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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bess: Instead of subject-predicate, there would have to be some sort of matrix.
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.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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