Challenging the Binaries of Nature and Culture:

Against Manichaean Thinking (and Hybridism)

Joé Birchen
One of the most unravelling questions about nature concerns its relationship with the human and cultural. Can humans be considered part of nature, and consequently form one unity? Or do we set forth a divide, which sees both as two strictly seperate realms? In the following paragraphs, I will argue that there is more to the relation between nature and culture than a matter of mere opposition.

In ecophilosophical thought, the constructivist viewpoint underlines the tensions between the cultural and the natural. Here, any notions of ‘authentic’ nature are rejected. Philosopher Kate Soper refers to it as the ‘nature-skeptical’ approach, reminding us that it is a theory mostly influenced by post-structuralism which is “loathe to recognise any independent natural determinations” of ‘nature’, underlining only “its culturally constructed or purely discursive status” (The Politics, 48). In this light, nature always remains an ‘artifact of culture’, rendering any perceptive distinction between humans and nature redundant. Well yes, there will always be a natural or physical environment other to us, but separating ourselves from its concept becomes unnecessary: we spoil it as soon as we touch it.

This, however, encourages an understanding of the natural environment as a source of truth and authenticity. If there is something to spoil, there must be something pure too. It refers to what Soper named ‘nature-endorsing’ theories, building on a ‘deeper green disposition’, which sees nature as ‘pure’ and being of ‘intrinsic value’ to humans. It is a thread that runs through various essentialist ecologies, which advocate the “preservationist and heritage impulse [that] speaks of [...] a more harmonious order in time [and] a more natural way of living of the past” (The Politics, 54). It is a way of living synonymous with the romanticisation of the environment, which invokes a sense of belonging to nature, and nature belonging to us.

It is another thought, which endorses a link between humans and the outside world, consequently paving the way for what the cultural critic John Ruskin called the ‘pathetic fallacy’. This term describes the belief that emotions and feelings, thus consequently human minds, can be merged with external reality, creating bonds between the entities of the outside and inside, or the human and natural. It corresponds to nothing else than a discourse put on Nature. To this, Soper adds that “an exclusive emphasis on ‘discourse’, signification and the construction of nature can very readily appear evasive of ecological realities and irrelevant to the task of addressing them” (The Politics, 50). Paradoxically, for Soper, it is the construction of discourse, as addressing and pointing at objects that constitute ‘nature’, and our attachment to it, which simultaneously detaches us from it.

Interestingly, in this attaching and detaching, humans and nature seem like two different magnets, which at the same time repel and attract each other. When we ‘other’ ourselves from Nature, we attribute a certain purity to it, where it receives the characteristic of being untouched by us, marked by a natural sterility and a realm of her own. This happens when we consider nature as being distinct from humanity, but strangely also when we consider nature as the ‘domain of intrinsic value’, and our place of belonging, thus emphasising our touch upon it. The sterility coexists entirely with the idea that Nature is the absolute origin of humanity, implying that Nature is part of us and that we are part of her.

These incessant attempts at escaping ‘nature’, and our returning thoughts on it, raise the evidence of a proper Möbius strip. Dark ecology suggests that this strip - ontological reflections on the relationship between the environment and human - can be best understood when Nature is left out of the equation. Timothy Morton explains in his book Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (2016) that “[e]cological awareness is a loop because human interference has a loop form, because ecological and biological systems are loops. And ultimately this is because to exist at all is to assume the form of a loop” (6). Being aware of our natural environment means valuing, but simultaneously protecting its resources and knowing our detrimental influence on it. This ouroboros predestines the looping effect of human interference, which, for instance, can be best demonstrated with climate change and its effects: humans change landscapes, because of this we interfere with the carbon storage reservoirs, which alters the carbon cycle, and eventually results in climate change. The effects of climate change, such as global warming and floods, result again in a change in landscapes, which influences our interference with the environment. So the end comes back to its beginning. Morton adds that “for every seeming forward motion of the drill bit there is a backward gyration, an asymmetrical contrary motion” (7). According to that logic, every detrimental influence on the environment will have an effect which will be felt and to which we will adapt.

Our relation to the planet only makes sense, argues Morton, when meditations on Nature are left out, necessitating, in his words, an ‘ecology without nature’. Here the ‘nature’ and culture divide becomes dispensable, as Nature will always be without ecology, thus without any substantial environment to which we can relate. Nature will always be the ‘other’ and consequently distance itself from ecology - which is nothing else than a discourse put on Nature - and any other theories on ourselves and the relation to our physical environment. Trying to know Nature will leave a shadow on it, a veil which we can never see through, but which builds that untouched, pure and unknowable spot that Nature exists with, or what ‘real’ Nature is at all.

In the dark ecological loop that Morton describes, everything is “suffused with and surrounded by mysterious hermeneutical clouds of unknowing” (6). The ‘clouds of unknowing’ refer to the ‘weird weirdness’ and confusion that arises when we think about the loop and the force of the ‘asymmetrical contrary motion’. But how do we make sense out of the distinction between the environment and the human, when we are able to change landscapes and the climate - domains we refer to as ‘nature’ - and what do we make out of the fact that the environment influences how we act, and therefore also who we are? This whirling loop troubles any clarity of ontological questions that concern the nature and culture divide, which makes one assume that the divide is more permeable than we have ever thought.

We remain in the same strange paradox that nature and culture are not divided, but divided at the same time. When we have an influence on something, we have an influence on something other, which is not us. Nevertheless, the other is prone to be reappropriated. Morton writes that “[t]he Anthropocene names two levels we usually think are distinct: geology and humanity”, adding that “[s]ince the late eighteenth century humans have been depositing layers of carbon in Earth’s crust” (7-8). He suggests that, through our influence and its ‘strange loop’ form, the environment, ‘nature’, and geology turn into a creation of ours.

