A Marxist Approach to the Nature-Culture Divide: A Reply to Adam Robbert’s “Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions”

Still from Tarkovskii's "Stalker" -- Entering the Zone (1979)

The following is taken from a response I wrote to Adam Robbert’s recent post on his blog,“Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions.”  If you would like to read another interesting response to the article, check out Matthew David Segall’s reply here, “Towards an Eco-Ontology.”  My Adornian opposition to ontologies of any sort remains unchanged, and while this doubtless complicates any attempt at discourse I might have with the OOO approach, I still think that some fruitful dialogue might be taken from this discussion.

A very interesting reflection on the old problem of the nature-culture relationship. Your points are thorough, calm, and considered — and I will say that none of them fall prey to the kind of pernicious metaphysical proclamations I sometimes see being issued out of the OOO blogosphere. Seeing your measured comments on my blog, it is little surprise to see that you are equally measured and reasonable in writing posts for your own blog.

In any case, I, like Matthew, also appreciate some of the thinkers you brought into constellation with one another. Ellul and Mumford are among my favorite critics of technology, though I prefer their insights as filtered through and appropriated by Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse. For this reason, along with my general Marxist inclinations, the most important point you highlighted (in my opinion) was the third, considering the effects of capitalism and globalization on the relationship between humanity and nature. For me, capitalism, globalization, and modernity are all coterminous — globalization is simply a spatial register for capitalism’s inherently expansionary logic, while the time-consciousness of modernity is merely capitalism’s temporal register.

I would argue, viewing the problem historically, that the problem of humanity’s alienation from nature — the widening chasm between Nature and Culture, even if they be inextricably intertwined — arose historically. That is to say, although humanity’s self-distinction as a society distinguishable from nature arrived fairly early, with the project of agriculture and primitive domestication, the estrangement of humanity from nature only rose to the level of consciousness with the advent of capitalism. Only after the Enlightenment’s thorough disenchantment of nature, the coldly rationalizing and technicizing logic of capitalism, even in the eighteenth century, only after this point do we see writers like Schiller, Holderlin, Schelling, and Hegel writing of the problem of humanity’s alienation from nature. Marx rationalized the Romantic thinkers’ thoughts on the matter in his Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

This bleeds into your second point, where you talk about the problem of nature being one that nature considered as an entity unto itself must also be thought alongside the various ideological conceptions of nature arrived at by society through history. This is why I, in my own writings on the subject, have referred to nature as a fundamentally social problem. That is to say, one can look back through history at the way that humanity has conceived of nature, in its various iterations through the ages, and see that the way that nature has presented itself to us largely depends on the social constitution of a particular epoch. This is not to fall into the idealistic fantasy that nature has no existence apart from our conception of it, but rather to admit that while nature might have its own objective rhythms and regularities, it is not some sort of Kantian Ding-an-Sich, and the way that we conceptualize nature has much to do with how it appears to us as a problem. Oppositely, this would suggest that our way of thinking has much to do with the objective relations of whatever mode of production prevails throughout society at a given time, such that there is a quite real divide between Nature and Culture that has arisen historically. This means that we cannot overcome the problem simply by “reconceptualizing” it, but rather only through a fundamental transformation of our social structure.

Regarding the “pluriverse” and multiple conceptions of nature that you discuss in the fourth part, I thus believe that it is collapsible into the second part, since the multiple manifestations of nature arise historically as part of the social being of mankind. But I’m fully on board with you, also, on the facile attempt to dismiss the real opposition between nature and culture by simply saying that they are wholly intermingled with one another.

If you would like to read my own musings on the subjects, in a rather long essay that is due to be published in the upcoming SR journal Thinking Nature, edited by Ben Woodard and Timothy Morton, you can check it out on my blog. It’s much more detailed than the point-by-point reaction I give here, and I think you might be interested in taking a glance at it.

4 thoughts on “A Marxist Approach to the Nature-Culture Divide: A Reply to Adam Robbert’s “Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions”

  1. I only briefly had time to read your response, which I think I am mostly agreeable to. I haven’t yet had a chance to look at the paper you referred me to, but will look at that as well when I have more time.

