July 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

This article by Steven Poole is nicely contrary to the Guardian‘s usual enthusiasms, & makes a few good points, his rather strange “we’re all part of nature really!” turn towards the end aside (“We are already ambulatory ecosystems.” OK, but we’re ecosystems that wipe out other ecosystems by the million.) One of his better implications is that these nice anthropomorphic metaphors (“pirouetting birds” with “unfathomable souls”) reproduce the human relationship w/ nature – one of coercion, domination, destructive control – while lending a patina of care for the sake of bourgeois rest at night. I’m not sure this is quite right: one of the things my creative writing tutors (who were involved in popular science writing) suggested was that metaphors in a sense image the decidedly unstraightforward entanglements of natural processes & human relationships with them, imaging their capacities & limits. Poussin’s Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake is an anthropomorphic metaphor too, & performs just what I describe; so does Paradise Lost. We’re talking here obviously about the exact opposite of ostranenie, but it doesn’t make sense to describe the language in wh/ these metaphors render the world as simply bourgeois, the ‘human’ being more than ideology (even if we do accept, w/ Foucault, that “man” is epiphenomenon rather than phenomenon of historical process).

There’s a second complaint at work here, & one wh/ feeds into my reply to the first: “Nature writers do tend to whitewash the non-human world as a place of eternal sun-dappled peace and harmony, only ever the innocent victim of human depredation”. The fact that, as Poole puts it, “nature has exterminated countless members of her own realm through volcanic eruption, tsunami, or natural climate variation, not to mention the hideously gruesome day-in, day-out business of parts of nature killing and eating other parts” is really neither here nor there – it’s merely the application of a different metaphor (“nature red in tooth & claw”), precisely the thing that he scolds Monbiot for not recognising in his own writing. Metaphors are themselves historical, though they often ‘eternalise’ themselves through totalising or temporally extensive claims. (The gap between a metaphor’s claim & its descriptive actuality might be one definition of ideology; for example, the claims of many of the Robert Macfarlane-lite writers who have followed in the wake of The Wild Places The Old Ways about the continuity of nature & persistent social practices is quite precisely bourgeois ideology.) People’s accounts of nature aren’t historicised; but Poole’s answer is to historicise them in the most crude & empirical way – they’re the emanation of “the eager denizens of Stoke Newington [surely Peckham these days?] or Brooklyn”. Whereas I’d argue that these accounts need to be understood within the context of the whole history of capitalism, perhaps even of ‘enlightenment’ in Adorno & Horkheimer’s sense. Nature, Adorno writes in ‘The Idea of Natural-History’, is to be discerned in its greatest historical determination where it appears most completely natural (to “rest in itself” in Bob Hullot-Kentor’s translation), &, vice versa, history appears at its most historical where it must be grasped as most natural (that is, most subject to the frightful & primitive invariants from wh/ our ancestors recoiled in fear). Nature & history are in fact entangled at every level of practices & semblances (wh/ create each other); first & second nature become indistinguishable.

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