Integral Ecology Reading Group: Chapters 5 and 6


The AQAL grid

This post is part of an an ongoing reading group exploring Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael E. Zimmerman. For more info about the group, go here. To read the rest of this post, please click the fold’s link.

Up to this point most of the chapter discussions have involved language, jargon and references from thinking and schools of thought that are outside my own particular expertise. Though I find those discussions quite interesting, I have not really been able to participate in them with any depth. For chapters 5 and 6 I’m going to discuss the material from the perspective of my particular interest, which is media education. I apologize in advance for not adding much to the previous conversations. Hopefully you will gain something from my perspective.

Chapters 5 and 6 launches Part II of the book, which focuses on the “Who, What, and Where of Integral Ecology.” Chapter 5, “Defining, Honoring and Integrating the Multiple Approaches to Ecology,” is an ambitious effort (as is all the other sections of the book) to group and define the various schools of ecological thought according to the AQAL grid.* Chapter 6, “Ecological Terrains: The What That is Examined,” is a more extended examination of the first of three major concepts laid out in chapter 5.

I find the approach of both chapters quite useful, actually, and like the idea of mapping ecological theories according to their various perspectives. I’m not immersed enough in any of the specific theorues to quibble about their placement, so I suspect others who are more steeped in a particular tradition or attached to a method might object to their location. If anyone wants to argue the specific classifications of ecological perspectives in these chapters, by all means use the comments section to do so. I’m going to apply this method of mapping to relevant media theories for my own work.

Simply put, who = epistemology, how = methodology and what = ontology (these are not meant to be in any particular order because they are enacted simultaneously). Any stakeholder will come to the table with some kind of configuration of these, and E/Z point out that no human is wrong 100% of the time, so everyone will have a partial perspective that has validity according to his or her perspective (who, how, what) based on a number of possible configurations. Again approaching this from my own bent as a media educator, this model helps clarify how media practitioners will approach media differently according to a variety of contextual and environmental factors. They will chose to use media in unique ways as opposed to the view of most media critics that treat audiences as uniform.

The authors use the term “holon” to describe any node in the network of these relations. The holon can be a “member” of an ecosystem (biophysical and noospherical) but not a part, reflecting its relative autonomy to choose an interaction (however limited or expanded it might be given the perimeters of its structural coupling—here I’m borrowing from Varela and Maturana’s explanation of why an ant will be limited in what it can do versus a human). The holon’s reality will open up according to its worldspace.

According to E/Z each quadrant is a “terrain.” The integral ecology perspective takes into account all four terrains of the AQAL grid. So when we see a tree, there are actually many trees within different perspectives. This concurs with how media texts are viewed according to different theories. For example, in my survey of media education texts I found that most look at media from the LR perspective, in other words, from the view of only one terrain. In recent years there has been research that looks at what audiences do with media (UL, LL) as opposed what it does to them (LR). Unfortunately most debates about media (and media literacy) are either about the interior versus the exterior point of view, but rarely both. The UR is rarely discussed in media studies except for one field—media ecology —which tends to look at how the the LR’s technology shapes the cognition and behavior of individuals. This interests me greatly, in particular how different kinds of media correspond to different brain functions (i.e. TV is right brained, whereas as literacy is left brained). An integral approach would definitely look at cognition and behavior as important elements of how we engage media.

The beauty of the quadrants model as applied to media education is that it allows us to see how our experience of media is enacted according to differing affordances. The quadrants are not separate but emerge together. So if we look at a media text as a boundary object, it can be understood from the point of view of economics (LR), its impact on physiological behavior (UR), phenomenology (UL) and culture (LR). I think from Varela’s view, all these factors co-enact each other. This would be a tough pill to swallow for critical theorists who believe that political economy (LR) is the root structuring mechanism that drives consciousness. In Marxist terms LR and LL would be the “superstructure” and the UL and UR would be the “base” (I think). What gives the appearance of a stronger influence of a particular area, such as political economy, would be the center of gravity it has to pull behavior towards it. So though it would appear that Britney Spears is just a phenomena of the culture industry and is only popular because of economic forces that shape taste, the individual who encounters Spears and is her fan is also enacting her desire (I’m thinking out loud here) according to the worldspace that opens her reality. Her worldspace could be shaped by family, religion, education, mental development, emotional state, age, gender identity, etc.

The terrains model concurs with what I had already noticed when I worked Native American communities. On the rez I could see that the social science perspective only told part of the story. According to the culture industry model, Native culture should be obliterated, but that is not the case. What made some more resilient to the influences of technocratic culture than, say, a suburban white person? To explain what I was encountering, I developed something based on the medicine wheel (I call it a “media wheel”) which also has four quadrants: cognition, culture, environment, and individual. The integral model I think is clearer and better thought out.

