Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Having culture without bifurcating nature

Jeremy at Struggle Forever has a post on the social, culture and nature.  The first paragraph:
I’ve been following an interesting discussion of Facebook where Levi Bryant says that the way to eliminate essentialism is not to erase “nature” and make everything “cultural”, but rather to embrace “nature” and queer it. The discussion is largely conceptual and not worth rehashing here, but it did remind me of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot of lately. As a cultural anthropologist who works extensively with natural scientists, I walk this tight-rope a lot. We are continually trying to insert or tack on what is generally referred to as “the human dimensions” to environmental science projects. This is how it was with the invasive species project that I was working on and this is how it has been with many of the projects on which I and my cohort have been involved. “The human dimension” is secondary and often perfunctory rather than integrated and systematic. Nevertheless, we continue to try, going to great lengths to fully integrate our research with that of natural scientists.
It's an interesting question that I've thought a bit about recently.

What's unnatural about agriculture, horticulture?  Even if they're not natural in the strict, old school sense because they're human activities then they certainly blur the line.

The way I understand culture is simply as cultivation.  If culture is peculiarly human then it is mostly because it pertains to institutions that persist over time.  There is no isolated instance of agriculture.  If you don't collect the muck from your cattle and plough it into the fields at one time of year you can't harvest your crops at another time.  Other beings don't have such complex, long term or social activities like this.

But then again, don't squirrels collect nuts for winter?  That's simpler but is it so different?  Well, 'cultivation' implies a process that is cyclical and cumulative.  It builds year on year rather than being built up and then broken down again like a reserve of blubber.

Also, I suppose we can say that cultures are modes of human activity.  There were humans before agriculture and one doesn't have to be directly involved with agriculture to live now.  We might agree with Nietzsche that life without music would be an error but it wouldn't be the death of us.

Maybe squirrels don't have to collect nuts but can live off of discarded food in urban areas.  I'm not sure, I don't know a lot about squirrels!  But in that case then scavenging isn't really cultivating anything, it's just servicing a need.  And the modal requirement counts e.g. ants out of the equation.  Yes, they cultivate their empires in a sense but they have no real alternative.  That is what they do.

Culture is cultivation - a set of practices that relate to the beings that practice them as modes and need to be reproduced over time and space, looping back into themselves in a cyclical and cumulative fashion.  Still woefully inadequate as a definition but there's something there.  I'm just thinking 'out loud,' anyway.  There's definitely a way of conceptualising culture that doesn't destroy its usual meanings but doesn't bifurcate nature either.

'Homemaking' is a kind of cultivation, for sure.  Yes, there is a culture of domesticity.  Many cultures.  What cultures there are is an entirely empirical question.  The philosophical point is to transform the concept so that it (a) doesn't exist in opposition to nature (or anything else in any dualist fashion) and (b) doesn't deform so far from its conventional meanings that it becomes meaningless.  I.e. if music ceases to be thinkable as culture then the concept has lost value.

3 comments:

  1. https://www.sv.uio.no/sai/english/research/projects/newcomers/publications/working-papers-web/denanturalisingnaturetalk2.pdf
    I actually prefer "cultivation" to like terms such as individuation because it has the sorts of resonances that you raise here.
    -dmf

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  2. Thanks for the comments, Phillip. This is essentially what I was getting at in the post too. I've noticed that there is a tendency in the environmental social sciences - because we have to deal a lot with natural scientists - to pose problems in the language that natural scientists can understand. Of course that's important, but it also means adopting a lot of deterministic or quasi-deterministic concepts in the social sciences. I would like to see a similar flow of non- or anti-deterministic concepts into the natural sciences - looking at the way nature is (materially, not just conceptually) constructed or cultivated as you suggest. I think this is the only way to produce a fully integrated socio-ecological framework rather than just tacking on the human as an afterthought. This is essentially what I'm working on in my research.

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  3. Glad that we're on the same page, Jeremy! I enjoy reading about your thinking as it develops.

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