I’m sitting here recalling my conversation last night with an old friend about our many hikes in Washington State’s wilderness areas and national forests–set aside by legislation for their environmental value, including for hikers like us. My location in eco-critical thought and work is surely influenced by my decades of experiences as a city boy backpacking in those Washington wilds. “Let ‘em be,” I say, for the critters, the trees, the hikers, and the tourists. Does this view simply fall into the trap of seeing nature as something apart from, and as best purified of, human being? “Only if one ignores the park signs, the required permits, and the maintained trails,” one might quip. As I love to say to my students, “There’s nothing more cultural than ‘Nature,’” and yet, although our conceptions of nature, like our basic conceptions of time and space, etc., are culturally and linguistically shaped, that doesn’t mean there is no nature; only that what we find is always already something we’ve conceived and delimited. Humans have divided, protected, exploited, named, studied, and mythologized the natural world we behold as “outside” human civilization and settlement—with “protecting” vs. “exploiting” nature being to some extent two sides of the same eco-coin—although our concoction of “nature” might be news to the deer, marmots, and bears living in Washington’s North Cascades. As a way of pondering these matters more, in this my last entry in Romantic Circles’ eco-blog, I’d like both to circle back to some ideas from my first blog entry and to consider a few of the many thought-provoking ideas and observations of my two fellow bloggers, Tim Morton and Ashton Nichols. Let me say what a pleasure it has been to participate in this eco-critical triumvirate, and let me extend my thanks to Ron Broglio for so kindly inviting me into the blog.
As this eco-blog’s inspiring entries by Tim and Ashton amply attest, eco-criticism is doing very much what it should in thinking more deeply and broadly about the conceptions—including the economics, politics, and metaphysics—of “nature” and “preservation” as well as about notions of “green” or less green discourses. But that doesn’t mean all that such eco-criticism discovers or articulates will be useful to ameliorating the current global crises of habitat preservation, climate change, limiting waste of many kinds, and so forth. New, radical conceptions like “ecology without nature,” “urbanature,” the “material sublime,” and (much further down the long list) “outlandish dwelling” may just as easily, and may very easily, become tools for opponents of land and species preservation. “We’re nature, so we can do as we like!” “Extinction IS nature.” “To hell with biodiversity. Cities are nature, too, and the world’s purpose is to be transformed!” Narrow-minded views, no doubt, and far afield, one may say, of the theories offered on and off this blog. But more generally, will our deconstructing of the nature/culture, animal/human opposition lead to more or to less respect for other species and their encroached-upon habitats? Perhaps seeing ourselves as animals will diminish our sense of entitled hegemony. But might it also lessen our sense of responsibility and of a (problem-fraught) feeling of stewardship? It all reminds me of non- or even anti-vegetarian acquaintances of mine who opine, like Ben Franklin, “Animals eat animals, and I’m an animal.” The modus ponens logic (or carnologocentrism?) feels inescapable yet sorely limited.
“We are more like them [animals] than they are like us,” Ashton holds. I’m sympathetic to that provocative view, as I also am to Elizabeth Bennett’s implicit query, “What are men to rocks and mountains”? But from what vantages are such conclusions reached? Human language may ultimately derive, as Freud suspected, from animal utterances, but that doesn’t mean we cross the expanse when we surmise that original fact. What does it mean for humans to be, genetically, 98% chimpanzee? Precious little, Richard Marks has argued, given our complex human culture, our language, etc. Scientists “find” such human-animal connections and analogies—common genes as well as common social or psychological “memes”— and market the species similarities to broaden the audience and attract funding. But we’re not chimps, nor are we snails or amoeba, whatever the genetic commonalities. We must therefore proceed cautiously down such paths toward human/animal similarity and (human-animal) origins, even or especially when they’re our “own.” We’re not not animals, and yet we’re also not quite fully animals, either, chiefly because it is we who define “animal” and who wield such conceptual and technological power. A dose of Lacan or Derrida goes a long way here, with salutary effect.
“Beyond concept, Nature is,” Tim states, only to reject this Yoda-sounding phrase as “the ultimate chastity.” Yet, to some extent, is not nature (à la the material or immaterial sublime) indeed that which is beyond conceptualization, however much that “nature” is always already conceptualized? The Other is always beyond, and (or as) that which survives me. Perhaps we need, then, to devise (chart) a course between “chastity” and profligacy: between preserving only to preserve and viewing the natural world as mere material to be transformed to Geist or to dust or sublimity. Do wilderness areas repeat a phobia of intimacy, whereby one is commanded to leave no mark and to think of nature as that which is without a human trace or face? Such chastity speaks to our separation, as symptom and as ethical outcome, from the natural world and from ourselves as a species (qua resemblance?) in that world. That doesn’t mean we must make the natural world make room for us. Quite the opposite. “Where are the asphalt walks and the RV hook-ups? People are animals, too!” Is this vantage an outcome of a naïve, photo-op “love” of nature rather than of a more sober, more interdependent, and more cooperative, cohabitative ecology? Ashton provocatively remarks, “The new [ecological] ethic needs to see skyscrapers, superhighways, jumbo-jets, and genetic research labs as parts of our ‘new’ nature, no less natural because they were crafted by members of the human species.” But when all is “natural” there is no “nature,” not even “urbanature”—and perhaps not even “ecology”–eh?
At this end, I remain convinced that the concept of nature, for all its concocted status and its distortions, is still useful as a way of locating and preserving what is wild (and less wild). Respect, and even eco-utility, requires a concept, a “looking back,” regard. “Nature” arises from a false opposition, but that doesn’t mean the opposition isn’t still useful or that, within our oppositional thinking, it has no validity as a domain where thought meets its limits (sublime or otherwise) and where the human finds itself challenged. Better, perhaps, to employ an oppositional term one knows to be a metaphor and to entail effects and risks, than to supplant it with a newer and truer one? Here I find myself more a Wordsworthian than a Blakean (Blake never hiked), although I’d also point out that Blake sees the imprint of the animal on the human, not just the human on or within the animal. And who’s to say that that radical idealist wouldn’t hold up a sign calling to clean up the Thames or to preserve a wilderness, even-, or because, he knew that place to be one humanly conceived and abused? As Tim declares, “Ecology may be without nature. But it is not without us.” True enough, with or without a “nature” beyond our ecological conceiving and dreams.
Thanks again Tim, Ashton, and Ron.