In an entry to the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (2020), geophilosopher Nigel Clark states “that it is vital to consider one’s social positioning or local environment when making theoretical or practical interventions, [just as it is equally] important that we do not take for granted the kind of planet we inhabit or the moment in deep geological history at which we find ourselves” (144). Meditations on the ‘social positioning’ and environment feed the dialogue between humans and nature. Clark and Kathryn Yusoff write in their article Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene (2017) that this dialogue is attuned to the Anthropocene thesis, claiming that “humans have become geological agents” (5), adding that there are “moves under way to open the very categories of the social, the cultural, the political, the historical to the forces of the earth” (6). Hence, the Anthropocene merges the two distinct ‘levels’ of nature and culture into one, consequently reinforcing Morton’s strange loop.

According to that logic, the back and forth of our ecological awareness and the reciprocal relationship between humans and our environment contribute to a symbiosis of the latter two. It is a symbiosis, appealing to the Gaia Hypothesis, coined by chemist James Lovelock and explained by philosopher Bruno Latour, who sees “the Earth [as] a totality of living beings and materials that were made together, that cannot live apart, and from which humans can’t extract themselves”. This strongly speaks in favour of hybridism, a theory which suggests an intermingling of the cultural and natural, consequently deleting their referents.

But still: there is more than only one, and climate change delivers the necessary evidence. Considering Morton’s logic, one can argue that climate change is anthropogenic and results in nature, which makes us, to a certain extent, the creators of our environment. However, this is a syllogism, with hidden dangers of which we need to be aware. Journalist Naomi Klein asserts that “we have learned from atmospheric science [that] the essence of all relationships in nature was not eliminated with fossil fuels” elucidating that “it was merely delayed, all the while gaining force and velocity” (175). Thus, ‘nature’ and our relationship to it cannot be driven out so easily. In The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (2018), activist-philosopher Andreas Malm asks: “If I cut and mould wood into a bookcase, I have undoubtedly built that bookcase - but if I cut a branch off a tree, have I also built that tree?” (37). This means, in other words, that we did not create nature itself. Science tells us that climate change is heavily influenced by CO2 emissions, and with our contribution to these emissions we change the carbon cycle of the planet. But this does still not make us the creators of the carbon or oxygen atom. Here, we use nature to degenerate nature, but do not make it.

Criticising the post-structuralist idea that nature only exists through discourse, Andreas Malm underlines that “global warming is not a discourse. It trivialises the suffering it generates to see it as a text. The excessive temperatures are not a piece of rhetoric” (22). With that, ‘time’ can be empirically measured, and the (damaged) environment certainly exceeds the realm of the constructed. He adds that climate change is a “great blender and trespasser, [sweeping] back and forth between the two regions traditionally referred to as ‘nature’ and ‘society’” (15). It does this, as we have seen, with its influence on nature. However, as long as both can be distinguished from one another, nature needs to be accepted as a category of its own (43). It “really is nature that comes roaring back into society [...] knocking on the door of the postmodern condition - occasionally breaking it down, crashing through glass, sweeping away screens” (77). Thus, nature can bite back. Or, how the Roman poet Horace once put it, “naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret”: You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will always return.

This leaves us with a very strange dynamic and relationship between our two notorious binaries. As we have seen, nature as a physical environment manifests its own sphere, even if we influence it. And in Western hermeneutics, the social construct of nature is always a representation of something untouched by representation. Kate Soper elucidates this in her book What Is Nature? (1995) while she states that “Nature is that which Humanity finds within itself, and to which it in some sense belongs, but also that from which it seems excluded in the very moment in which it reflects upon either its otherness or its belonging” (49). Nature, then, is always escaping its own definition, it can never really be grasped or touched, whether this be in a philosophical or environmental and physical context. We are left with an eternal back and forth when it comes to the scrutiny of nature and culture. What is clear is that the answers go into more than two directions. The residue which remains is a rumbling, a noise, or even a feeling. It is a new space that opens up, similar to the effect of two different views on a river, as described by philosopher Edward Casey: “Seen from a sufficient height, [the river] resembles a line drawn in planiform space. But the closer one comes to the river itself, the less likely a strictly linear representation is able to capture its natural coursing and seasonal variability” (8). Upon closer inspection, the river is not just a line or a border between two states: it has space between its banks, which forms an important part of an ecosystem. There is more to a river than its two banks, and as we have seen, there is more to the binaries of nature and culture, too. In the turbid waters and between two entities lies the relation: the third element of two different regions and one land. ︎

Joé Birchen studied Literary and Cultural Analysis at University of Amsterdam. He works as a freelance journalist for the departments of culture and music at the public service radio station in Luxembourg.

Casey, S. Edward. The World on Edge. Indiana University Press, 2017.

Clark, Nigel, and Kathryn Yusoff. “Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 34, no. 2-3, 2017, pp. 3–23, DOI: 10.1177/0263276416688946.

Clark, Nigel. “Anthropocene.” International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, 2020, pp. 139–145, DOI: 10.1016/b978-0-08-102295-5.10503-7.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything. Penguin Books, 2015.

Malm, Andreas. The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World. Verso, 2018.

Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Soper, Kate. “The Politics of Nature: Reflections on Hedonism, Progress and Ecology”. Capitalism Nature Socialism, vol. 10, no. 2, 1999, pp. 47–70, DOI:10.1080/10455759909358857.

Soper, Kate. What Is Nature? Blackwell, 1995.

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