With too many talks to give in June and July, it’s likely that my postings here will be less frequent for the next few weeks. Yet having finished the initial draft of my “Black Ecology” article for Jeffrey Cohen’s Prismatic Ecologies collection, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on “nature” of late. Just as I consider myself a materialist (of a particular sort), I also consider myself a naturalist. Now, as is often the case, I’m often surprised to find that I use words differently than others. When I evoke the term “materialism”, for example, I mean that I’m committed to the thesis that there is only matter (whatever that might turn out to be), interactions, and void. For me materialism just means that there are no incorporeal entities, nor any incorporeal interactions. If an entity exists, then for me it must be material. If there’s an interaction, then there must be some sort of material connection between the two entities. This leaves completely unspecified what kind of entities exist. All it says is that if an entity exists it will have the common ontological feature of being material as is the case with all other entities.
I was thus surprised to discover that others take the term “materialism” in a very different way. It seems that the more common usage of the term– in the humanities and social sciences, anyway –entail reductionism. To be a materialist is to be a reductionist. Thus, for example, if you’re a materialist this means that you would ignore things like systems of signification or meaning, instead reducing these things to neuronal events and perhaps genes. Well that’s certainly not a position I endorse, and the reason that I don’t endorse it is because I think it’s the wrong level of explanation. I think it’s the wrong level of explanation because I don’t believe that signifiers– for example –are restricted to single brains, but that they are transpersonal entities defined by their relations to other signifiers and that can’t be reduced to any particular brain. While signifiers can’t exist with brains (or computers) of some sort, they are social entities (meaning that can’t be restricted to any particular individual). All I’m committed to is the thesis that if signifiers exist– and I certainly believe they do –they are material entities. This is entirely different than claiming that they can be reduced to neurons or genes. In other words, my materialism is firmly wedded to a theory of emergence. Discussions like materialism discussion are one of the reasons I blog. In discussing things with others I learn a lot and discover things and ways of thinking that would have never occurred to me in the solitude of my study.
After the materialism discussion, however, I find myself a little more cautious. Naturalism seems obvious to me, but am I using the term in the same way others use it? I don’t know. Minimally, for me, naturalism means that 1) there is nothing outside of nature, 2) that everything is natural, 3) that, therefore, humans are a part of nature and “societies” (or what I prefer to call “hominid ecologies”) are a part of nature, 4) that there are no incorporeal entities (i.e., to be a naturalist is to be a materialist), and 5) that all causes are natural causes (whatever “nature” might turn out to mean). To claim that there are no natural causes is just to say that there’s no magical causation, no supernatural causation, that there’s no causation through mysterious entities like “forms”, and that there’s no action at a distance. For anything that takes place there has to be some sort of physical connection or relation. In this regard, culture is not something outside of or other than nature, but is one more natural formation among others. As Deleuze might put it, “there’s nothing out of field”.
Nonetheless, I also believe that “nature” must be denatured. If I’m here led to place “nature” in inverted commas, then this is because I believe that there’s a dominant concept of nature in the humanities, social sciences, and popular culture that reflects nothing of the true nature of nature. In other words, by placing “nature” in inverted commas, I am trying to suspend that concept of nature. In other words, I am trying to suspend a particular way in which the concept of nature has functioned rhetorically and ideologically throughout Western history.
Before getting to this, there are a couple of things worth noting about my inverted commas. For those who are about to denounce the thesis that “everything is natural” on the grounds that such a thesis is essentialist or reductionist, I would invite you to pause and reflect on what I’ve just said about inverted commas, rhetoric, and my use of the logical functive “all” or “everything”. In making a point about inverted commas, I’m acknowledging the reality of how signifiers function in hominid ecologies. I am saying that concepts, ideas, signifiers, and ideologies are real entities and actors in the world. They circulate throughout the world, they do things, they influence people, they influence thought. So the first point is that I cannot be committed to the thesis that the rhetorician, the critical theorist, and the critic of ideology should reduce these things to discussions of neurons and genes. If such a reduction is what immediately comes to your mind when you hear the word “naturalism”, that’s your problem, not mine. I’m committed to the thesis that signifying complexes and ideologies are every bit as much real and material things as neurons and genes. You’re the one who hasn’t made the leap to seeing these as natural, real, material beings– and I realize my tone sounds hostile here, but I’ve encountered these unconscious assumptions so often that I have to underline them –not me. Second, in saying that everything is natural, I’m including all the formations of “culture”, along with their historical and contingent nature. As Latour has so compellingly argued, we like to divide culture and nature and treat the natural world as the domain of essence and causality, while we treat the cultural world as the domain of freedom, history, and contingency. Birds, we say, are “predetermined” to build nests, humans invent ways of building buildings. Birds have no history. Humans, because they invent, have history. But Darwin blew this entire thesis out of the water. What Darwin demonstrated is that species are historical and contingent, that they could have been otherwise under other conditions. After Darwin we just can’t sort the world in this way anymore.
