Joseph Dodds: Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos

by tigermanifesto


I picked up Dodds’ Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos purely because it had an intriguing title. Not because the title is exciting stylistically––it’s boilerplate academia in that way––but because it connects three subjects I am currently researching: the mind, ecology, and complexity theory. Before digging into the book proper, I want to outline exactly why I find these fields fruitful despite them all being somewhat peripheral to my academic specialty, which is history, and my political alignment, which is Marxist.

Dodds begins his book with an outline of the climate crisis: human activity has produced a colossal increase in the amount of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Slowly but surely, the planet will warm because of this, causing irreversible and unpredictable changes across the Earth. Despite the known and urgent nature of the crisis and the multitude of official assurances that “something is being done,” the core capitalist countries have made no serious attempts to curb greenhouse gas output. Agreements and protocols come and go, and vague sermons about the “shared responsibility” of the world’s people to avert global disaster proliferate like so many weeds, but we are no closer to a workable solution or even a good-faith attempt at one on the necessary scale. Further, though everyone is conscious of the problem at some level––often joking about it during periods of strange weather––people normally carry on as if nothing were wrong.

Psychoanalysis/Psychology and History:

For me as a historian and a Marxist, this situation presents a problem of the utmost importance. One of the most important questions for both Marxists and historians is how to connect people’s actions to motivations. Historians’ usual method of constructing explanations for why events occur the way they do is to find our raw materials in historical documents. These texts are obviously written by human beings, whether they be diary entries, diplomatic papers, letters, legal documents, etc. That means we have to be adept at deciphering the connection between often disparate and singular documents and the more general stream of our historical argument. What makes this difficult is that we don’t have the privilege of speaking to our subjects face to face most of the time, especially when talking about more remote areas of the past. Psychoanalysis, neuropsychology, and other connected fields are, therefore, potentially valuable to historians because they help us construct a working idea of how conflicting and chaotic base motivations can translate into ordered documents and concrete actions. We don’t just need to understand people’s structural positions; we also have to know how people will make sense of their position and the way they relate to their own social being.

Ecology and History:

If anything, the need for historians to put their histories in touch with ecology is even more pressing. Environmental history is a living sub-field within the discipline, but it tends to be overlooked in favour of a new wave of cultural histories that focus more on textual reading. To put it bluntly, human societies and human persons would be nothing without their ecologies. A human being, a collective of human beings is not just the individual bodies nor just the bodies in relation to each other, but also in relation to what is traditionally thought of as “exterior” to those bodies. Food systems, the air, water, and energy systems are all inextricable parts of their lives. Ecological thinking can also be productive by giving us models for how complex systems unfold along with their constituent parts. Studying a group of communities in relation to a single, limited water source, for example, will let us see their struggles and cultures in a much more complete way. Given both the environment’s ability to affect human society and the human ability to consciously and unconsciously (psychoanalysis) reshape nature, an at least basic understanding of ecology is necessary for historians today.

Complexity Theory:

Perhaps the most general and abstract field of the three, mathematical findings and concepts like complexity, nonlinear equations, crisis, attractors, etc. are finding more and more application in a variety of humanities disciplines. Despite its origins in mathematics, complexity theory has made healthy contributions to ecological and social thought, not to mention the many philosophical volumes that engage with it. Though no historical or social system will behave exactly according to nonlinear models, the analogies I’ve found in this discipline for creativity, emergence of layers of complexity, and ideas like “the edge of chaos” mentioned in the title are an exciting prospect for me. Though I’m far from certain that complexity theory will completely reshape the way I do history, I have already internalized some of the terms and methods associated with it, and I’m confident that our understanding of densely-packed systems like capitalism will benefit from a certain injection of chaos.

Now, the Review Portion of this Post:

Now that I’ve outlined some of my areas of interest, we can move on to the book itself. First, the book’s chapters don’t feel as though they construct a single argument across the entire book. Each of its four parts feel fairly independent of each other despite touching on related issues. Further, and this might be exposing me as old-fashioned, I found it bizarre that Dodds chose to incorporate so much analysis of popular culture and literature into this book, which is ostensibly focusing on ecological thinking about mind, the Earth, society, etc.

