virus nature culture

« Not the virus is the problem, but the carrier: humans.  First of all,  we have nothing to do  with  viruses in animal bodies; it is only  through our violent intrusion into  pristine  habitats that contact and transmission become possible.  Anyone who would sweep that under the table,  thereby encouraging a demonization of the virus,  is acting negligently. Indeed, the experts warn of the danger that  zoonotic  epidemics can hit us at increasingly shorter intervals. Ailments that do not only  affect us, but in which we ourselves  cooperate. »

The quote  comes from an essay by cultural scientist  Franz  Maciejewski  in  Lettre International 133. In ‘Begierde  nach  Rettung’ he relates text fragments by  Hölderlin  to times of  corona. I personally am  not concerned with Hölderlin, but the quote raises some doubts in me.   Maciejewski  apparently   assumes that there are untouched  areas on earth, where people have no business, and where viruses  simply remain in animal bodies, as they should be.   It is only when human  culture invades that untouched nature that things go wrong.

Apart from the fact that I myself also think it valuable  that a wide variety of animals can live in their own way in a suitable biotope, I still   have some doubts about  Maciejewki’s  formulation – if only about the  one-way traffic in his thesis. OK,  today about 75% of the diseases with which people can become infected would  come from    animals  (for instance via  coronaviruses),  but it now also appears  that  people  with  their  own human coronavirus  infect monkeys, lions, tigers, hyenas.   

Maciejewski thus goes quite a bit against what is the growing trend in the media that I follow, when it comes to the relationship between people and nature. There the idea is precisely  that it would be  irresponsible and incorrect to draw a sharp line between people and non-people, between culture and nature. Coincidentally,  I just read here in a recent issue of Dutch weekly De  groene Amsterdammer:  ‘ »The ecological crisis stems from the modern separation between humans and the environment, » says Martin Lee Mueller, philosopher, storyteller and artist in Oslo.’

Spontaneously I would agree  that  an  ontological  separation  between  ‘humans’ and ‘environment’, between culture and  nature, is nonsense – the question however is what the strategic or normative  consequences of such a point of view really are. Now, to start with, there is a lot to be said for the proposition that nature only exists  in and through culture: nature is just what people  delineate and name as nature.   This is true even of the  primordial book of  Genesis:  if man and woman, who have always been part of nature, split off from it by eating from the tree of knowledge and thus developing culture, that separation only exists because someone once made a story of it. And further, could you talk about nature, if you hadn’t first established what you mean by that?  Nature is  first and foremost an idea. You can  see that immediately when you look at how the contrast between culture and nature is applied in other areas than that of modern ecology. Traditionally, the idea  has been reproduced  that men  are essentially  active  and rational, that they develop  and create (culture). Women are different:  they are just like nature,  with their cycles and fertility and incomprehensible  emotional states and stuff.

In Western thought one generally goes back to Descartes, who in the first half of the seventeenth century with his Je  pense,  donc je suis  posited reflexive consciousness as that which makes man man and allows him  (yes,  him) to reduce nature and the cosmos to concepts and  laws. It is this dominance of man over nature that is widely questioned today and  condemned as being the mentality that led to the ecological Apocalypse that’s supposed to rapidly approach. Although,  also in De Groene, one of the  more dazed  editors  concludes   somewhere: ‘Nature – in the form of viruses, floods,  droughts and so on – must be subjugated again, with technology and innovation, but just as well by adaptations of human behavior’.

But indeed, before the great European voyages of discovery, many ‘indigenous peoples’ did not really  know a separation between civilization and nature; human survival depended on a  close  intertwining  with the natural environment. The  introduction  of plantations represents a  crucial phase of change in the development of the modern world and in human relationship to nature:  an interplay of forced labour and a certain type of social relations on the one hand, and an ecology geared to efficiency and profit on the other. Nature becoming property, people workforce: together a basis for  capitalism.

Thus, while modernity  strategically and  tactically assumed a separation between culture and  nature in which humankind had to  dominate nature, it has at the same time conceptually made non-human nature  into a human construct  governed  by laws that science can decipher. Scientists have developed all sorts of  methods  to treat that what is considered complex today as something that,  although  complicated,  is ultimately  understandable.

It is only with the recognition of complexity as an epistemological paradigm that one takes seriously phenomena that  cannot be coded into a  law. Reduction is  still  the approach  par excellence  to deal with  a reality with infinite variables and uncertainties,  but at least one now realizes  that  the viewer is part of the system that s/he examines (humankind  is  part of  the  environment), and that  an all-encompassing concept is no longer attainable.  Then the question arises:  what does ‘human’ mean in dealing  with  that human-defined  nature,  with  non-human animals or non-human life? Today one knows that there are different animal species with a form of consciousness, which  can  show emotions, use a language and instruments… Emanuele  Coccia  points out  that just by breathing, people take in the substance of the world and transform it into a part of themselves. Geopolitical and social developments,  but also contemporary knowledge and insights, further  challenge the separation between culture and nature.

