Rethinking nature/culture

Nature/culture distinctions play out in many different and contradictory ways. In turn, there are multiple rethinkings. Below are some that arose or lurked around during a year-long seminar at Rutgers University in 1996-97. The participants were invited to add to and play with the list. Play is important because, even if we reject certain of the dualisms, the ones we accept are probably infected with resonances from the others.

N = Nature, natural, universal, environment..
C = culture, artificial, particular, society..
R = ways the divide has been rethought
OQ = open questions remaining from or raised by the rethinking

1. discourse of economics
N = markets
C = non-market residue in social relations (“market failure”)
R = real markets are always embedded in political-economic relations

2. anti-toxics campaigns
N = human bodies
C = chemical (“toxic wastes”)

3. environmental justice
N = political-economic processes are common to all societies & fractions of society
C = communities, having specific identities, are specifically targetted

4. globalization
N = global integration
C = local resistance

5. in the appeals of environmental movements:
N = (non-human) nature, which has lessons for us
C = people, out of touch with (non-human) nature
R = experience at the frontier (i.e., at the periphery of society and in touch with non-human nature) enhances a person’s ability to intervene back at the center, in modernization (Quiroga), and in family, nation, empire (T. Roosevelt)

6. N. Smith(?) theory
6a. continuous
C = culture is part of
N = universal nature (and thus N is relevant to social concerns)
6b. discontinuous
N = force external to culture (and thus a source of cultural authority)
R = culture & nature continuous & discontinuous (Kovel & Smith)

7. human bodies
N = human bodies & non-human nature, dominated by
C = technology

R for 5,6 & 7 (R. Williams)
Ideas about nature, naturalness & universality are projections of ideas about favored social order. The authority of these ideas is a socially maintained device, with a definite history tracing back to a human/ divine divide

8. ethics
N = self-interested rationality
C = particular norm-governed behavior
R= sometimes one, sometimes the other — it’s a contingent & pragmatic matter (A. Vayda)
OQ = when one; when the other? is there any underlying sense to this?

Another R = norms can be traced back to self-interested rationality (iterative, evolutionary game theory)

9. language
N = oral (“natural language”)
C = text

N = unmarked (by race, gender,…)
C = marked

N = Life
C = Human intelligence & language
R = Replicating informatic devices (Santa Fe Institute)

N = Replicating informatic devices
C = ? (is anything residual to the above?)

13. anthropology
N = Female
C = Male
N = Other cultures. primitives
C = Euro-, white, advanced
R = drag & whiteface transgress these divides
OQ = but they also reinforce the dichotomies

N = adaptive, self-regulating
C = disordered, crisis-prone

N = simple
C = complex

16. age
N = infants & children
C = adults

17. individuality
N = dependent
C = autonomous

18. mental health
N = insane
C = sane

19. equal opportunity
N = children and equal opportunity
C = adults and choice of hazardous jobs

N = markets allocating adults to hazardous jobs & localities
C = protecting children from harm not of their own choice

21. rights
N = rights to liberty
C = rules constraining children

22. foundations
N = foundations to morals, knowledge
C = all is discursive practices
R = contingent foundations (J. Butler)


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