Wednesday, December 24, 2008

the out there

There is something going on there. Which we want to take part in. Something independent, ragingly chaotic still supremely ordered, something which simply does not await legitimation. With a combination of elusiveness, shapeshifting and omnipresence, it is indeed even difficult to adress it: many of us tries to escape those difficulties by choosing examples and talking about getting out "in the streets" or "in the forest", others talk about "nature" or "wilderness", some matter-of-factly of "outdoors" and recently some about "exteriority".

Due to illness I've spent a series of days indoors, just after I got in the mail two publications which I contributed to and which happened to coincide in time; one surrealist anthology about "the crisis of exteriority" (I don't know what this crisis is and I'm not sure what the editors (Eric Bragg, Eugenio Castro and Bruno Jacobs) mean by exteriority in the first place, my contribution was an old text about worthless places, serving as a background for their more advanced theories) and one literary journal with a "nature" theme (the editor (Jonas Ellerström) even cited my initial whining about the vagueness and problematical character of the theme, and while agreeing with my concerns, he refrained from sharing them by suggesting it to be consciously a vague catchphrase roughly corresponding to the more concrete category of "outdoors").

(Quick note: What is nature? Nature obviously means at least three related but different things; 1) nature as the "ways of the universe", the allencompassing fundamental patterns, 2) nature as the given "raw world" as opposed to culture, both outside and inside ourselves, which works in accordance with a spontaneous order, and 3) nature as the natural environments and biological systems inhabiting it, imagined independent from the human sphere but attractive for us to visit. In different languages, "nature" and its equivalents may be more strongly associated with one or the other, but the ambiguity is usually there, and the sinister gliding between descriptive and normative meanings of the "natural". Ah, I remember, and I can't decide if proudly or ashamedly, how the Stockholm surrealist group tried to hold a taped "round-table-discussion" about "nature" ten years ago and I pretty much obstructed the discussion by demanding to know what the others were talking about.)

The problem is that it is really not a problem. Dualisms may be spontaneous figures of human reason, but the point with them is to get a quick overview of the field in order to proceed to understand the constellation of transgressions and mutuality. All those dualisms of inner-outer, self-others, subjective-objective, culture-nature, artificial-ecological, civilisation-wilderness, have some basic phenomenological reality and are acceptable as provisional tools. The history of western thinking has seen the development of arguments of the impossibility of holding on to them in some stricter sense; in biology, psychoanalysis, marxism, structuralism, dialectics, etc etc; and it seems like those holding on them as basic division at any price are openly reactionary efforts like fascism and some unsophisticated applications of formal logics, or regressive such as unsophisticated applications of philosophical phenomenology or structuralism. So let's just repeat: the domain of the self is not homogenous-unitarian, not sharply delineated from other beings or the external environment, and the human sphere cannot be separated from the rest of the world, indeed human culture (just like other species' cultures) is indeed in a fundamental sense but one mere aspect of our biology, one which has in turn reshaped the planet in our small- and largescale interactions. Both the others and nature are certainly not just out there but in here just as much, and nothing out there has remained untouched.

There are two small points I have to make as a biologist, that the concepts of wilderness and ecological balance are highly dubious empirically and rather corresponds to certain people's projectional fantasies.

That virgin aspect of nature is fantasised by all kinds of primitivists, be they of pacifist or aggressive leanings. Often this is based on mere ignorance, on having no idea to what extent human land use has shaped and differentiated the natural habitats of the world for centuries. It's probably only in recent times that human impact has become, facilitated by technical deveopment but even more necessitated by demands of the economical system, largescale homogenizing enough to be severely detrimental for biological diversity. Most open lands were indeed created by human husbandry (except in very dry or very cold climates) and most natural-looking forests are shaped by some level of human harvesting of wood, animal forage, game, and other resources. The few places that could be regarded as entirely "wild", the few most inaccessible forests, the glacial landscapes, large parts of the deserts, the thundra and the oceans, are part in global circulation and therefore in complex interactions with human outtake, reshaping and littering elsewhere (littering both in terms of spreading both major junk and small civilisation souvernirs, pollution and overnourishment in general). The "wilderness" hailed in the typically american brand of primitivism (which is very significant for some of the religious and utopian movements populating north america in earlier centuries, as well as for certain ecologists and even some of the surrealists in modern times) has indeed been demonstrated to fulfill the function of an ideological construct denying the extent to which the "virginal" north american landscape was indeed shaped by the land use of the native peoples. In fact, much of nature conservation in north america is still only about keeping people out, resting on the same fundamental misanthropy idealising fantasies of a "natural way" in the absence of humans, which is one of the reasons this particular american primitivism is often characterised as "ecofascism". (Let's just be clear here: misanthropy in itself is not necessarily fascist at all, though most of its political implementations are.)

