The personification of nature as a maternal figure has a long history, spanning many different cultural belief systems: within Greek mythology, she is Mother Gaia; in Inca belief, Pachamama; and, in Algonquian tradition, Nokomis, the Grandmother. In recognition of this rich lineage, including also contemporary ecofeminism, we may ask why it is that Mother Earth remains such an enduring conceptual tool for the environmental imagination, particularly as it continues on today in environmentalist slogans that call on us to “save Mother Earth.” To this, a psychoanalytic intervention into the environmental humanities enables us to understand this investment in the maternal figure of Mother Earth through the Lacanian notion of the mother Other. To frame Mother Earth as a maternal body in this sense is then to trouble the contemporary environmental imagination of a former wholeness in and with nature.
Drawing upon Lacan’s seminar on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1977), this text explicates the Lacanian dual processes of lack through alienation and separation in relation to the environmentalist subject’s fantasized relation to Mother Earth in order to provoke a questioning of this shared fantasy. Regarding alienation, or the process wherein the child submits to the Other of language and enters into subjectivity, I first explore the theoretical resonance between the alienated subject and the nature/culture divide within ecocriticism. From there, I consider the complementary process of separation, wherein the subject relates to the mother Other and realizes the coincidence of their lacks, in relation to the popular environmental imagination’s fantasy of an all-encompassing Mother Earth.
It follows that the subject’s separation from the maternal body produces the objet petit a, or the unobtainable object of desire. Through chasing this structural piece, the lacking subject imagines a return to a state of completion with the maternal body that was never to be possible. I propose to explore this question of desire as it manifests within popular environmentalism and its belief in returning to Mother Earth. Finally, in building upon the post-naturalist and dialectical framework articulated by Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015), this essay asserts that the true ecocritical project today should not concern decentering subjectivity from the Anthropocene but, instead, in reckoning with subjectivity as the intractable problem of the Anthropocene.
Beginning with the first Lacanian process of lack, the child’s experience of alienation in moving from the mother’s (as) Other’s body to the big Other of the symbolic order illuminates a similar alienation from Mother Earth upon entering into culture. In “The Subject and the Other: Alienation,” Lacan explicates this process as one of submission wherein the child must submit to the Other of language in order to enter into subjectivity. Having once experienced an illusory sense of wholeness with the maternal body, the child faces what Lacan deems the “vel of alienation.”[i] This is an either/or moment wherein the child must choose between being and meaning, respectively aligning being with remaining with the mother (as) Other and meaning with the symbolic order through the big Other of language. At this stage, the child must choose his own disappearance by choosing meaning in language and thereby also submitting to castration as a lacking subject. If he were to try to choose being, Lacan explains, he would then fall into non-meaning, and so render being meaningless.
Similarly, for Mother Earth, the choice between nature and culture is also a false one. One cannot choose to remain with nature without losing all meaning of what nature means through culture. That is to say, ecocriticism must necessarily think through culture in order to understand nature. There is no immediacy here; nature is always already mediated through culture’s identification of nature. The new materialist turn in ecocritical thought today largely attempts to imagine nature beyond the human in order to decenter the human from the Anthropocene; in contrast, the psychoanalytic procedure of alienation is first to clarify how we must instead think through the human as the problem of the Anthropocene. While many ecocritics would also argue that we are now “post-natural” so as to explain how culture has irreversibly altered nature, I would insist that our social conception of nature was never natural to begin with: the designation “natural” always betrays a human culture’s mediating identification of nature. That is to say, prior to human culture, there was no such thing as nature. For this reason, it is imperative that we always think nature and culture dialectically.
Through separation, alienation’s complementary psychoanalytic process of lack, the subject’s realization of the coincidence of his lack with that of the mother (as) Other coincides also with an ecocritical realization regarding Mother Earth as a lacking figure. In “The Subject and the Other: Aphanisis,” Lacan clarifies how alienation introduces the subject as existing within the symbolic order through the “either/or” of the vel of alienation, but it is the process of separation that gives rise to being through introducing a ‘neither/nor’ scenario in which both the subject and the Other are excluded.[ii] As an emerging subject in language, the child attempts to relate to their mother as the mother (as) Other, but is instead confronted with the coincidence of their lacks via the recognition of the mother’s desire. The child understands that desire emerges through lack, which is the same as the production of the objet petit a. Desire then further betrays this basis in lack through the subject’s cyclical process of locating and missing the objet a within a continuous search after a sense of wholeness. As Lacan explains it, “It is in so far as his desire is beyond or falls short of what she says, of what she hints at, of what she brings out as meaning, it is in so far as his desire is known, it is in this point of lack, that the desire of the subject is constituted.”[iii] In desiring the father, the mother therefore reveals to her child that she too is lacking and alienated by having submitted to the barring action of language. While the child attempts to lodge their own lack of being in that “place” where the mother (as) Other is lacking and to conjoin their shared lacks to complete each other, they are instead confronted with this impossibility and experience separation from the mother.
