Bao Steel #8 / Manufactured Landscapes series by Edward Burtynsky
What is Nature? An article written for the sixth issue (Summer 2015) of Too Much Magazine of Romantic Geography ///
As this issue of Too Much Magazine investigates artificial replications of natural elements, we might want to stop for a moment and wonder what these notions of artificial and natural could possibly imply. While the first part of this article will propose a non-anthropocentric interpretation of the world, which renders obsolete the distinction between these two notions the second will attempt to show that even within an anthropocentric rationale, their dissociation can no longer be made in our era, when all things are subjected one way or another to human activity.
The 17th century saw the collision of two Western philosophical paradigms about nature. I hope that readers will forgive me for the following simplification: While Descartes (1596-1650) argues that humans should make themselves “master and possessors of nature,” Spinoza (1632-1677) bases his entire Ethics on the idea that “Deus sive Natura” (God or Nature) is infinite and composes all things that exist. In the Spinozist interpretation, humans are thus fully part of nature and the belief that we can act outside of it — by exercising what we commonly call “freedom” — results from our ignorance of the causes that determine us. By stripping humans of the idea of free will, Spinoza inscribes them within an irresistible movement that engages all things. Such a vertiginous idea (because it shatters all our certitudes) is at the foundation of various philosophical materialist movements (including Marx’s work), the latest version being found in recent schools of thought, such as object oriented ontology and speculative realism.
These schools of thought displace focus of attention from humans to all material things. An example comes immediately to my mind in the form of a question that Ed Keller once asked me: “What if wars occurred when bullets want to travel the world?” Of course this notion of will is to be thought of in Spinozist terms because we cannot think of the bullet’s “free will,” yet, by realizing what may appear as an absurdity to our convinced spirits by understanding what might appear as absurd at first glance, we might also realize that the same absurdity is applicable to the idea of our own free will. “Want” here, comes as a verb referring to the irresistible movement that is nature. The idea of bullets wanting to travel the world finds many declinations in Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani’s book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Machines (re.press, 2008). Constructed as a quasi-novel (in a similar way to that of Jorge Luis Borges’s stories), this book is a sort of rewriting of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1980) from the point of view of the Middle East, which Negarestani considers as a living entity. This entity is attributed some intentions in the same sense of the bullets mentioned above. Dust, for instance, would be invented by this entity in order “to mesh together an economy which operates through positive degenerating process, an economy whose carriers must be extremely nomadic” writes Negarestani. Similarly, oil — “the black corpse of the sun” — is predominant in “Cyclonopedia”: it is hosted by the Middle East in its depth, in order to serve as lubricant for the nomadic “war machine” described by Deleuze and Guattari.
We, however, do not need to reach such a degree of literacy in order to think of the world in a non-anthropocentric manner. Also, if all things are equally part of nature, this includes human artifacts to the same degree as anything else. In French philosopher Gilbert Simondon’s 1958 book On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, he helps us understand this common link by advocating for the construction of ethical relations with objects (and machines in particular) in the same way than we would with other living things. He opens the book with the following paragraph:
The purpose of this study is to attempt to stimulate awareness of the significance of technical objects. Culture has become a system of defense designed to safeguard man from technics. This is the result of the assumption that technical objects contain no human reality. We should like to show that culture fails to take into account that in technical reality there is a human reality, and that, if it is fully to play its role, culture must come to terms with technical entities as part of its body of knowledge and values. (trans. Ninian Mellamphy, Dan Mellamphy and Nandita Biswas Mellamphy)
Similarly to the way animal lovers tend to develop an animal relationship with animals, we thus need to construct a relationship with objects using our common link with them: there is something deeply human in the “modes of existence” of artifacts and machines, something that has nothing to do with physical resemblance. A robot that looks like a human can be compared with humans who talk to their dog or cat using human language: it brings back the relation to an anthropocentric realm.
If we, however, decide to stick with an anthropocentric interpretation of the world, and thus dissociate things that are considered “artificial” (that have been subjected to human activity) and “natural.” Following this train of thought, nothing in the world can be considered as truly natural, since we have reached an era that geologists call that some geologists have named the “anthropocene,” characterized by the absence of limits to what human activity has modified on earth lobal warming is the most obvious manifestation of this absence, but we can quote another more mundane example that could inform our image of this era. In Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty (Duke University Press, 2006), technoscience scholar Michelle Murphy describes the course of the air particles before we breathe them in our air-conditioned buildings:
Breathe in. Along with air, each lungful you inhale contains the detritus from our indoor environments: fibers, vapors, tiny airborne insects and their excrements, viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Do you realize that chemical fumes from the objects around you escape into the air, are drawn into your lungs, dissolve across your alveoli membranes and into your blood? Breathe out.
Breathe in. The air you just inhaled has already passed through ducts encrusted with a grimy, gray, microbe-infested fuzz of debris, hair, dust, and fiber particles released by decaying building materials. Breathe out.
The anthropocene — by characterizing itself as a threshold where humans perceive their own influence on the earth — has the advantage of embracing its anthropocentrism, and thus constitutes a logical interpretation of the world. Because of this, it goes against the common slogan “save the planet,” that thinks to displace the attention from the human to the non-human (the planet), but fails to realize that the idea of salvation is profoundly human, and thus anthropocentric, despite its claim. In order to think of a non-anthropocentric ecology, French philosopher Bruno Latour (who acknowledges the influence of Simondon’s work on his writing) proposes to distinguish “humaines” (human) considerations and “terriennes” (earthlings) ones. While the humans will forever try to follow Descartes in making themselves master of a differentiated nature, earthlings on the contrary, will dedicate their actions to the relationships they construct with the non-human at all scales. If we understand phenomena such as the modification of the climate at a global scale, neither as evil nor wrong, but simply as unethical in the relation humans construct with the world, we begin to understand that the notion of relation consists in a strong tie between entities, and that this tie in itself is not necessarily an harmonious one. As Caribbean philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant affirms, the concept of “relation” (which is one of his most important concepts) can also lie in the extreme violence exercised in the past between the slave master and the slave. Understanding this indelible tie is the first step towards an ethical practice of the world, whether within human society specifically or, more generally, through an “earthian” mode of existence in the world.