What we need to see, I think, is that nature is a lot more like culture than we thought (it is inventive, contingent, and historical), and that culture is a lot more natural than we thought (it requires all sorts of material connections and is a physical, material thing). And it is here where I get to the point that we must “denature nature”. We find ourselves confronted with a paradox with the concept of nature. On the one hand, the concept of nature– especially during the Modernist period –was a potent signifier promoting emancipation. It was the concept of nature that allowed us to fight superstition and the despotic grip of ecclesiastical authority. This wasn’t just because– as thinkers like the blessed Lucretius, but also the saintly Spinoza argued –the concept of nature allowed us to see that there was no divine and moral dimension to natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, but because political power was dependent on a particular supernatural concept of existence. Kings and Popes were to subjects as God is to creatures, Fathers were to women and children, as God is to his subjects. Patriarchy was a fractal pattern inscribed in both the metaphysics of the time period– we call it “ontotheology” today –and at every level of the political structure. At every level of the political structure there was inscribed a patriarch– whether God over creatures, King over subjects, or father and husband over wife and children –that presided over everyone else. It was naturalism and materialism– not Christianity as so many American reactionaries would like to claim –that allowed this structure to be contested. Rather than seeing this structure as a part of “the great chain of being” where everyone has a divinely decreed place in “the order of things”– an ontological place such that it is possible, as Hamlet said, for “time to be out of joint” because someone has violated this ontology –the secularists, atheists, naturalists, and materialists showed that social positions are constructed.
They showed that no hominid is essentially different from any other hominid, and they showed that it is society that makes a hominid what it is, not God. The king is the king not because God decrees it, but because his subjects recognize him as a king. The father is a lord over the wife and children not because God decrees it, but because the wife and children recognize him in this position of authority. In other words, what the atheists, secularists, naturalists, and materialist showed was that the power of power always flows from outside the powerful, that it never originates from within the powerful, and therefore that it is a cultural phenomenon, not a divine phenomenon. And if it is cultural, not divine— the opposition here is not culture/nature, but culture/divine –it is historical, contingent, and therefore capable of being otherwise. We, not the Big Poobah fascist dictator God, are the ones calling the shots. And we can do it otherwise, because, above all, the power of the assholes came not from the assholes, but from us. We gave them this power, this power did not originate from them or from God. It was the naturalistic hypothesis– especially in Lucretius and Spinoza –that made such a critique possible, for naturalism demanded that we give an immanent, social explanation for social positions and social formations, refusing all divine or essential prescriptions. And here I can’t help but wonder at the motivations of some of my object-oriented “colleagues” who perpetually fail to see the political significance of religion. I guess when you live in certain places it’s difficult to talk about these issues, lest you lose your job.
But then there was another side to the concept of “nature” (again, inverted commas). No sooner than naturalism became a line of flight, than it was reterritorialized on the powers of oppression. Thinkers like Lucretius and Spinoza had found a way of completely contesting Platonic and Aristotlean concepts of “nature”– that would later be picked up by Heidegger in his Black Forest yammerings about “phusis” –by showing how nature was about inventive and constructive “naturings” that produced ways of being that were contingent, historical, and without divine ordering or decree. Their concept of society and culture was naturalist in that it showed that there was no Cartesian coordinate system, that there was no divine decree, but that was simply the result of contingent natural beings capable of being otherwise. But then in a move that I don’t hesitate to call “Heideggerian”– even though this is somewhat anachronistic –we get a return to “nature” as essence. In other words, where we get the radical contingency of nature in Lucretius and Spinoza where peoples are invented, in the Heideggerian counter-reaction we get the sorting of peoples as expressions of an essence. Heidegger will talk of the “spirit” of a people and make claims that philosophy can only be done in German and Greek, while prior to Heidegger we will get all sorts of thinkers such as Hegel and Kant speaking about how certain people are “more natural” and therefore further from reason and autonomy, while others (the Europeans and men) are truly autonomous.
Here “nature” takes on a very different valence than the one that was defended by Lucretius and Spinoza. “Nature” comes to signify, in contrast to culture, that which originates essentially from within itself. The bird “naturally” builds its nest. Culture comes to signify invention. We then see the colonialist sorting of peoples– one Heidegger won’t hesitate to speak of in his talk of the Volk and the “destinings” of people much later –where certain people are closer to “nature” and therefore less “Dasein”, and others are further from “nature”. The people’s being discovered in the “New World” and “Africas” will be said to be “closer to nature”. They will be the “primatives” who are said to be dominated by their passions, to live among trees and plants, who are incapable of reason, and all the rest. Similar things will be said about women. Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill will have to refute these arguments, showing that women are really rational beings and that their squalor is the result of lack of education and opportunity. The argument form “nature” will then be used to justify patriarchal oppression. The Heideggerian argument will run that if women shouldn’t be allowed to own property, preside over their own bank accounts, or get educated, then this is because they are “like children”, they are too close to nature, they are too dominated by “phusis”, and therefore need a strong man capable of reason and judgment to guide them. Similar arguments will be used in support for slavery and in the oppression of every other minority. It will always be the argument that Heidegger brought to the fore in his discussions of “phusis” and those cultures that are closer to being and those that aren’t, that certain peoples are just too wild to be granted their own self-determination and that they need a strong patriarch to guide them.
If the concept of nature needs to be denatured, then this is because it is contaminated by this concept of “nature”. Again the square quotes. It is this idea of a deterministic essence where certain beings are capable of reason, history, self-creation, self-positing, and the rest that aren’t that needs to be destroyed. To denature nature is to return to a more profound nature of nature… One that recognizes with Love & Rockets that you cannot go against nature because when you do it’s nature too (ergo, heteronormativity is bullshit), and that thoroughly contests these sorts of essentializations.