies in the form of the truth. And this is where we need to revisit the notion of nature. Nature seems incontestably “there”—as many have reminded me, because what I need, as a theory guy, is a good strong dose of it to set me straight. Karl Kroeber, in Environmental Literary Criticism, literally says that what so-called postmodern theorists need is a night out in a Midwestern thunderstorm, a


William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman

(New York: Doubleday, 1965; revised 1988).

10 kind of ritual hazing that sounds horribly like waterboarding in 2009.7 But is the “thereness”—I'll go further and say the “over-thereness”—of nature actually a lie in the form of the truth, like one of Blake's Songs of Experience? What kind of attitude (what kind of lie) is this truth enabling? Ironically, I claim that the attitude that nature enables is the dreaded dualism, Cartesian and otherwise, from which nature-speak in all its guises from Romanticism to environmentalism has sought to extricate itself. Nature is over there; the subject is over here. Nature is separated from us by an unbridgeable ontological wall, like a bullet proof plate glass window— plate glass being the Romantic-period invention that enabled shops to display their wares as if they were in a picture frame, aestheticized, and therefore separated ontologically from the viewer, belonging to another order of reality altogether. Now this mention of plate glass is not accidental, because plate glass is a physical byproduct of a quintessentially Romantic production, the production of the consumerist. Not the consumer, but the consumerist, that is, someone who is aware that she or he is a consumer, someone for whom the object of consumption defines


Karl Kroeber, Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind

(New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 42.

11 their identity, along the lines of that great Romantic phrase, invented once by the gourmand Brillat-Savarin and once again by Feuerbach, “You are what you eat.”8 Now this phrase implies that the subject is caught in a dialectic of desire with an object with which it is never fully identical, just as Wile E. Coyote never catches up with Roadrunner in the cartoon. If Wile E. Coyote ever did catch Roadrunner, he would eat Roadrunner, at which point Roadrunner would cease to be Roadrunner and would become Wile E. Coyote. There is in effect, then, a radical ontological separation between subject and object. And yet and at the same time, consumerism implies a performative identity that can be collapsed into its object, so we can talk of vegetarians, hip hop fans, opium eaters, and so on. These performative styles are outlined by myself and Colin Campbell.9 One style stands out, and that is a kind of meta-style that


Ludwig Feuerbach, Gessamelte Werke II, Kleinere Shriften, ed. Werner Schuffenhauer

(Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1972), 4.27; Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, trans. Anne Drayton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 13.

Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford: Basil

Blackwell, 1987); “Understanding Traditional and Modern Patterns of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century England: A Character-Action Approach,” in John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (London and New York: Routledge,

12 Campbell calls bohemianism and I call Romantic consumerism. This kind of consumerism is at one remove from regular consumerism. It is “consumerism-ism” as it were, that has realized that the true object of desire is desire as such. In brief, Romantic consumerism is windowshopping, which is hugely enabled by plate glass, or as we now do, browsing on the internet, not consuming anything but wondering what we would be like if we did. Now in the Romantic period this kind of reflexive consumerism was limited to a few avant-garde types: the Romantics themselves. To this extent Wordsworth and De Quincey are only superficially different. Wordsworth figured out that he could stroll forever in the mountains; De Quincey figured out that you didn't need mountains, if you could consume a drug that gave you the feeling of strolling in the mountains (sublime contemplative calm, and so on). Nowadays we are all De Quinceys, all flaneurs in the shopping mall of life. This performative role, this attitude, is all the more pervasive, leading me to believe that we haven't

1993), 40-57. Timothy Morton, The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 5, 9, 50–51, 57, 107– 108; “Consumption as Performance: The Emergence of the Consumer in the Romantic Period,” in Timothy Morton, ed., Cultures of Taste / Theories of Appetite: Eating Romanticism (New York and London: Palgrave, 2004), 1–17.

13 really exited from the Romantic period—another sense in which “prehistory” isn't quite right for what I'm describing, but extremely right in another sense, namely that we're still caught in an attitude that we don't fully understand or become aware of. Romantic consumerism can go one step higher than the Kantian aesthetic purposelessness of window-shopping, when it decides to refrain from consumerism as such. This is the attitude of the boycotter, who emerges as a type in the proto-feminism of the Bluestocking circle in the 1780s and 1790s, and which Percy and Mary Shelley, and many others, continued. The specific product boycotted was sugar, which was sentimentally described as the crystallized blood of slaves. By describing it thus, the boycotter turned the object of pleasure into an object of disgust. In order to have good taste you have to know how to feel appropriate disgust, how to turn your nose up at something. So the zero degree performance of taste would be spitting something disgusting out, or vomiting. So the height of good taste performativity is abstaining from sugar, and spice if you are one of the Shelleys, who held correctly that spice was a product of colonialism. (Their vegetarianism was thus not only anticruelty, but also anti-flavor.)