  2. Hi Ross,

    I just re-read this post and perhaps this will be disappointing to you, but I agree with basically all of it. “Nature” is a social problem. I also really enjoyed your comments on globalization as the spatial register of capitalism and modernity as its temporal one. There are a few small places where I would push your argument a little further though.

    I am quite persuaded by Charles Taylor’s accounts of modernity as being a “mutlitple” phenomenon that expresses itself differently in different cultures, each possessing its own peculiarities and trajectories. Thus whenever I hear “modernity” and “disenchantment” discussed in a monolithic way, I feel inclined to push back against this. There are multiple different kinds of enchantment/disenchantment just as there are multiple modernities (I would see Jane Bennett on these points).

    In the same way, I think, the human-nature discourse is complex, precisely because there is not a single “human” and “nature” relationship, but rather a huge variety of conceptions as to where humans and natures fit together. The anthropological literature is quite clear on this point: some humans experience nature as an extension of culture, others experience human society as an extension of nature. Some are thoroughly secular, others animistic or pantheistic- most are a thick mix. I think its important that we hold these differences in mind, and recognize that they are heading in different directions.

    I would be curious to know, in light of this post and other comments you have made, what is your sense of teleology with regards to historical development? You had commented earlier on “mastering our social systems,” do you think this is an inevitable accomplishment that we can expect to manifest historically at some point?

    I’m glad you liked point #3, and when I first saw this post I figured thats where you would be most approving. I wonder here too though, can we really explain everything in terms of modes of production and political economies, and, is that how you seek to explain things? I’m wondering mostly because I find so much Marxist discourse very compelling, but I am also concerned because it tends towards its own kind of ideological bent that is very hard to notice sometimes, and can obscure other kinds of analysis. “Nature” is precisely one of those areas where ecology and marxism are both central avenues of important critique, but I’m wondering what we might be leaving out by focusing so closely on critiques of political economy. I ask because you, more than most, will probably have an interesting response to such a question.

    I need to find some time to read your other paper in order to respond properly, I’m still hoping to do so soon.

    • While I’m familiar with the thesis of “multiple modernities,” I reject it insofar as posits modernity itself as innately multiple. The reason why modernity presents itself in such multiform manifestations is that the traditional cultures, associations, and institutions that modernity encounters are multiple, disparate, and heterogeneous. Though some commonalities across societies at this stage of existence can be found, many of these societies lived in relative isolation from one another, such that a change in the social structure of one would not necessarily affect the social customs and traditions of another. Precapitalist, premodern traditions were incredibly rich in their variety, peculiar customs, practices, and rituals. Once these traditional societies begin to come under the fold of capitalist modernity, these preexisting peculiar institutions are each moulded and modified in their own separate ways. This is why Marx was able to say in the Manifesto that through global commodity exchange on the world market, capital “remakes the world in its own image” — without then having to commit himself to the thesis that everywhere in all parts of the world things are the same.

      Modernity in itself exerts a homogenizing influence, creating unique sense of time-consciousness, synchronizing society according to the tick of a uniform clock. It also has a tendency rationalize and intellectualize phenomena of the natural and social worlds, and to thereby “disenchant” them of their mysterious properties. I view most attempts to “reenchant” the world by resurrecting past paganisms, Eastern mysticism, or even some inchoate unitarianism to be a reactionary and anti-modern development, symptomatic of modernity but not identical with it. This also accounts for modernity’s generally secularizing and desacralizing effect, and along with it reactionary religious movements trying to combat its irreligious trajectory. Fanatical religious fundamentalism, no matter what the creed, is a development peculiar to modernity for this reason.

      I do not feel that there is a teleology to history in the sense of something intended for mankind from on high, from some celestial deity or anything of the sort. There are tendencies in history, however. For example, one can note how through the ages, while political freedoms are far from being equitable and complete, but that freedoms have gradually been extended to include more and more people as history has progressed. There are also developments of the present that, while we are enchained to them for the time being, promise emancipatory possibilities further down the line. I do not view them as inevitable, but I will say that the future of humanity rests on its successful mastery of its own form of social organization. Until then we remain trapped in the throes of heteronomy and barbarism.

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