Mutant Nature

by Dwight Furrow

Mutant natureNature is not disappearing; it's just hiding in your salad bowl.

Throughout most of human history human beings were utterly dependent on nature and everything about human life was determined by it. Adapt or die was the imperative that governed all life and so nature seemed infinite and without measure, a fact recognized by 18th century theories of the sublime. Yet, throughout most of that history, we refused to acknowledge this dependence striving to see ourselves as ultimately separate from nature. The separation of mind and body, of earth and heaven, the opposition of nature and culture, were taken to be simply obvious.

But today we have reversed that equation. Inexorably, we have learned to control nature through technologies which have reached such a critical mass that nature has been reduced to a mere instrument to be carved up and used as we see fit—a “standing reserve” as Heidegger called it. Even our biological make up will soon be subject to fundamental manipulation as gene editing comes online. The result is that nature now seems finite and fragile, disappearing under the deluge of techno-science and mass industrialization.

Paradoxically, as we gain more control over nature we have begun to acknowledge our dependence on it, as the Paris climate talks get underway amidst a deepening sense of crisis. The consequences of ignoring our dependence on nature are all too evident. For us today nature is both an instrument to be used up and a center of independent power, a Janus-faced phenomenon, on the one hand limited and circumscribed by human activity but on the other hand generating effluvia that create a devilishly devious constraint on human activity. The resistance of nature yields to our technology in countless ways but leaves behind a residue of pollution and devastation that threatens to undermine that hard won human control.

Human history increasingly looks like a struggle between two forces: a closed off nature that we must simply react to, an obdurate matter that never fully reveals itself to us, versus a dream of absolute dominion. This dream of dominion dispenses with the idea of nature altogether once we have grasped enough of nature's inner workings to make all fundamental elements analyzable into parts and capable of recombination. Neither combatant in this struggle seems particularly conducive to human existence at least as we know it.

There is however a third option. There is perhaps no longer any reason to think of nature and culture as separate phenomena with fundamentally different characteristics. The more we learn about culture the more it seems penetrated by nature, by our biological inheritance and physical makeup; the more we learn about nature the more it seems penetrated by culture as we gain facility at manipulating the physical world at a fundamental level. Culture is simply one way of organizing nature, different quantities or intensities of the same stuff that differs only in being maximally or minimally resistant to human activity.

French philosopher Michel Serres argues that we should understand “nature” and “culture” not as separate ontological categories but in terms of the metaphors of “the hard” and “the soft.”* As we sever the hard bonds that tie us to nature, the bonds of necessity that technology has disrupted, we come to recognize the importance of the soft bonds that lie at the foundation of meaning. If I understand him correctly, by “hard” Serres means matter that is maximally resistant to human action. By “soft” he means matter (broadly construed) that is yielding and malleable such as language and information. The effect of seeing nature and culture as part of a continuum is to make more important the cultural bonds that tie us to nature. We now view nature only through the lens of culture. Here is Serres on these soft bonds:

Flying high enough to see her [the earth] whole, we find ourselves tethered to her by the totality of our knowledge, the sum of our technologies, the collection of our communications; by torrents of signals, by the complete set of imaginable umbilical cords, living and artificial, visible and invisible, concrete or purely formal. By casting off from her from so far, we pull on these cords to the point that we comprehend them all. (Serres, The Natural Contract, 106)

There is no longer an outside to culture and no longer a pure essence of nature resistant to culture. It is only through knowledge, culture and communication that we sustain bonds to what we used to call nature.

All of this provides background for attempts to understand our current fascination with everything that reminds us of the “natural”—natural foods, natural wine, farm-to-table-respect-the-ingredients cooking, and opposition to industrial foods, to name just a few. Taste and the ordinary (i.e. non-industrial) practices of preparing ingredients for consumption are one way we take the hard surfaces of nature and make them accessible, softening their edges while never fully canceling their resistance.

Although long ignored as a subject of serious intellectual concern, matters of taste have come to occupy the center of culture and they sample deeply from this cauldron of interest in everything “natural”. It is in the arena of food and beverage where the transformation of the meaning of “natural” is most pronounced. Industrial food is the most salient example of how nature as standing reserve penetrates everyday life. There, nature is broken into its chemical elements and recombined according to whatever recipe of efficiency will earn a profit, only to reappear as poor health and poor taste—and so foodies and wine geeks resist this reduction demanding freshness, organic, “real food”, with minimal manipulation or additives.

Understood as an attempt to return to a pure state of unadulterated wildness, these appeals to nature are at best nostalgic and at worst a simple lie. What we call “natural” is no less marked by human culture than jeans or symphonies. But interest in “the natural” is not best understood as an attempt to return to a pristine state before the fall. The health and environmental reasons for this “natural” approach to food are obvious but there are symbolic purposes being served as well, symbolic purposes that are easily exploited by the marketing arm of our technocracy overlords. As nature disappears under the onslaught of techno-science it becomes visible again only via cultural practices that symbolize brute physicality—”the hard” to use Serres' terminology, something that offers resistance to human intervention without being outside its orbit. The word “natural”, when not co-opted by advertising, symbolizes our recognition that resistance to human intention is sometimes a virtue; some things are “hard” and should not be simply used up.

This negotiation between “hard” and “soft” is not restricted to taste. As Serres points out, sensation in general is the primary locus of the transformation of the hard to the soft, a matter of filtering the hard surfaces of nature making them accessible to human experience.

Sensation, never pure, filters energies, protects itself and us from an excess of it, encodes and passes on information: it transforms hard into soft' (Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mangled Bodies, 115).

With nature no longer an impenetrable force, history then becomes a spectacle of human vs. human, the resistance of the world now just another cultural artifact occupying the hard side of the continuum subject to being softened by human practices. Perhaps we can understand our contemporary fascination with sports, guns, violence, and mayhem, mediated though they are by technology, as a paean to the lost world of the brutely physical, the “hard” that resists assimilation to the information machine but paradoxically becomes just another howl at the moon.

*For a reasonably accessible introduction to Serres' thought see this paper by Steven Connor.

For more rumination on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts, or consult my forthcoming book American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution