Letters

Letters Archive
Fall 99, Vol. 8, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)
  • Deconstructing Nature
  • John K. Roth Named Consultant to the 1999/2000 Holocaust Program
  • Kathleen Hall Jamieson to Present the 1999 Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture
  • Inventing Work Conference
  • 2000/20001 Fellows Program
  • 1999/2000 Fellows
  • Second Annual Robert Penn Warren Lecture on Southern Letters: Reynolds Price

  • Deconstructing Nature

    What is understood by the word "nature"? Does it refer to something untouched by human hands: virgin forests, undeveloped beaches, inaccessible mountains? Or does it have a broader definition that encompasses human beings, as well as the whole of their culture and technology? Where exactly does nature begin and end, and how are our conceptions of it changing? The 1999/2000 Fellows Program, "Constructions, Deconstructions, and Destructions of Nature," will explore these and similar questions, considering the development of concepts of nature across a wide variety of disciplines. This year's participants include scholars from Vanderbilt's departments of history, philosophy, anthropology, classical studies, geology, astronomy, German, and fine arts, as well as a visiting professor of English. The program's co-directors are Michael Bess, associate professor of history, and David Wood, professor of philosophy. Professors Bess and Wood met with Letters recently to discuss their plans and hopes for the program.

    Letters: What does the title of the program mean? Most people would agree that nature can be destroyed, but what would it mean for nature to be constructed or deconstructed?

    David Wood: We are all acquainted with nature, whether it be last year's tornadoes or this year's tomatoes. Nature seems, straightforwardly, to be what's "out there," something we realize we are part of when we feel hungry. But "nature" is not just what is real, what is out there. When placed in opposition to "culture," it has played a powerful cognitive role in organizing human life and thought. And one of the hallmarks of early deconstruction was to problematize this simple opposition. It is clear, for example, that we approach nature through all kinds of cultural mediations and constructions, which themselves change through history. And these cultural constructions are not just shaping or distorting lenses; they often lead directly to transformations of nature. (When "nature" is treated as a resource, a mountain becomes a pile of quarriable stone.) So the word "deconstruction" in the title reflects our hope that we can get clearer about the complex role that "nature" plays in our thinking, in our understanding of ourselves, and in our practical existence.
    This issue is important in academic life, in part because university institutions are constructed on the basis of distinctions between natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, as if these were separate fields of inquiry, distinctions that depend on how we think about nature. Deconstruction has made it easier to focus on the boundaries, the frontiers, the contaminations, the difficulties in making these clear-cut distinctions. And one of the exciting things about having a seminar in which people from a variety of different disciplines come together is that we can explore these boundaries from many sides.

    Michael Bess: Construction and deconstruction are really two sides of the same coin. I initially came to this topic with an assumption that I had always loved nature and had felt that wilderness and the ocean had a special importance for me. But what started happening as I studied how people have derived meaning from nature was that their meanings changed from century to century and society to society. Although I would have admitted from the outset that this was so, it was nevertheless quite striking to me that the word "nature" meant something so vastly different in different historical and cultural contexts.
    The last time I participated as a Fellow at the Warren Center, the topic was "Science and Society." It was clear to me that the natural scientists in the program meant something different by "nature" than I did. The natural scientists would readily acknowledge that there had been paradigm shifts over the centuries and that what a scientist would call nature changes over time. But their underlying assumption, epistemologically speaking, was very different. Even if there is not one eternal thing called "nature" out there for us to discover, they seemed to be saying, we are nevertheless approximating reality. We are coming ever closer to a true representation of the natural world. I found that humanists and social scientists were much more comfortable with throwing that away -- saying that it is much more unclear how nature and culture shape each other.
    This rift between the natural sciences and the humanities and social sciences I see as a recurring theme. I wanted to go more deeply into the epistemological and metaphysical assumptions that lie underneath the two cultures of the university, underneath the way we divide the university, as we approach this topic of nature.

    Wood: All kinds of phantoms and fantasies arise at this point. Some scientists conclude that humanists and post-humanists have abolished nature altogether and succumbed to relativism. But anyone who studies the history of science discovers that there has been no single, continuous accumulation of knowledge. There have been dramatic reversals, seismic transformations. The more sophisticated response to this problem begins with the recognition that the real world is not just what we make of it, nor do we have direct access to the real world. We need more complex accounts of the way in which our theories interact with the real. It is not just a matter of falsification and verification; there are other considerations involved. If our seminar is successful, we will have a high level discussion about the ways in which science is itself a construction: neither a false construction nor the truth with a capital T. Otherwise, science turns into scientism, that is, another kind of religion. And that seems to me to be a betrayal and a tragic misunderstanding. Science does not need to make those claims. Science is a practice the integrity of which depends on it making itself vulnerable to transformation, allowing its hypotheses to be overturned. It is not about the production of a fixed and permanent body of knowledge.
    Those transformations may come from left field. They may be unexpected. For example, someone might discover a new way of construing reality that could eliminate an entire subject matter. Such things happen, and they are what interest philosophers and historians of science.

    Bess: One obvious area where this is being applied is neurophysiology -- neurophysiology as the basis for consciousness in the brain. I have a friend who is a brain researcher in the field of neurology, and his goal is to show how mental states exist in a one to one relationship with neuronal activity -- and eventually, to abolish psychology.

    Wood: Yes, that is a nice example. And if that were to work, it would have a dramatic impact on what we call the philosophy of mind. Many philosophers of mind today would point out the conceptual difficulties of making the move that your neurophysiologist friend claims he is making. One of those difficulties would be that to obtain this one to one correlation, scientists have to rely at some point on the reports made by individual subjects about what they believe is going on in their brains.

    Bess: That reminds me of a quotation from the English cultural historian, Raymond Williams. He said, "Ideas of nature are the projected ideas of men." If you look at what we have said so far in the conversation, it would seem that although our topic is nature, what we are really discussing is ourselves, and the uses to which we have put the material world -- uses both in a utilitarian, pragmatic sense and in the sense of creating a context of meaning.

    Wood: Of course, we have not been talking just about ourselves. What is interesting is that nature as a category will occasionally break in on any conception we have of ourselves. To talk about ourselves is precisely to talk about our relation, our exposure, to something other than ourselves. To be human is not to be an isolated, solitary being.
    Modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes in the seventeenth century, provided a new foundation for knowledge in the individual subject that can clearly and distinctly assert its own existence. But Descartes bought this certainty at a huge price, namely that of treating as a separate kind of substance the extended world, the world of nature, and thus instituting a deep division between man and nature. The last two centuries have seen this metaphysical distinction repeatedly breaking down. People have realized in many different ways that to be a man, to be a woman, is intrinsically to be related, to have, or to be, a relation to other humans, to the social world, and to nature. This is part of what it is to be human.
    So in that sense, I would agree with you that in order to explore nature, we have to explore ourselves. What becomes crucial is the conception of self or being human that we have.

    Letters: Could you perhaps give some examples of different constructions of nature that you have seen operating in your own research and study?

    Bess: There is an excellent book called Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, by Donald Worster, a professor at the University of Kansas. He takes a subset of the concept "nature" -- ecology -- and traces its development. The word was coined in the mid-nineteenth century, but Worster goes back a century before, to Linnaeus. What he shows is that Linnaeus was infused with the categorizing mentality of the Enlightenment, with its notion of an ordered, structured set of lists arranged in a hierarchy, like a flow chart.
    Worster then traces the concept of ecology to other historical moments. He looks at Thoreau, who has an utterly different, Romantic vision of nature. Nature is no longer a static, rigid taxonomy; it becomes protean, upwelling, a vital force erupting forth, proliferating, unpredictable, and metastasizing. Then, when Darwin arrives on the scene, what Thoreau had created suddenly becomes racked with competition and the struggle for domination. For Thoreau, there had been profusion; for Darwin, the underlying metaphor becomes scarcity and competition for resources.
    In the early twentieth century, we see the appearance of truly ecological thinkers who look at the natural world and what technological man has done to it -- people like John Muir, for example, who see nature as being damaged. What they imagine is that there once existed a natural harmony that has been disrupted. But if it could be restored, if we could undo our disruption, then nature would return to a sort of resting place, which is its natural equilibrium point.
    More recently, there is chaos theory. Now the underlying assumption is no longer that there is an equilibrium, but rather that nature is in some respects quite fluid and qualitatively unpredictable. And so, from the eighteenth century through the twentieth, various representations of nature through the prism of ecology emerge, paralleling the evolution of Western society and culture during the same period.

    Wood: Yes, though my sense is that there is no one current reigning paradigm of nature. In fact, we have a struggle, or if you prefer, a play, between different models of nature. If you look, for example, at the debates over wilderness -- not academic discussions of this issue, but public funding debates -- you can see that a number of these models are tied up with religious and political positions that people have taken, and, especially in the United States, with different stages of development. It was once common (and convenient) to think of Native Americans as savages -- in other words, as part of nature -- and hence able to be treated in certain ways. But now we have come to see that there are different ways of being civilized, and that the ways in which many Native American tribes lived in relation to nature may have more of a future than the strip mall model of development that we have embraced (or that has embraced us) today.
    Thinking of these competing models, I am reminded of the movie Jaws, which depicts nature as threat, as lurking menace. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, when we seem to have our science and technology all sorted out, nature will return, with a vengeance. The shark in Jaws is the unpredictable dimension of nature that man will never control.
    And yet, "the call of the wild" still moves us. Many of us want to go trekking in the wilderness, but we do not want Coke cans there; we want our "natural," unadulterated nature. Here we still inherit something of the transcendentalists' view of nature. We look at the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole, and I, for one, am still seduced. These paintings present nature either as a gift from God, or, indeed, as divine itself. And that vision still lives on, alongside deforestation and clear cutting in Oregon.
    A similar tension exists in medicine today. On the one hand, people are moving towards holistic ways of thinking about their bodies, thinking about how they ought to live. On the other hand, the best hospitals compete to provide the latest technology -- drugs, equipment, and surgical techniques. We consider the body as a whole, as something with its own integrity, the model of a human being as a natural organism. And yet for much medical treatment, the body is something to be broken into small parts, each of which can be fixed separately. We have not chosen, and cannot choose, between these two approaches. And what is fascinating about your ecological history is that most of those models survive intact and struggle for supremacy.

    Bess: I change hats myself. When I work in the garden and want to figure out what plant to put in what corner, I am a taxonomist. Sometimes I become a Darwinian, when I try to understand how animals are relating to each other or to the birds in the neighborhood. It is not an ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny situation, in which we are all replications of some final stage. Virtually all of these stages, all of these models are still present and active, as you have said, and sometimes they war with each other. Sometimes they simply coexist, and we draw upon them as from a smorgasbord.

    Wood: Sometimes different models answer different questions. One question is: how did these things get here? How is it that we have the birds that we have? Another question is: how are these birds organized into species and subspecies? I hope that we will discover in the course of our seminar that we are asking, at times, different questions. And that what looked like disagreements turn out not to be disagreements at all, but answers to different questions. That is the kind of conceptual work that a group of people like us can do very effectively. And that moves us, as you were suggesting, away from war and towards the possibility of a reconciliation, or at least an understanding of how different positions have different limits of application, or respond to different issues.

    Letters: If there are many competing attitudes towards nature in our own cultural moment, would you say that any of them are dominant -- or at least more powerful than others?

    Wood: There is perhaps one big struggle surrounding the human desire to dominate nature. The driving force of modern technology and capital is to organize the world in such a way that resources are extractable -- to manufacture them, distribute them, and profit from them. At this level there is a dominant attitude towards nature. And yet in all kinds of areas we can witness resistance to that dominant orientation. Resistance from people whose health is compromised or threatened by an increasingly toxic environment. And conceptual resistance from all kinds of people who do not believe that the earth is just a mirror of our capacities to manipulate and organize it.

    Bess: I am working on a book about environmentalism in France. At one point I was studying the evolution over time of the points of view of a single minister of agriculture under DeGaulle. In the early 1960s this man, Edgar Pisani, was a great proponent of the industrialization of agriculture. He was trying to create agribusiness in France, and to break apart the old peasant society, which had existed in its own very particular symbiosis with nature. Here is an example of the French fighting themselves, torn between the impulse toward modernization in agriculture and industry and the pain not just of harming the natural world, but of harming the peasant society that had developed a distinctively French relationship to that world.
    At first Pisani was identified with the group that said no, we must proceed resolutely with modernization despite the costs. But then, twenty years later, the ecological revolution had swept through France, and everyone had become excited about green ideas. Pisani then came forward and said, I was wrong. I was looking at the problem in too narrow a way, and I now believe that we must resist the model of agribusiness. His position became much more complicated, more ambivalent -- and hence more interesting.

    Wood: I teach a freshman seminar on environmental philosophy. Some of my students in the course have written essays that have the following remarkable structure: "Yes, the human species may die out. But nature is a constantly evolving process, and some other kind of being will evolve once we are out of the way."

    Bess: Once we have destroyed ourselves.

    Wood: Yes. Could it be mere sentimentality to think that our destruction matters? After all, there will be new beings, cyborgs, or something else, that will evolve from us, or after us. We take a very narrow perspective when we are concerned only about our children and whether they will have enough places to swing and hike. We may actually be facing the most extraordinary frontier -- the frontier of nature as an ultimately creative, responsive, and transformative power, which regards human beings simply as a trace that is overcome and left behind.

