WORDS: DANIEL POPE
IMAGE: WILL RUSSACK
Picture this: Descartes sits at his fireplace, wearing a kimono. (It definitely wasn’t a kimono, but I always picture it this way.) He thinks so hard his mind pops out of his body and floats away, laughing.
Now picture this: A humanist argues with a determinist, mediated by a Catholic theologian. The humanist says we have ultimate freedom—“Man is the measure of all things,” and all that. The determinist says that all is guided by natural laws and there is nothing we can say or do—once upon a time, a particle was set into motion, and since then it’s been a big game of billiards that has led up to this moment. The Catholic is kind of in between—he says that it is God’s will that we be free and we always do what God wills. The other two look at him quizzically.
What do these seemingly very different discourses have in common? Simple: They all fundamentally rest on a binary of nature/culture. Descartes’s whole philosophy, in which he ends up showing that, in his system, science and all of human knowledge is ultimately dependent upon the deity; that the body is lower than the mind, the mind higher, closer to God; is premised fundamentally on his separation of mind and body, which is itself another expression of the binary of nature and culture, as the “body” is seen as closer to “nature” (and therefore lower). The free will/determinism debate, a debate just about as old as western philosophy itself, is also premised on this divide. Democritus, who first came up with the theory of atoms thousands of years ago, saw the world as fundamentally two things: matter and void. These atoms of matter bounce into each other in the void, determining all events under the natural laws that govern their movement. This theory puts the human squarely inside of nature; nature is the determining, higher category. While proponents of free will say that humans are above nature, dominant over nature; humans are exalted over animals, who are closer to nature, their agency more delimited by their physical programming. In past racist discourses of the supposedly “objective” sciences in the west, we still see a theory of nature being worked out, that seems to privilege certain humans as closer to nature and therefore justifiably enslaved, killed, exploited, etc., while others are higher, more “human.”
This binary affects us in incalculably vast ways: It is a direct cause of our environmental/ecological crisis, as well as keeping in place pernicious structures of inequality.
Here’s an example: We slaughter cows and chickens and pigs and other animals by the millions every day, yet—in the west—we cannot stomach the idea of eating a dog or a horse. We come up with a million ways to justify this—citing the dog’s intelligence, for instance—but this is a dangerous game. Asserting that one has a prior claim to ethical consideration because of intelligence is a profoundly messed up way to go about the question. Besides, pigs are incredibly smart animals, smarter than dogs. Okay, well then clearly there is something about dogs that make them “closer” to us than other animals. Surely we protect those who are closer to us. Yet is this any way to design a system of ethics, casting those we don’t understand, to whom we are not close, to whom we are strangers, out of the range of ethical appeal?
The domestication of animals shows the interpenetration of nature and culture. In a classical understanding, domestication could be seen as the inscription of culture upon nature, thereby importing nature into the realm of human culture by carving out a ready-made meaning for it. Whatever that place or that meaning is defines how the animal can be treated. It is this process by which we designate a “wild animal” versus a “pest,” and whereby under certain understandings of these terms, certain animals are privileged over others, and certain animals are deemed disposable. But is nature a passive slate upon which we can inscribe our human culture? This way of looking at animals is not only self-contradictory, but totally ignorant of the nuances that characterize the relations between sentient beings.
The arbitrary designation of certain animals as disposable and others as friends is reified in our language. We have euphemisms for referring to animals that support the current relations in western late capitalist meat production, built on old attitudes toward animals that have been reified in our culture: We have split the meat from the animal, hiding the animal far away within a factory farm on the very edge of our awareness (if not completely removed from it), in a virtually theoretical place in which “cows” become “beef,” etc. (These words came from the French—boeuf, mouton, porc—that referred to both the meat and the animal. We got these words when William the Conqueror lived up to his epithet in the British Isles in the 11th century.) This way of thinking—or not thinking—about meat production and its extreme effects on the environment is indicative that this binary is precarious. It is not enough to assert that “humans” are somehow superior to “nature,” especially considering how much scientific research has actually unsettled that claim. We must actually hide the effects of this privileging of culture over nature, otherwise we will be faced with its horror and its fallacy. These animals—cows, pigs, sheep, etc.—are inscribed into culture in such a way that they are deemed disposable, or less intelligent and therefore unable to suffer. Ultimately, the justification for this cruelty rests solely on a binary of nature/culture or nature/human in which the human/cultural is privileged.
