A note on poststructural wilderness


Last night I had something of a fever-dream flashback. It was no doubt enhanced by the sinus cold which has had me on the couch for the last 72 hours, but the effect was unmistakable: all of a sudden I came out of the haze of this weekends illness, through the chilly fog of coastal northern California, and into Bill Devall’s living room over a decade ago. I was between my junior and senior year of undergrad, and had secured a modest grant to write about modern environmentalism under the guidance of one of the founders of Deep Ecology. Having just come off two semesters of 19th and 20th century continental philosophy, I was well equipped to tell Bill how (for example) Kant had been filtered by Nietzsche into Derrida.

I was not equipped to elucidate the cultural divide brewing at time in environmental philosophy, and instead spent a lot of that cold summer listening to Bill and his colleagues. In summary, their complaints were the same as those raised by Kenneth Brower, son of the late Dave Brower, in a recent piece published by Outside.

Just as Mr. Brower says of wilderness, so I say when I try to sum up his arguments here: I know these debates when I see them. But 12 years on I still don’t fully understand them, where they came from, and why they remain such a big deal. Brower mentions “deconstructionists” and that “Their dogma has brought to the study of environmental history what deconstructionist theory brought to English departments across the land: surpassingly beautiful subject matter…is subjected to barren formulas and rendered a wasteland.”

My undergrad professors told me that the only people who used “deconstructionist” as a plural noun were those whose understanding was insufficient for the task of parsing and interpreting the variegated thinkers at work in the post-Foucaltian/Derridian world. A number of these folks used and use deconstruction as a method, but too many wilderness folks were all too willing to see outwardly confusing ideas wrapped in continental cafe smoke and, as Brower does in a low act of intellectual laziness, dismiss them with ad hominem attacks.

To keep my historical divergences brief; it is useful to deconstruct the idea of wilderness which is as of late 2014 given so much legal and cultural force in America. Langford and Hayden, instrumental figures in founding Yellowstone and the American NPS, had ideas about the worth of wilderness which were products of their time. So too did Theodore Roosevelt, Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, and of course David Brower himself. All of these biases are worth investigating and critiquing, and this process used as inspiration for the future. (As is the fact that of all the ready names I was able to dredge out of my mind, none of them were female or non-white). Complaining about this process is like those folks who, when Avatar came out in 2009, were dismayed that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy it as harmless entertainment after the profoundly racist tropes upon which the film was built were pointed out to them. Or, to be less prosaic, like those people who would rather not consider why so many well-of white western couples prefer to only adopt brown babies from third world countries (because poverty in the first world is genetically linked to degree of moral corruptness which is in turn linked to being not-white).

Wilderness, insofar as it only exists as a human idea, is of course a tainted concept, and will always remain so.

The real area of conflict is not, of course, in the historical dimensions of deconstruction applied to environmental thought, but in the ontological ones. The Derridian follow-up to any historical investigation of wilderness would be, as Brower hints at, a reminder that wilderness is a cultural construct which does not exist outside the human mind. Such statements do not mean that wilderness as a physical entity does not exist, at all, outside the human mind, merely that we are incapable of understanding, thinking, and talking about it in any other terms. Deer might have interesting things to tell humans about wilderness, but we cannot ask them. And if we could it is quite possible that we would never be equipped to gain anything from the conversation. The point here is that any discussion of wilderness where a party leans back on their interpretation as having better access to the Truth of wilderness is suspect. Said party is exercising, or attempting to exercise, hegemony of one form or another. In Brower’s case here, it is by claiming to have a better understanding of how wilderness as we know it was created.


In the end this is a self-defeating argument. Brower would do better to focus on why his understanding of wilderness, and that of Dave Foreman, for instance, is preferable and more valuable than than those of the “deconstructionists” whom he abuses in his article.

Readers here may be familiar with the dislike I have for Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden.  Brower might consider Marris a deconstructionist; and regardless my critique of Marris is one I think he would have been better off making against William Cronon and others.  Marris makes the obvious historical deconstruction of wilderness, and then concludes that this idea ought to be changed for the 21st century, largely because we humans have learned better and will be able to better manage wild places for ourselves and other animals in the near and distant futures.  It’s a myopic argument which bypasses what I see as the central conclusion, which ought to be drawn before all others, of the environmental movement from 1870 to the present.  We humans are bad at knowing what we don’t know, and we should keep the largest tracts of wilderness around as is possible because we have no way of knowing what we’ll learn from them in the future.  And if precedent is any guide, we’ll get important things from wilderness, soon.

