- Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature by Steven Vogel
Louis Althusser, when discussing the writing of Machiavelli, says that the Florentine philosopher's texts are "gripping" because the thought they contain "stands out sharply, disconcerts, and captivates."1 I think of Steven Vogel's work in this light, especially his latest book, Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature. In this book, Vogel's second, he develops his theory of "postnatural environmental philosophy," a view he hints at in his first book, Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory. Thinking Like a Mall is an eloquent and highly readable exposition of postnaturalism. With close attention to detail, Vogel unpacks his view in seven chapters of tight argumentation. Below I reflect on a few of the gripping features of Vogel's latest book, and I also reflect on general questions (and some tensions) that arise, for me, in the pages of Thinking Like a Mall.
Stands Out Sharply
Analytically precise and highly insightful, Steven Vogel's Thinking Like a Mall is an original contribution to environmental theory. He draws on the resources and philosophical methodologies of Western Marxism yet nuances his arguments meticulously, showing no clear fidelity to a particular school of environmental thinking. Thinking Like a Mall consists of critiques not only of stock environmental frameworks but also of today's environmental avant-garde. Three conversations are especially noteworthy, all of which demonstrate Vogel's philosophical precision and originality: his environmentalism without nature and naturalness (chapters 1 and 4); his dissection and reformulation of the concept of [End Page 165] a "socially constructed" nature (chapter 2); and his incisive critique of new materialisms (chapter 6). Anyone who expects the concept of naturalness to do any normative work for his or her environmental theory must, from now on, respond to Vogel's incisive critique of the concept. Moreover, theorists like Jane Bennett and David Abram, who hold the view that nonhuman forces and inorganic materials have vital (or living) agency, must also formulate a response; Vogel demands better justifications or any significant evidence in order for these new materialist views to be anything more than "narcissistic fantasy" (173).
Several of Vogel's ideas will unsettle readers. Most people will readily admit that human actions have degraded our environments. However, many of us do not like to think that we are actively involved in this process. The large-scale industrial pollution of private corporations and capital are the real players behind environmental degradation, right? Sure, but Vogel stresses (chapter 3) that we all make these practices possible. If the dualism that separates humans from their environment is fallacious, then on the one hand, this means that "we are embedded in [the environment] actively, which means that we form it, that it depends on us" (91); on the other hand, the active practice of degradation isn't the action of private individuals because we have built our environments together. We are alienated from our environment, Vogel argues, because we usually fail to see "that the practices that produce [our] environment are always socially organized ones. They have social preconditions and social consequences, and operate in accordance with socially defined norms. … Our responsibility for the environment, therefore, is social, not private" (91–92). In short, Vogel argues that the conditions (legal or otherwise) that permit the practices of degradation are the result of social and political practice. Therefore, only the creation of different social practices, not, say, "green" forms of the ones we currently participate in, will construct a better environment. Socially, not individually, we have chosen our degraded environment: a "community's choice is its practices, not something prior to those practices that the practices are attempts to bring about" (233). Vogel's postnaturalism is ultimately a sociopolitical and action-oriented theory. [End Page 166]
But what does all of this have to do with malls and thinking like malls? Vogel captivates in Thinking Like...