Quadratic and quadrivia:

Who: The quadratic approach is represented by the quadrant of ontology (being). In this quadrant we place the individual (holon) at the center. She has four simultaneous modes of enacting reality (going clockwise): experiential phenomena (UL), behavioral phenomena (UR), social and system phenomena (LR), and cultural phenomena (LL).

What: The quadrivium is the quadrant of epistemology (knowing, a way of seeing). This is how we look at any phenomena (such as a dying fish in a lake). For my purposes, this would be how one approaches a boundary object (such as a Pepsi commercial). Unlike the ontology quadrant, we put the boundary object in the center and look at if from four perspectives (going clockwise): psychological and phenomenological inquiry (UL), behavioral and physiological analysis (UR), ecological and social assessment (LR), and cultural and worldview investigations (LL). This seems to come close to Peirce’s semiotic elements.

How: The corresponding methodologies for looking at the media text would be: phenomenology (UL), physiological properties of media/textual elements such as color, sound, motion, editing as they relate to cognitive/sensory experience (UR), economic factors of media/critical theory (LR), and the cultural aspects of it—anthropology/semiotics (LL).

In chapter 6 E/Z write about 12 niches of ecological perspectives. For them, each terrain is comprised of three levels of complexity. This is where I get a little lost and I feel they are cramming too much into the model. I’m not even going to get into it because it give me an ice cream headache trying to integrate it.

The rest of chapter 6 is devoted to examples of perspectives that focus on each terrain. This is very helpful. I appreciate the abundance of examples used to help explain these rather complex models. The final example, the 12 niches of a stream restoration project, shows how exhaustive the model is. Personally, I find it a bit too exhaustive. It’s hard to get an overall picture when there are too many perspectives to take into account. Sometimes there is a benefit to simplification and for my personal tastes, the 12 niches pushes me over the edge. However, as demonstrated earlier, the four terrains combined with the quadratic and quadrivia perspectives are very useful mapping tools that allow for the combination of differing theoretical camps.

* If you are entering this forum without the context of the previous discussions and chapters, these initials correspond to the All Quadrants All Levels grid developed by Ken Willber (see above graphic). Here is a brief summary:

Upper Left (UL) – “I” is the interior first person view and can be characterized by phenomenology/umwelt/subjectivity.

Upper Right (UR) – “It” the exterior reality of the individual that is described by behavior and can represent the objective conditions of a person, such as her cognitive and sensory structure.

Lower Right (LR) – “Its” represents the holon’s environment and can be characterized by an ecological or economic system, depending on what aspect we are investigating.

Lower Left (LL) – “We” is the interior plural reality that is identified with culture, language and semiotics.

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  • Tim Morton

    Some random thoughts:

    Actually, no, most Marxist critical theorists would not agree. You mischaracterize what a century of thinkers have done with popular culture under one rubric–that of vulgar Marxism.

    Adorno or Andrew Ross or Stuart Hall might argue by contrast that the onus is on integral theory to explain why it has such a pre-programmed, schematic grid, neat little boxes into which everything fits.

    Try an experiment: assign totally random terms to these boxes that seem to you to represent “interior” and “exterior” (“bedtime,” “street,” etc.). You will find things fit just as nicely.

    “Acoustic”–why is that “exterior” for heaven’s sake? Is my eardrum on the inside or the outside of my body? I mean this with all sincerity. A century of phenomenology would argue that such phenomena can’t be specified as “inside” or “outside.”

    Derrida’s essay “Tympan” is marvelous on that, btw.

    I bet you that you could have contextualized different ecological theories according to economics, politics, culture, psychology, ontology, whatever you want, without this grid–being able to do so is not a novelty.

  • Antonio

    Tim, thanks for your feedback. I’m a little confused. Are you denying the Marxist roots of critical theory? Isn’t “false consciousness” the central theme that ties those thinkers together? Forgive me for blaspheming a 100 years of good thought. I hate to be so vulgar and such a bore.

  • Sam Mickey

    It’s worth mentioning that the list of approaches to ecology contained in the graphic Antonio posted is not meant to be a list of fixed distinctions. Those distinctions “are merely a heuristic device” (171). “Feel free to adjust, augment, and change the list” (172).

    For instance, if we listened to Derrida’s “Tympan,” we would definitely not keep acoustic ecology isolated in the upper right quadrant. Instead, we could show how acoustic ecology involves a complex and recursive co-arising (or tetra-meshing) of the quadrants. That would fit well with the work done at the acoustic ecology institute (AEI), which is hardly just upper-right work, as they include perspectives from arts, education, and community, not just from biophysical sciences.