Definition discussions aside, what one considers to be nature in reality can no longer be separated from  concrete  human interventions  (with the combined result of  productivism  and capitalism being the  so-called  capitalocene), culminating in  a  disastrous  impact  on biodiversity, food security  or  climate. For example,  just  look at the  confiscation of space  as  a result of demographic developments. I myself had  little idea of the extent of  this, but  also  in  Lettre International  133 architect and city planner Philippe Chiambaretta  gives an impression based on  scientific  research.  After centuries of relative stability, the world’s population has increased spectacularly since 1950.   The generation born in the 1960s, if  it lives long enough,  will experience a tripling of the world’s population in ninety years – from three billion people in 1960 to nine billion in 2050. Couple this population growth with the ongoing urbanization of lifestyles,  and you get a spatial explosion. Compared to the turn of the century, by 2050 worldwide buildings will  have  increased by half (in other words: one third of the buildings  in  2050 did  not exist around the year 2000). All over the world a space with the surface  of Paris intra muros is covered with concrete and buildings each day.  (What  was it  like again in Belgium? The intention is that in the Flanders region, by 2025,   only  three hectares of the public space – five football fields  –  will be filled with concrete per day;  that does by the way not currently prevent municipalities such as Antwerp and Hemiksem from  quickly clearing forests and destroying nature reserves for the construction of even more homes, offices and parking facilities.) This demographic and spatial increase obviously has consequences for the food supply, the use of energy and raw materials, the pollution of the entire living environment and the constant redefinition of nature.

The covid-19 pandemic shows nicely that nature is indeed an actor that intervenes in human life. Bruno  Latour  has been pointing this out for thirty years.   A conceptual model in which people and human activity deal with non-human life on an equal level cannot therefore be based on the separation of culture and nature; such a model should by definition be hybrid.  (Does the distinction between culture and nature have to coincide with that between human and non-human? Does the distinction between  human and non-human  make  sense? So many more questions. )

And hybrid, why? Because although from a point of view of complexity humans and the environment are intrinsically linked, you do not have to pretend that the concept of nature has no meaning. It remains a useful term to refer to the observable domain that, although an inseparable  part of  human  action and culture, can also be placed outside the subject and  become an object of human intervention (also the decision not to intervene is an intervention):  from ‘wilderness’, fauna and flora, to the weather. Also somewhere in a  Green Amsterdammer  a farmer says: « Stop creating new nature. First, make sure that existing areas are well managed. »

This leads to the  normative interpretation of the distinction between culture and nature, the strategies to arrive  at an interplay of humans, non-human life, non-human non-life, which would respect as well as possible all the elements involved. In an essay in Dutch magazine De gids (number 5/2021),  philosopher Jozef  Keulartz makes a distinction between ecomodernists  and posthumanists in this regard.  Roughly summarized, the ecomodernists  in his view  are  « rather optimistic: they believe that humanity can realize a ‘good Anthropocene’ if it  puts its scientific-technological skills at the service of a responsible planetary stewardship. » Posthumanism, on the other hand — and Keulartz  refers  predominantly  to  Bruno  Latour  —  « seeks a radical break with the anthropocentric worldview and instead views humans as part of a complex and all-encompassing whole consisting of both human and non-human actors or entities. »

Neither of the two approaches can count on his full approval – although his  critique of posthumanism is mainly based on the way in which the movement around the  Parliament of Things  shapes it. I have  written on this website before with some sympathy about that Parliament and the related Embassy of the North Sea  (follow the tag), but I must admit that the message I received in my mailbox today also annoyed me quite a bit:

You may have seen the news earlier this month: Ecuador’s highest court has ruled that plans to mine copper and gold in the protected Los Cedros cloud forest are unconstitutional and violate nature’s rights. Los Cedros is one of the planet’s most biodiverse places, home to flora and fauna found nowhere else. A historic victory in favour of nature.

Good that no gold and copper should  be  mined in a protected forest,  but the  cheering cry of a victory in favor of nature  implies a distinction between bad people  and good nature, an essentialism in which culture and nature are radically opposed to each other. In this sense, I have much more sympathy  for  Keulartz’ vision of « nature and culture as two extremes of a broad continuum of hybrid intermediate forms ».

One thing is clear in any case with a normative or strategic approach to culture – nature: if the  capitalocene is characterized by the disturbed relationship between humans and the environment, or conversely the disturbed relationship between culture and nature is the essence of the  capitalocene, then there is no  meaningful approach to the problem from the point of view of capitalism and  productivism. But not humans as such have created the actual problems. That is done by an economic system, capitalism, which is set up around the permanent extraction and accumulation by a minority of a finite living world meant for all.

Neither the  ecomodernists nor the posthumanists in Keulartz’ analysis  resolutely opt for an approach that abandons capitalism as an  economic, political, social or cultural  model. What  ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ solutions currently entail is often no more than moving the rubbish, waste and pollution from the  global  North to other places in the world, where opposition is still minimal for the time being.   It is  no more than saving time to reorient capital and  investments,  to develop new technologies and markets, to guarantee investor profits. As long as there is no social control over the use of means of production and the destination  of the surplus value produced,  ‘nature’ will  always be something that is exploited  for the production of private profit.

The current corona pandemic makes it more clear than ever that people and the environment, culture and nature form one whole,  but also that nothing will change as long as the economy and politics are driven by profit hunger. After all, then the separation remains intact that should make it possible to ‘subjugate nature again’.

1 réflexion sur « virus nature culture »

  1. […] Anyway, of all this I was unaware when around 1988 I read in Radical Philosophy a few articles by Val Plumwood. I came to Plumwood in a roundabout way, since my main perspective at that time was French and Italian feminist philosophy of difference, and more specifically the question what I could learn from Julia Kristeva’s approach of order and abjection, norm and deviance. But when I reread my notations, I see that I then also recorded Plumwood’s comments on concepts that I now still occasionally write about, such as nature and culture. […]


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