I’ve written about this quite a bit over the last year, but it’s worth repeating again and again. When thinking of things that need to be overcome in philosophy and culture, forget philosophies of presence, forget ontotheology, forget identity thinking; if there’s one thing that needs to be overcome it’s the pre-modern concept of nature. Okay, I exaggerate here a bit. Ontotheology (which I see as deeply tied to the pre-modern concept of nature), philosophies of presence, and identity thought are things that need to be worked through as well, but I can’t help but believe that the premodern concept of nature trumps all the rest. Is there any form of oppression and exploitation for which the premodern concept of nature has not been evoked? “Women are naturally inferior to men.” “Some groups of people are naturally inferior and therefore worthy of being slaves” (Aristotle). “Some groups of people are naturally of inferior intelligence and therefore racial class distributions are both inevitable and naturally justified.” It goes on and on.
I was reminded of this again today as I read the remarks of District 9 (really!) Councilwoman Elisa Chan in San Antonio, Texas. Discussing laws pertaining to discrimination against homosexuals, she remarked
It is actually, what you call, suggestive, for the kids to be corrupt, which is against nature. I’m telling you, anything that is against nature is not right.
This is only one of her more choice remarks, read the rest here. This distills the essence of the premodern concept of nature. Within the premodern concept of nature there is something that beings ought to be. There is a telos, a teleology governing beings, drawing them to their true destination. Nature is therefore treated as a normative force sorting beings and defining their being. This is a strange sort of normativity as nature is simultaneously treated as an ineluctable force that makes entities what they are– the acorn is ineluctably drawn towards becoming an oak tree —and it is possible for beings to deviate from these aims, thereby meriting the condemnation of something “going against nature”.
It is here, with this teleology, that the premodern concept of nature is linked to ontotheology; and in particular theistic ontotheology. Where there is a telos of what beings ought to be, then there must be a designer and legislator that ordains that beings be this way. Here I hasten to add that I see little improvement regarding this issue in the thought of Whitehead. While Whitehead’s god is certainly not a theistic god, it nonetheless functions as a “lure” for actual occasions, selecting those eternal objects that “draw” actual occasions and societies of actual occasions towards particular ends. This is still a variant of design arguments no matter how you cut it. The dual normativity of the premodern concept of nature is what allows it to function as an apologetics for power and oppression as in the case of Elisa Chan’s remarks above.
Hence the generalized suspicion of the concept of nature we find in the humanities. In response to this ontology, the general strategy has been to draw a strong division between nature and culture. On the one hand, there is the domain of nature governed by necessity, causality, and ineluctability. On the other hand, there’s the domain of culture defined by contingency or the capacity to be otherwise, history, and freedom. In certain instances such as strong linguistic and cultural constructivism, nature is erased altogether. Within this framework there is only culture carving up being in a variety of ways.
Insofar as culture is treated as the domain of freedom, initially this move seems promising. That which has been socially constructed can be reconstructed. Put differently, things can be constructed otherwise. Nonetheless, there are problems with this approach. On the one hand, the tendency of culturalism is to reduce social assemblages to products of things such as language, signs, human intentions, meaning, norms, etc. The problem is that social assemblages are far richer than this. The presence or absence of roads, the sorts of media used, water availability, weather patterns and events, disease epidemiologies, the sorts of calories consumed, features of geography such as rivers (with their annual flooding), mountain ranges, desert, etc., all play a crucial role in the form social relations take. Yet all of this tends to become invisible under culturalist approaches. Because we opt to attend to how we signify and intend things and persons, the material features of the milieus in which we dwell tend to become invisible (elsewhere I’ve argued that there are features internal to the sociological setting of the academy that strongly encourage a trend towards this sort of idealism). As always, the point here is not that the discursive, meaning, signs, language, etc., are not crucial components of social assemblages, but rather that they are only part of the story.
