Tag Archives: nature/culture

no such thing as nature

A serendipitous find:

Humans have continually altered biodiversity on many scales. We have changed the local mix of species, their ranges, habitats and niches for thousands of years. Long before agriculture, selective human predation of many non-domesticated species shaped their evolutionary course. Even the relatively small hunter-gatherer populations of the late Pleistocene were capable of negatively affecting animal populations – driving many megafauna and island species extinct or to the point of extinction. But there have also been widespread social and ecological adaptations to these changes: human management can even increase biodiversity of landscapes and can sustain these increases for thousands of years. For example, pastoralism might have helped defer climate-driven aridification of the Sahara, maintaining mixed forests and grassland ecosystems in the region for centuries.

This recognition should cause us to rethink what ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ really are. If by ‘nature’ we mean something divorced from or untouched by humans, there’s almost nowhere on Earth where such conditions exist, or have existed for thousands of years. The same can be said of Earth’s climate. If early agricultural land use began warming our climate thousands of years ago, as the early anthropogenic hypothesis suggests, it implies that no ‘natural’ climate has existed for millennia.

A clear-eyed appreciation for the deep entanglement of the human and natural worlds is vital if we are to grapple with the unprecedented ecological challenges of our times. Naively romanticising a pristine Earth, on the other hand, will hold us back. Grasping that nature is inextricably linked with human societies is fundamental to the worldview of many Indigenous cultures – but it remains a novel and often controversial perspective within the natural sciences.

One of the tasks currently on my desk is to put together a lecture on Climate, Culture & Narrative for a Masters module on Climate Change & Society, and I remember clearly how much I was asked to read as a Masters student, and how rarely I had the time (or access) to the full books that were sometimes recommended. So I’ve been looking for decent yet short articles that can fill in some background on the stuff I’ll be talking about… and this piece does a good job of rolling up on the natural/social dichotomy without actually deploying that term (nor the long-running theoretical disputes for which it stands as a synecdoche), so I think I’ll be including it in my list of recommended reads.

(It also adds some dimensionality to James C Scott’s Against The Grain, which I’ve been meaning all summer to re-read, but hahahahaaah, OMG, my personal reading list… it’s the closest thing to imagining Sisyphus happy, I suppose).

In combination these things will all feed into my infrastructural theory work, which might also be thought as as a way of coming at the Anthropocene from a different direction to the usual… though I’m starting to think that I need to put up or shut up on that front, because there’s only so many times you can write on your blog “hey, here’s a thing related to that thing I keep meaning to do” before wanting to give yourself a bit of a slap. It’s like those people who are always writing about the novel they’re going to write, but who never actually write the damned novel… and I was one of those people for over a decade, too.

(On the flipside, that process somehow ended me up where I am now, doing something rather different, so it can’t be all bad, right? But the point stands: if I can’t get this thing out of my head, despite having a whole raft of other equally challenging work that I’m actually paid to do, then the only way to exorcise the ghost is to write the sucker out. Selah—do the work, Raven.)

Organ projection

Kapp’s arguments also represent an important forerunner in theories of media and culture. In the 20th century, German sociological discourse was shaped by two canonical arguments about the prosthesis, one posed by Sigmund Freud, the other by Arnold Gehlen. Freud’s definition of man as a prosthetic god appears in his 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents. Gehlen presents his Mängelwesen (literally: a being defined by lack) in the 1940 Man, His Nature and Place in the World. In both cases, the theory of prosthesis argues that human organs can and need to be strengthened in their function, protected or outright substituted by the prosthesis. The prosthesis compensates an inherently under-equipped human. (The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan belongs in this tradition, too, with his notion of media as “extensions of man.”) What unites Freud and Gehlen, however, is the way that their theories drive a hard distinction between nature and culture. The natural body must be superseded in its shortcomings by the assistance of culture in the form of the technical prosthesis. Kapp’s notion of organ projection precedes both Freud and Gehlen and belongs to neither. For Kapp, the prosthesis cannot be cleanly distinguished from the human and its body, to which it always fundamentally relates as an instance of organ projection. If the prosthesis stands in relation to the body like culture stands in relation to nature, then for Kapp the very nature/culture distinction dissolves into the insignificance of a tautology.

From a review by William Stewart at the Los Angeles Review of Books of the newly-translated Elements of a Philosophy of Technology by Ernst Kapp, originally published 1877. That’s another one for the accessions list, then… I seem to be acquiring a lot of U-of-Minnesota Press books lately.