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Reinventing Nature?: Responses To Postmodern Deconstruction

Reinventing Nature?: Responses To Postmodern Deconstruction

by Michael E. Soulé

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How much of science is culturally constructed? How much depends on language and metaphor? How do our ideas about nature connect with reality? Can nature be "reinvented" through theme parks and malls, or through restoration?Reinventing Nature? is an interdisciplinary investigation of how perceptions and conceptions of nature affect both the individual experience and


How much of science is culturally constructed? How much depends on language and metaphor? How do our ideas about nature connect with reality? Can nature be "reinvented" through theme parks and malls, or through restoration?Reinventing Nature? is an interdisciplinary investigation of how perceptions and conceptions of nature affect both the individual experience and society's management of nature. Leading thinkers from a variety of fields -- philosophy, psychology, sociology, public policy, forestry, and others -- address the conflict between perception and reality of nature, each from a different perspective. The editors of the volume provide an insightful introductory chapter that places the book in the context of contemporary debates and a concluding chapter that brings together themes and draws conclusions from the dialogue.In addition to the editors, contributors include Albert Borgmann, David Graber, N. Katherine Hayles, Stephen R. Kellert, Gary P. Nabhan, Paul Shepard, and Donald Worster.

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Reinventing Nature?

Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction

By Michael E. Soulé, Gary Lease, Alan Gussow


Copyright © 1995 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-308-9




"There is no form of prose more difficult to understand and more tedious to read," insists Nobel laureate Francis Crick, "than the average scientific paper." He, of course, should know. But the natural sciences are certainly not alone in producing thick, even obscure, language. Much of contemporary writing from the humanities can certainly be opaque and difficult, particularly in the areas of theoretical, feminist, neohistorical, deconstructive, and ultimately critical thought. Witness Donna Haraway, eminent feminist theorist and historian of science, who noted in a recent talk at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that the nonhuman world is dialogic—indeed, a coproductive participant in human social relationships. This is not as it should be, emphasizes Haraway, but it is the way things are. For her the question is not one of difference between the human and the nonhuman worlds but rather the nature of nonnature, which she views as a product of techno-science. Haraway finds the most blatant example in the patenting of "invented" animals; here we do not have simply animals as property, an old practice, but animals as human invention. From her point of view the contemporary notion of nature takes the form of a contest over the politicization of nature—that is, the objectification of nature and its distinction from the political and the social.

What can Haraway mean? Perhaps public opinion can help. In a Christmas Day (1993) poll released by the Los Angeles Times, 47 percent of those interviewed thought that animals "are just like humans in all important ways." The boundaries, in other words, between the human species and other animal species are increasingly permeable in our highly self-reflective Western cultures. In fact, the boundaries between the world and humans, after much careful construction, seem to be under fire. Nature is not only personified—"it's not nice to fool Mother Nature," sang one margarine commercial not so long go–but often carefully reduced. The world of human production has frequently operated outside of nature. Cities, transportation, recreation: all those myriad inventions of human culture have been viewed as inimical to the wild and (humanly) uncontrolled state of the world, a condition akin to a New Eden. Haraway wants to focus attention on the fact that even the attempt to rescue the nonhuman from the human, to salvage nature from the onslaught of modern, technologized humanity, is itself a human construction. What, then, is nature? Where is it to be found? Who controls it? Should it be controlled at all? What is the relationship of humans to that nature: are they in it, out of it, or somewhere in between? There is a war over nature in progress and nature itself is in the middle—caught in a crossfire of competing interests.

Such a contest is not over empty prizes. Indeed, it is nothing less than the human struggle for access to reality. And for humans, access to something is what grants control: nine-tenths of the law is possession, goes the old saw, and such clichés have power precisely because they so often are the case. Without access to the understanding of something, one is powerless over it. If one does have that access, however, and is able to control the communication over a phenomenon, then one controls how it is to be understood. A contest over what is allowed to represent reality—and that is what intelligible access is all about—is a struggle over that reality itself. This is the heart of our age's modernism, the process by which we establish what "counts" as reality.

Seen against this background, all our narratives—our many stories about nature and ourselves, whether "scientific" or not—are striving for such representation. In effect, we work hard to establish reality. In this hurly-burly world of contestation, the results are always more exclusive than inclusive. We are constantly deciding what belongs and what does not. In both the sciences and the humanities, pedigrees are the goal—in our stories we invariably exclude far more than we include. And that is also the problem: nature and human are both places (embodiment) and narratives, sites of contestation which can never be resolved. How do we map and present such places? How is such a place visited or experienced? In other words, what are the mechanics of contestation, the strategies and tactics (Clausewitz) of representation ? Or: how can one reduce narrative access to possession, and how can one access the access?

