Both Ben and Austin have posts up responding to some claims Zizek makes about nature. Ben writes:

For Zizek nature must be non-all or barred, but this nature never goes beyond the range of the earth. Zizek those go on to argue that the appearence of the whole in nature, that the very possibility of nature-in-itself is merely a result of subjective experience, an argument he ties to the experience of the sublime. Zizek then argues for ecology without nature thereby following Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature. I have unfortunately not yet read his text of the same name. From what I have read it seems that what he attacks as the concept of nature is a dominant mode of nature – one stemming from the rationalist tradition where is an immense but separate entity. Zizek writes: “what we need is ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on.”

Here my largest issue (which seems to come up with many commentators on nature and ecology) is that the ecology of concepts of nature is severally narrowed for the sake of argument. Zizek seems to make a reversal when discussing the films of Tarkovsky and in particular Stalker but then shifts back to focus on transcendental subjectivity.

The ontological priviledge of the subject remains a serious stumbling block for any approach to nature that is not too shallow or too obfuscated. The finitude of the subject has become increasingly transcendentalized at the expense of nature, nature becomes merely an elaborate background. Nature goes right through the subject.

Following up on Ben’s criticism, it seems to me that there is a fundamental ambiguity in how Zizek refers to “nature”. When Zizek critiques nature is he referring to nature as such or the discursive concept of nature as it functions in a particular ideological discourse? If the former, it is completely appropriate for Zizek to critique this concept of nature and how it functions ideologically. Within this discursive framework, nature is treated as a whole that is harmonious and independent of culture. That is, culture is treated as something other than nature and outside of nature.

read on!

This is precisely the move that flat ontology cannot brook. As Latour demonstrates so nicely in texts like We Have Never Been Modern and Politics of Nature there is no “outside” that is other than culture and, more importantly, no inside that is other than nature. There is just the world or being on a single flat plane. Note, when Latour advances this argument he is neither culturalizing nature nor naturalizing culture. Latour’s deconstruction of the nature/society divide is not undertaking in the name of showing that all that we refer to as nature is really culture, nor is it undertaken in the name of showing that all we refer to as culture is really natural. To choose either of these options would be to fall straight back into the binary opposition between nature and culture where we choose one or the other. Rather, for Latour what we get is a flat plane of actants interacting with one another in a variety of ways that are perpetually non-all.

Within Latour’s framework, Zizek would go wrong in his thesis that nature is based on the transcendental subject. And this for two reasons. First, all actants are independent of one another such that no actant can be the condition of all other actants. Second, any collectivizations that do take place among actants are the result of many actants interacting with one another, not one particular actant unifying the rest. An actant can, of course, try to effect such a unification but all the other actants to be unified have their own input in these matters as well. Here, I suspect, part of Zizek’s problem lies in a rather outmoded metaphysics premised on concepts of sovereignity where unification issues from some master-agent that imposes form or order on the rest (Negri & Hardt have a nice critique of this model in Commonwealth).

Riffing on Ben’s observations, Austin writes:

There is a clear connection between this piece and Freud’s “Unbehagen in der Kultur” (“Civilization and its Discontents”, uneasiness in culture). It is not the case that fro Freud most of us socialize normally but some people “don’t quite make it” and so must be normalized. It is rather that culture as such, in order to appear normal, ordered, etc., involves a whole series of distortions, manipulations, and pathologies. We are then “uneasy” in culture as such. One of the goals of Zizek’s work on ecology is to show this as true for nature as well, that we are uneasy, homesick, in nature itself.

This is the alienation of subjectivity, which is essential to Lacanianism. The subject only exists as alienated, through alienation. But is it the case that the human being is fundamentally alienated from nature-as-such? Part of Zizek’s structuralist narrative that he inherits from Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Rousseau, etc., is the dichotomy of nature and culture, that there was some sort of transcendental rupture in reality when human beings developed the capacity for language and suddenly we went from being apes to human beings. In this process we began instantly to supplant nature with culture, imposing ourselves on the chaos of nature, ordering it. Is this the case? Isn’t it rather that the human being, and human culture, developed slowly out of nature? Zizek wants us to believe that either there is a radical break with culture or we are New Age obscurantists who want to naively go “back to nature.” There is surely a middle ground to this ridiculous dichotomy, one that will say that culture is thoroughly “natural,” while still being (clearly) different, in the same way that both animals and minerals are natural but different.

Right on. One of the narratives we find in Lacanian psychoanalysis is this idea that man is a fundamental rupture within nature that is perpetually alienated from, and out of step with, nature. This thesis is only plausible on the assumption that 1) nature independent of man is a harmonious whole, and 2) that other organisms, unlike the human, possess a harmonious relationship with nature. Working on this premise we get books like van Haute’s Against Adaptation that argue against evolutionary theory on the grounds that humans are fundamentally out of step with nature such that adaptation to nature is impossible for us.

The problem here is not with the thesis that humans are out of step with their environment (or, in Latour’s terms, the network of actants among which we dwell). The problem here is with the implied interpretation of evolutionary biology suggesting that any organism is in step or phase with their environment or the network of actants within which it dwells. What this cereal box understanding of evolutionary theory misses is that “adaptation” as understood in evolutionary theory does not mean “well-fitted”, but rather refers to a wager or gamble on the part of an organism. An adaptation is a gamble that certain features of the environment will remain stable and consistent. In this respect there is nothing unique about humans in their lack of perfect phase relations between innenwelt and umwelt. Insofar as any environment is always more complex than the manner in which the organism “represents” the environment, every organism is more or less out of phase with its environment. This lack of fit between environment and organism has all sorts of consequences for the life of each and every organism as it navigates its world. Psychoanalysis is right to critique the ideological conception of nature as a harmonious, self-regulating whole. However, it goes astray in believing that somehow the fissures and antagonisms of “nature” are unique to humans.