Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Bruno Latour shares with Timothy Morton a determination to overthrow the concept of “nature” because he believes that that concept “makes it possible to recapitulate the hierarchy of beings in a single ordered series.” Therefore any genuine (non-anthropocentric) “political ecology” — of the sort I briefly described in a previous post — requires “the destruction of the idea of nature” (Politics of Nature, p. 25).

As for Morton, he thinks the idea of nature does one basic thing: since nature is, fundamentally and always, “a surrounding medium that sustains our being,” it follows that “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration” (Ecology without Nature, pp. 4, 5).

We might notice that these two reasons for rejecting the concept of Nature are incompatible. The problem for Latour is that Nature places humans within “a single ordered series,” but at the top of it; for Morton, human beings are outside the order of Nature, which “surrounds” us. I think Morton is closer to being correct than Latour is: the way that Latour describes Nature is actually more appropriate to the concept that preceded it within the discourses of Western thought, Creation. It is from the Jewish and Christian account of Creation — over which human beings have been given “dominion” — that the “single ordered series,” at the top of which humans stand, emerges. But Morton’s critique applies better to the term that has recently succeeded Nature within our talk about such matters, “the environment.”

It’s therefore tempting to say that Nature is the term that bridges the historical gap between Creation and “the environment.” But that would oversimplify the story. And the deficiency that Latour and Morton share is an ahistorical oversimplification of what Raymond Williams calls “perhaps the most complex word in the language” — and even Williams’s account seems condensed in comparison with the one that C. S. Lewis gives in his long essay in Studies in Words. But Williams gets at the really key point here when he issues this caution: “since nature is a word which carries, over a very long period, many of the major variations of human thought — often, in any particular use, only implicitly yet with powerful effect on the character of the argument — it is necessary to be especially aware of its difficulty.” This is just what Morton and Latour fail to do.

And it would do no good to claim to be interested in only one of the many meanings of the word “nature,” because, as Williams points out, they tend to bleed into one another. Nature in the sense of “that which surrounds humans and with which we interact” is always in complex, confusing relation with Nature as the whole show, all that there is, as when Pope writes: “All are but parts of one stupendous whole / Whose body Nature is and God the soul.” Here human beings are clearly part of that “body” (thus Nature is here still a synonym for Creation). But of course we can lose our awareness of our place in that “one stupendous whole,” through pride or simply through participation in technological modernity, and can then come to see our lives as somehow “unnatural”; which can then lead us in turn to seek ways to become “one with Nature.” At the very least we seek what Morton and Donna Haraway both refer to as kinship, and the words “kin” and “kind” are Anglo-Saxon equivalents of Nature: the old name for Mother Nature is Dame Kind.

But kinship is not identity, and this is precisely why “Nature,” “nature,” “natural,” “unnatural,” all drift in and out of focus and shift their meanings like holograms. To understand this you need only read King Lear, where all these notions are ceaselessly deployed and redeployed — where Lear wonder what his nature is while cursing his unnatural daughters, and Edmund reckons with the consequences of being Gloucester’s natural (i.e. bastard) son. We do not know what we are kin to or how close the kinship is; we don’t know what we are like, which means we do not understand our true nature. And so the narrow and historically insensitive definitions offered by Latour and Morton simply won’t do; they are manifestly inadequate to the situation on the ground.

But this we know: kinship is not identity. We have very good reasons to doubt that our creaturely cousins, or siblings — St. Francis’s Brother Sun and Sister Moon, among others — ask these questions. Which means that from them we can learn much but perhaps not everything we want and need to know. As Auden wrote,

But trees are trees, an elm or oak
Already both outside and in,
And cannot, therefore, counsel folk
Who have their unity to win.


  • The word "Nature" indeed has a complex history, and I too have found Lewis and Williams to be helpful guides through its many corridors. Wendell Berry has a recent essay, "The Presence of Nature in the Natural World" (collected in A Small Porch) that traces the figure of Dame Nature through English literature.

  • This brings me back to grad school (happily) in two ways: I took a seminar on environmental communication in which contention over definitions of nature was one of the main topics, and I used Bruno Latour extensively in my dissertation.

    I wonder if your observation that Latour's concept of nature is close to the "old" concept of creation might have something to do with the fact that Latour is a practicing Catholic: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-074566007X.html

    (I reviewed this book for the Anglican Theological Review a couple years ago.)

  • These are helpful notes on thorny matters.

    I sometimes find it a useful discipline to forbid myself the word "Nature," meaning the whole or the medium, and to allow myself only "nature," as in, this or that nature of this or that thing. The danger I sense from Nature-talk is losing sight of natures. If I want the whole, "world" will usually do.

  • cfcasper, Latour's Catholicism is by his own description pretty tentative, yes? Otherwise it would be hard to explain why for him Nature, if indeed his understanding of the concept brings it close to Creation, is something to reject and abandon.

  • It is, and that's a good point.

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