And then for the harmony of "ecological balance", putting in quasiscientific terms this fantasy of the soundness of the state of things in the absence of man. Any stability in nature is in fact a dynamical equilibrium of competing forces; what we see is there because it is the contemporary constellation of each population's "evolutionary stable strategies" visavis each other and other parts of their environment. It will occasionally go off in dynamic developments, sometimes triggered by human involvment and sometimes other factors. Not too often though, if it was highly unstable it simply wouldn't be there for us to see; but as biological systems it cannot be static. Such a sense of dynamic aposteriori order is probably one of the few useful concepts of order anyway. What would it be else? Entropy of course, the only conceivable universal order, when everything moves out of reach for everything else so that nothing should ever happen anymore... But then, on a fundamental level, biological life is specifically a uniquely powerful system of combatting entropy, both on the smallest scale (sorting substances by means of metabolism) and on the largest scales (reshaping the global environments by means of actions of populations, and thereby creating history). And then there is the neurotic sense of order; the denial of everything but the few things in control.

And here, as it lies at heart of the concept of nature, we shouldn't consider ourselves too good to repeating the analogies between the mental and geographical aspects here; the sheltering obsession is similar in so-called rational thinking and in housing. Proclaim a little space reserved for the well-known and controllable; in one area "sound reason" or closed rationalism, in the other indoors or home. Sheltering a fraction of space is not just the political and moral fall of grace that Rousseau was talking about, it also creates a uniquely predictable environment. The space is filled with familiar objects only, with familiar people only or with no other people at all, temperature, light, humidity, any exchange between in and out is regulated, everything regarded as "nature" is kept out.

This creates the sphere of outdoors as something to project desires on simply because it obeys the normal workings of reality: it is where the wind blows, where other species live, where strangers go, and where unexpected encounters occur; the domain of freedom. And at some points we will need to distinguish between the often maddeningly banal, repetitive and petty concerns structuring the larger parts of our social structures and the inspiringly banal, repetitive and petty concerns which seem to dictate the lifes of other lifeforms and their interactions, and which indeed seems to speak directly to us when we visit so-called natural environments. In both types of environments, the point is to make oneself available to the flow of regularities and irregularities which has things to teach us, challenge us and bathe us in the concrete sensory perceptions of all that which is images of freedom and reality - Which is perhaps, perhaps, another appearance form of the same domain of flow that opens up from a point which phenomenologically seems to reside within us whenever we open up ourselves to poetry, through automatism, alchemical labor, falling in love, disorder in the senses, aggressive inspiration, seances and rituals, or whatever. Is it?

(to be continued)
(among other things by a serious attempt to grasp the concept of exteriority of the exteriority surrealists)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Is it?"

If you´re asking if human imagination is a part of the world, then yes; is there any longer a way around admitting that the world is incomplete without creative cognition?

Or "interpretation", as some still must say.

Also, in any mind-participating epistemology (e g Heraclitus, neoplatonism, Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, Nietzsche, Steiner, Duchamp) knowledge of the world is supposedly effected by a subjective input which is teleologically a part of a self-revelatory universe.

This dialectic reappears in the viewpoints of some present-day biologists (Margulis, Goodwin for examples), where the mind/world-relation is described in a dynamic rather than a dualistic mode.

Or "interpreted", as some perhaps would say?

I find much of this mode in your text here as well, not the least in the attempt to deconstruct the projective fantasies of nature. Which goes beyond polemics (and actually partly answers the concluding question).

Worldly nature, then, could be described as a contraction of human cognition, and reality as an expansion of it.

And human nature?