14 The attitude of the boycotter is that she or he has exited consumerism, but one could just as easily claim that this attitude is itself a form of consumerism, as I've just argued. It's a performance of a certain style of aesthetic judgment. So thinking that you've exited consumerism might be the most quintessentially consumerist attitude of all. In large part this is because you see that the world of consumerism is an evil world. You, having exited this world, are good. Over there is the evil object, which you shun or seek to eliminate. Over here is the good subject, who feels good precisely insofar as she or he has separated from the evil world. I am now describing Hegel's beautiful soul, who claims precisely to have exited the evil world. Now the twist that Hegel applies here is so beautiful that's it's worth pausing over, and perhaps adding a remark or two on torture, and possibly on Dick Cheney, who seems to be preoccupying us all at present. Hegel does not claim that the world may or may not be evil—he doesn't claim that what is wrong with the beautiful soul is that it is prejudiced and rigid in its thinking. The world is not some object that we can have different opinions about. No: the problem is far subtler than that. The problem is that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing “over there,” is evil as such. This is so brilliant that it's worth repeating. Evil is not in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of the beholder. Evil is the gaze

15 that sees the world as an evil thing over yonder. Clearly we're in Bush– Cheney territory here, and Al-Qaeda territory, with their platitudes about the axis of evil and evil America and so on. Evil is the materialism that sees evil as a lump of nasty stuff over there that I should be hell bent on eliminating. There are really only two options: quietism, which is to withdraw passively from the evil world; and terrorism, which is to fly a plane into it. There is some truth, then, terrible to say, in the horrifying way in which the Bush administration has classified certain forms of environmentalist action as terrorism—its own kind of lie in the form of the truth, as it were. Unfortunately, the kind of environmental fundamentalist that sees the world as an essentialized living Earth that must be saved from evil, viral humans is the very type of the beautiful soul, whose gaze is evil as such. Ironically then, this kind of environmentalism is not spiritual, if by spiritual we mean that it transcends the material world, but is instead deeply committed to a materialistic view that sees evil as a concrete thing that must be eliminated. Now this kind of environmentalism is a form of anti-consumerism, which in my view puts it at the summit of consumerism, not beyond it, but at its very peak. It is indeed the most rarefied and pure form of consumerism on Earth at this time. And as such it is plagued by Beautiful

16 Soul Syndrome, because it sees consumer objects, and consumerisms (all the various styles), as so many reified things over yonder, from which it distances itself with disdain. So how do we truly exit from the Beautiful Soul? By taking responsibility for our attitude, for our gaze. And on the ground in slow motion, this looks like forgiveness. We are fully responsible for the present environmental catastrophe, simply because we are aware of it and can understand it. No further evidence, such as a causal link that says humans brought it about, should be required. In some sense, looking for a causal link only impedes us from assuming the direct responsibility that is the only sane and ethical response to global warming and the Sixth Mass Extinction Event (the two ways in which our current emergency appears to us). This means that it's worse than a waste of time to keep trying to convince people that environmentalism is a right way of thinking—a right attitude. The current ecological emergency should have proved to us once and for all that the attitude of environmentalism—that there is a “world” that is separate from me, that nature exists apart from human society—is not only wrong, but dangerously part of the problem, if only because it provides a very good alibi and impedes us from actually doing anything about our dilemma. The message of ecological awareness should be not “We Are the World” (that awful charity song) but rather, “We Aren't the

17 World.” And never were: there never was a nature; letting go of a fantasy is even harder, of course, than letting go of a reality. I can't have a “debate” about torture, because I don't think that torture is a thing over yonder that you can have different opinions about, like a flower arrangement. It isn't a matter of aesthetic judgment (“Is it appropriate under circumstances? What is the precise threshold of pain that constitutes it…”). To see torture thus is to be subject to Beautiful Soul Syndrome, in which things appear as alienated from me. Torture is something for which I am directly responsible. The only sane response to Abu Ghraib was that we did it, we are responsible. This goes beyond, at least at a certain limit of thinking, rounding up and punishing scapegoats, even if we prove that they are directly responsible for torture. Because our own reluctance to speak up at the time (the dark time, between 2001 and 2005—the other bits were dark, too, but that was really dark) also implicates us, even if we are victims of an abuse of power that made us afraid and paranoid. Beautiful Soul Syndrome wants to induce in us the correct aesthetic appreciation of the world. But this aesthetic attitude can never truly become an ethical one. I'm with Kierkegaard on this, Kierkegaard who brilliantly and terrifyingly showed how insidious Beautiful Soul Syndrome

