The myth of nature

1. In the foothills of Colorado on land barely touched by industry, I climbed to the top of a large red rock formation. This particular spot is visited not only by the locals (which include foxes and even, once, mountain goats), but also by other visitors such as myself. Usually the traces of these visitors consist of footprints in the unpaved road and paths, but occasionally there is the cigarette butt or beer can strewn by the side of the road. This particular day, when I reached the top of the formation, what awaited me was an empty bottle of chardonnay left by the nature-lover(s) who, presumably, thought it would be a pleasant experience to enjoy the “spectacular view” with a glass (or four) of wine.

The violation here was more than one of breeching the “leave no trace” protocol advocated by various environmental organizations and agencies; this protocol is at best agnostic on the tendency of so-called “nature-lovers” to fetishize nature. Even if my predecessors had taken their refuse with them, in what sense can they be said to be “lovers of nature” when their love makes nature into an object? The fact they in fact forgot their wine bottle is a direct consequence of this act (in other words, forgetting here is an active process).

In what sense are these the people to whom we can appeal when we want to “save the environment”? For what purpose are we so saving it? What is this “nature” we are saving? For either the devotees of our “earth mother” or the “cult of the outdoors” for whom nature is an object consumable by bike trails, ATVs, or “majestic views” (“121 feet of pure ahhhhhh!” as one billboard proclaims, advertising a waterfall), we are caught in the contradiction of human existence (an existence in culture, history, and industry) and animal existence (the brute facticity of objects): nature is always found elsewhere than the human—the concrete of sidewalks no longer qualifies as nature insofar as we proceed to identify nature only with the blades of grass in its cracks; and even then “real” nature is found by escaping the city, i.e., by “escaping ourselves” such that the proper form of prostration in the temple of Gaia is silent awe before the gigantic redwood or by listening to the cry of the eagle. The human, in other words, must subtract itself from nature and allow nature to “be present”. But the human can therefore never “be with” nature, for nature is then the “more-than-human world”. This dichotomy leaves us with one of two choices: either the supersession of nature by industry (God granted dominion over nature; work and technology is the essence of humanity; etc) or cultural suicide (i.e., the separation of animality from culture—a “return to nature” in the form of shamanic mysticism, aboriginal denials of technology, etc).

2. In his most recent work (although the majority of this work has not been published), Critchley has argued that the citizen requires a sort of “catechism” or, in other words, that politics requires a “supreme fiction” that functions as an authoritative ground or arche. The problem of modern politics, Critchley suggests, is that such authority can no longer come from God but must come from humanity itself; this is, of course, the problem of nihilism in the form of Jacobi’s formulation: either we are God or God is absolutely transcendent.

Perhaps something similar is true for thinking of nature. I had once, long ago, suggested that environmental advocates will never be successful in their efforts without a radical change in our cultural values and mores, for as long as the culture of capital continues to think in terms of accumulation, industry, and “rational self-interest”, we will never value the sacrifice of (personal) interest for the sake of “nature”. As a variation of this suggestion, perhaps what is needed is a new myth of nature. If the symbolic pagan religions were those whose myths precluded the development of industry—as so many of the bigoted ideologies of western Europe have argued—then what can we learn of the function of myth, if not the content of these myths that are now being fetishized by New Agers and so-called “nature-lovers”? MacIntyre has demonstrated convincingly that the ideology that has claimed to be done with tradition—i.e., liberalism—has itself become a tradition—yet one in bad faith insofar as it refuses to recognize its own status as such. It is this sort of contradiction that Critchley in his own way is indicating when he suggests that if modern politics is not to fall prey to nihilism (in the form of liberal democratic capitalism), then what we need is some kind of supreme fiction or what I am calling myth (obviously in reference to Barthes’ notion of “mythology”). Are there any myths available to us from within the ideologies of the western European tradition (I personally find Taoism more useful here than these)? What are the mechanisms by which these myths might function? Critchley suggests poetry. Perhaps, however, we might also not want to be so quick to dismiss the so-called “return to religion” as simply a tool of reactionary fundamentalism and not simply deliver the discourse of religion over to the right (if for no other reason than that we have seen how successfully the right has mobilized the resources of religion for the most fascist of purposes).

Crises (10 JUN 2007)

1. The ideology of philosophy: The philosopher, it is said, is one who can simply “sit and think” about philosophical (read: human) problems—i.e., logic and reason are universally, essentially human. Is this not the hidden metaphysics of post-metaphysics that implicates not only the legislating subject of the Enlightenment but also, unfortunately, the counter-Enlightenment (Hobbes, Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau)?

2. Yet we can only counter (oppose) something within a genus (Aristotle). Therefore, can one be willing to relinquish the name of philosophy? What else, then, does one do? Theory? Critique? The question is not only, a la Deleuze, what is the image of thought, but what is the name of thought?

3. What is most severely and desperately lacking today, if we are ever to move beyond a metaphysics (of the essence) of man, is a philosophy of nature.

4. The fundamental tension: Taoist silence (Tao) and mind (yi). It is not a matter of choosing between them but in the difference between them without hypostasizing this difference into an essence. What is a philosophy of nothingness (wu-wei)?