    I like the diagram of “No single tree” (179). It shows how a tree shows up differently for many different perspectives. However, isn’t it possible that there really is a single tree, such that the single tree is virtually withdrawn (real object) from its various local manifestations (sensual object)? I feel like IE might need a little dose of realism here. Similarly, I wonder if we can say “that ecosystems existed 50,000 years ago” (178). I would say yes and no. However, for E/Z, we cannot say yes, because the humans living around 50,000 years ago had not developed the scientific rationality required to enact an “ecosystem.” Sure, but does that really mean that ecosystems simply did not exist? This reminds me of Latour’s analysis of the question regarding whether microbes existed before Pasteur. Latour doesn’t say no, but he doesn’t simply say yes either.

    The 4 terrains and 12 niches get very complex, especially insofar as the boundaries of the niches are “permeable and fluid” and “not easy” to define (195). I can see some value in the 12 niches, which, by adding the levels to the terrains, could help us discern the differences (in degree, not in kind) between the Buddha touching the earth (bhumisparsha mudra), a pedologist touching the soil, and a rock touching the soil. “Higher,” moreover, “doesn’t just equal better” (197).

    One of the things I really appreciate about IE is that they attempt to account for approaches that are often left out of other ecological inquiries. There aren’t many books on ecology that take seriously the history of ecological sciences while also acknowledging the ecological implications of psychedelics, occult science, vision quests, and biodynamic agriculture (208f).

    Here’s a question: If (and that’s a big if) we want to use a framework to help framework-minded people organize the multiplicity of ecological approaches, is there a better framework than the one E/Z offer? According to E/Z, their “AQAL approach is the only organizing framework currently available that can honor this radical multiplicity” (158).

  • Adrian

    Thanks, Antonio, for this summary – and for doing two (fairly easy-reading) chapters at once, encouraging us to get up to speed with both. I’ve finally done that. Here are a few quick thoughts…

    First, a quick comment: you write that “In Marxist terms LR and LL would be the “superstructure” and the UL and UR would be the “base” (I think).” — my hunch is that you meant that the base is LR and UR (exteriority, especially socio-structural-economic-technological systems in the LR) and that the superstructure is UL and LL (cultural values, individual perception & feeling, etc.), yes?

    Generally, my sense with these chapters is that they are simply expanding on the framework that’s already been introduced in the earlier chapters, and that they are using it to organize the world (of ecological/environmental issues). The first task seems fairly straightforward to me. If we agree that the framework is a useful one to think with (and I do), then it’s good to see it developed further. If we disagree that the framework is the framework-to-end-all-frameworks, then it’s here also that we’ll see more and more of its limitations coming to light.

    The second task, however, threatens to overtake the first one, because of the amount of column-inches the authors expend on it. It feels sometimes as if they’ve gotten themselves a cool new app for organizing the data on their computers, and they’re going around trying to classify everything they see into one of the categories on the app. To some extent their organization will always remain somewhat arbitrary and subjective. (Does Brian Eno go under “rock” or “experimental”? Billie Holiday under “jazz” or “female vocalists”?) And as things get more complicated, which they do with the AQAL model, you get even quirkier permutations. (Does John Cage go under “classical music,” “experimental music,” “anarchism,” “mushrooms,” or “New York performance art scene”?) And so you start losing a sense of what exactly the map is a map *of* (i.e. that they are data on their computers — theoretical perspectives that the authors have already interpreted for us, not necessarily as their representatives would — and not really the things that are out “in the world”)

    Sometimes, e.g., “environmental justice” seems to be in one quadrant, other times in another, even though defending this placement (e.g., EJ in UR, ecofeminism in LL) to any serious degree would be a stretch. And quirky things arise like having “dowsing” and “ley lines” emerge at the highest level (“matrices”) at the “terrain of systems” (p. 207 and p. 613 n. 121) — as if they were more encompassing and real (“transcending and including”) than, say, capitalism (as opposed to seeing them as a subset of New Age spirituality in the LL quadrant or some such thing). Having some knowledge of those fields, I can tell you that the dowsers and ley hunters would be thrilled to hear this, but that it’s the kind of claim that would just make AQAL look bad.

    That said, I agree with Sam that E/Z’s taking some of these more marginal pursuits seriously — “the ecological implications of psychedelics, occult science, vision quests, and biodynamic agriculture” and so on — is a strength, not a weakness. I think it’s just important that such things not be pinned down too quickly and clunkily.

    Ultimately, I think the AQAL framework would be most helpful if it could be used not so much as a map for organizing theoretical perspectives (which E/Z spend too much time on) than as a compass to help us orient ourselves within actual territories (i.e., those making up environmental controversies). I found the examples — the oak tree, the frog, toxic emissions, the stream restoration project — to be most helpful, and I suspect that that’s where the rubber will hit the road for Integral Ecology. I’ll keep reading…

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