January 30, 2011

dwelling, relating

In his study of the cultural history of forests, the well-known Dante scholar (and radio host) Robert Pogue Harrison traces the Greek origins of the word "ecology":
The Greek word logos is usually translated as "language," but more originally it means "relation." It binds humans to nature in the mode of openness and difference. It is that wherein we dwell and by which we relate ourselves to this or that place. Without logos there is no place, only habitat; no domus, only niche; no finitude, only the endless reproductive cycle of species-being; no dwelling, only subsisting. In short, logos is that which opens the human abode on the earth.
The word "eco-logy" names this abode. In Greek, oikos means "house" or "abode"--the Latin domus. In this sense oikos and logos belong together inseparably, for logos is the oikos of humanity. Thus the word "ecology" names far more than the science that studies ecosystems; it names the universal human manner of being in the world. As a cause that takes us beyond the end of history, ecology cannot remain naive about the deeper meaning of the word that summarizes its vocation. We dwell not in nature but in relation to nature. We do not inhabit the earth but inhabit our excess of the earth. We dwell not in the forest but in an exteriority with regard to its closure. We do not subsist as much as transcend. To be human means to be always and already outside of the forest's inclusion, so to speak, insofar as the forest remains an index of our exclusion. . . . We will find that the relation is the abode, and that this relation remains one of estrangement from, as well as domestic familiarity with, the earth.