Second, with the growing rise of ecology as a site of political struggle due to climate change, we increasingly witness the limitations of culturalist approaches. Appropriate responses to climate change require us to treat ozone holes, the pollution of rivers and lakes due to fracking and other forms of waste, shifts in weather patterns and changes in agriculture, droughts, dead zones in oceans, and so on as real. We can’t effectively approach issues pertaining to climate change through a focus on how we signify things alone, but need both a materialist and realist dimension in our thought to discuss these issues. Clearly analysis and deconstruction of our narratives regarding nature will be necessary here, but we also need to be clear that rises in global temperatures and their effects are as real as a heart attack and aren’t simply social or linguistic constructions.
It would seem then that announcements of the death of nature, coupled with calls for an ecology without nature, have been a bit hasty. What we need is not an erasure of nature, but a rethinking of the concept of nature. We simply can’t afford to dispense with the concept of nature; however, it is necessary to rethink this concept in a way that neutralizes it’s ability to function as an apology for oppressive power as in the case of Chan’s remarks above, as a tool of the normativity of theistic theologies, and in a way that takes into account the critiques of the culturalists (and here culturalism also requires a critique, freeing it of its often reactionary and knee-jerk attitudes towards the sciences– an endemic problem in the humanities –while also retaining the insights that it’s provided pertaining to the role of politics in science). The winning move, in my view, is not an “ecology without nature”, a pan-culturalism, but rather the claim that there is only nature, that nature looks far more like culture than the old theological concept of nature, and that nature is radically immanent, without teleology, norms, nor species or archetypes that govern what things ought to be. Nature is auto-constructing without a constructor, not designed.
In short, we must build a concept of nature as polymorphously perverse and differential. The polymorphous, of course, refers to that which is capable of taking on a variety of different forms. Far from being characterized by ineluctability and necessity, life testifies to the essential plasticity and creativity of nature. In a Freudian framework, the “perverse” refers to that which deviates from its aim. For example, the oral drive is “perverse” in that it aims not at sustenance, but at the pleasure of orality. The oral drive, as it were, subverts the teleology of the mouth and tongue. In this regard, Freud gave us a non-teleological account of sexuality. Despite all of is problems, the novelty of Freud’s account of sexuality lies in having decoupled the sexual and reproductive. Within a Freudian framework, we reproduce because of sexuality– as an accidental by-product of sexuality –we do not have sexuality for the sake of reproduction. Sexuality, in a Freudian framework, is inherently queer; even in heterosexual contexts.
Surprisingly, it was Darwin that taught us to think of life as inherently perverse and queer (although this message is often missed). Despite the abuses to which evolutionary thought is endlessly subjected by things such as Spencer’s social darwinism and evolutionary biology, Darwin’s first step lay in erasing teleology. Within a Darwinian framework, form does not follow function, but rather function follows form. The eagle does not have keen sight for the sake of catching its prey, but rather because eagles have keen eyesight they are better able to catch their prey. First, the function is the result of a particular form, of a particular feature of the organisms morphology. The form is first there and then a use is found. There is not first a pre-existent problem such as “the need to see prey” and then the production of a particular organ or feature of the body. Moreover, more than one function can be found for one and the same form. For example, it is said that lungs initially began as air sacs that ocean going organisms used to float. They did not originally have a respiratory function.
Darwin’s second step consisted in erasing the category of species altogether. This might come as a surprise given that the title of one of his books is The Origin of Species. However, when we look at the details of Darwin’s thought we find that he is a radical ontological nominalist. For Darwin, there are only individual organisms and no two of these organisms is exactly alike. There are indeed resemblances between organisms, but there is no shared essence. What we call a “species”, argues Darwin, is just a statistical generalization of resemblances between different individuals. There is no additional thing– an essence or form –that exists over and above these individuals. In this way, Darwin undermines one of the central foundations of the teleological premise at the heart of the premodern concept of nature. Under the premodern concept of nature, individuals are copies of species. Species are ideal forms, and individual differences that deviate from those ideal forms are treated as betrayals of the essence of the species. In this way, the concept of species functions as a description, and norm, and a teleological draw or attractor of individuals. In the Darwinian framework, everything is reversed. Here the species is a statistical effect of individuals and has no causal power of its own. Species are something that are constructed. They are constructed both “culturally” through our classifications, but also “naturally” through processes like natural selection.