In the case of alienation from the maternal body of Mother Earth by entering into culture, we are similarly confronted with Mother Earth’s lack through an ecocritical understanding of separation. It therefore behooves us to realize how Mother Earth becomes lacking being in this framework by virtue of having entered into culture in order to properly orient our environmentalism. What this means is realizing that nature is never going to be made “whole”; even more, it is because nature is lacking that it is open to us in its connective ecology. Just as psychoanalysis urges subjects to embrace their lack, environmentalism must also embrace lack in nature in order to put forth an ecocriticism capable of addressing our state today amidst anthropogenic climate change. It is through psychoanalysis, I argue, that ecocriticism can stage its own self-confrontation.
Following this Lacanian psychoanalytic framework, understanding Mother Earth as lacking also enables a properly dialectical ecocriticism. That is to say, understanding how nature is dependent upon that which it is not means that culture is always already implicated in nature. Just as a subject can never fill in its own lack, so nature cannot be “saved” from the Anthropocene. Even more, a Lacanian ecocriticism suggests that any consideration of nature is already anthropocentric. Nature cannot reclaim a naturalness that was lost through the impact of human culture in the Anthropocene. We, as lacking subjects, also cannot fill in the lack we now recognize in Mother Earth. While the desire to fill in this lack persists, it is also the failure to fill in lack that allows desire to continue; or, in other words, we enjoy our lack. At our moment of overwhelming ecodespair, we might take comfort in embracing this ecological lack as well. This ultimately means shifting our vision of what environmentalism looks like today.
In making such a shift, it would serve us well to rid ourselves of nature as a concept in how we have traditionally conceived of it. This is not a call for post-naturalist ecocriticism but rather a move outside of the Cartesian dualism of the nature-culture divide altogether.
Pursuing dialectical ecocriticism, we might turn to Moore’s work on Capitalism in the Web of Life. Moore begins by considering what he deems as Green Thought’s central “arithmetic” on the relationship of humans to nature: “Nature plus Society.”[iv] This arithmetic importantly positioned nature and humans together in dialogue, thus illuminating the ways in which nature impacts humans as much as humans impact nature; however, as Moore argues, the critique fails to successfully break from Cartesian logic in how it still employs its binary conceptual framework. To move beyond this binary framework, Moore proposes a new ecocritical methodology that shifts analysis from “the interaction of independent units— Nature and Society—to the dialectics of humans in the web of life.”[v]
In order to accomplish this shift, Moore introduces the notion of “oikeios”— or “the relationship between a plant species and the environment”— as a way of conceiving of nature as a matrix in and through which history unfolds as a way of illuminating the dialectical relationship between human and extra-human natures.[vi] Even more, this move reorients nature’s position with regard to historical analysis by reframing nature as the matrix within which civilization develops. Rather than analyzing nature and society through a Cartesian arithmetic, Moore’s dialectical approach figures as a world-ecological framework of humanity-in-nature, with bundles of human and extra-human natures that are equally producer and product of each other within the web of life. Regarding capitalism, Moore also calls for a reconceptualization of accumulation as a process of bundling human and extra-human natures. Similar to his shift in thinking humanity-in-nature, this entails rethinking capitalist accumulation as occurring within the web of life, and capitalism itself as both a world-ecology and a specific dialectic of project and process. Environment then becomes the constant process of environment-making.
To return now to our psychic investment in Mother Earth, Moore’s articulation of a continuous environment-making within world-ecology importantly prompts us to trouble our fantasy of a former wholeness in nature by getting rid of nature as a stable category of ecocritical analysis. In other words, a dialectical ecocriticism illuminates the constitutive lack in nature and thereby undermines the fantasy of contemporary environmentalism’s return to Mother Earth’s maternal body.
While fantasy is itself constitutive of human subjectivity, it is this fundamental fantasy of a return that Lacan argues we must traverse as subjects. With respect to the mother (as) Other standing in the place of the original Other, this fundamental fantasy more specifically begins at castration upon submission to the big Other of language and refers to the subject’s belief that a wholeness and complete satisfaction with the mother (as) Other was ever even possible before its loss. Following castration, it is this fundamental fantasy that then informs the subject’s desire for the Other. Traversing this fantasy means embracing lack itself.
In the context of ecocriticism, we might say that traversing the fundamental environmentalist fantasy would entail fully embracing a dialectical ecocriticism in understanding the environment as a continuous process of environment-making within world-ecology. For these reasons, I would argue, the contemporary attempt to decenter the human from the Anthropocene is an evasion of the problem of human subjectivity as the problem of the Anthropocene. It is only through a psychoanalytic framework that the environmental humanities can begin the work of contending with human subjectivity.
[i] Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London: The Hogarth Press, 1977), p. 211.
[ii] Ibid., p. 219.
[iii] Ibid., p. 219.
[iv] Moore, Jason, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2015), p. 44.
[v] Ibid., 45.
[vi] Ibid., 46.