In our postmodern, post-Marxist world, class struggles no longer have anything to do with "truth," with "right" and "wrong," but rather only with the most profound level of ideological battles; in the last analysis it is always a question of life and death, of pure survival. Such contests never result in victory, in completion, in closure. We will not "get the story right," regardless of the tendency of some scientists to proclaim final triumph, and despite the hubris of some historians who announce that their stories have finally portrayed events "as they actually were" (Ranke). Our many representations of nature and human are, in other words, always and ultimately failures. The reason for such failure is, of course, not far to seek: nature and human are not self-revealing, even to a self-reflective species such as the human one. We and our world may well be real, but intelligible access to that reality is constructed and produced and ultimately incomplete. Yet we need to form judgments about these constructions; otherwise we would not be able to tell our stories. This, in turn, underlines the role of power in the contestation over what gets to count in any ruling narrative, and who gets to tell it. It is this struggle that is basically the story of modernism. And modernism is not fun.

"I don't want to just hear about revolutions. All we see or hear is revolutions. I'm sick of them," said Hemingway's female protagonist. But he saw it differently. "They're beautiful," he wrote. "Really. For quite a while. Then they go bad." Nevertheless, he studied them. The result: "They were all very different but there were some things you could co-ordinate." Only under certain conditions, of course; for one thing you have to have enough material. In fact: "You need an awful lot of past performances. It's very hard to get anything true on anything you haven't seen yourself because the ones that fail have such a bad press and the winners always lie so."

This is the story being replayed today in the ever accelerating disintegration of the natural sciences and the humanities in their traditional forms at universities and research institutes across the globe. In the humanities, such stalwarts as literature and history are shifting under the impact of deconstruction, new historicisms, and the rise of new disciplinary configurations such as women's studies and feminist theory, a revitalized (revisionist?) notion of world history, and metadisciplines galore. Deconstruction, for example, in the field of literary criticism has led to an expansion of concerns that takes all human expression to be "text" and thus the proper target of literature. In fact, literature is too restrictive; for all intents and purposes, what goes on under the rubric of "textual" studies is cultural studies: the investigation of all human production. Or take history (Please! cries Henny Youngman, dean of comedy in any contemporary university), where the impossibility of ever accumulating all the sources, witnesses, and evidence to any moment in the past has transformed the writing of history into publicly acknowledged fiction (Schama). Elsewhere the natural sciences seem to be splitting faster than zygotes, creating right and left new groupings and directions. In response, Stanford University hosted this year a major conference to probe the world of thought "beyond dualism," seeking a realignment of the sciences and humanities. It is risky business indeed to speak these days of the "natural" sciences and the "humanities" in the monolithic tones common just ten years ago. For one thing, the practitioners no longer share anything like a common understanding of what it is they are about; for another, the transformation of all human expression and production, including scientific experimentation and knowledge, into "texts" to be deconstructed according to their ranking on the scales of power and control has washed out any previous lines of difference. A revolution in the making?

When Michael Soulé, chair of Environmental Studies at the University of California (Santa Cruz), and I, in my capacity as dean of the humanities at the same institution, first heard of a large-scale, three-year project on Reinventing Nature being planned by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (Irvine), we were immediately intrigued. Taking its inspiration from a recent publication by Donna Haraway, the project sought to promote a series of regional conferences throughout California, ultimately to culminate in a residential research team in Irvine during the first half of 1994. The overall initiative was understood as a foray into the world of environmental change, seeking to understand the dynamics unleashed by two major trends in today's world. The first trend is the recognition that the forces of cultural construction play a much greater role in forming our understanding of nature than has been admitted; the second trend is the acknowledgment of the still strong defense of nature as a realm that is autonomous and valuable in its own right. Conferences in Berkeley (March 1992), San Diego (November 1992), and Davis (September 1993) sought to deal with the problems of narrative and image, with the arts, and with the notion of "wilderness." What struck both Soulé and me from the very beginning was the fact that none of these conferences was designed to address specifically the dialogue between the worlds of the natural sciences and the humanities. In planning the conference that has led to this book, we sought to fill this gap.

Our initial premise was that the current reanalysis of nature, ecology, and wilderness in contemporary discourse, including the social sciences, has important cultural implications. We knew that such a statement might well shock many scientists and technocrats—partly for "turf" reasons but also because they may be unaware of the dialectics occurring in other disciplines. Scientists and conservationists, when confronted with the concepts of invention and deconstruction, as applied to nature, sometimes fail to appreciate the degree to which their own concepts of nature are culturally determined. Despite the problems of communication across this "two-culture" gap, we believed that all the parties, including historians, sociologists, and biologists, have much to learn from each other and that cross-disciplinary contacts can promote teaching and research collaborations, the advance of knowledge, and the development of more effective conservation policies.

