All communities have subtle and not-so-subtle ways of telling their members what to pay attention to. When you ignore something you are supposed to pay attention to, or pay attention to something you are supposed to ignore, you are engaged in a deviant act. This “attentional deviance,” as sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel calls it, is not the kind of offense that will get you locked up.1 You will, however, experience mild forms of social control, even if it is just your colleague’s raised eyebrow when you mention the unconventional topic you are working on. Go ahead and tell someone you study roadkill, which happens to be one of my current projects, and you will see what I mean.
Not that I am complaining. I am happy to play the role of “attentional deviant.”2 In fact, I consider it part of my job description. The job of a sociologist, as the old saying goes, is to make the familiar strange. This means questioning conventional thinking, or what “everybody knows,”3 including conventional thinking about what is worth studying.4 Good sociologists pay attention to what their culture tells them to ignore.5 They are attentional deviants rather than conformists—at least while they are on the job.
You do not have to be a sociologist to practice attentional deviance. In fact, a number of scholars in the environmental humanities are already doing so, albeit under a different banner. I myself started experimenting with a deviant approach to environmental ethics long before I had even heard the phrase attentional deviance, much less discovered that the writer David Quammen had perfected this approach some thirty years earlier.6 My goal for the piece you are reading, besides providing a new name for an old approach, is to describe the political purchase of this kind of work.
From the early 1980s until the mid-1990s, in his popular column in Outside magazine, Quammen explored a range of unconventional topics, from whether mosquitoes have any redeeming virtues,7 to whether black widow spiders are worthy of moral consideration,8 to why your supermarket’s shelves are packed with cans of dolphin-free tuna but not a single can of tuna-free dolphin.9 What made these essays so effective was Quammen’s willingness to allow his readers to arrive at their own conclusions. He understood that raising moral questions is more important than answering them, particularly when the questions you are raising are ones you are not even supposed to ask. And as an added bonus for aspiring attentional deviants like me, Quammen even offered this piece of invaluable methodological advice: “Just take a day or an hour each month to think carefully about something that nobody else deems worthy of contemplation,” he wrote. “Pick a subject so perversely obscure that it can’t help but have neglected significance.”10 If I had a corkboard hanging on the wall above my desk, this is what I would pin to it.
As Zerubavel explains, it is our culture, not some immutable law of nature, that focuses our “moral attention” on some things rather than others.11 In the process of becoming a well-socialized member of society, each of us learns “how to curb our moral concerns in a socially appropriate manner.”12 I do not know about you, but I learned that dolphins matter more than tunas, that tunas and dolphins matter more than spiders, and that serious people do not waste their time worrying about the moral status of mosquitoes. They swat them. In other cultures the rules are different, such that the very same belief—say, that mosquitoes are worthy of moral consideration—is considered deviant in one culture but conventional in another. When it comes to your own culture, however, there are repercussions for questioning conventional thinking about a settled moral matter. You run the risk of being labeled a deviant and treated accordingly—raised eyebrows and all.
Yet taking that risk is exactly what we academics are supposed to do. Questioning conventional thinking is, after all, our job. In fact, if you stop to think about it for a moment, academia is essentially a haven for attentional deviants with PhDs, a place where freaks like us are reasonably free to question what passes for conventional wisdom in our society. Or at least that is what academia should aspire to be, anyway.
Take the field of environmental ethics. Here we have a group of scholars who make it their business to question where their culture draws the line between who (or what) is worthy of moral consideration and who (or what) is not. (Note the bit of conventional thinking I just engaged in right there: namely my presumption, utterly taken for granted in my culture, but deviant among a group of animists, that not everything can be a “who.”) And then there are the even more deviant environmental ethicists who go so far as to reject the whole idea of drawing a line. Advocating “universal consideration,” they argue that everything is worthy of moral consideration—not just mosquitoes and ecosystems but also lettuces and iPhones and rocks.13
Or consider multispecies studies, an emerging area of interest in the environmental humanities. Following in Quammen’s footsteps,14 these researchers examine the moral status of creatures their cultures tell them to fear or loathe or simply ignore—the invasive species, the nuisance wildlife, the vermin and the pests, along with all those unfortunate creatures who simply lack that certain something geographer Jamie Lorimer calls “nonhuman charisma.”15 Taken together, these are the “unloved” creatures, the ones who, according to conventional thinking, are unworthy of our concern.16
I realize that attentional deviance may be too apolitical for some readers’ tastes. And it is certainly true that examining the moral status of rocks, let alone iPhones and other human artifacts, is not exactly a recipe for political relevance. Particularly in times like these—then again, are we not always living in “times like these”?—maybe our time really would be better spent thinking about climate change, biodiversity loss, and other pressing environmental problems. Fortunately, we do not have to choose, either as a field or as individual scholars. It is possible to do both kinds of work even in the very same article or book. As a field, the environmental humanities should continue to welcome both approaches: one that aims for political relevance by taking up the big environmental issues of the day, and another that eschews political relevance, at least as it is conventionally understood, aiming, instead, to explore the little environmental nonissues of the day as well. But it is also important to recognize that the latter approach is not as apolitical as it may seem.
The late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the term “adiaphorization” to refer to the process by which we come to regard many aspects of our lives as matters of moral indifference.17 We come to see these matters not as moral or immoral, but as amoral, as having nothing to do with morality. Included in the process of adiaphorization are all the formal and informal mechanisms of social control, including those raised eyebrows, that bring us back into line whenever we deviate from conventional thinking about who matters and who does not.18 To raise moral questions about those who are said not to matter, thereby introducing moral considerations where “everybody knows” they do not belong, is to invite the charge of absurdity—or worse. That, however, is the job of the attentional deviant. When it comes to all those officially amoral matters that Bauman taught us to see, our job is to oppose adiaphorization with counteradiaphorization, to question the conventional wisdom that says there is nothing moral happening here.19
For my first experiment with this method, see Clark, “Uncharismatic Invasives.”
Birch, “Moral Considerability and Universal Consideration.” For an earlier statement of this view, see Smith, “Letting in the Jungle.” For a more recent discussion, see Calarco, “Toward an Agnostic Animal Ethics.”
For a review, see van Dooren, Kirksey, and Münster, “Multispecies Studies,” 6. On nonhuman charisma, see Lorimer, “Nonhuman Charisma.”
For earlier calls to consider things our culture tells us are unworthy of moral consideration, see, for example, Cheney and Weston, “Environmental Ethics as Environmental Etiquette,” 120; Birch, “Moral Considerability and Universal Consideration,” 317.