nature humanity women

Rather accidentally I just read an account of Val Plumwood’s encounter with a crocodile. This was new to me, but I do remember Plumwood as a feminist philosopher who wrote about sex and gender, nature and culture, diversity and ecofeminism at the end of the 1980’s.

First the story about the crocodile.

Val Plumwood was an Australian philosopher (1939-2008). In 1985 she went canoeing on her own through the so-called East Alligator Lagoon in Kakadu National Park when, against all odds (as she was told), a saltwater crocodile attacked her boat. Ten years later she described the experience in an article with the very pertinent title ‘Human vulnerability and the experience of being prey’. Two quotes, from the beginning and the end of the piece:

As I pulled the canoe out into the main current, the rain and wind started up again. I had not gone more than five or ten minutes down the channel when, rounding a bend, I saw in midstream what looked like a floating stick, one I did not recall passing on my way up. As the current moved me toward it, the stick developed eyes. A crocodile! It did not look like a large one. I was close to it now but was not especially afraid; an encounter would add interest to the day. Although I was paddling to miss the crocodile, our paths were strangely convergent. I knew it would be close, but I was totally unprepared for the great blow when it struck the canoe. Again it struck, again and again, now from behind, shuddering the flimsy craft. As I paddled furiously, the blows continued. The unheard of was happening; the canoe was under attack! For the first time, it came to me fully that I was prey. I realized I had to get out of the canoe or risk being capsized.

While getting out of the canoe and trying to reach the shore, Plumwood is grabbed by the legs and pulled under water in a death roll. Finally she manages to escape onto a steep mud bank.

Before the encounter, it was as if I saw the whole universe as framed by my own narrative, as though the two were joined perfectly and seamlessly together. As my own narrative and the larger story were ripped apart, I glimpsed a shockingly indifferent world in which I had no more significance than any other edible being. The thought, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being, I am more than just food!’ was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat. Reflection has persuaded me that not just humans but any creature can make the same claim to be more than just food. We are edible, but we are also much more than edible. Respectful, ecological eating must recognize both of these things. I was a vegetarian at the time of my encounter with the crocodile, and remain one today. This is not because I think predation itself is demonic and impure, but because I object to the reduction of animal lives in factory farming systems that treat them as living meat.

(The last sentences, about being a vegetarian, constitute a fallacy of course: if you won’t eat meat because you object to the reduction of animal lives in factory farming systems – quite rightly, I think – just eat meat that is not produced in factory farming systems.)

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.

Plumwood opens ‘Women, Humanity and Nature’ with this statement:

There is now a growing awareness that the Western philosophical tradition which has identified, on the one hand, maleness with the sphere of rationality, and on the other hand, femaleness with the sphere of nature, has provided one of the main intellectual bases for the domination of women in Western culture.

There are plenty of good reasons for feminists to distrust both the concept of rationality and the notion of links with nature and the concept of nature.

(This is basic, and widely accepted nowadays, I guess.) Plumwood elucidates: women are seen in two senses as different from men in and through their relation to nature. Whereas men are free to build culture and society, women are bound to the necessities of nature; secondly, this link to nature distinguishes them of that what is human in general. Indeed, what is considered human, is in essence male; or in other words, it still is the male model of humanity, that is generally taken for granted (see p.e. in 2021: Invisible Women, or This male model is based on the domination of nature, and consequently on the exclusion of ideals which are considered as female, such as emotionality, passivity, acceptance or nurturance (instead of rationality, activity, freedom and domination).

In Plumwood’s article, this is all just an introduction to a further discussion on gender difference and female essentialism, premises of ecofeminism, or the possibility of degendered models of humanity – and to subsequent articles on the distinction between sex and gender, or on the human/nature dualism, or on anthropocentrism in worldviews.

As far as the women/humanity/nature theme and ecofeminism are concerned, I’m not in a position to add anything intelligent. And this being 2022, I wonder: Plumwood’s view on sex and gender is clearly binary. How would people consider it through the contemporary lens of transgenderism and non-binary gender construction?

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