Levi Bryant’s “Wilderness Ontology” and Heidegger’s Hut in the Black Forest

The Idea of the Perpetual Forest, 1923

Levi Bryant has recently posted an entry on what he (poorly) terms “wilderness ontology.”  He seems aware of the confusion inherent in the choice of words, but clings to the phrase regardless:

Admittedly, the signifier “wilderness” doesn’t quite get at the concept of “wilderness ontology” I’m trying to articulate because it seems to oppose civilization and nature, the human and the natural. Nonetheless, I like the poetic resonances of the term and can’t bring myself to abandon it despite the confusion it invites.

Always building on the latest thoughts that he’s enshrined with a blog entry, the “poetic resonances” Bryant speaks of here probably have something to do with his recent post on “The Poetics of Philosophy.”  And though we might allow Bryant to wax rhapsodic with his terminology, his following exposition of the concept proves to be disappointingly prosaic.

As an ontological concept, “wilderness” should not be taken to signify the opposition between civilization and nature, but rather two distinct ontological orientations: the vertical ontologies of humanist, correlationist thought where being is a correlate of thought versus posthumanist orientations of thought advocated by flat ontologies or immanence. In a “wilderness ontology”, humans are not sovereigns of being, but are among beings with no particularly privileged place.

Not a difficult concept.  This is your typical anti-anthropocentric fare.  Humans are just one sort of being amongst a multiplicity of beings, etc.  Fairly predictable.  But just how comprehensive is this “wilderness”? What exactly can it be said to “contain”? What constitutes its “parts”?

Civilization is a part of the wilderness. Culture is a part of the wilderness. Nature is a part of the wilderness. The subject is a part of the wilderness. The difference is that there is, in a wilderness ontology, no categorical distinction between the natural and the cultural, the human and the natural.

All categorical distinctions, even between apparently oppositional terms, evaporate in this seemingly all-inclusive ontological zone.  In this sense, Bryant’s “wilderness” would seem to be, as Hegel said of Schelling’s Absolute, “the night in which all cows appear to be black.”  The usefulness of this concept seems fairly limited, however.  In fact, it’s hard to distinguish its position from Naessian deep ecology.

Martin Heidegger embracing the new regime, above the "X" mark

Luckily, Michael helped explicate the concept in a bit more depth in a comment on my blog, elaborating on it a bit further.  Now of course he doesn’t claim to speak on Bryant’s behalf, but I think Michael’s explanation is telling of the general notion of a “wilderness ontology,” its intellectual sources, and its implications:

I’m not sure of your familiarity with Heidegger, but the issues Levi brings up in the post you dislike follows loosely from the early Heideggerian attempt at tracing out a “fundamental ontology”. “Wilderness” in this sense, then, is a metaphor for the spaciousness and ‘wild’, unpredictable, uncontrollable and only partially knowable of Being.

The nuance would be that ‘Being’ does not signify an absolute or “All’, but is a term meant to prompt us to reconsider the nature of the fundamental background condition which allows or occasions beings (actual entities) as such to bedisclosed.

And, for me, the process and ‘need’ for reconsidering the raw nature of reality is a decidedly cosmo-political one. Without an ontographic imagination and exploration how are we to know and therefore utilize or adapt to the nature of power, agency and change?

For me the notion of “the wilderness of being” evokes an ecological and anarchic sensibility that I believe is at the core of material and existential life. In fact, investigating the world through via wild-thinking (or wilderness ontology) is essential for a pragmatic rethinking of everything hitherto assumed by our sick societies.

My response to this explanation was as follows:

I’m actually very familiar with Heidegger, for better or for worse. I’m of that school that, along with Adorno, believes that his philosophy is fascist to the core. But I’ve still read all of Being and Time and his later essays on poetry, dwelling, the world-picture, and “the turn,” etc. His Introduction to Metaphysics is probably my favorite work by him, because it’s his most Aristotelian.

The idea of a “wilderness-ontology,” Heidegger’s pathways leading from his hut up in the Black Forest out into thick of the woods, from which he could always search for “the clearing” in which beings disclose themselves — all these metaphors can be very easily traced to Nazi ecological thought. Knowing fully well the dangers of such accusations, I say this with complete seriousness. The Germanic naturalist fetishization of nature, the Nazi concept of the perpetual forest Dauerwald as the sort of Ursprung of the Teutonic spirit, this is the source for Heidegger’s early “fundamental ontology.” It is even more so the world of Heldegger’s late ontology, long after the swastika lapels came off his jacket, the antihumanist neo-Romantic reverence for nature that is also evoked by Bryant’s “wilderness.”

An excellent essay documenting the influence of “green” politics within the NSDAP can be found here.  It implicates top leaders of German fascism like Walther Darré, Fritz Todt, Alwin Seifert and Rudolf Hess in the project for Nazi environmental protectionism.  This was closely rooted in concepts like “blood and soil,” and so on.

Walther Darré standing in front of a placard that reads "Blood and Soil"