18 can be in his narrative of the seducer in Either/Or.10 In effect, aestheticization is synonymous with evil because it always holds the world at a distance from which to size it up, evaluate, assess. Thus the attitude that says “We need more evidence on global warming before we act” is joined ironically by the attitude that says, “If only you could experience nature in the raw, you wouldn't have these evil beliefs about destroying it.” They are both examples of Beautiful Soul Syndrome, because they both require a certain aesthetic distance, an evaluative pseudo-contemplative, “meditative” stance that always contains aggression somewhere in there. Here is a Buddhist lama writing about Beautiful Soul Syndrome in what I hold to be the definitive passage on the affinity between contemplativeness and violence. The lama is recounting the words of a visitor from the city of Birmingham to his monastery in southern Scotland. The visitor was a little hesitant to do any actual meditation:


Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, trans. and intro. Alastair Hannay

(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), 243–376.

19 Well, it's nice you people are meditating, but I feel much better if I walk out in the woods with my gun and shoot animals. I feel very meditative walking through the woods and listening to the sharp, subtle sounds of animals jumping forth, and I can shoot at them. I feel I am doing something worthwhile at the same time. I can bring back venison, cook it, and feed my family. I feel good about that.11

I have recently been accused of not knowing what nature is because I have never killed an animal that I've subsequently eaten. This is a criterion that I am happy not to have fulfilled. Heideggerianism, which is the quintessence of the contemplative ecophenomenological mode in which a lot of naturespeak now addresses us, is marked by a trace of violence, an unspeakable violence towards the world it so lovingly appears to reveal to us. The very worn insides of the peasant shoes about which Heidegger rhapsodizes so beautifully in his essay on the origin of the work of art are made from


Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness (Boston:

Shambhala, 1993), 35–36.

20 leather, which is animal skin.12 You can imagine committing a murder in a beautiful, mindful, Heideggerian way. This is pure Beautiful Soul Syndrome, because it sets up reality on a pedestal to be admired and scorned, and sets up your own experience that way, as an object of aesthetic contemplation. Aesthetically powerful descriptions of the natural world, then, are not only a bit of a waste of time, but might actually unwittingly aid the “other side” of the contemporary coin, which for sure sees the world as an exploitable resource or as objects of instrumental reason (the difference between a cow and beef would be the application of this instrumentality). Ecological ethics, then, cannot be grounded in aesthetics. But there's a further problem. If you beat up on the Beautiful Soul and leave it bleeding to death in the street, are you not also a victim of Beautiful Soul Syndrome? However much you try to slough off the aesthetic dimension, doesn't it always stick to you ever more tightly? At a certain limit of thinking, then, transcending Beautiful Soul Syndrome means forgiving the Beautiful Soul, recognizing that we are responsible for this Syndrome, whether we think of ourselves that way or not. The only way out of the problem is further in,


Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Poetry, Language, Thought, trans.

Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 15-87 (33–34).

21 which means jumping into our hypocrisy rather than pretending that finally we are totally disillusioned and are now thinking outside of ideology, without attitudes. This is a test case for our ability to progress in our social collectivity, because thinking this means dropping various support concepts that provide the background against which regular thinking takes place: concepts such as nature, environment, world, life. Taking full responsibility for the planet means dropping these concepts. We can't have our cake and eat it too. Having your cake and eating it too is called consumerism, which is Beautiful Soul Syndrome. The only way out is in and down. Which is why I have chosen to call my approach to ecology dark ecology. Dark ecology realizes that we are hopelessly entangled in the mesh of interconnectedness, without any possibility of extricating ourselves. Dark ecology finds itself fully responsible for all life forms, because like a detective in a noir movie, it has realized that it is complicit in the crime. Dark ecology is ironical, introverted and introspective, attitudes that are routinely shunned by masculinist, heteronormative environmentalism.13 Dark ecology is melancholic because melancholy is the medieval humor that is closest to the Earth, it being the Earth humor, and likewise because


See Timothy Morton, “Queer Ecology,” PMLA (forthcoming).

22 melancholy is that residuum of our unbreakable psychic connection to our mother's body, which stands metonymically for our connection with all life forms. The irony of dark ecology is like being caught in your own shadow. Hegel disliked Romantic art because its ironies reminded him of the Beautiful Soul. He describes this irony in hauntingly environmental terms in his lectures on aesthetics. Environmental awareness is, finally, a sense of irony, because it is through irony that we realize that we might be wrong, that identity might not be as solid as we think, that our own gaze might be the evil that we see.

The University of California, Davis