    Bess: Katherine Hayles, a researcher in the English Department at UCLA, is a wonderfully creative thinker about the boundary between nature and culture. She has become interested in a concept called artificial life. Within a computer one creates entities, in a sort of virtual world. Once a certain level of complexity is reached, these entities in a sense create an environment. There are geometric spaces within which they "live," and rules that govern their interactions within the boundaries of these spaces. The entities begin to acquire emergent properties that mesh with our definition of living beings -- they can grow over time, or reproduce, or die.
    What struck me in thinking about this is that one of our definitions of nature is that it is anything we do not control. The artificial, the human world, is where we have some form of mastery, of dominance. We make the rules and govern how things will work. But then there is a return of the repressed, an eruption, an assertion or rebellion from the out of control. The out of control can be like the shark in Jaws, in the sense of a pre-existing biological reality coming back and biting us in the rear end, or it can be something coming out of our computers and surprising us with all kinds of unpredictable, strange events that we had no say in creating and which take us utterly aback.

    Wood: That is an anthropocentric definition of nature. But the other way we could put this is that nature consists of an indefinite number of partial systems of control. We are not in control of nature because we are not God. There are other bits of nature that seek to control their bit of the environment. So what we are up against, precisely because we are a piece of nature, are the natural limits of our control. We control, as best we can, the environment we live in. We build houses to protect ourselves against the rain, and then we find armies of termites marching towards us to the beat of a different drum.

    Bess: That is what I am calling the pre-existing order, of which we are a part. What I find interesting about artificial life is that here people are using the terms of nature to talk about something that is clearly a machine. Nothing could be more dependent on us -- the computer has to be plugged in. But then there is some slippage, and suddenly we have created phenomena that are unpredicatble and uncontrollable.

    Letters: How does your current research intersect with the concerns of this program?

    Bess: Since I have already spoken about my work on environmentalism in France, perhaps David could answer this one.

    Wood: I am not a card-carrying Druid, but I have come to believe that the tree is a very important phenomenon and symbol in human culture. There is a wonderful book by Robert Pogue Harrison called Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, which traces the history of our conception of forests as a wild region -- an area in which lawlessness hides and recuperates, and from which cities and civilization mark their distance.
    But my interest in trees is actually more philosophical than that. I have noticed that when philosophers want to give an example of something that they are looking at, they tend to choose a tree. This is true of Plato, Berkeley, Descartes, Sartre, Heidegger, and many others. Even in Saussure's extraordinary Course in General Linguistics, the example of a sign is the word "tree" -- complete with a little picture. Why? I believe that there is a deep story here, a story that we need to unearth. When we use trees as an example, we hardly ever discuss the fact that they are living beings, or the fact that they form -- as you were suggesting when you mentioned Linnaeus -- the basis for our understanding of classification systems. This has itself become an object of considerable interest to people like the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who want to say that the tree is only one model of organizing knowledge. There are other models which do not depict a vertical unity, or produce a nicely ordered set of relations, but which might suggest a spreading "rhizomal" network, such as we find in crabgrass. My question would be: if there were no trees, would we still think the way we do?

    Bess: This reminds me of the work of Hans Moravec, a man who works in robotics. He has proposed the concept of the "robot tree" -- that is, the idea of organizing a robot with the functionality of a tree in mind, rather than that of a human being. He says that it makes more sense to have little components which could come together and form larger functional units. He calls them a "tree" because they are structured according to the principle of classic branching. In other words, his ideas make us consider how we are pre-structuring our thinking about function. We have one idea of functionality if we use a human being as a metaphor, and another if we use a tree.

    Wood: One way that we structure our thinking is by privileging unity over division. We assume that multiplicity can be reduced to twoness, which can then be reduced to oneness. What the "non-tree" mode of thinking would do would be to allow multiplicity.
    When we began this conversation, I said that when we think about nature, we unconsciously invoke the binary opposition nature/culture. And this, indeed, is how much of our thought is structured. But could we have concepts that were not organized in this way -- fundamental organizing concepts that were not binary? Could we think like that? Do we already?

    Bess: Instead of subject-predicate, there would have to be some sort of matrix.

    Wood: Right.

    Bess: Something much more dispersed.

    Wood: And I predict that this is how the human and the natural sciences will come together, through fields, matrices, and networks. Insofar as there are fields in the natural sciences, there are analogues to what is privileged as "meaning" in the human sciences.



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