If the arc of human knowledge as it’s best which went from Hume to Hegel, to Nietzsche to Derrida to us has done anything, it is show that human knowledge can be self-aware; can define things that it knows and things that it does not know, and maintain those distinctions during everyday life.  It’s not necessarily a comfortable position, but when we have decent thinkers like Brower and Marris throwing up their hands and diving off the boat (albeit in different directions), little good is accomplished.  I’ve long thought that the post-Hegel/Nietzsche project of revaluing human values leads inevitably towards environmental ethics, insofar as that discipline at its best is concerned with critiquing anthropocentric views of the world.  Combining an ethical understanding of the world which is explicitly anti-anthropomorphic with an knowledge-system (epistemic understanding) which denies capitol T truth claims has just enough contradiction to seem correct.

Apparently, the world isn’t ready for an environmental ethics based on a post-Nietzschean, post-Quinean epistemology, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be sad about it.

9 responses to “A note on poststructural wilderness”

  1. An impressive commentary Dave, whilst some of the philosophical terms I am a little rusty on the article makes sense and the clincher to me is your sentence “We humans are bad at knowing what we don’t know, and we should keep the largest tracts of wilderness around as is possible because we have no way of knowing what we’ll learn from them in the future. ” as they say once it is gone it is gone, a no amount of genetic engineering etc. will bring it back to what it was. I think I need to reread some of my old texts with Wilderness as the phenomena.

    1. That same sentence grabbed hold of me the most of anything else in the article. I am a simple man and although I grasp the utterly un-ending depth of issues surrounding why or why not save our wild places much of it matters not to me other than the simple fact that it is very, very hard to go back once something is gone.

  2. The idea that something may have value while remaining ambiguous is intolerable. The ambiguity induced by maintaining that constructs are points of operational reality and simultaneously deconstructable will drive a certain sort of person to short-circuit.

  3. Wow. There is so much to add here. As an undergrad I was NEVER exposed to Cronon as a “deconstructionist”. His book on Chicago was anything but. It was a respected piece of environmental history that refashioned the historiography of the American frontier. His work on the frontier was nuanced and new, but never fell into the trap of “wild playfulness of discourse” (Bryan Palmer on the Lacanians). The Derrideans never really got a foothold in environmental history. I think Brower is way out of his league here, and his critique assumes a historical approach that Cronon never exemplified. Cronon does not perform the classic “deconstruction” on the concept of wilderness. Derrida and his American disciples at Yale would certainly have torn the word to linguistic shreds, but I am not aware that any of them ever really tried. They were more concerned with language as such, and had moved to a seriously apolitical arena, where linguistic incomprehensibility became reified.

    There are serious ontological problems with “wilderness” as a concept, for sure. Cronon is correct on this. An important recent article in Orion does a good job elucidating the perils. (http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/8274)

    “apparently, the world isn’t ready for an environmental ethics based on a post-Nietzschean, post-Quinean epistemology, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be sad about it.” – This is a tall order. People like John Clark, and earlier, Murray Bookchin are good starting points, but who the hell has heard of them, let alone read them? Social ecology may be a way forward, avoiding the pitfalls of the Derridean refusal to acknowledge a center. This kind of nihilism has no place in environmental ethics. The deconstructionists have been rightly criticized for their apoliticism. This is no time for an approach not grounded in SOMETHING. Civilization marches forward, the wilderness is boxed in, and profit drives us forward.

    1. Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

      (Do you have a blog?)

        1. I don’t want to litter Dave’s comments with all this, but I have a barely maintained blog that I started 10 years ago, you can find it through my facebook (if my settings allow. not sure of that). It is embarrassingly outdated, and some of the content is sophomoric, but there are some good tidbits hidden away in there.

  4. The intersection of ethics, epistemology, and ecology you described reminded me of Bruno Latour’s recent work: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/120-NLH-finalpdf.pdf.

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