I understand that psychoanalysis’ most lively academic pursuit for the past few decades has been in film theory, and that “readings” of popular culture artifacts are a fort of psychoanalytic writers, but I still found it jarring that a whole chapter of the book was dedicated to a discussion of horror genres in media. Not to mention the passage about the ecological consciousness of the planet Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s true that vampires, werewolves, aliens and other uncanny elements of horror are connected to human anxieties about nature. And it allows the book to bring in the passages of Deleuze and Guattari about the Wolf-Man and becoming-animal. But despite that, the chapter feels utterly stranded and, despite its insights about our relationship to animals and the uncanny, only tenuously helpful in discussing what psychoanalysis and ecology can do for us in the climate crisis.

Here is the conclusion of the chapter on horror and nature:

“the ‘home’ of ecology is no longer a fixed, stable place of habitation but becomes a strange ecology, an uncanny ecology deterritorialized into a web of human-animal-plant-mineral-climatic assemblages…[this theory] allows us to move beyond the anthropomorphized animal as projection of human traits to the pleasures (and anxieties) that such a transformation entails…”

p. 135-6.

The following chapter then justifies the excursion into film and art by arguing that art is a privileged spot where human beings can explore the unconscious, where we can imagine other worlds. Fair enough, but it could still have been trimmed for brevity or published as an entirely separate article. From my point of view, it seems strange to explore Avatar as a projection of our “ecological unconscious” and shared social anxieties simply because those who produced it do not constitute some perfect average subject but rather elites who try to deliver on what they think people want. It’s too similar to reductive “zeitgeist” pop-psychologizing for my comfort, and seems more like a way to make pages of theorizing more “relevant” to people than a strong mode of analysis.

Beyond my criticisms about the sometimes disjointed and overly eclectic nature of the book, I would say that the book makes a mostly compelling argument for thinking ecologically about the mind, the world, and human society.Early chapters include material that would be more vital or useful to someone working in psychoanalysis, including discussions about Freud, ecotherapy, and Zizek. It’s in the later chapters, which most explicitly engage with complexity theory and the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, that provide the meatiest material.

One of the most important concepts here, for Marxists and for historians, is self-organization. I loved the following discussion of the social intelligence of school fish, for example:

“As a termite colony grows, ‘starting from a single unhealed foundress, more and more stimuli are likely to appear…forming a richer and richer stimulatory environment…thereby inducing new types of behaviour (Bonaeau et al. 1997: 207). Construction is therefore a ‘morphogenetic process during which past construction sets the stage for new building actions.'(ibid)”

p. 154-5

In other words, the nest itself becomes a more and more complex structure that serves as a communication network as much as a protective shelter. Notably, however, the best material in the book is quoted from scientists and other thinkers, which suggests to me that I’ll end up using this book more for its bibliography than anything else. Still, the notion that human social structures and communication systems have analogs in the nonhuman world, similar solutions for similar problems, provides some insight into human behaviour and its relation to the environment, built and unbuilt. The book succeeds in arguing for a decentering of human beings, shaking off the notion that we are privileged within the natural world or that we have an ordained superiority over it.

Any other criticism I might have of the book is that its sense of politics and strategy is woefully underdeveloped or else politely understated. When books like this and others from the scientific community recommend radical social change, they often leave the matter to the imagination, as if the act of, as this book states, finding a “more open vision of ourselves, as subjects, as societies, and as a species” were as simple as writing a book about it. Whatever role nonlinear ecopsychoanalysis might have to play in the destruction of capitalism and the experimental construction of new societies and ecologies (of mind, humanity, and the world), it will have to assume a political consciousness as well as an ecological one. Indeed, I would wager that any intellectual field devoid of liberatory politics is likely to be experimenting in the dark, sure of the need for change but unsure of how to link its own struggles to a wider project of human emancipation. Marxism has a name for that project: communism.