restricted access Ecology Beyond Ecology: Life After the Accident in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy
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Ecology Beyond Ecology:
Life After the Accident in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy

The serial reproduction of the most diverse catastrophes has come to accompany the great discoveries, the great technical inventions, like a shadow, and unless we accept the unacceptable, that is to say, accept that the accident is becoming, in its turn, automatic, the urgent need for an "intelligence (i.e., an understanding) of the crisis of intelligence" is making itself felt in these opening years of the twenty-first century—an understanding of which ecology is the clinical symptom, with the development of a philosophy of postindustrial eschatology still lying before us.

—Paul Virilio, Unknown Quantity

In his curatorial manifesto on an exhibit of disaster artwork at the Fondation Cartier Pour L'art Contemporain, Paul Virilio argues that the contemporary moment is characterized by a growing propensity to produce accidents: environmental catastrophes, technological breakdowns, and other forms of brazen self-destruction that result from the acceleration of innovation. In response to this state of affairs, he makes a surprising call for "an eschatological party to stand [End Page 545] alongside today's officially recognized ecological one" (Unknown 110). While eschatology and ecology might seem to make odd companions, Virilio suggests that they share a crucial attention to the disasters of the present: an ecological stance offers an analysis of the immediate consequences of our myriad accidents, while an eschatological view turns to our prospects for the future. This startling claim for the relevance of spiritual concepts of eschatology to ecological critiques of technological progress has far reaching consequences for the aims and scope of ecocritical thought.

Environmentalism, Virilio posits, is the only existing political movement that offers a sustained critique of progress. It does so by recognizing the relationship between human technological progress and disasters, both natural and artificial.1 The extension of the scope of environmental politics to address the diverse accidents of the present, however, involves rethinking the boundaries of ecology itself. In light of the acceleration of global information flows, for instance, Virilio points to the necessity of incorporating awareness of temporal ecology into traditional concepts of habitat that tend to focus on place as a condition of existence and consequently ignore the repercussions of spacio-temporal changes in the environment for living organisms. Virilio broadens this definition by demonstrating the interconnectedness of experiences of time with the material and spatial substances of nature, noting that "along side the pollution of substances (of air, water, fauna and flora), there is emerging the sudden pollution of the distances and intervals that make up the very density of our daily reality; of that real space of our activities which the interactivity of the real time of instant exchanges has just abolished" (109–10).2 Just as natural resources are polluted by artificial chemicals, so do more fundamental ontological conditions of space and time become polluted by the technologies that continue to speed up everyday life. The sun is obscured by particulate matter; the temporal experience of anticipation dissolves in a wash of instant communication.

The loss of certain kinds of spacio-temporal experience that comes with the increased pace of travel, information, and communication is for Virilio an ecological problem insofar as it concerns the conditions that constrain and permit life. As a result, he posits the necessary conceptualization of "the 'grey ecology' of the pollution of the natural scale," which "rounds out the 'green ecology' of the pollution—by chemical or other products—of nature" (110). The world, in this conception, is destroyed by constricting the spacio-temporal distances by which it is experienced just as it is torn apart by the degradation of ecosystems. This "grey" addition to ecological concepts emphasizes the centrality of the acceleration of capital flows, information networks, and global trade to ecological matters. Concerns that [End Page 546] appear to be separate from environmental issues—such as dwindling free time and the social effects of new media communications—therefore become central to ecological thought.

But why turn to eschatology? One of Virilio's greatest achievements is in pointing to possible alliances between environmentalism and a range of movements that address the multifarious effects of globalization. The...


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