From the start we were convinced that the inherited notions of "nature" as well as the distinctions between the invention of nature as cultural construction and the invention of specific biophysical contents should be the main points of departure for any such dialogue. Of course we are not the first to pose such questions. The place of humanity in nature—or, more precisely, the relationship of the human species to the rest of reality—has been a central problem in all historical cultures, but most particularly in the Western tradition that has produced both our contemporary "sciences" and the "humanities." This question is, of course, partly epistemological: Is nature "out there" or do we create it? Cultural historians and analysts frequently distinguish between "nature" as other and humans, who stand somehow outside of nature. Such a move is as old as the question itself. Certainly the early Greek Sophists depended on a distinction between the "original" or the essential, on the one hand, and that which is artificial, acquired, or accidental, on the other. The contempt of the Cynics for conventional custom was determined by this distinction as well. Augustine, one of the most influential early Christian thinkers, betrayed in hisConfessions both a Manichean (dualist) background and a Christianized Neoplatonism by considering "nature" to be the original act of divine creation; humanity, though created, is destined to achieve separation from nature and unity with God. From Pseudo-Dionysus through the early medieval Platonists to the reworked Aristotelianism of Aquinus, there emerged a concept of "natural" law, or a divinely ordained "order" to all reality. Such an order established a framework within which the human species and the physical world were interrelated in subordination to the creative will of God. In other words, for a large and formative part of our Western tradition, nature has been a theological given, linked always to a divine transcendence and defined in contrast to that deity.

It was British philosophy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, that brought a systematic rejection of this theological scheme of understanding the world. Locke, in particular, insisted on the distinction between that which is "made," or relations, and that which is "real," or experienced. This view led inevitably to an opposition between reason and nature, a position which Kant in his idealism effectively exploited. And while the early Greek thinkers often restricted the term "nature" to the world of the physical and material, it was Spinoza who finally drew the consequences of a natural law stance and identified nature with God. Thus Western thought had culminated in an impasse regarding nature. Was it the material world of experience, experiences that could be shared, repeated, and tested; or was it the ineffable, invisible, and transcendent world of divine origins, available only to acts of faith? The answer of the nineteenth century was clear. Any notion of a functioning "natural" law in Western tradition declined markedly, a direct result of the disappearance of a theologically grounded base both to public life and to scientific pursuit. After wrestling with the notion of nature for well over two thousand years, Western tradition had come up dry: neither an identification of the human species with nature nor a strict dichotomy between the two proved ultimately successful.

In our so-called postmodern world, however, this struggle has been revived. On the one hand, the effort continues to remove the human species from nature. This can lead, in one scenario, to an overvaluation of the human role in creating or forming nature, thus producing a paradoxical identification of human and natural. On the other hand, there is an insistence on an overdetermined independence of humans from world/nature, resulting in separation. In both cases, though, the relationship between human cultural production and the biophysical world may be dangerously skewed. One of the objectives of our Santa Cruz conference was to shift the focus of such discussions away from such polar extremes and into more fruitful, if complex, intellectual discourse.

The need for such a redirected conversation is made even more obvious by the fact that all too often barriers akin to cultural boundaries have been erected between humanistic emphasis on the role of human conception in establishing what is "natural" and scientific insistence on nature as "given." Major aspects of these "two-culture" problems with respect to "nature/ecology/wilderness" have rarely if ever been exposed to multidisciplinary dialogue; as a result, many confusing issues and semantic debates continue to hamper the discovery of the basic issues. We saw earlier, for example, that construction of nature, espoused so pointedly by Haraway, can be interpreted in at least two ways: one is the cultural context in which nature is understood; the other involves the actual content and structure of that nature.

The former issue, context, is conceptual and perceptual—it is about our view of nature more than about nature's actual composition, chemically, physically, and biologically, which, arguably, is largely an empirical question. While the social construction of nature is hardly an issue any more among social scientists, the intellectual and practical significance of the social construction is an open question. Clearly there are important differences between "Western" and "non-Western" cultural constructions of nature, for example, but these can be exaggerated (see Kellert in Chapter 7). As Soulé explains (Chapter 9), the plant taxonomies of aboriginal societies are virtually always the same in structure as those of modern, scientific ones—both are hierarchical, consisting of nested sets of exclusive categories—and aboriginal taxonomies typically recognize the same entities as species. The fundamental question both Soulé and I wanted to raise at the conference is whether perceptions and conceptions of nature (landscapes, animal/human relations, ecological processes) differ enough between cultures to affect the way these cultures would wish to maintain or manage nature in the remnants of remaining habitat. In other words, do these differences have policy implications? (See Graber in Chapter 8; Soulé in Chapter 9.)


Excerpted from Reinventing Nature? by Michael E. Soulé, Gary Lease, Alan Gussow. Copyright © 1995 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Meet the Author

At the time of publication, Michael E. Soule was professor and chair of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His research interests included morphological and genetic variation in natural populations of animals, island biogeography, and conservation biology. He was the founder and first president of the Society for Conservation Biology and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Gary Lease was professor of history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has served in a wide variety of chairships, including environmental studies for three years; since 1990 he also has been dean of humanities. He took his doctorate at the University of Munich in history of theology. His ongoing work is concentrated in the history of religious thought in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany and late-antiquity Mediterranean religious history. He has published extensively in those areas.

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