LucretiusA few weeks ago I was teaching Epicurus and Lucretius in my Intro class.  A moment from those lectures that occurred in all five of my sections has stuck with me ever since.  After working through the basics of Epicurean ethics and how to live in such a way as to achieve, to the greatest degree possible, aponia we arrived at the problem of anxiety and the primary causes of our anxiety according to Epicurus and Lucretius.  Within the Epicurean tradition, the first of these is superstition or religion (I don’t think the latter translation is the best insofar as religion doesn’t really become a distinct concept in Europe until the 17th century), while the second is fear of death; both the pain of dying and fear of punishment in the afterlife.  Both of these, of course, are interrelated.

Saussure_Signifie-SignifiantThe Epicurean cure to the fear produced by superstition is the study of nature…  A cure that I don’t think has been particularly effective because we know more about nature than at any other time, yet are as anxious as ever, perhaps even moreso.  At any rate, I asked my students– again in five classes –what might be some reasons for studying nature and was startled by their answers.  In each class they gave answers that indicated that they associated the signifier “nature” with the green, the biological, the living, and the animate.  In other words, for my students, nature is green.

IMG_1317I think moments like this in the classroom are both important and powerful.  I had a similar moment earlier in the semester when I asked my students at the beginning of the semester, in all six classes, whether the sentence “the kitchen is a political space” is a statement that makes sense to them.  They were baffled by this enunciation, and in that moment I encountered something like a “gravitational anomaly” in Star Trek indicating the presence of something in space not visible to the naked eye.  A moment like this indicates that each time I use the word “politics” in my classroom there is a lens through which they are hearing my words that is invisible to me.  In the case of the signifier “nature” and its widespread association to all that is animate, biological, living, and green– a venerable conception of nature going all the way back to Aristotle and the title of his famous book, Physics –nature, for them, is what blooms, grows, moves, and perceives.  However, this also entails that the rock, dirt, water, and the rest– all that is “inanimate” –is something other than “nature”.  The surface of Mars or Jupiter is not, within this conceptual framework, nature.  Insofar as the concepts we have inform our action, I believe this is a matter of deep concern, for, as the articles in Cohen’s Prismatic Ecologies argue, we must think ecology beyond green if we are to truly think ecologically.  This I believe is the work of philosophy and art.  We contribute, if only in a small way, to shifting conceptual assemblages in new and different directions helping in some small way to generate different ways of perceiving, acting, and living together.  Our activism is both a poetic and conceptual work that helps to bring something of the buzzing confusion of being into relief.