But the important thing to remember is that the nature/culture binary was conceived and propagated under specific sociohistorical conditions, conditions which saw the rise of 1. Christianity (which destroyed pagan animism in favor of an understanding of “human” as “higher” than nature), 2. Enlightenment values of progress (issuing partly from the aforementioned Christian ideology), and 3. a fusion of science and technology, to a point where both completely outpaced our ability to account for their effects on an ethical register, which has allowed us to do unconscionable damage to the environment. And the culture that has fused all of these mutually resonant value systems spread itself through its military and ideological power. Therefore, in a very real sense, violence continually reiterates and reinscribes this binary through the spread of western culture.
So not only does it keep oppressive structures in place, the nature/culture binary is a root cause of our environmental crisis. This means that the solution to the problem is not going to be “cultural”—as this will simply reinforce the binary—in other words, you can now cease listening to the spokespeople of technological utopianism that claim that as long as we put enough money into research, we will come up with the perfect solution that will preserve the existing relations of production and the infrastructure of capitalism while reversing its negative environmental effects.
The solution to this problem is simple—or unbelievably difficult. We must understand that the concepts of “nature” and “culture”—indeed, “nature” and “human”—are co-constitutive concepts. There is no human/nonhuman—the nonhuman is implicated in the human as the condition of its existence. Nature/culture is “natureculture”—there are no sharp boundaries between them. This shows, on a fundamental level, our entanglement, as “humans,” with the rest of the universe. And the punch line is that this is true on the most fundamental level, as has been revealed by quantum mechanics. But we can leave that for another time.
The theorizing is important, but what is most important is that we apply these new ways of thinking to our practice (or rethink the theory/practice binary as well). All of the concepts that we use to justify killing animals, polluting the world, dominating and subjugating the other, and expanding capitalism “infinitely” in a finite world must be disposed with. Our treatment of the planet is actually based on a fundamental ontological misunderstanding of culture, nature, matter—in short, of reality itself.
As Karen Barad puts it:
There is an important sense in which practices of knowing cannot fully be claimed as human practices, not simply because we use nonhuman elements in our practices but because knowing is a matter of part of the world making itself intelligible to another part. Practices of knowing and being are not isolable; they are mutually implicated. We don’t obtain knowledge by standing outside the world; we know because we are of the world. We are part of the world in its differential becoming. The separation of epistemology from ontology is a reverberation of a metaphysics that assumes an inherent difference between human and nonhuman, subject and object, mind and body, matter and discourse. Onto-epistem-ology—the study of practices of knowing in being—is probably a better way to think about the kind of understandings that we need to come to terms with how specific intra-actions matter. Or, for that matter, what we need is something like an ethico-onto-epistem-ology—an appreciation of the intertwining of ethics, knowing, and being—since each intra-action matters, since the possibilities for what the world may become call out in the pause that precedes each breath before a moment comes into being and the world is made again, because the becoming of the world is a deeply ethical matter. (2007, 185)
This way of thinking necessitates a complete overhauling of our ethics and makes our responsibility to matter, to nature, to the world, identical with our responsibility to ourselves. We are all entangled and mutually constituted such that positing an individual with individually determinate properties is an ontological misunderstanding.
Let’s do away with the nature/culture binary. It limits efforts to ameliorate issues of environmental degradation and social justice; it limits new potential ways of becoming, of being and becoming for another, with another, by virtue of another. Treating our entanglement as the basis for our responsibility to each other, in other words the foundation of an onto-ethico-epistemology, is the crucial rethinking we need to lead us to a solution to our climate crisis.