It is with Darwin’s third gesture that we encounter the perverse and differential dimension of Darwin’s evolutionary theory: random mutation. Individuals indeed produce copies of themselves through reproduction. However, no copy is the same as the original or that from which it is copied. “Random”, of course, does not mean uncaused. Random mutation is caused by all sorts of things ranging from chemicals in the environment to highly charged cosmic particles. It’s as if, with respect to life, nature functioned like Husserl’s practice of “free variation”, exploring the possibilities of form for their own sake. This is the perversity of nature. The mutation of form, its polymorphousness, is not explored for the sake of solving sort of problem such as seeing prey, but simply because. There is no goal to it, save the endless exploration of form. In this regard, random mutation resembles some features of modernist art, where features of style and form are foregrounded, while theme, message, purpose, and meaning are pushed into the background. Nature itself is modernist. Where the premodern concept of nature saw mutation as a deviant departure from the norm of the species, Darwin instead proposes that random mutation is itself the motor of “speciation”. Individual difference is thus unshackled from a nomos that measures the degree to which it approximates the essential differences of the species, but instead becomes the generative principle of species. It is in this regard that the modern concept of nature is differential and creative. Every species is doomed to be erased because in the replication of individuals new differences, new vectors of speciation, are perpetually being produced. In this regard, arguments such as Chan’s are immediately annulled, as individuals aren’t supposed to be anything, there is no “natural” norm they’re supposed to embody or exemplify, there is no “ought” of individual organisms. Nature is queer.
The claim that culture and society are phenomena of nature is often met with raised eyebrows and even outrage. This is because too many of us in the humanities continue to assume the premodern concept of nature. When we hear such a thesis, we immediately think that it’s being suggested that we explain culture by reference to biology and evolutionary sociology and psychology. However, nothing of the sort is being suggested. First, the claim is that there is only nature, that everything is embedded in nature, and that there is no transcendent outside to nature such as that proposed by Platonic forms and dualistic theories of mind. The social world is embedded in the natural world and is of the natural world. Nothing about this, however, denies the historical and creative nature of social assemblages. Social assemblages are unique and creative, but so are Amazonian rain forests and Hawaiian coral reefs. Second, “nature” signifies the pervasiveness of material and efficient causes in all things, including social phenomena. Naturalism about society doesn’t entail that one appeals to genes to explain social phenomena, but that all things being equal there must be causal mechanisms– often semiotic and linguistic –that account for these formations. In many respects, the modern concept of nature annuls the normativity of the premodern concept of nature. That normativity of species, forms, and essences is no longer operative because there are only individuals and deviations or vectors of change form what came before. As Love & Rockets put it, you cannot go against nature, because when you do it’s nature too.
Of course, with this transformed concept of nature, it follows that we must transform our concept of ecology as well. The ecologist can no longer appeal to the way assemblages ought to be were humans not to intervene through their practices and technology because there’s no way nature ought to be. Likewise, when we speak of genetic engineering we can no longer protest it as being “unnatural”. These sorts of arguments follow exactly the same sort of discredited logic and ontology as Chan’s arguments. Rather, we must take responsibility for the normative claims we make about how the world and organisms ought to be, recognizing that these are our norms, not something legislated by “Nature” (and implicitly a designer). The distinction between the artificial and the natural, techne and phusis, breaks down with the modern concept of nature and instead we are left with a polymorphously perverse nature that “celebrates”, like Spinoza’s god, everything that can be simply because it can be. Above all, it entails annulling the human/animal divide, of recognizing ourselves as animals among other animals, not out of any sort of misanthropy, but in recognition of how this distinction has both assisted in the oppression of various other humans, the denigration of women, and has also cultivated a sort of exceptionalism that has helped to justify certain highly destructive ecological practices.