Sustainable Music


Monday, October 24, 2022

Ecological Imaginaries 2


Crabapple tree of many colors, Oct. 22, 2022. Photo by J. T. Titon

“Ecological imaginaries” is but one kind of imaginary, but in the past ten years this idea has become increasingly useful as ecology in all senses of the word gains traction. A bit of background is in order before introducing two more ecological imaginaries. Imaginaries are ideas, not things; they are social products of a collective human imagination. Like myths, they are believed in; they are thought to be true, or they deserve to be made so. An example is the idea of “the rule of law.The best known imaginary is the “social imaginary,” i.e., the network of ideas that individuals in a particular social group have about their society, what it is, how it operates, and how one should behave as a member of that society—the rules, principles, laws, values and the assumptions that people believe (imagine) govern their social interactions, and their meanings. For Jürgen Habermas, it was “the massive background of an intersubjectively shared lifeworld.”

Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community” has been influential among folklorists, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists. Anderson was thinking primarily of an imagined socio-political community, often based in ethnic, regional, and racial ties. So, for instance, a nation such as "England" or "the United States" when regarded as a whole, integrated society embodies an imagined community. The idea of the folk community, as a comparatively undifferentiated, pre-industrial, peasant or Indigenous social group, with its ancient customs and oral traditions, and their performance as expressive culture, is another example of a social imaginary. A more recent example of a social imaginary is the community invoked by the phrase "Christian nationalism." 

In the previous post I’ve identified four ecological imaginaries all related to beliefs about nature: pastoral, the “land of Cockaigne,” untrammeled wilderness, and self-regulation (organicism and the balance of nature). Here I will identify two more among many others. The first is Lorraine Code’s identification of an ecological imaginary (as she calls it) which attempts “to enact principles of ideal cohabitation,” or living together. Code views this “ecological imaginary” as based in the ecological principle/assumption of interdependence (or what others have called relationality and reciprocity) among living beings, a principle that, for example, I have called an ecological rationality (Titon 2013) and invoked more specifically in my sound ecology project, in which this interdependence is both signaled and secured by co-presence through sonic connections (Titon 2015, 2021). Code’s project is ongoing and difficult to summarize on account of numerous digressions—one might say the same thing about sound ecology—whereas she is incisive in her description of the social imaginary of “mastery” (Val Plumwood’s term) and the “autonomous individual”: “The instituted social imaginary of the affluent white western-northern world is one of taken-for-granted availability and access: a way of life where individual self-reliance is a virtue [positioned so as] to achieve their ‘goals’ and fulfill their ‘needs.’ Such needs are said to be natural, the sine qua non of a viable human life; scarcity is temporary and contingent: it can and should be ‘fixed’” (Code 2010, 30). Mastery involves control over the self and control over others: political mastery, and mastery over the external world; and thus they require management.

The second ecological imaginary I would add here is that of scientific realism, a set of assumptions based in the idea that the external world has an existence apart from our human perceptions of it, and that it is knowable by means of a series of epistemic operations, perhaps the most familiar being the so-called “scientific method” of inductive reasoning: observation, hypothesis, experiment, measurement, and conclusion. Scientific realism acknowledges organic wholes but proceeds towards functional analysis by means of reducing wholes to constituent parts, and parts to their constituent parts, and so on, studying the structures of those components and their interactions. The science of ecology appears to have always contained both the ecological imaginary of ecological rationality biased toward intersubjective understanding, organic holism, interrelation, balance, and interdependence; and the ecological imaginary of an objective and reductive scientific method, currently in favor among ecological scientists, that portrays nature as in continual flux, subjected to frequent disturbance and without an overall tendency, absent human interference, toward climax equilibrium and natural balance.

All six of these ecological imaginaries reflect Western intellectual history. There are additional perspectives. Folk, Indigenous, and non-Western social groups have their own ecological imaginaries, their own particular ideas concerning nature and the socio-political world. Earlier this year in this blog I wrote about “settler ecology,” prompted by an intervention from Kyle Powys Whyte from an Indigenous perspective. The diversity of environmentalisms is based in diverse ecological imaginaries.


Code, Lorraine. 2010. “Particularity, Epistemic Responsibility, and the Ecological Imaginary.” Philosophy of Education 2010: 23-34.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2013. “The Nature of Ecomusicology.” Música e Cultura: revista da ABET 8, 8-18.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2015. “Exhibiting Music in a Sound Community.” Ethnologies 37 (1): 23-41.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2021. “Sustainability and a Sound Ecology.” In Toward a Sound Ecology: New and Selected Essays, 254-276. Bloomington: Indiana U. Press.

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