Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Friday, April 22, 2011

Romantic Carbon

There has been a thin layer of carbon distributed in Earth's crust since 1790.


Ross Wolfe said...

I am struck by how similar our positions seem to be on the subject of "Nature" and ecology in terms of the present crisis. I agree that the concept of "Nature" carries with it too much ideological baggage left over from the Romantic era (amongst others) to retain its usefulness as a strictly-defined term. The notion of Nature as some sort of self-harmonious whole, a fragile equilibrium hanging delicately in the balance, is a useless and false, romanticized notion of the natural world. So I can see how you perceive it to be a hindrance to the formulation of a modern ecology.

Yet I feel that the term "nature" can be salvaged so long as it is understood that its meaning has been historically variable. The important thing then would be to trace out exactly how the concept has shifted through the ages. As a Marxist influenced by the Frankfurt School, I believe that humanity's alienation from nature (which began with the foundation of society, and then rapidly accelerated with the advent of capitalism) is a simple reality of our current historical situation.

But, contrary to most of the ecological positions of today, which I agree are informed by Romantic notions of nature, I do not believe that humanity should seek to minimize its "impact" on the natural world. The idea of leaving nature in its present form "intact" is to me a patently false notion, for nature (as well as society) exists in a state of flux. Rather than seeing nature as some sort of sacred, inviolable entity "outside" of us, I would argue that with a radical social transformation (of the Marxist variety), we should also seek to execute a radical transformation of nature as well. Nature should be seen as something almost infinitely malleable through the use of human technologies, such that nature becomes simply an extension (and expression) of society's will.

So what I would want to see is not nature blissfully carrying on its present existence, but in a state where society can literally move mountains and riverbeds as it sees fit, with vast terraforming projects that reshapes the very surface of our planet. I would want something like weather machines and something akin to Le Corbusier's idea of "exact air" and "sun control." And even beyond atmospheric manipulation, at the tectonic level, I would want to see some sort of Jules Vernean clockwork at the center of the earth, harnessing the power of the shifting plates. Total self-conscious mastery over nature.

I would be interested in what you think of my full piece on this subject. Please excuse my rant.

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Ross, that's interesting indeed, and I too am a big fan of the Frankfurt School and in particular Adorno. I guess that's one reason why Zizek liked "ecology without nature" as a concept in the first place. Adorno's essay "Progress" is very important for me still--though I believe he stakes out a position rather different from yours. I shall think about this some more and post on it. In brief, I'm not convinced your approach to "varying attitudes throughout history" goes far beyond a history of ideas approach, in which nature is pretty much whatever we want it to be. This might be symptomatic of (ironically) a latent idealism in Marx (gasp), which I'm writing about at present.

Ross Wolfe said...

Very interesting indeed. I think that what often appears to be an "idealist" remnant in Marxism tends to show up in ideological critiques. Perhaps I didn't make it explicit enough, but the shifts that took place in the Enlightenment and beyond (Romanticism, industrialism, modern environmentalism) are symptomatic of the rise of, and self-transformation of, capitalism.

Marx had a fairly definite concept of "nature," devoid of any romanticism. He saw it as the sensuous external world and a constituent piece of any object of wealth. He also saw it as man's "inorganic body" under capitalism.

I shall have to reread the "Progress" essay and see if I am forced to rethink my analysis. I don't take orders from Adorno, but anything he has to say about any topic weighs heavily upon my own feelings toward it.